Roz Kaveney (rozk) wrote,
Roz Kaveney
rozk

International Pixel-Stained Technopeasant Day!

You should all go to papersky to have INPSTD explained.

In the mean-time, as my offering, a chunk of Adore and Serve, my work in progress which is in part about a stroppy god-slaying immortal who, in the nature of things, meets interesting people as she goes about her work...




One day, I was walking around the Marais, minding my own business, when I heard the scuffing sound of boots going into ribs from up a back alley.

So I stopped minding my own business, because three against one is never something I am happy with, and three lackeys in green livery are beating a young man in red, and one of them has a wicked little knife out and at the very least he is going to lose an eye.

All I do is say 'Hey!!!!' and they drop him and run as if I were the entire Paris Watch.

So I did not have to waste any power on saving him.

He was a horse-faced youngish man with ink stains on his fingers and a habit, as I rapidly learned , of talking about himself as if he were the most important person I would ever meet, which, I have to say, I seriously doubted. But he did not deserve to be left cold and stiff up some alley where they would pile soiled hay on him.

'What was her name?' I asked, because these things are usually about some woman men think they are in love with.

He smirked at me in a truly irritating fashion.

'Erato, I suppose,' he said. 'I wrote a ballad to his mistress, but it was merely a literary exercise.'

Then he paused, and said, 'Erato is the muse of lyric poetry.'

'Well, actually,' I said, ' originally she was quite specifically the muse in charge of the song of triumph they sang when they tore men's legs off. Those girls were all a lot more fun before Apollo calmed them down.'

' I see,' he said. 'You are a deluded young woman as well as an exhibitionistic one.'

I quite understood how people might want to beat him up in public.

I summoned just enough of my power for a proper glare.

'Impressive,' he said. 'I could get you an audition with the Comedie, if you like. Though you'd have to dress better.'

When I declined to answer, he bowed elegantly, turned his back and stalked away.

It had become an age in which it was progressively harder to inspire awe and terror.

I met him again a few months later in a coffee house in London. It was so convenient, not having to go all the way to the Turkish lands, just to drink the stuff, even if it did mean I had to use glamour to stay inconspicuous.

Coffee, though, was not my main reason for being there. I was following a blood trail that the sharpness of coffee could not suppress.

'My god,' he said to his companions. 'There she is right now.'

He walked over to my table.

'Glad to see you took my advice about the costume; you scrub up quite nicely. I believe Mr. Cibber is looking for a leading lady, if you'd like an introduction.'

'I'm not an actress,' I said.

'Well, my dear young woman,' he said. 'You are certainly not a lady.. If you are not an actress, where does that leave you, hmm?'

He looked at me with consideration.

'But no,' he said. ' Even if you were a girl from one of the whipping houses, you would be a little more pliant. And yet, not a madwoman, because your gaze is steady and your hand firm. Interesting.'

He paused again.

'And you have presence, I must admit. Yet I refuse to believe that ancient goddesses exist, let alone that they sit around reading newsheets and drinking coffee.'

'I'm not a goddess,' I said.

I must have said it with some degree of vigour, because he stepped back and a number of the place's other clients looked at us.

As he stepped back, a couple of large men with battered faces, whose flaking leather coats were not those of the fashionable world, seized him by the shoulders and rushed him to the door.

His friends, or at least his companions, turned their backs smoothly as if they were parts of a clock's mechanism.

Invisibility is a skill I have devoted centuries to learning, yet some people find themselves mastering it in a second.

I followed him and his captors into the street, and up the twisted alley where black and white cats were yowling and rats looked up with momentary interest before returning to their nameless meals.

One of the men was slapping the young Frenchman in a slow soft beat that would gradually leave him unconscious and bleeding, while the other trampled his delicately shod feet with steel shoes.

It was the early phase of a standard interrogation that had not changed since the reign of the Old Queen a century and more earlier.

'He is a very annoying young man,' I said as I came up to them. 'Somehow I seem always to come upon him being beaten in alleys.'

'This is none of your concern, Miss,' the less scarred of the two said to me. 'He is a Frenchie, and a murderer and very probably a spy.'

'He has been busy,' I said, ' and yet? Are you sure?'

'Tiger said there was a Frenchie involved,' he said. 'And this was the first Frenchie we found. We've been looking for this killer since last winter, when the deaths started.'

'And yet,' I said. 'I saw this man being beaten in Paris a mere month ago. As I say, he makes a habit of it.'

'It's all the same to me,' he said. ' One Frenchie is the same as another. We should beat each of them as often as possible, to encourage them all to go away. Same as with Papists.'

'You know,' his victim said, looking up with a spark of interest through the pain, ' that's almost a very witty remark. Beat one to encourage the others - there's something there. How strange to hear wit from the scum of the street.'

He really was not helping himself.

'I really doubt,' I said, ' that this silly little dandy is your killer.'

'And who might you be, Miss?' said a much larger and more battered looking man who had followed us up the alley. He had the tawny skin of a man who had spent much time in other lands.

'Someone you would do well to pay attention to,' the young Frenchman said. 'I am not your killer, and time spent beating me is time your killer spends laughing at you.'

Which was well said.

A watchman lit a lantern at the corner of the alley

'Six of the clock,' he said. 'And all's...'

'That will do,' said the larger man.

'Sorry, sir,' said the watchman and scurried off on his rounds.

' Mr. Brown,' I said. 'We would do well, I think, to talk to Mr Wild, or perhaps, if you would be so kind, to the Master of Coin.'

I am not especially interested in the mayfly agencies of human states, and yet a certain acquaintance with their petty hierarchies is at times a skill as useful as walking through shadow.

'Mr Wild, alas,' Brown said, ' was hanged for his crimes last year. I did not like the man, but he did great service.'

'I had not heard of his death,' I said. 'I have been out of London. And the Master?'

'The Master ails. It is his great age,' Brown said, with respect. 'These killings are of especial interest to him, because he cannot see how they were done by the hand of man.'

'That,' I said, ' is perhaps because they were not.'

'Yet the faces of the dead are chewed by human teeth, even though their guts are clawed out by some beast and their hearts pierced as if by a lance.'

I had thought the blood trail of a kind I recognized.

'So,' the Frenchman said. 'It is a madman with a large dog and a lance. What could be simpler? You just have to wander the streets looking for such a man; even these men should be capable of that.'

Then he paused.

'And when you catch him,' he said, ' you could take a cast of his bite, and check it against the wounds of the dead.'

Brown regarded him with interest.

'How,' he asked him,' do you explain the poison darts that fill the victims as if they were a pincushion.'

The Frenchman shrugged.

'In the Indies,' he said, ' as I am sure you know, the small brown folk shoot such darts from blowpipes. Obviously our murderer has a companion from those parts, as well as his dog, and his lance.'

This was all very entertaining, but entirely beside the point.

'Why,' I said, 'did the Master tell you to look for a Frenchman?'

'Well,' Brown said, ' he said a servant of tyranny? And that usually means a Frog these days.'

The Master's habit of thinking in the symbols of alchemy was obviously tipping over into dotage.
That, or too much mercury in his laboratory. I had told him to beware of this when he was young and unknown.

'No,' I said. 'A servant, but not a human servant. Have some of the killings been in different places on the same night?'

I needed to know the worst.

'Yes,' one of the scarred men said. ' Two girls were killed on their beats, and a watchman the same night.'

'So,' I said. 'At least a brace then. And perhaps a pride.'

I have always hated manticores. But not as much as the people who bring them into being; that takes a special cast of mind.

To take a human mind and wreck it, and a human body and turn it into a beast, and then set it loose. There are some sins that call for a Hell deeper with anguish than is Lucifer's.

And then I spoke the name aloud. Brown knew what I was speaking of, and shuddered.

The young Frenchman looked at me askance.

'I know,' he said, 'that my madman is hard to credit. Insanity, though, is always possible, if improbable. And you are talking the language of mythology, the language of the impossible.'

I smiled sweetly at him, and flickered out of glamour, and had a knife to his throat before he could say another word.

'Mythology, ' I said, 'is a word clever men use to describe wisdom that they have forgotten.'

The knife was back in my hair-knot as I spoke; I wished to instruct this man, not terrify him.

'How did you do that?' he said. 'Your clothes and hair changed for a moment as you moved, and you were faster than a snake with a rat.'

'There are,' I said, 'things in this world that you do not know about. Ignorance is not a crime. Assuming that you know everything that there is to be known is a folly. I am sure that you know things that I do not, and that perhaps you will be able to tell me some of them.'

Actually, I doubted this, though the trick with the casts of the teeth was a clever idea. You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar an Italian once told me, but I have always found a mixture of the two sovereign for soreness of the throat.

'I read about her, once,' one of the men said. ' The woman at my dame school taught us our letters with an old chapbook called The Roaring Girl of Jerusalem. She's hundreds of years old and kissing cousins with the Wandering Jew.'

'I thought that was the Scarlet Woman dressed in the Sun and Moon,' Brown said. 'Which is something to do with keeping your alembics on a steady flame. Or that's what the Master said.'

I had never before realized the real inconvenience to me of the growth of mass literacy.

'So,' Brown said, ' that aside, what do we do about manticores?'

'Hunt them down with dogs,' I said. 'And take heavy losses. Or I could kill them for you. Except that the men who made them, know how to make more, and they are what you need to catch.'

'Well,' Brown said. 'We could try looking for more Frenchmen. This one seems a decent enough chap, but there must be some proper Frenchmen around here somewhere.'

'I assure you, officer,' the Frenchman said, 'that no-one in France would meddle with such matters. Even if they are true and actual, such proceedings lack elegance and good sense; they are, as you would say, not a la mode.'

He bowed.

'And it will be my pleasure to prove this to you and defend the honour of my nation. What monsters can stand for long against us?'

'And who are you?' I said. Because I prefer to know the names of brave young men who are going to get themselves killed by my side since my memory is the only memorial they are likely to have.

'I am Francois-Marie De Arouet,' he said. 'Known to conoisseurs of literature as Voltaire.'

'That's quite a lot of names,' said Tiger Brown. 'Me and my men here, Jobbings and Clout, don't go by so many, and we get by.'

'The important thing, ' I said and paused to get their attention. 'The important thing to remember is that they have the darts all over their shoulders, and a sting like a scorpion. Let them close with you, and you are dead. Unless, that is, you are me. On the other hand, they are not the sort of monster that can survive a ball to the brain or a halberd in the guts.'

Jobbings, or possibly Clout, said, ' I'd wager good coin that my coat would stand up to any dart, Miss. The coats what we wear are good boiled leather that saw our granfers through the War. Armour of righteousness, Miss - boiled leather and the good old cause.'

And he proved himself almost right within seconds because a form came bounding up the alley from the further end. Its claws clattered on the pavement and it stared at us with unseeing great blue eyes and swung its tail like a mace. It tried to claw Jobbings's guts out and found itself scrabbling on leather for a hold. Brown pulled a great horse pistol from a pocket in his coat and clapped it to the creature's red-haired head, and fired.

It fired a few of its darts from its shoulders and spined back as it died, but they fell spent before they could do damage to anything save the hem of Arouet's fussily draped red coat.

I walked over and pulled its head back, not minding the blood and brains on my hand so that we could get a clear look in the lamplight, so that we could see the face, human except for the extra rows of teeth which stretched the mouth in a fixed and horrid smile. It had had the palest of white skin, with a few freckles and green-gray eyes. And it stank like a sewer rat.

I stood back, and wiped my hands on its lustrous pelt.

'That was a lucky chance,' I said. 'They will not all be so easy to kill.'

Clout or Jobbings stood up, his face ashen and his left ear hanging from his skull like a partly peeled apple. His coat, however, was impressively intact.

'Looks like a wild Irishman,' Brown said. 'I saw many faces like that as a young man at the Boyne.'

'So,' I said, 'you have managed to kill one, but we need to find the others and find where they are being kept and where more are being made.'

Arouet bounced up and down on the balls of his feet like a child dying to tell us his new good idea.

'Is there a map?' he said. ' A map of where the killings happened.'

Brown kicked the creature one more time to ensure it was truly dead and gestured us to follow him.

'Mr. Wild had a map,' he said. 'But it is in his business office, not his official office, so I'll thank you to keep quiet about anything you see there. He is dead, you see, but his business, like his work, goes on.'

We walked further up the alley and then down an even tighter passage way and found ourselves inching between buildings so close together that the path we were walking was not one a fat man, or a very tall one, could have managed. The shoulders of the three agents scraped along the walls as they walked, bruising and flaking their leather coats still further.

We were in the city's secret places, a rookery beyond rookeries. And suddenly, we took a turn through a low door and were in a great room, where men in rags stood in patient lines at a table where they handed in farthings, and where young whores handed in, or collected, their powdered wigs from a row of hairstands, and where, in a far corner, four young men were practising walking on one leg with the other tied with leather straps as if it were a stump.

'Mr Wild was King of the Beggars,' Mr Brown said, 'long before the Master tapped him to run our force. The Master has his little jokes, you see, and it amused to him to have a second whom he could hang or burn whenever the mood struck him. As, last year, it did.'

I looked at him with a question in my eyes though not yet on my lips.

Brown said, 'They caught him coining, Mr Wild. Richest man in London, and still labouring at coining. And he knew how down the Master is on coiners. I shall never understand the criminal mind, Miss, which is why the Master made me his number three. Because I may not understand criminals, but I can still hit them. Set a clever thief to catch thieves, the Master says, and an honest stupid man to put the hand of admonition on the thief's shoulder.'

'This map, if it please you?' Arouet said with the breathiness of a man who was tired, impatient or both. 'And perhaps some rolls of thread., and some pins.'

The map was a table, or series of tables yet further into this great dark cavern of a room.

'Lots of pins already. It's how he kept track of their beats and their pitches,' Brown said. 'Green pins for whores and brown for beggars and crazy Abraham men and blue for pickpockets, cutpurses and parish constables. The red pins are the dead.'

Arouet looked smugly around at us.

'None of you have any idea of what I am about to show you, do you?' he said, as if this were the best news he had had in years. 'Watch, and learn.'

He took black threads and he ran them from one red pin to the next, round the circuit of the further ones and in an endless network of loops, like the web of a crazy spider. After a while, I started to see what he was doing.

'Here we have the outer limits of where the killings have taken place,' he said. 'And that would be a good line along which to draw the perimeter from which we move in. And look, there is a cluster there, by that church, and there by that warehouse, and there by the riverside. Wherever the creatures lair, they have to stalk out of their home and pace their way through the streets and alleys to get to where they kill and eat. And by joining up the kills - two hundred, good god, why did I not know of this already - we can see where their lair might be.'

I had said he might be able to tell me something I did not know, and I could see that he was doing so. I had never thought to find the unknown in such a way - this was an age of reason, perhaps, but it was also an age of sudden miraculous arrivals of knowledge.

'Now,' he said. 'I'll wager Mr Wild was an efficient man who kept a record of every transaction he might make his profit on. And that his clerks continue to this day.'

Brown walked across to another table where there lay great leather-bound books.

'Sometimes, ' he said, ' when he was in his cups, Mr Wild said that he was Jonathan the Conqueror, and these were his doomsday books. And now they are all Miss Polly's. I suggested to the Master that we bring her into the work - she is as clever as her father - but he said it was no work for a woman, and that she is a person of immoral life.'

'Ha!', said a painted young woman with curled ringlets piled high on her head and her breasts barely contained in her green velvet bodice.

I noticed, with interest, that she had managed an entry so soft that she nearly surprised even me. She had the confidence of someone who is in her own place and the delicacy of a dancer in one of Monsieur Lully's ballets.

'That would be because your blessed Master is a codless eunuch whose idea of fun is sticking a needle in his eye. And he killed my da.'

'That was the law, Miss Polly, ' Tiger Brown said. 'Same as when they sent your Mackie for an indentured slave in Tobago.'

'Law,' she said. 'I spit at the law. Law is a whore anyone with money can buy, and then she turns and slits your throat for a farthing. I wouldn't have had you admitted to my office, were it not that these killings cost me money, and needs must...Who's the French molly? And that girl who looks at me with friggers' eyes?'

She looked more closely.

'And what the bloody hell have you done to my map?'

Arouet bowed.

'No sodomite I,' he said. 'But a poor slave trapped by the beauty of your gaze, Miss Wild. And the girl means nothing by it - she is either a madwoman or a goddess, I have not ascertained which, but I am sure she is no tribad.'

Every time he managed to convince me that he was a man of sense, Arouet managed to say something stupid, and worse, untrue.

'And the map has been very useful. See there, we think that those patches where the skein is thickest are where the killers hide. Who owns those warehouses, there?'

'I do,' said Miss Wild. 'And there are no killers on my property. Or in that whorehouse there, also mine. And five other houses in the street.'

'Polly, ' I said, because I can be devilish charming when I can be bothered to be. 'What exactly is in the warehouses?'

'Shit.' she said.

Arouet looked at her in genuine shock. The women he was used to would never say such a thing, even the whores, or at least would never say it in front of him.

She caught his expression and laughed at him.

'Shit,' she said again, 'you lily-livered Froggie prude. Good London shit that the night-soil men collect and which we store until the muckspreaders or the Ordnance department have a need for it. Sooner or later, everyone needs to shit, and sooner or later everyone needs something made from it - even your damned saint of a Master needs it for his alchemy.'

She spat, and a spitoon some feet away rang with it.

'We also collect piss for the bleach men.' she said, 'and pure, which is what we call dog turds, for the dyers. It's all money. And it doesn't stink.'

Arouet looked even more shocked.

'She just quoted Vespasian,' he said.

'No, I didn't', she said.' Who's he? When he's at home.'

'He was a Roman Emperor,' I said. 'With one cute son and one crazy one. Which still put him ahead of the game as these things go. '

And then I asked, because she was looking very bored, 'Tell me about the nightsoil men.'

'What's to tell?' she said. 'They drive around in carts, and they dig out cess pits and cellars, and they smell of shit every single day of their lives. It's a job my da kept for people who really weren't any good at being thieves or beggars. They're good filthy lads with no plans of their own.'

'My god,' Arouet said. 'Imagine living next door to a warehouse full of ordure.'

'Oh,' Polly said with a certain air of superiority, 'oh you sweet handsome innocent. Of course it's unpleasant for the neighbours. They sell up, and we buy up, and that is how one day I will buy Tobago and get back my Mackie.'

'I've heard enough,' Tiger Brown said, and I noticed with amusement how silently and quickly Jobbings and the bleeding Clout positioned themselves for an arrest.

Polly stuck her fingers to her lips and whistled loudly - at once, two of the whores by the wigstands produced small pistols from inside powdered high wigs and one of the beggars who had been practising walking on a stump was poised on a tabletop with four or five throwing knives ready in his right hand and one, in his raised left, aimed neatly at Tiger Brown's forehead.

I looked at him with a degree of scorn.

'I am here to find monsters,' I said. 'Not to watch you blunder around London arresting a series of innocent people. Miss Wild is a hardworking girl who is interested in making money, not monsters. Pay attention.'

'Monsters ?', she said, raising a perfect left eyebrow as elegantly as a court lady.

'I can hardly credit the evidence of my own eyes,' Arouet said. 'But yes, monsters. Lion body, human head, porcupine spines and the tail of a scorpion.'

'And, ' I said, 'from the stench of them, they travel around London in your carts.'

'Ah,' Arouet said. 'I had assumed that they were supposed to smell like that.'

'No,' I said, ' the natural smell of a manticore is cinnamon and civet. '

'Well ladida,' Polly said. 'Aren't we fancy?'

'If her warehouses are not where they are made.' Arouet said, 'they ride back in the empty carts after deliveries have been made. So all we have to do is go to each of the manufactories in turn that they visit.'

'Or,' I said, sniffing the air,' we could wait here talking until the monsters come calling of their own accord.'

Shit, cinnamon, civet. And hot iron, which meant something worse, and lavender and cut grass, which meant something I had not expected.

'Stand back,' I said. 'I have rather more experience in these matters than you, and am considerably less frail.'

The door by which we had entered burst open and the idiot predatory smiles of manticores filled it, mewing softly as evil kittens.

With a whir and clatter, a harpy flew into the room and perched on one of its high shelves, constantly spewing its foam from the side of a mouth that protruded almost enough to be a muzzle or a beak

The young man with the knives poised himself for a throw and before he could move, the harpy laughed its cawing laugh and flicked its wing. Three iron feathers stood in his forearm and one in his throat.

He fell choking on his own blood.

'As I said,' I remarked with sadness in my voice, ' this is not a fight for any of you save me.'

The manticores drew aside and the one I had not expected drifted through them. I hate seraphs at the best of times, but if there is one thing worse than the sanctimonious chanting prigs and bullyboys that Jehovah has working for him, it is the ones who have left his service and become nasty-minded sadists for hire. And still have that insufferable smug grin, and the extra pairs of arms and wings.

Also, anyone who can afford to hire one, is playing serious games. Bent seraphs are like a calling card for the aristocracy of villainy.

It bowed to me, and held out a box inside which something scratched and whispered.

'I propose a deal,' it said in that high sexless tenor they affect when not actually chanting. 'If you surrender your weapons and come to talk to my principal, I will let these people live. And if you do not, I will have them all torn to pieces and then release this basilisk I seem to have with me. On 'Change, at noon. You will need to talk to my principal sooner or later, and we can make it a less bloody occasion than otherwise. If you prefer.'

'And how,' I said,' can I possibly trust you? I wouldn't trust a seraph that was working for Jehovah, let alone one of your corrupt breed.'

'Ah there,' it said, ' you, but not I, have a problem. I really don't care about dead people one way or another, whereas you have made saving them your life's work.'

'My word is good,' I said. 'I will give it you, and hand over most of my weapons, if you reach into that box and throttle the basilisk. Then you will order the manticores to kill each other, here and now. I trust this is your principal's full complement of them.'

'And the harpy?' it said.

'It is free to go,' I said, 'as far as I am concerned.'

'It had better fly far,' Polly said. ' A truce is a truce, but if it is anywhere a London pigeon can see it by tomorrow night, it will pay for Jem there. It did not need to kill him.'

'It was its nature,' said the seraph.

'Killing things that kill my men is mine,' said Polly, her lips tightening as she spoke.

I looked at her saint's face, a perfect oval with a thin long nose like a perfect line down its centre. Any day is good to face my enemies that has such women in it, even if I am at no real risk, and they are not, as it happens, my type.

'Is there no other way?' Arouet said. 'You have met none of us before tonight. Yet you are offering yourself up for us as if we were your comrades in arms.'

'You are,' I said.

'It is,' he said, with a touch of embarrassment at saying the words,' almost Christ-like.'

'He knew,' I said,' that he was going to die. He was sweating with fear and he still stood and let them take him. I can assure you that I am not going to die, and I am not afraid - see, no sheen of sweat anywhere on me.. There is no comparison, trust me.'

Very carefully, so that no-one would see him as a threat, he pulled out the sword at his side, raised its hilt to his lips and kissed it.

'I dedicate myself to your fight, mademoiselle, whether you live or die. You have shamed me by your loyalty . I shall always and everywhere wipe out evil.'

Sincerity is always appealing in the young.

I turned to the seraph, which had the cynical smug expression with which such creatures always look on human drama whose intensity they cannot feel, or, therefore, comprehend the importance of.

'We have,' I said,' a deal. I need to see dead creatures before I stir further.'

I reached above my head and pulled my spear from its place and offered it to the seraph, butt-end first.

'You will care for it,' I said. 'Or there will be an accounting when all things are done.'

And then I waited.

'Ah yes,' the seraph said.

It reached into the box with one of its left hands and one of its right, holding it in the other pair. There was a hiss and a snap and the seraph winced a moment in pain - even such beings are inconvenienced by the bite of a basilisk, as you might be by a bee-sting or a mosquito - before twisting and another snap of a very different kind. It placed the box on the ground and contemplated its wounded upper left hand, whose silver sheen was broken with a patch of sickly green that grew for a second, and festered, and then shrank away to nothing as the silver conquered it.

I turned to Polly. 'Such creatures are not easily or safely disposed of.'

'You joke,' she said. 'There is a man in Cimmery Axe who keeps them strung between hooks like partridges. This is London, Miss, where everything has its price and its place in a shop window.'

Then she said, 'Shame really about these beasts. If we'd had notice, we could have had punters in and made a night of it. There's many a lordling who would cheerily bankrupt himself to bet on which of them would be the last standing. I never bet, but my money'd be on the brindled bitch with the dark eyes. What d'ya say, Tiger?'

The seraph cuffed the manticore nearest it so that it growled and bared its teeth - then the seraph picked it up by the scruff of its still human neck and hurled it against another. Dazed, it bit at the nearest throat and tasted the blood of its own kind - it turned confused with blood on its teeth and its victim, not yet dead, slashed at it with a clawed paw. It dodged and knocked against a third, which turned and snarled - the second sensed a new enemy and swung its tail at it, failing to penetrate the thick quills on the shoulder, which raised up in anger.

I stepped through the door, handing two of my swords to the seraph as I went.

''Polly,' I said. ' Shut the door. Monsters tearing into each other may be a grand sight, but not one worth dying for.'

The door slammed behind me, and hardly a second too soon. Quills started to fly and manticores, stung with each other's poison, began to tear at their own flesh in their frenzy; I sidestepped from their way into shadow, and found the seraph waiting for me there.

'Our bargain is fulfilled,' it said, ' and you must come with me. To see my principal.'
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