Narnemvar walked along, continually falling behind his companions and then catching back up. For the most part Satbada set the pace with Postlavanderon following placidly in his wake.
“You know what you look like,” he said, when Narnemvar once again caught up. “You look like a follow-me. Did you ever have one of those as a child?”
“No. I don’t think I did. At least not by that name. What item of basic clothing is it?”
“It’s a toy. There’s a stick carved to look like a dogs leash which is connected to a wooden dog with wheels by a loose spring. The dog is always lagging behind and then snapping forward.”
“Ah, I believe I have seen them. Most of the ones that I’ve seen had a stick carved to look like a stick.”
Postlavanderon laughed. “Ah, what a livelihood that would be. Carving sticks to look like sticks. What would the masterwork for that trade be, I wonder? Carving a tree to look like a tree?”
“Perhaps.” Narnemvar couldn’t bring himself to leave the thought alone, no matter how serious the present circumstances. Perhaps amusing banter wasn’t a bad thing. Perhaps it would help his friend, realign him to normality. Well, not to normality, that was too dull, but something that didn’t involve smiling and slitting his own throat. “I would speculate that journeymen would be able to carve logs to look like logs.”
“So why are you hanging back?”
“It’s my legs. I don’t plan to hang back, it’s just that they don’t seem to be swinging along the way they usually do. Perhaps it’s my mood.”
“And how is your mood today. Not it’s usual merry self?”
“No it’s not. And I must say that that leaves my legs walking into unfamiliar territory.”
“You are unaccustomed to glum?”
“I am. Though I’ve been frightened from time to time. Usually I can cajole my mood out of glum. Or, rather, I can cajole the world into a shape that puts me in a better mood.”
“Ah, cajoling the world. That sounds much more expansive than, say, carving sticks to look like sticks. Would it involve puppets?”
“Perhaps. I have been accused of playing folk as if they were puppets, but the accusations usually come from dour sorts who think I ought to be hanged for being sportive when magic users are supposed to be, well, dour. So I discount the accusations.”
“Would that be playing folk as the sort of puppets that have strings or the sort that require you to put your hand up their bottom?”
Narnemvar was staying close, now. His friend was talking and his voice, at least, was light. His words kept shifting into the, what?, challenging? Or was he reading too much into it. How dangerous could innuendo about toys be?
“I will have to research the matter. My experience of toys is paltry. Pray list for me other sorts of toys.”
“Do not tell me you had no toys as a child. You are far too merry.”
“Ah, but one does not need toys to make amusements. With the proper turn of mind, anything can be a toy.”
Postlavanderon stopped suddenly and Narnemvar, who had been looking down for a moment, ran straight into the back of him.
“Sorry, are you all right?”
“All of me,” Lavvi said, musingly, “perhaps not. But one or two of me are doing quite well. Did you really have no toys? That would be sad.”
“No it wouldn’t. With toys . . . that is. . . to be merry. . . Dammit. We’re acting like there’s nothing untoward, but I just watched you cut your own throat. That’s sad, not merry. Do you know you frightened us?”
Postlavanderon looked to the side, thinking. “Yes, I think I do know that. I suppose I ought to have been frightened, too, but I wasn’t. I knew you’d fix it. Knew there wasn’t any real danger.” Here he began to emit chirping little chuckles, as if he was trying to keep them in, but failing. “I also know that I should feel bad about frightening you, but I don’t. Not yet. Maybe later.”
He turned and began walking again.
“Now both of us need to catch up. Shortbread is way ahead.”
“He doesn’t like it when we call him that. Did you know that?”
“Well, yes. That’s half the fun. At least it was yesterday, before my legs started lagging.”
“So we both know, and yet we still do it. Isn’t that sad?”
“No! No, it’s not. Besides, it wouldn’t be half as much fun if he wasn’t being all stuffy over it.”
“He could prevent it if he chose, by not reacting to it.”
“Well, I suppose he could not react to it. Perhaps he is constrained and doomed to react.”
“No, could he prevent it by not reacting to it? Wouldn’t we just keep on, assuming it was a joke between the three of us?”
“Well, perhaps. But he’s just so proper. It’s difficult not to poke. If he were friendlier, perhaps . . .”
“But he is himself. If he acted friendlier, he would be acting as someone else. Aren’t we poking at him and then saying that all he has to do to prevent it is to annihilate himself and leave someone better behind.”
Narnemvar stopped. His last bootfall rang in his ear.
“That’s quite a leap, from a jape to the jugular. Perhaps we should change the subject. Toys are obviously too dangerous to speak of. You were saying that one or two of you were quite well. How many of you are there?”
They were far enough north of the village for the sand and rock to be giving way to grass, ferns, and palm trees. There was a wandering track worn through the middle. From the track they could soon not see the ocean, although the sound and smell of it was still a constant presence.
“Oh, a good question, that. There’s Your Merry Companion, of course. He’s doing fine. Then there’s The Dutiful Son. He’s well.”
“I wouldn’t have imagined both of them to be doing well in the same situation.”
“That’s because you don’t know what my duty entails. I am, in fact, being quite dutiful and my family appreciates me. They have to excoriate my behavior in public of course, but anyone who credits the public behavior of princes is a fool.”
“I shall have to question you on your duty at some point But I fear that doing so now will distract from the narrative. Pray continue the count.”
“There is the Fine Young Man, of course. Everyone has one of those. At least everyone of the requisite gender and age. He’s not doing so well.”
“That’s too bad. Is there any way we can buck him up?”
“I fear not. He’s supposed to be making his way in the world and amounting to something. Not things that can be gifted from without.”
“Ah, I see. So far two out of three are doing well. You have a majority, at least.”
“Unfortunately we now come to the Good Master. An unavoidable concomitant of having a servant. Especially of having a servant whose wages one is unable to pay directly.”
“Yes. I think this servant especially would have issue with My Merry Companion. I don’t think Shortbread approves of me.”
“No, he does not. And I believe he pities me. I’m not sure, but it is a distinct possibility.”
“I think he pities anyone who isn’t currently enclosed in a well-scrubbed manor -with well-scrubbed Peers visiting and paying respects.”
“That would be Capital P Peers?”
“Unquestionably. And respectful respects as well, not just the neighborly or going-through-the-motions kind.”
“Yes. I would concur with that assessment. Where does that leave me?”
“I believe that leaves you tied. Two doing well and two with a sense of, shall we say loss?”
“Loss.” Postlavanderon tasted the word, considered. “Yes, that will do.”
“So you all are even. That doesn’t explain this morning, but no doubt The Dutiful Son was unaccountably sleeping in and lost his vote.”
Postlavanderon stopped. “No, I believe he was there. He did not approve at all. But he was outvoted. Your Merry Companion didn’t take it seriously and so did not protest against it. The Good Master disapproved and voted no. The Fine Young Man was feeling a bit down and only protested half-heartedly. How does that add up?”
“Two against, one marginally for, and one abstaining. According to that, our little dance with death never happened.”
“That means there was someone else there. Someone strongly for, or perhaps two who approved in the regular manner.”
“This is just spooky. Let’s catch up with. . . “
“Magic – leashed magic. Let’s hurry, I can’t see Shortbread from here.
The ferns and trees were now thick enough that a bend or two in the path put a person out of sight. The two friends hurried. Narnemvar concentrated on the point of leashing as his feet moved on their own. Just as they were able to see Satbada, and the narrow log spanning the path in front of him, the magic came clear to Narnemvar.
“Stop! There’s a curse in the path!”
Satbada stopped, but his foot had already cleared the log and so came down on the other side. There was a humming, as of bees, and a faint wiggling spider web of green light that danced for a moment over the servant’s skin.
“Damn! Hold still. Let me read this.”
“I don’t mean to gainsay a friend of the master,” said the servant, “but isn’t it impossible to read a curse that has already been fully cast.”
“For most people, yes. Hold still now. This will tickle.”
Narnemvar chanted a spell, his hands forming an intricate gesture as he did so. His friend and his friend’s servant could tell that this was happening, even if they couldn’t quite make out the words or the movements. That was the expected thing with formal magic.
“Okay, move. I didn’t get all of it, but it’s tied to you being near the little place we just left and it’s slow. The farther away we get and the faster we get there, the less chance it will have to work. We may be able to outmove it entirely. Whoever set it up is very low level.”
“Can’t you undo it?” Postlavanderon asked.
“Perhaps, but I’d rather undo it a good bit farther down the road. If you don’t mind, I’ll watch it as we go. I’m sorry, Lavvi, but I won’t be able to talk while I do it.”
“How unfortunate.” Satbada’s voice betrayed no trace of sarcasm. That had to be supplied by inference.