Obeying a royal command can be hazardous to your health....
In a magical world where animals have been given human form and chaos can often be the nature of the day, some universal truths remain. Like the futility of war and the foolishness of leaders. And, of course, the lingering prejudice against the Newlies, the humanized animals.
But Master Lizard Maker Finn has no quarrel with creatures of any sort. Just returned from a highly traumatic vacation, he wants nothing more than a period of prolonged peace with his fetching Newlie lover, Letitia, and his greatest creation, a sassy mechanical lizard named Julia Jessica Slagg.
But the Fates, in the form of the capricious Prince of Fyxedia, have other plans in store for Finn. Fyxedia’s leader has commissioned Finn to build a fantastical lizard timepiece for his archrival, the mysterious King of Heldessia — an odd enough request since Fyxedia and Heldessia have been at war for 700 years. Worse, Finn has been ordered to deliver the clock himself: a mission that involves flying over the war zone in a rickety and badly patched balloon.
Finn can hardly refuse the commission, but the journey is the least of his problems. For Heldessia is a land as odd as any he’s encountered, and he can’t help but wonder what foul plot these monarchs have in store for each other. How can one lone lizard maker, his lover, and his mechanical creation foil a plot they don’t even understand — and still manage to come out of it alive?
"synopsis" may belong to another edition of this title.
Also by Neal Barrett Jr.:
The Prophecy Machine
“I would like to get a sugar-pear, love,” said Letitia Louise, nearly shouting in his ear, “and fatpie-and-nettle, if there’s one to be had, with so many folk about. Oh, and corn on a stick where the pepper runs down.”
“That you shall have,” Finn said, catching a word now and then, “all three and more if we can fight our way out.”
It was nearly impossible to hear oneself speak, much less another soul as well. Sound, in a meadow, will dispel itself nicely on the wind. The clamor and the roar, trapped within the royal courtyard, merely restored itself time and time again.
Not that many seemed to care, Finn thought to himself, for the heat and the racket and the foul emanations of their neighbors scarcely dimmed the joy of the folk of County Ploone.
Besides the booths and stalls and the varicolored tents, each crowded one against the next, sites that offered tortes, cakes and sour thistle pie, colored beads and spells, mead and silvered glass, there would also be more family fun, late in the afternoon. For every creature there, human, Newlie and even the dead, knew SpringFair Sunday was also the Chopping of May.
And, this day, it was rumored about, commoner and noble alike would meet their fates. One, the Prince’s Keeper of the Mead, it was said, would face a new and cunning device. Maybe, more horrid than the Grapnel and the Snip. Which, of course, was a favorite of all, for the victim seemed to last a great while. One could see the fair, eat a tart or two, and drop by to watch at any time.
Not, indeed, like Old Mug o’ Lead, which was over in a blink. If you didn’t watch, you missed the whole thing.
More and more these days, many good people, folk like Finn himself, felt this a grim celebration, a shameful practice in an age when reason was beginning to sprout, when the Light side of nature seemed to have some sway over the Dark.
Still, it was wise to keep such thoughts to oneself, for many looked forward with great anticipation to the grimmer aspects of the day.
It was, indeed, a time when even the humble, those of scanty means, those most stricken by the dark and hurtful deeds of family and friends, could forget, for a moment, their own drab lives, their debts and their hunger and their fury at the world, and enjoy the miseries of others for a while.
And, besides, it was no great secret that the Prince took enormous pleasure in these events as well...
“It’s perfectly awful, is what it is,” Letitia whispered, clearly guessing Finn’s thoughts. “Crime and gross offense must be punished, I suppose, but they don’t have to be so dreadful about it. And they don’t have to do it out here.”
“They seem to think they do, dear. In a fearsome manner, where all may come and see.”
“A lesson, then, for those who’d consider some misdeeds themselves?”
“Depends on who you ask...” Finn said, glancing toward the dark, dreary heights of the Keep, where the doomed awaited their final day.
“...and, most certainly, when.”
“I suppose,” Letitia sighed, pausing, again, to press the oaken cask safe against her breast, to dab a lacy sleeve against her brow. She didn’t want to show it, but her nerves were wearing thin. The day was steamy hot, the crowds were closing in. The blare, the bray, the clatter and the din were nearly more than she could bear.
Many folk there, Letitia knew, would revel in this most oppressive scene. Humans seemed to love it, and even many Newlies thought it fun. A noisome pack of Bowsers trotted by, yapping and snapping at everyone in sight. Each wore those awful straw boaters and silly little ties. A hefty pair of Snouters, in lilac and blue, headed for a crackle-pie stand.
Letitia’s folk, though, had come from different stock indeed. Before the Change, they had lived in peril all their lives. Any sound, any shadow, had set them fair a’fright, sent them fleeing for the safety of the dark.
Letitia was not what her folk were before, but she was part of what they’d been. The swarm, the frenzy, the harsh assault of sound was, she feared, about to take her down...
“Shouldn’t be long,” Finn said, craning above the crowd. “There’s a tent over there and they’re pouring cool beer. That and a fatpie should serve us quite well.”
“Yes, fine,” Letitia said, no longer sure it all sounded as good as it had before.
Finn reached back and grasped her arm as he pushed his way forward through the crowd. He was close enough now to catch the tang of bubbling cheese, freshly baked bread, and, an aroma all its own, the heady scent of ale. There were benches, just beyond the tent, in the shade of the castle wall. If he could squeeze them over there, find a place to sit —
This thought had scarcely touched his mind when Letitia made a tiny sound, a little cry, not a major thing but enough to cause alarm.
He turned, quickly, and found an enormous, unwashed lout looming over Letitia, a brutish fellow with hair in his ears, teeth black as cinders, and pale, cesspool eyes. His nose was a horror, like last year’s potato, and, as far as Finn could tell, he had no lips at all.
These, then, were the fellow’s finest features, hardly worth notice, next to the ugly, quite unsightly aspects of his face. There, great red cankers, boils, lesions, blisters, whelks and suppurations of every sort had taken hold. Finding not a hint of healthy flesh, nothing but a dank field of pits, craters, vile and nasty pores, these gross eruptions had formed a nation of their own.
Finn took in this disconcerting sight in a blink, and, as the lout brushed Letitia with a vile and brutish hand, Finn struck the man with the hard edge of his palm.
The man gasped and blinked his watery eyes. He stared at Finn, unable to move, unable to voice his pain. Frightened, for sure, but clearly more astonished that his hand had gone numb, every muscle locked, shocked, frozen somehow, refusing to answer his call. And all because this man had merely touched him, scarcely more than that.
“Enough?” Finn said. “Think you can behave yourself now, keep your filthy hands to yourself?”
“Not what I asked, now is it?”
“Yes, all right!” The man paled, nearly went to his knees.
Finn let go and moved a step away. The man took a breath, caught himself and stood aright. Finn noted it didn’t take long for anger to fill his eyes again.
“Magic, that’s what you done. Some kinder spell.”
“No,” Finn said, “I did nothing of the sort. Don’t ever come near her, fellow. Never even think about touching her again.”
“You had no cause fer doin’ that, wasn’t even fair.”
The man looked at his wrist, searching for something. Sometimes magic left a sign.
“Didn’t mean nothing, wasn’t doin’ any harm.”
“Fellow, you did exactly what you meant. You know that as well as I. And, if ever you should do it again, I won’t use my hand, I’ll take a blade to you.”
The man looked warily at Finn, took in the sword stuck in the belt about his waist. Let his eyes linger there, let them flick away. Then, because he couldn’t help it, because his mind was set in evil ways, let his gaze rest upon Letitia again.
Let them, for an instant, linger on her small and slender form, on her lips, on her eyes, eyes that held a dark and iridescent light. And, once again, for he truly was devoid of all restraint, searched every hollow, every grace. Pried, meddled, poked. Assaulted, with his filthy thoughts, every secret place he’d missed before.
Letitia shuddered, drew in a breath, for she could feel him, as surely as he’d touched her, as surely as his hands had stroked her flesh....
The man cried out, startled to find himself flat on his back. He looked up in wonder, and tried to recall just how he’d gotten there.
“Get up,” Finn said. “You’re clearly a fellow with only half a wit. I’ll try to explain this again.”
Stumbling to his feet, the fellow rubbed his jaw, spat out a tooth, and looked curiously at Finn. Then, as if to further irritate his betters, he turned to Letitia again.
“I’m askin’ your pardon,” he said, backing off a step with half a bow. “I hope you’ll be forgiving a poor unlettered fool, Missy, what’s got no proper ways, but I was borned in Sessia-Troat, where there’s many a Mycer folk, as I’m certain that you know.
“That’s why I acted how I did, for your kind’s got a way of heatin’ a fella’s fires. A sinful thing it is, but the head can’t stop what the body’s set to do — ”
“Kettles and Pots, that’s more than enough of you!”
Finn came at him, hand on his hilt, ready to give the lout the flat of his blade, to see him on his way.
“Stop him, help me,” the man cried out, stumbling back in terror, arms flailing at the air. “Murder it is, an’ I’ve done no harm at all!”
The act was a poor one, worse than Finn had seen in some time, but it took no talent to draw a good crowd on such a day.
“Murder, you say,” said a farmer stopping by, “who be killin’ who?”
“The ugly one, there, he be the one gettin’ kilt,” said a merchant with a great enormous nose. “That’s what I heard him say.”
“The other one goin’ to murder him.”
“I believe he is.”
“One gettin’ kilt, he...
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