A War of Rumors
There were countless periodicals, newsletters, journals, broadsides and pamphlets who filled the Lunatic Kingdom with a wide variety of news and information. The most respected was the Muse of the Moon, a newspaper which arrived in every Hollow and was read by men and women of every Kingdom in a myriad of languages. But the lowliest publication, the one that existed only as pamphlets ballyhooing the latest scandal or rumor, was undoubtedly the Questing Eye. Their pamphlets and broadsides flooded the Lunatic Kingdoms like an infestation of insects. And the center of that swarm was the Questing Eye's massive print shop, located in Grub Hollow. That was where Fredrick Frost – along with his Glym Jack Pliny Lumen and Pliny's new pet skrat Ink – visited for their new job with the Questing Eye. Frost wasn't sure how to feel about their employers. As long as they had money, his own opinions didn't seem to matter.
Frost and Pliny were led into a large warehouse - a place like a great factor floor. A little wooden path led between huge rows of printing presses, which whirred, hummed and pulsed like organs in a giant body. The presses took in great reams of paper, stamped out letters onto each and then sliced them up into small pamphlets. A horde of nattering imps danced their way through the machinery, adjusting the type and ensuring that everything ran smoothly. A few men in aprons and shirtsleeves helped as well. Frost and Pliny walked through the forest of machinery, staring at the hulking presses. High windows in the corner let Grub Hollow's artificial light into the press, casting long rays of illumination over the banks of machines.
"Printer's devils," Pliny said, nodding to one of the electric-blue skinned imps. "I understand that the Questing Eye employs nearly a hundred of the Hobs." His own Hob, the smoke-spewing obsidian black kitten named Ink, was perched on his shoulder and leaving a thin trail of darkness behind it. "They are quite wealthy."
"Then they can certainly pay us a fine fee," Frost replied. He looked down the little lane and saw a lanky gentleman approaching them, cane in hand. "And it seems their master has arrived." Frost doffed his own tricorne. "A good afternoon to you, sir," he called. "Quincy Pratt, is it?"
"It is indeed, sir. It is indeed!" Pratt had a face that belonged on a rodent, with a small nose and a pair of large buck teeth. His ginger-colored hair rested on his scalp in elegant waves. His suit was yellow, his cravat was pure silk and his cane was topped with a large topaz jewel. "And you must be Fredrick Frost and his Glym Jack. Quite prompt, I must say. Quite prompt. Tell me, are you regular readers of the Questing Eye?" His eyes sparkled as he posed the question.
"I've glanced at it, on occasion," Frost answered.
"I haven't ever read it, sir," Pliny explained. "Because it is common knowledge that the Questing Eye contains the lowliest sorts of news and I do not wish to burden my mind with anything but the truth." He stopped and gulped. Frost figured that the boy had realized how rude he sounded. "But I'm sure your articles possess an a-astonishing veracity, sir!"
Pratt's smile did not fade. "The Glym Jack speaks out of turn," he said, completely ignoring Pliny's words. "He should be beaten."
"You see to your paper, sir, and I'll see to my Glym Jack's discipline," Frost said. There was a touch of weariness in his voice. Few people were kind to Pliny, seeing him as a tool and not a child. Frost did not subscribe to that belief. "Now, why have you summoned us? What do you need, Mr. Frost?"
Pratt stroked his chin. All around him, the engines of the Questing Eye hummed. "What do I need?" Pratt asked. He slammed his cane against the floor, making a resounding clatter. "I need scandal, sir! I need rumor! I need stories, to increase the Eye's circulation until it extends as wide as a celestial body in its journey around the sun." He swung his cane around, pointing it at Frost. "More specifically, I need a scandal about a Dragoon official. You know all about the rotten nature of the so-called keepers of law, do you not, Mr. Frost? After all, you used to be one."
Frost nodded. "Aye," he said and left it at that.
"Well, sir, I doubt you encountered this type of law-keeping when you wore the silver and white livery of the Dragoons."Pratt grinned to himself. "Marshal Julian Umley is his name. He resides in a fine house in Gilded Hollow, befitting his high rank. But rumors do emanate from him like fumes from stench." He looked at Ink. "Or like shadows from that skrat." Pratt handed Frost a small scrap of paper. "And this is his address."
"You want him followed?" Frost asked.
"That, sir, is but half of a job." Pratt dug into his coat. "For a full fee, follow him until the scandal presents itself and then unleash these." He withdrew a small burlap sack, big enough to be held in the palm of one's hand. Frost peered inside. There were a half-a-dozen beetles inside, with glittering golden shells. The carapaces were covered in strange inscriptions, that Frost quickly realized were hieroglyphics. "Scrying scarabs," Pratt explained. "Bred by the Alexandrine Kingdom. They will capture the image and then fly right back to me. Simply unleash them near the scandal and the little darlings shall do the rest!"
"Seems simple enough." Frost took the burlap sack and tucked it into the folds of his greatcoat. "But what if Marshal Umley is not connected with any scandal?"
"Then you will still receive payment." Pratt's smile remained. "A fine job, is it not?"
"Fine enough," Frost agreed. He shook Pratt's hand. Then he turned to Pliny and nodded. The two of them headed outside. They left Pratt in the center of the warehouse, surrounded by his seething presses.
Together, Frost and Pliny headed outside and walked into the street. Pliny stretched out his hands and Ink hopped into them. The narrow street of Grub Hollow was flanked by bookshops and presses, each with a riotous and colorful sign above their door. Magic lanterns added their own multicolored hues to the street, and enchanted images placed in windows and signs danced madly so that the scenery was alive and changing. Books stood in unruly stacks behind some shops, precarious pillars that threatened to crash down onto the backs of passerby. In the distance, past the rows of shops and printers' offices, stood the docks that would lead them to a chariot and Gilded Hollow.
Pliny held his skrat in his arms and scratched Ink behind the ears as they walked down the street. "Mr. Frost?" he asked. "May I ask a question?"
"Of course you can, boy," Frost replied. "Though – unlike you – I've no guarantee that I'll have an answer."
"Why do people, like Mr. Pratt, care about scandals and the private lives of others?" Pliny asked. "Why are people so interested in reading about this sort of gossip and rumors? What kind of enjoyment could anyone get from that?"
Frost had to consider the question. "There is a cruelty to people," he explained. "They have their prejudices, their fears and their hatreds. When they see those brought to life in print, they are filled with delight." He knew that it wasn't enough. "I suppose that's the best answer I have for you." He patted Pliny's shoulder and helped the boy towards the docks and tunnel in the distance.
They reached Gilded Hollow within the hour. This was one the wealthiest districts on the moon, far beyond even the pleasant Chestnut Hollow. While the truly great lords of the moon had small hollows – entire estates – devoted to their massive residences, Gilded Hollow was perhaps only a small step down in wealth and ostentation. The great manors stood in neat rows, like spaces in a checkerboard, with other sections given way to neighborhoods filled with small luxury shops, coffeehouses and radiant gardens. Everything gleamed with a vast light and statues of the Kingdoms' founders stood at each corner, staring down beneficently. Frost felt somewhat out of place. His father had been a prosperous merchant, but he had still grown up far from Gilded Hollow.
Marshal Julian Umley resided in one of the smaller manors, which was located across from an ornamental park. Umley's house was modest by comparison to its neighbors, but still sported a fine golden dome held up by Grecian columns. Frost and Pliny walked up and down the block, passing the manor several times as they waited. Ink pranced between them and Frost felt that – from a distance – they would appear to be an indulgent father taking his son and pampered pet Hob on a walk. It was quite fortuitous. On their fourth go-round, the gate before Umley's manor rattled open. Frost stopped walking and watched as Umley himself strolled out.
He was easily recognizable in his Lunar Dragoon marshal uniform. Unlike the tricornes of the rank-and-file Dragoons or their shakos of the officers, Marshal Umley sported a white bicorne crisscrossed by silver ribbons. His double-breasted white uniform and golden epaulettes also showed his rank, as did the sword at his side. He was a handsome man of early middle age, with strands of gray in his thick black hair and a prominent Roman nose. Everything about him seemed stern and professional. Frost wondered what scandal a man as impeccable as Marshal Umley could possibly hide. They watched as the Marshal strolled across the street and headed into the park.
"What now?" Pliny asked.
"Now?" Frost repeated. "We follow him." He and Pliny walked across the street next, staying well back. They followed Marshal Umley into the park. Marshal Umley strolled ahead easily, doffing his cap to the occasional couple or family who were also walking through the park. He didn't seem to notice his pursuers at all.
The park itself was like a carefully planned forest. Graceful white oaks stood in phalanxes, above brilliant flowerbeds. There were also a few tropical, flowering trees, with long vines that dangled down to the ground. Frost found himself admiring the beauty of the foliage, even as he stayed on Umley's trail. That trail soon ended, at a small white cottage in the center of the park. It was a coffee house, with a giant enchanted, steaming cup of coffee set above the door. The cabin was two-stories and all composed of blonde wood. Marshal Umley strolled evenly inside, without pausing. It was like he was taking a break in his afternoon stroll to enjoy a cup a coffee. There was no scandal at all in such an innocent act.
Still, Pliny and Frost followed him inside. Frost held open the door for Pliny, who had gathered up Ink, as he surveyed the cabin. It seemed like any coffee house, empty apart for the portly gentleman with curling mustachios and a brown wig in the corner. But there was a spiral stairwell in the back, which led up to the second story. There was no sign of Marshal Umley at all. Frost decided that the marshal must have moved up to the second floor. He would have to follow.
"Distract the fellow at the corner, if you would," Frost whispered to Pliny.
"Yes, sir," Pliny agreed, in the same whispering tone. Pliny walked across the floor, waving to the merchant. "Hello, s-sir!" he said, with only a hint of nervousness. "Tell me, do you know the proper temperature for brewing coffee? And could you also tell me a detailed list of every ingredient that goes into every variety and permutation of coffee you brew?" Pliny paused for breath. "If you cannot do so, please don't be alarmed – I will happily tell you myself."
Frost left the boy there and headed up the stairwell. He reached the top and found a long hallway, which led to a door. The door was ajar slightly and Frost could hear voices inside – men's voices that were talking softly and occasionally emitting a nervous giggle. Frost slowed his pace. He reached into his pocket and withdrew the bag of scrying scarabs. He did his best to move quietly. Frost had traveled in dismal tunnels inhabited by the Pale Men and knew how to avoid making any noise. Carefully, he reached the door. He pulled it back and the hinge made no noise at all. He peered inside, while he shook the bag of scrying scarabs and stirred the insects to wakefulness.
Inside, there was a small and richly upholstered room. It took a few seconds for Frost to understand what he saw. There was Marshal Umley, sitting on a silken couch. The buttons on his coat were undone. Another man sat next to him – a fellow with a youthful, handsome face who was wearing a full gown. He had his arms around Marshal Umley, caressing him in an attitude of deep affection. More men stood together in the apartment, some embracing, some kissing and some sporting woman's attire. Frost knew exactly what it was – a Molly House. These were the fabled hideouts of deranged men who preferred the company of their own gender to those of women. Such practice was forbidden on the moon and was practiced only in secret by a few Kingdoms and those who visited such underground establishments as this one. The fact that Marshal Umley was visiting a Molly House would be a crippling scandal. Frost clutched tightly to the bag in his hands.
As if the scarabs sensed what was happening, they began to rattle their wings. They crawled out of the bag and then flew in a silver swarm towards the door. Carefully, each scarab landed on the door and crawled around. Their wings flickered and snapped, making tiny pulses of light. They were as small as stars in a night sky. Frost stepped back and turned away. The scrying scarabs would take their pictures of the Molly House and the sodomites within. Then they would fly back to Quincy Pratt and the Questing Eye. Frost would get his fee. The job was finished.
Quickly, Frost hurried down the stairwell. He found Pliny in the main room, talking to the proprietor of the coffee house. The fellow was nodding his head in agreement as Pliny lectured. "So you see, sir," Pliny said. "To create a cup of coffee that can be enjoyed by the members Hadean Kingdom, a pinch of grave dust must be placed in the center of each cup and then stirred once the coffee itself is added." He noticed Frost's presence next to him. Frost quickly took his shoulder and steered him out of the door. "Goodbye, sir!" Pliny called to the fellow at the counter. Frost doubted the man had managed to get in a word compared to Pliny's speech.
They headed outside and went back into the garden. Frost realized that he was sweating. He wiped his brow with his sleeve. "It's finished, boy," Frost told Pliny. "The scrying scarabs have done their job and no doubt already winging their way back to Grub Hollow. We only have to wait and collect our payment once the resulting scandal goes to print."
"So what was it, Mr. Frost?" Pliny wondered. "What exactly was Marshal Umley doing up there?"
"It was…a Molly House," Frost explained. "Marshal Umley apparently frequents such an establishment. I suppose you know what that is – and what he is." Frost shuddered a little. "The resulting scandal will make a mess of his career. He'll be finished in the Dragoons. That's for certain. And he may even stand trial, if enough weight is given to the rumors." Frost shrugged. "Well, it matters little for us. Our part of the job is done."
But Pliny did not seem satisfied. "It is prejudice, isn't it?" Pliny asked. "It is prejudice and hatred that makes the moon turn against those who it perceives as different – like those who visit Molly Houses." He put his hands in his pockets. Ink sat on his shoulder, mewling slightly at the boy's pensive frown. "And a similar sort of prejudice is leveled against Glym Jacks, such as me."
"It is quite different," Frost announced. "Those who visit Molly Houses are sodomites and sinners—"
"But they're not hurting anyone!" Pliny's voice was plaintive now. He wasn't complaining – merely expressing his frustration at some fact that he couldn't understand. "Besides, how do you know they are sinners? What has Marshal Umley ever done to harm anyone? All we have is prejudice, which states that I am no more than a tool or piece of furniture." He folded his arms. "I dislike this job, Mr. Frost. I dislike it wholeheartedly."
Frost opened his mouth to reply. But then someone standing between two graceful trees caught his eye. Frost saw a long green cloak and a feminine face, half-shadowed by the hood. The cloaked figure drew closer, her hands hidden by the folds of her garment. Frost noted the familiar, pretty face and the dark hair in a neat bun. The cloak shifted to reveal her vest and trousers, along with several weapons resting on her belt. Frost recognized her at once.
He raised his hand and Pliny went still. "Rowan Rosewood," Frost said. "Druidic Agent and Priestess of Thorns. You seem a little out of place in this splendid park." He nodded to Pliny. "This is Pliny Lumen, a Glym Jack. We were simply touring the park."
"Hello, madam," Pliny said, with a slight wave of his hand.
Rowan glared darkly at them. "A cold-blooded mercenary does not simply wander," she said. "You're here on business, Frost. I knew that as soon as I saw you. And I guess I know what kind of business." Her hand dipped into her coat. It came out holding a tiny wood seed, small enough to be held between her fingers. "You're working for the Questing Eye, aren't you? Researching Marshal Umley? And perhaps you've already discovered his secret?"
She seemed to know exactly what he was doing. Frost stared at her in some surprise. "How do you know that?" he asked.
"Spies in the Questing Eye's presses," Rowan answered. "It's simple enough. But I can't allow you to bring them news about Marshal Umley. My masters were quite clear on that point." She looked down at the seed and then back at Frost. "For what it's worth," she said. "I'm sorry."
Then she dropped the seed. It struck the dirt and sank, slipping under the surface of the soil like a rock plunging into water. The seed vanished and Frost looked at the disturbed dirt, which had even seemed to ripple slightly. "What are you talking about?" he asked. "Why do the Druidic tree-lovers care that some Dragoon official loses his job? Why were you sent to stop us?" He drew closer to Rowan, reaching for the sword at his side. "I'll have my answers, you pestering jade. And I'll have them quickly." Perhaps it was the distasteful nature of his job, but Frost felt his temper grow.
"Mr. Frost!" Pliny called. "Miss Rosewood has placed a seed of Tartary into the earth – it will soon bring animation to any nearby vegetation and cause it to—" Before Pliny could finish his explanation, a vine shot out from a nearby tree, like a bolt fired from a blow.
The long vine wrapped around Frost's sword arm, holding it back. Frost cursed as he was dragged away from Rowan Rosewood, his feet leaving grooves in the dirt path. All around him, the trees were swaying and changing. Their branches rattled and shifted. Pliny rushed to help Frost, but a tree swept down with a heavy branch. The branch crashed into the boy and grabbed him up like it was a giant wooden hand. Pliny was lifted into the air, squeaking in panic. Ink went with him, mewling piteously as they were born away.
Another vine struck out and fastened itself on Frost's waist. Rowan drew closer to him. "We care for the law of the moon," Rowan explained. "Why do you think a worm like Pratt wants to investigate some Dragoon officer, when there are countless scandals from the various nobles of the Kingdoms to portray in his venal scribbling?"
Frost opened his mouth to answer. Another vine struck his throat and yanked him further into the air. He gripped his long sword uselessly. The blade swayed and dipped in the air, but he could not get it to slash at the vines that held him in place. He could feel the pliant vegetation pulling at him and yanking him apart. His bones and muscles strained. Frost had liked Rowan Rosewood when they first met. He could never imagine her killing him – but he supposed she still served her Kingdom, no matter what else she felt.
"W-why?" he managed to say.
"Because he's being paid to – by the Crime-Keeper General himself." That was alarming news. The Crime-Keeper General was a pseudo-official position, who ran all vice throughout the Lunatic Kingdoms. Whether it was spare Silvers that footpads could pilfer from travelers to the massive scores that highwaymen hauled in after robbing chariots in the tunnels, the Crime-Keeper General got a taste of it all. The Lunar Regent himself sometimes negotiated with the Crime-Keeper General and his dealings with the Dragoons was also legendary. "That's right," Rowan said, noting Frost's consternation. "Thaddeus Waite himself gave the order. He wants Marshal Umley removed from his position and perhaps hung. And can you guess why?"
It was easy to guess, but Frost could not open his mouth to answer. "Why?" Pliny asked instead.
"So he can be replaced. Marshal Umley refuses to take bribes. He believes that the white and silver uniform means something still and has worked to remove corrupt Dragoons under his command. And that enraged the Crime-Keeper General. Waite gave the order and chose to use the Questing Eye instead of an assassin's blade or sniper's bullet to end Umley's career. He'll be replaced after this scandal destroys him – and replaced by a Lieutenant Bryant Mipps, who is dirtier than a worm in the earth."
That was alarming news. Frost had a few run-ins with Lieutenant Bryant Mipps over the past few months and knew him to be an arrogant and corrupt man, an aristocrat who refused to allow his status in the Dragoons dictate his wealth. It made sense that Crime-Keeper General Waite would want Marshal Umley replaced with a man like Lieutenant Mipps. And he and Pliny had been simply been Quincy Pratt's chosen method of getting the information needed to remove Marshal Umley.
Rowan stepped back. She seemed thoughtful and looked at Frost in a curious manner, like she was wondering what he was thinking. "You were a Dragoon once," she said. "But we can't trust you. I'll leave you here and hurry to the Questing Eyes' presses. Perhaps they can still be stopped. Otherwise, the Kingdoms will drift a little closer into the total control of criminals." She stepped back and patted one of the nearby oak trees. "I'll leave you here," she said. "In fine company." Rosewood turned away and hurried back in the garden. Her cloak billowed behind her.
"Mr. Frost!" Pliny's voice came from up above. Frost couldn't turn his head to look at the boy. "Mr. Frost – we've got to help her! We cannot let Marshal Umley be destroyed, simply because of what he is!" Pliny emitted another panicked squeak. "This branch appears to be most aggressive!" Pliny called. "You know, the animated plants of Tartary are really quite fascinating and—"
Frost stopped listening to Pliny. He increased his hold on his sword and twisted it back, trying to use the tip to hack up the vine holding back his hand. His grip on the blade was growing looser by the second. Frost saw it dip towards the vine and then the blade reached down and bit into the green skin of the plant. Sap boiled out. Frost struggled to keep pressing it down and then the vine twisted and he felt like his limbs were being wrenched from their sockets. Frost screamed. The long sword fell to the ground. It struck the dirt pathway with a clatter and lay uselessly out of his reach. Frost cursed and tried to reach for the pistols in his coat – thought he knew he'd never have the strength to grab them. The vine tightened its grip on his neck. His breath became labored and he closed his eyes.
Something cut through the air in front of him. Frost's eyes opened at the familiar sound of a blade humming as it hacked through the air. Marshal Julian Umley stood in front of Frost, his hanger slicing down. For a split-second, Frost thought that Marshal Umley had seen him unleashing the scrying scarabs in the Molly House and had returned to slaughter him. But then the tip of Marshal Umley's hanger sliced into the vine binding Frost's throat. The vine gave way and Frost felt breath returning to him. Umley hacked at the rest of the vines, slashing them down and freeing Frost.
Once the vines were gone, Frost fell to the ground. He scrambled to his feet, his limbs still feeling like they were made of rubber and paste. He spun around and pulled his pistols, as he looked up at Pliny. The boy was being held aloft, the branch gripping the edge of his coat while his arms and legs flailed wildly. Ink danced about him, held up by puffs of dark smoke. Pliny saw that Frost was free and beamed, like he was sitting on a comfy cushion instead of being held in the air by an animated tree.
"Hold on, boy!" Frost cried. He took careful aim and fired. His pistol smashed the side of the tree, gouging out splinters of wood. The branch cracked slowly, lowering Pliny down to the dirt path. Pliny pulled himself free and tumbled down. He fell clumsily on the ground, but quickly came to his feet and hurried to Frost's side.
All around them, the trees writhed madly. Their branches waved in the air and their tentacles slapped feebly across the ground. The magic of Tartary was fading – and just in time. Frost doubted he'd have the strength to battle any more animated plant life. He reached down and grabbed his long sword – but did not return it to his scabbard. Instead, he gripped the pommel and turned slowly to look at Marshal Umley. Had the marshal seen him before, in the Molly House?
"You are all right, sir?" Marshal Umley asked. "And your boy is unharmed?"
"That is correct," Pliny agreed. "I have some slightly bruising in my shoulders, but otherwise I am completely unharmed." He smiled after making his clinical assessment. "And thank you, Marshal Umley, for saving our lives."
"How do you know my name?" Marshal Umley asked.
They would be undone by a foolish error on Pliny's part. The boy opened his mouth to respond but no sound came out. Ink crawled up to his shoulder and mewed. Frost's mind raced. He thought of something quickly. "I told him about you," he explained. "I'm a Dragoon myself – a former Dragoon – and I've been following you career." He stepped closer to Marshal Umley. "Fredrick Frost's my name." There was no point in hiding who he was. That didn't matter at the moment. "And thank you, sir, for saving our lives." When he said those words, Frost realized that they were true. Rowan's Tartary spell might not have meant to slay him and Pliny, only to delay them, but it had been close to fatal. And Marshal Umley had stepped in and saved them, without a second's pause.
Marshal Umley smiled. "No trouble at all, Mr. Frost," he said. "I am a Dragoon. It is my job to protect citizens of the Kingdoms." He sheathed his hanger. "You wore the silver and white yourself at one point, you say? And what do you do now?"
"Various things." Frost grabbed Pliny's hand. "I must depart, sir," he said. "But again, I thank you." He turned away and headed down the gravel path, dragging Pliny and Ink with him. Frost felt like matches had been burning inside his cheeks. He was used to skullduggery, but not to subterfuge. Lying and sneaking around didn't exactly suit him – especially towards someone who had just saved his life.
Pliny waved his hand. "Goodbye, sir," he called. "And thank you!"
They headed out of the park together. Frost didn't look back. He couldn't bear to do so.
A harsh silence filled the air between Frost and Pliny, all the way to the docks at the edge of Gilded Hollow. They caught a chariot heading back to their home of Chestnut Hollow and hopped aboard. The chariot was empty, apart from an automaton driver built into the prow of the vehicle. The driver was shaped like a great brass swan and he bowed his head and waved back and forth to guide them down the rails and through the tunnels. Frost sat next to Pliny on the red cushioned seat in the edge of the chariot. He watched the dark walls of the tunnel, occasionally set aglow by a bit of luminous paint or a shining mushroom. He couldn't get Marshal Umley's smile face out of his mind.
"Sir?" Pliny asked. Frost ignored him. "Sir?" Pliny repeated. "I think we have to help Marshal Umley."
"How?" Frost demanded. He glared at Pliny. "Do battle with the Crime-Keeper General? God and his angels would be an easier foe." Frost glowered at the boy. "And why does a sodomite like Marshal Umley even deserve our help?" He raised his voice. "He makes a mockery of the standards of society! He engages in illegal activities every time he visits the sinner's haven known as a Molly House! Why should such a man be saved?"
"Because," Pliny replied. "Even if the rest of the moon believes that it is wrong, we know that helping Marshal Umley is the right thing to do." There was steel in the boy's word. "The moon thinks little of him and it thinks the same of me. But you have shown me kindness, because you are a good man. And a good man would return Marshal Umley's favor of saving our lives – by protecting his from the machinations of cruel and greedy men."
The chariot rattled to a sudden stop. The automaton driver swiveled around. Its bulky mouth opened. "Chestnut Hollow," it said, in a metallic rasp.
Frost reached for the Silvers in his purse needed to pay the chariot's fee. His hand paused as it wrapped around the cold Silvers. Were those coins the only reason he battled and fought and struggled? Was he no better than Lieutenant Mipps, Quincy Pratt or the Crime-Keeper General himself? Frost gripped the Silvers tightly, forming a fist around the coin.
"Get out," he told Pliny.
"Sir?" Pliny wondered.
"Get out and go back to the Selene's Rest Inn. The Sittles shall be serving dinner shortly." He stood up and approached the driver. "I will join you, in time." Frost let his Silver fall into the little bowl built into the side of the automaton driver. "To Grub Hollow," he ordered. "And as swiftly as you can drive."
Pliny smiled at Frost as he stepped out onto the docks, Ink clutched in his arms. "I knew you would do what is right, sir," he said. He waved as the chariot gained speed. "Good luck, Mr. Frost! I'll make sure that some food from dinner is saved for your later consumption."
The chariot was already speeding back through the tunnels. Frost slumped down on his chair. He folded his hands and sights. "I do what is right?" he asked himself. "No. I do what is foolish." He leaned back and closed his eyes, waiting for the chariot to arrive.
Too soon, it stopped in Grub Hollow. Frost departed and headed back into the colorful streets. It was evening now and most of the presses and stores were closed. But as Frost neared the warehouse that served as the Questing Eye's headquarters, he could hear the hum and roar of the presses. Evidently, the Questing Eye never stopped its publishing. Perhaps even now, it was producing the pamphlets that would ruin Marshal Umley's life and bring Lieutenant Mipps to a higher rank. It had to be stopped. There was no way around it.
Frost reached the front of the warehouse and checked his weapons. His long sword was on his waist, his flintlock pistols lay in their holsters in his coat and his scoped rifle rested on his back. That would have to be enough. Either the Questing Eye would stop publishing its pamphlet on Marshal Umley or it would burn to the ground. An extreme action perhaps, but Frost could think of nothing else. He looked at the heavy doors and then swung his foot forward. His boot crashed into the double doors, knocking it open. Frost strolled inside, a hand on his sword.
The warehouse was already occupied. The presses were whirring to life and the printer's devils were dancing around them. In the center of the warehouse, Quincy Pratt was overseeing the printing with laughing eyes. He wasn't alone. Lieutenant Mipps was there, resplendent in his white uniform and shako helmet with its shining brass badge. The corrupt Dragoon had his sword in a scabbard at his side. Next to him was a man Frost recognized from his occasional appearances in the broadsides and newspapers – the Crime-Keeper General, Thaddeus Waite, himself.
The Crime-Keeper General was dressed with a strange formality, more resembling some Puritan merchant than a lord of vice. He wore a stiff, midnight black frock coat and a pale cravat. His hair was long, white and neat, hanging down just above his shoulders and pulled back over his wrinkled scalp. A single onyx ring, the only bit of ostentation on his person, glittered on his pinky finger. A trio of bulky bodyguards, turbaned and thickly-bearded Arabians from Cathay Hollow surrounded him, openly wielding their long scimitars and heavy muskets. More of his thugs stood around the printing press, like guards before an encampment. All of them turned on Frost.
Pratt raised his hands. "No need, gentlemen, no need! This is Fredrick Frost, an agent I hired to capture the images will shall soon grace our pamphlets." He pulled one of the pamphlets from his coat. Frost saw the inked image on the cover, a shadowy copy of Marshal Umley in the arms of the other man in the Molly House. That alone would end Marshal Umley's career in the Dragoons. It might very well end his life, as sodomy was punishable by death in most of the Kingdoms.
Lieutenant Mipps was unconvinced. "I know the rapscallion," he announced. "But what is he doing here?"
"A fine question," Pratt agreed. He approached Frost. "You'll get your payment in good time, Mr. Frost." He dropped his voice to a low whisper. "And I'd rather you didn't lurk around here. A Dragoon – even a former Dragoon – may make some of my guests uncomfortable."
"Guests?" Frost pointed to Crime-Keeper General Waite. "That man's your master. He hired you to spy on Marshal Umley and dredge up his private life, to ruin a good man's career and pave the way for more corruption in the Dragoons."
"Well, perhaps some Silvers – several hundred Silvers - did change hands," Pratt admitted. "But I am a journalist, of a fashion, and I have a duty to uncover and report the truth. If that truth will drive up circulation of the Questing Eye and fill my pockets with silver, then so much the better." He could tell that Frost wasn't agreeable to his response. "Don't you agree?"
Frost considered wringing Pratt's neck. It would not be difficult. But before he could, the crash of shattering glass filled the warehouse. Each one of the warehouse's high windows broke and sprayed their glass inwards. It fell onto the printing presses like ice in a blizzard. Green-garbed figures in long cloaks appeared on the sills, hoisted up by grappling hooks. Some took aim with long bows and lethally notched arrows, while others had heavy rifles. Panic ran through the Crime-Keeper General's guards and they swarmed together to defend their master.
"What is this?" Pratt demanded. He spun around, fear washing over his face. "And what do they want with my paper?"
The Crime-Keeper General spoke for the first time. His voice was sonorous and cold. It was like thunder in a canyon. "Druidic Rangers," he announced. "Come to quash the rumors before they can start." He nodded to his bodyguards. "Kill them all."
The battle began. The Rangers unleashed a withering volley of arrows and bullets, driving them into the Crime-Keeper's guards. The criminals ducked for cover around the whirring machines and humming printing presses, while they produced their own pistols and musketoons. The gunshots cracked loudly, even over the roar of the presses. Rowan Rosewood herself leapt down from one of the windows, leading the Rangers' charge into the printing press. Rowan had her crossbow in both hands and fired a flurry of enchanted arrows that burst into red flame as they coursed through the air. Frost watched her fire an arrow into the throat of the nearest foe. He choked and gagged as he burned. Rowan's eyes were wide and red with fury. Frost had rarely seen her like this.
He decided to do his own part. Pratt stumbled back to join him, waving his cane like that would scare away the Rangers. "Mr. Frost!" Pratt called. "You must save me from these heathen Rangers! You must—" His words ended when he saw Frost drawing his long sword.
Frost swung the sword around and pointed the tip at Pratt. "I doubt you want to be here any longer," he said.
"Just so, sir," Pratt agreed. He scrambled for the exit.
As he left, Frost reached into his coat and withdrew a round granadoe and a set of matches. He palmed the granadoe and moved to strike the match on his sword, when someone stepped in front of him. It was Lieutenant Mipps, with his saber already drawn. Lieutenant Mipps struck and Frost dropped the granadoe, before it could be lit. It rolled away and Mipps stabbed at him again. Frost brought up his long sword. It was all he could to parry the blow. The saber crashed against his sword, the blade almost reaching down to slice into his gut. Frost pushed it back.
He and Lieutenant Mipps regarded each other. Behind them, some of Rangers had shot down arrows ablaze with enchanted green fire into the printing presses. The machines hummed and continued printing, even as few of them began to smolder from embedded arrows. The printer's devils darted away, screeching to themselves. The fire began to grow. Rowan's Rangers knew what they were doing.
Lieutenant Mipps' face was shadowed by the growing flames. "Mr. Frost," Lieutenant Mipps said. "I don't know what I expected of you. But defending some sodomite who frequents a Molly House seems lowly even for you."
"Is it his habits you despise, lieutenant?" Frost asked, spitting out Mipps' rank. He raised his long sword. "Or his honesty?" Then he attacked, putting all his anger behind his blows. He crashed his blade against Lieutenant Mipps with such force that the Dragoon was forced to stumble back. Frost swung his sword around, letting his arms and momentum carry the heavy blade straight into Mipps' raised saber. The two swords clashed. Lieutenant Mipps' saber tumbled from his hands and struck the ground. Frost rammed his shoulder into the surprised lieutenant's shoulder and sent him tumbling back. Lieutenant Mipps struck the ground and crawled away. Frost let him go.
Instead, Frost reached down and grabbed the fallen granadoe. He sheathed his sword and drew another match. This one he struck on his boot heel. His hands were shaking as he raised the flickering match tip to the fuse. The flames from the Rangers' arrows were already burning some of the printing presses. A few more granadoes would finish them for good. Marshal Umley would be free. Frost stood up and cupped his hand around the match. He prepared to light the fuse when something heavy and strong smashed into his back.
He went sprawling. The granadoe dropped from his hands again. Frost moved to grab it. His fingers scraped the sides of the round bomb. It was nearly in his grip when a polished leather shoe slammed down on his arm and pinned it to the ground. Frost looked up. He saw that the shoe belonged to Thaddeus Waite. The Crime-Keeper General stood before Frost and one of his massive bodyguards was behind him with scimitar drawn, about to strike off the agent's head.
"Let it fall," Waite ordered.
"I'd sooner see you blown to red pieces," Frost hissed in response.
"Hmmm." Waite leaned down, until his expressionless face was very close to Frost's. "You are a pawn, Frost, and now you seek to play with the kings and queens. I won't begrudge you joining the game, but must know that you never had a chance of victory. I know that you have some familiarity with Rowan Rosewood, a Priestess of Thorns with the Druidic Kingdom?" He pointed down the hall. "There she is, Frost. Do as I say or she dies."
Frost stared up. At the far end of the warehouse, in the shadow of a burning printing press, he saw that one of Waite's Arabic guards stood over the fallen Rowan. His musket was pressed against her back and though he had several crossbow bolts projecting from his shoulders and forearms, he looked like he had more than enough strength to dispatch her. Rowan's face was bruised and bleeding. Her crossbow was shattered on the ground. She was weak and alone, separated from her Rangers by Crime-Keeper's other guards and the burning printing presses. Frost looked into Waite's cold eyes. He had no doubt that the Crime-Keeper General would keep his promise.
He let his fingers stiffen. The granadoe rolled away. The Crime-Keeper General nodded and the Arabian warrior removed his musket from Rowan's back. Crime-Keeper Waite knelt down, much closer to Frost. "I believe I know why you came here," he said. "Your conscience demanded it. My conscience makes similar demands and it has taken me a great deal of time to learn how to ignore them. Perhaps this experience will teach you that lesson."
"But the pamphlets…they burned…" Frost wheezed.
Waite held up his hand. He had one of the pamphlets there, caught in his fingers. "A few survived," he said. "And they will be more than enough to start the needed rumors and serve my purposes. And if you survive, you will have a fine lesson to learn." He drew back his foot. "Goodbye, Frost. If we meet again, I trust that you will have mended your foolish ways."
The polished shoe swung into Frost's face. Frost didn't have a chance to scream before the shoe drove home. Stars flashed brightly behind his eyes. Everything seemed to burn away. He rolled over and found himself looking at the burning printing presses. He could smell the smoke and burning wood and paper. He thought about the Crime-Keeper General's words. Waite was right. The one thing that passed through Frost's head before he collapsed completely was the realization of what a great fool he had been.
When Frost awoke, he felt something soft under his head. It was a pillow – his pillow. He stirred slowly, feeling the growing bruises on his face. Dried blood stood stiffly on his cheeks and lips. Frost opened his eyes and saw that he was reclining in his bed in the Selene's Rest Inn. The little round window above his bed was letting in the warm light of Chestnut Hollow.
Mr. Frost!" Frost looked over and saw Pliny, standing by his bed. "Sir! You're all right!" Pliny embraced Frost, hugging him tightly. Pliny stepped back and reached to the table near Frost's bed. "Please drink this – it is a healing potion I have created using a Hadean recipe based on the fur of serpentine rat chimeras." Pliny pressed a steaming bowl into Frost's surprised hands. Frost saw that Ink was racing around Pliny's legs, meowing excitedly. "It should create an almost instantaneous salubrious feeling. Simply drink and spit and you'll be better in no time."
Frost gave the bowl a sniff. The smell could have come from an open grave. "Maybe later," he said and set the bowl back on the table. "Tell me, Pliny, how came I to be here?" he asked.
"Oh, Miss Rosewood brought you," Pliny said.
"Miss Rosewood?" Frost was surprised. "The same woman who sent animated plants to attack us in Gilded Hollow?"
"Indeed, sir," Pliny agreed. He didn't seem to notice the strangeness. "She said you gave quite a good account of yourself in the Questing Eye warehouse and that she greatly appreciated it. She wants to meet again and she seemed to enjoy your company. I would certainly accept her invitation." Pliny seemed to notice Frost's confusion. "It makes sense, Mr. Frost," Pliny said. "You are a heroic man, a champion of the right. Miss Rosewood is a good person as well. Why would she not want to spend more time in your company?"
"Why not indeed" Frost repeated. He looked up at Pliny again, his eyes darkening. "And Marshal Umley?" he asked. "What news of him?"
"I-I don't know, sir." Now a stammer crept into Pliny's voice. "I do not read the Questing Eye."
With a slow groan, Frost stepped out of bed. "I'll find out for myself," he said. He walked to the door, where his greatcoat hung on a nearby hook. Frost set it over his shoulders. He looked back at Pliny, who stood waiting by the bed with Ink still playing around his feet. "You are a good boy," Frost said. "Get some rest now. You deserve it."
"Thank you, sir," Pliny said softly as Frost stepped outside.
It was only a small journey from the Selene's Rest Inn to the tunnel entrance in Chestnut Hollow's corner. Frost went there and purchased passage on a chariot to Gilded Hollow. He sat in the corner of the chariot during the journey, thinking about poor Marshal Umley and what he had done. He hardly noticed when the chariot docked and was the last passenger to leave. From there, he went to Marshal Umley's manor. He still remembered where it was.
The gates of the manor were open and so were the doors. There were no servants to be found. Frost knocked on the door. When he answer came, he turned away. "What did I even come here for?" he mused. "Some foolish apology? Some damned—" But then the door creaked. Marshal Julian Umley was in the doorway, looking haggard and old. His uniform was gone and he wore a simple gray suit and vest. His eyes drooped, as if he was extremely tired and was barely staying awake. "Hello, sir," Frost said and bowed his head to the marshal.
"Frost, is it?" Marshal Umley asked. "Ah yes. The man I saved. The man who spied on me." He nodded towards the doorway and Frost came inside. The house was well-kept, but there were no servants to be found. Marshal Umley led Frost to the richly-furnished parlor and they both sat down in a pair of armchairs facing the window.
"You know?" Frost asked.
"My guardians in the Druidic Kingdom told me your name and some of the story." Marshal Umley gestured to the table in the parlor. A few of the Questing Eye's pamphlets sat there in a pile, Marshal Umley's picture on everyone. "And I figured out the rest when I read what was inside and recalled the events of the day."
Frost nodded. "I'm sorry," he said. "I damned you and afterwards you saved my life—"
"And if I did not?" Marshal Umley asked. His voice was ferocious, a cruel bark. "Would that have made what you did right?" Umley's tone softened somewhat, after he saw Frost recoil. "But perhaps you did save my life, yesterday evening when you attacked the Questing Eye's press. There are not enough pamphlets to fill the moon. I am finished in the Dragoons, of course, but I might be able to avoid prison or the noose if I am clever enough and deny everything." He looked down at the pamphlets again. "And I am very good at denial."
"I'm sorry," Frost said. "I regret taking the job."
"This work will always fill you with regrets," Marshal Umley replied. "There are no victors in a war of rumors. Everyone emerges soiled." He looked up at Frost. "You regret what you did. I regret your actions a thousand times more. Now leave my house, if you please. The servants have left and I am alone. I want to remain that way for now."
Slowly, Frost came to his feet. He headed outside, leaving Marshal Umley behind. Frost stepped outside and walked through the gate. He balled his hands into fists and wanted to shout. Anger seethed inside of him. He gripped the handle of his long sword, hard enough to make his knuckles whiten. But there was no enemy he could fight, nothing he could hack through to solve this problem. Frost sighed deeply, the air seeping out between his clenched teeth.
He walked alone back to the chariots, so he could return to Chestnut Hollow.