The Wishing Star
Two days after I was rescued by my pursuer, I promised an egotistical king that I could manipulate the stars. It was that kind of week.
“I need to get my bearings,” Pin said. He’d spent the previous day steering his odd narrow boat along meandering antique canals, far ahead of any pursuit, but obviously lost. “My map is a little… Vague.”
His map was mostly crossings out. It might have been drawn by someone receiving the instructions by mime, from a person standing on a distant hill.
“We’re in a canal,” I said. “You can’t be lost.”
We were in the boat’s combined bridge, kitchen and bedroom, a cosy space exemplified by many brass fittings and glossy paint in primary colours. I lounged on one of the low shelves which Pin claimed served adequately as both seats and beds. He was folding the blankets and turning the pillows back into cushions. Beyond the portholes, a pale morning floated over the marshland in drifts of mist, and sunlight.
Pin screwed up his thin, freckled face. “We’re not lost. Not as such. But we left in a bit of a flap. Chased by furious ruler, pelting after an escaped tree, all that sort of tosh. I might have… Taken a wrong turn up a branch line.”
As usual his words made little sense. It was if he’d never met anyone before. “And so?”
“I don’t know where we are.”
I drew breath, held it, then blew it out again. My wanderings over this variegated planet have given me inner reserves of strength. “Then let’s just go back the way we came.”
Pin’s boat might be compact, but it was fast. I’d have suspected the work of the Able, but Pin had shown me a very human contraption, an engine made of black oil and steel, which he claimed was this boat’s only source of power.
Whatever, it left our pursuers far in our wake. Most of them. Mine was here, with me, giving technical reasons why water couldn’t run downhill, or or something. No doubt these were on a par with why he’d marked me in my sleep with a weird narrow implement.
I rubbed the scar he’d made on my right cheek. “Does it matter where we are? I’ve operated in a state of happy ignorance for the last year or so.”
“So let’s park the ship and you can confess to me your crime, and more importantly, the motive for your crime. I’m just dying to know why I now have a face that sends lepers running.”
Pin moved to the squat black stove which heated the boat and provided cooking facilities. He jiggled its logs with an ornate iron poker. “It’s not a ship, it’s a boat, and you moor it. And I will tell you the whole thing, just give me two ticks-“
More nonsense. His speech was as bizarre as his clothes. He wore baggy trousers the colour of young cheese and a white shirt under a loose red and white striped coat, which he called a blazer. On a peg hung his completely impractical hat, made of straw and decorated with a red ribbon around its brim. This he called a boater. Really. A seagoing hat which was not waterproof, and light enough to be carried off by the slightest river breeze.
Added to this strange getup, Pin now had a small apron tied around his waist. He withdrew a tray from the boat’s tiny oven and wielded a wooden spatula to serve up the twelve small bricks he had baked.
“Flapjack,” he said, offering me a brick on a China plate. “Nothing beats it for energy, nutrition and Lyle’s Golden Syrup, though I’m getting a bit low on that.” He frowned. “Anyway, tuck in.”
“Do you treat all your prisoners to baked goods?” I asked, picking up the brick. It was warm and sticky.
“Only polite,” he said. “And you’re not my prisoner.”
“You could leave,” he said. “I’d have to come after you, though, I’m afraid.”
I sighed. More cryptic words, and I hadn’t had breakfast. “Right.” I bit into my cake. It was oats melted together with butter and something like honey – something like the honey a god might have in his cupboard. It was superb. Pin smirked, and I swallowed my mouthful of perfection and said, “So how are you going to get your bearings so we can continue this festival of kidnap and cake?”
“We’re going to look for a hill, and climb it, and see what we can see.”
“Inspired,” I said, but the flapjack had worked some domestic magic, and I even offered to help him steer the ridiculous boat.
The first hill we found was on the outskirts of a city. “We could always just sail into town and ask them where we are,” I said.
“How well does it usually go for you when you simply arrive and expect to make friends?” Pin asked.
I hesitated. He had been following me a long time.
“I believe I am a case in point,” he said.
“Huh.” Oh yes. Having barely extricated myself from an impossible task set by an irascible ruler, I then unwittingly released a valuable prisoner and was captured myself by Pin. “Have it your way,” I said. “But what’s to stop me just walking away the moment my boots touch land?”
Pin was rummaging in one of the boat’s painted wooden lockers. He straightened up, holding a brass tube. “Aha.” He polished it on his cream-coloured trousers. “You won’t walk,” he said.
Pin cut his eyes at me. His freckled face was not as young as I’d first thought – he was perhaps twenty six, twenty eight, close to my own age. “You want to know who I am,” he said.
“Huh.” Of course I did. “I could simply torture it out of you,” I said. “Just as one suggestion, just for speed.”
Pin shook his head, a frown forming between his brows. “I’ve never known you use violence, or even force, to get your way.”
“I’ve had a bad experience with violence.”
He flinched at that. “I can explain. I can. But… just … Come on.” He slapped his thigh and for a moment I thought he was encouraging me like a huntsman calling his hound, but then he said, “Dicky leg. Kept me out of the Flying Corps, will certainly keep me on the ground now. I need you to climb the tree.”
I could have walked away. The boat was tied up beside a cobbled towpath, which presumably led towards the town. I could make out towers in the distance, slender spires piercing the skyline like the bristles on a brush. Once among people, I could find work, buy food and a bed for the night, and decide my next destination. But now that I had met Pin, he seemed hardly worth escaping. And he was right. I did want to know his story. Flying Corps? Boater hat? The crazily expeditious canal boat? Of course I did.
I abandoned all thought of escape and followed Pin onto the towpath.
Pin made us climb the hill and thrash through a stand of small birch trees to a clearing at the summit. A few taller trees dominated the scene. “Right-ho. Tree.”
He hunted about and decided upon a sturdy specimen. “This will do.”
“No, it won’t,” I said. “That’s brimthorn. You’ll tear yourself to shreds.” I pointed. “Try the mast.”
He looked at the broad, low-spreading tree I’d indicated. “You sure this one won’t sprout legs and scamper off?”
I put my hand on the crackled trunk of the great mast tree. Famed for its use in the ship industry, it also bore tasty seanuts. I plucked a couple from an eye-level branch and munched them. “Probably not,” I said. “Although anything’s possible.”
“Not quite,” he said. “Some things are beyond the wit of men.” More nonsense. He scratched his nose. “Right.”
I sighed loudly, but the insane are not known for taking hints.
“Catch hold of this,” he said, handing me the metal tube. “Telescope. Look through it when you reach a good spot.”
“Right.” I took the strange tube from him – it was heavy – and stuck it in my pocket. “Try the seanuts,” I said, and clambered up into the spreading branches of the mast. At its summit, I retrieved the device, put it to my eye, and nearly fell out of the tree.
The town I’d seen some miles distant sprang up close, thrusting itself at my face and making me veer backwards. “I can see far away,” I said, in one of my more literal moments.
“That’s the ticket,” said Pin. “Use the focus. Look for a flag, I’m pretty good at identifying flags.”
I was twiddling the dial around the scope’s circumference when I heard exclamations below: the voices of several men, speaking in that urgent, piercing tone people adopt when they want to be sure they get the credit for something.
“The prophecy!” they were saying. “It’s come to pass!”
I clung to my branch. This was not my problem. Nobody would see me if I just sat sat up here. Pin could deal with it.
You can’t lie to yourself, however. I rolled my eyes at my feeble attempt. Pin obviously could not deal with it. That left me.
I slid down the tree and found quite the miniature court set up in our hilltop clearing.
A king sat on a portable throne, fanning himself in the heat, although the blokes who’d carried him up looked more like they needed the relief.
Various men whose robes marked them out as ministers clustered around the throne, pointing at me and describing what was going on, for the benefit of the king.
“Hello,” I said.
“He speaks, sire!” said the nearest minister. He wore robes with moons embroidered on.
“That’s me,” I said. “A regular talker.”
“He is humorous, sire,” said a minister with a dour voice, whose robes were patterned with comets.
“I know that!” snapped the King in a tone squeaky with anxiety. His crown was wonky atop his thin grey hair, and his robes were stitched with stars in silver thread. “Bring him!”
“Go there,” said the moon minister to me.
“To his majesty,” said the comet minister.
I approached, holding the telescope. “Good morning,” I said, smiling. It does well to be polite. Kings can grant favours. They can also chop off your head if they don’t like the look of you.
“It is not a good morning,” said the King. “As you’d know if you were truly the man of our prophecy. Ah me!” He sighed dramatically and passed his hand over his eyes.
“Prophecies can be interpreted in many ways,” I said, angling for more details.
“This one is set,” said the moon minister. “A man will come, and study the sky, and this man will be greatly rewarded.”
“Yes, that’s me,” I said, ignored Pin’s frantic gestures of No, shush, let’s leave.
“Then hold your magical device to your eye and let us know your predictions.”
“Yes, sire …” I hesitated. To carry off such an enormous lie, I would need more information. Was the prophecy about the end of the world, or the best date to gather strawberries? I didn’t want to avert an apocalypse only to find I was meant to be foretelling the price of haddock. “My work must be done at night,” I declared, eyeing the stellar decorations on everyone’s clothes.
“Aha,” said the King. “Just as I thought. Does this-” He leaned towards me, nearly falling out of his throne. “Does this work involve stars?”
Pin mimed No absolutely not.
“Yes,” I said.
At which everyone threw up their hands and cried praise to the Great Able, for sending them a miracle in the form of me.
“The reward will match your expectations,” the King said. “Or exceed them.” He waved his hand at me. “Come to the observatory tonight. We will await your assessment of our… Situation. Come!” This to the ministers. “We have no need of our own feeble observation of the sky. This man…”
“He is known as Jack, sire!”
“-Jack will tell us all we need to know.”
The entourage stumped off down the hill.
“That seems promising,” I said. “Some quick coin for hashing together a few vague predictions, then on our way.”
“Hmn,” said Pin, which was not as encouraging as I’d hoped.
“Did you find your way?” I asked. “I didn’t have much of a chance to see anything.”
Pin grimaced. “Oh, I know where we are,” he said. “We are in Liloth, the city of the wishing stars.”
“If wishes were stars, the sky would shine bright.”
Back at the narrowboat, I munched on a flapjack while Pin hunted in cupboards, muttering this phrase.
“True enough,” I said, liking a flake of gorgeously syrupy oats from my chin. “Though you’ll have to show me how to use that telescope if we’re going ahead with this whole prophecy thing.”
“We? No, you are. -There it is!” Pin cast an accusatory glance at me, then pulled a large iron box from an underseat locker. “Have you been going through my things?”
“No.” Yes. None of it made any sense.
“Hmn. Well, just as well you didn’t try to open this. It might have exploded in your face.”
“My face doesn’t need any help in that direction.” I touched my scar. “So what’s in this casket of potential disfigurement?”
Pin picked at a circular padlock on the front. I’d had a go at it myself and only managed to break a thumbnail. Now I saw the trick. Tiny numbers, stamped onto the metal, rotated to form a password.
“Ingenious,” I said, bending forward to see.
Pin covered the combination with his hand. “If you don’t mind.”
“And if I do?”
He opened the box, its lid shielding the contents from me, then quickly shut it and spun the padlock numbers. Now he held a book the size of a butter pat, itself bound with silver straps. “Stars, stars,” he said, applying a key from a fine silver chain around his neck to the book.
“Is this your secret diary?” I asked. “Breathless analysis of each day’s events? ‘Saw a handsome boy today, he almost looked at me. Ate porridge for breakfast. School is boring.’”
“It’s my log,” said Pin. “It’s everything we know far about this world.”
The book was rather small. “There’s a towering library in Minos which says we know a bit more than that.”
“Not you. Us,” said Pin. “-I’ll explain later. Right now I’ve got to see what scrape you’ve got yourself into this time. Right. Here we go. Stars.”
We hunched side by side at the tiny cabin table, shoulders touching. The book’s pages were bone white, dense with loopy handwriting, and the occasional small sketch. This page was headed ‘Liloth, city of fading stars.’
I read, “Small city to the east of entry point. Not visited but spoke to merchant native to Liloth. City is devoted to the Able. They also worship stars, believing each person has their own point of light in the sky, and that the brightness of a star indicates the strength of a person’s wishes, or prayers. Those with the strongest prayers gain power and are revered.” I stopped. “Bags the Pole Star then.”
He cut his eyes at me. “It’s taken, I’m afraid. All stars are meticulously recorded at a person’s birth, by a ruler known the King of the Heavens.”
“We may have met him just now.”
“Yes. He writes down with indelible ink, the star of each of his subjects.”
“What about this prophecy?”
“I don’t know. But there are only so many stars visible to the naked eye….”
“So at the very least we’ll be able to swap your telescope for a boatload of cash,” I said. “They can double the number of stars available on the free market. A bargain.”
“I need the telescope,” Pin said. “But yes, perhaps we can leave instructions on how to make their own…If they can grind a lens to that level of precision…” He drifted off into a reverie of telescopic components.
“Or just ask the Able,” I said. “Technical skill is not widely employed around here.” I sniffed.
“Yes, I noticed how most of the interesting stuff is completely unexplained. It just sort of…”
“Manifests,” I said. “Yup. That’s the Able. Handy when they’re in the mood.”
“You don’t like them,” he said.
Pin spread his hands. “We’re here with a fresh brew, and hours till your appointment with a monarch. What else have we got to do?”
Before I could make a suggestion, the porthole beside my head filled with a large, bejewelled sleeve. From it emerged a hand heavy with rings, which then rapped on the glass.
“The door’s more conventional,” I called.
“Sssh! Allow me to enter!” the unseen owner of the sleeve hissed at the glass. The sleeve flapped, revealing a design of silver embroidered stars.
“It’s the King,” said Pin.
“So he can walk,” I said. “We’re not due until nightfall,” I called. “Nightfall!” To Pin I said, “I haven’t even come up with a plan yet.”
“I insist you allow me to enter!” said the King.
“All right, keep your royal hair on. I’m coming.”
Pin gaped at me. “How are you not locked up in every place you go?”
“I usually am.”
“You could try politeness as a possible strategy for staying out of prison.”
I shook my head. “Listen to him. He’s alone, he’s whispering conspiratorially, he’s so early that nobody is expecting him.”
“He’s desperate. He needs us for something. So he won’t care if we bow and tug our forelocks. He just wants our help.”
“A terrible thing has come to pass,” said the King, having entered, sat on the bench opposite ours, and refused all food or drink. More fool him. I helped myself to another flapjack.
“What’s the problem?” said Pin gently, like a doctor with bad news.
“There has been sacrilege,” said the King. “Our catalogue of stars has been tampered with!”
He paused to receive our shock and horror, which Pin belatedly gave. “Terrible,” he said, frowning into his teacup.
I said, “Tampered how?”
His majesty acquired a shifty look familiar to me from my time odd-jobbing for a nomadic market. You ask the carpet-seller where he got such fine quality rugs, he gets the same sneaky look, and murmurs something about another’s misfortune bringing him great good luck. In other words, the rugs were rescued out of the back of a wagon – someone else’s wagon.
“It was you, wasn’t it?” I said.
The King pushed his fists against his mouth. His face paled. His bloodshot eyes began to water.
“Do breathe,” I said, “or you won’t last long enough to ask for our help.”
He dropped his hands and drew a shuddering breath. “My star,” he said. “It vanished from the sky.”
“I see,” said Pin.
I didn’t. But I still knew what was coming next. “So you gave yourself another star,” I said. “A better one.” The King mumbled wordless agreement. “Then you thought, why stop there? Why not reassign a few of the best stars to your friends and relations?”
“Your wisdom is penetrating. You are truly the one from our prophecy,” said the King.
“I told you,” I said to Pin. “Everyone wants the Pole Star.” To the King I said, “So what’s the problem? Everyone has a nice bright star, you’re all happy.”
He shook his head. “I forgot about the book birthday.”
“Every year the catalogue of stars is honored at a feast,” said Pin. “The citizens read of the stars which belonged to their ancestors, and search for them in the night sky.” He tapped his own catalogue with its silvery straps.
“Ah,” I said. “And I expect your honest burghers will not be pleased to see Grandma’s star now apparently belonging to the minister for moons.”
“I can help,” I said. “For a fee.”
“Jack,” said Pin in a breezy tone, “would it not be better to offer our assistance, ask no payments, and then … leave?” He made unsubtle head jerks towards the open canal.
“Flushed only with the privilege of having been of service? No thanks. I like my privileges shiny and golden, for example, gold.”
“Your recompense will be great,” said the King stiffly. Clearly the idea of parting with money was a tough one.
“Perfect,” I said, ignoring Pin’s protests. “Then all I need is the name of someone recently dead who you were not too fond of.”
“What?” Pin and the King said together.
I treated them both to my best carpet-seller smile. “And a lemon.”
“This won’t work,” said Pin.
“It will work,” I said. “So long as nobody keeps mentioning how there’s an it which may or may not work.”
He grumbled, but held the candle aloft as I’d instructed.
We were in the royal observatory, that is, a large tower with a throne room and a big window at the top. It was the tallest tower in Liloth, and offered fine views of the rather smelly town it presided over. From here the King catalogued the stars, and cooked the royal book on which star belonged to who.
Right now that book rested on a lectern shaped like a peasant bent to accept the burden on his back. It was an artful piece of carving which spoke volumes about the relationship between those with good stars, and the rest.
“Majesty,” I declared, gaining the attention of the crowd of worthies nearest the throne. At the back, the peasants shuffled and tried to see what was happening. “My work has detected that a grievous wrong has been done here in Liloth!”
Pin waved the candle for emphasis.
“The sacred book has been defiled!” I cried. “Some person has written the King’s name against the wrong star!”
The crowd was aghast.
“Who can have done such a thing,” said the King, on cue.
“I can do better!” I said. “I can reveal the criminal’s identity!”
At my prompt, Pin held the flame beneath the page where I’d earlier written a name in lemon juice.
All crowded around as the name of a recently deceased lawyer appeared as if by magic.
“No no it cannot be true this is too much,” said the King, who was no kind of actor.
I shouted out the name for the benefit of the people at the back. “This wrong must be undone,” I said. “All names must be reassigned to their proper stars.”
“I will take this task thank you for solving our problem,” said the King like a fairground toy with a winder on its back.
“Hurrah!” I scooped at the air with my hands, encouraging the crowd to a few rousing cheers. The King lifted the lid on a promising looking coffer, and prepared to dispense royal thanks.
All was champagne and gratitude, until some killjoy piped up, “But what of the prophecy?”
“Ah yes,” said the King, his hands snapping back into this sleeves. “That must be resolved. Tell me, Jack, which star should now be mine?”
The lovely gold slipped away into the coffer. “Hmmm,” I said. “The passing of your majesty’s star indicates that you are ready for a greater one, a brighter destiny, a nobler wish.”
“Yes, yes,” said the King.
“And so,” I said, tipping my head back to search the infinite sky for a star that would get me the money, “the prophecy has decreed that your star is… this one!”
“The brightest one?” cried the King, giving it much more conviction than his previous lines.
“Of course, majesty.”
“Of course,” muttered Pin, still clutching the candle.
I elbowed him. “Shut up. Everyone wants the Pole Star, right?”
“The prophecy is fulfilled,” declared the King. “I will record it in the book!” He snatched at the royal catalogue, knocking Pin’s arm. The candle tipped, the flame struck the antique pages like a knife through cream, and in two heartbeats, the whole book was ablaze.
For a moment nobody moved. Then a woman shrieked, ministers rushed forward, and the King yelled, “Sacrilege! For this you will be punished!”
“The Marsh of the Foul Miasma,” said the comet minister.
“Yes,” said the moon minister. “Death!” He chivvied the crowd into more of a baying mob. “Death!”
“Death!” cried the King, thrilled with being able to keep the gold.
“Death?” said Pin.
“It’s always death,” I said. “Haven’t you noticed?” My mind raced with ways I might still get the cash. And as a side benefit, avoid death. “But majesty, the prophecy speaks of, um – “
“-A special dispensation in the case that a criminal can complete a task,” said Pin.
“Yes,” I said. “That.”
The King’s eyes narrowed. “A task…”
The comet minister poured water on the ruined book of stars. The moon minister whispered in the King’s ear.
“Ah, good one,” said the King, not filling me with optimism about the task. His manner had become a lot less regal in the last few moments, I felt, and a lot more the manner of a man who would say anything to retain his gold.
Pin said, ”Oh no, oh no oh no.” The candlestick was on the floor. Pin’s already white face was beaded with sweat. “No no no-”
I nudged him into silence and the King gleefully pronounced, “Then as all gathered here are witness, Jack, your task to recompense us for the loss of our sacred book is… To stop the sky going dark at night!”
Pin’s freckles stood out on his cheeks like constellations in reverse. I jabbed my knuckle into his ribs to stop him fainting, and to the sounds off bloodthirsty cheers, we were hustled away.
“How do you do it?” Pin asked. “We have a serious problem already, and now you go and give us another one!”
I sighed. We were back in the twee cabin of the canal boat, feeling anything but cosy.
“One is enough!” said Pin in a squeak. His blonde hair was sticking up all over his head, from the shock, – and to be fair, the rough handling – of guards turfing us out of the royal observatory.
“You all right?” I asked.
“Fine. Dandy.” He gave a convulsive shiver, then sat down on the narrow bench on the land side of the cabin.
“Well, let’s crack on with stopping darkness ending when the sun goes down. Oh, wait. My mistake. The absence of light is the very definition of darkness.” I flung myself on the opposite bench.
“It could be worse,” Pin said.
Before I could ask how, there came a knock at the bow doors. “Enter,” I commanded, to Pin’s evident irritation. He sloped off to see to the kettle while I awaited our visitor.
It was a page of his starry majesty. This paeon unwound a scroll and took a deep breath and I said, “Just tell me. We can take the niceties as read.”
“You are formally charged with treason. Unless you stop the sky going dark at night,” said the page in an awful voice, “the King will send you to the Swamp of the Great Miasma.”
“I know. Remember how I was dragged away by an angry mob not half an hour ago?”
The page rolled his eyes. “Map.” He thrust the scroll at me and flounced out.
“Rather rude,” said Pin.
“Don’t worry, I picked his pocket as he left.” I brandished my pickings.
“Theft is ignoble,” said Pin. “What is that?”
I tossed the booty onto the table with a metallic clatter. “Tin of matches. Thought it was coins.” I spread out the map.
“Serves you right.” Pin peered over my shoulder at kingdom in miniature. “That’s the swamp. It’s big all right. I really don’t want to go there. -Are those…people? Doubled up, clutching their noses.”
“And dying,” I agreed. “Yes, let’s not.”
“I imagine they’ll bring us by force.”
“I’m hoping they’ll forget.” I stood up. “Come on. I want a look at this swamp. I keep hearing ‘miasma’ as if it’s some technical term but as far as I can tell it is only ever used by quacks to explain diseases they can’t cure.”
“All right. I’ll fire up the old girl.”
I wrinkled my nose at his disturbing turn of phrase. “Firstly, the boat is not female. We do not ride inside as if in some watery womb. Secondly, one outstanding problem with canal boats is that unless there is a canal which leads right up to the doors of the place you’re going, you’re better off walking. Come on.”
“Picky, picky,” said Pin, but he came.
We did not get anywhere close to the swamp. The stench was too foul.
“Ye gods,” said Pin. “It’s gas.”
“Brilliant,” I said. I held my sleeve across my nose and mouth as the wind hurled gusts of rotten stench into our faces. “Perhaps if we happen across a stream you could inform me that it is liquid.”
“No, I mean it’s gas,” he said, with his special blend of stubborn mystery. “The type that you use to cook things on.”
“You do what? I can’t imagine anything worse.”
Pin had my elbow and was drawing me away. “Let’s get out of here.”
We scrambled down the hill we’d climbed to get a look at the swamp.
“Lethal,” said Pin. “If we’re banished there, we’ll suffocate within a few minutes.”
“So will the people who take us there,” I said. “I’ll hold my breath, overpower them and escape.” I am nothing if not an optimist.
“Nice idea,” said Pin, “but I imagine they’ll tie you to a horse and smack its bottom so that it bolts into the swamp, galloping helplessly on until you both collapse from oxygen deprivation.”
I eyed him. “Please keep your practical suggestions to yourself when the King is in earshot.”
I rubbed my jaw. Even at this distance, the gas was giving me a headache. “So, fixing the sky is impossible, eluding the punishment fire not fixing it, even more so. That leaves one option. We run.”
But when we got back to the quayside, some smartly-dressed soldiers and the same smug page were waiting.
The page flourished another scroll at me.
“Please no,” I said. “The short version, have mercy.”
He tapped me on the chest with the paper declaration, then waved it at the guardsmen. “Courtesy guard for your boat.”
I inspected them. Their batons and cutlasses must have indicated extreme politeness. “Thank his majesty very much.”
“It’s my boat,” Pin said. “Not his.”
The page shrugged. “You’re both in it. Can’t honour half a boat.”
“I don’t want to be honoured at all,” I said. “Much happier if you all nip off to a tavern and raise a cup to me while I relax in peace and quiet. No guard necessary.”
“There’s more men inside,” the page said cheerfully. “Keep you company until nightfall tomorrow, especially when you might think no one’s looking.”
He lifted the scroll to his lips and blew a raspberry at me through it. His foul breath puffed in my face.
He scarpered before I could form a proper fist. I darted after him, but Pin grasped my shoulder. “Easy,” he said. “Let’s have a cup of tea and think.”
“The thing about gas is, it’s not just poisonous,” said Pin.
It was the afternoon of the following day. Neither of us had slept much. Our guards were lounging on the quayside. Attempts to distract them long enough to escape had failed.
“Marvellous. What else, it causes your relations to arrive and start criticising your life choices?”
“It’s explosive,” said Pin. “Highly explosive.”
I sank to the bench. My head hurt with thwarted plans and lack of sleep. To make matters worse, the flapjack tin was empty. “So if we survive death by toxic breeze, we’ll be blown into the sky.”
“No,” he said seriously. “It’s only explosive if you light it with a flame. Then it goes up with a bang.”
“I see. Just the lethal poison to worry about then. I’ll cross combustion off my worry list.” In the absence of flapjack to keep me busy, I drummed my fingers on the miniature table. “How much of a bang?”
“Instantaneous dissolution,” said Pin. “If you tried to simply light a match and throw it in, anyway.”
“Long arms needed, then.”
“Best not to be anywhere near it at all.” He gave the teapot a stir. The pot was black, rather scratched and chipped, and bore a painted crown and the initials G.R. on its plump belly.
It reminded me of something. Something institutional. It bothered me, but I set the memory aside as Pin poured us each a mug of hot tea. There were more immediate things to worry about.
Pin pushed my mug across the table. “Best to be about a hundred miles away.”
“But still I have a yen to set this miasma aflame. If nothing else, to stop any more poor souls being sent there.”
We drank tea and pondered. How to get the flame to the miasma? Horse, pigeon, and all other forms of animal transport seemed very unfair on the animal. The moment a live flame touched the gas, the gas and the courier would explode. That was a harsh repayment of a favour.
“The scroll,” I said. “That cheeky page who piped a raspberry at me. If we can push a pipe into the swamp…a long pipe…. put in a flame and quickly seal it up and run away…..”
“It would bring the miasma to us,” said Pin. “But there must be a way to construct a long-distance ignition…”
He jumped up and paced around the cabin, absently ducking the brass light fixture every time he passed under it. “So all we need to do is build a very long pipe, thrust it under the hill into the swamp, making it completely airtight, then avoid poisoning from the gas travelling through as we do so… Then find a way to light the gas without it blowing back in our faces…. It might work.”
We shook hands.
“Or,” I said, “we simply stand well back and fire a flaming arrow into the heart of the swamp.”
“Ah,” said Pin. “Yes. Probably quicker.”
The explosion shook the ground all the way back to the quayside. By the time we arrived, singed and breathless, back at the boat, a dozen people had informed us of the end of the world, or the birth of a new one, depending on their religious outlook.
Everyone commented on the bronze blaze filling the sky, dimming slightly to a glorious purple around the horizon.
“No more swamp,” I said, clapping Pin on the shoulder. “Now we can flee with impunity. Although…”
I tilted my head to gaze at the glaring heavens. “Get the boat started,” I said to Pin. “I’m just going to visit his majesty.”
Very swiftly I was back at the canal. I descended to the little cabin. Pin was there, wearing his striped blazer. The tea things had been locked away, for travel.
“That was quick,” said Pin.
“Heroes need not wait,” I said. I struck a triumphant pose, then staggered as Pin started up the thump-thump-bang of the narrowboat engine. I clutched at the wall, dignity only slightly damaged.
“You stopped the sky going dark,” said Pin, calm at the helm of his roaring machine. He raised his eyebrows at me. I nodded. The explosion had created a permanent glow in the night sky. Now it would be impossible to see whose star was brightest. The King’s fraud was fixed, and further argument was quashed forever, or at least until the swamp gas ran out. By which point I would be far away. “You went to tell King you completed his task,” Pin said. ” -Or rather, that we did.”
I patted my coat pocket. “I’ll take that blatant scramble for credit as a sign that you’d like to share in my reward-?”
“I provided half the labour and most of the brains.” He twirled the wheel and artfully flipped some brass switches, then stepped back, the craft now steering itself.
“All right. You’re very convincing. Have half the reward.” I stuck my right hand in my coat pocket and withdrew it, still empty. “Here it is.” I flashed my fingers at him in an exaggerated star shape.
Pin groaned. “A reward in heaven.”
“Yup. The Able will honour our names forever, and so on and so forth.” I sighed. “But it’s not all bad.” I felt in my trouser pockets now, and pulled out two small jars. “They shoved me out through the palace kitchen and on my way past I stole these. “
I threw Pin a jar and he caught it with the grace of a man who has played a lot of ball sports. “Syrup!”
“It looks like that stuff you’ve run out of.”
“It is an admirable substitute. Thank you, Jack.”
I shrugged. Thanks was so rare to me that when it came, it was almost embarrassing. “I thought theft was ignoble.”
“Not when flapjacks are in the equation,” said Pin, and grinned.
The boat’s engines roared. Our wake foamed below the tiny portholes; the canal frothed and churned as we powered away from Liloth.
“Where are we going?” I asked. “Because in case it escaped your notice, anyone with a map of the canal system and a horse can simply follow us to the nearest lock and catch us while we wait for the bowl to fill up.”
“We’re getting out of the canal,” said Pin, heaving at the wheel like a man wrestling a goat. “Going somewhere much more interesting.”
I had a bad feeling. “Interesting. Where?”
“The sea,” said Pin, and laughed.
For more from the world of Jack, see these, in more or less this order: