Day 24. 64 pages, 30,219 words. Vappu.
Gabiscus the Knurled led them up through a winding series of passages and stairways lit only with occasional patches of phosphorescent lichen. By the time they arrived in the Vorontessi smuggler’s main living area, their eyes had adjusted to the deep gloom.
“Do you want to wash?” Gabiscus asked in her habitual whisper. “You smell of Centaur.”
“I-” Çrom caught Lotus’s glare and optimistically interpreted it as don’t leave me alone in here. “Thank you,” he changed tack, “perhaps later.”
“Are you familiar with Centaur, Gabiscus?” Lotus asked politely. “Up until recently I had thought they were many centuries extinct.”
“Ah, not extinct,” Gabiscus breathed. “Gone, yes, gone to the stars. But some remained. The lonely poets and the solitary warriors, and some who had something of both in them. They walked the ice above and sang, sang, sang under the cold shining blanket of the ever night.”
“They lived down here?” Lotus asked, looking around at the featureless grey walls. Not entirely featureless, Çrom noticed – some stark Vorontessi artwork etched the stone, and there were some simple furnishings and appliances. “On Cursèd?”
“Yes, beautiful Black Lotus,” Gabiscus murmured. “They ran, and laughed, and fought with the Ogres. Such joy they had. Such joy.”
“What happened to them?” Lotus asked.
Gabiscus tilted her great scarred head, for a moment looking very much like Lotus herself despite all their anatomical differences.
“They fought with the Ogres,” she repeated, just slowly enough for it to be a little bit offensive.
“She’s joking,” Çrom told her. “The Ogres are territorial but they’re not that destructive. You need an attention-span to systematically eradicate a species,” he crossed the room and sat in a narrow, uncomfortable Vorontessi-style chair. His feet swung. “A lot of them got killed, sure, but the rest … well, they hung around longer than the Earthly Centaur, but in dribs and drabs they sort of vanished. Some went to the stars, some went into the Castle, and others just … got old and died. It was mostly the calling of the solitary Centaur, Cursèd.”
“Do you want food?” Gabiscus asked, and swept silently away to a storage unit that was practically impossible to distinguish from the wall. It even had a patch of softly-glowing lichen spread across it and overlapping to either side. “You must hunger for more than chuda wraps.”
“Do you have anything that’s not going to give me a sugar headache?” Çrom asked pointedly.
“I have many dishes prepared with ambrosia.”
“That’s what I thought,” Çrom smiled. “Thanks, Gabby, but I’m fine. You go ahead if you want,” he added to Lotus. “Heaven-folk food is – well, you know how it is. It’s perfectly good, if you like sweets.”
“Thank you, Gabiscus,” Lotus said. “I will eat, if it is not too much trouble. Çrom laid on a sumptuous feast of expired Spazzlers and autochef patties, before managing to find chudas somewhere.”
“I will fix you lenóc and baratny,” Gabiscus promised breathily, and began to prepare dishes and foodstuffs with disturbing arachnidity.
“Mmm, good choice,” Çrom said in a misguided attempt to ease Lotus’s suspicions. “She makes good lemon and bat milk.”
“That’s not remotely what she said,” Lotus said with a hint of a smile. “She said lenóc and baratny.”
“Ah, well her lenóc and baratny is alright,” Çrom said. “But it’s not a patch on her lemon and bat milk.”
“Has he always been like this?” Lotus raised her voice to address Gabiscus.
The Vorontessi paused in her preparations and turned her huge, mournful eyes on the two humans.
“Yes,” she said, “always. Of course.”
Lotus seemed to realise she’d opened a door onto a set of stairs leading down into a dark, dark place, but – being Lotus – did not seem in the least put off by this. “How did you two meet?”
“Çrom Skelliglyph was a friend to my grandfather, in the years that I was but a child,” Gabiscus replied, and resumed preparing the lenóc and baratny. “That was when I met him. As for how, it was on the occasion he marched on the Darking forces at the Battle of the Foothold.”
“When … Çrom marched, or your grandfather?” Lotus asked.
“They both,” Gabiscus said.
“I’ve never heard of the Battle of the Foothold,” Lotus turned to Çrom.
Çrom shrugged. “Not much to tell,” he said. “It wasn’t even really a battle, historically speaking. Some Darking lunatics came up the stairs and tried to establish a – well, a foothold in #1. The Four Realms sent two Angels and the inmates of half a dozen maximum security prisons to kick them back down the stairs. Gabby’s grandad and I weren’t the Angels.”
“Beautiful Çrom saved my grandfather’s life, and he Çrom’s, many times over,” Gabiscus declared proudly.
“To be brutally honest I still died three times in that fucking fight,” Çrom admitted, “but at the end of the day, Kozark and I were counted among the casualties and we neither of us went back to prison. He moved here, to the jewel of Material Depot #3 where his family had already taken up residence and where no inconvenient questions were asked. And the rest is history.”
“But not really history,” Gabiscus whispered, “historically speaking.”
“Exactly,” Çrom grinned.
After enjoying a rich meal of lenóc and baratny – Çrom weakened and allowed himself a small plate of the tiny round cakes bobbing in warm ambrosia sauce – and speaking of careful trivialities for a couple of hours, Gabiscus declared that they must be tired or that they would at the very least wish for privacy, and that they would set out for the edge in another ten hours’ time when the next safe window would be open. Çrom, who hadn’t really slept during the descent and was now finding it hard not to nod off in the warmth of the Vorontessi’s habitat despite how uncomfortable her chairs were, agreed readily. Lotus, even though she had slept for a few hours on Clem’s couch, also agreed – but she seemed subdued as they left the living area.
“Well,” Çrom said brightly after Gabiscus had shown them to a narrow chamber hung with pale leather drapes and floored with cinnamon-scented pillows and blankets, “this is nice, isn’t it? Cosy? But not as cosy as the rest of the place, did you notice, I think it’s a bit cooler, not quite so stuffy…”
“Mm hm,” Lotus said dubiously.
“What’s the matter?”
“Just tell me this,” Lotus responded coolly. “Is Gabby going to be watching, or recording footage of the two of us having sex in here, in accordance with her not-by-any-means-humanitry admiration of the classical and beautiful humanoid form?” she held up a hand as Çrom opened his mouth to instigate a feeble objection. “And as a follow-up question, will she consider it adequate or indeed mandatory payment for her undisclosed but indispensable aid in smuggling us off the edge of Cursèd?”
“Maybe,” Çrom replied positively.
“Alright then,” she said. “I guess you’d better dust off some of your more impressive moves.”
“Right,” Çrom grinned, then frowned. “Hold on, what does that mean?”