Puddin Taim sighed happily, stretched, and scratched the back of his neck. He scratched and scratched and scratched, delighting in the sensation, delighting in the fact that nobody was around to stop him from doing it. Nynaeve was off somewhere, Moiraine was shouting at the Wise Ones, Debs and Janica were shouting at Moiraine, the Wise Ones were shouting at everybody … he scratched until he felt warm, thick liquid trickling down his spine, his teeth bared and low mutters escaping his stiff white lips.
Eianrod had been more or less abandoned when the Seanchan or the Shaido or some other people beginning with ‘s’ had come through, but Debs and Janica said there were signs of attacks elsewhere. The Maidens of the Spear wanted to go out in patrols and find out who was rendering the countryside uninhabited. Vamps wanted to tell people stories about the Maidens, sex stories, so people would be impressed. So far, Puddin had stopped him. Vamps hated Puddin a lot, and wanted to kill him with balefire. As soon as he found a way of hitting himself with balefire, he would.
He could not, however, rule out the possibility that he’d already found a way, several times, and then balefired himself to a point before he’d figured out how to balefire himself, thus no longer balefiring himself and forgetting how to balefire himself. This was clearly a problem that would only be solved with more balefire.
Even though it was a little town and the residents hadn’t been too choosy about packing up neatly when they left, Puddin had been given the finest quarters that could be found, as befit the Car’a’carn. Vamps thought they could probably do better, maybe including a little harem-room. When he’d suggested having a large group of Maidens in the merchant’s house with him, they had been very pleased, as was only natural. But then Puddin had ruined everything by suggesting a selection of representatives from all the septs and Clans, and Debs and Janica and Moiraine and the Wise Ones had agreed. The Maidens had been bitterly disappointed, because they all wanted him. Sexually. It was yet another annoyance to lay at the twitching, charred, balefired feet of Puddin God Damn Taim.
The guards and the attendant gai’shain respectively nodded and lowered their eyes when he approached. He nodded back, adding a little swagger to his steps. He even managed to ignore the seething, chittering mass of bugs that seemed to be crawling over one of the white-garbed Aielmen. In fact, it hadn’t seemed that there’d been an Aielman in the clothes at all. Just bugs.
Shrugging off the nasty sight, and raising his hand for another good scratch, Vamps pushed open the door to his rooms.
The merchant woman, Nancy Sidesaddle, was standing in the middle of the room, flabby and white and naked, evidently caught in the middle of admiring herself in the mirror. It occurred faintly to Puddin – very, very faintly – that Nancy was in fact a person he knew. Another girl named Shannon, perhaps. He wasn’t quite sure, and hadn’t been ever since he’d made the mistake of asking Contro to explain it. Maybe she’d been checking out her new body, taking advantage of her supposed privacy to see how all the various bits worked.
Puddin was mortified at walking in on a woman in such a state, but his time was over, and the Day of Muffin Vamps was dawning. He grinned in an exceedingly charming way, and advanced.
“Git the fuck away from me y’all!” Nancy screamed coyly. She backed away, trying to cover herself with her hands, but even though she had very large hands for a woman, the rest of her was larger still. Cutting to the left in a feint, she dodged and ducked right, skirted the room and made a dash for the far door. Vamps gave chase.
He caught her in the corridor, about ten feet from the main bedroom. She was standing, hands on knees, puffing and shaking her head.
“I’m too durn tubby,” she panted. “I can’t run no more.”
Muffin Vamps reached out for her, and coherent thought ended.
There was silence in the wagon as Valan Luca reviewed the notes he’d made in the course of the entirely disturbing interview. The notes were either an extremely complicated shorthand or – and Dr. Nick was beginning to suspect this was the case – Valan Luca was completely illiterate, and insane, and had just scribbled random doodles on the sheets of paper while the others were talking, and was now pretending they were notes and that he was reading them, and if anybody pointed this out, Valan Luca would probably try to bite them.
Coarshus shifted uncomfortably on the pillow he’d been offered while he sat on the floor. The wagon itself shifted uncomfortably on its axles as the weight of the four Ogier upset the delicate balance.
Valan Luca was a matrix of sexually-transmitted diseases, held together by hair wax and gold earrings. He twitched, and scratched his genitals, and occasionally spat into a soggy handkerchief and paused to examine the contents before resuming his twitch-and-scratch routine. He was one of the most disgusting things Dr. Nick had seen since entering the Wheel of Time universe, and considering that among his first experiences had been a mad gholam on a feeding frenzy, Valan Luca occupied some pretty lofty real estate.
“So,” the tragically raw and unedited man said eventually, “your group is heading in our direction, and want to travel undetected, and you want to be a part of my … menagerie.”
“Yes,” Dr. Nick confirmed, not at all sure this was the case but aware of the glowing, innocent earnestness of the four huge morons behind him.
“And your group consists of…” Luca pretended to peer at his notes, but discretely glanced over the top of them and did a stock-take of the applicants, “four Ogier, an Aielman, and a giant wolf,” he pondered for a moment, and added, “and three comatose women in a wagon.”
“Right,” Luca paused to scratch. “And you wanted to be a part of the menagerie because the Ogier heard the crowds and thought it sounded like fun, and came to watch, but then you decided it might be even better to join in as part of the act.”
Dr. Nick, having lost this particular battle with narrative drive, nodded. “Yes.”
“Yes,” Valan Luca pondered for a moment, then put his notes down and pulled out his handkerchief. “I think you – hrkk – might have – gbltooeyh – gotten the wrong idea – pt – about this menagerie,” he said, and spread the handkerchief open and put his eye up close to it. He twitched, almost inserting his nose into the vile clots. “We cater for a very … select audience.”
“Even so,” Frendli – not having picked up the agonisingly familiar vibe to Luca’s voice that Dr. Nick had recognised without any difficulty whatsoever after a lifetime of experience – leaned forward eagerly. “Even so, your audience cannot be so grand that a group of Ogier would not be of any interest to them,” his ears drooped. “That is to say, in my opinion they could not be, if I do say so myself. Ogier are well-received by nobles and common folk alike, and while I do not know your audience-”
“You certainly don’t,” Luca said, not unkindly. He was addled with syphilis and numerous other things that made the syphilis seem like the charming one, but he wasn’t so far gone as to offend a creature that was ten feet tall and could tie a knot in an iron bar. “We specialise in animal shows. We’re a menagerie, after all, not a circus.”
“Cyberwollf is a very intelligent wolf,” Wyse ventured, as Dr. Nick started to think furiously about how to get away.
“Yes, but we already have a dog show,” Luca pointed out. “Clarine has a wide selection of dogs, many of them as large as your wolf and far more savage-looking. That adds to the entertainment. We have Latelle with her bear, and we already have several miscellaneous acrobats to fill in. And of course, to steal the show, we have Cerandin and her giant boar-horses. If you think you can add to that, I’d be only too happy to take you on.”
“But four Ogier,” Wyse persisted, while Dr. Nick looked at the windows and discounted them as an escape route. “We can sing trees into wondrous shapes, and make the grass grow, and amaze everybody with-”
“Can you make the trees fuck?”
“And we can astonish the … what?”
“Well,” Valan Luca put down his notes and folded his arms, “we’ve got quite a show, and I doubt even an Ogier can better what a boar-horse can swing. No offence, I’m sure. But even if you all piled onto one of your comatose women, or did a sort of multi-act with all three of them, it might be a bit of an anticlimax. And I don’t think you could do it,” he glanced at Hoarni. “Except maybe you.”
Wyse, Frendli and Coarshus stared. Cyberwollf stared. Dr. Nick continued to plan an exit.
“Of course,” Luca went on consideringly, “a lot of people around these parts are veterans of the war, and there’s a lot of hard feeling about the Aiel even today. And with the rumours of the sand-chewers crawling back over the Spine of the World for another slapping, things are very tense right now. If the four of you are offering to take turns with the Aielman, and finish off with a humourously-shaped tree or the wolf or something … but no, that wouldn’t work.”
Dr. Nick’s backside unclenched and he stepped up his departure schedule.
“The wolf’s a female,” Luca concluded. “We could finish off with the bear instead, at least until you get into the flow of things, and then we could move on to the boar-horse. Do you think you could do that?”
“Wglm,” Dr. Nick said, every orifice in his body clenching simultaneously.
“Four nights on, three nights off, naturally.”
Hoarni leaned forward and raised a hand diligently.
“Are there any female boar-horses?” he asked.
“Sorry to waste your time,” Dr. Nick jumped to his feet and ducked through the gap offered as the Ogier leaned. “We’ll be on our way now. Didn’t realise this was the arrangement, we’ll just stick to being audience members, we’ll get out of your way now.”
He jumped out of the wagon, straightened his cadin’sor and took a deep, relieved breath of the admittedly unpleasant air. There were a lot of animals in the menagerie, and their excrement was probably the source of the most pleasant smells. He didn’t like to think about the rest of it.
Cybes joined him, a knowing look in her eyes.
“What? I’m not going to be a performer,” Dr. Nick snapped. “Not after the crap I put up with on that Sea Folk boat. And if the Ogier still want to see the show, well … okay, I can’t deny I’m just a little bit curious. Can’t you imagine?” he tried to spark Cybes’s enthusiasm. “An elephant show!”
“No, I can’t imagine it either,” Dr. Nick admitted. In the near distance, there was a loud trumpeting sound, an audible splash, and a cheer. “Hey, maybe they’re rehearsing.”
Cybes gripped his sleeve in her teeth.
“Aren’t you even the slightest bit curious as to how it, you know, works?”
Dr. Nick snatched his hand away while she was barking, and took a prudent couple of steps to one side. “Was it two barks for ‘yes’ or two for ‘no’?”
Cybes growled. The door of the wagon opened again and the Ogier began to awkwardly push themselves out, like removals men negotiating a grand piano out of a hatchback. The decorative little house-car rose significantly on its wheel-rims as the four giants disembarked. They stood around the Aielman and the wolf, ears down and faces miserable.
“Right,” Dr. Nick said before any of them could start bumblebeeing. “Now that our little trip to the circus is over, can we get on? Preferably before master Luca changes his mind about my pull with the local rednecks?”
“It sounded like such fun while we were listening to it from a distance…” Frendli mumbled, wringing the already-tortured material of his Illian shirt in his hands.
“Maybe, since the girls are already asleep, I could do one show and see how it goes down…” Hoarni added hopefully.
Dr. Nick would have put it to a vote, but he knew the three dependable Ogier would wait until Cybes voted before making up their minds to do the same thing as she was, and that would just leave him and Hoarni looking like perverts.
“Okay,” he said, trying to muster a little dignity. “Can we at least agree that the circus wasn’t as fun as it sounded from a distance, and that it’s not the sort of cover we need to get closer to Tar Valon without being noticed?” he looked around. “Or we can wait here,” he went on, “and talk it over a bit more.”
“That’s okay, master Riviera,” Wyse hastened. “We shall think of another disguise, I am sure.”
“We can wait if you want,” Dr. Nick insisted.
“There’s no need.”
“We’re almost out of drugged tea, and I’m sure the ladies will be fascinated by this whole escapade.”
To his satisfaction, that got everybody moving.
“Rosie Cotton, Rosie Cotton…”
Chucky, Mister C, Logain, Perrin and Berelain sat and watched Bran al’Vere go through his ritual performance, pretending he didn’t know every single female human being of marriagable age – and not a few of the quadrupeds – in the Two Rivers area, along with their addresses, and the location of their bedroom windows in relation to those of their parents.
“No … can’t say as I know any Rosie Cotton,” he concluded, even going so far as to pull down a large tome of village history and leaf through the final few crispy pages written before literacy had deserted the shores of Old Manetheren more or less permanently. “Nobody like you say, really.”
“Nobody at all?” Logain said, casting a concerned look at his master, who seemed to be fading away into a sweaty little white shadow.
“Well … of course … unless you mean…” al’Vere hesitated theatrically, and glanced at his wife. “There’s always Rosie Cauthon. That might be who you mean.”
Marin al’Vere twitched. Chucky wasn’t really paying attention to the transaction, being far more engrossed in a couple of the other members of the household at the time, and convinced that the whole thing was just more of Mister C’s ineffable silliness. But he still realised something shonky was going on.
“That’s her,” Mister C of 9 said, from his position reclining on Bran al’Vere’s most expensive couch with all his butchered limbs spread out and slightly elevated to ‘assist the healing process’. He was extremely conspicuous and obviously non-human, but nobody seemed to notice. That was because, Chucky reflected, they were all unwashed hillbillies. “That’s the one. We’ll want to kick things off as soon as possible.”
Bran and Perrin exchanged a glance.
“I can … perform the ceremony, my Lord Goldeneyes,” Bran said diffidently. Chucky waited for Perrin to protest about being called a Lord, but his relationship with Berelain had obviously stopped him from being such a whiny pain in the ass. For that matter, Berelain seemed a lot less annoying than he remembered as well. In fact, something about her reminded him alarmingly of Janica. They were in the al’Veres’ house, which had been transformed into the Lord Aybara’s manor until such time as an actual manor could be built, and Perrin didn’t even seem uncomfortable with that. He was still the big, gap-toothed simpleton Chucky had come to know and not-quite-hate back at the Gentlemen’s Club, but at the same time there was something about him that said, ‘if you call me a gap-toothed simpleton I shall pull off your scrotum and stamp on it while you scream and bleed’.
“But she’s-” Marin al’Vere started to protest, and was brought up short by her husband’s elbow in her midriff.
“Fetch her,” Mister C said, waving his protohand feebly.
There was another moment or two of consideration, and then Marin, lips pursed disapprovingly, headed out to fetch Rosie Cauthon with all possible haste.
“And let the Lord Luc know that there is to be a wedding,” Bran called after her, “and tell the Women’s Circle and the Council, and-”
“What do you take me for, Bran al’Vere?” Marin snapped. “Of course I shall tell everybody.”
“So,” Chucky said cheerfully, “Lord Luc is still here, I take it?”
“Yes,” Perrin replied, looking a bit uncomfortable. “He arrived a while ago, only shortly after we did ourselves, and he’s made himself quite useful. Him and that … friend … of his. Actually,” Lord Aybara hesitated, “he’s sort of acting as a gleeman. He’s not as good as you, though,” he added hastily. “He doesn’t know any stories about Yoru. Actually, he mostly only knows stories about Luc.”
“Ah,” Chucky nodded. “Sort of like Vamps. And then there’s this Slayer guy. You said he was a problem? In the Wolf Dream? I seem to recall you mentioning him.”
“Yes,” Perrin frowned. “What’s that got to do with anything?”
“Nothing. Nothing at all. Down, get down, get off. Yes, thank you, there’s a good … chap,” Chucky had learned the hard way, in the first couple of minutes of his stay in the house of the Lord Aybara of Mayene, that the wolves lolling around the fireplace did not take kindly to being called ‘dogs’, and took even less kindly to being called ‘doggies’.
But they did take kindly to tickle-tums, which was one thing all canines seemed to have in common, with the possible exception of Darkhounds. Chucky didn’t know anything about Darkhounds. He didn’t relish the idea of giving them tickle-tums, in any case. You’d have to be a certified nutbar to even try.
Now, he leaned over in his chair and began administering a tickle-tum to Runs While Pooing In The Oak Grove, or whatever the wolf’s stupid wolf name was. He was about to make some more remarks about Lord Luc, ask about this ‘friend’ of his, and perhaps link him with Slayer and from there to Sharky, just to get Mister C’s attention, when Marin al’Vere returned with Rosie Cauthon.
“Whoo,” Chucky murmured, eyeing the newcomer and then turning to his companions. “Now that’s a chairful,” he murmured under his breath, so only Mister C could hear.
Mister C favoured him with a dirty look from his sunglasses. “You’re one to talk.”
“Maybe I am,” Chucky allowed magnanimously, “but at least I’m only one to talk. Marrying her might count as polygamy.”
Rosie Cauthon was so fat, it seemed impossible that both she and Debs were currently existing on the same plane of reality and there was enough matter left to make planets and stuff. She also had a nose with nostrils that pointed straight outwards, eyes about a foot apart, webbed fingers, and only one tooth. In a world of disgusting inbred horrors, she was a masterpiece.
While Marin was fussing in the doorway, readying Rosie with a little bouquet of flowers (and Chucky had never been so relieved that his bouquet-catching days were over, at the thought of accidentally snagging that clump of weeds and being introduced to Rosie’s potential twin sister), Bran filled the wide-eyed spectators in on the colourful history of the Cauthon family.
Matrim Cauthon and his sisters were only one branch of the tree, it seemed. The other branch, a branch even the Emond’s Fielders referred to as The Ugly Stick, was one nobody really liked to talk about, and indeed kept well-hidden as much as possible. Rosie was the result of an early-teen union between Abel Cauthon and his own sister, a now-dead behemoth with tentacle hands and feet and the ostentatious name Ektherthyth Ekthtreme Cauthon. Abel hadn’t, and Rosie had been the result.
Logain was looking a little green, but at a nod from his Great Lord he stood up and readied himself for the fulfillment of merciless narrative causality. Mister C generously offered to be the best man, as long as he didn’t have to get up, and as long as the rings were small enough to fit in his tiny little foetus-hand. Since Rosie had webbed fingers, of course, and everybody was in a hurry to marry her off, there were in fact no rings required. Bran took position near the fireplace, and Chucky concluded Rubs Balls On Carpet’s tickle-tum in time to stand decorously while the Lady Berelain Aybara led the blushing – or perhaps vapour-locked – bride up the metaphorical aisle.
“Psst. Loggers,” Chucky hissed, and extended his hand. “Congratulations, and good luck.”
“Thank you. I – gah!”
Chucky snatched his hand back and shook it briskly. “Damn it, sorry, those fucking wolves, I … Loggers? Logain?”
Logain had pivoted on the ball of his right foot, spun, bobbed between Bran al’Vere and the fireplace and skirted around the wall to freedom. And he’d done it all at an appreciable fraction of the speed of light.
“What was that?” Mister C snapped. “Where did he go?”
“Lef’ at dur altar agin,” Rosie slurred with ponderous unhappiness. “Jus’ like las’ time, when Cenn Buie’s brother woke up.”
“This is all very irregular,” Marin al’Vere said disapprovingly. “What are we to do now?”
“Isn’t it the tradition-” Chucky started.
“Don’t you fucking dare.”
“…that if the groom runs off-”
“…the best man goes through with the marriage?”
“Oh, you cunt.”
The Aybaras, the al’Veres and Rosie all beamed. So, too, did the lounging wolves.
“Come on, Mister C,” Chucky prodded his reclining friend. “Take one for the sake of the storyline.”
In an amusing twist, the Lady Morelin Sedai was nowhere near Chaggabaggawoggaland at the time. She was, in fact, relaxing in the nice little apartment she and Shannon had rented in Manhattan, with the aim in mind of being even closer to the action for the next time Chucky came to New York, and still manage to skeeze out of meeting him.
It was nice and quiet and peaceful in the apartment without the chubby, sulky presence of Shannon around, glooming and sighing about how nobody read his posts. Since the two of them had gotten together, they had achieved the mathematically impossible and posted less than zero times, as if the combined mass of their lack of input had made a black hole in Usenet and actually sucked up some of their messages. Since the sucked-up messages were Shannon’s unfinished stories and nobody had read them anyway, the whole amazing event hadn’t been noticed. Which was a shame, because it would have made Stephen Hawking jump out of his wheelchair.
Even considering this, Shannon had managed to complain about how boring the group had been, and how little they appreciated his efforts. He’d complained about this a lot, verbally rather than in text, where his complaints might have actually registered as posts to the newsgroup, and finally Morelin had gotten annoyed with it and volunteered him for the Wheel of Time Experience, which he had won, and that got him out of her hair for a while.
She hoped he was having fun, wherever he was.
Morelin was enjoying the solitude in a way most of her rabid followers in the cyber-slut world would have found very disappointing – by sitting on the couch, reading a paperback. And she was even wearing pants. The only sound was a ticking clock on the wall, and the endless drone of traffic outside.
And then a polite cough.
Morelin looked up. An extremely skinny, extremely under-dressed man stood in the doorway, looking embarrassed.
“Afternoon, miss,” Cooper Two said, hands on hips. “Your door was locked. Can you come and open the deadbolts for me, so I can get my clothes?”
The reception for the wedding of Mister See of Mayene and Rosie Cauthon was a colourful and noisy affair. The people of Emond’s Field were celebrating the injection of new liquid into a gene pool that had long since relinquished all claim to the lofty title of ‘pool’ and was now struggling valiantly to maintain ‘eyebath’ status. Mister C was mourning the fact that the aforementioned liquid was his liquid, and that he was too limb-reduced to make any sort of getaway unassisted by Chucky. And Chucky was in no fit state to offer assistance, celebrating as he was the greatest and most amusing gag he had played on Mister C since the fabulous Coke? No, This Is Pepsi gag of 1998.
“So,” Chucky said expansively, leaning back against the bar of the Winespring Inn, fluttering his freshly-washed cloak and securing his bagpipes over his shoulder, “what are you going to do? The ol’ Dave Lister ‘I just want to slip into something more comfortable’ trick? The Edmund Blackadder ‘I’m afraid the bride is not a virgin’ trick – which incidentally you can count me right out of in the help department? Or will you go for your classic?” Chucky grinned nastily. “The Mister C of 9 ‘I should have told you before, but I’m from Queensland’ trick?”
Mister C of 9 slurped angrily on his moonshine. Perrin had taken pity on him, and crafted a hat with a whisky bottle on the side, and a piece of hollow reed bent around from the neck of the bottle to the halfman’s mouth, so he could drink unaided. Mister C was doing so, slugging down neat hooch as if it was water. He was strapped to the bar so he could stand there without feet, but even if he’d had feet it was doubtful if his verticality would have been guaranteed by that time.
“Ung of ese ays, Hatgoy,” he gritted, “ung of ese ays. Oo ill reap the irl-ind.”
“I’m sure I will,” Chucky agreed happily. “In the meantime, get used to talking through that straw. You’re going to need a lot of whiskey.”
Behind the gleeman a huge man spun around, sloshed his giant clay pot of beer foam over Chucky’s cloak and bagpipes, roared with laughter, and slapped him on the back, causing him to spill his own dreadful booze onto his favourite Guinness shirt. “Blood and ashes, gleeman! Can’t hold your drink!” he laughed.
“Hick,” Chucky muttered, and returned to his anticipatory perusal of the wedding feast menu. It was amazing what these farmwives could rustle up at a moment’s notice. He wondered how much of the meat was trolloc.
“You called me a hick.”
Chucky shuffled his feet, aware that he was without backup. Normally the old ‘nothing’ trick worked. The hick would believe nothing had actually been said, and move on. This hick, however, was proving very persistent. And some of the other nearby hicks were pausing in their conversations and looking around.
“I wasn’t talking to you.”
“Oh? Who were you calling a hick, then? Him? Or him? Or his wife?”
“Oh for fuck’s…” Chucky sighed. “I didn’t say hick. I said…”
“You said hick. I heard you.”
“But not to you.”
“To … him. Him over there. It’s an old joke, he doesn’t mind.”
Even the old ‘point vaguely over there’ trick didn’t work. “Who, specifically? What was his name?”
“His name? Oh, his name was, uh, his name…” Chucky glanced at Mister C for support, then rolled his eyes at his own stupidity. Mister C was looking on eyelessly, handlessly and footlessly, with a big grin. “Um, his name is … Billy … Joe-Bob … al’Peterson,” he ad-libbed desperately, and looked down at the menu in his hand. “Meatballs,” he added, then topped the whole thing off with, “Smith.”
The whole room fell silent, and there was a frightening sound of chairs scraping back and people ducking down behind tables. A murmuring, whispering, Western-salooney sort of noise filtered through the silence.
“He called Billy Joe-Bob al’Peterson Meatballs Smith a hick!”
“He wouldn’t dare!”
“Not Billy Joe-Bob al’Peterson Meatballs Smith!”
A wide aisle opened up between Chucky and the Winespring Inn’s front door which, he noticed all of a sudden, had been widened and made a good deal taller since the last time he and Mister C had raised the roof with their tale of Druss. Then the widened, heightened doorway was eclipsed by a giant, craggy shape.
“I’se Billy Joe-Bob al’Pederzen Meadballz Smith,” the impossible looming shadow said, its voice as slow and inevitable as death by chess. “Whadz going on?”