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Imperfect Copy

A Novel by David Carroll


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Short Stories

Tabula Rasa

Imperfect Copy: Chapter 4

by David Carroll, 1994

There are days you live which you promise yourself you will always remember. This was to be the second such day of Erico Sanktemo's life, though it was early and the day's potential was still mostly hidden in the minds of a few key players.

The first such day occurred three years ago, in the Autumn. This far south the temperature doesn't change much, and it is always cold, but the Light changes in Autumn, grows softer perhaps, and Erico remembered the Light through the doorway as Sofeo la Sor[c]istino, the Enchantress, walked into the Hot Spot one afternoon and asked for a room. His father had bowed, as he always did, and said certainly Miss, and that was how Sofeo la Sor[c]istino came to stay in Malvarmo for a week and a half.

She was an old woman, Erico remembered, though everyone over twenty was old and everyone over forty was ancient in Erico's eyes. But she smiled a lot, and as Erico sighed and jumped down from the counter to show the Lady her room she reached out and grabbed the two small bones the boy had been playing with mindlessly. She smiled and the bones danced along her fingers and jumped from hand to hand and were tossed in the air and lost, only to reappear seconds later, moving faster than before. And then the bones were still, held one in each hand, vertical, several centimetres apart. And the Lady's hands moved, crossed and turned and danced like the bones had danced, the fingers moving gracefully and without apparent pattern. But the bones stood still, hung in the air and caught in one hand then the next, they appeared separate from all around them, immovable in the storm. She smiled, and Erico showed her to her room, and that was how he knew she was an Enchantress, more than the red and black pattern on her sleeves or the gentle lilt of the Forest in her voice would have told him.

She had stayed for a week and a half, and every night she was in the main room of the tavern juggling little balls dyed red and green, and balancing knives one on another and she made the patron's own belts act like snakes and their kerchiefs hawks to hunt the snakes with, and she made the wooden goblets vanish and reappear in every corner of the room. She told tales as she wove, shocking tales of murdered men and tortured damsels, all said in the same gentle lilt. On the third night she missed a beat in her rhythm and six wooden plates ended up under six wooden tables, and while everyone laughed she laughed with them, and broke into a tale of such lewdity that the women blushed, and the children were sent from the room, and Erico himself had to describe the subsequent events to them, as he had watched (from up the stairs) Sofeo la Sor[c]istino get into a drinking contest which she lost spectacularly.

On the tenth night of her stay there was a play on in Malvarmo and she had agreed to perform her show before the main event. Erico, though only eleven, helped her carry some of the equipment to the little theatre where, with the extra room she was lacking in the tavern, she danced, twisting her whole body as she had twisted her hands, and Erico helped her carry the equipment back to the tavern afterwards, while the rest of the town fidgeted through and clapped politely at the local talent.

Erico didn't go back to the theatre, as he told her he would, for he discovered he was too tired. And he didn't go to sleep, as he hoped, because he was too excited by Sofeo's smile as she thanked him for his help.

So when, an hour later, Sofeo had come back into the tavern holding the symbols of Malvarmo's office, intricately carved mahogany maces, inlaid with ivory and delicately shaded resin, he saw her, and she saw him.

She wasn't smiling, and there was no hint of the Forest when she spoke. Her accent was harsher, more North than East, though her voice was still soft. 'Hey, boy. Come here,' was all she said. And he did, of course he did, why shouldn't he, though he saw the open bag with his parent's prize possessions, and he saw the mace in her hands and knew what they meant. He came and she hit him, and the next thing he knew was waking up in bed the next morning with a headache and the village in an uproar.

The day Sofeo la Sor[c]istino came through the door framed in Autumn Light and made the bones dance before his eyes was a day Erico swore always to remember. But it was the moment when all he could do was stand there and watch the back of her hand swing towards his face, with no grace or rhythm or reason, that he never forgot.

* * *

The women looked up from the strange man and at each other, both staring. Elizabeto didn't recognise either of the two, and didn't understand what was going on, but she knew that with the man's delirium and nonsensical raving it would be dangerous to leave him lying here in the wet grass. The strange girl was another matter, and Elizabeto wondered if she was suffering the same malady that affected her friend. But her eyes were sane and she showed no physical signs of illness.

'We have to get him to the doctor's,' Elizabeto ventured. 'We can't leave him here.'

The girl sighed, looking frustrated. 'Aj kant andestond [u],' she said, meaningless syllables. Elizabeto looked at her closely and shook her head. She pointed at the man lying in the grass, and back towards the Lenkso house, and the girl nodded, even smiled a little. And then she seemed to have an idea. 'Andreo,' she said. 'Get Andreo Akvisto.' The closest translation Elizabeto could make of the word "get" was the poor area of a large town, but the name was clear enough and she nodded, repeating it. She was about to hurry towards the Akvisto farm when she suddenly wondered why she was about to hurry away. What was it about these two that made her forget her duty to her father and want to help them in their obvious need? She didn't know, and suddenly needed to know, very badly.

And looking round, she found a solution, if not an answer. 'You, uh, Erico,' she said, calling to the boy who had just entered the square from the south, back from the River. He looked up, and hurried over, looking uncomfortably at the strange group. Elizabeto noticed there were others in the square, others who could help, but they hurried past, or stared, and now she had realised their presence properly, she didn't think she could bring herself to ask them for assistance.

'Uh', she said, faltering again, looking down at the boy who wouldn't meet her gaze, but instead looked at the two newcomers. 'Could you fetch Andreo, Petro's boy, to the Lenkso's. These two are in, uh, trouble and need him quickly.'

The boy spent another couple of seconds looking, then ran out of the square. Elizabeto watched him go, her mind at ease again, and the two half carried, half dragged the man to the doctor's house. The two boys joined them several minutes later, puffing with the run, and when Evo Lenkso had finished examining the man, finally declaring that rest was all that was needed, they all sat down and tried to work out what was going on.

* * *

The fair-haired man sat and rested in the sunlight.

He was a little tired, and he carefully stretched his legs out once each (and so that the shadow would not show) and he let himself relax (though his breathing remained totally silent, through his nose in slow and deliberate rhythm). It was the first time he felt truly at ease in three weeks, ever since the girl had slipped past him in stolen clothes and then on a stolen horse. He had underestimated her, he knew, had even admired the move for its sheer audacity until the frustration of two weeks without a clue, let alone a trail, had worn such feelings thin.

And now he let his mind wander, his thoughts turning to old friends and drinking partners, and he found himself thinking of the little theatres in [C]inujo, the ones away from the lit and fire-paved sections of town, where the grog and pungent torches never quite masked the smell of stale urine and vomit, and where it didn't matter if the girls on stage knew their lines or not. Good times, he thought. Not wandering round the bloody countryside after some spoiled brat who was too tight to do what daddy wanted.

The fair-haired man's own father had died a long time ago, but he still could remember the first and last lecture he had been given, perched on his father's knee, on the subject of becoming a man. A lecture that had petered out as his father's voice got weaker, and as his eyes grew more distant, and as the blood from the hole in his belly formed sticky puddles on the floor.

He sighed, though only mentally, and moved his thoughts back to the theatres and the girls. He was thinking of theatres, of course, because he was sitting in one -- little, certainly, but open to the air and, he smiled, undoubtedly a forum for serious literature.

He sat there, in the Light, on the wooden planks which passed as seating, and for the first time in three weeks he was happy, because he had won.

It was, as he had thought to himself, all too easy, and [G]esemio Tanio sat cross-legged, not half a metre below him, knife in hand, tense, alert, and completely unaware of his presence. He could reach down and snap her neck. He could knock her out before she had time to move and get her on a horse and get out of this pile of sticks that called itself a village. He could do what he wanted with her, and that was just the way he liked it.

But he didn't do any of those things because he had spent three weeks searching for this bitch and this pile of sticks was starting to get on his nerves, and for that he reckoned he was entitled to a little bit of fun. A small drawing out of the satisfaction gained in taking this prize.

He was not a foolish man, and he had no intention of letting her slip through his fingers again. But she was a rank amateur at this sort of thing, and despite her lucky break and her obviously serious conviction in remaining free (and her daddy would be shocked that she had even stolen some clothes, let alone any more unladylike behaviour) it was simply no competition. There was nowhere else for her to go, and her brief flight would finish very, very soon.

He stayed above her for perhaps an hour and then, mindful that there was a performance on tonight and that it would not be of great help to be discovered by anyone coming to continue the preparations, he left.

Every movement he made was deliberate, graceful and perfectly silent. He kept his weight on the section of each plank resting on the supporting crossbeams so that no creaking of wood would betray him. The hazy area of shadow that surrounded him touched no surface that the girl would see. When he reached the edge of the seating he sprang to the ground and, if she had turned her head, was in the open for perhaps two seconds before reaching the cover of adjoining buildings and away.

[G]esemio scratched in the cold dirt with her fake knife and very slowly hummed a tune that reminded her of home.

* * *

The kid clambered up the high wooden fence and perched precariously on top, looking round to see if anyone was about. Not that it made any difference, thought Ace, wincing. She knew he probably hadn't had the chance to practise up on his espionage skills, but actually sitting on a wall and staying there had to be about the quickest way to be spotted she could think of. Almost instinctively she had assumed a crouch in preparation to run at the first shout or bark, but a whispered 'Jes' from above her seemed to indicate they would be given at least another chance. She relaxed slightly. It was, after all, only a boat-yard.

Erico had already disappeared over the side. Preying she wouldn't land on him she jumped up to catch at the top of the seven foot high posts, swung her legs over flat and landed in a crouching position flush to the wall, already looking round for danger.

Nothing moved, and she noticed in relief they were actually in an a thin alley-way. On one side was the compound's exterior, on the other was the side of a squat building, probably the warehouse Andreo had mentioned in his brief description of this place. Erico had moved someway down the alley and she nodded briefly to him, indicating they should keep moving.

She ran silently to the corner of the building, and took a quick glance at the compound proper, the enclosed area where the barges that conveyed goods both to and from the rest of Harriso docked. Ignoring the boy's quizzical looks she crouched down in the alley again, thinking over the plan. Not that there really was one but, she figured, what the hell.

One horse, two men and three dogs was the problem, in increasing order of threat. The horse was just standing there, looking horse-like, the men seemed to be transferring wooden crates from one pile to another, the second being on solid ground, and her quick impression was of effort. The boxes were heavy, and they were giving them their full attention. But the dogs were just walking round lazily, watching nothing in particular, probably eager for a chance at a burglar burger. Big dogs, too. Physically speaking, she knew she could fight one of them off, maybe two if they hadn't been properly trained, but not all three. Irrelevant of course, because simple discovery would ruin what chance they had anyway.

While the Doctor was physically incapacitated, she could not afford any open hostility from the village.

The good news was that if the area was laid out as it looked likely, the other end of this alleyway should curve around and lead directly to the river on which their quarry floated. She looked up to start moving in that direction when she noticed Erico was already down there peering round the opposite corner. He turned and gave a thumbs up sign, and she found herself returning the gesture. She shook her head, reckoning his seemingly permanent grin must be infectious, and joined him.

And sure enough, her calculations had been right. The alley-way continued round the corner, and she could see the barges moored to the bank. There were only three problems. One: There was perhaps thirty feet of clear space between the entrance and the river, giving anyone plenty of time of see them if they crossed it. Two: The way the boats were tied made her realise that the current was going in the wrong direction. If they released one it would float right through the middle of the shipping dock, also in plain sight of everyone. And thirdly: they were too bloody big. Even unladen they would be far too heavy to control or conceal without some major assistance they just didn't have. Great, thought the girl. I wonder if Long John Silver started out like this?

Oh well, if you can't go forwards and you can't go backwards... 'Plan C', she whispered to Erico, though she knew he wouldn't understand her. But she pointed up to the roof of the warehouse and he nodded.

* * *

Ace had been a little unsure about mentioning acts of piracy to the little congregation that had sat round in the same room she had woken up in this morning. She didn't know the two new-comers, and she didn't even know Andreo when it came down to it. But with the Doctor still unconscious and with her own lack of both local terrain and culture she realised she didn't have much choice.

She sat on the bed the Doctor had been placed in for the second time, able to offer no better help then remaining close to the Time Lord and murmuring the occasional soft word when the conversation became unintelligible. And over the warm lunch provided by Mrs Lenkso, Andreo had introduced everybody, and Ace had actually made a conscious effort to remember who was who.

The kid with whom she currently shared a roof-top was called Eritso, though Andreo claimed it was spelt with a "C", which just went to show that the Doctor hadn't been feeling too well when he said the language these people spoke was a simple one. She guessed he was about thirteen, and he apparently worked in the inn they had already visited, indeed she recognised the family resemblance with the man who had served her. His grin made him look a bit simple, but he had listened attentively enough, and seemed to know when to be quiet, something Ace appreciated.

The second unfamiliar face was the woman who had helped her get the Doctor back to the surgery, and that Ace also appreciated. Her name was Elizabeto, a seemingly quiet woman about her own age who sat near the door and seemed to spend most of the time looking out of it, preoccupied. She had the dark hair that everyone round here seemed to share, in her case a thick mane hanging down to her shoulders, an almost pretty face and a couple of inches of height over Ace. And that was all she knew because Andreo had explained little about her; if anything he seemed to be avoiding the subject. Even Erico seemed to turn his gaze everywhere but towards this woman, and the look Mrs Lenkso had given her when they had first arrived was something like pity. Soft words had been said and apparently ignored. Ace herself had smiled, and her translated thanks for the assistance had met with a small smile in return, but that was about it. It didn't worry Ace any, but she wondered if the woman had somewhere she ought to be and perhaps would be more help if she went there. That message she did not ask Andreo to convey.

But it certainly wasn't the strangest group of people Ace had ever recruited as friends. When she told them that she wanted to get to the other side of the River Styx, first Andreo then the others looked at her as if she were mad, as if they didn't quite understand what she had meant. But she persisted, and their interest had been caught, and they started making plans.

* * *

'I don't think you really want to see him,' said Timoteo, perhaps trying to sound kind, sounding bored.

Elizabeto didn't argue, she just looked at him steadily, and after a while he sighed and got out of his chair. Haven't you got anything better to do, he thought sourly. Because I know I do. But he didn't say anything, just grabbed a torch and two of the heavy wool and leather coats from the wall. She took one silently and followed him out into the chill afternoon air.

In the middle of this compound, which had a similar layout to the boat-yard, but smaller and without a river making up the fourth side, there lay a wooden trapdoor, about two meters square. Straddling the trapdoor was a large framework supporting a pulley and rope arrangement, one end of the rope disappearing into a smaller hole on the side. Elizabeto had never been here before, she never had had a reason to, but she knew the rope had a counter-weight attached to one end and was used as a lift to carry the food and... other things stored below.

Timoteo lit his torch in the small fire to one side of the compound, giving it to her to hold as he opened the heavy trapdoor. Taking back the torch he disappeared downwards, expertly navigating the ladder with his one free hand.

With a little trepidation, Elizabeto followed, trying to move quickly so she didn't get too far from the flickering flame.

The ladder was perhaps nine metres deep, and there was a clear space at the bottom, where Timoteo stood, looking impatient. He opened one of the two doors and disappeared behind it, taking the light with him. Elizabeto paused to wrap her coat more tightly around her self, and followed.

She didn't know what the others were doing, the ones who had been at the small meeting a little earlier, all gathered round the strange man called la Kuracisto. The boy Andreo had explained who the two people were, or at least that they had come out of the River, and wanted to recross it.

Elizabeto had been fascinated, for a while. Most of the men she knew seemed to assume she lived in a vacuum, separate from everything else, and she had heard three different versions of the story last night. She listened intently each time, of course, it was part of her job. But it was still a shock, a bit awe-inspiring even, to meet these two, and in the circumstances that she did.

But sometime into the meeting she had realised that she was not a part of what was going on. The plans did not include her. She had got up and stood at the door, looking inwards again for a couple of seconds. Then she slipped outside, and she didn't think anyone had noticed.

In front of her Timoteo stopped, opened another door, distracting her thoughts. She noticed that it was now a lot colder than it had been, even at the bottom of the ladder. He handed her the torch and bade her enter the room, whispering directions. And she was grateful, and somewhat surprised, to discover that he didn't follow her. Stayed where he was in the darkness.

She followed his instructions, and found her father.

It didn't look like her father, the thin black figure, the scorched pulp of the face showing the outline of the skull, they could have been inside anybody. She looked at it for a while, then knelt by the body in its thin wooden box. She thanked it for the presents her father had given her, the little statues he had carved years before. Thanked it for the times her father had held her in his arms and sang soft words, or spun her round till she laughed. That was important.

But it didn't have to be her father in that box, so she didn't have to mention the beatings, the arguments, the silences, the things he had done to her when she had been too young to run from him. All of that had been burnt away.

She said goodbye, and stood up, and rejoined Timoteo.

She tried to say something, but her mouth wouldn't work properly. So she waited till they were back in his room.

'Thank you', she said. 'It's over, all of it. Thank you.'

He nodded, and he put his feet up on the table and went back to sleep.

* * *

Looking at the framework less than an hour after she had seen it for the first time, it had been Elizabeto and not Timoteo who noticed that a small loop of rubber had been removed from the apparatus while they were down below. Rubber was expensive and rare this far south, only used for essential purposes. Elizabeto could see that the missing loop had something to do with evening the speed of the pulley, and then didn't give it any more thought. She had other things on her mind.

The loop was returned the next day, and Timoteo never knew it was gone.

* * *

The warehouse roof was flat and strong, and Ace and Erico had no problem silently crossing it to peer over at the two men, still unloading the boat. Ace noticed with dismay that they still had at least an hour or two's work left. She didn't know what would happen after that, but Andreo had told her that proper guards were posted overnight, though he didn't know when they would arrive. If they were going to salvage something out of this operation they would have to do it as soon as possible.

She wished the boy was with them, to give her a better idea of all the variables she could only guess at. But he had a play on tonight, and he apologised but said it must be prepared for. It was Ace and Erico's job to make ready the groundwork for the "escape", as she herself had called it, and he would join her after the performance. She didn't mind, all that much, and it gave the Doctor a chance to recover (of course he would recover, it was one of the things he did). But she still wished she could talk to someone who knew this village better than she did.

Signalling to the boy she did have, she ran back and looked into one of the holes in the roof that led down into the interior.

It was, from what she had seen from the few other buildings she had visited, there to let the smoke out from the interior lighting, though there was no sign of a lit fire below them. It was also too small for her to fit through, and for the first time Ace was glad that Erico had volunteered to come along. She smiled at him and he grinned back at her, knowing what to do.

Though she hated to do so, Ace made the assumption that with no lights on, there was nobody home. She unwound the thin length of rope from her waist, and lowered the boy through.

She looked down, seeing and hearing nothing, and realising she was blocking one of the few inlets of natural light into the room, went back to peer at the workers.

The river they were working on was not the River, of course. Andreo had said it was just one of the larger streams that flowed out of the North. It didn't even join the River directly, but fed into the huge flat reservoir that the local rice paddies were a part of. That was what she had been told. Looking down at the actual thing she made a couple of other guesses. The barges must be able to travel both up and down the watercourse, and they had no sails and obviously no motors.

Ace looked at the horse and knew the heavy barges must be physically towed against the slow-moving current, and now she knew what to look for she could make out on each barge the long and complicated harness used for the purpose. But each harness looked like it was built for four, and the horse in the compound looked too lithe to be used to such labour.

Ace gave up caring about the intricacies, she could see nothing to help her. She moved back to the smoke-hole and looked down, wondering how the kid was going. He stood in the square patch of light, and looked up at her and made a thumbs up sign. She nodded, and then she suddenly knew what to do. She held up her hand, palm outwards, hoping that he would take it as a sign to wait. He nodded, and stepped back into darkness.

Ace went back over to the side of the building and took the sling-shot from one of her pockets. She hadn't been able to find any proper weapons for this venture -- and while there was a place to buy such things in the village, Andreo had said that would cause more questions than they needed. She had considered a little bit of shop-lifting, but decided simplicity was better. Andreo had managed to fetch for her a small loop of rubber as well as the rope. She had found a suitable length of wood from the stockpile of firewood at their hosts' own house, and the sling-shot had been made. Stones had been another matter, and Ace had been amazed to discovered there weren't any. They had no idea what she meant when she tried to describe rocks and pebbles. Finally, Erico was able to run off and collect small knuckles of bone that Ace judged suitable for use. It was not the best she had ever used, by any means, and it felt like something cobbled together by the A-Team, but with a quarter of an hour's practise she had acquired the feel of the weapon, knew its speed and the limits of its accuracy.

And she was, after all, a good shot.

She waited a couple of minutes for the opportunity to arise, lying flat on the roof, hoping nobody would look up and notice her, hoping the dogs wouldn't smell her.

But neither happened, and one of the dogs wandered close enough to the horse, and she brought her arms up and fired.

The small piece of bone hit the horse on the broad section of one of its back legs, and the horse whinnied in sudden pain and kicked its leg backwards, trying to ward off the irritation. It didn't hit the dog, Ace couldn't hope for that, but the kick was close enough to spook it, and it started barking, loudly, followed by its two friends.

The horse, only young, the steed of the trader who owned the barge and was helping to unpack it, panicked, bolted, and made straight for the nearby gate in the fence which was, of course, wide open.

The dogs followed, still barking, the men swore, running to catch up with the animals, and Ace felt like screaming with joy. It was, she reckoned, the first good thing to happen today.

Still silent, she jumped from the roof and went to bang on the closed doors of the warehouse. She had a bad moment when she thought they might have been locked, but they opened from the inside and Erico popped his head out. With a gesture he called Ace in to show her what he had found, an actual boat. Similar to a row-boat but thinner and flatter, and with nearby oars, and stuck in a corner where from she hoped no-one would notice its absence for a while. Together they dragged the boat out of the warehouse and then to the river and, both getting very wet, managed to push it upstream around the perimeter wall.

They spent five minutes getting it further away from both the village and the boat-yard, then returned so that Ace could lower Erico back into the warehouse to reset the lock from the inside.

They didn't make a single sound during the operation, communicated the few times they needed with a few brief hand-signals. The horse and the men and the dogs were returning through the main gate while they left.

Erico and she returned to the boat, spent an hour and a half moving it around the village and near the banks of the River Styx (she did most of the pushing, but she wasn't going to begrudge the kid that), then returned, panting and sweating and happy to find the Doctor awake, and dinner on the table.

* * *

'What do you mean, he's still not here?'

Sando looked uncomfortable under Andreo's stare. 'Well, he isn't.' We've got people out looking for him, and he hasn't been home. As I said, last I saw him he had stayed behind whilst I went to tell you about... you know.'

Andreo did. [G]esemio hadn't known anything about Natalo's disappearance, had said the boy had left soon after Sando himself. She was still staying close to the theatre for safety, though she had disappeared for a while when they were removing the drapes and ropes from the second hut back-stage, and then Andreo had let her in there to keep her well hidden.

Andreo stood on the stage and considered. Natalo had always been an emotional kid, ready to fly off the handle about one thing or another, perhaps ready to disappear if it all got a bit difficult.

Andreo worried about him, but also was prepared to get more than a little angry. The performance tonight was important, they all knew that.

Andreo sighed, and moved over to supervise the initial placement of props on the stage itself, and went over his lines again, one more time.

* * *

After dinner, which had been eaten inside with both Evo and Johano Lenkso and their daughter Helano, and accompanied by polite conversation, the Doctor and Ace sat back in their room and exchanged news. Erico sat with them, under the flickering torch that compensated for the dying Light, and the Doctor translated various bits of the conversation for him.

She started by telling him about the plan to cross the river after the play, and of her success with the boat, and Erico's part in it all.

Half way through he interrupted. 'Why,' he asked the girl, 'do we need to wait for Andreo? Why not do it ourselves, when it gets just a little darker?'

'Because you are curious about him and his father, and want to know if what they are hiding could help the situation.'

The man nodded, looking pleased, and she continued.

After she had finished he settled back and considered, and Ace studied him in concern. He seemed to be back to normal, but had volunteered no information about how he was feeling. She could ask, of course, but she didn't. Because if he wasn't feeling well, there was nothing she could do to help. When they were new to each other he could enthral her or depress her with a few simple words, and even now, the years changing her if not him, he could almost effortlessly cheer her up when the world was at its darkest. And she knew she could offer him nothing in return. She looked at him, and thought about what he was, and knew she didn't even have the right to ask.

And that, thought the girl with a sigh, is life.

'There's another thing,' the Doctor said, breaking out of his reverie. 'The robes we came ashore in yesterday, they've gone.'

'What?' The girl's voice rose, anxious.

'Evo placed them in a drawer in her bedroom after breakfast for safe-keeping, and they are no longer there.'

'Could they have been taken? Who's been here?'

'Too many people. We've had quite a number of visitors enquiring about us, also five people requiring medical attention from our hosts, or so they said, the family themselves, of course, Telmo the nurse. It would be possible but difficult for a visitor to get into the room and take them, but no-one was supposed to know they were there. There is no evidence of anyone entering the house other than through the normal means.'

The girl considered, but ran out of options. One of the laws of detection was, she knew from experience, that in unfamiliar territory the only good trail was a fresh one. By now the two garments could be anywhere.

'There is another alternative, of course,' said the Doctor. Ace looked at him and waited for him to continue.

'The robes did not belong here, they were not a part of this world. Perhaps they could not remain here for very long and then...' he shrugged. 'They were either destroyed, or returned from whence they came.'

'What's it all mean? Not just the robes, everything. What's happening?'

'I don't know,' he said simply. 'I just don't know.'

After a few words in Esperanto between the Doctor and Erico, silence fell.

'When is the play on?' the Doctor finally asked, and Ace welcomed the change in subject.

'Soon. People will start going there once it gets fully dark, something to do with the farmer's working day apparently.' He nodded, and stood up.

'And,' he added in Esperanto to Erico, 'thank you for your assistance. Are you accompanying us to the theatre?'

The boy nodded, then with a guilty start said he should go back to the inn and let his parents know he was alright first. He said he'd see them there.

'A present then,' said la Kuracisto, and he reached behind Erico's ear and brought out a small knuckle bone, one of Ace's bullets. He looked down at it in surprise. 'No, that's not it.'

The bone danced over his fingers and disappeared, 'Ah', said la Kuracisto, and reached out behind the other ear and produced an apple, whole and ripe. 'Good for your teeth.'

Ace smiled at the display, and Erico looked at the piece of fruit as if he wasn't sure what it was. He turned away, and left the room.

Ace and the Doctor thanked their hosts, who would be walking up a bit later, and joined the swelling crowd on their way for a pleasant night out.

'Ace,' the Doctor said. She looked at him.

'I'm fine, really.'

She nodded.

* * *

Ozberto just stood there, blinking, as if the words she was speaking were foreign to him. 'What?' he said.

Elizabeto repeated herself. 'No,' she said. 'Not tonight. Not any more.'

The two stood looking at each other, the frame of Elizabeto's door between them. Ozberto's face began to mottle, growing redder. 'If this is some joke...' he started, angrily. 'Who's getting you to do this to me?' His breathing had gotten heavier, and he drew himself up, a good ten centimetres taller than the girl. His eyes were bright in the flicker of candlelight.

'No joke,' she said. 'Go back to your son.'

Ozberto brought the flat of his hand hard against the side of her house, driving it with force, and the little house shuddered. He raised his hand and stepped closer, his face full of cold fury.

'I'm not your wife,' Elizabeto said. 'Do you beat her? And I'm no longer your whore, not your plaything while your wife enjoys herself and you should be minding the boy. Do you beat your wife, Ozberto?'

'No,' he said, and his face lost all its anger and he just stood there, blinking, as if the words she was speaking were foreign to him.

'Goodbye,' she said, and closed the door.

'You bitch,' he cried, his voice high and incredulous. You'll be expelled for this, you'll see. You can't do this to me, you'll see...'

His voice stopped, and he didn't touch her house again. Elizabeto sat on the bed, and put her face in her hands because she was tired, and waited for the next one.

She could put up the signal, of course, the discrete piece of cloth over her window-sill that said "I'm busy". Of course it was discrete because there was no prostitution in Malvarmo, oh no, that was a vice of the city, and this was a Nice Little Town. But there was a signal, and it said "I'm busy". Not "I'm available", or "closed", but "I'm busy, come back later".

She didn't put up the signal, and five minutes later her door opened, and she stood up to start again.

It took a couple of seconds for her to recognise the man, but she moved on regardless. 'Please get out of my house, I am no longer selling.'

'So I hear', said the fair-haired man, in the same soft voice she remembered from this morning. 'Your father's loss must have caused you a great deal of pain, for you to make such an abrupt decision.'

'My pain is my own,' she said stiffly. 'And I do not ask you to share it.'

He shrugged. 'I did not mean to offend you, and you obviously wish to be alone. But, if you wish to talk about it...' She couldn't remember him moving, but he was closer to her. She tried to step backwards, but she was still by the bed.

'This is not about my father! I can do what I want to do, and...'

'So he wanted you to... sell, as you put it, and now he's gone, you're free?'

'No,' she said slowly, trying to work it out. 'That's not it.'

'Then tell me about it.' He was closer again, and his voice was very soft. 'Share your pain.'

'But...' she said. He kissed her and, almost instinctively, she returned the kiss, harder. He had one hand behind her now, on her back, sliding lower, the other hand cupped over a breast, very gentle. As they sat down together, on the bed, she was already taking off his shirt.

* * *

She hadn't seen him put the signal on her window-sill, but after he was finished, she saw him remove it, as he walked away, without a sound. Quarter of an hour later someone knocked on her door, but no-one was home.


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