The Marquis looked at his nails, polished them on his ragged coat, and looked at them again. Still dirty and ragged. Well. He glanced up finally and said, “Fostered?”
“Yes,” the woman whispered. Her hand reached out towards his arm, then closed into a fist, pulled back to her chest. “Yes, that was the—the--”
“You had,” the Marquis asked, one eyebrow raised, “a bargain? With Scratch?” Really, some people were too stupid to be believed.
“Yes,” she whispered again.
“Speak up,” he snapped. “You're not paying me yet and I find your half-voiced words very tiresome. If you don't have the courage to even tell me the problem, there's very little chance I can do anything for you. I don't work for fools.”
She flinched and grabbed both lapels of her sweater tightly.
The Marquis looked around. Perhaps he should look for another client. The market was no longer in full swing. The curry stall that sold the best saag was shutting down already. They'd put the basket with the bread into their tiny cart. So much for breakfast.
The knife seller was polishing the fancy wares as he did each time before he placed them in their red velvet wraps for storage. The scarf man had begun winding up the fluttering silks. The crowd was thinning.
And he hadn't eaten in two days and would rather not make it for a third. Damn. “Get on with it.”
She slowly raised her head. “My son is a good boy.”
“But he is very young. And very dear to me. Isn't there anything you can do? His letters are so very strange.”
Letters? That was the first thing of interest the woman had said. “What letters would these be? Old Scratch lets the boy send missives home?” It was unbelievable.
She wrung her hands again. “Yes. My boy sends them through the usual way, of course, but I am starting to think the man reads them. That's why I sent for you. I'm afraid. Very afraid.”
The Marquis tried not to roll his eyes. The woman was only now afraid, after she'd fostered her son to Old Scratch? “What do the letters say?”
“That the old man has put Horseradish away!”
The Marquis just stared. “Horseradish,” he said slowly.
“Yes! My son's own dear horse.”
The picture was getting stranger all the time. He crossed his arms. “I need promise of payment before we go any further.”
“I don't have any money.”
“Then what do you have? You offered me a king's ransom, I believe.”
“Yes.” More hand twisting and a sheen of tears. The woman was irritating in the extreme, but she was well dressed. Her sweater was of the finest wool, knit in pretty lace patterns showing small birds and flowers, and she had jewels in her hair. Her gray blue boots were smoothly polished and the buttons flashed like tiny black birds eyes. He'd never have listened to her stuttering exclamations otherwise.
“Well?” he demanded.
She held out her hand. In it was a single, small rock. It looked like someone had picked a large bit from a scattering of sandy gravel. “I have this.”
The Marquis hated to admit ignorance of any kind, but he had no idea what it was. Magic? Poison? An unfinished ruby? “And?”
“And I will give it to you.” She smiled, and the tears finally spilled over. “He is my only boy, you see, and someday he will inherit my title and be King.”
King? King of what, exactly? The Marquis poked at the gravel in her palm. “Indeed.”
“Yes. They follow him already, you see, and this is why I know something is wrong. The Mangy One came to me.”
Ahhhhh. “You don't mean to say that you are the Queen?”
“I am.” She straightened to her full height, which was five feet and a bit. “They owe fealty to me and to my family.”
The Marquis looked around the fading market and saw them, here and there, pecking at crumbs and walking in their jerk-kneed gate around the food stalls and the ones that sold soft, interesting fabrics. He thought quickly.
“I will need more than just this token if I am to do this. You must give me a sieve, a cake of soap, this--” The Marquis plucked one of the combs from her hair. A long tendril of shining gold curl fell down and dangled in her eyes. “A coat, and--” he whirled suddenly, pointing to a man pushing a cart with hot pies, “breakfast!”
She burst into tears and to his horror, hugged him tight around the waist. “Oh, you are such a good, kind man.”
Terrifying. He must remember to ask for more payment next time. He extricated himself from her tight grip and called to the cart man. “Three pies if you please.”
Getting in to see Old Scratch was proving difficult. The man held himself in high esteem and did not bother with common folk at all. The first three tries failed, and the Marquis feared that if he did not do it soon, he would lose his best chance.
He was considering what to do when a small pigeon flew up and landed on his shoulder.
“What now?” the Marquis asked. He had already been in receipt of three missives. Two requests for progress and one unfortunate misunderstanding about the meaning of sieve.
The pigeon was smelly, small, and scraggly. Its neck feathers were so dirty that they stuck together and showed gaps of its gray scaly bird skin.
The Marquis wrinkled his nose at the stench of pigeon shit. “Well?”
The pigeon looked at him from its left eye and then from its right and then its left again. Finally it began to burble.
“Ah. Tell the boy to ready himself. I will come by the Circle and meet his master in the Tower. I cannot tell him his path yet. I must deal with Old Scratch himself first.”
The pigeon burbled at him some more.
“Fine.” The Marquis was offended, but it was only a pigeon's opinion and he decided that being lofty suited him better than anger. “I am always the height of elegance. The problem has already been solved. I have just the thing.” Rather, the Tailors had just the thing, but soon it would be his.
“Go and speak with the boy. I will finish the plan. Tell your mistress not to forget the sieve!”
The shop was located at the Green. The Marquis strolled down the street, eying each of the great old buildings. The brick was soft, mellow dark brown and the ivy crawled up it, covering everything but small, open windows with their sills and geranium filled boxes. The occasional small noise floated through the window.
He reached a three storey affair that listed to the left and had a great, pale green door. Painted on the door in black ink and charcoal was a picture of a thimble and a needle. The Marquis rapped sharply, twice, with the door rapper and waited.
A small creature pulled the door open and looked up at him. “What is your business here?”
The Marquis bowed low, one hand behind him and his left foot pointed out, toe forward. “I seek sartorial assistance. I am informed that this is the place.”
“It is,” said the creature. It adjusted its pince nez and glared up at him. “You have something to offer? Remaking you will cost a great deal.”
The Marquis scowled. Damn them. “I have payment indeed. A fine payment. But only if the results are worth it.”
“Come inside and be measured.” The creature vanished into the darkness.
The house was black with shadows and smelled heavily of animals. Fur and dark sweat, grain and shit. The Marquis stepped daintily over piles of something on the floor. He could barely sense the unevenness and when the lamp flared, he shut his eyes. When he opened them again, the door behind him was shut. Before him stood three small creatures, each clad in black from their short shoulders to their pointed feet in curled toed boots. There was a stool, much too tall for any of them to even sit upon, and in their hands were long knotted cords.
“Stand upon the stool and be measured,” said the middle goblin.
The Marquis could barely get his foot up, but he managed, wishing that it was possible to look more elegant while doing so. “And?” he drawled.
“And be measured,” said the goblin on the left, smiling to reveal small, pointed teeth. It advanced with its knotted cord, and whipped it tight around the Marquis’s throat.
The ordeal lasted forever. They measured his neck and waist and chest and arms, true, but they also measured the distance from left toe to right and the width of his inner elbow and the length of his cock. Everything from his nose to his eyes to the very sole of his heel was wrapped tight in silken, worn cord, while the creatures talked amongst themselves and laughed.
And threw away his old clothes.
It was very vexing. The Marquis began to wonder if breakfast and some gravel had truly been worth this and if it would be possible to tell the woman that he had tried but that the boy was bargained to Old Scratch and that such a bargain could not be broken, even for the Queen of the Pigeons.
But finally, they were done, cackling still, and standing in a small triangle around him, while he stood naked upon their stool.
“We are done,” said the shortest of the three, who had yet to speak. “It is time to speak of payment.”
“If you but return my trousers to me,” the Marquis said, “I will show you what I have.”
“The trousers are gone,” said the smallest. “We would not allow anyone to leave our place in such trash.”
Wonderful. “Then you cannot be paid.”
“We shall be paid,” said the middle one placidly. “Tell us of your payment and we will return such that was in the pockets. Including the lint, if you wish.”
“What did you bring us?” the tallest one said. “Tell us now.” A dark light gleamed in his eye, enough to show the corners of the room, where bones small and large showed in heaps.
“I brought soap fit for a Queen. Sandalwood and roses. Lovely and fine, milled so sharp it is smooth as cream.” The Marquis crossed his naked, dark arms on his chest and smiled down at them, confident in his choice.
“What is soap to us?” the smallest one said.
“For to wash all the finest of your fine garments, of course.” What else would they need, if not soap?
“No,” said the middle goblin. The shadows over the corners seemed to grow. “We do not need soap. Washing is not for our kind.”
“But your custom surely—“
“No.” The tall one showed his teeth. “We do not need it. I am glad that you lack payment, good sir, for your bones measured up fine as gold sticks. That is all the payment that we need.” And he laughed.
What else could he offer? The comb he needed for the plan. The stone? “I have a gravel from her Majesty,” he said slyly.
This time the middle one laughed. “Gravel! From Her Majesty he says. What is gravel to us?”
“It is for her subjects and is of great power.”
“No, indeed,” the middle one said. “We do not speak with outsiders. They come to us. The stone is useless.” And he smiled, too, showing sharper, shorter teeth with a small spike of creamy gold bone caught in between two teeth.
“Then I must ask: what do you want?” The Marquis was thinking quickly, looking for a way out, but he knew it was futile. The Tailors were infamous. There was no escape if they did not want for you to go. He had known it was dangerous, but the soap should have worked. It should have worked.
“The marrow in your bones. The skin upon your brow. The sweet flesh of your heart,” the short one crooned, and the Marquis knew fear. They would take him if he did not do something.
“A comb,” he said, loftily but he was angered to hear his own voice shake a trifle, just under the words. They would hear it and—
“A comb!” said the tall one eagerly. “Does it shine?”
“And does it smooth?” asked the middle one.
“But are its teeth sharp?” the smallest asked.
“As rubies polished in the heart of the fire,” assured the Marquis.
“Done!” they all said together. “We have a bargain! Spit on it!”
And the Marquis held out his hand and spat into the palm. All the goblins spat, too, and laughed and laughed.
The Marquis stomped down the street of the Bethnal Green towards the station. He had not said so to the goblins, but the work they had done was first rate. He could pass for a fine gentlemen now. The great coat was dark and lush, with a fine, great skirt that swirled about him if he whirled around, and the boots gave him both height and a strut to his walk.
Clothes made the man and the Marquis was now a nobleman in truth. Or very nearly.
He stepped upon the rails and made his way to the Forest. The Tower was next but he had a short side errand or two to perform on the way.
It took him but a day to catch the rabbit. The thing was large, forest-born and crafty, but the Marquis had hidden the snare carefully and had timed his jump precisely. The rabbit went up, struggling, and he slit its throat handily.
The blood, alas, sprayed across his face and all down his hands. He had expected that, and so was not wearing his coat, but it was still a shame. He hung the rabbit high in the tree and approached the stream. It was time.
The Queen’s soap frothed easily, giving off the scent of foreign lands. Araby and France, woodsy spices and old flowers, mixed and mingled until the smell spoke only of money and power.
He smeared the suds on his face, into his long black hair, and down his neck. It was the work of a moment to remove the blood, but cleaning the grime from under his nails took the rest of the bar. When he was done, he stepped into the stream and rinsed himself all over, then shook himself like a cat.
He stepped out, put on his dry clothes, and stood, transformed fully into a nobleman. A fraud, but a good one.
Humming to himself, he took the rabbit by the feet, and proceeded on his way. The court was next.
Old Scratch was pleased to received the Marquis de Carabas after his butler had ascertained his identity by careful investigation of his person, clothing, hair, and the weight of the carcass of fresh, rich meat.
The Court was much as he had expected. The demon made a fortune in his chosen trade. All around the room were treasures. Silken hangings draped the walls, lush carpets—shag and Axminster, fake tiger and real zebra—covered the floor. Vases were full of flowers, Victorian peacock feathers, and the masks of a ball.
Throughout the room were gentlemen of leisure. A woman hid in the shadows to the right, behind a wooden Indian. The Marquis ignored her. Her business was not his, and so long as he was able to do what he needed, he would not interfere with her purpose here. It was very likely the same as his.
The figure was seated on a large La-Z-Boy and had a bowl of fruit and nuts in his lap. He was picking up each nut and examining it, then replacing it in the bowl with a sigh. Long greasy gray hair was coifed in the old style, with a ratty white wig on top, and red bow painted lips.
He opened his mouth and moued at the Marquis. “And what do you bring us, sir?”
“A gift, your Highness,” said the Marquis, bowing.
The Court gentlemen all tittered on cue. “A gift,” said the Old Scratch. “Is that meat I smell?”
“It is, your Highness.” The Marquis laid the rabbit at his feet and bowed again.
Old Scratch handed the fruit bowl to a youth in white livery. “Meat!” He leapt from his chair and pounced upon it. In moments, the rabbit was no more. A few bones were tossed over the man’s shoulder, but most were crunched and swallowed. When he stood, his belly was the same as before, but his perfect lips were a smear of darker red.
“A man of taste,” the Marquis said.
The Court tittered again.
The white liveried boy appeared at his elbow.
“Prepare a chamber for our new guest. The South wing.”
“Your highness,” the Marquis said gently, “if I may. The South wing must be for your most esteemed visitors. As I am new, perhaps you might house me in the West, so as not to trouble your hospitality unduly.”
“Not trouble your hospitality unduly,” tittered the Court in a chorus.
“And so it shall be!” shouted Old Scratch, clawing at his messy face to pick up crumbs of dried blood and eat them from under his finger nails.
The Marquis bowed low and followed the lackey out.
In the corridor, he moved so that the skirt of his great coat twirled behind him. “You enjoy the service of his lordship? Have you been in service long?”
The boy’s white face and pale blond hair did not change a wit. “I have been fostered to him for lo three years,” he said in a white, pale voice.
“And when do you return to your family? Are you not of age to nearly need to leave?” the Marquis asked.
“That is not how it works,” the boy said, pointing to a white washed door. “Your chambers, my lord.”
“How does it work?” the Marquis asked, pacing around the small monk sized cell. Ugly white bed. Ugly white paintings. Ugly white curtains looking out on ugly white dead grass grounds.
“We are his highness’s children,” the boy said. He removed a pillow from the closet and placed it on the head of the bed. “Given to those who have none.”
“But returned,” the Marquis said.
“Yes.” The boy straightened the sheets and pulled down the coverlet. “Do you wish a child, my lord?”
“Perhaps,” the Marquis said. As if he would ever make such an idiotic bargain. “It would be good to have someone to carry on my name.”
“I will mention your desire to his Highness. He has a few sons available, I believe.”
“A daughter?” He had not heard whether Old Scratch would grant such a wish. Where did the sons come from, anyhow?
“I do not believe he has any that would suit your lordship at this time, but such things can be arranged.”
For an additional fee, no doubt. The Marquis tapped his lips and looked the boy up and down. “I believe I will consider that.” Which he would, in horror, at some other time.
The boy smiled. “I will let him know.” Then he bowed. “Welcome to our humble abode, your grace. I hope all is to your taste. Do let us know if you will be needing anything further. Simply call out up the pipe.” He pointed to a speaking tube. “One of us will answer.”
“One of you?”
“One of the Damned.” The boy slipped out, white boots making no sound upon the old, worn stone.
The Marquis sat down and considered the room. The cream and pale white was beginning to oppress him. The only color in the whole place was himself, his dark hands and brown boots and deeply colored coat shocking as ink spilled on a page.
It was two days before he could speak to the boy. The Marquis had to request wine for tea. Then biscuits. A fresh pillow. Hairbrush. A mirror. Toynbee’s History so that he had bedtime reading. Clean sheets. Even cleaner sheets. Someone to press his coat skirts. A boot blacking. And finally a peppermint for his stomach.
The prince looked nothing like his mother, which was no surprise, the Marquis thought. What was odd was that the blond curls he sported were shaded with gray, mottled throughout with a few streaks of dark gray, pearl white, deep green, and a fresh sharp navy-blue-black.
It was no wonder that the boy held his mother’s people in allegiance. He looked just like them.
A small silver salver was presented to him, and on it was single white and pink candy. The Marquis took it and balanced it in his dark palm. Before the boy could go, he said, not unkindly, “Sit.”
He put the sweet in his pocket and took out the bit of gravel.
The boy’s eyes widened. “Mother!”
The Marquis just nodded. “You must do exactly as I say.”
The boy nodded vigorously.
“When we are done talking, you must go into your room, speaking to no one on the way.”
The boy cocked his head to one side, and watched the Marquis from his left eye.
“Put your hair up with the comb your mother gave you when you left her side. Remove all of your clothes until you are stark naked and wash with this.” He held out the half bar of soap he had carried in his pocket.
The boy took it, turning it over and over in his palm. Then he turned his head and watched the Marquis from his right eye. “I will.”
“Sneak to the stable and get on your horse. Ride him, naked, through the woods. He will know the way. You will wind up at Black Horse, where the great stables are. Leave him there and travel on foot to the St Pancras station. Your mother will meet you there.” His smile flashed. “She has knit you a sweater.”
The boy bobbed his head and stood. “I will.”
“Wait. Before you go, you must do one other thing. You must call your mother’s people and tell them to go to the forests all around and eat nothing but Rowan berries for a day.”
The boy stopped bowing his head and cocked it again, one dark shining eye fixed on the Marquis.
“Then they must wait for my signal. Tell them also to hold their shit. They will come to the clearing in the Forest with the round old mill stone. Shit upon it, tell them, and then leave. Once everyone has shat on it, they are done, and can return to your mother.”
And the plan would be done simply and the end would be assured.
“I cannot do that,” the boy told him.
What? “You must.”
“I cannot.” The boy shook his head so that the plain curls and the deep green ones blended, then separated again, ruffling and smoothing out. “It is not in my power.”
“Your mother said they owe fealty to you. You command them!”
“I can command one or two,” the boy said, obviously embarrassed.
“Then tell one or two and tell them to tell the others!”
“I cannot. They will not.”
“Have them tell your mother, then.”
“Oh no, they won’t do that. They’ll carry a message to one, or to another, but they will not organize thus. It is against their law.”
The Marquis glared at the boy. His shifting hair was spiky and rough, all deep blue bits sticking in different directions and the gray catching what little pale light was here. “Do you want out of here or not? They must do this!”
The boy dropped his gaze. All the hair on his head instantly smoothed out until he was as coiffed as a fifties housewife. He dropped to his knees and then finally looked up. “You must use the stone. It is the only way.”
“I have only the one.” And it was to be his payment!
“There is no other way.” The boy looked small against the smooth, pale tile. The Marquis could see the whip marks under the thin linen shirt.
“Oh very well. I will use my stone.” That would leave him only breakfast when he was done. It was not a very good bargain. “How do I activate it?”
“Rub it with any bit of seed or nut. A representative will come and then all will do as you bid. You have only to say.”
The Marquis sighed. Of course. He waved his hand wearily. “Fine. Now begone. I don’t want to see you again.”
The boy fled.
The Marquis went to the window and looked out at the dead grass and the pale, dead beech trees. In the distance he could see the whitewashed stables and the clean scrubbed white outhouses. The weak sun shone on bleached granite fences and the white horses grazing in the distance.
He set the pebble on the sill and put a nut he’d stolen from Old Scratch’s bowl on top of it. When the pigeon fluttered down and landed on the sill to eat it and watch him with beady eyes, the Marquis found it a relief. The ugly brown gray and absurd greasy blue feathers were suddenly beautiful.
“Now,” the Marquis told it, as it burped a bit from eating the stone, “I have a task for you, my sweet.”
By tea, the Marquis was sprawled on a settee, reading an old London Underground Times and listening to the Court argue over the relative merits of Berber carpets versus speckled linoleum as wall coverings.
“It is most cleanable for those times one must entertain,” a flunky said, pointing to his mouth. The Marquis thought of Old Scratch’s table manners with regards the rabbit and had to admit that the foolish looking fop had a point.
“Your Highness,” a white clad boy shouted, running into the room. “The Prince Nikolai has fled!”
Pandemonium reigned. Courtiers scrambled, the boy shrieked details, and the old man bellowed and threw fruit and nuts and bowl at everyone within reach.
After a time, the Marquis dabbed delicately at the bloody scratch on his cheek from a flying pomegranate. “If I may suggest,” he said, “perhaps we might hunt him.”
Everyone stilled. Old Scratch turned. “Hunt him! What else have I been saying! But Whitmore has his hound out to be washed and the trail is not yet certain!”
“I can follow a trail as fresh as that,” the Marquis said dismissively. “It is only a few hours old.”
“You cannot!” said the man who must be named Whitmore. “A few hours old—“
The Marquis turned on him, dark eyes narrowed, and stalked forward. “Did I not bring meat two days past?”
Whitmore opened his mouth to argue, perhaps to suggest a substitute hound and thus ruin all the plans, but Old Scratch had already leaped to his feet, shouting, “A hunt! And the Marquis shall be my dog.”
The Marquis felt his nostrils flare, but he kept silent, smiled, and bowed deeply. “I shall perform such services as I am able, your Highness.”
And the hunt was arranged. The Marquis insisted that all the hangers on would only slow them down. That Whitmore would disturb the scent trail, and that a pale boy was not needed as he would bring provisions for them himself as a loyal dog would provide for his master.
So it was agreed and the two of them set out alone into the forest. The great coated Marquis stalking along a path marked with the passage of a man on a fleet horse and the faintest scent of roses and sandalwood and followed by an old, simpering sadist in a white suit and tasseled loafers.
The boy, Prince Nikolai, had done as the Marquis had bid. The trail was a long one and after a time, darkness began to fall. “Rest yourself,” the Marquis said. “The boy will have to wait for light as well.”
Old Scratch spat and yelled and frightened the birds from the trees, but he also tripped and smeared his white suit with dark green sap. He bellowed some more, but subsided. “Away with it all!”
“A meal, a fire, and a rest, and we may go on again.”
“Bah,” said the old man, but he sat on a log.
“I will find the firewood,” the Marquis said truthfully.
The old man looked at him with suspicion, as he had been doing since the fifth hour of the hunt, when he must have begun to realize that two men on foot could not hope to catch a man on a fleet horse. The Marquis’s argument, that the white horses of the Devil’s Stables would interfere with the trail of the Black Horse, no longer seemed to carry as much weight.
The Marquis stepped into the underbrush and walked for a time, listening carefully for the sound of pursuit. There was none, and he came to the clearing at last. Here was the rock, covered entirely in pigeon shit, and reeking with it.
He removed his coat and set it upon a tree. Then he took a deep breath, held it, and began to sieve the mess of gray and green and white. Sticky, disgusting, and riddled with half-eaten crumbs and leavings. Twice did the Marquis have to stop and retch into the bushes. But at last the sieve was full of berries, still covered in muck and slime. He put the sieve in the stream and rinsed them. Again and again, as quickly as he could.
Finally, he stood, hands frozen and stiff with the cold of the stream. He had but seven berries. It was not as many as he had hoped, but it was the only weapon he had. And the only weapon that would work against the old devil. He did what was necessary, washed his hands as best he could, and returned to the old man, bearing a load of firewood in his arms.
“We should have taken horses!” the old man said instantly, and then, “What is that smell?”
“I have procured food as I promised,” the Marquis said. Had the man suspicions already? He lit the fire and snuck a pine bow in the mess so that it smoked with a rich tarry scent.
The old man coughed. “Never mind the smell! What I want to know is why you have deceived me?”
“Deceived you, your Highness?” the Marquis purred. He removed the doctored pies from his pocket and also took out a handkerchief.
“You’re with that boy! Do you know who he is?” the old man cackled. “I know you are with him. That woman put you up to it!”
“He is the Prince of Pigeons,” the Marquis said calmly. He unfurled the handkerchief and set it upon a flat bit of gray grass next to the old man. “And how would I have been put up to it?”
“That woman has her ways! They are everywhere you know. Everywhere! Like vermin!”
“Exactly like vermin,” the Marquis agreed.
The old man had his hand in his pocket. He would remove a weapon and do his best to kill the Marquis and that would simply not do. “I believe you would do well to eat a bit, sire. Low blood sugar is such a trying thing.”
The old man glared at him, beginning to snarl, but then he glanced down at the pies. “Poison!” he said triumphantly. “You must be here to poison me! Catch me off guard and kill me!”
“How can I be doing that, your grace? All know that you are immune to poison. It is but a pie.”
“A pie! Bah!”
“A pie. Try it and I think you will see that it will relieve all of your fears.” The Marquis removed a fork and a knife from his pocket, both silver, and sliced into the first pie with its lattice top and delicate coloring, all golden and still fresh enough from when he’d bought it at the market a few days ago.
The old man’s eyes widened and he looked at the pie in amazement. Then he laughed. “Relieve my fears, indeed! You cannot be in league with them. You have brought with you pigeon pie!”
The Marquis smiled his private smile and put a bite of pie on the fork and handed it to the old man. He watched the old man eat it, dribbling crumbs and gravy down his chin, staining the white shirt and cream silk tie, laughing the whole while.
It took the second pie before the sun dipped lower and the fire flamed up and the old man suddenly turned a dark, lush shade of green. “Pigeon pie,” he said, suddenly listing to one side, “is my very favorite. To stick it in the eye of that boy, who has run away and—“ Here he stopped, mouth opening in a rictus of horror, eyes popping and skin purpling. Then he screamed and screamed.
The Marquis sat across from him, eating his own pie with his fingers. He finished his pie while he watched the seizures and when he was done, he licked each of his fingers clean, and stood. He smiled down at the dead old man in his polished tie and tasseled loafers. “And thus I clothe my naked villainy With odd old ends stol'n out of holy writ, And seem a saint, when most I play the devil.”
It was only a short ways out of the Forest to the Black Horse station. The Marquis merely followed the trail of sandalwood and roses to find his way to the rendezvous.
The Queen of the Pigeons stood under a stone arch next to her son. She wore a comfortable cardigan in blue tweed wool knitted with more birds and flowers, over her gray shirt and nearly gray blue jeans. She hugged him again, which he permitted, but only because he was hoping for more payment still. She asked for no details of Old Scratch’s death. Her people would have told her already.
She did kiss his cheek, which made him frown, and press a soft pair of gloves in his hands. “For the cold. It was a wonderful thing you did.”
The Marquis bowed, maintaining his dignity in the face of purple fuzzy gloves, even if they were very soft. “It is what I am paid for. Our bargain, then, is at an end, and I am released from your service.”
She bowed, too, but a lesser bow as befitted her higher station. “You are released from my service with thanks, your grace.”
He turned then and left, his two hands heavy in the pockets of his coat. Behind him he heard oddly pounding feet, as though a person was walking a rhythmically. He felt a tug on his coat and turned.
Prince Nikolai stood there, looking princely for the first time in a dark blue sweater and a jeweled collar of bright black stones as shiny as a pigeon’s eye and reflecting the dark gleaming blues and greens of their wings.
He tugged on the Marquis's sleeve and said, “You have made my mother very happy indeed and you have saved me from a life of servitude and vice. For this I am grateful. I owe you a debt.”
The Marquis raised one eyebrow. Perhaps this job had come off after all. “Thank you, your Highness. Someday, I will collect.”
The prince shivered and watched the man turn and pace away like a great cat on the prowl, coat tails swishing like the tail of a tiger stalking deer in the forest, entering the market like he was going on a hunt.
“Who is that?” he heard the woman whisper to the stall owner.
“That's the Marquis de Carabas,” she hissed back, pulling some of the small scurrying tokens towards her, “they say he bested the Devil himself!”
The Marquis polished his dirty nails on his shiny new coat and hummed a merry tune. The curry stall that sold the best saag was just ahead. Time to get some breakfast.