Mr. Underby watched from the corner of his eye as the coffee was poured for himself and Mr. Tenk, after the breakfast tray had been cleared from the table. It was business as usual, Tenk ending his day and Underby beginning his own, and as always, the order of business was for Mr. Underby to read the business of the day to Mr. Tenk, and note what was approved, what was dismissed, and what, if anything, could make him look up from his work. Mr. Underby could never fathom Tenk’s logic of why some things were interesting and others were not, but Mr. Tenk was not an ordinary man. Underby kept Tenk’s face in his vision as he read, waiting for the tell that would reveal what the mayor was really thinking about. When it came to matters of power, Mr. Underby was a patient man.
Mr. Tenk didn’t really care much for the business of the day today, he just liked being read to. Sometimes he worked on his clocks as Mr. Underby read to him, sometimes he discussed matters with Mr. Underby as he read, but today, he was watching Mr. Underby read, and thinking. Specifically, he was watching a place on Underby’s face where where he could see how his jaw moved against his skull from under that thin flap of cheek, and thinking about how fine Underby’s bones were. He liked that Underby’s dry humours brought his skin so close to the shape of the bones underneath. Mr. Underby read aloud about a motion from one of old man Steamweaver’s lobbyists to raze the Clockhaven waterfront so the harbor could be used as an effluent reclamation lagoon for the new factory that the Steamweavers proposed to build, inserting his own emotional emphasis into the text to try and influence Tenk’s reception, and Tenk smiled at Underby, thinking about Mr. Underby’s bones.
“That will be all Mr. Underby,” Tenk said at last. Underby nodded and sorted the papers on the table into precise folders, then closed his briefcase with a click. Tenk watched Underby’s hands carefully as he worked. They regarded each other with bland poker faces, made the appropriate, albeit curt, pleasantries, then turned their backs on each other until the evening.
Tenk waited until he heard the elevator arrive at the ground floor below office, then rolled into his hammock, pushing himself with one foot against the wall until he was rocking in time with the cranky old clock that his office shared the tower with, thinking about Mr. Underby’s bones and how fine they would look. No, there would be no grinding them into mortar as was done to common criminals, or adding them to the catacombs under the ramparts as the oldest families did. He had made a special place for them.
It was Pip, who had been Underby’s valet when he first came to Babbage, who had ratted Tenk out. Underby would never had known what Tenk was unless Pip had not told him. That set the long duel into motion, Underby and Tenk making slow circles about each other, waiting for moments of opportunity by which to snare the other and gain the upper hand. Magic was like that. They were each tangled in nets of obligation and consequence now, it was unlikely that either combatant would ever escape. Magic was a terrible, terrible thing.
Underby had gained ground early. He and Dizelle had discovered Tenk’s body on the old quarter wall, a victim of a botched bit of work that Tenk had foolheartedly attempted on himself to protect himself from people like Underby. Underby had used the opportunity to force the Law of Hospitality upon Tenk. From then on Underby laid seige on Tenk, chipping closer at every opportunity, insinuating half-truths and lies with all he met to hide the true nature of the relationship. There were Rules, they both knew that. And more importantly, they both knew that only one of of them was obliged to obey the ancient forms. That was why there were so few of Tenk’s kind left.
Tenk rocked with the tock of the clock and thought about the moment that all changed. It was after he had awoke from the illness that had been induced on him by Underby so that he could run the affairs of City Hall without Tenk’s interference. Tenk came to see him at the Bucket, he was deep in an argument with the bar help. Finally, the moment arrived, the moment when Underby wasn’t paying attention.
“Mr. Underby, was it your wish to be my personal assistant?”
Underby had barely looked up, annoyed at something so ridiculously obvious. “Yes, yes, of course it is!”
“Very well. We have a contract.”
And that was it. Tenk had left the bar noticed, Underby barely missing a beat in his arguement with Njal and Boris and Bib. But Mr. Underby did not show up at City Hall the next day, so Tenk returned to the Bucket to find Underby drinking in the remains of his collapsed kingdom.
“Mr. Underby, you were not at work today. I would hate to have to start collecting you.”
Underby had started to protest, then paled subtly as the import of the words became clear. Mr.Tenk had been a very patient man.
Tenk stopped pushing his foot against the wall as the thought troubled him. It was a proper deal. Of course it was. Mr. Underby got his wish, and Tenk got… Tenk got Underby’s time.
…that was a difficult thought. He knew that Underby experienced time differently than he did, they all did. He couldn’t thoroughly understand why it was so, only that there was. It would be easier to think about the transaction in terms of a token, or some passion, but time… that was a very abstract notion.
It was a proper deal.