Cleanslate grimaced inwardly as he signaled the barman for another bottle.
The Caledonian dignitary sitting across from him in the corner booth brushed back a wisp of perfectly trimmed blonde hair and tittered – again. That was the only way to describe the effete, high pitched sound he had been emitting in sporadic bursts for the past hour. “But the smell, my dear Maceholder – surely you concede that the smell alone makes Babbage uncivilized?”
Cleanslate shrugged incrementally. “A thousand factories can’t run all day and all night without producing some kind of waste,” he said. “Such is a necessary byproduct of an industrious people.”
“Industrious! Pshaw!” his companion retorted. “A civilized people knows the value of proper odors, just as it knows the value of a well manicured lawn or a well-coiffed head of hair. One must place such things in perspective.” The barman set another bottle of Loki’s finest on the table, giving the visitor a scowl. It went unnoticed.
Fishing a delicate silver strainer out of a vest pocket, the blonde man placed it atop his glass with a fussy flick of the wrist. “You may leave us,” he said without looking up. The barman’s thick, forehead-spanning eyebrow lifted in anger, but Cleanslate calmed him with a wave and a tiny nod.
“Thank heavens,” the visitor said when he left, delicately arranging a sugar cube just so and waving a hand across his nose. “Honestly, Cleanslate. Your countrymen have the pong of the flatulent!” That titter again, as he poured the fluorescent green liquid over the spoon.
Cleanslate snuck a surreptitious glance at his pocketwatch. With the Clockwinder out of town, it fell to him to entertain diplomatic visitors when they passed through town. This one, with his peacock-feather ascot and embroidered green velvet morning coat, was in fact a personal envoy of Guvnah Shang and (more was the pity) too important to do anything but tolerate. “We do our best, Mr Croydon.”
“My name is Lord Carnarvon Aloysius The Honorable Pepperidge Croydon the Fourth,” sniffed the Caledonian as he sipped his beverage gingerly. It must have been his eighth. “I am referred to as ‘Your Grace.’ Why Babbagers don’t address gentry by their proper honorifics is yet another mystery to me.”
“We have no royalty here, Mister Croydon,” Cleanslate said with a tinge of resentment he was sure his companion would not detect. “You may call yourself what you wish in Caledon, but here we honor a man for his own accomplishments, not those of his predecessors.”
“Such sentiments are so dreary,” Croydon slurred as he finished his glass. “Lord, but you do make excellent absinthe. I may have to summon your pungent friend for another refill in a moment.”
“Might I suggest that you reconsider that?” Cleanslate cautioned. “One only needs a glass or two of Loki’s brand to enjoy the effects.”
“Don’t speak to me as if I were a common schoolgirl!” Croydon replied, half-standing. “I am capable of holding my liquor – which is more than I can say about Babbagers whose hindquarters can’t hold in their stink!”
The tray struck the Caledonian envoy squarely in the back of his skull, knocking his forehead into the tabletop with a meaty thunk. And there it stayed, its owner snoring wetly into a shallow pool of green liquor.
“Oi’m roight sorry about that, Mister Cleanslate sir,” said the barman. “But oi couldn’t ‘elp it after wot ‘e said about us Babbagers, sir.”
Cleanslate patted him on the shoulder. “No worries, Ned. He’ll be all right in a few hours and won’t remember a thing.”
“Wot d’yew think got inter ‘im, sir? ‘Is insults got worse the more he drank.”
Cleanslate nodded as he adjusted his pince nez and let himself out into the street. “You know what they say, Ned: absinthe makes the fart jokes blonder.”