Underby pulled his overcoat and hat off as he entered the warm humidity of the Bucket of Blood, striding toward the bar. The crowd was raucous and drunk, swaying in song and tossing glasses, Underby ducked as a tumblr flew by and leaned in toward Medusa at the bar, tall lean and mean. She rapped an old drunk on the head with her knuckles before turning to Underby. “Did it come?” he asked, eager as a birthday boy.
“Course it did.” she said with her one good eye. “Bib’s back there now, piling it in the cock fighting pit.”
Underby smiled. The thought of the mound of coal behind that wall made his heart swell in chest. He could either sell it for a hefty price or become a citywide hero and pass it out amongst the needy for free; though in all likelihood, he would simply sell it. “And there is another delivery tonight?”
Medusa sighed, in the middle of pouring a pint. “You know there is, barring any unforeseen circumstances.” He had been receiving small daily deliveries of coal, late each night. A single large delivery would attract unwanted attention, and the people of Babbage had an uncomfortably nosey demeanor. If anyone suspected he was hoarding coal, well… the riot from two years ago would look like a garden party.
“Coal sells, coal sells…” sang out loudly in a silly voice from behind. Underby’s genitals tightened, and his back ran cold. Turning, he saw a small twisted man in dirty bare feet, spinning in circles as he sang. The words of his song actually consisted of “gold bells”, but the guilty natures of Underby and Medusa both heard “coal sells”.
The small man sang: “Coal sells and Underby tells, Clockwinder listens and gutland sells. In the coldish night the innocent are killed twee, and in the sun grim Underby guilty.” People laughed and tossed coins toward him.
Underby’s face was painted wide with shock. A fool. A genuine fool. Underby sat hollow, watching the cavorting and hearing the damning song – knowing everyone had heard. This was much more horrific than Tenk’s jest with Dorchester. Was he… was he… responsible for this little one too? Was the clockwinder’s plan to drive him mad through the constant introduction of small men?
He had to admit, if it was, he was impressed.
“I’ll get rid of the little drunk.” Medusa said, wiping her hands on a rag and moving to round the bar.
“No!” Underby called out.
She looked at him. The song continued. He motioned her closer, then mumbled into her ear: “The lad is a fool, he is untouchable.”
She pulled back, looking at Underby like he had suddenly split open and erupted with pink budgies. “He’s just a drunk little idiot. I’ll go sober him up in the canal, that’ll fix him.”
The very idea made Underby’s blood run cold. If he wasn’t the clockwinder’s doing… that would be the end of him, sure enough. That was the illest form of luck one could bring upon themselves. “You will do nothing of the sort woman, or I assure you, you will swiftly be following him in. And it won’t be you I fish out.”
She stood up straighter, her full six foot five, offended. “Well, you didn’t have to say that.”
“Clearly I did. There are rules, Deuce. Hospitality rules, on top of rules even older. That lad is untouchable… what he says comes from the gods.”
“Oh Ozzie.” she said, grabbing a glass and beginning to polish it. “You sound like them brothers of the church.”
“Believe me, I am less thrilled with this than you.” he said, turning to look on the lad again was he walked across the rickety wooden floor on his hands. Underby thought of the first card of the tarot, shivering slightly. Gifts. He needed to find the fool a gift, if he did, the lad might move on. Until then, he was stuck with him. “I need you or Bib to get something for me tomorrow.”
Medusa grabbed a scrap of paper and a pencil.
“A hat. Something silly looking.” he dictated.
Medusa put the pencil down. “I’ll just give him one of your idiotic looking hats.”
Underby delivered her a withering glare. “It must be new. And it must be silly. Then, add the ears of an ass to it.”
Her pencil froze. “And do… what?”
“You know what an ass is.”
“And you are aware they have ears.”
“Take those ears off the ass, and add them to the hat.”
She stared at him. “How am I…?”
“I don’t care.” he said. “Just do it.”
She grumbled. Underby turned on his stool, the small man had fallen asleep near the fireplace. People still tossed coins at him. “And get me a drink.” Underby said. “A stiff one.”