The Grey City XII

Wednesday March 15, 2006 @ 05:25 PM (UTC)

The Grey City I
The Grey City II
The Grey City III
The Grey City IV
The Grey City V
The Grey City VI
The Grey City VII
The Grey City VIII
The Grey City IX
The Grey City X
The Grey City XI

People were coming and going on the street ahead of them — they seemed furtive, as those in the street they had just left did, but these were all men. On the corner, Carys saw another boy. This one was dressed not in stenciled sackcloth, but in a bedraggled velvet suit, one that might once have belonged to a little lord in an old painting, spilling long curls over a now-vanished ruff. The back of his bowler, now towards the sisters, was enlivened by the tops of two peacock plumes, staring.

As they came closer, Carys saw that the curious figure was leaning on an umbrella, not a broom as he had supposed. “I beg your pardon,” said she, and was surprised to see a wrinkled face turn to her. The old man was tiny, his entire person, toe to plumes, stretching only a foot higher than Carys did herself.

“Yeeeeesh?” he said, with a grin clearly wood-grained.

Carys stuttered, but Eirian stepped in. “Sir, we were hoping you might be able to help us find our way.”

“Way? Mishter Shneadle findsh many thingsh for many people, little duchesshesh.” Far from being ashamed of his false teeth and the resultant whistling in his speech, he seemed to flaunt it. “But he requiresh shpeshificationsh.”

“Well, I had a full address, but it’s lost now,” said Carys. “Hardock Street?”

“Ah! In the Shouthdownsh. What’sh your businessh there?”

Carys was discomfited, but Eirian answered — she rather liked the funny little man. “We’ve an aunt and uncle waiting for us. Or, at least, they would be waiting for us had the letter been sent before Mother died. But we’ve an aunt and an uncle, at any rate.”

“Have you really?” said Shneadle, or Sneadle, his voice half insinuating and half wistful. His eyes, blue in their swaddling of wrinkles, watered slightly. Carys twitched her sister’s little hand in annoyance, and nodded to the little man, trying to force certainty into her gaze.

Just then, a woman came out from the flaking gilt doorway nearest to Sneadle’s, or Shneadle’s, corner. She was sturdy and quite tall, with black hair and more than a bit of painted color — purple above her stern eyes, red on her cheeks and lips, and a swath of white across her broad bosom, above tight ruffles of lurid magenta. “Wotchoo got there, Sneadle?” she called.

“Nothing, ma’am, nothing at all. Leashtwaysh, jusht shome little girlsh ashking directionsh.”

“Little girls?” said the giantess with interest, peering appraisingly down at the two. They squirmed closer together.

“Yesh,” he responded, and threw a quick glance at Carys, his eyes rolling like a cornered animal’s. “But…they’re messhengersh! Losht their way, dontcha know, but urgently exshpected at both endsh.”

A sooty brow shot up, but the homunculus held his wooden smile taut. The woman snorted. “Send them on their way, then, Shneadle, and stop wasting your time and our money.” She turned away.

Something relaxed in the very air, and Shneadle’s (or Sneadle’s) grin suddenly seemed genuine, for all its wood grain.

“Right, my prinshesshesh. Run Shouth along thish shtreet, which ish Threadneedle — no, better head Wesht first. Wesht to Button Shtreet, and avoid Threadneedle all together.” He looked over his shoulder at the gilt door. “Turn left on Button, there, then walk for almosht a mile, turn right on Orchard, left on Brew’ry, left at Posht Alley, and Hardock will, ash they shay, preshent itshelf.”

The girls nodded solemnly, and backed away from Threadneedle and the strange little man, who winked at them furiously for as long as they could tell, before a man in a long coat slunk up to him, also, it seemed, for directions; and the girls turned onto Button Street, disappearing from his sight.

The Grey City XIII


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