arling, go back to work. You’ve seen the thing delivered, and your best bet now is to be somewhere else. I’ll go and report to the Board. You can’t help me with that, you know you can’t.”
“I can bloody try.”
The Gnome sidled out of the way. Domestic altercations weren’t his thing, but he admitted to being interested. Carabosse was obviously a great deal more attached to Cobweb than he was usually prepared to admit.
“You can’t. I know you want to, but you would be better occupied getting some leave worked up so that if I have to go back to domestics, you can help me find something suitable. Let me do this my own way.”
“Cobweb, I really think I should come with you.”
“Oh yes? And the Lady is going to take me seriously if I have to have you to look after me?”
“Well. . .”
“Well, nothing. I need to convince Her that I know what I’m doing, and I can’t do that if She thinks I’ve got a nursemaid. In any event, She isn’t your Goddess, so you haven’t any influence here. Go on, go. She won’t kill me. Probably. Let’s face it, I’m almost always female, so I’ll be safer than either of you two. Possibly a small amount of corybanting. Go. Love you.”
The Gnome retired even further. He hadn’t appreciated quite how strong the bond was between these two, not with Cobweb alternately complaining about Carabosse’s topping and eyeing up possible competition, and Carabosse’s regular implication that Cobweb was a loose trebuchet. They were arm in arm at the edge of the clearing now, and he wondered if he should just leave quietly, but Carabosse suddenly vanished in a rather tidy thunderclap, and Cobweb came back to the cottage.
“Um. . . are you going to see. . . Her?”
“Oh yes. I knew it was coming sooner or later, but I didn’t expect to get quite that sort of injunction. But I’ve known for days that She was taking an interest. I’ve been thinking about threes. Look, I can spare some time to get you settled, and then I’ll go. Frankly, you look dreadful.”
“To tell the truth,” said the Gnome, who occasionally did, if he couldn’t see the amusement factor in a good lie, “what I really want is a bath and a change of clothes. And something to eat. Prison food is easily as bad as they always tell you. And there wasn’t anything to drink, and I didn’t think it would be a good place to see if I could over-ride a magic extractor and Change the water.”
“Good grief. The Gnome being sensible; I may need two aspirin and a lie down. You’d better stay here, then, and let me look after it. You’ve made enough of a hames of the last couple of days that I think I would prefer to have you under my eye. Barnabas, pet, are you stopping too? If you’re staying in this shape, I can make room for you with the Midget, provided you don’t mind sharing. Or if you want to be donkey, I refilled the hay-net, and I brought in some of that feed you said you liked. Of course, if you have places you need to be. . .”
“Oh, no, the lean-to would be lovely, thank you. But I don’t want to cause any trouble.”
“No trouble, dear. Go on, trot inside. Have you been groomed today? Yes? Is there water in the bucket? Shout if you want anything. Now, Gnome, go up to Minerale’s, and I’ll send over to yours for a change of clothes. And I’ll see what we can rustle up for you in the way of food. And then I’ll go.”
The Gnome went. Cobweb in full ‘make-it-happen’ mode was terribly funny, particularly since she was so completely failing to identify it as Mother behaviour, but he didn’t see that there was anything to be gained by arguing with her, and it was occasionally pleasant to be fussed over. Carabosse was right, though, she did do the Voice, and the Look. He was quite well aware of what her scolding was worth – when she did it professionally, as it were, the recipient tended to crawl away hoping to die, and what he was getting was no more than a thinly disguised affection. Minerale, who had ambitions towards running a spa, seemed pleased to see him, and happily provided hot water in considerable amounts. He was just beginning to consider the possibilities of getting out, when a muscular figure emerged from the trees, carrying a large towel, a pile of clothing, and. . . a cane?
“Oh, no, not you.”
“Well, nice to see you too, Gnome. I’ve got paperwork for you, from madam, so it’s serious.”
“Awww, Brian, not now! I’ve already got bruises. I’m too tired. I’m too old. I’m too sober. I’m too everything.”
“Nonsense. And you know it’s always better now than later, because then if you enjoy it you can do it again later.”
“She’s such a bitch! I hoped she would have forgotten.”
“The Bitch With The Switch. Or occasionally The Witch With The Switch. Be nice, Gnome, she’s been very generous about your clothes.”
“What about them?”
“Apparently, she Folded over to your place, and asked some statue (a herm, would it be?) to arrange a change of clothes for you. When she got back here, she was just finding you a clean towel, and piling the clothes up on top, and she thought that she would have expected more, so she had a proper look, and your herm had sent you an infantryman’s tunic, 5th century BC, short, and nothing else. You’d have had the wind whistling round your whereabouts and no mistake. She laughed until I thought she would fall over, but she went back for something more suitable. Me, I’d have made you wear it.”
“I’ll pulverise that bloody herm. Mind you, it’s her fault, she did something to it.”
“Well, she’s done something to it now. Apparently, she filled in a full set of paperwork for it, and then told it that it was impertinent and arranged for it to have twelve.”
“It won’t feel that. It’s stone.”
“It will. . . she conscripted the other herm and made it take the offender over its knee. Gods know what you’ll find in the porch when you go home, but she said there was a lot of pink marble about.”
“Dear Gods. . . She’s wreaked absolute havoc in my house, you know. I don’t know why I let her do it, I really don’t.”
“Probably because you know what will happen if you object. Things like this. Apparently you’re due eleven. Why eleven? Seems an odd number.”
“Of course it’s an odd number, it’s not divisible by two.”
“Oh, ha ha. Why eleven? I don’t like eleven. I like balance.”
“She gave me one herself.”
“Oh, well, never mind, let’s just do twelve, shall we? Tidier.”
“No, Brian, let’s not! Cobs said eleven, so eleven!”
“Does she know you call her Cobs?”
“Um. . . yes.”
“Does she like it?”
“Um. . . no. Awww, Brian!”
“So let’s say twelve and make the extra one for calling her Cobs. Out you come.”
“If I have to come into the water to fetch you, you’ll be sorry.”
“Somehow, I doubt it. Come and get me. If you’re Spank Fairy enough.”
Cobweb, sorting out sandwiches and drinks, lifted her head and listened. There seemed to be a great deal of splashing and laughing going on in the dell, and presently Minerale appeared, giggling. “Brian’s got him, but they’re both soaking wet. He’s struggling a good deal, but I wouldn’t call it convincing. I thought I should leave them to get on with it.”
“Very wise. Would you like a drink?”
“No thanks, I’m going to see some of the girls. There’s a baby shower happening at the waterfall.”
Cobweb was ready to leave by the time the Gnome arrived. He looked clean, flushed and somewhat smug, and he was carrying some rather damp paperwork. “Brian says you have to countersign this. He’s gone home. Is that Pimm’s?”
“Yes, and the kitchen has made you some bacon and avocado sandwiches, with rocket. And there’s some ginger-and-syrup sponge pudding left over, and cream. Eat up. I don’t know how long I’ll be, but you aren’t to go home, do you hear? Not until we know if people are looking for you. Tell the kitchen to tell the house to make you up a bed and show you where it is, if I’m very late.”
“There’s no need for that. . . I’m sure I could just go home. I don’t really think. . .”
“I know you don’t, so just do as you’re told, right?”
She leaned forward and gave him the Look. It was an extremely concentrated Look. Even in the Woodgnome, who was very, very experienced in carrying out mischief and getting away with it, it induced a deep unease, and a desire to confess to everything he had done, starting with the chewing gum and crayon on the carpet and reading by the landing light after bedtime, and moving up to wilful provocation, obscene use of the Internet with a mad Celtic fairy, and acts of gross profit before tax.
“Because I said so, Gnome.”
Somehow, that seemed tonight to be a much more complete answer than usual. Cobweb watched to ensure that there wasn’t going to be any argument, and then nodded, and Folded.
* * * * *
The Gnome finished the sandwiches, poured some more Pimm’s, and did what all normal people do when abandoned in someone else’s house: he began to explore the bookshelves. He was happily curled on the settee, reading a selection of badly typed short stories apparently written by Cobweb herself, when there was a loud crash outside, and he heard the Fay swear viciously. Suddenly she shot through the cottage and into her bedroom and he heard a wardrobe door bang.
“Cobweb? Is something wrong? What’s happened?”
“Gnome? Ask Barnabas if he’s up for some excitement. I need his help.”
“Barnabas? Why him?”
“JUST DO IT! Where did I leave. . .”
He wandered outside. “Donkey? She wants you to take her somewhere. She says it’ll be exciting.”
“Will she pay?”
“Did she before?”
“Actually, yes, she did.”
“Then I expect she will again.”
He became aware that the donkey wasn’t listening; it was gazing over his shoulder. Its shape flickered from donkey to cab and back via a large yellow Kawasaki, and its mirror fell off. He turned, and gaped at Cobweb. She was wearing a pair of leather trousers, at least one size too tight, a scarlet satin bustier, and the highest heels he had ever seen on her. She was also wearing a great deal of make-up, and glittery jewellery. He had his own attack of Motherhood.
“You aren’t going out dressed like that, are you? I can nearly see your. . . wouldn’t that top be better if it came up higher? And you’ll catch your death of cold. And” (it was a dreadful thing to say, but she was his friend, and somebody had to say it) “aren’t you too old to dress like that?”
She ignored him. “Barnabas, I’m going to need transport. Something a bit out of the ordinary. Lots of torque, lots of bhp, lots and lots and lots of sex appeal. No roof. No subtlety. Red. Very red. And a great big loud sound system. And probably Planet Rock playing.”
“Beautiful. I don’t know how you do it. I’m on an errand for the Lady, so you’ll get paid, but you may find you don’t want to look.”
The Gnome cleared his throat. He knew a certain amount about the Lady, and he didn’t really care to know any more, but he heard his voice, against his will, ask the question.
“What are you doing for Her?”
Cobweb gave him a vulpine grin. “She wants me to castrate somebody.”
He had been afraid it would be that.
They came back several hours later. He heard her moving around, settling Barnabas in the lean-to, before she came inside. She looked tired, and rather hyper, but much better than the Gnome had anticipated. Her bustier was laced up wrong, and she had her shoes in her hand, her make-up was smudged, and she had a long dirty mark across one shoulder. It was probably bloo. . . it didn’t actually look like blood. It looked like engine oil. He hoped it was engine oil. If Cobweb had been made to do something really. . . if she had actually. . . this might become one of those situations where friendship foundered on the rocks of gender difference. He didn’t think she would have. . . not really, but if her Boss had said she had to. . . He hoped to be able to finish a sentence presently.
“Are you still up? I thought you would have gone to bed. You weren’t waiting up for me, were you?”
“No,” said the Gnome flatly. He would have fried, sooner than admit to having been worried for her. “Tell me what happened. Oh, I asked the kitchen for some more Pimm’s. I hope you don’t mind.”
“I don’t mind, provided you haven’t drunk it all. Give me some. And did you eat all the sandwiches?”
“’Fraid so. Shall I ask the kitchen for some more?”
“Ask it for a soft boiled egg and some toast. I feel the need of nursery food. And I’ve got to get out of these clothes.”
“Not eggs with Pimm’s, surely?”
“No, perhaps not. Oh, all right, I’ll have a cup of tea first and Pimm’s afterwards.”
She crashed about in her bedroom, and appeared elegantly clad
in copper coloured trousers and a long gold jacket, looking like a rather overweight
principal boy, and bolted down the boiled egg and two cups of tea, while the
gnome possessed his
immoral immortal soul in patience. Then she fell
upon the Pimm’s.
“Come on, then, tell me what happened.”
“Well, I need to go back a few days. I told you that I knew that the Lady was taking an interest, because I found myself becoming preoccupied with threes.”
“Yes. I was beginning to wonder about senior personnel and their interest in what is going on. I mean, look at your. . . Master. I can’t imagine that He just thought it would be a convenient time and place to drop in on you, or the easiest way to get you out of trouble.” She avoided the Gnome’s eye, peering at the lemon balm and mint in her glass. She didn’t intend to ask the Gnome how he felt about his. . . Master, or to put him to the point of explaining it. A ball-breaker she might be (well, she admitted there wasn’t much doubt about it) but she had been taught proper manners. A long time ago, but there it was. “But even before that, I had been beginning to think about Gods. And Goddesses. And things. And threes are rather important to me.”
She looked up. The Gnome had regained control of his face. “For a start, you see, I deal fairly heavily in multiples of three. Sixes and twelves, usually, you know? And that in turn is because I report, in the last resort, to. . . Her. The White Lady.”
“Yes, I did know. Carabosse told me. He wasn’t sure that you had remembered it.”
“Oh, yes, but you see, I don’t generally have very much to do with the Board. I don’t get a single boss, I get a Board because of the triple aspect. I was introduced, early on, but She was rather preoccupied with something else at the time, and I didn’t get the impression that She was awfully interested in me. I didn’t fit any of Her aspects, you see, because She was being a fertility goddess at the time. And it had been a very long time since I was a maiden, and I hope to avoid being a crone, and motherhood doesn’t come naturally to me, you know?”
The Gnome coughed, and said nothing. Any questions of smacked, comforted and fed teenagers could wait for another time. He wasn’t sure that motherhood actually required the, well, the messy bits; he rather thought that they were only biology and largely irrelevant. He had a sneaking suspicion that the essential bits of motherhood, the managing and looking after bits, weren’t even exclusively female, but this didn’t seem the time for that discussion. Besides, if he said to Cobweb, “I think you’re a total Mother,” there was a fair chance that she would assume it to be an American insult, and then prove both meanings to him with the back of a hairbrush.
“Only, well, She likes threes, and I saw Huw and Luc and Ianto, as father and son and lover (if we’re going to accept the premise of Huw as father, which we aren’t). Or if you prefer, Luc and Ianto and Gruffydd, as hero and companion and enemy. And then there’s us.”
“Carabosse and you and me. Top and Bottom and Willing Switch. I mean, come on, if somebody had told you two months ago that you would be careering around the country with me to look after a human teenager who isn’t even going to be a Top, you would have laughed in their face, wouldn’t you? So She was interested. I didn’t think that it was any more than interest, yet, I didn’t think it was fully fledged interference, but I didn’t want to forget that She has Connections.”
“Connections! I should bloody think that She has connections! She bred most of them.”
“Don’t be vulgar. She’s a Mother, so of course She did. And She is several of the others. Gaea, Rhea, Cybele, and so on. And quite a lot of the others have been influenced by Her. Ishtar, for example – she may be a war goddess, but you only have to see the Mother in a temper to know where she learned to battle. By the way, that’s how your rescue came together so neatly. Apparently He knew what you wanted, but He couldn’t find you fast enough because there weren’t any wild things in the cells except spiders and they don’t talk sense, not since that scientist fed them all drugs to see what happened to their webs, but Cybele has had a soft spot for Him since Phrygia, and They knew that we wouldn’t be far apart, so She found out for him where I was, and, well, you see?”
“And ain’t that something? But there’s more. There’s quite a lot more. When I went, they were in the Board Room, all three of Her, and Sir Huon as well, and some sibyl servant in a suit. Well, naturally, I produced a proper obeisance to Her, and ignored Sir Huon, and She said, ‘I believe Sir Hang-On is important in your world, Cobweb’ and I suddenly thought, well, this might not be quite so awful, and he corrected Her about his name, and said, “Oh, yes, Cobweb owes her job to me,” and I caught Her eye and thought, you did that much better at Ginnungagap. I could see that She didn’t like it. So I curtsied to Sir Huon, but I didn’t dip my head, and I maintained eye contact all the way, so that he could see that I was doing it as a courtesy to a guest in Her place, not out of respect for him. And he didn’t like that.”
“I’ll bet he didn’t! Then what?”
“Then Sir Huon lodged a formal complaint about me meddling in the affairs of men, and She said, ‘But my dear Sir Huon, I thought that was her job?’ And I suddenly realised that he was having trouble understanding Her, because She was all talking at once.”
“What do you mean?”
“You know there are three of Her? There’s one who looks like a girl in her late teens, and then the main one who looks about my age. . . well, about the age I prefer to show, and the senior Lady who sits very still and watches everything and then says something that reminds you that She is terrifyingly intelligent and has seen it all before. And if you are in truly deep trouble, She all talks at once. If it’s just chat, one of them talks and the others nod occasionally, but when She’s pissed off, they chorus, but not quite together. It takes a bit of getting used to, because there’s always one half a beat behind. But I’ve got good at it by listening to the cricket.”
“Go on, I’ll buy it. What has the cricket got to do with it?”
“I’ve got a digital radio, and several little long wave ones, and if I’m working between two places, like the kitchen and the dining room, I’ll have one in each so that I don’t miss anything. But the digital has about a second of time delay for some reason, so in the doorway where you can hear them both, they aren’t quite synched. It’s good practice for Her. And Sir Huon was having to work rather hard. It’s like, you know if you’re listening to a conversation in a language you don’t know very well, you have to concentrate so hard on what’s being said that you don’t think about anything except understanding, so you tend not to be able to add anything very scintillating to the theme.”
The Gnome nodded.
“So then Sir Huon said that I wasn’t doing my job right, and then it really was agricultural fertiliser in the air conditioning. She asked what he meant, and he moaned about Luc, and about you. I had no business interfering with a human child, and giving him gifts, and when Sir Huon had told me to stop I was impertinent, and disobedient and all the rest of it, and he had given me two verbal warnings and now he wanted Her to put a stop to whatever I was about. And She was furious. I could see. Well, actually, I don’t think anybody could have missed it, because a plastic pot plant flowered, and the tide began to come in across the carpet. Remember, She’s a moon Goddess some of the time, in the triple aspect again, so if She’s pre-menstrual, people tend to know about it. And there’s no moon outside tonight, so She’s due on, and my, is She snappy.”
This was rather beyond the Gnome, but he was prepared to take her word for it.
“So She pulled some serious rank. She told Huon that he might have given me my job, but that She had confirmed it, and that She hadn’t seen that I was doing anything I shouldn’t. And that in any event it wasn’t for him to say if Her staff were obeying Her and doing as She wanted. He seemed to have forgotten that Nemesis is concerned with balance, and that although it was a little unusual for me to reward good behaviour, there was nothing in my contract to say that I couldn’t. If I thought that the child Luc (and you should have heard the inverted commas around ‘Luc’ – She knows more than She’s telling) was due a gift, I could give one if I wanted. And I had enough authority to co-opt whatever elementals I liked. That was you. I nearly choked trying not to laugh at the thought of anybody managing to co-opt you into anything you didn’t want to do.
“And then Sir Huon made a mistake. He said something about ‘but she’s only a domestic fairy, after all, it’s not as if she’s even important.’ And She went very quiet and then She spoke all together, and perfectly in synch, and said ‘Cobweb is Our priestess, and We will not have her addressed like that.’ And I fell off my chair.”
The Gnome nearly fell off his. A sprite with less experience would have spilled his drink. “You’re Her priestess? You never said! Since when?”
“Since She said it then. On the spot promotion. Scary, or what? I’ve never really cared for organised religion, but when the Goddess says ‘it’s you’, you don’t argue. Huon made a face like a goldfish, and the sibyl servant dropped his notepad (he’d been taking shorthand notes) and I had enough sense to keep my mouth shut, and wait to see where we were going. He rallied fast, Huon did. You don’t get to his place unless you’re quick. He said, ‘Surely, Madam, your priestess has duties of a rather. . . severe nature? I am not aware that Cobweb has ever acted as one of the Galli.’”
“Neither am I! Have you?”
“Of course not! I’m a Bottom, not a suicidal maniac, and even when I top, I only do domestics. Calm down. And you don’t need to keep crossing your legs and turning away. I was fairly bug-eyed myself by this stage, and then She said, ‘If you doubt her ability, we had best put her to the test. Cobweb, find someone to castrate, and show Sir Huon how it’s done nowadays.’”
“Dear Gods. . . I am so glad that She isn’t my lookout, I really am. What did you do?”
“Panicked completely for about ten seconds, before my brain caught up and I heard that ‘nowadays’. So then I gave Huon a very slow smile, you know, the sort that shows all your teeth but doesn’t move anything higher than the sinuses, and She said, sharply, ‘No, Cobweb, not him,” but I could tell She was amused. He wasn’t. He crossed his legs, too.”
“Bet he did. . . So what did you do?”
“I said, submissively, that I would get onto it at once, but that I would have to go home and change, and I Folded back here. Well, you saw that bit. Then Barnabas and I went to London in the twenty-first century. I made it a slow Fold and explained to Barnabas what I meant to do, and he’s been bloody brilliant all night. I couldn’t possibly have pulled it off without him.”
“You pulled. . .you didn’t even cut?”
“Oh, no, honestly, it wasn’t that bad. We went to London and I went looking for a sacrifice. I found one soon enough. He said he was a Futures Trader – as far as I can tell, he buys things that don’t exist yet, and that he doesn’t want, and pays for them with money he hasn’t got but hopes to get by selling the last thing that didn’t exist to someone who doesn’t want it yet. At least, I think that’s what he said. Even for someone as good with Time as me, it sounds complicated.”
“It does. Are you sure you got it right?”
“No. But he was a revolting man with a sharp suit and a red tie with a nude on it and a gold credit card and a huge ego, and I picked him up in a bar. It wasn’t difficult. As soon as he saw the outfit he came on to me. He called me Babe.”
The Gnome shuddered. Even if his tastes hadn’t lain elsewhere, he wouldn’t have come on to a Cobweb dressed like that. She had reminded him of the sort of snake which announces its venom with bright colours. And he couldn’t imagine ever being so drunk or so stupid as to call her Babe.
“He asked if I wanted to go to a party, so I said yes, and he said he would drive me. So I said no, I would take my own car, and I led him outside and he showed me his car, which was big and red and vulgar, and I showed him Barnabas. And he gulped a bit. So I said we could race along the flyover, and we did, and Barnabas won. Naturally.”
“Naturally,” agreed the Gnome, who was beginning to see where this was going.
“So then I said we would go to the party in my car, and he agreed. And then he asked if he could drive it. And I was going to say no, because I wouldn’t do that to Barnabas without his permission, but Barnabas throttled up, and I guessed that he was keen, and said he could. And Barnabas was absolutely fantastic. He went the length of Camden High Street in kangaroo hops, so that it looked as if this man couldn’t get the hang of the clutch, and he stalled himself at every single set of traffic lights we met, and he let his engine die twice in yellow boxes with traffic waiting to turn. He’s going to feel absolutely dreadful in the morning. We’ll have to give him a complete oil change and overhaul his gearbox. When we got to the party, the man tried to introduce me to his friends, and I kept getting his name wrong, and their names right, and making fun of him. Then I got the real shock. The man whose party it was brought me a drink, and I looked up at him, and it was. . . well, it was your Boss.”
This time the Gnome really spilled his Pimm’s. “Him? What was He doing there?”
“Throwing a party. When I had a proper look, I could see that there was a huge power surge going on to make the maenads look like It Girls. I didn’t know what to say.”
“I should think not! What did you say?”
“Nothing. It occurred to me that if He wanted to acknowledge me, He would, and if He didn’t, it would be rude for me to presume on a single meeting. And besides, I didn’t know whether Sir Huon, who would be watching, would recognise Him – he doesn’t really look at people. So I thanked Him for the drink, and He smiled at me, and I drank what tasted like a rather good Vouvray out of a bottle that said Abyssinian Liebfraumilch. Now, it had been my intention to drink the trader under the table – I was sure I could do it after all the practice I’ve had with you – and I reckon I’ve had a minimum of a bottle and a half on an empty stomach, and I’m stone cold sober still. I never poured my own drink, and I didn’t accept them from anyone except Him, and my trader fell into my cleavage after an hour.”
The Gnome shuddered again. He could understand, theoretically if not personally, that a man might wish to spend time in Cobweb’s cleavage (particularly since the excess flesh from the too-tight trousers had apparently been transferred straight upwards to overfill the bustier), but given the clothes and the temper she had been in, he was amazed that even the human hadn’t spotted the danger.
“So he wanted to go outside, and I said we would, and on the way, I cast a small glamour and produced a man who claimed to know me, and who congratulated me on my spring bonus. Which was more money than the trader could imagine without having to stop and write it down.”
“Clever. Good line.”
“Thank you. Then we went outside, and he wanted to, you know, so I waited until he was in his stride and then said ‘hurry up, for goodness sake, I want another drink’. Then a couple of minutes later, I said, ‘have you finished yet?’ and that seemed to do for him completely.”
“Yes, it would.”
“Then Barnabas took me back to HQ, and Sir Huon complained about the lack of blood, and She said, ‘But don’t you realise, my dear Sir Huon, that the man will now be unable to get it up for a month, and will in future be rendered incapable by the sight of a red sports car or the thought of traffic lights?’ and Huon just gurgled.”
The Gnome was gurgling a bit himself. They shared some more Pimm’s.
“Then She said that if Sir Huon was satisfied – and it would have taken a braver man than Huon not to be – she wouldn’t keep him any longer, and he went. And the Magna Mater said to me, rather severely, that I wasn’t to get any smart ideas, I was a priestess without portfolio and I wasn’t to interfere, but that if Nemesis went wrong I might be allowed to take over the Circean end of things and the bits that overlapped with Ishtar. You know, degrading love – should suit me right down to the Bottom.”
“Well! You’ve come out of that rather well, haven’t you?”
“I’m. . . not sure. She also said that we – ‘you and your little vegetative friend’, She said - might like to think that if we weren’t getting what we wanted from Gods or men, we should try Manufacture.”
“What the hells did that mean?”
“I worked it out on the way home. Come and I’ll show you. You see, you aren’t the only one with a means of getting about other than Folding. I don’t necessarily Fold the same way that other people do: most people crease Reality and Infinity together, and then step through the creases. Generally I do that too, but I’ve got an alternative.”
The Gnome appreciated that she hadn’t said “another alternative”. It was a pleasure to deal with somebody who knew that there was only ever one alternative.
“I can move this way too.”
She caught his hand, and reality did something odd under his feet, and suddenly he was standing on a dark grey path in a badly lit and rather foggy otherwhere.
“It isn’t a where, it’s a when. Everywhen. Since everywhere is part of the same place, it all passes through when eventually, so I can come here and find the when that corresponds to the where I want. It’s because I’m. . .”
“Mistress of Time and Space, I know, you’ve mentioned it before. So this is Time, is it? It isn’t very decorative.”
“It doesn’t have to be. It just needs to be available. But it took me ages to get the hang of using it. Fortunately, here, one has ages. I find it easier than a conventional Fold, but Carabosse can’t get the way of it at all. Apparently a lot of people can’t. It’s like making soufflé, you know? Either you have the hand for it or you don’t and if you don’t you should just stick to scrambled egg. The problem is that it all looks like this, and if you don’t have a very good notion of when you are, you can be lost here more or less for ever. Time doesn’t show it to everybody. You should be flattered; if he doesn’t like you, you can’t get in. If he had objected, he simply wouldn’t have let me bring you here. But then, you go back a long way, don’t you, so Time will have had plenty of opportunities to spot you. Anyway, I want to go to Imagination, which is a subsection of Story, and it’s over there. Come on.”
She set off, and the Gnome followed, but more slowly. He was tired and bruised, and his feet hurt. The herm might have been subdued by Cobweb, but its impertinence had not been fully extinguished and it had sent a most unsuitable pair of shoes. He stopped for a moment to look around, and when he glanced forward again, Cobweb was out of sight. Which way had she gone? The grey path divided and divided again, and the fog breathed around him.
“Oh, Gods, I’m lost in the mists of Time. Nine paragraphs for one lousy pun. COBWEB? WHERE ARE YOU?”
She emerged from the swirling grey. “What’s the matter?”
“Did you do that on purpose? Because I’m telling Carabosse on you if you did. Wait for me. I have no idea of either where or when I am, and I don’t know where I’m going.”
“Darling, you’re going to a party, and you know that always makes you feel better. It’ll be full of people you know.”
It was. It appeared to be a house party comprising a peculiar range of guests. The Gnome was curious to see that they tended to form up in multiples of three; possibly Cobweb was right about the interest of the Board. Most of them seemed to know Cobweb. She started with the men nearest the door. There was a very tall, handsome dark man with extremely beautiful hands – the Gnome wondered if he. . . no, he was married, wasn’t he? He had married the painter. He was talking to a much smaller blond with a monocle and to a vague looking companion in spectacles. Cobweb curtsied to the latter.
“Rud. . .”
“No, dear. Not that name. You know I don’t. And don’t curtsey, it makes me nervous.”
“Albert, then. How are you? Are you people up for some work? There’s big interference happening in Nemesis, and I want to know why and who. Oh, do you know the Woodgnome? I thought you probably did.”
“Not by that name,” said the blond, with interest. “I always thought you were part of the Momus group. I hadn’t realised you were. . . oh, thank you, very kind, I will have another glass. I say, Cobweb, were you responsible for a rather libellous little skit that went the rounds a month or so ago on the subject of my relationship with my wife and my butler?”
“I thought you were. It had your stamp all over it. Charles laughed himself sick about it. He’s here somewhere, and he’ll be offended if you don’t say hello. He was talking to Stanislaus a minute ago.”
“I’ll see him before I go. I want you all, for preference. Somebody is misbehaving with my job, and there seem to be a lot of senior elementals acting against me, so I’m calling up the big guns from Reality and Imagination. I need you guys. You know we’re on the same side – I’m generally for morality and so on – so will you help?”
Peter and Albert nodded, and Roderick’s mobile mouth twitched. “Did you doubt us? Who else are you asking? Fox is here, and he and Charles and Stanislaus. . .”
“Oh yes, the police, naturally. And. . . are the ladies here?”
“Well, Harriet and Troy and Amanda are in the other room. Amanda was taking the clock apart to see how it worked – you know what she is – Albert, do you think she ought to do that here in Time’s domain?”
“It will work better after she’s finished with it. Troy was drawing the parts for her and Harriet was writing down what they did. Don’t worry, it will go back together. Last I saw, Jane and Maud were sitting by the fireplace exchanging knitting patterns and talking about their nephews and nieces. They’ve struck up an improbable friendship with that woman from the Home Office who looks like a crocodile. Beatrice, is that her name? I don’t think they have any vocabulary in common, but they’re getting on like nothing on earth. Bunter and Lugg are serving drinks with an woman in a leather skirt and handcuffs – a Miss Jones, would that be right? Sam? – and there was a Welsh monk exchanging stories with another policeman and his son, people called Felse. Might be useful.”
Peter agreed. “Lots of policemen here. Hannasyde and Hemingway came, do you know them? And Wexford and his sergeant, and Morse and his. The six of them were doing some serious networking. And Father Brown is discussing morality with Lord John Grey. And the Monks and the Pitts. That’s six more. And the Belgian, of course. I don’t think he can find anything he likes to drink, though, so he might not stay.”
The Gnome eased sideways. Provision of suitable things to drink he could do. Sticky sweet things, wasn’t that what the Belgian liked? And shouldn’t the Senior Man be here, with the doctor? Yes, they were all together in the corner, with Holmes and Poirot talking about how the brain worked, and the doctor smiling at them both. Keep them here, then. Cobweb was networking – webspinning? – like nobody’s business, so he drifted around the edge of the party and improved the wine. That kept things going for an hour or so. But he really wasn’t himself: he wanted to go home, and even if he couldn’t go to his own place, Cobweb had promised him a bed at hers, and he wanted to be in it. He caught her eye, and made the unmistakeable gestures of the male whose womenfolk are stopping him leaving a party. She laughed, and came back to him.
“Time to go home? Come on, then. We’ll Fold. I think I’ve found out where Huw fits into the plot.”
“Tell me. Who knew?”
“The two old biddies and the monk worked it out for me. The ladies asked about Inheritance Tax and wills, because most of what they did revolved around that, and I said that as far as I knew Luc wasn’t due to inherit anything, because if there was a genuine father he hadn’t anything to leave, and a hidden father wasn’t willing to leave anything, and if the thing about Huw was made to stick, then Luc was illegitimate and couldn’t count on being left anything. And the monk said that under Welsh law, if Huw acknowledged Luc, Luc could inherit. Apparently one of his cases was balanced on that. So I reckon that our Master Criminal is setting us up, to set Huw up, to look after the cuckoo in the nest. How’s that?”
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