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help. This necessary arrangement was common to the warmlands, for while a percheron could do heavy
work all day, managing a ledger with hooves was a next-to-impossible task. So capuchins and baboons
and similarly dexterous individuals did the paperwork for them.
Sorenset led them past the fancier accommodations toward the back where a number of less elaborate
but still spotlessly clean stalls faced a small stream. Such stable space was usually occupied by
free-lancers: those haulers and packers who preferred to work alone rather than in teams. Here hay was
more in evidence in the feed delivery bays than oats or alfalfa.
Around a corner and down a pathway shaded by ancient wool wood trees, they found themselves facing
a shuttered stall front and door. To the left of the double door was an oversize mailbox, a large round
depository whose contents could be removed with equal ease by hands or lips. Above the box was a
brass nameplate on which a single name was engraved in incongruously elegant script:
DORMAS.
Sorenset smiled at them before pushing the door-bell button. Something clanged inside, was followed by
a deep yet unmistakably feminine voice. It sounded slightly irritated.
"Get lost! I ain't in the mood."
Mudge was nodding approvingly. "Ah, a lady after me own 'eart."
Sorenset looked embarrassed as he cleared his throat. "It's me, Sorenset of the council, acting the part
of guide."
"I don't care if it's the Grand Randury of the Moshen Theatre Ensemble acting the part of the spasmed
duck! I'm not interested in company." A pause, then, "Oh-wait a minute. I do know you. You're the one
who told me about the southerners trekking north who needed someone to haul for them up onto the
Plateau?"
Sorenset fought to retain his dignity as he replied. "I am. Of the city council. Could we come in, please?"
"Suit yourself. Door's open."
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Sorenset pulled on the latch and swung the heavy wooden barrier aside, held it open while his charges
filed through.
Wearing a beige blanket and standing before them was their volunteer. Jon-Tom's eyebrows drew
together as he frowned at the animal.
"You're not a horse."
Dormas immediately cocked a jaundiced eye at the fox. "Who's this fountain of wit?"
"Oh, indeedy, my kind of lady," said Mudge with a delighted chuckle as he crossed his legs and leaned
back against the wall. Sorbl closed the door behind him.
"You're a mule," Jon-Tom added.
She turned her gaze from their guide back to him. "You don't know much of anything, do you, human?"
She went on to explain as if to an idiot. "For your information I am not a mule. I am a ninny."
"I beg your pardon?"
"And about time too." She looked back to Sorenset. "You told me I'd be traveling in the company of
wizards and warriors, not idiot children."
"Now look," Jon-Tom began, "I don't think-"
"A mule," she explained, interrupting him, "is the offspring of a donkey and a horse, or more specifically,
of a jackass and a mare. Whereas a hinny is the offspring of a stallion and a female donkey. Either of
which is preferable to being the fruit of the union of a couple of hairless apes. The wonder of it is," she
added, looking him up and down, "is that so much could spring from so little effort."
He made hurried placating gestures. "Hey, I'm sorry, I didn't know. Quadrupedal biology isn't one of my
specialties."
"Nor is diplomacy, apparently."
"I said I was sorry. My name's Jon-Tom. This is the great wizard Clothahump, his famulus Sorbl, and
my friend and traveling companion, Mudge. We're delighted that you've volunteered to help us."
"Help you, hell." She snorted once, glanced over at Clothahump. "It's pretty clear that you're the leader
of this lot of mental defectives, hard-shell or not. The man's too green, the owl too tipsy, and the water
rat has shifty eyes. You're acclaimed by default."
"De fault of an unfair fate, I calls it," murmured Mudge, low enough so that Clothahump couldn't hear
him.
"The fox told me I'd be paid in accordance with the danger involved. With winter threatening to bust
open over our heads any day now, that's danger enough."
"I concur, and your recompense shall reflect that," Clothahump told her.
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She appeared somewhat mollified by this ready agreement. "Well, that's better. Didn't mean to appear
contrary."
"Nice to meet you," said Sorbl, fluttering his wings. He'd found a proper perch on a crossbeam."
"Me too," added Jon-Tom. "I apologize for any offense I may have caused. I assure you it was
unintentional. I still have a lot to learn about this world."
"Urn. I'm Dormas. None of us can help what we are."
"How's tricks, good-looking? I'm Mudge." The otter added a cheery whistle.
"Shifty eyes, but I like you, otter. You don't walk two inches above the ground." She shifted her
attention back to the council fox. "Get lost, Sorenset. I've got dealings to quantify. And thanks for the
business. You'll get your cut later."
"My cut?" The fox was already retreating toward the door. "Why, I don't know what you're talking
about!" He bestowed a wan smile on the saviors of the city. "I really do have to run anyway. Good-bye
and good luck." He departed with unseemly haste.
"And now it's time to settle on a few details," Dormas said brightly.
"Details? I thought Sorenset had taken care of those," Clothahump said.
"Naw. Just brought us together, he did. Come in back and let's sit a spell."
The back room was a revelation. There was a finely worked straw bed whose contents were obviously
changed and scented daily, a gilded water trough, and the usual assortment of equine-type
accoutrements. There was also a large amount of artwork, much of it consisting of finely wrought
renderings of rolling hills and lush meadows, but also several paintings of mountain scenery. Jon-Tom was
particularly taken by one that showed their hostess flanked by a pair of mountain goats. All three had a
hoof raised to wave at the recording artist.
"Speed painter did that one for me. What do you think? Not a bad likeness." [ Pobierz całość w formacie PDF ]