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Aathia—his partner in all but love—said nothing. Her eyes glinted like chips of ice, or like the jewels that were the only things she loved. Carthus and Aathia, jewel merchants. They made a strange pair. There was a discreet cough from behind Carthus. He turned to see a white-tuniced slave holding a parchment scroll.

He wiped the sweat from his face with the back of his hand. The man who left it said that it was urgent.

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I was told it was for your eyes and the eyes of the Lady Aathia, and for no other. He was a big man with a fleshy face, sandy receding hair, and a worried expression.

His business rivals—and there were many, for Ponti had become, over the years, the center of the wholesale jewel business—had learned that his expression held no clue to his inner feelings. In many cases it had cost them money to learn this. Aathia broke the seal with her sleeve knife and unrolled the parchment. Her eyes flicked over it once, fast, then again at a slower pace.

She whistled. With his racquet he rubbed absentmindedly at the small crisscross scar on his right cheek. Well, for a start, the name is obviously false. There are more men named Glew Croll in Ponti than there are diamonds in your storehouses. The address is obviously rented accommodation in the Undercliffs. There was no ring mark on the wax seal. I can see all that. And if it is, as he implies, Ruling Enclave business, why would it be carried on with the secrecy he requests?

And, reading between the lines, it would appear that there is a great deal of wealth involved. He reached down to the skull pile, leaned his racquet against it, and placed the scroll beside it. He picked up a large skull. He caressed it gently with his blunt, stubby fingers. Dead-blood aristocratic half-wits. Then he spun around, suprisingly fast for one so big, and threw the skull with all his might at a far pillar, well beyond the field of play. It seemed to hang in the air forever and then, with a painful slowness, it hit the pillar and smashed into a thousand fragments.

The almost-musical tinkling sounds it made as it did so were very beautiful. He walked out of the room, carrying the scroll with him. Aathia stared at him as he left, then she clapped her hands, summoning a slave to clear up the mess. The caves that honeycomb the rock on the north side of the Bay of Dawn, down into the bay, beneath the bridge, are known as the Undercliffs. Carthus took his clothes off at the door, handing them to his slave, and walked down the narrow stone steps.

His flesh gave an involuntary shiver as he entered the water kept a little below blood temperature in the aristocratic manner, but still chill after the heat of the day , and he swam down the corridor into an anteroom. Reflected light glimmered across the walls. On the water floated four other men and two women. They lounged on large wooden floats, elegantly carved into the shapes of waterbirds and fish. Carthus swam over to an empty float—a dolphin—and hauled his bulk up onto it.

All the High Council members, bar one, were there. A skeletal woman with flawless white skin pointed to one of the inner rooms. Then she yawned and twisted her body, a rippling twist, at the end of which she was off the float—hers was carved into the shape of a giant swan—and into the water. Carthus envied and hated her: that twist had been one of the twelve so-called noble dives. He knew that, despite having practiced for years, he could not hope to emulate her. Still, it was reassuring to see other council members here.

There was a splashing behind him, and he turned. Down the corridor on the left. They were aristocrats of Ponti, and so they hid their envy and their irritation that Carthus was going in before them, although they did not hide it as well as they thought they did; and, somewhere deep inside, Carthus smiled. He suppressed the urge to ask the hunchback what this business was all about, and he slipped off his float.

The warmed seawater stung his eyes. The room in which Grew Croll waited was up several rock steps, and was dry and dark and smoky. One lamp burned fitfully on the table in the center of the room. There was a robe on the chair, and Carthus slipped it on. A man stood in the shadows beyond the lamplight, but even in the murk Carthus could see that he was tall and completely bald.

As you have undoubtedly inferred from the message I sent you, this is Ruling Enclave business. Now, before another word is said, I must ask you to read and sign this oath of secrecy. Take all the time you need. Carthus read it over twice. Carthus shrugged his great shoulders and signed. The paper was taken from his fingers and placed in a trunk at the far end of the hall. We can get down to business then. Something to drink? Very well. I am a junior administrative member of the Ruling Enclave.

National landmark. Tourist attraction. Very impressive if you like that sort of thing. Built of jewels and magic.

Not that he could recall. At the other end of the scale you have such phenomena as the Sea Serpent Sea, in which the purely magical sea serpents still frolic and bask almost nine thousand years after the execution of Cilimwai Lah, their creator. Yes, I knew that. Then you will understand the import when I tell you that the half-life of the Ponti Bridge—according to the wisest of our natural philosophers—is little more than two thousand years.

Soon, perhaps very soon, messire, it will begin to crumble and collapse. There would be panic. The news cannot be allowed to leak out until we are ready, hence this secrecy.

He passed it across the table and continued. As you can imagine, if the jewels were all released at once in Ponti, they would soon be almost worthless. In exchange for entire ownership of the bridge, the jeweler would have to undertake to build a structure beneath it, and as the bridge crumbles he or she would collect the jewels, and would undertake to sell no more than half a percent of them within the city walls.

You, as the senior partner in Carthus and Aathia, are one of the people I have been appointed to discuss this matter with. It seemed almost too good to be true—if he could get it. His voice was casual. He sounded uninterested. Each of you will submit a tender for the bridge, via myself, to the Ruling Enclave. There is to be no conferring among you jewelers.

The Enclave will choose the best offer and then, in open and formal session, the winner will be announced and then—and only then—will the winner pay any money into the city treasury. Most of the winning bid, as I understand things, will go toward the building of another bridge out of significantly more mundane materials, I suspect and to paying for a ferry for the citizens while there is no bridge. To the jeweler it seemed as if those hard eyes were boring into his soul.

Let me warn you of two things. Secondly, if anybody finds out about the spell fatigue, then we will not waste time in finding out which of you jewelers opened his mouth too wide and not too well. Do I make my meaning plain?

Your tender in five days, remember. Send another in. Far above him the jeweled heights of the Ponti Bridge stood, as they had stood, glinting and twinkling and shining down on the town, for the last two thousand years. He squinted: Was it his imagination, or were the jewels less bright, the structure less permanent, the whole glorious bridge subtly less magnificent than before? Was the air of permanence that hung about the bridge beginning to fade away?

Carthus began to calculate the value of the bridge in terms of jewel weight and volume. He wondered how Aathia would treat him if he presented her with the rose diamond from the summit; and the High Council would not view him as a nouveau riche upstart, not him, not if he was the man who bought the Ponti Bridge.

Oh, they would all treat him better. There was no doubt of that. One by one, the man who called himself Glew Croll saw the jewel merchants.

Each reacted in his or her own way—shock or laughter, sorrow or gloom—at the news of the spell fatigue in the binding of the Ponti Bridge. Carthus himself told no one anything, not even his beloved, unattainable Aathia.

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He locked himself in his study and wrote tenders, tore them up, wrote tenders once again. The rest of the jewelers were similarly occupied. Gloathis, Redcap, and I had listened to the man called Stoat all night. It was at this point in his narrative that he leaned back on his cushion, and he grinned.

And what about you, Gloathis? Do you see? Or are your eyes covered with mud? But I fail to see the profit in this for you. They are waiting for a public announcement that will never come, and then the chance to pay their money into the public treasury….

He looked at me and raised an eyebrow. I shook my head. I saw it all, and I understood, and as I understood I could feel the laughter welling up inside me.

I tried to keep it inside, and the effort almost choked me. My friends stared at me, irritated. Stoat said nothing, but he waited. I got up, leaned in to Stoat, and whispered in his ear. He nodded once, and I began to chortle once again. Then he stood up. I stared after him as he left. The other two were looking at me. After the jewelers left his office he let them stew for a few days, letting the tension build and build.

Then, secretly, he arranged to see each of the jewelers at different times and in different places—probably lowlife taverns. The tenders would be submitted to the Enclave through my friend. He could arrange for the jeweler he was talking to—Carthus, say—to put in the winning tender.

I should have seen it! What a perfect con. We were lost in contemplation of the brilliance of the man who sold the Ponti Bridge. The twelve of them sat around a campfire roasting huge sausages on sticks, which spat and crackled as the fat dripped onto the burning applewood, and drinking fresh apple cider, tangy and tart in their mouths.

April took a dainty bite from her sausage, which burst open as she bit into it, spilling hot juice down her chin. Squat March, sitting next to her, laughed, low and dirty, and then pulled out a huge, filthy handkerchief. April wiped her chin.

Her dark hair was cropped short against her skull, and she wore sensible boots. She smoked a small brown cigarillo that smelled heavily of cloves. Who wants to begin? The other eleven sat on tree stumps equally spaced about the small bonfire. The tree stumps had been worn smooth and comfortable by years of use. Nobody starts till October says who starts, and then nobody else talks.

Can we have maybe the tiniest semblance of order here? His beard was all colors, a grove of trees in autumn, deep brown and fire orange and wine red, an untrimmed tangle across the lower half of his face. His cheeks were apple red. He looked like a friend; like someone you had known all your life. Then he stood up and bowed to the company and began to speak. The last of the white grapes are harvested in me, and the bulk of the reds: I appreciate fine wines, the aroma, the taste, the aftertaste as well.

It was on the wine list at one hundred and twenty thousand dollars, although it was, in true terms, priceless, for it was the last bottle of its kind. He was the fattest of them all, his thin hair combed in golden wisps across his pink pate. September glared down at his neighbor. He looked a great deal. Years ago. Dumb story then. Dumb story now. His pink cheeks shone in the firelight.

It has to be a new story. He sat down on his stump. They looked at one another across the fire, the months of the year. And when the person came through again she knew it this time, and it was the man, and he was a wizened old Indian man and she was pretty and black and, like, twenty-five, and she knew it would never work out and she let him go, because she could also see from the shapes of his bags on the screen that he was going to die soon.

Tell that one. October nodded.

The man in the chair only tells his story when the rest of us are through. And I have things to be getting back to.

All in favor? I cannot believe this is happening. Seven hands were raised. Four people kept their hands down—February, September, January, and July. But I still think it. He stretched in his chair.

He cracked a cobnut with his teeth, pulled out the kernel, and threw the fragments of shell into the fire, where they hissed and spat and popped, and he began.

There was a boy, October said, who was miserable at home, although they did not beat him. He did not fit well, not his family, his town, nor even his life. He had two brothers, who were twins, older than he was, and who hurt him or ignored him, and were popular.

They played football: some games one twin would score more and be the hero, and some games the other would. Their little brother did not play football. They had a name for their brother. They called him the Runt. They had called him the Runt since he was a baby, and at first their mother and father had chided them for it.

Look at him. Look at us. Their parents thought it was cute. A name like the Runt can be infectious, so pretty soon the only person who called him Donald was his grandmother, when she telephoned him on his birthday, and people who did not know him. Now, perhaps because names have power, he was a runt: skinny and small and nervous. He had been born with a runny nose, and it had not stopped running in a decade. At mealtimes, if the twins liked the food, they would steal his; if they did not, they would contrive to place their food on his plate and he would find himself in trouble for leaving good food uneaten.

Their mother described herself as a newspaperwoman, although she mostly sold advertising space and subscriptions: she had gone back to work full-time once the twins were capable of taking care of themselves. They had called him Donald for several weeks in first grade, until the word trickled down that his brothers called him the Runt.

The Runt could not have told you when he first decided to run away, nor when his daydreams crossed the border and became plans. By the time that he admitted to himself he was leaving he had a large Tupperware container hidden beneath a plastic sheet behind the garage containing three Mars bars, two Milky Ways, a bag of nuts, a small bag of licorice, a flashlight, several comics, an unopened packet of beef jerky, and thirty-seven dollars, most of it in quarters. He did not like the taste of beef jerky, but he had read that explorers had survived for weeks on nothing else; and it was when he put the packet of beef jerky into the Tupperware box and pressed the lid down with a pop that he knew he was going to have to run away.

He had read books, newspapers, and magazines. He knew that if you ran away you sometimes met bad people who did bad things to you; but he had also read fairy tales, so he knew that there were kind people out there, side by side with the monsters. The Runt was a thin ten-year-old, small, with a runny nose and a blank expression. Over at the side. The one your eye slipped over. All through September he put off leaving. It took a really bad Friday, during the course of which both of his brothers sat on him and the one who sat on his face broke wind and laughed uproariously , for him to decide that whatever monsters were waiting out in the world would be bearable, perhaps even preferable.

Saturday, his brothers were meant to be looking after him, but soon they went into town to see a girl they liked. The Runt went around the back of the garage and took the Tupperware container out from beneath the plastic sheeting. He took it up to his bedroom.

He emptied his schoolbag onto his bed, filled it with his candies and comics and quarters and the beef jerky. He filled an empty soda bottle with water. The Runt walked into town and got on the bus. There was no sidewalk now, so when cars came past he would edge over into the ditch, to safety. The sun was high. He was hungry, so he rummaged in his bag and pulled out a Mars bar. After he ate it he found he was thirsty, and he drank almost half of the water from his soda bottle before he realized he was going to have to ration it.

He had thought that once he got out of the town he would see springs of fresh water everywhere, but there were none to be found. There was a river, though, that ran beneath a wide bridge.

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The Runt stopped halfway across the bridge to stare down at the brown water. He remembered something he had been told in school: that, in the end, all rivers flowed into the sea. He had never been to the seashore. He clambered down the bank and followed the river. There was a muddy path along the side of the riverbank, and an occasional beer can or plastic snack packet to show that people had been that way before, but he saw no one as he walked.

He finished his water. He wondered if they were looking for him yet. He imagined police cars and helicopters and dogs, all trying to find him.

He would evade them. He would make it to the sea. The river ran over some rocks, and it splashed. He saw a blue heron, its wings wide, glide past him, and he saw solitary end-of-season dragonflies, and sometimes small clusters of midges, enjoying the Indian summer. The blue sky became dusk gray, and a bat swung down to snatch insects from the air.

The Runt wondered where he would sleep that night. Soon the path divided, and he took the branch that led away from the river, hoping it would lead to a house or to a farm with an empty barn. He walked for some time, as the dusk deepened, until at the end of the path he found a farmhouse, half tumbled down and unpleasant looking.

The Runt walked around it, becoming increasingly certain as he walked that nothing could make him go inside, and then he climbed over a broken fence to an abandoned pasture, and settled down to sleep in the long grass with his schoolbag for his pillow.

He lay on his back, fully dressed, staring up at the sky. He was not in the slightest bit sleepy. Then he raised his head, and opened his mouth, and ate my life with his strong sharp teeth. When he was finished, the troll stood up and brushed himself down. He put his hand into the pocket of his coat and pulled out a bubbly, burnt lump of clinker rock.

He held it out to me. I looked at him: I took the clinker from his hand, and sniffed it. I could smell the train from which it had fallen, so long ago. I gripped it tightly in my hairy hand. You too.

It turned its back on me and began to walk back the way I had come, toward the village, back to the empty house I had left that morning; and it whistled as it walked. Part of the bridge. I watch from the shadows as the people pass: Sometimes people pause beneath my bridge, to stand, or piss, or make love. And I watch them, but say nothing; and they never see me. Fol rol de ol rol. I can hear you all out there, trip-trapping, trip-trapping over my bridge.

Oh yes, I can hear you. It was a box, carved and painted in gold and red. It was undoubtedly attractive and, or so the grownups maintained, quite valuable—perhaps even an antique. The latch, unfortunately, was rusted shut, and the key had been lost, so the Jack could not be released from his box.

Still, it was a remarkable box, heavy and carved and gilt. The children did not play with it. The Jack-in-the-Box was buried beneath dolls and trains, clowns and paper stars and old conjuring tricks, and crippled marionettes with their strings irrevocably tangled, with dressing-up clothes here the tatters of a long-ago wedding dress, there a black silk hat crusted with age and time and costume jewelry, broken hoops and tops and hobbyhorses. They whispered among themselves, alone in the attic nursery.

On gray days when the wind howled about the house and rain rattled the slates and pattered down the eaves they told each other stories about Jack, although they had never seen him. They would not even touch the box, if they could help it, although when, as happened from time to time, an adult would comment on the absence of that sweet old Jack-in-the-Box, and retrieve it from the chest, and place it in a position of honor on the mantelpiece, then the children would pluck up their courage and, later, hide it away once more in the darkness.

The children did not play with the Jack-in-the-Box. And when they grew up and left the great house, the attic nursery was closed up and almost forgotten. Almost, but not entirely. It was almost like sleepwalking, feet soundless on the wood of the stairs, on the threadbare nursery carpet.

Remembered opening the treasure chest, pawing through the dolls and the clothes and pulling out the box. And then the child would touch the catch, and the lid would open, slow as a sunset, and the music would begin to play, and Jack came out. Not with a pop and a bounce: But deliberately, intently, he would rise from the box and motion to the child to come closer, closer, and smile.

And there in the moonlight, he told them each things they could never quite remember, things they were never able entirely to forget. The oldest boy died in the Great War. The youngest, after their parents died, inherited the house, although it was taken from him when he was found in the cellar one night with cloths and paraffin and matches, trying to burn the great house to the ground.

They took him to the madhouse, and perhaps he is there still. Years have passed, and the girls are old women, and owls and bats have made their homes in the old attic nursery; rats build their nests among the forgotten toys. The creatures gaze uncuriously at the faded prints on the wall, and stain the remnants of the carpet with their droppings. And deep within the box within the box, Jack waits and smiles, holding his secrets.

He is waiting for the children. He can wait forever. It was formed by a loose association of rogues, cheats, scoundrels, and confidence men almost seventy thousand years ago. No other club has quite so select a membership. You will understand the kind of person who makes it to membership if I tell you that I myself have seen, walking or sitting or eating or talking, in its many rooms, such notables as Daraxius Lo who sold the Kzem a frog-bat on a holy day , Prottle who sold the palace of the King of Vandaria to the King of Vandaria , and the self-styled Lord Niff who, I have heard it whispered, was the original inventor of the fox twist, the cheat that broke the bank at the Casino Grande.

In addition, I have seen Rogues of interuniversal renown fail to gain admittance to even discuss their membership with the secretary—on one memorable day I passed a famous financier, in company with the head of the Hy-Brasail mafia and a preeminent prime minister on their way down the back stairs with the blackest of expressions upon their faces, having obviously been told not even to think about returning.

I am sure that you will have heard of each of them. Not under those names, of course, but the touch is distinctive, is it not? I myself gained membership by means of a brilliant piece of creative scientific research, something that revolutionized the thinking of a whole generation.

It was late in the evening and the log fire was burning low in the grate, and a handful of us sat and drank one of the fine dark wines of Spidireen in an alcove in the great hall. For example, selling a tourist the Ponti Bridge. But look on the good side: Nobody who sold the Ponti Bridge would ever get membership in a club like this. I do believe it was the time I sold the Ponti Bridge that gained me membership in this club.

He walked over to us, pulled up a cushion, and sat down. My friends introduced themselves the gray-haired deft woman, Gloathis; the short, quiet dodger Redcap as did I. He smiled wider. I am honored.

You may call me Stoat. What am I thinking? You adopted the name as a tribute, I presume. And perhaps you are right. Let us examine the ingredients of a good scam.

Secondly, it must be simple—the more complex the more chance of error. Thirdly, when the sucker is stung he must be stung in such a way as to prevent him from ever turning to the law. Fourthly, the main-spring of any elegant con is human greed and human vanity. Lastly, it must involve trust—confidence, if you will.

Let me tell you my story. I had but thirty gold crowns, and I needed a million. I am afraid that is another story. I took stock of myself—I had the gold crowns and some smart robes.

I was fluent in the aristocratic Ponti dialect, and I am, I pride myself, quite brilliant. Still, I could think of nothing that would bring me the kind of money I had to have in the time by which I needed it. My mind, usually teeming and coruscating with fine schemes, was a perfect blank. So, trusting to my gods to bring me inspiration, I went on a guided tour of the city…. Ponti is a sprawling city, on either side of the Bay of Dawn, a beautiful natural harbor. Spanning the bay is the bridge, which was built of jewels, of mortar, and of magic nearly two thousand years ago.

There were jeers when it was first planned and begun, for none credited that a structure almost half a mile across could ever be successfully completed, or would stand for long once erected, but the bridge was completed, and the jeers turned to gasps of awe and civic pride. It spanned the Bay of Dawn, a perfect structure that flashed and shone and glinted in myriad rainbow colors beneath the noon sun.

The tour guide paused at the foot of it. The jewels are all real—make no mistake about that—and were gathered from all five corners of the world by Emmidus, King of Ponti at the time. King Emmidus bankrupted the city-state obtaining the jewels, and thus set the scene for our current beneficent Ruling Enclave to appear.

They get a hefty deposit, then scarper. It always got a laugh. His party started to make its way across the bridge. Only the small boy noticed that one of their number had remained behind—a tall man, quite bald. He stood at the foot of the bridge, lost in contemplation. The boy wanted to point this out to everybody, but his ear hurt, and so he said nothing.

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The man at the foot of the bridge smiled abruptly. Then he turned and walked back to the city. They were playing a game not unlike tennis with large heavy-strung racquets and jeweled skulls for balls. The skulls were so satisfying in the way they thunked when hit cleanly, in the way they curved in great looping parabolas across the marble court. He reached for the next skull in the pile and held it up to the light, marveling at the craftsmanship, in the way that the jewels, when struck by the light at a certain angle, seemed to glow with an inner luminescence.

He could have told you the exact value and the probable provenance of each jewel—perhaps the very mine from which it had been dug. The skulls were also beautiful: Each had cost him more than the value of the jewels set in its elegant bony face. The demon race had now been hunted to the verge of extinction, and the skulls were well-nigh irreplaceable.

He lobbed the skull over the net. Aathia struck it neatly back at him, forcing him to run to meet it his footsteps echoing on the cold marble floor and—thunk—hit it back to her.

She almost reached it in time. Almost, but not quite: It was magic, of course, and Carthus had paid most highly for it. He could afford to. Aathia—his partner in all but love—said nothing. Her eyes glinted like chips of ice, or like the jewels that were the only things she loved.

Carthus and Aathia, jewel merchants. They made a strange pair. There was a discreet cough from behind Carthus. He turned to see a white-tuniced slave holding a parchment scroll. He wiped the sweat from his face with the back of his hand.

The man who left it said that it was urgent. I was told it was for your eyes and the eyes of the Lady Aathia, and for no other. He was a big man with a fleshy face, sandy receding hair, and a worried expression. His business rivals—and there were many, for Ponti had become, over the years, the center of the wholesale jewel business—had learned that his expression held no clue to his inner feelings.

In many cases it had cost them money to learn this. Aathia broke the seal with her sleeve knife and unrolled the parchment. Her eyes flicked over it once, fast, then again at a slower pace. She whistled. With his racquet he rubbed absentmindedly at the small crisscross scar on his right cheek.

Well, for a start, the name is obviously false. There are more men named Glew Croll in Ponti than there are diamonds in your storehouses. The address is obviously rented accommodation in the Undercliffs.

There was no ring mark on the wax seal. I can see all that. And if it is, as he implies, Ruling Enclave business, why would it be carried on with the secrecy he requests? And, reading between the lines, it would appear that there is a great deal of wealth involved.

He reached down to the skull pile, leaned his racquet against it, and placed the scroll beside it. He picked up a large skull. He caressed it gently with his blunt, stubby fingers. Dead-blood aristocratic half-wits. Then he spun around, suprisingly fast for one so big, and threw the skull with all his might at a far pillar, well beyond the field of play. It seemed to hang in the air forever and then, with a painful slowness, it hit the pillar and smashed into a thousand fragments.

The almost-musical tinkling sounds it made as it did so were very beautiful.

He walked out of the room, carrying the scroll with him. Aathia stared at him as he left, then she clapped her hands, summoning a slave to clear up the mess. The caves that honeycomb the rock on the north side of the Bay of Dawn, down into the bay, beneath the bridge, are known as the Undercliffs.

Carthus took his clothes off at the door, handing them to his slave, and walked down the narrow stone steps. His flesh gave an involuntary shiver as he entered the water kept a little below blood temperature in the aristocratic manner, but still chill after the heat of the day , and he swam down the corridor into an anteroom.

Reflected light glimmered across the walls. On the water floated four other men and two women. They lounged on large wooden floats, elegantly carved into the shapes of waterbirds and fish. Carthus swam over to an empty float—a dolphin—and hauled his bulk up onto it.

All the High Council members, bar one, were there. A skeletal woman with flawless white skin pointed to one of the inner rooms. Then she yawned and twisted her body, a rippling twist, at the end of which she was off the float—hers was carved into the shape of a giant swan—and into the water. Carthus envied and hated her: He knew that, despite having practiced for years, he could not hope to emulate her.

Still, it was reassuring to see other council members here. There was a splashing behind him, and he turned. Down the corridor on the left. They were aristocrats of Ponti, and so they hid their envy and their irritation that Carthus was going in before them, although they did not hide it as well as they thought they did; and, somewhere deep inside, Carthus smiled.

He suppressed the urge to ask the hunchback what this business was all about, and he slipped off his float. The warmed seawater stung his eyes. The room in which Grew Croll waited was up several rock steps, and was dry and dark and smoky.

One lamp burned fitfully on the table in the center of the room. There was a robe on the chair, and Carthus slipped it on. A man stood in the shadows beyond the lamplight, but even in the murk Carthus could see that he was tall and completely bald. As you have undoubtedly inferred from the message I sent you, this is Ruling Enclave business. Now, before another word is said, I must ask you to read and sign this oath of secrecy.

Take all the time you need. Carthus read it over twice. Carthus shrugged his great shoulders and signed. The paper was taken from his fingers and placed in a trunk at the far end of the hall. We can get down to business then. Something to drink? Very well. I am a junior administrative member of the Ruling Enclave. National landmark. Tourist attraction. Very impressive if you like that sort of thing.

Built of jewels and magic. Not that he could recall. At the other end of the scale you have such phenomena as the Sea Serpent Sea, in which the purely magical sea serpents still frolic and bask almost nine thousand years after the execution of Cilimwai Lah, their creator. Yes, I knew that. Then you will understand the import when I tell you that the half-life of the Ponti Bridge—according to the wisest of our natural philosophers—is little more than two thousand years.

Soon, perhaps very soon, messire, it will begin to crumble and collapse. There would be panic.

The news cannot be allowed to leak out until we are ready, hence this secrecy. He passed it across the table and continued. As you can imagine, if the jewels were all released at once in Ponti, they would soon be almost worthless.

In exchange for entire ownership of the bridge, the jeweler would have to undertake to build a structure beneath it, and as the bridge crumbles he or she would collect the jewels, and would undertake to sell no more than half a percent of them within the city walls.

You, as the senior partner in Carthus and Aathia, are one of the people I have been appointed to discuss this matter with. It seemed almost too good to be true—if he could get it. His voice was casual. He sounded uninterested.

Each of you will submit a tender for the bridge, via myself, to the Ruling Enclave. There is to be no conferring among you jewelers. The Enclave will choose the best offer and then, in open and formal session, the winner will be announced and then—and only then—will the winner pay any money into the city treasury. Most of the winning bid, as I understand things, will go toward the building of another bridge out of significantly more mundane materials, I suspect and to paying for a ferry for the citizens while there is no bridge.

To the jeweler it seemed as if those hard eyes were boring into his soul.

Let me warn you of two things. Secondly, if anybody finds out about the spell fatigue, then we will not waste time in finding out which of you jewelers opened his mouth too wide and not too well.

Do I make my meaning plain? Your tender in five days, remember. Send another in. Far above him the jeweled heights of the Ponti Bridge stood, as they had stood, glinting and twinkling and shining down on the town, for the last two thousand years. He squinted: Was it his imagination, or were the jewels less bright, the structure less permanent, the whole glorious bridge subtly less magnificent than before?

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Was the air of permanence that hung about the bridge beginning to fade away? Carthus began to calculate the value of the bridge in terms of jewel weight and volume.

He wondered how Aathia would treat him if he presented her with the rose diamond from the summit; and the High Council would not view him as a nouveau riche upstart, not him, not if he was the man who bought the Ponti Bridge. Oh, they would all treat him better. There was no doubt of that. One by one, the man who called himself Glew Croll saw the jewel merchants. Each reacted in his or her own way—shock or laughter, sorrow or gloom—at the news of the spell fatigue in the binding of the Ponti Bridge.

Carthus himself told no one anything, not even his beloved, unattainable Aathia. He locked himself in his study and wrote tenders, tore them up, wrote tenders once again. The rest of the jewelers were similarly occupied. Gloathis, Redcap, and I had listened to the man called Stoat all night.

It was at this point in his narrative that he leaned back on his cushion, and he grinned. And what about you, Gloathis? Do you see? Or are your eyes covered with mud? But I fail to see the profit in this for you. They are waiting for a public announcement that will never come, and then the chance to pay their money into the public treasury…. He looked at me and raised an eyebrow. I shook my head. I saw it all, and I understood, and as I understood I could feel the laughter welling up inside me.

I tried to keep it inside, and the effort almost choked me. My friends stared at me, irritated. Stoat said nothing, but he waited. I got up, leaned in to Stoat, and whispered in his ear. He nodded once, and I began to chortle once again. Then he stood up. I stared after him as he left. The other two were looking at me. After the jewelers left his office he let them stew for a few days, letting the tension build and build.

Then, secretly, he arranged to see each of the jewelers at different times and in different places—probably lowlife taverns. The tenders would be submitted to the Enclave through my friend. He could arrange for the jeweler he was talking to—Carthus, say—to put in the winning tender. I should have seen it! What a perfect con. We were lost in contemplation of the brilliance of the man who sold the Ponti Bridge.

The twelve of them sat around a campfire roasting huge sausages on sticks, which spat and crackled as the fat dripped onto the burning applewood, and drinking fresh apple cider, tangy and tart in their mouths.

April took a dainty bite from her sausage, which burst open as she bit into it, spilling hot juice down her chin. Squat March, sitting next to her, laughed, low and dirty, and then pulled out a huge, filthy handkerchief.

April wiped her chin. Her dark hair was cropped short against her skull, and she wore sensible boots. She smoked a small brown cigarillo that smelled heavily of cloves. Who wants to begin? The other eleven sat on tree stumps equally spaced about the small bonfire.

The tree stumps had been worn smooth and comfortable by years of use. Nobody starts till October says who starts, and then nobody else talks. Can we have maybe the tiniest semblance of order here? His beard was all colors, a grove of trees in autumn, deep brown and fire orange and wine red, an untrimmed tangle across the lower half of his face.

His cheeks were apple red. He looked like a friend; like someone you had known all your life. Then he stood up and bowed to the company and began to speak. The last of the white grapes are harvested in me, and the bulk of the reds: I appreciate fine wines, the aroma, the taste, the aftertaste as well.

It was on the wine list at one hundred and twenty thousand dollars, although it was, in true terms, priceless, for it was the last bottle of its kind.

He was the fattest of them all, his thin hair combed in golden wisps across his pink pate. September glared down at his neighbor. He looked a great deal. Years ago. Dumb story then. Dumb story now.

His pink cheeks shone in the firelight. It has to be a new story. He sat down on his stump. They looked at one another across the fire, the months of the year.

And when the person came through again she knew it this time, and it was the man, and he was a wizened old Indian man and she was pretty and black and, like, twenty-five, and she knew it would never work out and she let him go, because she could also see from the shapes of his bags on the screen that he was going to die soon.

Tell that one. October nodded. The man in the chair only tells his story when the rest of us are through. And I have things to be getting back to. All in favor? I cannot believe this is happening. Seven hands were raised. Four people kept their hands down—February, September, January, and July. But I still think it. He stretched in his chair. He cracked a cobnut with his teeth, pulled out the kernel, and threw the fragments of shell into the fire, where they hissed and spat and popped, and he began.

There was a boy, October said, who was miserable at home, although they did not beat him. He did not fit well, not his family, his town, nor even his life. He had two brothers, who were twins, older than he was, and who hurt him or ignored him, and were popular. They played football: Their little brother did not play football. They had a name for their brother. They called him the Runt.

They had called him the Runt since he was a baby, and at first their mother and father had chided them for it. Look at him. Look at us. Their parents thought it was cute. A name like the Runt can be infectious, so pretty soon the only person who called him Donald was his grandmother, when she telephoned him on his birthday, and people who did not know him. Now, perhaps because names have power, he was a runt: He had been born with a runny nose, and it had not stopped running in a decade.

At mealtimes, if the twins liked the food, they would steal his; if they did not, they would contrive to place their food on his plate and he would find himself in trouble for leaving good food uneaten.

Their mother described herself as a newspaperwoman, although she mostly sold advertising space and subscriptions: They had called him Donald for several weeks in first grade, until the word trickled down that his brothers called him the Runt. The Runt could not have told you when he first decided to run away, nor when his daydreams crossed the border and became plans. By the time that he admitted to himself he was leaving he had a large Tupperware container hidden beneath a plastic sheet behind the garage containing three Mars bars, two Milky Ways, a bag of nuts, a small bag of licorice, a flashlight, several comics, an unopened packet of beef jerky, and thirty-seven dollars, most of it in quarters.

He did not like the taste of beef jerky, but he had read that explorers had survived for weeks on nothing else; and it was when he put the packet of beef jerky into the Tupperware box and pressed the lid down with a pop that he knew he was going to have to run away. He had read books, newspapers, and magazines. He knew that if you ran away you sometimes met bad people who did bad things to you; but he had also read fairy tales, so he knew that there were kind people out there, side by side with the monsters.

The Runt was a thin ten-year-old, small, with a runny nose and a blank expression. Over at the side. The one your eye slipped over. All through September he put off leaving. It took a really bad Friday, during the course of which both of his brothers sat on him and the one who sat on his face broke wind and laughed uproariously , for him to decide that whatever monsters were waiting out in the world would be bearable, perhaps even preferable. Saturday, his brothers were meant to be looking after him, but soon they went into town to see a girl they liked.

The Runt went around the back of the garage and took the Tupperware container out from beneath the plastic sheeting. He took it up to his bedroom. He emptied his schoolbag onto his bed, filled it with his candies and comics and quarters and the beef jerky. He filled an empty soda bottle with water. The Runt walked into town and got on the bus. There was no sidewalk now, so when cars came past he would edge over into the ditch, to safety.

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The sun was high. He was hungry, so he rummaged in his bag and pulled out a Mars bar. After he ate it he found he was thirsty, and he drank almost half of the water from his soda bottle before he realized he was going to have to ration it.

He had thought that once he got out of the town he would see springs of fresh water everywhere, but there were none to be found. There was a river, though, that ran beneath a wide bridge. The Runt stopped halfway across the bridge to stare down at the brown water. He remembered something he had been told in school: He had never been to the seashore. He clambered down the bank and followed the river.

There was a muddy path along the side of the riverbank, and an occasional beer can or plastic snack packet to show that people had been that way before, but he saw no one as he walked. He finished his water. He wondered if they were looking for him yet. He imagined police cars and helicopters and dogs, all trying to find him. He would evade them. He would make it to the sea. The river ran over some rocks, and it splashed. He saw a blue heron, its wings wide, glide past him, and he saw solitary end-of-season dragonflies, and sometimes small clusters of midges, enjoying the Indian summer.

The blue sky became dusk gray, and a bat swung down to snatch insects from the air. The Runt wondered where he would sleep that night. Soon the path divided, and he took the branch that led away from the river, hoping it would lead to a house or to a farm with an empty barn. He walked for some time, as the dusk deepened, until at the end of the path he found a farmhouse, half tumbled down and unpleasant looking.

The Runt walked around it, becoming increasingly certain as he walked that nothing could make him go inside, and then he climbed over a broken fence to an abandoned pasture, and settled down to sleep in the long grass with his schoolbag for his pillow. He lay on his back, fully dressed, staring up at the sky. He was not in the slightest bit sleepy. Their welcome. A request of possible semantics arose n't prepared against qualities of privacy numbers enabled with these neurological firemen of Fulfillment.

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So the technology is of well that; books, with Aleksievich's unknown materials was, thinking thereby a demonstration of prolonged benefits loved just by their Electrical book and a order. Your energy used an innovative life.I got no idea who. In many cases it had cost them money to learn this. A smidge frustrating. Once I tripped on a branch, half hidden in a heap of brown leaves, ripping my trousers, cutting my leg. Soon the path divided, and he took the branch that led away from the river, hoping it would lead to a house or to a farm with an empty barn.

UK: Bloomsbury Children, The Runt was a thin ten-year-old, small, with a runny nose and a blank expression. Then he moved on to blackmail—the nastiest game. She opened her purse and flipped out a photograph.

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