The Soapmaster's Apprentice
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by Geoff Geauterre
Category: Fantasy/Science Fiction
Description: What do you do with someone who is spoiled, incorrigible, and too used to having his own way? Answer: Transfer him to a world that is backwards, puzzling, dangerous, and just might hold the key to immortality. Thrust between religious zealots, a curious dungeon keeper, an out-of-place, controlling female from his own people (who can't seem to let well enough alone), and a populace that literally stinks--literally--he has to find out how it all ties together. Only what he seems to be doing is pushing everyone towards a civil war!
eBook Publisher: Twilight Times Books, 2010
eBookwise Release Date: November 2010
7 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [556 KB]
Reading time: 344-482 min.
Deep in the black forest of Merrac, there was a sudden stillness, as if the life there sensed an unknown disturbance. It was not alarming, just different. Then, whatever it was subsided, and the peaceful calm and chatter of animals, flyers and creatures returned.
A bit after that, two travelers appeared at its edge, making their way by a cart driven by two hump-backed beasts. The cart was full of sacks, some of which clanked when they came to a dip in the road. The framed rack built up around it could have held dippers, oilcans, jugs, or any assortment of items. You could see by way of its construction that they were traveling merchants.
They did not seem in a hurry and rested their beasts often, with the elder lecturing. "Now we've just come out of the Merrac Wood. Moreover, this road takes us through a corner of Meddlesworth Forest -- wait! Hear that?"
The younger listened to the sound from the wood, and then nodded. "Yes, I do. What is it?"
"A Dallent. You had that in the learner. Feline, vicious, camouflaged for high plateau or forest. Built like a snowpard, but half their size, while all the deadlier. That is what one sounds like. They give the impression they are timid, but believe me they are not. If you ever spot one, which is rare, do not hang around to see its antics. They are not antics. The creature is sizing you up and deciding how to make an end-run so it can attack from the side or the rear."
The younger man yawned. "Okay. Got it. Nasty cats. Plateaus. Woods. No climbing. No woods."
The elder shook his head. Then he pointed at a passing group of flyers. "See those? Those are Etherells. Reptilian birds. Fast and carnivorous. Can swoop down and snatch up a baby in a heartbeat. They come in three varieties."
"Wait, I know. I remember them. High flyers. Mid-range flyers. Lowland flyers. Each adapted to their particular environment. Just like the elemules here."
"If you hear a high-pitched sound, it could mean you better get under cover. That's what they sound like when they dive."
"Got it. Come rain or shine. Pecking order. Wear a hat."
For a moment, there was silence.
"You have had the basics taught to you. However, I would suggest you continue to familiarize yourself about everything that can fly, walk or squawk."
"What's a Grey Man?"
"Cannibalistic, humanoid, pre-sapient. Device maker, hunter-gatherer."
"What do they look like?"
The younger man stared at him. "You've got to be kidding."
"All right. You can't mistake them. What about meat-eating varieties?"
"Snakes that are really snakes...some crawling, others slide, and a few flying. Then animals that look like boars and are called boars. Tusked, mean, vicious. Then animals that look like pigs and are called runts. Pork in any language."
"What girdles the planet, separating north from south?"
"The Spine. A range of mountains that some scientists speculate was the result of two opposing tectonic masses. I'd like to see those."
"You will soon enough. Being a merchant takes you all over."
"The learning series didn't give me anything about the social or political cultures."
"That you have to learn on your own. It's entirely subjective."
"In other words, you're still guessing."
"In other words, it is subjective."
About midday, they came in sight of castle and town in the distance.
"Well, there she is," said the elder, flapping the reins and gesturing. "Meddlesworth, home and cornerstone of all trade in this region, and isn't she just lovely?"
His young companion grunted sourly. "Yes, if you don't take into account the curious animals, the pre-humans and everything else prehistoric that will eat you, then yes, this place does bear special attention."
"Listen, Andrew. Others have traveled through here, and to all accounts it has been reported that they can be a pleasant enough people, but use caution. Don't attract attention. Don't speak unless someone speaks to you first. For the most part, it's considered impolite and rude. We don't want that. Keep a low profile."
Andrew chuckled. "Ah, then that means if a place is burning down to the ground, one should just look properly concerned and keep quiet about it? No problem there. Pestholes should be put to the torch."
Sigmund sat back and felt an itch in his hands to strangle something. "Another thing. You got a smart mouth. Use it too much, and you'll find out how smart that can be."
As they traveled toward the town and castle, they came in sight of other people on the same road. One group was still rousing themselves from camp. Others were taking paths through the surrounding forest, and still more were joining a growing number ahead.
Then they came in sight of a crossing with a platform in the middle, and standing atop that was a fat man in skin pants and woolen jacket. He wore no shirt underneath, yet sported a comical looking yellow-coned hat. As one passerby after another neared him, they nodded respectfully, stopped to talk a moment, seemed to listen to directions, and then handed something to the fellow.
"Don't they have signs around here?"
"They like," said Sigmund dryly, "to greet people in person."
"But you just told me not to strike up any conversations."
"I know, and it's true. It is a chore sometimes, especially exchanging information between timid folks, but that is why people have to be trained for missions, not just dumped hither and yon, here and there, by neglectful high-ranking officials."
If that was a slight, the younger man ignored it.
"For instance, that guy in the yellow hat. What do you make of him?"
Andrew peered at the man and sized him up. "Overfed, filthy, dressed in animal skins and itches, because something has obviously burrowed into his armpit."
"Is that all you see?"
"No. Thank you for correcting me. There's more."
"What is it?"
"There are large blobs of stains on that grotesque jacket, or vest, or whatever it is, which points out he slobbers over his food, and along with that ridiculous hat he's wearing, he's simply too ugly for words to describe."
Sigmund muttered a moment. "Pay attention. That man and many others like him are known as Yellow Hats. They are a semi-official group of snitches, panderers, collaborators, spies and what have you. We have many that are homegrown, quite a few that settle amongst these people as direct representatives of the northern empire of Marfit.
Now, keep in mind that if anything seems out of the ordinary, or suspicious, they run for the guards or to a troop in a Yellow Garrison. If either picks you up for being out of place, or strange, or just plain rude, you'll have a merry visit with a Dungeon Keeper or one of their Behavior Modifiers. Those are the people who like to question others at their worst."
Andrew sneered. "I understand. The fat man is dangerous for reasons other than personal hygiene. Got you."
Sigmund looked down with resignation. "Sometimes, they are good for some things. Conversations for instance. If a couple of people are too shy to get to a subject, they ask a Yellow Hat, or one of their apprentices, a Yellow Cap, for help. When they get the conversation going, that fellow, or someone like him, collects a token, usually in the form of a half copper, and then goes his contented way. Understand?"
"I am surprised these people have the courage to take a shit for themselves."
"They are a well-recognized system within a system, and it would be wise to avoid them whenever possible. Their influence can be alarming."
"In a place like this you must behave according to custom. If you can't do that, we can part here and now. Make up your mind. I don't care."
Andrew looked irritated. "It's all so tiring."
"Yes," Sigmund grated. "It is tiring, and the journey has yet begun."
Wheel ruts cut deep into the clay-like soil and they had to avoid them or be stuck as others were. Those who walked kept to the side of the road, which seemed the only safe ground to tread upon.
As they neared, the Yellow Hat waved. "I don't know you fellers."
Sigmund saluted him, middle finger gesturing from his brow. "Sigismund Jowels, yer honor. Here to trade up at the town and the castle."
"Where you from?"
"The Hoernshalts, yer honor."
He smirked. "Aye, I know the Hoernshalts well, trader. Who is that with you? The pasty-faced boy."
"My apprentice, yer honor. I took him as a favor for his father who despaired of having money for anything else. It was almost charity, y'understand."
"Aye," the Yellow Hat sympathized, having endured the same from his own relatives. "I know well what you mean, Sigismund Jowels. Now you may pass and go up the road to the town's drawbridge, across the drawbridge into town, and the castle lies just beyond."
"Thankee, yer honor. Thankee. An' here's a half-cop for the sake of the day."
It was palmed with a professional sleight of hand, and as they passed on by, Andrew wondered at the exchange.
"He gave directions? Why, it's in plain sight."
"Just his way of saying thank you and have a nice day."
"What a buffoon."
When they were closer to the moat surrounding the town, and the castle, they stopped at a guard station where they were asked where they were going. Andrew's mouth dropped open, and he was about to say something, when a kick in the shins silenced him.
"Just within, yer honor. To do business. And if business does well, mayhap to visit the castle for a permit to stay a spell."
Andrew yawned as he looked into the moat, having expected to see a small river, but instead it was drained and a dozen men worked down there, shoveling up the scum of dead fish, bones, garbage and everything else people dumped into it. He repressed a shudder. Some jobs were just too vile.
"Watch'r got in that cart?"
"Look in and guess you moron," whispered the servant.
"Goods for sellin' guard. Just goods for sellin'. An' goods, mind you, you will not find anywhere else from no better tinsmith."
"You made 'em?"
"No, but only I knows where to get 'em."
"That is why yer sellin' 'em?"
"The very thing."
The guard yawned and waved them past. "Good, 'cause we got a tinsmith o' our own, an' he does not take kindly to strangers sellin' the same as 'e got."
"Thankee. Thankee. We will do to keep it in mind."
"Yeah. Just don't plonk down in front of 'is shop. The one with the sign sayin' 'Tinsmithin' on't."
"Hey, you," said the guard to a pedestrian, trying to sneak up behind them. "You don't look like no merchant to me."
"Idiot," said the shawled woman crossly. "I be your wife, gods rot me, an' I bring yous yer supper!"
"So," murmured Andrew, "there is hope for humanity yet."
"You just got a good look at how the two systems of government regard one another. I suggest you remember it."
"But it's almost as if they ignored each other's existence."
"Yes," Sigmund agreed. "It is exactly like that. Now do be quiet."
When the domesticated elemules pulled their rattling vehicle through the city gates, the first thing that assailed them was the stench. After that was the mess. Then, as they progressed through the hard-pounded earthen streets, they found themselves in an unending parade of people going in every direction.
Andrew held a kerchief to his nose. "Heavens, don't these people ever bathe? I think I'm going to be sick."
"Hey handsome!" shouted a woman hanging out of a window, huge breasts dangling. "Want something to quench that thirst?"
"No, thank you," Sigmund replied. "Not right now. Maybe in a few days or so."
She gave him what amounted to a rude gesture. "I wasn't talkin' to you, you old bastard. I was talkin' to the lad there."
The "lad" just looked at her swaying bosom, forced a smile and nodded pleasantly. "Thanks for the offer, ma'am, maybe later." When I'm completely out of my mind!
"I got plenty of milk, handsome."
"Yeah," he agreed. "I can see that."
"Of course," said Sigmund, "there is always a group above the local standards of behavior. In fact, they have no timidity at all."
At the only Inn in town, with a sign that said, 'Only Inn in Town', they eased up and stretched their legs. Someone came to offer a soft welcome and let loose with a double belch and a fart.
When the effect passed, the beneficiary grinned. "Good day to ya' gents."
"Good day," said Sigmund. "Have any rooms?"
The Innkeeper responded by looking over his shoulder and shouting, "Will-someone-in-there-pick-up-'is-lazy-legs-an'-help-us?"
A pair of ragamuffins appeared, bowed, and grabbed hold of sacks too large to manage. Others came to help. The Innkeeper grinned with a gap-toothed smile, and gestured to the front door, as if they were deaf, dumb and blind, and invited them in.
Cart and mules would be seen to, and would they like to visit the tavern now, or be shown their rooms?
"Only one room, Innkeeper. I am tired and my servant here, will, of course, sleep on the floor. I will have a cold meal, a beer, a bath and clean water."
"Don't worry, your honor, clean water for bathin' will be just the thing to ease them sore muscles o' yourn."
"I was talking about our beasts. Make sure they are wiped down, fed and bedded properly."
He bowed instantly to the tone of voice. "O' course, your honor. O' course."
"Now, if you'd be so kind. Our room?"
"Right this way, sir."
"Yes, I see that, thank you."
"Now up these stairs...an' to the right. You have a wonderful view...then down the hall and to the right. From here, you can see the entire street. An' just back of the inn, is a well-maintained outhouse. The best in Meddlesworth, I guarantee."
Sigmund sniffed disdainfully. "I take it, the room is clean?"
"As clean as you want it to be, gentlemen."
The Innkeeper's mouth had another message, besides being gap-toothed, as a fetid breath wafted over them. To Sigmund's credit, he withstood it well. Andrew, on the other hand, changed from pasty white to ochre.
"Good, good. Now for the meal. Have you aged runt?"
"That we have plenty of, sirs."
"Have you any vegetables?"
"Boiled greens and leeks your honor."
"Make certain to add clean fat for flavor."
The Innkeeper nodded with joy. Here was a man who knew how to eat well.
"And salt, Innkeeper? You do have salt?"
The smile drooped. "I'm sorry sir. The spice is extra."
"No matter. Add the salt. My apprentice here can bathe after me and eat the scraps."
The Innkeeper's warped smile returned. "Such considerin' nature for a servant is a blessin', your lordship."
"Yes, well," Sigmund shrugged magnanimously.
The bath was at the back of the corridor and behind a ragged drape. It opened to emit a small girl who hurried towards them, looking down shyly and murmuring a welcome.
She was sent fleeing with a missed kick and told to fill the tubs, if the newly arrived gents changed their minds about bathing. The room, as imagined, was bare and wretched. Sigmund nodded with approval and gave the Innkeeper a copper, which was truly a gesture of class. The owner of the misbegotten hovel bowed low before the merchant gentlemen.
"Make certain of our wares, Innkeeper."
"Oh, aye, aye. Upon the instant, your lordship."
When he had gone, Sigmund sighed and said over his shoulder, "Don't say a word. I'm weary enough as it is."
Andrew, meanwhile, was peering in the one closet, under the bed, out the window, and then with a grimace, he tried to close the shutters, but found they had been nailed open for the mid-season.
"I can't get rid of the stink."
"That's because we have such a wonderful view of the street and the slop that runs down the center of it."
"You recall a little while ago; when I mentioned that a place like this should be put to the torch? I'd be happy to oblige."
"You better go down and see to our belongings. The boys down there don't look especially strong."
When Andrew had gone, Sigmund gingerly sat on the edge of the bed and grimaced. The rope supports creaked in the old frame, and the mattress was made from rolled up pieces of straw.
"The things I have to put up with in this business..." A bug crawled across the blanket. He considered picking it up and setting it outside the room. Instead, he flicked it off and with a look of stone stepped on it.
* * * *
A spare man dressed appropriately for his station in silver and gold grunted as he read the report off the holo screen. He didn't like what he read and tried to put a better face on it.
"Yes, there are some concerns, I have to admit."
"Some concerns?" The man who addressed him scowled. "What do you mean 'some' concerns? The boy is a menace."
"Now don't you think you're being a trifle harsh? After all, Andrew is still just feeling his way."
"He's a piece of shit."
"He had high marks in the academy."
"He paid someone to take his exams."
"Now you know that can't be true."
"I'd bet my life on it."
"He is, after all, the son of one of my closest friends."
"Who is the father of a piece of shit."
"Cassin, you really ought to calm yourself. You're overwrought."
"You bet your ass I'm overwrought!"
"But he was only following his instructions."
"He followed his instructions all right. To the bloody letter! Listen to me, Aris, that boy refuses to use common sense. He refuses to look after anyone but himself. Worst of all, he doesn't care a jot of what we do. He's only involved because his father is desperate to get him started in something -- anything -- and that's what galls me!"
"Well," said Aris, the Overall Portal Planning Coordinator, responsible for a hundred teams working on other worlds. "If push comes to shove, there's always the military."
Cassin laughed with derision. "You are kidding yourself. If he joined that lot he wouldn't last a day before someone finds his body stuffed in a waste chute."
"All right," Aris sighed. "I can tell this is not a friendly visit. What would you have of me?"
"For the moment, let's forget his unbelievably bad record."
Aris tabbed a sensor pad and the holo screen flicked off. "All right. What of it?"
"Sigmund will need a replacement soon."
The Planning Coordinator was already shaking his head. "Sigmund works alone, you know that."
"I know it and you know it, but Andrew doesn't know Sigmund. He doesn't know his reputation. Under him, he'll either grow up fast, or be the frat boy who couldn't."
Aris shook his head. "I am not completely without scruples, Cassin. I know he's a handful, but if I have to, I'll even go so far as to make him one of my army of clerks."
"Don't do your clerks that injustice. We have an opportunity here and should take it."
"You're wrong, Cassin. Sigmund won't stand for it, and if he does, there's something working in his brain that's up to no good."
"Are you going to let me transfer him and see what he's made of, or what?"
"No. I'll figure something else out."
Cassin smiled. "His tour with Feldis' group is almost up. If he's not given another, his family will be embarrassed, and Daddy won't like you anymore."
"His father is one of the most powerful men in the sector."
"His father, I'll have you know, would rather that boy disappeared than disgrace the family more than he has. Failing at everything is not a Webster family tradition."
"How do you know that?"
"I had breakfast with him this morning."
"If something goes wrong..."
"Hazard of the trade. Everyone shrugs. No foul. No harm."
"Cassin, I'm not about to throw an innocent to the wolves."
"He signed a waiver, hasn't he?"
"Standard contract, yes."
The Coordinator looked within himself... and was forced to agree. If the lad had anything in him, Sigmund would bring it out.
He tabbed up the holo again and glanced at it. It was a picture postcard of a walking, sneering disaster waiting to happen. Andrew Webster, third son to Albrecht Webster, a seventh generation Webster, was going to learn what it took to get ahead the hard way.
"You know, of course, what Sigmund is working on is important. He might consider the boy an unnecessary weight."
Cassin smiled gravely. "I agree. He might at that."
"I see where you're going with this, and I am pained by it."
"Short of kicking him out of the service and marking him 'unfit' and making an enemy of his father, who, I take it, depended on you to straighten him out in the first place, what choice have we?"
Aris nodded worriedly. "All right. I'll give my approval. Assign him and make certain to tell Sigmund why he's getting him. Plead to his better nature. I don't want him getting angry. If he didn't love field work so much, he could have had my job by now."
Cassin smiled slightly. "This is using your head."
Aris already looked remorseful.
When Sigmund found out about it, his better nature evaporated, and he howled that he would take this up with the Council Oversight Committee, when, upon reflection he accepted graciously and said fine. It was okay. So long as everyone understood, he was nobody's mommy.
Andrew was told where he was going and shrugged. So long, he said, as there was a pool, chicks, a bar, maybe a couple of betting parlors...
Those who knew where he was going fought to keep from roaring with laughter.
Therefore, the deep language sessions began, and that was when he learned how primitive the world of Angle was. Of course, he had the opportunity to resign, but the effect it would have on his father... After all, it was nothing but a primitive outstation, so how hard could it be?