The sun rose on a Midden primed for grand happenings—metaphorically, that is. The city of Midden had never seen a sun, and if a sun had appeared over the city, the people would have been very, very afraid. Also very, very warm, as hardly any of them would have been properly dressed for the weather, and any who were would have been tried and sentenced for partaking in witchcraft. Thus they, too, would have been very, very warm. Positively burning up, really.

And speaking of burning, Root watched from down the street as the flow of traffic poured into Scum Square. Spirits of all likenesses moved at whatever pace suited them, but all in the same direction. Scattered heads of humans bobbed among them. Root kept to the side of the street to avoid getting swept away or trampled; the vigor in the force of the crowd was uncanny, all locked on their destination and hardly paying any mind to what went on beside them, behind them, above, or underfoot. They looked like ants filing enthusiastically but absentmindedly under the burning beam of a looking glass. 

“More and more every time,” said Syrus, scratching his chin. “Hamlick showed up on the Seekers’ map when he had still only drawn the attention of a sixth of the city’s population—which, uh, in itself is no small feat, especially here.”

“This has to be… well, the whole city,” said Azriah. “The square is already full. If we just sit tight back here, we’ll end up in the crowd anyway, and sooner rather than later.”

“My post is just down that way,” said Syrus. He wore his volunteer staff shirt and badge, but he had a bag with him as well, slung over one shoulder inconspicuously. “Let’s get over there before the crowd gets too dense to cut through.”

They made their way—quickly at first, as they traveled with the flow of the masses, but then slower as they reached the fringes of the square where everyone tried to elbow their way closer to the stage, inch by hard-earned inch—to where Syrus was meant to be posted for answering questions, directing traffic, and keeping the event secure and running smoothly. Certainly, he planned to do at least two of those things.

He’d clearly had some sway in whatever decision-making body had assigned placements, because they’d put him right where he needed to be for the first part of their plan—to one side of the stage, near enough to the wings but also in a place with ample exits. Root, Vit, Azriah, and Beel milled about in Syrus’s proximity, but not so close that it looked like he wasn’t doing his job. Which he wasn’t. Or at least, not well. They also didn’t mill too much, since the whole square was practically packed shoulder-to-shoulder. Root couldn’t help but wonder what sort of fire hazard the density posed.

“Is he starting yet? Is he starting soon?” asked a gruff looking spirit to another, gruffer looking spirit. He practically bounced on his toes with an excitement that Root couldn’t imagine he’d shown about anything since the invention of heavy tools and extra-bitter ale. “I hope he does the one where he talks about grinding up all the sitting politicians and turning them into confetti to shower the streets when he wins.”

I hope he really sticks it to the reporters!” said his friend. “Those no-good, two-faced—”

“Well,” said the first, “the reporter from the Morning Spoor actually has three faces.”

“Right, well, not the point,” said the second. “Those no-good, two-or-three-faced, fabulist—”

“What? You like ‘em now?”


“Like, you think they’re flamboyant, or…?”


“Excuse me,” said Vit, interrupting the pair’s conversation as it rapidly devolved. “You two are big fans of Hamlick, by the sound of it, right? Uh, I mean, also. Because I am, too. And you guys are? Also fans, that is. You’re also fans?”

“Of course!” roared the gruffer spirit with a massive grin. “I love the guy! But not in a kissing way! It was only two dreams—that means nothin’, you hear?”

“Oh, certainly,” said Vit. “I had a, uh, kissing dream about him just last night. Totally chaste.”

“That’s what I’m saying!” The gruffer spirit clapped Vit hard on the back.

“So, I was just wondering—what is it about Hamlick that you guys like the most? What’s your favorite thing about him?”

“It’s the way he talks,” said the gruff spirit.

“It’s just how he is—everything about him,” said the gruffer spirit.

“Right but… anything specific?”

“All of it!”

“Yeah, all of the specifics!”

Vit nodded. “Cool, yeah, couldn’t have said it better myself. Besides the specifics…?”

“He’s creating jobs,” said the gruffer spirit.

“Oh! Like he’s promising to invest in industry in the city—tax incentives for manufacturers or something?”

“I dunno about all that,” said the gruff spirit. “He’s just creating the jobs. He’s come up with a whole list.”

The gruffer spirit nodded. “Potato churner.”

“Rug finder,” added the gruff spirit.

“Senior cord wielder,” continued the gruffer spirit, now keeping track on his fingers.

“Spigot and grout watcher.”

“Health inspector.”

“Loudest umbler.”

“Accent translator. Guy who makes tiny paper hats for toads…”

“Toad that wears tiny paper hats (for money).”

“Tiny paper hat repairer.”

“Second-hand tiny paper hat salesman.”

“Napkin tester.”

“Marketing strategist.”

“Pet groomer. Now, that one’s just sick.”

“Goat assistant.”

“I see,” said Vit, who seemed to be fearing this could go on indefinitely.

“Isn’t it all impressive? Soon there’ll be so many jobs, we’ll all have to have three!”

“It sounds like he has big plans,” agreed Vit.

“Oh! There! I think I can see him!” said the gruffer spirit. He pushed forward into the backs of the crowd in front of him. “I’ve got to get closer—come on!”

The two spirits began to shove their way through the masses, moving nowhere fast. Vit turned back to the others.

“That was… informative,” they said.

“Hey, now you know where to come if you’re ever looking for a career change,” said Root.

Vit’s response got drowned out as Hamlick stepped onto the stage to overwhelming applause. The people roared, the square shook, and no small amount of shoving ensued. Someone pushed into Root, who stumbled and caught herself against the back of the spirit in front of her, who did the same to the next row in front of them. There was no way to know how far that shove made it. Perhaps all the way to the stage, or perhaps even farther. Perhaps it had struck out into the countryside and started a new life.

Hamlick paced around the stage, waving and flashing a brilliant grin. He moved like his legs were trying to keep up with his torso, and his hunch just made him look more mangled, like a discarded bit of wire threaded over and over into a stubborn, unpickable lock. His suit coat draped flaccidly, his tights practically whimpered as they stretched, his pointed shoes flopped at the floorboards. In his hand, he gripped his flute—the mote periapt of passion, Wrond’s Prurience.

There was only one thing the crowd wanted more than to scream, and that was to hear Hamlick speak. They managed this conflict steadily over the coming minutes, until finally Hamlick’s attempts at speaking made it farther than his lips.

“Hello, yes, hello, hi,” he said. The crowd burst into more applause, and the cycle repeated. This carried on until Hamlick had at last made it through some opening remarks, close to an hour later and once Root was certain this time that the damage to her hearing would be permanent. The end of this first segment came with a promise of an impending musical number, which prompted the loudest and longest surge of applause yet, laced with the sounds of two hundred replica flutes being blown into without discretion, talent, or consideration for basic harmonization.

Hamlick fiddled with his flute as he prepared for his number. Or, rather, he fluted with it, since it was still a flute and not something stringier. It’s always important to make these distinctions in discussions of magical artifacts; many had a tendency to pop into something a bit more sleek and exciting as the times changed.

Azriah, Vit, Beel, and Syrus discreetly pushed wads of wax into their ears. Syrus had briefed them on what to expect from Hamlick’s concerts; he used the power of the periapt on the audience as he played, a wide, blanketing effect that he directed across everyone in the crowd—everyone that he could see and who could hear him play. It diluted the power, being spread so widely, but Syrus had made it clear that the periapts were strong—strong enough to handle more than an audience in a city square, and that the dilution would mean little. Thus, the earplugs. Root—consistently stubborn—had insisted she wanted to hear the music.

Well, she’d heard the music, back on the day they’d watched Hamlick lead a party of council members into the woods, hidden from his attention and spared from the true power beneath his song. This time, she wanted to hear it.

If, of course, her ears still worked after all they’d been through.

It reminded her of an old story she recalled from her school days, something about a captain who tied himself to his ship’s mast to endure a magic song that was supposed to grant him wisdom, but clearly hadn’t been able to help his infidelity or difficulties with directions.

The music began. It flowed around Root like honey… honey stuck with bees that buzzed and jabbed their stingers at her ears.

The music itself sounded just as bad as she remembered—too much blowing and not enough pauses, only the ragged, hurried ones as Hamlick reinflated his lungs. It pierced the air with all the melodic aptitude of a gym teacher’s whistle.

But below it, infused in the notes (rather, the note, singular), coiled something limber, lithe, gentle but strong, a caressing finger with an unrelenting grip. It snaked around Root’s ear, cupped her chin, let its fingertips drip down her neck and trace her collarbone. The sensation pulled her into an embrace, warm and melding. She nestled within it.

Something tugged at her heart; it beat faster in her chest. She looked back up at Hamlick. He looked… different. She’d been too quick to judge him, maybe. He didn’t look… that strange, all things considered. No, certainly not. All the things he’d said about himself to kick off the event—that he was so smart, the best, not sleazy, definitely able to read and knew big words, tall, fit, the best, good (in more ways than one), the best, a champion of the people, not sleazy, and the best mayoral candidate the city (nay, worlds) had ever seen—well, maybe all that was true after all. He certainly said they were, and only the corrupt reporters (all out to get him, by the way) said anything on the contrary. The city was run by rats. But Hamlick—he was going to do away with them. He’d fix everything, from the corruption to the economy to the dirty outsiders flooding into the city bringing all manner of contraband. (This last bit didn’t include Root, of course—only the outsiders who’d arrived there after her. Unfortunately, this included Beel, who had been lagging behind somewhat.)

And… wow, uh… well, you know, come to think of it… maybe she did want those tights to rip.

Wait. Hold on…

… Ew. Yeah, what the hell? Ew!

Something pricked at her back, heating up like a warm stone positioned to draw the soreness from her muscles. It trickled into her mind, a leak of territorial ichor that seeped into her brain, expelling poison drop by drop. Fogginess rolled in as the pair roiled, until she blinked through the confusion, and… was she… embarrassed?

Yeah, idiot! Her mental voice made a mental gag. Hamlick? For fuck’s sake!

Her sense of pride—vacationing in some remote corner of a fabled kingdom in a yet-undiscovered third dimension moments prior—poked its head in and asked what it had missed. Root grabbed it by the neck and strapped it back into the driver’s seat in a manner remarkably similar to taking a canteen from her backpack and chugging down water to wash away dehydrated delirium. She drew more of the feeling, muffled and far-away as it was, from where it called to her from her bag. In her moment of lucidity, she popped two wads of wax into her ears. The dregs of Hamlick’s periapt magic sloshed out of her, pulling her energy with them.

Vit watched her. “All right?” they mouthed. Root nodded.

Hamlick finished his song, then did another, then a third. He spoke for a bit—mostly rambling about how incredible his own songs had been—and then started in on another number, something to “tide the audience over” through the upcoming intermission. Root found the choice of words telling; Hamlick’s performance was just that—a performance, more theatrics than, say, meaningful policy discussion. But then again, what did she know? She was just a girl from Zhaen-or-Daijia.

The final song of the first half was their cue to get to their places. Another act was starting soon, and they all had starring roles.

Root, accompanied by Beel, made her way through the crowd to a building at the edge of the square. There, around the side, she found an old, rusted fire escape clinging morosely to the edifice. A couple of slinking things scuttled across the wall around the base of the ladder. She shooed them off, and after helping Beel up before her, she climbed.

She reached a perch near the top, a landing on the corner of the building that perfectly overlooked the square, crowd, and stage beyond, and put her mostly in view but with several directions to run if things took a turn for the worse, including up to the rooftops or in through the windows. She had an exciting job: crier. As soon as spider-Vit appeared at the top of the awning over the stage, she’d have the signal that Hamlick no longer had the periapt, and the people would—hopefully—be more receptive to the news that their new hero was nothing but a conniving trickster. If they didn’t take the news with grace… well, that was why she had several plans of escape.

Beel had the same job as her, just without the public speaking part.

Azriah was the crier for the other end of the square, and Vit would serve as a distraction to give Syrus an opening to nab the periapt, then climb up to the awning and give the others the signal. At least, that was the plan as far as Syrus was aware.

Root looked out across Scum Square. She still wore her earplugs, but she could feel the excitement of the crowd vibrating through the handrail in front of her.

Something caught her eye by the square’s south entrance. She turned and peered into the rippling movement cutting through the crowd. Alight in the glow of the lanterns and a bioluminescent spirit, caught as if in a spotlight, strode Ajis, with Kurg and Golvy at his heels.

Holb Vod sat at his kitchen table holding a length of cord. He held it expertly.

“So that’s all it’ll be?” asked his wife.

“I reckon so,” said Holb Vod. “Just got to keep practicing, make sure I’m a shoo-in.”

“Will this be with a company, do you think? A company that already exists, I mean. Will lots of places start hiring for your role? Or will it be a new sort of firm or something?”

Holb Vod shrugged. He made sure to keep the cord steady despite it. “No idea. But I figure I’ll be seeing ads in the Spoor about it real soon.”

“Hmm. Well, it looks like you’ll be great, honey. Easy enough skill, right?”

“Oh, no, it’s quite sophisticated and arduous. There can be a lot of knots to deal with.”

“Oh, I see. Hardest job in the worlds, by the sound of it.”

“Second,” said Holb Vod. “Kynger down the lane is having a real tough go of it, practicing for the new position he’s after. He’s still trying to figure out what an umbler is!”