Instinct told Root to duck. She darted backwards to hide behind the building’s corner, nearly tripping over Beel as she went. The wax in her ears spared her from hearing his scolding.

She poked her head back around the corner. She’d have to warn the others—Ajis was there, and marching with purpose; surely he’d spotted one of them. She looked toward the building where Azriah should have reached his post, and then to the wings at stage left. But Ajis wasn’t headed in either of those directions, nor making a beeline to her spot. His eyes were glued to someone else—something else. Root’s heart dropped.

Ajis pushed straight towards the stage, his eyes locked on the periapt.

He’d figured it out, too, then. He knew Hamlick had a periapt, and he wanted it. A relief, at least, that he was on a detour from his pursuit of the four of them. Unfortunately, that detour was still her problem.

Root looked down at Beel and then pointed into the crowd with urgency. Beel didn’t even bother to look; he slunk back into the shadows, eyes wide.

“No, look!” mouthed Root.

Beel shook his head. “I’ll take your word for it,” he mouthed back.

Root rolled her eyes. “Ajis.”

Beel’s eyes widened more.

“Can you go get Azriah?”

“What?” he mouthed.

“Azriah. Go get him?”

Beel pointed at himself with a panicked expression.

Root nodded. She pointed to herself. “Vit.” She pointed to Beel. “Azriah. Then come to us.”

Beel shook his head.

“Bummer,” mouthed Root with a shrug. “No other options. Move fast.”

She descended the fire escape quickly, Beel following hesitantly behind. She helped him down the ladder, but then set off on her own. He was a big boy (a fair bit older than her, at least), and fully capable of relaying a message. He’d need to get over his fear of… well, most things, really—at some point, anyhow.

She cut through the crowd, keeping her head down but also trying to keep track of Ajis. She didn’t see him, but she could see the periapt still pressed to Hamlick’s wet lips, and for the moment, that would do. If nothing else, she could rely on the fanatics crammed in shoulder to shoulder at the front of the crowd to slow Ajis down. They may have wanted to be in the front row even more than he did, and willing to defend their positions to the death. For just a moment, Root found herself rooting for the complete psychological corruption of zealous extremism.

Within a few very slow and weaving minutes, she found Vit. They waited just outside the staff-only backstage area, looking around casually, feigning the feigned appearance of someone pretending they weren’t about to do something against the rules, because they were about to do just that, but actually they weren’t. Root could’ve picked out that look anywhere. When Vit spotted her, they did a double take.

“Everything okay?” they said loudly when Root reached them; she read their lips. She put up a finger and shushed them.


Vit looked behind her. “Where’s Beel?”

“Getting Azriah. Or hiding. Hopefully the former.”



“… Farmer?”

“Former! Former! O! Forget it. He’s get-ting Az-ri-ah. I hoOope.”

They stared at her for a moment, then shrugged.

“Where’s Syrus?”

Vit pointed backstage. “Should I get him?” Root shook her head.

She looked around. Not far away, just past the roped-off entrance to backstage, were several tents packed with supplies. Root grabbed Vit by the arm and pulled them under the rope and quickly through the flaps of a tent.

Inside, she cautiously removed her earplugs. Now separate from the body of Hamlick’s focus—the crowd—and hearing only the muffled sounds of the song, she was spared from the periapt’s spell. She indicated to Vit that it was safe, and they removed their earplugs as well—one in their human ear, and the second more of a layer pressed over the narrow canal opening on the teal side of their face. They wadded up the wax and looked at her.

“What were you saying about farmers?”

“I said former. Never mind, it doesn’t matter. Ajis is here.”

“I got that much. Did he see you?”

“No, he’s not after us—at least not immediately. He was looking at Hamlick and the periapt. He knows.”


“Not good,” finished Azriah as he entered the tent, already removing his earplugs. Beel followed behind him.

“Oh, good. You found us,” said Root.

“Beel saw you duck in here.”

“How much did he tell you?”

“Not much. He said you saw Ajis. And then I just caught the tail end of what you were saying—that he was looking at Hamlick and knows he has a periapt. So that paints a pretty clear picture, I’d say. What do you think his next move is?”

“I don’t know,” said Root. “He was headed straight for the stage. I think we’d hear screaming if he’d made it up there—panicking or booing, or both.”

“You think he might wait until after the event?” asked Vit.

“Ajis? Wait? Not a chance in hell.”

“Something during intermission, then.”

“If not sooner,” said Azriah. “You’re right. Ajis isn’t one for subtlety. If he’s on the move, we don’t have much time.”

“All right,” said Root. “What now, then? New plan?”

“Got any ideas?”


She didn’t, but that just wasn’t going to cut it. Unless they wanted to lose the periapt to Ajis, they had to move now.

“Same plan,” said Root, running with whatever words popped out of her mouth and hoping they weren’t the sort that sounded incredibly stupid or directed them all to their deaths. “At least, mostly. Same plan, we just do it now instead of at the end of the intermission.”

“But Hamlick is on stage,” said Vit.

“He won’t be for long, one way or another. As soon as he steps off, we get things moving. If Ajis tries something before, then we’ll adapt to the circumstances, but things will get messy.”

“What if you run into Ajis while you’re enacting your plan?” asked Beel.

We,” corrected Root. “And, uh…” She grasped for something. “Well, actually. What’s the harm?”

“Likely bodily.”

“For once, I’m with Beel,” said Vit.

“It’s like Azriah said—Ajis isn’t one for subtlety. We can turn that into an advantage, right? Whatever he’s going to do, we can make it look like he’s the one causing problems. He’s a scapegoat for whatever goes down—hell, maybe we even goad him into making more of a mess, just so he and Hamlick can keep each other occupied while we make a run for it. Spares us from having to make our own narrow escape with an angry mob at our backs—at least, I hope. Right?”

“That could work,” said Azriah. “But we’ll need to keep him in check—make sure he doesn’t beat us to the periapt.”

“Well, who needs criers then?” said Root with a shrug. “Vit—you know what to do, but no need for a distraction; I think we’ll end up with one whether we like it or not. Azriah and I will intercept Ajis and whoever else is with him. I saw Kurg and Golvy, but the others have to be around here somewhere.”

“And me?” asked Beel with a gulp.

“Beel… believe it or not, I think you can just sit this one out.”

A sigh burst free from Beel like a heaving gasp seeking fresh air after nearly drowning.

“And Syrus?” asked Vit.

Root waved her hand. “Syrus can do what he does.”

“Do you hear that?” asked Azriah.

With dread, Root fell silent and strained to listen through the heavy tent flaps. She expected shouting, maybe the sound of Ajis blowing stuff up, but she heard none of that—only clapping, cheering, and, amongst it all, even a bit of adorative sobbing.

Azriah peeled back the tent flap and looked out. No music.

“He’s done,” said Vit. “It’s time for the intermission.”

“Then it’s time for us to go,” said Root. “Beel, you know where to meet us.” She looked at him, then Azriah, then Vit. They exchanged a round of determined nods. And then they stepped back out into the square.

“This city could be such a beautiful thing,” said the spirit on the stage. “A beautiful, beautiful thing. It could! It would need—you know, some might say—the right leader-ship. That’s right.”

Ulmond stood in the crowd and watched the guy speak. What a phony. What an outfit!

“Many people actually don’t realize the importance of good leadership, you know. Did you know that? Yes, many people don’t. But it’s important! Believe it or not. Very important, yes, for a beautiful city like this one.”

The guy seemed to know somewhere in the ballpark of fifty words, and figured if he just strung them together in different orders, he could get away with making a long speech. Oh please—the people of Midden could sniff out a phony like that at ten miles. There was nowhere to go within the city bounds that didn’t have that smell.

The spirit took a break between sentences to force a handful of notes out of his flute. Then again, maybe he was on to something…

The crowd grew as he kept talking, though they shouldn’t have had any trouble catching up, surely, since the guy was still saying all the same things in slightly varied flavors. Ulmond looked around, and had to rub his eyes to make sure he was seeing things properly. Was that… Councilman Gunck? What was that corrupt, lying, no-good, sleazy, underqualified son-of-a-bitch—

“Oh, Councilman, glad you could join us,” said the spirit. Councilman Gunck looked up at him with bleary ambivalence, flashes of things crossing his face—confusion, anger, adoration. The last one seemed to be eclipsing the others. The spirit put out a hand. “Hamlick. I’ll be the next mayor.”

Hamlick. So that was the dashing stranger’s name…

Hamlick turned back to the crowd. “Yown over here… you all know Yown? Great guy, terrific guy, one of the best. Yown said you all needed someone to take care of the rat problem in this city. Well, I’m here to take the rats out of Midden—that’s right. I’ll get rid of them all! Every last one. How does that sound?”

The uproarious cheering from the crowd caught Ulmond by surprise; it shocked him again when he realized he was contributing, and quite vocally at that.

“What about you, Councilman?” asked Hamlick.

Several people booed. Gunck looked up. Confusion raced across his face, but it was chased into hiding by the full emergence of devotion. He cheered.

Gunck and the crowd cheered together. The cheers broke into a chant. “No more rats! No more rats! No more rats! No more rats!”

“I will deliver, of course,” said Hamlick. “Not for free, mind you. There’s got to be payment. I’ll take my payment. We’ll discuss it in time. Does that sound like a deal?”


(Now, here’s the thing. “Payment” is not always an entirely straightforward transaction. Sure, it evokes ideas of coins trading hands, notions of one favor for another. But sometimes… well, you know how it goes. “Payment” might mean sending someone’s mail so that they’ll give you a can of beans that you need to trade for a box of cookies that you need to fix someone’s roof so they’ll give you an ingredient for a concoction you need in order to make a potion to give someone as payment for a folder of documents—which is, itself, an errand undertaken as payment for information. Is the errand the payment? The potion? Or is the whole string of favors just one convoluted transaction?)

Hamlick was, first and foremost, a thing of the woods. That cannot be dismissed as a meaningless detail, like speaking with someone at a party and learning they’re from “out in the countryside” or “up north,” pleasantries and small talk following the expected script. The woods had its ways—it had many ways. It did many things. It crafted itself a region, if you recall—a wonderland of candy and sweets, the luring scent of a carnivorous plant or the tongue of a turtle in the mud, a mouthwatering aroma wafting from a cave of crystals. The woods worked like a great big organism of its own, but further, it operated with more complexity than a turtle or a flower; enormity and primordial power made it, among other things, an expert multitasker.

Consider, too, then, the relationship between something like the crocodile and the plover. The plover climbs inside the crocodile’s mouth to pick food from its teeth. The bird gets a meal, and the crocodile gets a free dental plan. The crocodile could snap its jaw down and get one small appetizer. It could also endure the sensation of tiny feet all over its tongue for a short while in order to stave off infection, keep its teeth in good working order, and sit tight in anticipation of a better meal tomorrow.

(This relationship could be considered a type of payment, no?)

If the crocodile was a little bit smarter and a little bit better at making conversation, it might have managed to cut an even sweeter deal with the plover. “A meal for me is a meal for you. Why not go find us some friends?