As Dave Road made his way back to where Darius and the others had left the wagon, he happened to spot Tom and Tiejo, several blocks from the parking lot. He thought he should call out to them, but wasn't sure. In fact, he wasn't entirely comfortable even approaching them, but he did so, hesitantly. After all, they were probably going to the same place he was.
"Oh, it's you," said Tom when he caught sight of Dave. "The doppelgänger. I mean, unless you're actually Darius. I suppose if the two of you traded clothes, I wouldn't know the difference. It's not just your faces, you both have the same general bearing, as well."
"Hmmm," said Dave, unsure what else to say.
"Anyway, where are the others? You did go with them, right?"
"Yes, but... well, things just got a bit uncomfortable for me. And I didn't feel like my presence served any purpose, anyway. I got to catch up with Darius a bit on the flight over here... which you know of course, because you were there..." Dave flinched, something he often did when he felt like he'd said something stupid. But then as always, he told himself it wasn't worth worrying about, because most likely no one else thought anything of it. "Anyway... I guess that was sort of the point of my coming; it's not like I could really contribute anything to the Chaos. It was interesting hearing about it all, and, well, now it seems like it's just getting more interesting, now that they've been talking with pirates, and all..."
"Oh, you found some, did you? How's that going?"
"Um, sounded vaguely promising, I suppose. Nothing concrete. I don't know. Still, things have always had a way of working out for Darius. You know, aside from... the things that don't. But apparently even those things can turn around, in the end. I'm babbling, sorry."
"Don't worry, son, at least you make more sense than this lad," he said with a nod in Tiejo's direction.
Just then, a door opened nearby, and someone walked out of the building the three of them were standing in front of, having stopped walking when they met up. The man was about to start walking away, when he caught a glimpse of a familiar face. "Dave, Dave, Dave!" he exclaimed, suddenly turning and walking towards the trio. "This is a surprise, I never would have expected to see you here in Shanty! Who are your friends?" Tom thought it interesting that the stranger's somewhat raspy voice sounded simultaneously subdued and zealous.
"Um," said Dave, "this is Tom, and that's Tiejo Streetrat. Tom... doesn't have a last name, I guess. Actually, they're friends of my old friend Darius. I just met them today, and so I don't really know them well." He paused for a few moments, looking back and forth between Tom, Tiejo, and the newcomer. "Oh, guys... this is my friend Arnold Sullenhest."
"Ah, nice to meet you both!" said Arnold, shaking both their hands. Turning back to Dave, he asked, "So, is it business of Darius's that brings you here?"
"Y-yes. Actually... I shouldn't really say anything about it, but now that I happen to see you, it occurs to me you might be a useful contact for them." Turning to Tiejo, Dave said, "I'd be a bit surprised if you two didn't already have some friends in common. I mean, Arnold's got lots of friends among the street rats, dock rats, etc., of various villages." To Arnold he said, "I'm sure you'd be interested in... what they're up to. I wish I could say more about it. I'll mention it to Darius later, maybe, see what he thinks. But your network of... you know, associates... could well make valuable allies for them."
Arnold seemed amused by all this. "Well, I do hope he gets in touch with me, then." He asked Tom, "Unless you're a suitable representative of whatever enterprise is afoot?"
"Humph, well..." Tom looked Arnold over, did his best to read him. "You seem... an odd combination of trustworthy and shady-"
"Right on both counts!" said Arnold with a grin.
"...So it's hard to say with any certainty whether it would be advisable to take you into our confidence so quickly. But then again, we are working with gangsters and possibly pirates, so..." he shrugged.
"Well, I'll tell you what. I love a good mystery, and this is quickly becoming intriguing to me. Once again I'll say to ask your friend about it, if he's in charge of things. Meanwhile, there's no reason you and I couldn't do business, of an unrelated sort. You strike me as a man of taste, discernment, high intelligence. So I'm sure you'll know a good offer when you see one." Taking a step back, he unslung a backpack and withdrew a rolled-up carpet, which he unfurled and held out in front of himself. "It's a stroke of luck for both of us that we ran into each other, right after I procured this amazing new device."
"It's a carpet," said Tom in a decidedly unimpressed tone. Cocking an eyebrow, he asked, "I suppose it flies?"
"Very astute! Yes, it flies, but it also has a feature never before seen on a transport of this size, and in fact rarely on any transports. Have you, by chance, ever heard of something called an 'autopilot'?"
Tom's eyes widened almost imperceptibly. "Actually, our wagon has an autopilot. I wasn't aware anyone but... the organization from which we obtained it had such a spell."
"Well, if an idea's time has come, it can't be contained for long. But the people I'm dealing with at the moment are at the vanguard of cutting-edge developments. Without hazarding a guess as to who you got your wagon from-" (and Tom could clearly see that Arnold had a very definite suspicion about that, even if he didn't say so) "I daresay even they haven't refined the spell to the point that it could be used on a carpet. So I ask you, would something like this be of use to your cause? Or to you personally? If you're interested, I can sell you this one right now, at a very reasonable price. And if you like it, maybe your people could get in touch with me about a contract to deliver more units. What say you, my good man?"
Tom was an old hand at feigning disinterest, to haggle prices down. And in this case, the truth was on his side. "Well, I've only fairly recently learned to fly anything. I'm not too keen on it, personally. I prefer keeping my feet on solid ground."
"A very wise man; nothing safer on the Land than the land. But if a situation arises in which you need to fly, you'd do well to have the best transportation money can buy. I guarantee, you couldn't make a wiser investment; why, this beauty's safe as houses!"
Just then, they all heard a crash from across the street, and turned to see one of the shoddy buildings collapsing... just a little.
"Not these houses in particular, of course..." said Arnold. They all turned back to face him; Tom was smirking. The salesman, however, was clearly unfazed by comical coincidences. "Anyway! If you say you don't like flying, what could be more convenient than a carpet that does the flying for you?"
"Well," said Tom, stroking his chin, "that's true enough, I suppose. But I certainly wouldn't buy it without first taking it on a test flight. I suppose you'd have to go with me, and I probably shouldn't leave Tiejo alone for long... but that thing doesn't quite look big enough for three people."
"Which brings me to a secondary feature!" To the carpet he said, "Expand!" and all four sides began extending. As they did so, Arnold released the carpet, and the front end rose up so that the whole thing hovered parallel to the ground. "It's interwoven, you see, with the same material used in t-mail bubbles."
Tom nodded. "That is impressive, I must admit. So... I wonder, would it be too much trouble to fly it back to Triscot before I make a final decision?"
"No trouble at all! As it happens, I have business in Triscot, myself. I was going to fly there on this very carpet, in fact. If you and your friend wanted to join me, I'd be happy to have you along."
Tom was about to reply, when suddenly Tiejo tugged on his arm and leaned in to whisper, "Not ready I am being to return just yet. I-" he pulled Tom's arm so that the two of them turned and walked a few paces away before he continued, "I wantings to ask around town, if old friends of mine are knowing this friend of street rats, as Dave was saying he is. If checking out he does with them, I call you later and let you know, before you buyings the carpet, hmmm?"
Tom grinned. "Good plan, kid. So, you can catch a ride back with Darius, later?"
"Yes, I thinking so. Calling him I will after you leave."
"Right." Turning and walking back to Arnold, Tom cleared his throat. "Ahem. Yes, I'll go with you, but Tiejo will stay behind, actually. He has something to discuss with Darius in person, before heading back."
"Good, good!" Turning to Dave, he said, "I'm so happy to have run into you, my friend. Will you perhaps be joining us?"
"Ah, well, I suppose I could, actually. I mean... I have no further business in Shanty, so I guess it beats waiting around for the rest of the group..." Turning to Tom he added, "I mean, if it's alright with you."
Tom shrugged. "There's a free spot, might as well."
"Then it's settled. Shall we all climb aboard right away, or did you have anything else to do before leaving?"
Tom hoisted himself onto the floating carpet and said, "I'm ready whenever you are." Arnold and Dave followed suit, and Tom said, "So, how 'bout you show me how this thing works?"
Tiejo looked up at them and said, "Okay, letting Darius know I will that you found another ride. Have fun! Laters!"
"Bye," said Arnold. Then to Tom he said, "All you do is tell it where you want to go. Triscot!" At that word, the carpet began rising into the air and heading East. "You can refine your directions at any point..." were the last words Tiejo heard as they flew away.
When he was alone, he called Darius on a red t-mail bubble to tell them not to wait for Tom and Dave, but to make sure they waited for him if they got back to the wagon before he did. And as soon as he closed the connection, he scampered off to find some friends....
Two street rats sat quietly in a back alley, both apparently lost in thought. They had been like this for some time, when suddenly one of them broke the silence. "Perryh, are you contemplating what I'm contemplating?"
The other turned to look at his friend and replied, "I think so, Talon, and to answer the subject of your contemplation, I once asked my mother why my name is spelled with a silent 'h' at the end. She said, 'Because that's how Perryh's name was spelled.' Sadly, his mother had been dead for hundreds of years, so we couldn't ask her why his name-"
"No, you idiot! And we had this conversation before, when we first met."
"Oh, right, right. You said it was funny we were both named after historical figures; you for the inventor of the printing press, and me for the founder of the ELC. So, uh... then what were you contemplating, just now?"
"I was contemplating sneaking into the restaurant we're currently sitting against, and stealing some dinner."
"Oh, I like that idea, Talon! I am so in."
Just then, a head poked around the corner of the building and called out, "Greetings, old friendlies! But a better idea I am having. I-"
"Tiejo!" shouted Talon and Perryh in unison.
"What are you doing in Shanty?" asked Talon.
Tiejo came around to stand before his old friends, who now stood up. "Oh, traveling with new friends. Going to help me rescue my master, they are. What about the two of you? Last time I was seeing you, in Triscot you were."
"Well, you know us. We move around a lot, just like you. So, you finally found some people to help with that, eh? Congratulations. You're still a long way from Near Port, though."
"Knowing this I am. But get there we will. Should to be leaving in a couple of days, I am thinking. Anyway, thinking I am instead of letting you steal dinner, buying your meals I could be."
"You know we don't accept charity from friends."
"That's right," said Perryh, "only from strangers. Who don't know they're offering it."
"Think of it not as charity, then. Fair trade for information you may be providing. Wanting to know I am if you knowings of a person called Arnold Sullenhest?"
Talon and Perry looked at each other, then back at Tiejo. "Why do you ask?" Talon wanted to know.
"Suggested it was that he might be good addition to, uh, group with which I'm traveling. Not so much... to join us, now-like, but rather, maybe... someone who could to be helping us laters. All very vague; not knowing I am what exactly he is doing. But maybe selling a new-fangled flying carpet to a friend, at least."
Talon looked thoughtful, and after a few moments said, "Hmmm. Well, not knowing the purpose of your group, I can't say what he might do for you all. But if you want to know whether he's someone you could trust, I'd say so. I mean, sure, he's a crook- but who isn't, these days? You know the saying, 'honor among thieves.' Well, he certainly adheres to that philosophy. He deals in black market goods, as well as information. He never breaks a promise, never rats anyone out- an expression I hesitate to use, as it's offensive to our lot, but that's neither here nor there. Anyway, Arnold always deals fairly in business transactions. And he's well connected, in the underworld. I mean, he has lots of friends in the 'Rat community. In that respect, I'd say he's a lot like you, Tiej. Though I daresay he's more... organized than you are. Probably the closest thing Shanty has to a gang don, though when I put it that way, I have to say his network is a good deal less organized than any actual gang. Of course, he also has friends among gangsters, so I've heard, though I don't think he discriminates between different gangs."
"Ah, yes. Very valuable this information is being to Tiejo. Thankings you I am glad to do, well worth the price of a meal, if not more. If vouching for him you are, then trust him I will. I shall report this to my friends." After a brief pause, Tiejo snickered. "Much like Tiejo, he is being, hmm? A network, he has? In multiple villages? Yes, a network of my own I am having, as well. Perhaps even there is some overlappings, already. Funny to think that heard of him I had not. Hmmm hmm hm. Well then, talking to him again I am eager. And about suchlike things I must also to be talking with you two. But come, hungry we three all are being, so... to the front door!" he exclaimed with a wave of his arm.
"Right behind you," said Perryh with a grin, as they followed Tiejo. To Talon he said, "I definitely like his idea better than yours. Paying is so much easier and less dangerous than sneaking and stealing."
Talon nodded. "That it is, if you have the money. Anyway, I do like the idea of them having to serve us. Nothing more fun than watching the honest folks' disdain for street rats, when they can't really do or say anything about it. ...Good thing for us this place doesn't have a strict dress code, though."
The plan had been for the group that went to Shanty to meet those who'd stayed in Triscot, at Evan's estate. But Tom supposed he couldn't just land the carpet there, when Arnold was with him. Instead, he landed at Dane's diner, one of the few landmarks in Triscot that were familiar to him. While Sullenhest rolled up the carpet, Tom wandered into a side alley to place a private call to Tiejo. After no more than a centhour, Tom closed the connection and came out front again.
"Well, it seems Tiejo found some friends who vouched for you. He says he's eager to talk to you about something, soon. So, perhaps I should give you one of our special red t-mail bubbles..."
Sullenhest shook his head. "No need, I have plenty of that variety."
"Yes, but..." he'd been about to say theirs were specially encoded by Cameron, but decided he didn't know Sullenhest well enough yet to trust him with that information. "Well, okay. I'm sure we'll be in touch. Meanwhile, I think I will take that carpet." As he paid the price Sullenhest had mentioned during the flight, he worried a bit about how he was going to refill his pouch. But, at least he was glad that he always kept more money on his person when adventuring than not. Besides which, he'd been saving a lot of money since the journey began, by not getting drunk. "So, you'll be able to get back to Shanty without the carpet, then?"
The black marketeer grinned as he handed the carpet to Tom and replied, "Always do. But I'll be in town for at least a few days, I think. Maybe I'll see you and your friends around."
"Maybe." As Tom said this, he noticed the Band walking in their direction. "Ah, here come some of them now."
"Who's your friend, Tom?" Emma asked when the Band reached Tom and his companions.
Before Tom could reply, Sullenhest bowed his head and said, "Arnold Sullenhest, at your service, miss. And you are?"
Emma hesitated, then said "Excuse me." Turning to Tom, she asked, "Is he one of us, now?"
"Not yet. But Tiejo's been talking to some friends about him, and he's gonna talk to Darius about him. So we'll see. I expect you all can hold off on introducing yourselves until he's made up his mind."
"Very well," said Sullenhest. "Another time, then. Anyway, as I said, I have some business to attend to. Be seeing you!" And with a wave, he turned and walked away, leaving the members of the Chaos to themselves.
Once Sullenhest had rounded a corner, Tom turned to the others and asked, "So, back to Evan's, then?"
"That's the plan," said Alecstar. "Though there's something I want to mention to Darius once we get there, and it may make him decide to stay in town awhile."
"Huh. Hardly seems worth walking all that way if we're just going to turn around and come back into town. Maybe we should call him and tell him to meet us somewhere else."
"Come on, it's not that far. Besides, if we do end up staying in town, we'll probably wind up eating out, so we might as well work up an appetite."
"If you say so."
At this point, Dave made his goodbyes, and wandered off to figure out what to do with the rest of his day, on his own.
Tom and the Band began walking to the manor, and when they arrived, they found Jasp waiting for them. Before anyone could utter a greeting, Tino looked upward, pointed and said, "Look! Up in the sky! Is that a bird, or maybe a plane?"
They all looked where he was pointing, and Tom asked, "What's a plane?"
"Never mind," said Ginger. "He's just making one of his jokes that only make sense to himself, I'm sure. Anyway, it's clearly a wagon. Our wagon, no doubt."
"Speaking of which," Emma asked Tom, "why aren't you with Darius in the wagon? I meant to ask, earlier."
Tom explained the circumstances of his early return to Triscot, while they waited for the wagon to land, which it soon did. Darius and Tiejo climbed down from the cockpit, while Alyn, Rune, and Cara emerged from the back. Tom then stowed his newly purchased carpet in the wagon.
"Hey, everyone," said Darius. "Been having a fun day, I hope?"
"Great," said Emma. "But tell us, how did your mission go?"
"Interesting. Oh, first let me introduce you all to my cousin, Cara."
Cara waved and said "Hi," and the others returned her greeting.
"Well," Darius continued, "Cara introduced me to her captain, Alphonse Teach, who turned out to also be an old friend of Rune's. By the way, Jasp, the few pirates I saw didn't seem that scary, to me." The spy didn't reply, so Darius went on, "Anyway, we talked with Teach and his first mate, and while they couldn't promise anything definite, they both sounded quite interested in helping our cause, so... they'll be looking into possibilities. Hopefully they'll manage to organize some allies for us, though I'm sure it'll take awhile. But, hey, First Village wasn't built in a day. Things have been going much faster than I expected, from the start of this whole adventure, so in a way it's kind of refreshing to think that something might actually take some time. But even this, a potential navy, however uncertain... it's more than I could have hoped for, so soon. And it may yet come together more quickly than I dare hope, if our luck holds out. I definitely think we've been on a roll, lately. Anyway, once LandOrder provides us with the new t-mail bubbles, Cara will deliver one to her captain. Til then, she'll be staying with our clan. Oh, and another thing. Tom and Tiejo met this fellow named Arnold something or other-"
"Yes," said Emma, "we met him, too. Briefly. The Band, I mean; Jasp wasn't with us."
Darius nodded. "Okay, good. Well, Tiejo's been talking to me about him, and I can't really say anything except that Tiejo and I both want to sit down and discuss some things with him soon." He grinned and added, "It seems Tiejo has had a plan of his own he's been working on all along, which he only now shared with me. I must say, I'm impressed and encouraged. He allowed me to say that much, but you know how he likes to withhold information to surprise us with later. So in deference to his wishes, I won't say anything about his plan except that Mr. Sullenhest may very well be able to expand upon it significantly, assuming he and Tiejo and I can hammer out a mutually beneficial arrangement. And... I guess that's all I have to report, for now."
"Well, then," said Alecstar, "I guess it's my turn. There's something I wanted to mention, Darius. I read in the paper today that there's to be a rally for King Demos tonight, which I thought perhaps we should attend."
Darius grew serious as he asked, "What, here in Triscot? Is he making a live appearance?"
Star shook his head. "No, he won't be here in person. It seems they've set up a... the paper called it a 'bubble-screen,' at an amphitheatre in the park, where plays or concerts are usually held. In fact, the same thing has been set up in villages across the Land, and Demos will be making a transmission to all of them simultaneously, for crowds in each village to watch."
"Huh, sounds-" and just at that moment, a t-mail bubble in Alyn's pocket chimed, causing Darius to pause.
She fished it out and activated it when she found that the call was from her husband. "Hey," she said. "How was work?"
"Hey. Work was, you know, work. Anyway, I just called to let you know I heard about a rally in town that I want to attend tonight, so I'll be late getting home. Would you be interested in joining me?"
"Sounds interesting," she said with a smile, "but I'm rather tired, so I think I'll head home. I think Darius and possibly some of his friends will attend, though. So, they should hook up with you and take our wagon home when you're all ready. I'll go with the Chaos wagon now."
"Okay. See you later. Close." The connection cut off, and the bubbles vanished at both ends.
Darius said, "Okay, well... as much as I'd like to get home, I do think it would probably be best for me to see what Demos has to say. Not to mention, I'm just curious about this bubble-screen thing, though I suppose I've seen such things on walls before, like in don Holdup's office in Jump Village. Presumably this is just a larger version." Looking at Alecstar, he asked, "I assume since you're the one who brought it up, you're planning to attend?" Star nodded, and Darius turned to the group. "Anyone else?"
"Might as well," said Tom. "What time is it scheduled for, anyway?"
"Third Five," said Alecstar. "Which I think is soon, so we should probably get going."
Tom fished out his pocket watch and declared, "It's already Third Four and Seventy. Factoring in the walk, I'm sure we'll miss the beginning as it is."
Jasp sighed and said, "There's something... I've been really anxious to talk to the entire group about, but I suppose it'll have to wait til we all get back to the estate. Hopefully that won't be too late. I want everyone in the Chaos to be up when we get back; I don't want to wail til morning. But if I have to, I guess it'd be... acceptable. Meanwhile, I should probably come along to check out the rally. After all, I am in the business of information gathering. Seems like it'd be a waste to ignore information that's being just handed out so openly."
Tiejo began hopping up and down, raised his hand and exclaimed, "Ooh, ooh, Tiejo wants to see bubble-screen, too!"
"As for myself," said Rune, "I don't care one way or the other about this rally, but as I'm obviously not going to your folks' place, I might as well at least walk into town with you."
And so, Darius, Star, Tom, Jasp, Tiejo and Rune started on their way, while the others hooked up the striders and drove their wagon into the underground tunnel to head home. As he walked back into town, Darius thought to himself, Man, I'm starting to wish I was wearing my kicks instead of these damn boots.
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