Excerpt

Wherever Soria stepped, the crowd dispersed. She bowed and shook hands as she went. Iyo Oron followed behind, neither nodding nor shaking hands. The pair circled the entire agora. Finally she found Figg by the food tents. “Mister Figg, I’m trying to locate Palderian,” said Soria.

“He’s pro’ly greasin’ up for the races,” Figg said, shoving a bun in his mouth and wiping the crumbs on his cloak.

“Ah, of course. Poor man. I find it ridiculous that we honor warriors by enlisting them in these foolish games.”

“What I find ridiculous is people who put the jam in the middle of the bun. Tear the bun in half, jam each side. There you go. Twice as much jam.”

“Are you drunk, Mister Figg?”

“There have been Figgs since the dawn of time who’ve been more so.”

“What I infer is you’ve been drunk since dawn.”

“Won’t argue with fair counsel, miss.”

“Are you competing in the games, Mister Figg?”

“Not the speed ones, but the ones you earn fame for taking hits.”

“The melee? You do realize a critical aspect of the sport is not falling over, right?”

“Ah, mercy me. If I last then, that’ll take two feats.”

“Good heavens.”

“Get it?”

“Of course.”

“Do you get it, Iyo?” Figg shouted over her shoulder. Iyo nodded the briefest acknowledgment. “Because of feet.”

“Stop it. You’re not even drunk, are you? You just play at it to excuse your terrible jokes.”

“It works both ways.”

“You don’t find it a bit demeaning? You’ve spent your whole life in the hunt, charging after senloy and risking your life. Then you come here for what you think will be praise, and we strip you naked, grease you up, and send you into a bloodless battle with padded clubs.”

“If we’re naked, how are we supposed to pad our clubs?” Figg found it strange to talk to Soria like this with Iyo standing guard. He didn’t know how much to include Iyo in the conversation.

“You’re ridiculous. I’m glad to have you on the march. It’d be a dull winter up north without you.”

“We’re soldiers, miss. Dull’s the life until it ain’t either.”

“It doesn’t bother you we’re marching the wrong direction entirely?”

“We ain’t marching in any direction. They retired us. Maybe it’s diff’ernt for you, but I ain’t ever had any say over my orders.”

“Oh, I never have. Just the annoyance of everybody thinking I do.”

“Listen, miss. I know I’m twice as drunk as you have ever been and half as sober as I have, and I know you’ve had more lectures than I’ve had hangovers, and I’m a Figg and you’re a Fallicorn—”

“Get on with it.”

“I know it ain’t sociable, or b’fitting my station. Can I offer you a word of advice?”

“Absolutely not.”

“Fair enough.” Figg turned from her. When Soria and Iyo found him, he’d been bothering the usher of the wine tent about one thing or the other. Now he returned to that, tapping the elbow of the usher and wagging his fingers for a cup. Soria looked around. She was surrounded by people and when she turned her head, everybody averted their eyes and hushed their voices. It only made her more conspicuous to have Iyo standing behind her taking inventory of anybody who looked at her.

“Mister Figg,” said Soria. “Mister Figg.” The usher stopped filling Figg’s wine cup and looked at her.

“You better keep ladling, young man. It’s for her.” The usher bowed and hurried about filling the cup. Figg turned a round-mouthed, bushy-bearded smile at her.

“Mister Figg, talk to me.”

“You’re terrible at parties,” Figg said as loudly as possible.

Soria blushed and brought her shoulders up to her ears. “You’re terrible at parties. I’m trying to enjoy myself and you’re making me uncomfortable,” she said in a hushed fury.

“Don’t lie to me, miss. You are not trying to enjoy yourself.” Then he barked at the usher. “You splashed all over this one. Get her a clean horn. Do you know who this is? This is Josey Bluewater, the fiercest brigand from here to Caladabur. She’ll gut you standing just as soon as she’d crack her knuckles.”

“I’m not…” Soria said. “I would never.”

“And that’s her man, Silversteel. He’s already decided how he’s going to cut ya.”

“Ignore this man,” Soria said. Figg shook his head at her earnestness. “I’ll take the splashy cup, Mister… Fateyes… Beefbeard,” she said, ripping the wooden cup from Figg’s hands and spilling it on both of them.

Figg laughed so monstrously that he reached out and grasped the usher for support. “Beefbeard! Oh, I’ll take that. I’ll take that, indeed! Beefbeard and Bluewater. Say, if we didn’t have business up north, we could do pretty well for ourselves as pirates.”

“You’ve made me spill everywhere, you brute,” she said, only half sincerely. “Now tell me what you were going to say.”

“Oh, from before?”

“Yes, from before!”

“No one’s ever asked for my opinion. I usually just offer it t’the wind.”

“Out with it.”

“I was going to say, when you do grab one of those buns, tear it in half. Double jam.”

“Mister Figg. Seriously. I can’t believe I’m asking to be given advice. Soria, Soria, what has become of you?”

“It wasn’t so much advice as a favor. The baker’s cut me off. Could you grab me another bun?”

“Stop it.”

“And when you do, be sure to swipe me a spread of jam. Two spreads! They can say no to a Figg, but what? They’re going to tell the great-granddaughter of Jaen she can’t eat their buns?”

“Come now, Mister Figg. The truth. What were you going to say, before you turned your back on me and terrified that poor boy?”

Figg moved closer and quieted his voice. “My advice is somewhat jam related.”

“Be serious.”

“Oh, I am.”

“I know you take your jam seriously.”

“I do. And that’s my point. That’s the advice.” Figg rolled his head around subtly, gazing over all the festival-goers pretending not to be staring at Soria—the wine usher, the baker family, the fife players, the dancers, the children running around with jam and honey and barbecue sauce smeared all over their faces, the ebb and flow of cheers from the agora. “Try to enjoy it.”

“That’s it?”

“Not every day is war and bloodshed, no matter how hard you wish it to be. Your only orders today are to glad-hand and eat jammy buns and cheer at the races. Enjoy it.”

“I’ll try,” she said wryly. “How does one begin to enjoy what one detests? Is booze the answer?” She brought the mug to her chin and Figg slapped it down to the dirt. There were gasps from those who blew their cover in so doing. The usher’s jaw fell. Soria glared at Figg. Iyo didn’t even flinch. Later Figg would remember Iyo’s lack of response and conclude that Iyo considered him no threat to Soria. Whether a compliment or criticism, he didn’t know.

“Nope, nope, nope. Don’t start drinking when you’re angry.”

“You just told the great-granddaughter of Jaen she can’t drink your wine?”

“If there’s one thing of which I am expert, it’s this. Drink. And be merry. But not in that order. Angry drinking leads to angry drunks and angry drunks ruin the party for the rest of us.”

“Nobody’s ever—”

Figg spun on the usher. “That fresh horn better be ready, pal, or we’re both dead.” The usher, dutifully, had filled a clean horn of wine for Soria and Figg took it from his hands and placed it in Soria’s.

“This is what I deserve for seeking advice,” she said.

“Be merry, and drink!”

“How does one go about becoming merry, Merry Mister Figg?”

“Do you want to hear a duck joke?”

“Is that… Are there… subcategories of jokes? How would you anticipate somebody should respond to that question?”

“Enthusiastically!”

“Fine. Not with enthusiasm, but with reservation, I would like to hear a duck joke.”

Figg squared his shoulders and shot out his hands. His voice changed—the telling of jokes is serious business in the Figg clan. “There’s a duck. Floatin’ on a pond. A frog hops by.” Figg was aware that he had the attention of those around them, and though he performed solely for Soria, he did so broadly enough for all to enjoy. “Frog says, ‘How’s the water?’” Figg shot his eyebrows up for an instant. “Duck says, ‘What do I look like, a beaver?’” Figg stood back, the thespian receding from the role, inviting applause.

“What the blazes? Does that conceal some meaning? Did you come up with that yourself?”

“I’ve got more.”

Soria shook her head. “I’ve taken their measure.”

“Do you get it?”

“I get it. I don’t like it.”

“I don’t think you get it. I know Iyo gets it. ‘How’s the water?’ Houssse. Beavers build their houses on water. House the water. ‘What am I, a beaver?’”

“Well, yes. Now you’re just repeating it.”

“It’s a famous duck joke.”

“I don’t doubt it’s popular with ducks.”

“You tell it.”

“Tell it? To you?”

“Mercy, no. I know how it ends. Tell Egor.”

“Absolutely not.”

“You, boy. See that miserly old woman descanting on her porridge?”

“‘Descanting’?”

“Fetch her right quick for Soria.”

“Don’t call her over.”

“Soria Fallicorn,” Figg shouted as the boy ran off. And now everybody was staring at Soria. Figg turned round and grinned at the rouge in her cheeks. “It’s a Palderian word. You stick by him, you’ll learn all sorts of circumstantial words.”

“That’s not what circumstantial means.”

“Indeed it is. I learnt it deciduously.”

“Figg, please.”

“Here she comes. Don’t forget the ending.”

“It’s three sentences.”

“Don’t junk it up.”

“How would one junk up a bad joke?”

“Egor! Come, come. Soria wrote a joke and this lot don’t think it was funny.”

“I don’t like jokes,” Egor said.

“Then this one’s perfect for you,” said Soria.

Figg grunted at that. “Tell it, Soria.”

Sighing, she began, “There’s a duck on water.”

“‘Floatin’ on a pond.’”

“There’s a duck floating on a pond. Then a frog says—”

“‘A frog hops by.’ That’s an important part, the visual.”

“There’s a duck floating on a pond. A frog hops by. The frog says, ‘How’s the water, Mister Duck?’ and the duck says, ‘You know, that’s not a bad idea, but Mister Beaver already beat me to it.’”

Figg chortled. “You made it better!”

Soria grit her teeth and lowered her head. When she braved a glance at Egor, the old woman said, “‘House’ as in the verb. To shelter. House. It’s not funny, Soria. It’s too clever.” Soria’s stomach dropped; Egor was taking this even more seriously than Figg. “It’s not a successful joke because it makes the listener think too severely about the mechanics of language, instead of delighting with a turn of phrase.”

Figg bit his lower lip and went bright red. Soria saw him out of the corner of her eye and imagined her neck was a stone column, so that she would not spy his wild eyes and burst into laughter.

“‘What’s the last thing a frog will ever do? Croak.’” Normally, Figg would have laughed at that, but Egor’s demeanor was pedagogical and Figg didn’t want to interrupt. “‘What do you call a broken duck egg? Quacked.’ These are simple jokes. Children like them. That is the intended audience, is it not?”

“Mm hmm,” said Soria, pressing her lips together.

“Don’t complicate it. ‘Why are beavers bad storytellers? Their tales fall flat.’ See? That’s not funny enough for the investment of unraveling the wordplay, nor silly enough for children. That’s your trouble with this duck house joke. You’ll get there, Soria.” Egor patted Soria on the arm. “Have you seen Palderian?” Soria, biting hard on the inside of her cheek, shook her head. “I’ll see if I can find him.”

As soon as Egor left, Figg and Soria exploded. Soria laughed so hard she began sweating. “I’ve never been so embarrassed in my whole life!”

“You’re a good sport, kid. You’re a good sport.”

“Did she just come up with those jokes, or does she have dozens of those memorized?”

“Never underestimate that woman,” said Figg patting his eyes. He handed Soria a fresh horn of wine and they drank. “By the by,” he said, “everybody’s wrong. It’s a great joke.”


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