There were existing alternative routes out of the undercastle, but Vermin found it more expedient to fashion his own. He’d put almost as much work into it as he had invested in his storytelling. Prying loose a bunch of stones from the back wall in a room where Kiala wasn’t ever likely to venture; eating said stones – good for digestion; excavating a short tunnel to connect with the city’s sewers.
After a crawl along his makeshift tunnel, he emerged into this veritable home from home and paused for a bathe before climbing a ladder, popping a manhole and peering out to make sure the area was clear of passers-by. All quiet and deserted.
He hauled himself out and replaced the manhole cover. He licked some of the excess sewage that clung to him to guard against dripping too much telltale mess around the cover.
Then he clambered up the nearest drainpipe to access the rooftops.
From the undercastle, he felt like he’d arrived in a new city-above-the-city. A broken landscape of tiles and thatch. A sprawling, undulant terrain with angular peaks and snaking valleys, all framed by the city battlements. Turrets and towers rose here and there like crags and tors chiselled into some semblance of order and neatness. The place stank of fresh sea air and Vermin was glad of the extra coating of waste he’d picked up.
It was a good night to be out. A slender rind of moon, patchy cloud blotting out most of the stars. A biting chill to the air. A good Decemberon night.
Vermin scrambled and sprang across the rooftops, seeking the smokeless chimneys.
He’d taken care to be vague about which particular night in this month – named after the King Of The Fieries himself – Decemberon would descend. On the spur of the moment, he’d even given the last group of kids some spiel about the Twelve Nights Of Decemberon, adding that, although very magical, the King couldn’t possibly visit all the children’s houses in one night. Inspired stuff – and he wished he’d used it before. Anyway, it seemed the tale had spread to many homes in this neighbourhood and the people weren’t taking any chances. Nobody wanted to miss Decemberon, so there were plenty of unlit fires tonight.
Vermin thought of the families, tucked up in bed and shivering under their blankets. The kids trembling from excitement as well as the cold. Bless.
He trusted the wakeful ones would heed his warnings to keep their eyes shut tight. What with Decemberon being the brightest of all Fieries, hailing from the heart of a star, it was important that they understood the grave risk that they would go blind if they caught even the slightest glimpse of him.
He landed on a thatch roof, disturbing a sleeping seagull. He snatched the bird from the air before it could squawk and flap too noisily, gulped it down as an impromptu appetiser. Some of the snootier echelons of Tortenschloss society might have raised an eyebrow or a nostril at the idea of poultry as a starter, but Vermin tended to circumvent etiquette by eating around the clock so the question of starters and finishing courses wasn’t generally a factor.
A small troupe of jeopards – spotty baboonish pests with mischievous features and pink bottoms – watched with interest from a brewery roof just across a narrow lane. They looked a bit dopey-eyed, as though mildly intoxicated by the fumes that rose throughout the day from their chosen nesting place. Natural-born troublemakers, they would nevertheless keep their distance from him.
Vermin bent over the chimney and squeezed his head into the opening. Making a bit like the Sludge that Kiala liked to call him, he squashed up his shoulders and the rest of his body, folding his wings up good and tight against his back and piped himself in like, he imagined, rotten toothpaste forced back into the tube. The first stretch was hard work, with some danger of straining a muscle or several, but it wasn’t long before he could expand and ooze gently down the shaft to land in a bed of raked, cold ashes. Soft and welcoming as a cat’s litter tray. Like soothing talcum powder on his hindquarters after the prickly thatch.
He crawled out onto the rug, unfurled his wings and gave them a flap. Which fanned some of the ash over the carpet, but a few signs of disturbance would only serve to confirm that someone had visited. Which could only be good for the spread of his story.
Besides, he hoped to leave further evidence of Decemberon having paid a call – by gobbling up any treats that had been laid out for him. And he was pleased to see quite a generous spread set out on the coffee table.
Six pies arranged on a tray – with a lacey doyley, no less. Unnecessarily decorative, but he could forgive them for that. The pastry was lightly dusted with sugar and stained a sticky brown where the juices had dribbled out of the pie in the baking.
Vermin leaned low over them, sniffing. Then licked his lips.
Standing next to the tray, on a cork coaster, was a goblet of sherry. He sniffed that too.
He wasn’t going to pause and do that every time. He was on a clock here: probably a fair number of households to get through and be back before Kiala woke. But it was worth savouring this, his first Decemberon feast.
A deft flick of his tongue swept each pie into his mouth and he snarfed them down, one after the other. Washed them down with greedy slurps of sherry. Resisted swallowing the goblet and even deposited it back in its place on the coaster.
The family here had outdone themselves. A lot of the kids had looked like dirty paupers so he could probably expect humbler offerings at other homes.
Obviously, he’d lied about the presents. But he supposed he ought to leave them something.
He spied a large potted plant in a corner of the room. It struck him as the ideal spot to secrete a gift.
[To Be Concluded…]