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In Which the Artist Arrives in That Disreputable Realm Called the Mutt And, Though Discovering For Himself the Nature of That Disrepute is Given Neither to Reproof Nor Demurral, Thereby Confirming His Own Most Odious and Disreputable Nature.


The Autobiography of Benvenuti Sfondrati-Piccolomini,
Episode 6: Boots, Beer, Banners and Beds

So it was on such a wretched pair of patent leather shoes that I arrived in the Mutt.

Indeed, my first action upon reaching the Doghouse—for such is the curious name of the Mutt's capital, insofar as the term "capital" can be applied to the chief town of that country—was to locate the shop of a bootmaker and limp therein.

Entering the shop, I approached the bootmaker at his bench. He looked up at the sound of my approach. A huge grin split his wizened old face. I began to smile myself, pleased at this amicability toward a customer, an attitude sadly lacking in all too many Ozarine establishments.

I soon discovered my error.

"Gwendolyn!" yelped the oldster. He charged past without so much as a glance in my direction and flung himself into Gwendolyn's arms. She picked him up, for all the world like a wrinkled babe, and planted a big kiss on his bald head.

"Hello, Mishka. Long time."

"Much too long." Now back on his feet, he looked up at her with a hurt expression.

"The word is you came through here three months ago. Is it true? And why didn't you stop by for a visit? Distressed, I was, at the news."

Gwendolyn shook her head. "I had no time for visits, Mishka. I was on a mission from—"

The old man held up his hand abruptly. " 'Nough said! I don't want to know the details. 'What you don't know, the porkers can't screw out of you,' as they say." He laughed. "Not that I've had to worry much about porkers since I retired and moved to the Mutt! But still, you never know."

I looked around his shop, which had about it all the signs of a busy establishment.

"Doesn't look like much of a retirement," I said.

The old man peered at me, scowling. I'm afraid my Ozarine accent was just as thick as ever, even though I'd been speaking nothing but Groutch for weeks. I'm good at learning languages, and I'd become quite fluent in Groutch, but I just don't have the ear for speaking without an accent.

Still scowling, Mishka darted a sharp look toward Gwendolyn.

"Relax, Mishka," she said. "I'll vouch for him."

"He's a sympathizer?" he asked.

Gwendolyn shrugged. "Yes and no. He's not really involved in politics. He's an artist."

Mishka was still scowling. Gwendolyn scowled back.

"Impossible old man! I told you I'll vouch for him."

Mishka looked away. "Well, your word's as good as gold, of course. But still, I just don't understand why you've got him around."

"It's personal, Mishka."

The old man suddenly grinned.

"Well! Well! That's all different, then!" The next thing I knew, Mishka was vigorously pumping my hand.

"Wonderful, wonderful," he prattled, "I've always said you were too intent on the cause, Gwendolyn. It's not good for the soul, you know, never taking the time out to smell the roses and such, and shouldn't I know?"

He continued his vigorous handshake.

"Pleased to meet you, young man. Very pleased, even if you are an Ozarine oppressor. My name's Mishka, by the way. Mishka the bootmaker."

"Benvenuti Sfondrati-Piccolomini."

Gwendolyn interrupted. "He needs a new pair of shoes, Mishka. Proper Groutch boots, if you would."

Mishka looked down at my feet, still shaking my hand.

"And will you look at those monstrosities!" he cried. "A wonder the man's not a cripple! All the way from Goimr, you say you've come? In those things?"

I nodded. Mishka released my hand and began busying himself in stacks of leather, muttering about "mad dogs and Ozarines."

I cleared my throat. "Uh, Sirrah Mishka, before you get started, I'm afraid I have very little money left. So if—"

I stopped, struck dumb by the ferocious glare the old man was bestowing on me. I looked to Gwendolyn for assistance.

"Money's not the custom in the Mutt," she said. "Quite disapprove of money, people here." She looked at Mishka. "Oh, stop glaring, Mishka! The man's new here—how's he supposed to know? I assure you, he's not a Consortium agent."

The old man was still glaring. "A Consortium provocateur came through here not long ago, you know? Tried to give money to children, he did, the scurvy knave! Proper boys and girls, though, well brought up, so they turned him in and the General called out his dogs." A wicked laugh followed. "Squealed like a pig, the rotten collaborator, when Fangwulf pulled him down. Didn't get more than half a mile, he didn't, even with the General's usual generous head start."

"You'll have to make allowances for Mishka, Benvenuti," said Gwendolyn. "When he said earlier that he was retired, he meant from the struggle. Old habits die hard, especially his."

Mishka's glare eased. "Well, I suppose so. Have to make allowances, I guess, for honest strangers, even plundering Ozarines." His glare briefly returned. "But no more talk of money, d'you hear? I won't have it! This is a respectable establishment!"

"By no means!" I exclaimed, fending off his glare with my hands. "But how—" Again, I looked to Gwendolyn for assistance.

"See if you can do him some service or other," she said. "How about the sign over his door? Thing's so weathered you can hardly read it. Can you make him a new one?"

I went outside, looked at the sign, came back.

"Certainly. But I'll need some fresh wood."

Mishka disappeared into the back of his shop. A moment later he reemerged, carrying a nice slab of oak.

"How about this?" he asked. "Ingemar the cabinetmaker gave it to me a few months ago. I've been meaning to use it for a new sign, but I never got around to it. I've even got some paint, but I'm not much of a painter, actually. Are you?"

I managed to make some modest but reassuring noises, while digging in my pack for my woodcarving tools. And so did the time pass pleasantly, with me carving and painting Mishka a new sign, while he busied himself with my boots. As he worked, Gwendolyn told him of our adventures, leaving out, I noticed, any mention of Wolfgang. This odd reticence left great holes in the narrative, but Mishka didn't notice them, so upset was he when he heard of the imminent arrival of a Rap Sheet in Grotum.

"We're doomed!" he cried, over and again. "Doomed! It'll be the Rellenos all over again! The streets awash in blood! The executioners collapsing from exhaustion! The racks splintering from overuse! The whips worn to a nubbin! The dungeons bursting at the seams! Even here! Even the Mutt!"

But he only stopped working once, looking up at Gwendolyn intently.

"You've got to tell the General right away. Everyone else, too, of course. If you get the word out at the Free Lunch it'll spread quick enough, sure, but you've still got to tell the General right away. Maybe he can think of something."

"First the Free Lunch," responded Gwendolyn. "Then I'll talk to the General."

Mishka made as if to argue, but then went back to his work. He finished with my boots at almost the same time I was done with his sign.

Mutual admiration followed.

"What a sign! What a sign!" exclaimed the old man, as I tried on my new boots. A perfect fit, they were, and very comfortable. Not fashionable, I admit. I noticed the old man was rummaging around again in his stacks of leather.

"Just give me a little time," he muttered, "I'll have another pair of boots ready."

"What for?" I asked. "These are perfect."

Mishka looked up, surprised. "Of course they're perfect. Am I not Mishka? But a sign like that! It'll be the best sign in town! Calls for two pair of boots, at the least."

I waved him off. "Nonsense. The sign was a trifle, I assure you."

Mishka wrung his hands. "Well. Well."

"Relax, Mishka," laughed Gwendolyn. "Benvenuti's an artist, doesn't have any proper sense of value. Leave it be. He's happy with the deal, and besides, we've got to be off to the Free Lunch."

"Oh, yes! I forgot. Well, then, at least let me obtain a cab for you. I insist!" he cried. "Such a great sign!" He rushed out into the street and began a fierce whistling.

A minute later he reentered the shop, a burly man in tow.

"Look who's here, Gwendolyn!"


The beefy newcomer swept his cap off his bushy head and stretched out his arms. Big as he was, he was almost dwarfed in Gwendolyn's embrace.

"Take us to the Free Lunch, if you would, Mario. Oh, let me introduce you to Benvenuti Sfondrati-Piccolomini."

Mario and I shook hands and exchanged pleasantries. He did not, I was relieved to note, seem to take offense at my Ozarine accent.

A minute later, Gwendolyn and I piled into the back seat of the cab, stowing our packs and my easel in the back. Mario eyed the easel with curiosity, but refrained from comment. He slapped his horse's rump with a short whip and we jolted out into the streets of the Doghouse.

Within a few blocks, I had come to the conclusion that this was the oddest town I had ever seen. There seemed no rhyme or reason to anything about it—neither the layout of the streets, nor the mixture of the buildings scattered about. Despite its relatively small size, the town positively shrieked "polyglot" in a way in which even the great and cosmopolitan imperial city of Ozar didn't. Still, the relations of the numerous inhabitants seemed quite cordial.

The Doghouse is not a big town, however, so it was not long before Mario reined in and wheeled the cab through a narrow gateway into a large walled courtyard.

Along one wall was a livery tending to the needs of the horses. On the opposite wall, under a well-weathered colonnade, stood a stout door, much abused by time and circumstances. The door's green paint was peeling off. Numerous cuts, gashes and nicks in the wood of both door and frame gave evidence that the customers were not a particularly sober and upright sort.

Above the colonnade stood—or rather, leaned slightly askew—a sign (very badly lettered) which proclaimed:



Gwendolyn and I grabbed our belongings and followed Mario inside. The place, to all appearances, was a classic provincial alehouse: numerous tables and chairs, a long, long bar, a few small windows high in a back wall, and several curtained alcoves or private rooms. Behind the bar was a small kitchen from which emanated a variety of amazing smells. The air was thick with tobacco and cooking smoke, not to mention alcohol vapors. A subdued hubbub filled the room, which soon changed to cries of loud greeting when the customers spotted Gwendolyn. We took our places at the bar. The tapster, a fat and placid-looking man, made a slow but inevitable progress up the long bar, like a stout ship moving through a canal, propelled by ritual wipes of the counter with a towel.

" 'Lo, Mario. 'Lo, Gwendolyn. Long time. And who's your friend?"

Gwendolyn introduced me. "And this is the Tapster, Benvenuti. What's the free lunch, today? Arsters? Arsters and beer?"

" 'Course it is," snapped the Tapster. "Just like it's been for the past twenty years and more."

"I'll have some," said Gwendolyn. The Tapster eyed me.

"I'll have oysters and beer, also." The gathering fury on his face warned me. "Arsters, I mean! Arsters!"

He waddled off, wiping the bar, then passed through a curtain into the kitchen.

"What is it about shellfish," I complained to Gwendolyn, "that people will commit mayhem over pronunciation?"

She and Mario frowned at me, like bishops regarding a heretic.

"A quahog is a quahog, a clam is a clam, and an arster is an arster," came their joint pronunciamento. I sighed, but let it go. I'm bold, but I'm not crazy.

The Tapster returned, bearing great pots of ale and a platter full of mollusks.

Famished, I started to dig in, then hesitated.

"Uh, tapster, a question. What about—?" I avoided the obscenity. "What I mean is, the sign above says there is no free lunch."

"Well, of course there isn't! What are we—witless nihilists?"

"He's new," said Gwendolyn, devouring her "arsters."

"Oh. Well, then, young man, let me explain the customs of the Mutt. In this happy and prosperous little place, we handle the exchange of goods and services rather differently from those benighted lands groaning under the yoke of"—here, a tight jaw, a grim lip, jowls quivering with contempt—"money. Keeps the Consortium off our backs, you understand? Not to mention the usurers and the rest of the world's drones. So it's like this. You come in here looking for something to eat and drink, but naturally I can't sell it to you because if I did, before you know it I'd be a subsidiary of the Consortium—whether I wanted it or not—and the next thing you know all of my customers would boycott the place and the next thing you know I'd be run out of town on a rail, if I was lucky and the General's dogs were in need of a rest. So we can't have that. So instead I give everybody a free lunch. Booze is on the house too, of course."

He proceeded to give the counter a solemn wipe of his cloth.

"Now, of course if people didn't help me out, I'd soon be starving on the street. And then they'd miss out on their free lunch. So out of the goodness of their hearts they provide me with the various services which I require. Everything make sense?"

I thought it over. "Yes, I think so. Your system reminds me a bit of a book written by one of my relatives. Proudhon Sfrondrati-Piccolimini, you may have heard of him? If I recall, he argues—"

"The man's an idiot!" cried the Tapster. "All that nonsense about the people's bank and such! No, no, young man, you're quite mistaken in all this!"

There followed a lengthy discourse on the competing theories which guided, or failed to guide, the daily life of the Mutt. It all went over my head, other than a general sense that people here seemed well enough pleased with their arrangements. And the beer and oysters were excellent.

When we were finished, Gwendolyn asked if there were some service she could provide for the Tapster, but he waved it off. He seemed rather offended, in fact.

"What?" he demanded. "Am I an ignoramus? A provincial cloddy, doesn't know a use value from an exchange value?" He sucked in his paunch, more or less, and assumed a pose of stern wisdom.

"I assume you're here on movement business?"

Gwendolyn nodded.

"Well, then, that's settled! Is there any greater use value for one's labor that to strive for the overthrow of the established order? 'Course not! So I feel the beer and arsters have been made good already."

The look of stern wisdom was now bestowed upon me.

"Don't know about him, though. Is he here on movement business, too?"

Gwendolyn started to explain my role in our escape from Goimr, but I interrupted.

"Nothing that could match this fine brew and—arsters. I've a bit of a knack for signs, however. I believe yours could use some improvement?"

A bit of friendly haggling ensued—although I'm not sure the word "haggling" fits a discussion in which the perverted concept of money never reared its head. At the end, it was agreed that I would fix up various unsightly aspects of the Free Lunch. Beer and arsters, needless to say, remained on the house.

There was one awkward moment.

"And will you be needing one room, or two?" asked the Tapster, his face bland and unreadable.

A moment's silence followed.

"Two rooms," I said quickly. Gwendolyn took a deep draught of ale. We sat side by side for several minutes, saying nothing.

"I'll be going," announced Mario. "I'll spread the word you're here, Gwendolyn. From what little Mishka told me, I gather you'll need to be talking to people."

"Thank you, Mario. And can you get word to the General? I'll need to see him soon."

"Certainly. I'll warn you, however, that you probably won't get many people here this afternoon. There's a new civil war scheduled for four o'clock, and the betting's been pretty fierce. Not many people'll want to miss it."

"Really?" Gwendolyn's interest was aroused. "What are the odds?"

"The Oligarchy's favored. The Republic's considered a serious contender, though I don't for the life of me understand why. The Aristocracy of the Robe is thought to have a good chance. The Aristocracy of the Sword's weak. And the Democracy's a joke, of course."

"How about the Monarchy?"

Mario smiled, rubbed his nose. "Well, now, there's what's interesting. I've a feeling—let's just say I'm betting on the Monarchy, and leave it at that."

"You know something?"

"Just a feeling, just a feeling."

Gwendolyn frowned, then smiled. "What the hell? Life can't be all business. Let's go! Like to watch a proper civil war, Benvenuti?"

Actually, the prospect of fratricidal slaughter didn't seem too attractive on such a fine afternoon, but I noticed that the patrons of the tavern were already streaming out, gabbling with excitement. Odd place, the Mutt.

* * *

Not much later, Mario pulled his cab over to the side of a street near what seemed to be the center of the Doghouse, if such a strange town could be said to have a center to it. At least, there was a very large square, around which a multitude had gathered, lining the sidewalks and perched on the surrounding rooftops.

Not more than a minute after we arrived, a disordered and shabby-looking mob entered the square from the north, chanting the praises of freedom and democracy. They were greeted by shouts of derision from the onlookers.

Derision which was well deserved, let me say, for it was not a moment later that a much more prosperous-looking and well-ordered mob poured in from the east and rapidly set the Democracy to flight with a few well-delivered curses and blows.

"This isn't a democracy, it's a republic!" was the battle cry of these newcomers.

But the victory of the Republic was short-lived, for it was but a minute or so later that four more columns of combatants entered the fray, and the advocates of the Republic were soon set into flight no less undignified than that of their scruffier cousins of the Democracy.

From the south marched two columns, one consisting of men dressed in aristocratic finery, the other of men in robes. Above the first column floated a banner depicting an eagle clutching a sword. Above the second, a banner depicting an owl clutching a quill pen.

The two columns fell to blows before they even reached the square.

"Power to the pure of blood!" cried the eagle-bannered ones, whom I deduced to be the Aristocracy of the Sword.

"Power to the keen of mind!" came the response, from those I took to be the Aristocracy of the Robe.

It was quite the affray. Evenly matched, at first, polo mallets against heavy ledgers, but then the Aristocracy of the Robe unleashed their secret weapon. Bottles of ink were hurled at the Aristocracy of the Sword, who soon fled in a panic, screeching in dismay at the ruin of their finery.

The crowd of spectators roared their approval of this cunning stratagem. The Aristocrats of the Robe, now in possession of the Square, strutted about, proclaiming the enactment into law of a multitude of measures, none of which I could comprehend because of the complexity of the language involved.

"I thought my Groutch was good," I whispered to Gwendolyn, "but I can't understand anything of what they're saying."

"Who can? Lawyers and bureaucrats, the lot of them. Boring sods, the Aristocrats of the Robe. Although I admit the ink bottles were a stroke of genius. Won't work against—and here they come! The Doges!"

Sure enough, into the square from the west came a small body of men—hardly a column, so few in number they were. Their garments were luxurious. Rings glittered on every finger. The Aristocracy of the Robe cried out their displeasure and swarmed toward them, waving their staplers and quills in a most martial manner. But the Doges stood their ground.

"Oligarchy!" they bellowed. "Money rules the world!" And so saying, they hauled forth large sacks and began strewing gold coin about with great vigor. More than a few Aristocrats of the Robe broke ranks, then, scooping up handfuls of coins and taking their side by the Doges, bowing and scraping. Several Aristocrats of the Sword came charging back into the square and did likewise. Then, but moments later, a veritable horde of people came pouring into the square, among whom I recognized many Democrats and Republicans. These, too, collected their coins and flocked to the rapidly growing forces of the Oligarchy. The remaining Aristocrats of the Robe croaked in despair and retreated.

"Well," I said, "it looks as if the Doges are going to carry the day."

Gwendolyn and Mario looked at me like I was a cretin.

"Nonsense!" snorted Mario. "Always looks that way, early in a civil war. Money'll collect a horde about, but they've no discipline. No stomach for the long struggle."

It could not be denied. For at that very moment entered—by surprise, leaping out of doors and windows from a large adjacent building—the resolute warriors of the Monarchy, led by the King himself.

"O noble stroke!" cried Mario. Gwendolyn was clapping her hands with excitement. The crowd was roaring with vast approbation.

A great howl of fear and fury rose from the motley ranks of the Oligarchy, as the champions of the Monarchy lay about them with rigorous blows of their scepters. "Divine right! Divine right!" bellowed the newcomers.

But then, just as the forces of the Doges seemed on the verge of collapse before the disciplined onslaught of the Monarchy, another great roar from the crowd indicated the advance of yet another party into the fray. "The Rabble! The Rabble!" came the cry from many voices.

A disorganized but energetic crowd poured into the square, brandishing torches and nooses, hallooing various war cries, of which "Anarchy!" and "Chaos and Confusion!" figured prominently. These new arrivals attacked everyone else indiscriminately.

From that point on, I lost all sense of the ebbs and flows of the civil war. It was too confusing for a novice, the more so as the square was soon invaded by a multitude of small columns, who did not seem to have much effect on the action but who certainly made a disproportionate amount of noise. Among these new arrivals, I gathered from the knowing remarks made by my two companions, were included such forces as the Tyranny, the Theocracy (these fellows much divided amongst themselves—spent most of their time attacking each other with miters and censers), the Big Brotherhood, the Autocracy, the Red Terror, the White Terror, the Green Terror, the Pacifists (singularly ineffective, this bunch), the Militarists (only a few here), the Colonels (fewer), the Generals (fewer still), the General Staff (a handful), the Generalissimo (one only—a skeletal old man, his face creased with infinite corruption, roaring over and again: "Unleash me!" "Unleash me!"), and a host of other little groups whose names and ideologies meant absolutely nothing to me. One such group advocated government by mass drunkenness, which they promptly enacted on the spot, to the great approval of the crowd. Another group advocated government by mass orgy, which they promptly enacted on the spot, to the even greater approval of the crowd.

My most vivid memory, however, was of a man painted all over his body with gold. He rode in a small cart, stiffly erect, vastly dignified. His two adherents alternated between pushing the cart and lying underneath its wheels, crying out: "All abase themselves before the Reincarnated Emperor of the Grinding Hegemony!" As the trio made their way around the square, the cries of the faithful got weaker with every passage of the cart over their bodies. In the end, the Reincarnated Emperor of the Grinding Hegemony was forced to dismount and haul the cart away himself, leaving the prostrate bodies of his loyal followers behind in the square. Judging from the expression on his gold face, he was exceedingly disgruntled.

After I gave up trying to follow the progress of the civil war, I spent most of my time observing the onlookers. Clearly, this was a great social event for the inhabitants of the Mutt. Not only were the residents able to follow every nuance of the struggle, commenting on every twist and turn with that peculiar language which is shared by every devotee of a sport, and which is utterly incomprehensible to those ignorant of it, but they were enlivening their entertainment by a vast consumption of food and beverage as well. Across the square, I could discern the figure of the Tapster manning a portable refreshment cart, around which swirled at all times a small mob. Even across the great din, I could hear his voice: "Beeeeer! Beeeeer! Beer and arsters! Free beer and arsters!"

Suddenly, a great cry drew my attention back to the civil war. In the center of the square, there was a sudden swirl of movement. In a moment, the confused mob of combatants resolved itself in its component parts, with various political trends fleeing in all directions.

"Treason! Treason! O foul treason!" came the cry from many throats in the square, along with: "O damnable King! O duplicitous royalty!"

From the spectators came an excited roar, as an understanding of the recent developments swept the crowd. Beside me, Mario was capering about in glee.

"I knew it!" he howled. "I knew it! There's nothing like the Monarchy for a stab in the back! O cunning stroke! O shrewd stratagem!"

"What's happened?" I asked Gwendolyn. She was almost as gleeful as Mario. She grinned at me, and put her arm around my waist. Not bashful, I followed suit. Then, for all the world like two teenagers enjoying an outing at the carnival, she filled me in on the developments of the civil war.

"The King's betrayed his alliance with the Oligarchy and the Aristocracy of the Robe. Threw in his lot with the Rabble and what's left of the Republic. Caught his allies totally by surprise. They've been routed—look!"

Sure enough, even at that moment were the Doges and the Bureaucrats fleeing the square, not without belaboring each other in the process, each blaming the other for the disaster. Inkpots were tossed, coins flung. Fierce weapons, I discovered, doubloons hurled at close range. But all this was but aftermath. The civil war itself was over.

The King now advanced to the center of the square. A tall man, he was, very regal looking. Arrived at the center of the square, the King summoned a herald, who blew a fanfare. The herald then bellowed, in a great voice which could be heard in every corner of the square, the following:

"Glory be to God and the Right! The legitimate King has triumphed in the field of battle! Let the word go forth to all the towns and villages! The Mutt is now declared a Monarchy!"

A great chorus of cheers came from the spectators. The herald continued.

"Let the word go forth to all the hills and dales! The King, in his graciousness, proclaims that his rule will be governed by the needs of the common folk! For he is not unmindful that, at his greatest hour of need, it was the Rabble which gave him victory! In this light, the Rabble is given leave to pillage the town!"

At these words, the Rabble advanced upon the crowd lining the square, nooses and torches held high. But as they neared the spectators, the nooses and torches were suddenly discarded. As if it were a signal, the distance between Rabble and crowd dissolved as the two groups greeted each other with much slapping of backs and general hilarity. A mad rush followed toward the Tapster's beer cart, as, for that matter, toward the many pubs and alehouses which lined the square. This rush was led by the Generalissimo, still crying, "Unleash me! Unleash me!"

Within a minute, the various contenders for state power were reentering the square. Distinctions between Democrat and Republican, Doge and Aristocrat, were lost in a general wave of gaiety. The only exception to this universal good feeling came from one of the former cart-pullers. "Next time," I heard him grumble as he rose to his feet, withdrawing a leather shield from under his shirt, "I get to be the Emperor of the Grinding Hegemony."

"It's such a nice evening, let's walk back to the Free Lunch," suggested Gwendolyn. I readily agreed to her proposal, and so off we went, hand in hand.

"That was such fun," she chuckled. "I haven't been to a Mutt civil war in ages."

"It's not quite how I had envisioned a civil war."

She smiled. "It's a great place, the Mutt. Wolfgang calls it the one oasis of insanity in the whole of Grotum. It's been a refuge for centuries. What few revolutionaries make it to old age always retire here."

"I should think the other realms of Grotum would take offense and invade."

"Oh, they do. Try to, I should say. But no one's ever been able to defeat the Mutt in a war of invasion. Not with the people up in arms, and the dogs, and the Kutumoffs to lead them."

I stopped and looked around. "This is where General Kutumoff lives? Is he the General you keep talking about?"

"Of course. He doesn't actually live in the Doghouse, although he's got a mansion in town. Mostly he stays in his shack in the woods, out on his estate. You've heard of him?"

"Heard of him? My uncles never stop talking about him! The world's greatest general, they say. Rodrigo and Ludovigo even served under him. Brag about it all the time. I knew the General was Groutch, but I somehow thought he was the commandant of one of the major Groutch armies."

"Your uncles served with the General?" she asked. I nodded. She pursed her lips thoughtfully. "I never heard of Ozarines serving with the General. Plenty of them hang around, of course, but to actually serve with him—! Well, anyway. You'll be meeting the General soon enough. I have to talk to him. If you want to come along, that is."

"Wouldn't miss it. My uncles would kill me if I did."

When we got back to the Free Lunch, night had fallen. We enjoyed some more beer and "arsters," and then made our way upstairs to our rooms. Both of us were very tired. There was another awkward moment in front of our respective doorways, where I felt like a fumbling schoolboy for the first time in years, not sure what to do. After a brief hesitation, Gwendolyn just smiled, said, "Goodnight," and went into her room. I remained in the corridor for a minute, staring at her closed door, feeling immensely frustrated. Then I went into my own room and tried to get to sleep. Not with any great success.

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