The lull of Erfworld’s great pulse beneath his bare foot was not enough to send Digdoug off to sleep that night. And rather than calming his thoughts, the applebee mead he’d been drinking only seemed to encourage his mind to wander into ugly places. With his muddled head sunk deep into the cotton pillow, he gazed up into the gloom of his darkened quarters. The ceiling beams were up there, but he could see them only with his Dirtamancy senses. As was often the case, he was completely in the dark.
He sighed, getting a whiff of the mead on his own breath. For the first time in his life, he was facing some serious questions about his Duty.
Until Chief Peck had raised the question that Dove might be...what was the word for it, beguiling?...King Posbrake, Digdoug had trusted her completely. But...why should he? They’d only just met, and the world held more enemies than friends. Only Delkey cared about Homekey’s interests, and everyone else in the world would be happy enough to see them destroyed.
However she acted, however nice she was and pleasant to be around, wasn’t it the most likely case that she only cared for her own interests? Chief Bucky took that as a fact, a given. To her, Dove was nothing but a coldhearted, bloodsucking mercenary.
But Digdoug couldn’t quite make himself believe it. Dove had helped them. She’d been just what His Majesty needed, a part of King Posbrake’s plan. And he was so happy lately, even after Chief Carl fell.
Should that fact alone be suspicious? Bucky said so.
Chief Peck was worried that the King might not be acting wisely to preserve the realm, and he was struggling with what he ought to do if not. That was his Duty dilemma, but it wasn’t Digdoug’s. Digdoug’s was about the question Lord Peck had asked.
The Chief Warlord of Homekey came to Digdoug—his only caster—for an answer about magic, and Digdoug didn’t know. How did “cooking the books” work? How could Dove convince Delkey’s Moneymancer that their finances were all in order? That had to be a complicated trick. And could magical manipulation such as that be applied to the King? Or to Digdoug and Bucky?
Well, he really had no idea.
But he didn’t believe that it fit with the explanation Dove had given them about what Carnymancy really was. No, it didn’t seem like the magic of breaking a rule. And neither did “telling fortunes.” There must be more to Carnymancy than she’d said.
Digdoug sat up and pulled open the drawer to his nightstand, instantly flooding the room with yellow light.
The portal was down the hall. And on the other side of it lived many hundreds or maybe even thousands of casters, some of whom must know the answer to Chief Peck’s question. However personally intimidating he found the Magic Kingdom to be, his Duty required him to go get that information.
He took out the powerball and floated it in the air, willing it to follow behind him. After pulling on his trousers and boots and making his bed, he left the room.
The halls were empty. These days the whole dungeon level was under guard from above, and the Delkey troops were no longer allowed in this city zone at all. Bucky said she’d planted some rumors that a high-level Numloch prisoner (perhaps a caster) was being kept down there, with the intention of turning him or her to Homekey’s side. So if the King had occasionally been seen heading down to the dungeons, it was because he had taken a keen interest in this enemy unit.
That “enemy unit” must have heard him unbolting the door. Just a few moments after he entered the Portal Room, the false wall to her quarters cracked open.
“Heya,” Dove said, poking her head around the crack in the wall. Digdoug could see hazy orange light coming from inside. It did strange things to the shadows cast by his own yellow powerball and the purple portal. Her curly locks were tangled, and her shoulder was bare. “I’m not dressed,” she grinned, “and there’s a charge for that kinda show. Hang on a sec.”
She pushed the false door back into place.
Digdoug seriously considered turning around and returning to his quarters, or proceeding through the portal while she was still dressing. But he took a seat on a pile of barley sacks and waited. He stared at the false wall, desperately hoping His Majesty was not on the other side of it.
Dove eventually emerged fully dressed in that strange and distracting outfit she’d been wearing when they had met, right down to the stockings, the short shorts, and the three cards in her hat. Especially the stockings. Titans.
“What’s up, hon?”
He stood up, but she strode over and hopped up onto the barley sacks beside him, throwing him a cheeky smile. He sort of leaned back against the grain nonchalantly, and pointed to the portal.
“I couldn’t sleep. So I was thinking about going, uh...through.”
“Well, I’ve...hardly ever been,” said Digdoug. His eyebrow suddenly itched, and he scratched it absently. “I want to see what it’s like, you know? Talk to people there.”
“Sure,” said Dove. “Absolutely. It’s a great place. Well...” she tilted her head and squinted just slightly. “It can be. It’s my home, what can I say?”
Digdoug nodded conversationally, “Mm-hm.”
Dove was absently kicking her dangling shoes against the heavy burlap sacks. Digdoug couldn’t think of a single excusable reason to look down at the legs of the woman his Ruler was possibly in love with, so he made himself stare at the portal.
“Hey,” said Dove. “You want me to show you around? I could go with.”
“Oh, uh...” That would certainly complicate his personal mission. “Maybe.”
“I don’t have to, if you don’t want.”
He frowned at the wall, and kind of half-pointed that way. “Sorry, but is King Posbrake...”
“Oh! Ha! Izzat what you’re uptight about?”
“No,” chuckled Dove, “he’s been and gone. He wanted to get some sleep tonight, and for some reason he never gets any down here.” Her voice was thick with sing-song facetiousness. “No, in the morning he wants to get with you and his new Chief Warlord, to plan out the fake fight against Charlescomm. But I figure first he’ll have to convince Chief Peck that he’s not under my spell.”
Digdoug’s eyes went wide and he looked at her. “Oh. You know about that.”
“Only ‘cause Posbrake said,” she said, with her brown eyes in a happy little squint. “He’s no dummy. He knows what’s up. Peck thinks I’m using my feminine wiles to maneuver my way into becoming the power behind the throne. Which is cute, and I’m flattered. But no.”
Digdoug raised an eyebrow at her. “No? You’re not?”
“Please!” she laughed again, gently touching his shoulder. “Have I even seen the throne? I live in a dungeon now.” She suddenly put up a warding hand and dropped her smile. “No offense, my room is very nice. I’m not complaining. But I still gotta live in a deep dark hole, like a rat or a gobwin or something, right? I have to go into the Magic Kingdom if I ever want to see any flippin’ daylight! Come on.” Her smile returned. “No, if anyone’s getting maneuvered on here, it’s me. And again, I’m not complaining. Your King has some very nice maneuvers.”
Digdoug made a face. He didn’t particularly want to think about King Posbrake’s maneuvers. “Actually, it’s not your feminine wiles Chief Peck is worried about. It’s more your Carnymancy.”
Dove’s smile faded and she looked away. “Right, I know. I get that.” She sighed. “I know all about prejudice. How ‘bout letting me pretend this is about my feminine wiles, okay? Give me that much.”
Digdoug looked down and frowned. Legs, oh. He looked away and opted to frown at a more empty part of the room.
“Dove,” he said after a few moments, “how does ‘cooking the books’ work? What are you doing when you cast that?”
“Magic,” she said sarcastically.
“Yeah, but...what rule are you breaking? I don’t understand.”
“Digdoug...” Dove sighed heavily. “Okay, you wanna know why people don’t trust Carnies? It’s because we’ve got our secrets. And that’s one of them. Can you respect that, please? One caster to another? It’s just a little trade secret. You’ve got ‘em, too, I bet.”
Digdoug turned and looked at her. She wasn’t smiling anymore. He shook his head. “I’m sorry. I can’t. I’ve got a Duty...to know if—”
“If I’m casting on your King, I know,” she said defensively. “And if I say I’m not, then how can you know I’m not lying? Or maybe I’m doin’ some dirty magic to you right now. Maybe we’re not even having this conversation? Where does that end? No. Nothing I say to you about Carnymancy is really gonna make a difference. Is it?”
Dirty magic. Digdoug felt a little knot in his stomach. Back at Follywood, when they always told him Dirtamancy was ‘low’ magic, they had sometimes compared it to Carnymancy or Croakamancy. He’d almost forgotten what it felt like to have your discipline smeared, but that look on Dove’s face brought the shameful ache of it right back to him.
He was here for Homekey, to learn what his Chief Warlord wanted him to know. But did he have to do this to her?
Maybe he did. “I just need to understand,” he insisted quietly.
She closed her eyes for a moment, then her expression went flat. With her ashen skin, she resembled a hard rock golem.
“Carnymancy is Stage Magic. Arright? We put on a show. When I cast on your books, I made the pages put on a show for the Moneymancer. That’s all I can tell you about it.”
He blinked. “What, like Foolamancy?”
“That’s all I can tell you about it,” she repeated, without inflection.
He considered the implications for a moment. “Dove,” he said cautiously, “are you putting on a show for us right now? For King Posbrake?”
A little bit of her cute smile returned to Dove’s lips. “You wouldn’t believe the kind of shows I put on for His Majesty’s eyes only. But that’s not what you’re asking.”
Digdoug managed to avoid cringing. “No, it’s not.”
“Everything’s a show, Digdoug,” she said, with a wistful gaze. “Nobody understands that but the Carnies and the Signamancers. Of course I’m putting on a show. I put on a show wherever I go. And so do you, hon. You just don’t know it.”
Dove patted Digdoug’s thigh and gave him a look that was somehow both serious and joyful. “Your King is a beautiful man,” she said, “with a beautiful story. He respects my discipline, and yours, too. You know how rare that is? I hope you do.” Digdoug blinked at her, and nodded. “Yeah, I’m here to get paid. You always get paid; that’s a code of Carnymancy. But my intentions are good. If you don’t believe anything else I tell you, believe that. I’m here to help you.”
Digdoug believed it. More than anything else, he just hoped she would stick around for a while. Having a caster friend was all kinds of nice. “Would you ever...want to join us? Join Homekey?” he asked.
Dove looked surprised. “Maybe. If I could move out of the dungeon. If the King would have me.”
He smiled. “I’d really like that.”
Dove’s lips parted in a wicked grin. “And of course if he did, then he could have me, and have me, and have me...”
Digdoug stood up straight, looked up at the ceiling beams, and walked to the door. His powerball followed along. “Okay. Good night, Dove.”
“What, you don’t wanna go to the Magic Kingdom?” she said, standing up and pointing at the portal. “I was gonna take you to the Carnyvale. C’mon.”
In the doorway, he smiled. “I think I should just go to bed,” he said. “I’m pretty sure I can sleep now.”