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20.

NOT LONG INSIDE THE VILLA, THE CONFEDERACY ARRIVED AT A CUL-DE- SAC, SINGLY ADORNED.

PRENDULECK.     This would appear to represent a mythical creature called a “limpet crane,” or perhaps a burrowing osprey in its apocryphal horned form — the regional folklore will readily conflate them.

This impasse deviates from the floor plan, so I imagine this is no simple ornament — there. See how the beak opens! I expect it contains a mechanism that can give us access to the further chambers from here. With this special pick, I might manage to open it, and perhaps deactivate a trap if there is one. Still, we must be wary. One moment…

2.

The nest appears to me, inchoate, as promised: an emanation from heaven, seen as the source plant, in angel’s form. Each leaf a seraphic eyelid ringed with thick lashes glittering with tears! Soon it will enfold the prey and make ready. Soon my duty — my insect womb — soon the insufflation! Soon.

25.

THE FIRST ITEM INSPECTED: A SCULPTED MODEL OF A RARE COELOBONESE FLOWER (R. CANDELABRUM) HOUSING AN ELECTRIC LAMP THAT CAME ALIGHT WHEN APPROACHED.

A close relative of the Indonesian Corpse flower, the jungle-dwelling Anajamut tinkar consists of a stemless, parasitic bloom, lacking roots of its own but subsistent on those of a lignified vine (the host in this case being the Tajamunugu grape, ibid.). Its name in Sulepawak means “dead dog’s ears,” as its fleshy petals (each up to half a yard long) taper like the ears of a Coelobonese toy boxer. While it gives off the same carrion odor as its relatives, this is often abated by another benign parasite: the Uburutan or Land jelly (P. terrestris), a coelenterate that, true to its name, is typically found out of water — albeit in very damp conditions. Its ideal resting place is the central cup of an Anajamut tinkar blossom, around which its wispy, barely visible tentacles can droop, ready to trap and devour Indomalayan buzzard midges that might otherwise chew away at the flower (ibid.) by stinging them with chemicals that, on contact with the plant’s flesh, will reduce its noxious odor. While the quelled stench might dissuade humans from destroying the flower, it remains perceptible to needed pollinators such as Carbuncle scarabs (ibid.) and their larvae — which the Uburutan spares.

On account of this union, an Anajamut tinkar can last longer than others of its kind, living up to a fortnight. Once every five days, however, the blossom is compelled to close, which can smother and possibly kill a tenant jelly.

The Uburutan’s float bladder, though small and vestigial, resembles that of its cousin the Bolertankulak (ibid.) in that its gasses ignite upon death, sputtering flames for a minute or more. On occasion, a blossom will open to reveal a dead Uburutan in mid-blaze. Natives interpret this event as the birth of a mythical Uborlepoluk — an auspicious sight for those who witness it, despite the newborn imp’s wicked nature.

24.

PAST THE TRAGICALLY UNLOCKED DOOR WAS A TROVE OF UNFAMILIAR THINGS.

AULDOMOUCHE.   I suspect the room was always a repository of some kind. It might have been the buttery; the building is old enough… But what items are these? They exceed the interests of some political sect. Although they are now motionless, I recognize some figures in the recesses as sculptural automata such as are only found in seasonal rotation at the Parc d’Urongelex.

Other articles are still more perplexing. To identify them, if there is time, might help us understand the villains who are hoarding them.

At any rate, we have to look around for the cowls. Set Ovarind down there for now — there in the corner. Careful with him, Sophelaide.

7.

The modest puppet booth looked spurious in this barely-trodden roadside copse. A single languid child made up the audience. Wilfred recalled roaring at puppets with dozens of other children, usually after lessons. Who would deploy such a contraption here, in a dead hour before noon?

It was a genuine artifact — the dried hummingcobs, dour painted expressions, and silver-fringed curtains all squared with memory and tradition. Yet, for their age (and they were not new), they showed strangely little wear or even repair, as though the whole theater and its machinery had been locked away for years. Whatever the case, Wilfred did not have long to consider these things.

6.

The puppet theater traditions that derive from western Euxinovan or “Sub-Moesian” folklore center largely around the figure of Ygzauba, who is most often referred to as a type of ogress or ghoul, while specters of her devoured victims (usually children) are called “little husks” or larvae. Early stories of Ygzauba as a sea princess (expelled from her home for some infraction) are rarely if ever depicted in puppetry. Instead, the plays tend to fall under three categories:

The first are essentially ghost stories, sometimes cautionary in tone, of the ghoul lurking in the grain fields and consuming her prey. The pronounced horrific elements of such plays have led them to be viewed as unfit for very young children.

Secondly, there are stories of magical trees and bushes: the result of Ygzauba venturing out of the fields on occasion and spitting out or defecating one of the seeds stored in her belly. The plants can be dangerous or beneficial depending on the narrative.

The final category resembles the first but is comical in nature, involving the shepherdess Pellephide — away from the slopes of Haemusmont in search of her straying flock — and her encounters with Ygzauba and related spooks. Though rustic and clumsy, Pellephide proves resourceful and always triumphs. Her poor eyesight leads to her mistaking various creatures for her sheep, including Ygzauba’s bipedal horse-demon servants. Her attempts to collect them with her oversized crook provide much of the humor.

The puppeteers eschew the marionettes used in the eastern regions, instead employing various forms of rod- and hand-puppetry. In smaller booths, Ygzauba’s steeds are made of preserved and decorated hummingcobs mounted on long sticks.

9.

On the border of Varstulla Minor and Draephedusa there is a stretch of gray earth (mined infrequently for clay) that lacks the natural wonders of either province. At the first light of March 3, 188x, when this tract lay in the shadow of a ruined wall from Late Antiquity, two women traversed that shadow, huddled together, advancing slowly.

One wore a hooded mantle that obscured, with her features, the reasons why she could not walk on her own. Underneath was a garment made of what could only be leaves — dried, bejeweled and stitched together.

The veiled woman guiding her wore a sort of diadem with a design corresponding to nothing from recent fashion or local culture. In the manner of a messenger boy, she carried her large purse on a strap around one shoulder. It held something round, shiny and wholly mysterious.

They were an unusual pair, and easily remembered. But in this drab, unpopulated place, and at this hour, it was likely no one ever saw them.

27.

THE THIRD ITEM INSPECTED: A BUST OF A WOMAN WITH AN ARTICULATED MOUTH AND MOVING GLASS EYES, POSITIONED IN FRONT OF A PANORAMA OF THE EUXINOVAN COASTLINE PAINTED ON A SPOOLED LINEN SCROLL.

WILFRED.    I recognize this exhibit from the Exposition. It runs hourly at the Central Pavilion — but there, a man beside the display delineates the visual tour, and no bust such as this is involved. It seems designed to mouth the narration like a puppet.

AULDOMOUCHE.    Its style and construction leave no doubt that it’s of the same manufacture as the automated sculptures found in the Parc d’Urongelex. Surely the noted entrepreneur Visculorph d’Urongelex wishes to expand the presence of these devices — and he has married into the financial means to accomplish this — yet I’ve noticed they are not readily embraced by the public outside of their pastoral-satirical sphere.

The characters all derive from Euxinovan myths and theatrical traditions, dating back at least to the Romans. (This figure is clearly no exception and Ovarind would have been able to tell us more about it.) Most seem obscure, unfamiliar to common audiences, and this might result in a slight sense of unease in the average spectator. I believe that of the dioramas operated by d’Urongelex in Ellubecque’s Paysage de Beau Monde, only the exhibit “Thriampa Revealed” (which is forbidden to children) features automatons.

It is mystifying that he would store such items here — here of all places. And what dealings would he have with The Society of the Iron Frond?

5.

MARCH 2. Nagance de Chröevide, noted (rumors aside) for her turns in opéras bouffes, fashionable portraits and ubiquitous postcards, now posed for her mirror, measuring flesh against garment in anticipation of her role as guest of honor at the Banquet of Nations. The following evening she would promenade through the Exposition, stopping to illuminate the Central Pavilion with what was surely the most costly raiment worn in any epoch of all the Balkans.

Crafted miraculously from leaves of the elusive Coelobonese silk flower (and countless Euxinovan gemstones*), the dress had been a guarded treasure at the Exposition — but tonight it was hers alone. While a man sent by the General Committee lounged downstairs with a pistol in his lap, her nervous maid tidied up on the other side of the Chinese screen, leaving Nagance alone to rehearse her celebrated postures of charm and indifference.

Working with such finite resources, the trusted artisans at Trillucin et Cie of Ellubecque had fashioned the dress to comply with only an approximate ideal. (Or so they said. They might have first made it for a rival, now indisposed — though who would be preferable to Nagance de Chröevide?) Following the invitation, they promised to make it fit her size.

But the fitting proved needless: The dress-leaves clung to her figure as though grown around her. Her reflection conveyed no flaws. This was ordained! She tried on her favorite necklace for the third time — eager to view it all once again, failing to notice how quiet the house had become.

* Peridota malva, found only in Varstulla Major.

19.

The Whirligig bladderwrack (F. gyrovesiculosus), an alga common to the Black Sea, thrives in the coastal reefs off the Euxinovan province of Draephedusa. Anchored fast to the seemingly inhospitable jagged rocks, its irregular branches terminate in symmetrical reproductive bodies containing paired blades of fibrous tissue and air vesicles. Subject to the violence of the surf, these bodies will detach from the weed and take wing, their descent slowed by their own rotation.

The sight of the seeds dispersing aerially from a distance has led to fanciful accounts of diminutive “limpet cranes” (thought to hatch from oversized limpets) possessing horns that curve like those of a ram. Known in Antiquity as “fledglings of Pumphon” (ibid.), their ability to portend shipwrecks derives from the fact that a swarm of seeds must indicate the presence of shallow rocks. 

Specimens of the weed burgeoning in the calmer waters of coves may yield winged seeds that, though too bulky to disperse while alive, can be manually detached and dried to create a flying toy that rides the air’s currents like a gliding bird. Children often affix the wings to a stick, adding for a “head” seashells that spiral like the mythical crane’s horns — and, if available, the skull of a local bird, such as that of a burrowing osprey (also ibid.).

28.

THE FOURTH ITEM INSPECTED: A VESSEL MADE OF BLOWN GLASS AND SILVER, OPENING FROM THE BOTTOM, EQUILATERAL BUT FOR AN ORNAMENTAL FACE AND FILIGREE SPIRALS SUGGESTIVE OF A NAUTILUS SHELL.

Gewgaws of this general design can, at least in theory, be submerged while retaining air, by means of a principle observed by Aristotle (Problemata 32). They date from Antiquity and were originally understood to represent Pumphon, the tutelary deity of pirates (son of Mercury and the Nereid Pontoporia), who would often appear to mortals as the hybrid of an enormous cephalopod and a living ship helmed by mute, stunted figures. Well-preserved examples from the Roman era have been found among the ruins of the ancient canal city of Carqueviscum, in the center of the Black Sea.

SOPHELAIDE.      This odd jar is just like one I had as a child — they could almost be one and the same. I recall an excursion to Draephedusa, along the coast. My sisters and I had a mass of aniseed bonbons to share. I stole their portions and ran and hid in a half-flooded cave. I wasn’t so greedy as all that; I merely wanted a reason to test this magic receptacle, to hide a stolen treasure where no one could find it.

I placed the vessel in a cleft beneath the water line for an hour or so, and to my recollection it kept the candies dry. I also remember several pretty objects, including polished animal skulls, in rows on ledges of rock near the ceiling of the cave. I thought they were toys as well, belonging to someone else. I couldn’t reach them.