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33.

AULDOMOUCHE. The mask was fully loaded with its charge: a massive dose of chloropallidol. The stench is overpowering. What possessed him to do this? His curiosity about certain matters must be far stronger than I knew.

SOPHELAIDE. His pulse is returning to normal but his gibbering is the same…

AULDOMOUCHE. It may remain so. With chloropallidol, the mind is not technically intoxicated; rather, it is coerced to perform oneiric processes, identical to dreaming sleep — even while conscious. The mask’s purpose may be to keep its subject in this state for an unusually long amount of time, or perhaps for good.

WILFRED. …warmed by the air of a room. Meet with the queen at night, so that all wishful thinking in the daytime disappears. Answer quickly! Answer quickly! Two eye-holes in front of us…

AULDOMOUCHE. Nevertheless, we’ve found several of the cowled robes that will allow us to attend the conference undetected. It must be starting soon, quite soon. We have to press on.

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…

29.

THE FIFTH ITEM INSPECTED: A MECHANICAL TOY IN THE FORM OF A ROTUND GROTESQUE, FEATURING A BELLY CHAMBER THAT SPRINGS OPEN TO REVEAL SMALLER FIGURINES.

According to Euxinovan legends originating in the Roman era, Lapurnippas was appointed guardian of the nubile orphan Pampiphlorine, a scion of the oldest noble family of the island province of Thriampa. When bandits stormed the family seat, Lapurnippas hid himself in the woods and swallowed all of the gold bequeathed to his ward. This feat was possible because the old servant, faithful also to the forest god Arbrocomesus, had chosen to rest against a massive oak whose exposed roots bounded an ancient grove sacred to the deity. So long as Lapurnippas did not move from the spot, his health and safety would be sustained and his stomach could retain the treasure. It also served as a gold-lined conduit (accessible through his navel) to an underground sanctuary where Pampiphlorine and her attendants took refuge until the bandits were driven from the island. Before Lapurnippas rose again, certain unwelcome forest denizens, such as the parasite Coccidillio and the “bandit maiden” Plundribel, clambered inside his belly uninvited; their expulsion is the subject of several comedic fragments.

AULDOMOUCHE. This was plainly manufactured within the last decade or so, with these indiscriminate figures recalling less the original legends than the popular caricatures of those revelatory photographed magnifications of Balkan mallardfish eggs — which (due to the appearance of their undeveloped heads and the tendency of certain parasitic species to burst unexpectedly from afflicted specimens) drew comparison to the iconography of Lapurnippas. Recent entertainments bearing his name have strayed considerably from tradition.

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.).

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.

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.

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.

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.