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SIX

"If you can't say anything nice,

don't say anything at all."

—d. rickles

The resulting non-argument about where to eat might have been entertaining to watch, but it stretched on for hours. By the time they decided who would have the honor of hosting us, night had fallen.

"That's it, then!" Gubbeen announced, waking us all out of the bored doze we had fallen into. He came over to us, rubbing his hands together. He was still smiling, but he looked tired. "We will all go to Montgomery's Tavern, where you will sample the average in Wuhs cuisine! You will be our guests."

"But if we are hiring them to help us," an earnest female in spectacles put in, "then properly, they are our guests, but the cost of meals ought to be accounted for as part of their fee."

Another overly polite discussion started. "Hold it!" I insisted, stopping the argument before it began again. "We'll pay for ourselves. We'll negotiate the fee separately, once we see how serious the situation is." "You didn't set the fee up front?" Tananda asked me in a whisper, as eager hands reached out to pull us towards a brightly lit doorway up ahead.

"Uh, no," I admitted, feeling guilty.

A green eyebrow climbed up her flawless brow. "What if they don't have any money?"

"Well, we can't just leave them under the thumbs of ten Perverts!"

"Just watch me," Tananda asserted, flicking her middle finger against her thumb. "Nobody's dead. Nobody's starving. Your services have value. You can't just run a major freebie like that. If word got back to the Bazaar..."

I opened my mouth to say that I was retired, but that wasn't true either: I was on sabbatical, as I'd told Wensley ... as I'd told everybody. Some day I would be finished with my studies ... and I didn't know what I wanted to do then. Tananda was right: if I went back to the Bazaar and rumors had gone around that I was giving away my talents for free I'd be flooded with applicants wanting me to take on ridiculously petty tasks, or epic heroics with no hope of remuneration. It had happened before.

"I... I..."

"Don't worry, Skeeve," Bunny assured me, planting a palm in my chest as she passed by me to go first into the brightly lit restaurant. I stopped, the breath knocked out of me. Bunny works out. She is very strong. "This is my job. I'll take care of it."

Montgomery's Tavern would not have been called a tavern in any other dimension I'd ever visited. It served liquor and spirits, as well as a simple dinner menu, but since it suffered from a total lack of smoke, graffiti, bar fights or drunks, it put me more in mind of a tea room, the kind in the town near my father's farm that my mother visited when she and her fellow teachers held a meeting on a rest-day. Montgomery's was so orderly and neat I wondered how anyone could relax in it. "It's a fern bar," Tananda observed, belting down one drink and signaling for another. "I'd love another one of these lemonades," she smiled at the innkeeper, a stout Wuhs with ruddy curls.

"I hope you're not finding our citrus martinis too strong," Montgomery said, filling her glass from a pitcher.

"Not a bit," Tananda said, monitoring her drink carefully. Montgomery stopped pouring. Tananda cleared her throat meaningfully. With a startled glance, he filled her glass to the top. "That's better. You might as well leave the pitcher. Thank you, you handsome man." When Montgomery went back to polishing the shiny wooden bar, Tananda shook her head. "They'd get thrown out of the Bazaar for watering their drinks. There's hardly any alcohol in these at all. I'll have to visit the necessary about six times before I ever get a decent buzz."

That lack made little difference to me. I was intent on nursing one beer throughout the evening so my head would be clear.

And I needed all of my clarity. Now that they had a champion to save them from their conquerors, the committeefriends of Pareley decided to hold a secret meeting to discuss how they wanted us to do it. Wensley introduced representatives from each of the kingdom's fifteen committees. For people who never fought, these Wuhses sure managed to make agreeing sound like an unresolvable blood feud, even though they never spoke directly to one another, or uttered a single harsh word.

"My learned friend," orated Wigmore, the chairman of the Committee for Public Health, "probably didn't hear me very well when I explained my position. I know he would concur with all of my points if he had. The absence of influence of a legitimate democratic system in Pareley is deleterious to the well-being of every Wuhs. It is therefore a direct concern of the health system that we are being governed without our whole approval. Therefore, I and my committee ought to be at your side to consult about the course of action you might take in this matter. If you would concur, Master Skeeve."

"My learned friend from Public Health," intoned Yarg, the chairman of Public Safety, "can't claim I am anything but fair to him. He understands, as we all do, that having outsiders assuming functions that, while it is very kind of them to take such an interest, since we presently lack the ability to counsel them as to our wishes it suggests this case to be within the breadth of Public Health. We would like Master Skeeve and his party to consider having us just a trifle more in his mind than health. Not that health is not incredibly important, you see."

There were a few gasps from the assembled. These were strong terms for any Wuhs to utter. Every one of them was still smiling, still seeming friendly, but if their eyes could shoot fire like dragonbreath, every one of them would be scorched. As Yarg retired to his seat another committeefriend leaped to her feet. The crux of her address was that Wensley should trust all of them and return the D-hopper to common circulation, specifically to her custody. In spite of the energetic gestures her speech was as mindless as the others had been. I felt myself starting to drowse. Gleep had already fallen asleep with his head on my foot. My head drooped over my half-full glass. Bunny nudged me awake in time to nod approvingly when Ardrahan sat down.

Each speaker had to have his or her turn. I felt like grabbing each one by the neck and telling them they had only one sentence to inform me what they wanted, or I'd take my entourage and go home.

Zol was perfectly at home in the midst of all this. A tea room was all he would ever need. He refused all offers of wine, beer, liquor, liqueur, intoxicants, narcotics or hallucinogens (not that any of our hosts would ever admit to partaking of the last three). The Wuhses seemed a trifle chagrined at first that he turned down their offerings in fa- vor of tea, and tea alone, but they began to produce dozens of varieties of infusions, until they covered the entire table except where his modest little pot, cup and saucer sat. I began to see why the Pervect Ten had been called in to help the citizens of Pareley in the first place. Their extravagance had to have put a severe drain on the kingdom's finances. Some of the teas I recognized as the most expensive ever grown. They were for sale in the Bazaar at approximately a gold coin per ounce. For that much the tea would have to nourish a family of eight for a month, not be thrown out after making a mere six cups. Zol sipped from his cup and listened to the exchanges.

"Yes, it is good to explain what you feel," he kept saying. "Through sharing lies clarity and understanding."

I'd long ago finished my beer. I sat slumped with my fist holding my chin up off the table. I heard birds begin singing outside. Through the window the dark sky began to lighten. Morning was approaching, and no one had really said anything yet. My eyes were burning. I didn't think I could stand one more speech. As the eighth committeefriend stood up and launched into her tale of woe, I interrupted her.

"Tell me more about the actual oppression," I insisted, pulling myself upright. I turned to the assembly, most of which looked as tired as I felt. "You've all been talking about how your committees ought to be involved with their overthrow, but what is it the Pervect Ten have really done to you?"

"Haven't you heard what our friends have been saying?" Wensley asked. "They've taken over everything! No one can do what they want to do. They control every coin. They visit all the craft centers, the factories, the farms, and keep track of everything we make."

"They would take away everything that we've gotten from all the other dimensions, too, if they could," Ardrahan bleated. "We need it. We haven't got very much magik of our own. All these labor-saving devices are so useful!" "And the items we bought to defend ourselves—not that we need defending, no!" Yarg insisted. "We have no enemies. Pareley is the safest place you could live. But... just in case... we bought a few things. We feel much safer now that we have them. The Ten want us to give them up!"

"We don't want to be cut off again," Wensley added. "All these centuries Wuh thought it was alone in the universe. Think what we've been missing! Perhaps we are not very experienced in the ways of other cultures, but how will we learn without going there?"

"Exactly!" a few of the committeefriends agreed with him.

"Yes!"

"They're being perhaps a little too cautious."

"If our exuberance about our travels circulates as far as the castle," Gubbeen explained uneasily, "they come and personally invite the traveler to the castle. Just for a chat, of course!"

"They arrest people and take them in for interrogation?" I asked, aghast. "Has anyone been harmed?"

"Er ..." The Wuhses looked at one another. "We can only say that the invitees often emerge with self-esteem issues."

"They ask very hard questions," Ardrahan put in, helpfully. "It shows how very intelligent they are. That is why we invited them here to help us. But, if I may speak hypothetically, if one has certain material needs, and they are not being met as fully as they were before certain people came along, then would you call that a disagreement?"

In spite of my muzziness I managed to extract the kernel from the center of her statement. "Shortages? What kind of shortages? It looks as though you have plenty of good food. And beverages," I added, gesturing at the wealth of tea surrounding Zol and the range of bottles on the wall behind the bar. "You're all well-dressed, and your homes seem to be in very good shape."

"We have no money!" Wensley wailed. "Barely a coin between us! Perhaps we do give the appearance of prosperity, but we have to beg for everything from Them. They store provisions for our shopkeepers, and release a day's worth of goods at a time. They lock up the warehouses at the factories. In the morning everyone has to ask for the stock to replenish their shelves. If a request strikes them as unreasonable they will not release the merchandise. And it's our merchandise!"

The others seemed at once horrified that he was speaking so frankly, and relieved that someone was saying what he was thinking. They were clearly terrified of the Pervect Ten, and afraid to speak openly.

"What's an unreasonable request?" I pressed. "More food?"

"Oh," Wensley began, a shade too casually. "Suppose a silversmith had a lot of very beautiful pendants that the Pervect Ten were minding for him, and he wanted them, say, to trade for other, more rare items?"

"I'd say it sounded like normal commerce," I shrugged. "Why don't both shopkeepers go to the castle together and negotiate the trade there? The pendants could be put into the other guy's bin, and the silversmith could have access to the stuff he bought."

"Uh, er ... what if the other shopkeeper ... didn't live around here?"

"Like in another dimension?" Zol asked. It was too direct a question. Not an eye met his. I nodded.

"You're afraid that they would cut you off from the rest of the dimensions."

"If they can! But they can't," Wensley insisted firmly. "Not as long as we have the D-hopper! We will be free to visit everywhere!"

"Shhh!" the others chided him.

"But so many things we never see again," Wensley went on in a whisper. "They are entitled to their fee, but we believe that they are supplementing it with very generous self-assigned bonuses." Robbing the poor Wuhses blind. I was appalled.

"But, and this is the most difficult thing for us to say," Wigmore began, "Wuh is such a pleasant place to live that it frees one to think about expanding one's base of operations..."

"They're planning to use Wuh as a jumping-off point to conquer other dimensions? How do you know this?"

"You know," began Yarg, of Public Health, "they do speak so loudly. Some of what they say might have been overheard by the sanitation supervisors ('Cleaning staff,' Bunny whispered.) in the castle. Quite by accident, of course."

"Of course." I shared a glance with Tananda, Bunny and Zol. I could tell the others were thinking the same thing I was. The Pervect Ten had to go.

"All right, then," I agreed resolutely. "We all need a good night's sleep. Tomorrow, my company and I will begin our investigation and see if we can figure out how to kick them out."

"Er, eh..." Gubbeen began, raising a finger. "Master Skeeve, if I may be so bold, we've been giving you our input all evening."

I looked at him, puzzled. "You've been telling us how we can get rid of the Pervect Ten?"

"Well... perhaps not direct suggestions," Gubbeen coughed modestly. "That would be presumptuous. But we would like to be able to guide you in your approach."

"What?" I asked, then shook my head to clear it. I'd been awake far too long. "Let me try and sum up what I've been hearing: What you're all telling me is that you want to tell us how to run our operation, is that it?" I prompted them. "Hmm?"

I could hear wordiness bubbling up like soup about to boil over. I cut it off. "I'd like a one-word answer, please."

"I don't know whether the feasibility of a simple reply ..." Gubbeen began.

"Yes or no?" "Well," Ardrahan ventured, "er ... yes?"

"No," I stated firmly.

"No?" The Wuhses all stared at me. I crossed my arms.

"That's right. No. We're the experts you called in. We will take all of your advice, but we have to run this operation our way. If you could have ejected the Pervect Ten on your own, you'd have done it by now, wouldn't you?" I looked around at my audience. They were fumbling for a reply.

Ardrahan cleared her throat. "Well, they know lots of magik, and we don't; we don't have the strength to reassert our interests."

"But you have the knowledge of how to deal with very magikal opponents?" I asked, pointedly.

Cashel pursed his lips. "We might have, if they weren't also extremely knowledgable about technology, too. Between the two ..."

I cut him off. A rooster had just crowed outside. "So what you're saying," I began, holding up my hands to forestall any more interruptions, "is that you don't know how to handle them."

"Uh ... well, not at present..."

"Good," I beamed. "Then you can leave the job to us. All right?"

"You'll, uh, let us know how you progress, won't you?" Gubbeen asked, very timidly.

"Of course," I smiled. "I'm not against consultation, but you have to understand I'm under no obligation to use your advice. With that in mind, then I think we have a deal."

"Well said, Master Skeeve," Zol applauded. "Well said."

To give them credit, the Wuhses looked relieved, especially Wensley.

"I think we all understand one another very well," Bunny said, favoring the big Wuhs with her sexiest blue-eyed glance. "Perhaps," she purred, taking her cue from the traditional Wuh form of circumlocution, "we should depart from this subject? Master Skeeve has a long day ahead of him tomorrow. Why don't we let him and my other associates go to bed? But I would like to talk to you all for a little while longer."

"It would be our very dearest wish," Gubbeen exclaimed.

"Good!" Bunny grinned, showing all her teeth and folding her hands on the table. "Now, about the matter of payment..."

Gubbeen and the others shuddered. Suppressing smirks, Tananda, Zol, Gleep and I followed Montgomery towards the stairs to the sleeping rooms.



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