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The strangers woes, p.1
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       The Stranger's Woes, p.1

           Max Frei
 
The Stranger's Woes


  THE LABYRINTHS OF ECHO: BOOK TWO

  THE STRANGER’S

  WOES

  MAX FREI

  Translated from the Russian by Polly Gannon

  and Ast A. Moore

  GOLLANCZ

  LONDON

  CONTENTS

  ONE

  THE MAGAXON FOXES

  TWO

  THE SHIP FROM ARVAROX

  AND OTHER WOES

  THREE

  THE VOLUNTEERS

  OF ETERNITY

  Previously in THE LABYRINTHS OF ECHO . . .

  MAX FREI WAS ONCE A LOSER. HE’S A BIG SLEEPER (DURING THE DAY, that is; at night he can’t sleep a wink). A hardened smoker, an uncomplicated glutton, and a loafer, one day he gets lucky. He discovers a parallel world where magic is commonplace, and where he fits right in. This is the city of Echo of the Unified Kingdom, a land where a social outcast like Max can be remade as “the unequaled Sir Max.”

  In this upside-down universe, Sir Max’s deadpan humor and newfound talent for magic soon earn him a place in the secret police—night shift only, of course. As Nocturnal Representative of the Most Venerable Head of the Minor Secret Investigative Force of the City of Echo, Max’s job is to investigate cases of illegal magic and battle trespassing monsters from other worlds. With this occupation comes an unusual band of colleagues—the omniscient Sir Juffin Hully, the buoyant Sir Melifaro, the death dealing Sir Shurf Lonli-Lokli, bon vivant and master of disguise Sir Kofa Yox, and the captivating sleuth Lady Melamori Blimm.

  Plunging back into the threatening and absurd realm first portrayed in The Stranger, Book One of the Labyrinths of Echo series, The Stranger’s Woes follows the new adventures and misadventures of Sir Max and his friends in this enchanted and enchanting world.

  ONE

  THE MAGAXON FOXES

  “CONGRATULATIONS, MAX. YOU AND MELIFARO GET A HOLIday. One day for both of you.” Sir Juffin Hully was positively glowing with acerbity.

  “Big deal. Have the Secret Investigators officially earned the right to keep a harem? Has there been a special Royal Decree?” I asked indifferently. To be honest, I had been out of sorts since morning.

  “Even worse, boy. Much worse. It seems that the magnificent General Boboota Box is on the mend. Soon he’ll be up and about.”

  “Well, it was bound to happen sooner or later, much to the chagrin of his subordinates. I’ve even missed him. It’s so sweet to see him tremble in terror when I’m around.”

  “Is that so? Then you have reason to rejoice.”

  “Rejoice? Why?” I sensed a trap.

  “To this day Boboota can’t forget how you and Melifaro saved his precious backside from turning into pâté. The burden of his unexpressed gratitude has become too much for him. As a matter of fact, he sent you an official invitation. Tomorrow at sundown you are to cross the threshold of Boboota Box’s residence. Happy?”

  “Ouch, Juffin. What if I’m otherwise engaged tomorrow? I could deliver the head of some rebellious Grand Magician to you on a platter, or create a few new Universes. How about it? I’ll do it in the wink of an eye, honest. But I regret to say I won’t be able to make it to Sir Boboota’s party. How unfortunate.”

  “Dream on. No, my boy, you’ve got to pay for your mistakes. Since you and Melifaro saw fit to save Boboota’s life, you have to take the consequences. No need to pull such a long face, either. It will be fine. You just have to mention outhouses—Boboota’s favorite subject. Then you come back to me and report the gist of your edifying chat. You’re good at that. So you see, you’ll both be happy—just not at the same time. I’m the only one who gets to be happy all the time.”

  “Does Melifaro already know about the pleasure that awaits him?”

  “Of course, and he’s delighted. He says that imagining you at Boboota’s table sends shivers up and down his spine.”

  “Listen, Juffin, you’ve already done me in. You’ve knocked me flat on my back, wiped the wall with me, and rubbed my nose in the dirt. Now tell me, do I really have to go to Boboota’s?”

  “Well, I wouldn’t say that you have to, but the poor fellow suffered a real blow from the pâté incident. He’s been confined to his bed for days on end. And remember, he’s turned over a new leaf. So he’s counting on your visit. He’s a very sensitive fellow deep down in his heart.”

  “Right, but your hands come up covered in blood after you dig down that far,” I said. “All right, all right, I’ll go. Otherwise, Melifaro will cry all day in the Chair of Despair. What would people think of us then?”

  “Attaboy! But why are you so down in the dumps, Max? What’s the matter?”

  “Magicians only know,” I said, shrugging. “On the surface everything seems to be just fine—but it’s all wrong. Maybe it’s a seasonal thing, like the mating dance of the Sysoo bird. You know I’m a simple guy. My mind is a very primitive mechanism.”

  “Sysoo birds don’t do mating dances,” Kurush said. “People entertain such strange notions about birds.”

  I stroked the buriwok’s ruffled feathers. “I’m sorry, sweetheart. I’m an ignorant alien, and you’re a wise Keeper of Knowledge. Forgive me.”

  “What’s this I hear?” Juffin said, shaking his head in surprise. “By the way, I hope you aren’t going to bed without the kerchief of the Grand Magician of—”

  “Of the Order of the Secret Grass,” I said. “I don’t forget anything at all these days. I turn off the bathroom light and don’t go outside in the nude. I do the famous Lonli-Lokli breathing exercises every morning and eat six times a day. Everything’s just hunky-dory.”

  “No, Max. Not everything. What about your dreams?”

  “That’s just it: I don’t have any at all,” I said. “The trip to Kettari wiped out my ability to dream altogether. They’re gone. Poof!”

  “Hmm. Now we’re getting somewhere. Don’t exaggerate, though. Nothing has been ‘wiped out,’ as you put it. It’s a good thing you have that kind of defense mechanism.”

  “Oh, you mean a horror film series has been scheduled for my personal movie theater?” I asked, showing some signs of life.

  “Be so good as to speak more clearly. Those metaphors of yours—”

  “I just meant to suggest that all the nightmares of the World might be after my scalp.”

  “I didn’t need you to tell me that,” Juffin said testily. “But don’t worry. They’ll grow tired of you. It will pass. It’s all for the best—you finally have some time to turn your attention to what happens when you’re awake.”

  “Like a visit to Sir Boboota. You’re right, Juffin. That’s a nightmare right there,” I quipped.

  “That’s better,” the chief said, smiling. “Much better. Don’t let any untoward wonders spoil your good nature.”

  “I have a good nature?”

  “Absolutely. Especially after your fifth glass of Elixir of Kaxar. Well, wonder boy, it’s time to get down to the task at hand.”

  “Did you send over to the Glutton for dinner?” I said.

  “For pastries,” Kurush corrected me.

  Juffin pulled his hair in mock despair, and I burst out laughing. My own announcement that everything was “all wrong” did start to seem like an exaggeration. I really was fine after all. But a dozen days without a single dream—I wasn’t used to that. I almost felt like a happy dead man who had managed to strike it lucky in the afterlife.

  “I sense that we’re in for a sea of pleasure today! Even more. Oceans of it. In a word, I’d like to be a pirate crossing those oceans of pleasure.”

  Melifaro was stretched out nonchalantly on his own desk, feet crossed, staring at the ceiling. I was sitting in his chair. I couldn’t shake off the bizarre sensation that soon I would be sampling the festive delic
acy that was laid out in front of me, elegantly wrapped in a bright turquoise looxi.

  “Did you know there are lots of jokes making the rounds about Boboota Box and his men?” Melifaro said.

  I shook my head no.

  “What an innocent you are, Mr. Nightmare! Didn’t your parents teach you anything? Shame on their bald and graying heads!”

  Melifaro was already tired of lying on the desk. He jumped down to the floor, covered the distance from one corner to another in a few determined leaps, and arranged himself comfortably on the windowsill.

  “Boboota and Foofloss are sitting in the outhouse in neighboring stalls, doing their respective business. Foofloss finishes, looks around, and sees there’s no T.P. So he knocks on the wall to get Boboota’s attention. ‘Hey, boss. You have any T.P. over there?’ And Boboota says, ‘What’s the matter, is your skaba too short?’”

  I snickered, a bit surprised. Could it really be just a coincidence?

  “Tell me another.”

  “Woo-hoo! I’m on a roll now! Go buy a ticket for the next show, first. Okay, okay, here’s another one. Captain Foofloss comes up to Boboota and asks, ‘What’s the deductive method?’”

  I started laughing, again taken by surprise.

  Melifaro went on: “Boboota puffs out his cheeks and turns red in the face, he’s thinking so hard. A half hour later he says, ‘I’ll make it plain and simple so even an idiot can understand. Did you eat yesterday? Yes, well then you’ve got a backside, too.’ ‘Goodness, boss. How did you guess?’ ‘I’ll explain it one more time, this time for total cretins. If you ate yesterday, that means you visited the outhouse today. If you visited the outhouse today, that means you’ve got a backside. And that’s the deductive method.’ Foofloss, very pleased with himself, runs into Lieutenant Shixola walking down the corridor. You realize, naturally, that the joke was started long before Shixola was promoted to captain. Foofloss asks, ‘Did you eat yesterday?’ ‘No, I didn’t have time.’ ‘Well then you have no backside!’”

  Amazing. I knew those jokes inside out. I had heard them many times as a kid in my own World. Sure, the characters had different names, but there was no mistaking it—the jokes were otherwise the same, word for word. Which just goes to show that peripatetic stories and jokes travel between Worlds far more easily than storytellers and jokers.

  “Whoa!” Melifaro said. “A delegation has arrived. The cream of the crop, the pride and joy of the City Police Department and our White List. Lieutenant Kamshi and Captain Shixola, heroes of the popular imagination. Well, this was predictable. So, fellows, have you brought a petition? Here’s your man, Sir Max himself. Grease his palm well, and he’ll spit at your boss right across his own dinner table.”

  “Dream on,” I mumbled. “I don’t take bribes like some—”

  “Like who?” Melifaro said.

  “I don’t know. I guess I’m the only one in the Universe who refuses them.”

  “No problem, mates,” my daytime half said. “He’ll wipe out your boss for free.”

  “You may think it’s funny, gentlemen, but we’re in a very difficult position,” Kamshi said. Shixola made a mournful face.

  “You’re not kidding,” Melifaro said in a jocular tone. “The Second Coming of General Boboota Box is nigh. If he’s already sucking up to this freak of nature”—here he jerked his head irreverently in my direction—“he must be on his way to the House by the Bridge. Your happy days are over, boys. I feel for you.”

  “It was bound to happen sooner or later,” Captain Shixola said. He looked like a prisoner waiting patiently on death row. “But it’s such an inconvenient time.”

  “Ahem, and when would it be convenient?” Melifaro asked. “Anyway, guys, what gives? Something exciting?”

  “Not exactly exciting. Let’s just say some old traditions are being revived. Outlaws are coming out of the shadows in the Magaxon Forest again.”

  “Again?” Melifaro looked surprised. “It’s only been thirty years since the World saw the last of Jiffa Savanxa and his henchmen. I guess a new batch of them is ready to roll. Their leader no doubt has a life-size portrait of Sir Jiffa in full outlaw regalia hanging above his bed. Charming. Well, is that all?”

  “Almost, except that now our chances of cornering him are very slim,” Kamshi said. “While Sir Boboota languishes at home in bed and his deputy Sir Foofloss goes pub-crawling, Shixola and I can act as we see fit. But what will become of our plans when General Box is back on duty? He’ll start barking orders that we’ll be forced to carry out. The gentlemen outlaws will be overjoyed, I’m sure.”

  “Hmm, I see.” Melifaro nodded. “But what can we do to help? Cast a spell on Boboota that makes him allergic to giving orders? I’m afraid that’s impossible.”

  “Of course. We were just thinking that hard work might undermine Boboota’s already delicate condition,” Kamshi said. “Perhaps you agree with us, gentlemen? And you could hint as much to Lady Box. Or, even better, you could inform General Boboota about your fears for his health.”

  “We’re so worried we can’t sleep at night,” Melifaro said.

  “I can tell Boboota that I spent all my free time learning the recipe for the pâté that poisoned him,” I suggested. “And the experiment proved that the unhappy victims of that—what was that stuff called? King Banjee, right—must under no circumstances overtax themselves. Otherwise they’re doomed. But why didn’t you try to bribe Abilat Paras? He’s in charge of healing your boss. A warning like that from him would carry more weight.”

  “He is incorruptible, like Sir Max,” said Lieutenant Kamshi, bowing to me ceremoniously. “I think the poor fellow is sick to death of being our boss’s healer.”

  “Poor little Bobooty, nobody wuvs him,” I said. “Should I adopt him? I can buy him candy and sit him down on the potty a hundred times a day. Wouldn’t that be sweet?”

  Melifaro turned aside and snickered quietly. That must have meant my friend was amused. The policemen looked at us almost in horror.

  “Okay, boys, we’ll do our best,” Melifaro said. “Boboota will be white with fear by the time we’re done with him. We’ll take a great interest in the workings of his long-suffering intestines, and Sir Max will lecture him on the dangers of overexertion. With the Dark Magicians as my witness, we’re on your side. Go forth, capture your brigands, and enjoy life.”

  The policemen left the office on wings of hope.

  “You know this Lieutenant Kamshi isn’t destined to stay too long with the City Police,” Melifaro said after our guests had closed the heavy door behind them. “Sir Marunarx Antarop is already very old, and the post of Warden of the Prison of Xolomi is an onerous job.”

  “You think Kamshi will be the one to fill it?”

  “Me? I don’t think anything. But Sir Juffin once remarked that Kamshi was just the one to keep an eye on the walls of Xolomi. Juffin says he’s made of the right stuff, heart and soul, and it’s lucky if someone like that is born once in a century. Who do you think appoints someone to the post?”

  “I don’t doubt for a second that it’s Juffin himself. And that’s all for the best.”

  “And how! Well, are you ready to party?”

  “No. And I’ll never be ready for a party like this one. But if it’s time to go, let’s boogie.”

  Boboota Box’s mansion, the size of a stadium, loomed on the edge of the swanky Left Bank, where property started to get cheaper and neighbors were few and far between. The Left Bank was populated by those who didn’t deign to take an interest in the price of land, or prices of any kind. People who wished to economize were rare in these parts. Only one or two houses, surrounded by greenery, were visible from Boboota’s. This seemed to be where Echo ended.

  “The old man sure lives in a grand style,” Melifaro said. “This place looks like a fortress.”

  “Too grand for my tastes,” I said. “Do you remember my apartment on the Street of Old Coins? For me that was already on the large side.”

&n
bsp; “Is this your inner real estate agent speaking?” Melifaro said. “To hear you talk, one would think you preferred living in a closet.”

  “You may find it hard to believe, but that’s about what I was living in not so very long ago. How I managed to fit into it I can’t imagine.”

  “You were probably just skinnier back then,” Melifaro said, grinning. “And you slept standing up.”

  General Boboota Box met us at the door. He had grown so pale and thin during his illness that he actually resembled a human being. He no longer looked like a charging bull. He might even have been able to maneuver in a china shop without any upsets.

  “Welcome, gentlemen,” Boboota said in his most genteel manner.

  His voice had become uncharacteristically mild. Melifaro and I exchanged wary glances. Was this gentle fellow the terror of his side of the House by the Bridge? What had happened to him, poor thing? Of course, as our host, he was obliged to be gracious and polite. Besides, we had saved his life, and he still feared me like he feared losing the spark, but this change in his demeanor was beyond comprehension.

  After we had exchanged a few pleasantries, we went inside, where we were greeted by Boboota’s wife. Strange as it may be, she was neither a harridan nor a doormat. As far as I’ve been able to judge, bullies like Boboota usually go for one extreme or the other when choosing a mate.

  Lady Box was a very sweet, still pretty middle-aged redhead. She managed to be hospitable and unassuming at the same time.

  “Thank you for saving my sweet dumpling, boys,” she said with a bright smile. “It’s hard to change your habits at my age, and I was already so used to falling asleep to the sound of his snores.”

  “Hush now, Ulima,” Boboota murmured in embarrassment.

  “Hold your tongue, worrywart! Have you forgotten our agreement? You invite the guests, and I amuse them, since the few times we tried to do it the other way around, it wasn’t exactly a success. This way, please, gentlemen.”

 
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