Towards the end of the day, Baron Chan Poulaan finally managed to locate his son Togura, who had taken refuge in the Murken Hotel. This building, the victim of a subsidence, looked just about ready to fall over. Outside, huge timbers shored up the walls. Inside, the place was a maze of props and cross-struts. As the baron entered, the building was alive with hammering; it had taken an alarming lurch sideways that afternoon, and emergency reinforcements were now being put into place.
The proprietor, a foul-smelling hunchbacked dwarf with a huge goitre, directed the baron to Togura's room.
"Take me there," said the baron.
The dwarf flattened his nose against the back of his hand, which, in those parts, was an emphatic gesture of refusal.
"I don't venture upstairs," said the dwarf.
The baron saw the wisdom of that as soon as he started up the rickety stairs, which creaked and groaned beneath his feet, imploring him for mercy. Reaching Togura's door, he hammered against it with both fists. A slow dust of powdered dry rot began to sift down from the beams above; alarmed, the baron stopped hammering.
"Togura!" he yelled. "I know you're in there."
Silence from within.
The baron threw his shoulder against the door. The floor shook, the stairs creaked alarmingly, but the door held.
"Come out, boy," shouted the baron.
From within, a muffled voice responded.
"Open the door, so we can talk."
"Come on, open the door!"
There was a pause, then confused sounds from within. Then the door was opened a crack. The baron, with a roar, threw his weight against it. A crossbeam overhead ruptured, showering him with sawdust. But the door still refused to admit him.
"What have you done to the door?" demanded the baron.
Togura replied, but the baron, sneezing vigorously because of the sawdust in his nose, failed to hear.
"What was that?" he said.
"You heard me," said Togura.
"I suppose you've wedged the door with a baulk of timber."
"That's what I said."
"You're not going to cry again, are you?" sneered the baron, hearing the distress in his son's voice.
"Go away," said Togura.
"I will not go away," said his father. "You will open the door, quit this place and come home with me. Then, once we've had a little talk together, we'll go back to the palace. To see Slerma."
"No!" howled Togura. "No, no, not that. I'd rather die."
"Stop being melodramatic," said the baron impatiently. "I can't see what you're making all this fuss about. When all's said and done, she's a healthy young girl with a moderately wealthy father."
"Many men like their women a little plump. After all, you've got to have something to hold onto once you get in the saddle."
"A little plump! Paps, that woman's a horse, a cow and a whale all rolled into one. She's - "
"Don't call me paps," snapped the baron, who hated hearing that kind of tiny-tot talk from his son. "It's time to grow up, Togura. Be a man. You're not going to kill yourself, so you'll just have to live with the life you've got."
"Yes, I want to eat. That man-eater would kill me. I - "
"Stop that! Togura, face facts. You're not going to inherit. Cromarty gets the estate. If you marry, you get the king's title and his property once he dies. He's an old man, he can't last much longer."
"Neither will I if I - "
"Enough! Listen! Soon, Togura, this wretched town of Keep is going to fall into the ground or slide into Dead Man's Drop. The king's property will be more valuable than ever. Anyone wanting to mine the gemstock will have to - "
"I won't sell myself for money," shouted Togura. "I want to marry a woman, not a walking slime pit."
"You don't have much option," said the baron.
"If I have to, I'll go down to the coast and sell myself to the first slaver passing through. I'd rather - "
"This nonsense has gone far enough," said the baron, cutting him off. "Open this door properly and come out. We're going home. Now!"
"By the sperm of my ancestors," raged the baron, using the most fearsome oath he knew. "You'll come out of there right now or suffer the immediate and unlimited consequences. No son of mine is going to defy his father like that."
"Push off, paps," said Togura, all defiance.
The baron then assaulted the door vigorously. A chunk of rotten wood fell from the ceiling, and one of the risers of the stairway split open, but the door itself was solid, and held. Finally, cursing and muttering, spitting sawdust and swearing ferociously, the baron retreated downstairs. He took rooms for himself and for Prick, paying the ground floor premium; they would spend the night there, and deal with Togura in the morning.
Togura, alone and lonely in his room, barred the door then cried himself to sleep. The bed on which he slept was a huge and incredibly ancient affair made of stout timbers standing waist-high off the floor; as he slept, he was a small crumpled island of misery in an ocean of dirty linen. Bed bugs, oblivious of his emotional agony, feasted merrily on his helpless flesh.
Sleeping, Togura dreamt that he was in a castle which was under siege. Invaders were attacking the main gate with a battering ram. The sullen thud and thump of the assault began to undermine his composure. The ram charged again, hitting the door with a crash so loud that it woke him up.
Togura, starting from sleep and blinking at darkness, stared in the direction of the door. Something was demolishing it. With a final crash, the door splintered and gave way. A faintly aromatic smell of ancient timbers percolated through the room. Outside, on the stairway, some large animal was breathing heavily with a kind of wet, gutteral wheezing.
"Paps?" said Togura uncertainly.
"Prepare yourself, little man," said the animal, in a thick slurred voice.
"Slerma!" screamed Togura.
The animal outside made strenuous efforts to enter, but failed. The doorway was too small.
"Slerma," said Togura, in a shaky voice. "I'll do anything you say. Just don't hurt me, that's all. I love you."
He was answered by a scream of rage.
"Love? Love! Little man, I'll kill you! Guta will kill you. How dare you make love to his Slerma?"
Too late, Togura realised his fatal mistake.
"No, Guta!" cried Togura. "I didn't mean it. I don't want Slerma. I don't want anything to do with her."
"Liar! You were seen. The serving girl told me. You were seen. Embraced! Deep in her charms, her arms enfolding you. She fed you with her own magnificent hand."
"Guta, I really don't want her. She's appalling. She's hideous. She's a mass of flab and sausage meat. She makes me sick, she - "
"You insult my darling. My true love. My fondest dream. The one and only real woman in the world. Animal! I'm going to kill you!"
The building shook, timbers groaned, the roof strained, and Guta forced himself into Togura's room. As darkness crashed toward him, roaring, Togura rolled out of bed and took cover underneath the bed. Guta, finding the bed in the night, hoisted himself aboard and began to trample it with his knees. He roared out incomprehensible obscenities as he sought for his victim.
Frustrated at finding nothing, Guta tore the sheets apart. Then he grabbed hold of the mattress and ripped it open, spilling mouldy old straw and bracken into the night, together with bedbugs, lice, dead spiders and a virile colony of the kind of red ants that bite. Then he began to jump on the bed.
Just before the bed splintered and gave way, Togura rolled out from underneath and sprinted for the doorway. He tripped, fell, recovered himself, barked his shins against something, cracked his head against a low-lying beam, then gained safety. At least for the moment. Where now? Up, down? Togura ascended, pounding up the stairs, thinking the fearsome young troll behind him would not dare the increasingly fragile heights of the Murken Hotel.
He was wrong.
Hauling himself back out through the doorway, Guta started up the stairs after Togura. He began to gain on him. Togura strove for extra speed. But Guta was fast and ferocious. He grabbed hold of Togura's foot. Togura screamed. The stairs collapsed. Guta roared. Screaming and roaring, the two plunged downward to their doom. Guta landed first, smashing his head open and breaking his back, which killed him. Togura landed on top of the corpse of his recently deceased rival. A shower of rotten wood rained down on the two of them.
Togura became aware of doors opening. There was a muttering of voices in the darkness. Then the proprietor came on the scene. The hunchbacked dwarf was bearing a candle, an evil-smelling stump of black wax which burnt with a greenish-blue light, filling the air with smoke and shadows. The dwarf was doing his best to restrain a huge rate, which he had on a short leash. It was the size of a mastiff, had blood-red eyes and razor-sharp teeth, and was slavering as it strained against the leash, which was attached to a collar ringed with spikes of sharpened metal.
The dwarf surveyed the damage.
Then he kicked Guta in the head.
"Leave," said the dwarf.
The dwarf knew that Guta was a valuable catch. The city state of Pera Pesh, a fishing town of some one thousand people down by the coast, had put a price on his head. He was wanted, dead or alive, for a variety of crimes including grave robbing, necrophilia, the theft of a small whale and the destruction of a small stone bridge which he had incautiously walked across. The reward would more than compensate for the cost of repairs.
"I'm going right now," said Togura, with what fraction of his voice he had so far been able to recover.
"Togura," said a loud voice from one of the darkened doorways. "You come here this instant."
It was his father, the formidable baron.
Togura got to his feet and fled.