Marsh Madness

“And there you have it,” said Nik triumphantly, “Grenoville.

Indeed, there it was. The town sat at the centre of a lake dotted by mangrove-like trees, a series of floating platforms with huts and larger buildings built on them, criss-crossed by thin bridges. The Great Western Toad stretched across the lake as a low bridge, passing through the town and continuing on and out of sight into the trees.

Wait, Alice thought. Do they count as mangroves if they’re not in salt water? Second question, is this even definitely a freshwater swamp? I guess it’d have to be – I don’t think Nik and Aidra are saltwater amphibians, they seem more like Terrestrial frogs.

“Excellent thinks,” said Aidra, “but what if the frog is also a wizard?”

Stop reading my mind.

“Can’t.”

“What?”

“I’m always being ‘hearing’,” he said, waving his hands around his head, “everything within range!”

“That sounds…” she struggled to find the words. “Overwhelming?”

“It’d be enough to drive one maaaaad, I tells ya.”

She couldn’t think of something to respond to that with. Noticing her look of dismay, he giggled.

“I wander off into the quiet places when I’m really overwhelmed.”

“The first time he did that,” Nik interjected, “I had to go find him – he’d walked pretty much directly away from all sources of sentience, and I found him sitting on top of a tree, five miles away from town, singing some kind of song about…”

“It was about radishes!”

Nik sighed. “It was about radishes.”

“Radishes?”

“Well, I was trying to sing something orchestral and I didn’t have the instruments, so I started with the tuber!”

Alice groaned.

Radishes aren’t even tubers!” Nik’s exasperation spoke to a long-fought argument from the past bubbling to the surface. If he wasn’t hairless, he’d surely have been pulling his hair out.

“Nuh-uh,” his brother replied. “Radishes are rad, it’s in the name. Rad implies tubular, and thus tuber. Makes perfect sense.”

“Have you tried gagging him?” she asked Nik.

“He can speak telepathically, so there’s no point,” he replied. After a pause, he continued. “Also, that’d be wrong.”

Alice snorted.

“You’re all a bunch of phlinstones. Phlogistons?”

Philistines,” Alice supplied.

“What’s that?”

“It’s… wait, what language am I speaking?”

“Brackish.”

“Oh. Can everyone speak that?”

A Librarian piped up at that. “I’m not one hundred percent fluent, but I smooth that over with a couple of minor enchantments to help me translate my thoughts to words.”

She realised that, since they’d entered the Arboretum, A Librarian had spoken with a very slight accent, compared to how he ‘normally’ talked.

[I Continue To Speak Telepathically, Which You Hear In Your Native Tongue, Approximately. Although Sometimes I May Speak In Concepts That You Do Not Have In Your Language, Like |ADJUSTMENT| or |CHROMETER|. I Find Those Tend To Be Unknown By Non-Bookbinders. They Are Very Specialised Words.]

The unknown words echoed strangely in her brain, utterances without proper names. “Adjustment and… Chrometer?

[Ah Yes. |CHROMETER| Refers To The Way I Process The World – Through A Kind Of Colour-Based Sonar. |ADJUSTMENT| Is What It Feels Like When Your Consciousness Is Placed In A Different Constructed Body, Or New Limbs Are Added And Removed From One’s Chassis.]

“Some kind of reverse Phantom Limb?”

[That Is A Good Analogy.]

“As for me,” said Red, “I know Inkomon, but I’ve switched to translation spells for the time being, since you don’t understand it any more.”

“Huh. Well,” said Alice, “I guess that clears that up. Even though I’m still not sure how or why I speak all these languages without noticing.”

“Could be some kinda Language Grub, living in your prefrontal cortex and eating your grey matter,” said Aidra, faux-reassuringly.

“So! Nik! Those relatives of yours, huh?”

– – –

The floating platforms of Grenoville shifted disconcertingly beneath her feet, and only Red seemed to be similarly bothered. Nik and Aidra were used to it, A Librarian was freakishly well-balanced, and Twelfth was… Twelfth.

“And here we are,” Nik said brightly, “House Dimetaliios.”

This particular building stood, tall and rickety, above the other nearby ones. Like the rest of the town, wood wasn’t actually used that much in its construction – for these floating structures, it must have been too heavy – and instead it was built mostly out of woven reeds and other grasses, forming intricate striped patterns up, down and across the sides of the house. Above what was probably the front door hung a roughly-formed plank with a complicated painted crest carved into it. As Alice was squinting at the coiling shapes of alien heraldry, Nik walked up to a large circular woven panel beneath the crest – what she’d assumed was a ‘front door’ of some kind – and placed his hand in the centre. The wicker beneath his hand shivered and rustled, before the entire door retracted from his hand like a camera iris opening. The reeds hadn’t finished re-weaving themselves into the shape of an open door before Nik stepped through into a large atrium. In here, the bare reed walls were mostly covered by various hangings and tapestries, whose abstract, geometric patterns seemed to shift and move in Alice’s peripheral vision. At the other end of the oval entry hall, roughly-carved driftwood stairs spiralled up to a mezzanine that encircled the room. Here and there, banners with the same crest as outside hung, sewn with black and grey into dark orange cloth.

“Anyone home?” Nik called out. He placed his bags neatly down next to the door, and gestured for the rest of them to do the same.

Aidra, however, was acting stranger than usual. With slow, deliberate movements, he stalked across the room, a low bubbling growl rising under his breath.

“Um,” said Nik, “What?

I sense,” his brother hissed, “interlopers. Scoundrels and ruffians wandering our halls.

Alice heard a giggle, and looked up to see a yellow-green head duck out of sight behind the mezzanine’s banister. With a shriek, Aidra jumped impossibly high, at least nine feet straight up, grabbing the railing with a foot and lunging over it at something invisible from the angle she was at.

Nooooo!” cried a voice she didn’t recognise, trailing off into high-pitched laughter.

Aidra cackled. “You’re got! Hah! You can’t hide from me, you miscreant! You malefactoral malcontent!”

The other voice squeaked in indignation. “But, Uncle Aidra! You’re cheating!

Nik, who had previously been looking up at where his brother had disappeared with concern, had relaxed as soon as he heard the other voice.

“Ah,” he said, relieved, “it’s just family.

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