Writing Sample: Nebbish's Demon
This is a writing sample for a project I'm considering setting up.
There were rats in the bag. Nerby was sure of it, he could see the corners twitching. He leaned out of the bunk, grabbed it by one strap, and overturned it. Cutlery and a tin cup fell out among the tokens and rags and bandages, and clattered on the floor, but there were no rats. Nearby sighed and lay back again, and closed his eyes, pretending to be asleep as the guard looked in.
"Bag fell over," she called back down the hall, "he's still asleep, though."
Heavy footsteps, and then the physicians's low, precise voice. "He shouldn't be. He should be twitching, even in his sleep, and that should have woken him up."
The footsteps came closer, and Nerby felt the radiated heat of the chest grille as the physician leaned over him. "Wake up, Master Nebbish. Wake up."
He opened his eyes, pretending to be waking, and tried not to stare at the blank glass eyes. "Ph-physician," he murmured, "what time is it?"
"Seventeen minutes after noon," the physician said, squeezing each of his thin arms in turn with metal fingers, disturbingly flesh-warm and gentle. "On the seventh day of Gardens. The swelling has gone down. You can probably sit up now."
Nearby pushed himself up against the railings of the bunk, still somewhat disoriented. "Can I go soon?" he asked, hating the plaintive tone in his voice, and knowing what the answer would be.
"Where will you go, Master Nebbish? There are no universities here for you to teach in, not even a school. The governor has all the tutors he needs, and nobody else will hire one. And you are not strong enough for anything else. It will be the workhouse for you if you leave here. I'm sure you recognise that this is better."
Nearby did, and that was the problem. It was better to sit here and have them breed virii in his blood, than it was to go out, and be caught in the streets without tokens of employment, and put to a treadmill. Here, he got enough food and drink, and they brought him books when he asked, sometimes, anyway. There, he'd last a year or two, no more. And more importantly, here, he had a chance of something better. Maybe.
The physician gave up on poking him, and went to gather up the contents of the bag. "There's really no point in your holding on to this, you know," it said, its tones persuasive. "You don't need to keep your own bandages. We'll keep you supplied."
"No!" He lowered his voice, surprised at his own vehemence. "No. Sentimental value. I'll keep it."
The physician nodded, head dipping to an exact angle and back again. "Of course." It hung the bag on the back of the chair, straightened his blankets, and made its slow way to the door. "I will be back this evening," it said, "for a drawing."
He nodded, slowly, and watched it leave.
Half an hour later, the delicate snores of the guard echoing along the corridor, he dug carefully into the bag, and took from between the seams the little shiv he'd sharpened on the bedrails. It was a scale from the physician's back, which amused him. Carefully, he positioned the cup, and carefully, he drew the knife down his wrist at an angle. Blood spurted, and he caught it neatly. He let it flow for a few seconds, enjoying the slow growth of clarity and the cooling sensation in his head, and then he stopped it off with a rag, and tied a bandage neatly with the other hand. It would heal in a few minutes; the virii were not about to let a useful host die.
He stepped out into the hallway, as silently as he could, and looked slowly each way. As long as he moved smoothly, he wouldn't disturb any other inmates, and the guard was sound asleep in her chair, booted feet up on the narrow shelf where the signing books were kept. He moved smoothly, so, step flowing into step, and ignored the slight sensation of movement in the corner of his eye. It was just the virii, nothing more. He reached the junction, and glanced at the hall to the outer door with some regret. He could go now, and be away, and find some rogue doctor who would give him an antidote... but he knew that there were no rogues here, nor anywhere on the continent. And in any case, if he did not find some way to sustain himself, he would be back here within days. He turned the other way, and found the stairs down, no longer trying to move smoothly now that he was past the rooms, but swiftly instead. A switchback, and then, under his own corridor, the narrow hall where the demons were kept. Locked doors, all the way, little cells, some no bigger than a bootbox, others wardrobe-large.
"Quiet, now," he said in conversational tones. "Who wants some blood? Fresh from the vein, laced with good stuff. Teniphus cillior, and teniphus bacca, and a little anicadus hasterin."
The tone of the silence changed, and eyes and snouts appeared at the bars, clawed fingers curling around them. He took note of one, a big one, with small claws and proper joints, but it was a single finger, extended through the bars and beckoning, that drew him on. He held the mug away from him, moving it from side to side to waft the scent about, and keeping it in the middle of the hallway, where none of them could reach it. He stared through the bars at the demon. It was a little bigger than a cat, spindly and grey, humanoid in shape, with an oversized head. Yellow eyes, remarkably human despite their colour, and sharp white teeth. Horns, of course, four of them, two curling back like a ram's, and two jutting upward. And there in its forehead, the gem, the whole reason they were here, and therefore the reason he was there. Red, and glowing, and pulsing slightly, in time with... in time with the second gem, embedded in its chest. Nearby stared. He'd heard of second gem demons, read of them, but never seen one. This was the one, he was sure, the one that would get him out... his hand twitched, and he steadied it.
The demon extracted itself from its slouch, and leaned forward against the bars. "Prithee," it said, so quietly that Nerby had to take a step closer to hear it, "Who cometh offering blood among the drinkers of blood, and virii among those who eat virii? Thou'rt no physician, and thy veins pulse, I see it from here. What dost thou want, thou ox?"
Nerby took a deep breath. "I want to get out," he said. "I want you to come with me, and drain off my blood when it needs it. I'll get you out, and keep you going, and you keep me going."
There were small sounds from other cells and cages, eager intakes of breath. Demons didn't need breath, unless they were going to speak, and the demon - Nerby's demon - knew it. "Quiet, all," it said, "know ye that this lieth now between my own self and this one, none other."
Breaths hissed out again, unused, and the demon stared at him, yellow eyes glaring. The skin on his neck tingled, and an itch grew on his bandaged wrist. Eventually, it spoke again. "Why wouldst thou bring with you a drinker of blood, into the streets and alleys of the world? Dost wish to release a new plague, and fell humanity once and for all?"
"No. No, I think, you see, that you - demons - you're smarter than they think. The physicians, and the doctors. I think you know when you've found something, something that will keep you going, keep you fed. I've read about it, in old books, hints and ideas of ideas, of people who had their own demons and fed them, and had it all work. I don't think you'll spread a plague, because if all the humans die, then you'll have nobody left to live from. And I need your help."
The demon stared at him. "Let me taste of thee," it said, "and then perhaps I will know thee better, reader of old books."
Nearby held the cup nearer the bars, right up against them. The demon put its snout up against them as well, and extended a long, pink tongue, lapping at the blood. After a moment, he lowered the cup. A drop ran along the edge of the demon's mouth, and then was licked away. "Thou speakst the truth, reader," it said, wiping its mouth with the back of one hand, "thou hast indeed fine-laced blood. Open thou this door, then, and we shall establish the truth of thy thought."
Nerby grasped the bars, and pulled, and the door came slowly open. As soon as the gap was wide enough, the demon was through, and perched on his shoulder, grasping his ear in its hot, clawed hand. "So much blood," it whispered, "So much blood!"
He shuddered. "You may have enough," he said, "but not if you kill me."
The route from the stairs to the outside door was unwatched, and the guard slept still in her chair. Nearby had the bag on his back now, the demon curled among the rags and bandages, clutching the empty cup in both its hands. Nearby straightened himself, regretting his bare feet, but there were enough people barefoot in the streets that it would not be noticed. He opened the door, blinking in the wan daylight, and stepped out into the streets of Carsh.
Three days had passed, and Nerby was no closer to finding something - anything - that would provide him with food, let alone books, than he was when he stepped out of the asylum. He had fed the demon each day, crouched in an alley, bleeding himself into the cup. He didn't dare let the demon drink directly from his veins, for all it assured him that it would drink only enough. But now, at sunset on the third day of his freedom, he was growing light-headed from hunger as well as from the virii, and the movements in his peripheral vision had become almost overwhelming, making him twitch and shudder at random moments. He sat at the edge of scaffolding on a half-built tenement, already crowded with people in the lower stories, and watched the crowds pass below. In the bag, the demon hissed, "What wilt thou now, reader? Thou'rt hungry, I feel it, and thy blood grows thin."
"I don't know," he said, "I'll find something."
"If thou wouldst not feed on alley rats, listen thou to me now."
Nerby grinned in the twilight. The demon had no way of knowing he'd eaten alley rats before, and been glad of them. But the rats of Carsh were a strong breed, half as large again as any he'd seen before, and unnaturally cooperative, gathering in packs, opening doors and sewer grates, and taking on dogs and monkeys in the streets for their own feeding. He couldn't take them on now.
"What have you to tell me?" he asked, more for conversation than from true interest.
"Luck walks behind thee now," the demon said, "rise, and go through the window, and step quietly; let no footfall be louder than a breath. And when you come to where she lies, raise her up, and give her water."
Nerby stirred uneasily. "Her? And I have no water."
The demon snorted. "There is water there; the builders have left it. Go, fool reader, or your reading will come to an end."
He shrugged, and picking up the bag, turned to slide through the window behind him. The building smelled of cut stone and half-dried cement, and there were clouds of smoke from cookfires below, drifting out from unfinished chimneys. There was only one way out of the room, into the corridor, and it was no trouble to walk quietly. There was something - a pile of rags, it seemed - down toward the ladders, and he moved toward it. A few more steps, and he could see a face, wrinkled and old, in among the rags, and hear harsh breathing. One liver-spotted hand was extended toward a bucket, left by another doorway. He took the cup from the bag, the demon pushing it into his hands, dipped it in the bucket, and brought it to the old woman's lips, raising her head with his other hand. For a moment, he thought it would all run over, and then she swallowed, and again. Her eyes opened - clear and green, despite her age - and the harsh breathing eased a little. "Thank you," she said, voice cracking.
It took half an hour before she could sit up, or move, and Nerby had given her three full cups of water before he thought to take one for himself. In the bag, he thought he could hear the demon snigger. It had grown dark in the meantime, and now the only light was from faint reflections of fires below, and equally faint starlight through gaps in the unfinished roof. It was enough to see, though, that the woman was dressed not in the rags of a tenement dweller, but in a dark evening dress, fashionable in the courts of the Home Countries twenty years before. It was not tattered, or even repaired that he could see, although stains of water, blood, and cement dust had now ruined its former glory. She wore leather boots, too, buckled and heeled, and she smelled of soap and perfumes.
"What is your name?" she asked, sitting, leaning back against the corridor wall. Her accent was of the Home Countries, too, gentry or better.
"Nebbish," he said, without thinking, "Nerby Nebbish."
"Well, Master Nebbish," she said, "if you will help to my feet, we will go to my house, and I shall reward you for your trouble."
He blinked, surprised, and pulled her slowly to her feet by means of an arm beneath her shoulders. She was light, even for a man who was never strong, and was three days without food. The words "house" and "reward" moved through his mind again, and all he could think of was that there would be food there.
Food there was, in glorious quantities, brought by a young servant girl whose relief at the return of her mistress was so evident that Nebbish almost felt sorry for her. He ate carefully, with an eye to dishes that would keep him going for a while, and tried not to eat too quickly, so as to get more in. The old woman watched him eat, and told him not to talk when he made an attempt to remember how polite conversation went.
Eventually, he sat back, and looked about, curiousity returned now that hunger had been sated, and with fewer twitches and glitterings in his peripheral vision. The room they were in was one of many which opened from a central hall in a townhouse that, while it had seen better days, still retained some glory. Besides the dining table and upholstered chairs, it held curio cabinets and bookshelves - at which he tried not to stare - and a suit of archaic plate armour towered in one corner. The floors were polished, and patterned carpets lay on them. Curtained windows hid the city, and the room was lit by a round score of candles, on mantelpiece and candlestand.
"Now, Master Nebbish," she said, "You have been rewarded, as best I am able, and I would imagine that you have questions. I certainly do."
Nebbish considered for a moment more, trying to work out her likely rank, then shook his head. "My lady," he said, "I will not presume to ask you questions, but will gladly answer yours." At his feet, he thought he felt the demon twitch in the bag, and poked it with his toe.
She nodded. "You've manners, I see," she said lightly, "and that's my first question - where are you from?"
Nebbish kept himself, with a little effort, from scowling. "I am from Tintrell, my lady, from the Dariot Rows."
She nodded, slowly, as though he had confirmed something. "And your education?"
"The Unfathomed Academy, and then Canstan College, my lady, six years. History of the Liminal Chantry and Modern Liminics."
"And how, then, did you come to Carsh?"
Nebbish sighed, unable to hold it back any longer. "My father entered us all in the Colonisation Lottery, my lady. Me, two brothers, my sister, my mother and himself. I knew nothing of it until there were armed men at my door, telling me I was bound for Carsh in the morning, and all that they could say to me when I said I knew nothing was that I should not have left my voting token with my father after majority. And indeed, I should not have."
"And then, when you came here?"
"I sought work, my lady, anything I could do. But there are very few spellcasters here, and next to no use for a liminer."
"And there is no application here for your other skills?"
"I can turn my hand to most kinds of academic work, my lady, from scribing to teaching, but there is no work here like that. And I have not the strength to build, or haul, nor the knowledge for architecture or engineering. And there is nothing else here, unless you have a title, or a token for return."
She smiled, then. "There is, a little, and there may yet be more. Can you show me your hand, Master Nebbish, if I provide you paper and ink?"
Nebbish nodded, confused, though by no means unwilling.
Paper was brought by the servant girl, with a pen and a silver inkstand. Nebbish waited for a moment to see if the old woman would suggest anything to write, and when she did not, began a stanza of the Golden Hunt. He had completed no more than two lines, cursing his own lack of practice and withered skills, before she nodded.
"That will do," she said, "very well indeed. Master Nebbish, my name is Erzina van Kingslen, Baroness Senzina. I am in need of a scribe, and you have a fair hand, or will when you are not half-starved."
A half hour later, he was sitting in an armchair, in a room that the servant girl said was to be his. It also held a bed, a washstand, a fireplace, and an iron-bound chest. The girl had just left, saying that breakfast - breakfast! - would be served after the seventh bell. He looked around, half-dazed, at the polished wood of the floor and the dull gleam of old velvet curtains. Beside his chair, the demon struggled out of the bag, and hopped to his arm.
"Now, foolish reader, did I not tell thee? Are we not in glory now?"
"You did. But I do not understand; how could you know, and what was she doing there?"
"The scents of pain and heat are ever the same, reader, and while thy blood echoes loud in the nose, all carries. She holds in her blood cousins of the virii in yours, though never so strong."
"She's... she was in an asylum?"
"I think not, reader, for her kind are rarely so in need, but there are other means of transmission."
End of sample
Posted by Drew Shiel at October 10, 2007 12:08 PM