Fen-town was a city built on stilts.
They saw it coming from a long way away. It was the only thing that stuck out of the waving marsh-grass. The road ran right through the middle of it, and at first Summer thought that the stilts would mean the city would be above their heads, but the road rose to meet it. The packed earth turned to great blocks of stone with bits of moss growing in the cracks, and by the time they reached Fen-town, they were ten or fifteen feet above the level of the water.
The city didn’t have a gate, but it did have two tall pillars along the road. A guard leaned against one pillar. She looked mostly human, but her skin was mottled green and she had webbed toes and a pleasant expression.
“New to Fen-town?” she asked. When Summer nodded, she pointed to a building. A wooden bridge led to the front door. “First-time travelers need to go and talk to the Clerk of Records.”
The building smelled like damp paper inside. There was a broad desk covered in folders and binders and papers and booklets and diaries and notes and blotters and a great many pens.
The person behind the desk was also green with webbed feet, but his expression was far less pleasant. His nose was beaky and he had thinning, spiky hair. Summer had never met someone who could look like both a frog and a heron at the same time.
“Name?” asked the Clerk of Records, grabbing a sheet of paper apparently at random.
“Reginald Hoopoe, of the Almondsgrove Hoopoes.”
“Summer,” said Summer. If Glorious could have just one name, so could she.
“Hmmph!” The Clerk scribbled furiously. No ink came out of his pen, and he tossed it aside and grabbed another one. “Business in Fen-town?”
“Just passing through, dontcha know, on the way to the jolly old family seat,” said Reginald.
The Clerk’s eyebrows drew together like angry caterpillars. “Do you have any fruit?”
The travelers exchanged glances. “Err,” said Reginald. “No. We could go and get some if you like?”
“No fruit!” barked the Clerk, discarding another pen. “No dangerous animals?”
Glorious grinned. “One,” he said.
The weasel muttered something in Summer’s pocket.
The Clerk stared over his desk at Glorious for a moment, then made a note. “Rules!” he said. “No entering the city after dark! No panhandling! No accordion music without a permit!” He leveled a finger. “And pets must be on leashes, do you hear me?”
“He’s not my pet,” said Summer hurriedly.
“Wasn’t talking to you,” said the Clerk. He jerked his head at Glorious. “If your human causes trouble, you’ll be up on charges, you understand?”
Summer’s jaw dropped.
“I’ll try to keep her under control,” said the wolf drily. “Now tell me, is there a small village green or a lot? I require some space for the evening to transform.”
“Transform?” The Clerk threw aside his pen, grabbed yet another, and began writing notes in a frenzy.
“But don’t worry, he doesn’t turn into fruit,” said Reginald helpfully.
“What does he turn into?” The Clerk’s voice rose hysterically.
“Just a house!” said Summer hurriedly. “A nice house! A cottage! Nothing dangerous—”
The Clerk’s face turned an ugly mottled gray. “You’re bringing in outside real estate?!”
Summer wondered if this was better or worse than fruit.
“I don’t intend to stay,” said Glorious. “Just for the night.”
“It’s like pitching a tent,” said Reginald. “Only more civilized.”
“Am I to understand that this is your house, Mister—Hoopoe?” asked the Clerk nastily.
“If we’re being technical,” said Reginald, “it’s Viscount Hoopoe. And no, he isn’t mine.”
The Clerk swung his gaze on Summer. “Is he yours?”
“Yes,” said Glorious. “Legally. Not an abandoned house, not available to house-hunters, not on the real estate market.” He nudged Summer.
Summer gulped. She could take a hint. “Um. Yes. That’s right. He’s mine.”
“Do you have a title on file at the Registrar of Deeds?”
You were definitely not supposed to lie to grown-ups. But she remembered Glorious’s fear of house-hunters, and if it meant protecting the were-house—
“Yes,” she said. “Only not here. Back home. He’s—um—mobile. But we’re on file in my home town.”
The Clerk scowled. “Do you have papers for him here, then?”
“We weren’t told we’d need them,” said Summer staunchly. She had gone to the DMV with her mother last month. She’d finished her book early and spent two hours watching people talk to the clerks there, and they all seemed to say the same things.
“How am I supposed to work under these conditions!?” he shouted at her, which the clerks at the DMV didn’t do. “Outside real estate! Do you want to crash the housing market? It’s all snails, you understand, snails and hammocks! And we had a woman come through last month on a stone salmon and not a license in sight!”
He flung down his papers and put his face in his hands.
Summer felt on suddenly firmer ground.
She stepped forward and patted his arm. “It will be all right,” she said. And then, cautiously, “It wasn’t very nice of her to come through on a stone salmon like that.” (Privately she wondered what a salmon had to do with it, but never mind.)
The Clerk sighed and dropped his hands. “No, it wasn’t. It did terrible damage around the foundations. And she didn’t pay for any of it!” Amazingly, his color seemed to be settling.
Summer made a polite noise of horror and nudged Reginald, who said “Oh—err—I say—that’s not right at all!”
“I’m sorry we’re making more work for you,” said Summer. “We didn’t mean to.”
“Well,” said the Clerk. “You were supposed to bring papers, but if you haven’t got any, we can fill out a temporary house license for you. But it’s only good for thirty days, and you have to keep it in the window at all times.”
“Thank you for your help,” said Summer. She’d noticed that the people who got out of the DMV the quickest usually said that.
“Mmm,” said the Clerk, but the storm had clearly passed. Normally at this point she’d tell her mother that she loved her and it would be all right, but this did not seem quite appropriate. Instead she said, “We’re sorry to be so much trouble.”
“Hmmph!” said the Clerk, but his heart wasn’t in it. He dug a form out of a stack and filled in a few blanks. “Now sign here.”
Glorious nudged her. Summer took the leaky pen and signed her name in her best cursive writing.
“There’s that, then. In the window at all times, you hear? And we’ll keep this other copy on file.”
Summer presented the paper to Glorious, who swallowed it in one gulp.
“Thank you again,” she said. Reginald bowed to the clerk. All three of them hurried out of the building.
“Wow!” said Reginald, as soon as they were clear. “What a load of whoppers that was!” He slapped Summer on the shoulder with his wing and laughed. “I didn’t know you had it in you! ‘We’re on file in my home town’ indeed!”
Summer giggled. You weren’t supposed to feel proud of yourself for lying, but she couldn’t help it.
They made their way across the stone causeway into Fen-town.
Everything was on poles and stilts and pilings. The village appeared to be made of at least a dozen layers. Birds the size of Reginald flew back and forth overhead, between birdhouses on tall poles.
There were shops above the level of the road, accessible through folding staircases. There were also fruit-vendors and little carts, like the kind that sold hot dogs on the street in Summer’s world. (Her mother had never let her buy one of the hot dogs, because she said the carts were unsanitary and crawling with germs, but they always smelled delicious.)
It was odd, though—unlike the carts back home, these didn’t have wheels. In fact, they seemed to be built on the backs of glistening carpets.
Summer was trying to figure out why the carpets looked so familiar, when one moved.
It stretched and rippled. Summer let out a squeak.
“Hmmm?” Glorious rolled an eye up at his rider.
“Oh,” said Reginald. “Snail-cart. Don’t they have them where you’re from?”
“We don’t have snails that big where I’m from!”
The carts were indeed built on the backs of snails. The counters were fitted around the spiral shells and boxes of produce were set out atop them. Awnings overhead shaded the fruit-sellers. Some of the snails were pulled all the way into their shells, but others had their necks stretched out and were sunning themselves. Each one was the size of a small car.
“Aren’t they slow?” whispered Summer.
“Well, sure,” said Reginald. “But they go under the city at night—upside down, you know—and you sling a perch or a hammock between the awnings and sleep dry all night.” He shrugged.
“If you fly under the road, you’ll see ’em.”
“Good eating on a snail,” said the weasel. “Easy to catch, too.” He eyed the nearest cart hungrily.
“I don’t think they’d appreciate it if you ate their snail,” said Summer.
“Don’t think a snail wouldn’t eat you if it got the chance!”
The valet-birds dug into the packs and produced a few coins, then flew to the nearest fruit seller and began a round of vigorous chirping.
“I thought you didn’t have any money,” said Summer.
“I don’t have real money,” said Reginald. “Debts up to the ceiling!” He sounded almost proud of the fact. “But a few bits tucked away here or there, for an inn or a pint or a bit of a bite—of course I’ve got that.”
Summer had eleven cents in her pocket. She didn’t think that it would be worth much in this world.
The fruit-seller apparently came to an arrangement with the valet-birds. She was a tall black woman who would have looked perfectly at home in Summer’s world, except for the fact that she was wearing clothes made entirely of matchsticks and string. She took one of the coins and the valet-birds began ferrying a bunch of grapes—one grape per bird—back to the packs.
They proceeded through Fen-town. The valet-birds stopped at three other snail-carts, buying biscuits and a number of small tins. Summer found the vendors that they didn’t visit much more fascinating—there was a creature like a haystack selling wind-chimes, and a hooded person with glowing green eyes whose cart was covered in dozens of hands.
“Are those real hands?” whispered Summer. Many of them were dried and curled up, like dead spiders.
“Hand-smith,” said Reginald. “Yes, of course they’re real. He’d soon be up on charges if they weren’t.”
In the center of town, the road split into an enormous circular platform. In the center of the platform was a turtle.
It was gigantic, as big as a parking lot. Its eyes were at least ten feet tall. Summer was glad they were closed. Its pupils might be bigger than she was.
From its shell rose a grove of trees and a neatly manicured lawn. There were several park benches and picnic tables. A sign said, “Chelonia Park.”
“Should be as good a place as any to spend the night,” said Glorious. “I don’t relish trying to balance my foundations on these poles, or having the tide come in through my windows.”
“The sign says, ‘No fires,’ said Summer.
“Good thing we’ve got an indoor fireplace, then, eh?” said Reginald.
Summer had been worried that someone would come and yell at them for putting a house in the park—even a very well-behaved house—but nobody did. Perhaps the fact that Glorious’s temporary license was posted prominently in the window helped, or perhaps the people of Fen-town were simply used to such things. But they couldn’t build a fire on the back of the turtle—Summer had a feeling that Chelonia Park would not have liked that at all—and so there was no hot tea in the morning for anyone. Eventually they just decided to leave and sort breakfast out later.
She felt very out of sorts as they left Fen-town. Her eyes were full of grit and the morning air was cold and smelled like rotten fish.
The stone causeway continued across the marsh, toward a dark line of trees on the other side.
Halfway to the trees, Summer could make out a large, oddly shaped lump.
“What’s that supposed to be?” she grumbled.
Glorious said nothing. Reginald, who was incurably cheerful at this hour, said “I’ll go check it out, shall I? Nothing like a dawn flight to get the old heart pumping, is there?”
“Morning people should be shot,” said the weasel, although he waited until Reginald was in the air.
The wolf and his rider paced down the causeway for several minutes.
“Reginald’s coming back,” said Summer.
“Flying fast, too,” said Glorious.
“Probably forgot his waistcoat,” muttered the weasel.
The hoopoe landed on the road. “Turtle,” he said. “Like last night. The skeleton only. You can see the shell from miles off, though.”
Summer wound her fingers tightly in Glorious’s ruff.
Slowly, slowly, the skeleton came into focus. It was vast, bigger than Chelonia Park had been,
with a shell as big as all of Fen-town. There were trees growing on its back, with trunks so wide that Summer could not have reached even halfway around them.
The trees were green, but it was a pale, sickly green. The leaves had yellow veins that stood out in sharp relief, like the tendons on the back of an old man’s hands.
The turtle shell was half-buried in mud, and a skull protruded from it. It was broad and flat, striped with moss. The eye-sockets hung deep and empty.
Summer swallowed a few times. “It’s so big…” she said finally. All the analogies she could think of were things from her own world—dumptrucks, bulldozers, earthmoving equipment. The skull alone was broad enough to park a dozen cars on.
It did not seem right that something so large could be allowed to die.
The weasel stood atop Glorious’s skull and made small sounds of distress.
“I smell it too,” said Glorious.
Summer wiped at her nose. She knew that she couldn’t smell as well as the wolf and the weasel, but still, there was something in the air…something strange and moldy and foul…
“Like the wheat field,” said the weasel. “And the Frog Tree.”
Glorious nodded. “I have smelled it before.”
“But what is it?” asked Summer. Her eyes were prickling. She did not mind bones, generally, but there was something breathtakingly sad about the turtle skeleton, with the lonely marsh behind it and the killdeer’s cry echoing over its bones.
“Perhaps we shouldn’t discuss it here, eh?” said Reginald. “Don’t know what sort of chaps might be listening.” He looked nervous, which was so unusual for the hoopoe that it made Summer want to look over her shoulder. (She did. There was nothing but the road, and, far in the distance, Fen-town.)
Glorious shook his head. “This is safer than the forest,” he said. “We will see anything coming for a long way. But let us move a little from these bones. The smell burns my nostrils.”
They went down the causeway. Moss grew up the sides and over the edges of the stones. The moldy smell went away, and was replaced with more of the rotten fish smell.
At last, Glorious halted. He sat down and Summer slid off, though she kept her hand on his ruff, unwilling to let go entirely.
“So you, too, have smelled this before,” said Glorious, not to Summer but to the weasel.
The weasel flicked his ears and nodded. “Several times since we came to this world,” he said.
“I, too,” said Glorious. “And I have heard of more. My people speak of it sometimes. Always great things, great magics, collapsed and rotting in on themselves. Always a smell, like a burning anthill. Always immense and irreplaceable things that no hunter would have touched.”
“The cancer at the heart of the world,” said Summer, almost inaudibly, remembering what Boarskin had said. The words tasted strange on her tongue.
“Yes,” said Glorious. “Yes. Exactly. Whoever said that knew, Summer-cub. Something is doing this deliberately.”
“But why?” asked Summer, anguished. “Who would want to hurt the Frog Tree, or that poor turtle, or—or—a field of wheat?” She could just barely imagine a giant turtle stepping on something important, but it was hard to imagine anything less offensive than a wheat field.
“There are those who need no reasons.”
“Could it be Zultan?” asked Summer.
“Huh!” said Reginald. “The Tower of Dogs, maybe, an inn here and there, but he’ll cut his coat to fit his cloth in the conquest department. And that was all before I was born. Doubt he could muster an army now.”
“His power may be weakened,” said Glorious slowly, “but even my people know the name of the Queen-in-Chains.”
“It’s been years,” said Reginald. “She’s probably dead.”
Glorious ignored him, looking over his shoulder at the turtle skeleton. Summer could feel his breath going in and out, long and slow, his shoulderblades moving as he breathed.
“This is why she sent you, Summer-cub,” he said.
“I believe it to be so,” said Glorious. “I am sometimes wrong, but not often.”
“But what can I do?’ asked Summer. “I can’t bring any of them back! I can’t even stand up to Grub! This wasn’t my heart’s desire!”
Glorious shook his head. “I do not know,” he said. “But I smell her even under this. Like clean stone under rotten meat.”
He stood. Summer put a leg over his back and they began to walk again, while the turtle dwindled, becoming only another faded hillock in the marsh grass.
“What do we do?” asked Summer. The killdeer called and she felt the sound of it echo inside her chest, as if she were as hollowed out as the turtle’s shell.
“Let us find this Forester of the hoopoe’s,” said Glorious. “Perhaps she will know a little more.”