Chapter Nine

Getting out proved easier than getting in. There was a crack in the stone that was almost like a handhold, only visible from inside the cave, and even though Summer scraped her knuckles hauling herself up, she didn’t feel like she was in any danger of falling into the canyon.

Of Grub and the tracker and the mysterious Zultan Houndbreaker, there was no sign.

“We must be behind them now,” she said. “That’s better, right?”

“Probably,” said the weasel. “As long as they’re headed away from us, and there aren’t more of them. Oh, for an egg, or a nice fat mouse!”

Summer was not much interested in a mouse, fat or otherwise, but an egg sounded really good, particularly a hard-boiled one. She liked peeling them and trying to get as big a piece of eggshell flaked off as possible.

As there were neither eggs nor mice, she made her way to the road and kept walking.

The desert ended gradually, not all at once. The stubby little bushes became stubby little clumps of grass and then the clumps of grass grew together and got taller, and in an hour (or maybe two), the road ran alongside fields of golden wheat and swaying stalks of rye.

“Half a minute,” said the weasel, scurrying down her pant-leg. “If there’s not a mouse in this bank, I’ll eat my own tail.”

Summer shoved her hands in her pockets and leaned against a fence post. The cheese-sword banged against the wood.

There were no people in the fields. Presumably there had to be farmers somewhere, but all she could see were the long swells of grain, rippling in the wind. Little birds would rise out of the field, by twos and threes, and then settle back down again.

She looked around for something turquoise, but there was only the sky.

Maybe I’m on the wrong road. No, but I didn’t see anything…maybe I’m on the right road, and I’ll only see something turquoise if I need to change it…

Summer scowled down at the ground. Magic was complicated.

The weasel came back, licking his lips. “That’s better,” he said. “Are you sure you don’t want one? I might be able to rustle up another.”

“It’s okay,” said Summer, not wanting to think about how hungry she’d have to be to eat a mouse, or how soon she might get there. “If there’s fields, maybe there’s a farmhouse somewhere, and they’ll give us some lunch.”

“Unless that Grub-fellow got there first,” said the weasel.

Summer didn’t want to think about that.

They didn’t see any farmhouses. The only sign of life was a bird, a big bird, far off in the next field. It was black-and-white, with a tan head, and it was dancing by itself.

The road curved around the edge of the field, so they passed quite close by the dancing bird. Summer saw that it had an enormous orangey-tan crest and scaly gray legs.  It was wearing a black waistcoat around its midsection, with a scarlet handkerchief folded into the pocket.

It bounced and whirled, wings outstretched, and as they passed by, Summer heard:

“…and one and two and dip and turn…”

“It talks!” whispered Summer.

“I am giving you fair warning,” said the weasel. “The next time you say that, I shall nip you.”

“Sorry.”

The bird finished a turn, bowed deeply to an imaginary partner—it was a very extravagant bow, and made much use of its striped black-and-white wings—and then approached the fence.  In addition to the waistcoat, it had an elaborately knotted neckcloth and a pair of spats. “Yes?” it said. “May I help you?”

“Um,” said Summer. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to interrupt—”

“You’re not interrupting,” said the bird. “I finished the set. It’s not good enough, but it’ll do for now, since my brain’s gone all to collywobbles and I shan’t get any better at it today. Reginald Hoopoe, of the Almondgrove Hoopoes, at your service.” He stood on one foot and stuck his other foot out toward her.

Summer reached down—she had to reach rather far, since Reginald only came up to her waist—and shook the gray foot tentatively. He had large black claws and his toes felt like twigs.

“I’m Summer,” she said.

“Not a bad name,” said Reginald Hoopoe. “Full of seasonal significance. But rather short, don’t you think? Have you considered adding a surname or five?”

“I don’t have even one name,” said the weasel, nodding down to Reginald. “You don’t happen to have an egg about you, do you? No offense intended, it’s just, you being a bird and all—”

“None taken,” said Reginald. “But no, I don’t, and if I had I wouldn’t give it to you. No desire to be disaccommodating, but a fellow can’t go handing his unborn children out to anyone that asks, now can he?”

The weasel sighed and looked put upon, even though Summer thought Reginald had a very good point.

“Please,” said Summer, “do you know if there’s a farmhouse, or—or a restaurant around here? I don’t have any money, but maybe I could—um—wash dishes?” She had read in books that sometimes you could wash dishes and pay for a meal that way, although she didn’t like washing dishes any more than the average eleven-year-old and they would probably have to find her a stepstool to stand on to reach all the way into the sink.

“There are no restaurants,” said Reginald. “Nor are there farmhouses, dear me, no. This is hundred-year-wheat, and you check on it once a decade or so, as I understand it, though I might be wrong. I am a middling dancer and highly skilled with cards, but as a farmer, I am strictly bottom-drawer.”

“Hundred-year-wheat?” asked Summer.

“The primary ingredient in Croissant of Ages, which is sweetened with nectar from the century plant.” He looked expectant. “You know it?”

“Um. No? I’m sure it’s very good…” said Summer doubtfully, who didn’t think that anything a hundred years old would taste nice at all.

“It’s dreadful, actually,” said Reginald cheerfully, hopping to the highest fencepost. This put him on eye-level with Summer. “Only good for the sort of parties where members of the finest families throw around the blunt.”

Summer felt lost.

“Display the scratch.”

“Err?”

“Money,” said Reginald patiently. “They show off their money.”

“Oh!” That didn’t sound very nice to Summer. Her family wasn’t poor—her mother was very clear about the fact that they were middle-class, thank you very much, and would have gotten very angry if anybody said differently—but they weren’t rich either. You knew the rich kids at school, because they had better calculators and clothes with designer labels on them.

“But if you’re hungry,” said Reginald, “it might be, may be, could be that I’ve got a bit of tucker put away for just such an occasion.”

“Oh, do you?” asked Summer gratefully. “I’m very hungry. It’s been a long time since the cheese this morning, and—I suppose I could wash dishes—or—err—something?”

“Not at all,” said Reginald gallantly. “Duty of a Hoopoe. Can’t leave a young lass wandering about in distress, even one a bit short of feathers.”

Summer knew that you were not supposed to take food from strangers, although mostly that was candy and she really would have preferred a sandwich to candy right now (strange as that was!) and anyway, when people at school talked about “strangers” they almost certainly were not talking about two-foot-tall talking birds.

And she’d already had strange cheese and stew made by shapechangers.

“Hang on,” said the weasel, arching his whiskers forward. “If there are no farmhouses and no restaurants and you’re not interested in the wheat, what are you doing out here?”

“A capital question!” said Reginald. “Fair, absolutely fair. I am, in fact, a trifle cleaned out, and so I’m rusticating.”

Summer and the weasel exchanged puzzled glances.

“I have outrun the bailiff, and now my pockets are to let.”

“Um?” said Summer.

Reginald sighed. “I spent all my money and now my bills are due and I can’t pay them, so I pawned my gold watch-spurs and went out in the country where they won’t follow me.”

He began walking along the top fence rail. Summer and the weasel followed.

“That sounds awful,” said Summer.

Reginald shrugged his wings. “It’s not so bad. Happens to all of us, sooner or later, unless we’re as rich as Golden Egg. Hardly a season goes by that it’s not low-water with me somewhere or other, but I always come about.”

Reginald’s “bit of tucker” was actually a rather large set of packs, dropped under a tree. The tree itself was about twenty feet from an old-fashioned pump with a handle that went up and down. Summer recognized it from pictures, and after sawing on the handle for a few minutes, she managed to coax some water out of it.

She thought it must be for watering the wheat, but Reginald shook his head. “There’s pumps and waystations all over the empire. The dogs set them up, oh so many ages ago, and even though they’re long gone, you still find the pumps along the major roads.”

Summer wasn’t sure what dogs he was talking about, but presumably if weasels talked and birds talked, dogs could also talk and set up pumps. She wondered if there were any creatures around that didn’t talk, and whether that made it awkward at mealtimes.

“Come on, then,” said Reginald cheerfully. “You must be fair gut-foundered.”

He opened his packs—he used his feet, she saw, and his beak, not his wings—and produced, as if by magic, a loaf of bread, a small pot of jam, several slabs of cheese in wax paper and a sausage.

“Oh, thank you,” said Summer, sinking down into the dust under the tree.
Between the three of them, they made a very good meal.

“Now, then…” said Reginald, leaning back and picking at his beak with a talon. “I know why I’m out here—dibs not in tune, as I said!—but what are you doing here?”

“Oh,” said Summer. She glanced at the weasel. The weasel shrugged. This wasn’t helpful. Still, Reginald seemed very nice, even if he spoke a little oddly. “I, uh, came here on accident.” She hesitated. “Baba Yaga sent me.”

Reginald sat bolt upright, his crest raising like a paper fan unfolding. “Baba Yaga? The prime article?”

“Yes?”

“Huh!” He lowered his crest again thoughtfully. “Did she, now? Kicking up some kind of lark with the powers that be, is she?” He eyed Summer thoughtfully. “Well, I’d say it was all a bag of moonshine, but…no, p’raps I can see it.” He tapped his beak. “So what does she have you doing, if I may be so bold?”

“I don’t know,” said Summer gloomily. “She didn’t tell me to do anything. Well, to take the weasel, but—”

“I don’t know either,” said the weasel hurriedly.

“—and my path is supposed to be marked in turquoise—at least, that’s what the Wheymaster said—but I haven’t seen anything turquoise for hours, so I don’t know if I’m on the right path. I just wanted to help the Frog Tree, and maybe find my heart’s desire, but I didn’t expect all this walking. And this awful person named Grub and somebody named Zultan were trying to find me, and I had to hide—”

“Zultan Houndbreaker!” Reginald’s crest went up and down like a bellows for a minute, and his pupils expanded until his eyes were a thin ring of gold around a well of black. “The Queen’s general!?”

Summer wrapped her arms around herself and said, “I don’t know.” She felt a little like crying, despite having eaten, except that she thought the weasel might say something sarcastic if she did.

“Bad blood, those people,” said the hoopoe. “Very bad. Whatever they want with you…” He fluffed up all his feathers, until he looked twice his size, then shook them all down again. “Brr!”

“I haven’t done anything,” said Summer, feeling a tear leaking out despite her best efforts. “I haven’t. I don’t know any of these people, and Grub hit the Wheymaster and he was only helping me and I don’t know why!”

Another tear squeezed out. The weasel arched his back like a very small cat and rubbed against her cheek.

“Here now,” said Reginald, clearly upset, “none of that, no need to turn on the waterworks! I’m not going to cry rope on you to any of the Queen’s men. Word of a Hoopoe.”

Summer scrubbed at her eyes with her wrist, feeling embarrassed.

“Let me think,” said Reginald. He put his wings up to his head and bounced from foot to foot. “Let me think, let me think. Oh yes! I tell you what, Summer-who-needs-a-surname, why don’t I take you to my father?”

“Your father?” asked Summer, sniffling.

“Yes! Just the chap we need!” Reginald bounced up and down. “Slap up to the echo, he is, up to all the tricks—err—that is, very smart, very wise. If you’re in the suds, he’s the best bird you could talk to.” He beamed at her.

“Will he help me?” asked Summer.

“Oh, yes. Head of the household, you know, an Almondgrove Hoopoe down to his pinfeathers. Wouldn’t dream of leaving a little lass to be chased about by Queen’s men. Not a Loyalist, you know.” Reginald gave her what was probably meant to be a reassuring pat, but since he could only reach as high as her knee, was more of a tap.

“Well, okay,” said Summer, after a quick look around for any unusual turquoise insects or lizards. Reginald’s plan seemed at least as good as just walking along the road until she ran into Grub or something worse.

“Right!” said the hoopoe. “We’ll leave at once. When Father realizes why I’ve come back early, he’ll probably help me raise the wind anyhow—”

He cast a brief look at Summer and amended it to “He’ll give me some money to pay down my debts.”

“That would be nice of him,” said Summer politely.

Reginald clapped his beak together, making a hollow clacking noise, and a dozen small birds dropped out of the boughs of the tree. They were slightly larger than finches and each one wore a small round bowler hat on its head.

“My valet-flock,” Reginald explained. “Lads, this is Summer.”

The valet-birds lined up on the ground, and each one took the hat off the next bird in line with its beak. In unison, they all bowed to Summer.

“It’s very nice to meet you,” said Summer, who thought that she was probably supposed to curtsey but had never learned how. She bowed instead. The little birds put each other’s hats back on.

“Do they talk?’ asked Summer in a whisper. The weasel sighed.

“Talk! Lord, no. They’re—uh—hang on, it’ll come to me in a minute—flock-mind. You know?”

Summer shook her head.

“Ah. They’re all smarter together than they are apart. Great chaps for taking care of a person’s feathers and pressing his clothes and handling the luggage. Not talking smart, though—although if you pick the wrong color waistcoat, such looks! They’ve got ways of letting you know what they think, don’t you doubt it!”

The valet-flock settled on Reginald’s packs, grabbing multiple small straps in their claws. On some unspoken signal they all took off together, lifting the packs into the air.

“Right!” said Reginald cheerfully. “Let’s go!”

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