'They're going to kill her!'
'Get them off! Get them off!' Fleur's voice rose to a shriek that made the glassware quiver.
She picked up a misty red candle-lamp in the shape of a tulip. 'Can't we just burn them off?'
The hermaphrodite in attendance grabbed her wrist.
'No! They'll vomit their stomach contents into her and infect her.'
Hart glared down his aquiline nose.
'And how – precisely – is that worse than death? Do it, lackwit!'
'I know a solution to that.'
Fleur leaned over the table with an air of conspiracy. The cups and candlesticks rattled together as it wobbled on its odd legs.
She had come into the garret just as I'd been complaining to Hart for the fourteen-and-a-halfth time that Professor Threetower wouldn't give me an extension on my essay. Again.
'I know a solution to that. It'll cost, though.'
'Oh, gods! You don't mean the Time Souks?' San spoke from the bed, where she was lying on her back, reading a book of mathematics.
Fleur was like a hound on the scent.
'Have you been? What are they like? Do they have them in your country?'
San snorted and turned a page.
'You won't get anything out of her,' said Hart.
I knew this to be true since, at the start of term, Hart and I had spent a full afternoon asking about San's country. All she'd divulged was that it rained more in springtime than here, and that the circular tattoo on her head (which Hart said looked like a Seal of Office) was 'traditional'.
I scowled at Fleur over my empty cup.
'Time Souks? Never heard of them.'
'Oh, come on, Anville.' Hart emptied his cup. 'Gods, this coffee is awful! You must have. Half the Court's in there after dark. Lying on velvet couches, sipping iced sherbet.'
'Being fanned by bearded ladies,' said Fleur.
'Bearded... What's that got to do with my extension?'
Hart patted my arm, 'Anville, you are so charmingly naïve. If time hangs heavy on you, they suck a bit out of you. No more clock-watching. And if you feel time rushing by too quickly...'
'Say, towards a deadline,' Fleur added.
'They give you the extracted moments to ingest.' Hart spread his hands. 'I'm up for it. I'm sure I could press the old man for a bit more tin. Fleur?'
'Absolutely!' Fleur grinned. 'Anville? Come on, we're doing this for you.'
'I'm a bit short on...' I mumbled into my cup.
'I'll pay you in.'
We all turned and stared at San. She raised an eyebrow. 'Why not ?' She waved her book at us. 'In the name of empiricism. I'd like to test a theory.'
'Leeches!' I shuddered at the crispy black things lying in the leaf-shaped dish. 'You never said anything about eating leeches.'
I glared at Fleur, who lay in the hammock opposite mine. Between us, a tall, thin table with a fraying metallic cloth supported the offending invertebrates. What Hart had omitted from his tales of decadent glamour, was that velvet couches and fan-slaves were reserved for the aristocracy. And that Draining and Gaining (as the white-faced, black-lipped girl in the foyer had named the treatments on offer) took place in different chambers. So while the Honourable Hart-Couchant and his tattooed foreign guest were having their tedious fast-day afternoons removed while being fed grapes by beautiful hermaphrodites, we were being served crispy leeches by a dwarf with a brass nose.
'Time Leeches,' the dwarf insisted. 'Fresh from today's Draining and cooked to perfection in liquorice sauce.' He smacked his lips. 'Delicious!'
I held my leech up to the lantern that swung on chains above my head.
'You mean this could have been sucking on Hart's bottom?' I grimaced.
'All Draining is done from the crook of the arm,' the Dwarf assured us.
'Oh, well. Here goes.'
I popped the leech in my mouth and chewed. Despite looking like a cat dropping, it tasted sweet and chewy.
'How soon does it work?' I said, after swallowing.
The dwarf scratched his brass nose.
'A matter of minutes generally, depending on the quality of the feed. I suggest you lie back and breathe deeply until you get used to it. Many people liken the sensation of Slowed Time to being underwater.' He took the empty dish. 'A drink while you wait?'
'I don't feel any different. Do you feel any different, Fleur?'
I had counted to at least a thousand. The dwarf had been in and out with two drinks I hadn't wanted to pay for, but Fleur had insisted we live a little.
'Nothing's slowing, Fleur. Is it for you?'
'No. Yes. I don't know. Maybe it doesn't feel like he said. The dwarf, I mean. Maybe it's different for different people.'
'Maybe it's a con!' I struggled out of the hammock. ‘Fifty gold to eat leeches. Gods! I can't believe I fell for it.'
'It's not even your money.' Fleur sipped her drink. 'Maybe I should have another one?'
'No way!' I finally gained the floor with a reasonable amount of dignity. I'm going to Hart and San right now and telling them to demand our money back.' I opened the door to the staircase.
'You can't ask for money back in a Time Souk.' Fleur scrambled out of her hammock after me. 'They probably have assassins who follow you home with sword sticks and...'
'I don't care!' I said, strutting towards the aristocratic chambers.
The hermaphrodite on the door wouldn't let us in.
'Madame Lacey's Time Souk has strict rules regarding the preservation of class distinction. One. No one beneath the rank of chevalier is to set foot on the third floor. Two... '
The recitation was cut short by Hart's voice from within.
'Stop it! You're going to kill her. No more, I say!'
I pushed the hermaphrodite aside and flung open the door.
'Ugh, look at San!' Fleur shrieked. 'She's completely covered in leeches!'
'I'm fine,' said San, as the two hermaphrodites scrabbled around, trying to salvage the burnt leeches. 'Really. You needn't have bothered.'
'I don't see how you can be.' Hart was leaning heavily on a statue of some foreign goddess covered in grapevines. His skin was a greyish colour and he looked as though he wanted to be sick.
'Yes, well. I'm not the one who chickened out as soon as he saw the size of the leeches.'
'Oh, Hart! You didn't?' Fleur giggled from the crimson chaise-longue.
The first hermaphrodite looked up from the carpet and scowled. Their companion hurried over and deposited the last of the charred leeches in an amber dish. With another backwards frown, the two of them disappeared down the stairwell.
'No fun for them when they find out they're serving up a big dish of duds,' said San. 'I hope it sends them out of business. Come on, let's go home.'
We hurried down the spiral staircase, Hart panting at the back of the party.
'Hang on. What do you mean “duds”? Can't you chaps slow up a bit?'
San shrugged.'Infinity minus one is infinity, right? You can't add to it or subtract from it. So, you can't leach time from an immortal. It's a mathematical impossibility.'
'What??' Fleur stopped dead on the bottom step. We all bumped into each other. She opened and shut her mouth, forehead crinkled like the beach at low tide. 'San, are you saying that you're immortal? How? What?'
San tapped the indigo circle on her forehead. 'It's not a tattoo. In my country, about one person per generation is born like this. Can't speed up time, can't slow it down. You're just stuck with eternity.'
Fleur opened and shut her mouth like a fish.
'So you're like...a god or something?'
San gave Fleur her most sarcastic look.
'Oh, yes. Gods often live in rented garets with shutters that blow off down the street when it's windy,' she snorted. 'And we prefer the name Struldbrugs.'
We staggered out into the street. Despite the aroma of rotting cabbage, I'd never been so glad to breathe the free air. I pushed down the thought of the perfectly time-free leech now making its way through my gut. A journey even less appealing than my return to Professor Threetower's rooms in the morning.
'So that's the theory you were testing, San?' Hart looked slightly less grey beneath the street lamps. He'd probably feel better after a cup of hot milk and a good night's sleep. 'In the name of empiricism. Infinity minus one equals infinity?'
'No, I was testing: “Roommates plus Time Souks equals stupidity”, but your suggestion will do just as well.'
She winked at me.
'You can put that in your essay.'
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