I was on break from window-dumplinging, sitting on an overturned pan in the kitchen and chatting on with the dishwashers about their plans to leave Gumdash and win their fortune as prostitute (Lengy-mar) and carpenters (Ducky and Mastodon) on some smaller bridge. Lengy-mar had just gotten Mastodon to consider becoming a prostitute too if the carpentry didn't work out, when Topol hopped into the kitchen.
“Tllith, there's a peculiar toad at the door. Says he's betrayed you and needs to give you a warning.”
I blinked my middle-head's eye at them. (I can't blink the others nearly as loudly.) “What? It's got to be Vong.”
"Vong, Stong, Bing or Bong, he's a peculiar toad," said Topol. "Go talk to him. Get him to a table. The skinned caterpillar custard is particularly good today, if I do say so myself. He's big enough to want two servings."
So I waddled out to confront Vong.
"Tllith!! Oh, I have betrayed you!!" cried Vong, loud enough to get everyone in the Tovern listening to him.
I peered up at him and blinked fourteen eyes cutely. "The last I heard, your relationship with us was not really the sort of one in which betrayal was possible. You and Hditr never seemed very friendly."
"Bah!! Hditr is a golem concocted from the spittle of elephants and the scattle of wildebeestes!! Eric is an ephemeral water-louse!! You – at least you have some manners in one of your heads!! You are an innocent child!! It is to you I come with a warning that you are betrayed!! By me!!"
"Well, sit down, have a caterpillar custard, and tell me all about it," I said, because I am a very efficient shill.
"Bah!! Caterpillar custard!! I despise the texture of fuzzy caterpillar skins in my gorge!! Know you not that they harden and become as leather or seaweed when they are cooked? Vile stuff!! I shall have the locust remoulade!!"
I pounced! "But, Vong! This is is skinned caterpillar custard! Try it!"
"Ah, skinned!! Devoid of the cour-bouilli skins!! I shall indeed!! But let it be brought quickly!! For I have a dire warning to give to you!!" cried Vong.
I beckoned to the badger Tharkov, whose table-tending domain this was, and warbled, "A hoppy-sauce and a cat-cuss for the honorable toad! And my usual." My usual was a demitasse of broth sprinkled with whatever spices the chef felt most amusing. «Cuisine» would fix it for me if it was unendurable, which it was more often than not.
"Ah, both?? I had not intended… Ah, well, a pair of worthy comestables, if such they prove to be and should they come swiftly, shall not be wholly wasted upon my gullet!!" I grinned to myself; Topol would be pleased.
"What were you going to warn me about?" I asked remindfully, or reminded askfully, I'm still not sure which.
"Ah!! The betrayal!! You shall know all!! Know, O tricephalous lizard, that when I chose to ascend myself to Norshub, that I was instantly befriended by the great dragon Xshaothshash Shuutsu Vrisoash himself!! It is said that a true dragon can recognize true quality, as by some such mechanism as you can recognize true scripture!!" (I can't recognize true scripture.) "The great beast placed me under his personal protection!! Alone, in a strange place – for no place is stranger than Ixange, with its crazed variety of technology and mix of species – this protection was invaluable!! Over the weeks he warded off seventeen several menaces to my physical and moral well-being!! Yet, for all his might and awareness, he was sadly unaware of – the truth!!!! The Precepts of Doip-Mungee!! I revealed them to him, and so became his most trusted and intimate advisor!! For know that I bear the rank of 'Mayor' even though I am currently in exile!!!!"
(I'm simply writing down what Vong said here. He might be wrong about Xshaothshash's degree of trust in him. Or lying. He does both of those.)
The toad continued, "But then – Disaster!! The dragon chanced to ask how I came to be in Ixange rather than attending to my mayoral superiorities upon Drullguur!! I mentioned the story of my betrayal by those miners, who were doubtless exiled forth from their seminaries for stenchful blasphemous heresies!! I mentioned your part in the matter, and Hditr's and Eric's as well!! And behold, the monster scowled, and frowned himself, and admitted that Hditr had the temerity to defy him and flee from him without giving him the slightest sort of emolument!! Knowing her name, and having a detailed description of her appearance and habits such as I could provide, he could send his agents to find her and punish her!! This is all very well and proper!! But then Xshaothshash said, 'And crush that tiny lizard as well.' Shall I stand by and see you destroyed!! No!! Instantly into the swiftest action I hopped!!" His skinned caterpillar custard arrived, and instantly into eating it he hopped, with evident relish. Topol knows his toad cuisine.
"Agents? What sort of agents should I be hiding from?"
"Four humans – Irontrias, Spunglemarr, Softbelt the strangler, and Henderloch whose very hair is a deadly poison!!"
"I can remember those names, but what if the agents accidentally forget to introduce themselves before crushing me?"
"Why – !!"
"Scant worry of that," said a bulbous and thoroughly-thewed human garbed in thick green leather waiting for a table. "I am Isnobon Isclargio Irontrias, at your service. Or, to be more specific, at the service of Xshaothshash."
"You – Irontrias??" said an astounded Vong.
"What, Vong? Do you expect me to push a stupid sweets-cart in Norshub forever? Xshaothshash is going to be more than a mere market brute and crude extortionist — far more! — and I aim to be his right-claw man. And I'm going to start the job by thrashing a disobedient toad and a defiant lizard."
Vong puffed up in indignation. "What?? You shall not lay a finger upon me!! I am a mayor and thus sacred, and a dear friend of Xshaothshash besides!!"
"Nobody believes that mayor crap but you. And you aren't so much a 'dear friend' of Xshaothshash as you are 'one of the current crop of marks'. You were never more than a plaything and practice-dummy, and now I'm going to practice my toad-breaking on you." Irontrias extracted a length of steel from a sheath, and wrapped its leather loop around its wrist. "Meet the Iron of Irontrias. You're going to have a long and intimate encounter."
Topol hopped over. "I forbid all violence in this Tovern, especially to customers who have ordered expensive meals and who are likely to skip out on their checks if slain or rendered comatose."
Irontrias stood, and swung his Iron in a circle. It whistled.
Topol whistled too. He had trained us in this whistle. It meant "A fight is about to start; come and do battle!" Not everyone could do much, of course, but three of the waiters were quite brawny and quite present, and four scullions and sous-chefs poured from the kitchen armed with meat tenderizers and cleavers. I hopped on a chair, surrounded my left head with its lightning cage, and breathed a middle-head jet of fire in Irontrias' general direction.
Irontrias pouted. "Two of you would be no challenge for me. At three I must slightly exert myself. Four would make for an enjoyable exercise session, and against five I start to pay attention to the possibility of defeat. At six, the odds are more or less even. When I triumph over seven, which has happened several times, I commission a commemorative ode for myself. When eight foes are brought against me, I begin to suspect the bringer of cowardice. At nine, the suspicion becomes a certainty. Nobody before has ever been such a feeble slug-piglet as to bring ten foes against me. I shall withdraw now. Not because I fear you, individually or collectively, in the slightest atomie. Rather, it is because I should feel dishonored to engage in a struggle of such vile and feeble vermules as yourselves."
He turned and strode towards the door of the Tovern. Billygraff rushed after him, and the instant he stepped over the threshold, struck him a mighty blow with a rolling pin upon the head. The pin cracked. Irontrias simply frowned slightly at the impact, and tapped his rod lightly against Billygraff's knee. Billygraff fell to the ground, wailed in pain once or twice, and then fainted. Irontrias curtsied politely. "The imbalance has been reduced to nine-to-one. It has been proven: you are all cowards and weaklings, and, in many cases, we shall meet again and I shall prove it."
Topol hopped over to inspect Billygraff's knee. "Shattered. Oh, by the vulgarity of the crompets! I shall be down two of my excellent employees!"
I rushed to Billygraph, and breathed cold upon his knee to help out some. "Two?"
"Billygraph is going to be out until he can walk, and you need to flee away from those ruffians, Tllith," said Topol. "Can't protect you outside the Tovern, can I?"