Basil Turret remembered the day that he had been told that he could do magic.
He had been five and a half, and sitting in the front row of his class at the local village school; the “Tumnia Teaching Academy,” as it was officially known. The teacher was the local wizard, and was dressed in the appropriate flowing robes. He was appraising the class, inspecting them, walking up and down, when abruptly, he stopped at Basil. He knelt down, looked him in the eyes, and said four words which utterly failed to change Basil's life,
“You can do magic.”
Basil was completely unimpressed, because he had seen the wizard do this to five of the other students in the class so far. It was supposed to be inspirational, he guessed, but after you realise you're only as unique as everyone else in the world, it starts to lose its appeal.
But the wizard was clearly looking for some kind of reaction, and so Basil gasped, just as the previous five kids had, and just as the other six kids in the class most likely would. Basil had quickly caught onto to the habit of reacting as other people wanted you to, even by the age of five and a half.
And so, magical lessons had commenced. The Wizard was known as Professor Moraceae when they were in class, “Waldner the Wizard” when they were out of class, and “Sir” when they wanted a favour.
Of course, everyone in the village could do magic. As common as walking and just as essential, magic was a vital part of everyday life, used for everything from lighting fires to moving particularly heavy objects to watering the crops.
But wizards did more than just use magic, they studied it, absorbed it – they believed that magic should take risks, and be experimental. And they were generally chosen to be the one to teach the next generation to do magic.
And so, Basil, along with the other eleven five-year olds in his village class had started to learn magic. Basil hadn't been particularly good at magic, nor had he been particularly bad. Occasionally, he felt like Professor Moraceae was watching him. Nothing concrete, just the occasional glance; Basil would turn around and find Professor Moraceae looking at him, even though he was working with another student. But youngsters aren't naturally suspicious beasts, so Basil never thought too much about the occasional stray look.
So while Basil would always remember the day he had been told he could do magic, it hadn't been a huge deal. Every Human could do magic; they weren't as good at it as the Fairies, the Angels or the Elves, but they were slightly better than the Gnomes, and far superior to Dwarves, Ogres or Orcs. (most Dwarves were pirates, and thus didn't even bother with magic, but a fair number of the small bearded people were miners, who found that magic came in very handy when it came to preventing mines from collapsing, or detecting the location of gold, silver, or zim (a metal worth more than ten times its weight in gold or silver.)
Basil's village was in the small, Human town of Tumnia. With a population of less than one thousand, it was the sort of village where everyone knew each other, and if you were short of gold, you could probably barter your services until business picked up: the baker would trade some cakes to the butcher for meat, or Waldner the Wizard would magically reinforce the librarian's roof, in exchange for some blank scrolls.
It wasn't the most open-minded town. Located in the province of Big Fort, it had been under Ogre occupation during the Human-Ogre war just a few generations past, and as a result, the populus was naturally distrustful of any races other than Human. There was a statue up in the middle of the city, celebrating the glorious (eventual) victory of Human over ogre. Basil never understood why there was an Elf being shown stabbed in the middle; they hadn't actually been involved in the war at all, deciding to take a neutral state. (Elves were constantly cautious of their Human neighbours, possibly due to their habit of periodically declaring war on whichever country they felt like fighting with that day.)
Tumnia was 320k south from the capital of Big Fort, the city of Vind; an 8-day walk on foot, or 5 days by cart. Few citizens had reason to travel to Vind, and so the village was fairly self-contained. Tumnia was close enough to the ocean to be considered a coastal town, and as the current ran from Vind, the village would regularly get trade and news from the capital without the expense of sending traders up there themselves.
It was the dream of most of the village children to, when they grew up, move to the “Big city”, but past generations showed that most of them would stay in Tumnia, and take over the family trade. Waldner the Wizard had no children, and so unless someone from the village school showed exceptional magical ability, a wizard would have to be persuaded to move to Tumnia after he died, else the next generation of children would have no one training them.
As Basil grew up, his magical ability improved. It wasn't something that came naturally to him, but as he wasn't considering a career in wizardry or sorcery, it didn't really need to. He certainly had no ambition to take over Professor Moraceae's role. In fact, Basil had very little ambition at all. While the other children in his class played at being a butcher, or a baker, or a librarian, or a vampire hunter, Basil was quite content to simply sit there and watch them play.
His looks didn't change dramatically over the years – as a five year-old, he was a slight boy, with perpetually brushed, neat blond hair, and grey eyes which a lot of people found unnerving, with their habit of perpetually watching. As an eleven year-old, he had the same characteristics, with the watching more pronounced; as the rest of his classmates ran around yelling, the boys trying to catch and kiss the girls, and the girls pretending they didn't want to be caught, Basil was noticeable as the one sitting down on the bench, observing who liked to be kissed by who, and which boy was the best at kissing the girls. (based on a simple kiss to slap ratio - Basil found it easy to calculate, despite not knowing the word 'ratio'.)
The day that Basil had discovered he had done magic, eleven other people in his class had discovered the same thing (if they hadn't already known; it was hardly a secret.) as well as hundreds of others all over the country. Everyone could do magic.
No, it was when Basil had discovered he could do maths. That was the day that had changed his life.
Eleven years previous to the day that actually transformed Basil's life, his parents had been sitting at home quietly by the fireside. The Turrets were hard-working citizens. Basil's father, Timmy, was a lumberjack – it wasn't the most challenging of jobs, but people needed wood for their fires, and Timmy liked being out in the open. He was a big, beefy man, who had once been sat down by his father and told that every good lumberjack needed a strong, manly moustache.
Unfortunately for Timmy, he was doomed to disappoint his father - despite being an excellent lumberjack, he had almost no moustache (though he did have a very large neck.)
Timmy's wife, Tabatha Turret, was thin and blonde, and in contrast, had almost no neck; a fact that she tried to disguise by wearing scarves and necklaces - as many as she could, whenever she could. She was currently sitting by the fireside, threading herself a lovely new vibrantly yellow necklace, watching as her husband poked the fire and held one hand up near his face to protect his wispy moustache from any stray sparks.
The Turrets had already put their son, Basil, to bed. He was the grand old age of six months old, and in their opinion, there was no finer boy anywhere. This was a problem to them – Timmy, being a big beefy man, had expected a big, beefy son, and Basil was literally a fine boy: his arms were thin as pencils, and despite their best efforts to feed him up, he refused to gain weight.
Not that they'd ever say anything, of course (they did love their son) but they were actually quite disappointed in their son in general. Timmy had expected a son with a bit more meat on him, and Tabatha, against all odds (both herself and her husband were of the light-haired persuasion) had wanted a son with black hair.
Additionally (and they realised by judging him at the ripe old age of less than a year old they were being a tiny bit hasty) he didn't seem to be interested in any of the things that they were interested in.
Timmy had spent the better part of an afternoon a few weeks ago trying to teach Basil how to cut down trees, using a wooden knife and a pile of rocks, but Basil had seemed more interested in sitting there and watching him cavort around in explanation, and had then carefully sorted the rocks by size.
And though she wasn't the type to be jealous, especially not of someone who had emerged from her own body, Tabatha couldn't notice that Basil took after his father in the neck department. Not that this was a bad thing, she quickly assured herself, she loved Timmy's neck, and she was sure Basil would grow into his as well. It just would have been nice if she had someone with similar problems in the neck department, someone she could share scarves with, and discuss techniques to disguise the fact that they were jugularly challenged.
Tabatha Turret spent far too much time thinking about her neck.
But the Turrets were unable to have another child, and so as there was no one else they could shower their love and affection on, they were committed. Basil would be the attention of their affections, as much as they would have preferred a larger child with less neck, and a strong interest in chopping down trees.
Above the fire, there was a portrait of the family – Timmy, angling himself to show as much of his moustache as he could, Tabatha trying desperately to emphasize her neck, and Basil, almost ignored between them, looking like he was being crushed by a giant beach ball*. The portrait had cost them almost a full week's wages, however it brightened up the room, and if for some reason you were standing in the Turret's living room without ever having met them, you might somehow think that Timmy's moustache was thick and luxurious, and that Tabatha's neck was of giraffe-like proportions.
*beach balls, of course, are made of amber: a cheap metal which conveniently floats on water. The Turrets had bought the (rather heavy) beach ball because they'd expected a son who was more capable of carrying it, instead of the smaller son they had ended up with. Somehow, their attempts to paint it bright pink and blue (instead of amber's natural rusty orange) made it look even less cheerful than it did beforehand, an effect highlighted by the fact that it was crushing a small child
Essentially, the portrait had two purposes - to make Tabatha and Timmy feel better about themselves, and to impress burglars.
The Turrets sat in comfortable almost-silence, with the wood occasionally crackling in time to the sound of Tabatha threading. The silence had a sort of rhythm, and neither Tabatha nor Timmy felt like disturbing it with conversation. Over dinner, as Tabatha (at Timmy's request) had tried to make Basil eat roughly his weight in meat, they had already discussed the events of the day, and while they'd both be turning into bed later, this was the part of the day that they both looked forward to; the comfort of their wooden chairs, the warmth of the fire, and the silence, with a rhythm you could sing along to.
And so it came as a surprise to both of them when the silence was broken by a knock at the door. Rudely, the knock didn't even share the rhythm of the silence, cutting across it like a wooden knife across amber. (amber is so cheap and pliable that in its usual thin state, it bends when confronted with a pillow.)
Had the Turrets been at all mathematically inclined, they would have noticed that there were six knocks, perfectly timed to match up with the first six numbers of the El Yograg Sequence. This sequence has many uses in obscure mathematics, however is most commonly used for the holes punched on the outside of wedding invitations, due to its asthetically pleasing nature. The knock was used on the Turrets door for two reasons; firstly, if any mathematicians were lurking within the house, they would almost certainly be unable to resist completing the sequence with another two knocks. Secondly, it was mathematically proven to convey the exact right level of urgency required for the situation.
The Turrets were not mathematical, however, and so all that the knocks conveyed to them was that their quiet night by the fire had been disturbed, and it somehow seemed urgent.
Timmy, being a lumberjack, always had a regular supply of wood around the house, and so it wasn't unusual for other villagers to pop by and barter some from him, although it was rare for them to do so this late at night. Additionally, he had gone through the training that all lumberjacks had to go through, that of basic fire safety. (if lumberjacks were going to provide the fuel for a fire, they were considered at least partially responsible for the upbringing of said fire, and so if it got too big for its britches, it was their job to bring it down to size.)
And so, while Tabatha got up to answer the door, Timmy was already up, and reaching for his fire prevention kit. His father, “Old Larkins” Turret, had put out so many fires in his time that he had become paranoid about them.
“I'm not having one in the house!”, he had been heard to say on many occasions. He wouldn't even allow scented candles, exclaiming “I don't want to end up having to stamp out that dangerous incense!”
The lack of household fire in Timmy's youth had made him crave one, and so as an adult, there was almost always a fire blazing.
At the door, however, Tabatha did not find a panicked citizen with singed eyebrows. Instead, she found a man wearing unusual clothes, and carrying what, on first glance, appeared to be a beach-ball.
“Hello,” the man said. “My name is Mr Bee. May I come in?”
Tabatha merely nodded, and when the man made no move, quietly replied in the affirmative. Mr Bee was dressed, not in the brightly coloured robes of a normal person, but in a most unusual garb - a dark grey suit and tie. He didn't have a hair out of place, and his brown beard was neatly trimmed. As Tabatha moved aside to let Mr Bee in, she thought she spotted an ogre and a similarly-attired lady outside, but when she blinked, they were gone, and she wasn't sure that they'd been there in the first place.
Besides, an ogre would surely know better than to come to Tumnia. There were plenty of people whose ancestors had fought against them in the war, and the scars from The Battle of Tumnia Creek had not yet healed.
Timmy Turret, fire-fighting gear in hand, stopped short when he saw Mr Bee standing there impeccably. His eyes flickered briefly to the man's neatly-kept moustache, past the fellow's strange attire, and settled on the large package he seemed to be carrying.
“What's all this then?” Timmy inquired, slightly brusquely.
“I do apologise for disturbing you at this time of night,” Mr Bee said, with a slight nod of his head. “But I come with a matter of some urgency.”
“It's no problem, really,” Tabatha replied, and was about to offer the stranger a drink, when her husband cut her off.
“What's that then? What've you got there?”
“This,” Mr Bee said with a flourish, “is your nephew.”
Timmy Turret was a Tumnia boy, born and bred, but Tabatha's family were from a city further down the coast, Tiverp. Tabatha's parents had died some years previously, but her sister Rose still lived there, as far as she was aware, with her husband and son, just over 3 days walk away.
“Cuthbert?” Tabatha asked. “Why is he here?”
“I regret,” Mr Bee said, with a sadness that didn't seem to come naturally to him, “to inform you that your sister and her husband have been killed.”
“Killed!?” Timmy asked, incredulous. He'd only met Tabatha's sister twice, (once at his wedding and once at hers), but they'd always seemed to get along quite well. “How?”
“I'm sorry to tell you that they were both murdered.”
“I don't believe it!” Tabatha exclaimed.
“Who are you, anyway?” Timmy asked. “Coming in here with a dead couple's son, telling us that they've been murdered! Are you with the police?”
“No ma'am,” Mr Bee replied. “I'm a mathematician.”
“Don't be ridiculous,” Timmy scoffed. “Mathematicians aren't real.”
“They're a myth! Everyone knows that! It's like gorillas, or science, or physics, or…dogs! Everyone knows there's no such thing as maths.”
There was a slightly uncomfortable silence, broken by Mr Bee coughing slightly.
“Timothy, darling, perhaps there's something I should tell you.” Tabatha reluctantly started.
“What?” Timmy exclaimed.
“My sister, and her husband...they were mathematicians.”
“That doesn't make sense!”
“No, it's true. Maths, physics, science, all the stories you hear as a child – they're all true.”
"No, not dogs. But the rest of it - it's real."
Timmy had the look on his face of a man who has just had his mind blown. This was possibly a result of the fact that he had, in fact, just had his mind blown.
“Perhaps,” Mr Bee said, “I should explain in full. My name is Mr Bee, and I'm the headmaster at Brookside Mathematical Academy. When I found out about your sister and brother-in-law, I went there as fast as I could, and I discovered your nephew, lying in his cot. He doesn't seem to be harmed, but he does have a pair of scars.”
For the first time, Tabatha and Timmy looked upon their nephew. He was one year old, and though they'd heard news of him in the occasional letter that found its way from Triverp to Tumnia, they had not had the opportunity to meet him before. On his forehead, they could see the two scars – a pair of horizontal lines, parallel, no more than .04m in length.
“Can they be healed?” Tabatha asked, more out of an urge to fill in the distinctly unrhythmic silence that had sprung up as they stared upon the sleeping boy.
“Oh, yes, I dare say so.” Mr Bee replied. “But I wouldn't.”
He didn't offer any explanation for this rather odd statement, and Tabatha and Timmy didn't seek one. They could sense that he was trying to get on to more important matters.
“Now, as the boy's only living relatives, it's your responsibility to raise him. Treat him as if he were your own son, and try to give him a normal, healthy life. Do you understand?”
Tabatha merely nodded her assent, but Timmy had more questions.
“Listen, you still haven't explained who you are.”
“I believe I did, sir.” Mr Bee responded politely but slowly, as if talking to someone of ogre-like intelligence. “I'm the headmaster of Brooksi-”
“Yes,” Timmy interrupted, “but I fail to see why the headmaster of a school I've never heard of is running around the country, saving orphans and handing out responsibilities. I mean, isn't this why we have the police? Shouldn't you be focussed more on the educational system?”
There was a pause, as Mr Bee pondered the question.
“That's a good point, I suppose.”
Again, Mr Bee offered no further explanation. This time, however, Timmy didn't let it drop.
“So on no authority other than your ability to manage a school, you've dropped in at a crime scene without calling the police, stolen a child, and left?”
Mr Bee sighed.
Timmy's stare revealed that he was not prepared to accept this lack of explanation.
"It's…well, it's maths.” Mr Bee explained reluctantly.
“Oh,” replied Timmy, suddenly appeased. “Well, I suppose that makes sense then.”
“Now, if you have no more questions, I must be on my way. Much to do, much to do.”
The baby in Tabatha's arms suddenly, moved, and both of the Turrets looked down. When they looked up again, Mr Bee was gone.
“I didn't even hear the door open,” said Tabatha, but Timmy didn't respond. He was looking down at his nephew Cuthbert, and had noticed that though he was only one year old, he seemed to weigh quite a bit. He was quite a hefty, almost...beefy baby.
Looking down to see what held him entranced, Tabatha couldn't help admiring the baby as well. Even at the age of one, he had a thick map of black hair. And – Tabatha noticed – almost no neck at all.
Cuthbert sucked on his thumb, seemingly ignorant of the loving gaze of his uncle and aunt above him. The babe appeared completely unaware that his parents had been killed, or of the foster home he had been brought into. He had no reasonable way of knowing that already, his name was being written into mathematical scrolls across the country, or that people meeting in secret at this very moment were raising their glasses, and saying in hushed voices “To Cuthbert Galon – The Boy Who Should've Died, But Didn't, And Though We Don't Actually Know Why, We're Too Busy Celebrating to Care. Maybe We'll Look Into It In The Morning. Well, Not In The Morning – We'll Be Hung Over From All This Celebrating. But By The End Of The Week At The Latest. I Mean, It's Got To Be Important, Doesn't It? This Kind Of Thing Doesn't Happen Every Day. Surely We Won't Forget To Look It Up, And It'll Remain A Mystery For The Next, Oh, I Don't Know, Ten Years Or So? Anyway, To Cuthbert!”
It was the 43rd of Wom, in the Year of the Boa Constrictor. Basil didn't normally keep track of the dates, but it was his eleventh birthday. He had been counting down, each morning checking the calendar at school. And as he woke up, he also sighed; it was the 43rd of Wom, which meant that in four days, it was his cousin Cuthbert's half-birthday.
It's rare for someone else's half-birthday to overshadow your own actual birthday, but for as long as Basil could remember, Cuthbert had overshadowed everything he'd ever done.
Physically, Cuthbert was a lot larger than he was, but Cuthbert wasn't the type to physically bully someone - after all, you could get caught. Instead, he would work out elaborate and subtle ways of making Basil's life miserable, rallying all of the kids against him at school, destroying his homework minutes before it was due, putting salt into everything that Basil ate, and somehow, somehow persuading Basil's parents that it would be a good idea if Basil did all the cooking and cleaning.
Basil couldn't quite work out how that last one had been achieved. Cuthbert was extremely persuasive. Part of it was his good looks – he had sexy-messy black hair which made girls swoon, even though the bastard was only eleven and a half, large, square-framed glasses, and of course, the scar.
Scars, Basil thought, were not meant to be attractive. They were meant to be off-putting at best, and downright repulsive at worst. But somehow, somehow Cuthbert's scars were sexy. Cuthbert, Basil could tell, was destined to be famous. Maybe he'd write a scroll, or slay a dragon, or marry a princess and become a king, but Basil got the distinct impression that Cuthbert's look was the kind that was going to be imitated all across the country. It was distinctive, and it worked.
“What are you dressed as?”
“Oh, of course! The scars, the glasses, the messy hair! I can see it!”
Now all Cuthbert needed was a distinctive style of dress. If he wore something other than the robes that everyone else around the country wore, then children everywhere would be winning fancy dress costumes, simply by looking slightly like he did.
But still, it was his eleventh birthday, and Basil was determined to enjoy it. The sky wasn't even nearly bright, but Basil was in the habit of waking up early. Normally he'd get up, clean the house, and have breakfast ready before everyone else even woke up, but today, for reasons that Basil was extremely suspicious of, Cuthbert had volunteered to do Basil's chores for the day.
It was all, he reflected as he put on his daily robes, because he was a damned orphan. As well as the good looks, Cuthbert's life was somehow improved by the fact that his parents had died. Okay, so you've got no parents! At least you've got a home. You could be in an orphanage, or out on the streets. You've got a good house over you, and your uncle and aunt pay for everything, and don't ask anything in return.
And of course, Cuthbert being Cuthbert, he didn't even have to bring up the orphan thing. The right look, the right gesture, even not being in the room, ensured that someone else would bring it up. Basil had objected to the fact that he had to cook and clean every day while Cuthbert did nothing, and his parents had been shocked.
“He's an orphan,” Basil's mother, Theresa had exclaimed, so surprised that she'd dropped a stitch. “Don't you know what that means? His parents are dead!”
“They were killed!” Basil's father, Timmy, had explained, as if Basil hadn't heard the story one thousand times before. “Have you seen his scars? Those are from the murderer who did away with Cuthbert's family!”
And inevitably, Basil had to apologise to Cuthbert, and more often than not, got some extra chores to do as well.
But today, Basil decided, was going to be a good day. No, the best day. The best day of the year. He wasn't going to let Cuthbert get to him. He had, against all the odds, persuaded his parents that Cuthbert should have some extra magic lessons with Professor Moraceae (Cuthbert, of course, excelled at magic) and so for the first time in literally years, Basil and his parents were going to be alone. Celebrating his birthday, just the three of them, no Cuthbert to ruin things.
Basil climbed up his stairs – oh, that was another thing. The Turrets had a small house. They had only expected to have a family of three, and so a two-bedroom house had been built. When Cuthbert arrived, Basil's parents had decided that it would help him get over the tragic murder of his parents if he had his own room. To his credit, Cuthbert had offered several times over the year to share the room with Basil, but Basil had steadfastly refused – he lived in fear of the boy every waking hour. He didn't want to live in fear while asleep, as well.
And so, naturally, Cuthbert got the second bedroom, while Basil got the cupboard. Well, no. It wasn't a cupboard. It had started as a cupboard, but once Basil had grown past the age of 4, he either needed more room, or needed to learn to sleep standing up. And so Basil's father had knocked out the floor, and dug a bit. It was hard work, and so after digging roughly 2m underground, he had stopped, and built some stairs. The stairs completely filled the area which had been dug, and so over the years, Basil had grown accustomed to his bedroom being the stairs under the cupboard. He used one stair to sleep on, another to keep his clothes, and a third was used for when he wanted to read a scroll. The rest had various booby-traps on them, because Basil knew that given half a chance, Cuthbert would be in there with itching powder, or a new kurse, and Basil would wake up scratching a nose that wasn't there the night before.
Neatly dodging the traps he'd set, Basil left his “bedroom”. Cuthbert was frying appels by the time Basil arrived in the kitchen, with his mother. Basil could tell that she was determined to make his birthday a good day, but she was trying slightly too hard. Parenting shouldn't be so forced, surely?
Basil barely touched the fried appel that Cuthbert had cooked him. He wasn't sure what was in it. Once every few weeks, Cuthbert would cook a meal - when Basil's parents were settled in the room and sure to notice, of course. Once after eating Cuthbert's cooking Basil had been sick for a week, but most times he was simply left an impossible number of dishes to do afterwards.
Basil was delighted to find actual presents on the table for him. When he'd turned 8, they'd actually completely forgotten about his birthday, so enthusiastic were they about the celebrations for Cuthbert's 8½th birthday. He counted them at a glance. There were two.
“Two,” he murmured softly. “That's two less than last year.”
“Well,” his father snapped, “last year was double digits! This year, you're just turning eleven.”
Basil had forgotten how good his father's hearing was. It didn't surprise him when, halfway through opening his first present (it was a blank scroll, with “diary” hastily written up the top) his father abruptly left. Basil hadn't heard anything, but years of listening for anyone yelling “Help!” as he cut down trees and put out fire had fine-tuned Timmy's hearing, and he could eavesdrop on a conversation two doors down.
Basil was just finishing opening his second present (one of his father's second-hand axes; Basil still had no interest in cutting down trees, but that didn't stop his father from trying to change his mind. Basil didn't complain too much - it was interesting to watch his father trying to be persuasive and subtle.) when his father returned.
“Bad news, Tabatha” he said. “Waldner's broken his wand. He can't take him.” He gestured towards Cuthbert.
Cuthbert's mouth slowly turned into that smile which everyone else found so charming, but Basil just found repulsive, while Basil's heart sunk. Every year, every year on Basil's birthday, Cuthbert found some way of ruining it. This year, Basil had thought maybe, just maybe, he'd actually get to enjoy himself.
No such luck.
“What about what's-her-name?” Basil asked frantically. “Your friend, Majorca. She likes Cuthbert! Can't she take him?”
“On holiday in Ach Nees,” snapped his mother. “You're being very rude to your cousin, Basil!”
“You could just leave him here!”
Basil felt like crying. It'd been years since he'd really cried, since Cuthbert had learnt how effective the sentence “He's putting it on,” could be, when said persuasively. “I don't want him to come!” he said, fully aware of the futility of his plea. “He always spoils everything!”
“Well!” Tabatha exclaimed. “He's certainly coming now! I can't believe you, Basil! Honestly, what rudeness! You want to leave your poor cousin alone in the house while we go out and enjoy ourselves? Don't you know he's an orphan? And he cooked breakfast for you and everything, the poor dear!”
The fact that Basil cooked almost every other day of the year didn't seem to matter. He wasn't sure how it worked, but that was the logic or parents. And so, against Basil's will, it was decided that Cuthbert would be coming along on Basil's special, once-a-year alone time with his parents.
"Zoo” was a loose term to use for the building full of animals. Yes, technically it was a zoo, but an old box full of blank scrolls could be technically termed a “library”. The “zoo” existed primarily to give the zoo-keeper, Old “Spears” Siklop a job.
“Spears” had, once upon a time, been an adventurer. He had explored not only all of Big Fort, but all of The Heartland. It was rumoured that he had even spent some time in the forests of Direnda, home of the Elves. Local legend said that he had once faced down and killed a Lesser Goodooligadoo, using nothing but his bare hands, and the spears that he was named for.
After his adventuring days were over, after he had searched the land, found and killed over one hundred different species of creatures, “Spears” returned to his home village of Tumnia, expecting a hero's welcome. He had forgotten that in most cases, a hero's welcome is generally paid for by the hero, or any kings who he has conveniently saved on his adventures.
During his adventures, “Spears” had not saved any kings, nor had he amassed any riches. Instead, he'd just killed a lot of animals. And so, upon his return to the village, instead of a hero's welcome, he was received with a hastily-prepared bring-your-own lunch, and after a bit of dithering, they created a job for him.
Anyone who had killed as many animals as Old Siklop must be good with them, right? And so, the “zoo” was created. The entry fee was small, but Basil knew that his parents weren't that well off. Lumberjacking is an honest trade, but not a wealthy one.
Of course, he would have been more convinced by his parent's excuses had he not overheard them the other night, talking about how they had to make Cuthbert's half-birthday “extra special” this year, because the poor boy looked like he was minutes away from breaking down. It was the ten-and-a-half year anniversary of his parent's death, and that's so close to the ten-year anniversary that surely it was a particularly painful day. Basil wondered how Cuthbert really felt about his parent's death. Cuthbert's grasp on the “truth” was about as slippery as his morals. His philosophy seemed to be “If someone believes it, it might as well be the truth.” Every emotion he showed, every face he pulled, every word that came out of his sly little mouth... Basil genuinely wondered how much of it, if any, was real.
Of course, the last time Cuthbert had found Basil staring at him with that thoughtful look on his face, he'd disappeared for a few minutes, and that night Basil's blankets had spontaneously combusted. Since then, Basil had tried to be thoughtful when Cuthbert wasn't looking.
The trip over was one of those times. Cuthbert was enjoying the fact that despite it being Basil's birthday, he had managed to weasel his way into the party, and was absorbing most of the attention from Basil's parents. As Cuthbert chatted, and made the Turrets laugh, Basil simply watched him – fuming inside, but outwardly laughing along at his jokes, and trying to behave as if he didn't resent Cuthbert's presence, ruining his birthday just by being there.
Surprised to be getting any visitors at all, Spears Siklop happily showed the family around. It was almost feeding time, and Cuthbert was sucking up, in that annoyingly charming way he used to make people like him. It seemed to work on everyone in the world except for Basil. Perhaps it was because, unlike everyone else, Basil could see Cuthbert for what he really was. Perhaps it was because Cuthbert had simply never tried to make Basil like him – what would be the point? Basil had nothing that Cuthbert needed to charm out of him. As far as Cuthbert was concerned, the entire purpose of Basil's existence was to give him someone to subtly practice torture methods on.
As they walked around, looking at the various animals, Basil noted the expert way that Cuthbert asked exactly the questions that Ol' Siklop wanted to hear.
“Ah,” 'Spears' exclaimed. “This here's an Appel, it is! You don't see these in captivity very often!”
No, thought Basil, because no one ever bothers to capture them. If you find an Appel, you kill it, before it spikes you, drags you in, and consumes you. Lack of captured Appels said more about the people capturing than it did about the animal itself.
“Wow!” Cuthbert exclaimed in return. “Did you ever kill one of these, Mr Siklop?”
“Please,” Mr Siklop replied, as Basil knew he would. “Call me 'Spears'. And yes – I've killed a fair few of these in my time! It's not easy, I can tell you that! The trick, you see...”
As the old man started talking about the method used to kill an Appel*, Basil wandered off and started looking at the other animals on display. Honestly, there were none that he hadn't seen one thousand times before, but with nothing else to do, Spears had come to the local school, and given a lecture on this exact subject. Both Basil and Cuthbert had heard the detailed explanation of how to kill an Appel previously, but Cuthbert was better at disguising utter boredom, so Basil decided to leave him to it.
*wait until it shoots its primary spike at you, dodge it, grab the spike, and use its poison tip to stab and kill the creature itself. With its primary spike shot, an appel has no way of moving, and so it can't escape. They roast up nicely, as long as Cuthbert isn't behind their preparation.
While most of the animals in the “zoo” were local, (most of them were quite literally picked up from local farms and brought to the building, which had once been the broomstick-collecting clubhouse, before the national ban of broomsticks had commenced) Basil noticed in the corner of one cage an animal that he'd never seen before. The sign next to the cage informed him that it was from Calobia, home of the gnomes. Apparently in Calobia, it was known simply as a “Red Lizarb,” but due to its unusual habit, it had a different name among Humans, “The Red Rock Sorter.”
Basil remembered a joke that he'd heard years ago. “What's red and sorts rocks? The Red Rock Sorter!”
Basil hadn't thought it was very funny.
But one thing confused him – the sign he was reading surely couldn't be right. It read “The Red Rock Sorter, so named because of its habit of sorting rocks and its red colour. This habit bewilders animaltologists, as it doesn't seem to sort the rocks into any sort of pattern. It doesn't sort them by size, by weight, or by colour. Animaltologists are clueless as to what system the Sorter uses, and have concluded that it is probably random. Odif Red, author of the famous scroll “Amacs: A Gygax to Calobia's Well-organised Animal Kingdom” petitioned for the animal's name to officially be changed to “The Random Red Rock Sorter”, but he was outvoted three-to-one.”
Basil sat and watched the Lizarb for several minutes. There was a lever you could pull to scramble the order of the rocks, but Basil hesitated. The sign said that the rocks were sorted randomly, but a clear pattern had emerged – the rocks were being sorted by size. Not from smallest to largest, or largest to smallest, but with each adjoining rock of a slightly different size to the one next to them. Large, small, larger than the first large, smaller than the first small, and so on and so forth. The result looked like a random assortment, but Basil could see that by arranging the rocks in this manner, one could stand anywhere along the line, and quickly grab a rock of almost any size. Useful when being attacked – a small rock could be thrown at a smaller creature, such as a fairy, saving the larger rocks for, say, a person with a spear.
Basil's theory was confirmed when the rest of the party came along, and the Lizarb reached for one of the larger rocks.
“Ah,” Spears said, excitedly, brandishing his spear like...well, like a weapon. “This is the Red Rock Sorter. No one knows why it arranges the rocks the way it does! It's completely random.”
Spears pulled a lever, and the rocks dropped, and were replaced with another collection. Without missing a beat, the Lizarb started sorting the new pile.
Basil, having seen him sort these rocks before, instead used the opportunity to watch the rest of his family watching the Lizarb. While his parents looked momentarily interested, their expressions quickly turned to boredom. Cuthbert, however...Cuthbert was staring, entranced at the animal, his mouth moving, and his brow furrowed. For the first time in Basil's life, he felt like he was seeing a completely genuine Cuthbert, not putting on any kind of show.
The Lizarb had soon sorted the rocks, and started switching large rocks for large rocks, and small rocks for small rocks. To the Turret parents and Spears Siklop, it must have seemed to be moving them completely randomly, but Basil recognised that it was ensuring it had the greatest range available to it, wherever it stood. The Turrets were about to move on to the next enclosure (the fairly harmless “Greater Goodooligadoo”), when they noticed that Cuthbert was still staring at the cage.
“Cuthbert? Honey?” Tabatha asked, softly.
“That's not random!” Cuthbert snapped back, suddenly. “They're being moved to a pattern! Look!”
Basil was shocked to see Cuthbert suddenly lunge at the Lizarb, but not too shocked to notice that it reached for the largest rock – clearly it, just like Basil, recognised Cuthbert as a large threat. He was even more shocked to see that Cuthbert also saw the reasoning behind the Lizarb reaching for the largest rock.
He stood there in shock as Cuthbert explained the system to Spears and to the Turrets. As Spears pulled the lever to watch the Lizarb, Basil snapped out of it, at least enough to hide his shock.
“You're a genius, Cuthbert!” Tabatha exclaimed.
“They'll have to rewrite gygaxes all over the world!” said Spears excitedly.
“Isn't it a good thing that Waldner broke his leg?” Timmy said, proudly looking at Cuthbert.
Basil knew what was expected of him. He was to say something complimentary about how great it was that his cousin had solved a mystery which had baffled mankind since they'd first encountered Lizarbs. But he couldn't bring himself to do it. On his birthday, on his birthday outing, his cousin had “solved” a mystery which had puzzled the ages, which Basil had solved not twenty seconds beforehand. If Basil had only spoken up, the rewritten gygaxes (books about animals) would all feature his name, not bloody Cuthbert's.
And so, for the first time in his life, he let anger overcome him. He didn't spout the platitudes everyone wanted him to spout. He didn't congratulate Cuthbert, and he didn't back down. Instead, he pulled back his fist, and punched Cuthbert as hard as he could, in the ribs.
Repressing anger, they say, isn't good for you. Who they are, why they say this, their definition of anger, and what IS “good for you” has never been adequately explained, but one thing is known. If you repress anger for eleven years straight, when it's released in the form of a single punch, that punch is going to hurt.
Cuthbert went down. Cuthbert went down hard.
But before he went down, hard, Cuthbert staggered backwards, and broke the glass preventing the Lizarb from escaping. The Lizarb knew three things – eating, sorting rocks, and escaping when the opportunity arises, and while all three applied to this particular situation, the Lizarb focused on the last one, and scarpered.
“The Lizarb!” Spears exclaimed. “Where did the Lizarb go?”
The Turrets knew the importance of presenting oneself well in public. They apologised to Spears, promised to pay for the glass and (if required) a new Red Rock Sorter, despite certainly not being able to afford such a thing (a return trip to Calobia would cost more than a lifetime of lumberjacking.) They walked briskly but did not run home, and when they arrived there, they made sure the doors and windows were shut before they started yelling.
Tabatha Turret was capable of long sentences when she was angry. Basil had, after a while, started counting, and her record stood at 94 words. Today, she more than doubled it.
“How could you do that!?” she exclaimed. It was a regular habit of hers, to start with a question which seemed to be rhetorical, and then answer it with a record-breaking sentence. “Your cousin, who we brought in off the streets, promised to give him a decent life, tried with all our might to help him forget the fact that his parents were tragically murdered - IN COLD BLOOD - comes along with you to the zoo for one day and all you have to do is allow him to come along without making a fuss or causing him physical harm or setting any wild, dangerous, Calobian animals on him or causing him permanent psychological damage and instead of fulfilling the basic, simple requirements which I just listed, you decide to ruin not only his day, but everyone's day - including yours mind you - and mine and your fathers and punch him in the stomach, cause him to fall backwards into some glass which could have cut him into one thousand pieces and caused his brain to fall out and well I don't know if you know someone who can put someone's brain in again once it's fallen out and plopped around all over the ground and probably been stood on by one of those horrible little Calobian creatures which, by the way, almost certainly aren't cheap, they're very rare and very expensive and I don't know where you think the money's going to come from for that by the way, your father will probably have to cut down the whole Hay Wood** to pay for it but I certainly don't know anyone who is capable of such a delicate operation and not only do you punch him but you let the Lizarb escape which, if you remember, your cousin had just come up with a solution for the age-old mystery of!” Basil considered pointing out that had she just spoken one more word, she would have trebled her last record, but decided against it.
**a local forest
“Well, let me tell you this! You are not leaving your stairs until you've learnt the errors of your way!”
Parents were always saying that, Basil noticed. He wasn't sure exactly what learning the errors of one's way entailed. It was probably one of those things which “they” taught you. Perhaps it was “good for you.”
But while the anger which had possessed him earlier flared up again, he had enough self-control to contain it this time, and he said what was expected of him.
“Yes mum,” Basil replied, attempting to achieve the exact right level of guilt, as he knew Cuthbert would have. Of course, Cuthbert would have never been in this kind of situation.
Timmy Turret had just quickly checked that Cuthbert wasn't suffering any permanent injuries. He staggered in, and managed to say “Go – stairs – stay – no meals,” before he collapsed into a chair, and Tabatha had to run and get him a large glass of oak***.
***Timmy Turret's alcoholic beverage of choice.
Basil sighed, opened up his cupboard, and climbed down his stairs. He knew now that all he had to do was wait. His parents wouldn't forgive him, but nor would they hold a grudge. They'd simply...forget. Not the whole afternoon, of course, but certainly the punishment. More than likely, they'd forget Basil's punch entirely, and all that would be left in their memory would be Cuthbert's amazing discovery, followed shortly by the glass to the Lizarb cage mysteriously disappearing, ruining his moments of glory.
Basil didn't love his parents. This was a fact which made him feel extraordinarily guilty at times, but love is one of those things that you just can't force. He liked them well enough, but it's hard to love people who occasionally forget you exist. He wished he could love them, but sometimes they treated him as if he was merely a supporting character in his own life – someone who would appear for the first part of the story, and then disappear until a footnote at the end. No wonder they forgot him.
With Cuthbert around, he had no chance of being a main character. With Cuthbert around, he was lucky to even be supporting cast.
Basil had learnt long ago to control his emotions, and today's punch had been a rare display. Now, not an hour later, another rare display of emotion reared its head, and Basil started to sob.
He didn't mind, most of the time, that his parents didn't love him. He would have settled for hate, or even dislike, or even mild affection.
It was the indifference that got to him. His parents knew that he was around – they just didn't care. And so, upstairs, as Cuthbert got the full attention (as usual) of both of his parents, as they hovered around his bed, and administered to his imaginary wounds, Basil Turret sobbed into his excuse of a pillow, and eventually cried himself to sleep, completely unaware of the small pair of eyes watching this rare display of emotion.
The next three days passed so quickly that they were covered in a single sentence, and before Basil knew it, it was Cuthbert's half-birthday.
Cuthbert's half-birthday was only overshadowed by one other day in the year - his real birthday, five months previous. Basil awoke early, knowing that he'd have to give the house a thorough clean, in preparation for the party that was to follow. His mother had insisted on baking the cake herself - supposedly to give him a break from working, but he suspected that she simply didn't trust him with it.
Basil had been cleaning for almost an hour already when Cuthbert entered. Cuthbert looked tired, which didn't mean anything - Basil had seen Cuthbert looking exhausted on a full night's sleep, and had seen him appear to be bright-eyed after a night so late it had turned into the next day.
"Why do you look so sleepy, honey?" Tabatha Turret asked, automatically going into "protective mother" mode, as Basil (and, presumably, Cuthbert) had known she would. "I was up until midnight!" Cuthbert yawned. "I was so excited about my half-birthday that I didn't want to sleep until I could count it in!"
Tabatha affectionately ruffled Cuthbert's hair, while Basil rolled his eyes - after carefully making sure that no one was watching him, of course.
Cuthbert cheerfully trotted into the next room, where Timmy Turret was finishing the last of Cuthbert's presents.
Fantasy city by David Revoy, licensed under the
Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.