We hid in the midst of a narrow alley, avoiding any puddle we found. You do that anyway in Down New York, but this time we were hiding from a guy who had could throw lightning bolts, so you can't be too careful.
"Sure, that was a great plan," I said, "just charge straight at the guy and hope you can catch him off-guard! What happened to getting everyone on our side first?"
"I was sure it was going to work," said Jo. "I thought I could take him on!"
"And when he conjured all those dogs?"
"I can't hurt a dog. I mean, come on."
We'd made it to the safety of a doorway before the Land Lord caught us in the open. Well, for a given value of "Open" around here, which is basically "I can see a bright blue strip above me, that must be the sky."
It was a pretty narrow and shallow front vestibule we walked into, and there was someone in there already. A young fellow, big eyes and messy black hair.
"Hey," he said, "I've never seen you two before. What family are you from? You look really new, come to think of it. Did Land Lord let both of you in at the sime time?"
"We, uh..." I'd forgotten about kin networks around here. "We're the...Yutz family."
"Wait a second," said Jo, "I'm not a Yutz. YOU'RE the Yutz here."
"Well you married me, didn't you?"
"You specifically said -- oh, never mind. Sorry, kid, We're new around here. What's your name?"
He looked wary. "Quint Caecillius Holstein Toprum."
"Hang on," said Jo, "I've read about some of the families around here. Toprums are supposed to be head honchos, and live on the top floors. What are you doing down here?"
"Going out to gather whatever slugs I can find," said Quint, "Which is the task you get assigned whenever you get your family shunted down to floor three for speaking out against the Land Lord. If it means you vanish in the shadows, everyone can say oops too bad, at least we won't be under threat of exploding. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to go and -- "
"Hold on a second," said Jo. "Lead me to this Land Lord fellow."
"But I -- "
"Pretend you're a hostage. Nobody will blame you for that."
I grabbed Jo. "What on earth are you doing?" I whispered. "We don't want to lose the goodwill of these people by capturing one of them! They'll slaughter us! And we need them to back us up!"
"We've already lost their good will by setting ourselves against the Land Lord," whispered Jo. "It sounds like everyone loves him or fears him."
Jo pulled a wand out of the interior of her cloak, and pointed it at Quint. "Back into the building! To the top floor! We'll see about this Land Lord business. Actually -- where does he live anyway?"
"As if I could tell you!" said Quint. "As if anyone could! We've searched every nook of this place for his room, but the closest we've gotten is a door that opens onto a brick wall. That's probably it."
"So why not bust through the brick?" I said.
"Because the actual wall is thin concrete, and when we check the exterior, there's no space for bricks to be."
"I've got a better idea," I said. "Lead us to the roof."
At the end of Jo's wand, with his hands held above his head, Quint led us through the building. The hallway was narrow enough that people could only pass if they flattened themselves to the wall, and god help you if you were carrying a load in front or back. And the doors were maybe 6 feet apart along the walls.
"If this place burns down," I said, "everyone in here is toast."
"Oh, no worries about that," said Quint. "The Land Lord prevents any fires from spreading."
We came to a stairwell. Metal stairs, rusted iron handrails. I looked up. "Hang on a second," I said, "It looks like it only goes up a few flights."
"Just follow me," said Quint.
We trudged up to the third floor where the stairs stopped. "Through here," said Quint. He led us to a solid oak door attached to drywall. The wall was painted, oh it was painted -- but through the gaps in the multicolored mural of a huge dragon eating skyscrapers while swatting at a tiny flying figure, I could just about see the word "Sheetrock."
The door opened. A little girl with big brown eyes and messy black hair stood in the doorway.
"Quint, what are you doing back...oh, hi!" She smiled. "I haven't seen anyone new in so long. Why does Quint have his hands in the air? Are you playing a game? Can I join?"
"Shh," said Quint, "We're playing Hostage Crisis. But I can't let you join, Alright? it only works with one victim."
"Look, why don't you get your paints and keep working on the mural?"
Septima ran back through the door.
We weaved our way through an utter mess. Unopened boxes and empty frames, table-top machines and buckets of plaster, slide projectors and smocks, spotlights and electrical cords, all were scattered about the floor. Here and there, a bed, a dresser, and a sink amidst the clutter. streamers glittering with metallic tape in many colors hung from the light fixtures, and every wall that I could see was painted in the same style as the mural we had seen. A lone figure with a blue cloak and tongues of fire featured in each, battling some kind of monster.
"We had more space on the top two floors," said Quint, "And I imagine that many of these boxes will become the supports for matresses rather than be unpacked. This is what we produce. This is our livelihood, and what gains us prestige. People will pay whatever they can for us to pretty up their places. That's why we HAD the top floors until I decided to tell everyone that the Land Lord took more than he gave."
"You screwed up for better reasons than I did, Kid. Don't knock yourself."
"What did you -- Oh. You're from Central, aren't you? The newcomers usually are. We don't ask what people did to get here. The result is all the same, isn't it? It's to come down here. We don't condemn. Just don't keep being a goof, is all."
We emerged into a slightly larger room with fewer boxes, where a fair number of people were busy at easels and shallow work benches. We'd have to weave through them, too, if we wanted to get to...presumably the next stairwell. Or maybe they'd rigged up an especially colorful pulley system.
A stout lady stood amidst them, in a smock, although she held no brush. She spotted us in the doorway. Quint took a second to remember to put his hands up.
"Nobody move!" said Jo. "This is a hostage situation! I've got your young fellow here at the end of a wand, and I'm not afraid to use it! Take us to the Land Lord and he will not be harmed!"
Suddenly a knife was in everyone's hand and all their smiles were gone.
I whispered in Jo's ear. "Looks like your fake hostage situation got real."
"Wait, wait," said Quint, "sorry about that, everyone. These are the newcomers, the...Yutz family. They wanted me to help them reach the Land Lord. Or at least the roof. Hi, Ma. Sorry about all this. I'll just be gathering slugs -- "
"Hold it," said the lady in the center of the room. "I've got a better idea. Why don't you join these two...Yutzes in their mad quest to bother the Land Lord? That's better than leading every half-baked hero to us."
"You know, I'd really rather gather slugs -- "
"Nonsense!" said a woman behind us. She was tall enough to be stooped in the space, and her eyes shone through a mass of black bangs. "You sounds like you're itching for adventure, lad. Go and have some fun. Go on now." She made a shooing motion with her hands.
"But couldn't you come with -- "
"Got to watch little Septima do her mural," said the tall woman, "and unpack as best I can. Sorry."
"Come on," I said, "Let's just get going."
This stair well looked like it went up the rest of the way. Fortunately.
"They must have built the remaining stories after the first three," said Quint, "and I'm not sure how well they attached them, so if you're going to have any battles up there, be gentle."
"I'll be sure to hurl only the daintest of firebolts," said Jo.
I bristled. "What about me?"
"Can you do any combat magic at all?"
"Well, there is that rat form that I -- never mind. No, I can't. That I know of. Although I could ask a few spirits for a few favors. Or something. I've never wanted to kill anyone, Jo! I mean -- "
"I know, Pat. I know."
Around about the fifth floor, I said, "So, Quint, you've got two moms, is that right?"
"Ma and Mama."
"And...did they adopt you or what?"
"What do you mean? Ma says she gave birth to me. Said I was real trouble. Said the Land Lord was probably the only one who could have helped."
"But does that mean...how old are you anyway?"
"I'm old enough to know where babies come from, and how that gets started, so you don't exactly have to pussy-foot around me. What, are you squeamish? Do you have oodles of privacy in your fancy Central City?"
"Some of us can pay for more privacy than others," said Jo. "But we all try to find it as best we can. Look, Quint, what Pat is trying to get at is did your ma go and shtupp someone else to concieve you? Because if everyone in that place is your blood relation..."
"Ma said that the Landlord gives her a special shiny root for that sort of thing, and then -- "
"No details," I said, "Please. And I'm more interested in this Land Lord anyway. let's tally: He helps your mother concieve, he puts out fires, he's adored by your little sister, he saved you from dying in childbirth, he -- "
"Gives out free ice cream sandwiches on Fridays."
Right. "So that's five for the good. On the other hand, he makes people explode, he prevents outsiders from coming in, he limits all incoming news, and he's so feared by everyone that they'd banish a prominent family to the lowest stories for a single member speaking out against him. He's feared and loved, really. Ha! He's more a prince than a landlord! Which means I don't like him. People such as him give out gifts to win people over and they rule with an iron fist. My Nonna told me about how the Mob used to rule their neighborhoods the same way. This is the United States -- well, where we Yutzes are from, at least. And we don't put up with no tyrants! No kings! That's the American Way."
"But if we lose the Land Lord..."
"I daresay that Ma Toprum is already a capable leader for you in the first place. So let's get rid of this fellow and go home."
We stood on the roof in the stinking wind.
"Alright," said Jo, "You blow the Shofar to bring him. When he comes out of the roof door, I'll rush him and throw a few fireballs his way. Quint, you just head down the walways, I'm not going to expose you to this. Pat, you blow that horn and keep him distracted and annoyed. I'll see if I can bind him with an enchantment."
"This doesn't feell like a solid plan. Can't we just talk to him?"
"He makes people explode, Pat. We can't give him a chance. Now blow, dammit!"
I sounded the Shofar.
One mississippi, two mississippi...
five hundred mississippi, five hundred and one mississippi...
Where was that man's apartment anyway? Ten miles from here?
The roof door banged open. I was on the side with the hinges, so I couldn't see if anyone was coming out, but Jo rushed the door with fire in her hands. I put my lips to the horn and blew like I was Dizzy Gillespie.
I heard a mighty THUMP, and Jo was flung backwards. A figure in a dark blue cloak stepped out of the doorway and raised his hands.
Jo almost fell right off the roof, but her cloak turned into big wings, and she tried to flap back to the rooftop. The figure in blue wasn't having that, though. He whirled his arms and sent forth a mighty gust of wind. It was all Jo could to do fly forward. She stretched out her hand and sent a thin crackle of electricity towards the blue man. It connected. He yelped, waved his hands, and lost the wind spell. Jo landed on the roof.
Before she could send any more spells at the man, he gave a high, shrill whistle, and hordes of dogs appeared out of the doorway, rushing straight at Jo.
I expected her to schorch the dogs or something, but she jumped into the air and flapped around with her big wings again. Probably to rain fire on the blue man from the sky. But this allowed the blue man to get up the wind spell again, harder this time, and Jo, caught off-guard, was hurled far away.
Now, I was still on the roof and blowing the Shofar, and the dogs weren't liking it at all. Maybe that's why the blue man didn't try to make me explode -- why bother when a pack of snarling dogs will do that for you? But I wasn't going to stick around to find out. I dashed off the roof and onto a walkway, and hoped that the dogs would be too scared to follow.
As I descended the stairs, I looked back, and the dogs were gone. There was just the blue man, his face shrouded by a big hood, and he was gathering crackling electricity in his palms.
And here I was on a metal walkway.
I jumped off into a gap between the walkways. I'd honestly rather break my bones than died of electrocution.
I just had time to conside the idea that maybe I was doing all this with the intent to live after all when I landed in something...soft.
Let's leave it at that.
"Quint probably thinks we're toast," said Jo, keeping her feet away from the puddle.
"I'm sure everyone in the building thinks we're a couple of smears on the wall," I said, picking up a glowing slug. "But the trouble is, old Blue Cloak doesn't. So how do we get in and try again? Wait, can you fly me to the roof?"
"I can fly you to the moon," said Jo, "but do you think he's still there?"
"I have no idea. I just want to try to talk to him. From a less reputable standpoint than before, but still, I want to know exactly what his deal is. You didn't give him the chance to make a dramatic speech or anything."
"Never give your enemy time to monologue."
"You're a little too eager for combat, you know that? I thought you were more interested in Fabric of the Universe stuff and all that."
"The closest analogue is Gym class versus Bio lab 1. Which do you think is more fun?"
"Point taken. Now, we can't sit here forever eating slugs, so let's fly, shall we?"
We made our way back to the pile of...soft stuff. Jo stood behind me and hooked her arms through mine. Then she muttered a few words, and we began to rise, slowly, on a column of air, past the walkways.
"This reminds me," said Jo, "I never agreed to marry you."
"Do you want to?"
"Well, yeah, but -- "
"Then all we need to do is get the paperwork done and find a rabbi. I mean, we're both adults in the community...one of us being an immature adult, perhaps, but --"
"This is all very hasty, Pat."
"You're the one who's willing to stay by the side of someone whose folly killed a dozen people at least."
"And aren't we best friends, after all?"
"There's more to marriage than THAT, Pat."
"How do you figure?"
"I keep reading advice columns that say "marry your best friend." Well, here you are, and I've made my proposal. Call it a friendship marriage if you like. What do you say?"
"Pat, I --"
"Is it a bad time to ask?"
"No, it's just -- "
"Are you already pledged to someone else?"
"No, I mean, how could I be?" She grinned. "Who else could I pledge myelf to but you?"
"Well then, what's your answer?"
"Yes. Yes, I will friendship-marry you, and we will exchange bracelets, and we'll both drink weak beer and then step on the paper cups, and I'll spin you around on a chair by myself, how does that sound?"
I grinned. "We shall be the Yutzes, and we will have a mailbox with our name on it, somewhere beyond the sea."
"Can't we be something else? How about Mrs. and Mrs. Klutz?"
"I feel more like a Yutz. Or a Shmuck, come to think of it. Oh, we'll think of something. Here's the roof."
Jo's cloak billowed out into wings again. She flapped towards the rooftop, and landed.
Not a single blue man in sight.
I muttered a few sweet nothings to the door, and it sprang open.
I looked inside. No blue man. I looked down the stairwell, far as I could see. Still no blue man. No angry mutters or anything, just the murmured conversation from behind dozens of thin doors.
The door for this side of the third-floor complex was painted bright with a green tree and blue running water, and stars shining in a purple heaven. How on earth had Septima seen any of that? I knocked. The door swung open, and there was Septima again.
She looked scared and worried. "You're still alive," she said. "Did you hurt mister Land Lord? Is he dead?"
"None of us were hurt," I said, "Not the Land Lord, nor my friend here, nor me. Can we speak to your family again?"
"Gotta say the magic word," said Septima.
She shook her head.
"That's the one," said Septima. "Now, what are you sorry for?"
"Tyring to kill your Land Lord," I said. "Whom you seem to deeply admire. I'm very sorry about that. Now, will you let us in?"
"Come on," said Septima, and she le the way through this side's mess.
Everyone was still at their tables in the central room. Ma Toprum stepped away from an easel when she saw me. "Looks like you're still alive," she said, "But I didn't feel anything shuddering and I didn't hear any anguished screams. What happened?"
"Never mind," said Jo, as she blushed.
"I have a new proposal," I said. "Look, you're all very well organized, right? I mean in terms of people. You spring to the defense of your own and you all have knives at the ready. And I bet the other families in here do as well. I daresay, that if your familiy was willing to gather with all the others and come to the Land Lord's door, you could...negotiate with him for better terms."
"Not throw him out?" said a man at a work bench.
"Not blast him to bits?" said a lass bending wires.
"None of that talk!" said Ma Toprum. "He's the source of a lot of good in here. And the little Mrs. Yutz here thinks a lot of people displaying knives and asking for better terms will sway him from his evil. She thinks the other families can be convinced to join us! Well!"
I pondered for a bit, and said, "Who made you move to the third floor?"
"The Land Lord."
"Not the other families?"
"They said it was fair enough, but not strenuously..."
"Does everyone in this building basically listen to you?"
"How do you figure?"
"You're the Ma for the Toprum family. I figure they ought to. You're the one directing all the art projects, right?"
Ma Toprum frowned. "I can definitely threaten to withold our services from people who won't join us. Right. Brushes down everyone!" She pulled a knife from somewhere on her person. "I want each of you to pick a floor besides the top two, and ask them to come out to the stiarwell for a little show of force against the Land Lord! Tell them the message is from me!"
The Troprum family, Jo, and I stood in front of a door that was attached to the outer wall of the stairwell.
The door was open, and there was the brick wall. I thumped on it. "Open up or come out," I said, "We want to talk to you!"
The bricks started to move forward, one by one, then slide ot the side. A blank void showed beyond.
Out of it stepped the blue man. Still hooded.
"What do you want?" said the man. With an oddly familiar voice. I couldn't place it. "Why have you come? Do you wish to challenge me to a wizard's duel?"
"We've come to ask for better terms," said Mama Toprum.
"We'd like you to stop exploding people," said Quint. "And we want to know what's going on in the rest of the city."
"And more ice cream please," said Septima.
The blue man laughed. "You ask me for all this, and you offer no show of force? You offer no lives? This is silly, Toprums. You can't negotiate from a position of weakness. Now, I have a mind to banish you to the sub-basement levels."
"That's your problem," said Ma Toprum. "You think you run this place because you can make people explode." She turned and shouted upward, "Everyone out!"
I looked up. the doors were opening, and hundreds, maybe thousands of people were jamming into the stairwell, and most of them were carrying knives. And those were just the people who could fit in the stairwell, which was as narrow as everything else in this building.
Ma Toprum turned back to the blue man. "Look at that, Land Lord. They obey you out of fear. But they also obey ME, because they respect me and my family. Which of us do you think has a better position here?"
"The one who is feared," said the blue man, somewhat shakily. "Fear is harder to lose than respect."
"Mister land Lord," I said, "I know you want to help these people. You've rendered aid in childbirth, you prevent fires from spreading -- you bring a lot of benefits to this place. Quint and Septima and most of the Toprum family wouldn't exist without you. Why do you wish to bring death and destruction as well? Where's the gain?"
"I'm one person ruling 30,000 people," said the blue man. "You expect me to play nice? No. I do Good and Evil as I choose for maximum benefit."
Ma Toprum huffed. "If you actually let me help you run the building, you wouldn't have to do it all yourself. And you wouldn't have to resort to an iron fist. Let us help you, Land Lord. If you don't, I've got 30,000 people here who are willing to cut you out of the deal and leave the leadership to my family."
"This is my place, dammit! I won it from the Rebar Porcupine and the Great Stone Dragon! Why should I let anyone else control it?"
"Because," said Jo, reaching forward and flipping back the man's hood, "I know you, Master Mazigh. You're not like this back in Central. Why are you so different here?"
It was, indeed, the funny little blue man I had mauled earlier. His face was without scars, though. Odd.
"Why, Jo? I was different in Central because there are rules and laws there. Here, I can do what I want! Be heroic as I please! Run an entire complex and not have to worry about raising rents to compete with housing prices and all that!"
"Master Mazigh," said Ma Toprum, "is that it? Well, let me tell you, sir, wherever you go where there's people, there are rules. You can break them, you can help make them, but you can never say they don't exist. You thought you could have your way where the Central government couldn't reach you. Well -- " she gestured to the stairwell. "There's me and my people willing to enforce our own rules. And we say, stop treating us like serfs, man. Give us access to the rest of the city. And so forth. Do you want to discuss terms? Or do you want to lose all say in this place?"
"I don't want -- this highly irregular -- I have a mind to destroy every -- ARGH! Why am I even speaking to you?" He began to gather electricity in his palms.
And I breathed in as deeply as I could.
A weird green light shone over Master Mazigh as the voices of the city spoke through me.
Wizard with the roots and the lightning and the fire, you came here believing you could claim part of this place for your very own. You came here thinking it was all for your taking. It was not. The Great Stone Dragon owned no part of this island except by force. When you bested him, his dominion did not transfer to you. This is not 13th-century Europe and there is no Right of Conquest here. This is a modern city with rules that you failed to understand when you came here. You should be grateful that you have not been murdered already. You have represented the Wizards of Central New York City in an atrocious manner. Be grateful that the people of this building are willing to even negotiate with you. Be wary of the stones. Be way of the pipes, and the stones, and the water. We are angry. Alow yourself to negotiate and we will reconsider our wrath.
The light faded. I collapsed.
"Oh, all right! I'll bring a neutral lawyer and we'll draw up a contract. After I deal with a pressing matter." He eyed me. "Excuse me, Mrs. and Mrs. Toprum, I've got to take this girl back to Central. Come on, Pat." He hauled me to my feet. "There's a lot waiting for you in Manhattan proper."
There sure was.
I turned to Jo. She held my hand, and we stepped into the void.