Chapter XXI.

20 Jun

Glia met him in the antechamber of the Mandator’s apartment. It was late evening, and she was surprised to see him at that hour. He was first to speak.

“Your father, has there been any change in him?”

“No,” she said with a moan. “He seems to be sinking at the same rate as when you yourself saw him. I fear leaving him to get sleep. Who can say how he will be next morning? And the pain never seems to leave him, not for a second. It is an awful scene for me to be seeing. I never expected anything like what is happening to him now.”

“Glia, tomorrow I shall start work at the Frog Sump. There will be little time now for study in the librarium. But there is a matter that I have hesitated to tell you about. Now I have decided, this is the right time for me to relate this to you.”

She looked puzzled. “What are you talking about, Ranid?”

He swiftly disclosed the history of his meetings with Nudus and how the Intendant tried to convert and recruit him into the bizarre mystical sect of the Gnomenists.

Glia’s mouth opened and her pupils dilated. As he continued, disbelief turned to belief. When he had finished, she was full of questions. As best he could, Ranid answered them point-by-point. He was able, from memory, to give her the content of the folio given him to read by the Intendant.

“He learned these heretical theories while a worker at the Frog Sump?”

“That’s what he claims,” replied the softum. “And there still remains a small coterie of his comrades there. I plan to investigate among them. I asked for a name to look for and Nudus told me who the primary Gnomen is there. It will be necessary for me to acquaint myself with him. I suspect there is a hidden conspiracy involved in the frog decimation. I want to prove it and locate the links to the Intendant himself. He is behind all of this. That is certain.”

She wrinkled the skin of her brows. “Do you remember when I warned you about him? Years ago, when I was in my early teens, he frightened me terribly. I never told anyone, not even my father. But that is why I came to loath the man.”

She ended with a nervous shudder. It seemed to seize control of her whole body. When it was over, she spoke once again. “He grabbed me around my breast and tried to feel and squeeze, but I stiffened and pushed back. My resistance made him release me.” She looked away, to one side.

As he heard this, Ranid grew angry and excited. He extended his right arm, taking her left hand and holding it tightly.

“I would have protected you, Glia, then or afterwards, or at any time at all. What you say crushes me inside. If only I could have shielded you!”

She made a wry smile. “You were elsewhere then. And no physical assault was allowed to occur. But I never forgot what a hypocritical rogue he is beneath his outer mask. I was never able to describe the incident to my father. As the years passed, it became too late for that. And he stayed away from me, or at least seemed to do so. But we rarely ever exchanged a word between us.”

The two of them fell silent, both of them unable to proceed any further or deeper.

“I intend to find out if there is a subterranean conspiracy at Feretrum,” he promised. “Keep up your spirits, Glia. There may come a turnabout for your father’s condition.”

With that said, he let go of her hand and walked out of the antechamber.

Ereth was troubled and exhausted, collecting and examining dead frogs without end or intermission. There seemed to be nothing he could do about the doomed amphibians that had come down with the unknown fatal disease. He led Ranid around the tables where the inert bodies lay.

“It will be a mighty help to me having you here at the Sump. Your task will be to assist in the disposal of the dead frogs.”

All that morning, Ranid refrained from asking any more questions of the touchy nepotal. But during the noontime rest, he went to the central cabin to see what he could learn about insect control from the friendly, trustworthy sumpman, Ereth.

“How did your first tour of the ponds go?” asked the latter.

“Not bad at all,” replied the softum. “One fact struck me: I saw very few gallinippers around. But Atpl mentioned that he is in charge of keeping their population down. That struck me as hard to believe or rationalize. What possible danger could there be from them? They bite, of course. But why take them so seriously? Why so much fright?”

Ereth grinned for a moment. “I asked that same question when I first came here. They told me that it was a custom established by the founders of Feretrum. The actual reason had long been forgotten. But the original objective, I learned, was to prevent and avoid paludal fever in the members of the coenobium. That disease was stamped out way back then, but the tradition of killing off its carriers continued. We still put out the toxicants even today.”

“Interesting,” was all that Ranid said at this point, soon leaving to begin collecting corpses on his own, without pressures from the nepotal.

When Ranid returned to the center of Feretrum that evening he did not go to the vespertine service in the fanum, but instead crept into the librarium. There was a particular subject that he had to look up. Was there anything recorded about gallinippers and the danger of some sort of paludal fever?

Already, many preparations were finished for tomorrow’s Day of Encaenia. He could see wreaths and decorations marking the anniversary of the establishment of the community of Feretrum. The holiday and the festival would soon be upon all of them. Ranid suddenly thought of Glia and her stricken father. What would those two possibly have to celebrate?

Ranid had no success at first. Nothing connected to the Frog Sump mentioned the gallinipper as a health threat. On and on the reader went, his fish-oil lamp burning low again and again. Not a word could be found about what he wanted to know. The night went on, until he was the lone individual left in the building.

I must see Glia in the morning, he told himself.

There was something that happened at the time of the foundation of the coenobium. What could it have been? He began to browse about at random in the old folios and scrolls. If he only knew what it was he was hunting for! Something about galliippers and paludal fever.

Then he stumbled onto an oblique reference with significance for him. It was a short, hazy note about a distant, forgotten incident.

“In the third year after the establishment of Feretrum, when the Frog Sump was being formed, an old group of vagabonds arrived. They were hungry and were given food. Their claim was to being swampmen seeking employment. We asked whether they had experience with the care of frogs and their answer was yes. But they worked only three weeks at digging and hauling soil before their secret was uncovered. At the time, the wanderers said they had to rid the sump of culicines and anephelines. Their leader said that he possessed a special mosquito bane that had the power to get rid of them. Its name was ceratophrys, a strange unfamiliar term for everyone outside their small group of tramps. Before they began to apply this unknown bane, though, all of these men were exposed as Gnomens and expelled at once from Feretrum.”

Ranid drew breath into his lungs with an extremely deep gasp.

Had he discovered the key with which to unlock this mysterious amphibian tragedy?

It was past midnight, yet he found Glia still awake when he rapped on the door of her cubiculum. Should he inform her of what he had found out about the Frog Sump? It was better to wait and present her with a full story, he decided. There would surely be time enough for disclosure later. Why rush into such a disturbing subject as that?

“Your father?” he asked her. “How is he?”

“Unconscious, in deep coma,” she moaned. “No one knows when he will awaken again.”

“Tomorrow begins the Encaenia, but he will not be part of it, will he?”

“No, that is impossible. That will give the Intendant the official duty of presiding at all the many ceremonies. I am certain he will enjoy himself and take the opportunity to widen his power and position.”

“It’s a shame, a scandal,” grumbled Ranid. “This man was born without any conscience. Feretrum would be completely changed if he should become the dominant official here.”

All of a sudden, the softum moved closer to his tutulary. What he did next was unforeseeable and unplanned. The kiss that was given was a light, delicate buss on the middle of her forehead. There were no words and no embracing. Nothing but the brotherly peck, gentle and nonaggressive. But sufficient to communicate what he was feeling about her.

Without any more words, Ranid departed.


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