First when Makrofaga stopped by Grak’s market stall she realised her plan to cover up Auduin Enris’ espionage may have had some flaws. Her face hurt. A lot. She wanted someone to, frankly, give her a hug and help her repaint the makeup. While it had been oddly heart warming to see how unwilling Auduin had been to beat her up, it was disconcerting to discover how good he was at it. The memory of his eyes freezing to ice before he socked his fist into her eye kept flashing through her mind. She had ended up with one eye swollen shut, a bleeding, thick lip, and probably a broken rib. She limped past market stalls where dirty elves and high elves turned and stared at her, and when she finally found Grak the first thing she saw was the orc turn pale as a sheet of paper.
Every soul has an off-button. It’s a security device to keep the psyche from imploding from stress, and it releases when things raises the feelings over the highest alert level. As soon as this level is reached you stop feeling, and are supposed to deal with a panic situation in calm and cold manner. In Makrofaga’s case this off-button triggered too early. Many people thought she didn’t have feelings, since she often dealt with tragic situations without – seemingly – being affected. They never saw how she lay awake at night, for years afterwards, and replayed what had happened, having those painful feelings slowly digging themselves into her soul like barbed daggers. It was little comfort that the same thing happened with positive things – a favour or a kind word didn’t affect her much at first, but the warm feeling stayed for a long time. Now, when she limped to one of her oldest friends in Skräpmården, this off button kept her from connecting the feelings she saw around her with herself. She loved all the dirty elves, and couldn’t, at least not at the moment, connect their shock with her black eye.
Grak dropped her scissors and gaped so big her underjaw fangs nearly touched her upper lip.
“I hope you don’t mind, Grak” said Makrofaga and felt her soul squirm, “but I need a hug.”
“But off course!”
She wrapped Makrofaga in a hug so tight the last ordered makeup smeared itself against the intricately embroidered coat. That was one of Grak’s most important portfolios, and before Makrofaga was ambushed by the pain in her side she thought that it would be destroyed forever.
“Ow! Ow! My side! I think I’ve broken something!”
“Your majesty! What happened to you???”
Makrofaga put her hands over her face.
“I asked for it! But can you help me with the makeup? I think the last pieces just wore off.”
The eyes of the entire market followed them when Grak led Makrofaga behind the curtains of her fitting “room”. The dirty elves elaborate makeup had more functions than being a decorative part of their dress habits. That it annoyed the high elves wasn’t wrong, far from it. Some dirty elves put on their eye shadow with a sneer ever day. But one of the more important reasons to use it was to become hard to recognise. Being recognised by former friends and relatives meant having to face, full frontal, that you had been thrown away like trash. Some even thought about those friends and relatives and wanted to keep them from being embarrassed. For whatever reason a dirty elf rather ran around naked than without makeup.
Grak had extra makeup in her stall – putting on and off clothes smeared things, and the customers appreciated the service. Now she put the pallets before Makrofaga and helped treat the bleeding lip.
“I asked for it” Makrofaga repeated while she mixed her preferred colours, “stupid as it is.”
“Did that Auduin Enris do this?”
“Yes… We need to hold an extra council tonight. Are there babysitters available?”
At least ten persons shouted they were willing to babysit.
“I even think Foetida and Odoferus will be sober, you majesty.”
Makrofaga side glanced at the crowd outside the curtains, and cursed herself for not thinking further. She had a person she needed to talk to, and she would have to walk through almost the entire Skräpmården to reach xer. As hard as it was for her to connect the feelings people had they still would affect her. Having wrath around teared her soul like a grater teared fabric.
Suddenly mr Lotus peaked around the curtain. An odd relief. Unlike most dirty elves he wouldn’t assault her with hugs or loud wails.
“How did you get here so fast?”
“I flew… well, jumped. Do you need anything?”
“Mostly company. I have a person I need to talk to. Do you mind escorting me.”
Normally it would take her somewhere between half an hour to an hour to walk down to the sewers, because the person she had to talk to worked around the sewer mouth. This time the time stretched over two hours, and was filled with dirty elves talking, inspecting her wounds, offering remedies, wishing for Auduin Enris’ gory demise, and in general being the awesome people the dirty elves were. Makrofaga had been around them enough to not act like their concern was of no importance to her, but she had to direct herself to hide that her soul currently was overworn and numb. Mr. Lotus walked close behind her, not saying much. He didn’t even hold her hand, and given their earlier conversation she wasn’t surprised. She barely had time to reflect over it, and it wasn’t until she reached the sewer mouth she realised how much she appreciated that he was there.
She was still in the middle of a worried group of dirty elves, and could ask one of them to fetch Dido. Much to her surprise the assembly dissolved, as if they knew what she was going to ask. Only the person who had agreed to find Dido stayed around, and soon returned with her. The woman was brown, like a hazel nut in the last warm days of fall, she lacked one arm, and her face was completely immobile under all her makeup.
“Hello,” said Makrofaga and draw for breath, “are you the mother of Pamphylia Enris?”
It was a good mountain top, but it wasn’t “their” mountain top. To be fair Makrofaga hadn’t realised the mountain mr Lotus had carried her to earlier were special until she had suggested to the rest of the councilors that they’d take a look at it. She could’ve hit herself. Despite years of training she still missed those special little clues in relationships. She could only hope this wouldn’t put one of those awkward wedges between her and mr Lotus that tend to kill an early relationship. Where she stood she could see the place where he had coiled up around her, though she soon chose to look out over the valley. She had to tell the rest of the council what Auduin Enris had told her, and the reason they all had “made an excursion” was that this was something that couldn’t reach the rest of Skräpmården’s ears. Not yet at least. They needed a plan for what they would do.
The king of Flådhöjden was a vain man. He was indeed beautiful, with long, midnight black hair, alabaster skin and red lips, and he wanted the rest of the world to match. Over the last years he had cleaned up Flådhöjden of anything he didn’t want there, and his efforts had come to an end. It was as perfect as it could be, even with the most the relentless efforts no more improvement could be made. At the same time Makrofaga’s efforts with Skräpmården had made her place swell over. People may not be in the best place, but they were healthier, happier, and more numerous than they had ever been. But instead of being impressed the Flådhöjden king saw something else when he looked at Skräpmården from his windows. He saw overflowing cow dung, and he wanted it removed.
Auduin Enris didn’t meet the king often, and until Makrofaga forced him to ask around he had seen himself as an official working for a normally flawed leader. There are always unsavoury parts of ruling a country, and no one can handle them perfectly. Of course the Flådhöjden king was due to push buttons and stomp on a few toes just like anyone else. But when Auduin dug deeper he had found out that the king didn’t care. Removing Kingdom of Heaven was a first step, since the king rightly assumed it was the anchor to the identity of the dirty elves. They were a fiercely diverse bunch – not all of them believed in the same deities, or in gods at all, but they all visited Kingdom of Heaven. Remove that, and the crowd would be more easy to handle. With kindness or cruelty… well, the king didn’t care at all. Eventhough he leaned to cruelty all the persons walking the streets of the slum was just as important to him as specks of dust. If he torched all of it he wouldn’t feel anything. And since the dirty elves were loud and, in his opinion, ugly he had decided to send Skräpmården, piece by piece, into oblivion.
It’s only in fairy tales a large mass of persons panics and flees at such news. What Makrofaga feared was the creeping loss of spirit. They already felt like trash, and while Flådhöjden’s treatment wasn’t kind, at least it was a ceremonial recognition of them as a country. If the news got out one of the most important life lines for their self esteem would be cut, and gradually people would just sit down and wait for death. One of the few things that could keep them upright was for her and her council to already spread a Very Good Plan around. So they needed A Plan, and when she stood there, looking out over Skräpmården together with mr Lotus, Odoferus, Grak, and Foetida, they all felt that they lacked too much in that department.
“How much time do we have” Grak asked.
“Hard to tell” Makrofaga said, “Auduin Enris said he’d already stalled the plans as much as he could. I mean, he wants his daughter back in one piece.”
“You need to fight” said Grak.
Odoferus found a suitable stone and sank down on it. For once he didn’t smile.
“We can’t fight! We’re party animals!”
They all sighed. Dawn spreads its rosy clouds over Skräpmården, and a thousand golden windows in Flådhöjden made the towering city look blacker than it should.
“Nothing wrong with a party” said mr Lotus.
The others stared at him.
“Do you have any ideas, mr. Lotus?” Makrofaga asked.
“Yes, your majesty. Ask for another audience and demand thirty meters of Sprättströget.”
They held another council at Skräpmården, to cover up the first one. They had one issue that could be heard by the regular dirty elves, and it had the benefit of giving some extra explanation as to why Makrofaga was beat up by Auduin Enris. Should they introduce Pamphylia to her mother? Dido herself had agreed to it, reluctantly. Both parents agreed on one thing – they wanted Pamphylia to stay at Flådhöjden. The chance was the girl would want to stay once she found out her mom was still alive, and worked by dragging feces from the sewers. All of the persons around the table at Makrofaga’s hut could understand the parents. The choice between a dirty, overpopulated slum, and the lap of luxury – when it was for one’s only child it wasn’t a hard one to make.
“Whatever,” said Odoferus, “I think they set themselves up! You really should ask the _gal_ if she want to meet her mom.”
“You think?” said Makrofaga.
“DAAAAAAAAAAAAHling! Think! How long have that lIIIIIttle one thought her mom had crOOOAAAked, and then YOOOUUUUU just DROOOOPS her into the CEEEEEEEEEElll. Could make an OOORRRC crazy!”
Makrofaga thought it over.
“You couldn’t be a better bunch of councilors if I dipped you in gold! Anyway, I need to rest – council is ended.”
There were things Makrofaga gladly stalled as long as she could. The next day she took her usual walk around Skräpmården first. She could have rearranged her habits, yet it felt better to keep them just as they were. Not only for the knotty subject of reintroducing a mother to her daughter. This was tax collecting day, and from experience she knew things would run more smoothly if she had been around first. This way they ended up with far less wounded and dead. As discretely as she could manage she reminded people that she wanted them alive, before she joined mr Lotus and Dido at the top of Kingdom of Heaven.
Makrofaga went along down the dark corridor. She listened to her own footsteps and tried to find something to say that wasn’t as boorish as she could be. The exercise of playing through different scenarios usually made her find the right words once she had to really speak. Still, when she stood at the door, she had a feeling she would be a bit too brutal. As usual – but the thing needed to be said.
The cell was neatly kept, and Pamphylia wasn’t screaming at her. The girl wasn’t overly happy to see her either, something Makrofaga could understand. And the kitten surprised her. Last time she’d seen in it it had been tiny, almost so small you could fit it into one hand. It’s grey striped fur had still had its kitten fluffyness. The thing that slept at the foot of Pamphylia’s bed was huge, and had midnight blue fur with saphire stripes.
“Is that a moon tiger???”
Pamphylia shrugged and looked slightly embarrassed.
“I was bored, and the magic here around is interesting. Can you call magic ancient? I thought all magic was the same, but here it’s as it is cleaner, older.”
Makrofaga couldn’t agree more, though again she was surprised someone wouldn’t notice how different magic looked in different places.
“Have you tried to get out?”
The girl looked to the cat and coughed.
“It’s impossible. I don’t even recognise what holds the mechanism down.”
They both looked at the sleeping moon tiger, trying to find out what to say.
“Will I ever get out from here.”
“Good question. You haven’t even had a trial yet…”
The insight was like a hammer to Makrofaga’s soul. On top of everything else she’d need to arrange a trial for Pamphylia, and find judges that were willing to stay sober for the entire process.
“…but that’s not why I came. You think your mother is dead, right?”
Pamphylia looked up.
“Shouldn’t she be?”
“She’s one of many here who are “dead” to their families in Flådhöjden, since she was thrown into the sewers.”
With one hand buried deep into the moon tiger’s fur Pamphylia drew for breath.
“I’m not sure I believe you.”
The tiger noticed her hand, and stretched over the bed with a friendly growl, pushing one of its paws against the wall over the pillow.
“I can understand, but if you want to she can come and see you.”
“Is she here?”
“In the temple, at least.”
First Pamphylia fell silent, then the rest of the cell. The only thing you could hear was the faint breathing of the tiger. Makrofaga grabbed a handful of fabric in her dress and squeezed hard. She hoped she hadn’t said anything wrong.
“Yes,” Pamphylia finally said.
Mr Lotus brought Dido within minutes. It was as if the corridor only swallowed time when you walked through it. As soon as the woman was inside the cell Makrofaga changed places with her, and stepped as close to mr Lotus as he was comfortable with. Pamphylia stood up from the bed, not sure what to do. The moon tiger opened up one eye, took in what happened in the room, and closed it again. Dido stood with her back as straight as a rake, and looked down on her daughter. At that moment mr Lotus gently drew Makrofaga from the cell, and closed the door.
They went to the middle square and took seats at the feast table. Unlike all other elves around it they mostly sat quiet.
“I brought you a gift” said mr Lotus and pulled a box out of one of his sleeves.
“You don’t need to, you know that?”
“I know, your majesty, but I want to.”
She removed the wrapping and found a small, foldable chess set. It was made by one of the best craftsmen in Skräpmården, and must have cost quite a bit. The pieces where made of re-purposed glass, and the table was made of hammered tin and brass.
“I like this game,” Makrofaga said, “the queen moves around being a bitch, while the king hides behind his officers and does nothing but getting beat.”
Mr Lotus looked up.
“Oddly close to reality, don’t you think?”
They chuckled and put up their pieces.
You learn a lot about a budding partner by playing games with them. Mr Lotus was a good opponent, his strategies solid and elegant, and he often had several to back up with if his first failed. He also started to sweat when Makrofaga got the upper hand. She made another crushing move just to see if she was right. And suddenly felt the magic around them shift. It had nothing to do with their game. It was something from the outside. The entire square vibrated, the magic rippling like water when someone kicks the pier foundation. She looked around the square together with mr Lotus and all the other party participants. The place was suddenly silent. Then the doors to the hospital flew open and the doctors paraded out. All had their beaked masques, their hooded red frocks, and a golden chalice in their hand. In grave silence they walked, pair upon pair, toward the exiting corridor.
“What’s happening?” mr Lotus said while Makrofaga sprung to her feet.
“Something’s happening outside. I need you to lift me.”
They ran outside, and mr Lotus leapt into the air. Once he could lift her they soon saw why Kingdom of Heaven had dispatched its healers. An irate crowd had attacked the tax collectors.
The taxes were collected four times a year, and that was one of the few times – apart from the charity projects – that high elves went into Skräpmården. They didn’t risk anything. The collectors were always many more than they needed to be, members of the guard, and those who didn’t collect the money sat on their war horses. During the day they slowly meandered through the slum, paying a visit to every hut demanding money. A few dirty elves put up a fight, and the evening in general ended with a bruise comparing party. As far as Skräpmården parties goes it usually was sombre. Losing to the tax collectors wasn’t much to write a note about. The leader of the tax collectors was always Auduin Enris, riding first on a dapple grey horse.
From the air Makrofaga and mr Lotus could only see a boiling mass of bodies and horses. Normally the dirty elves would be no match for the trained soldiers. Even if they were fewer they knew their craft. But this time close to fifty elves had taken on each of the guards, beating and kicking furiously. For a moment Makrofaga was at loss for words, taking in how the rest of the Flådhöjden army was about to notice that something was amiss.
“DRENCH THEM MR LOTUS!”
Mr Lotus dived, opened his mouth and let out a flood of clear water. The effect was similar to turning a huge bucket upside down over an anthill. Dirty elves and high elf guards, still locked to each other in fight, floated away in as small, angry islands, their kicking and biting subsiding the more they felt the cold water seep through their clothes. Huts flatted, and the sorry rests were driven together into trash islands. Horses strove to keep their heads above surface and screamed in panic. And suddenly the water turned, flattened, and trickled out over the rest of the slum. Groggy fighters looked at each other and tried to find their footing again.
“WHAT ON EARTH ARE YOU DOING?!”
Makrofaga was so mad she had climbed on top of mr Lotus’ head and screamed on top of her lungs.
“I SAID I WANT YOU ALL ALIVE!”
“But…” said one of the dirty elves who miraculously still were standing, possibly because he was an orc “we were winning…”
“AT THE MOMENT YES! BUT THEY HAVE AN ARMY TO BACK THEM UP!”
The dirty elves slided through the mud, striving to stand, and sheepishly not looking at each other. The high elf guards clenched their teeth and did the same.
“I CAN SEE THE SOLDIERS GEARING UP FROM HERE! DID YOU WANT THE ENTIRE SKRÄPMÅRDEN BURNT TO THE GROUND?”
More sheepish shuffling. No one seemed to know what to do with the foe beside them. Makrofaga sighed and pointed.
“DIRTY ELVES – OVER THERE!”
When the dirty elves had retreated the high elf guards looked strangely vulnerable in the mud. With grey slime all over their clothes none of the fancy soldier design was visible, and they were reduced to being their bodies. Anyone of them could be anyone in Skräpmården. In the middle of the empty spot left after the flood one couple was still locked in fight. Auduin Enris kicked and strived to unclench Silver’s jaws from his butt. The unicorn’s eyes were red from war frenzy. For a while Auduin’s swearing was the only thing that was heard.
“Someone,” said Makrofaga, “get Grak.”
It says a lot about Auduin’s reputation among the dirty elves that no one dared laughing. Not there and then. No one even felt a flicker of a giggle.
After an awkward and long wait Grak stomped over to the unicorn. Without looking at the captain she gingerly wiggled her fingers between the unicorn jaws.
“It’s time to let go!”
“Yup it is!”
Slowly and carefully, to not hurt her friend, she pried the jaws apart. As soon as Auduin felt he was free he rolled over and crawled away as fast as he could. Still red eyed Silver tried to lunge for him.
Grak slung him over her shoulder and left. They could hear the unicorn scream until he was hoarse. At the same time Auduin finally came to his feet. Red splotches mixed with the grey goo on his pants. He looked around. The horses, being trained to not run way when they lost their riders, had collected in an shivering group as far away from the dirty elves as possible.
“Binky!” he spat out “Binky! Over here!”
The dirty elves stared wide eyed at each other. Still not even a hint of a giggle. The dapple grey horse left the flock and limped over to his owner, head held nobly high, and eyes that said “say a word and I kick in your head”. Makrofaga leaned down to make sure Auduin heard her.
Auduin looked up. His cheeks were smeared with mud, and while he still had his eyeglasses they were covered in splotches.
“You have enough of what you came for! Leave! And get me a real audience the next time!”
No need for further words. Auduin took his horse by the reins and lead his muddy soldiers out of Skräpmården. They had a silent audience of dirty elves along the way. Not even the kids said anything. Not until the group was safely outside their borders, and had rejoined the army on the other side. The entire slum erupted in triumphant roar, and refused to go silent.
Late that evening Makrofaga and mr Lotus sat watching stars on their mountain top, trying to make sense of the day. Makrofaga had spent hours rebuilding huts, and working complicated diplomacy to make try to smooth out the tax losses over the entirety of Skräpmården. By asking the right family share with the right persons she had managed to end up with a population were all had paid half the taxes. She felt wrung out in every fiber. Now the entire Skräpmården was a gigantic party. She had stayed until the din had wore her down, and she asked mr Lotus to help her to a silent spot. He had stayed in dragon form and coiled up to form a comfortable chair for her.
“Fighting the tax collectors…” she sighed. “What got into them?”
Mr Lotus chuckled.
“You get one thing that few rulers get,” he said.
“You get that a ruler is the servant of the people. You personally rebuild losses, you are always around them, and you don’t give up until all have a fairly good life – as long as it’s possible.”
“Is it anything wrong with that?”
“No! That’s one of the reasons I stay! You’re the best teacher I can have! But on the other hand…”
He headbumped her gently.
“…you seem to miss one thing that get rulers a big head; a ruler is the first representative of a people…”
“…and that means I have to handle that butt Auduin Enris!”
“No, that means if someone strikes you he strikes the heart of all the dirty elves. Everyone will know, everyone will be angry.”
“Hm. I haven’t thought of it that way. Being a ruler seems to be a job almost anyone can do, as long as they’re willing to put in the work – and there are many of those around in Skräpmården.”
The dragon lifted his gigantic head and looked at the stars for a long time.
“In a way,” he finally said, “it’s the same where I come from.”
“Speaking of which; what does sitting on horseback looking at flowers mean?”
“I have to tell you a story to explain…”
“Once upon a time there was a boy and a girl who were looking to marry. Where they lived women and men didn’t spend time together in the same way they do in Skräpmården, they hadn’t even met each other. Instead they had to rely on matchmakers, and it so happens they ended up paired with each other. Being young they both wanted to look like the perfect spouse, and _have_ the perfect spouse. Their parents, who were the ones taking the important decisions, had agreed to the marriage. It was the usual case of families and properties fitting together, but they decided that the young couple would have the last say. The prospective groom would be allowed to walk past the girls house, and look at her in the garden. She, of course, would look at him at the same time. If they liked what they saw they would agree to marry.
There was only one problem – or two if you want to be picky about it. The boy had a permanent limp, and knew he would look bad hobbling about. The girl had a cleft lip, and thought – not without reason – that the boy would find her ugly. But the boy had a friend who suggested he’d ride past the house instead of walk. That way he would look royal, and the limp would be invisible. The girl had a friend who suggested she’d pick a bunch of flowers and smelled them when the boy showed up. The flowers would enhance the beauty of her eyes, and hide the cleft lip.
The Big Day came, and the boy borrowed a magnificent horse. He look royal where he road. The girl picked the garden’s most beautiful flowers, and her eyes twinkled with them and the sun as he came by. They both agreed to the marriage. And thus they also had to spend the most awkward wedding night in history.
That’s sitting on horseback looking at flowers.”
Makrofaga thought back to the morning earlier that week.
“Well,” she said at last “you have seen me in a few of my most unsavoury moments, that’s true.”
“And so have you. Speaking of horseback and flowers… Which is your real name?”
Makrofaga looked to Flådhöjden’s burning fires and sighed.
“I’ve lived for so long at Skräpmården that I think it is Makrofaga, but if you really want to know…”
For a few days the entire Skräpmården was boiling. They had driven out the tax collectors. For once they had had the upper hand. Makrofaga felt the pressure rise with each day, and she worried. The dirty elves were still a group of party animals, and not soldiers. If they got into their mind to do any kind of attack on Flådhöjden it would end in a blood bath. She searched the library for answers, she discussed the thing with her councilors, and – most important – she let everyone know there was a plan in the works. And when she was as most preoccupied with rebuilding and planning one of Flådhöjdens heralds knocked on her door. It was a rainy day and his pastel yellow and blue and orange shoe where drenched in mud and unspeakable dirt. He left her a message without open his mouth, his face being a painting over how much he not wanted to be there. It was one of those moments Makrofaga was happy she could read. Having that sourpuss reading for her would have destroyed her day. But she nearly fainted when she read the parchment. She had been granted an audience with the king of Flådhöjden – and given ample time to prepare herself. She was so amazed she called the council together.
“This have never happened before!”
The others glanced over the parchment.
“Why now” said Grak.
“DAAAAAAHling,” said Foetida, “should we REAAAAAAAly look a gift HOOOOORSe in the mouth?”
“Yes,” said mr Lotus, “sometimes that horse is a bad tempered unicorn with the horn removed.”