In the warren that was Madam Operas, Rossamünd often hid himself away from the taunts and snickers that he still endured from the other children. He would lose himself in his favorite books and pamphlets, reading them avidly. He dared to dream that there could be a better lot for him beyond the marine societys corroding walls, and let his head fill with scenes of battles, and marauding monsters and the mighty heroes that conquered them. He might have trouble remembering the Hundred Rules of Harundo, but the things he discovered within the dog-eared pages of his precious readers would stay with him forever.
Soon enough, Verline returned. She slid discreetly along the creaking wood, her great tent of many-layered skirts making their telltale rustling. The high ceiling bounced the hissing echoes softly back till the room was filled with the gentle susurrus of her passage. He was certain she floated with her feet some inches off the floor and, to him, this added to her virtue. In his tiny world, Verline was Rossamünds favorite. She was short and slight, her earth-dark hair hidden beneath the white cotton bonnet that female servants wore. She adored ribbons and bows, and even the plain, workaday clothes she wore had several knotted here and there, the biggest being a great white knot made from her apron straps, tied in the small of her back. Within the crook of her left arm, and wrapped in a cloth, she held a small porcelain crock. From it putrid, mustard-colored fumes boiled and evaporated in the close air of the dormitory, leaving a bad stink.
Befuddled as he was, he still recognized the yellow steam and rank smell. Birchet was a torture masquerading as a cure.
Verline extracted a turned ladle from one of the many pockets in her white apron. She swilled about in the crock with this and brought it out filled with what he knew would be the most disgusting muck he would ever have the unhappy luck to swallow.
Now hold your nose and open your mouth, she told him sternly.
Pinching closed his nostrils, and squeezing shut his eyes, Rossamünd opened his mouth. Verline spooned the restorative potion as best she could into the tiny hole he had reluctantly made of his lips. Rossamünds whole head instantly flared with the fires of a thousand burning lamps. His nose was filled to bursting with the stinging stench of the mangy armpit of a dead dog, and his nostril hairs withered like straw on a fire. He was certain that cadmium-colored steam was squirting from his ears. Just when he thought he could stand it no more, the burning-bursting subsided and left him feeling well and whole.
He burped a little yellow bubble. Thank you, Miss Verline, he gasped.
Verline told him to rest, that she would be back with a jar of water. She left again, and before she returned Rossamünd was asleep
Excerpted from Monster Blood Tattoo. Copyright 2006 D.M. Cornish. Reproduced with permission of the publisher, Penguin Group. All rights reserved.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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