The King of the Mbe’lmbe nudged him sideways out of the passage. He tried looking back the way they had come, to the far off door by the muddy river, but it was all black down there now, and he couldn’t tell if lights had gone off or if the tunnel had simply filled up with darkness. A new light winked like a baleful subterrene Polaris from far off in the yet untravelled dark. It beckoned him. The complicated smells of rust and nitre had begun to exert a hold on his curiosity as strong as–and even stranger than–the syrupy fumes that were so much a part of the atmosphere.
They proceeded through what had been a sculpted arch, once no doubt quite ornate, now a sad affair of whitewashed beams and broken plaster that had mostly crumbled away. Dragging his fingers along the wall, he caught a few flecks of the stuff, and brought it reflexively to his mouth and then his tongue. Sweet. It was sweet as sugar yet stale as old pastry, like a sacrificial wafer from a mummy’s tomb.
And thinking mummy thoughts, he was wholly unsurprised when a boat emerged from the cavernous gloom, and he found himself at the shore of a rancid Styx. There was no oarsman, no one to take the helm of the high-prowed ship, and in fact they were not to board the weathered craft. It lay canted against a splintered wharf, tied to stanchions striped like faded barber poles, and so thickly furred with lint and dust that he believed they must be ancient candy canes. The oars lay piled within like broken bones.
“Once, but no more,” the King murmured with mixed regret and relief. “The very essence of efficiency, it took its toll.”
They hurried past the ruined ship and down the dark sweet throat from which the candyshop scents issued, the stagnant river lapping at their side. It was hard to imagine what stirred the river now. There was no wind, no current, yet thick little waves tracked them for a time, as if the boat were rocking to the motion of its hidden cargo, or as if something immense had lowered itself into the scum and begun to swim. Not far along, the little King caught sudden hold of Hugh’s wrist. Hugh wondered why this should be until he saw, in mounds of darkened earth, glittering white crosses running parallel to the river’s course, row upon row like sharks’ teeth layered back into the darkness. Some of the little graves were set with delicate candy skulls, and the crosses themselves must be sugar. So many…a holocaust down here in the darkness…the graves so small and close-set that at first he thought they must all be the graves of children, until he felt the King’s trembling and realized these were all his people. Not a single marker bore a name.
He counted a hundred paces along the river’s edge, with a grave for every pace; and that was only in the nearest row. He forced himself to stop counting, but the graves went on unnumbered. They grew more irregular, spaced farther apart, as if the things they held were increasingly large. The earth looked split and dried, like a cake that had baked too long, the doughy interior swelling up from beneath.
The King had closed his eyes and clung to him, his brow damp, his lips moving in feverish prayer.
Finally they were past that dreadful place, and Hugh thought he might ask a simple question, but the King’s eyes sprang open and stopped him from even considering it.
“Do not concern yourself with them,” he said firmly. “It is my burden alone—I, who brought them here. You are here for the sake of the living.”
“But…” The question he had been burning to ask. “Why me?”
“Why? It is the only way open to us now. Once there was another way, but in his madness he forsook it. Crazed and companionless, he has forgotten all goodness. He has forgotten life. Sugarbirds once sang here, but they have fallen silent. He has been too long without others. I did not show you all the graves.”
Hugh swallowed, assuming he should be grateful for this mercy. The King’s eyes were terrible.
“Now here,” he said, “say nothing. Do not show pity or contempt or anything untoward. Especially not fear! Keep your thoughts shut up close. There must be no commotion.”
They had arrived at another unexpected door, the appliqué letters pale and peeling. Once they had read SWETESHOPPE, though applied all askew with an unsure hand. The King clenched the knob and opened it into a smell such as Hugh had never imagined.
It was sweetness mingled with sweat, smells of toil and grief, vanilla and excrement, odors of violet and urine, butchershop blood and confectioner’s sugar. He caught himself at the threshold, unwilling to take a single step inside, until the King tugged at his wrist and he knew he must come. He started to put a hand to his mouth, but the King sensed his intent and slapped his hand down. He went forward smiling and bowing and beckoning at Hugh to stay beside him.
All about them towered piles of glazed cooking pots, spiraling copper coils, gauges with needles trembling, steam spouting from high pipes, cages. Everywhere cages. He could not quite see what was in them, apart from the eyes, but that was enough. Eyes like boiled sweets, rolling and watching them, disembodied orbs with bright candy centers that shook and rattled and stared as they passed. That was only for starters. The cages grew larger, the air more rank and humid, the sugary sweetness more cloying and more fetid. There were things in the cages, short and dark, which might have been people once, though now they were little more than enormous mouths with tubes going into them, and rich thick liquors bubbling through the tubes, and even greater richness straining the dark skins to bursting. In some places they had stretched until they split, and raspberry liquors oozed out between the cracks.
“Show respect,” the King whispered, bowing and turning to all sides as they advanced.
“But were they, are they, people?” Hugh whispered in return, although to do so meant he must inhale uncontrollably.
“No…not quite…never. Not these. Not alive, exactly. Without constant irrigation, they would expire immediately. But He…He has not the strength to end their misery. He starts but never finishes. The creator who cannot also understand the need for death should never have been given such power in the first place. Theirs is an endless suffering.”
“If they aren’t alive than how can they suffer?”
“Look at them. Look into their eyes and see if you can still ask such a question.”
But he could not. He couldn’t even be certain where to find their eyes without straining close into the dimness of the cage, which was not something he felt strong enough to do.
“Please,” he said, “I don’t like it here.”
“I’m not sure which are more to be pitied,” said the King. “These, or the ones that have achieved a kind of existence…the ones that have managed to escape.”
Hugh recalled the sound of the soft puffing mouth, the stirring of the stagnant river. He began to retch.
“Now, now. We are almost through.”
At the far end of the room, a door showed through a jumble of nut husks and toppled cages; the floor was deeply grooved and scratched where it had been hauled open countless times. As the King released him to haul on the door, Hugh looked back and saw the caged things watching him, desperately sad, as if waiting to be eaten, wanting it, fearing it, knowing it was never to be.
“Steel yourself,” said the King.
But as the door flew open in a warm waft of wind, it was hard to know how this could be worse than what he’d just seen—how it could be anything bad at all. The buttery smell of chocolate was so intense it obliterated all other odors. Instead of dimness, there was light; instead of cloying humidity, the warmth of a friendly kitchen; instead of screams and despondent sighs, the cheer of sputtering pots and hissing kettles. Blended scents of cinnamon, dark cherry and sweet cream, orange essence and pistachio, rosewater, lime and sugar on the edge of burning but not quite. All these and more wondrous odors came cutting through the chocolate, mixed with it, set his mouth watering. He realized he was ravenous. In the world above it must be morning now—breakfast time. Thinking perhaps the light and warmth had been decanted down through pipes and mirrored shafts from the world above, he squinted up toward the source of that golden radiance, but it was too brilliant to behold directly. He saw the mouth of an immense oven, a furnace that burned his eyes, forging vision into something simultaneously bright and dark.
“Look away,” the King urged him. “It will blind you! Look down low and you will see him.”
Afterimages of the furnace sizzling on his eyes, he scanned the wide expanse of the chamber, searching till he saw movement far out on a distant plain. A man, tall and thin, almost skeletal. Hugh saw a top hat, a long black coat with tattered tails, a face white as chalk with a sharp white beard and sunken eyes.
The face saw him and reeled him in…he felt himself drawn across the spotted, stained and sticky floor. The figure reared up to its full height.
The white face with its stiff goatee gazed severely at him with eyes mismatched, one crazed and cracked like a faded gumball, the other blue as a robin’s egg, bright and quite alert. It whipped swiftly down and sideways to aim a silent reproach at the King, then up it lashed toward Hugh.
“Huh-hullo,” he said.
Stained blueish lips peeled back from teeth so impossibly foul and decayed that Hugh’s jaws began to ache with sympathetic pain. They were broken stumps, ground down to nothing, splintered and eroded. Those that were not entirely grey were yellowed like antique ivory. It was an overly generous grin, most of it gum, and the gums even worse than the teeth because they were so clearly in distress.
“And you are?” said the reedy voice from that terrible, reeking mouth.
Hugh would have staggered back, but the King of the Mbe’lmbe put a shoulder hard to the back of his thigh and pushed him forward. But without abandoning him, for the King held hard to Hugh’s hand and thrust it up as if for that gumball eye’s consideration.
“He is your successor,” stated the King.
“I need none.”
“Master, your time has ended. All who know you know this for the truth. Pass on the work that was passed to you.”
“What I have learned, cannot be passed along. I need no apprentice, and I have no heir.”
“But this is he! There is none worthier! None so pure! None so sweet!”
“Sweet, you say?” The gumball eye, looking as if it had been worn by repeated sucking, spun toward him. “You…boy…you do look familiar.”
“As well he should.”
“Still, he means nothing to me. Why do you say I should know him, eh?”
The top-hatted figure of the old Master thrust forward to catch at Hugh’s collar and cuffs, muttering all the while: “…is sugar…is life…” The fingers, he noticed, were sticky with honey and butter and chocolate. The white beard was stained with chocolate; bright red dabs of jam gleamed at the corners of the awful mouth. Louder now, the muttering, and closer in his ear: “Life is sugar and sugar is life.” The fingers roamed his body, feeling his ribs, “You need fattening up. You need sweets. Nice sweets. You need this.”
Hugh blinked. Beneath his nose, a bar of chocolate appeared as if from the thin man’s sleeves. He started to take it, but the King hauled down his arm by the elbow, with a whispered, “No!”
The thin man laughed down at the little King. “What do you fear? That he will eat and never want to leave?”
“You know that is not what I fear!”
The white face leaned closer to Hugh again, bent down like a jack in the box on a wobbling spring. “Go ahead…take a bite…”
The chocolate so close, beneath his nose, smelled delectable. Only the King’s fear held him back. There was something here he did not understand. He clamped his jaws shut and shook his head.
“Well, then…save it for later…” The long white fingers drifted toward his pockets, pulling them open ever so slightly, dropping the chocolate bar in, patting the pocket to make sure it was safely ensconced.
And then, “What’s this?”
The hand retracted, sticky fingers pinching the bound journal he’d carried with him all this way. “What…where did you find this?”
The brown King looked mystified, as baffled as the old white man.
The old gent opened the book to the page with its golden marker, and his lips began to move. Hugh thought he was reading the journal entry there, but in fact his eyes were not upon the page. He plucked out the golden bookmark and his eyes grew watery and distant. He turned his gaze to the handwritten pages, and flicked his eyes over several lines. His lips trembled. He looked up at Hugh, then gazed with growing rage at the King of the Mbe’lmbe. His rotten teeth gnashed; flecks of spittle sprayed from his foaming mouth. He tore the top hat from his head and hurled it down upon the floor.
“Why show me this?” he began to scream. “Why cast me back upon that shore?”
“I…I…it was a mistake,” the King began. “Please, Master…”
“After all I have done for you? Wretched imp! Is this how you show gratitude? Sacre sucre! I have come too far to be tripped up here!”
“Master! Master, you are forgetting what you put in place! Let me help you remember!”
Hugh found his arm gripped ever more firmly by the King.
“Remember, Master? Remember?”
Looking down, he caught the glimmer of a knife in the King’s hand.
How quickly it had appeared! Where had it come from, and why?
He struggled to move away—so sharp! But the Mbe’lmbe held him tight.
“Do not be afraid,” said the little King soothingly. He found himself unable to resist. He wanted to trust the King. He saw his small white hand held almost tenderly in that much smaller brown one. He clenched his hand into a fist, but the King deftly uncurled his pinky finger and held it so it stuck straight out.
With a sharp swift slice, he lopped off Hugh’s fingertip.