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The Folly of the World
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Yet even disaster can be profitable, for the right sort of individual, and into this flooded realm sail three conspirators: a deranged thug at the edge of madness, a ruthless conman on the cusp of fortune, and a half-feral girl balanced between them.
With The Folly of the World, Jesse Bullington has woven an extraordinary new tale of the depraved and the desperate.
Table of Contents
A Preview of The Enterprise of Death
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A very long time ago, the peasant-happy painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder crammed an impressive number of personified proverbs onto an oak panel. This painting, Netherlandish Proverbs, which is now housed at the Staatliche Museen in Berlin, allegedly bore the original title The Folly of the World. Bruegel's masterpiece inspired the title of this novel, as well as providing the proverbs with which I have begun the various sections of the book. Those who are inclined to find significance in this are encouraged to do so; those who would rather not are invited to forget this prelude at once and get on with the story.
Feast of the Annunciation 1422
"The Topsy-Turvy World"
The little boat slowed, both rowers setting their oars and kicking up amber water as they came to the willow wood bordering the village of Oudeland. In all directions the meer stretched flat and cold, but here at last the smooth expanse yielded to what lurked beneath it. The craft brushed the treetops, the few dead willow shoots that broke the filmy surface snapping like old rushes as the boat drifted through them. The two men peered over their respective sides, murmuring to each other where larger boughs threatened the belly of their vessel. Gray bream huddled in the rotting nests of their former hunters, eels festooned through the branches like Carnival ribbons.
The boat slid between the last fence posts of dead limbs, and then the town itself was beneath them. It was a shadow village, without thatch for its roofs to keep out the wet and the cold, without paint or color for its disintegrating shutters and doors, without any sun at all, only a vague, shimmering moon, never waxing, never warming. The mill had kept its blades but the great fan felt no wind in the ever-gloaming depths, yet all clotheslines and carts and even the well house had long since blown away. The boat scudded over Oudeland, quiet as thieves in a church or leaves on a lake, and there at last rose the old elm, what had once been the tallest tree in thirty leagues now only a tangled, naked bush pushing out of the water like a mean clump of blackthorn on the edge of a canal.
It had been a grand tree for climbing, if one could get a leg up to the lower branches, and one of the two men recalled the feel of rough bark against rough palm, the sound of laughter above and below, as close to flying as any could come in this life. Yet here they came, like unquiet spirits returning through the air, and with wonder they saw a figure balanced there in the boughs of the elm, waiting. They coasted past the bell tower of the church, a wide mooring post with a thorny crown where four herons had recently come of egg and age, and then the nose of the boat nuzzled the branches of the elm, the men staring at its keeper.
Much of the ram's hide had come away in greedy beakfuls, but enough had hardened in the sun to lash it to the boughs, a sunbleached and waterworn puppet tangled in the treetop. Its bare, eyeless skull was tilted upward with jaw agape, like a child catching snow or rain, and its forelegs were spread and caught amongst the branches, as if it were falling into flight or rising to crucifixion. The two men in the boat stared in silence at the ram, the vessel motionless upon the face of the deep, the moment seeming to stretch on and on, longer than all the roads and rivers in the world, and behind them, beneath them, the wheel of the mill mutely turned, kicking up silt as a great shadow slid past its mossy blades.
All Saints Day 1422
"Shitting Upon the Gallows"
Heaven bled when they took Sander from his cell, the condemned man scowling into the East as if offended by dawn's decision to attend his execution. In Dordrecht the harbors would be turning to molten gold, the walls of the city transforming into the gossamer white robes of angels, but here in Sneek the first light of morning shone only on shit, and all the alchemists in the witch-riddled West couldn't turn a turd into more than what it was. These were the thoughts Sander harbored as the cart he stood in squelched through the muddy square to the gallows-tree, and not even the rotten apples and clods of filth the mob hurled at him could detract from the thrill of anticipation. They were going to hang him, and Sander grinned as he spied the thick hempen rope. A ball of horse dung struck him on the teeth, the thankfully dry clump leaving an earthy taste in his mouth as he spit into the cheers of the crowd. He focused on the noose, trying to secure the burgeoning erection already firming up in his breeches—he was going to enjoy this.
Sander assumed that most people in his circumstance dreamed of escape, reprieve, something, but he would not allow himself the indulgence. Nor did he dwell on the life that had led him to this doomed place as surely as if he had followed a path without fork or intersection, much as men in his place are thought to. Were he to hang, the vast conspiracy he had carefully navigated, like a man creeping over an uncertain fen, would never be fully understood; the countless secret enemies who had orchestrated this farcical display would go unpunished… but he did not deign to give them his ruminations. No, Sander thought only of rope, coils of it wrapping around his ankles and thighs and balls and waist and chest and arms and elbows and wrists and, especially, his neck. Itchy, tight, sinuous rope constricting him until there was nothing left but braided, bloody knots.
That thought was what helped him fall asleep on nights when the dream-countries proved elusive, but now was not the time to linger on such fantasies, and he knew it. His heart beat faster as he looked around the town square, saw the hundred contorted faces of the crowd, lit for a moment on the desperate thought of Escape! like a horsefly flirting with a butcher's apron, and then settled back on rope. Cord was what bound his hands behind his back—also hemp, thick as his thumb, tied in his cell before they led him to the wagon. Sander flexed his hands, confirming the make of the knot he could not see and smiling all the wider. He let his fingertips curl up to stroke the knot a single time and then spread his hands again; a gull's wings taking flight, an overbloomed rose falling apart.
A pair of guards with crude pikes waited at the stairs of the gibbet. As the wagon jerked to a stop, each hopped into the bed and grabbed one of Sander's elbows. He thought he recognized them as militiamen from some other town, some other setup, but quickly calmed himself. Bland, halfwit boys like these were a pfennig a bushel, and so odds were they were local muscle, which would legitimize it all as far as Sneek was concerned. Fools. A priest and the hangman waited on the platform, and the guards brought Sander forward, their tugging on his arms causing the binding cord to cut into his wrists. His cock throbbed from the sensation.
There was no trapdoor awaiting the convict, only a shove off the edge of the cramped platform, and the guards stayed on the final step as they delivered Sander to his death. The hangman wore no hood, only a stupid-looking feathered cap, and the edge of the priest's habit was powdered with dry dust instead of wet muck—he must have raised it like a noblewoman careful of her skirts when he left his church. A man in the crowd swallowed from his bottle too quickly and choked on it. The things Sander noticed as the hangman slipped the noose around his broad neck and yanked it tight.
"Sander Himbrecht," the priest said without raising his voice, and it took several moments for the tide of elbows and hisses to work its way back through the crowd until the morning was as quiet as it should have been had men never learned to speak. Sander couldn't properly converse in the garbled garbage-tongue of the Frisian, but like many people of the South, he usually got the thrust of what was barked at him by the stiffheads. The priest said something like, "Sander Himbrecht, you stand here a dead man, but need not fall a damned one. It is established you shall serve as an example to what wages a blackguard and killer is paid in Sneek, but here at last is a chance to also demonstrate the power of repentance, of salvation at the cusp of ruin."
Something like that, only like as not less pretty-sounding—priest or no, Frisians were not known for their eloquence.
"Hang the dicksucker!" said a straw-haired, wheat-mustachioed man at the front of the crowd. Sander understood that bit perfectly. "Don't let 'em off, Father!"
Sander licked his lips, the man's outburst a confirmation that they knew much more than they should, each and all of them. That this was inevitable as sin, that he was flat-out lucky they weren't having him quartered instead. Sander rubbed his wrists against the rope, eyes flicking to the blond heckler and back to the priest, breathing deep to better feel the noose against his throat, his cock positively aching up against his breeches like a drowning man kicking his last to break the surface of the water. He knew the priest was waiting for him, but he also knew the hangman had an unobstructed view of his back, and so he turned a bit to better put the clergyman between himself and the executioner as he stalled. The old boy had a strip of red cloth in his shaky hands, and Sander smiled at the realization that in Sneek they must have the priest do the blindfolding after the last rites and all—funny, that, and a far cry from the communion he was expecting.
"It's like this," Sander said quietly, not even trying to ape the stiffhead dialect. "I would if I could, but I'm not, so I can't, yeah?"
"Not what?" said the priest in proper-talk, evidently a learned man who knew a real language when he heard it.
"Look." Sander nodded down. Behind him, he relaxed his aching wrists from the strained position he had held them in all morning, before they had even bound him. If they had used baling twine or something thinner, he might have been in real trouble, but—
"What is it?" The priest blinked at the condemned man's damp, diaphanous tunic, as if Sander were trying to point out an especially interesting stain. Then Sander knew the older man had found it, his eyes opening wide as silver double-groots, his lips pursing tighter than the strings on his purse. To seal the deal, Sander bore down a little, making his cock nod upward at the priest through his thin breeches and thinner tunic. There was a moment of silence on the platform as the ancient stared at Sander's unmistakable bulge and Sander grinned over the priest's shoulder at the hangman.
"He's getting loose!" someone in the crowd with a vantage of Sander's back shouted.
In response, Sander bit the priest on the face.
Brown teeth met brown stubble and were proved the victor, bumpy cheek yielding to smooth enamel, and Sander tasted blood. His left hand came free of the amateur knot, loosing its twin in the process, but before he could properly grab hold of the priest, the hangman lunged forward and shoved Sander. A lesser executioner might not have dislodged him from the priest, but the hangman had a smith's arm, and Sander came away with but a flap of skin and meat as he pitched from the platform.
Sander's left hand caught the rope as he fell, and an instant before it went taut, he flexed all his muscle, saving himself a snapped neck at the cost of a dislocated elbow. His arm immediately dropped limp and the noose clamped tight around his throat. Sander did not let the glorious distraction of being hanged consume him, and as he was strangled, he kicked his legs in the air to spin around. It worked, and he twirled in the air almost too quickly.
Almost, but not quite. As the chest-level platform swung into his tear-blurring vision, he saw the feet and hands of the sprawled-out priest. More importantly, he saw the hangman's heel coming down to stomp his shoulder and affect what the drop should have, had he not caught the rope in time. With his right arm Sander snatched the hangman's boot and jerked him downward, which tightened the noose even more. The startled lummox tumbled from the platform, lamely slapping the air as he fell past the still-spinning Sander. The familiar black wheels were spinning larger and faster in Sander's vision, and though it pained him, he reflexively heaved his injured left arm to his crotch and rubbed himself as the platform came back around.
Slapping his right arm down beside the half-prone priest and focusing all his strength, Sander arrested his spin. Clawing his arm forward, he dug his fingernails into the platform until he could verily taste the oak splinters through his quick. His right elbow set beside that of the doubled-over priest, Sander heaved himself onto the platform. The hangman knew his business well, however, and so the noose did not relax even as Sander scrambled to his feet on the wooden deck. Before he could get his fingers under the rope to save himself, the two guards on the stair shook off their shock and rushed forward, jabbing at him with their pikes. Sander hooked the elbow of his good arm under the now-wailing priest, hoisting him upright in the nick of time. The clergyman accepted both spear points in his chest as easily as he accepted the more exciting confessions from the young women of Sneek. One pike became entangled in the priest's ribs, but the other broke clean through the man, nicking Sander's left shoulder.
Even without the dying priest grinding against him from the impact Sander would have come then, the noose too tight, the hemp too coarse. Delicious. Even as he grunted his satisfaction, he got his fingers under the rope collar and jerked it loose, gasping like a landed herring from more than the release in his breeches. He had dropped the priest, but the guards still held the man aloft with their weapons, neither sure what to do given the circumstances.
The tunnel of Sander's consciousness expanded to take in exactly what had happened, and he tried to laugh but gagged instead. Pulling a face as he widened the noose, he slipped it over his head just as several crossbow bolts whizzed past him and the fallen hangman regained the platform behind the horrified guards. Sander kicked the priest in the back, driving him deeper onto the pikes and managing an actual laugh through his dry retching fit. He had known it would be a grand day but could never have anticipated such a glorious fiasco.
That said, getting out of the ropes was the easy part; getting out of town was where things got tricky. What kind of savages held their executions in the main square, instead of outside the village walls like civilized folk? Stiffheads. Going on the wave of furious peasants crashing below him at the edge of the platform, his killing of their priest was not liable to make his escape any easier—even those who hadn't been actively involved in the plot to hang him would certainly want him dead now. There were only a few streets leading out of the thronged square, and even the one behind the gibbet was a good fifty paces off. Tempting though it suddenly was to simply give up, Sander knew they probably wouldn't still be satisfied with a hanging given the recent turn of events, and he would be damned before he went to his maker in any other fashion.
Well, then, he had to do something. Sander jumped from the platform, landing feetfirst on a fat man. They both hit the ground hard, but Sander rolled forward and onto his feet as his human cushion spit blood and teeth.
They were on him then, the edge of the mob washing over him, but Sander was a dirty son of a bitch's bastard's whore, and what's more, he knew it. The citizens of Sneek should have suspected that a man willing to bite a priest would not shirk from snatching a scrotum or poking out an eye if he could, but in their fury to catch him they failed to consider this. Thus, the first man to lay hands on Sander had his testicles crushed and twisted by thick fingers, and the second had his left eyeball hooked viciously with a thumb, the entire orb popping loose of its socket and bouncing against the poor fellow's cheek.
Three fists and a knife connected with Sander. The knuckles bounced off his leathery skin, but as he twisted away, the knife carved a neat little flap in his already bloodied, dangling left arm. Then he saw it. Saw her. The pommel of his beloved had appeared just beside him, and he caught a glimpse of brown hair and brown eyes, a handsome face he loved more than jellied herring or fresh beer materializing from the mob—
—But then the weapon was in hand and her hooded deliverer swallowed back up by the crowd, and Sander howled with joy to once again wield Glory's End.
Her blade had been recently whetted, and in bringing the sword up to put her between himself and the crowd he clipped off three of a man's fingers. Before Sander could get a proper swing across, the crowd had already fallen back, and he used the moment to catch his breath. He had a clean break to the side street he had been making for, but then he saw three militiamen with crossbows atop the platform, their weapons leveled at him. Before he could blink, the bows fired.
And, incredibly, all missed. One quarrel whipped through his long, manky hair, the other two splashing into the muck at his feet. Sander stared at them for a moment, grinned, and ran away. The crowd recovered its courage at the sight of his back and followed after.
Sander gained the side street… and ran directly into four more militiamen, likely shirkers late to the execution. Their pikes were not leveled, praise to the appropriate saints, sparing Sander an end similar to that of the priest. Glory's End flashed in the shadows of the alley, and before the first man realized he was disemboweled, the second was hacked to the collarbone, both falling in a welter of gore and blood as their stunned compatriots stumbled back. Sander kept moving, tagging another on the knee as he fled down the street. The man shifted his weight the slightest bit and immediately pitched forward, gasping as the thin red slit in his beige leggings split into a yawning fissure of wet muscle and exposed bone, and the fourth militiaman stared aghast after the demon who had butchered his friends.
The alley opened onto a lane between rows of squat, tightly packed houses, and glancing back over his shoulder, Sander saw the mob only half a block behind him, the hangman now leading them. Sander turned left, booking it for all he was worth down the narrow street. Left turned out to be a rather poor decision, as another group of militiamen rounded a bend before him, but he only ran faster, making it to another alley just before the new crew reached him. This avenue was clogged with low-hanging laundry, the lines of which Sander cut as he ran to bring the drying clothes down on his pursuers. Sander laughed to hear the shouts behind him become angrier still, and then burst through the last row of dangling sheets and toppled into the canal into which the alley terminated, Glory's End flying from his hand as he struck the gray water and sank like a millstone.
"Catching Fish Without a Net"
A hush fell over the dingy, cramped tavern. Such an occurrence was not particularly rare, requiring little more than a dirty joke, even a bewhiskered one, but quiet the place did, and the handsome stranger smiled at the staring faces surrounding him. The fisherman he sat across from smiled back, an easy, dangerous sort of smile, and nodded.
"Settled, then." Pitter extended his hand. "A double-groot."
"One double-groot," agreed the handsome man, shaking on the wager. It had taken them longer to come to terms on how many Brabant mites and Holland pfennigs added up to a Holland groot, and from there a double-groot, than it had for the stranger to make the acquaintance of Pitter, get him drunk, and share a plate of early chèvre with him. As they ate and debated currency with the unsolicited help of their fellow patrons, the barkeep apologized for the ferocious saltiness of the cheese—the kid had been born too early and lived but a week, and the tears of its mother must make their way down through her teats. The stranger was the only one who laughed at this, and he quickly withered it into a cough under the dour stares of the locals.
The handsome stranger's name was Jan and he was from the Groote Waard in southern Holland, but he had told everyone he was a riverboat pilot named Lubbert down from Sneek. This deceit had instantly endeared him to the tipsy Friesland transplant Pitter, who had bought him a drink. The local beer tasted like a respectable brew Jan had sampled in Haarlem, if said beer had been filtered through a drunkard or two and returned via piss-stream to the barrel, but then Jan had not come to Aalsmeer for its ale.
It was a pretty enough village, small groves of alder and willow spotting the outskirts like patches of peach fuzz on the cheeks of a young man impatient to grow a beard. The quality of the lakes had inspired Jan's decision to try the place instead of pushing onward to the sea, for they were dark, muddy pools carved from the peat by villagers in generations past and left to languish like bloody gouges in the earth that would never clot. The water might not burn the boy's eyes the way the sea would, but Jan knew from experience a peat-pool would have enough silt swirling around to make things comparably difficult, and if he never had to ride his horse over another dune he would die a happy man.
The wager set, Jan followed Pitter out of the smoky common room and through what passed for streets in Aalsmeer to the fisherman's house, half a dozen of the patrons accompanying them. Pitter had told him to leave his horse at the tavern, but Jan had insisted, his Frisian stallion clopping along beside them. They came to the willow-and-mud hovel Pitter shared with his family and an Urker down from the islands to visit kin, and Jan waited in the alley with the other tavern-goers while the strawberry-nosed gambler went inside.
The huddled locals said nothing, which suited Jan just fine. He had not come to Aalsmeer for the conversation. Pitter soon emerged with his eldest boy. The handsome stranger nodded at the youth, whose gangly arms and legs reminded Jan of a willow's shoots, his olive eyes bringing to mind a certain stream outside of Papendrecht—if ever a lad symbolized the harmony between water and land it was young Wob. Besides that, his face was not as bad as his father's, and Jan allowed himself a slight smile at the boy, now hoping more than ever that he would soon be out of a double-groot.
The procession traveled the rest of the way through town, picking up a few more spectators, which displeased Jan but could not be helped. If a next-time proved necessary, he would adopt a different strategy. Pitter blathered on about his son's prowess, comparing him to an otter, an eel, a fine, fine fishy; father's furry hand on son's bare shoulder. Jan admired the sleek, bronzed skin of the lad, whose chest was only just beginning to show a few pinfeathers of hair; his chin smooth; his eyes, green as catkins, refusing to meet Jan's bark-brown ones. Jan imagined those eyes brimming with tears, those tan cheeks roasted to a fine pink, and nodded to himself. The tone of the group had become celebratory now that young Wob was with them, the double-groot good as won.
Heaven burned in the west, as is its custom, and the merry troop came to the largest of the lakes nudging the outskirts of Aalsmeer. The water shone the color of cider before them. Jan tied his horse to a post set in the shore, and they marched onto a long dock jutting over the meer. Father slapped son lightly on the back and arms, Pitter's face beaming with pride and eagerness. Well he might, reflected Jan; he wasn't the one to be diving into a lake at sunset with the blooms of water lilies still only a promise of the pad-scaled shallows.
"Da," Wob said, "are ya sure—"
"Good lad," said Pitter, cuffing his son. "The sooner you're in, the sooner you're out, eh, Lubbert?"
"Hmm?" It took Jan a moment to realize he was being addressed—bitter the beer might be, but strong. Not unlike old Sander, whose ill-executed escape attempt in Sneek necessitated the whole affair Jan was currently undertaking. "Aye, that's right, boy. Your father's staked a double-groot you can win a swimming trial, and I'll tell you here in front of all that if you win, I'll give you a few mites yourself for the trouble."
That earned a few huzzahs, and another one of those dangerous smiles from Pitter. The boy still would not meet Jan's eye. He wondered if young Wob was a virgin.
"Now, Lubbert, we said he's to dive for a shoe, then?" Pitter took an old iron horseshoe from his pocket and held it up, the rusty metal dull against the shining water. "You want to toss?"
"Indeed," said Jan, taking the shoe and drawing the dagger he kept at his belt. The way Pitter's lip twitched as Jan began scraping several bands in the rust confirmed that the fisherman had meant to cheat him. He wondered where the boy had secreted the shoe's twin, or if one of Wob's siblings had run ahead and dropped the double off the end of the dock. No matter. The shoe was soon striped, and Jan winked at Pitter. "Just so the boy's not confused by any old piece of metal he feels down there. This one's rough then smooth then rough again from the rust, aye, Wob?"
Wob looked even less comfortable than he had before, a light breeze skating across the water, and Jan stepped forward, making a show out of hefting the horseshoe. Then he slung it side-armed, the shoe skipping across the surface four, five, six times before sliding into the water. One of the tavern-goers whistled, another sighed, and a third spit. Pitter opened his mouth to speak, but then Wob was in after it, and seeing him come up a short way out, Jan chided himself for letting the boy strip unnoticed. Wob treaded water, gasping and paddling and looking as if he were trying to crawl out of the lake, up into the air.
"Farther on, yet," Pitter called, but his son did not immediately proceed. "Go on, then, you'll warm yourself directly!"
Wob threw himself ahead, the slapping of warm, hard skin on cold, hard water bringing a prolonged wince to his father's face. Several of the spectators came forward to stand at the edge of the dock with Pitter, and Jan let them by, content to move backward on the pier. It was not as if his watching would impact the search, and he was happy to stand in the rear as useless suggestions and encouragements were cast out after the boy. It was growing dark, and the wind was picking up. Jan frowned.
Two of Pitter's friends went back to the tavern, neither congratulating Jan on his impending victory as they passed. Again and again Wob surfaced, sometimes spitting, sometimes coughing, but always diving back down. Jan imagined that the boy's skin was quite numb by now, and that must make it even more difficult. Worst of all, any light that might have stretched to the bottom would have long since been reeled in, leaving Wob blind and fumbling through the muck for a horseshoe that would have instantly sunk into the mud.
"The devil you will!" Pitter shouted. "Go back a bit, then, I told you, farther back!"
- "Smart, funny, and full of wild exuberance."—Lauren Beukes
- "Every page is saturated with wickedness and mischief. Bullington's fans will be happy to see him bring his trademark dark humor, gritty detail, and loopy characters into a new gruesome landscape."—Publishers Weekly
- "Delightfully grim"—Interzone (UK)
- "This is both a cleverly entertaining story and a fascinating exploration of the human psyche."—britishfantasysociety.co.uk
- On Sale
- Dec 18, 2012
- Page Count
- 528 pages