The Salamander sighed.
They had been in Riverside for so long, it seemed, that they could no longer remember their arrival. Which put them in good company, of course; no one else in Riverside could remember it either, and in fact, it very well may have been the case that no one else in Riverside had been alive to witness it.
Nevertheless, although over the years the faces of those who came before the Salamander to beg assistance or mercy or absolution changed, they did so with such frequency and regularity that they seemed to blur into a single, rather tedious, visage. The effect of this blurring was, on occasion, to afflict the Salamander with a sense of great weariness of which, though they knew that there was nothing whatsoever to be done about it, they would have been deeply glad to be rid.
Such were the thoughts of the Salamander as the man who stood before them today, dripping from the relentless rain, continued to weep. “But you see,” he blubbered, “I broke my arm in a brawl a couple weeks ago”—he nodded unnecessarily to his arm, which was wrapped in a filthy sling—“and all we were doing was looking for a place to stay while we did the bridge work.” He grew briefly hot with indignation. “You’d think from the way people got upset that we were trying to eat their children.” He sighed dramatically; then, as if remembering where he was and before whom he stood, his voice began trembling again. “But since then I haven’t been able to work, and if I haven’t gotten paid I can hardly feed my kids and pay you back, can I?” He laughed weakly.
The Salamander did not.
The men and women who had been streaming into Riverside all season from the sopping-wet countryside were an annoyance to the Salamander, who kept having to exert themself all over again to spread their reputation far enough abroad for it to be of any use. They succeeded, of course, in terrifying each new crop of arrivals—hence the feebleness of the man’s laugh—but they much preferred their exertion to be a thing it was within their power to choose, rather than a burden forced upon them.
But about this, too, they knew that there was nothing whatsoever to be done.
The man’s laughter shaded into a whimper, an unpleasantly wet sound, merging with a trickling near the doorway; a rivulet of rainwater had found its way in and was winding across the dusty cracked tiles of the Salamander’s front room, dimly lit by a handful of small, begrimed panes and a single candle on the table. The smell of urine joined those of mold, rat droppings, and dust, and they found themself wishing it would all be washed away, all the detritus of so many long years.
The Salamander’s voice, as always, was soft and sibilant. “I can hardly be responsible,” they half-whispered, “for the disregard you display for physical danger and the consequences thereof. I am afraid that, broken arm notwithstanding, I must insist that you pay me what you owe me today.”
The man sobbed. “But I don’t have what I owe you! I just don’t!”
The Salamander sighed a sigh of infinite boredom. “But you have many other things,” they said. “You have a wife and children, empty though their stomachs may be, you have a full complement of limbs, more or less, you have—”
They broke off. A new scent in the air, a breath where before there had been stillness.
So. The work was set in motion.
The Salamander went several moments without saying anything, the only movement in the shop the shadows cast on the wall by the guttering candle flame.
“What?” said the man, his voice trembling with panic. “What do I have?”
The Salamander turned to him and fixed him with eyes that, had he been able to perceive them more clearly, would have terrified him far more than he thought possible. “It seems,” they said, impassive, “that Fate has granted you a reprieve, at least for today. Begone. I have matters far more important to attend to than your dereliction.”
The man was out the shop door, back into the streets slick and muddy with the water pouring from the skies, before the last words had ceased sounding in the air.
But the Salamander didn’t mind.
Because at some point before the sun rose on the morrow, along with all the hearts shattered, the lives thrown away, the infants conceived, the wagers staked, the vows broken, the pleasure taken, the insults borne, they were going to have a visitor.
One they had not seen for a very, very long time.
It was said on the grounds of the University, and not without reason, that the relative importance of any given doctor could be measured by the number of enemies he had managed to acquire. Doctor Lefièvre, by far the most distinguished man in the School of Humors, was hated not only by every doctor in the College...