For a moment, Fransitart seemed almost angry at this question and Rossamund immediately regretted asking it. Old salts like the dormitory master could be very touchy about their past, and it was proper never to ask but always wait to be told.

With the deepest sigh, the saddest sound Rossamund had ever heard Master Fransitart give, the fury passed. 'Aye, lad,' he said hoarsely, 'I 'ave.'

A thrill prickled Rossamund's scalp.

The old man closed his eyes for a moment, and did something the boy had never seen him do before: he took off his long, wide-collared day coat and laid it neatly on the end of another cot. Fransitart rolled up the voluminous sleeve of his white muslin shirt, exposing much of his pale left arm. He bent down a little to show his gauntly knotted bicep. 'Look ye there,' Fransitart growled.

Wide eyes went wider as the boy saw what was shown: made from swirls and curls of red-brown lines was the small, crudely drawn face of some grinning, snarling bogle. A pointed tongue protruded obscenely from a gaping mouth, and its eyes were wide and staring horribly.

A monster-blood tattoo!

People were only ever marked with a monster-blood tattoo if they had fought and slain a nicker. The image of the fallen beast was pricked into the victor's skin with the dead monster's own blood. The stuff reacted strangely once under the skin, festered for a time and left its indelible mark. The boy looked agog at his dormitory master. He already had deep respect for the old man, but now he regarded him with an entirely new awe.

'Master Fransitart!' Rossamund hissed. 'You're a monster-slayer!'

Most folk would be bursting with pride to bear such a mark. Fransitart just seemed ashamed. 'As things be, Rossamund, th' creature I killed did nought to deserve such an end and, though me shipmates boasted me an 'ero, it were a cowardly thing I did, and I am sorry for it now.'

Rossamund's astonishment grew. How could killing a monster be cowardly? How was it that Master Fransitart could be ashamed of being a hero?

To kill a monster was a grand thing, almost the grandest thing-everyone knew that. People were good. Monsters were bad. People had to kill monsters in order to live free and remain at peace. To feel sympathy for a bogle or to take pity on a nicker was to be labeled a sedorner-a monster-lover! — a shameful crime that at the very least had its perpetrator shunned, or stuck in the pillory for weeks or, worst of all, executed by hanging.

How many secrets did the dormitory master have? Was he a secret sedorner? Rossamund went pale at the notion.

The more serious Master Fransitart became the quieter his voice. He was almost whispering now. 'Hearken to me, me lad! Not all monsters look like monsters, do ye get me? There are everyday folks who turn out to be th' worst monsters of 'em all! There's things I needs to tell ye, Rossamund-strange things, things that might appear shockin' on first listenin', but ye're goin' to need to begin to git ye head about 'em…' Something caught his attention. The dormitory master shut his mouth with a sudden click and quickly pulled down his shirtsleeve.

A moment later Verline entered at the far end of the long dormitory hall.

Master Fransitart gave Rossamund a look that said Not a word of this to anyone.

Surely he was about to tell him the whole shocking adventure! Now that he had been interrupted, the dormitory master might never finish telling what he thought such an obviously terrible-maybe even shameful-secret. What dark mysteries could Fransitart possibly have to tell that made him so hesitant to speak them out? Rossamund doubted he would ever have the courage to ask him to venture on the subject again. The boy had never regretted Verline's presence or thought of her as intruding-but right then, he came close.

The parlor maid was bearing a bright-limn-a lantern holding phosphorescent algae that glowed strongly when immersed in the special liquid within-and approached with an open smile. With a sinking heart, Rossamund discovered that she was once again carrying the crock of birchet.

'A good evening to you, Dormitory Master Fransitart,' she said softly, with a dip of her comely head.

Fransitart nodded his typically grave and silent greeting, straightening the broad collar of his coat.

Verline put the bright-limn on the tea chest. She waggled the turned ladle at Rossamund seriously. 'Time for another spoon of birchet, dear heart. Master Craumpalin has kept it warmed especially for your second dose.'

Rossamund once more submitted to the cleansing fires of birchet. Once more he endured its agonies and came out the other side restored. With another belch of bubbles, he thanked Verline.

She smiled. Putting down the crock beside the bright-limn, Verline felt his forehead with a small, cool hand and peered at his bruises. 'I think you are mending nicely, dear. Glory on Craumpalin's chemistry! The swelling is definitely going down. But then you have always mended quickly.'

The dormitory master made an odd sound in his throat and then looked at Rossamund gravely. 'Aye, Craumpalin knows his trade. I reckon, tho', that even 'e would agree with me in recommendin' that th' next time Gosling takes a shy at yer skull, Rossamund, ye duck! Th' best salve for a wound is to avoid ever gettin' one.'

The foundling looked down at the cover of his pamphlet, sheepish once more. 'Aye, dormitory master,' he answered softly.

Fransitart put a gentle hand on Rossamund's bruised head. 'Good lad…' he growled, with an almost tender smile. 'Right, time fer supper!'

Rossamund struggled into his evening smock, a shapeless sack with sleeves that all the children wore to dinner or supper.

'Master Fransitart, what will happen to Gosling?' he asked.

Fransitart frowned. 'That li'l basket will be skippin' tonight's food and 'as been set to cleanin' out th' second salt cellar, th' buttery and th' shambles. I'm just off now to inquire as to 'is progress. Pro'bly not done 'im any sort of good! Pro'bly blamin' everyone else and excusin' hisself, as typical! A riot of ettins could do nought more than us to get th' wretched child to mend 'is errors.' He shook his head. 'That's enough on that. Off ye hop, Rossamund. Say yer prayers and clean yerself afore th' meal. I will see ye in the dining hall.'

Though he was sure that she had not meant it so, as he had left the hall Rossamund overheard Verline say quietly, 'What a dear, sensitive boy,' and Master Fransitart rasping in reply, 'Aye, too sensitive and too earnest for 'is own good. It'll be trouble and agony to 'im all 'is life if 'e don't get shrewder and tougher, just mark me. I can't watch out for 'im all th' time.'

The boy brooded as he followed the narrow passages with their many doors, flaking walls and damp smells. By bewildering turns and many short flights of stairs that went down, then up, then down once more, he went first to the basins and then to the dining hall. How might he be shrewder? How might he be tougher? How might he avoid this future of trouble and agony that Fransitart foresaw?… And how might he get his dormitory master to finish the telling of those strange and shocking things he dared not speak in front of Verline? Madam Opera's Estimable Marine Society for Foundling Boys and Girls was situated on the Vlinderstrat, between a rat-infested warehouse and a stinking tannery. The Vlinderstrat had once been a rather fashionable avenue in the rather fashionable suburb of Poeme, in the proud riverine city of Boschenberg. The building itself was tall and narrow, made of dark stones and dark, decaying wood, sagging under the many additions to its original structure. It had been in Madam Opera's family through a great list of generations. Rossamund had heard this list read out once, and it went on so long he fell asleep during the telling.

A hundred children who had once been unwanted or lost or both lived here to be taught a trade and skills so that they might be wanted as adults. And the organization that wanted them most was that seemingly bottomless sink of manpower-the navy. It was the Boschenberg Navy that sponsored the running of this marine society and several others. It was the Boschenberg Navy that provided the foundlingery with its masters, men like Fransitart and Craumpalin, each one an aging vinegaroon pensioned off to serve the few days left to him as an instructor to discarded children.

Every marine society boy and girl was taught to long to join the navy. It was widely known that a fellow could set himself up for good with the prize money won when pirates or enemy vessels were captured; that you joined a family when you joined the crew of a ram (a very appealing idea to the foundlings at Madam Opera's); that every landlubber thought you were a grand chap for serving your state so honorably; and that you were better paid and better fed than most folks doing similar work on land. Rossamund was no different: he too had learned to desperately want a life on the vinegar waves.

The vinegar waves. The thought always made him wistful.

Though he had never seen the sea, Rossamund knew that its waters were tainted with caustic salts that gave it lurid colors and made it stink like strong vinegar. He could hardly wait till the day when he got to fill his

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