One cool morning toward the middle of the 21st Aeon, Rhialto sat at breakfast in the east cupola of his manse Falu. On this particular morning the old sun rose behind a curtain of frosty haze, to cast a wan and poignant light across Low Meadow.
For reasons Rhialto could not define, he lacked appetite for his breakfast and gave only desultory attention to a dish of watercress, stewed persimmon and sausage in favor of strong tea and a rusk. Then, despite a dozen tasks awaiting him in his work-room, he sat back in his chair, to gaze absently across the meadow toward Were Woods.
In this mood of abstraction, his perceptions remained strangely sensitive. An insect settled upon the leaf of a nearby aspen tree; Rhialto took careful note of the angle at which it crooked its legs and the myriad red glints in its bulging eyes. Interesting and significant, thought Rhialto.
After absorbing the insect's full import, Rhialto extended his attention to the landscape at large. He contemplated the slope of the meadow as it dropped toward the Ts and the distribution of its herbs. He studied the crooked boles at the edge of the forest, the red rays slanting through the foliage, the indigo and dark green of the shadows. His vision was remarkable for its absolute clarity; his hearing was no less acute ... . He leaned forward, straining to hear--what? Sighs of inaudible music?
Nothing. Rhialto relaxed, smiling at his own odd fancies, and poured out a final cup of tea ... . He let it cool untasted. On impulse he rose to his feet and went into the parlour, where he donned a cloak,a hunter's cap, and took up that baton known as 'Malfezar's Woe.' He then summoned Ladanque, his chamberlain and general factotum.
"Ladanque, I will be strolling the forest for a period. Take care that Vat Five retains its roil. If you wish, you may distill the contents of the large blue alembic into a stoppered flask. Use a low heat and avoid breathing the vapor; it will bring a purulent rash to your face."
"Very well, sir. What of the clevenger?"
"Pay it no heed. Do not approach the cage. Remember, its talk of both virgins and wealth is illusory; I doubt if it knows the meaning of either term."
"Just so, sir."
Rhialto departed the manse. He set off across the meadow by a trail which took him to the Ts, over a stone bridge, and into the forest.
The trail, which had been traced by night-creatures from the forest on their way across the meadow, presently disappeared. Rhialto went on, following where the forest aisles led: through glades where can-dole, red meadow-sweet and white dymphne splotched the grass with colour; past stands of white birches and black aspens; beside ledges of old stone, springs and small streams.
If other creatures walked the woods, none were evident. Entering a little clearing with a single white birch at the center, Rhialto paused to listen ... . He heard only silence.
A minute passed. Rhialto stood motionless.
Silence. Had it been absolute?
The music, if such it had been, assuredly had evolved in his own brain.
Curious, thought Rhialto.
He came to an open place, where a white birch stood frail against a background of dense black deodars. As he turned away, again he thought to hear music.
Soundless music? An inherent contradiction!
Odd, thought Rhialto, especially since the music seemed to come from outside himself ... . He thought to hear it again: a flutter of abstract chords, imparting an emotion at once sweet, melancholy, triumphant: definite yet uncertain.
Rhialto gazed in all directions. The music, or whatever it might be, seemed to come from a source near at hand. Prudence urged that he turn in his tracks and hurry back to Falu, never looking over his shoulder ... . He went forward, and came upon a still pool, dark and deep, reflecting the far bank with the exactness of a mirror. Standing motionless, Rhialto saw reflected the image of a woman, strangelypale, with silver hair bound by a black fillet. She wore a knee-length white kirtle, and went bare-armed and bare-legged.
Rhialto looked up to the far bank. He discovered neither woman, nor man, nor creature of any kind. He dropped his eyes to the surface of the pool, where, as before, the woman stood reflected.
For a long moment Rhialto studied the image. The woman appeared tall, with small breasts and narrow flanks; she seemed fresh and clean-limbed as a girl. Her face, while lacking neither delicacy nor classic proportion, showed a stillness from which all frivolity was absent. Rhialto, whose expertise in the field of calligynics had earned him his cognomen, found her beautiful but severe, and probably unapproachable, especially if she refused to show herself except as a reflection ... And perhaps also for other reasons, thought Rhialto, who had conceived an inkling as to the identity of the woman.
Rhialto spoke: "Madame, did you call me here with your music? If so, explain how I can help you, though I promise no definite undertaking."
The woman showed a cool smile not altogether to Rhialto's liking. He bowed stiffly. "If you have nothing to say to me, I will intrude no longer upon your privacy." He performed another curt bow, and as he did so, something thrust him forward so that he plunged into the pool.
The water was extremely cold. Rhialto floundered to the bank and pulled himself ashore. Whoever or whatever had thrust him into the water could not be seen.
Gradually the surface of the pool became smooth. The image of the woman was no longer visible.
Rhialto trudged glumly back to Falu, where he indulged himself in a hot bath and drank verbena tea.
For a period he sat in his work-room, studying various books from the 18th Aeon. The adventure in the forest had not agreed with him. He felt feverish and ringing noises sounded in his ears.
Rhialto at last prepared himself a prophylactic tonic which caused him even greater discomfort. He took to his bed, swallowed a soporific tablet, and at last fell into a troubled sleep.
The indisposition persisted for three days. On the morning of the fourth day Rhialto communicated with the magician Ildefonse, at his manse Boumergarth beside the River Scaum.
Ildefonse felt sufficient concern that he flew at speed to Falu in the smallest of his whirlaways.
In full detail Rhialto described the events which had culminatedat the still pool in the forest. "So there you have it. I am anxious to learn your opinion."
Ildefonse looked frowning off toward the forest. Today he used his ordinary semblance: that of a portly middle-aged gentleman with thin blond whiskers, a balding pate, and a manner of jovial innocence. The two magicians sat under the purple plumanthia arbor to the side of Falu. On a nearby table, Ladanque had arranged a service of fancy pastries, three varieties of tea and a decanter of soft white wine. "Extraordinary, certainly," said Ildefonse, "especially when taken with a recent experience of my own."
Rhialto glanced sharply sidelong toward Ildefonse. "You were played a similar trick?"
Ildefonse responded in measured tones: "The answer is both 'yes' and 'no.'"
"Interesting," said Rhialto.
Ildefonse selected his words with care. "Before I elaborate, let me ask this: have you ever before heard this, let us say, 'shadow music'?"
"And its purport was--?"
"Indescribable. Neither tragic nor gay; sweet, yet wry and bitter."
"Did you perceive a melody, or theme, or even a progression, which might give us a clue?"
"Only a hint. If you will allow me a trifle of preciosity, it filled me with a yearning for the lost and unattainable."
"Aha!" said Ildefonse. "And the woman? Something must have identified her as the Murthe?"
Rhialto considered. "Her pallor and silver hair might have been that of a forest wefkin, in the guise of an antique nymph. Her beauty was real, but I felt no urge to embrace her. I daresay all might have changed upon better acquaintance."
"Hmmf. Your elegant airs, so I suspect, will carry small weight with the Murthe ... . When did her identity occur to you?"
"I became certain as I slogged home, water squelching in my boots. My mood was glum; perhaps the squalm was starting its work. In any case, woman and music came together in my mind and the name evolved. Once home I instantly read Calanctus and took advice. The squalm apparently was real. Today I was finally able to call on you."
"You should have called before, though I have had similar problems ... . What is that irksome noise?"
Rhialto looked along the road. "Someone is approaching in a vehicle ... . It appears to be Zanzel Melancthones."
"And what is that strange bounding thing behind him?"
Rhialto craned his neck. "It is unclear ... . We shall soon find out."
Along the road, rolling at speed on four tall wheels, came a luxurious double-divan of fifteen golden-ocher cushions. A man-like creature attached by a chain ran behind in the dust.
Rising to his feet, Ildefonse held up his hand. "Halloa, Zanzel! It is I, Ildefonse! Where do you go in such haste? Who is that curious creature coursing so fleetly behind?"
Zanzel brought the vehicle to a halt. "Ildefonse, and dear Rhialto: how good to see you both! I had quite forgotten that this old road passes by Falu, and I discover it now to my pleasure."
"It is our joint good fortune!" declared Ildefonse. "And your captive?"
Zanzel glanced over his shoulder. "We have here an insidiator: that is my reasoned opinion. I am taking him to be executed where his ghost will bring me no bad luck. What of yonder meadow? It is safely clear of my domain."
"And hard on my own," growled Rhialto. "You must find a spot convenient to us both."
"What of me?" cried the captive. "Have I nothing to say in the matter?"
"Well then, convenient to the three of us."
"Just a moment, before you prosecute your duties," said Ildefonse. "Tell me more of this creature."
"There is little to tell. I discovered him by chance when he opened an egg from the wrong end. If you notice, he has six toes, a crested scalp and tufts of feathers growing from his shoulders, all of which puts his origin in the 18th or even the late 17th Aeon. His name, so he avers, is Lehuster."
"Interesting!" declared Ildefonse. "He is, in a sense, a living fossil. Lehuster, are you aware of your distinction?"
Zanzel permitted Lehuster no response. "Good day to you both! Rhialto, you appear somewhat peaked! You must dose yourself with a good posset and rest: that is my prescription."
"Thank you," said Rhialto. "Come past again when your leisure allows and meanwhile remember that my domain extends to yonder ridge. You must execute Lehuster well beyond this point."
"One moment!" cried Lehuster. "Are there no reasonable minds in the 21st Aeon? Have you no interest why I have come forward to these dismal times? I hereby offer to trade my life for important information!"
"Indeed!" said Ildefonse. "What sort of information?"
"I will make my revelations only at a conclave of high magicians, where pledges are a matter of public record and must be honoured."
The short-tempered Zanzel jerked around in his seat. "What! Do you now blacken my reputation as well?"
Ildefonse held up his hand. "Zanzel, I implore your patience! Who knows what this six-fingered rascal has to tell us? Lehuster, what is the thrust of your news?"
"The Murthe is at large among you, with squalms and ensqualmations. I will say no more until my safety is assured."
"Bah!" snorted Zanzel. "You cannot fuddle us with such fol-de-rol. Gentlemen, I bid you good-day; I must be off about my business."
Ildefonse demurred. "This is an extraordinary case! Zanzel, you are well-meaning but unaware of certain facts. As Preceptor, I now must order you to bring Lehuster alive and well to an immediate conclave at Boumergarth, where we will explore all phases of this matter. Rhialto, I trust that you are well enough to be on hand?"
"Absolutely and by all means! The topic is of importance."
"Very well then: all to Boumergarth, in haste!"
Lehuster ventured an objection. "Must I run all the way? I will arrive too fatigued to testify."
Ildefonse said: "To regularize matters, I will assume custody of Lehuster. Zanzel, be good enough to loosen the chain."
"Folly and nonsense!" grumbled Zanzel. "This scoundrel should be executed before he confuses all of us!"
Rhialto, somewhat surprised by Zanzel's vehemence, spoke with decision: "Ildefonse is correct! We must learn what we can."
The conclave at Boumergarth, assembled to hear the revelations of Lehuster, attracted only fifteen of the association's membership, which at this time numbered approximately twenty-five. On hand today were Ildefonse, Rhialto, Zanzel, the diabolist Shrue, Hurtiancz, Byzant the Necrope, Teutch who directed the intricacies of a private infinity, Mune the Mage, the cool and clever Perdustin, Tchamast who claimed to know the source of all IOUN stones, Barbanikos, Haze of Wheary Water, Ao of the Opals, Panderleou, whose collection of ultra-world artifacts was envied by all, and Gilgad.
Without ceremony Ildefonse called the conclave to order. "I am disappointed that our full roster has not appeared, since we must consider a matter of extraordinary importance.
"Let me first describe the recent experience of our colleague Rhialto. In barest outline, he was lured into Were Woods by the hint of an imaginary song. After wandering for a period, he met a woman who pushed him into a pool of extremely cold water ... . Gentlemen, please! I see no occasion for levity! This is a most important affair, and Rhialto's misfortunes are not to be taken lightly! Indeed, for various reasons our speculations lead us to the Murthe." Ildefonse looked from face to face. "Yes, you heard me correctly."
When the mutter of comment had dwindled away, Ildefonse continued his remarks. "In an apparently unrelated circumstance, Zanzel recently made the acquaintance of a certain Lehuster, a denizen of the 18th Aeon. Lehuster, who stands yonder, indicates that he has important news to bring us, and again he mentions the Murthe. He has kindly agreed to share his information with us, and I now call upon Lehuster to step forward and report those facts of which he is cognizant. Lehuster, if you will!"
Lehuster made no move. "I must withhold my testimony until I am guaranteed fairly my life, a bargain which should cause no pain, since I have committed no crime."
Zanzel called out angrily: "You forget that I myself witnessed your conduct!"
"Merely a solecism. Ildefonse, do you then promise to hold my life in security?"
"You have my guaranty! Speak on!"
Zanzel sprang to his feet. "This is preposterous! Must we welcome each scoundrel of time into our midst, to satiate himself on our good things, meanwhile perverting our customs?"
The burly and irascible Hurtiancz spoke. "I endorse the progressive views of Zanzel! Lehuster may be only the first of a horde of deviates, morons, and incorrect thinkers sluiced into our placid region!"
Ildefonse spoke in soothing tones: "If Lehuster's news is truly valuable, we must reluctantly concede him his due. Lehuster, speak! We will overlook your flawed conduct as well as your offensive feathers. I, for one, am anxious to hear your news."
Lehuster advanced to the podium. "I must place my remarks in historical perspective. My personal time is the late First Epoch of the 18th Aeon, at a time well before Grand Motholam, but when the Master Magicians and the Great Witches rivalled each other in power: a case similar to the Eleventh Epoch of the 17th Aeon, when the magicians and the sorceresses each strove to outdo the other, and eventually precipitated the War of the Wizards and Witches.
"The witches won this great war. Many of the wizards became archveults; many others were destroyed and the witches, led by the White Witch Llorio, dominated all.
"For an epoch they lived in glory. Llorio became the Murthe and took up residence in a temple. There, as a living idol, comprised both of organic woman and abstract female force, she was joyfully worshipped by every woman of the human race.
"Three magicians survived the war: Teus Treviolus, Schliman Shabat and Phunurus the Orfo. They joined in a cabal and after deeds of daring, craft and cunning to tax credibility, they seized the Murthe, compressed her to a poincture, and took her from the temple. The women became distraught; their power waned while that of the magicians revived. For epochs they lived in a taut accommodation; and these were adventurous times!
"Finally the Murthe won free and rallied her witches. But Calanctus the Calm, under whom I served, rose to the challenge. He broke the witches and chased them north to the back of the Great Erm, where to this day a few still crouch in crevices dreading every sound lest it be the foot-fall of Calanctus.
"As for the Murthe, Calanctus dealt nobly with her and allowed her exile to a far star, then went into seclusion, after first charging me to keep the Murthe under surveillance.
"His orders came too late; she arrived neither at Naos nor at Sadal Suud. I never abandoned the search and recently discovered a trail of time-light1 leading to the 21st Aeon; in fact, the terminus is now.
"I am therefore convinced that the Murthe is extant today, and so must be considered a danger of immediacy; indeed, she has already ensqualmed among this present group.
"As for myself, Lehuster the Benefer, I am here for a single purpose: to marshal the magicians into a faithful cabal that they may control the resurgent female force and so maintain placidity. The urgency is great!"
Lehuster went to the side and stood with arms folded: a posture which caused the red feathers growing along his shoulders to project like epaulettes.
Ildefonse cleared his throat. "Lehuster has rendered us a circumstantial account. Zanzel, are you satisfied that Lehuster has fairly won his life and liberty, provided that he agrees to mend his ways?"
"Bah!" muttered Zanzel. "He has produced only hearsay and old scandal. I am not so easily hoodwinked."
Ildefonse frowned and pulled at his yellow beard. He turned to Lehuster. "You have heard Zanzel's comment. Can you sustain your remarks?"
"Ensqualmation will prove me out, as you will see, but by then it will be too late."
Vermoulian the Dream-walker chose to address the group. Rising to his feet, he spoke with transparent sincerity. "As I go about my work, I walk through dreams of many sorts. Recently--indeed, only two nights since--I came upon a dream of the type we call the 'intractive' or 'inoptative' in which the walker exerts little control, and even may encounter danger. Oddly enough, the Murthe was a participant in this dream, and so it may well be relevant to the present discussion."
Hurtiancz jumped to his feet and made a gesture of annoyance. "We came here at great inconvenience, to sentence and execute this archveult Lehuster; we do not care to ramble through one of your interminable dreams."
"Hurtiancz, be silent!" snapped Vermoulian with peevish vigor. "I now have the floor, and I shall regale everyone with my account, including as many particulars as I deem necessary."
"I call upon the Preceptor for a ruling!" cried Hurtiancz.
Ildefonse said: "Vermoulian, if your dream is truly germane to the issues, continue, but please speak to the point."
"That goes without saying!" said Vermoulian with dignity. "For the sake of brevity, I will merely state that in attempting to walk that dream identified as AXR-11 GG7, Volume Seven of the Index, I entered a hitherto unclassified dream of the inoptative series. I found myself in a landscape of great charm, where I encountered a group of men, all cultured, artistic and exquisitely refined of manner. Some wore soft silky beards of a chestnut color, while others dressed their hair in tasteful curls, and all were most cordial.
"I will allude only to the salient points of what they told me. All possessions are in common, and greed is unknown. In order that time should be adequate for the enrichment of the personality, toil is kept to a minimum, and shared equally among all. 'Peace' is the watchword; blows are never struck, nor are voices raised in strident anger, nor to call out chiding criticism. Weapons? The concept is a cause for shuddering and shock.
"One of the men became my special friend, and told me much. 'We dine upon nutritious nuts and seeds and ripe juicy fruit; we drinkonly the purest and most natural water from the springs. At night we sit around the campfire and sing merry little ballads. On special occasions we make a punch called opo, from pure fruits, natural honey, and sweet sessamy, and everyone is allowed a good sip.'
"'Still, we too know moments of melancholy. Look! Yonder sits noble young Pulmer, who leaps and dances with wonderful grace. Yesterday he tried to leap the brook but fell short into the water; we all rushed to console him, and soon he was happy once more.'
"I asked: 'And the women: where do they keep themselves?'
"'Ah, the women, whom we revere for their kindness, strength, wisdom and patience, as well as for the delicacy of their judgments! Sometimes they even join us at the campfire and then we have some fine romps and games. The women always make sure that no one becomes outrageously foolish, and propriety is never exceeded.'
"'A gracious life! And how do you procreate?'
"'Oh ho ho! We have discovered that if we make ourselves very agreeable, the women sometimes allow us little indulgences ... . Ah! Now! Be at your best! Here is the Great Lady herself!'
"Across the meadow came Llorio the Murthe: a woman pure and strong; and all the men jumped to their feet and waved their hands and smiled their greetings. She spoke to me: 'Vermoulian, have you come to help us? Splendid! Skills like yours will be needed in our effort! I welcome you into our group!'
"Entranced by her stately grace, I stepped forward to embrace her, in friendship and joy, but as I extended my arms she blew a bubble into my face. Before I could question her, I awoke, anxious and bewildered."
Lehuster said: "I can resolve your bewilderment. You were ensqualmed."
"During a dream?" demanded Vermoulian. "I cannot credit such nonsense."
Ildefonse spoke in a troubled voice: "Lehuster, be good enough to instruct us as to the signs by which ensqualmation may be recognized?"
"Gladly. In the final stages the evidence is obvious: the victim becomes a woman. An early mannerism is the habit of darting the tongue rapidly in and out of the mouth. Have you not noticed this signal among your comrades?"
"Only in Zanzel himself, but he is one of our most reputable associates. The concept is unthinkable."
"When one deals with the Murthe, the unthinkable becomes theordinary, and Zanzel's repute carries no more weight than last year's mouse-dropping--if that much."
Zanzel pounded the table. "I am infuriated by the allegation! May I not so much as moisten my lips without incurring a storm of recrimination?"
Again Ildefonse spoke sternly to Lehuster: "It must be said that Zanzel's complaints carry weight. You must either utter an unequivocal accusation, presenting documents and proofs, or else hold your tongue."
Lehuster performed a polite bow. "I will make a terse statement. In essence, the Murthe must be thwarted if we are not to witness the final triumph of the female race. We must form a strong and defiant cabal! The Murthe is not invincible; it is three aeons since she was defeated by Calanctus, and the past is barred to her."
Ildefonse said ponderously: "If your analysis is correct, we must undertake to secure the future against this pangynic nightmare."
"Most urgent is the present! Already the Murthe has been at work!"
"Balderdash, flagrant and wild!" cried Zanzel. "Has Lehuster no conscience whatever?"
"I admit to puzzlement," said Ildefonse. "Why should the Murthe select this time and place for her operations?"
Lehuster said: "Here and now her opposition is negligible. I look around this room; I see fifteen seals dozing on a rock. Pedants like Tchamast; mystics like Ao; buffoons like Hurtiancz and Zanzel. Vermoulian explores unregistered dreams with notepad, calipers and specimen-bottles. Teutch arranges the details of his private infinity. Rhialto exerts his marvels only in the pursuit of pubescent maidens. Still, by ensqualming this group, the Murthe creates a useful company of witches, and so she must be thwarted."
Ildefonse asked: "Lehuster, is this your concept of a 'terse statement' in response to my question? First rumor, then speculation, then scandal and bias?"
"For the sake of clarity perhaps I overshot the mark," said Lehuster. "Also--in all candour--I have forgotten your question."
"You were asked to supply proof in the matter of a certain ensqualmation."
Lehuster looked from face to face. Everywhere tongues darted in and out of mouths. "Alas," said Lehuster. "I fear that I must wait for another occasion to finish my statement."
The room exploded into a confusion of bursting lights and howling sound. When quiet returned, Lehuster was gone.
Black night had come to both High and Low Meadows. In the work-room at Falu Ildefonse accepted a half-gill of aquavit from Rhialto, and settled into a slung-leather chair.
For a space the two magicians warily inspected each other; then Ildefonse heaved a deep sigh. "A sad case when old comrades must prove themselves before they sit at ease!"
"First things first," said Rhialto. "I will fling a web around the room, that no one knows our doings ... . It is done. Now then! I have avoided the squalm; it only remains to prove that you are a whole man."
"Not so fast!" said Ildefonse. "Both must undergo the test; otherwise credibility walks on one leg."
Rhialto gave a sour shrug. "As you wish, though the test lacks dignity."
"No matter; it must be done."
The tests were accomplished; mutual reassurance was achieved. Ildefonse said: "Truth to tell, I felt little concern when I noticed Calanctus: His Dogma and Dicta out upon the table."
Rhialto spoke in a confidential manner: "When I met Llorio in the forest, she tried most earnestly to beguile me with her beauty. Gallantry forbids my recitation of details. But I recognized her at once and even the vanity of a Rhialto could not credit her in the role of a heart-sick amourette, and only by thrusting me into the pond and distracting my attention was she able to apply her squalm. I returned to Falu and followed the full therapy as prescribed by Calanctus and the squalm was broken."
Raising his goblet, Ildefonse swallowed the contents at a gulp. "She also appeared before me, though on an elevated level. I encountered her in a waking dream on a wide plain, marked out in a gridwork of distorted and abstract perspectives. She stood at an apparent distance of fifty yards, truly effulgent in her silver-pale beauty, arranged obviously for my benefit. She seemed tall in stature, and towered over me as if I were a child. A psychological ploy, of course, which caused me to smile.
"I called out in a forthright voice: 'Llorio the Murthe, I can see you easily; you need not soar so high.'
"She responded gently enough: 'Ildefonse, my stature need not concern you; my words carry the same import, spoken high or low.'
"'All very well, but why incur the risk of a vertigo? Your natural proportions are certainly more pleasing to the eye. I can see every porein your skin. Still, no matter; it is all one with me. Why do you wander into my musing?'
"'Ildefonse, of all men alive, you are the wisest. The time now is late, but not too late! The female race may still reshape the universe! First, I will lead a sortie to Sadal Suud; among the Seventeen Moons we will renew the human destiny. Your kindly strength, your virtue and grandeur are rich endowments for the role which now you must play.'
"The flavor of these words was not to my liking. I said: 'Llorio, you are a woman of surpassing beauty, though you would seem to lack that provocative warmth which draws man to woman, and adds dimension to the character.'
"The Murthe responded curtly: 'The quality you describe is a kind of lewd obsequiousness which, happily, has now become obsolete. As for the 'surpassing beauty,' it is an apotheotic quality generated by the surging music of the female soul, which you, in your crassness, perceive only as a set of pleasing contours.'
"I replied with my usual gusto: 'Crass or not, I am content with what I see, and as for sorties to far places, let us first march in triumph to the bed-chamber at Boumergarth which is close at hand and there test each other's mettle. Come then, diminish your stature so that I may take your hand; you stand at an inconvenient altitude and the bed would collapse under your weight--in fact, under present conditions, our coupling would hardly be noticed by either of us.'
"Llorio said with scorn: 'Ildefonse, you are a disgusting old satyr, and I see that I was mistaken in my appraisal of your worth. Nevertheless, you must serve our cause with full force.'
"In a stately manner she walked away, into the eccentric angles of the perspective, and with every step she seemed to dwindle, either in the distance or in stature. She walked pensively, in a manner which almost might be construed as invitational. I succumbed to impulse and set out after her--first at a dignified saunter, then faster and faster until I galloped on pounding legs and finally dropped in exhaustion to the ground. Llorio turned and spoke: 'See how the grossness of your character has caused you a foolish indignity!'
"She flicked her hand to throw down a squalm which struck me on the forehead. 'I now give you leave to return to your manse.' And with that she was gone."
"I awoke on the couch in my work-room. Instantly I sought out my Calanctus and applied his recommended prophylactics in full measure."
"Most odd!" said Rhialto. "I wonder how Calanctus dealt with her."
"Just as we must do, by forming a strong and relentless cabal."
"Just so, but where and how? Zanzel has been ensqualmed, and certainly he is not alone."
"Bring out your farvoyer; let us learn the worst. Some may still be saved."
Rhialto rolled out an ornate old tabouret, waxed so many times as to appear almost black. "Who will you see first?"
"Try the staunch if mysterious Gilgad. He is a man of discrimination and not easily fooled."
"We may still be disappointed," said Rhialto. "When last I looked, a nervous snake might have envied the deft motion of his tongue." He touched one of the scallops which adorned the edge of the tabouret and spoke a cantrap, to evoke the miniature of Gilgad in a construct of his near surroundings.
Gilgad stood in the kitchen of his manse Thrume, berating the cook. Rather than his customary plum-red suit, the new Gilgad wore wide rose-red pantaloons tied at waist and ankle with coquettish black ribbons. Gilgad's black blouse displayed in tasteful embroidery a dozen red and green birds. Gilgad also used a smart new hair-style, with opulent rolls of hair over each ear, a pair of fine ruby hair-pins to hold the coiffure in place, and a costly white plume surmounting all.
Rhialto told Ildefonse: "Gilgad has been quick to accept the dictates of high fashion."
Ildefonse held up his hand. "Listen!"
From the display came Gilgad's thin voice, now raised in anger: "--grime and grit in profusion; it may have served during my previous half-human condition, but now many things have altered and I see the world, including this sordid kitchen, in a new light. Hence forth, I demand full punctilio! All areas and surfaces must be scoured; extreme neatness will prevail! Further! My metamorphosis will seem peculiar to certain among you, and I suppose that you will crack your little jokes. But I have keen ears and have little jokes of my own! Need I mention Kuniy, who hops about his duties on little soft feet with a mouse-tail trailing behind him, squeaking at the sight of a cat?"
Rhialto touched a scallop to remove the image of Gilgad. "Sad. Gilgad was always something of a dandy and, if you recall, his temper was often uncertain, or even acrid. Ensqualmation evidently fails to ennoble its victim. Ah well, so it goes. Who next?"
"Let us investigate Eshmiel, whose loyalty surely remains staunch."
Rhialto touched a scallop and on the tabouret appeared Eshmiel in the dressing room of his manse Sil Soum. Eshmiel's previous guise had been notable for its stark and absolute chiaroscuro, with the right side of his body white and the left side black. His garments had followed a similar scheme, though their cut was often bizarre or even frivolous.2
In squalmation, Eshmiel had not discarded his taste for striking contrast, but now he seemed to be wavering between such themes as blue and purple, yellow and orange, pink and umber: these being the colours adorning the mannequins ranged around the room. As Rhialto and Ildefonse watched, Eshmiel marched back and forth, inspecting first one, then another, but finding nothing suitable to his needs, which caused him an obvious vexation.
Ildefonse sighed heavily. "Eshmiel is clearly gone. Let us grit our teeth and investigate the cases first of Hurtiancz and then Dulce-Lolo."
Magician after magician appeared on the tabouret, and in the end no doubt remained but that ensqualmation had infected all.
Rhialto spoke gloomily: "Not one of the group showed so much as a twitch of distress! All wallowed in the squalming as if it were a boon! Would you and I react in the same way?"
Ildefonse winced and pulled at his blond beard. "It makes the blood to run cold."
"So now we are alone," said Rhialto. "The decisions are ours to make."
"They are not simple," said Ildefonse after reflection. "We have come under attack: do we retaliate? If so: how? Or even: why? The world is moribund."
"But I am not! I am Rhialto, and such treatment offends me!"
Ildefonse nodded thoughtfully. "That is an important point. I, with equal vehemence, am Ildefonse!"
"More, you are Ildefonse the Preceptor! And now you must use your legitimate powers."
Ildefonse inspected Rhialto through blue eyes blandly half-closed. "Agreed! I nominate you to enforce my edicts!"
Rhialto ignored the pleasantry. "I am thinking of IOUN stones."
Ildefonse sat up in his chair. "What is your exact meaning?"
"You must decree confiscation from the ensqualmated witches of all IOUN stones, on grounds of policy. Then we will work a time-stasis and send sandestins out to gather the stones."
"All very well, but our comrades often conceal their treasures with ingenious care."
"I must confess to a whimsical little recreation--a kind of intellectual game, as it were. Over the years I have ascertained the hiding-place of every IOUN stone current among the association. You keep yours, for instance, in the water reservoir of the convenience at the back of your work-room."
"That, Rhialto, is an ignoble body of knowledge. Still, at this point, we cannot gag at trifles. I hereby confiscate all IOUN stones in the custody of our bewitched former comrades. Now, if you will impact the continuum with a spell, I will call in my sandestins Osherl, Ssisk and Walfing."
"My creatures Topo and Bellume are also available for duty."
The confiscation went with an almost excessive facility. Ildefonse declared: "We have struck an important blow. Our position is now clear; our challenge is bold and direct!"
Rhialto frowningly considered the stones. "We have struck a blow; we have issued a challenge: what now?"
Ildefonse blew out his cheeks. "The prudent course is to hide until the Murthe goes away."
Rhialto gave a sour grunt. "Should she find us and pull us squeaking from our holes, all dignity is lost. Surely this is not the way of Calanctus."
"Let us then discover the way of Calanctus," said Ildefonse. "Bring out Poggiore's Absolutes; he devotes an entire chapter to the Murthe. Fetch also The Decretals of Calanctus, and, if you have it, Calanctus: His Means and Modes."
Dawn was still to come. The sky over Wilda Water showed a flush of plum, aquamarine and dark rose. Rhialto slammed shut the iron covers of the Decretals. "I find no help. Calanctus describes the persistent female genius, but he is not explicit in his remedies."
Ildefonse, looking through the The Doctrines of Calanctus, said: "I find here an interesting passage. Calanctus likens a woman to the Ciaeic Ocean which absorbs the long and full thrust of the AntipodalCurrent as it sweeps around Cape Spang, but only while the weather holds fair. If the wind shifts but a trifle, this apparently placid ocean hurls an abrupt flood ten or even twenty feet high back around the cape, engulfing all before it. When stasis is restored and the pressure relieved, the Ciaeic is as before, placidly accepting the current. Do you concur with this interpretation of the female geist?"
"Not on all counts," said Rhialto. "At times Calanctus verges upon the hyperbolic. This might be regarded as a typical case, especially since he provides no program for holding off or even diverting the Ciaeic flood."
"He seems to suggest that one does not strive, ordinarily, to control this surge but, rather, rides over it in a staunch ship of high freeboard."
Rhialto shrugged. "Perhaps so. As always, I am impatient with obscure symbolism. The analogy assists us not at all."
Ildefonse ruminated. "It suggests that rather than meeting the Murthe power against power, we must slide across and over the gush of her hoarded energy, until at last she has spent herself and we, like stout ships, float secure and dry."
"Again, a pretty image, but limited. The Murthe displays a protean power."
Ildefonse stroked his beard and looked pensively off into space. "Indeed, one inevitably starts to wonder whether this fervor, cleverness and durability might also govern her--or, so to speak, might tend to influence her conduct in, let us say, the realm of--"
"I understand the gist of your speculation," said Rhialto. "It is most likely nuncupatory."
Ildefonse gave his head a wistful shake. "Sometimes one's thoughts go where they will."
A golden insect darted out of the shadows, circled the lamp and flew back into the darkness. Rhialto instantly became alert. "Someone has entered Falu, and now waits in the parlour." He went to the door and called out sharply: "Who is there? Speak, or dance the tarantella on feet of fire."
"Hold hard your spell!" spoke a voice. "It is I, Lehuster!"
"In that case, come forward."
Into the work-room came Lehuster, soiled and limping, his shoulder feathers bedraggled, in a state of obvious fatigue. He carried a sack which he gratefully dropped upon the leather-slung couch under the window.
Ildefonse surveyed him with frowning disfavor. "Well then, Lehuster, you are here at last! A dozen times during the night we mighthave used your counsel, but you were nowhere to be found. What, then, is your report?"
Rhialto handed Lehuster a tot of aquavit. "This will alleviate your fatigue; drink and then speak freely."
Lehuster consumed the liquid at a gulp. "Aha! A tipple of rare quality! ... Well then, I have little enough to tell you, though I have spent a most toilsome night, performing necessary tasks. All are ensqualmed, save only yourselves. The Murthe, however, believes that she controls the entire association."
"What?" cried Rhialto. "Does she take us so lightly?"
"No great matter." Lehuster held out the empty goblet. "If you please! A bird flies erratically on one wing ... . Further, the Murthe appropriated all IOUN stones to her personal use--"
"Not so!" said Ildefonse with a chuckle. "We cleverly took them first."
"You seized a clutch of glass baubles. The Murthe took the true stones, including those owned by you and Rhialto, and left brummagem in their place."
Rhialto ran to the basket where the presumptive IOUN stones reposed. He groaned. "The mischievous vixen has robbed us in cold blood!"
Lehuster gestured to the sack he had tossed upon the couch. "On this occasion, we have bested her. Yonder are the stones! I seized them while she bathed. I suggest that you send a sandestin to replace them with the false stones. If you hurry, there is still time; the Murthe dallies at her toilette. Meanwhile hide the true stones in some extradimensional cubby-hole, so that they may not be taken from you again."
Rhialto summoned his sandestin Bellume and issued an appropriate instruction.
Ildefonse turned to Lehuster: "By what means did Calanctus confound this dire and frightening female?"
"Mystery still shrouds the occasion," said Lehuster. "Calanctus apparently used an intense personal force and so kept Llorio at bay."
"Hmmf. We must learn more of Calanctus. The chronicles make no mention of his death; he may still be extant, perhaps in the Land of Cutz!"
"Such questions also trouble the Murthe," said Lehuster. "We may well be able to confuse her and induce her retreat."
"There is no time to lose. You and Rhialto must create an ideal semblance in the shape of Calanctus, and here, at least, I can be ofassistance. The creation need not be permanent, but it must be sufficiently vital so that Llorio is persuaded that once again she pits herself against Calanctus."
Ildefonse pulled doubtfully at his beard. "That is a major undertaking."
"With scant time for its execution! Remember, by winning the IOUN stones you have defied the Murthe with a challenge which she cannot ignore!"
Rhialto jumped to his feet. "Quickly then! Let us do as Lehuster suggests! Time is short."
"Hmmf," growled Ildefonse. "I do not fear this misguided harridan. Is there no easier way?"
"Yes! Flight to a far dimension!"
"You know me better than that!" declared Ildefonse. "To work! We will send this witch squealing and leaping with skirts held high as she bounds over the brambles!"
"That shall be our slogan," declared Lehuster. "To work!"
The semblance of Calanctus took form on the work table: first an armature of silver and tantalum wires built upon an articulated spinal truss, then a shadowy sheathing of tentative concepts, then the skull and sensorium, into which were inserted all the works of Calanctus, and a hundred other tracts, including catalogues, compendia, pantologies and universal syntheses, until Lehuster counselled a stop. "Already he knows twenty times as much as the first Calanctus! I wonder if he can organize such a mass?"
The muscles were stretched and drawn taut; the skin was applied, along with a thick pelt of dark short hair over the scalp and down the forehead. Lehuster worked long and hard at the features, adjusting the jut of the jaw, the thrust of the short straight nose, the breadth of the forehead, the exact shape and curve of eyebrows and hair-line.
The ears were affixed and the auditory channels adjusted. Lehuster spoke in an even voice: "You are Calanctus, first hero of the 18th Aeon."
The eyes opened and gazed thoughtfully at Lehuster.
"I am your friend," said Lehuster. "Calanctus, arise! Go sit in yonder chair."
The Calanctus-form rose from the table with only a trifling effort, swung his strong legs to the floor and went to sit in the chair.
Lehuster turned to Rhialto and Ildefonse. "It would be better if now you stepped into the parlour for a few minutes. I must instill memories and associations into this mind; he must be vivid with life."
"A full lifetime of memories in so short a time?" demanded Ildefonse. "Impossible!"
"Not so, in a time-compression! I will also teach him music and poetry; he must be passionate as well as vivid. My instrument is this bit of dry flower-petal; its perfume works magic."
Somewhat reluctantly Ildefonse and Rhialto went to the parlour, where they watched morning come full to Low Meadow.
Lehuster called them to the work-room. "There sits Calanctus. His mind is rich with knowledge; he is perhaps even broader in his concepts than his namesake. Calanctus, this is Rhialto and this is Ildefonse; they are your friends."
Calanctus looked from one to the other with mild blue eyes. "I am glad to hear that! From what I have learned, the world is sorely in need of amity."
Lehuster said aside: "He is Calanctus, but with a difference, or even a certain lack. I have given him a quart of my blood, but perhaps it is not enough ... . Still, we shall see."
Ildefonse asked: "What of power? Can he enforce his commands?"
Lehuster looked toward the neo-Calanctus. "I have loaded his sensorium with IOUN stones. Since he has never known harm he is easy and gentle despite his innate force."
"What does he know of the Murthe?"
"All there is to be known. He shows no emotion."
Rhialto and Ildefonse regarded their creation with skepticism. "So far Calanctus seems still an abstraction, without over-much volition," said Rhialto. "Can we not give him a more visceral identification with the real Calanctus?"
Lehuster hesitated. "Yes. It is a scarab which Calanctus always wore on his wrist. Dress him now in apparel, then I will give him the scarab."
Ten minutes later Rhialto and Ildefonse entered the parlour with Calanctus, who now wore a black helmet, a breast-plate of polished black metal, a black cape, black breeches and black boots, with silver buckles and accoutrements.
Lehuster nodded. "He is as he should be. Calanctus, hold out your arm! I will give you a scarab worn by the first Calanctus, whose identity you must assume. This bracelet is yours. Wear it always around your right wrist."
Calanctus said: "I feel the surge of power. I am strong! I am Calanctus!"
Rhialto asked: "Are you strong enough to accept the sleight ofmagic? The ordinary man must study forty years even to become an apprentice."
"I have the power to accept magic."
"Come then! You shall ingest the Encyclopedia, then the Three Books of Phandaal, and if then you are neither dead nor mad I will pronounce you a man strong beyond any of my experience. Come! Back to the work-room."
Ildefonse remained in the parlour ... . Minutes passed. He heard a queer choking outcry, quickly quelled.
Calanctus returned to the parlour with firm steps. Rhialto, coming after, walked on sagging knees with a green pallor on his face.
Calanctus spoke somberly to Ildefonse: "I have accepted magic. My mind reels with spells; they are wild, but still I control their veering forces. The scarab gave me the strength."
Lehuster spoke. "The time is near. Witches gather on the meadow: Zanzel, Ao of the Opals, Barbanikos, and others. They are fretful and agitated ... . In fact, Zanzel approaches."
Rhialto looked to Ildefonse. "Shall we use the opportunity?"
"We would be fools if we did not!"
"My thoughts precisely. If you will take yourself to the side arbor ... ."
Rhialto went out on the front terrace, where he met Zanzel, who lodged an emphatic protest in the matter of the missing IOUN stones.
"Quite right!" said Rhialto. "It was a dastardly act, done at the behest of Ildefonse. Come to the side arbor and I will redress the wrong."
Zanzel walked to the side arbor where Ildefonse desensitized her with the Spell of Internal Solitude. Ladanque, Rhialto's chamberlain, lifted Zanzel to a barrow and wheeled her to the gardener's shed.
Rhialto, emboldened by his success, stepped to the front terrace and signaled to Barbanikos, who, following Rhialto into the side arbor, met a similar disposition.
So it went with Ao of the Opals, Dulce-Lolo, Hurtiancz and others, until the only witches remaining upon the meadow were the absentminded Vermoulian and Tchamast the Didactor, both of whom ignored Rhialto's signal.
Llorio the Murthe dropped down upon the meadow in a whirl of white cloud-spume ... . She wore an ankle-length white gown, silver sandals, a silver belt and a black fillet to confine her hair. She put a question to Vermoulian, who pointed toward Rhialto, at the front of Falu.
Llorio slowly approached. Ildefonse, stepping from the arbor,bravely directed a double spell of Internal Solitude against her; it bounced back and, striking Ildefonse, sent him sprawling.
Llorio the Murthe halted. "Rhialto! You have mistreated my coterie! You have stolen my magic stones, and so now you must come to Sadal Suud not as a witch, but as a servant of menial sort, and this shall be your punishment. Ildefonse will fare no better."
From Falu came Calanctus. He halted. Llorio's taut jaw sagged; her mouth fell open.
Llorio spoke in a gasping voice: "How are you here? How did you evade the triangle? How ..." The voice seemed to catch in her throat; in consternation she stared into the face of Calanctus. She found her voice. "Why do you look at me like that? Faithless I have not been; I now depart for Sadal Suud! Here I do only what must be done and it is you who are faithless!"
"I also did what must be done, and so it must be done again, for you have ensqualmated men to be your witches; so you have broken the Great Law, which ordains that man shall be man and woman shall be woman."
"When Necessity meets Law, then Law gives way: so you spoke in your Decretals!"
"No matter. Go you shall to Sadal Suud! Go now, go alone, without the ensqualmations."
Llorio said: "It is all one; a sorry band they are, either as wizards or witches, and in candour I wanted them only for entourage."
"Go then, Murthe!"
Llorio instead looked at Calanctus with a peculiar expression mingled of puzzlement and dissatisfaction on her face. She made no move to depart, which would seem to be both a taunt and a provocation. "The aeons have not dealt kindly with you; now you stand like a man of dough! Remember how you threatened to deal with me should we meet again?" She took another step forward, and showed a cool smile. "Are you afraid of my strength? So it must be! Where now are your erotic boasts and predictions?"
"I am a man of peace. I carry concord in my soul rather than attack and subjugation. I threaten naught; I promise hope."
Llorio came a step closer and peered into his face. "Ah!" she cried softly. "You are an empty facade, no more, and not Calanctus! Are you then so ready to taste death's sweetness?"
"I am Calanctus."
Llorio spoke a spell of twisting and torsion, but Calanctus fended it away with a gesture, and called a spell in turn of compressions from seven directions, which caught the Murthe unready and sent her reelingto her knees. Calanctus bent in compassion to lift her erect; she flared into blue flame and Calanctus held her around the waist with charred arms.
Llorio pushed him back, her face contorted. "You are not Calanctus; you are milk where he is blood!"
Even as she spoke the scarab in the bracelet brushed her face; she screamed and from her throat erupted a great spell--an explosion of power too strong for the tissues of her body, so that blood spurted from her mouth and nose. She reeled back to support herself against a tree, while Calanctus toppled slowly to lie broken and torn on his back.
Panting in emotion, Llorio stood looking down at the toppled hulk. From the nostrils issued a lazy filament of black smoke, coiling and swirling above the corpse.
Moving like a man entranced, Lehuster stepped slowly into the smoke. The air shook to a rumble of sound; a sultry yellow glare flashed like lightning; in the place of Lehuster stood a man of massive body, his skin glowing with internal light. He wore short black pantaloons and sandals, with legs and chest bare; his hair was black, his face square, with a stern nose and jutting jaw. He bent over the corpse and taking the scarab clasped it to his own wrist.
The new Calanctus spoke to Llorio: "My trouble has gone for nought! I came to this time as Lehuster, thus to leave sleeping old pains and old rages; now these hopes are forlorn, and all is as before. I am I, and once more we stand at odds!"
Llorio stood silent, her chest heaving.
Calanctus spoke on: "What of your other spells, to batter and break, or to beguile men's dreams and soften resolve? If so, try them on me, since I am not the poor mild Calanctus who carried the hopes of all of us, and who met so rude a destiny."
"Hope?" cried Llorio. "When the world is done and I have been thwarted? What remains? Nothing. Neither hope nor honour nor anguish nor pain! All is gone! Ashes blow across the desert. All has been lost, or forgotten; the best and the dearest are gone. Who are these creatures who stand here so foolishly? Ildefonse? Rhialto? Vapid ghosts, mowing with round mouths! Hope! Nothing remains. All is gone, all is done; even death is in the past."
So cried out Llorio, from the passion of despair, the blood still dripping from her nose. Calanctus stood quietly, waiting till her passion spent itself.
"To Sadal Suud I will go. I have failed; I stand at bay, surrounded by the enemies of my race."
Calanctus, reaching forward, touched her face. "Call me enemy as you like! Still, I love your dear features; I treasure your virtues and your peculiar faults; and I would not have them changed save in the direction of kindliness."
Llorio took a step backward. "I concede nothing; I will change nothing."
"Ah well, it was only an idle thought. What is this blood?"
"My brain is bleeding; I used all my power to destroy this poor futile corpse. I too am dying; I taste the savor of death. Calanctus, you have won your victory at last!"
"As usual, you overshoot the mark. I have won no victory; you are not dying nor need you go off to Sadal Suud, which is a steaming quagmire infested by owls, gnats and rodents: quite unsuitable for one of your delicacy. Who would do the laundry?"
"You will allow me neither death, nor yet refuge on a new world! Is this not defeat piled on defeat?"
"Words only. Come now; take my hand and we will call a truce."
"Never!" cried Llorio. "This symbolizes the ultimate conquest, to which I will never surrender!"
"I will gladly put by the symbol for the reality. Then you shall see whether or not I am able to make good my boasts."
"Never! I submit my person to no man's pleasure."
"Then will you not at least come away with me, so that we may drink wine on the terrace of my air-castle, and look across the panorama, and speak as the words idly come to mind?"
"One moment!" called Ildefonse. "Before you go, be good enough to desqualmate this coterie of witches, and so spare us the effort!"
"Bah, it is no great task," said Calanctus. "Evoke the Second Retrotropic, followed by a stabilizing fixture: a matter of minutes."
"Precisely so," said Ildefonse. "This, essentially, was my plan."
Rhialto turned to Ladanque. "Bring out the witches. Rank them on the meadow."
"And the corpse?"
Rhialto spoke a spell of dissolution; the dead thing collapsed into dust.
Llorio hesitated, looking first north, then south, as if in indecision; then, turning, she walked pensively across the meadow. Calanctus followed; the two halted and stood facing each other. First Llorio spoke, then Calanctus, then Llorio; then they both looked together toward the east, and then they were gone.
RHIALTO THE MARVELLOUS. Copyright @ 1984 by Jack Vance