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PART IV
In Which We Momentarily Suspend Korzeniowski's Superlative Account in Order to Resume Our Examination of the Other Fugitives From Goimric Justice, Discovering to Our Horror, as We Do, that Their Social Villainy Is Becoming Entwined With the First Horrid Seeds of
Carnal Lust.

 


The Autobiography of Benvenuti Sfondrati-Piccolomini,
Episode 3: Umbrellas, Uncles, Urchins, and Urges

So it was in such a leafy green shroud that I spent many days thereafter. I remember it, looking back, as a particularly joyful time of my life. All cares seemed to vanish as the great forest swallowed us up. Every day, one after another, was a steady progression along a narrow and winding trail. Above, the canopy of the trees shielded all direct sunlight. Everything was bathed with a dim green glow, which periodically darkened as storms passed overhead. The foliage was so thick that the rainfall from the storms we could hear in the sky above never fell directly on the soil. Like so many umbrellas, the great trees diverted the water into a million trickles seeping down the great boles.


At first—fueled, I have no doubt, by the grim reputation of the Grimwald—I found the forest oppressive, even fearful. But by the end of the first day, I had lost all sense of foreboding. In large part, that was due to Gwendolyn. She, who had heretofore appeared so stern and unyielding, seemed to lose her years and troubles the farther we penetrated into the legendary forest. Nothing was said throughout the course of that first day's journey, but I am an artist, with an artist's eye. It became obvious, watching the steady change in her posture as she strode ahead of me, the increasing ease of her movements, that she was more at ease with my company.


Relaxed or not, she set a very rigorous pace. I suspected that she was deliberately trying to exhaust the effete Ozarine urbanite trailing behind her. Had I been a normal Ozarine, I would indeed have collapsed before half the day had past. But my uncles' training stood me in good stead, and by the time she stopped to make camp for the night I was in good shape.


She commented on it, as she put together the makings for a fire.


"You held up pretty well today. For a—" She stopped speaking, made a sour face.


"For an Ozarine?" I asked, laughing. "I grant you, most of my countrymen would be in sorry shape by now. But my uncles kept me in a stern regimen since I was a wee lad."


"I forgot your uncles." She grimaced. "I suppose mercenaries would need to stay in decent physical condition."


I laughed. "In point of fact, my condottiere uncles tend to scorn regular exercise. They claim being in good shape produces cowardice. 'Your fat man's more likely to stay in the fight,' they say, 'seeing as how there's no point in him trying to run.' No, it was my artist uncles who insisted I exercise. The artist's craft can be quite strenuous."


She looked up at me from the kindling, surprised.


"I'm serious. If you don't believe me, try lying on your back on a scaffolding painting the ceiling of a chapel for an entire week."


"I've never thought about it."


"Most people don't. The world thinks artists function on pure inspiration, or some such. Lot of nonsense, that. It's a craft, like any other. At least, that's how I was brought up."


"What kind of art do you do?"


"Anything. Painting, sculpture, whatever pays. My personal preference is wood carving, but there's not usually much money in it."


She dug into her pack and drew out some dried meat. She handed me a small piece, along with some kind of crackers. The crackers were harder than the meat, and I could have carved wood easier than the meat.


"We'll have to live on this while we travel through the forest," she explained, somewhat apologetically. "I know it tastes lousy, and it's more tiring to chew it than it is to walk. But we don't dare hunt anything in the Grimwald. If you see some berries, let me know. It's safe to eat berries."


"Are these dietary regulations due to the danger of snarls?" I asked. She nodded her head.


"I haven't seen any trace of the creatures. I was rather fearful of encountering them, at first, but after a few hours I decided they weren't around."


"They're here, all right. Don't be fooled by not seeing any. Snarls have an uncanny ability to blend into their surroundings. But they're here, never doubt it." And so saying, she lay down and rolled into her blanket. Within a minute, she was asleep. I found her last remark rather unsettling, but after a few more minutes I too fell asleep.


* * *


In the days which followed, Gwendolyn and I began talking while we walked. At first, I was preoccupied with trying to figure out how to make a good impression on her. Difficult, that. I was not, if I may say so, inexperienced at what is sometimes called the art of seduction. But I wasn't such a fool, even then, as to think that the ploys and subtleties of Ozarine idle society would do more than irritate Gwendolyn. And I also realized (rather to my surprise) that as much as I lusted for her incredible body, I had begun to care even more for her good opinion. Eventually, I stopped worrying about it and just enjoyed the conversation. Now that she was more relaxed, I found that Gwendolyn's generally fierce outlook on life was leavened by a dry wit. And while she was uneducated by formal standards, she possessed a keen mind and a sharp eye for observation.


Yet, even though she seemed much friendlier than hitherto, she maintained the same relentless pace. I commented on it, after a week of travel, with a jocular remark to the effect that one would think she would have given up trying to wear me down. But she shook her head.


"It's not you I'm thinking about. I've got to get into the Mutt as soon as possible, so I can start warning the underground about the Rap Sheet."


"What is this Rap Sheet?" I asked. "And why are you so concerned about it?"


My question astonished her so much that she actually stopped and turned around.


"You're an Ozarine!" she exclaimed. "You own all the Rap Sheets! Well, at least most of them."


I threw up my hands with exasperation.


"Will you kindly relent with this Ozarine business?" I demanded. "Gwendolyn, I don't own anything except the clothes on my back and the few possessions in my pack. And my easel," I finished, pointing to it slung over my shoulder. "As for the Rap Sheets, it's true that every year the Senate organizes a great parade on Victory Day in which the Rap Sheets along with other great relics and magic artifacts are paraded around to awe the populace. But the truth is I never really paid much attention to the whole business."


"Can you really be such an innocent? It's hard to believe, even for an artist." She frowned. "Oh, stop looking so aggrieved. It's not that I don't believe you, it's just—"


I started to say something, but she held up a hand to quiet me.


"Just give me a moment. I'm trying to make a decision. Meanwhile, let's keep moving."


A half hour later, without turning her head, she began to tell me about her life, a subject she had hitherto avoided completely. I listened, saying not a word, recognizing the acceptance. She spoke steadily for a long time, describing the life of a girl born into abject poverty in a province of Sfinctria, the most powerful—and venal, by all accounts—of Grotum's many realms. A father never known, a mother dead—of exhaustion, essentially—by the time she was six. Her only family a twin brother, her account of whom, as a boy, was filled with affection. Her world, as she grew up, was a fearsome place, full of perils and injustices. The coarse brutality of the Groutch past, increasingly overlaid by the callous rapacity of the Groutch future.


Her incredible size and strength—manifest at an early age—protected her as a girl from the routine dangers of poverty. There was also, whenever needed, the aid of a brother who was an even more fearsome specimen than herself. And another waif, whom she and her brother more or less adopted, whose diminutive size was offset by the kind of ferocity sometimes found in small animals. The three orphans, as children, had formed themselves into a small family, relying on each other for everything and fending for themselves against as harsh a world as I could imagine.


She said little about her brother and the other boy. It was clear enough, though I understood none of the particulars, that there was a great heartbreak lurking beneath her terse account. An estrangement of some sort, apparently, the nature of which she did not touch upon.


By the time she was fourteen, Gwendolyn had come to realize that the evils of her immediate surroundings were but the manifestations of a vastly greater and more impersonal cruelty. By the time she was sixteen, she was a fully-fledged activist in the revolutionary movement of Grotum.


Of this movement, I understood little of what she said. I gained the impression of a far-flung, complex network of organizations, tendencies, individuals and currents, concentrated in the toiling classes, but not without friends in higher places. Wolfgang seemed to occupy some unique position in this movement, from what little she said about him—not really part of it, but held by all Groutch revolutionaries in a weird combination of awe and bemusement.


"Ideological as a Groutch" is, of course, a well-known expression the world over. Listening to Gwendolyn talk, I began to gain some inkling of the reality captured in the old saw. Yet, despite the manifold and subtle—and, to one of my temperament, utterly confusing—disputes and divisions within the revolutionary movement, there were a few key points on which all were agreed. These can be summarized as:


One, all the realms of Grotum (except, for reasons which were at the time unclear to me, the Mutt) were utterly decrepit and must be overthrown.


Two, the Groutch were a single people and should be united (or, according to some, reunited—the intricacies of this debate completely eluded me!).


Three, neither of these tasks could be accomplished without defeating the imperialist ambitions of Ozarae, which were rapidly coming to dominate the entire sub-continent. This point, at least, I could readily understand.


It was Gwendolyn's assessment—and I gained here the distinct impression, without her saying anything specific, that she herself was a prominent figure in the underground—that the revolution was gaining steadily in strength, while the various regimes of the sundry Groutch realms were ebbing in their ability to repress the movement. An important element in the growing strength of the revolution was the decrepitude and disarray of the ruling classes. Here, her words called to memory something my uncle Rodrigo had once said: "If the rulers of Grotum were a tenth as competent as they are vicious, we'd all be in deep shit."


And that, she said, explained the importance of the Rap Sheet which Ozar was bringing to Grotum.


"You do know what a Rap Sheet is, don't you?" she asked, stopping for a moment to catch her breath.


I shrugged. "Not precisely. A magic relic, supposedly, which somehow enhances the power of the police. Geographically, its powers are said to be limited, but within those limits, immense. Beyond that, I really don't know much. To tell you the truth, I always suspected the boasts of the Senate were much exaggerated."


"Would that they were! When the Senate of Ozarae sent a Rap Sheet into the Rellenos, the revolution which was developing there was crushed within two months."


"Yes, I remember that, vaguely. I was only fifteen at the time."


"Do you know what happened?"


"Not really."


"The police and army of the Rellenos—which had been as sorry a bunch of fumble-fingers as you can imagine—suddenly rounded up every single person who was even vaguely associated with the movement. Fifteen thousand, at least. They stuffed them all into a stadium and then butchered them. Two days it took, with the Rellenos army doing the dirty work and the Ozarines directing the operation. The Cruds. In fact, it was Inkman himself who was in charge. Chief of station for the Rellenos, he was then. One of Ozar's top hatchetmen. Now he's here, and he's bringing a Rap Sheet. So, do you begin to understand why I'm in such a hurry to spread the warning?"


She didn't wait for my reply before starting off again down the trail. I thought on her words for some time before asking: "Do you think your movement can protect itself, with your advance warning?"


She shook her head. "I don't know. I'm not very optimistic, to tell the truth. The movement in the Rellenos had advance warning, and it didn't seem to do them much good. The problem is, the Rap Sheet's magic. There aren't all that many real sorcerers in Grotum, despite all the tales you may have heard. Plenty of fakes and frauds, of course, and even a fair number of witches and warlocks. But the Rap Sheet's a Joe relic and that's the so-called 'Old Magic,' whatever that means. The Arcanum, I think the scholars call it. I have a bad feeling it'll take a sorcerer to deal with a Rap Sheet. But the few sorcerers that do exist are no friends of the common people, that's for sure. Reactionaries through and through, the lot of them, so far as I know."


On that gloomy note, Gwendolyn fell silent, and remained silent the rest of the day. Nor did she speak that evening, around the fire. After she finished eating, she curled up in her blanket. But this night, she did not immediately fall asleep. After a few minutes, she rolled over and looked at me.


"Why are you watching me?" she asked. It was a simple question, without unfriendliness, and I decided to answer honestly.


"I watch you every night for a few minutes, before I fall asleep."


"Why?"


"I don't know, really. You fascinate me. I've never met anyone like you, and—" I took a breath. "I find I am very attracted to you."


"As a woman?"


"Yes." After a moment's silence: "I do not mean to offend you."


"I'm not offended. Puzzled, more like. Outside of a few in the movement, who understand me, I've always found that I intimidate men. Or, what's worse, they see me as some sort of bizarre challenge."


She sat up and stirred the fire into life. She motioned to me and I moved over beside her.


"I don't understand your loyalties," she said.


"That's because they are so different from yours," I replied. "You don't really understand, I think, how little being an Ozarine means to me. Just as I don't understand, I think, how you can be so devoted to your cause." I hesitated, groping for words. "My whole life has been—how can I put it? I think only in terms of individuals, specific people. People in general are an abstraction to me."


"That seems kind of narrow."


"It probably is. I'm not boasting about it, it's just the way I am. When I think about it, I actually admire the way you look at things. But I can't feel it myself."


"So why did you agree to help me escape from Goimr?"


"Because it was you."


She fell silent for a moment, then started weeping. I was utterly astonished. She was such a formidable person, that I had never imagined her crying. And even her crying had a kind of basal agony to it. These were not dainty tears dabbed up with a handkerchief, the kind I had seen shed by many a lady. Her sobs were a deep racking, which echoed ancient pain.


"I'm sorry," I said, after she regained control. "I didn't mean to—"


"You don't have to apologize. It's just—when you said, 'because of you,' it reminded me. My brother said that to me, once. After I threw him out—" Her face grew suddenly stiff and hard. "Never mind that. I didn't see him for several years. Refused to see him. But then I was captured by the police—stupid, really, but I was so tired I'd fallen asleep because I'd been—Never mind. Anyway, they had me chained up and were drooling over the prospect of interrogating me. Interrogation, that's what they call it. We lowlifes call it rape and torture. Anyway, that's when my brother came into the police station."


She smiled. "I didn't know whether to be happy or mad! But at the time, I was mostly just laughing to watch the porkers. I think two of them died of fright before my brother even got his hands on them. And, by the smell, all of them had crapped their pants." Her smile became utterly wicked. "I'll say this, their fear was short-lived."


Seeing my frown of puzzlement, she said: "Obviously, you've never met my brother."


"No. Not so far as I'm aware, at least." Suddenly a thought came to me. I suspect my jaw fell. "Wait a minute. Wolfgang called you Gwendolyn Greyboar."


"It's my last name—Greyboar."


"Your brother isn't—the Greyboar?"


"You've heard of him?"


"Who hasn't? The world's greatest strangler, my uncles say. They're quite the fans of him, actually. There's some Ozarine strangler who's all the rage in Ozar nowadays, but my uncles sneer at him. 'All your great historic chokesters have been Groutch,' they say, 'and Greyboar's as good as the legends.' They also say that—"


"I don't want to hear about it!" she snarled. The iron mask was back on her face. But after a few seconds, her expression softened.


"I just don't want to talk about it. I hate this mystique about stranglers. No different from cheap thugs, as far as I'm concerned, except they're not cheap. Oh, no! Only work for top dollar, stranglers. Exclusive clientele. Professional murderers, that's all they are, with a shiny respectable gloss."


She took a deep breath. "So anyway, here's my brother, gets me out of there. And afterward I told him—'There's people being murdered, raped and tortured by porkers all over Grotum, and you never gave a damn. So why'd you come here?'"


She looked at me. "'Because it was you,' he said."


"I see. I reminded you of him."


"Yes. And no. You're a lot alike, actually, in some ways."


She stirred the fire again. "But then, you've chosen to do something else with your hands." She took my hand and looked at it. "Good hands, you've got. I noticed that the first day we met."


She looked up at me. "There's a kind of shiny patina all over you, very smooth and polished. But I think there's something else inside."


I reached out with my other hand, but she gently fended it aside.


"Please, Benvenuti, don't."


I withdrew the hand, but she kept my other hand in hers. Then she lay on her back and drew me down next to her. After a long silence, she laughed.


"It's not that I'm a shy virgin, you understand? And I admit I find you attractive. You're so impossibly handsome! It's that we're so different, and our lives go in such different ways."


She raised herself up on one elbow and looked down at me.


"I don't think we'd really manage a casual fling of it," she said softly. "And as for anything else—I don't think there'd be anything but heartbreak in it."


I tried to argue with her, but she was a difficult person to argue with. The more so as my conscious intellect thought she was probably right—even if my body was crying out otherwise. I did manage one kiss, and for a brief moment I felt a hint of passion that sent a hot spike through me. But I didn't try to push the matter. Some instinct told me to let it go, for the moment.


* * *


When I awoke, the green glow of the sunlight filtering through the trees, I looked up and found Gwendolyn staring down at me. Her expression was unreadable. Then, without warning, she leaned over and gave me a quick kiss. Before I could respond, she rose, took my hand, and, with the fluid grace of a giant cat, hauled me to my feet with one effortless motion. God, the woman was strong!


"Let's go," she said. "We've got a lot of distance to make today. If we push it, we can be out of the forest by tomorrow morning."


The last sentence wasn't said with any great enthusiasm. "I would have thought—"


She chuckled harshly, and set off. "The Grimwald isn't so bad, despite its reputation. And once we're out of the forest, Benvenuti, we'll be in the Baronies—which are just as bad as their reputation."


I reviewed in my mind what I knew of the reputation of the Baronies. "Eeek," I muttered.


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