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In Which We Return to the
Autobiography of the Malefactor
Sfrondrati-Piccolomini, this Portion
of Whose Story Consists of a Crude and
Unscrupulous Attempt to Win the Favor
of the Reader, by Means of Mawkish
Romance and Melodrama.


The Autobiography of Benvenuti Sfondrati-Piccolomini,
Episode 7: Signs, Signals, Sighs and Sorrows

So it was on such a note of frustration that I awoke the following day. Gwendolyn and I saw little of each other. She spent the whole day sitting at a table in a corner of the Free Lunch, talking to an endless stream of people who came in and out of the alehouse. All of them ambled in with a smile and left in a hurry, great frowns on their faces. I made it a point not to overhear her conversations, but it was plain enough even to one of my limited grasp of politics that she was energetically spreading the word through the revolutionary network. And I couldn't help but overhear some of the comments made by people as they left the alehouse, among which "A Rap Sheet!" and "We're doomed!" figured prominently.

I couldn't help but overhear, I say, because I myself spent the morning perched on the colonnade in the front of the Free Lunch. As I had promised the Tapster, I repaired his sign. When I was done, if I may say so myself, I had turned the thing into a work of art.

Then, partly because I had nothing else to do and partly because my artist's instincts, once aroused, are difficult to control, I started working on the entire colonnade. The underlying construction of the colonnade was sound enough, but whoever had built it had absolutely no sense of decoration and what little they had was long since eroded by the elements.

So there I was, happily painting and carving away, when I heard a loud voice below.

"That's enough, Benvenuti! Enough!"

I looked down. It was the Tapster.

"Look at it! It's a work of art, now, for the love—gargoyles, even." He shook his head, jowls quivering. "You couldn't eat and drink that much in a lifetime."

I climbed down off the colonnade. A lengthy debate followed, at the conclusion of which I managed to convince the Tapster that since I myself considered his beer and "arsters" a form of art in their own right I considered us to have made a reasonable exchange of use values. The clincher—a shrewd move, this, though it pained me deeply—was my insistence that I was deeply in his debt for correcting my pronunciation with respect to edible mollusks.

"Well, that's true," he mused, "seeing as how I not only did you the great service in its own right but probably saved your life, in the bargain. Most people aren't as tolerant as myself, you know, when it comes to the proper name for arsters."

In the end, he was mollified. But he still insisted that I'd done enough. And so there I was, it being only the early afternoon and with too much time on my hands.

After enjoying an enormous lunch—the Tapster insisted on heaping my platter time and again—I approached Gwendolyn at her table.

"I'm sorry to interrupt," I said—and no sooner did these accented words issue forth from my lips than I was greeted with a sea of hostile and suspicious faces from the people gathered about the table—"but I just wanted to tell you I'm going to wander about the town for the rest of the afternoon. I'll see you tonight."

Gwendolyn smiled at me. Then, noticing the expression on the faces of the others at the table, she scowled.

"And what's your problem?" she demanded of them. "So he's an Ozarine—so what? He's with me. I vouch for him."

The frowns eased, but did not vanish. Gwendolyn slammed her fist onto the table. Everyone jumped a foot in their seats.

"What is this?" she roared. "Bigotry? In the movement? I won't have it!"

I managed to keep from smiling. This, coming from Gwendolyn!

The frowns were replaced by looks which combined shamefaced guilt and not a little trepidation. This latter was not surprising. Gwendolyn in a fury is not a thing to be taken lightheartedly.

"I'll probably be tied up most of the night, Benvenuti," growled Gwendolyn, her fierce gaze not on me but on her comrades. "There's still a lot of the comrades I have to talk to, and then"—her voice here resembled a great feline's—"there's perhaps a little matter of political re-education to be dealt with."

I left the room, then, trying not to laugh at the expressions I left behind.

The rest of the day passed pleasantly enough. It's an odd place, the Doghouse, but not without its own charms. The artwork, I found, had a crude but strangely appealing quality to it. There was one figurine in particular that I found attractive. It was made of terra cotta, unpainted, depicting the bust of some very rough-looking man. More like an ogre than a man, really, with his beetling brows, great hook of a nose, and deep-set eyes. Some of that was due, I was sure, to the crudity of the craftsmanship, but I felt, without knowing why, that it was not unlike the original model. But what struck me about it was that, even despite the obvious lack of skill of the artisan, the figurine somehow managed to capture a hint of a great spirit lurking within that horrid exterior. It was really a fine piece.

I noticed it in one shop, and then began seeing it in several others. Eventually, I found myself so taken by the thing that I determined to obtain one, so that I might make my own carving. I retraced my steps back to the first shop, whose figurine had been of the best quality, and effectuated an exchange of services with the proprietor. It was not difficult. My travels about the town had made it clear to me that if I should ever decide to become a sign-maker I could easily set myself up in the Doghouse and enjoy all the simple bounties of its life.

And so it was that I returned to the Free Lunch, gay as a lark, and walked into a most painful episode.

By the time I got back it was very late. Gwendolyn was sitting at the same table, but the crowd of the day was gone. Only one person was sitting there with her. I did not pay much attention to him, so happy was I to see her again. A general impression of great height—obvious even seated—and a luxuriant beard, was all that initially registered. Gwendolyn glanced at me as I approached, then looked back to the man. Something in the set of her shoulders—a rigidity, perhaps—stilled the affectionate greeting that I was about to utter.

"Have a seat," she said. Her voice seemed distant. She motioned back and forth. "Roach, this is Benvenuti Sfondrati-Piccolomini. Benvenuti, meet The Roach. He's an old friend of mine, just got here. I wasn't expecting him."

The man stood up politely. A large, long-fingered hand reached out. I shook it. For the first time, I looked at him closely. Extraordinarily tall, he was. Middle-aged, rather slender, although obviously sinewy. His face was difficult to discern, so covered it was with an immense beard. His hair and beard were streaked with gray. I got an impression of a great prow of a chin buried somewhere beneath the hair, but I was more struck by his eyes. Somewhat deep-set, light-colored, and very hard to read. His clothes were those of a workman, very nondescript except for the most immense and striking set of boots that I ever saw in my life. The Boots, I was later to learn.

"Which branch?" the man asked, after he resumed his seat. His voice was a pleasant tenor.

I began to explain where my immediate family line fit on the complex hereditary tree of the Sfondrati-Piccolomini clan, but before I got very far into it he began nodding his head.

"Yes, yes, I know it." A look which combined amusement and a certain respect. "An odd lot, not at all like most of those pedants. When I was in the Ozarine, I spent some pleasant afternoons quaffing ale with an Idomeneo Sfondrati-Piccolomini. A cousin of yours, he must be."

"Second cousin. I've only met him once. My uncles sent me to bail him out of jail."

The Roach emitted a great baying laugh. "I can believe it! He never had the proper respect for his patrons, that lad. 'Rich slobs couldn't tell a work of art if it bit them on the arse,' he'd always say."

My initial warmth toward the man, however, began ebbing as the night wore on. Soon enough, I came to view him with a great coldness. The fault was not his, actually. Indeed, it was part of the growing horror of the scene, that I knew him to be a man whose acquaintance I would have enjoyed, perhaps even cherished, under other circumstances. Under that rough and bristly exterior I could detect a great, somehow gentle, self-confidence—a quiet dignity, a sense of his place in life that it is given to very few people to possess in this world.

But the fact is, the circumstances were as they were. Nothing was said, neither by he nor by Gwendolyn, and they never so much as touched each other once. But I am not a fool. I will admit I stayed at the table well past the time I should have made a graceful exit. The Roach seemed oblivious to the situation. But I am an artist, with an artist's eye, to whom the tension in Gwendolyn's posture was obvious. So stay I did, trying to forestall the inevitable, until my stern upbringing came to my rescue.

"When it comes to romance and heartbreak and all that," my uncles had told me more than once, "try not to be a complete jackass."

And so I finally rose from the table, bid them goodnight, and made my way to my room. Sometime later, I heard Gwendolyn and The Roach moving through the corridor and into her room. The indistinct murmur of their voices came through the wall for a few minutes, followed by silence, followed, some minutes later, by sounds which I did my best to ignore. Eventually, I managed to fall asleep.

When I awoke, my body feeling ill-used and my soul worse, I lay in my bed unmoving. After some time, I realized that I was hearing a conversation coming from Gwendolyn's room. I could not hear the words, but I seemed to detect an undertone of anger in The Roach's voice and a coldness in Gwendolyn's. For a moment, the temptation to press my ear against the wall and eavesdrop swept over me like a tidal wave. But I resisted it, springing to my feet and charging downstairs after hurriedly making my ablutions and throwing on some clothes.

Good as they were, I was getting a bit tired of beer and arsters, so I wandered down the street and had breakfast at a nearby restaurant. When I got back to the Free Lunch, Gwendolyn and The Roach were finishing a platter of arsters at the table in the corner. After a moment's hesitation, I decided that avoiding them would be undignified. So I made my way over and accepted The Roach's invitation to sit.

A somewhat strained silence followed, which Gwendolyn broke by saying: "I have to make arrangements to go visit the General. I'll be back shortly."

After she left, the silence returned. I was trying to think of some pleasantry to break the awkwardness when The Roach suddenly exclaimed some meaningless noise. He stood up abruptly and glared around the room. His great beard bristled fury at the universe.

"Absurd situation!" he exclaimed. Then, glancing down at me, he said: "Come on, Benvenuti, let's go outside."

I followed him out of the tavern, not sure what to make of things. He began pacing restlessly back and forth in the courtyard, staring down at the pavement. I soon gave up trying to match his immense strides, and stood unmoving. After a minute or so, he looked over at me and motioned with his head toward a bench against the wall.

Once we were seated, he leaned back against the wall and emitted a great sigh.

"Had I realized the situation soon enough," he said suddenly, "I would have gone elsewhere to spend the night."

"I don't see why," I said, very stiffly. "I have no claim on Gwendolyn."

"Who does?" he demanded. "No man has any claim on any woman. Certainly not Gwendolyn."

He looked over at me, and then burst into a barking laughter.

"Ah, and will you look at those square shoulders! A Sfondrati-Piccolomini of the old school! Face the ovens of hell with a stiff upper lip."

My upper lip was stiff. "I assure you, sirrah, that your concern is misplaced. I hold the lady in the highest esteem, but—"

His laughter became positively canine. When the grotesque mirth ebbed, he shook his head and said:

"I don't think there's anyone in the world who can be such a jackass as a man trying not to be a jackass."

I let this unseemly comment pass. My upper lip, I believe, now resembled the prow of a war galley. Suddenly, I broke.

"I—I just—" I stammered. "I'm only trying—what I mean—" I took a breath. "It is true what I said. There has been nothing—well, nothing serious—between Gwendolyn and me. That is, well, of a physical nature."

Again, that barking laughter.

"Think I give a damn where your pecker's been?" For some reason, this crudity was not offensive, coming from him. When I looked at him, he was gazing at me with a strange look in his eyes. But then, as I've said, his eyes were hard to read.

"This is not about you and me," he said quietly. "Nor, to be honest, do I care a fig about your relationship with Gwendolyn."

He looked away for a moment, and then continued.

"Gwendolyn and I have known each other for many years. During those years, we have been friends and comrades-in-arms. And, whenever the occasion permitted, we have been lovers. It is a hard world we live in, she and I, with few enough of life's joys and comforts." A hint of sorrow came into his voice. "I have thought sometimes, if—well, no point in that." His eyes grew distant, as if gazing at an unreachable horizon.

"During those years," he continued, "neither of us has ever asked any questions of each other. The truth is, for all that I love the woman, and I believe she loves me, there is no great passion in it."

He stared down at his long fingers, restlessly intertwining. "Passion is not something that I can give her. It's the legacy of my own line. Goes all the way back to the first Roach, that." Bleakly, but with great pride: "Our passion is directed elsewhere."

He took a deep breath. "You are something new to her. Quite new, and she doesn't know what to make of it. I'm not certain—who knows, really, what moves another?—but I think you stir up in her all the feelings of a young womanhood that she never had. She was thrown into the revolution at such an early age. Took to it, too, like a fish to water. Little enough chance, she's ever had, to enjoy her life. And most men are too intimidated by her to do more than stare from a distance."

That brought a smile to my lips. "It's a bit disconcerting, when it dawns on you the lady could bend you into a pretzel."

The Roach shook his head. "It's not even that. It's the fierceness in her soul. She could be a third her size, and she'd still terrify most men."

I thought about that, and nodded my head.

The Roach scratched his beard. Even a hand his size almost disappeared in the great mass of hair.

"Anyway, the point I'm trying to get to is this. It was not until this morning, after listening to her talk about you through most of the night, that I finally realized what was going on. Of course, then I was furious." His beard bristled. "I don't like being used."

"How are—oh. You think she's trying to make me jealous?" I frowned. "I don't think—no, I don't believe that. It doesn't seem—"

"You idiot," he said. "Of course she's not trying to make you jealous! What is she, some schoolgirl playing children's games? No, she's trying to drive you off, that's what. Doesn't realize it, of course. But that's what it is, sure as I'm sitting here. And she used me to do it, and I am not pleased."

He stood up abruptly. "I'm not sure why I'm talking to you about this," he said, looking away. "Partly it's because I refuse to be a part of it." Again, the bristling beard. "Damn the woman! Let her solve her own problems!"

He looked down at me. "You really don't understand, do you? Not surprising, you're so like her. I can tell, even on such short acquaintance. Well, lad, I've done my duty by my own lights. I told Gwendolyn this morning that it'd be pure and simple movement business between us until she straightens out the knots in her own love life. I am not a tool. If she wants to chase you off, fine. Let her do it. If she doesn't, that's fine also. I will tell you, for whatever it's worth, that I think you're both fools—you more than she."

He bestowed a world-class glare on me.

"Damn all romantics, anyway! Do you really think you're prepared to give up all your dreams and ambitions?" He laughed, not very pleasantly. "Don't deny it. Your branch of the Sfondrati-Piccolominis all have that madness. Want to shape the world's great art, you do. Statues in the park, paintings on the great cathedrals, only the finest gold filigree! Can you picture Gwendolyn in a noble's salon, arguing over the latest style?"

I avoided his eyes.

"Not likely, is it? And what about you? Are you ready to give that up? I don't mean the company of the rich—I know that doesn't mean anything to you. But if you want to muck around in fine art, you've no other choice, Benvenuti. Precious few patrons you'll find, in Gwendolyn's world."

I was silent.

"Romantics! Stubborn and stupid, like no mule even dreams of being."

At that moment, Gwendolyn came striding into the courtyard. When she saw us, she hesitated, then continued on into the tavern without a word or a glance.

My eyes followed her all the way in. When I looked back at The Roach, his expressionless gaze had returned.

"What the hell," he said. "Whoever said life was easy?" He turned and followed Gwendolyn into the Free Lunch. I remained in the courtyard, seated on the bench. My thoughts were hard to describe. Stupid. Stubborn.

* * *

Some time later, Gwendolyn reemerged into the courtyard. The Roach followed a few steps behind, then stopped. Gwendolyn turned back to face him.

"You're sure you won't come?"

The Roach shook his head. "There's no need, Gwendolyn. You can fill the General in on the situation, and I need to get to Blain as soon as possible. Except for Prygg, the initial blows will land there the hardest. And the comrades in Blain have the best contacts with Pryggia."

She hesitated.

"Go," he said gently.

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