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In Which We Return Once Again to the Autobiography of the Scoundrel Sfrondrati-Piccolomini, this Portion of Whose Story Consists, Yet Again, of a Crude and Unscrupulous Attempt to Win the Favor of the Reader, by Means of Mawkish Romance and Melodrama, Thereby Confirming—Yet Again!—His Unscrupulous Character and Nature.


The Autobiography of Benvenuti Sfondrati-Piccolomini,
Episode 8: Horses, Hurts, Heroes and Halloween

So it was in such a strained silence that Gwendolyn and I began our journey to the General's estate. Two days, the trip would require, or so I had been told. Longer, I suspected, judging from the quality of the nags we were riding.

The expression on Gwendolyn's face was forbidding and withdrawn. At first, I thought it was hostility directed toward me. Then, I thought it was hostility toward The Roach. Eventually—such is human stupidity—I realized that it was not hostility at all, but a deep grief kept under fierce control.

My own hurt and anger vanished.

"I've been such a petty fool!" I exclaimed. Gwendolyn looked at me, puzzled. I reined in my horse.

"What's this about?" she asked, pulling up her own mount.

"I'm sorry; I've been—preoccupied with my own problems. You don't expect you'll ever see him again, do you?"

She stared at me for a moment, her face pale. "No," she said quietly. "He'll die in Blain. Or Prygg, more likely."

She started her horse moving again. She said nothing for a long time. Just stared straight ahead, a trickle of tears wending down her cheeks.

"You can't be sure of that," I said eventually. "He seems a singularly capable fellow."

She shook her head. "You don't understand, Benvenuti. With a Rap Sheet in their hands, and the Cruds to organize them, every police agency in Grotum—and there's more of them than you can count—will be able to coordinate their efforts perfectly. The Roach's name will be at the top of their list. And he won't be that hard to find, anyway. Where the enemy's blows are hardest, that's always where you'll find The Roach. It's part of the tradition, you know."

My face must have shown my puzzlement.

"What's this?" she demanded. A faint smile came on her face. "Do you mean to tell me that the legend of The Roach isn't told to all Ozarine children, along with all the other legends?"

I shook my head.

"Not surprising. I don't actually believe the legend myself. I don't even know if The Roach does. Whenever I ask, he just smiles and changes the subject."

"What is the legend?"

"Well, it goes like this. Supposedly, way back at the beginning of time, when Joe invented everything, he had one friend—his best friend Sam—who tried to talk him out of it. Tried to tell Joe he was afraid these new inventions wouldn't work out all that well in the end. Joe wouldn't listen to him, saying he didn't see where he had any choice. But after his friend kept pestering him, Joe finally threw up his hands and invented The Boots. He gave them to his friend and said: 'All right, dammit, if my inventions don't work right, you can use these to kick 'em out.' Then, after the inventions went bad, and Joe was frozen up, his friend took it on the lam and he's been kicking ass ever since."

"But that's impossible!" I cried. "The man can't be more than fifty years old."

Gwendolyn grinned. "Well, the legend has it that the original Roach finally realized it was going to take an awful long time to properly stamp out the inventions. So he founded a line—a family line, he said, with a proper pedigree—to give the lowlifes something to match up against the pedigrees of the high and mighty. Every generation since, as far back as you can go in the history of Grotum, there's always been a Roach. It can be anybody, as long as they're a bastard and they can wear The Boots. It was the first Roach who chose the name. He said that since the high and mighty went around naming themselves after predators—eagles, lions, bears, and such—that his line would be named after the most persistent and indestructible animal known to man."

I laughed.

"Isn't it perfect?" said Gwendolyn, chuckling. "When I first heard the name, as a teenager, I was just mortified. The revolution was such a shiny thing to me then, like a crystal vase, and the name seemed so—so undignified. But then I met The Roach himself, and I understood."

She fought back tears. " 'Dignity's not to be found in the word, lass' he said to me. 'Look for it in the deed. Let the enemy have their eagle standards and their roaring lions, and their scepters and their thrones. Eagles and lions are endangered species, anyway. Much rather be a roach. Every time they think they've exterminated us, they come back into the kitchen and—there we are! And boots are a much more useful heirloom than crowns.'

"Anyway, that's the legend. Like I said, I don't actually believe it. I don't believe any of this Joe stuff. But it's a comfort, sometimes, and when I'm around The Roach I almost do believe it. Although—"

I looked over, noticing the sudden pause. To my surprise, Gwendolyn was—blushing, I would have sworn, hard as that was to imagine.

"Although what?"

She shook her head. "Nothing."

My curiosity was aroused. "Tell me!"

She looked at me, smiling oddly. "All right, if you insist. One of the legends is that once The Roach—each new one, that is—puts on The Boots, they never take them off again until they die. Not even in bed." She looked straight ahead. "I happen to know that isn't true."

I started laughing uproariously. "Good God, I should hope it isn't true! Those monstrous hobnailed things? You'd be scarred for life!"

When we both stopped laughing, we were grinning at each other.

"I'm sorry about last night," she said. "I hadn't expected to meet The Roach in the Mutt. Then, when he showed up—well, anyway, I'm sorry."

"There's no need."

"No, I am. That must have caused you pain."

I shrugged. "Yes, it did. But I'm actually not all that fragile. And, in any event, it wasn't—how shall I put this? It wasn't the fact itself, it was that it seemed so—"


"Yes, I suppose." I fumbled for words. "Gwendolyn, I had no right—that is, I had no claim or reason, or—"

"Of course you didn't. But that's all beside the point. This isn't about rights or claims or reasons. People are not property. But they're still people, and pain hurts. And I hurt you, and I don't feel good about it."

I sighed. "Thank you. But now that I understand the situation, I'm—well, I'm not sure what else you could have done."

"That's just what I told that insufferable self-righteous bastard this morning!" she cried. "Would you believe, that pig-headed puritan accused me of using him to put you off?"

I looked uncomfortable. Gwendolyn spotted it right away.

"That's what he was talking to you about in the courtyard, wasn't it?" she demanded.


"That slob! That peacock! It's just like him!"

"It wasn't actually—"

"That puffed up baboon! I can just see it! The gentleman, His Roachness, informing the other gentleman that he'll have no part of the scheming wench's slatternly maneuvers. And you! Probably sat there, nodding sagely—"

"Will you let me get a word in?"

She took a deep breath, let it out slowly, and nodded.

"All right. Tell me what he said."

As we resumed our journey, I conveyed to her the substance of The Roach's conversation. Actually, upon Gwendolyn's insistence, I gave it to her word for word, as best as I remembered.

When I was done, she shook her head.

"He's flat wrong," she said forcefully. "Benvenuti, if I—when I—whatever, the day comes I don't want you around I'll let you know. Directly, mind, not through some scheme."


"And what?"

"Confounded woman! Do you want me around?"

"I—yes, I suppose. Yes." She sighed. "When you left the table last night, I felt a great sadness. Well, that's that, I said to myself."

A strange sound. I looked over, saw that Gwendolyn was trying to suppress laughter.

"What's so funny?"

She started laughing aloud. A rich, deep laugh, she had, which warmed my heart even though—I admit—I was a bit irritated.

"Oh, you were such the proper gentleman about it all! The stiff lip, the straight back. God, what an upbringing you must have had!"

Her laughter was so infectious that I could not help joining in. "My uncles have firm opinions on this matter, which they instilled in me at an early age. 'You can't get through life without playing the fool now and then,' they say, 'but that's no reason to audition for the part.'"

We started our horses up again and rode along in a companionable silence.

"You never speak of your father and mother," she said, some time later.

"My father is not known. My mother never disclosed his identity, and she died in childbirth. So I was raised by her brothers. The bar sinister figures frequently and prominently in my family tree—my branch of the clan, that is, the most of the Sfondrati-Piccolominis are quite the proper sorts—so no issue was made of it."

More silence followed, until I screwed up my courage. I reined in my horse again. Gwendolyn stopped.

"I need to say something, Gwendolyn. I—that is, much of what The Roach said was true. We live in different worlds, and—well—"

"You find it hard to see either of us in each other's life?"

I sighed. "Yes. I cannot imagine you in the whirl of the artist's life in the great cities—the salons and the galleries. Though, it would be fun while it lasted! Half the lords and ladies of the land would die of mortification, the ones you didn't kill outright. And while I could see myself in your world, in some ways—as I told you, I am not much given to political thoughts. My sympathies, insofar as I have ever considered the question, lie with you, I suspect. But still—"

I heaved another sigh. "The Roach was right, damn him. I do want to be an artist, just as he said. I do want to sculpt the statues and paint the cathedral ceilings—not because they're cathedrals, but because they're the world's greatest ceilings."

Gwendolyn leaned over and stroked my cheek.

"And you should, Benvenuti," she said quietly. "You will never be happy if you don't at least try it. I know that."

"But—the fact remains. I love you, Gwendolyn."

She looked away. "I love you too, Benvenuti. I've known that for some time. I don't really understand it, actually. Not that you aren't a very attractive man, and all that. But I never would have thought—me! Of all people!"

Her sense of humor rescued us.

"This is so grotesque! It's like a bad novel—one of those Ozarine fantasies I hate! The star-crossed lovers, doomed by fate! It's ridiculous."

Laughing, we resumed our journey. In the few hours of daylight left, I asked Gwendolyn to tell me more about The Roach. Partly, that was done out of my own interest in the man. But more, it was because I knew she needed to grieve. And so she began to talk, and as the time wore on her tales grew lighter and more gay. My initial impression of the man—of a great, quiet dignity—faded somewhat. True enough, in itself, it seemed. But there was also the immense irritability of the man, his famous temper, his rough sense of humor, his pigheadedness.

Of them, she and he, I learned of a long and deep friendship, years in the making.

"The first time I met him, I was much too shy to say anything. The Roach himself! The second time, I was a year older—seventeen, I was—and I threw myself at him." She laughed. "He was always such an righteous lot. 'Lass, I am much older than you', he said, 'and I'll not be taking advantage of youthful infatuation.' And why not? I demanded. The infatuated youth is willing. Well, I was just as stubborn as he. It took me another year, but I finally brought him to my bed. And there he's been ever since, off and on."

She said no more. Shortly after nightfall, we pulled into a roadside inn to spend the night. I saw to the horses, while Gwendolyn made our arrangements. I entered in time to hear her say to the innkeeper, very firmly: "We'll just need the one room."

Once upstairs, in the room, we gazed into each other's eyes, acknowledging the grief in the future. Of the rest, I will say nothing. It belongs to me alone.

* * *

The next morning, awakening before Gwendolyn, I spent some time gazing upon her recumbent form. At first, with an artist's eye. The Lioness Asleep, I thought I would call it. Oil on canvas. The artist fled, replaced by the man. She awoke, then.

Much later, Gwendolyn gazed up at me, a quizzical look in her eyes.

"You've got a funny expression on your face. Cheerful, like."

"And why shouldn't I be cheerful?" I demanded. "I don't know why I was so stupid about this yesterday."

"About what?"

"All this silly moaning about star-crossed lovers and such—you know, fate takes us down different trails, we shall never meet again, etc."

She frowned. "And what have you figured out that's supposed to change all that? It's still true."

I stopped smiling. "No, Gwendolyn, it's not. I don't know your precise place in the Groutch revolutionary movement. But even someone as ignorant of political matters as I can figure out that you occupy a prominent position in the movement."

"Yes, I suppose. What's your point?"

"I should think it would be obvious. In all our talk yesterday about The Roach's poor prospects for a long life, you made no mention of your own likely fate. But it seems clear to me that the Ozarine and their Groutch accomplices will be coming after you as well. Near the top of their list, you must be."

She frowned. "Yes, that's true." She pursed her lips in thought. "The Roach first, of course. After that—well, Les Six and Les Cinq and Les Sept. The Mysterious Q, naturally. Then—well, probably me. Among others."

"So that's that!" I said, grinning. "Our personal problems are solved by circumstances."

She sat up straight, her back stiff.

"What the hell are you talking about?"

"My love, surely you don't think I'm going to head off to be an artist in New Sfinctr while you're running for your life?"

"And just what do you propose to do instead? You don't know anything about the work of the revolution! That's not a criticism, it's just a fact." She stared at me a moment. The expression which then came upon her face captured the poet's meaning—wild surmise.

"I don't believe this—you idiot! You romantic dunce! You're going to stick with me just so you can go down swinging at the end? Defending the fair and helpless maiden from the ravening forces of reaction?"

"Nonsense! You're neither fair nor helpless nor, for that matter, a maiden." I cleared my throat. "Other than that, well, yes. That is what I propose to do."

"I won't have it! It's a waste! And what's the point of it?"

"The point of it, Gwendolyn, is that it's the way I am. There's no point in arguing about it. I'm not going to change my mind, and you've got better things to do than to worry about how to get rid of me." I grinned. "Look on the bright side. I can make your last days on earth more enjoyable."

She snorted. "That's true enough." Then, grinning herself. "Even though I won't get much sleep."

She lay back on the bed, shaking her head. "What a world, with such mad artists in it. I suppose my worthless brother'll come charging to my rescue next. Make perfect sense—tonight's Halloween."

* * *

Later that morning, as we rode toward the estates of General Kutumoff, Gwendolyn laughed. "Just like a bad novel—the romantic adventures of an Ozarine hero, gallivanting about the Groutch countryside."

"True," I said. "But I doubt any proper adventurer ever rode on such a sorry nag."

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