Back | Next

In Which We Conclude This
Volume of Our Chronicle By Resuming, With Firm Resolve Though Great Distaste, Our Skeptical Scrutiny of the Autobiography of That Sfondrati-Piccolomini Fellow, in This Portion of Whose Tale Are Related Impudent Revelries Over Recent Reverses Suffered By The Lawful Order of Grotum As Well As Divers and Dramatic Encounters and Leave-Takings.


The Autobiography of Benvenuti Sfondrati-Piccolomini,
Episode 9: Dogs, Divas, Dements and Departures

So it was on such a wretched horse that I rode onto the estates of General Kutumoff.

As I thought, the trip had taken a day longer than predicted. It was not until the morning of November 1 that we arrived at our destination. The estates were vast, or so they seemed to me. But when I made comment to that effect, Gwendolyn told me that they were actually quite small, by Groutch standards. I realized again the impossibility of gauging Grotum by Ozarine scales. Though rich and mighty, the Ozarine—not to speak of Ozarae proper—is small in geographic size. Whereas Grotum! A world in itself, it sometimes seemed to me.

Truth to tell, I had no idea we had entered onto the estates until Gwendolyn told me. To all outward appearances, the estates seemed much like the rest of the countryside of the Mutt. Prosperous, well-tended fields; farmers busy about their business; modest but well-kept farmhouses.

"Not quite what I had expected," I remarked.

"How so?"

"Well, from all you've told me of what you call the Groutch land question, I'd rather been expecting to see miserable, half-starved serfs, stooped in their labor, overseers cracking whips, that sort of thing."

Gwendolyn was shocked. "On the estates of General Kutumoff?"

I saw the storm gathering on her brow. This experience, if you've never undergone it, is somewhat akin to watching a mounting tidal wave. From the vantage point of a very small, very flat island.

"Obviously I misunderstood!" I hastened to add.

"I should think so!"

I was relieved to see the storm pass. After a moment, Gwendolyn even laughed.

"I keep forgetting how little you know of Grotum. The Mutt is—not like the rest of Grotum."

"I can believe that! Not that I've seen much else beside the forest and Goimria."

At that moment our conversation was interrupted by a great baying sound. I looked ahead. My blood ran cold. Toward us, racing like the wind, was an enormous pack of—dogs? Wolves? Snarls? I couldn't really tell. Whatever they were, they were utterly horrifying. It wasn't simply their size, but the gaping jaws, the slavering tongues—most of all, the frenzy with which they were bounding toward us. Futile though it was, I reached behind me for my sword.

"Oh, will you relax? It's just the General's puppies. They're always excited when people come to visit."

"Those are puppies?"

But it could not be gainsaid. Once the—creatures—reached us, they began acting just like eager and undisciplined pups. Gwendolyn leapt off her horse and the beasts swarmed all over her. A minute or two of rough play followed.

I myself remained on my horse. A vast horde of the things gathered about me, peering up with puzzlement, whining and whimpering with confusion at my unseemly behavior. I remained, I say, on the horse.

"Oh, Benvenuti, you're such a spoilsport. You'll hurt their feelings."

"Let them die of heartbreak. I am not romping about with puppies the size of timber wolves."

Laughing, Gwendolyn shook off a half dozen of the brutes and remounted. She gave me a mischievous sidelong glance.

"And here I thought you wanted an adventurous life."

"And so I do, Gwendolyn. A life full of drama and romance and high adventure. Reasonable adventures. Rescuing fair maidens from ogres. Slaying dragons in their lairs. Storming the gates of hell. Not—I repeat, not—suicidal acts involving puppies the size of timber wolves." A horrible thought came to me. "Do the adult dogs roam loose?"

"All over the place. The General doesn't believe in kennels." She was giggling now. "The look on your face—it's priceless! But you can relax. The grown-up dogs are very dignified. Very aloof with people, until they get to know you. Especially Fangwulf."

"Who—or should I say, what—is Fangwulf?"

"He's the General's head dog. The leader of the pack." Again, that mischievous sidelong glance. A great foreboding filled my heart. Immediately confirmed.

"I'll have to make sure the General introduces you to Fangwulf," she said.

* * *

Some time later, a great mansion loomed on the horizon. A lane led to it from the main road, shaded by trees on either side. I had expected to turn down that way, but Gwendolyn continued along the main road. In response to my quizzical eyebrow, she explained: "The General won't be there. He's always at his shack, except for a few evenings when Madame Kutumoff forces him to attend one of her soirees."

A mile or so further on, we turned down a trail leading off from the left of the road. Then, through a small wood, and into a clearing. At the far edge of the clearing, nestled under the overhanging boughs of a huge sycamore, rested a hut. It was easily the most ramshackle structure I had yet seen in the Mutt.

I pointed to it, chuckling. "Now that's more what I thought housing for the downtrodden serfs should look like."

"Ostentatious, isn't it? It's the General's shack. I think he overdoes the thing, myself. But he's quite proud of the tradition."

I forbore comment. Odd place, the Mutt, I believe I've mentioned before. As we drew near, I noticed some mounds scattered about in the clearing near the hut, looking for all the world like little haystacks. As we came nearer, they began to move. The truth dawned upon me.

"They're the size of buffalos," I whispered shakily.

"Nonsense! Any decent buffalo will weigh in at around a ton. The dogs don't average but three, maybe four hundred pounds."

"Dogs are not supposed to be that big," I hissed.

"Why are you whispering?" boomed Gwendolyn. The sound of her powerful voice brought the monsters to their feet. But I was relieved to see that they made no move in our direction. They simply stood there, watching us impassively.

As Gwendolyn drew up before the hut, a man emerged. Rather short, perhaps a bit on the heavy side. Altogether, completely unremarkable in his appearance. A battered campaign hat was perched on his head. He leaned on a cane held in his left hand. In its right he held a short, very pungent cigar.

"Hello, General," said Gwendolyn.

"Gwendolyn," responded the General, nodding his head. Gwendolyn began to introduce me, but before she got two words out of her mouth a pack of raggedy children came boiling out of the hut.

"Gwendolyn! Gwendolyn! Gwendolyn! Gwendolyn!" they shrieked, capering about. A moment later Gwendolyn was off her horse and repeating—more gently—her earlier antics with the puppies. I was forced to the painful conclusion that the love of my life had no sense of aristocratic reserve whatsoever.

Eventually, she extracted herself from the squealing pack.

"General Kutumoff, meet Benvenuti Sfondrati-Piccolomini."

A look of interest came into his face. "So this is the young man I've been expecting."

I was taken completely by surprise. So, judging from her expression, was Gwendolyn.

"How did—I didn't say anything about Benvenuti in my note."

The General looked at her. "Oh, I wasn't expecting him to come with you, Gwendolyn. But I received a letter from his uncles a month ago saying he was coming to Grotum. Ludovigo and Rodrigo said the boy was bound to get into some kind of trouble, which means he'd wind up here sooner or later. And since he's here with you, I'd say he's in serious trouble."

A plain-looking fellow, but I learned then that he was perhaps the most observant man I ever met. What he saw in Gwendolyn and me at that moment—some subtlety of expression, or posture—brought a gleam into his eyes.

"Young Benvenuti," he said, puffing on his cigar, "I believe you have committed the gravest of sins. I speak as a soldier."

"And what is that?"

"In classic Sfondrati-Piccolomini manner, you have engaged yourself simultaneously on two fronts. I predict you will have an adventurous life."

I flushed, as did Gwendolyn. The General chuckled.

"I don't disapprove, mind you. Love is not war, appearances and popular opinion to the contrary. Gwendolyn, it's nice to see a softness, for once, on that blade of a soul. As for you, young Benvenuti, it's always a pleasure to see a bloodline run true. You are, I trust, illegitimate?"

I gaped like a fish. Nodded.

"Excellent, excellent. I approve of Sfondrati-Piccolomini bastards. Got no use for the rest of that lot." He turned back into his hut. "Come in, come in."

Entering, I found that the hut was much bigger on the inside than it had seemed from without.

"You've added on," said Gwendolyn.

The General looked uncomfortable. "Yes, yes, I have. It's still the smallest residence on the estate, mind you. But I admit I'm stretching the limit of tradition. Still, I had no choice. The children needed more room to play, and Fangwulf was getting grumpy, not being able to stretch out properly."

I could see it coming, tried to head it off, but Gwendolyn was too quick.

"Benvenuti's just dying to meet Fangwulf!" she cried. The words out, she gave me an immense grin. Completely unfazed, she was, by my answering scowl.

Amusement gleamed in the General's eyes. "Well, of course he wants to meet the top dog." He stuck two fingers in his mouth and emitted a piercing whistle. A moment later, a batch of children's heads were in the door.

"Go fetch Fangwulf," said the General. The faces disappeared in a flash.

"And mind you follow protocol this time!" he roared after them.

"He's a good dog, Fangwulf," explained the General. "But as he gets on in years, he's getting prickly about the formalities."

A minute or so later, a girl—perhaps six years old—skidded into the hut. She drew herself up into a rigidly military posture. Then, in a shrill voice, intoned the following:

"All hail Fangwulf! Fangwulf of Wide Fame!
"All hail the Fleshripper! The Hideous Hound!
"Fangwulf of the Loping Stride!
"The Ravening Gullet Himself!
"Sired by Consumption out of Omnigorge!
"The Slouching Rough Beast!
"Its Hour Come Round At Last!"

How shall I describe the dog who came into the hut? From a dispassionate, scientific, objective standpoint, the task is not too difficult. The beast was something of a triple-lifesize cross between a mastiff and a wolfhound, combining the most fearsome features of both—the great jaws of a mastiff with the long legs and teeth of the wolfhound. The fur was relatively short and bristly, colored black and brown except for a white spot above one eye.

But all this was trivial. For I am an artist, with an artist's eye, and I could not help but think of a portrait of the great horror. The difficulty was in choosing a suitable title.

Death Incarnate would be too abstract. The phrase doesn't capture the saliva dripping from the great canine fangs.

Slavering Beast of Hell, on the other hand, connotes a certain mindless rage. And while I could not miss the oceanic fury in those glowing red eyes, neither could I escape the great, cold, pitiless intelligence which gleamed there also.

Other titles flashed through my mind as well, in that last moment of my life: Satan's Nightmare. The Big Crunch. Doom Itself.

I thought Gwendolyn's description was utterly inappropriate.

"Isn't he just the most beautiful dog!" she cried. And so saying, Gwendolyn flung herself onto the monster. When my horrified paralysis passed, I discovered that the thing was licking her face. While she, for her part, rumpled his fur and nuzzled his jowls. Fortunately, the more energetic antics she had conducted with the puppies earlier were forgone.

I saw the General's eyes upon me, weighing and judging.

"I—that is, he's certainly quite impressive," I said, very weakly.

"Nonsense. He's a hideous creature from the darkest pit of hell. Not even a snarl could stand against him, except perhaps an ancient forest snarl. Snarls are just great natural killers, while he's been bred for it, generation after generation."

He gazed at the affectionate embrace, took a puff on his cigar. Then, with a gesture, he drew me out of the hut. Once in the clearing, he drew another puff on the cigar, and shook his head.

"You don't understand Grotum yet. You may never. It's a handicap, being Ozarine."

I started to speak. He held up his hand.

"Please, please. I was not criticizing. Your uncles were fine officers. Two of the best that ever served with me. Bitter men, of course. Couldn't really accept Grotum. And born at least a century too late to be Ozarine. Not the least of Ozar's many crimes, that it drives its best to become mercenaries."

He took a last puff on his cigar and threw the butt away. "Enough of that. You've a lifetime to learn these things, and you seem to be off to a decent start. Very good start. Precious few men in this world have a heart big enough to give to Gwendolyn. Fewer still have a heart big enough to win hers. I congratulate you, sir."

I didn't know what to say.

"Don't know what to say? Excellent, excellent. It's a fine and proper thing for bold young men to be tongue-tied by the sagacity of their elders. A fine and proper thing."

He turned back to the hut. "And now, I need to speak to Gwendolyn. I have news."

At that very moment, Gwendolyn herself came out. "I need to talk to you, General. I just found out a few weeks ago that the Ozarine are sending a Rap Sheet to—"

"I know, Gwendolyn, I know."

Gwendolyn was stunned. "How did you—"

The General smiled. "I found out about it the same way I found out that the problem's already been taken care of. From Hildegard."

Gwendolyn was speechless. The General's smile widened.

"Don't know what to say? Excellent, excellent. It's a fine and proper thing for bold young women to be tongue-tied by the sagacity of their elders. A fine and proper thing."

He took Gwendolyn by the elbow and moved her toward the horses. "Why don't you go up to the house? Hildegard's there. She can tell you about the whole thing."

Gwendolyn leapt on her horse and took off toward the mansion at a gallop. I followed at a somewhat less precipitous pace. By the time I reached the front door, Gwendolyn had disappeared inside. I was in such a hurry to hear the news myself that I didn't take the time to examine the building. Only an impression of great size registered.

I entered through a pair of double doors and found myself in a large foyer. There was no one present. Down a hallway to my left I heard voices—Gwendolyn's, and others. I followed the sounds, and found myself in a large room with high ceilings. My artist's eye was at once drawn to the marvelous paintings on the ceilings, which depicted scenes from various great operas.

The room was sparsely furnished. A grand piano stood toward the far wall, a few chairs and music stands scattered about it. At the near end of the room were several large and comfortable looking sofas and easy chairs clumped around a couple of low tables. Most of the space in between was empty, exposing a beautiful parquet floor. The room was very brightly lit from an entire wall of windows. The other walls, covered in a pale apricot watered silk, were decorated with an extensive collection of antique musical instruments.

Gwendolyn was standing by the piano, her back to me. A middle-aged woman, rather pretty, was sitting in a chair nearby. Another woman, elderly but very vigorous looking, was standing behind the piano. She was almost as tall as Gwendolyn. Her hair was white as snow, drawn back in a tight bun. A serene smile graced her face.

"But, Gwendolyn, I insist!" she said. "You must hear this aria first."

Without waiting for Gwendolyn's reply, the white-haired woman leaned over and began playing the piano. It was only then that I realized she wasn't standing behind the piano—she was sitting. She must have been well-nigh eight feet tall!

A beautiful melody filled the room. Gwendolyn clenched her fist and raised it over the piano. Her whole body exuded anger and frustration. But the melody was too much. After a moment, her fist opened, her hand fell to her side. Slowly, the tension eased out of her shoulders. By the end, she was even humming along to the tune.

The giant woman finished the melody with a flourish.

"There! Isn't it just grand? It's from the Big Banjo's new opera. He's here, you know? He came two weeks ago, in order to put the finishing touches on the opera. It's called I Ladro. Such a dramatic libretto! It's about a highwayman who wins the love of the beautiful wife of an old miser while he's robbing them. Then, after the old man and his young wife get thrown in prison, the highwayman rescues them and then—"


The old woman sighed with exasperation. "Gwendolyn, you are such a monomaniac. Very well, then. I suppose we'll have to discuss this Rap Sheet business first, or I won't get any peace. But when we're done, you must promise me to read the libretto. So dramatic! Everyone's dead at the end, of course. After the old miser slays the highwayman with his cane in a duel, his wife commits suicide and he—"


"—dies of heartbreak after repenting his lifelong obsession—"


"—with money. There, I got it out! All right, dear, I'll tell you all about the Rap Sheet. But first, who is this very handsome young man standing behind you?"

I hadn't realized she'd noticed me. The old woman—Hildegard, apparently—had never looked in my direction once. Gwendolyn turned. Her face was set in its hawk look. But for just that one moment, when she first looked at me, a trace of softness came into her face.

"Oh," said Hildegard. "I see."

Gwendolyn turned back. "See what?" she demanded.

Hildegard's only reply was a smile and a quick flurry of notes on the piano. Not a tune, really, just a sudden air of joy and happiness. Gwendolyn's face reddened a bit.

The third woman in the room suddenly stood up and came over to me, her hands outstretched.

"Welcome! Welcome! I am Madame Kutumoff."

I took her hands in mine and bowed.

"Enchanted, Madame. I am Benvenuti Sfondrati-Piccolomini."

"Which branch?" asked Madame Kutumoff.

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 she began nodding her head.

"Yes, yes, I know it. Two of your uncles—Ludovigo and Rodrigo, if memory serves me correctly—served with my husband some years ago." Still holding my hands, she looked at Gwendolyn and then back at me.

"I predict you will have an adventurous life," said Madame Kutumoff.

Hildegard laughed. Never, in all my life, had I heard more melodious laughter.

Gwendolyn spoke. "If you two gossips are through chortling over my love life, can we get on with the business at hand?" But she was smiling.

"Very well, dear." Hildegard placed her hands on top of the piano, fingers interlaced. "Last night—right at the stroke of midnight on Halloween—I had a vision, you see."

"Where was this?"

Hildegard frowned with puzzlement. "My vision? It was in my head, of course."

"No, no. Where were you—when you had this vision?"

Hildegard was still frowning. "Why, let me see. I believe I was sitting in that chair over there—the one against the wall. We were all here, discussing the Big Banjo's latest—"

Gwendolyn threw up her hands with frustration. "Hildegard! What were you doing here? The last time I saw you was at the Abbey, when you told me you were being watched too closely to leave and you needed me to take your message to Zulkeh in Goimr. So what are you doing on the loose?"

"But that was then. This is now. The past and the present are different, Gwendolyn. That's the one truth you can always be sure of. I keep trying to explain that to the Old Geister, but He's just so set in His ways. I'm afraid all that omnipotent nonsense has quite gone to His head. Why, do you know that in His latest tablet He claims—"

"Hildegard, please! Never mind. You came here. Then you had a vision. Let's please stick to the Rap Sheet, if you don't mind. I've been charging all over central Grotum, warning everybody about it."

"Well, I should hope so! Such horrible things, those Rap Sheets. But we won't have to worry about this one they sent to Grotum."

"Why not?"

"Because it's been taken away from them, dear—from the horrid Ozarines." Hildegard looked at me, an apologetic expression in her face. "Please don't take that personally, Benvenuti."

I waved it away.

"How?" demanded Gwendolyn. "And how do you know that?"

Hildegard looked confused. "Well, I don't actually know how it was done. But I imagine we'll find out from my nephew when he gets here. I expect him any day now."

"Who? Wolfgang? He's in Prygg—at least, that's where he said he was going."

"Oh, yes. He's just leaving there today."

Gwendolyn sighed. "Hildegard, Prygg is hundreds of miles away—as the crow flies. It'll take Wolfgang weeks to get here."

"Oh no, dear. Not Wolfgang."

Gwendolyn sighed again. "Never mind. But if you don't know how it was taken, how do you know that it was taken at all?"

"I told you—I had a vision. Last night, at midnight, I suddenly saw a monster. Two monsters, actually. There was a little monster inside a big monster, although the little monster was actually bigger than the big monster. And then there was another little monster and he was suddenly inside the big monster too, except that he wasn't bigger than the big monster the way the other little monster was. Oh no, not at all! Instead, the second little monster got smaller and smaller until he disappeared. And then I heard a great wailing in the sky, and a great singing in the earth, and I knew."

"Knew what?"

Again, Hildegard looked confused. "Why—so many things. I knew the Rap Sheet was taken away from people who shouldn't have it, and I knew the time was here. Sooner than I'd expected. I had so hoped I could convince the Old Geister to set things right beforehand. But one has to look facts in the face. He refused to listen to me, and now things will be unpleasant. Very unpleasant, I'm afraid."

Gwendolyn shook her head. She spoke between gritted teeth.

"Hildegard, you are making no sense at all! What is this 'time is here' you're talking about?"

Hildegard looked away. For a long moment, she stared out the window. When she turned back, the expression on her face was a strange mix of serenity and fatalism.

"Joe's time, dear. He's coming back."

Gwendolyn frowned. She started to say something, but Hildegard suddenly reached out and placed her fingertips on Gwendolyn's lips. If the gesture hadn't been done so gracefully, it would have been grotesque, so incredibly long was her arm.

"Hush, Gwendolyn. I know you don't like to hear about Joe, but just this once, listen to me. Don't say anything, just listen. Because he is coming back, and whether you like it or not, you'll have to deal with it. We all will."

She took her hand away. "Actually, it's not that simple. Joe—the old Joe, I mean—is gone forever. So he can't actually just come back. But he's—well, returning. Let's put it that way. It's perhaps a fine distinction, but it's important to me."

Suddenly she laughed, that amazing musical laugh.

"Of course, it's not an important distinction for some people! God's Own Tooth, for instance—not to mention that whole pack of Popes."

Gwendolyn walked away a few steps. She radiated frustration and impatience. Hildegard stood up and went over to her. I could now see that she was almost as tall as Wolfgang. She stroked Gwendolyn's great mane of black hair.

Gwendolyn smiled.

"I don't know what is it about you, Hildegard. But I can never stay angry with you."

"Well, I should hope not! I am, after all, the Abbess of the Sisters of Tranquility."

A moment later they were both laughing. When they stopped, Gwendolyn looked up at Hildegard with a rueful expression.

"Just tell me this, Abbess. I can't make sense of the rest of it—but are you sure the Rap Sheet's been taken from the Ozarines?"

Hildegard looked shocked. Madame Kutumoff was scandalized.

"Gwendolyn!" she cried. "How could you say such a thing? Hildegard's visions are infallible!"

In desperation, Gwendolyn looked at me.

"Does any of this make any sense, Benvenuti?"

I pondered the question, reviewing my uncles' advice. Nothing seemed relevant to the question of the infallibility of the visions of a gigantic Abbess. So I applied common sense.

"Gwendolyn, precious few things have made sense to me since I landed in Grotum. So why should this be any different? But the solution is obvious—we wait a few days for Wolfgang to show up and clarify everything with his twin powers of madness and amnesia." When the laughter settled down, I continued: "If he doesn't show up, we reexamine our situation. And in the meantime—" I turned to Madame Kutumoff. "Did you say that the Big Banjo was still here?"

"Why, yes, he is."

"I would take it as a great privilege if you would introduce me."

"I shall be delighted, young man."

I turned back to Gwendolyn. Suddenly, I was bathed in her smile.

"Good!" cried Hildegard. "That's settled. And you, young lady, are going to sing. We haven't heard your voice in ages. The Big Banjo was complaining about it, just the other day."

Madame Kutumoff was clapping her hands. "Oh, yes! That will be such a joy." She stuck two fingers in her mouth and emitted a piercing whistle. A moment later, a very proper looking butler appeared in the doorway. Tall, spare, polished, groomed within an inch of his life. Aplomb personified.

"Madame whistled?"

"Yes, Andrew. Gwendolyn and her friend, Benvenuti, will be staying with us. Can you see to their rooms, please?"

Gwendolyn took my hand. "We'll just need one room."

Madame Kutumoff eyed us thoughtfully. "Such vigorous young people. Best make it the room at the far end of the second floor, Andrew."

"My very thought, Madame," said the butler, nodding his head.

Madame Kutumoff smiled at us. "You'll find the bed in that room is very comfortable. And those of us who are insomniacs will find it very comfortable, too. It doesn't squeak."

* * *

The next morning, following breakfast, I was introduced to the Big Banjo. It was a great moment in my life, although, truth to tell, the man didn't pay much attention to me. He was far too busy trying to convince Gwendolyn to be the prima donna for his next opera.

No, I am not joking. It came as a surprise to me, I can assure you. I had come to adore Gwendolyn's unique voice, but the thought had never crossed my mind that she could sing—at least, by operatic standards. Yet here was the world's greatest opera composer—such, at least, was my opinion—intently waging a campaign to convince Gwendolyn to take the stage.

"Not a chance," she said, over and again. But the Big Banjo was stubborn. He sat in his chair, his back ramrod straight, glaring at her down his long nose.

"But it's such nonsense, Gwendolyn! The Rap Sheet's a thing of the past. There's no reason you can't forego agitation for a few months. And the part's perfect for you! No, not even that—the part requires you. I don't know another singer could fill the role."

An innocent smile came onto Gwendolyn's face. "Oh, that can't be true! Why, I hear these new singers for the Gesamtkunstwerkgenie put everyone else to shame."

The Big Banjo's eyes blazed. "That's not singing! Bellowing, grunting—call it what you like, but don't call it singing!"

Gwendolyn's smile became angelic. "How you can say that? Why, the whole world's waiting with bated breath for the grand opening of his new opera house next year. He's a genius—no, that's not quite right. He's the genius of all time! Everyone says so." Her smile now radiated holy beatitude. "They even say you're learning a few tricks from him."

The Big Banjo shot to his feet like a rocket. For a moment, he stood glaring down at Gwendolyn. Then, suddenly, he began to laugh.

"Yes, yes, it's quite true. I've tried to keep it a secret, but it's no use. I am a child at the feet of the master. But I fear I shall die of old age before he finishes the first act."

In the end, he was able to prevail upon Gwendolyn to sing an aria he had written for her part in the projected opera. No sooner had she agreed than Madame Kutumoff was bustling about rounding up a pack of musicians from various nooks and crannies of the huge mansion. It wasn't but ten minutes later that the first bars of the music started, and Gwendolyn began to sing.

I was stunned. All the deep strength of her voice, put to that marvelous music, was like the soaring of a great heart. A heart with the power of the universe, unleashed, triumphant, filled with hope and glory. The Big Banjo had not been wrong. I could think of no other voice which could possibly have conveyed that music.

When she finished, there was no applause. Applause would have been—trivial. After a moment's silence, Gwendolyn said: "It is wonderful. Where does this aria come? In the first act?"

"No, Gwendolyn. It's the finale."

"The finale? But—this is a song of—of joy, and victory. It's not at all tragic."

The Big Banjo shrugged. "I am becoming weary of tragedy. Our people have had enough of it. I thought I would compose something different. And besides, I wrote it for you, and you're just not the tragic type."

Gwendolyn grinned. "How can you say that? Haven't you been telling me for years that I'm doomed to an early grave?"

The Big Banjo dismissed her words with a gesture. "Not the same thing, at all. Tragedy's when the young heroine dies on stage from a dainty stiletto, moaning, at the last, of her broken heart. Stage left, in good view. Whereas you will die in an alley from a hundred great saber wounds. Howling defiance, like a wolf. And nobody will be able to see your body, because it will be buried under a dozen corpses of your foes."

These grim words brought silence to the salon. Gwendolyn and the Big Banjo stared at each other. A contest of wills, I thought at first, until I recognized the respect. And the regret.

The moment passed. The Big Banjo smiled ruefully, and said, "At least promise me this much. After the revolution, sing in the opera. I will have it ready by then."

"I will." She laughed. "Who knows? I may sing before then—if the occasion is right."

Actually, she sang quite a bit the rest of that day. Mostly compositions by Hildegard, who, I discovered, was a great composer in her own right. As I might have expected, the Abbess' music was not at all dramatic. But it conveyed an immense serenity, a calm acceptance of life which evoked not so much resignation as understanding.

In the course of the afternoon, the Big Banjo told me some parts of Gwendolyn's life which I had not known.

"I first met Gwendolyn at Hildegard's Abbey," he explained. "Just a girl she was then, hiding out from the police. Hildegard had started her singing, as a way to relax the child. But when the Abbess discovered that voice! She wrote to me, and I came right away. I was astonished. No, more!—I was consumed by the desire to set Gwendolyn's voice to music."

He chuckled. "Still am consumed by the desire. But Gwendolyn wouldn't agree. 'After the revolution,' she said—hard as iron, even then. And she's never budged since."

* * *

Late that afternoon, after tea, Madame Kutumoff took me on a tour of the mansion. Quite an extraordinary place. As you can imagine, having grown up in Ozar apprenticed to my uncles, I had been inside many of the palatial homes of the idle rich. Grand salons, innumerable rooms, lavish gilding, elaborate bronze and marblework, paintings, sculpture—I had seen it all, and had found most of it tasteless and ostentatious, jumbled displays of sumptuous opulence intended more to impress and stupefy than to delight and uplift the soul. The Kutumoff mansion, however, was altogether different.

When I made comment to that effect, Madame Kutumoff said: "Well, yes, I should think it would be different. It's because of the traditions of the Mutt, and the Kutumoffs. Do you know about that?"

"Somewhat," I replied. "I know the General is the latest of a long line of Kutumoffs who have achieved world renown as military leaders, and have repelled all attempts by others to dominate the Mutt. As for the Mutt, all I know is that people here take a great aversion to money and all its wicked ways."

"Quite so! Well, every time one of the Kutumoff generals leads the people of the Mutt to a victory, the various tradesmen of the Mutt come here and do some more work on the house. It's the tradition, you see. And since there have been so many victories over the centuries, well, the house has grown. Two hundred and seventeen rooms, I believe we're up to now."

I felt I was on delicate ground, so I tread lightly.

"Ah, I notice, ah, however, ah, that the General himself doesn't seem to spend much time in the house."

"Oh, certainly not! That would be most improper! A modest man of the people, he is, just like all the generals have been. So he mostly lives in the shack. That's also part of the tradition, you see?"

The expression on my face caused Madame Kutumoff to laugh.

"Oh, Benvenuti! The people of the Mutt are passionately attached to their traditions. The world's greatest general has to be a plain and simple fellow, scorning luxury and ostentatious display. But in order to do that, he has to have a luxurious and ostentatious mansion he can scorn. Don't you see? It all makes perfect sense!"

We toured for over an hour and yet I did not see all of it. Indeed, during the days I spent at the Kutumoff residence, I got lost any number of times in the multitude of stairways, turrets, galleries, hallways, passages, loggias, rooms and rotundas.

The lower floor consisted of the most commonly used rooms: the music salon, the breakfast room, the morning room, the dining room, the great dining room, the feasting hall, the drawing room, the office—each with its attendant cloakrooms, antechambers, closets and alcoves. Belowstairs was a virtual warren of storerooms, pantries, a buttery, a bakery, the small kitchen, the morning kitchen, the big kitchen, the really big kitchen—not to mention a beer and wine cellar of truly legendary proportions.

The upper floors were divided into the family wing with divers bedrooms, nurseries and suites, and the guest wing, again with many spacious rooms. There was even a padded cell, built especially for Wolfgang on those occasions when he escaped from the asylum. In addition, there were two ballrooms, a conservatory, a library, a smoking room, and a whole shoal of rooms and salons devoted to the special passions and interests of Kutumoffs past and present. There was also a trophy room, which, I was surprised to notice, was empty. Madame Kutumoff explained that the Kutumoff generals were really only interested in bagging whole armies, and that the ancient practice of mounting the heads of defeated field marshals had been discontinued several generations earlier.

"Modern times, you know. Nowadays it's considered uncouth."

There was even a large and well-equipped art studio, which I eyed hungrily.

Several of the rooms came equipped with their own stories and traditions. One of the rooms, of course, was haunted. And several closets were full of skeletons. Another room was locked and barred—the "locked room," Madame Kutumoff explained, where all were forbidden to enter lest the secret therein be revealed.

"What's the secret?" I asked.

"Who knows?" replied Madame Kutumoff. "You'd have to ask the workmen who built the room. They felt a proper mansion should have a locked and barred room holding a dark secret. But they're all dead now, I imagine—that was four generations of Kutumoffs ago."

At last, Madame Kutumoff and I returned to the music salon, where nobody seemed to have noticed our absence. Later that evening at dinner, however, everyone asked me about my tour, and it soon became clear that each one had his or her own favorite room or part of the house. I discovered that there was hardly a single inhabitant of the Mutt who didn't know every nook and cranny of the mansion, and didn't have a favorite room where they had spent many happy hours. I caught a glimpse, then, of the reason the Mutt had broken every army sent against it over the centuries.

* * *

The next several days passed quickly. Peaceful days, at first. But by the third day, I could feel Gwendolyn's increasing agitation. Soon she was spending most of her time with the General, discussing the prospects for future struggle. I came along, the first time, but their conversation really meant very little to me.

It was then that I remembered the figurine I had obtained in the Doghouse, and I resolved to create my own version of the piece. Madame Kutumoff readily granted me permission to use the studio, and so I went happily to work. After an initial period of indecision, I finally decided to make a carving—inspired by finding an exquisite baulk of walnut. By the end of the week, I felt satisfied with my work.

Yet, as enjoyable as the time was, there was always a little cloud of unhappiness lurking in a corner of my heart. It could not last, I knew. But I thrust the thought from my mind.

* * *

We were awakened, the morning of the seventh day, by a great, booming, familiar voice. Before I was even out of the bed, Gwendolyn was clothed and rushing through the door.

A minute or so later, I arrived downstairs in the music salon which seemed to double as the mansion's all-purpose gathering place. Sure enough. It was Wolfgang. When he heard my footsteps, he broke off his conversation with Gwendolyn and Hildegard.

"Benvenuti!" he cried. "I hear you've had the most heroic adventure! Such a hair-raising exploit!"

I shrugged modestly. "It was nothing—not much more than a hike through the woods."

"Not that, you silly boy! I'm talking about seducing Gwendolyn—such a daredevil! Such a credit to his family!"

Gwendolyn slapped him playfully. Anyone but the gigantic lunatic would have been flattened.

"Stop that, Gwendolyn, stop that! You mustn't strike a psychopath—it's very bad therapeutic technique. Not at all modern!"

Gwendolyn laughed. "It was a sad day for the world when they did away with snake pits."

Wolfgang rolled his eyes. "Oh, but they didn't! They just turned the whole world into a snake pit, so nobody could tell the difference."

"And I'll have you know he didn't seduce me, anyway. Ha! I had to drag the screaming virgin to the bed. Then I had to teach him everything."

My upper lip grew stiff.

"I'll admit, he's been a good student. Doesn't fumble near as much, although his stiff upper lip still gets in the way when he tries to—"

"Gwendolyn!" cried Hildegard.

Gwendolyn chuckled. "Bait me, will you? Make fun of the dour fanatic, will you? Ha! All right, Wolfgang, enough of that. What happened to the Rap Sheet? And how did you get here so fast, anyway?"

Wolfgang sighed. "Oh, Gwendolyn, always so serious. Business, business, business. It's not good for your mental stability, you know? The head psychiatrist at—"


The giant rolled his eyes. "Where should I start? How did I get here so fast? Well, I was so eager to tell you the wonderful news that I just started off. I'm so impulsive, you know, I forgot how far it was. So it didn't take me any time at all, naturally." He waved his arms about. "Space—time—people are much too concerned about all that. Slows them down terribly."

Gwendolyn rubbed her face. "Never mind. I should have known better than to ask. But what happened to the Rap Sheet? Can you at least give me a straight answer to that question."

Wolfgang scratched his head. "Oh, that's so difficult! I'm really not very good at straight answers. Not good at anything straight, actually. And it gets me in so much trouble. Like this man I met once who told me he liked straight shooters, but he wasn't telling the truth at all. Because when I went and got a bow and started shooting arrows at him I could tell right off that he wasn't angry at me because I was missing him but because I was shooting at him in the first place. He couldn't fool me! I'm not stupid, you know—just crazy. But then—"


"Oh, dear. I've made you angry again. Very well, then, I'll do my best. It was really so grand! Such heroes they were! The wizard and his apprentice—such a splendid little fellow! He's a dwarf, you know?"

"Who's a dwarf?"

"The wizard's apprentice, of course. Anyway, where was I? Oh, yes—and your brother was there! And his friend, that little Ignace fellow."

Gwendolyn's jaw fell. "My brother? What was he doing there?"

Wolfgang looked puzzled. "Well, of course he was there. Where else would he be? We couldn't have stolen the Rap Sheet without him. Oh, no—it would have been utterly out of the question! You need serious muscle for this kind of thing, Gwendolyn. Don't you read any novels?"

Suddenly the lunatic was howling like a lunatic. "But the funniest thing was—was—" He was unable to speak for a few seconds, hooping and whooping and drooling. "The funniest thing was that in the end most of the muscle came from the dwarf! Ho! Ho! Sort of, I mean—actually, what I mean is that most of the muscle came from the snarl who carried the dwarf, so it was really the snarl who did most of the shredding and gobbling and rending and all that. But he couldn't have done it without the dwarf!"

He wiped tears of laughter from his eyes. "Even so, we couldn't have done it without Greyboar. Because Greyboar had to carry the sack, you see? Except for the dwarf, he's the only one strong enough."

He beamed down at Gwendolyn. "So that's how it happened."

Gwendolyn shook her head. "That's all gibberish, Wolfgang."

Wolfgang cackled. "Of course it's gibberish! What else do you expect from a lunatic?"

Hildegard interrupted. "Nephew, let us leave aside for a moment the ins and outs of the thing. Where is the Rap Sheet itself?"

"Oh! I forgot! I have it—it's right here." The giant dug a hand into his tunic. He brought it out, clutching a green book.

"That's it?" demanded Gwendolyn. "It doesn't look like much."

"Of course it doesn't, dear," said Hildegard. "Joe was a plain and simple fellow. None of his relics look like much. But don't be fooled by appearances. That—that horrid thing—is worth the lives of thousands."

"Oh, at least!" exclaimed Wolfgang. "It's such a clever gadget! Let me show you!" He opened the book and began thumbing through the pages.

"Look, Gwendolyn—here you are!" He handed her the book. "The life and times of Gwendolyn Greyboar!"

Gwendolyn scanned the page the book was open to. Then she began turning more pages. More pages. More pages. After a minute or so, she closed the book. Her face was pale.

"This—relic—knows more about me than I do. I'd forgotten half the things in it."

Shaking her head, she started to hand the book to Wolfgang. Suddenly she drew it back, and reopened it again. She scanned a few pages, closed it. The expression on her face was strange—relief, tinged with sadness.

"What's wrong, dear?" asked Hildegard.

"Nothing's wrong, Hildegard. I just—needed to know something."

She gave the book to Wolfgang and walked over to a window. She stood there silently for a time, staring, thinking. Then she squared her shoulders, took a deep breath, and turned away from the window. She looked at me.

"You're not mentioned anywhere in the Rap Sheet, Benvenuti. Not once. That means none of the authorities have any idea of what you've been up to since you came to Grotum."

The news should have pleased me, but it didn't. I had a sudden premonition, which Gwendolyn immediately confirmed.

"So you should go. Now, while you still can."

I opened my mouth to speak, found no words. I tried again, and found no words.

At that moment, General Kutumoff came into the room, followed by his wife. I was relieved to see them, although I knew the respite was only momentary.

"General! And Madame!" cried Wolfgang. "So good to see you! How are the children? And the dogs?"

"Everyone is fine, Wolfgang," replied Madame Kutumoff.

"I must apologize for this interruption," said the General, "but there is pressing business which we need to discuss."

Wolfgang rolled his eyes. "Business, always business."

The General smiled. "I'm afraid so, Wolfgang. What are you going to do with the Rap Sheet?"

"I'm supposed to give it to The Mysterious Q. Magrit decided it wasn't safe to keep it herself. Ozarae is bound to retaliate, you know, and it'll strike at Prygg first. The poor witch! It just broke her heart—all those enemies she'll have to pass up. Of course, the list she did compile will keep her busy for several years. But you know Magrit! Once a horrid harridan, always a horrid harridan!"

The General pursed his lips. "Yes, that's probably best. If the Rap Sheet will be safe anywhere, it'll be safe there. And The Mysterious Q can make the best use of it."

"Use it?" exclaimed Hildegard. "That horrid thing?"

The General's face grew bleak. "Yes, Hildegard, use it. We'll be able to keep track of the activities of the police and the Ozarine spies. The enemy has suffered a double blow here, don't you see? It's not just that they won't be able to use the Rap Sheet, but that we'll be able to use it against them. And why not? It seems fitting to me."

Hildegard shook her head. "Oh, it's not the justice of the matter that bothers me, General. It's—well, perhaps you're right. I'm certain that Joe wouldn't mind. After all, he made the thing to keep track of the baddies. Not the baddies he originally had in mind, of course, but then things have turned out differently than he thought they would."

She shook her head. "Still, I don't much care for the idea. And I don't think it will really stop the Ozarines."

"Of course it won't stop them," replied the General gruffly. "To the contrary—now that their favored methods of conquest are neutralized, they'll fall back on simpler methods. Direct military intervention—starting at Prygg, I imagine."

Hildegard looked distressed. "I had so hoped to avoid this unpleasantness," she said softly.

A look of sympathy came to the General's face, but when he spoke his voice was like iron. "It was never possible to avoid it, Abbess. Never. And it won't just be a military intervention, either. The Ecclesiarchs will drop their facade of holy dispassion. Soon enough they'll bring out the Switches—and who knows what other relics they've been hoarding for centuries?"

"Don't forget the Godferrets!" cried Wolfgang.

"I have not forgotten them," replied the General. "They'll be right in the thick of things. In many ways, they'll pose the greatest danger because of their magical powers. God's Own Tooth is probably the world's most powerful sorcerer."

Wolfgang cackled. "Oh, I don't think so, General! Oh no, not at all! In fact, the world's greatest sorcerer is on his way here this very minute."

The General frowned. "Who is this? And why is he coming to see me?"

"Well, actually, he's not coming to see you. He's coming to see Uncle Manya. His name's Zulkeh—Zulkeh of Goimr, physician."

"Oh, dear," said Hildegard.

The General looked at her sharply. "What's all this about, Hildegard? Do you know this Zulkeh?"

"Oh, yes, General. I've known him for years."

The Abbess bestowed a look on Wolfgang which fairly reeked of disapproval. "You had to go and do it, didn't you, nephew?"

Wolfgang rolled his eyes. His body began twitching. "Oh! Oh!" he cried. "I think I'm having one of my attacks! Oh! Oh!"

"Stop it, Wolfgang!" exclaimed Hildegard. "Stop that this instant! I want a straight answer and none of your foolishness!"

The lunatic ceased twitching. He beamed at the Abbess.

"Hildegard—such a disciplinarian! So medieval! That's not at all the proper approach to a demented seizure, you know? The head psychiatrist at the asylum says—"

"A straight answer, I said! Now!"

"Oh, all right," pouted Wolfgang. "Well, yes, I did think your approach was altogether too placid. We argued about this years ago, if you remember. And I don't see what you're so upset about—or are you still hoping you can change the Old Geister's mind?" Wolfgang broke into a fit of howling laughter. "It was always such an idiotic idea, my dear aunt! How can you change God's mind? He's omniscient, you know?"

"He most certainly is not!" snapped the Abbess.

Wolfgang shook his head. "Such heresy! Such outré theology!" He looked at the rest of us. "It's why they excommunicated her, you know? Can't say I blame them! What kind of a proper abbess goes around saying God's got an ego problem?"

"Yes, Wolfgang, we know that's why they excommunicated her," said the General patiently. "But I'm afraid I'm not making much sense out of all this—and spare me the line about expecting sense from a lunatic!"

Wolfgang pouted. "But it's one of my best lines!"

The General smiled. A very wintry smile.

"Perhaps Fangwulf needs a good run. He's been getting a little fat lately."

Wolfgang smirked. "Fangwulf won't chase me, General. He's partial to lunatics. Uncle Manya's influence, that is."

The General glared. I might mention that the glare of the world's greatest general is a fearsome sight to behold. Fortunately, Wolfgang came to his senses. So to speak.

"The reason Zulkeh is coming here to see Uncle Manya, General, is because he's gotten thoroughly mixed up in Joe business."

"To put it mildly," interjected Hildegard.

"And as for who he is," continued Wolfgang, "the fact is that he's the world's greatest sorcerer. Oh, yes! God's Own Tooth couldn't hold a candle to Zulkeh!"

"Then why haven't I heard of him?" demanded the General.

"Well, that's because it's often been noted that he's the least notable wizard of Grotum." Then, forestalling the General's looming outburst: "It's because he's such a goofy pedant, General. You know the old saying of the wise man? 'Wherefore profit it a man to be learned, if he remains stupid in his mind'?"

"Everybody knows that saying."

Wolfgang grinned. "What everybody doesn't know is that the wise man said it after he met Zulkeh."

The General threw up his hands with frustration. "Then what good is he? And who's side is he on?"

"What good is he?" exclaimed Wolfgang. "General, he's the world's greatest sorcerer! Such a magician! Such a thaumaturge! Why, we couldn't have stolen the Rap Sheet without him!"

The lunatic looked confused for a moment. "As for who's side he's on, well, that's a bit difficult. He's a reactionary, of course—all your great sorcerers are, you know. But the thing about Zulkeh is, that he's such a really great sorcerer that his reaction sort of gets very strange. Leads him to do the wildest things!"

The General shook his head. "Never mind, Wolfgang. Since this Zulkeh is coming here, I'll get to meet him anyway. In the meantime, we have lots of other things to do."

He turned to Gwendolyn. "The warnings you've been spreading about the Rap Sheet will have the movement on its toes by now."

"I'll feel a little foolish when these latest developments come out," said Gwendolyn ruefully.

"Don't be stupid. We want the movement on the qui vive. All hell's about to break loose—bigger hell than the Rap Sheet would've produced, actually. But we're better able to handle this kind of action. And with the Rap Sheet in the hands of The Mysterious Q, we'll have the best intelligence we could ask for."

The General paused for a moment, groped for a cigar in his vest.

"Not in the house, dear," said Madame Kutumoff. The General got that unmistakable look on his face. Some day I should capture it on canvas: Guilt and FrustrationThe Thwarted Smoker.

"Sorry. Anyway, Gwendolyn, I think the first thing you should do is try to find The Roach. He'll be at Blain by now, I imagine. Then, you've got to step up the Railroad's work immediately. There'll be a wave of pogroms coming, as sure as the sunrise, and there's no one better than you—"

He stopped then, seeing Gwendolyn's expression. Her face was pale. The General cast a quick, shrewd glance at me.

"But we can deal with all this tomorrow," he said gently. "You'll want today for other things, I imagine."

Gwendolyn nodded faintly. She reached out and took my hand.

"Let's go outside, Benvenuti. We need to talk."

As we headed out the door, I heard the General speaking. "Now—lunatic! I want some straight answers."

"Shall I take him to the kitchen, dear?" asked Madame Kutumoff. Wolfgang began howling with fear.

"No, love," said the General. "I think it best to remain within the guidelines of the rules of war. Very loosely interpreted, of course."

* * *

The rest of the day was unlike any other of my life. Islands of joy, in a sea of pain. Time and again, I tried to find a way out of the dilemma. But Gwendolyn had a will of steel.

"We always knew this time would come, Benvenuti. It won't help to draw it out. There'll just be more pain. And I have to leave soon anyway. It's true, what the General said. The Ozarines will set Grotum on fire. My kind of fire, what I was made for."


"But what?" Her face was like a stone mask.

That night was spent in a frenzy of passion. In the morning, exhausted in body and soul, I packed my belongings. Gwendolyn and I descended from our room to the foyer. Madame Kutumoff was there, holding a satchel, which she extended to me.

"Take this, Benvenuti. Rations for your trip." She made a wry face. "I know the stuff tastes terrible, but it'll keep you going."

When we stepped through the door, we found Wolfgang waiting outside. I was surprised to see him.

"But why are you surprised, dear boy?" He waved his arms about. "You are going to New Sfinctr, aren't you?"

I hesitated, but Gwendolyn was implacable.

"Yes, he's going. He's not happy about it—neither am I—but it's for the best."

"Of course he should go!" cried Wolfgang. "You're absolutely right, Gwendolyn! There's nothing for him here. Except you, of course. But you're going to be very, very busy now, aren't you? Things are going to be getting hot in Grotum soon, oh yes! The Ozarines are going to be making such a fuss."

He looked at me, grinning from ear to ear.

"So it's the perfect time for you to make a splash, my boy! New Sfinctr will be a whirl! High society dancing on the edge of the volcano! Oh, it'll be splendid! You'll be famous in no time! Oh, yes! Trust me!"

I opened my mouth to speak, found no words.

"And besides," added the lunatic, "I'm heading that way myself. So I can show you how to get there."

"Why are you going to New Sfinctr?" asked Gwendolyn.

"Oh, I'm not. I'm going the opposite direction, so it'll be easy for me to show Benvenuti where to go. The other way from me. I'd love to go to New Sfinctr, mind you. Such a crazy place! But I've got to get back to the asylum before they discover that I escaped."

"You escaped months ago," I said. "They're bound to have discovered by now."

"Oh, yes, certainly. But the captain of the security guard has such a bad memory! He's probably forgotten all about it."

Madame Kutumoff laughed. Gwendolyn snorted.

"But I've still got to get back. You never know—he might remember any time now! And if he does—" Wolfgang shuddered. "He's a monster! A brute! He'll beat me to a pulp! The man has fists like hams!"

"You're the captain of the security guard, you idiot!" roared Gwendolyn.

"Yes, I know! That's what's so terrifying! I know the man well and—believe me!—he's a sadist! A psychopath! Ought to be locked up himself!"

He reached out a gigantic arm and took me by the shoulder. "So let's be off!"

I pulled back. "Wait! I'm not—" I turned to Gwendolyn. She was in my arms in a rush. Her embrace was like a python's. She gave me a quick fierce kiss, and then pushed me away.

"Go, love," she said, fighting tears. "Go now. Please."

I was unable to speak. I looked around. Madame Kutumoff seemed distressed. Wolfgang was watching me with a look on his face I couldn't decipher. Amusement, almost, but there was not a hint of malice in it.

I tried to kiss Gwendolyn again, but she fended me off. Gently, but with that incredible strength.

"No," she said. "Just go."

Wolfgang took me by the arm and gently pulled me away. But after I had taken a few steps, I stopped and turned back.

"Wait. I have something for you, Gwendolyn. I've been working on it for the last two days. It's a copy I made of a piece I found in the Mutt. I thought you would like it."

I dug in my pack and brought out the carving. When I handed it to her, Gwendolyn gazed down at it and gave a little gasp.

She looked up at me, frowning. "I thought you said you'd never met him."

"Met who?"

She held up the carving. "Him. My brother. That's who this is."

"I had no idea. It's just a carving I made from a piece I found in a shop. Here, I'll show you." I pulled forth the original.

"But—what would this be doing in a shop?"

"Oh, those!" exclaimed Madame Kutumoff. "Why, those figurines are all over, Gwendolyn. The peasants in the Baronies started making them a year or so ago. It was after Greyboar—well, after he disposed of the Comte de l'Abattoir and his Knights Companion. He's become something of a folk hero among the serfs, actually."

Gwendolyn's face grew hard. "He didn't do it for them!"

"Well, of course he didn't!" boomed Wolfgang. "He did it because some other baron paid him to do it—stupid peasants! Just like the ignorant sods to make a hero out of the man who throttled the most vicious lord in creation for the wrong reason." He clucked his tongue. "That's the whole problem with the Groutch peasantry—no understanding of psychology!"

He reached out his hand. "May I see the carving?"

Gwendolyn handed it to him. Wolfgang gazed down at it for a moment, and then handed it back. He began shaking his head vigorously.

"Oh no! Oh no! It just won't do! It's a beautiful carving, of course. Excellent work, Benvenuti—but I'm afraid it's ruined by that typical Sfondrati-Piccolomini touch. Just like that painting of your uncles! The marvelous suggestion of a great nobility of soul within that brutish exterior—preposterous! Greyboar's not like that at all! Oh no! The man's a monster, a fiend! A heartless killer! Why, my soul shudders when I think—"

"Wolfgang, shut up!" roared Gwendolyn.

The giant pouted. "But, my dear, your brother is a renegade from the human race. A two-legged beast, with the philosophy of a weasel. You've said so yourself—many times, in fact. I was just elaborating on your words."

Gwendolyn glared at him. "I never—" She fell silent. "Well, maybe I did." She looked down at the carving in her hand. After a moment, her face softened and she looked up at me.

"Thank you, Benvenuti."

Before I could say anything, Wolfgang was hustling me down the lane.

"We're off! We're off!" he cried. When we reached the road, I turned back. But Gwendolyn was gone.

* * *

Four days I spent, walking north from the Mutt with Wolfgang. All things considered, he may have been the best companion I could have had then. In his bizarre way, he made it impossible for me to wallow for long in my misery.

He talked constantly, an unending stream of idiotic babble, with those odd insights popping up like bubbles. Of what he said, I remember nothing, except his last words. Those came at a crossroads at the start of Joe's Hills.

"Just keep going north, Benvenuti. It's safe enough, walking through Joe's Hills, as long as you stick to the road. And when you get to Munching, you can take the barge down the river to New Sfinctr. They're wretched barges, I warn you. But they'll get you there."

Suddenly I was enfolded in his huge arms. When he released me, he was grinning in his inimitable style. Quite a fetching grin, actually, if you ignored the foam.

"Don't look so woebegone, boy!" He cackled. "The heart's just a muscle, you know. It doesn't really break, it just gets bruised. Bruises go away. Especially if the muscle's healthy. So that's it! Just exercise your heart!"

His grin was replaced by a rare look of seriousness. "I have come to cherish you, Benvenuti."

The look vanished.

"I know what I'll do! I'll tell you the secret of the universe!" He leaned down and whispered two words in my ear. A moment later, he was shambling down the road in that unique stride, waving his arms.

"I must be off!" I heard him cry. "It's my longest escape ever! Oh! They'll be furious! They'll beat me! Whip me! Oh! Oh! I can't wait!"

Three seconds later, he was out of sight around a bend. His voice lingered a few seconds longer.

* * *

I made my camp that evening atop the highest hill I could find. From there, I was able to look south over the Mutt. The setting sun bathed the land in purple and ochre beauty. I found some comfort, then, knowing Gwendolyn was somewhere in that splendor.

Two days I spent there, paralyzed. A hundred times, I started back south, only to return to the camp. A hundred times, I started north, only to return to the camp.

In the end, staring out over the Mutt on the evening of the second day, I found my answer. A cold answer. But I took some pride in the fact that it had nothing to do with my ambitions.

I would only be a burden to her.

* * *

Sometime around noon of the next day, as I walked north, I remembered Wolfgang's last words to me. And it was strange, that it was those words which brought the first smile to my lips in days.

Two words. "The secret of the universe," according to a lunatic.

Things change.



For more great books visit


Back | Next