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In Which We Introduce the Gentle Reader to Our Tale Through a Most Cunning Usage of the Ancient Narrative Device of The Plunge Direct Into the Turbulence of the Times. Taken From the Autobiography of the Notorious Scapegrace, Benvenuti Sfondrati-Piccolomini.


Autobiography of Benvenuti Sfondrati-Piccolomini,
Episode 1: Police, Potters, Pedants and Plunderers

I arrived in the city of Goimr upon the most wretched ship imaginable. The CSS Lucre, it was called, a name which was as inappropriate as possible. The CSS Pigsty would have served better; the Shipwreck-in-the-Making, ideal.

Yet, upon my first glimpse of Goimr, I was almost sorry to disembark. The sight which greeted my eyes was even more disheartening than the ship. I had expected, without really giving it much thought, to find Goimr's harbor a smaller version of my native Ozar's great port, the Horn of Surfeit. At the very least, I should have thought Goimr—which is, after all, the chief port of southeastern Grotum—to be a match for any of the smaller harbors of the Philistine at which my ship had stopped on the voyage from Ozar.

Not so. I was encountering my first taste of that reality which has given rise, throughout Grotum, to the expression "grubby as Goimr." Upon the oily, sluggish waters of the harbor bobbed a variety of vessels, which seemed to compete with each other in their disrepair and desuetude, not to mention their antiquity and obsolescence. Numerous dilapidated warehouses dotted the quays, most of them boarded up, if not burnt and gutted. Everything was covered with a deep layer of grime. Roofs sagged, doors were unhinged, steps were cracked and broken. The very stones of the quays seemed corroded by some foul reagent.

The sole exception to the general miasma of decay was the building in front of which my ship was docked. The building was gigantic, stretching a full two hundred yards along the center of Goimr's waterfront. Above it, facing the waterfront, rested a huge sign announcing to the world:

(a subsidiary of the consortium)

"At least there's a trace of Ozarine energy in this miserable place," I muttered to myself, descending the gangway. And indeed, the Consortium building—though it shared the general aura of squalor—was bustling with activity. Numerous barges, skiffs, scows and hoys plied the waters adjacent, bringing cargoes to and from the several ships moored nearby. A constant bustle of men and wagons carrying goods, supplies or passengers swarmed about the quayside in front of the building.

The moment I stepped ashore, I was delivered into this seething frenzy of commercial and maritime activity. Wending my slow way past oxen teams drawing huge loads, dodging gangs of stevedores, I left the docks and entered the relative calm of the building. After some inquiries, I eventually made my way out of the labyrinthine edifice and into the passenger area on the far side, from which transportation into the city proper was available. There I rented a large locker, into which I placed my traveling sack and my easel. It wouldn't do, of course, to visit the King of Goimr with luggage under my arm.

As I was heading out the main archway to the plaza beyond, I stepped aside to let a man hurry by. Strange-looking fellow! Strange, not so much in his features—for he was normal enough in that regard, aside from the excessively severe look on his bearded face. But his clothing! A long, shabby, flowing robe, covered with obscure and cabalistic symbols. A wide-brimmed, floppy pointed hat. In his hand he bore a long staff, carved with runes. I realized that I was actually face to face with one of that legendary breed of sorcerers which are peculiar to Grotum.

As I stepped aside, I heard the mage say: "Make haste, wretched gnome, make haste! For even as I speak, time wanes!"

I looked to see the person to whom he was speaking. My jaw dropped with astonishment. Wizard indeed! For behind him—as if transported by levitation—loomed an immense sack, bulging at every seam, from which protruded the snouts and extremities of weird instruments too bizarre to describe.

From beneath the sack I heard a whining voice: "But master, it's heavy, and I can't see." I now saw a pair of spindly legs under the sack, twinkling in their efforts to keep pace with the wizard's long stride.

"Watch out!" I cried. "There's—"

But my effort to warn the servant of the portmanteau just ahead of him did not come in time. In an instant, the little legs tripped and the gigantic sack went flying.

At the sound, the sorcerer spun about. A look of great fury came upon his face.

"Unspeakable wretch!" he cried. "Did I not entrust to your care the safekeeping of my possessions?" And so saying, the wizard began smiting the prostrate servant with his staff.

"Hold there, sirrah!" I exclaimed. "It was but an accident! Your man could not possibly have seen the obstacle before him—did he not tell you himself that he couldn't see? If there is any fault here, it is yours alone. You should have warned him."

The wizard's look of wrath was transferred onto me.

"You are impudent, youth!" he bellowed.

Ignoring him, I stepped over and took the arm of the servant, who was now on his knees, shaking his head. I lifted the tiny fellow to his feet.

"Th-thank you, s-sir," he stammered. His voice was very clear and sweet.

I did not reply, so great was my astonishment. I had thought the wizard a strange looking fellow! His servant, I now perceived, was a dwarf. And while I myself did not share the general prejudice against dwarves, I was struck speechless by his appearance. For, truly, this was the hairiest and ugliest dwarf I had ever encountered. It was only the freshness of his voice which enabled me to determine that the servant was a young man—not much more than a boy, really. From his appearance alone, I would have thought him an ancient and horrid sub-human, a miniature demi-troll, escaped from some cavern of the earth.

But the boy seemed harmless enough. He immediately dove under the sack, positioning himself to lift it. I reached down and seized a fold of the sack, attempting to aid him.

The thing was unbelievably heavy! I am a large man, well muscled and strong, but I do not think I could have possibly lifted it by myself. Yet here was this dwarf—smaller than a stripling—even now hoisting the monstrous sack onto his back. In but two seconds, he was back on his feet.

"Thank you very much for your help, sir," came his little voice from beneath the sack.

"Not at all," I replied.

"Cease and desist this unconscionable chitchat, wretched dwarf!" exclaimed the wizard. "By your clumsiness, you have already delayed me!"

I had had quite enough of this fellow, thank you. I stepped up to him and said: "You, sirrah, are the only wretch about!"

The wizard's face began to redden with anger. But after a moment he turned away.

"Bah!" he exclaimed. "I have no time to bandy words with a layabout. The coach to Prygg departs momentarily, and I cannot afford to miss it. Good day to you, sirrah, and may we never meet again!"

"My sentiments exactly," I growled to his retreating back.

* * *

Little did I know then . . . Not only was I destined to meet again with the wizard and his servant, but in the years to come my life and fate was to become inextricably intertwined with theirs.

Indeed, the first coil of that intertwining was even now upon me. For no sooner did I emerge from the archway onto the plaza, looking about for a means of transport to the Royal Palace, than a black coach came careening up. A half-dozen black-garbed men were precariously perched on top. goimr secret police was painted on its side in bold red letters. In slightly smaller letters beneath:

Classified information!
Tell no one on pain of death!

As soon as the coach stopped, the men on top leapt to the ground. The doors to the coach opened and another half-dozen men spilled out from the interior. I was so struck by the improbable sight that I stood motionless. My artist's sense of perception was attempting to determine by what magic means so many men—beefy types, to boot—had managed to fit inside the not very commodious coach. I would have done better to have noticed the fact that every other person in the crowded plaza had disappeared.

One of the policemen pointed to me and cried: "Seize him!" A moment later I was brought down by the horde, chained and manacled, protesting my innocence all the while.

"He must be guilty as sin, Sergeant," I heard a policeman chortle. "The only one who didn't run! And listen to him pleading his innocence!"

"A foreigner, too!" cackled another. "Listen to that outlandish accent!"

"I'm from Ozar," I protested. A momentary pause in the bustle of binding, manacling and chaining. Then:

"The blackguard! Impersonating an Ozarine!"

"Gag him," came a tone of command. "No need for honest secret policemen to listen to the honeyed words of treason."

Before I knew it—now gagged, to boot—I was hustled into the coach. As I was forced into its dark interior, I heard the sergeant say: "You two stay here and search the area for the other one." A moment later, the coach careened into motion.

By now I was in a dark and gloomy mood, full of self-reproach. In my mind's eye, I could already hear my uncle Ludovigo's sneering voice.

"Forgot everything I taught you, you fool—and at the very first opportunity!" Here he would glower in his inimitable style. "Idiot. Cretin. Moron." This would go on for no little time, accompanied by much clapping of despairing hands to aggrieved forehead. Then the lecturing voice of my uncle:

"What is the first law of secret police?"

The innocent flee where no man pursueth.

"The second law?"

Protestations of innocence stand in direct proportion to guilt.

"The third law?"

Who wants to hear it, anyway?

I was not looking forward to my next meeting with my uncle, let me tell you. No point lying to him, either—he'd see right through it. After the heaping of foul names upon my head, the ritual clapping of despairing hands onto his own head, there would come the great sigh—a genius casting pearls before a swine—and then, horror, the inevitable lecture.

"I will try again, my witless nephew. As I have told you before, time and again"—here would follow the history of the universe, beginning with the coalescence of the galaxies—"and so—will you try to remember?—if you wish to be a great artist you must expect many encounters with the secret police, many an interrogation by the forces of Church and State, many a long stay in the donjons and bastilles, many a beating and torture. Especially in Grotum! For these ineluctable modalities of the risible, you must be as well trained and prepared as your uncles Giotto, Algardi, Donatello and Salviati have made you for the actual exercise of your art itself."

Here would follow the ceremonial chewing of mustachios. Then:

"And why do you want to be an artist, anyway? It's a foolish ambition, no matter what those other uncles tell you! Much better for you to become a condottiere like myself or your uncles Rodrigo and Filoberto and the others. You have a talent for arms, and it's a much safer occupation than being an artist!"

The rest of his future lecture I was able to rehearse in advance, as the coach banged and clattered its way along the cobblestoned streets. And there was this benefit from the gloomy experience, that by the time the secret police of Goimr reached their destination, I was well-prepared for the immediate prospect of torture, having reviewed in my mind all of my uncle's instructions.

I was hustled into a great, gray, windowless building, which shared the general shabbiness which I was coming to realize was inseparable from Goimr. secret police headquarters read the sign above the door. (With, needless to say, the same bloodcurdling threat concerning classified information below.) Down a long corridor, a turn to the left, and there it was—the interrogation room, replete with all the requisite engines and tools of torture.

And then—

My rigorous rehearsal for the ordeal proved greatly excessive. For—would you believe it?—the incompetent fools began with a bastinado! My greatest problem was not to burst into laughter. The soles of my feet were covered with iron-hard calluses a half-inch thick—this the product of my uncle's rigorous training, which included walking on coals and soaking in brine. The blows of the cudgels were like a tickle.

But, of course, I never once lost my now-firm grasp on the fourth law of secret police:

Shrieks of agony soothe the savage beast.

Nor the fifth:

Stoic silence inflames the policeman's heart.

Nor—most important—the sixth:

Admissions of guilt stand in direct proportion to innocence. This, you will of course recognize, is but the obverse of the second law.

And so I interspersed my screams of agony with the most lurid confessions:

"Yes! Yes! I did it! I admit everything!" (Here I emitted a horrid shriek.) "I murdered the Popes—all twelve of them at once! The blood flowed like a river! O hideous impiety! And then!" (Here I dissolved into broken blubbering.) "I dismembered them! And ate them! O foul ecclesiophagy!" (Here I threw in the cackle of the criminally insane.) "And then! And then! After letting nature take its course, I defecated on holy ground! Like a wolf staking its territorial claim! Oh! Oh! I am a monster of depravity!"

"Not that, you idiot!" roared the sergeant. "Not the Popes! What about the King? What did you do to the King?"

"Which king?" Then, thinking I was bordering dangerously on proclaiming innocence, I immediately howled with glee and pain. "There have been so many! Butchered kings by the score, I have! The Kaysor of Kushrau I poisoned! And then—I fed the poisoned meat to his hounds! They died in agony! And then I cut the canines from the canines"—(here followed demonic shrieks of ecstasy at the pun)—"and with these newfound weapons I slew the Great Mogul of Juahaca! Plunged the teeth into his throat while he slept! Gave him a dog's collar of his own!" (Lunatic laughter.) "And then! Oh! I murdered the Doges of the Philistine! All of them at one swoop! Crept up on them while—"

"Not that, you idiot!" roared the sergeant. "The King of Goimr! Here—in Goimr! What did you do to the King of Goimr!"

"Oh! Him!" Here I fell into a minute or two of insensate ululation, for at the mention of the King of Goimr, the two policemen applying the bastinadoes had fallen into a truly vigorous beating of my feet. Then: "I forgot him! There've been so many kings! But him! Yes! Yes! I remember now! I disemboweled him with a scythe! Danced a fandango with his guts!"

"The King's still alive, you idiot! And not a mark on him! But he's insane! How did you drive him mad?"

I gasped with shock. "Still alive! You mean I missed? With a scythe? Missed! I'm going mad myself! But that's it! That's it! It must have been the horrible sight of my demented leer—the ghastly scythe in my hands!—drove the King of Goimr mad! O wondrous! O wondrous! I am such a criminal! Such an archdevil! A paragon of purest evil! Drove the King mad! Yes! Yes! I remember now!"

"It's looking bad, sir," I heard one of the policemen say, his voice filled with discouragement. The bastinado slacked off.

But the sergeant was made of sterner stuff. "I'll have none of it!" he roared. "You there! Apply the cudgels smartly! D'you hear me, you laggards?"

The bastinado renewed itself with a frenzy. Not to be thwarted, I immediately launched into a semi-coherent confessionary babble, recalling to mind all of the various crimes which my uncle Ludovigo had made me memorize. Fortunate I was in my training! On my own, I couldn't have thought up a tenth of those deeds of villainy.

At length, the bastinado fell off again.

"It's hopeless, sir," came the same policeman's voice, now sullen in its failure.

"Yes, I know," came the sergeant's morose reply. "Truth to tell, I lost heart earlier, when he confessed to seducing the Elf Queen's unicorn and abandoning the beast in her pregnancy. But this latest! Kidnapped the magnetic monopoles. Prevented the decay of the proton. And then—did you hear him? Murdered every one of the world's astronomers and cosmologists to protect the dark secret."

"Perhaps," came the obsequious voice of another policeman, "we could try the rack?"

"To what purpose, you fool?" demanded the sergeant. "What crime has he not confessed already?"

"Well," hemmed the obsequious voice, "he hasn't confessed to buggering and murdering the Maharaj of Naham."

"Oh, but I did!" I screeched. "It was my greatest crime! Through the use of cunning potions I brought all his mahouts under my sway! Taught them to sodomize the great war elephants! And then! The elephants now corrupted! The immense creatures filled with unnatural passion! I had but to wave the King's bedclothes under their snouts! The hideous sight! The herd of aroused pachyderms! Their tusks and trunks raised to the heavens! Their great bellows of lust! The palace trampled flat! The King fleeing for his life! But in vain! My greatest coup! There! The King! Racing across the Royal Grounds! There! The pachyderms in hot pursuit! And then! Oh! Oh! The—"

"Shut up!" roared the sergeant. "Just shut up!" I fell silent, grimacing in an effort to hide my smirk.

"Untie him," grumbled the sergeant. "We'll take him to Gerard." Then, very gloomily: "There's going to be hell to pay when the Chief Counselor hears about this."

A minute later I was carried out of the building, a burly policeman hoisting me by each arm. I could have walked quite easily, though I wouldn't have cared to dance a gavotte. But I saw no reason to enlighten the brutes as to the true condition of my hardened feet.

Another rough ride followed—the cobblestones of Goimr's streets shared the general state of disrepair—and we debouched onto a large plaza bordering a sluggish river. This, I realized, must be the river Moyle, at whose mouth the city of Goimr is located. And there, on an island in the middle of the river, lay the Royal Palace—just as described in the travel brochures.

Ha! The actual palace bore the same relation to the one pictured on the travel brochures as the corpulent and toad-faced Madame Hexe bore to my grandfather Goya's portrait of her, The Naked Madame.

"Isn't there one building in this city that isn't half-crumbling?" I asked.

"Silence!" roared the sergeant. Then, sourly: "It's a poor country, we are. Not like your precious Ozarae."

His own gloom was no deeper than my own. To Goimr had I come, my brain flushed with visions of making my fame and fortune—invited by the King himself. A Royal Artist already—and me not yet twenty-four years of age! But now, gazing at the Royal Hovel, I reflected that I would be lucky if the King of Goimr could afford the paints, much less any decent fee. And I was not pleased by the suggestion, during my interrogation, that the King was not quite in possession of his senses.

But I had little time for reflection. Soon enough, a barge was found to transport the policemen and myself over to the Isle Royale, and from there it was but a few minutes before I was ushered into a large chamber.

The furnishings in the chamber were of the sort I was coming to expect. The tapestries were particularly wretched, although they did serve to cover most of the grime and water stains on the walls. Behind a desk sat a man of easy grace.

"What's this, Sergeant?" he demanded, as soon as we entered the room. "Have you captured the wizard?"

The sergeant coughed apologetically. "Well, Chief Counselor Gerard, the truth is—we believe this man's innocent."

Chief Counselor Gerard's face was a study in confusion.

"What man?" he demanded.

"Why, this man here, sir," explained the sergeant, pointing to me. "The one we caught red-handed at the travel station. But after we put him to the question, it became clear that—"

"Imbecile!" The Chief Counselor's face was flushed with anger. "What has this man to do with anything? I told you to capture the wizard! Does this man look like a wizard to you? Look at his clothes—he's obviously from the Ozarine. Why would you seize him?"

The sergeant looked embarrassed. "Well, sir, when we arrived at the travel station—following your instructions, sir, I must point out—everyone fled but this man here. Stood there as guilty as sin, he did. Well, sir, as you know, it's the first law of secret police work. Only a guilty man would attempt to act innocent. And then, after we caught him, he pleaded his innocence! Well, sir, as you know, only a guilty man—"

"Oh, be quiet," snapped the Chief Counselor. A look of weariness crossed his face. "The end result of all this is that if the wizard did make his escape from the city through the travel station, then he's long gone by now."

"Well, yes, sir. They move along right quick, sir, the Consortium's transports do. Not at all like it was in the good old days. The bad old days, I mean to say."

The sergeant drew himself up, attempting a gesture of subtle reproof aimed at a superior. "And in any event, if you don't mind my saying so, sir, we really have no reason to think the wizard would have tried such an obvious escape route as the official travel station of the city. More likely, sir, he'd have tried to leave through one of the lesser-used gates."

"Yes, yes, I know. I've got police squads covering all the gates. We should know something soon. Fortunately, the wizard's a noticeable man. That ridiculous gown! The hat and the staff! The perfect image of the sorcerer of popular superstition. And that horrid servant. God, Sergeant, did you ever see such a frightful dwarf? And that incredible sack he carries!"

Well, I am neither stupid nor unobservant, and it was immediately obvious to me that the wizard of the police search was the very same unpleasant fellow I had encountered on my way out of the station. Had the police not been distracted by my stupidity they would have apprehended their culprit but moments later.

Warring impulses—I should say, warring advice—raged within my mind.

On the one hand, I was mindful of the unanimous advice of my artist uncles:

Always curry favor with the rich and powerful. As long as you curry favor with the swine, you can do anything else—cheat 'em, take their money, seduce their wives, whatever. But always curry their favor.

On the other, there was the unanimous advice of my condottiere uncles:

Don't tell the high and mighty anything. There's nothing more suspicious than a man who volunteers information. The torture chambers are full of blabbermouths. It's the seventh law of secret police: "If he spills his guts freely, just think what he'll do under The Question."

In the end, oddly enough, the question was resolved for me by the memory of the pitiful dwarf. A nice enough boy he'd seemed, ugly though he was. And I had no illusions as to a dwarf's fate in the hands of the secret police. So I kept my mouth shut. And in so doing, I sealed not only my own fate but that of the world.

"You may go, Sergeant," said Chief Counselor Gerard. Then, as the sergeant took my arm and made to drag me away, Gerard added: "Leave him here."

The sergeant began to say something, thought better of it, and left.

When the door closed, Gerard turned to me. "Who are you, sir? Am I not correct, that you are from the Ozarine? What are you doing here in Goimr?"

"Quite so, Chief Counselor. My name is Benvenuti Sfondrati-Piccolomini, of the famous clan of scholars and artists. I just arrived from Ozar on board the CSS Lucre. Indeed, I do not believe I had spent more than ten minutes on Goimric soil before I was seized by your secret police."

The look of embarrassment on Gerard's face encouraged me to press home the advantage.

"As to the reason for my being here, I was invited by the King of Goimr to set up as the Royal Artist." With a flourish, I drew the King's letter from my pocket—which the secret police of Goimr, in that inefficient manner which I was coming to associate with everything Goimric, had not even searched.

"And here," I added dramatically, as soon as Gerard finished reading the King's letter, "is a letter of recommendation from the Consortium's Director of Companies."

I handed him the second letter. Gerard's face grew gloomy. The King's letter had not seemed to produce much effect on him. But the letter from the Director of Companies was a different story altogether.

" 'Upstanding young man,' " he read from the Director's letter, " 'scion of a great family' . . . 'one of Ozar's most promising new artists.' " Etc., etc., etc.

Actually, I'd never met the Director of Companies. My uncle Giotto, however, is one of his favorite artists, and he'd persuaded the Director to sign the letter, which, needless to say, Giotto had written himself.

"This letter wouldn't do you much good in Ozar, of course," my uncle had said to me as he handed it over. "Everybody here knows that wretched plutocrat hasn't the faintest sense of art. But in Grotum it'll stand you in good stead. Fawn all over Ozarine wealth, they do, the nobility of Grotum. A miserable, medieval place. But there's no denying it's the greatest source of the world's art as well as most of its mischief."

The truth of his words was attested to by Gerard's very evident discomfort.

"Recommended by the Director of Companies himself! Um. A fine man. No—a great man! Been a mighty blessing to us here in poor and backward Goimr, he has. Um. No need to mention this recent unpleasantness to him, I should think?"

I nodded my head graciously, mentally rubbing my hands with glee. Get something over the bastards as soon as you can, my uncles had told me—artists and condottiere alike.

Gerard smiled feebly. Then he heaved a sigh.

"Unfortunately, sir, I'm afraid you've arrived at a bad time. Our blessed King has become unhinged—driven to insanity by the machinations of the villainous sorcerer Zulkeh. The realm is in an uproar. The King mad. The Heir Apparent a hopeless incompetent. All the heirs, indeed—well! No need to go into that here. But the point is, my good young man, that there's simply no place at the moment in Goimr for a Royal Artist. Not likely to be for—for some time, I should think."

I pleaded and remonstrated, but all to no avail. Truth to tell, now that Goimr was a reality rather than an illusion, I was none too sure myself that a promising young artist's career would be much advanced by lingering in such a place.

I did, however, in the course of my ensuing discussion with the Chief Counselor, manage to achieve a modest victory in what my uncles call The Artist's Quest.

I squeezed some money out of him.

Not much, I admit. But then, I found myself not disbelieving his claim that the treasury of Goimr was practically empty. But I got enough to enable me to survive, while I decided on my next course of action. I also obtained a brief letter with his signature which would, so he assured me, avoid any further complications with the police.

When I left the palace, it was sundown. My first task, clear enough, was to find lodgings for the night. I hired a small boat to transport me back across the river and began searching for a hotel.

Imagine, if you will, the tedium of looking for lodgings in Goimr. Even in the vicinity of the palace, the choices seem to vary from shabby to grim to hazardous. In the end, I settled on a run-down boardinghouse, whose proprietor seemed not quite as avaricious and slovenly as most I had encountered. Not saying much, that. Exhausted as I was by the day's travails, I was up half the night confronting the most sullen and difficult batch of rodents it has ever been my displeasure to encounter.

The next morning—not much rested, I can tell you—I returned to the travel station and obtained my belongings from the locker. I then set out in search of other lodgings in a poorer part of town. My experiences of Goimr had so quickly lowered my threshold of fastidiousness that I was determined, at the least, to find lodgings which were not exorbitant in their price.

By early afternoon, I had wended my way into a truly disreputable part of the city. Truth to tell, I had long since forgotten about finding new lodgings. I had become absolutely fascinated by the baroque squalor which surrounded me. Ozar, of course, has its miserable tenements and ghettoes, like any great city. But nothing to compare to these slums!

The determination to capture this nonpareil wretchedness on canvas seized me. In part, this determination was prompted by my artist's instinct. But, in the other part, it was prompted by my artist's reason. For, as my uncle Giotto had told me many times, there are two subjects which—captured with paints—the rich will always pay through the nose to hang on the walls of their mansions: their own glorified features, and the misery of the poor. The misery of the poor, because it comforts them to ponder the tragedy of the human condition. Their own idealized portraits, because it comforts them to ponder their own worth in escaping that condition.

Rounding a corner, I found myself on a particularly odious street. Not only were the cobblestones in severe disrepair, not only were the gutters strewn with garbage and less mentionable items, not only were the ramshackle buildings which loomed over the street the very epitome of tenements, but—

There—not twenty feet before me—a woman was being attacked by a mob of cutthroats!

I was taken completely off guard. Until I rounded the corner, I had heard not a hint of clamor. The struggle under way was being waged in complete silence, save the occasional hiss and grunt.

For a moment, I was paralyzed, like a statue, rooted to the spot. From horror, you would think. But no, it wasn't that. I am an artist, with an artist's eye, and it was the impossible drama of the scene which transfixed me—like a tableau from ancient legend.

The struggle bore little if any resemblance to the image which might normally come to mind when one hears of "a woman assaulted by a mob of cutthroats." Think rather of "a lioness assaulted by a pack of hyenas."

The woman was a striking figure. This, in three ways. First, she was—not beautiful; not, at least, in the normal sense of the term—but so fierce in her countenance as to burn every feature into my mind. More so, indeed, even in the first instant I saw her than any woman I had ever seen before, or have seen since. The regal poise, the nose with the pure curve of a hawk's, the gleaming black eyes, the firm jaw and chin, the full lips, the great mass of kinky hair like midnight, the swarthy complexion now even more flushed with passion and fury. No, not exactly beautiful, but what has a goddess to do with earthly concepts of beauty?

Then, she was big. Not obese, you understand. To the contrary. Her every movement—and these were fierce and energetic even as I took in the scene—bespoke a body that was muscular and sinewy. Even shrouded as her body was in a plain and baggy set of tunic and trousers, there was no denying its quite evidently female nature. The woman seemed almost a giantess. She matched my six feet of height, if not exceeded it. And though I am considered a large and well-built man, I had no doubt that she weighed perhaps as much.

She certainly outsized her opponents! For these men, as I saw when I finally tore my gaze from this fantastic vision of a demi-goddess out of a desert nomad's legend, were rather small and rattish in their every aspect. Yet they pressed their assault with great vigor, lunging at the woman from every side. They seemed actually in a frenzy, leaping at her with drawn knifes, attempting to stab and slash any portion of her body they could reach.

I said that the woman was striking in three ways. And the third of these ways was the unbelievable ferocity of her defense. With her right hand she would pluck an assailant out of the air—in mid-leap—and with her left hand, which clasped an immense butcher knife, she would remove her opponent's head with one blow of the blade. For all the world like a farmer's wife beheading chickens! Even as I watched, two heads joined the half dozen which—I now noticed—were lying about in the street like an urchin's rag balls.

Despite her ferocity, she was vastly outnumbered. There were still a good dozen assailants remaining. And even with her back to the wall of a building, they could come at her from three sides. The end of such an uneven contest was inevitable, given a willingness on the part of her opposition to press the fight to its conclusion, disregarding their own casualties. And small though they might be, and rattish in their countenance, there was no denying that her assailants were possessed of a ferocity the equal of her own. As I watched, a knife blade slashed the woman's hip. It was not a particularly deep cut, hardly more than a scratch, but she immediately hissed. A look of great pain came into her face. Her opponents squealed with triumph.

It was only then that I noticed the odd sheen of their knives. Poisoned blades!

It was that outrage which finally snapped my trance. I dropped my baggage and charged forward carrying my easel like a three-pronged lance. An easel! You laugh! But no ordinary easel, this. For, combining the teachings of my various uncles, I had long ago designed this easel with a condottiere's sense of art. Each of the legs came to a sharp point, edged like a razor. Furthermore—but that in a moment.

For now, let me say with all due modesty that I slew three of the scoundrels with a perfectly executed coup d'arrière tripodiste. Then, before their bodies had even hit the ground, I drew my sword from its cunningly disguised sheath in the upright of the easel. A moment later it was plunged through the back of the nearest poisoner, piercing his heart. A quick twist of the wrist to free the blade, and a moment later another poisoner was run through the back. Another quick twist of the wrist—

"Through the back?" you say. Certainly! Though I am an artist, I am also a most proficient swordsman. I was trained by my uncle Rodrigo from the time I was six.

"As pretty-faced and brash a boy as you are, Benvenuti," he'd said to me (not without a sneer), "you'll be bound to land in a duel by the time you're sixteen. Some outraged husband, no doubt. So you'd best learn to use a blade at least as well as you learn to use a paintbrush."

I was a good student, and even my uncle eventually admitted that I had the knack of swordplay. But his instruction was stern and severe. Many was the time I was soundly cuffed—even thrashed—for committing what my uncle Rodrigo considered the greatest of all swordsman's sins.


"Who d'you think you are, you little snot?" he would roar, applying the whip. "Some great lord of the land parading around with airs? You're a wretch of an artist, you dolt! None of this bowing and posturing for the likes of you!"

Whimper and plead though I would, each transgression of my uncle's code would earn me the full ten lashes. A stern regimen, but by the time I was seven I could recite the code in my sleep:

Whenever you can, stab 'em in the back.

Better yet, stab 'em in the back in the dead of night.

Best of all, stab 'em in the back in the dead of night while they're asleep.

If you've got to stab 'em in the front, try a low blow.

If none of that works, then use all your skills as best you can, you stupid dummy.

My uncle would, I believe, have been pleased. The masterpiece with the easel. The next two, felled with a backstab. From then on, of course, my foes were alerted and I was forced to face them from the front. But the next two went down before my low blow—not without bestowing a look of great indignation upon me as they expired. A strange morality—set upon a woman with poisoned knives, but take offense at a sword through the groin.

Alas, after that it became sticky. Two more of the villains were dispatched by the woman before the poison began to take effect upon her. She half-collapsed against the wall, dropping her knife. Hissing with triumph, one of the men hurled himself upon her, blade high. Foolish move! Even as the impetuous hyena moves in too quickly for the kill of a wounded lioness. For the woman seized his throat in both hands and wrung his neck. A most horrible sound, really. She then flung the body at the others, bowling two of them over like tenpins. But that was her last gasp. She slumped to the ground, dead or unconscious.

In a frenzy, I forced my way to her side, in order to protect her now-helpless form from certain death. Six assailants were still left alive.

No, five. For as they came in upon me, I suddenly changed tactics and thrust high, piercing one right through the throat.

Unfortunately, my blade was momentarily caught in his neck bones as he fell, and I was unable to withdraw it in time to parry a blow from another. His knife sank into my side.

Not deeply, not deeply, for I twisted aside even as the thrust came in. But the pain! It was as if I had been injected with acid! I recall my astonishment that the woman had simply hissed when so struck. I myself screamed like a banshee.

But there was this much to be said for the agony, that for a brief few seconds it galvanized me to a pure fury. A moment later, two more of my opponents were overborne by my rage, their blades beaten down, their faces slashed, their guts spilled onto the street.

Alas, the galvanizing pain was soon replaced by a great weakness. I staggered back, lost my footing. Then I fell against the wall of the building, right next to a door. It is strange how, at such moments, one notices the most insignificant thing. For my eyes fixed themselves upon a small, much-worn placard dangling by one screw from the door. Death House of Goimr, it read.

The irony of it caused me to laugh. I think it was that wild laugh which momentarily stayed my remaining opponents. The three paused, stooping over me. It was that pause, perhaps, which saved my life.

For at that moment, the door to the death house opened and a giant emerged. A true giant—even in my dazed state, I now realized that the woman whom I had taken for a giantess was but a very large woman. But this man! He had to stoop in order to get out of the door—and it was a large door. Eight feet tall, at least, he must have been.

My three opponents were transfixed by the sight. Not the size of the newcomer alone, but the way his eyes rolled about, the way he giggled like a madman, the drool issuing from his loose lips. And the words he spoke: "Isn't this just the craziest thing? Who would have thought it would come to this! And in Goimr—of all places!"

He beamed down at the three knifemen.

"Don't you just love it?" he asked. Then he raised the huge club which I now noticed for the first time—and so, judging from their expressions, did my opponents—and crushed one of them like an insect.

The other two—no cowards, I will say it—instantly launched themselves at the giant. In vain. Another swipe of that immense cudgel and both of them went flying. One of them was clearly dead—I could see the rib cage shattered like the side of a barrel. For a moment, I thought the other dead as well. But he struggled to his feet, shaking his head to clear the daze. He stared up at the giant, who was shambling toward him, club raised high.

"Madness and confusion, madness and confusion, oh it's so lovely," babbled the giant. He cackled with glee. I think it was that insane cackle which finally broke the villain's nerve. He turned and raced down the street.

Or, I should say, tried to race down the street. It took the giant but four huge strides to catch up with his prey and smash him to the ground. I could hear the skull splatter.

Then darkness claimed me and I knew no more.

* * *

My consciousness returned slowly, my hearing leading the way.

"And how is my dear aunt?" Such was the first sound I recalled. It was spoken in a high-pitched man's voice.

"The same as usual," came the reply, this in a female voice pitched so low that I don't know what to call it. Contralto profundo? The voice continued: "Head in the clouds."

"Oh, Gwendolyn—always so stern! When did you join the Sisterhood, by the way?"

"Me? A Sister?" A snort. "Not likely!"

"But I understood you to say you were carrying a message for Zulkeh from the Abbess Hildegard. I assumed—but then! Perhaps I misunderstood. Probably did. Probably imagined the whole thing. I'm crazy, you know." Mad cackling. "Hear voices all the time."

"Stop drooling! It's disgusting."

"Sorry. Can't be helped. Goes with my dementia. The head psychiatrist at the asylum's told me many times that—"

"Wolfgang, shut up!"

Even in my semiconscious state, the momentary silence which followed seemed filled with reproach. Then, a sigh, and the contralto profundo spoke again. Quite a beautiful voice, really, once you got used to the rumble.

"I didn't mean to hurt your feelings. I just don't want to hear it. And to answer your question, the reason I was carrying Hildegard's message is because she asked me to. She said the Sisters were being watched too closely."

"This is a long way to come just as a favor."

Another sigh. "Tell me about it. Halfway across Grotum, a good part of it on foot, with a knife fight at the end of the trip. And I never did get to deliver the message."

"Can't be helped. Zulkeh left yesterday. Just as well, all things considered. The Fangs would have taken him before he finished his first sentence, replete with arcane allusions to the classics."

"Is he really that bad?"

The male voice snorted. "The world's greatest pedant, my dear Gwendolyn. I take it you've never made his acquaintance?"

"Don't meet too many pedants in my circles."

"I should think not!"

"Must you roll your eyes like that?"

Mad cackling. "Such intolerance! Quite odd, really, given your extreme ideological views."

The female voice snorted. "Eight-foot-tall lunatics who can afford to buy their own private insane asylums don't qualify as members of the downtrodden masses."

"I should hope not! But tell me, what exactly was this message you were to deliver?"


"Oh, come, come, Gwendolyn. If you can't trust a madman, who can you trust? After all, who'd believe me anyway? Can you picture the scene? It's marvelous! Myself, strapped to the rack—wouldn't fit actually, they'd have to build one special—the dungeon filled with Inquisitors and Cruds and Fangs! The great ones! Cardinal Ignomini! The Angel Jimmy Jesus! God's Own Tooth! They speak! Their voices filled with hate! 'Tell us, Wolfgang, what were you doing down there in the secret passageways leading off from the abandoned death house?' Myself, screaming with pain! 'Oh! That feels good! Excruciating agony! Just what the head psychiatrist at the asylum recommends—' "


"What? Oh, sorry. But the man's a genius, you know? A giant in the field of psychology. Anyway, where was I? Oh, yes, strapped to the rack, screaming with ecstasy. 'I was talking with the notorious agitator Gwendolyn—the demoness herself! The Queen of the Railroad. And she was telling me how the Abbess Hildegard asked her to hike all the way across Grotum—just as a personal favor, you know?—in order to tell Zulkeh, the world's egghead supreme, that he was mixed up in Joe business.' And then—"

"How did you know?" demanded the woman's voice. A voice now frighteningly harsh.

"But it's obvious! Why else would Hildegard get involved? And why else would you agree to come?"

"I didn't do it because of Joe! Can't stand all this Joe nonsense. It's one of the reasons I'd never join the Sisterhood. It's idiotic. We're all supposed to stand around contemplating our navels. And meantime Ozar gobbles up Grotum along with the rest of the world. Let the poor starve! Let the dwarves be butchered!" Her voice assumed a clipped high-pitched tone. " 'When Joe comes back, dear, these things will all get straightened out. In the meantime, we must do our best to salvage what we can.' "

"I must say, that's quite a good imitation of Hildegard. My favorite aunt—I'm really very fond of her. She's quite mad, you know? A classic obsessive-compulsive—especially when it comes to her correspondence with God! The head psychiatrist at—"


"Oh. Sorry. Where was I? Other than in a state of lunacy? Oh, yes. You were about to tell me the message you were to deliver to the wizard."

"I was not. Besides, you seem to know all about it already. And while we're on the subject, just exactly what were you doing in the death house?"


"When you came out and clubbed the rest of the Fangs, you idiot! What were you doing here?"

"I was watching you, actually. There's a peephole in the door. You were marvelous. Just marvelous! Hacking and hewing Fangs right and left! Reminded me of this ax murderer we have in the asylum. Wonderful man, really. Of course, the head psychiatrist took away his ax. Can't blame him, I suppose. Therapy's difficult with an ax in your skull, even if you're the world's greatest psychiatrist. But it was horrible the way the poor madman wailed and—"

"Wolfgang—shut up! Just shut up about your damned asylum! You mean to tell me you stood there and watched the whole thing? And didn't do anything? You lousy bastard!"

The male voice sounded aggrieved. "Didn't do anything? That's crazy! If you'll pardon the expression. Didn't I come out and finish the job?"

"Not until I was already cut and for all you knew dead from those damned poisoned blades!"

"Nonsense. It was obvious the Fangs were trying to capture you alive. To put you to The Question, don't you know? Better to be dead, of course. But if they'd been an assassination team they'd have been wearing green cockades. Green for gangrene, you know? They're really quite maniacal, the Fangs, in a horribly sane sort of way."

"You mean they weren't trying to kill me? It sure seemed that way! No sooner did I knock on the door than they came piling out of the death house. Didn't say a word, just started stabbing at me right away."

"Yes, yes, I know. As I said, a lot of maniacs. They've gotten it into their heads that Zulkeh's meddling with the King's dream would stir up awful things. You should have heard them carrying on in here. They came in not six hours ago. Absolutely furious that they'd missed the wizard. Ransacked the whole place. A frightful scene! There's nothing here except a lot of old bones, of course. The wizard took all his stuff with him when he left. I watched the whole thing from my hideout." Mad cackling. "Amazing! Such disrespect for the dead from such paragons of piety! Crypts dumped, bones scattered, urns shattered! I'm afraid that by the time you knocked on the door they'd worked themselves up into quite the devout frenzy. You should have heard them pouring out of the catacombs and racing up to the main level."

"What if I'd been an innocent bystander?" demanded the woman.

Absolutely insane and hysterical laughter followed this question.

"What's so damned funny?"

"My dear Gwendolyn! Are you such a naïf? What a question—and coming from you! Gwendolyn Greyboar! The Terror of Theocracy! The Lady of the Lowlife! The Nabobs' Nemesis! Dumb as a schoolgirl!" Suddenly the mad voice was tinged with anger. "When has anyone been an innocent bystander in the eyes of the Godferrets?"

"All right, all right," grumbled the woman. "But I'd still like to know why you didn't come out sooner."

"Well, actually, I was about to take the plunge when this marvelous young man came along. Such a hero! And so young and handsome! The coup with the tripod! Brilliant! And what an exquisite backstab he's got. You were probably too busy to notice, dear. A pity, really. Best backstab I've seen in years. Skewered two of them in a trice. And then! When the Fangs turned to face him! The low blows! Oh, marvelous! Marvelous! That kind of treacherous swordwork's a lost art, nowadays. Haven't seen such cunning bladesmanship since Rodrigo Sfondrati-Piccolomini. It was—"

"My uncle," I mumbled. I tried to open my eyes, but I couldn't.

"He's waking up!" exclaimed the woman.

"What a silly goose you are. He's been awake for some time. Now he's regaining consciousness." Clucking sounds. "Really should require you sane people to take courses in psychology. Won't find a lunatic who can't tell the difference between being awake and being conscious. It's the key to the whole thing, you know? Insanity, I mean. The head psychiatrist at the asylum wrote a wonderful—"

"Wolfgang! You mean he's been listening to us talk?"

"Well, not exactly. More accurate to say he's been hearing us talk. 'Listening' implies consciousness, you see. And I was just explaining that in his article the—"

"Shut up! You idiot! He's heard too much!"

The sound of motion, somehow ominous. Then the man's voice: "Gwendolyn!"

I opened my eyes. The woman—yes, it was she, the lioness—stood crouched above me, her great knife upraised for a death blow, her eyes blazing.

"Perfect!" I cried. "Right there! Don't move! My brushes! My paints!" I tried to move, couldn't.

The woman frowned. Her frown had to be seen to be believed. I began weeping with frustration. A masterpiece it would have been! Goddess In Judgement.

"What did he say?" she said, turning her head. My eyes followed her gaze. There, sitting on a stone slab, was the shambling giant who had emerged from the doorway and administered the final blows to the knifemen. A lunatic, it was now obvious. He began a wild and insane cackling.

"He wants to paint your portrait!" he howled. "A true Sfondrati-Piccolomini! Of the artistic branch! Can't bear to die without painting his doom first—oh, marvelous. Marvelous!"

He wiped tears from his eyes, then babbled further.

"Really a much finer lot than my own clan, I'll be the first to say it. Not such good scholars, the Sfondrati-Piccolominis, but you'll never find such great mad artists among the Laebmauntsforscynneweëlds."

"He wants to what?"

"Portrait," I whispered. "Your portrait. You're perfect. Just like you were before—in the fight."

She gazed down at me. Slowly lowered her cleaver. Shook her head.

"You're as crazy as he is," she growled.

"Perhaps some introductions are in order," said the giant in his oddly high-pitched voice. "I am Wolfgang Laebmauntsforscynneweëld, of the noted scholarly clan of that name. This magnificent lady with the great cleaver in her hand is Gwendolyn Greyboar, famous throughout Grotum for—"

"Shut up, Wolfgang! He's an Ozarine, by the looks of him."

"Well, of course he's an Ozarine. As I was just about to say, Benvenuti Sfondrati-Piccolomini, of the noted scholarly clan of that name—and not just scholars! Oh no! Artists and condottiere galore! Come to Goimr to seek his fame and fortune." Here he broke into a horrid cackling. "And they say I'm crazy!"

My feebleness was rapidly fading. I muscled myself up into a sitting position. In the process, I noticed that my wound had been expertly bandaged. Looking around, I saw that I was in a chamber hewn directly out of bare rock. Along one side was a stone bench, where Wolfgang was sitting. Behind him, bored into the rock wall, were some odd-looking holes. The chamber was otherwise bare, except for the entrance to a dim tunnel which loomed in the far wall. The woman leaned against the wall next to the tunnel.

"How do you know so much about me?" I demanded.

The giant stopped cackling and shrugged. "Well, I read the letters in your pocket, while Gwendolyn was bandaging you up. Quite impressive. An invitation from the King. A recommendation from the Consortium's Director of Companies. A letter of—Gwendolyn!"

I turned, flinched. The woman was looming above me again, cleaver upraised.

"An Ozarine agent!" she raged. "A Consortium spy!"

"Nonsense!" boomed Wolfgang. "He's an artist."

"What kind of artist would have letters in his pocket from the Director of Companies?" hissed Gwendolyn.

"A Sfondrati-Piccolomini, of course. They didn't get to be one of the two great learned clans in the world by being wallflowers, you know? Great self-promoters, the Sfondrati-Piccolominis—take it from a Laebmauntsforscynneweëld! Besides, the letter wasn't even written by the Director. I recognized Giotto's handwriting. Been corresponding with him for years. Oh, I've no doubt the Director's signature was genuine enough. Never catch a Sfondrati-Piccolomini in outright forgery! And so what? The man must sign twenty letters like that a day. He's not much better than a parvenu, the Director, and he knows full well that if he's to take his place at the summit of Ozarine society he's got to develop a reputation as a Patron of the Arts. It's part of the plutocrat ritual."

Gwendolyn was still frowning, that amazing frown. And it's odd, looking back after all these years, how my life went off course so early. Can't say as I regret it, mind you. But still, it's odd. A young man's heart is supposed to be caught by a young girl's eye, or the smile on her lips, or the curve of her neck, or the toss of her hair.

At that very moment a faint sound was heard. Wolfgang held up his hand, motioning us silent. He pressed his ear to one of the holes in the wall behind him. A moment later Gwendolyn had joined him on the bench, her ear pressed to another hole. And it was but another moment before my ear was pressed to a third.

"Make your report," I heard a voice say. A hard, cold, cruel voice.

"The dead men are all Fangs, Mr. Inkman."

Again, the cold sneering voice: "Tell me something I don't know."

"It's hard to tell exactly what happened, sir. The wounds are strangely varied. Some were decapitated, as by an ax. Others skewered. An expert swordsman's work, that—a cunning one, to boot. Perfect backstabs and low blows, the most of those killed by the sword. And then there are the three who look like they were clubbed by an ogre. Crushed flat, those were."

"Three killers," mused Inkman. Silence. Then, he spoke again: "What did you do with the bodies?"

A harsh laugh. "We put them in the lower catacombs. Rolled them right back up in the shrouds and bones they'd pitched. Nobody'll look for them there. Certainly not the Goimr police! Couldn't find their dicks in the dark, those clowns. And I don't think there are any Fangs left alive in Goimria. Leastways, all the ones I knew are lying right now on cold stone slabs below. By the time God's Own Tooth finds out what happened and sends another ferret pack, these'll all be moldy bones."

"Excellent! We're the only ones who know what happened, then?"

A cough. "Well, not exactly, Mr. Inkman. The killers know what happened. Know more than we do, actually."

"Them! Who cares? Hasn't the Angel said it a thousand times? 'It's your friends who are the problem. Enemies take care of themselves.' "

"Yes, sir. That's what he says, sir."

"So! What could be more perfect? For once, the miserable Fangs will be in the dark, instead of us. The Angel will be very pleased. He's been trying to convince the Committee and the Nabobs for months that it was time to send a Rap Sheet to Grotum. They've been stalling, listening to the damned Fangs whispering in their ear. 'Don't rouse the Groutch beast from its sleep.' 'Let Grotum lie.' That's all the Fangs ever say! Bah! Is the swelling grandeur of Ozar to be denied by these ancient legends of Grotum? Nonsense! It's long past time we took firm and direct measures. The Senators will whine and whimper, of course, like a typical lot of politicians. But the Nabobs are made of sterner stuff. Especially the Director of Companies! Now there's a man of action, after my own heart."

"The Fangs won't like it much, sir," responded the second voice.

"There's the beauty of it," replied Inkman. "This little massacre here will throw them into a panic. And well it should! When was the last time a whole pack was wiped out to the last ferret?"

Silence. Then, Inkman again: "Never, that's when. I can't stand the holier-than-thou bastards, but there's no denying they're a murderous crew. Can you imagine the reaction of God's Own Tooth when he hears? He'll be baying for Groutch blood!"

"He'll want to know who did it, too. Don't you think we should—"

"Nonsense. What? Are we to waste our time trying to sort out which lot of Groutch malcontents butchered the Fangs? No, no, it won't do. Remember the Angel's motto: 'Do in your friends first, and your enemies are bound to follow.' "

"As you say, sir."

"So, let's be off. You are sure you cleaned up all the evidence?"

"All except the bloodstains on the street. But who'll notice that, in Grotum?"

"Well said! It won't be long now before this entire miserable sub-continent bends its knee to Ozar. Not with a Rap Sheet here on the scene to help us."

"Goimr will fall into our laps for sure, with a Rap Sheet."

"Bah! Who wants Goimr? No, I'll be proposing to the Angel that we start with the Rap Sheet in Prygg. I know he'll agree. He's often said Prygg was the key to Grotum."

The last sentence I only heard faintly, for the voices were dwindling into the distance. When I looked up, I was struck by the differing ways in which my two companions in the cell were reacting to the conversation we had just overheard.

Wolfgang was grinning from ear to ear.

Gwendolyn's face was flushed with fury.

"The Ozarine dogs!" she cried. "The filthy Cruds!"

"The vainglorious fools!" cackled Wolfgang. "The incredible idiots!" He began laughing insanely.

Gwendolyn glared at him. "They're going to bring a Rap Sheet to Grotum to complete their conquest of our homeland. And you think that's funny?"

Wolfgang wiped tears from his eyes. "But, my dear Gwendolyn, don't you see the irony of the whole thing? The fools propose to bring one of Joe's great relics to subdue Joe's own homeland. Doesn't it strike you that there's a hint of folly in the logic? Typical Cruds!" Here the giant imitated Inkman's cold voice: " 'As the Angel says, first do in your friends. Then your enemies will fall.' " He fell again into his horrible mad laughter.

"I love it!" he cried. "The Ozarine paranoids will hide the massacre of the ferret pack from the Fangs, so the Fangs—who know the lurking danger in Grotum better than anyone!—won't be able to get in the way of the Ozarines when they come trampling all over the place and rouse the lurking danger to full fury."

Gwendolyn was still glaring at him.

Wolfgang shook his head. "Gwendolyn, the whole problem here is that you don't really understand the Joe question."

"I don't want to hear about it!" she snapped. "All I know is that the Ozarine Empire—which has already half swallowed Grotum!—now intends to gulp us down complete. What do you propose to do? Sit around drooling and giggling while we wait for some myth to rescue us?"

"Well, not exactly. I do believe Joe will need a little help along the way. But don't let me stop you. I quite admire your efforts! Sally forth—by all means! Smite the Ozarine with your cleaver!"

I thought that last was an unfortunate turn of phrase—the more so when Gwendolyn turned her hot glare onto me.

I spread my hands in a calming gesture. "Madame, let me assure you that—"

"Don't call me 'Madame'!" she barked.

I took a deep breath, tried again. "Gwendolyn, then. It's true I'm an Ozarine. What of it? I'm an artist, before all else. I care not a fig for the pomposities of the rulers of Ozar. Certainly not the Angel Jimmy Jesus and that whole lot of Cruds! Nasty creatures. Besides, like every genuine artist I know, my heart lies with Grotum. It's the center of the world's art! Its music!"

"Its mischief!" giggled Wolfgang.

I nodded at him. "Perhaps, perhaps. It's certainly a livelier place than Ozar. At first, I thought Goimr an unutterably dull place—"

"It is," spoke Wolfgang and Gwendolyn in unison.

"—but here I am—not a day since I landed—and already I've been arrested, tortured, been in a bloody swordfight, hidden in a secret hidey-hole, spied on Cruds—what next? What next?"

"Next you'll have to make your escape," said Wolfgang. "The both of you."

He turned to Gwendolyn, who was—and I was glad to see it—calmer in her aspect.

"I assume you'll be trying to follow Zulkeh—when you discover where he went—to deliver Hildegard's message."

"A pox on Zulkeh!" came the response. "A pox on Hildegard and her damned schemes! I've got better things to do than be chasing all over Grotum looking for some obscure sorcerer. I've got to warn my comrades. If the movement isn't prepared for it, the Rap Sheet will cut through us like a scythe. Even with an advance warning, it's going to be bad enough. Besides, I don't even know where the wizard went."

The key moments of decision come unexpected in life. If I have learned nothing else, this I have. And when they come, it amazes me how instantly they are made. Later, musing over the events, I was struck by how light were the feathers that wafted my fortune. A dwarf's voice, a woman's frown—these the things that sent me off on a road unforeseen.

I had told the police nothing, but now I spoke.

"The wizard—Zulkeh, that is his name? Accompanied by a dwarf servant?"

"His apprentice," corrected Wolfgang. "Shelyid, his name is."

"Yes—an ugly creature. But he seemed a sweet boy. Anyway, they've gone to Prygg." I told them of my encounter with Zulkeh and Shelyid at the travel station, and the words I overheard spoken by the wizard.

"But why would he go to Prygg?" asked Gwendolyn. She peered closely at Wolfgang.

"It's time for some answers, you lunatic. You've been keeping things from me."

Wolfgang looked aggrieved. "My dear Gwendolyn!" He began rolling his eyes wildly.

"Cut out the act, Wolfgang!" she snarled. "Who is this wizard, anyway? And why is everyone so interested in him? Including you!"


Gwendolyn waved at the chamber. "This hidey-hole. This wasn't put here by the wizard. Look at the scale of the chamber—and that tunnel. This was built by you. Why?"

Wolfgang coughed, then smiled. "Can't put a thing past you, can I? Well, yes, actually I built this chamber so I could keep an eye on the wizard. Built it years ago. Zulkeh's never known about it. The room beyond—the one which these holes enable you to listen to—that's the wizard's study."

"Why?" demanded Gwendolyn fiercely. "What's so damned important about this sorcerer? You said yourself he was just a pedant."

Wolfgang looked hurt. "I said nothing of the sort. I said he was the world's greatest pedant, that's true. But I never said he was just a pedant. Dear me, no! Ridiculous!"

Gwendolyn threw up her hands. "Enough. Enough! I'll never get any sense out of you. And I don't care, anyway. I'll let lunatics like you worry about the legendary Joe. I've got real things to worry about—real enemies, and real comrades, and real struggles. And I've wasted enough of my time already. The wizard's gone to Prygg—let him go! I'm not chasing after him. I've got to get back to the Mutt. The Ozarines with a Rap Sheet here in Grotum will wreak havoc. I've got to get the warning out—and quick."

She rose, like a tiger, and turned to the tunnel. Then stopped abruptly.

"Where does this tunnel lead to, anyway?"

"Where else?" giggled Wolfgang. "To my secret door. But, Gwendolyn, will you please stop long enough to think?"

He raised his hands, as if to fend off the blow of her glare.

"Please, my dear, please! I'm not trying to talk you out of your plans. Forget the wizard—by all means! It's no problem, anyway. I've had a hankering to visit Prygg again. It's Magrit, you know." He smirked, for all the world like a schoolboy. "She and I are quite the item! Such a passionate witch!"

He coughed. "Well, enough of that. The point is, I'll follow the wizard. But if you want to warn your people, you first have to get out of Goimr. The police will be everywhere. You heard Benvenuti—they'll be watching every gate. You're rather a noticeable woman, you know? How do you think you'll get out?"

Gwendolyn frowned. "Well, I hadn't really thought about it. I just walked in, I thought I'd just walk out."

"If I might make a suggestion, and"—here he cackled—"if you can manage to overcome your anti-Ozarine prejudices for a moment, I believe that Benvenuti might be the solution to your problem."

He turned to me. "Tell me, my boy, have you given any thought to your future?"

It took me a moment to grasp his meaning.

"No, I hadn't. Not really. My original plans seem to have fallen through."

"I should say! Idiotic plans, to begin with. Imagine. Wanting to be the Royal Artist of Goimr!"

He and Gwendolyn both burst into a fit of laughter. Now that I'd experienced Goimr, I admit I found it impossible not to laugh myself.

"You see, Gwendolyn?" demanded Wolfgang. "Just as I said! A marvelous young man! The perfect traveling companion for you."

"What are you talking about?" she demanded.

"Don't you see? It's perfect! For both of you. Benvenuti has a letter vouching for him, signed by Chief Counselor Gerard. That'll get him through the gates with no questions asked. As for himself, the sooner he shakes the mud of this wretched city off his boots, the better."

He smiled at me. A wonderful smile he had, actually, if you left aside its demented aura.

"The place for an aspiring young artist, my boy, is New Sfinctr! There's the ticket! Oh, it's a horribly wicked city, I admit. 'The pesthole of the planet,' they call it. But exciting! Alive! Vigorous! Just the place for you. But your problem, of course, is how to get there. It's all the way across Grotum. You'll have to traverse forests, mountains—the Groutch wilderness. On your own, you'd lose your way. Lose your life, no doubt. But with Gwendolyn as your guide, it'll be a Sunday stroll, near enough."

"I'm not going to New Sfinctr," growled Gwendolyn.

Wolfgang dismissed her protest with a wave. "Quibbles, quibbles—and you know it! You're going as far as the Mutt, aren't you?"

She nodded.

"And isn't New Sfinctr but a hop, skip and a stumble from there? Of course it is! A well-traveled route, too. Even a simpleton could find his way from the Mutt to New Sfinctr. And Benvenuti's no simpleton. Not even today—and he certainly won't be one by then. No, not at all! He'll be what the Ozarine call 'an old Groutch hand.' "

I wished he'd left off that last bit. Needless to say, the mention of the Ozarine brought a scowl from Gwendolyn.

"And that's another thing! There are people I've got to meet." She glared at me. "People I don't want this damned Ozarine to see, so he can run and tell his people who they are."

"Damn you, madame!" I overrode her bellow with one of my own. "And don't tell me not to call you 'madame'! Aren't you acting the perfect high and mighty lady? I assure you, no Ozarine heiress could do it better. I told you once—I will say it again—I am an artist, not a politician. And I'm certainly not a policeman! Make any detour you wish. See anyone you desire. If you want me to remain off to one side while you undertake your mysterious missions—why, so I will. If you choose to have me accompany you—why, I will say nothing to anyone."

I spat on the floor. "And finally—madame—you may rest assured that not all Ozarines are pig-bellied plutocrats. My own branch of the Sfondrati-Piccolominis has known its share of poverty and hard times. But we've always been artists, or scholars, or soldiers of fortune. Or—if those words don't suit you!—call us potters and pedants and plunderers. But there've been precious few respectable bourgeois in the lot. And never a police informer!"

We were glaring at each other fiercely, practically nose to nose. It was she who stepped back, with a new look in her eyes. Respect, I thought, and I was stunned by how much I cared.

"Got quite the bite, this boy does," she chuckled.

"No boy, Gwendolyn!" exclaimed Wolfgang. "No boy could have carved up so many Godferrets. Skill and training be damned—that takes an adult passion. He did save your life, you know. Well, actually, I would have saved it if he hadn't—but he didn't know that at the time. Quite the hero lurking somewhere inside this young fellow, if my twin powers of madness and amnesia are to be trusted—and they are! They are!"

The round of insane laughter which followed from the giant's mouth enabled both Gwendolyn and me to catch our breath and take new stock.

And then she smiled, for the first time since I had met her. Not a sunny smile, Gwendolyn's, never—too many scars had forged that smile. But there was a great cool gleam in it, like moonlight, and friendship, and a sense of unyielding courage.

"All right," she said. "I'm willing, if you are. I warn you, the trip will be long, hard, and dangerous."

I didn't need to answer with words. I was grinning from ear to ear, and laughing, and happier than I'd been—ever, I think. An adventurous life, I'd wanted, since I was a lad. And here it was!

But after Wolfgang explained the details of his plan, I wasn't happy at all. And the look on Gwendolyn's face was positively terrifying.

"But—but—" I was stammering like a schoolboy. "I'd thought—perhaps—Gwendolyn could pose as my wife—well, local girlfriend, in any event—the police might know I'd just arrived unaccompanied—but—" I was actually blushing.

"Nonsense!" boomed Wolfgang. "The whole idea's preposterous! Look at her. Oh, don't mistake me—she's an immensely handsome woman, Gwendolyn is. But—let's face it. Would the dullest-witted policeman in the world believe, for one moment, that this Amazon would be some Ozarine playboy's skirt of the evening?"

Gwendolyn's face was like an iron mask.

"He's right, damn him. His plan will work, I've no doubt of it. That's why I hate it."

Even Wolfgang's air of perpetual good cheer seemed clouded, for a moment.

"I know, my dear. But that's partly why it'll work. The police may have learned by now that you're here in Goimr. If they have, they'll be looking for you, as sure as the sunrise. But not as a draywoman! Not ever! Not Gwendolyn Greyboar!"

His gaiety returned. "No, the real problem here is with Benvenuti. It's his part in the play I'm concerned about. You'll need nerves of steel, my boy! And I hope you've as good a hand with a whip as you have with a sword. The whole thing will have to look real, you know?"

I took a breath. "I'm actually better with a whip."

"Oh, good!" cried Wolfgang. "Oh, that's very good!" He coughed, chuckled. "Actually, I'd say your life may depend on it."

Looking at Gwendolyn, I had no doubt of it. Even before—as if by an involuntary reflex—the cleaver appeared in her huge hand.

"If that whip so much as scratches me!" It was amazing, really, how deep her voice was.

"If it does," she continued, "when we reach the forest, I'll gut you like a pig."

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