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CHAPTER II.
Journey Through Goimr. A Discourse on the Geography and History of the City. The Palace Doors Swing Wide!

The following morning, Zulkeh and Shelyid set forth to the palace. As the distance to be traveled was great, the wizard determined to engage a hansom, though his meager funds normally precluded such extravagance.


We take here the occasion to educate the gentle reader in the geography and history of Goimr. The realm of Goimr is a small kingdom located on the southeastern coast of the sub-continent of Grotum. The city of Goimr itself is located at the extremity of the Gulf of Goimr, the which extends westward from Grotum Long Bay. To the north and west, the kingdom is surrounded by mountains, with only the Dreary Gap on its northwest frontier offering access to the Grimwald and the other lands of Grotum which lie beyond that noisome forest. To the south, the farmlands of Goimr steadily give way to the Great Southern Steppes, which are more or less considered to begin at a line bounded on the west by Joe's Lakes and on the east by Joe's Dunes. Further still to the south lies the Great Wall of Grotum, an ancient stone palisade erected in the dim mists of the Groutch past by the legendary Emperor of the Grinding Hegemony, as a bulwark protecting Grotum from the incursions of the various nomadic tribes which infest the Great Southern Steppes.


The Great Wall itself, sad to say, is but a pitiable remnant of its ancient glory. Over the eons, the forces of man and nature have taken their grim toll upon the once mighty rampart. In many places along its length large breaches occur, and even at its best the Wall is crumbly and dilapidated. Not for many centuries has it served as an effective barrier to the outrages of the nomadic hordes, the which plunder and pillage the southern portions of Goimria at will. So regular and frequent are these barbarous incursions that the much-ravaged peasantry of the realm commonly refers to the ancient bastion as the Great Hall of Grotum. This practice is, of course, forbidden by royal decree, but as the police of Goimr are hardly more efficient than its army, it continues unchecked nonetheless.


As the hansom made its slow way to the Royal Palace, which was located on an island in the middle of the river which bisected Goimr, Zulkeh took the occasion to educate his apprentice on the historiography involved.


"The existence of this ancient ruler, my stupid but loyal apprentice, is a matter of much controversy among historians. Indeed, the subject has become one of the major arenas of contention between the two great scholarly clans, the Laebmauntsforscynneweëlds and the Sfondrati-Piccolominis."


Here Zulkeh stroked his beard vigorously, as he was wont to do when deep in scholarly exposition. "For millennia, the account of this monarch presented in the classic annals of the ancient Herodotus Laebmauntsforscynneweëld were considered to be, in the main, accurate. Herodotus depicted the Emperor of the Grinding Hegemony as a mighty despot whose power held sway over all of Grotum and other lands bordering on Joe's Sea. So august was this ancient ruler, so near divine in his aspect, that it was considered sacrilege for either himself, his entourage, or even his means of transport, to touch anything but human flesh in his travels about the realm."


Shelyid's eyes widened. Seeing the expression of shock and surprise in his ward's face, the wizard nodded sagely. "Indeed so, dwarf. A most superstitious and barbarous lot, our ancestors. 'Twas even the custom for the Emperor's chariot to be drawn over the prostrate bodies of his subjects, the which laid themselves upon every inch of every road whence his frequent journeys took him."


Zulkeh's brows lowered as he weighed the various aspects of the question in his mind. "From a mathematic viewpoint, of course, the policy was ill-advised. As the Emperor's chariot was an immense vehicle carved from a single block of jade, resting upon two great iron wheels inlaid with gold and gems, and drawn by four buffalo, the practice weighed heavily upon the populace. Hence, according to Herodotus, the derivation of the Emperor's cognomen. Hence also, according to Herodotus, the rapid decline of his empire."


Here, glowering fiercely, Zulkeh's eyes ranged across the dilapidated slums through whose narrow and crooked streets the hansom was passing. "Since that time—as even you can no doubt deduce from our miserable surroundings—the history of Goimr can most politely be described as undistinguished."


"Everybody says it's a dump, master," agreed the apprentice cheerfully. "Most wretched place in Grotum, they say."


"Nonsense!" exclaimed the mage. "Squalid though it be, Goimr is a veritable paradise compared to Kankr." His brow furrowed. "Nor do I recall giving you leave to insult what is, when all is said and done, my chosen place of study and cogitation."


The dwarf's head lowered, acknowledging the deserved reproof. Zulkeh continued:


"The official historical account, perpetuated by the royal family at great expense, has it that Goimr was once the seat of a great empire ruling all of Grotum, which was brought to an end by the unfortunate pile-up of silt at the mouth of the Moyle. This interpretation leans heavily on the aforementioned legend of the Emperor of the Grinding Hegemony, and is considered utterly preposterous by the entire population. But we must leave off this fascinating but perhaps not pressing matter. For I see we have arrived at the ferry which will convey us to King Roy's island."


* * *


Eventually, Zulkeh and Shelyid arrived at the palace door, upon which the wizard rapped imperiously with his staff.


"Who's there?" queried a voice within.


"It is the wizard Zulkeh, come in response to King Roy's summons."


Moments later the door creaked open. A slovenly individual in the livery of the Royal Guard peered forth, then stood aside.


"You may enter. Go that way," he muttered, pointing down a long corridor to their right with one hand as he scratched his stomach with the other. Zulkeh attempted to solicit more precise directions, but the guard ignored him and slouched into a rickety chair.


Grumbling at the discourtesy, Zulkeh strode forth down the hallway. Ere long, however, his humor improved as he regarded the multitude of portraits which hung along both sides of the hall, the which depicted the long line of the royalty of Goimr.


"Respect for one's ancestors, Shelyid, is a sure sign of good breeding," spoke the wizard as he inspected the portraits. "Pity 'tis in this regard that you have no known ancestry to respect." The dwarf hung his head in shame. "On the other hand, given your malformities, 'tis perhaps as well that your provenance remains unknown."


At the end of the hall stood two guards before another door. These wights were as unprepossessing as the first. Informing them of his name and the nature of his visit, Zulkeh and Shelyid obtained admittance to the room beyond. In this antechamber, bare of all furnishings, they were joined shortly by a man of easy grace, yclept Gerard, who pronounced himself Chief Counselor to the Throne.


"Ah, Zulkeh," said this latter. He regarded the wizard and his apprentice for some long moments, not, or so it seemed, with any great pleasure. "You are here at the behest of King Roy, who bade me search the city for a sorcerer to aid him in his current melancholia. You were the only one I could find. I will tell you straight out, sirrah, that I view the King's hope in your assistance with considerable skepticism."


"Such is the folly of men," spoke the wizard, stiffly erect.


"Indeed," sniffed Gerard. "Well, be that as it may. The King has made his wishes clear. The matter stands thus. King Roy has had a dream, a most terrible dream, or so it seems, and certain of my colleagues"—here he gestured vaguely toward a small body of men who appeared in the entry beyond—"took it upon themselves to alarm His Majesty and to intimate that this dream bodes ill for the realm. I, of course, have no truck with these fantasies, for it is plain to the man of reason that dreams are nothing but dreams, and thus—I am frank with you, sirrah—it seems misguided to raise such commotion about a paltry matter. You are here thus against my advice, but we must make the best of it. In this respect, I am certain that you, as a man of science, will see the matter in the same light as do I, and thus aid me to assuage King Roy's fears and dispel the fog of misgiving which currently clouds his brain."


"Indeed, sirrah," spoke the wizard, "being, as you so rightly put it, a man of science, I am forced to hold precisely the opposite opinion, if so pallid a term as 'opinion' can be used to describe the crystalline certainty of my views."


"What?" demanded the courtier. "Do I understand you to believe in dreams?"


"Certainly not. You mistake my meaning. I do not believe in dreams, but in Reason, which resides in dreams, however obfuscated and difficult to interpret. You grasp, of course, the distinction?"


Zulkeh squinted at the courtier and awaited acknowledgment. He, in turn, squinted back. Once again Gerard examined the eccentric raiment of the sorcerer and the oddities of his apprentice.


"I am not at all sure that I do," he said at length. "But the King has called for you and I will therefore introduce you to the August Presence. Whatever else, do nothing to alarm him."


With that, Gerard passed through the far entry, Zulkeh and Shelyid following behind. Beyond, they perceived a drawn and haggard visage, who rose from a rather shabby throne, eyes streaming with tears.


"Oh Gerard!" moaned this figure. "Who have you brought to torment me now?" His face contorted, became vicious with remembered treasons. "I have kenned your plot—you seek to drive me mad!"


King Roy tottered forth, gesticulating with some energy. "And what are my loyal subjects about today? Setting mantraps for my police? Cutting down my forests? Poaching my game? Eating my herds? Scoffing my heralds? Stoning my tax collectors?"


He scuttled forward, in an obliquely crablike manner, and thrust his face into Zulkeh's. "And who're you?" he demanded.


"I am Zulkeh," spoke the mage, "the sorcerer whom you summoned."


"I summoned?" King Roy frowned. "Why, yes, so I did." He peered at Zulkeh suspiciously. "You don't look like a sorcerer."


Before Zulkeh could respond, the King waved his hand in a gesture of infinite weariness.


"Well, I'm the King of Goimr. And believe me, it's no picnic. When my grandfather was King nobody fooled with him, let me tell you. If they did, he took their property, sold their family into slavery, and cut them up to feed his racing dogs. But today the plebes are so wanton nobody knows who their families are, and all their belongings are already mortgaged to the Consortium. The last peon I cut up for feed gave my kennel the runs and I missed the sweepstakes." King Roy paused, disconsolate. "I needed the money, too."


Zulkeh made to speak. "Your Majesty's Chief Counselor, Gerard—"


"That traitor!" shrieked the King. He leveled a quavering finger at Gerard and the other courtiers, who were gathered on the opposite side of the room. "They're all miscreants, the lot of 'em. I pay them a fortune to sit on my Council of Ministers, but their avarice knows no bounds. Gerard, here, is in the pay of the Ecclesiarchs, and that one—there!—he's the Minister of War, runs a pool on the exact time of my assassination. Were it not for my sense of duty I'd abdicate and let that ingrate who claims to be my son try his hand at this miserable business, assuming he could learn to count his fingers."


Gerard detached himself from the knot of councilors and came to Zulkeh's side.


"Your Majesty is ill-served by lending credence to such rumors," he soothed. "I dally with the Ecclesiarchs to obtain information, not to give it out. Naturally I must accept their bribes, lest they suspect my motives. As for the War Minister's pool, its purpose is solely to draw forth would-be assassins that they might be the more promptly dispatched by your efficient executioners.


"But let us now to the business at hand," he continued, spreading his arms in a calming gesture. "The wizard Zulkeh is here at your express request, to dispel the fears roused by—"


"Dispel the fears!" shrilled King Roy. "What good can a wizard do? I was mad to even think of it!" Here he glared most ferociously at Zulkeh.


"Ha! You—wizard! Can you conjure up a battalion of troops who won't flee from their own shadows? Can you cast a stupefying spell over the entire populace, so that these ministers of mine could deal with them as equals? Can you? Can you? Ha! Wizard—ha! Fraud! Impostor!"


Then, even as the thundercloud enfolds its roiling fury round the granite crown of the awesome peak, so did the mage's brow o'erboil with rage.


"Silence!" he spoke. "I perceive that civilization has decayed even further than I feared, since respect for Knowledge has fled not only the brute masses upon whom its hold was always faint, but the puissant as well."


The King of Goimr gibbered in outrage, but the wizard paid no heed. Indeed, he spoke further.


"Yet in these paltrous times do I live, and living so must need support the temporal power, no matter its feeble merit, lest chaos reign supreme. This truth, however, renders it imperative for the secular representatives of Order to grasp at least the rudiments of science. For know, Your Majesty, that truth reveals not itself as itself. Nay, fie upon such witless notions! Rather does Reason insinuate itself through the obscure—to most, the opaque. It moves through the angularities of logic, the vectors of analysis, the immanence of the unfolding speculation. Surely you grasp my point?"


Zulkeh paused to observe the King's response. As the latter was still gabbling in mindless fury, the wizard cut impatiently to the core.


"What, then," he demanded, "was the nature and content of this dream?"


And at that, at the very mention of the word, King Roy's distemper fled like a ghost. His eyes rolled wildly. "My dream!" he shrieked, and collapsed to the floor.


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Framed