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CHAPTER VI.
A Journey Begun. A Coach Ride. The Royal Palace. King Roy's Dream Redux. Calamities. A Tumultuous Departure. The Central Travel House of Goimr. The Wizard Inquires. A Commercial Philosophy Explained. A Purchase. "We're Off!"

Thus it came to pass that wizard and servant abandoned the abandoned death house and set forth on their journey of renown.


Their initial progress was slow. Shelyid, his diminutive figure buried under the enormous bundle on his back, from which protruded here and there the snouts, corners and extensions of sundry wizardrous objects too bizarre to describe, staggered to and fro, lurching with every step, careening wildly from house wall to house wall, from lamppost to trash bin, from corner to midstreet to gutter.


"Shelyid!" spoke Zulkeh. "Cease this inefficient mode of travel! And take care lest you damage the items I have entrusted to your care."


"But, master," whined the dwarf's voice from somewhere beneath the sack, "it's heavy. And I can't see."


"Bah!" oathed Zulkeh. "Is the odyssey of science to be impeded by the physical frailties of such as you? Too long now, wretch, have you lolled about in the comfort of luxurious surroundings. The rigors of travel will do you good. It will improve your muscular tone, enhance your respiratory capacity, strengthen your stamina, harden your will, hone the edge of the blunt instrument that is your mind, and expose you to new knowledge and lore. Enough of this childish petulance! Make haste! For, even as I speak, time wanes."


And with that the wizard resumed his progress, Shelyid caroming behind.


But before our heroes had rounded the first corner, a great clattering of hooves and jingling of harness was heard to approach. Zulkeh stood to one side as a coach-and-four thundered down the narrow street accompanied by a mounted squad of the Goimr Royal Coachmen. Shelyid, unfortunately, bent double in concentration, failed to apprehend the approach of these worthies. He lurched into the center of the street just as they passed. Two of the riders were bowled over—horses and riders going asses over teacups—while the others frantically avoided the staggering dwarf and his pack. The coach skidded dangerously but came to a halt without upsetting.


The coach door flew open and a courtier leapt out. He hurried up to the wizard.


"Are you not the wizard Zulkeh?" he demanded. Then, not bothering to wait for a reply, he continued:


"Excellent, excellent! I've just come from the palace—Chief Counselor Gerard sent me to bring you to the King. Please, please—get into the coach! We must hurry! The King is at his wits' end!"


Even as the courtier spoke, the coach and four was brought up next to Zulkeh and Shelyid. A footman jumped down and opened the door. Alas, it soon became evident that Shelyid and his sack could not be crammed into the coach, the which was more of a dainty and elegant carriage than a sturdy means of transport. The courtier instantly called up the detachment of Royal Coachmen who helped Shelyid load the sack onto the rear of the coach. The vehicle settled deeply, with an ominous creaking and groaning.


That done, Zulkeh and the courtier climbed into the coach. Shelyid made to follow them but was arrested by his master's fierce glare.


"Wretched gnome! Have you forgotten your duty?"


"No, master, the sack is loaded and tied," explained the dwarf, his legs fairly vibrating in relief from their burden.


"Yes, but who will watch it?"


So saying, Zulkeh slammed the door. Shelyid, with a shrug of resignation, found a perch on the top of the sack where he grabbed onto one of the straps as the coach rushed off down the street toward the palace.


With a squad of Royal Coachmen to clear the streets, the coach careened unimpeded through various lanes and byways before it debouched onto a main thoroughfare, where it continued pell-mell toward the landing. It was but the work of a minute for the passengers to alight and, with the assistance of many hands, to transfer the sack onto a water taxi. The boat—now deep in the water—instantly departed for the royal isle. Once upon land, the courtier conducted them to Chief Counselor Gerard's chamber, hissing his anxiety and haste all the while.


Gerard was equally agitated. "Egbert, what took you so long? King Roy has been screaming for the wizard. And you—Zulkeh! I warn you once again—say nothing to disturb King Roy! He is in a most unstable state."


Zulkeh nodded curtly. He and Shelyid followed Gerard into the royal audience chamber. The King's cries of distress could be heard from a considerable distance. They grew positively clamorous upon the entrance of the mage.


Indeed, King Roy was a shocking sight. In the two weeks which had elapsed since the last interview, he had aged twenty years. His hair was straggling and gray, tufts of it plucked out. His clothes were disheveled, his eyes were wild. He gave off the odor of a hunted roebuck.


"Wizard! Tell me, what does it all mean? I must know, I must know!"


"Your Highness, as I have previously explained, this matter is too deep for facile explication. In fact, I have but recently discovered that the import of your dream is considerably more complex, with many more hidden and obscure attributes than I had at first appreciated. Much additional study is required. Even at this moment I am undertaking a journey for—"


"No! No! No! I must know, know, know! Now! Now! Now!" So shrieked King Roy, in a most unregal manner.


"Your Majesty—please! There is no need for this unseemly distress. You may rest easy in your mind. For the magnitude of the danger which is so clearly indicated by your dream is such as to preclude the thought that a mere monarch might forestall its occurrence."


"What?" cried the King. "But I must do something! What of my kingdom? My dynasty? My palace? My—why, even my royal person!"


A look of surprise came upon Zulkeh's face. "It is, then, the meaning of this dream for your personal fortunes that concerns you?"


"Of course! What does this dream mean for me? I must have an answer—and now! Do you hear? Now! Now! Now!"


The wizard made a soothing gesture. "Calm yourself, Sire. If 'tis only the personal import of the dream that you seek, the matter is simple, even commonplace. The mystery lies entirely in its deeper and more obscure elements."


King Roy goggled. "You know, then, the meaning of this dream for myself?"


"Certes!" spoke Zulkeh, his voice full of good cheer. "The problem in this regard is transparent. The grasping of the tongue is alone a sure sign, the forcible restraint of speech being, of course, the third of the seven great oneiric portents. I refer you, in this regard, to the classic exposition by Sigmund Laebmauntsforscynneweëld, The Interpretation of Auguries, as well as to his more specific examination of the fear of mutism, Tongue and Taboo, wherein the great scholar—"


"A pox on your blithering pedantry!" shrieked King Roy. "What does the dream mean? For me! You hear? For me! Me! Answer, you wretched scholiast!"


Stiffly, the wizard drew himself up. "Well, then! Your dream foretells the utter and complete destruction of your kingdom, your palace, your dynasty and your royal person. The destruction will naturally encompass the entire male line of your family down to three generations, including all collateral branches. Whether ruination will as well sweep into its train the female line of your family is a matter open to some doubt—for here there is much dispute among the savants. Sigmund would have it so, as would his famed relative Adler Laebmauntsforscynneweëld. But, as is well know, Piaget Sfondrati-Piccolomini advances the proposition that ruination portents apply only irregularly to the distaff line, this due to their childbearing functions, the which, as he is known for saying, provide certain immunities from calamitous events due to the providence-favored innocence of babes. As to this latter, I myself have formed as yet no firm opinion, for it seems that there is some question—"


But the mage expounded no further. For at that very moment, King Roy—whose complexion had undergone in recent moments a marvelous display of the colors of the spectrum—sprang up and cried, "No!" (in a most undignified manner) and hurled himself to the floor.


"But 'tis plain as day, Your Majesty," spoke Zulkeh to the writhing monarch, "the signs are unmistakable. For as I was saying, 'twas none other than Sigmund Laebmauntsforscynneweëld himself who enunciated that most basic principle of oneiromancy which holds that the seizure and immobilization of the tongue—"


"Stop! Cease! Desist!" bellowed Gerard, advancing to the fore. "Did I not instruct you to quell King Roy's fears? What have you done? Your mad babble has driven the King to this state! Fiend! Miscreant!"


With this latest affront the mage's reserve broke, even as the stately dike shatters 'neath the blow of the mighty tidal bore. Smoke and lightning issued from his ears; his eyes blazed hotly forth.


"Silence, ye witless sycophant! Abuse me not, lest I chastise you in my affront! Science is what it is, had you the sense to see it. And what boots it, the downfall of a King? This, a trifle, when far greater matters hang in the balance!"


Then, even as the tide ebbs, so the wizard's wrath subsided. "But I forget me. To ask perception of such as you would be to drown in folly. I can tarry no longer. For I must tend to the greater matters of which I am now apprised."


With that, the sorcerer turned and strode down the long audience chamber, Shelyid twinkling behind.


Gerard cried out: "Stop these fiends, stop these criminals! Alarum! Alarum! Guards! Constables! Arrest these villains!"


In an instant, the trample of many jackbooted feet was to be heard coming from the left. Moments later another thunder of boots was heard on the right. Two squads of Royal Guards and Royal Constabulary appeared in doorways on either side. The lieutenant of the Constabulary drew his sword and advanced into the audience chamber, but, before he took three steps, he was hailed by the captain of the Guard.


"Lieutenant—halt! I must remind you that the Royal Guard—and the Royal Guard alone!—has jurisdiction within the walls of the palace."


So saying, the captain of the Guard drew his own sword and charged after Zulkeh and Shelyid, who—the first preoccupied with thought, the latter with sack—continued their progress toward the far door. But the captain had not taken three steps of his own before the lieutenant of the Constabulary planted himself in the way. A lively discussion concerning legal jurisdiction ensued. The debate escalated in lockstep with the paces of our heroes, until, by the time the wizard and his apprentice were halfway down the long chamber, the entire Guard and Constabulary were hacking and hewing each other with a vigorous display of swordsmanship.


Drawn by the sound of clashing steel, a platoon of the Praetorian Guard burst into the chamber through the very door toward which our heroes made their way.


"Stop them!" cried Gerard. In an instant, the fierce Praetorians charged the struggling mob of guards and constables, pouring around Zulkeh and Shelyid like water around rocks in midstream. The brawl in the center of the chamber now became three-sided.


Then, as our heroes were but ten paces from the far door, two new bodies of armed men poured into the chamber from doors behind the throne—Janissaries from the west, Mamelukes from the east. Recognizing his earlier error, Gerard now issued explicit instructions to these newly entered soldiery, detailing with unmistakable exactitude the necessity of immediately arresting the wizard and his apprentice, not forgetting to point directly toward the culprits, all of which precision was pointless since the Janissaries and Mamelukes had immediately started slaughtering each other with the gusto derived from hallowed and historic rivalry.


Zulkeh and Shelyid passed through the far door into the corridor beyond.


Dodging and weaving his way through the slashing mob, Gerard pursued. By the time he entered the corridor, his prey were almost to the lobby at the far end. Not twenty feet beyond, a squad of Secret Police stood in the lobby, fingering their cudgels, frowning with concern, gazing down the corridor, wondering at the sounds of struggle issuing from the royal audience chamber.


The quick-witted Gerard seized the moment. To the Secret Police, he cried: "Arrest the wizard!" To the wizard he cried: "Stop, Zulkeh—stop!"


Shouting with fierce enthusiasm, the Secret Police charged toward the wizard and his apprentice. The wizard turned abruptly at the sound of his name. Attempting to avoid his master, Shelyid tripped over the loose fringe of the faded and worn carpet and lost his footing. Head down, locked in concentration, completely overbalanced by the giant sack, Shelyid—or rather, the sack—plunged directly into the onrushing squad of policemen, with much the same results as a bowling ball striking pins.


Half the squad was down, senseless. The ones who managed to avoid the direct blow of the sack now flung themselves upon the dwarf. Alas, as he recoiled from the collision, Shelyid turned a complete 360 degrees, knocking over another two or three of the policemen as he did so. Still struggling to regain his balance, the dwarf now lurched to the left, crushing one wight against the entry wall; then to the right, crushing another; then he caromed right into the lobby, rolling over the last secret policeman still conscious, and burst through the large entry door leading to the plaza beyond. The door shattered into pieces. In a moment the tumult and chaos were left behind as Zulkeh and Shelyid exited the palace and headed down to the lake, oblivious to the cries and alarm behind them.


The last sight Gerard had of them, as he stood fuming in what was left of the door to the palace, was of Zulkeh and Shelyid climbing into the water taxi and making their way back across the Moyle. Throwing up his hands with rage, the Chief Counselor charged back into the palace. His voice could dimly be heard:


"Call out the Royal Janitors! The Royal Cooks! The Royal Gardeners! Arrest the wizard!"


Moments later, the sound of martial clangor resounded from within—mops clashing with pots, pans against shears, clippers versus brooms.


* * *


For their part, Zulkeh and Shelyid went their way unmolested. At length they arrived at the central travel station of Goimr. This edifice, huge and many-winged, had once housed a vast assortment of enterprises dedicated to the provision of transport for those citizens of Goimr seeking egress from the dismal city. In times past, the would-be traveler could hire or purchase a coach, a dray, a chariot, a wagon, a cart or, indeed, any other conceivable means of land transport. In recent times, however, all of these enterprises had been acquired by the Consortium, as one of that ubiquitous firm's projects in its conquest of the commerce of Grotum. Their assets had been combined, and the entire travel station had been consolidated under the aegis of a newly founded corporation, the Great Grotum Northern, Eastern, Southern, Western, Central and Environs Express and Transport Company, a subsidiary of Grotum Cultural Endeavor, Ltd. (a non-profit enterprise), itself a subsidiary of Colonial Exploitation, Inc. (a philanthropic foundation), itself, in turn, a subsidiary of the Consortium. This latter was headquartered, as was the case with most commercial enterprises of any note in the civilized world, in the famed and far distant city of splendid Ozar.


Zulkeh paused for a moment before the archway over the entrance to the great building.


"Look you, Shelyid, at this example of the inexorable progress of Reason through Time. In days gone by, chaos reigned here supreme. We should have been forced to waste many an hour in demeaning squabble with divers fellows and odd sorts of avaricious mien, quarreling over fare and form of travel. Today, however, this has gone the way of all unreason confronted by science, and we need but apply for an established and harmonized method of transportation suited to our needs, all of it organized, systematized and regularized by this most eminent and stable of firms."


And with that he passed through the archway into the central court. Shelyid followed, tripping over a portmanteau. The sack went flying. The wizard was greatly displeased, the more so by the unwarranted intervention of a brash and impudent youth.


But at length, this unpleasantness behind them, the wizard and his apprentice made their way to a door over which was suspended the sign: "GGNESWC&EE&T Co.—Tickets."


Once inside, Shelyid unburdened himself of his sack and sat upon a bench against one wall. He seemed oppressed by the atmosphere, although the low gloomy ceiling, the unpainted benches equipped with shackles for the restraint of criminals and children, the dirty walls covered with graffiti and obscure signs of no doubt cabalistic origin, should have lent to the establishment a most homelike ambience.


Meanwhile, Zulkeh approached the ticket vendor's window and examined an enormous sign suspended on the wall above. The sign read:


TABLE OF TRAVEL RATES AND COACH CLASSES


Rates Classes


Family Deluxe


Convention Superb


Party Royal


Merchant First


Commercial Second


Clinical Third


Military Fourth


Clerical Fifth


Official Coach


Secret Economy


Vacation Poor


Common Scum


After pondering this table for a moment, Zulkeh stepped forward to the vendor's window. In the small room beyond, he discerned the dim figure of the vendor and a row of boxes holding tickets of different sizes and colors.


"Sirrah," spoke the mage. "Are there, as would seem reasonable, twelve classes each with twelve rates, or twelve classes each with only one rate, or twelve rates, each with only one class?"


"Sir," replied the ticket vendor in a voice devoid of inflection or discernible tone, "am I to understand that you are calling into question the commercial philosophy and weltanschauung of the Great Grotum Northern, Eastern, Southern, Western, Central and Environs Express and Travel Company, a subsidiary of Grotum Cultural Endeavor, Ltd. (a non-profit enterprise), itself a subsidiary of Colonial Exploitation, Inc. (a philanthropic foundation), itself, in turn, a subsidiary of the Consortium? If so, that is to say, if such be the case, you may, if you wish, file a formal complaint, that, be assured, will receive the fullest consideration by those officials of our firm who have been appointed to deal with precisely the aforementioned matters. Should your complaint, after due process and close examination, be adjudged picayune, idle, foolish, bothersome, trivial, malicious, ill-advised, inconvenient, well-taken, or justified, your travel privileges on the GGNESWC&EE&T Co. will be revoked, now and for perpetuity; in addition, you will be fined the full administrative cost of processing your complaint, in addition to a punitive surcharge, such surcharge to be monetary in nature, though not excluding, at the discretion of that office of the Company which has been duly assigned to handle such matters, a thorough investigation of your ancestry, habits, character and associations by the Consortium Constabulary, the results of said investigation to be, at the whim of the Consortium, or any of its subsidiaries involved in the case, or any of its subsidiaries not involved in the case, broadcast to the world at large, with the intention, and the invariable result, of blackening your character, destroying your career, and breaking your spirit."


Zulkeh thought upon these words. At length he spoke.


"Sirrah, I see that your establishment does not take these matters lightly. An attitude, I might say, with which I find myself in complete accord! I would, however, appreciate your telling me of the difference between the various classes and rates listed in yon table."


"The tickets."


"I beg your pardon?"


"The tickets. Size and color. Size is class, color is rate."


"That is all?"


"That is what I said. Am I to understand that you are calling into question the—"


"No, no, no," spoke the mage hastily. "By no means. I am simply seeking to clarify the matter. As I now understand it, the only difference in the tickets is the tickets themselves. Each ticket, of no matter which class or rate, will purchase the same transport, the same lodgings en route, the same accommodations, etc.?"


"That is correct."


"An excellent policy! In former times, prior to your acquisition of a monopoly over this industry, the desirous voyager was beset by impudent hagglers, each offering a different service for a different fee. You have cut through this mindless hurly-burly at one stroke, reducing the question to its intrinsic essence of prestige and social snobbery."


"That is correct. And now, sir, I am busy and you have taken much of my time. Where are you going? And what is your preference in class and rate?"


"As for destination, my apprentice and I journey to Prygg. As for class and rate, whichever is the cheapest—for my worldly wealth is little, and the subliminity of my intellect requires no social trappings to sustain it."


"Common scum," announced the ticket vendor. "Twelve piasters for two common scum to Prygg."


"I shall take them," spoke Zulkeh, pushing twelve small coins through the slot in the bars. In return, two torn and greasy scraps of paper upon which were scrawled "Prygg" were carelessly tossed back. Picking them up off the floor, Zulkeh gathered up his apprentice and proceeded through the gate leading to the outer court. There the tickets were inspected by an employee, who bestowed upon our heroes a well-practiced sneer. "To the left!" he barked.


They followed these directions and, after walking through a further passageway, came upon their vehicle. It was a huge old coach, easily large enough to accommodate twelve passengers. The coach was rakishly tilted, not by design but simply because it rested on four wheels of varying design and diameter, the which had clearly been salvaged from other vehicles.


Within, the coach gave evidence of a past glory now sadly gone. The seats had originally been dyed a deep green, but were now much faded with age. The padding had a tendency to protrude from the many rips and tears in the covers. The floor was covered by a once-plush carpet now stained and soiled. Ingress and egress to the coach were provided by two large and much-weathered doors, hanging on rusty hinges. Tattered curtains hung in the windows.


Barely had Zulkeh and Shelyid entered the coach when the vehicle lurched into motion. Shelyid sprawled onto the floor.


"Master!" he cried. "We're off!"


"Well spoken, dwarf. Our journey has begun."


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