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Prologue.
Entropy, and the Strangler

"To the contrary," demurred Greyboar, toying with his mug,
"the secret lies entirely in the fingerwork."


But the bravo wouldn't have it. " 'Tis rather in the main force!" he bellowed, and fell upon the strangler. The table splintered, the mugs went flying in a cloud of ale froth.


Needless to say, I scrambled aside. Like being a chipmunk caught between two bull moose, don't you know? Besides, there's no profit in this sort of thing.


Safe at a distance, I stuck my head between two cheering onlookers and saw that my client was in his assailant's grasp. The lout's great biceps, triceps, deltoids, pectoids and whatnot bulged and rippled as he worked at Greyboar's throat. Couldn't find it, of course.


They're a low lot, these tavern rowdies, not given to temperate debate.


Stupid, to boot. What I mean is, the outcome was never in doubt. "Professional fingerwork," as Greyboar calls it, is simply beyond the ken of hurlyburlies who lounge about the alehouses, until they encounter it firsthand.


For this particular clown, personal experience had now arrived. Casually, Greyboar sank his hands into his opponent's belly, kneading and squeezing. It must be like eating ten cucumbers at once. An astonished grimace came over the goon's face.


"Fouled our breeches, have we?" chuckled the chokester. A good lad, Greyboar, but his humor runs in a low vein.


His jest made, the strangler proceeded to more serious business. A quick flip of the thumbs popped the bullyboy's kneecaps. His victim now at eye level, Greyboar leaned back in his chair and shrugged off the hands which were still groping in the vicinity of where his neck would be if he had one.


"As I said," he concluded, "it's all in the fingerwork."


Then, just as I thought we'd gotten out of the silly affair with no harm, wouldn't you know it but that the barkeep had to go pour oil on the flames.


"And who's going to pay for all this broken furniture?" he demanded. The barkeep's voice was shrill, in keeping with his sour face. He looked down at the bullyboy, now writhing on the floor.


"Not Lothar, that's for sure," he whined. "Not much money to be made by a loan enforcer on crutches."


That's done it! I thought.


"Him?" exclaimed Greyboar. "A shark's tooth?" His good humor vanished like the dew.


"And here it is," I grumbled, "there'll be lawsuits, damages, weeping widow and wailing tots, and the Old Geister knows what else." I squirmed my way through the crowd.


"Greyboar, let's be off!" There's nothing worse than a usurer's lawyers.


"Not quite yet," growled the strangler, reaching for the doomee's neck. But luck was with us. At that very moment the porkers arrived, a whole squad of them.


"What's the disturbance here?" demanded the sergeant in charge, flattening the nearest patron with his bullystick. "You're all under arrest!"


If we'd been in our usual haunts, quaffing our ale at The Sign of the Trough in the Flankn, the porkers wouldn't have dared come in—not with less than a battalion, at any rate. Of course, if we'd been in the Flankn, where Greyboar's well known, no bullyboy would have picked a fight with him in the first place. But I'll give the patrons in that grimy little alehouse this much, they didn't hesitate but a second before the benches were flying and the fracas was afoot.


I seized the propitious moment. "Out!" I hissed, grabbing the strangler's elbow. "There's no money to be made here."


"Money, money, that's all you think about," grumbled Greyboar. "What then of ethics, and the meaning of life?"


"Save it for later." I pulled him toward the rear exit. Fortunately, the strangler was willing to leave. He's not the sort one drags from a tavern against his will, don't you know. On our way out, a beefy porker blocked the route, leering and twirling his club, but Greyboar removed his face and that was that. Fingerwork, he calls it.


Once in the back alley, Greyboar returned to the matter, like a dog chewing a bone.


"Yet there must be a logic to it all," he complained. "Surely there's more to life than this aimless collision of bodies in space." His thick brows knotted over his eyes.


"Wine, women and song!" I retorted. "There's sufficient purpose for a strangler and his agent. And it all takes money, my man, which you can't get rousting bravos in alehouses."


That last was a bit unfair. It had been my idea to go into the alehouse, to celebrate the completion of a nice little job with a pot or two. Bad idea, of course. The job had taken us to a grimy little suburb of the city, where we'd never been before. And there's something about Greyboar—his size, maybe, or just an aura of implacable certainty—that inevitably seems to arouse the local strong man to belligerence. As the wise man says: "Big frogs in little ponds are prone to suicide."


But it was just so exasperating!


"Still and all," continued Greyboar, like a glacier on its course, "I'm convinced there's more to it. 'Wine, women and song,' you say, and that's fine for you. You're a sybarite of the epicurean persuasion. But I, it is clear to me, incline rather to the stoic, perhaps even the ascetic."


"You're driving me mad with this philosophical foolishness!" I exclaimed. "And will you please curl up your hands?"


"Sorry." He has long arms, Greyboar, it's an asset in his line of work. But the sound of fingernails clittery-clattering along the cobblestones gets on my nerves.


By now we had reached the end of the alley and were onto a main street. I looked around and spotted a hansom not far away. I whistled, and it was but a minute later that we clambered aboard. It was an extravagance, to be sure, but we were flush with cash and I'd no desire to walk all the way back into the city.


"Take us to The Sign of the Trough," I told the driver. "It's in the Flankn, right off—"


"I know where it is," grumbled the cabbie. "It'll cost you extra, you know?"


I sighed, but didn't argue the point. Cabbies always charged extra for going into the Thieves' Quarter. Can't say as I blamed them. It was one of the disadvantages of living in the Flankn. But the advantages made it worth the while—hardly any porkers to bother you, hidey-holes galore, a friendly neighborhood (certainly no pestersome bullyboys!), a vast network of information, customers always knew where to find you, etc.


As the hansom made its way back into New Sfinctr, Greyboar continued to drone on about philosophy's central place in human existence. I struggled manfully to control my temper, but at one point I couldn't resist taking a dig.


"You're only doing this philosophy nonsense because of Gwendolyn," I grumbled.


Of course, that made him furious. This is not, by the way, a stunt I recommend for the amateur—infuriating Greyboar, that is. But I'm the world's expert on the subject, and I know exactly when I can get away with it.


His jaws clamped shut, his face turned red, he bestowed a ferocious glare on me.


"What's my sister got to do with it?" he demanded.


I glared right back at him.


"It's obvious! You never gave a second thought—you never gave a first thought!—to this philosophy crap until Gwendolyn said you had the philosophy of a weasel."


He looked away from me, his face like a stone. I felt bad, then. He was such a formidable monster, that I forgot sometimes he had feelings just like other people. And before their fight, he and his sister had been very close.


Still, it shut him up. The rest of the ride into the Flankn took place in a cold silence. Uncomfortable, yes, but it was a damned sight better than having to listen to him prattling on about epistemology and ontology and whatnot.


The cabbie dropped us off in front of our lodgings. We had some small rooms on the top floor of a typical Flankn flophouse. I paid the cabbie and we headed for the door.


Just as we started up the steps to the landing, a voice sounded behind us.


"Hold there, sirrahs!"


We turned and beheld a bizarre sight, even for the Flankn. A small man stood before us, clad in the most ridiculous costume: billowing green cloak, baggy yellow pants tied up at the ankles, tasseled slippers curling up at the toes, his head bound in a bright red strip of cloth. A "turban," it's called.


"Who're you?" I demanded.


The fellow glanced about. "Please, lower your voice! My business is confidential."


"Confidential, is it?" boomed Greyboar. "Well, out with it!"


The man hissed his agitation. "Quietly, please! It is not to be discussed on the public thoroughfares!" He cupped his ear.


Greyboar snorted. "It's as good a place as any. There's none to listen but the urchins of the street, who're loyal to their own." The strangler gazed benignly over the refuse, debris and tottering tenements that encompassed a typical street of the Flankn. His eyes fell upon a ne'er-do-well lounging against a wall some steps beyond. "And the occasional idler, of course." Greyboar cracked his knuckles; it sounded like a coal mine caving in. The layabout found urgent business elsewhere.


"Nevertheless," continued the turbaned one, "I must insist on privacy. I represent a most important individual, who demands the utmost discretion."


Left to his own, Greyboar would have quitted the fellow with no further ado. But that's why he needed an agent.


"Important individual, you say? No doubt he's prepared to pay handsomely for our services?" I spoke softly, since there was no reason to aggravate a potential client. Strangler's customers were always a twitchy lot.


"He can be quite generous. But come, let us arrange a meeting elsewhere."


"Done!" I said, cutting Greyboar off. "In three hours, in the back room of the Lucky Lady. Know where it is?"


"I shall find it. Until then."


"It'll be twenty quid for the meeting—whether or not we take the job." For a moment, I thought he would protest. But he thought better of it, and scurried around the corner.


* * *


And that's how the whole thing started. It was bad enough when Greyboar was wasting his time (and my patience) searching for a philosophy of life. But now that he's found one, he's impossible. If I'd known in advance what was going to happen, I wouldn't have touched the job for all the gold in Ozar. But there it is—I was an agent, not a fortune-teller. And even though we were flush at the moment, I always had an eye out for a lucrative job. "Folly ever comes cloaked in opportunity," as the wise man says.


Three hours later we were in the back room of the Lucky Lady. The tavern was in the Flankn, in that section where the upper crust went slumming. Greyboar didn't like the place, claimed it was too snooty for his taste. I wasn't too fond of it myself, actually. Much rather have been swilling my suds at The Trough, surrounded by proper lowlifes. But there was no place like the Lucky Lady for a quiet business transaction. Especially since almost all our clients were your hoity-toity types, who'd die of shock in The Trough.


Mind you, my discretion was all in vain. The man was there, all right, accompanied by a fat, frog-faced lad barely old enough to shave. And both of them were clad in the same manner, except that the youth's costume was even more extravagant. Customers. As the wise man says: "Wherefore profit it a man to be learned, if he remains stupid in his mind?"


"You could have worn something less conspicuous," I grumbled, after we took our seats across the table from them.


The stripling took offense. "I am the Prince of the Sundjhab! The Prince of the Sundjhab does not scurry about in barbarian rags!" Typical. Sixteen years old, at the most, and he was already speaking in ukases.


Greyboar's interest was aroused. "The Sundjhab? It's said the Sundjhab is a land of ancient learning and lore. Sages and mystics by the gross, you stumble over 'em just walking down the street."


"Let's to business!" I said, rather forcefully. Once let Greyboar get started on this track, we'd never get anything accomplished.


The Prince's companion nodded his head. "You may call me Rashkuta. My master's name"—a nod to the Prince—"is of no import. His involvement in this affair must remain completely hidden." He cleared his throat. "Our business is simple. My master's birthright is barred by another, his uncle, whom we wish removed that my master may inherit his kingdom."


"What about his uncle's children?" demanded Greyboar. "D'you want I should burke the whole brood?" Sarcasm, this—Greyboar drew the line at throttling sprouts, save the occasional bratling.


The gibe went unnoticed. "It will not be necessary. In the Sundjhab, the line of descent passes from uncle to nephew. There are no others between my master and his due."


"Odd sort of system," mused Greyboar. "In Grotum, a man's own children are his heirs."


"Yours is a preposterous method!" decreed the Prince. "That a king's children be his own is speculation, pure solipsism. But that a king's sister's children be of his own royal blood is certain."


"A point," allowed Greyboar. The royal nose lifted even higher.


"Let's keep it to business," I interjected. "There is a problem with your proposal. The Sundjhab is known to us here in New Sfinctr, but mostly as a land of legend and fable. Three obstacles are thus presented. First, it is far away. Second, should we arrive there, we are unfamiliar with the terrain. Finally, how will we make sure to collect our fee once the job is done?"


"Your concerns are moot," replied Rashkuta. "My master's uncle is touring the continent of Grotum. For the next week, he will be residing in New Sfinctr. The work can be done here. Indeed, it must be done here. Fearsome as are the guardians who accompany him on his travels, they are nothing compared to what surrounds him in his palace in the Sundjhab."


His words jogged my memory. I had heard vague talk in the marketplace about some foreign mucky-muck on a visit. Couldn't for the life of me understand why. What I mean is, if I'd been the King of the Sundjhab, I'd never have left the harem except to stagger to the treasure room. And I'd certainly not have come to New Sfinctr! The place is a pesthole. Probably some scheming and plotting going on. A dirty business, politics. Of course, it was great for the trade.


But a chokester's agent can't afford to let his mind wander. "Who are the King's guardians?"


"They consist of the following," replied Rashkuta. "First, the King has his elite soldiery, a body of twelve men, the cream of the Sundjhabi army—"


"Not to be compared to the buffoons in Sfinctrian uniform," sneered the Prince.


"—secondly, he is accompanied by his Grand Sorcerer, one Dhaoji, a puissant thaumaturge—"


"Not to be compared to the fumbling potion-mixers called wizards in these heathen lands," sneered the Prince.


"—and thirdly, should you penetrate these barriers, you will confront the Royal Bodyguard, Iyesu by name, who is a master of the ancient martial arts of the South."


"Not to be compared to the grunting perspirers called fighters in your barbarous tongue," sneered the Prince.


I looked at Greyboar. He nodded.


"We'll take the job. Now, as to our fee. We will require ten thousand quid, payable half in advance and half upon completion. In addition, of course, to the twenty quid you owe us for this meeting."


Our clients gaped. "But we were informed that you only charged one thousand quid for, uh, for your work!" protested Rashkuta.


"And we are only charging you a thousand quid for strangling the young master's uncle," I agreed cheerfully. "In addition, however, it is necessary to charge two thousand for the elite soldiers, three thousand for the unexcelled sorcerer, and a clean four thousand for the incomparable master of the martial arts. As a rule, such trifles come with the job. But—I am only respecting the Prince's fiat—his uncle's protectors are not to be compared to the riffraff we normally encounter in our work." A nice touch, this. To be sure, I was demanding an outrageous fee. But I'd be a poor agent if I didn't milk the Golden Cow when I could. "Greater greed is the greedy man's gratuity," as the wise man says.


"We can find another to do the job!" countered Rashkuta. But it was weak, very weak.


"Greyboar's the best." No boast, it was a simple fact. And by the look on their faces, our clients had already learned as much in their investigations.


Rashkuta tried to bargain, but His Adolescence cut him short.


"Pay them. We are not peasants, to squabble in the bazaar."


You could always count on royalty. Why the world was such a madhouse. Buggers'd rather slaughter each other's plebes than compromise their noble dignity. Parasites, the lot of them. I'd always agreed with Greyboar's sister on that point, even if I thought Gwendolyn's ideals were a lot of utopian nonsense.


"Going to be a bit of trouble collecting the back half of our fee," I said to myself. It was clear from his glare that Tadpole the Terrible was not pleased with us. But I wasn't worried about it. Greyboar was the dreamy type, true, but he was always quick enough to squeeze what was owed to us out of recalcitrant clients. That is not a metaphor. He fed them the money first. Crude, I admit, but the word got around.


Rashkuta counted out the money and slid it across the table. Naturally, he made a big production out of it, hunching his shoulders, eyes flitting hither and yon. As if a Flankn cutpurse this side of an asylum would intervene between Greyboar and his commission.


Naturally, too, he had to add: "How can we be certain that you will do the job, now that you possess such a princely sum?"


"Matter of professional ethics," growled the strangler. Rashkuta made to press the point, but Greyboar transmuted a chunk of the oak table into sawdust, and that was that. An easy-going and tolerant sort, Greyboar, but he'd always been testy about his professional ethics.


"Where can we find the Prince's uncle?" I asked.


"He retains a suite at the Hospice of Stupefying Opulence. You are familiar with the establishment?"


"Of course." Wasn't quite a lie. I'd seen the outside of the place. I was even familiar with the servants' quarters in the back, due to a brief but torrid affair with one of the maids in my earlier years. But I'd never been in the guests' portion of the Hospice. They catered to a rather different clientele.


"However," I continued, "it will prove a wee bit difficult for us to saunter through the main entrance, don't you know. Exclusive, it is. They'd as soon let in a measly baronet as a leper. Doormen standing on porters on top of bellhops. Professional busybodies, the lot of them, they send 'em to the Royal Academy of Officiousness. Desk clerks get three years' postgraduate training. What I mean is, we can't very well march in and announce we've come to throttle the King of the Sundjhab. We'll need help getting in. Are you staying there too?"


Hem, haw, squirm, squirm. Customers. Eventually, they confessed to a small room tucked away in an obscure corner of the Hospice, practically a broom closet in the maids' quarters, to listen to them.


"Fine. There's a rear entrance, leads off the kitchen. At midnight, tonight, one of you will be there to let us in."


Of course, they squawked and quibbled, but they finally gave in. Greyboar and I arose. "Our business is then concluded, for the moment," I said. "We'll meet you here the night after tomorrow, same time, for the balance of the fee."


* * *


"It's the wizard what bothers me," said Greyboar some time later, as we discussed the job over pots of ale at The Trough. "The soldiers are meaningless, and the martial artist will be interesting. But sorcerers are tricky, and besides, I hate to extinguish any bit of knowledge that brightens this dark and murky world."


"Oh, give me a break! That so-called wizard is nothing but another pretentious trickster. 'Secret lore,' 'hidden mysteries,' 'opaque purports of the unknown'—it's all rot for the weak-minded. Reality's what is, and the truth is there for all to see it. A pox on all philosophy!"


Greyboar would have continued the argument, but I cut him off. "I'll deal with the sorcerer. I've got just the thing—a small potion Magrit made up for me the last time we were in Prygg."


"Really?" Greyboar's curiosity was aroused; best way to distract him. "What is it?"


"How should I know? Since when does Magrit divulge trade secrets?"


"True," mused the strangler. "A proper witch, she is."


"Best in the business. None of your epistemology for old Magrit! Cuts right to the quick, she does. As for the potion, all I know is that when she gave it to me she said it was tailor-made to take out any obnoxious wizard that got in the way."


"But how will you get him to drink it?"


I snorted. "Intravenous injection, that's the thing."


In the blink of an eye, I whipped out the little blowpipe from its pouch in my cloak. A second later, a dart was quivering in the bull's-eye of the dart board against the far wall. The crowd playing darts looked over, frowning fiercely, but when they saw who the culprit was they relaxed. Fergus even brought the dart over and handed it back. I was popular with the lads at The Trough.


"If that big gorilla wasn't here, I'd bust your head," grumbled Fergus.


"Don't let me stop you," said Greyboar instantly. I cast him an aggrieved look. Fergus smiled, then shrugged.


"Ah, what the hell? The shrimp's good for comic relief. And if we ever get bored with darts, we can always use him to play toss-the-midget."


A round of laughter swept The Trough. I was not amused. After a while, my glare finally quieted Greyboar's bass braying.


"Oh, stop glaring," he chuckled. "It serves you right, showing off like that. All this fancy stuff you do with darts and knives—it's just overcompensation 'cause you're such a little guy. Now, if you'd apply yourself to a study of philosophy—"


And there he was, off again. Injury added to insult.


* * *


At midnight, Greyboar and I slipped through the back door of the Hospice. Rashkuta was there to let us in, as promised. It was obvious, from his twitchy face and trembling limbs, that his nerves were not of the best. A bloodthirsty lot, your strangler's customers, when it comes to the theory of the thing. But when the deed's to be done, their knees turn to water. Else why hire a chokester? It's a simple enough matter, all things considered, to shorten a man's life.


Quickly, Rashkuta guided us through the Hospice's maze of stairways and corridors. We encountered no one, which was fortunate, as Greyboar and I were rather stunned by the place. Not our normal haunts, don't you know? Eventually, we arrived at an immense double door carved out of a solid slab of some exotic hardwood. There was enough gilt on the handles alone to drown a whale.


"The door is locked," whispered Rashkuta, "with an intricate and powerful lock constructed by the King's master locksmith, brought especially from the Sundjhab for the occasion."


"No problem," grunted Greyboar. He looked at me. "Are you ready, Ignace?" I shrugged.


"A moment, please!" hissed Rashkuta, and scurried down the corridor. Customers, like I said.


Greyboar seized the handles and tore the doors off their hinges. Entering, we beheld an antechamber, empty except for four guards. These lads were bare from the waist up, clad in baggy blue trousers tied up at their ankles. Curl-toed red slippers completed their uniforms. Funny-looking, sure, but each one held a huge scimitar, and there was no denying they were splendid soldiers. Though caught by surprise, they were on top of us in a heartbeat.


Upon Greyboar, to be precise, for I naturally took myself to one side. Not for me, this sort of melee.


The foremost soldier, muscles writhing like boas, swung a blow of his scimitar that would've felled a cedar. But Greyboar seized his wrist in midstroke and tore the arm out of its socket and clubbed the other three senseless and that was that.


"Aside from the professional fingerwork," Greyboar liked to say, "I think of my methods as a classic application of Occam's Razor."


To the left stood an open door, leading to the guards' quarters. Beyond, a group of soldiers were scrambling from a table where some exotic game was in progress. The most enterprising of the lot was even now at the door, scimitar waving about.


"Bowls!" cried Greyboar, slamming the door in the soldier's face. You could hear them falling like tenpins beyond. The door now closed, Greyboar sealed it by the simple expedient of wrenching the frame out of shape. He had a way with doors, Greyboar did. On those occasions when we found ourselves guests of the porkers in the Durance Pile, they kept us in a special dungeon equipped with sliding stone slabs instead of the usual gate and grill. "At great expense to the State," Judge Rancor Jeffreys sourly noted.


The preliminaries accomplished, Greyboar and I burst through the right-hand door. This new room was obviously a sleeping chamber. But the bed and all other items of furniture had been shoved against the walls, leaving the center of the room empty. Even the carpet that would normally have covered this portion of the floor was rolled up and standing on end in a corner. The purpose of this unusual arrangement was clear. For there, in the center of the room, squatting in a pentacle drawn on the bare floor, was a man who could be none other than the sorcerer Dhaoji.


I won't attempt to describe him. Wizards are usually bizarre in their appearance, and this was a wizard among wizards. Even at that very moment, the fellow was bringing some fearful-sounding incantation to a close, which I had no doubt would have transmogrified us right proper. Mind you, I've no use for their extravagant theories, mages, but there's no denying the better ones can wreak havoc on a man's morphology.


"My job, this," said I. A moment later, two of my darts were sprouting from his neck. Dhaoji cried out and clapped his neck. He broke off his incantation and tried to remove the darts. But the potion was already at work.


Nor did Magrit fail us. A dire potion, indeed.


"Horrible!" gasped Greyboar. For even now was Dhaoji locked into his doom.


"Yet 'tis clear as day," we heard him whimper, quivering, hunched like a hamster, eyes gazing into The Terror, "that an arrow can only travel its course by traveling half the distance first. But then, to cover the second half, it must cover half of that half first. And in order to cover half of that half, 'tis necessary that it first cover half that distance again. How, then, can it ever complete its course? Yet it does!" A hideous moan ensued.


Xenophobia hastening our steps, we entered the room beyond. At last, the royal chamber, no doubt about it. Luxuries like sand on the beach. And our prey stood before us.


Or rather, lounged before us. Astonishing sight! Here we had a mighty king, his death at hand, all his protectors destroyed (save one—a moment, please), and all he could do was laze about on a divan, chewing a fig. I was rather offended, actually.


But we'll get back to him. First, there was the matter of the final bodyguard. Even as foretold, this wight was there: a smallish man, though very well-knit in his proportions.


"You'll be Iyesu, master of the martial arts," said Greyboar. The man bowed courteously.


"Well, be on your way. There's no point in a useless fracas. It's your boss we've business with."


Iyesu smiled, like an icon.


"I fear not," he replied. "Rather do I suggest that you depart at once, lest I be forced to demonstrate my incomparable skills upon your hapless body. For know, barbarian, that I am the supreme master of all the ancient arts of the South—I speak of the blows, the strikes, the kicks, the holds, the throws, the leaps, the bounds, the springs, eschewing not, of course, the subtle secrets of the vulnerable portions of the musculature and nerves. Observe, and tremble."


And so saying, Iyesu leapt and capered about, engaging in bizarre and flamboyant exercises. Many boards and bricks set up on stands to one side of the room were shattered and pulverized with sundry blows of well-nigh every part of his body.


"As you can see," he concluded, "your crude skills cannot begin to compare with mine."


"No doubt," replied Greyboar, "for I possess no such skills, other than professional fingerwork. Of the martial arts, as you call them, I am as ignorant as a newborn babe. A simple workingman, I, who worked as a lad plucking chickens, as a stripling rending lambs, as a youth dismembering steers. A meatpacker, employed now in a related but much more lucrative trade."


Iyesu gibbered his disgust. "The insult to my person!" he cried, and sprang into action. And a pretty sight it was, too, to see him bounding and scampering about, landing many shrewd and cunning blows of the open hand, the fist, the knee, the elbow and the foot upon those diverse portions of Greyboar's anatomy which he imagined to be vulnerable.


So great was his interest that Greyboar stood immobile for no little time.


"Most proficient!" marveled the strangler. Then, recalling his duty, Greyboar seized Iyesu in mid-leap and pulverized his spine and that was that.


"Master, I am undone!"


Iyesu's shriek stirred the King to a flurry of activity. He raised his head from its pillow.


"Can you do nothing?"


"The probability is small, Your Highness. Indeed, were it not for my incomparable training in the mystic arts of bodily control, I would already be dead. The spine is rather central to all human endeavor. But I shall make the attempt."


And so saying, the master of the martial arts slithered his way to Greyboar's side and tried a few blows.


" 'Tis as I feared, the leverage is no longer available. On the other hand," he mused, "there are possibilities for the future. Perhaps even a new school!"


"Too late, I suppose, to prevent my assassination?"


"Indeed so, master. Even the great Ashokai required four years to found his school. I fear it shall take me longer. There are, it must be admitted, certain obstacles to overcome." Here he seized Greyboar's ankle and attempted a throw. "Just as I predicted," he complained, flipping and flopping about, "it's the leverage."


"So be it," yawned the King. Greyboar advanced and seized his neck. "Yet do I regret the truncation of my philosophic endeavor."


Greyboar's fingers halted in mid-squeeze. A great fear seized my heart.


"What philosophic endeavor?" demanded the strangler.


"Greyboar!" I shouted. "Burke the bugger and let's be off!"


"One moment. What philosophic endeavor?"


The King stared up at the strangler. "Surely you are not interested in such matters?" he wheezed. His round face was very flushed, which was not surprising, given that Greyboar's hands were buried in the rolls of fat adorning the royal neck.


"To the contrary," replied Greyboar, "philosophy is my life's passion."


"Indeed!" gasped the King. "It seems . . . an odd . . . avo . . . cation . . . for an as . . . sassin."


"Why? It seems to me quite appropriate. After all, my trade brings me in close proximity to the basic metaphysical questions—pain, suffering, torment, death, and the like. A most fertile field for ethical ponderations."


"I had . . . not . . . con . . . sidered . . ." The King's face was now bright purple. "But . . . I . . . ex . . . pire."


"Oh. Excuse me." Greyboar released the royal gullet. "Professional reflexes, I'm afraid."


"Quite so," agreed the King. His Royal Rotundness managed to sit up, coughing and gagging and massaging his throat.


Well, you can imagine my state of mind! By now I was hopping about in a rage. "Greyboar! Will you cease this madness and get on with the job?"


The next moment I was peering up Greyboar's massive hook of a nose, his beady black eyes visible at a distance. So does the mouse examine the eagle's beak just before lunch.


"You will annoy me," he predicted.


"Never," I disclaimed.


"That is not true. You have annoyed me before, on several occasions."


Prudence be damned, I'm not the patient type. I was hopping about again. I fear my voice was shrill.


"Yes, and it's always the same thing! Will you please stick to business? Save the philosophy for later!"


"I cannot discuss metaphysics with a dead man." He turned to the King. "Is this not so?"


"Indeed," concurred His Majesty. "Although the transcendentalists would have it otherwise."


Greyboar's fingers twitched.


"Not my school," added the King hastily.


I saw my chance, while they were distracted. I drew my dagger from my boot and sprang for the royal throat.


I know, I know, it was stupid. But the aggravation of it all! Of course, Greyboar snatched me in midair.


"As I foretold, you have annoyed me." Moments later, my arms and legs were tied up in knots. Square knots, to boot. I hate square knots—they're not natural to the human anatomy.


"Last time you tied me in a granny," I complained.


"Last time you got loose."


He turned back to the King. "And now, Your Highness, be plain and to the point. What is this philosophic endeavor of which you spoke?"


"I have discovered the true philosophy, the correct metaphysical basis upon which to construct the principles of human conduct. Even when you entered, was I perfecting my discipline."


"Liar!" I shouted. "You were lazing about, eating a fig!"


Greyboar glared at me and I shut up. Tongue knots are the worst.


The King gazed at me reproachfully. "You misinterpret these trifles," he said, waving a vague hand at his surroundings.


Trifles! His silk robe alone was worth enough to feed all the paupers of New Sfinctr for a year. And New Sfinctr has a lot of paupers.


The King got that long-suffering look in his face. You know, the one rich people get when they talk about the triviality of wealth in the scheme of things.


"These small luxuries are but the material aids to my philosophy," he said, "necessary, I regret to say, solely because I have not yet sufficiently advanced in my discipline to dispense with them. I am only, as yet, an accomplished Languid. I am on the verge, however—I am convinced of it!—of achieving Torpor, whereupon I will naturally dispose of these intrinsically worthless comforts."


"What is this Torpor you seek?" asked Greyboar.


"To a question, I respond with a question. What is the fundamental law of the universe?"


"He's stalling for time, Greyboar!" Sure enough, I was tongue-tied. A half hitch.


Greyboar turned back to the King. "Conservation of matter and energy."


His Highness began to sneer, thought better of it.


"To be sure, but the conservation of matter and energy is at bottom a mere statement of equivalence. From the ethical standpoint, a miserable tautology."


The strangler scratched his chin. "I admit that it does not appear to bear upon one's moral principles."


"Course not!" snorted the King. "Subject's fit only for tinkerers. No, sir, the whole secret lies with the second law of thermodynamics."


Greyboar's frown has to be seen to be believed.


"Surely it's obvious!" exclaimed the King. "Philosophy—ethics, that is, the rest is trivia—concerns itself with the conduct of men, with the direction of their actions, not the substance of their deeds. To place our ethics upon a sound metaphysical basis, therefore, we must ask the question: To what end do all things in the Universe, without exception, conduct themselves?"


Greyboar was still frowning. The King's jowls quivered with agitation.


"Come, come, my good man! To what destination does Time's Arrow point?"


"Maximum entropy," responded the strangler.


"Precisely!"


"But life works against entropy, human life most of all. At least, in the short run."


"Yes! Yes! And there's the folly of it all!"


I hadn't the faintest idea what they were babbling about, but all of a sudden Greyboar's eyes bugged out. Never seen it happen before. What I mean is, he wasn't what you'd call the excitable type.


"I've got a bad feeling about this," I mumbled to myself.


"Of course!" bellowed the chokester. He swept the King into his embrace. "Master! Guru!"


"I've got a very bad feeling about this," I mumbled to myself.


Then everything fell apart at once. A loud crash indicated the escape of the King's soldiers from their makeshift prison. As if that weren't bad enough, I could hear the squeals which announced the arrival of the porkers. Bound to happen, of course, a strangler's got no business dawdling on the job.


Fortunately, Greyboar hadn't lost his ears along with his senses.


"Time presses, master." He set the King back on the divan. "Quickly, what is the Way?"


The King frowned. "Why, 'tis simple enough, in its bare outline. The achievement of ethical entropy lies along the ascending stages of Languor, Torpor, and Stupor. In turn, achievement of these steps requires following the eightfold Path of Chaos through application of the Foursome Random Axioms. But where is the haste? I shall intercede on your behalf with the authorities. You can be sure of it! Long have I sought a true disciple. We shall discuss our philosophy at length."


"Languor, torpor, stupor, eightfold path, foursome axioms, languor, torpor, stupor . . ." muttered Greyboar, like a schoolboy reciting his tables. He seized the King by the throat. "I fear not, my guru."


The King's face swelled like a blowfish. "But . . . but . . . "


Greyboar shook his head sadly. "Matter of professional ethics."


The whirlwind was upon us! Alarum! Alarum! Hack and hew! The King's guards filled the room, the porkers close behind. Bobbing, weaving, ducking, dodging—he can be nimble when he has to be—Greyboar scooped me up and headed for the door. He was handicapped at first, what with me in one hand and the King in the other. But once the choke was finished—I'd like to stress that point, there've been allegations in certain quarters; I'll admit he was eccentric, but his craftsmanship was impeccable—he had one hand free and that was that. Guards and porkers went flying and we were out of the King's chamber.


But by then, of course, we'd been recognized.


"It's Greyboar and his shill!" squealed the porkers.


"I resent that!" I cried, finally tongue-loose. (I'm good at half hitches.) "I'm a bona fide agent!" But it's hard to pull off dignified reproof when you're being carried like a cabbage. I got an upside-down view of the sorcerer as we made our way through the madding crowd. He was still rooted to the spot, paralyzed by the Void.


"—for if what is were many it must be infinitely small, because the units of which it is composed must be indivisible and therefore without magnitude; yet, it must also be infinitely great, because each of its parts must have another before it from which it is separated and this must be likewise—"


Magrit, there's a proper witch. Mind you, if I'd known what the potion was, I'd never have used it. I'm not what you'd call soft-hearted, but that doesn't make me a bloody sadist.


Once we got into the corridor, it was easy going. Porkers all over the place, of course, and the Hospice's staff and filthy-rich clientele ogling and staring, all agog and atwitter, but give Greyboar some finger room and it took a small army to pull him down.


Truth to tell, it wasn't long before we were out on the street, and from there into the sanctuary of the Flankn, with its maze of alleys, byways, tenements, cellars, attics, and all the other accouterments of the Thieves' Quarter. On our way, I gave Greyboar a good talking to, you can be sure of it, but I doubt he heard a word I said. His mind, plain to see, was elsewhere.


Eventually, I ran out of breath, and besides, we'd arrived at one of our hideouts. "All right," I concluded sourly, "untie me and let's split up. Hide yourself somewhere and don't move around—you're too conspicuous. I'll make the rendezvous with Rashkuta and collect the rest of our fee. Meet me in the attic over old Fyqulf's place the day after tomorrow. At night, mind you, if you move around during the daylight, you'll get spotted for sure."


* * *


Two days later, I was sprawled on the attic floor counting our money. Things were coming up roses. I'd expected some haggling over the balance owed, but nary a peep. I suspect, after viewing the carnage in the Hospice, that His Acneship gave up any thought of stiffing us.


It was by far the biggest fee we'd ever collected, and I was feeling quite pleased with the world. "Lucre," I gloated, "abundance, riches, affluence, pelf, the fleshpots! the cornucopia! the full measure!—and then some! O wallow, wallow, wallow, wallow, wallow, wallow—" I'm afraid I got quite carried away. I didn't even notice Greyboar come in until he tapped me on the shoulder.


"Snap out of it," he grumbled. "It's only money." Imagine my indignation. But it was no use. Greyboar slouched against the wall, gazing at his hands.


"Without my guru to lead the way, the road will be long and hard."


"Ha! With what we've got here you can slobber around in all the extravagance you need to achieve—what'd the old geezer call it?—sloth, wasn't it?" I giggled; Greyboar glared. "No, no, that's not quite right! Languor—of course, that's the word!"


"I fear not," said Greyboar. "The hunt's up all over the city. The whole army's been turned out. The Flankn's crawling with informers and stool pigeons. We'll need every copper we've got just to bribe the porkers and get out of Sfinctria. Starvation rations, we'll be on, until you scrounge up some work. Even that'll be hard, being in a different city and all."


I laughed, gay abandon. "Is that what's troubling you? Fie on it! D'you think I hadn't figured this all out before I took on the job? Sure, for the moment there's a little heat. Looks bad, prominent tourist getting throttled. But what does the Queen of Sfinctria care, when all is said and done? Unless there's pressure from the Sundjhab—zilch, that's what Belladonna cares! And the Prince—remember him, he's our client?—he's the new King of the Sundjhab now. He'll cool things down right quick."


"I fear not." He scowled. "It's not the loss of the money that bothers me, it's the dislocation—the interruption of my habits, the distractions. It'll make it difficult to concentrate on my Languor."


"You're mad! The main thing the little—pardon, His Puissant Pupness—wants is for the hubbub to die down. After all, if we're caught, how's he to know we wouldn't sing like birds? No, no, Greyboar, take my word for it—the one thing you can be sure His Pimple will be doing is to move heaven and earth to get the hunt called off."


"Under other circumstances, no doubt he would." Greyboar rubbed his nose thoughtfully. "I think our best bet's to make for Prygg. I know the captain of the guard at the southeast gate; we can bribe him. And once we get to Prygg, Magrit'll put us up till the heat's off. Have to do a job for her, of course. No freebies from Magrit. Proper witch, she is."


"What're you running on—" A queasy feeling came to my stomach. "Wait a minute. What d'you mean, 'under other circumstances'?"


Greyboar looked at me, surprised. "Those circumstances under which the Prince would call off the hunt."


"But why wouldn't he—" A very queasy feeling. "You've seen him!"


"Last night."


"Why? Rashkuta had the money—I collected it."


"Money." He waved the subject away. "To refute his disrespect for philosophy. Imagine—hiring me to strangle my own guru!"


"To refute his disrespect for philosophy?"


"Well, naturally, what did you expect? I found it necessary to acquaint him with the second law of thermodynamics."


"You—what? What did you say to him?"


"Say to him? Nothing."


I was on my feet. "What did you do to the Prince?"


"I aligned him with Time's Arrow."


I was hopping up and down in a fury. "What does all that gibberish mean?"


Greyboar grinned, a cavern in the abyss.


"The Prince has achieved maximum entropy."


 



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