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"A rose-red city -- half as old as time"
J. W. Burgon, Petra
Danger came to Jerry Howard in the middle of a clear and languorous summer afternoon. It came without warning and it came by the hand of a friend.
He was in his workshop, happily titling a book, surrounded by tweezers and tools, by punches and gold leaf and the sweet smell of leather and glue. If he raised his head he could look through the double doors into his library and beyond that, through the big windows, watch the passers-by going up and down the sun-warmed cobbles of Fishermen's Walk. On the far side of the walk sat seagulls, posed and preening on the rail -- and where else could one find blue seagulls? Beyond the rail, in turn, the harbor shone like glass below a porcelain sky and a breeze as gentle as a maiden's first kiss. Nowhere, he would have said, could he be more content, or secure.
SCAR. . . he aimed a careful L.
A shame to be indoors, yet he was long overdue for some worktime. That morning he had gone fishing with Father Julius, plodding through wet grass and drippy willows and carefully laying invitations to suicide on the trout pools.
SCARLET. . . he reached for P.
Nor had he worked the day before, spending it in a hilarious grape-tramping spree with newlyweds Pietro and Maria and a dozen mutual friends, ending the evening around a roaring bonfire with them and especially with Juanita and -- much to their mutual surprise -- taking Juanita home to bed.
PI. . . why the hell was X in the M slot?
So now he must work, for he had enough old books on hand, needing rebinding, to keep him busy for the rest of this dayand all tomorrow.
And there, perhaps, lay a tiny needle of discontent in his haystack of happiness. Tomorrow would see the start of Tig's boar hunt. He had been invited. He had been very tempted to join -- until he had discovered by accident that Killer was in on the plan as well, and very probably the instigator. Any affair in which Killer had a part was certain to be as dangerous, uncomfortable, rowdy, prolonged, and immoderate as possible. There would be unending marches across impossible terrain and bloody battles with inadequate weapons against ferocious, man-crunching animals -- lions were by no means impossible if Killer had anything to do with it; there would be sleeping in snow or quagmires, probably during blizzards; there would certainly be juvenile practical joking and hazing, as well as wild orgies of one sort or another, and it would be unprecedented if the party returned intact, with all its members uninjured -- indeed, Killer would regard the outing as a failure if that happened.
PIM. . .
In his own opinion, Jerry Howard had long ago proved that he was capable of holding his own in such macho insanities and did not need to keep on proving it at great risk to his physical well-being. Unlike Killer, he did not actually enjoy the process. So he had firmly declined the invitation. Very sensible!
Juanita was another problem, another tiny prickle in the haystack. No, not Juanita herself. Their brief affair had ended long ago, and last night's rematch had been entirely satisfactory for both. But it had been a one-night stand, and he disapproved of one-night stands. Why, he wondered, could he not, like Pietro, form a lasting relationship with a woman and settle down to the married bliss which should be the lot of any well-adjusted man?
But was he well-adjusted? Be honest! Was he not secretly regretting the boar hunt? Was he, possibly, very slightly bored?
Then he saw that he had been staring, unseeing, at The Scarlet Pimp, which suggested the amusing thought of shelving the book with the partial title and watching to see who took it down. Before he could suppress the temptation, the outer door of the library opened to admit. . . a friend.
Gervasse had been one of Benjamin Franklin's Parisian cronies and much resembled him. Their generation had believed that obesity was the best indicator of the leisured life of a gentleman; thus he entered a room stomach first and supported himself on a carved oak staff. He was, of course, in perfect health, strong as a smallish mule, cured now of the gout and stone which had tortured him in Franklin's day and had probably formed the subject of many of their conversations. His head was shiny pink, fringed by wisps of pale blue hair, and his cape was a wide expanse of yellow linen, ending in a remarkable overhang at waist level. Below that his indigo trousers swept back in long folds as full as a gown. Short cape and flappy pants were standard wear in Mera and Gervasse's were only remarkable for the quantity of material they had required, but he was an eye-filling sight regardless. He advanced into full view, doffed his blue cap with its feather, and swept a courtly bow.
Jerry had already recognized the thump of the cane on his rug and was around the table, clutching The Scarlet Pimp mischievously in his hand. He used it as Gervasse used his cap in a matching bow, although he had never quite mastered the same aplomb in bowing.
Gervasse was flushed and wheezing slightly, as though he had been running. "My dear Jerry!" Wheeze. "So fortunate to find you at home. . ." "My dear Gervasse!" Jerry replied, sliding The Scarlet Pimp unobtrusively onto the big library table. "The pleasure is entirely mine. I shall seek the benefit of your expertise on an intriguing Amontillado which I obtained from Ricardo. . . only. . . yesterday. . ." Gervasse was carrying a wand.
Gervasse nodded his head in polite acceptance and murmured that he would be delighted to taste a minim of friend Jerry's Amontillado; but he had seen Jerry's eyes lock themselves on the wand, and his own eyes were twinkling. Jerry led him over to the red leather chairs by the fireplace, unable to remove his gaze from that wand.
Outside. . .
Gervasse sank back in the chair, laying his staff by his feet and the wand across his knees and pretending to survey the big room as though he were not already entirely familiar with it, being a frequent visitor, chess partner, and participant in innumerable all-night philosophical discussions from that very chair. Jerry tore his eyes away from the wand and headed for the cupboard where he kept wine and crystal.
So much for boar hunts! Outside! If Citizen Howard had indeed been reaching the beginnings of boredom, then Outside would provide a great deal more stimulation than a boar hunt, even a boar hunt organized by Killer, and possibly an infinitely greater amount of danger.
He poured the wine, determined to show no impatience, but very conscious of his heartbeat and a dry tingling in his throat.
"How many volumes?" Gervasse murmured.
"Three thousand, the last time I counted," Jerry told the cupboard, "but that was many years ago. About a third of them are out at any one time, thank Heaven, or I should have them stacked like firewood." It was an admirable room, high-ceilinged and spacious, with woodwork shining in a color as close to white as it was possible to obtain in Mera, with four many-paned windows looking out on the cobbles of Fishermen's Walk, and tall alcoves holding a myriad of books, almost all expertly bound by Jerry himself in morocco leather. But Gervasse had not come to admire the city library. He had come with a wand.
"I must return your Divine Comedy," Gervasse said. "Ah, thank you! Most kind! Your health, citizen. . . and your success." Jerry put an arm on the mantelpiece and raised his glass, also. "Long life to you, citizen," he said with a smile.
He was not going to ask. Dammit, he was not going to ask!
"I have been reading the learned Bishop Berkeley," Gervasse propounded. "Yes, an excellent wine, Jerry, supple on the tongue. . . I must talk to Signor Ricardo. The matter of the tree that falls when there is no one to hear it -- does it make a noise? You are aware of the problem?" Damnable old tease! "Of course," Jerry said.
"I was wondering -- what if there were two men present when the tree fell? One sees it and hears it. The other is deaf and has his back turned. Does that count as half a tree falling, do you suppose?" His eyes twinkled.
"Or a tree falling half way?" Jerry asked, carefully holding his relaxed pose against the fireplace.
Gervasse chuckled and then relented. "I have come, quite obviously, from the Oracle," he said. "I was instructed to bring you a wand -- and a message." Jerry accepted the wand -- a three-foot rod of ivory color, carved as though turned on a lathe. It had rings raised at intervals to help the grip and a small sphere at each end. A wand seemed an innocent and totally useless artifact, and yet when he grasped it he felt the famliar tingle of power against his palm and fingers. As always, he was surprised by its weight and its coldness; always, he wondered if it were made of stone. Alabaster? Or marble? Stone should be fragile in such a slender length, and yet he had seen a wand stop a broadsword and had himself once crushed a wolf's skull with one.
He stared at it in silence, fighting down his excitement. Gervasse sipped his wine until finally Jerry met his eye. "A very short message," he said." 'Take a wagon and a staunch friend and clothes for one.' " "That's it?" "That, as you say, is it," Gervasse agreed.
A rescue! Not merely Outside, but a rescue! The danger needle moved, therefore, up into an entirely different range. He was going to be playing in the First Division.
"Clothes for man or woman?" "Didn't say."
It hardly mattered in Mera; half the women wore pants, and many men wore robes, and the difference was inconspicuous. Only twice had Jerry been sent a wand, and both missions had been trivial; but he had accompanied others Outside when they had carried the wand and needed companions. Three of those missions had been rescues. He suppressed the memories quickly, especially the memory of a certain fang-filled mouth opening in front of him, of demonic eyes above the fangs, and of Killer's silver-tipped spear coming over his shoulder to slide between those massive jaws in the nick of time "And the staunch friend?" Gervasse asked, as the silence lingered.
"Killer." Jerry answered automatically. He drained his glass, still thinking. An astonishingly brief message! The Oracle was usually more specific. And why take clothes? He had never heard of that instruction.
"Ah, yes." Gervasse did not approve of Killer. "I saw him going into Sven's as I was coming down." "Obviously he did not see you -- or at least, not what you were bearing." "Eh, no." The fat man hesitated and then turned slightly pink. "I assume that he may be interrupted at Sven's?" Jerry laughed and went to fetch the decanter. "Certainly! He is coaching Sven in Greek wrestling. Why? Did you think he might be doing another sort of wrestling?" Gervasse enjoyed gossip like a village spinster, while professing to despise it. He turned much pinker and made incoherent noises.
"That's all over, long ago," Jerry said. "Killer collects scalps, that's all." Time did not matter. He could wait until tomorrow; he could even go on the boar hunt first. Face it -- he would not sleep until he did go.
"Old friend, you will excuse me if I be about the Oracle's business?" He laid the decanter beside his guest and accepted protestations that of course he must attend to business. Gervasse would drink half the Amontillado and take the full width of Fishermen's Walk going home. And surely nothing in the next ten thousand years would ever persuade Gervasse to go Outside.
Jerry treated himself to a shave, using a straight razor to force steadiness back into his hand. He took a shower to show himself that he was not rushing, dragged a comb through his yellow hair. He ran up the spiral staircase to the upper room that served as his bedroom and a private retreat on the rare occasions when the library became too public for him. This, also, was large and had an even finer view of the harbor and half the city through its dormer windows. He had furnished it in a deliberate mishmash of styles and qualities as a counterpoint to the formal precision of the library, with a medieval four-poster next to a twentieth-century rosewood concert grand, and chairs from Colonial American to Louis Quinze. Yet the rare visitors admitted to this private place of his invariably commented first on the collection of helmets laid out on the piano -- eight of them, from Fifth Dynasty Egyptian to Prussian, all kept well polished, and all authentic. Five had been gifts from Killer, three he had collected himself.
Tossing the wand on his bed, he rummaged at the back of the Victorian mahogany wardrobe, finding and donning his Outside clothes -- khaki-green pants, less floppy and a fraction shorter than his others, and a matching cape. His shoulder bag was already packed and ready to grab. He pulled on the green cap and surveyed himself in the mirror; as usual, the outfit made him look like a tall, skinny Robin Hood. This time, though, he could see more stress lines than normal around his eyes, and that was bothersome -- would Killer or the others notice those? He adjusted the cap to a jaunty angle and attempted a debonair smile. . . No, that made him look less scared and more terrified.
He could, he suppose, refuse the summons, but he knew of no one who ever had. He could not guess what might happen. . . perhaps nothing, perhaps the worst. He must ask some of the old-timers and find out if it had been done; probably the Oracle only issued orders it knew would be obeyed. Had it sensed boredom in Jerry Howard? Was that all this was -- a shot of adrenaline to smarten his wits and improve his judgment? Why the hell should he have to take such risks for the sake of someone he had never met, who more than likely would spurn what he had to offer? Why -- when citizens like Gervasse were left in peace?
Refuse then, coward.
He retrieved the wand and trotted down the stairs in his soft felt boots. Gervasse, glass in hand, was standing by the table, frowning into the The Scarlet Pimpernel.
He looked up, unabashed, and asked, "The Mandeville Bestiary? It's out?" Jerry was already in his workshop. "Madame Buono, I think, or Guil-lamo -- check the register." He returned, shut the double doors, and stuck a note on them: GONE OUTSIDE -- MAKE YOURSELF AT HOME -- JERRY.
"Thanks, Gervasse." He paused at the door. "If I'm more than a couple of days -- see to the shelving for me, will you?" He hated to come back and find hundreds of homeless books waiting for him.
"Of course, dear boy," Gervasse said. "Glad to. And good luck." He blinked a few times and sent a concerned frown after Jerry as he vanished through the front door and padded down the steps to Fishermen's Walk.
Sven's house was a barnlike hall, dimly lit by high-set windows, smelling always of wood smoke from the great fireplace. It was filled with long tables and benches for feasting; his collection of swords, shields, and axes almost covered the walls. Large, smelly dogs snored happily in the corners, and there was always food piled on sideboards in case of unexpected famine -- a model Valhalla.
As Jerry pushed through the door from bright sunlight into cool dimness, he saw that the tables had been pushed aside. Two large, naked, and oiled men stood locked together, straining, heaving, and grunting like some monumental sculpture wired for sound -- Sven and Marcus. Six or seven others stood around them, cheering, jeering, and commenting; some dressed, some not. The lessons in Greek wrestling were still underway, then, and surprisingly, Killer had his clothes on.
Then the newcomer was spotted. "Wand!" shouted a voice. Sven went hurtling through the air and crashed to the floor; Marcus yelled in triumph; everyone else raced over to Jerry and surrounded him.
Inevitably Killer was first and for just a moment he stood on his toes with his hands out, eyes shining, ready to grab the wand. Then he noted Jerry's battle costume and the gleam in his eye and the shoulder bag. So this was not merely a messenger from the Oracle; the wand was not for him. His eager expression became guarded, his fingers relaxed, and he settled back on his heels, looking then, as he usually did, as though he had been built on the spot by the people who did Stonehenge.
Killer was broad and thick, easily the shortest man present, as well as the youngest. His curly black hair flopped loosely above a face boyishly smooth, yet clouded by a perpetual blue beard-shadow and marred by a red scar on his right temple. At present it also showed a fading black eye and a badly crushed nose. He folded his hands to indicate calmness -- the wrists showing below the hem of his cloak were as thick as boots -- and he grinned hugely, revealing a ragged collection of broken, missing, and half-grown teeth.
"How many?" he demanded.
"One," Jerry said cautiously. "You were limping."
He sensed the surge of disappointment all around him, but he also noted the wary flicker in Killer's eye.
"Twisted my ankle," Killer said. "I got to you first, didn't I?" It was rare to see him on the defensive. Certainly he had reached Jerry first -- but he had been facing the door, and, while his morals, ethics, motives, and sanity were frequent subjects of debate in his absence, no one ever questioned his reflexes. Jerry glanced thoughtfully around the other faces, trying vainly to read their opinions, then turned his attention back to Killer.
"A very short message," he said. " 'Take a wagon and a staunch friend and clothes for one.' "
"So?" Killer demanded. No one else spoke. Shortest and youngest, yet the undisputed leader.
Jerry made his decision -- not that he had ever doubted what it would be -- and shrugged. "You interested?" he asked. Killer rattled the armor collection with a titanic whoop, grabbed him in a life-threatening hug, and kissed him.
Killer was like that.
The others prized the winded Jerry loose and shook his hand warmly, their grips all gritty from the sand used in Greek wrestling. They smelled of sweat and oil and somehow of disappointment, but their concern and their good wishes were sincere, and the unfamiliar attention made him squirm.
Killer squeezed Sven's massive, oiled, hairy arm. "Put off the game till I get back?" he demanded.
Sven nodded and grinned. Because of his size he looked much more ferocious than Killer, but in his case a little of it was bluff. His monstrous red-gold beard opened in a grin. "Get you then," he said.
Killer's hand settled on Jerry's shoulder. "Planning a game of mayhem. Want you on my team." Jerry tried to suppress a shudder and a sickening feeling in his stomach. "Sure," he said. . . and saw Killer's amusement. "Something to look forward to," he added; Marcus and Tig both laughed. Probably no one but Killer truly enjoyed mayhem, but to refuse would be to resign from his friendship. A boar hunt would be a cocktail party compared to mayhem.
"Ivan?" Killer said, wheeling around. "Tell Will and Aku I've gone? Sven, you handle the fencing, will you? And, Tig, get some tusks for me?" Tiglath's white teeth gleamed in the middle of the biggest, darkest mass of hair in Mera; normally only his bullet-hole eyes and hooked nose showed in that Ninevehian jungle. "You catch your own," he said.
Killer laughed and turned his own motley tooth-collection on Jerry again. "Let's move!" "You need to go home first?" Jerry asked. "Anything you need?" Killer shook his head. Jerry should have known -- Killer would shave with a dagger if necessary and either help himself to Jerry's toothbrush or use a twig. He wore unobtrusive gray-green colors on principle, and no one traveled lighter.
"How about your wife?" Marcus asked gruffly.
Killer shrugged. "One of you tell her," he said and led the way to the door.
Copyright © 1987 by Dave Duncan