Fool Me Twiceby Matthew Hughes
After returning from his quest to save the world from his uncle, Filidor Vesh now stumbles blindly through an attempt to squelch the machinations of a would-be political usurper. As a result, he must contend with evil agents as well as his true love.
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Since his official investiture as the Archon's apprentice, it had become the morning habit of Filidor Vesh to take a late breakfast on the streetside balcony of a place in the Shamblings district where he was known and well treated. Fortified by slices of spiced dolcetacc and cups of steaming punge, he would linger over the pages of the Olkney Implicator: not for news of weighty matters, but for the artfully phrased columns of the notorious scandal hound Tet Folbrey. The scribbler wrote in a ribald code that disclosed, to those who knew the key, which members of the city's often wanton elite were doing things with and to each other that they would have preferred not to read about in the public prints. Lawsuits were often threatened, sometimes brought, rarely settled, but through all of it, Folbrey wrote on. Filidor had heard somewhere, though certainly not in the man's column, that the tattler had gained his impregnable position at the Implicator by marrying the badtempered daughter of its owner, Lord Vadric Magguffynne.
The Archon's apprentice himself was an occasional target of the scandalmonger's barbs. Filidor was a young man, with a young man's appetites and inclinations, which sometimes conspired to lead him into situations that lacked decorum, and among companions who pursued a life of continual romp and riot. On one such occasion, Folbrey had reported on a house party at which Filidor had presided over an auction of the hostess's garments, which she had removed one by one as the bids increased in both size and fervor. Filidor did not dispute the accuracy of the Implicator's account, but felt that his privacy-not to mention that of his hostess- had been invaded. Not one to trifle with underlings, he went to the home of the owner to complain.
Lord Magguffynne received him in a dark drawing room walled with shelves and cluttered with tables, all of which bore relics of his family's ancient glories. The aristocrat was a tall, spare man of rigid posture, with a face as narrow and unyielding as a sword blade. He heard the young man's complaint with an air of detachment, then dismissed the matter with a casual word. Filidor felt that the interview was not going well, and said, "Perhaps you would take a different tone if this affair was brought to my uncle's attention."
The Magguffynne smiled a thin smile and said, "I should think that would create more difficulties for you than for me."
In truth, Filidor did not wish to test his uncle's views regarding his recreations. His uncle was Dezendah VII, ninetyeighth Archon of those parts of Old Earth still inhabited by human beings in this, the world's penultimate age. Some said the old man ought to be numbered as the ninety-ninth to exercise the vast but ill-defined powers of the Archonate, but that was because they counted the brief and unsuccessful usurpation by the detested Holmar Thurm, who had treacherously removed the Archon Barsamine V from office some centuries before. Among those who bothered to think about the matter, the majority opinion held that the lamentable Thurm had earned no place in the official record, the fact that his skin was preserved somewhere in the dusty archives beneath the Archonate palace notwithstanding.
Either way, all agreed that the Archon Dezendah VII was the pinnacle of Old Earth's social order, with powers beyond limit, although the means and mechanisms by which those powers were exercised were unclear even to those who bothered themselves with questions of governance. Filidor's appreciation of his uncle was less abstract. He was aware that his behavior had often failed to measure up to the Archon's expectations, and the awareness caused him some inner pain.
His threat to appeal to his uncle had been a bluff, and Lord Magguffynne had called it. They therefore agreed to disagree, and the issue was dropped unsettled. Filidor attempted to be a little more discreet in his amusements, and for a time his name figured less often in Folbrey's column.
Now he sipped his morning punge and deciphered a particularly savory item about an unexpected meeting between wizened old Lord Escophalate's last mistress and her successor, a young lady of apparently remarkable character, which had escalated into a public charivari and the loss of at least one stook of dyed hair. Chuckling, he dropped his eyes to the next slanderous morsel and had read half of it before he grew aware that the subject of the report was himself.
What highly placed gadling, Folbrey wrote, was troughing it to his very hocks at The Prodigious Palate last night, gaggled by the usual hem tuggers? The rarest pressings from the eatery's cellar flowed in cataracts, as the gourmands gobbled a path through the entire menu, then began anew with appetizers. Knowledgeable prognosticators believe that the boy's uncle will absolutely fizzicate when he sees the bill.
A brief cloud of concern passed over the normally untroubled landscape of the young man's mind, but soon evanesced into nothing, leaving his inner skies clear. It was a mild enough bite at his ankles, and Filidor was fairly sure that his uncle was not a devotee of the man's column. And even if the item should somehow come to the Archon's attention, the odds were that no censure more stringent than a mild reproach would descend upon his nephew; at least, no penalties had yet been exacted for a score of past libertinous routs he had hosted for his circle of aristocratic friends. Filidor would have liked to take more comfort from that argument, but the experience of his brief lifetime had shown him that sometimes his uncle would take considerable pains to teach him a lesson. Invariably, the pains were Filidor's.
But, at the moment, all was peace and good order upon this sunny balcony, and Filidor was well practiced at living in the moment. He ordered another mug of punge, finished the remaining items in Folbrey's column, then turned the page to find a critic's notice of a theatrical event that he and his coterie had happened to witness in Indentors Square the evening before as they were making their way to the Palate. It was an openair performance by a traveling company that billed itself as Flastovic's Incomparable Mummery Troupe and Raree Exposition. Masked and robed in imaginative costumes, the players silently enacted scenes from the works of a dramatist of bygone years known only as The Bard Obscure, while an austere disclamator, who Filidor thought was too fond of his own voice, stood to one side of the portable stage in mask and robe and recited the text of the drama.
Like most of his circle, Filidor had at least heard of The Bard Obscure, a maker of tragicomic plays and vignettes that were no longer popular among the sophisticated set. Many of them were set on the imaginary planet Far Forbish, a roughrambling frontier much distant from Earth, out at the other end of the Spray. The Archon's apprentice had stopped with his friends at the rear of the small crowd of spectators when the disclamator portentously called out the title of the work they were about to perform.
"Love and Irony," he said, "by The Bard Obscure." He paused and swept his eyes across the almost empty square, as if surveying a vast throng, before continuing. "Into the mining camp at Flatpoke Creek came Badrey Huzzantz, his cheeks unburnt and his gear unscorched."
A masked mummer jauntily crossed the stage and stood, legs widespread, knuckles on hips, as if taking stock of new surroundings. The rest of the troupe were off to the side, ignoring his arrival.
"Huzzantz announced that he had crossed the Spray to pry a bonanza in gems from the fumaroles, and to return home with a fortune plucked from the fiery magma."
The other players now gathered round, nudging and elbowing each other in prelude to a prank, then one stepped forward and put his arm around the newcomer's shoulders.
The disclamator said, "A grizzled veteran of the fire fields named Ton Begbo thought to make sport with the young tyro. He told Huzzantz that never could he name himself a true Forbishite until he had completed two tasks: first, achieve carnal congress with Madame Valouche, empress of the camp courtesans; second, deliver a resounding kick to the armored hindquarters of a sixpronged weftry."
The mummer playing Badrey Huzzantz raised masked chin and clenched fist in a show of determination. The others mimed raucous encouragement.
"Huzzantz vowed he would fulfill all requirements, and would have set out forthwith, but the others assured him that every rite of passage must traditionally begin with buying each wellwisher a tot of fierce drink and toasting them singly and severally."
The players leaned upon each other, bending their elbows and bringing cupped hands to lips, until the hero of the tale "stumbled forth from their midst, fist again raised like a banner with a strange device, and swore that he would not return till he had dealt, according to their natures, with both Madame Valouche and the dreaded weftry."
The character staggered offstage, while the carousers carried on with their imbibery. Then from the wings came a great thunder and clatter that betokened a dire contest, rising thump upon clash to a ringing climax. There ensued a long silence, while the other mummers stood in attitudes of awed expectation, before the hero stumbled back into view, his robe rent, his mask askew, and his body bent at unusual angles.
The disclamator spoke. "'Well enough,' cried Badrey Huzzantz. 'Now, where is this whore I'm supposed to kick?'"
The other Far Forbishers mimed amazement and mirth, slapping hands to knees and holding jiggling bellies. But then the curtains parted at the rear of the stage and a giant head appeared, a gold and green weftry crowned with six segmented spines. The mummers, save Huzzantz, froze in postures of horror. But then the weftry unrolled a long tongue of red velour, until the tip gently touched the hand of Badrey Huzzantz, who turned and affectionately stroked the glistering chitin of the beast's forehead. Together, the head and the man backed through the curtain, until only the hero's mask remained. Huzzantz shook his head dismissively.
"Never mind," said the disclamator, and the stage went to black.
It had been a diverting performance, enlivened during the intermission by a shout and a bustle from the far side of the square, where someone cried out that his purse had been lifted. Filidor might have stayed for more, but the delights of The Prodigious Palate were beckoning, so he and his friends left just as the disclamator announced that the next playlet would be the classic, A Man, a Tavern, and a Duck.
The Implicator's critic professed a less positive view of the troupe's offerings, and thought it appropriate that the mummers would soon depart for a tour of provincial towns. Filidor sipped his punge and turned to the news page, which was topped by a headline about an intercessor from Thurloyn Vale who was believed to have been lost at sea after absconding with the contents of his clients' trust funds. A wavering pain passed behind his forehead, no doubt brought on by last night's excesses and made worse by a rumble of heavy wheels on Ipscarry Way where it ran below the balcony. He put down the periodical and turned to look for the source of the noise.
A stubby, ungainly vehicle of the kind commonly used to transport farm goods, but now roughly converted to carry passengers, was trundling up the street's gentle slope. The bed of its cargo hold had been softened with cushions and duffels, on which sat two persons in rustic dress. Filidor glanced idly at them, and would have returned to the Implicator and his breakfast, but just then one of the travelers chanced to look up, and her eyes caught Filidor's. And held them.
The eyes were large and seagreen, slightly slanted, and set in a heartshaped face that was topped by careless ringlets of coppery hair. The features were not so striking a vision as to stir Filidor's inner workings-he saw more beautiful women at many of the evening salons and catered runavaunts to which his status as the Archon's heir gave him entry-but then the girl smiled, and the effect was like the old orange sun finding its warm way through a chink in a cloud. The street seemed to glow with inner light, and Filidor felt his own cheeks stretching in a matching grin, which soon broke under the pressure of a small, spontaneous laugh. At that, the young woman's smile also deepened, and had the vehicle not been carrying her steadily away from him, Filidor might have spoken, she might have answered, an acquaintanceship would have been sparked, and subsequent events would not have unfolded in quite so complicated a manner.
Instead, the conveyance belched bluish fumes from a rear orifice, grunted down into a lower gear, and turned the corner into Hennenfent Street, carrying her out of his sight, and plunging the young man's world back into shadow. The change moved Filidor to an unaccustomed urgency. He left his morning pastry half nibbled and his second cup of punge unsipped, threw Folbrey to the floor tiles, and threaded his way among the tables toward the stairs.
He emerged below on busy Ipscarry and cast about for a jitney to hire. None was in sight, but then he blessed his luck as an official black and green Archonate cabriol suddenly eased out of the traffic and drew into the curb beside him. Filidor pulled open the front passenger door and launched himself into the interior, drawing forth his identification plaque as he did so, preparing to demonstrate superiority of rank to whatever bureaucrat had requisitioned the car, then to send it in pursuit of the hauler.
"Quickly," he said to the controls, "turn onto Hennenfent and follow the carryall with the people in the back."
"I regret," said a moist and languid voice from the rear seat, "that pressing circumstances compel us in another direction."
Filidor's heart, lifted by the girl's smile into the topmost reaches of his chest, now reversed course and plunged to the bottom of his belly. He well knew the voice; it belonged to Faubon Bassariot, a smooth, ovoid man of middle years and supercilious style, who wore much of his hair in a single curl pomaded to his forehead. He had risen to a high echelon among the panjandrums at the Archon's palace before he was chosen by the Archon himself to assume a particular duty: to be Filidor's majordomo and daily taskmaster. To that purpose, he had assembled and oversaw a staff of functionaries whose career hopes were tied to his own prominence, and these officials became the personal staff of the Archon's apprentice. But though the staff was Filidor's, and though Bassariot's title was chief of that small bureaucracy, there was no question as to who was in charge; in all the vast apparatus of the Archonate, Bassariot was the one functionary to whom Filidor could never say no.
Nevertheless, he tried. "Those circumstances must wait," said the young man. "I have urgent concerns."
"Indeed you do," said the official, "and I am carrying you to them."
Filidor knew that neither hauteur nor entreaty would move Bassariot. He drooped, and laid his head against the side window as the ground car negotiated its way through the traffic to a gate at the base of the heights that reared above ancient Olkney. Vehicle and gate conversed in the usual routine, then the barrier gave way and allowed the cabriol to ascend the winding road whose terminus was the sprawling palace of the Archonate, nestled in the crags above the rambling, sybaritic city of Olkney, at the tip of the peninsula of the same name.
Filidor saw none of the passing courts and gardens, the statuary and vistas arranged to intrigue the visitor during the long ascent. His awareness was fixed on an inward vision: a tumble of hair, a pair of eyes one might drown in, and most of all a smile to illuminate the hollow recesses of his being. He sighed. A paradise briefly glimpsed was now lost. But then a thought occurred: the apparatus of the Archonate was a by-word for farreaching power; could he not use its resources to identify and locate the young woman who had so instantly captured his senses? A few flicks of his finger in the direction of the appropriate device, and surely the answers would be divulged. Then he would. . .here the plan's coherence began to unravel, yet Filidor was confident that he would somehow contrive to encounter again the wielder of that obliterating smile, and in a setting and context that would present him in a most admirable light.
He needed to get to his office. He sat up straight and lightly drummed his fingers on the car's interior padding. "Will this thing not move faster?" he said.
A sniff was Bassariot's only reply.
In time, the cabriol deposited them at a door near Filidor's offices. The Archon's apprentice hurried inside and down the short corridor to his suite, and did not breathe fully comfortably until the door was closed behind him. The Archon might be encountered in any part of the sprawling complex, and the young man was anxious to avoid a meeting.
The year before, their relationship had been much warmer. Filidor had won the Archon's affection and respect by saving the old man's life; it was also noteworthy that, at the same time, he had delivered the world from an ancient, recurrent evil that seeped in from an adjacent plane, where malevolence was merely a natural phenomenon, akin to weather or gravity in this cosmos. Although the young man had acted blindly, indeed in sheer panic, with no display of the cool and judicious tone for which the Archonate was renowned, his uncle had judged the intent and result of his actions to be of more significance than the style of their execution. Filidor had been welcomed to the little man's firm embrace, and proclaimed the Archon's official heir and apprentice.
A year ago, there had been no doubt that Filidor had come a long way, though there remained a long way yet to go. Today, the way ahead was even longer, because once he had returned to the familiar haunts and temptations of Olkney, Filidor had backslid. Old habits and old companions, both of them bad, had reclaimed him. At times-especially in the darkest hours of the night-he wished it were not so, wished that he could find again the sense of boundless possibility that had filled him on the plains of Barran, when he had saved his uncle and Old Earth from destruction.
He felt an echo of it now, remembering the face of the young woman in the carryall. Having reached his comfortably appointed office without encountering his uncle, Filidor made his way quickly to his desk. He seated himself behind its expanse and pressed one of the studs set into the ornamented edge. The simulacrum of a screen appeared in the air before him, at a comfortable height for viewing. A chime sounded, followed by a disembodied voice that seemed to speak from near the young man's ear, saying, "What?"
"I need to find someone," Filidor said.
"That is an essential part of the human condition," said the voice, "often complemented by an equal need to be found."
"I do not wish to meander through a philosophical discourse," said Filidor. He knew that the circuits of the Archonate's millenniaold integrator would often respond to his inquiries on practical matters with long-winded diversions involving abstract speculations and obscure commentaries. He suspected that his uncle had ordered it so. Filidor had long resisted the Archon's attempts to educate him by frontal assaults on his ignorance, causing the old man to shift to flank attacks from unexpected quarters. "I wish to locate a young woman."
"Stand on a corner," advised the integrator. "Doubtless several will soon pass by."
"I wish to find a particular one," said Filidor.
"If she is very particular, she may well wish not to be found by you," said the voice, rewarding itself with a small snort. "Here now, wasn't that good?"
Filidor had always judged the device's forays into humor to be less successful than did their author. "Let us begin again," he said.
"No," interrupted the majordomo, reaching over Filidor's shoulder and disengaging the connection. "Indulge yourself later. Concerns of state outweigh juvenile fascinations. There are delegations to receive."
Filidor sighed. This was always a duty, rarely a pleasure. It was not the petitioners themselves; most were polite, some even deferential. But the requests were too often presented in arcane and ancient forms, their substance obscured by forests of formal rhetoric and allusions to well-known-precedents that Filidor had never heard of. All too often, he would find himself staring politely at some earnest group of supplicants as they completed their arguments, then bowed and awaited his judgment. Sometimes he would continue to stare at them for periods of time too long to be called moments. They no doubt assumed that he was deliberating carefully, when in truth he was wondering what on earth they wanted, and what he was supposed to say about it.
For Filidor, the difficulty with his official life was that, most of the time, he had a slim grasp of what he was doing, and an even more tenuous grip on what he was supposed to be doing. The problem had begun soon after he had returned from the previous year's journey in the discomfiting company of his uncle.
On their expedition, Filidor had been pressed unwillingly and unknowingly into the role of apprentice to the Archon as well as his heir apparent. He was propelled through a number of the singular societies that flourished in the world of Earth's penultimate age, daily risking death and dismemberment to resolve paradoxes that threatened social happiness. An ignorant stranger in a succession of strange lands, often acting solely from instinct and terror, Filidor had somehow managed not only to survive, but to earn his uncle's warm approval. When their meanderings brought them at last back to the Archonate palace on the tip of the Olkney Peninsula, Filidor had been invested with his plaque and sigil, assigned a dignified suite of offices, and left in the cold, damp hands of Faubon Bassariot.
Months had now passed, but Filidor knew little more today than he had in those hectic weeks during which he and his uncle had wandered from place to place, participating in actions that somehow indirectly restored a rough equilibrium to one or another society that had strayed too far from the mean-an ancient function of the Archon known as the progress of esteeming the balance-then they would move on to where they might be needed next. It became clear to Filidor that the Archon tended toward the tangential approach: he would arrange for an institution to tremble from a slight nudge at its foundation; he might subject a population to an unsought and unexpected demonstration of an alternative social arrangement; when their work was done, the agents of enlightenment would be on their way down the road, often in a hurry, and not infrequently just ahead of an outraged citizenry.
That much of the Archonate's workings, Filidor knew from experience. The rest was still conjecture. Everyone knew that the Archon, revered and deferred to by all, exercised ultimate dominion over humankind. His palace housed legions of functionaries and underlings, most of whose duties seemed to involve moving things from one place to another, or standing in apparently deep contemplation. There was an Archonate bureau, fully staffed and equipped, in every human settlement of reasonable size. Built over uncounted millennia, the Archonate was universally regarded as the magnificent culmination of the science of governance, yet Filidor could not have specified exactly what it did or how it did it.
On one occasion when he had encountered his uncle in the warren of halls and corridors that riddled through the palace, Filidor posed the question bluntly. He seized the Archon's threadbare black garment, causing the little man to execute a half turn, and demanded, "What is our function?"
His uncle freed himself from Filidor's grasp by a subtle movement of his rootlike fingers, stroked his yellowy bald pate, and spoke in a voice like a rustle in dead grass. "Surely this is self-evident. The function of the Archonate is to arrange for the populace to have what it needs."
"But how am I to know what the people need?"
"That is the art of governing, and like any art, it is acquired by diligent practice. Keep at it. I have every faith that you're coming along admirably." And with that, the little man was gone.
Thus was Filidor set adrift, without chart or compass, on a sea of administration. But, though aimless, his voyage was for the most part a placid one. Faubon Bassariot, aided by an efficient staff, dealt with many routine affairs, as well as some that were of more than passing weight, before they reached Filidor's desk. But some petitioners must be granted direct contact with the Archon's heir. And sometimes this led to Filidor's experiencing the sensation known to waders who step beyond an underwater ledge and find themselves sinking abruptly into the darkness of an unplumbed abyss.
As Bassariot denied him his search for the girl seen from the balcony, Filidor felt an intimation that today would bring another floundering in the murk of Archonate business. The young man laced his fingers in his lap and said, "What have we this morning?"
"Two delegations, and some officers of the fiduciary section urgently desire to discuss your expenses," said the functionary.
Filidor made a dismissive gesture. "All that before lunch?"
"One delegation must be received as soon as possible."
Bassariot made an airy gesture. "Although the matter is not weighty, the petitioners are persons of note. But the other group might possibly keep."
"Very well," said the Archon's apprentice, slumping a little in his chair. "Bring on the necessity."
Almost an hour later, he was sitting in the same position, fighting his eyelids' inclination to migrate down to the bottom of their range, as a quartet of worthies from the upper strata of Olkney society slowly reached the culmination of their petition. Filidor dragged his gaze from them and looked instead through one of the mullioned windows that broke the outer wall of his office. He saw a pair of phibranos swirling in multihued arcs around a blackened tower, feathers flamed by red sunlight, tumbling through the aerial combat of courtship. The birds swooped low and were lost from his sight, and he became aware again of the droning voice on the other side of his desk.
"...and therefore," said the leader of the delegation, a plump man with silver hair and hooded eyes, which he now flicked back to the scroll in his stubfingered hand, "pursuant to Articles Seven and Twelve of the Policy of Amenable Leniency, we respectfully seek the Archonate's concurrence in these, our worthy aims." With a tidy flourish, he rerolled the document and presented it to Filidor. Then he guided his ornate hat to a soft landing on his well-coiffed locks, folded small pink hands across a brocaded paunch, and awaited the response of authority.
Which response Filidor was at a loss to give. He stared at the man in a lengthening silence until Faubon Bassariot discreetly cleared his throat.
"Well," said Filidor, then after a moment said, "well," again. He unrolled the scroll and studied its ornate script, but found no help; somewhere within its tangled thicket of traditional phraseology and timehonored language there may have been a simple statement of purpose-ought to have been one, he thought-but if so it was beyond his finding. He sighed: once again, not only did he not know what decision was expected of him, he was not at all sure what the subject of the petition was.
The chief petitioner now cleared his throat, with even more emphasis than Bassariot. Filidor could delay no longer. "This is a most interesting request," he said. "I would like an opportunity to study it in depth, perhaps to consult with my officials..." He trailed off as he noted the four petitioners' eyebrows molding into the position of offended disbelief. "No more than a perfunctory review..." Filidor tried again, and saw the eight carefully tended ranks of hair descend to the position of incipient outrage.
Another of the delegation stepped forward, a thin woman in black, whose shaven skull was haloed by a complex nimbus of gold filaments and precious stones. Filidor thought he recognized her as a dowager of a highly placed family, perhaps even those who owned the Implicator, and wondered if he might bargain for kindlier treatment by Tet Folbrey. He decided the idea was not advisable when the woman said, in a voice like tearing paper, "We did not come for shillyshallying. Our aims are clearly set forth, our methods are simple and efficacious, and all is animated by a lucid philosophy."
A metal-plated fingertip sliced the air as she went on, "In any case, the Policy of Amenable Leniency admits of no unwarranted delay. You must decide, and now."
Filidor had developed two strategies for dealing with delegations. His preferred course-to dodge the issue until it could be passed to someone else within the Archonate establishment- had just been rendered bankrupt. He smoothly shifted to the alternate approach.
"Of course, of course, just so," he said, and allowed his fingertips to strike his forehead, "quite correct. What was I thinking? Proceed, by all means, proceed. You have my complete concurrence."
In unison, the four petitioners performed an audible intake of breath. "Then you will graciously endorse the document with your sigil," said the woman.
"Great pleasure," said Filidor. He twisted the ring on his index finger, pressed its entaglioed surface against the paper, and felt the brief tingle as the mark of Archonate approval was indelibly impressed into the document. "There you have it," he said, and passed the scroll to the chief petitioner.
The four petitioners eyed one another with a curious intensity, and Filidor had a faint inkling that each was sup pressing an urge to shout and caper energetically about the room. Instead, they hurried through the gestures that were appropriate to a formal occasion and departed.
Filidor let loose yet another sigh, this one a mingle of relief and despair. The flaw in agreeing to whatever was presented to him, he realized, was the constant risk of an unfortunate outcome. However, he comforted himself, that outcome could reasonably be expected to be at some distance in the future, or perhaps its impacts would be felt in some faroff place. This future Archon wished to believe that tomorrows could be trusted to look after themselves. He returned his gaze to the window, but the phibranos had gone off on other business.
Bassariot had escorted the magnates from the room. Filidor took advantage of his absence to recall the integrator's screen into existence. "She was about my age, with red hair, green eyes, wonderful mouth," he told it.
"Who?" said the integrator.
"The woman I want you to find," said Filidor.
The screen blinked faintly, then the voice said, "There are somewhere between four and eleven million such women, depending on the definition of 'wonderful.' "
"She wore simple clothing."
"That is not a great help."
"She was riding in a converted farm vehicle," Filidor said. "There can't be all that many women doing that."
"Obviously, you do not frequent rural communities," said the integrator.
"I don't think you are trying your best," Filidor said, "you old confustible!"
The disembodied voice dropped to a mumble, but Filidor thought he heard the phrase "trying my patience." He would have to speak to his uncle about this equipment.
He gathered himself for a renewed effort, but it was forestalled by the reentry of Faubon Bassariot. "The other delegation awaits," said the functionary.
"What do they want?"
The man's smile was the only thin thing about him. "Your attention, one supposes."
"Are they like the last ones, a cluster of magnates?"
"If you mean, are they the sort to complain in higher circles," Bassariot said, his nose assuming an even more elevated angle than normal, "I think not. I take them to have come from some uncultured and distant community, their dress being simple and travel-worn."
Filidor gestured to the screen and said, in a breezy tone, "You see that I am absorbed in intricate and consequential matters. I cannot be disturbed. Perhaps they might see my uncle."
The official's expression was artfully composed. "Indeed, they first sought the Archon's attention; he suggested they might profit from an interview with yourself."
A weight fitted itself upon Filidor's shoulders. Petitioners referred by his uncle were often the most perplexing. He grasped for the last available straw. "Have they an actual appointment?"
Bassariot looked thoughtful for a while, then said, "Not as such."
"Then make them one, at some convenient space in my schedule."
"The earliest of which would be this moment," said the majordomo, fixing his eyes on the empty air beyond Filidor's shoulder.
"No, no," said the young man. "No, no. My time is at present fully taken up. An urgent matter, which admits of no delay."
Bassariot angled his head to one side, like a bird inspecting something edible. "I see."
"Yes, good, well," said Filidor and sought at once to buttress the flimsy foundations of his escape. "I have it! They could put their case in writing-which you could then review- and advise me before I meet with them...which I could do, shall we say..."
Filidor regarded the man's round, cool face, as bland as a boiled egg, and recalled that nothing that happened within the palace could, with absolute safety, be considered unknown to Dezendah Vesh. "Tomorrow morning," he agreed.
Bassariot departed, leaving Filidor to resume his interrogation of the integrator. But the machine seemed determined to frustrate his simple aim, and the more the Archon's apprentice sought to steer the conversation toward practical ends, the further afield the device's philosophical wanderings led them.
"Ultimately, of course," it said, "all things devolve to a question of identity. I think, therefore I am, certainly. And one can say, as the ancient sage so succinctly observed: I am what I am, and that's all that I am. But this begs the question, what am I? Am I what I think I am? Does thinking that I am what I am make me what I think I am? Perhaps I am not what I think I am, in which case does it not inevitably follow that I am what I think I am not? Or am I? What do you think?"
"I think I will turn you off," said Filidor, and did so. He would make a search within the Archonate for someone more skilled in dealing with integrators, to see if there was a way to pose elementary questions without risking his emotional equilibrium.
He laid his head upon the desk and called up the vision of the face, the smile. A long, delicious sigh escaped him. He prepared to give another one, but was interrupted by the reappearance of Faubon Bassariot.
"If you are free," he said, "the fiduciary officers are still here. They have brought a number of files, and are eager to join you in examining them."
Filidor wasted no more time. "This integrator is faulty," he said, "I shall seek out Master Apparaticist Berro and have him do things to it. Or with it. Or about it." These options were listed as he made his way to the outer door, opened it, and stepped through into a warm midday, the tired orange sun winking and gleaming from the towers and urbanations of Olkney far below, so that the gaudy old whore of a city looked like a spill of trinkets on the gray-green blanket of the surrounding sea.
A short flight of stone steps led down and turned once, bringing Filidor through an inconspicuous portal into a public area of the palace grounds. He stepped out smartly and took a path that meandered among the melodious blooms of the tintinabulary gardens. Soon he reached the outer edge of the palace's upper terrace, where a descender would bear him swiftly down to the city.
He stepped onto the next arriving disk, planted his feet on the scuffed metal, and grasped the handle firmly. The descender began its slide along an inclined plane of energies, and the uplifting breeze of Filidor's passage streamed his hair from the nape of his neck as Olkney rose to meet him. Farther down, Filidor noticed the four magnates he had met with earlier grouped on a single wide disk. They were behaving in a most animated manner, hugging each other and slapping backs. As the young man watched, the chief petitioner seized his headgear and flung it into the air, not bothering to watch as it fluttered and plunged into a reflective pool far below. Then the woman raised to her lips the scroll Filidor had indented. She appeared to kiss it.
A few minutes later, the descender delivered Filidor onto a pathway that ringed the lowest of the palace's tiered walls. A short walk through lawns and topiary brought him to the wide thoroughfare of Eckhevry Row, which led straight into Olkney's bustling mercantile quarter, where it was said that a purchaser might acquire anything that was worth acquiring, amidst much that was not. The commerciants of Olkney were renowned for their egalitarian spirit, judging rich and poor alike solely by the weight of their purses.
Filidor, however, was beyond their judgment. As a ranking officer of the Archonate, he need carry no specie of any kind. Instead, he wore about his neck a light chain, from which depended a palm-sized plaque of an indestructible green substance, figured in black with symbols and emblems. Upon its presentation, the plaque would serve to afford him food, shelter, transportation, or goods and services whatsoever and to any value. Some accounting of these charges was eventually made to the public treasury; but that was not a matter on which the young man cared to dwell, being content with the simplicity of gaining whatever he desired merely by presenting the lozenge of green and black.
At the moment, the plaque nestled against his chest, under a loose shirt of fine pale stuff, belted at the waist by a cinch of linked semiprecious stones. A pair of twilled trousers, as red and as wide as fashion allowed and tucked into calf-high boots, a short cape of yellow, and a discreet cap bearing a gew-gaw of gold and turquoise, completed his ensemble. As he accompanied his own reflection past the windows of shops and emporia, Filidor was comforted by the unavoidable truth that he cut a fine figure. Any flaws he might offer in either dress or character were not apparent to his own sanguine gaze.
Eckhevry's pedestrian walkways were only moderately abustle with shoppers and gawkers, and Filidor could see some distance ahead the four worthies to whose petition he had given assent. Their spirits continued high, he saw. They strode abreast down the avenue, arms draped across each other's shoulders, their steps so elevated and frisky as to be more dance than mere locomotion. Whatever I have granted them, thought Filidor, has certainly met with their approval. A second thought briefly intruded: Might so much happiness for a few require payment in misery by the many? It was a troublesome notion, so he cast it aside with practiced ease.
The four now turned and gavotted their way up a brief staircase into a squat stone building. Shortly after, Filidor's progress brought him level with the structure, and he glanced up to see a wall of unornamented blocks and a small massive wooden door. Beside the entry was a plain, new-looking placard identifying the place as the premises of "The Ancient and Excellent Company of Assemblors and Sundry Merchandisers." Filidor recalled that name from the petition, but could not specify what its line of business might be.
Above the sign was an older insignia. He thought he recognized it as the arms of the Magguffynne family, but Olkney boasted dozens of such ancient bloodlines, whose members found in their genealogies a source of pride and who jealously guarded their positions on the social scale. Those who were not members of the selfconscious elite-in other words, the overwhelming majority of the city's population-paid no attention to the aristocrats' rivalries.
Nor did Filidor care to. It might be that the petition he had granted was a ploy in some arcane struggle between noble houses over who had the right to wear this or that panache in one or the other style of cap. The impenetrability of the plea's language argued for it. If so, he did not care. The Archon outranked every other gradation of the social order, and presumably so did Filidor. He resolved, for better or worse, to put the matter behind him. Its ramifications, if any, would unfold in the future, leaving the present free for more pleasant concerns, chief among them a good lunch.
Filidor stepped into the traffic, dodged between motilators and drays, and crossed safely to the opposite side of Eckhevry, then turned into Vodel Close, a side street which boasted the premises of Xanthoulian's, an eating house that was everything it ought to be.
He climbed a set of steps and entered a tastefully appointed room, well lit by tall windows that allowed diners to reflect at leisure on the qualities and singularities of passersby, and to enjoy the envy of those beyond the glass whose means could not encompass the exorbitant prices that gave the place its exclusivity. Filidor took his usual seat, considered the bill of fare, and casually arranged for his plaque to dangle openly on his shirtfront.
He decided to begin with an array of small piquant dishes, then follow with a robust stew, all ending with some subtle delicacy that would gracefully round out the whole. He beckoned to the servitor, a long, pale man with a pronounced stoop, well trained in skillful obsequiousness: he praised each of Filidor's selections as evidence of the customer's attainments as a gourmet of the first water. When Filidor began to name particular vintages to accompany the courses, the menial achieved such paroxysms of ecstatic adoration that the Archon's apprentice feared the fellow might pitch a swoon and collapse across the table.
With his order carried triumphantly to the kitchen, Fili dor turned his attention to the street outside. The usual flux of powered and pedestrian traffic flowed by: functionaries and mercantilists, identifiable by their symbols of authority and wealth; artisans and effectors with the paraphernalia of their crafts and disciplines; and those made idle by too much good fortune or too little, the latter often begging the former for some mite of support.
Occasionally, there passed by persons less easily defined: oddly clad outlanders and travelers pursuing their idiosyncratic ends across the face of the ancient globe; and, rarely, some representative of the ultramond races that had settled on Old Earth in distant, bygone millennia, transforming wastelands into facsimiles of landscapes whose originals were lightdecades distant.
Filidor watched the ebb and flux of passersby, until a rustically clad group of pedestrians moving along the walkway on the other side of Vodel Close reminded him of the passengers in the carryall, which made him think again of the instant when the young woman had turned her eyes up to his, flooding him with her smile. The remembered image was so strong that it almost prevented him from realizing that the people now passing out of view across the small street were none other than the very same folk from that morning, including the girl with the smile, and that he was now once again about to lose the opportunity to make himself known to her.
He sprang at once from his chair, and struck out across the crowded room, caroming off the waiter, upon each of whose extended arms balanced several small saucers filled with pickles, sweetmeats, and appetizers. The man went down with a clatter and a stream of observations on Filidor's character that were at wide variance from those he had earlier vouchsafed. The Archon's apprentice heard none of it. He burst through the street door and was down the steps and into Vodel Close before the last dish had ceased rattling on the restaurant's floor.
He caught sight of his quarry a few score paces away and across the street, and immediately stretched his legs to catch them up. Heedless of persons in his way, or of the sharp opinions they expressed, he flung himself through the intervening distance until his outstretched fingers touched the shoulder of the girl.
She turned, startled, alarm and puzzlement in her seagreen eyes, which then widened farther as recognition dawned. Filidor was relieved to see that she remembered him from the morning, and then delighted to see that this second encounter appeared to be as welcome to her as it was to him. She set her top teeth lightly on her lower lip and regarded him with the frank appreciation she might have given to an unexpected present before tearing loose the ribbon.
"Well, hello," she said.
"Hello, indeed," he answered.
One of her companions, a solidly built young man for whom the word "thick" was an almost universal description- thick neck and wrists, thick hair and lips-now came around the girl and positioned himself more in front than beside her. His expression indicated that he doubted Filidor was any kind of gift at all. Another man, older and thin in every way that the other was thick, hovered behind them.
"This is my brother, Thorbe," said the young woman, elbowing her way past the thickness. "And behind me is Ommely, our fetchfellow. I am Emmlyn Podarke, of the town of Trumble."
Filidor affected the most expansive gesture of formal greeting, ending with a flourish that demonstrated practiced grace. "I am Filidor Vesh," he said, "in service to the Archonate."
For the second time in their very short acquaintance, the Archon's apprentice saw raw surprise take charge of Emmlyn's features. Identical expressions seized the other two, and the brother emitted a monosyllable of wonderment.
"This is a wondrous coincidence," the young woman said. "You are the very man that we came to Olkney to see. We wrote to your uncle, and he replied that you were ideally placed to adjudicate our cause."
Filidor's heart now grew beyond all limits. Not only had he met the woman he felt certain could be the light of his being, but she had come to him with some great need that he was uniquely positioned to meet. He knew it must be great if it had brought her all the way to Olkney from a place so distant that he wasn't sure that he had ever heard of it. He would surely meet that need, any precedents and procedures to the contrary be damned, because he would thus endear himself to her, gaining a vantage from which all manner of blessings might be pursued.
"I would be delighted to hear your case," he said. "The Archonate exists to answer your requirements."
"We have an appointment for tomorrow," the brother said. "Meanwhile, we are to put our concerns in writing."
Filidor said, "If you could sketch an outline now, I will be better prepared to weigh the intricacies tomorrow."
Emmlyn tossed her head in a manner that Filidor found delightful. "There are no intricacies," she said. "A cabal of out-of-county folk calling themselves the Ancient and Excellent Company of something or other wish to undertake certain operations on our land, against our expressed will. They cannot help but do harm to our clabber vines, which were planted centuries back by our ancestor Hableck Podarke. Their arrogance is insufferable. They must be stopped."
She placed her hand on Filidor's arm. "But now all is warmth and sunbeams. For here you are, and we are rescued."
But a tiny chill had invaded the sunshine pouring into Vodel Close. "You mentioned a company," he said.
Thorbe Podarke said, "They call themselves The Ancient and Excellent Company of Assemblors and Sundry Merchandisers."
Emmlyn snorted in a feminine way that Filidor would have found enchanting if the chill was not deepening and spreading through his vitals. "Ancient, indeed," she said. "They are but recently formed. Our uncle, Siskine Podarke, thinks them a shield for someone who does not wish to have his ends in public view."
"They are not of respectable character," put in Ommely, as if that judgment was all that ever need be said.
Filidor's insides were now in the grip of full winter. The young woman must have read the distress on his face, for she took his arm in a firmer grip and said, "You look unwell."
"I am so sorry," said the Archon's apprentice.
"I hope I am not in some way the cause of..." she began, but Filidor's fear gave urgency, if not eloquence, to his confession.
"The Company," he cried. "This morning...in my office...a petition...I didn't know...Amenable Leniency, they said..." He held up the finger that wore his sigil ring, and made as if to impress the air between them. "I am so sorry."
Emmlyn's face reordered itself from concern to puzzlement, then moved on to comprehension, and finally settled upon outrage. Filidor flinched under her hardening gaze.
"You didn't," she whispered.
"I did," he replied.
For a long moment, she merely stared at him, while Filidor was seized by a fear that she would walk away from him and that he would never see her again.
Instead, she drew back the hand that had been resting on his arm, made a fist of it, and thumped him soundly on the chest. Filidor staggered back, but she came after him, now bringing the other fist into operation, pummeling his torso with both hands as he backstepped through the pedestrians, and with each landed blow she issued an opinion.
"You bubble! You great noddy! Nibblewit! Lip thrummer!"
More from the effect of her epithets than of her thumpings, Filidor's strength trickled away. His knees softened and he fell backward to the pavement. She came after him still, and he glanced at her sturdy country shoes in fear that she would next set about kicking him. But instead she stood over him for a moment, fists on her hips. Then, shaking her coppery ringlets in token of having come to a decision, she reached down and seized the plaque that hung about his neck. A swift yank and the chain parted. A moment later, she came again and pulled the ring from his finger.
"There!" she said. "Now, if you want these back, you'll have to make yourself properly useful, won't you?" Then she turned on her heel and marched away through the goggling spectators. Her brother and servant delayed a moment to close their mouths, then hurried after.
Filidor raised himself onto his elbows and appealed to the curious faces that looked down at him. "She can't do that," he said.
"Evidently, she can," confirmed a large woman. "Because she just did."
Copyright (c) 2001 by Matt Hughes Company Ltd.
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In the very distant future, Earth¿s sun has become orange signifying the aging of the solar system. In fact, the remaining inhabitants of the planet refer to it as Old Earth, which is governed by one man, The Archon Dezendah VII and his heir Filidor Vesh. Last Year (See FOOLS ERRANT) Filidor saved his uncle¿s life and rescued the world from an ancient evil that slithered in from another dimension. Since then Filidor has reverted to his dandified ways because he feels like he¿s not understanding anything that an Archon needs to do. When a pretty woman who had a temper tantrum steals two valuable objects of his, he is sent by his uncle to fetch them back. Accompanying him is his tutor Bassariot who tries to kill him at the first opportunity. Although he fails to do the job, Filidor winds up at the mercy of pirates and it takes all his intelligence (along with the uses of his ear) to get him and his fellow prisoners out of their predicament. The adventures aren¿t over for Filidor who must remain in hiding from his would be killer who had declared him an outlaw. While all this is going on the Archon has mysteriously vanished. FOOL ME Twice is an irreverent book that doesn¿t take itself seriously yet is nevertheless is very entertaining. MATTHEW HUGHES has a distinctive comedic voice that blends well with the action packed story line. The social structure of Earth in the far distant future is very interesting and is one of the reasons this fantasy novel is going to be as successful as its predecessor was. Harriet Klausner