Read an Excerpt
The Cluster Series: Book Three
By Piers Anthony
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1978 Piers Anthony Jacob
All rights reserved.
Abatement of Honor
&All units drift by for geographic review.&
0Action units 1 through 9 drifting by.0
XResearch units A through Z drifting by.X
&Target Cluster now in range. Geographic unit report.&
GTwo full-scale Galaxies, one small Galaxy, all spiral, six ellipses, seven irregulars, assorted lesser fragments. Overall, typical small Cluster. Nomenclature of local sapients: Milky Way, Andromeda, Pinwheel, Furnace, Sculp, Cloud 9, Cloud 6.G
&Dispense with detail listing; local species identifiers will shortly become passé.&
* * *
His host-body was a peculiar amalgam of loops. He was not certain whether it was all in one jointless string or whether it branched and rejoined at twisted intervals. It had no disks, feet, or treads; on a flat surface it would have been a disaster.
*There are no plane surfaces here,* the host-mind informed him. *No flatnesses. Do not be concerned. I shall convey you safely wherever you wish.*
/Appreciation,/ Herald replied, employing his own mode of intonation, though of course he used the language of Sphere Ast. /I come to encounter Whorl of Precipice./
Immediately the body moved. It twisted up and through a lattice of stone, spun around an angled ceramic column, and tied into a metal basket-frame. This in turn moved, following a flexible line through an astonishing network of shapes. Commercial transport, of course, but a far beam from the forthright geometry of Herald's own sphere.
They came into a cavern laced with stalactites. The host halted abruptly and withdrew his personality, yielding full control to the transferee. Herald realized that he had arrived.
An entity that was superficially like his host convoluted up to meet him. A loop of its body touched Herald's form, and moved in the sensation-language of this species. This one had a good aura of about fifty. *Welcome, expert of Slash,* he pulsed. *I am Whorl of Precipice.*
Herald's normal mode of expression, modulated laser, was even less well suited to inter-entity communication than to internal-host dialogue. But a certain perverse pride of origin caused him to employ it anyway. The result was a tactile rendition that seemed affected.
/I am Herald the Healer./
*Your incredible aura needs no introduction! Just what rating, if I may ask, is it, precisely?*
/Two hundred thirty-six./ Herald was used to such queries, and suffered from no sense of intrusion of privacy. He had the most intense Kirlian aura ever measured, higher even than those of the famous historical characters Flint of Outworld and Melody of Mintaka, from whom it was said he was deviously descended. Their auras had come to historical prominence in the Wars of Energy; there was now no war, so he had made his aura part of his profession.
*Two hundred and thirty-six times normal!* Whorl exclaimed in a violent vibration.
/You have purchased one unit of my time,/ Herald reminded him. /It commenced when we met. You will not wish to waste it./
*Your fee is high, but I feel that only you will be able to help me.*
/I do not guarantee it. Some maladies are not amenable to my art./
*This one surely is. I require the answer to a single question—and you, as the greatest living blazoner, surely have the information.*
/Surely,/ Herald agreed. /I shall of course blazon an Achievement for you. That is the other facet of my profession./
*Unnecessary. I have my Shield of Arms. I merely wish ... an interpretation.*
/You have wasted your fee! Any heraldic scholar of your own Sphere can give you an interpretation at the merest fraction of what you are paying me, and it will be quite as accurate. Heraldry is a fixed art; there is little leeway for interpretation. Perhaps even a text can provide what you require. Surely your Planetary Library—/
*I queried the library once. Not again!*
Herald perceived fluctuations in the entity's aura. There was an emotional charge to the matter. So it was not a strictly routine query, as quite often his cases weren't. Herald's fee was high because he brought extraordinary ability into play. Still he affected a certain modesty. /If you feel my particular interpretation is worthwhile, you shall have it. Yet it will not differ materially from—/
*Let me explain. The Family of Precipice is of recent formation. It required some difficult maneuvers on my part for me to gain ... Are you familiar with the hereditary mechanisms of our Sphere?*
/My business requires me to be conversant with the derivations for Shields of Arms in many Spheres. Beyond the legal procedures I become vague about specifics, until some particular case requires my spot education. I do not, for example, comprehend precisely how your five-gender mode of reproduction operates; I have not felt it necessary to pry into such private matters. Is this information necessary for proper application to your question?/
*Perhaps not. I mention it only passingly, then. We do not, despite widespread belief in other Spheres, possess five genders. Rather our quintuplets consist of four complementary males and one female. Our procedures for the selection of particular types of males for family continuity depend on the types of interfamily liaison desired. Suffice to say, the matter can become complex, and at times certain family lines must be legally discontinued and new ones constituted. Development of a new family therefore requires a new Shield of Arms, with impalements representing the critical ancestral elements.*
/This is elementary, Whorl, though I point out as an aside that your use of the term 'impalement' is imprecise. Impaling is the specific process of marshaling arms together by mounting them side by side on the Shield; it can only be done by pairs. Thus your shield is actually—/
*Please, I am not conversant with every technical detail. Otherwise I would not need to summon an expert.*
/Of course. My apology, Whorl. But this being the case, I trust you engaged a competent heraldic artisan to design and execute your Achievement?/
*I insisted on the very best. It cost me a great amount of value, for there was resistance, but I brought sufficient twist and constriction to bear, and it was handled personally by the King of Arms for Sphere Ast.*
Herald flashed an internal beam of exclamation. Whorl must indeed have applied political and economic pressure to command performance by such a figure. The top echelons of legal heraldry were known to be extremely jealous of their prerogatives, and notoriously resistant to the urges of outsiders.
/I have had occasional dealings with your College of Arms and found it quite competent. I am sure your hereditament is more than sufficient. Be assured that you may display it without apology./
*I am not so assured. There are those who--who have sniggered.* A snigger, in Ast terms, was a most expressive and borderline-obscene ripple of implied meaning, the depth of bad taste.
/An Achievement rendered by the King of Arms is not to be sniggered at,/ Herald assured him. /Such entities only demonstrate their own gross ignorance./
*They are not ignorant. They are—* Whorl broke off. *This is why I require your service. There is something wrong.*
/We appear to be at an impasse, Whorl. I assure you that I am unlikely to divine any error of substance or detail in your Shield of Arms. For one thing, the Spherical Colleges of Arms define legitimacy in hereditaments. Their records are public, and their Grants are valid across the entire Galactic Cluster. The Universe, as much as we know of it, accepts the authority of your Family Shield. As far away as the Milky Way and Pinwheel, aficionados are contemplating your Achievement and considering its merits. Are you are unsatisfied with the actual design or execution?/
*No, both are magnificent. I was most pleased.*
Herald considered briefly. /Perhaps I have overlooked a nuance of Ast meaning. I perceive no service I can offer./
*All I require is that you examine my Shield and give me your completely candid opinion.*
/I shall be gratified to. I offer no other type of opinion than candid./
Whorl twined to another section of his convolute residence, and Herald followed. Here in the living rock bordering a corkscrew chamber was emblazoned in relief a creature-sized Shield of Arms.
It was beautiful. The outer shield was in the shape of an ellipse set at an angle, representing Galaxy Andromeda, bordered inside by a wreath of intertwining serpents to designate Sphere Ast. Within that were the Family Arms of Precipice, resembling an ornate overhanging cliff. Herald moved his loops across it, savoring its aspects. It had superior form, texture, and color, and was, in its fashion, a genuine work of art. The King of Arms of Ast was certainly a master.
*What do you find?* The query was urgent.
/I find an excellent and flawless emblazon./
*Did you not say 'blazon' before?*
The tedious questions of amateurs! But Herald repressed his annoyance, for courtesy was vital to his profession.
/I did, Whorl. The 'blazon' of a Shield of Arms is the precise linguistic specification of its elements. To 'emblazon' is to render this description into physical actuality./
*I comprehend. The one is the description, the other is the carving. I feared for a moment there was something wrong with it.*
/No, your Achievement is quite in order. Azurine, a cliff of thirty-seven rocks and forty-two rills, alternately thirteen, twelve, thirteen, seven, eleven, twenty-three, pearline, all within a bordure of the Serpents Rampant./
Herald winced inwardly as he communicated, for the old-style heraldic term "rampant" was restricted to certain quadrupedal beasts of prey, standing erect on the left foot raising the right foot in stride, balancing with the left forefoot out-thrust, the right raised to strike. It was technically impossible for a legless serpent to be "rampant." But the broadening of the system to include diverse Cluster cultures had forced the fudging of some terms. However, as he had informed Whorl, the local Colleges of Arms defined legitimacy. So he had to accept it, nonsensical as it was in derivation. Regardless, this remained an excellent Shield of Arms, in concept and execution.
But as this chain of thought proceeded on the surface, something more insidious was percolating in the depths. Abruptly it surfaced. Herald suppressed a quiver of sheer incredulity.
*Continue, Herald,* Whorl vibrated anxiously. But Herald could not continue. He was too busy stifling an emotion that threatened to overwhelm him. *You perceive!* Whorl shuddered. *You are aware!* Herald controlled himself with difficulty. /I regret I may not help you. I shall refund your fee./
*No! Every knowledgeable entity to whom I have so proudly displayed this Achievement has laughed! None will tell me why. It is as if some huge private joke exists at my expense. All say the Shield of Arms is perfect yet they practically uncoil in their obscene mirth. Now you do the same. I have paid—I insist to know—you must perform service, by the honor of your profession. What is wrong with my Shield?*
Herald writhed away. /Nothing is wrong. It is completely accurate in execution./
*There you go again! That cannot be! I demand to be advised!*
Herald quivered carefully. /There is one qualification. But it is unusual, of no technical account. You would prefer not to know. I void your fee and depart./
Whorl flung himself into an anguished knot. *Accept your fee or void it—that matters not! I charge you by the Lot of Asterisk—tell me!*
Herald paused. The Ast had invoked a powerful convention that required the truthful exchange of information. But there were certain key reservations.
/By the Lot of Asterisk I may not tell you, for I now perceive the answer would harm you./
*I absolve you of all guilt for that harm, Herald! Tell me, lest I lose my sanity!*
Herald was not certain of the proper course. Would the telling do more harm than the withholding? Whorl did seem to be on the verge of nervous collapse, yet the truth.... It was a problem of ethics he had not encountered before. /I know not where expediency lies. Therefore I accept your release of guilt, and accede./
*Thank you! Thank you!*
/I fear the thanks is undeserved. Your Achievement is perfect in every respect but one: it possesses an abatement in Stainand. This is the handsome color of tenne, or brown./
*Yes, I have taken great pride in that hue, and pointed it out to important visitors.*
/Unfortunately, in heraldic terms this signifies a question of honor./
*I do not comprehend!*
/I fear it has reference to some scandal in the roots of your family, perhaps a claim to an improper honor. One that is technically legitimate, but morally suspect./
The Ast was stricken. *The King of Arms has damned me! I thought no one knew of that matter!*
If all Whorl's friends had sniggered, many must have known.
/It seems the King has a subtle way of advising you of his research and opinion./
*Shame! Shame! I am undone! Now everyone knows! My friends, my business associates to whom I described that very aspect of the Shield! My potential family-mates! Sapients all over the Galactic Cluster! I am a laughingstock everywhere, everywhere!*
Herald tried to alleviate the creature's concern. /On the contrary. Few know. Ordinary entities neither seek nor comprehend the significance of heraldic devices and conventions, do not know shield from crest. Had there been justification for any legal action against you, your Achievement would have been voided from the start. Obviously your family honors are valid. This merely ... diminishes their impact. In fact, the very concept of hereditary abatements is suspect; I have never seen it done before in a recognized Achievement. I believe you could initiate a formal challenge on that basis, and perhaps have the abatement nullified./
*And bring my shame into Cluster Court for all the nonheraldic sapients to perceive too? I'll be damned if I do that!*
And Herald realized that the Ast was not indulging in vernacular; he meant quite literally that his cherished honor would suffer damnation. Pride of family was a thing quite apart from law.
/I will lodge a protest on your behalf,/ Herald offered.
*No, the damage is done. My only recourse lies beyond the auspices of heraldry.*
Yes, it was serious. Should he have refused to tell? What was Whorl going to do now, assassinate the King of Arms? What mischief this Achievement had wrought!
But Herald could not afford to interfere further; this was no longer his business.
/As you wish. I deeply regret bringing this news upon you./
The Ast recovered himself.
*I thank you, Herald. Please accept your fee; you have earned it. There will be no complaint. Parting.*
Further dialogue was pointless; the noble of Precipice had made up his mind. /Parting,/ Herald said, and writhed away toward the transporter. He did not feel at ease.
As he left the domicile, he thought he perceived a faint pulse in the rock, echo of a distant tactile exclamation: *The whole Cluster! Shame!* The anguish was horrible.
Even before Herald transferred out, the news of the suicide of Whorl of Precipice and the dissolution of his nascent family was pulsing through Sphere Ast. The reason for this act was a mystery, but Herald knew the truth. He shuddered with anger and remorse. He had tried to honor his profession and deliver honest service for his fee, but had been forced into being an accomplice for an execution. If he made any protest now, his share in it would be exposed, and he might well be liable before the Cluster Court. Therefore he had to maintain silence, for there was no way he could benefit Whorl at this stage.
The King of Arms of Sphere Ast had gotten away with murder. One day he would have to settle for that crime.CHAPTER 2
Child of Grief
&Research units drift by for assignment.&
&Research Command make assignments.&
XAssignments as follows: one unit per local cultural division. Units lettered, cultures symbolized.X
Milky Way: B< E" F> Koo L . N. s Q. T::: W@ Z¿
Andromeda: A* Coo D— P:: S/
Pinwheel: R^ U.
Other: G$ J= M¢ V# Y§
&Action units drift by for assignments as invoiced.&
&Take samples of life and verify for aura and sapience.&
Excerpted from Kirlian Quest by Piers Anthony. Copyright © 1978 Piers Anthony Jacob. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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