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Valentine swayed, braced himself with his free hand against the table, struggled to keep himself from spilling his wine.
This is very odd, he thought, this dizziness, this confusion. Too much wine -- the stale air -- maybe gravity pulls harder, this far down below the surface --
"Propose the toast, lordship," Deliamber murmured. "First to the Pontifex, and then to his aides, and then--"
"Yes. Yes, I know."
Valentine peered uncertainly from side to side, like a steetmoy at bay, ringed round by the spears of hunters.
"Friends--" he began.
"To the Pontifex Tyeveras!" Deliamber whispered sharply.
Friends. Yes. Those who were most dear to him, seated close at hand. Almost everyone but Carabella and Elidath: she was on her way to meet him in the west, was she not, and Elidath was handling the chores of government on Castle Mount in Valentine's absence. But the others were here, Sleet, Deliamber, Tunigorn, Shanamir, Lisamon and Ermanar, Tisana, the Skandar Zalzan Kavol, Asenhart the Hjort -- yes, all his dear ones, all the pillars of his life and reign --
"Friends," he said, "lift your wine-bowls, join me in one more toast. You know that it has not been granted me by the Divine to enjoy an easy time upon the throne. You all know the hardships that have been thrust upon me, the challenges that had to be faced, the tasks required of me, the weighty problems still unresolved."
"This is not the right speech, I think," he heard someone behind him say.
Valentine ignored them. These words that came from him now seemed to come of their own accord.
"If I have borne these unparalleled difficulties with some grace," he went on, "it is only because I have had the support, the counsel, the love, of such a band of comrades and precious friends as few rulers can ever have claimed. It is with your indispensable help, good friends, that we will come at last to a resolution of the troubles that afflict Majipoor and enter into the era of true amity that we all desire. And so, as we make ready to set forth tomorrow intothis realm of ours, eagerly, joyously, to undertake the grand processional, I offer this last toast of the evening, my friends, to you, to those who have sustained me and nurtured me throughout all these years, and who--"
"How strange he looks," Ermanar murmured. "Is he ill?"
A spasm of astonishing pain swept through him. There was a terrible droning buzz in his ears, and his breath was as hot as flame. He felt himself descending into night, a night so terrible that it obliterated all light and swept across his soul like a tide of black blood. The wine-bowl fell from his hand and shattered; and it was as if the entire world had shattered, flying apart into thousands of crumbling fragments that went tumbling crazily toward every corner of the universe. The dizziness was overwhelming now. And the darkness -- that utter and total night, that complete eclipse --
"Lordship!" someone bellowed. Could that have been Hissune?
"He's having a sending!" another voice cried.
"A sending? How, while he is awake?"
"My lord! My lord! My lord!"
Valentine looked downward. Everything was black, a pool of night rising from the floor. That blackness seemed to be beckoning to him. Come, a quiet voice was saying, here is your path, here is your destiny: night, darkness, doom. Yield. Yield, Lord Valentine, Coronal that was, Pontifex that will never be. Yield. And Valentine yielded, for in that moment of bewilderment and paralysis of spirit there was nothing else he could do. He stared into the black pool rising about him, and he allowed himself to fall toward it. Unquestioningly, uncomprehendingly, he plunged into that all-engulfing darkness.
I am dead, he thought. I float now on the breast of the black river that returns me to the Source, and soon I must rise and go ashore and find the road that leads to the Bridge of Farewells; and then will I go across into that place where all life has its beginning and its end.
A strange kind of peace pervaded his soul then, a feeling of wondrous ease and contentment, a powerful sense that all the universe was joined in happy harmony. He felt as though he had come to rest in a cradle, where now he lay warmly swaddled, free at last of the torments of kingship. Ah, how good that was! To lie quietly, and let all turbulence sweep by him! Was this death? Why, then, death was joy!
-- You are deceived, my lord. Death is the end of joy.
-- Who speaks to me here?
-- You know me, my lord.
-- Deliamber? Are you dead also? Ah, what a safe kind place death is, old friend!
-- You are safe, yes. But not dead.
-- It feels much like death to me.
-- And have you such thorough experience of death, my lord, that you can speak of it so knowingly?
-- What is this, if it is not death?
-- Merely a spell, said Deliamber.
-- One of yours, wizard?
-- No, not mine. But I can bring you from it, if you will permit. Come: awaken. Awaken.
-- No, Deliamber! Let me be.
-- You must, my lord.
-- Must, Valentine said bitterly. Must! Always must! Am I never to rest? Let me stay where I am. This is a place of peace. I have no stomach for war, Deliamber.
-- Come, my lord.
-- Tell me next that it is my duty to awaken.
-- I need not tell you what you know so well. Come.
He opened his eyes, and found himself in midair, lying limply in Lisamon Hultin's arms. The Amazon carried him as though he were a doll, nestling against the vastness of her breasts. Small wonder he had imagined himself in a cradle, he thought, or floating down the black...Valentine Pontifex. Copyright © by Robert Silverberg. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.