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THE MISADVENTURES OF FILIDOR VESH
Read an Excerpt
The Logodaedalian Club was renowned for three things: the zest of its cuisine, the draftiness of its common rooms, and the verbal wit of its leading members. Filidor Vesh could claim no comparable distinctions. His memberships at the Logodaedalian and a number of other select establishments he owed instead to an accident of birth.
He sat in the well-worn ease of the club's salon, sampling tiny, rich pastries and murmuring polite appreciation for the two remaining contenders in a round-table contest of epigrams. The melee of wits had flowed and ebbed around a succession of sumptuous but subtle courses from the club's ancient kitchens. Now, as the stewards deftly whisked dishes from the table, only Fornol Kray and Leetha Hanch remained in verbal arms.
Fornol Kray shifted his ample weight, cracked a walnut between thumb and forefinger, and plucked a word from his opponent's last sally. "It may be, as you say, that 'a life without dreams is no life, yet dreamers live only their dreams.'" Here he paused to admit the meat of the walnut into that process which would transmute it into yet more Fornol Kray. "I will say that life is lived as comedy, though everywhere it is experienced as tragedy."
Leetha Hanch delayed only the moment required to place a tapered finger at her sharp chin before replying, "As with blessings, so with tragedies. If they are everyone's, they are no one's."
The scattering of applause from the assembled members covered Filidor's yawn. A slim young man of refined sensitivities, he lacked both enthusiasm and accomplishment, and was neither deft nor apt in wordplay. He was, however, the nephew and sole heir of Dezendah Vesh, ninety-eighth (or possibly ninety-ninth) Archon of those regions of old Earth still inhabited by human beings. This relationship conferred upon Filidor certain privileges, of which he took full advantage; it also imposed upon him a number of burdens, the full weight of which he would shortly begin to feel.
Filidor's attention drifted. He turned toward the salon's mirrored wall and attempted to admire from the corner of his eye his own delicate profile, then fell to arranging the meticulous folds of his saffron mantle, which overlaid a shimmering tunic of spun pearl. His legs, languidly extended, were enclosed in tight-fitting hose of a material that hardened gradually as they descended to form a half boot on each pedicured foot.
The contest was dwindling to its end. Fornol Kray had been reduced to the assertion that "insularity is mere mapmaker's conceit," against which Leetha Hanch was already forming a complicated trump on the theme of two-dimensionality.
While the company awaited the finishing stroke, Filidor gave thought to the possible diversions offered by the rest of the evening. Aclutch of young lordlings planned a cruise by barge across Mornedy Sound, a noisy outing that would include potent drink and pliant ladies of the Upper Town. That was tempting.
On the other hand, Lord Afre would soon present a selection of phantasms coaxed through a tiny and transitory breach between this world and an adjacent plane. As Filidor weighed these attractive prospects, a steward appeared at his elbow to inform him that a messenger from the palace waited in the atrium.
Filidor pressed a coin into the man's hand, bade him tell the messenger that no Filidor Vesh was on the premises, and moved swiftly to make the lie a truth. A side door led to a passage connecting the salon to the kitchens. He dodged through the clatter of pots and salvers, and into a storeroom with a small window set in its outer wall. Seconds later, he dropped noiselessly into an alley barely lit by the lantern above the Logodaedalian's rear door. A few steps away was a public square where he could lose himself among the crowds taking the evening air. From there, it was a short walk to the seclusion of Lord Afre's house in town.
The alley appeared deserted. Filidor padded toward the square, peered around the corner, saw no trace of the distinctive black and green Archonate livery. The square held only the usual stylish after-dinner throng, displaying their finery. He was about to step amongst them when he felt a tug on his mantle.
Turning, Filidor had to look down to see who had laid hold of his garment. He found a very small, very bald man of advanced age and yellowy skin, loosely assembled from knobbed joints and coarse dark cloth. The eyes were black pinpoints in a network of pocks and gulleys, the nose a careless afterthought, and the mouth a thin slice set in an unappetizing grin. The voice issuing from between straggling teeth might have learned speech by copying the creaks and rustles of centuries-old parchment.
"I believe you to be Filidor Vesh," said the dwarf.
"You are entitled to your beliefs, however ill-founded," Filidor replied. "No doubt you will wish to search further for this Vesh, rather than impose your presence upon a man called hence by urgent affairs."
The dwarf transferred his grip from Filidor's mantle to his arm. His gaze swept quickly over the young man's features. "This belief is supported by the evidence, since you answer to a point the description furnished me."
"You are plainly the dupe of some prankster, who abuses the dignity of your years by sending you on a fool's errand," said Filidor. "Were I you, I would seek out the rascal and thrash him."
"I am accustomed to fool's errands," said the little man, "which this may well be. But the Archon orders you forthwith into his presence, and the proof of my assertion is here." He displayed the Archon's personal seal.
The ring seemed out of place among the dwarf's crabbed fingers, but the intaglio of emerald and jet could not be gainsaid. Filidor sighed. A summons from the Archon meant a task to be performed. Invariably, Filidor knew, it would be a service whose significance no rational being could fathom.
He had once been ordered to record the expressions on the faces of spectators at a notorious felon's "restitution," and to write an analysis linking the crowd's eye movements to the prisoner's writhings and spurts of blood. Another time, the Archon had sent him by night to daub illiterate revolutionary slogans on imposing buildings. And, at the premiere of a fashionable author's most wrenching melodrama, he had been required to laugh hysterically until the ushers ejected him into the street. In the gloom of the Archonate library, he had been set the task of counting and itemizing daily reports by officials now centuries dead. The Archon's orders seldom made sense.
Therein lay the crux of Filidor's uncertainty as to his place in the Archonate's affairs. He recognized that as Dezendah Vesh's sole heir, he must be drawn inevitably into the workings of the Archonate. Remotely, he had even considered that he would someday take for his own the regalia and trappings of his uncle's office. And he hoped that by the time of his investiture he would have learned just what it was that an archon did.
It was universally agreed that the institution of the Archonate was fully right and necessary, and that the Archon wielded ultimate power. But the means of exercising that authority was a mystery to Filidor Vesh, to his friends, and even to their lordly parents.
Presiding at some high banquet or learned seminar, his uncle was the very image of magisterial power. But, equally, he might be come upon in an illlit corner of the archives, immersed in mouse-chewed tomes or tinkering with some pointless apparatus left over from a previous millennium. Although he was rarely seen outside the Archonate palace, it was said that the Archon often wandered through the world, guised as anything from an alms-seeking mendicant to a dealer in rare objects. Any stranger might be the Archon, and he might do anything at all to anybody at all; or he might do nothing. These wanderings were also seen as fully right and necessary, and had been referred to since time immemorial as the progress of esteeming the balance.
The Archon's summons must be obeyed. Still, Filidor knew from experience that a careful delay in meeting his obligations could take him safely to a point where the order might, from a change of circumstances, lapse. He favored the little man with a disarming smile. "There is no time for idle conversation. I must hurry to my uncle's chambers, where weighty issues of state may hang in the offing. And so I will bid you the pleasantries of the evening."
Filidor turned to depart, but the grip upon his arm exerted a renewed force, reminiscent of what mountain shrubs apply to vertical cliffs. "Your uncle expressed a concern," the dwarf said, "that this or that matter might prevent your speedy arrival, or indeed that you might lose your way. He instructed me to accompany you, not leaving your side, until you are brought to his familial embrace."
A lift of the dwarf's arm, and an official car thrummed to a halt beside them. In a moment, Filidor was wedged into a rear seat, the dwarf leaping in beside him. The uniformed operator swept them aloft before the door had cycled shut, and Filidor felt his innards briefly rearranging their positions. Then the car leveled off and sped across the city toward the palace of Dezendah Vesh.
The city unrolling beneath them was old, even in a world where little was young. It had worn many names, received the attentions of innumerable builders and conquerors, and prided itself on any number of reasons for being what it was and where it was. It sprawled across the fingertip of the Olkney peninsula, a jeweled nail scratching at the tideless sea. The mansions of the mighty and the hovels of the hopeless straggled up from the shore to the crags of the Devinish Range, where the palace of the Archonate hung over the city like a black cloud.
The palace was a city within the city, a vast muddle of ramps and towers, keeps and baileys, arches and cupolas added one to another over the millennia of Earth's penultimate age by a succession of archons of all architectural persuasions. In the second level of its seventh terrace, between the minaret known as Holmar's Folly and the half-ruined Connaissarium of Terfel the Third, lay the formal gardens beyond which the Archon maintained his private study. As the last red rays of the ancient sun shifted the green of the grass to black, the car landed and deposited Filidor and the dwarf at the study's outer door. Without knocking, the little man pushed open the portal and pulled Filidor after him.
The room brought back memories of Filidor's childhood, none of them pleasant. It was here that his uncle had made fitful efforts to coax his nephew toward some acquaintance with learning, within walls that stretched high into shadow, each lined from floor to ceiling with books. There were tomes of every age, in every tongue, and in every form devised by humankind or most of the literate galaxy. Many were in languages now scarce remembered; some were merely dust confined between covers; and a few displayed their contents in emanations of light or sound well beyond the human range.
Besides books, the study contained only a chair, a carved and battered table, and a rug with its pattern long since trodden out. On the table lay two volumes, the larger one splayed out as if for autopsy.
"Your uncle does not seem to be here," said the dwarf.
"Let us be bold, and state categorically that my uncle is not here," Filidor snapped, but secretly he took the Archon's absence for a hopeful sign. He might yet escape a wasted night.
The dwarf eyed him coolly. "Impatience," he said. "I remind you that we are here at your uncle's behest. Whatever concerns may delay him are possibly of more moment than a nephew's urge to disport himself among reckless wastrels."
"You misjudge me. I am eager to do my uncle's bidding." The little man favored the Archon's study with a mild snort, as if about to call upon the crowded ranks of books to confirm his low opinion of Filidor. He crossed to a small door inset among the shelves and said, "I am sure you can contain your dutiful ardor while I seek out the Archon and report the completion of my charge." Then he left.
Filidor made an impolite gesture to the empty study. He recalled too many hours of imprisonment among its tiers of volumes, warded over by testy tutors. His uncle had urged him, both by instruction and occasionally by resort to punishment, to acquire some smattering of the history of Earth and the dispositions of the people and places of its present latter age. But, since Filidor brought neither willingness nor aptitude to these labors, his uncle in time ceased to press the point, and left the young man to his own devices. The final remission of sentence had been delivered, not without a note of scorn, in this book-filled room. Since then, contact between the Archon and his nephew had been brief, formal, and infrequent.
The dwarf did not soon return. Filidor felt no inclination to browse among the shelves, and after a few min-utes he sat down in the room's only chair. Time passed, and no one came. Filidor itemized the things he might have been doing instead of sitting in a hard chair waiting to be sent to do something even less agreeable. In time, it might have occurred to him that his mental list recapitulated the series of empty pleasures, differing more in detail than in substance, which filled his days and caused each to blend indistinguishably into the next. But Filidor seldom followed any train of thought further than its first branching.
He glanced at the two books on the table beside him. The larger of the two lay spread by its own weight. It was an ancient tome, its pages yellowed and cracked at the edges, and covered in a thicket of spiky, black script. The words were archaic, perhaps appetizing to scholars but distasteful to Filidor. He managed to decipher the capitals of the open page's heading, and learned that the rest of the page was filled with the details of the demise of Archon Imreet IV, then he turned his attention to the second volume. This was a slimmer work, bound in blue shamoy figured in gold leaf. Its cover bore the title: Discourses and Edifications of Liw Osfeo. No author was noted.
Filidor picked up the book and opened it at random, finding it to be a compilation of tales and homilies in the style of a preceding generation. He riffled the pages, until he was arrested by a singular illustration. A man was being chased by an enraged mob. His eyes slid to the accompanying text, and he began to read.
The County of Keraph boasted three noble cities, each jealous of its independence and time-honored privileges, yet each cooperating with the others in mutual endeavors.
The city of Caer Lyff was largest of the three, and produced the sophisticated baubles upon which, all agreed, civilization depended. The city of Alathe was somewhat smaller; its ateliers and factories manufactured the less intricate but no less necessary goods without which civilization rapidly descends to barbarism. Finally, the city of Dai was smallest of all, but its sturdy citizens raised the crops and kine which fed all Keraph.
In the center of the county, housed in the old ducal grounds, was the Institute. Here scholars and academes rubbed shoulders with chymists and apparaticists, and all combined to provide Keraph with the refinements of modern learning. Besides instructing the worthiest of the county's youth in useful arts and abilities, the Institute undertook research into the creation of yet more subtle devices and systems of great value.
It happened that a certain Jever Smee had attained emeritus rank with the Institute, where he conducted private research into the less obvious relationships among time, energy, and what the common folk call matter. The fruits of his work were not known until the time of his eventual death, when it was discovered that he had designed and built seventeen intricate mechanisms. The principles by which these machines operated were beyond the ken of Jever Smee's colleagues, but their application was soon understood from notes and jottings left in his workshop. The mechanisms, if fed with raw materials of the basest sort, transmuted them into rare and precious substances. Jever Smee's devices promised immense wealth to the County of Keraph.
It further transpired that among his writings was the last will and testament of Jever Smee. This document ordained that the seventeen mechanisms were to be divided among the three cities according to a formula arbitrarily determined by the deceased. Caer Lyff was to receive one-half of the machines; Alathe would receive one-third; and Dai would receive one-ninth.
The will caused immediate consternation among the ruling syndics of the three cities, and among the Institute's Board of Integrators. All saw at once that the lower orders of mathematics had not been among the disciplines absorbed by Jever Smee. It was impossible to allocate the seventeen devices in the proportions stipulated, without reducing some of them to useless fractions.
A long and bitter debate ensued. Some proposed a division according to the respective populations of each city. Others insisted on the sanctity of wills, demanding that Jever Smee's creations be distributed as specified, and any remaining parts consigned to the scrap heap. A convocation of fellows of the Institute suggested that the machines be left where they were, under Institute control, and that their output of rare substances be shared according to Smee's formula. Meanwhile, some merchants who imported and sold such precious wares, in small but profitable amounts, rioted and had to be put down by the provost.
It happened that the Illumino Liw Osfeo was at that time attached to the Institute as a visiting lecturer in applied metaphysics. When the imbroglio over the will had reached its fiercest pitch, and social war brimmed throughout Keraph, Liw Osfeo put it about that he could adjudicate the dispute for a handsome fee.
Calling together the Syndics and Integrators, he declared that he was in possession of Jever Smee's prototype. This had been given him by the late emeritus in recompense for certain kindnesses, he said, and it had remained unused in his study. Osfeo volunteered to add the prototype to the other seventeen, thus making eighteen in all: a number divisible by Smee's formula, without the necessity of reducing any of the mechanisms to fragments.
The Syndics and Integrators readily paid Osfeo's fee, and the division was immediately made. One-half of Jever Smee's machines-nine of them-went to Caer Lyff; one-third-that is, six-were loaded into wagons and transported to Alathe; and one-ninth or two machines-were taken to the grange hall in Dai. Osfeo then ruled that the disaffected merchants be allowed to purchase a monopoly on the export of the machines' products beyond the county's bounds, and pronounced the dispute satisfactorily resolved.
The Syndics and Integrators made much of the sage's wisdom, until it was pointed out by one of his detractors-for he always had detractors-that the nine, six, and two machines added up to the original seventeen. There remained one unaccounted for.
"Of course," answered the sage. "That is the one in my quarters, which naturally reverts to me." It was agreed that Osfeo should retain his property, since it did not reduce any of the three portions of Jever Smee's estate. But the enemy was not mollified. While the illumino was being feted by the dignitaries of Keraph, he stole into Osfeo's rooms and determined that no such mechanism existed. Returning to where Osfeo sat among the magnates, his purse weighty with their contributions to his net worth, the enemy revealed the deception and denounced the sage for a fraud.
The cream of Keraph were outraged and demanded restitution. Osfeo rose to defend himself. It was true, he said, that the eighteenth mechanism was a mere figment. But what did it matter whether or not a thing existed, so long as it served a useful purpose?
Reason, however, was of no avail. Judging the temper of the crowd correctly, the illumino wisely exited through a nearby window. The magnates pursued him, their retainers and flunkies joining the chase. But the fleet and wily sage soon distanced them, and departed the county by little-used paths.
Filidor turned the page to continue, but was interrupted by the sound of the study door opening. The dwarf had returned, alone.
"We are too late," said the little man. "It seems your uncle has been called urgently away on business." Filidor rose in both body and spirit. The evening could yet be saved. "How unfortunate," he murmured. "Doubtless he will require me upon his return, but in the mean-time..."
The dwarf approached and set his hand in its former grip on Filidor's arm. Two of Filidor's fingers tingled and went numb from the pressure, although the dwarf displayed no sign of exertion. "The Archon requires a service of you, and has charged me to bring you to him without delay. He is presently some distance down the peninsula, in the hamlet of Binch."
"In that case," Filidor grunted as he attempted to free his deadening arm, "I will make haste to arrange transport."
The little man moved easily to retain his balance, and his grip did not slacken. "Your uncle again wondered if circumstances might conspire to detain you, should we somehow become separated. Consequently, I have already laid on a suitable vehicle."
Filidor essayed one last time. "A few necessities for the journey, a brief visit to my chambers," he proposed.
"Such a large palace, so easy to lose one's bearings and miss appointments. Besides, all necessities are in hand."
The dwarf produced from beneath his tatters a small satchel of scuffed leather, and opened it to display its contents. Inside was a selection of ingenious artifacts from the Archon's personal effects. There was the wand of perpetual sufficiency, which could engender nutrition from any organic matter. There was the ward-web, which conferred invisibility and impregnability upon whosoever rested beneath it. And there was the traveler's aide, a small cylinder which telescoped into a staff, and which envigored its wielder on the road or in self-defense, besides having several other remarkable properties.
Filidor's eyes narrowed as he surveyed the satchel's contents, which were surely more than would be needed on a short jaunt over well-known roads between the palace and Binch. But the dwarf rebuffed all queries, saying that each item had been specifically requested by the Archon himself.
"There is also this," the little man continued, drawing from a concealed pocket a hand-sized box of tuka wood inlaid with ivory runes. "You are to carry this upon your person at all times, and deliver it into your uncle's hands when he requires it."
Filidor had no time to examine the box. No sooner had he taken it than the dwarf shifted his weight, and Filidor was propelled toward a bookcase that slid silently aside to reveal an unlighted corridor. The little man dragged him through, and the portal closed behind them. They stood in complete darkness, until with a rustle and a series of brief clicks, the dwarf deployed the traveler's aide and raised a light from its upper tip. He then set off down a dust-choked, sloping side corridor and Filidor had to hurry to follow the wavering glow.
Their way took them through level below level of the palace, through suites of apartments and vast echoing halls sealed in decrepitude. Though he had lived within the palace walls more than twenty years, and explored it with all the dedication of boyhood, Filidor had seen none of the myriad rooms and passageways they now passed through. Nor had anyone else in living memory, to judge from the unbroken dust their footsteps disturbed into waist-high billows.
At some point in their passage, Filidor realized that he was still carrying the slim blue volume he had picked up in his uncle's study. His first impulse was to drop it and leave it behind, but that seemed a petty spite. Besides, his uncle might later send him unescorted into this dark warren to retrieve it. He tucked the book away, next to the mysterious box in an inner pocket of his mantle, and pressed on after the dwarf.
The little man offered no conversation, nor did Filidor seek any. Their barely seen surroundings afforded no sights of interest, so for lack of occupation, the young man took to counting his footsteps. Some time after his second thousandth imprint in the dust, Filidor felt the first stirrings of moving air from ahead. A little while later, he followed the dwarf around a moss-shrouded boulder and discovered that he was outside. It was now almost full night, the last ocher gleams fading on the highest reaches of the Devinish Range above them. A few steps from the concealed exit and the dwarf extinguished the glow from the traveler's aide. In the dimness, Filidor could discern the outline of an old surface car.
The vehicle's flared skirts, scarred from encounters with untended pavements, settled almost to the ground as Filidor eased his weight into the passenger seat. The little man scrabbled spryly into the operator's position, and after some initial difficulties encouraged the vehicle's drive system to revive itself. The whine of untuned gravity obvertors set Filidor's teeth to painful vibration.
With a lurch, the car surged toward Binch, thrusting Filidor against the protruding frame of his seat. The wind rushing across the open compartment and the protesting drive made conversation impossible. The little man was in any case intent upon the controls, gnarly hands yanking levers and swinging the steering bar like a war-crazed pilot on a suicide run, whistling tunelessly through the teeth dotting his gums as he rocked the vehicle past imaginary obstacles. Occasionally, he lined up the car's lights on stationary objects beside the road and steered directly for them, emitting noises that imitated some rapid-fire weapon, then swerving away a finger-breadth from fatal impact. Filidor's sangfroid evaporated in the chill night air. As the dwarf skimmed a derelict retaining wall with barely an eyelash's separation, the young man screamed and wrenched at the controls to bring them back toward mid-road.
"We are going to die!"
"Eventually," agreed the dwarf, shrugging Filidor's grip from the steering bar. He steadied the vehicle's course and grinned at his passenger. "In the meantime, however, why not live life to its fullest?"
The words struck an embarrassing chord within Filidor. Had he not once thrown some such remark at his uncle, rejecting the Archon's urgings toward a sense of duty? He eyed the dwarf's face for some sign of ironic intent, but the little man's features were as inscrutable as an ancient god's.
"Nonetheless," Filidor shouted above the slipstream, "I would prefer to reach my uncle with all my parts in their present arrangement." The dwarf grunted a noncommittal reply, but slowed the car a little, and deleted some of the wider arcs from his course.
Filidor settled back. Irritation at being denied his pleasures was now giving place to stirrings of fear. He knew that he did not like his austere uncle overmuch; it was possible that his sentiments were reciprocated.
The Archonate had no reputation for inflicting harm upon its subjects, but those arbitrarily pressed into its service might not fare so well. Filidor watched the moldering hummocks of the old city's ruins sweep through the car's lights, and began to wish he had paid more attention to his lessons. Whatever the inner workings of the Archonate, he sensed he was about to be drawn more deeply into them than ever before.
Copyright (c) 1994 by Matt Hughes Company Ltd.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
In Olkney, Filidor Vesh enjoys his hedonistic life, as one would expect from a young heir to the Archon, of Old Earth¿s human inhabitants. However, his fun time at the Logodaedalian Club ends when a dwarf Gaskarth informs Filidor that his Uncle Dezendah the Archon summons him. The lad tries to sneak away, but the persistent guide forces Filidor to accompany him on what is surely a FOOLS ERRANT. Gaskarth escorts Filidor out of the city to the lands of Binch, Ektop, Zeel, and Jamb. At each site, Filidor learns that he just missed his uncle and where he is expected to go next. Also at each locale, Filidor learns first hand about different behaviors by always landing in trouble. As he treks from one location to another, Filidor begins to enjoy his travels, but wonders when he will finally catch up to his elusive relative and just who is his guide anyway? FOOLS ERRANT is a wonderful science fiction novel that combines a coming of age relationship tale with a satirical look at the extremes of society. For example, the uncompromising members of the environmentalists and the industrial developers are swiftly ridiculed for failing to seek a modest proposal for the betterment of society as a whole. Other humorous bashing highlight that Matthew Hughes has written a wonderful tale that will find genre fans wanting more adventures of the interesting lead characters in the near future. Harriet Klausner