To honor the magnificent career of Jack Vance, one unparalleled in acheivement and impact on the fantasy genre, George R.R. Martin and Garner Dozois, with the full cooperation of Jack Vance, his family, and his agents, created the tribute anthology Songs of the Dying Earth. The best of today’s fantasy writers were invited to work in the unique and evocative millieu of the Dying Earth, wfrom which they and so many others have drawn so much inspiration, to create their own brand-new adventures in the world of Jack Vance’s latest creation.
We hope you enjoy this complete story from Songs of the Dying Earth, about, in author Kage Baker’s words, “a liar and thief in a doomed world of liars and thieves.”
* * *
It amused Justice Rhabdion of Kaiin to dispose of malefactors by dropping them down a certain chasm located at the edge of his palace gardens.
Deep and steep-sided the chasm was, bottomed with soft sand, so that more often than not the objects of Justice Rhabdion’s displeasure survived the fall. This was all to the good, as far as Rhabdion was concerned, since it provided him with further subject for mirth. On claret-colored summer afternoons, he used to have his Chair of Office moved out on the balcony that overlooked his garden pleasaunce, and which, incidentally, gave him an excellent view into the chasm as well. There he would smile to watch the antics of the enchasmates, as they fruitlessly sought to escape or quarreled with one another.
To further tease those unfortunates who had been so consigned, Justice Rhabdion had had vines of Saskervoy planted all along the chasm’s rim, prodigious black creepers, with scarlet leaves in shape and function like razors, save for their motility and the small voracious mouths set just above each stem. Each enchasmed newcomer attempted to depart by means of seizing and scrambling up the vines, generally at the cost of a finger or nose and never farther than the first third of the way before having to let go and fall.
Rhabdion’s gardeners stinted the vines’ feeding, to keep them keen; and this in time diminished their effect, for the enchasmates quickly learned better than to grasp at the vines. Therefore in their impatience to feed, the vines took to hunting for themselves, snapping out to catch any bird or bat so unwise as to fly within their reach.
The enchasmates, having made slings out of sandal-laces, would then fire small stones, striking the vines and causing them to drop their prey, upon which the slingers themselves would then gladly fasten, bearing the small tattered flesh back to the shelters built under the more concave angles of the chasm’s walls. So were they provided with sustenance. Then it chanced that a mining engineer from Erze Damath displeased Justice Rhabdion in some wise, and was inadequately searched before being thrown down the chasm. Certain tools he had concealed in his boots, and, once resigned to his misfortune, he retreated under the most acute of the leaning walls and there excavated, patiently chipping away at strata of porous aggregate to make yet deeper shelter from winter hail and the melancholy red light of the sun.
In time, his work provided the enchasmates with water, for he broke into a subterranean spring, relieving them thereby of the need to collect the bloody dewfall that dripped from the vines in early mornings—and with currency, for he struck upon a vein of purest gold, which was pounded into roundels and traded amongst them all in exchange for certain favors.
So a kind of society grew up at the bottom of the chasm, with its own customs and pleasures, all unnoticed by Justice Rhabdion, whose eyesight had waned as he grew older. Still he sat on his balcony through the fine purple evenings, chuckling at the occasional howls of despair that rose to his hearing from below.
Cugel, sometimes known as Cugel the Clever, became an enchasmate on the first day of spring, and the boom of the ice floes breaking on the river Scaum echoed off the upper walls of the chasm as he came pinwheeling downward. He struck the sandy floor with a crash, and awhile lay stunned, long enough for the other inhabitants of that place to come creeping out to see whether he lived or no, and, if dead were the case, whether he had been a well-nourished and sedentary man. Alas for their hopes, Cugel detected their stealthy approach and sat up sharply.
Seeing him alive and whole, the foremost of the unfortunates smiled at Cugel. “Welcome, stranger! How have you offended, to end here?
Cugel scrambled to his feet and looked about him. He saw a score of wretches, some in the rags in which they had arrived, others in coverings of bat or mouseskins torturously pieced together by the use of bird-bone needles and short lengths of dried gut.
“Offended? said Cugel. “Not in the least. There was a trifling misunderstanding, which was, sadly, blown out of all proportion by a jealous suitor. My advocate was astonished that the matter even came before the Dais of Adjudication. ‘Friend Cugel,’ he said to me, just before I was cast down here, ‘Do not let your fiery spirits dampen! I will appeal your case and these baseless charges shall melt away, even as the ice upon great Scaum.’ So much he said, and I am confident in his powers of persuasion.”
“No doubt,” said the nearest enchasmate, a splay-footed man with red hair, that hung to his shoulders in tangled ringlets. “And what, pray, is the name of your excellent friend?”
“Pestary Yoloss of Cutz is the man,” said Cugel. The massed enchasmates smiled amongst themselves.
“Why, Pestary was my advocate too,” said the red-haired man.
“And mine,” said a swarthy man of Sfere.
“And mine,” echoed many others. They laughed, then, at Cugel’s pale face, and, for the most part turned away to their own affairs. The red-haired man approached more closely, and, drawing a small pouch from his loincloth, opened it with two fingers and worked forth three flattened nuggets of gold, looking less like coins than pieces of trodden farlock dung. These he offered to Cugel, would Cugel but grant him certain privileges of Cugel’s person.
Cugel declined the transaction, though he looked thoughtfully at the gold.
He beat the sand from his clothing and made a slow circuit of the bottom of the chasm, gazing up at the vines of Saskervoy and noting how they twitched at the passing flight of a bird, sometimes lashing out to snap one from midair. He saw, too, how expert certain of the enchasmates were at knocking down the vines’ prey. All the life of the community Cugel observed with shrewd eyes, before settling down with his long back against the chasm’s wall and his long legs stretched out before him. He had been wearing a liripipe hood when he had been thrown into the chasm, sewn with a pattern of red and green diamonds, and he removed it now and delved into the recesses of its long point. At his arm’s length, he found what he sought, drawing forth in his nimble fingers a pair of spotted cubes of bone.
Thereafter, Cugel won himself many a succulent lizard or wren, and accrued a considerable store of gold, in games of chance with the other enchasmates. Seeing, however, that an unpopular man was unlikely to last long in that society, Cugel was at pains to distribute largesse of marrowbone and pelts to his fellow prisoners, and made himself pleasant in divers other ways, primarily conversation. He found, to his irritation, that none were especially interested in hearing his traveler’s tales; but each man, once encouraged to speak of his own life, went on at great length and seemed to relish having someone to listen.
Some were sycophantic courtiers whose flattery had failed them; some were petty murderers; some had disputed the amount of taxes they owed. Kroshod, the engineer from Erze Damath, had been a visitor unaware of local custom when he had most unwisely failed to tie three lengths of red string to the handle of his innroom door before retiring. To all these, Cugel listened with well-concealed boredom, nodding and occasionally tapping the side of his long nose and murmuring “Ha! What injustice!” or “Monstrous! How I do condole with you, sir!”.
At last, he made the acquaintance of a certain elderly man in rags of velvet, who sat alone, wreathed in violet melancholy. Him Cugel approached with bland affability, inviting a wager on the cast of a single die. The elder looked at him sidelong and chewed his yellowed mustache a moment before replying.
“I thank you, sir, but no. I have never gambled, and have learned, to my grief, to avoid straying outside my field of expertise.”
“And pray, sir, what would that be? inquired Cugel, seating himself beside the other.
“You see before you Meternales, a Sage, erstwhile master of a thousand librams and codices. Had I been content with what I held for mine own, I would even now be stretched at mine ease, in far Cil; but I yielded to greed and curiosity, and see to what extremity I am brought for my treasure-hunting!”
“Perhaps you would elucidate,” said Cugel, scenting useful information. Meternales rolled a wet eye at him.
“Hast ever heard of Daratello the Psitticist? He was a mage, and a pupil of none less than great Phandaal. Deep and subtle was his power, and prudent his employment of it; yet he was hunted to his death long ago, for reasons which he ought to have foreseen.”
“I do not believe I know the name. Was he slain by thieves? And did they, perhaps, fail nevertheless to obtain his fortune? Which is, by chance, somewhere still concealed for some fortunate wayfarer to find?” said Cugel, hitching himself a little closer to Meternales, in the hope that he would lower his voice and thereby exclude other listeners.
“So it happened,” said Meternales. “But the fortune was not, as you might imagine, in brassbound chests or bags of impermeable silk. His fortune was in spells. I, myself, once owned librams containing one hundred and six spells surviving from the age of Phandaal. Daratello, they say, had preserved double that number, in volumes borne away in stealth from Grand Motholam. Yet Daratello was only a man, as you or I, though a passing clever man. I have spent a life in study and austerities, and still can commit to memory no more than five spells of reasonable puissance at any one time. Daratello could memorize as much, it is said, but no more. His genius lay in the shifts he devised to circumvent his limits.
“There was a merchant traveled from the Land of the Falling Wall, who brought with him a pair of bright-feathered birdlings, and they could be taught the speech of men. Daratello purchased them from the merchant, and took them away to his isolate redoubt, and there in seclusion taught each one half the spells he had preserved.
“Our human minds cannot contain so much. I hold my five spells after a lifetime’s training; any attempt to memorize more would twist the matter of my brain to madness. Any common man would find his nose running and his eyes crossing were he to fill the hollow of his skull with more than one cantrap, and as many as three would break him in seizures and incontinence. Yet a bird’s mind is bright and empty, heedless of human care or ambition; and it is the delight of green-feathered birds of that sort to memorize and store what they hear.
“Daratello carried the birds one on either shoulder. He had only to prompt one or the other, and the bird would murmur the spell of his choice into his ear, for his instant use.
“Such brilliance awoke envy wherever Daratello went. Attempts were made to steal his green birds; he withdrew to his far manse. Caravans full of petitioner-thaumaturges braved the miles to his door, offering chests of gems and ensorcelled wares in exchange for the birds. Fruitless were their efforts, for he refused to admit them nor even to raise his portcullis.
“In the end, they grew importunate. Daratello was driven forth, with his birds; Daratello was hunted across Ascolais, Almery, even across the sea and the Silver Desert. He was besieged at last in a high tower of timber, and, most unwisely, his pursuers set it afire. So Daratello and his birds perished. And yet…there were some who claimed to see a single bird escape, flying free of the writhing smoke.
“Having read so much in an ancient tome of Pompodouros, I read more, and learned that others had claimed to have seen, and even briefly possessed, Daratello’s surviving pet. I traced the green bird’s whereabouts across five lands, and five ages. When I found no further references in books, I went forth myself, though I am but a scholar and ill-equipped for travel, and sought rumor of the marvelous bird in those places in which it had been last recorded as possibly having been known. I will not tell you what I spent in bribes to consult certain forbidden oracles, or with what pain the syllables of disclosure were wrenched forth from those who dealt in revelatory ambiguities.
“It must suffice to say that in the ninetieth year of my life, I came here, to white-walled Kaiin, and sought the yellow-eyed daughters of Deviaticus Lert.”
“And who would these be?” Cugel arched one eyebrow. “Nubile sirens? Exotic beauties from Prince Kandive’s pleasure pavilions?
“Not in any sense,” said Meternales with a sigh. “Though Vaissa was reputed to have been a beauty in her youth. Wealthy and respected old dames, the sisters, as unalike as two children of one father might be, and ‘tis said they hate each other dearly. It is said further that Deviaticus Lert scolded them often for their quarreling, and at last exerted his peace with a dead hand,: for he made it a condition of their inheritance that they must dwell together in the family home, and on no account might either of them remove therefrom, on pain of being cut off from his fortune.
“And so they made a truce. Lert Hall is a squat townhouse horned with two towers, one to the east and one to the west. In the westernmost, Vaissa resides, with her jewels and her gowns and her rare perfumes. In the easternmost dwells Trunadora, with her books, her alembics, her vials and athenors.”
“H’m! Is she a witch?”
“They are both sorceresses, though neither is inclined to active practice. Trunadora is of a retiring and studious nature, and Vaissa employed her charms to get her lovers, when she could still entertain them. Now she traffics in court gossip and meddles in the affairs of the young, dispensing love-philtres and advice. Trunadora remains aloof in her tower.
“At one point only do their lives intersect, these sisters, and that is in their affection for a certain gree bird. How they came by him, I was never able to learn, but all my researches persuade me that he is the surviving one of the two once owned by Daratello. I attempted to buy him from the daughters of Lert, and was rejected in no uncertain terms.”
“I should think so!” said Cugel, stroking his long chin. “They must find him remarkably useful, if he is in truth a repository for ancient spells.”
“Yet it is otherwise!” said Meternales, clenching his fists in an agony of recollection. “They have no least suspicion of what they have, and the green bird—perhaps valuing a peaceful life—has apparently declined to enlighten them! He is as their child. They love him fondly, foolishly, as only a pair of ancient spinsters may love a pet. If the house of Lert went up in flames, Vaissa would cheerfully leave Trunadora to roast amid the coals, but she would heave aside burning beams to rescue Pippy; and you may guess that her sister would do likewise.”
“’Pippy’? queried Cugel.
“That is the name they have given the bird,” said Meternales sadly. “Well. Frustrated as I was in my repeated efforts to purchase the bird, I at last resolved to steal him. I am no burglar, I fear; I was caught attempting to scale the house wall. The city guard brought me before Justice Rhabdion, and the rest you may imagine.”
“How very sad,” said Cugel. “You ought to have employed a professional, you know.”
“I thought of that,” said Meternales, pulling at his beard in fretful wise. “Afterward.”
Thereafter, Cugel was observed to gaze often at the high walls of the chasm, pacing out distances and doing sums in the sand. His fellow enchasmates thought he had taken leave of his senses when he began trading gold for their rags, and dicing to win more rags still, but madness was a common condition in the chasm and no one thought the less of him for that.
When he had a great heap of rags, Cugel busied himself unweaving them, and plaiting the fibers together with his slender fingers into a rope of considerable length. Having produced a coil of many ells, he wound it around his arm one fine morning and stood to harangue his fellow prisoners.
“Gentlemen! Who among you would escape this dismal confinement?”
The answer was so patently obvious that his audience merely gaped at him, until the man with red curls said: “Every wretch here desires his freedom. But what remedy?”
“I propose,” said Cugel, with a brilliant smile, “a plan! Saving the very elderly, we are all lean as whipcord and reasonably fit, since the one advantage we have in this hellish place is that we are free from any diseases of surfeit. Have you ever been so fortunate as to watch acrobats making a human pyramid? Let us do likewise! Regard this fine rope I have made. By my calculations, if you are able to construct a pyramid thirty feet in height, and if I mount upon your backs and whirl my rope after the fashion of the herders of Grodz, I may cast it out and catch the arm of the statue of the goddess Ethodea, which you may have noticed on the edge of Justice Rhabdion’s garden. I may then swing across and anchor it fast, and the rest of you may pull it taut and clear of the vines, and so follow me to along it freedom. What say you?”
Cugel’s voice rang out like a trumpet, and the enchasmates were inspired. “Why have we never thought of this before? cried the man with red curls. “Oh, to be free again!”
“There is only one thing needful,” said Cugel. “I require a bar of metal, with which to
weight the end of my rope, and which will happily catch in the crook of the goddess’s arm. Has any among you such a thing? All heads turned to the engineer Kroshod, who carried a crow-chisel. He lifted it, looking dubious.
“This is good iron,” he said, “But if it should be lost—“ The impatience of his fellows would not permit him to finish his statement. The crow-chisel was snatched from his hands and passed to Cugel.
Thereafter, the strongest of the men linked arms and formed the first storey of the pyramid, under Cugel’s direction. Other men removed their sandals and scrambled up to stand on their shoulders, linking arms likewise, and more scrambled up to make a third storey, and two more made a fourth. Swaying, trembling, sweating, they stood, as Cugel swarmed up them with his boots prudently tied about his neck.
“Make haste!” cried the man with red curls, who was in the bottom tier.
“Never fear,” Cugel assured him, uncoiling his rope and swinging the weighted end in an ever-widening circle about his head. Once, twice, thrice, and he let it fly, straight for the goddess of mercy. The crow-chisel caught in the angle of her arm, the rope pulled tight. Taking firm hold, Cugel leaped and swung in a short arc, landing a full three-quarters of the way up among the vines of Saskervoy. Cugel swarmed up the rope in frantic haste, as the vines bit at him.
He lost a toe before managing to pull himself over the top, and ran limping to the base of the statue. There he stanched the bleeding with a hank of dried grasses before pulling his boots on once more. Swiftly he pulled the rope up after him and dislodged the crow-chisel from the statue. He examined the crow-chisel critically a moment, judging that it would undoubtedly prove useful in future endeavors, and tucked it into his belt before setting off through the garden of Justice Rhabdion, whistling through his teeth.
A fortnight’s dicing sufficed for Cugel to possess himself of funds for enough substantial meals to restore his person, a suit of fine clothing, and a few hours’ worth of titivation in a tonsorial parlor. He preened before the barber’s glass, pleased to imagine that whoever beheld him, in his present state, would judge him a debonair hero, dashing yet eminently trustworthy.
Cugel then betook himself to the vicinity wherein stood the residence of the yellow-eyed daughters of Deviaticus Lert. Their townhouse was easily enough found, with its pair of towers rearing against the sky like a dowager’s horned headdress. He secured a room in an inn across the street, and for some few days observed carefully who came and went by the sisters’ gate. Their door was kept by an immense old gogmagog, in his sand-colored skin so like to the color of the wall that he seemed like a guardian statue.
Regularly, in the early afternoon, an open palanquin would be carried forth past him by four gasping and staggering servants. In the palanquin rode a monstrously fat old creature, swathed in veils of white and powder-blue silk, with blue paint emphasizing the bright and brass-colored eyes wherewith she kept a sharp regard on the passing traffic.
Her habits were most regular. Cugel followed the palanquin at a respectful distance, and learned that Dame Vaissa was invariably borne off to the vicinity of Prince Kandive’s palace. There she remained, engaged, as far as Cugel could learn, in bibulous merriment, elephantine flirtation, and the adjudication of young lovers’ quarrels. Generally, she was carried home in the early hours of the morning, a time—as Cugel was pleased to note—when the streets of Kaiin were dark, the haunt of footpads and other persons intent on mischief.
* * *
But three faint stars were visible when Cugel, waiting in the deep shadow of an alley, heard the uneven tramping footfall of Dame Vaissa’s bearers returning to the house of Lert. He drew a white handkerchief from his pocket and waved it, a brief ghostly flash in the shadows but clearly visible to the hired bullies who waited in the doorway of the tenement opposite.
When the palanquin came abreast of the tenement, the bullies poured forth, brandishing clubs, with which they proceeded to break the kneecaps of Dame Vaissa’s bearers. These crumpled to the ground with screams of pain, unable to so much as raise a hand in protest as Dame Vaissa was spilled from her palanquin into the street. Their screams were as nothing to Dame Vaissa’s.
“Ho! Brigands! Murderers! Avaunt!” roared Cugel, bounding from the shadows with drawn sword. “How dare you! Fly, you worthless sons of Deodands! Oh, cowards, to attack a helpless lady!” He beat the nearest of the bullies with the flat of his sword, far more vigorously than had been agreed on, with the result that the man snarled and went for him in earnest with his club. Cugel’s cheap blade was shattered. There had been murder done, but for the fact that Dame Vaissa rose ponderously on hands and knees and extended one beringed hand. She uttered a phrase of excoriation and the bullies were instantly alight as torches, burning to puffs of ash too quickly to shriek. Cugel, singed by proximity, danced backward.
“Fair madam, speak!” he cried, wondering whether his eyebrows had been crisped away. “Did the varlets hurt you? Allow me!” he added, hastening to lend an arm as Dame Vaissa endeavored to rise to her feet. Cugel winced in pain, for her weight was fair to pull his arm from its socket and her nails dug into his flesh; but the darkness hid his expression.
“I thank you, kind gallant, I am only a little bruised,” said Dame Vaissa, in a voice husky and breathless. “Alack! Your sword has been broken.”
“It was my father’s,” said Cugel, with an artful catch in his voice, “But no matter! It perished in the best of causes. Madam, we must not linger here; there may be others yet lurking. Pray allow me to escort you to your house. I will return with some of your household to collect the bearers. Where do you reside?”
Dame Vaissa permitted herself to be led, teetering on four-inch heels, to the house of Lert, and prudently resisted swooning from shock until she had charmed them past the door-warden and was comfortably seated in her own front hall. She revived long enough to waddle to the front door and murmur an incantation, in order that the gogmagog might permit Cugel egress; for it was so ensorceled as to permit entry only grudgingly, but was even less inclined to allow departure. Cugel led the gardener and scullery-boy back to the injured chair-bearers, who were still groaning and rolling in the street. There he left them to manage recovering their fellows, and wasted no time in running back to the house of Lert, cheerily giving the gogmagog the entry-password.
Dame Vaissa had been revived with a brandy posset, and was sitting up to receive Cugel when he returned. She bestowed upon him many coquettish expressions of gratitude, and would have pressed a purse of gold upon him as well, had Cugel not refused with a perfect imitation of chivalry. She saw him to the door, once again interceding for him with the door-warden; she implored Cugel to return by daylight, that she might converse with him at greater length during more respectable hours, and this Cugel gladly agreed to do. As he departed, he noted a staircase opening off the left of the hall, as one also opened off the right. He cast his gaze up there, hoping to spy a cage, but none was in evidence. Rather, from the top of the leftmost stair, a gaunt wraith peered down, a lean-chopped harpy in an old dressing gown, hair in curling papers, watching him with sunken yellow eyes.
Bowing and kissing Dame Vaissa’s plump hand, he made his exit.
“It is so rare to find a brave and kind-hearted gentleman of breeding, nowadays,” said Dame Vaissa, pouring out a cup of thin grey wine of Cil. Cugel accepted it and smiled at her across the cup’s brim. She wore, today, an ensemble of mustard-colored sarcenet trimmed in a pattern of gold wire, with a choker and earrings of jet beads, and was liberally powdered and rouged.
“Dear madam, I merely did what any true man would do. Would, indeed, that I had been able to act more effectively! Would that I had been able to carry away arms and armor from our estates at Kauchique, before I was sent into exile! Sadly, the fallen fortunes of my house have left me barely able to defend a fair lady’s honor.”
“How you do flatter an old woman,” said Dame Vaissa, with a titter. “Am I correct, then, in assuming that you have presently no occupation?”
“A gentleman never has an occupation, dear lady. He has only pastimes.” Cugel affected a lofty sneer into the distance. ‘Nonetheless, it is true that I am, at the moment, without funds or prospects. Yes.”
“Then I do wish you would allow me to offer you a position in my household,” said Dame Vaissa, leaning forward to place her hand upon Cugel’s knee. “The duties would be nominal, of course. And you would be doing sucha favor for a poor old frightened creature living alone!”
“Why, madam, you place me in a delicate position as regards mine honor,” said Cugel, making a gesture as though he were about to clap his hand to the pommel of his sword and then looking down with a well-acted rueful glance, as though remembering that it had broken. “How can I refuse my protection to a woman alone?…Though I had heard you have a sister.”
“Oh, her!” Dame Vaissa made a dismissive gesture. “Poor creature’s a recluse. Never came out in society at all, and now she’s half-mad. Lives upstairs among her books. And, whereas I have a robust constitution and a healthy appetite, she has withered away like an old spider. You wouldn’t find it worthwhile making her acquaintance, I can assure you. However,” and her amber eyes brightened, “I can think of one person you ought to meet, if you would reside here with us. Assist me to rise, kind sir.”
She extended a coy hand. Cugel hauled her to her feet from the chaise-lounge upholstered in lavender plush that was her customary receiving-seat, and she took a few rolling steps before muttering Phandaal’s Hovering Platform. At once a disc, not quite a yard across, appeared before her, floating some three inches above the floor. A black rod, seemingly made of onyx, extended upward from one side, and curved at the end into a sort of tiller. Dame Vaissa stepped up on the disc and it moved forward at her command.
“There! Much more convenient. Let us proceed, dear Cugel.”
She drifted before him like a great untethered balloon, up a flight of stairs and into a conservatory on the second floor of the main house. Cugel felt sweat prickling his forehead from the moment he entered the room, for it was disagreeably warm within. The upper walls and domed ceiling were all of glass, admitting the dull red light of the sun, but no breath of wind. He saw every variety of fruit tree growing in immense pots, and ferns, and orchids, and flowering vines that festooned the walls like tapestries. A fountain in the form of a Deodand urinating gushed quietly near the room’s center, adding a further degree of moistness to the air.
Near the fountain, a ring of iron depended on a long chain from the ceiling, and small cups were set at either side of the ring. Perched between them was a green bird, with a long trailing tail of scarlet and a nutcracker beak. As Cugel approached, it cocked its head to regard him, with an ancient reptilian eye; then returned its attention to the dame, no less ancient and reptilian, who was offering it a slice of some pink fruit.
“Won’t he have his sweet ripe breakfast? Look! It’s the very first of the season, so it is, and Trunadora cut it up specially for her little precious Pippy. Won’t he have some?” She placed the slice between her withered lips and leaned close to offer it to the bird, who took it diffidently.
“What are you doing here?” demanded Dame Vaissa. Dame Trunadora turned, indignant. Cugel recognized the old woman he’d seen peering from the staircase on the previous evening. Now she wore a pleated gown of gray velvet, with a long strand of white corals about her neck. Her face was severely clean, innocent of powder or mascara; but if it had not been, and if the aquiline bones of her face had been well-padded with fat, rather than protruding as shoal rock protrudes from sand at low tide, Cugel might have been able to discern some resemblance to her sister.
“What am I doing here? What are youdoing here? Why aren’t you in your boudoir, sleeping off another night of disgusting excess, as you customarily are at this hour of the day? I am the one who sees to it that darling Pippy gets his little breakfast. If it was left to you, he’d starve! And who is this? Have you started bringing your entertainments home again? I wonder you aren’t ashamed, at your age!”
“You cold-hearted old stick!” Dame Vaissa gripped the tiller of her flying platform in a passion of rage. “You haven’t an ounce of feeling, you haven’t indeed! For your information, I was set upon by murderers and rapists last night on my way home, and had it not been for the timely appearance of this noble virtuous gentleman, anything might have happened! And how dare you imply that I neglect my little Pippy!”
“It’s true!” Dame Trunadora addressed Cugel. “She never remembers to change the water in his drinking-cup!”
“You foul old liar!”
“And look here!” Dame Trunadora gestured at a green and calcined stalagmite of droppings directly under the bird’s hanging ring, rising from the floor to a height of seven or eight inches. “This is herresponsibility! I’ve waited for days to see if she even noticed it hadn’t been cleaned. You never did it yourself, did you, you lazy sybarite? You had that manservant doing it, didn’t you? The one I caught stealing the spoons.”
Dame Vaissa opened and shut her mouth, words temporarily choked by outrage. Cugel, noting that Meternales had not understated matters, wondered how he might play the sisters against each other.
“She’s been this way her whole life,” Dame Trunadora told Cugel. “Always careless, always shirking her duties. She doesn’t love our little sweeting the way I do.”
“I do so!” Dame Vaissa’s voice bellowed forth at last. “Is it my fault that my health is too delicate to get down on my poor hands and knees and scrub the tiles? And if you truly loved dearest Pippy, you’d have cleaned up the mess yourself, rather than let it mount on a matter of principle. Look! His poor little eyes are watering from the fumes! And poor Leodopoif never stole the spoons. You only dismissed him because you were jealous of his affection for me! But as it happens, dear Cugel of Kauchique has graciously accepted a position in my service. His delight it shall be, hereafter, to keep the floor beneath Pippy as spotless as new-loomed samite.”
“Indeed, dear lady, I am eagerly anticipating the duty,” said Cugel, happy to have a chance to speak for himself at last. “There was a great aviary on my father’s estate, and many a time I assisted the keeper in caring for our dear feathered companions.” He bowed to Dame Trunadora, in a close imitation of the elaborate reverences of the courtiers of Prince Kandive. Dame Trunadora regarded him with a chilly lemon-colored stare. She sniffed.
“Very likely,” she said. “But if it is so, then you may as well begin at once. See the cabinet yonder, under the flowering sispitola? You’ll find there a steel brush and a dustpan. Clean away the guano, and make certain you carry it over to the compost-pile afterward. Then wash down the floor with perfumed water, and dry it with chamois cloth.”
“At once,” said Cugel, bowing once again. “Please, concern yourselves no further! Only leave me here, to improve my acquaintance with little Pippy as I work.”
“I should say not!” Dame Trunadora extended an arm thin as a broom-handle within its velvet sleeve. The green bird leaned down, and, steadying itself with its formidable beak, clambered onto her wrist. “Leave our adorable baby alone with a stranger? Really, Vaissa, what can you have been thinking?”
Dame Vaissa twisted her red mouth in a moue of disgust. “Look at his poor little claws! You haven’t bothered to trim them in a month, obviously. Never mind, Pippy darling! You shall come with me now, and I shall show dear Cugel how we trim your little toenails.”
She thrust out her arm and the green bird stepped readily across, flexing its gray and scaled feet for pleasure at the well-padded surface. Grimacing, she swung her arm around to Cugel. “Put out your arm, sir. Step up, Pippy! There now! You see, Trunadora? Pippy knows a gentleman when he sees one.”
“You are too kind, madam,” said Cugel, barely managing not to gasp as the needle-pricking talons punched through his sleeve and into his wrist. The green bird sidled up Cugel’s arm to his shoulder, where he had an excellent view of its hooked, sharp-edged beak.
Cugel had further occasion to note the beak when it bit him, some three or four times during the process of learning to trim avian toenails. There were special silver clippers to be used, and a special diamond-dust file, and a special ointment to be painted on the creature’s feet afterward. Dame Vaissa sat with her hands well within her sleeves, patiently instructing Cugel in the painful process, though he could barely hear her over the creature’s deafening screams. Now and then, she remonstrated gently with Pippy, in the fond language mothers use to infants, when he removed yet another half-moon divot of Cugel’s flesh from knuckle or fingertip or ear.
“Perhaps it has been awhile since you handled birds,” Dame Vaissa remarked, extending a forefinger. She made kissing noises and Pippy leaped from Cugel’s shoulder, leaving a mound of chrysoprase excrement there as it came and buffeting his head soundly with wingbeats. The green bird lighted on Dame Vaissa’s hand and proceeded to preen itself, as Cugel, fingering the bleeding notch in his left ear, smiled through clenched teeth.
“Some few years, madam. And, of course, he isn’t used to me yet. I trust we shall become great friends, if I am allowed to spend a little time alone with him.”
“No doubt,” said Dame Vaissa, with a yawn. “Well. We mustn’t idle! Do please clean up the mess under the dear baby’s perch, won’t you? And, when you’ve finished, you might just step out to the porters’ agency and fetch me a new set of chair-bearers. Tell them I wish for strapping fellows of matched height, preferably with chestnut hair. Protective greaves wouldn’t be a bad idea, either. And I expect you’ll want to bring your things here—were you staying at a lodging-house? You can have Leodopoif’s old room, it’s quite nicely appointed. Oh, and could you stop by Madame Vitronella’s shop and ask her to make up five bottles of my personal cologne? Have her deliver it. And then, of course, I’ll require you to attend me when I go out this evening. The dear Prince has appointed me principal judge in a contest of amateur efforts at love-poetry! So amusing!”
“Tiresome old baggage!” Cugel grumbled, throwing himself down on the narrow bed that had been furnished him. He stretched out his long legs and folded his hands behind his head. It was past the hour of midnight, and he had spent most of the long day on his feet in the service of Dame Vaissa. Firstly, running the thousand little errands she had found for him, each one of which took him a substantial distance from the house and the green bird, and though he strained his ears to hear the incantation with which Dame Vaissa enabled him to get past the gogmagog, yet he was unable to make out so much as one clear syllable. His second annoyance lay in accompanying her to the court of Prince Kandive the Golden.
While this latter also kept Cugel far from the object of his design, nevertheless he had looked forward to swaggering and cutting a fine figure before the ladies at court. He had been disappointed to learn, therefore, that while at Prince Kandive’s palace, he was expected to remain in the forecourt with the flunkeys and footmen of other nobles, partaking of orange-flower-water and small biscuits and listening to below-stairs gossip.
“Regardless,” he told himself, “I am still Cugel the Clever! Already I have progressed farther than Meternales, whose wisdom was undoubted. He never got so far as I. Have I not already penetrated the house, and won the sisters’ trust? I know where the bird is kept. All I require now is a chance to be alone with him, and a means by which to quiet him while I spirit him out of the house, and to learn the egression spell with which to pass the door-warden.”
He considered the first requirement, scowling to himself. There was no hope of managing the theft during the hours in which he was expected to dance attendance on Dame Vaissa; for that was every hour in which she was awake. She generally rose sometime in the early afternoon. In the hours beforehand, Dame Trunadora kept close watch over the green bird.
Cugel’s scowl darkened as he considered the vinegary charms of Dame Trunadora. At last, he shrugged. “What though, Cugel! Have you not an unfailing way with the female sex? If you cannot ingratiate yourself with the old witch, you are not your father’s child.”
* * *
So, on scant hours’ sleep, Cugel made his way to the solarium. As he neared the door, he spotted a kitchen drudge toiling ahead of him, carrying a pair of buckets full of something that steamed.
“Ho, there! What is it you carry?”
The drudge turned dull eyes to him. “Hot water from the kitchen boiler. My lord must have his bath.”
“Your lord? Do you mean the green bird?”
“Even he. My mistress requires it brought fresh every morning. I will be beaten if I deliver it late,” she added pointedly. Cugel looked in vain for a curve of flesh he might pinch or swat, and settled for wresting the buckets from the drudge’s hands.
“I will deliver the water today. Back to your dishpan!”
Muttering, the drudge left him. Cugel bore the water onward to the solarium, and shouldered his way through the doorway. At once, he spotted Dame Trunadora with the green bird on her shoulder, murmuring tender nonsense as she fed the creature sugared tapioca balls.
“Good morning, dear lady,” said Cugel, setting down the buckets. “See! I have brought fresh water for little Pippy’s bath.”
“On whose orders?” Dame Trunadora demanded.
“Why—that is to say—your lady sister requested that I see to the bird’s comfort in all respects. Therefore here am I, ready to serve in whatever manner you require.”
Dame Trunadora narrowed her yellow eyes. Impatiently, she gestured at a wide silver basin, set beside a tall silver pitcher on a tabletop of green serpentine. “Pour the water, then!”
Cugel brought forward the buckets and obeyed, humble and deferential as any slavey. “What am I to do next, madam?
“Prepare the bath, fool.” Dame Trunadora seized the pitcher herself, and poured forth a little chilled water perfumed with attar of flowers of ‘Ood. She cast in also a measure of rose petals. “Put your hand in the water! It should be of a mild and pleasant temperature, not so cool as to give my adorable a chill, but by no means so hot as to scald him.”
“Then I think perhaps you had better add more cold water,” said Cugel, resisting the urge to cram his burned fingers into his mouth.
The water’s temperature was adjusted to Dame Trunadora’s satisfaction; only then did she hand the green bird down to the rim of the silver basin. He hopped in readily and began to splash about at once, throwing water in all directions but more often than not managing to wet Cugel.
“Watch Pippy closely,” said Dame Trunadora. “Don’t let him get water up his sweet little nostrils.”
“Of course not, madam.”
Dame Trunadora went to a cabinet in the wall and opened it, disclosing therein a mask of Shandaloon, the god of the south wind worshipped by the people of Falgunto. She raised her hands before it and uttered an imploration, and straightaway warm air came gusting forth from the god-mask’s open mouth. Cugel meanwhile kept his gaze steadfast on the green bird, whose wet feathers had shrunk in an appalling manner to the gray under-down, giving it the appearance of some unwholesome hybrid of bird and drowned rat. All the while, he meditated on how he might win over Dame Trunadora, since his person had failed to please her.
“Madam,” said Cugel at last, “I have a concern.”
“Regarding my tiny beloved?” Dame Trunadora turned at once, to see that all was well with the green bird.
“No, madam, a personal concern of mine own.”
“And why should it be mine?”
“I thought perhaps you might offer advice, since you know your sister well.” Cugel twisted his countenance to express, as far as he was able, that he was in the grip of acute chagrin while still possessed of a fundamental chivalric impulse.
“Whatever can you be babbling about, man? Vaissa is easily known; all vanity and self-indulgence,” said Dame Trunadora, with a sharp laugh. “And in her younger days, very well known by any handsome male who cared to apply to her.”
“That is the matter of my concern,” said Cugel, looking down as though abashed. A gout of bathwater hit his face, and he concealed a sidelong glare at the green bird with the hand that flicked the water away. “The lady is of reverend years. When she was beset, I rushed to her aid, as I would have rushed to the aid of my mother. She offered me employment in her service, as I thought, out of honest gratitude. But…”
Cugel bit his lip. “How shall I say it without giving offense? Last night, she made certain…overtures, of an indiscreet nature.”
Dame Trunadora looked him up and down. “What! To you?”
“Even I, madam.”
She began to laugh, heartily. “Now by all the gods, she has grown desperate!”
“Needless to say, I am at a loss,” Cugel went on, noticing that a certain glint of good temper, as of new-minted gold, had come into the old woman’s eyes. “I would not for the world disoblige the good lady in any honorable request—so far as flesh will perform to a man’s requirement, which it will not always do—but if nothing else, there is the lady’s good name to consider.”
Dame Trunadora whooped with merriment. “Her reputation was ruined years ago! There was a tavern in Kandive Court that was open ‘round the clock, the Princes’ Arms, and the youths at court took to calling it Vaissa’s Legs!”
“I fear they speak with even less respect now,” said Cugel, in nearly-believable sorrow.
“Oh, what do they say? Tell me!” cried Dame Trunadora. She arranged a plush towel on the table before the stream of warm air. “And bring my heart’s little master from his bath.”
The green bird was disinclined to leave the warm scented water, and Cugel sustained three minor and two considerable flesh wounds from its beak before managing to close his hands around the horrible-looking thing. Resisting the urge to dash its brains out, he brought it to the towel and set it down. “They say, madam, that Dame Vaissa is a pitiable old creature, who lost her beauty long since and now loses her wits.”
“Do they really?” Dame Trunadora smiled as she bent down to watch the green bird lolling about on the towel, beating its wings to dry them. “What else?”
“Why, they say her beauty was never noteworthy to begin with. Also, that so voracious and predatory she was, young men oftimes climbed from her chamber window to get away, and thought a broken leg a reasonable risk if only they might escape,” Cugel improvised. He wrapped his fingers in his jerkin, hoping the bleeding would stop.
“So they did,” said Dame Trunadora, holding out a sugar-stick to Pippy. The bird snapped it in half with its beak. “Such a clever poppet! They did, until I showed them the secret passage in the wine cellar, that leads down to the river. They’d offer to go downstairs to fetch a bottle of fine old Cobalt Mountain vintage, to make sweet dalliance the sweeter, and how they’d run once she’d let them out of her sight! Three hours later she’d still be panting in impatience, and they well on their way to East Almery, to take their chances with barbarian women.”
“Oh, dear,” said Cugel, unable to believe his luck. “With respect, madam, were I not indebted to your sister for a position here—and the chance to make Pippy’s delightful acquaintance—all this might cause Dame Vaissa to be lowered somewhat in my estimation.”
“Call her a dreadful old trollop, if you like,” said Dame Trunadora cheerfully. She eyed the bloodstains seeping through Cugel’s jerkin. “Did Pippy nip you? You’ll find a lavatory yonder, two doors down the corridor on the left. In the red chest in the corner are gauze and styptic.”
“You are as gracious and virtuous as your sister is, lamentably, not,” said Cugel. “But to return to the point, madam: what am I to do, should Dame Vaissa grow importunate again? I fear to refuse her, for I blush to admit I cannot afford to lose my position in your household, and yet the very thought—“
“Why, refuse her, man,” said Dame Trunadora, grinning through chapped and cololess lips. “Then I shall retain your services myself. That will annoy her to apoplexy.”
* * *
Over the next week, Cugel got very little sleep, studiously cultivating his acquaintance with Dame Trunadora by day and dancing attendance on Dame Vaissa by night. Though the latter beldam was, in truth, innocent of any attempt on Cugel’s virtue—which strangely abraded his sense of pride—nonetheless she wearied him with her constant errands, sending him into a hundred pink and lace-trimmed hells to fetch new shoes of seven-inch heels, or sweetmeats, or unguents, or wigs. So envenomed, he improvised hours of malicious court gossip for Dame Trunadora’s delight, regaling her as he chipped away at Pippy’s ammoniac feces, or prepared dainty morsels for Pippy’s delectation, or played the zithar (badly, his fingers being bandaged) in order that Pippy might be lulled to pleasant sleep by gentle melodies.
Though Cugel won Dame Trunadora’s good opinion, none of his ministrations seemed to improve Pippy’s opinion of him. The bird continued to bite him savagely, whenever it got the chance. Nor did it display any sorcerous abilities, not even to recite minor spells; its vocal repertoire was limited to ear-shattering shrieks and the single word “Hello”, upon which it descanted in varying pitch and with monomaniacal persistence for hours at a time, until Cugel wanted to beat his own head against the wall, if not Pippy’s.
Nor might Cugel steal much sleep in the three bare hours between waiting on either lady; for there was still the wine-cellar to be explored, until he was able to locate the secret exit. Three hours’ covert search, over as many days, by the light of a candle-stub, found it for him at last: a cobwebbed door behind a stack of empty crates, with its antique and curiously wrought key hanging beside. Another hour it took to lubricate the lock and hinges with kitchen-grease procured from the drudge; another hour to coax the lock into opening. Cugel peered down the dank passage beyond and smelt the air of the river, and congratulated himself.
Next afternoon, while on an errand to procure for Dame Vaissa three ells of checkered bombazine of Saponce, Cugel deviated from his duty long enough to visit the river-wharf where he judged the other end of the tunnel must lead. There he saw many little boats unattended, and smiled to himself. Having learned so much, he briefly visited a minor wizard’s stall in the marketplace, where, amongst the dubious potions and rank deceptions, he found what he sought, and purchased it with Dame Vaissa’s silver.
“Way, there! Make way for the most noble and gracious daughter of Deviaticus Lert!” roared Cugel, striding along before her slipping and puffing bearers. Dame Vaissa simpered from her high palanquin, and waved graciously at the other great folk being borne down the long aisle to Prince Kandive’s palace, where flambeaux set between the cypress trees illumined the way. Two great pink-flowered magnolias bloomed at either side of the forecourt’s entrance, and scattered lush petals on those entering through the immense gates that bore Kandive’s armorial crest cunningly worked thereupon.
Orange lights streamed from the high windows of the palace, so that the white gravel of the forecourt seemed a bed of red coals, darkened here and there by the shadows of the bearers who jostled for room before the several dismounting blocks. Cugel bounded up to the block nearest the palace doors, and bowed to extend his hand to Dame Vaissa. Bracing his heels against the brickwork, he hauled her forth from her palanquin, and the bearers groaned in relief.
So far, the night had proceeded as any other night since Cugel had entered Dame Vaissa’s service, but now, as Dame Vaissa swept toward the grand staircase on Cugel’s arm, there came a faint yet distinct note, like the cracking of an iron cauldron left too long dry over a fire. Dame Vaissa faltered in her progress, and lurched, so that she would have fallen but for Cugel’s solicitous arm.
“Oh, what is it? she cried. “Something’s the matter with my shoe!”
“Let faithful Cugel see, my lady,” he replied, seating her on the back of one of the stone wolves that guarded Prince Kandive’s doors. “Alas! It’s the left one. It would seem the heel has broken.” Yet Cugel knew well it did not seem, but verily had broken, for had he not spent a careful quarter-hour with a jeweler’s saw cutting through it on an oblique angle?
Dame Vaissa exclaimed in annoyance. “And on the night when Sciliand the Cross-eyed was to stand trial in the court of Love and Beauty! Now I shall be late. Oh, it’s too unfair!”
“Too unfair to come to pass,” said Cugel, with a knowing smile. “See, dear lady, what I have for you here, brought against just such an occurrence? Your second-best banqueting shoes. You may wear these now and miss not a moment of the fun.”
“But, good Cugel, they are the wrong color,” fretted Dame Vaissa. “These are scarlet, and do not suit my gown.” And this was true; she wore an ensemble of turquoise green trimmed with moonstones. Cugel, having planned for this complaint, replied:
“Ah! Then wear them only an hour, while your faithful slave runs back and fetches something more suitable. So you will miss none of your amusements. You have a pea-green pair with diamond heels, have you not?”
“The very thing!” said Dame Vaissa. “Yes, Cugel, do be a dear and fetch them for me. Wake Trunadora. She’ll let you out.” She giggled and added, “She needs no beauty sleep, that’s certain!”
Cugel fitted the red shoes on Dame Vaissa’s plump feet, and assisted her up the grand staircase and through the doors. Then he was off and running through the moonless night, with the broken shoes in his hand and laughter in his heart.
The gogmagog at the door eyed him in a surly manner, but admitted him to the house of Lert readily enough on hearing the entry password. Once within, Cugel cast the broken shoes on a divan in the hallway. One bounced off a satin cushion, clattering to the floor.
“Who’s there? cried a sharp voice. Dame Trunadora peered down her staircase, clutching her dressing-gown to her narrow bosom.
“Only I, madam, poor Cugel. I have a headache; your sister was so kind as to permit me to retire early.”
“Very well, then,” said Dame Trunadora, all suspicion melting from her voice. “Good night, worthy Cugel.”
“Pleasant dreams, madam.”
Cugel hurried deeper into the house, but failed to climb the stair to Dame Vaissa’s tower; rather he went straight up to the solarium, pausing only to dart into the lavatory for the stout sack he had hidden there.
Within the solarium all was silence and darkness, for the daughters of Lert would suffer no lamp to disturb Pippy’s slumbers. Cugel found his way between the potted orchids nonetheless, chuckling to himself as he made out the dark form of the green bird, silhouetted against the glass wall.
“Now, Pippy dearest,” he said, drawing forth the Spancel of Submission he had purchased at the wizard’s stall, “Bid farewell to your pampered life. From this day forth, you have a new master, and you shall see how he rewards insults to his person!”
Making a loop with the spancel, Cugel cast it over the green bird’s head, and drew it tight. “Now! Come to my hand, docile!”
He held up one wrist, with the other hand shaking open the sack into which he meant to fling the bird, that it might not escape as he fled with it down the tunnel to the river. Pippy lifted its head, opening glowing eyes. A moment it regarded Cugel, as though in wonderment. Then its hackles rose, a sure sign of bad temper.
“I bid you come—“ Cugel broke off in horror as he saw the hackles still rising, as the bird increased in size and leaped from its iron ring. It landed on the tiles before Cugel, who backed rapidly away to the length of the spancel. He gave it a futile tug.
“I said I bid—“ But the creature raised a hand—a hand!—and, with a diffident gesture, lifted away the spancel and cast it to the floor. It stood a head taller than Cugel now, its eyes burning like twin fires. The flickering witch-light of a spell’s dissolution showed Cugel the naked form and lineaments of a powerful man in early middle age.
Cugel would have taken to his heels then, but the mage made a peremptory gesture and Cugel found himself locked as in ice, barely able to breathe. An illumination filled the room. The mage spoke, in a voice like low thunder.
“Thief, you have sorely inconvenienced me! You have cost me a life of sweet and easy retirement. Shall I deprive you of yours? Or shall I devise some worse punishment?”
The mage summoned purple robes, which materialized to swathe his person. Then he clapped his hands and called, a sharp summoning cry. There came a scream from high within the house, changing in pitch as it continued, coming nearer, until the door to the solarium burst open. A bird flew in, a green bird with a yellow head, golden-eyed. It settled on the mage’s left shoulder. A moment later came another scream, a squawking commotion in the night. One of the glass panes shattered and admitted another bird, as like the first as might be in every respect save that it trailed a string of moonstones about its neck. Trembling, panting with exertion, it settled on the mage’s right shoulder.
“My dears, my poor little dears, we must move on,” said Daratello the Psitticist, in a voice of tender regret. “This was a most excellent hiding place, and you have been brave little girls, but this two-legged weasel has penetrated our long refuge. What shall we do with him? Shall I allow you to peck out his eyes? But then he’d still have his tongue, to tell of what he’s seen here. And I can’t ask you to pull out his tongue, darlings; the nasty creature might bite one of you. No… Daddy will deal with him, after all.”
Daratello extended his hand. “Felojun’s Spell of Delusion, little Vaissa, if you please.”
The last thing Cugel heard was the shrill metallic voice of one of the green birds, reciting dread words, before Daratello’s voice repeated them and the universe shattered into meaningless color and sound.
* * *
The kitchen drudge waited an hour past the usual time for Cugel to come for the hot water, before deciding she’d better carry it in herself. Two paces inside the solarium door, she stopped and stared openmouthed, to see Cugel the Clever perched inside the iron ring, his knees drawn up about his ears, his elbows held stiffly back. He cocked his head, observing her with a blank inhuman eye; then bent awkwardly and dug about in the seed-cup with his long nose, searching for millet seeds
Copyright © 2009 by Kage Baker