Mayer Alan Brenner – Spell of Intrigue

FRADI HAD RECENTLY DIED, which made it all the more remarkable for him to realize that he was once again awake. That is to say, on the one hand he was rather surprised, but on the other hand he was scarcely surprised at all. He was aware that “recently” was a relative term under the circumstances, but his attendance at his own deathbed, surrounded by those glad to see the last of him, did seem to have taken place not long before. That, in any event, was not the point. By any standard it was a refreshing situation. He was not in pain. He had been in no shortage of pain, and had expected (if anything) to awaken into an environment where the continuation of mere physical pain would be the least of his worries. Renewed life after death was an article of faith, but the multiplicity of faiths differed sharply on the nature of that life, and on the correlation of one’s circumstances in the next with one’s behavior in the last. Out of self-defense Fradi had cleaved to a faith that stressed accomplishment rather than slippery value judgments of good and evil, but he had always harbored some residuum of doubt. He was quite happy, though, to be reassured. One so rarely gets an article of faith confirmed. Nevertheless, it was surely a miracle. “To the gods,” he began ritually, “I offer thanks -” “You’re welcome,” said a voice from behind his head. He opened his eyes. Above his head was a ceiling of cunningly carved stone inset with patterns of dancing light.

The vision through the fovea of his left eye was clear, unblurred by the annoying swirl of white whose curdling presence had significantly impaired his accuracy with a bow. In fact, all his senses seemed to leap at him with unparalleled clarity, his deadly hands unhindered by knotted joints, the paths of his thought undimmed, his natural (or, as one brief adversary had maintained, unnatural) vigor fully restored. He was resting on his back in a long coffin-shaped basin whose sides he could see through, covered with a white toga•like garment fringed in gold. The figure of a woman, presumably the one who had spoken, moved into his field of view. She would not actually be a woman, of course, since the circumstances were what they were, but to his newly restored eyesight no divergence could easily be found. He suddenly discovered that another anatomical feature to whose activity he had long since bade farewell had also returned abruptly to consideration. A squared-off scepter whose face glowed in mysterious patterns was in her hand. The figure extended it toward him, examined its patterns searchingly, and then moved it slowly in the Swirl of Sinalla. He raised his own hand and made the Swirl himself, concluding with the extra touch of fingertips above his heart. The figure smiled at him a benign smile. “Behold,” she said, “for your master approaches.” The transparent bier pivoted downward, leaving him perched halfway between the horizontal and the vertical. The carved wall ahead of him seemed to dissolve into mist. Beyond the mist was a vast open place, of darkness above an endless silver plane. In the middle distance was a pillar of steam.

From the midst of the pillar he felt the force of a Presence. The pillar spoke. “Fradjikan! You have been called!” Fradi felt the words rumble through his body with an almost-curdling resonance as the pillar felt silent. Although the cloud exhibited no feature that might be considered an eye, still he felt it examining him with a deep and searching gaze. Then, somewhat to his surprise, he heard a low, virtually subterranean peal of laughter; no, not laughter really, but more of a chuckle. A chuckle? “You have aroused Our mirth,” said the pillar, “for reasons that are Ours alone to know. However, this you may know. In reward for your virtue, your devotion, and your dedicated development of such a useful set of skills, you have been honored with Our grace.” He found he had to fight an urge to babble. “I am honored beyond all honors, 0 Preeminent One. I sing your praises. There is no way to properly show my abasement, no way to adequately repay -” “This is true. However,” the voice of the Presence said consideringly, “there is a certain thing you can do. Indeed, We have granted the benison of our favor in anticipation of your accomplishment of a specific task.” Underscoring the benison, the steam pillar smiled a beneficent smile.

“The name of this job is Max.” “Not much to look at, is he?” Two men stood over a third. The one who had spoken had hair that cascaded in curls past his shoulders, and a light brown mustache to match. He wore a cloak of severe, high-collared cut but of expensive weave and fabric. A set of reading glasses slouched low on his nose; a wide-brimmed hat wound with fur trim rested on the table beside him. He was, in short, a merchant, and not a struggling one. “No, Meester Groot,” said his companion. “Companion,” of course, would by all accepted standards of the day have been too strong a word, implying a degree of social equality to which even enlightened merchants would rarely lower themselves. The relationship between Haalsen Groot and his employees, though, was scarcely typical, since the esteemed Meester Groot did not restrict his activities – or his colleagues – to those a scrupulously proper merchant might assume without reproach. The third member of the tableau, the recumbent one, provided ample illustration of this point. Admittedly, Haalsen Groot was no colossus. Nevertheless, for a figure half again as tall as Meester Groot, the mass and bulk of the man on the cot should have been proportionately greater as well. Where one would have expected only the sleek curves of corded muscles, though, the sight of stretched, somewhat mangy skin and the protruding angles of bones, sunken cheeks and hollowed eye sockets betrayed a barbarian swordsman far from home and lost in the strange convolutions of civilization. He had yet to open his eyes. Instead, he was spending his time and energy on the occasional fever chill, uncontrollably chattering his teeth and contorting his body into strange representations of the fetal position, as perhaps illustrated by one of the members of the Nightmare Realism school of modern painters.

Following this line of thought, Meester Groot commented, “Life may be life, but aesthetics are certainly aesthetics,” to which his clerk replied, as was his habit, “Indeed so, sir.” The barbarian interrupted with a deep liquid cough, a fine froth of pink bubbles appearing on his lips. “You are sure you found the right man,” Meester Groot said suddenly. “He was booked under the name of Svin,” said the clerk methodically. “The arrest record listed his last job as caravan guard, so the circumstances would seem appropriate. Once fed, cleaned, and healed, he’ll most likely match the description as well; he is fairly distinctive for this far south. Should I make further inquiries?” “No, Julio, I take no exception with your effort. I suppose you’d best send for the doctor. Sounding a bit tubercular, our friend here, don’t you think?” “Indeed so. I expect the physic momentarily.” Julio gave a cough of his own, but a much more discreet and refined one. “Do you have any idea why Meester Maximillian wanted you to secure this particular specimen, sir?” Haalsen Groot kept his gaze on the barbarian as he spoke, but, behind their lenses, his eyes appeared to be looking somewhere else entirely. “To Max, adventuring is an improvisational art. He likes to have a varietal selection of raw materials at hand from which to mold.” He also has a streak of excess sentimentality, Meester Groot reminded himself, as well as a certain philosophy of the world.

Most likely he met this fellow on that caravan in his recent resume and thought he could make a modern man out of him. Whatever the exact details of his interest in Svin, here, Max was rousing himself to more activity than Groot had seen in years. Events threatened to become intriguing. These events to come would not be safe, perhaps, and they would be (most likely) ill-advised, but they would certainly not be boring. He reminded himself to order more sandbags. Bellowing an inchoate battle cry in an impressive display of sheer vocal power, the former Lion of the Oolvaan Plain pushed off his perch on the heavy iron chandelier, dislodging half-a-dozen lit candles in the process, and plunged downward, his massive sword twirling lethally around his body. His opponent, who had been peering inquisitively around the room trying to determine what the Lion might be up to this time, brought his own rapier into line. As the Lion descended, his mightily thewed legs curling into a crouch beneath him, his adversary’s blade caught him in a sharp rap behind the calves, introducing an unexpected element of angular momentum. The Lion began to revolve backward, the floor came up as his opponent stepped smartly out of the way, and with an unwelcome thud he found himself flat on his back looking up at the expanding formation of still-flaming candles following him like dying comets toward the boards. The tip of a rapier appeared in his field of vision, blurring into a glint of red highlights as it caught the reflections of guttering fire. Pieces of candles bounced away to all sides. The sounds of swishing and slicing died. The Lion moistened the thumb and forefinger of one hand against his lips and raised them to his forehead, crossed his eyes, and pinched gingerly in the midst of the glob of wax coagulating above his eyebrows. He was rewarded by a quick sizzle that faded off into a gurgling hiss. “You missed one,” the Lion said.

“It’s your own damn fault,” said his adversary. “Chalk it up as a lesson in humility. Who the hell ever accomplished anything with one of those big grandstanding moves in the first place?” “I’ll have you know I once ambushed a bear. “ “By falling off a lighting fixture? And which scar did that one leave you with, hmm?” The Lion snorted. “Shut up and help me off the floor. My back’s killing me. And toss me one of those towels.” A moment’s leverage, suitably applied, resulted in the Lion becoming vertical once again. He draped the towel over his naked chest and led the way to the sideboard. “I’ve got half a mind to join you,” he said after a moment, easing the words out around a large chunk of roast beef. “I’ve missed the last two Knittings, and the one before that must have been, oh, twenty, twenty-five years ago.” “Sure,” Max said, “go ahead, come. Forget all that stuff you were telling me last week about how you’re the only responsible force holding this city together and getting the warehouses rebuilt on schedule, not to mention the good government seminar you’re putting your old friend Kaar through. Let Roosing Oolvaya sink back into the river – who needs it anyway?” The Lion glared at him, an effect somewhat spoiled by the protruding cud of half-chewed meat in one cheek. “It’s my kids,” he said, “I should never have had kids in the first place.

That was the beginning of the end. They warp your whole sensibility. You should have some.” “You forget,” said Max, “I do have some. I have yours. Don’t think I don’t regret it, either.” The Lion resumed chewing, a look of satisfaction on his face. He might have been the one who’d ended up flat on his back on the floor, but that didn’t mean he was the one who’d lost. “So, you think you can teach my son something?” “He’s got two arms and a brain, and at least a full complement of normal senses,” Max said cautiously. “I don’t see why not. Should be able to put a little maturity on him, at any rate, if he doesn’t get carved up first.” A rather feral grin curled the left side of the Lion’s mouth. He ran the towel over his forehead, catching the sheen of water draining down past his headband from his long black hair. “You studied with no master you’ll lay name to, you fight in a mad hodgepodge without recognizable style, no part of the room is safe from you, either, and on top of that you know the value of life – by damn, I like that in a man! Are you sure you’re not my son?” Max raised an eyebrow and glanced at the Lion. True, they were about the same height, and they both had straightish black hair, although Max’s ran more toward the wavy and the Lion’s was running significantly toward gray, but Max had a lighter, more lithe build than the Lion’s heavy-boned, massof-the-earth eastern-plains solidity.

Max was also fully at home with the company of a highly functioning mind. The Lion, Max had discovered, had a brain with which no one could find fault, but was reticent to the point of pulling teeth about actually using it, rather than the largest convenient sword or the nearest wieldable chair. Beyond temperament, there was also the issue of age to consider. “It would seem unlikely,” Max said. “Then again, who can say? If you can provide a reasonable inheritance, though, you’re welcome to adopt me.” “How did you pick up that nickname anyway, the ‘Vaguely Disreputable’?” The Lion had retrieved his sword and was idly using it to cut a thin slice of corned beef from the other large hunk on the serving platter. Suddenly he whirled, flinging the slice of meat off the end of the blade toward Max’s eyes and launching the rest of his body after it. Max immediately fell backward and tucked into a roll. He’d been preparing himself for something of the sort, having found that the Lion enjoyed trying to lull his opponent off guard before flailing out in some unexpected attack. The corned beef flew over Max’s body and hit the wall behind him but the Lion’s sword, following it, slashed down instead. Max stopped his back somersault perched on his shoulders and reversed direction with a sharpness that implied he’d had this move in mind from the start, springing forward first to a firm-footed crouch, then to a clinch directly up against the charging Lion’s chest, and then, grasping the towel still dangling around the Lion’s neck and giving it a twist and a stiff enough yank to bring a flush of sudden purple to the Lion’s face, and using his pull on the towel to amplify his vertical momentum, flipped himself head-over-heels over the Lion’s shoulder as the Lion catapulted forward toward the floor. Max landed atop the sideboard, carefully keeping his feet clear of the food. The clang of the Lion’s sword against the floor was followed immediately by the familiar sound of the rest of the Lion joining it. “Acrobats, “ said the Lion in a muffled voice. “I’ve always detested acrobats.

Rabbits, the bunch of them, always hopping out of your way.” “I keep telling you,” said Max, “agility can outmaneuver the mass of a broadsword any day.” The Lion sprang back to his feet with a fair show of agility on his own part and retrieved his slice of corned beef from its perch on a wall sconce. “Tell the world about it,” he said. “Acrobatics are fine if everything falls out just right. If not, you’ve just set yourself up for the strike of death.” As he swung back toward the sideboard, he saw Max standing on it, his arms folded, tapping one foot next to a bowl filled with roasted potatoes. “Oh, all right,” the Lion said, “I’m finished for today. Go ahead and make yourself a sandwich. “Never fit will,” said a croaking voice from beneath the table, “this.” Something black and leathery moved behind one of the table legs, virtually lost at the back of the cabin in the shadows cast by the single lamp hanging by a chain from the ceiling. A wooden crate grated raspingly along the deck boards under the table and then crunched up against the wall. “It does seem, if I may be so bold, that we have been spending the majority of our effort on merely moving the household from one location to the next,” another voice remarked from just outside the door. A large heap of books precariously bound up with a net appeared in the doorway, followed by the speaker, who was attempting to balance the volumes in a pair of unnaturally long and slender arms that appeared to be wrapped so securely around the bundle that they were bending not only at the elbows but also, although that was certainly an illusion, midway down the exaggerated forearms as well. The skin of the exposed forearms was colored a more than incidentally greenish hue.

A muttering black cloak emerged from underneath the table and scuttled off to the side as the taller figure let the books subside with a heavy thump onto its upper surface. The top of the cloak’s hood was barely higher than the level of the tabletop, revealing that working under the table was no serious inconvenience to its wearer. “Job did take I not with sole purpose furniture to arrange,” said the mutterer. A third being, this one human, had been sitting at the table in question trying desperately to remain engrossed in deciphering a letter. This being looked up from the heap of netted books which had just entombed said letter to a depth precluding immediate recovery. “What was that, Haddo?” he said, with an air of resigned disorientation. “The matter on which Master Haddo was commenting,” said the green-skinned one, stretching out his kinked arms, “was that of the purely menial activities to which our employment with you has led us of late.” “Plainly can speak for myself I,” Haddo croaked. “Intercessor for need nil is.” The hood swiveled to peer accusingly upward, revealing a continued expanse of fuliginous black broken only by two glowing orange sparks at around the right position for eyes. “Speaks yet Wroclaw truth.” “Oh, come on now,” said the man at the table. “You know the situation. You know I’m not real fond of it myself.” “Yet sit you table at,” said Haddo, “while heavy bundles drag we.

” “But I’m the boss,” the Great Karlini pointed out. “I’m supposed to sit at tables and think. You’re supposed to handle things like packing and lifting, that’s what I hired you for.” Wroclaw gave a discreet cough. “Not quite true, if I may remind you, sir.” “Said not you, ‘For all is one, and for one is all’?” Haddo grumbled indignantly. “If you don’t like the job, Haddo, you’re not bound to it,” said Karlini. “I don’t own you; you’re more than welcome to take off and go back to wherever you came from. Where was that, by the way?” “Hinterlands,” said Haddo. “Do not say I, to wish leave I. It the right of civilized beings is all complain to, admit you must.” “Then what do you want, Haddo? You want another raise?”


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Updated: 14 December 2020 — 19:24

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