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Songs of the Dying Earth

Язык: Английский
Год издания: 2018 год
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“Kept it safe, your magnificence,” Joanto said, brushing the grass from his apron. “Did all you said exactly to the letter.”

Boanto wiped his chin with the back of a hand. “Ready and eager to uncover what’s within, your mightiness.”

The Copsy Door itself was a smooth milk-glass lid set at forty-five degrees into the hillside. About it, merging with the grassy bank, were the schattendross relics of old wall and arch footings, a sad handful looming up to become twists and tendrils before fading into nothing. Through them, the old red sun cast a purple light that made the day seem further along than it was. Not for the first time, Amberlin wondered what had possessed Eunepheos to create such a place. There was gloom and shadow enough in these latter days.

Amberlin pushed back his sleeves in the sort of theatrical flourish all wizards practiced in the privacy of their innermost sanctoria, and made as if to study the milky lid. “Joanto, take your water-bucket and fetch fresh water—mind now, free from any impurities. Boanto, go find five red wild-flowers from that meadow there. Flawless, you understand. Not a blemish or this will not work.”

The brothers exchanged glances, clearly displeased at having to miss any part of what the wizard now did, but dared not linger. Amberlin watched as they hurried off muttering and casting backward glances. Then, even as Joanto stooped to fill his bucket and Boanto discarded one flower after another in his quest for perfect blooms, Amberlin took the green operating coin for the baffle screen in one hand and the yellow eye-coin in the other and slammed them together. The result was a rather spectacular and very satisfactory flash complete with a thunderclap that echoed in the hills and sent reed-birds rising along the Scaum.

The brothers, of course, saw it as a fine conjuration rather than the pyrotechnics accompanying ancient science at work. Even as the thunder faded, they came scrambling back, Joanto discarding his bucket, Boanto throwing aside his fistfuls of flowers along the way.

“No matter! No matter!” Amberlin called. “My simplest Sunderblast has brought Eunepheos’ door undone. Light the torches and let us proceed.”

Boanto wiped his chin again and studied the perfectly round hole where the Copsy Door had been. Its blackness was absolute. “Surely a fine magical glow would be more convenient, your magnificence.”

“Surely it would,” Amberlin countered loftily. “But think on it further, Boanto. You fine robust fellows must continue to play some modest part in this to warrant as much as a quarter share.”

Joanto gave a shrewd sideways look. “But we were the ones who found the old requiem manuscript in that trunk in Solver’s attic while—er—visiting his poor, ill—er—now deceased mother that day, then immediately brought it to you.”

“True, but you brought it to me knowing I valued old manuscripts and syllabaries and was a likely buyer, nothing more. It was I who spent the hours researching Eunepheos and finally learned how to apply that scrap of melody to this fine Copsy Door so we could plot its comings and goings.”

“As you say, master,” said Joanto. “And I like that word ‘we’. ‘We’ is so much friendlier than ‘I’.”

“You’ve been talking to Diffin, I can tell. For now, be satisfied with the generous quarter ‘we’ agreed upon.”

Boanto rubbed his chin. “But what if yonder hole is empty? A quarter of nothing is nothing at all.”

“Indeed. But who knows? Prospective apprentices in training for Furness must seize any opportunity to demonstrate appropriate skills.”

The brothers eyed one another at the thought of access to the impressive and well-appointed manse their informant Diffin had long boasted about.

Joanto quickly set to lighting the torches. “Right you are, master. You conserve your fine magic. Bo and I will light the way to unstinting generosity and open-handed remuneration.”

“To the bottom of a mysterious hole in a riverbank at the very least. But well said, Joanto. In fact, surprisingly said. You will make a fine factotum someday. On you go, brave lads.”

Warily, reluctantly, the brothers stepped one after the other into the hole. Amberlin followed, relieved to find conventional stone steps leading down to an ordinary enough stone-lined corridor cut into the hillside. Whatever Venta-Valu had been above ground, here in the underhill more conventional methods were at work. More importantly, ordinary corridors usually signified ordinary destinations and conventional rewards like treasure troves and prized collectibles.

But while the brothers no doubt thought of gold and gems, perhaps a few of the easier glamors to ease their way in the world, Amberlin longed for spell books and periapts, something, anything, to free him from the debilitating nightmare of Stilfer’s Prolexic Inflect.

He said nothing of this, of course, simply continued by torchlight along a corridor flagged and walled with slabs of finely set teracite, with darkness stretching before and a more unsettling darkness closing in behind.

What had this place been? Amberlin wondered. Not a tomb, surely. Many wizards preferred to self-immolate in a blaze of scintillance before a suitable audience at an exact day and hour, as if in answer to some higher calling only they had cognizance of. Others chose to exit in the solemn pursuance of some marvelous interdimensional quest, so they claimed, something that would ensure a legacy of bafflement and wonder and become the stuff of legends.

Amberlin may have fallen a long way to his present desperate straits, but never for a moment did he forget that any adept’s reputation depended on one part magic to five parts showmanship. As the great Phandaal himself was purported to have said, “A good exit makes up for a good deal.” If the showmanship far outweighed the magic in these days since Sarimance’s curse, then so be it. That too took considerable skill.

At last, the corridor opened into a large stone tholos chamber, completely empty save for a single black mirror set against the far wall. The glass stood in an ornate gilt frame and was nearly the size of a door.

Even without his long years of experience with mirrors, Amberlin would have allowed that a spread of reflective darkness in that particular configuration did not bode well. The brothers clearly agreed. Finding the tholos empty, they had begun muttering to one another. Before Amberlin could reassure them, a voice called from behind.

“Our heartfelt thanks, Amberlin. Tralques and myself agreed that you were the one to get us inside.”

Amberlin turned and barely controlled the rush of anger and dismay he felt. At the mouth of the entry corridor, casting illumination with the milkfire globe set in the end of his staff, stood his old adversary, Sarimance the Aspurge. The formidable mage looked as self-assured and resplendant as ever in his rich vermilion day-robe, with tight black curls framing his round face and, yes, the familiar maddening grin Amberlin remembered from that worst of days.

Beside him, with a more conventional lantern raised high, stood Tralques, the smirking upstart from the Iron Star Inn, as thin and nervouslooking in his dark blue travelling robe as Sarimance was round and supremely confident in his dazzling red.

“You have caused me many miserable hours, Sarimance,” was all Amberlin could think to say. He knew he had been careless, that no spell now uttered in his defence could possibly turn out right.

“No doubt, old friend,” Sarimance replied, clearly enjoying the moment. “But then you would have inconvenienced me with equal sangfroid, I’m sure, had the circumstances permitted. You seem surprised that our fine lads here have been so forthcoming in inviting us to your party.”

Amberlin put on his bravest face. “Joanto, Boanto, you must put any hopes of employment at Furness out of your mind. All such offers are henceforth rescinded. You are to consider them null and void.”

The brothers stood chuckling to one side.

Joanto went further and spat on the floor. “As you see, magnificence, three quarters of something can quickly become nothing as well.”

Amberlin maintained as much aplomb as he could manage. “Furthermore, you may inform Diffin that his services are no longer required. He can join you in the employment queue in Azenomei.”

“Now, now, Amberlin,” Sarimance remonstrated, stepping further into the room. “Do not blame the lobster for being a lobster. More to the point, remember that some husbands have more than one wife and service all fairly. Best accept that your erstwhile employees already had employment before entering your service and simply saw a way to get two jobs done. But since we are all here, bold wayfarers together, what do you make of this glass?”

Amberlin knew that the immediate barbs and retorts that sprang to mind would serve no useful purpose. “It is undoubtedly a door. Eunepheos the Darke is reputed to have had several mirror doors at Venta-Valu in his salad days.”

Sarimance stepped forward to examine the ominous black shape. “How then do we open it? Do your books tell?”

From behind him, Tralques peered at the glossy surface. “The question is, do we really wish to know?”

“Be easy, Tralques,” Sarimance said, smiling all the while. “Our redoubtable colleague here has all manner of tricks and competencies. Provided uttering them is not required, of course.”

Tralques and the brothers chuckled at the barb.

Amberlin pretended not to hear. “May I suggest that Joanto and Boanto earn their way in this by first polishing the mirror? Dust and other blemishes mar the surface and could well affect its operation, rather in the same way that a particular inconvenient conjuration presently afflicts me.”

Sarimance smiled, but the brothers protested.

“We are holding our torches!” Joanto said. “A vital task that requires all our attention, as brother Bo will affirm.”

Boanto nodded vigorously. “Moreover, the glass looks especially smooth and clear from where we stand.”

Amberlin made a sound of impatience. “Then you must stand closer. Pass your torches to Tralques and he will be our light-bearer and illuminate the glass while you polish it with your kerchiefs.”

“We possess no kerchiefs!” Joanto cried.

Boanto put on a thoughtful expression. “But perhaps we could go and buy some at the fair in Azenomei and hurry right back.”

Sarimance gestured and uttered a pronouncement. “Do not trouble yourselves. You will now find excellent kerchiefs in the pockets of your work aprons.”

“But we have no pockets either!” Boanto protested. “Perhaps we had best go and—” then found he had both pockets and kerchiefs to spare, a half-dozen of each, and that Joanto had the same.

“Bah,” muttered Joanto, pulling forth a fine lace kerchief. “Sometimes lofty folk take all the fun out of finding a bargain.”

With no other choice, the brothers reluctantly approached the black mirror. Joanto gave a tentative rub with his cloth, then, when nothing untoward happened, Boanto did the same.

“It seems very well behaved for a magic glass,” Boanto said.

“Aye, Bo,” Joanto agreed. “Perhaps it appreciates the attention and will reward us for such kindly treatment.”

Encouraged, they began polishing and cleaning in earnest while the magicians looked on.

Becoming ever more zealous, Joanto finally spat on the glass as a prelude to removing an especially stubborn spot. The mirror gave a deep sigh, then, in a flash of glittering darkness, its surface heaved forward in a great pseudopodium, snatched up the brothers, and carried them off into the frame and out of sight. A distant wail could be heard from the other side, then absolute silence.

Before any of the wizards could remark on the occurrence, a figure stepped through the golden frame: a shapely young woman wearing a form-fitting costume of black and yellow diaper. Only her face remained uncovered, showing clear blue eyes and a radiant smile. She gestured towards the mirror door.

“Gentlemen, if you will. Eunepheos awaits.”

“Eunepheos!” cried Tralques. Though shrewd and ambitious, the young mage had come by his magic through paternal largesse from Ildefonse the Preceptor, and was still new to matters of decorum and proper conduct.

“Then take us to him at once!” Sarimance demanded. “We are important dignitaries and most eager to meet him.”

Amberlin said nothing, just waited as the winsome creature—human, sandestin, some even rarer kind of eldritch wunderwaif, it was impossible to tell—stood to one side of the frame and gestured for them to enter.
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