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Sarimance thought on it and hesitated. “Amberlin, as this is still officially your expedition, please be so good as to lead the way.”
“With pleasure,” Amberlin said, and approached the frame. What was there to lose? Since Eunepheos could as easily have snatched them all away as he had the brothers, there was no reason to hesitate. In a moment, and with nothing more than an odd tingling sensation along his arms and legs, he was through the doorway and standing in a vast pillared hall lit by a wash of balmy golden light. Overhead blazed a million scintillants; out through the flanking colonnades were great gulfs of shadow. So, too, darkness filled the high windows.
Amberlin suspected the answer. Just as Venta-Valu had been a demesne of shadow in the failing light of Old Earth, this was its shadowside equivalent: a manse of rich sunlight and colour in the midst of eternal shadowlands.
In moments, Sarimance, Tralques, and the maiden were beside him. Of the Anto brothers, there was no sign.
“Come forward!” cried a great voice from a dais at the far end of the hall, and the magicians moved forward to meet their host.
It was a fascinating sight that greeted them. On the dais, a long-legged, silver-haired figure in black and gold lounged on a great throne, his sharp face and hawklike gaze turned on them as they approached. At the foot of the dais were all manner of wondrous oddities from the forgotten heraldries of Grand Motholam: armored heridinks and plymays, glinting scarfades and lizard-skinned holimores—creatures either born in various undervoids and overworlds or raised in flasks, vats, and home-made vivaria. The fabulous entourage fidgeted, muttered, and groomed themselves as Amberlin, Sarimance, and Tralques followed their lovely guide to the four wide steps before the throne.
“Great Eunepheos,” the lovely woman said, her voice filling the golden chamber. “I bring you, first, Amberlin the Lesser, leader of these three grand explorers into the underhill, then Sarimance the Aspurge from Azenomei, and Tralques Iron Star, illegitimate son of Ildefonse the Preceptor. They alone possessed the skill and ingenuity to defeat your Copsy Door at Venta-Valu and so accepted your invitation; then, against all better judgement, summoned up sufficient courage and daring to enter your most hallowed tholos in the underhill.”
Eunepheos gazed at each as he was named. “Thank you, lovely Asari,” he said. “You may take your place.” He waited while the maiden in black and yellow bowed and went to stand between two blue-enamelled heridinks, then turned his dark eyes back to his visitors.
“I am pleased, gentlemen, that you chose to accept our invitation, and am complimented by your attention. It was good of you to come.”
Amberlin noted the finality in the word ‘was,’ but said nothing. Sarimance, however, felt the need to speak.
“Great Eunepheos. A codicil to the proceedings, if I may. I must point out that my companion Tralques and I are not necessarily part of our colleague’s expedition. It was Amberlin who first conceived it, then found a way to defeat your Copsy Door by way of diligent scholarship. It was he who, without consulting sympathetic colleagues, chose to intrude in your domain. Tralques and I, concerned for his welfare in such an unknown, mysterious place, thought to keep an eye on how he fared and perhaps persuade him to re-consider his venture. Our commitment to the enterprise may be more apparent than real.”
“I grasp your meaning in every regard,” Eunepheos said. “And it is always heartening to see friends come to each other’s aid in such matters. Still, you are here now, and, since three wizards are the stipulated minimum, the contest can proceed.”
“The contest, noble Eunepheos?” Tralques asked.
“All will be explained. But first, allow me to present our judges.”
Eunepheos gestured and three great niches formed in the wall above the throne. In each rested a man-sized glass case. Two were of shimmering silver shot with veins of old rose and flashing indigo. They flanked a case of rich buttery gold filled with arcs of scintillating red and burnt orange. At first, the dazzling cases sizzled with all manner of roiling energies, but soon settled down to a quiet, almost predatory watchfulness.
“Gentlemen,” Eunepheos continued. “Before you are the remembrance chambers of the greatest of us. At the centre, beyond equals, eternally first, stands that of Phandaal the Great. To left and right in flashing silver, you see those of Amberlin the First and Amberlin the Second. They will be our judges.”
Eunepheos left a pause for dramatic effect, but Tralques could not remain silent.
“These are not their bodies, surely?”
“That is not for me to say,” Eunepheos answered, as courtly as ever. “Who knows where these great ones went upon withdrawing from our midst so long ago? What is death and extinction to the likes of such ascendants? Be satisfied that there is a residual link between our world and theirs, a vital connection spanning the ages, and that it pleases them enormously to have watched me set my little trap at Venta-Valu. Think of how it delights them that I test their successors in these latter days, some of whom are wise and generous like yourselves, others vain and grasping and interested only in self-advancement. Imagine their pleasure as I lured three legitimate inheritors like yourselves, ingenious enough, brave enough, and sufficiently determined to make the crossing through the shadow glass into Dessinga to compete in their contest. The less charitable might see it as culling, weeding out the dross, but paragons like yourselves no doubt see it for the appropriate duty of care that it is.”
Tralques took a step forward. “As my illustrious friend and colleague just now explained, great Eunepheos, Sarimance and I are merely here in a supernumerary capacity to Amberlin’s original group—”
“Nonsense, Master Tralques,” Eunepheos countered. “You are far too modest and it does you credit. Your resolve is as strong as his, I’m sure. Our contest is to be one of magic, here, now, in this great hall. Each of you will take turns conjuring up your finest. In three rounds, three attempts, each bout strictly limited to no more than two minutes, you will present a display worthy of our mighty judges. Three rounds, three chances to win. The winner goes free, of course. The Copsy Door will open to him alone. The others will stay and add their fine energies to Dessinga to help maintain this golden place.”
“I must cry foul!” Sarimance said. “There is an unforgivable bias. Our friend Amberlin here is the namesake of two of the judges. They will surely be predisposed. I suggest the contest be abandoned until two new judges can be appointed. Tralques, Amberlin, and I will return, say, a year from now to see if—”
Eunepheos raised a hand. “Sarimance, listen well. You cannot imagine what shame, scorn and disgust our noble Silver Adepts here would normally feel because a sorry pretender persists in bearing their name. You see no latter-day Phandaals, do you? No surfeit of Llorios, no glut of Dibarcas Maiors? Who would dare? Who would risk the possibility of reprisal? But the leader of your fearless expedition has been bold enough to take the name of his betters without regret or contrition. No doubt he will say it is to honor his ancestors rather than simply out of pride and hubris, or because his parents were careless. So be it. We will soon see, one way or the other. But if there is a bias, then surely it is in your favor, not his. So let the contest proceed! Tralques, you look so dignified in your fine blue robe, you will go first, then you, Sarimance, then your expedition leader, Amberlin.”
Without further hesitation, Tralques strode purposefully out into the hall, spun about and gestured magnificently.
“Great Eunepheos, illustrious judges, respectful spectators and brother wizards, I greet you and present for your diversion and edification the Wholly Self-Made Mankin!”
There was a moment’s hesitation, then a floating head appeared in the hall before them, its broad moon-face grinning amiably, peering this way and that, regarding its surroundings with what could only be happiness and wonder. For twenty seconds it regarded the dais, the three shimmering remembrance cases, the wizards, and the assembled underlings, then, from below the chin, a body formed, legs extending down till the creature stood on the floor at last.
No sooner had the feet settled than the head sprouted antlers, each tine tipped with a glowing red bulb. The apparition glanced up in wonder as more nodules formed along the tines, each one swelling till it fell away like ripe fruit and was caught by the creature, who immediately began juggling them. The hands were soon lost in a blur as ten, twenty, soon hundreds of the colored orbs went soaring into the air. In a final flourish, the orbs were all sent aloft together, first to transform into gorgeously plumed songbirds that gave a single plangent cry, then to explode in a cascade of dazzling colors.
When the dazzle subsided, the head, body and accessories were nowhere to be seen. Tralques stood alone, bowing before Eunepheos and the judges.
Eunepheos, Sarimance and Amberlin applauded with gusto. The underlings, however, stood rapt in silent attention as if not sure how to act. The three radiant cases stood without comment.
“Splendid, Tralques!” Sarimance cried. “It is nice to see that old routine done so briskly.”
“Splendid indeed,” Eunepheos said. “Most impressive, Tralques Iron Star. Sarimance, to the floor if you will!”
Sarimance strode forth like a blood-red demon of yore, staff flashing with its brilliant white tip. He too spun about in fine style, arms flung wide as if for applause, though none was yet forthcoming. Sarimance, Amberlin observed, clearly valued the niceties of showmanship as much as he did.
“Great Eunepheos, mighty Remembrances, colleagues and friends, I bring you the Penultimate Callestine Redoubt, as first performed in far-off Sarmatica before the Nine.”
Waves of bright blue light, like mighty ocean swells, rushed through the arches at the sides of the hall and began clashing and heaving against one another in the middle of the vast space. Gulls cried. The smell of brine filled the air. Then, emerging from the toss of spray and luminous foam, came a galleas in full sail, its oars striking the waves, complete with flags snapping in a strong head-wind and mariners calling.
While the wizards watched, the ship began to swing about in the beginnings of a terrible maelstrom, turning faster and faster until, at last, it sank beneath the ethereal waves and was lost. But even as those waves closed over the hapless craft, a great tower lifted from where it had been, a lighthouse looming up out of the swells to stand strong and unassailable, its tapered length striped with the heraldic colors of Grand Motholam, its great beacon pulsing out across the angry seas.
Then it was gone: lighthouse, wind and waves, and the silence in the hall was in itself spectacular after all that had been.
“I have never seen the Redoubt done better,” Eunepheos confessed. “Sarimance, you are undoubtedly a master of the first rank. I dare not try to guess what you will give us for your final offering.”
“I thank you, great lord,” the Red Wizard replied, and returned to the others.
“Now you, noble Amberlin,” Eunepheos said. “The one with the skill and courage to defeat my Copsy Door, who judged intrusion into Dessinga worth all risk and danger and even now welcomes all consequences. Your first offering please.”
Amberlin stepped forth, feigning a confidence he did not feel. He did a magnificent spin-about and flourish with his staff that, he liked to think, surely had the plymays, heridinks, and holimores wide-eyed with amazement, if such a concept had any purchase in those antic minds.
But what could he try? What might he invoke that the Inflect would not ruin? Dare he attempt the Absolute Cardantian Triflex? The intonations were clear, the words mostly monosyllables. But he dared not hesitate. Even as he began speaking the words, he resolved to show no consternation at the result. Whatever happened was to be treated as exactly what was intended.
He concluded the pronouncement and gestured magnificently.
Twenty-six chickens sat on a large Alazeen rug, blinking and pecking at bits of dust in the weave.
There was silence in the hall except for some idle clucking. Some in the audience of adepts and underlings may have thought to admire the wonderful patterns in the old rug, others the interesting fact that every third chicken was either cross-eyed or had but a single eye. Certainly there was much to ponder on.
Amberlin himself was dumbfounded by the sheer bathos of the result, but made himself smile as if at some subtlety no-one else could see. He then chuckled and, as a desperate but possibly ingenious improvisation, wagged a finger at the nearest chicken as if in reproach at some inappropriate, possibly scurrilous, remark it had just now made. The chicken blinked its single eye and went back to picking at dust-mites in the rug.
Forty-two seconds from the moment of their appearance, both rug and chickens vanished in an equally anticlimactic pop, and the room was as before. Amberlin strode as decisively as he could back to his place before the dais.
“Most unexpected!” Eunepheos said. “Either there are subtleties here only the most refined sensibilities can discern or you are so confident of your final performance that you are trifling with us and saving your best till last.”
“Though it was a very fine rug,” Tralques admitted, clearly nonplussed by the whole thing.
“And most singular chickens,” Sarimance remarked, barely able to contain his amusement.
“Indeed,” said Eunepheos. “And contrast always has its place. But let us continue. Tralques, to the floor!”
“Great lord,” Tralques temporized. “Would not some small refreshment be in order? I know for a fact that the Iron Star Inn has the best—”
“Nonsense, Master Tralques. We have hardly begun. To the floor, I say. After such wonders, our judges are keen to see more!”
Tralques again stepped forth into the great room. Without preamble, he flung his arms wide and uttered another spell from his repertoire.
Out in the hall, a giant child lay sleeping face-down on the paving. On the infant’s broad back stood twenty silver dryads playing musical instruments: fantiphones and asponades, twizzle-horns, fukes, and quarter-drums. As they executed a most jolly jig from the hills beyond Kaspara Vitatus, the child’s dreams curled up in spirals of fanciful imagery, so that clowns and eagles tipped into castles and cottages, with glimpses of monarchs and djinn vying with hints of dragonry, all in the most wonderful melange.
At the minute-forty mark, the seemingly random elements came surging together to form a single face: that of Eunepheos himself, smiling and benign.
“It is often well done when well enough done,” the image intoned cryptically, and the whole fascinating ensemble vanished, leaving Tralques bowing respectfully to those on the dais.
This time, the underlings in the entourage applauded along with the wizards, rattling their armor, weapons, chains and fine jewelry according to their various stations and condition in the Dessinga hierarchy.
“Elegantly and grandly done!” Eunepheos cried with obvious approval.
“The Fine Silver Dalliance,” Sarimance said. “I remember it fondly. And there wasn’t a single chicken, one-eyed, cross-eyed or otherwise to mar the proceedings.”
Amberlin smiled and applauded too, but carefully said nothing, though he did note in passing that Tralques had refined his conjuration considerably since their meeting at the Iron Star Inn that day. Sarimance had obviously been providing lessons in embellishment and framing effect.
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