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Songs of the Dying Earth

Язык: Английский
Год издания: 2018 год

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“Not with your ears,” agreed Umbassario. “You have killed my pet, my servant, he who did my bidding, and I demand reparation.”

“I have no money. You know that.”

“I said reparation, not tribute,” said the mage. “And you shall supply it. I warned you not to harm my creature, and you ignored me. I must have a servant. It shall be you.”

“I cannot,” he said. “I have my duties as the Watchman—and I have a reward to claim.”

“You shall never claim it,” said Umbassario. “The golden witch will shrink from your touch as she shrinks from no other. As for you, nolonger-Watchman, your servitude to me has already begun, and will last until the sun finally burns itself out. Study your hands well—and your feet. Place your fingers to your face, a face that would have frightened even Graebe. You are mine now.”

He felt his face. The contours were strange, inhuman. He screamed, but it came out as an inhuman howl.

“And because the golden witch is the reason you disobeyed my orders and killed my creature, she shall serve you as you must serve me. You will never touch her, but you will use her. Her beauty, her sensuality, will attract an endless stream of admirers. Men will come from as far away as Erze Damath and Cil and Sfere to gaze upon her, and I will allow you this one freedom, this one happiness: in your rage and jealousy, I will allow you to kill these men that she attracts. You will thread their unseeing dead eyes upon a cloak, and when the cloak is full, when it cannot accommodate one more eyeball, then perhaps we shall talk about restoring you.” A crooked smile. “But I suspect by then you will not want to return the weak, puny thing of flesh and blood that you once were.”

He tried to speak, but words felt strange in his mouth.

“I intuit that your name tastes of guilt and shame upon your tongue,” said Umbassario. “You shall need a new sobriquet.”

“I am…I am…” He tried to pronounce “Pelmundo,” and the word died on his tongue.

“I am…” He fought to force the words out. “I am…the…son of…” He stopped again.

“Once more,” said the mage.

“I am…” His tongue felt thick and alien. “I am chun of…”

“So be it,” replied Umbassario, who knew his creature’s name all along. “You are Chun.”

“Chun,” he repeated.

“You are Chun the Unavoidable. You have one day to put your affairs in order. Then you will do my bidding. Now begone!”

And Chun found himself standing in the darkened street between the Place of the Seven Nectars and Leja’s House of Golden Flowers.

At first, he was disoriented. Then he saw a figure lurching drunkenly down the street, and he knew that his cloak would soon begin.

An instant later, Taj the Malingerer felt a presence beside him in the night.

“I am Chun the Unavoidable,” said a deep, inhuman voice. “And you have something I need.”

AFTERWORD:

ONE OF the very first science fiction books I bought as a kid was Jack Vance’s The Dying Earth, in its original paperback edition published by Hillman. (It cost me a quarter; it goes well over $100.00 on eBay these days.) I became an immediate fan, picking up Big Planet and all the other Vance titles—but then, as now, I had a special love for his tales of the last days of a dying Earth in a worn-out solar system. (So did a lot of other writers—not just the ones in this tribute volume, but dozens of writers over the years have emulated his style and borrowed some of his concepts, not as plagiarists, but as a loving tribute to his skills and his enormous influence throughout the field.)

When Carol and I decided, back in the 1970s, to enter a few Worldcon masquerades, the very first costume we chose to make was Chun the Unavoidable and his shill, Lith the Golden Witch. We won at Torcon, the 1973 Worldcon in Toronto…and now, thirty-six years later, it’s a pleasure to go back and offer my literary thanks to Chun and Lith, two of Jack’s more unforgettable characters.

—Mike Resnick

WALTER JON WILLIAMS Abrizonde (#ulink_b67784de-1310-58c3-ab77-ea147a22339d)

WALTER JON Williams was born in Minnesota and now lives near Albuquerque, New Mexico. His short fiction has appeared frequently in Asimov’s Science Fiction, as well as in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Wheel of Fortune, Global Dispatches, Alternate Outlaws, and in other markets, and has been gathered in the collections Facets and Frankensteins and Other Foreign Devils. His novels include Ambassador of Progress, Knight Moves, Hardwired, The Crown Jewels, Voice Of The Whirlwind, House Of Shards, Days of Atonement, Aristoi, Metropolitan, City on Fire, a huge disaster thriller, The Rift, a Star Wars novel, Destiny’s Way, and the three novels in his acclaimed Modern Space Opera epic, “Dread Empire’s Fall,” Dread Empire’s Fall: The Praxis, Dread Empire’s Fall: The Sundering and Dread Empire’s Fall: Conventions of War. His most recent books are Implied Spaces and This Is Not a Game. He won a long-overdue Nebula Award in 2001 for his story “Daddy’s World,” and took another Nebula in 2005 with his story “The Green Leopard Plague.” He also scripted the online game “Spore.”

In the fast-moving and suspenseful story that follows, we journey with a student architect headed through the mountainous Cleft of Abrizonde to the school in distant Occul, who inadvertently gets caught up in a war between the Protostrator of Abrizonde and the rulers of Pex and Calabrande, and who finds that opportunity can come along at the most unexpected of times—and that you’d better seize it when it does!

Abrizonde WALTER JON WILLIAMS (#ulink_b67784de-1310-58c3-ab77-ea147a22339d)

The student architect Vespanus of Roë, eager to travel to the city of Occul in the country of Calabrande, left Escani early in the season for an ascent of the Dimwer, the deep river that passes through the Cleft of Abrizonde on its way to the watery meads of Pex, the land where Vespanus, waiting for the pass to open, had passed a dreary winter in the insipid flat callow-fields of the brownlands.

The local bargemen claimed an early ascent was too hazardous for their craft, so Vespanus traveled upriver on a mule, a placid cream-colored animal named Twest. The Dimwer roared in a frigid torrent on the left as Twest made her serene ascent. There was still snow in the shadows of the rocks, but the trail itself was passable enough. The river bore on its peat-colored waters large cakes of ice that, Vespanus was forced to admit, would in fact have posed something of a danger to barge traffic.

Though nights were frigid, Vespanus employed his architectural talents and his madling Hegadil, who each night built him a warm, snug little home, with a stable attached for the mule, and who disassembled both the next morning. Vespanus thus spent the nights in relative comfort, reclining on purfled sheets, smoking Flume, and perusing a grimoire when he was not experiencing the pleasing fantasies brought on by the narcotic smoke.

On the third day of his ascent, Vespanus perceived the turrets and battlements of a castle on the horizon, and knew himself to be in the domain of the Protostrator of Abrizonde. Against this lord he had been warned by the bargemen—“a robber, boorish and rapacious, and yet strangely fashionable, who extorts unconscionable tolls from any wayfarer traveling through the Cleft.” Vespanus had inquired if there were routes available that did not involve traversing lands menaced by the Protostrator, but these would have involved weeks of extra travel, and so Vespanus resigned himself to a severe reduction in his available funds.

In any case, the Protostrator proved a pleasant surprise. A balding man whose round face protruded from a tissue-like lacy collar of extravagant design, and whose personal name was Ambius, the Protostrator offered several nights of pleasant hospitality, and never asked for a single coin in payment. All that he desired was news of Pex, and gossip concerning the voivodes of Escani, of whose affairs he seemed to know a great deal. He also wished to know of the latest fashions, hear the latest songs, receive word of new plays or theatrical extravaganzas, and hear recitations of the latest poetry. Vespanus did his best to oblige his host: he sang in his light tenor while accompanying himself on the osmiande; he discussed the illicit loves of the voivodes with a completely spurious authority; and he described the sumptuous wardrobe of the Despoina of Chose, who he had glimpsed in procession to Escani’s Guild of Diabolists, to which she was obliged by ancient custom to resort every nine hundred and ninety-nine days.

“Alas,” said Ambius, “I am a cultured man. Were I a mere robber and brute, I would rejoice on my perch above the Dimwer, and gloat as the contents of my strongrooms grew and glittered. But here in the Cleft, I find myself longing for the finer things of civilization—for silks, and songs, and cities. And never a city have I seen for the last thirteen years, since I assumed my present position—for if I traveled either to Pex or to Calabrande, I would instantly lose my head for violation of the state’s unjust and unreasonable monopoly on taxation. So I must content myself with such elements of culture as I am able to import.” He gestured modestly toward the paintings on the wall, to the curtains of mank fur, and to his own opulent, if rather eccentric, clothing. “Thus I am doomed to remain here, and to exact tolls from travelers in the manner as the Protostratoi before me, and dream of distant cities.”

Vespanus, who was not entirely in sympathy with the Protostrator’s dilemma, murmured a few words of consolation.

Ambius brightened.

“Still,” he said, “I am known for my hospitality. Any poet, or performer, or troupe of players will find me a kind host. For these are immune to my tolls, provided that they bring civilization with them, and are willing to provide entertainment. And gentlemen such as yourself,” with a nod toward Vespanus, “are of course always welcome.”

Vespanus thanked his host, but mentioned that he would be leaving for Calabrande in the morning. Ambius returned a sly look.

“I think not,” he said. “There will be a storm.”

The storm came as predicted, dropping snow in the courtyard and sending storms of hailstones that rattled on the roof-plates, and Vespanus spent another two nights, not unpleasantly, beneath the Protostrator’s roof. On the third day, thanking again his host, he mounted Twest and began once again his ascent of the Cleft.

He traveled but half a day when, examining the track ahead, he saw through a notch in a looming ridge the red glint of sunlight on metal. Indeed, he saw, there was a good deal of glinting ahead—on snaffle irons, on erb spears, on the crystalline tips of fire-darts, and on banners bearing the device of the Exarch of the Calabrande Marches.

Vespanus turned Twest about and raced as quickly as the irregular terrain permitted to the Protostrator’s castle. Once there, he informed the surprised Ambius that the Exarch was advancing down the Cleft with a large armed force.

Ambius bit his upper lip. “I don’t suppose,” he said, “that you would care to remain and ennoble my defense?”

“Greatly though it would enhance my name to die in defense of the Protostrator of Abrizonde,” Vespanus said, “I fear I would prove useless in a siege. Alas, just another mouth to feed.”

“In that case,” Ambius said, “would you bear a message to my agent in Pex instructing him to recruit a force of mercenaries? I confess that I have few warriors here at present.”

“So I had observed,” said Vespanus, “though it seemed graceless to remark on it.”

“It is my custom to recruit the garrison up to strength in the spring,” said Ambius, “and dismiss most of them in late autumn. Aside from the expense of maintaining troops over the winter, there is always the danger that the soldiers, confined to their barracks and subject to the tedium and monotony of the season, would seek to remedy their ennui by means of a mutiny, in which I would be killed and one of their captains made the new lord. Therefore I keep about me in the winter only those soldiers whose absence of ambition has been proven by years of prosaic and lackluster service.”

“I congratulate you on this sensible policy,” said Vespanus, “ill-timed though it is in the present circumstances.”

Again, Ambius chewed his upper lip. “It was hard experience that drove me to this custom,” he said, “for thirteen years ago it was I, an ambitious captain, who killed the previous Protostrator on the eve of the New Year, and hurled his body from the Onyx Tower into the Dimwer.”

“No doubt it was a change for the better,” Vespanus said tactfully. “But if you are to give me a letter, by all means do so at once—for I have no desire to be caught by the army of the Exarch.”

Ambius provided the letter, and, once again, Vespanus set out on Twest, nor did he employ his madling to build his shelter until full darkness had fallen and the dim stars of the Leucomorph had risen in the East. In the morning, fearful of aerial spies, he glanced about carefully from the structure’s windows before leaving the shelter and readying Twest for the day’s ride. He had traveled only a hundred yards before he saw, emerging from the Dimwer’s mists two or more leagues below, the coils of an army looping back and forth on the trail. Amid the glint of weapons, he saw the blue and callow-yellow banners of Pex.

Cursing his ill luck and worse timing, Vespanus goaded his mule uphill again, and managed to reach Abrizonde Castle just as the scouts of Calabrande advanced into sight from the other direction. He was granted admittance to the castle, and observed at once that the fortress had been put on a war footing. Boom-rocks were laid by to be hurled on the heads of attackers. Arrow guns and fire sticks were seen on the walls, manned by soldiers who seemed competent, if uninspired and inclining toward the middle-aged. Spikes on the roof—and tower-tops, newly anointed with poisons, were prepared to impale flying attackers. Servants, splendidly equipped from the castle’s spacious magazines, were receiving hasty instruction in the use of their weapons.

Vespanus joined Ambius at his observation point in the Onyx Tower, and found the Protostrator in elaborate full armor of a deep azure color, the helmet topped by the rearing, fanged likeness of a lank-lizard. Vespanus reported the advance of the second army, and watched Ambius stalk about the room in thought.

“I suppose that Pex and Calabrande may be at war,” he said, “and, each attempting to invade the other by means of the Cleft, they meet here by sheer chance.”

“Do you think that’s likely?” Vespanus asked hopefully.

“No,” said Ambius, “I don’t.” He gave Vespanus a searching look. “I believe you are acquainted with the thaumaturgical arts?” he asked.

“I know some of the lesser magics,” Vespanus said, “and indeed was en route to Occul in order to further my studies when the army of Calabrande barred my way.”

“Know you any spells or cantrips that might be of use in our present circumstance?”

“I equipped myself with spells suitable for besting the occasional highwayman or Deodand, but I had not anticipated fighting whole armies. And in any case, I have already told you, as I enjoyed your kind hospitality, that my chief specialty is architecture.”

Ambius frowned. “Architecture,” he repeated, his voice dour.
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