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“Perhaps they are both. In that case, they must hear my verses before I permit any despoiling.”
“You are very casual, Puillayne.”
“Friend, the sun itself is dying as we stand here. Shall I lose sleep over the possibility that strangers may take some of my trinkets from me? With such talk you distract us from this unforgettable wine. I beg you, drink, Gimbiter, and put these strangers out of your mind.”
“I can put them from mine,” said Gimbiter, “but I wish you would devote some part of yours to them.” And then he ceased to belabor the point, for he knew that Puillayne was a man utterly without fear. The profound bleakness that lay at the core of his spirit insulated him from ordinary cares. He lived without hope and therefore without uneasiness. And by this time of day, Gimbiter understood, Puillayne had further reinforced himself within an unbreachable palisade of wine.
The three strangers, though, were troublesome to Gimbiter. He had gone to the effort of inspecting them himself earlier that day. They had taken lodgings, said his head gardener, at the old hostelry called the Blue Wyvern, between the former ironmongers’ bazaar and the bazaar of silk and spices, and it was easy enough for Gimbiter to locate them as they moved along the boulevard that ran down the spine of the bazaar quarter. One was a squat, husky man garbed in heavy brown furs, with purple leather leggings and boots, and a cap of black bearskin trimmed with a fillet of gold. Another, tall and loose-limbed, sported a leopardskin tarboosh, a robe of yellow muslin, and red boots ostentatiously spurred with the spines of the roseate urchin. The third, clad unpretentiously in a simple gray tunic and a quilted green mantle of some coarse heavy fabric, was of unremarkable stature and seemed all but invisible beside his two baroque confederates, until one noticed the look of smouldering menace in his deep-set, resolute, reptilian eyes, set like obsidian ellipsoids against his chalky-hued face.
Gimbiter made such inquiries about them at the hostelry as were feasible, but all he could learn was that they were mercantile travelers from Hither Almery or even farther north, come to the southlands on some enterprise of profit. But even the innkeeper knew that they were aware of the fame of the metropole’s great poet Puillayne, and were eager to achieve an audience with him. And therefore Gimbiter had duly provided his friend with a warning; but he was sadly aware that he could do no more than that.
Nor was Puillayne’s air of unconcern an affectation. One who has visited the mephitic shores of the Sea of Nothingness and returned is truly beyond all dismay. He knows that the world is an illusion built upon a foundation of mist and wind, and that it is great folly to attach oneself in any serious way to any contrary belief. During his more sober moments, of course, Puillayne of Ghiusz was as vulnerable to despair and anxiety as anyone else; but he took care to reach with great speed for his beloved antidote the instant that he felt tendrils of reality making poisonous incursions through his being. But for wine, he would have had no escape from his eternally sepulchral attitudinizing.
So the next day, and the next, days that were solitary by choice for him, Puillayne moved steadfastly through his palace of antiquarian treasures on his usual diurnal rounds, rising at day-break to bathe in the spring that ran through his gardens, then breakfasting on his customary sparse fare, then devoting an hour to the choice of the day’s wines and sampling the first of them.
In mid-morning, as the glow of the first flask of wine still lingered in him, he sat sipping the second of the day and reading awhile from some volume of his collected verse. There were fifty or sixty of them by now, bound identically in the black vellum made from the skin of fiendish Deodands that had been slaughtered for the bounty placed upon such fell creatures; and these were merely the poems that he had had sufficient sobriety to remember to indite and preserve, out of the scores that poured from him so freely. Puillayne constantly read and reread them with keen pleasure. Though he affected modesty with others, within the shelter of his own soul he had an unabashed admiration for his poems, which the second wine of the day invariably amplified.
Afterward, before the second wine’s effect had completely faded, it was his daily practice to stroll through the rooms that held his cabinet of wonders, inspecting with ever-fresh delight the collection of artifacts and oddities that he had gathered during youthful travels that had taken him as far north as the grim wastes of Fer Aquila, as far to the east as the monsterinfested deadlands beyond the Land of the Falling Wall, where ghouls and deadly grues swarmed and thrived, as far west as ruined Ampridatvir and sullen Azederach on the sunset side of the black Supostimon Sea. In each of these places, the young Puillayne had acquired curios, not because the assembling of them had given him any particular pleasure in and of itself, but because the doing of it turned his attention for the moment, as did the drinking of wine, from the otherwise inescapable encroachment of gloom that from boyhood on had perpetually assailed his consciousness. He drew somber amusement now from fondling these things, which recalled to him some remote place he had visited, summoning up memories of great beauty and enchanting peace, or arduous struggle and biting discomfort, it being a matter of no importance to him which it might have been, so long as the act of remembering carried him away from the here and now.
Then he would take his lunch, a repast scarcely less austere than his morning meal had been, always accompanying it by some third wine chosen for its soporific qualities. A period of dozing invariably followed, and then a second cooling plunge in the garden spring, and then—it was a highlight of the day—the ceremonial opening of the fourth flask of wine, the one that set free his spirit and allowed the composition of that day’s verses. He scribbled down his lines with haste, never pausing to revise, until the fervor of creation had left him. Once more, then, he read, or uttered the simple spell that filled his bayside audifactorium with music. Then came dinner, a more notable meal than the earlier two, one that would do justice to the fifth and grandest wine of the day, in the choosing of which he had devoted the greatest of care; and then, hoping as ever that the dying sun might perish in the night and release him at last from his funereal anticipations, he gave himself to forlorn dreamless sleep.
So it passed for the next day, and the next, and, on the third day after Gimbiter Soleptan’s visit, the three strangers of whom Gimbiter had warned him presented themselves at last at the gates of his manse.
They selected for their unsolicited intrusion the hour of the second wine, arriving just as he had taken one of the vellum-bound volumes of his verse from its shelf. Puillayne maintained a small staff of wraiths and revenants for his household needs, disliking as he did the use of living beings as domestic subordinates, and one of these pallid eidolons came to him with news of the visitors.
Puillayne regarded the ghostly creature, which just then was hovering annoyingly at the borders of transparency as though attempting to communicate its own distress, with indifference. “Tell them they are welcome. Admit them upon the half hour.”
It was far from his usual custom to entertain visitors during the morning hours. The revenant was plainly discommoded by this surprising departure from habit. “Lordship, if one may venture to express an opinion—”
“One may not. Admit them upon the half hour.”
Puillayne used the interval until then to deck himself in formal morning garb: a thin tunic of light color, a violet mantle, laced trousers of the same color worn over underdrawers of deep red, and, above all the rest, a stiff unlined garment of a brilliant white. He had already selected a chilled wine from the Bay of Sanreale, a brisk vintage of a shimmering metallicgray hue, for his second wine; now he drew forth a second flask of it and placed it beside the first. The house-wraith returned, precisely upon the half hour, with Puillayne’s mysterious guests.
They were, exactly as Gimbiter Soleptan had opined, a rough-hewn, uncouth lot. “I am Kesztrel Tsaye,” announced the shortest of the three, who seemed to be the dominant figure: a burly person wrapped in the thick shaggy fur of some wild beast, and topped with a gold-trimmed cap of a different, glossier fur. His dense black beard encroached almost completely on his blunt, unappealing features, like an additional shroud of fur. “This is Unthan Vyorn”—a nod toward a lanky, insolentlooking fellow in a yellow robe, flamboyantly baroque red boots, and an absurd betasseled bit of headgear that displayed a leopard’s spots—“and this,” he said, glancing toward a third man, pale and unremarkably garbed, notable mainly for an appearance of extreme inconsequence bordering on nonpresence, but for his eyes, which were cold and brooding, “is Malion Gainthrust. We three are profound admirers of your great art, and have come from our homes in the Maurenron foothills to express our homage.”
“I can barely find words to convey the extreme delight I experience now, as I stand in the very presence of Puillayne of Ghiusz,” said lanky Unthan Vyorn in a disingenuously silken voice with just the merest hint of sibilance.
“It seems to me that you are capable of finding words readily enough,” Puillayne observed. “But perhaps you mean only a conventional abnegation. Will you share my wine with me? At this hour of the morning, I customarily enjoy something simple, and I have selected this Sanreale.”
He indicated the pair of rounded gray flasks. But from the depths of his furs, Kesztrel Tsaye drew two globular green flasks of his own and set them on the nearby table. “No doubt your choice is superb, master. But we are well aware of your love of the grape, and among the gifts we bring to you are these carboys of our own finest vintage, the celebrated azure ambrosia of the Maurenrons, with which you are, perhaps, unfamiliar, and which will prove an interesting novelty to your palate.”
Puillayne had not, in truth, ever tasted the so-called ambrosia of the Maurenrons, but he understood it to be an acrid and deplorable stuff, fit only for massaging cramped limbs. Yet he maintained an affable cordiality, studiously examining the nearer of the two carboys, holding it to the light, hefting it as though to determine the specific gravity of its contents. “The repute of your wines is not unknown to me,” he said diplomatically. “But I propose we set these aside for later in the day, since, as I have explained, I prefer only a light wine before my midday meal, and perhaps the same is true of you.” He gave them an inquisitive look. They made no objection; and so he murmured the spell of opening and poured out a ration of the Sanreale for each of them and himself.
By way of salute, Unthan Vyorn offered a quotation from one of Puillayne’s best-known little pieces:
What is our world? It is but a boat
That breaks free at sunset, and drifts away
Without a trace.
His intonation was vile, his rhythm was uncertain, but at least he had managed the words accurately, and Puillayne supposed that his intentions were kindly. As he sipped his wine, he studied this odd trio with detached curiosity. They seemed like crude ruffians, but perhaps their unpolished manner was merely the typical style of the people of the Maurenrons, a locality to which his far-flung travels had never taken him. For all he knew, they were dukes or princes or high ministers of that northern place. He wondered in an almost incurious way what it was that they wanted with him. Merely to quote his own poetry to him was an insufficient motive for traveling such a distance. Gimbiter believed that they were malevolent; and it might well be that Gimbiter, a shrewd observer of mankind, was correct in that. For the nonce, however, his day’s intake of wine had fortified him against anxiety on that score. To Puillayne, they were at the moment merely a puzzling novelty. He would wait to see more.
“Your journey,” he said politely, “was it a taxing one?”
“We know some small magics, and we had a few useful spells to guide us. Going through the Kelpusars, there was only one truly difficult passage for us,” said Unthan Vyorn, “which was the crossing of the Mountain of the Eleven Uncertainties.”
“Ah,” said Puillayne. “I know it well.” It was a place of bewildering confusion, where a swarm of identical peaks confronted the traveler and all roads seemed alike, though only one was correct and the others led into dire unpleasantness. “But you found your way through, evidently, and coped with equal deftness with the Gate of Ghosts just beyond, and the perilous Pillars of Yan Sfou.”
“The hope of attaining the very place where now we find ourselves drew us onward through all obstacles,” Unthan Vyorn said, outdoing even himself in unctuosity of tone. And again he quoted Puillayne:
The mountain roads we traveled rose ten thousand cilavers high.
The rivers we crossed were more turbulent than a hundred demons.
And our voices were lost in the thunder of the cataracts.
We cut through brambles that few swords could slash.
And then beyond the mists we saw the golden Klorpentine
And it was as if we had never known hardship at all.
How barbarously he attacked the delicate lines! How flat was his tone as he came to the ecstatic final couplet! But Puillayne masked his scorn. These were foreigners; they were his guests, however self-invited they might be; his responsibility was to maintain them at their ease. And he found them diverting, in their way. His life in these latter years had slipped into inflexible routine. The advent of poetry-quoting northern barbarians was an amusing interlude in his otherwise constricted days. He doubted more than ever, now, Gimbiter’s hypothesis that they meant him harm. There seemed nothing dangerous about these three except, perhaps, the chilly eyes of the one who did not seem to speak. His friend Gimbiter evidently had mistaken bumptiousness for malversation and malefic intent.
Fur-swathed Kesztrel Tsaye said, “We know, too, that you are a collector of exotica. Therefore we bring some humble gifts for your delight.” And he, too, offered a brief quotation:
Let me have pleasures in this life
For the next is a dark abyss!
“If you will, Malion Gainthrust—”
Kesztrel Tsaye nodded to the icy-eyed silent man, who produced from somewhere a sack that Puillayne had not previously noticed, and drew from it a drum of red candana covered with taut-stretched thaupin-hide, atop which nine red-eyed homunculi performed an obscene dance. This was followed by a little sphere of green chalcedony out of which a trapped and weeping demon peered, and that by a beaker which overflowed with a tempting aromatic yellow liquid that tumbled to the floor and rose again to return to the vessel from which it had come. Other small toys succeeded those, until gifts to the number of ten or twelve sat arrayed before Puillayne.
During this time, Puillayne had consumed nearly all the wine from the flask he had reserved for himself, and he felt a cheering dizziness beginning to steal over him. The three visitors, though he had offered them only a third as much apiece, had barely taken any. Were they simply abstemious? Or was the shimmering wine of Sanreale too subtle for their jackanapes palates?
He said, when it appeared that they had exhausted their display of gewgaws for him, “If this wine gives you little gratification, I can select another and perhaps superior one for you, or we could open that which you have brought me.”
“It is superb wine, master,” Unthan Vyorn said, “and we would expect no less from you. We know, after all, that your cellar is incomparable, that it is a storehouse of the most treasured wines of all the world, that in fact it contains even the unobtainable wine prized beyond all others, the True Vintage of Erzuine Thale. This Sanreale wine you have offered us is surely not in a class with that; but it has much merit in its own way and if we drink it slowly, it is because we cherish every swallow we take. Simply to be drinking the wine of Puillayne of Ghiusz in the veritable home of Puillayne of Ghiusz is an honor so extreme that it constringes our throats with joy, and compels us to drink more slowly than otherwise we might.”
“You know of the True Vintage, do you?” Puillayne asked.
“Is there anyone who does not? The legendary wine of the Nolwaynes who have reigned in Gammelcor since the days when the sun had the brightness of gold—the wine of miracles, the wine that offers the keenest of ecstasies that it is possible to experience—the wine that opens all doors to one with a single sip—” Unshielded covetousness now gleamed in the lanky man’s eyes. “If only we could enjoy that sip! Ah, if only we could merely have a glimpse of the container that holds that wondrous elixir!”
“I rarely bring it forth, even to look at it,” said Puillayne. “I fear that if I were to take it from its place of safekeeping, I would be tempted to consume it prematurely, and that is not a temptation to which I am ready to yield.”
“A man of iron!” marveled Kesztrel Tsaye. “To possess the True Vintage of Erzuine Thale, and to hold off from sampling it! And why, may I ask, do you scruple to deny yourself that joy of joys?”
It was a question Puillayne had heard many times before, for his ownership of the True Vintage was not something he had concealed from his friends. “I am, you know, a prodigious scribbler of minor verse. Yes,” he said, over their indignant protests, “minor verse, such a torrent of it that it would fill this manse a dozen times over if I preserved it all. I keep only a small part.” He gestured moodily at the fifty volumes bound in Deodand vellum. “But somewhere within me lurks the one great poem that will recapitulate all the striving of earthly history, the epic that will be the sum and testament of us who live as we do on the precipice at the edge of the end of days. Someday I will feel that poem brimming at the perimeters of my brain and demanding release. That feeling will come, I think, when our sun is in its ultimate extremity, and the encroaching darkness is about to arrive. And then, only then, will I broach the seal on the True Vintage, and quaff the legendary wine, which indeed opens all doors, including the door of creation, so that its essence will liberate the real poet within me, and in my final drunken joy I will be permitted to set down that one great poem that I yearn to write.”
“You do us all an injustice, master, if you wait to write that epic until the very eve of our doom,” said Unthan Vyorn in a tone of what might almost have been sorrow sincerely framed. “For how will we be able to read it, when all has turned to ice and darkness? No poems will circulate among us as we lie there perishing in the final cold. You deny us your greatness! You withhold your gift!”
“Be that as it may,” Puillayne said, “the time is not yet for opening that bottle. But I can offer you others.”
From his cabinet, he selected a generous magnum of ancient Falernian, which bore a frayed label, yellowed and parched by time. The great rounded flask lacked its seal and it was obvious to all that the container was empty save for random crusts of desiccated dregs scattered about its interior. His visitors regarded it with puzzlement. “Fear not,” said Puillayne. “A mage of my acquaintance made certain of my bottles subject to the Spell of Recrudescent Fluescence, among them this one. It is inexhaustibly renewable.”
He turned his head aside and gave voice to the words, and, within moments, miraculous liquefaction commenced. While the magnum was filling, he summoned a new set of goblets, which he filled near to brimming for his guests and himself.
“It is a wondrous wine,” said Kesztrel Tsaye after a sip or two. “Your hospitality knows no bounds, master.” Indeed, such parts of his heavily bearded face that were visible were beginning to show a ruddy radiance. Unthan Vyorn likewise displayed the effects of the potent stuff, and even the taciturn Malion Gainthrust, sitting somewhat apart as though he had no business in this room, seemed to evince some reduction of his habitual glower.
Puillayne smiled benignly, sat back, let tranquility steal over him. He had not expected to be drinking the Falernian today, for it was a forceful wine, especially at this early hour. But he saw no harm in somewhat greater midday intoxication than he habitually practiced. Why, he might even find himself producing verse some hours earlier than usual. These uncouth disciples of his would probably derive some pleasure from witnessing the actual act of creation. Meanwhile, sipping steadily, he felt the walls around him beginning to sway and glide, and he ascended within himself in a gradual way until he felt himself to be floating slightly outside and above himself, a spectator of his own self, with something of a pleasant haze enveloping his mind.
Somewhat surprisingly, his guests, gathered now in a circle about him, appeared to be indulging in a disquisition on the philosophy of criminality.
Kesztrel Tsaye offered the thought that the imminence of the world’s demise freed one from all the restraints of law, for it mattered very little how one behaved if shortly all accounts were to be settled with equal finality. “I disagree,” said Unthan Vyorn. “We remain responsible for our acts, since, if they transgress against statute and custom, they may in truth hasten the end that threatens us.”
Interposing himself in their conversation, Puillayne said dreamily, “How so?”
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