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Songs of the Dying Earth

Язык: Английский
Год издания: 2018 год
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“The misdeeds of individuals,” Unthan Vyorn replied, “are not so much offenses against human law as they are ominous disturbances in a complex filament of cause and effect by which mankind is connected on all sides with surrounding nature. I believe that our cruelties, our sins, our violations, all drain vitality from our diminishing sun.”

Malion Gainthrust stirred restlessly at that notion, as though he planned at last to speak, but he controlled himself with visible effort and subsided once more into remoteness.

Puillayne said, “An interesting theory: the cumulative infamies and iniquities of our species, do you say, have taken a toll on the sun itself over the many millennia, and so we are the architects of our own extinction?”

“It could be, yes.”

“Then it is too late to embrace virtue, I suspect,” said Puillayne dolefully. “Through our incorrigible miscreancy we have undone ourselves beyond repair. The damage is surely irreversible in this late epoch of the world’s long existence.” And he sighed a great sigh of unconsolable grief. To his consternation, he found the effects of the long morning’s drinking abruptly weakening: the circular gyration of the walls had lessened and that agreeable haze had cleared, and he felt almost sober again, defenseless against the fundamental blackness of his intellective processes. It was a familiar event. No quantity of wine was sufficient to stave off the darkness indefinitely.

“You look suddenly troubled, master,” Kesztrel Tsaye observed. “Despite the splendor of this wine, or perhaps even because of it, I see that some alteration of mood has overtaken you.”

“I am reminded of my mortality. Our dim and shriveled sun—the certainty of imminent oblivion—”

“Ah, master, consider that you should be cheered by contemplation of the catastrophe that is soon to overcome us, rather than being thrust, as you say, into despond.”

“Cheered?”

“Most truly. For we each must have death come unto us in our time—it is the law of the universe—and what pain it is as we lie dying to know that others will survive after we depart! But if all are to meet their end at once, then there is no reason to feel the bite of envy, and we can go easily as equals into our common destruction.”

Puillayne shook his head obstinately. “I see merit in this argument, but little cheer. My death inexorably approaches, and that would be a cause of despair to me whether or not others might survive. Envy of those who survive is not a matter of any moment to me. For me, it will be as though all the cosmos dies when I do, and the dying of our sun adds only an additional layer of regret to what is already an infinitely regrettable outcome.”

“You permit yourself to sink into needless brooding, master,” said Unthan Vyorn airily. “You should have another goblet of wine.”

“Yes. These present thoughts of mine are pathetically insipid, and I shame myself by giving rein to them. Even in the heyday of the world, when the bright yellow sun blazed forth in full intensity, the concept of death was one that every mature person was compelled to face, and only cowards and fools looked toward it with terror or rage or anything else but acceptance and detachment. One must not lament the inevitable. But it is my flaw that I am unable to escape such feelings. Wine, I have found, is my sole anodyne against them. And even that is not fully satisfactory.”

He reached again for the Falernian. But Kesztrel Tsaye, interposing himself quickly, said, “That is the very wine that has brought this adverse effect upon you, master. Let us open, instead, the wine of our country that was our gift to you. You may not be aware that it is famed for its quality of soothing the troubled heart.” He signalled to Malion Gainthrust, who sprang to his feet, deftly unsealed the two green carboys of Maurenron ambrosia, and, taking fresh goblets from Puillayne’s cabinet, poured a tall serving of the pale bluish wine from one carboy for Puillayne and lesser quantities from the other for himself and his two companions.

“To your health, master. Your renewed happiness. Your long life.”

Puillayne found their wine unexpectedly fresh and vigorous, with none of the rough and sour flavor he had led himself to anticipate. He followed his first tentative sip with a deeper one, and then with a third. In very fact, it had a distinctly calmative effect, speedily lifting him out of the fresh slough of dejection into which he had let himself topple.

But another moment more and he detected a strange unwelcome furriness coating his tongue, and it began to seem to him that beneath the superficial exuberance and openheartedness of the wine lay some less appetizing tinge of flavor, something almost alkaline that crept upward on his palate and negated the immediately pleasing effect of the initial taste. Then he noticed a heaviness of the mind overtaking him, and a weakness of the limbs, and it occurred to him, first, that they had been serving themselves out of one carboy and him out of another, and then, that he was unable to move, so that it became clear to him that the wine had been drugged. Fierce-eyed Malion Gainthrust stood directly before him, and he was speaking at last, declaiming a rhythmic chant which even in his drugged state Puillayne recognized as a simple binding spell that left him trussed and helpless.

Like any householder of some affluence, Puillayne had caused his manse to be protected by an assortment of defensive charms, which the magus of his family had assured him would defend him against many sorts of immical events. The most obvious was theft: there were treasures here that others might have reasons to crave. In addition, one must guard one’s house against fire, subterranean tremors, the fall of heavy stones from the sky, and other risks of the natural world. But, also, Puillayne was given to drunkenness, which could well lead to irresponsibility of behavior or mere clumsiness of movement, and he had bought himself a panoply of spells against the consequences of excessive intoxication.

In this moment of danger, it seemed to him that Citrathanda’s Punctilious Sentinel was the appropriate spirit to invoke, and in a dull thick-tongued way Puillayne began to recite the incantation. But over the years, his general indifference to jeopardy had led to incaution, and he had not taken the steps that were needful to maintain the potency of his guardian spirits, which had dimmed with time so that his spell had no effect. Nor would his household revenants be of the slightest use in this predicament. Their barely corporeal forms could exert no force against tangible life. Only his gardeners were incarnate beings, and they, even if they had been on the premises this late in the day, would have been unlikely to heed his call. Puillayne realized that he was altogether without protection now. Gently his guests, who now were his captors, were prodding him upward out of his couch. Kesztrel Tsaye said, “You will kindly accompany us, please, as we make our tour of your widely reputed treasury of priceless prizes.”

All capacity for resistance was gone from him. Though they had left him with the power of locomotion, his arms were bound by invisible but unbreakable withes, and his spirit itself was captive to their wishes. He could do no other than let himself be led through one hall after another of his museum, staggering a little under the effect of their wine, and when they asked him of the nature of this artifact or that, he had no choice but to tell them. Whatever object caught their fancy, they removed from its case, with Malion Gainthrust serving as the means by which it was carried back to the great central room and added to a growing heap of plunder.

Thus they selected the Crystal Pillow of Carsephone Zorn, within which scenes from the daily life of any of seven subworlds could be viewed at ease, and the brocaded underrobe of some forgotten monarch of the Pharials, whose virility was enhanced twentyfold by an hour’s wearing of it, and the Key of Sarpanigondar, a surgical tool by which any diseased organ of the body could be reached and healed without a breaching of the skin. They took also the Infinitely Replenishable Casket of Jade, once the utmost glory of the turban-wearing marauders of the frigid valleys of the Lesser Ghalur, and Sangaal’s Remarkable Phoenix, from whose feathers fluttered a constant shower of gold dust, and the Heptachromatic Carpet of Kypard Segung, and the carbuncle-encrusted casket that contained the Incense of the Emerald Sky, and many another extraordinary objects that had been part of Puillayne’s hoard of fabulosities for decade upon decade.

He watched in mounting chagrin. “So you have come all this way merely to rob me, then?”

“It is not so simple,” said Kesztrel Tsaye. “You must believe us when we say that we revere your poetry, and were primarily motivated to endure the difficulties of the journey by the hope of attaining your actual presence.”

“You choose an odd way to demonstrate your esteem for my art, then, for you would strip me of those things which I love even while claiming to express your regard for my work.”

“Does it matter who owns these things for the upcoming interim?” the bearded man asked. “In a short while, the concept of ownership itself will be a moot one. You have stressed that point frequently in your verse.”

There was a certain logic to that, Puillayne admitted. As the mound of loot grew, he attempted to assuage himself by bringing himself to accept Kesztrel Tsaye’s argument that the sun would soon enough reach its last moment, smothering Earth in unending darkness and burying him and all his possessions under an obdurate coating of ice twenty marasangs thick, so what significance was there in the fact that these thieves were denuding him today of these trifles? All would be lost tomorrow or the day after, whether or not he had ever admitted the caitiff trio to his door.

But that species of sophistry brought him no surcease. Realistic appraisal of the probabilities told him that the dying of the sun might yet be a thousand years away, or even more, for although its inevitability was assured, its imminence was not so certain. Though ultimately he would be bereft of everything, as would everyone else, including these three villains, Puillayne came now to the realization that, all other things being equal, he preferred to await the end of all things amidst the presence of his collected keepsakes rather than without them. In that moment, he resolved to adopt a defensive posture.

Therefore, he attempted once more to recite the Efficacious Sentinel of Citrathanda, emphasizing each syllable with a precision that he hoped might enhance the power of the spell. But his captors were so confident that there would be no result that they merely laughed as he spoke the verses, rather than making any effort to muffle his voice, and, in this, they were correct: as before, no guardian spirit came to his aid. Puillayne sensed that unless he found some more effective step to take, he was about to lose all that they had already selected, and, for all he knew, his life as well; and in that moment, facing the real possibility of personal extinction this very day, he understood quite clearly that his lifelong courtship of death had been merely a pose, that he was in no way actually prepared to take his leave of existence.

One possibility of saving himself remained.

“If you will set me free,” Puillayne said, pausing an instant or two to focus their attention, “I will locate and share with you the True Vintage of Erzuine Thale.”

The impact of that statement upon them was immediate and unmistakable. Their eyes brightened; their faces grew flushed and glossy; they exchanged excited glances of frank concupiscence.

Puillayne believed he understood this febrile response. They had been so overcome with an access of trivial greed, apparently, once they had had Puillayne in their power and knew themselves free to help themselves at will to the rich and varied contents of his halls, that they had forgotten for the moment that his manse contained not only such baubles as the Heptochromatic Carpet and the Infinitely Replenishable Casket, but also, hidden away somewhere in his enormous accumulation of rare wines, something vastly more desirable, the veritable wine of wines itself, the bringer of infinitely ecstatic fulfillment, the elixir of ineffable rapture, the True Vintage of Erzuine Thale. Now he had reminded them of it and all its delights; and now they craved it with an immediate and uncontrollable desire.

“A splendid suggestion,” said Unthan Vyorn, betraying by his thickness of voice the intensity of his craving. “Summon the wine from its place of hiding, and we will partake.”

“The bottle yields to no one’s beck,” Puillayne declared. “I must fetch it myself.”

“Fetch it, then.”

“You must first release me.”

“You are capable of walking, are you not? Lead us to the wine, and we will do the rest.”

“Impossible,” said Puillayne. “How do you think this famed wine has survived so long? It is protected by a network of highly serviceable spells, such as Thampyron’s Charm of Impartial Security, which insures that the flask will yield only to the volition of its inscribed owner, who at present is myself. If the flask senses that my volition is impaired, it will refuse to permit opening. Indeed, if it becomes aware that I am placed under extreme duress, the wine itself will be destroyed.”

“What do you request of us, then?”

“Free my arms. I will bring the bottle from its nest and open it for you, and you may partake of it, and I wish you much joy of it.”

“And then?”

“You will have had the rarest experience known to the soul of man, and I will have been cheated of the opportunity to give the world the epic poem that you claim so dearly to crave; and then, I hope, we will be quits, and you will leave me my little trinkets and take yourselves back to your dreary northern caves. Are we agreed?”

They looked at one another, coming quickly and wordlessly to an agreement, and Kesztrel Tsaye, with a grunt of assent, signalled to Malion Gainthrust to intone the counterspell. Puillayne felt the bonds that had embraced his arms melting away. He extended them in a lavish stretching gesture, flexed his fingers, looked expectantly at his captors.

“Now fetch the celebrated wine,” said Kesztrel Tsaye.

They accompanied him back through chamber after chamber until they reached the hall where his finest wines were stored. Puillayne made a great show of searching through rack after rack, muttering to himself, shaking his head. “I have hidden it very securely,” he reported after a time. “Not so much as a precaution against theft, you realize, but as a way of making it more difficult for me to seize upon it myself in a moment of drunken impulsiveness.”

“We understand,” Unthan Vyorn said. “But find it, if you please. We grow impatient.”

“Let me think. If I were hiding such a miraculous wine from myself, where would I put it? The Cabinet of Meritorious Theriacs? Hardly. The Cinnabar Vestibule? The Chrysochlorous Benefice? The Tabulature? The Trogonic Chamber?”

As he pondered, he could see their restiveness mounting from one instant to the next. They tapped their fingers against their thighs, they moved their feet from side to side, they ran their hands inside their garments as though weapons were hidden there. Unheeding, Puillayne continued to frown and mutter. But then he brightened. “Ah, yes, yes, of course!” And he crossed the room, threw open a low door in the wall at its farther side, reached into the dusty interior of a service aperture.

“Here,” he said jubilantly. “The True Vintage of Erzuine Thale!”

“This?” said Kesztrel Tsaye, with some skepticism.

The bottle Puillayne held forth to them was a gray tapering one, dustencrusted and unprepossessing, bearing only a single small label inscribed with barely legible runes in faint grayish ink. They crowded around like snorting basilisks inflamed with lust.

Each in turn puzzled over the writing; but none could decipher it.

“What language is that?” asked Unthan Vyorn.

“These are Nolwaynish runes,” answered Puillayne. “See, see, here is the name of the maker, the famed vintner Erzuine Thale, and here is the date of the wine’s manufacture, in a chronology that I fear will mean nothing to you, and this emblem here is the seal of the king of Gammelcore who was reigning at the time of the bottling.”

“You would not deceive us?” said Kesztrel Thale. “You would not fob some lesser wine off on us, taking advantage of our inability to read these scrawls?”

Puillayne laughed jovially. “Put all your suspicions aside! I will not conceal the fact that I bitterly resent the imposition you are enforcing on me here, but that does not mean I can shunt aside thirty generations of family honor. Surely you must know that on my father’s side I am the Eighteenth Maghada of Nalanda, and there is a geas upon me as hereditary leader of that sacred order that bans me from all acts of deceit. This is, I assure you, the True Vintage of Erzuine Thale, and nothing else. Stand a bit aside, if you will, so that I can open the flask without activating Thampyron’s Charm, for, may I remind you, any hint that I act under duress will destroy its contents. It would be a pity to have preserved this wine for so long a time only to have it become worthless vinegar in the moment of unsealing.”

“You act now of your own free will,” Unthan Vyorn said. “It was your choice to offer us this wine, nor was it done at our insistence.”

“This is true,” Puillayne responded. He set out four goblets and, contemplating the flask thoughtfully, spoke the words that would breach its seal.

“Three goblets will suffice,” said Kesztrel Tsaye.

“I am not to partake?
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