Authors: Jack Vance
Tags: #Fantasy, #Masterwork, #Fiction, #Fantasy Fiction, #General
The game proceeded once again. Flary, an expert gambler, secretly introduced a pair of weighted dice into the game, and seizing an appropriate opportunity, placed a wager of ten gold pieces on the board. He called out: “Fisherman, can you meet such a wager?”
“My pearl is security!” responded Tamas. “Start the game!”
Flary cast down the dice and once more, to Flary’s great perplexity, Tamas had won the stakes.
Tamas laughed at Flary’s discomfiture. “That is all for tonight. I have gambled long and hard, and my winnings will buy me a fine new boat. My thanks to you all for a profitable evening.”
Flary pulled at his beard and squinted sidelong as Tamas counted his money. As if on sudden inspiration Flary swooped down upon the table and pretended to inspect the dice. “As I suspected! Such luck is unnatural! These are weighted dice! We have been robbed!”
There was sudden silence, then an outburst of fury. Tamas was seized, dragged out to the yard behind the tavern and there beaten black and blue. Flary meanwhile retrieved his dice, his gold pieces and also possessed himself of the green pearl.
Well pleased with the night’s work, he departed the tavern and went his way.
THE SKYRE. A LONG BIGHT OF PROTECTED WATER, separated North Ulfland from the ancient Duchy of Per Aquila, now Godelia, realm of the Celts
. Two towns of very different character looked at each other across the Skyre: Xounges, at the tip of a stony peninsula, and Dun Cruighre, Godelia’s principal port.
In Xounges, behind impregnable defenses, Gax, the aged king of North Ulfland, maintained the semblance of a court. The Ska, who effectively controlled Gax’s kingdom, tolerated his shadowy pretensions only because an attempt to storm the town would cost far more Ska blood than they were willing to spend. When old Gax died, the Ska would take the town through intrigue or bribery: whichever best served practicality.
Viewed from the Skyre, Xounges showed an intricate pattern of gray stone and black shadow, under roofs of mouldering brown tile. In total contrast, Dun Cruighre spread back from the docks in an untidy clutter of warehouses, hostleries, bams, shipwright’s shops, taverns and inns, thatched cottages and an occasional two-story stone manse. The heart of Dun Cruighre was its noisy and sometimes raucous square, often the scene of impromptu horse-races, for the Celts were great ones at contention of any sort.
Dun Cruighre was enlivened by much coming and going, with constant sea-traffic to and from Ireland and Britain. A Christian monastery, the Brotherhood of Saint Bac, boasted a dozen famous relics and attracted pilgrims by the hundreds. Ships from far lands lay alongside the docks, and traders set up booths to display their imports: silk and cotton from Persia; jade, cinnabar and malachite from various lands; perfumed waxes and palm-oil soap from Egypt; Byzantine glass and Rimini faience-all to be exchanged for Celtic gold, silver or tin.
The inns of Dun Cruighre ranged in quality from fair to good: somewhat better, in fact, than might have been expected, for which the itinerant priests and monks could be thanked, since their tastes were demanding and their pouches tended to chink loud with coin. The most reputable tavern of Dun Cruighre was the Blue Ox, which offered private chambers to the wealthy and straw pallets in a loft to the penurious. In the common room, fowl constantly turned on a spit, and bread came fresh from the oven; travellers often declared that a plump roast pullet, stuffed with onions and parsley, with fresh bread and butter, and a pint or two of the Blue Ox ale made as good a meal as could be had anywhere in the Elder Isles. On fine days service was provided at tables in front of the inn, where patrons could eat and drink and watch the events of the square, which in this boisterous town never lacked for interest.
Halfway through one such fine morning a person of portly habit, wearing a brown cassock, came to sit at one of the Blue Ox’s outside tables. His face was confident and clever, with round alert eyes, a short nose, and an expression of genial optimism. With nimble white fingers and an earnest snapping of small white teeth he devoured first a roast pullet, then a dozen honeycakes, meanwhile drinking grandly of mead from a pewter mug. His cassock, if judged by its cut and the excellence of its weave, suggested a clerical connection, but the gentleman had thrown back his hood and where once his pate had been shaved clean, a crop of brown hair now once again was evident.
From the common room of the tavern came a young man of aristocratic demeanour. He was tall and strong, clean-shaven and clear of eye, with an expression of tranquil good humor, as if he found the world a congenial place in which to be alive. His garments were casual: a loose shirt of white linen, trousers of gray twill and an embroidered blue vest. He looked right and left, then approached the table where sat the gentleman in the brown cassock. He asked: “Sir, may I join you? The other tables are occupied and, if possible, I would enjoy the air of this fine morning.”
The gentleman in the cassock made an expansive gesture: “Be seated at your pleasure! Allow me to recommend the mead; today it is both sweet and strong, and the honeycakes are flawless. Indeed, I plan an immediate second acquaintance with both.”
The newcomer settled himself into a chair. “The rules of your order are evidently both tolerant and liberal.”
“Ha ha, not so! The restrictions are austere and the penalties are harsh. My transgressions, in fact, have brought me expulsion from the order.”
“Hmm! It seems an exaggerated response. A sip or two of mead, a taste of honeycake: where is the harm in this?”
“None whatever!” declared the ex-priest. “I must admit that the issues possibly went a trifle deeper, and I may even found a new brotherhood, devoid of those stringencies which too often make religion a bore. I am restrained only because I do not wish to be branded a heretic. Are you yourself a Christian?”
The young man made a negative sign. “The concepts of religion baffle me.”
“This inscrutability is perhaps not unintentional,” said the ex-priest. “It gives endless employment to dialecticians who otherwise might become public charges or, at very worst, swindlers and tricksters. May I ask whom I have the pleasure of addressing?”
“Of course. I am Sir Tristano of Castle Mythric in Troicinet. And yourself?”
“I also am of noble blood, or so it seems to me. For the nonce, I use the name my father gave me, which is Orlo.”
Sir Tristano, signaling the servant girl, ordered mead and honeycakes for both himself and Orlo. “I assume, then, that you have definitely resigned from the church?”
“Quite so. It makes for a sordid tale. I was called before the abbot that I might answer to charges of drunkenness and wenching. I put forward my views in a manner to enlighten and convince any reasonable person. I assured the abbot that our merciful Lord God would never have created succulent pasties nor smacking ale, not to mention the charms of merry-hearted women, had he not wished these commodities to be enjoyed to the fullest.”
“The abbot no doubt fell back upon dogma for his rebuttal?”
“Precisely! He cited passage after passage from the scriptures to justify his position. I suggested that errors might well have crept into the translation, and that, until we were absolutely sure that self-starvation and tormented glands were the will of our glorious Lord, I proposed that we give ourselves the benefit of the doubt. The abbot nevertheless cast me out.”
“Self-interest also guided him; of this I have no doubt!” said Sir Tristano. “If everyone worshipped in the manner he found most congenial, the abbot, and the pope as well, would find themselves with no one to instruct.”
At this moment Sir Tristano’s attention was attracted by a scene of activity across the square. “What is the commotion yonder? Everyone is dancing and skipping as if they were on their way to a festival.”
“It is indeed a celebration of sorts,” said Orlo. “For close on a year a bloody-handed pirate has been terrorizing the sea. Have you heard the name ‘Flary the Red’?”
“I have indeed! Mothers use the name to frighten their children.”
“Flary is a nonesuch!” said Orlo. “He has elevated cutthroat daring to a pinnacle of virtuosity, and always he has worn a lucky green pearl in his ear. One day he misplaced his pearl, but nevertheless launched an attack. This was his great mistake. What seemed a fat merchantman was a trap, and fifty Godelian fire-eaters swarmed aboard the pirate ship. Red Flary was captured and today he will lose his head. Shall we observe the ceremony?”
“Why not? Such spectacles assert the inevitable triumph of virtue, and we will be better men for the instruction.”
“Well spoken! I could wish that all men were so rational!”
The two made their way to the executioner’s platform, and here Orlo was prompted to chide a gray-faced little man who sought to rifle his pouch. “Fellow, your conduct is leading you directly up to the executioner’s block! Have you no foresight? I now must turn you over to the guard!”
“Pest take you!” The pickpocket jerked free fron Orlo’s grasp. “There were no witnesses!”
“Wrong!” spoke Sir Tristano. “I saw the whole thing! I myself will summon the guard!”
The pickpocket uttered another epithet and, dodging away, was lost in the press.
“A thoroughly unpleasant incident,” said Orlo. “The more so since all hearts should now be gay and all faces radiant with joy.”
Sir Tristano felt impelled to add a qualification: “Save only the heart and face of Flary the Red.”
“That goes without saying.”
From the crowd came muted cries of anticipation as a pair of blackmasked jailers pulled Flary up to the platform. Behind came a massive man, also masked in black, moving with a stately, even pompous, tread. He carried an enormous axe on his shoulder, and in his wake ambled a priest, smiling first to one side, then the other.
A crier, dressed parti-colour in green and red, jumped to the platform. He bowed toward a construction of raised benches where sat Emmence, Earl of Dun Cruighre, with his friends and family. The crier addressed the throng: “Hear, all ye gracious gentlefolk, as well as all other classes of the region: low, high and ordinary. Hear, I say, and all will learn of the justice imposed by Lord Emmence upon the clapperclaw Flary the Red! His guilty acts are many and not in dispute; his death is perhaps too merciful. Flary, speak your final words in this world which you have so misused!”
“I sorely regret my capture,” said Flary. “The green pearl betrayed me; it harms all who touch it! I knew that someday it would bring me to the block, and so it has.”
The crier demanded: “Are you not awed as you stand here facing your doom? Is it not time to come to terms with yourself and the world?”
Flary blinked and touched the green pearl which he wore in is ear. He spoke in a halting voice: “To both questions, I reply in the affirmative, especially to the last. It is time and more than time that I think hard and deep upon such matters, and since there are many incidents and events to review, I hereby request a stay of execution.”
The crier looked toward Lord Emmence. “Sir, is this request allowed or denied?”
“It is denied.”
“Ah well, perhaps I have thought long enough,” said Flary. “The priest has put a choice to me. I may either repent my sins and be shriven, and thereby ascend to the glories of paradise; or I may refuse to repent, and not be shriven, and thereby suffer forever the torments of Hell.” Flary paused and looked around the crowd. “Lord Emmence, gentlefolk, of ail degrees! Know then; I have made my decision!” He paused again, and held his clenched fists dramatically high, and all the folk present leaned forward to learn fwhat Flary’s decision might be.
Flary cried out: “I repent! I sorely regret those crimes which have brought me to my present shame! To each man, woman and child within my hearing I utter this advice: stray never an inch from the path of rectitude! Bear true faith to your earl, your father and mother and to the great Lord God, who I hope will now pardon my mistakes! Priest, come now! Shrive me my sins, and send me flying clean and pure heavenward where I may take my place among the angels of the sky and rejoice forever in transcendent bliss!”
The priest stepped forward; Red Flary knelt and the priest performed those rites requested of him.
The priest retreated from the platform. The crowd began to mutter and stir and everywhere there was a craning of necks. Lord Emmence raised his baton and let it fall. The jailers thrust Flary to the block; the executioner raised his axe on high, held it poised, then struck. Flary’s head dropped into a basket. A small green object bounced free, rolled to the edge of the platform, and fell almost at Sir Tristano’s feet. Sir Tristano jerked back in distaste. “Look, there is Flary’s pearl, red with his blood.” He bent his head. “It almost seems alive. See how the blood seethes and crawls along surface!”
“Stand back!” cried Orlo. “Do not touch it! Remember Flary’s words!”
From under the platform reached a long thin arm; yhin fingers clutched the pearl. Sir Tristano stamped smartly down upon the bony wrist, and from under the platform came shrill scream of pain and anger. A nearby guard came to look. “What is this disturbancefre Sir Tristano pointed under the platform; the guard seized the arm and pulled out a small gray-faced man with a broken nose. “What have we here?”
“A thief and pickpocket, unless I am very much taken,” said Sir Tristano. “Examine his pouch and what sort of loot he carries.” The pickpocket was dragged to the platform; his pouch as turned out, yielding coins, brooches, golden chains, clasps and buttons, which folk from the crowd came forward in excitement to claim.
Lord Emmence rose to his feet. “I discover here an exercise in sheer impudence! While we rid ourselves of one thiet another circulates among us, stealing those valuables and ornaments which we have worn for the occasion. Hangman your axe is sharp! The block is ready! Your muscles are in good tone! Today you shall earn a double fee. Priest, shrive this man and ease his soul for the journey he is about take.”
Sir Tristano told Orlo: “I am sated with head-loppings; Let us return to our mead and honeycakes… . Still, what shall we do with the pearl? We cannot leave it lying in the dirt.