Authors: Jack Vance
Tags: #Fantasy, #Masterwork, #Fiction, #Fantasy Fiction, #General
A haughty footman in blue velvet livery stood by the door. He surveyed Sir Tristano head to toe with a hooded stare, listened with a face of stone as Sir Tristano identified himself, then grudgingly led the way to a foyer, where Sir Tristano enlivened the wait of an hour by watching the fountain where sunlight, refracting through a dome of crystal prisms, sparkled against the spray.
The High Chamberlain at last appeared. He listened to Sir Tristano’s request for an audience with King Audry, and shook his head dubiously. “His Majesty seldom sees anyone without prior arrangements.”
“You may announce me as an envoy from King Aillas of Troicinet.”
“Very well. Come this way, if you will.” He conducted Sir Tristano to a small parlour and left him sitting alone.
Sir Tristano waited an hour, then another, until finally, having nothing better to do, King Audry condescended to receive him.
The High Chamberlain led Sir Tristano through the galleries of the palace and out into the formal gardens. King Audry lounged at a marble table with three of his cronies, watching a bevy of maidens play at bowls.
King Audry, engrossed in making wagers on the game with his friends, could not immediately attend Sir Tristano, who stood quietly appraising the frivolous King of Dahaut. He saw a man large and handsome, somewhat loose of jowl, moist and round of eye, and heavy in the buttocks. Black curls clustered beside his cheeks; black eyebrows almost met above his long straight nose. His expression was rich and easy; his disposition would seem to be petulant, rather than vicious.
At last, with eyebrows raised, King Audry listened as the chamberlain introduced Sir Tristano: “Your Majesty, this is the emissary from Troicinet: Sir Tristano of Castle Mythric and cousin to King Aillas.”
Sir Tristano performed a conventional bow. “Your Majesty, I am pleased to offer my best respects and the regards of King Aillas.”
Audry, leaning back, surveyed Sir Tristano through half-closed eyes. “Sir, I must say that for a mission of this importance I would have expected a person of somewhat more august wisdom and experience.”
Sir Tristano smiled. “Sir, I admit that I am only three years older than King Aillas, who perhaps for this reason regards me in the light you mention. Still, if you are dissatisfied, I will instantly withdraw to Troicinet and there express your views to King Aillas. I am sure that he can find a qualified emissary: sage, elderly, of your own generation. May I have your leave to depart?”
Audry gave a peevish grunt and straightened in his seat.
“Are all Troice so high-handed in their dignity? Before you rush off in a fury, perhaps you will at least explain the regrettable Troice sortie into South Ulfland.”
“Sir, with pleasure.” Sir Tristano glanced at the three courtiers, who sat listening with unabashed interest. “You might prefer to delay our conference until you are alone, since we will touch upon sensitive matters.”
Audry uttered an impatient ejaculation. “Stealth, whispers, intrigue: how I despise them, one and all! Sir Tristano, be acquainted with my philosophy: I have no secrets! Still and however …” Audry signaled to his cronies who departed with poor grace.
Audry pointed to a chair. “Sit, if you will… . Now then: I continue to wonder as to this madcap Troice expedition.”
Tristano smiled. “I am surprised by your surprise! Two excellent and obvious reasons prompted us into South Ulfland. The first is self-explanatory: the crown devolved upon Aillas through legitimate and ordinary succession, and he went to claim his due. He found the realm in deplorable order and now works to set things right.
“The second reason is as starkly simple as the first. If Aillas had failed to secure both Kaul Bocach and Tintzin Fyral, which are forts along the way between Lyonesse and South Ulfland, King Casmir would now rule in South Ulfland. Nothing could prevent him from invading your Western March while at the same time attacking you from the south. Then, after you had been safely clapped into a dungeon, he could overwhelm Troicinet at his leisure. We preceded him into South Ulfland and he is now thwarted. So there you have it.”
King Audry gave a cynical snort. “I also perceive an extension of Troice ambition. It adds new dimensions to the charade! I already have problems enough from Godelia and Wysrod, not to mention the Ska who occupy my strong fortress Poelitetz… . Aha there! Well bowled, Artwen! Now then, Mnione, to the attack! Smite your oppressor hip and thigh!” So called King Audry to the maidens playing at bowls. He lifted a goblet of wine to his lips, drank, then poured out a goblet for Sir Tristano. “Be at your ease; this is a careless occasion. Still, I could wish that Aillas had sent a full-fledged plenipotentiary, or even had come himself.”
Sir Tristano shrugged. “I can only repeat what I have said before. King Aillas has imparted to me the full details of his program. When I speak, you listen to his voice.”
“I will be blunt,” said Audry. “Our common enemy is Casmir. I am at all times ready to unite our forces and end, once and for all, the danger he represents.”
“Sir, this idea naturally comes as no surprise to King Aillas-nor to Casmir, for that matter. Aillas responds in these words. At the moment Troicinet is at peace with Lyonesse, a condition which may or may not endure. We are putting the time to good use. We consolidate our position in South Ulfland; we augment our navy, and if the peace persists a hundred years, so much the better.
“In the meantime the most urgent situation confronting us is the Ska. If we joined you to defeat Lyonesse, the Ska problem would not go away; and we would then confront a new aggressive Dahaut without the counterbalance of Lyonesse. We cannot tolerate a preponderance in either direction, and always must throw our weight behind the weaker antagonist. For the immediate future, this would seem to be you.”
Audry frowned. “Your statement is almost insultingly crass.”
Sir Tristano refused to be daunted. “Sir, I am not here to please you, but to present facts and listen to your remarks.”
“Hmmf. These, you say, are the words of King Aillas.”
“I gather that you have no high opinion of my military might.”
“Would you care to hear the appraisal we have received at Domreis?”
“I will quote the report more or less as it reached us: ‘Above all else, the knights of Dahaut are required to appear on parade with armour shining and all caparisons resplendent, and indeed they make a brave show. In battle, they may not fare so well, since they have been enervated by luxury and are disinclined to the rigors of the campaign. If forced to confront an enemy, no doubt they could wheel their horses in gallant caracoles and defy the foe with insouciant gestures, but all from a safe distance. Archers and pikemen march with full precision, and at the parade are the marvel of all who see them. The compliments have befuddled poor Audry; he reckons them to be invincible. Again, they are trained to the parade ground, but barely know which end of their weapons is hurtful. They are all overweight and clearly have little stomach for fighting.’ “
Audry said indignantly: “That is a graceless canard! Are you here only to mock me?”
“Not at all. I came to deliver a message, part of which you have just heard. The second part is this: King Casmir well understands your military deficiencies. He has been denied his easy passage through South Ulfland, and now must think of direct attack. King Aillas urges that you take command of your army away from your favorites and put it into the hands of a qualified professional soldier. He recommends that you abandon your dress parades for field exercises, and spare no one his necessary effort, including yourself.”
Audry drew himself up. “This kind of message verges upon sheer insolence.”
“This is not our intent. We see dangers of which you may not be aware, and we so warn you, if only from motives of self-interest.”
Audry drummed his white fingers on the table. “I am unacquainted with King Aillas. Tell me something of his nature. Is he cautious or is he bold?”
Sir Tristano reflected. “In truth, I find him a hard man to describe. He is cautiously bold, if that answers your question. His disposition is easy; still he never stands back from a harsh duty. I suspect that often he forces himself, because his nature is mild, like that of a philosopher. He has no taste for war but he recognizes that force and intimidation are the way of the world; hence he studies military tactics and few can match him at sword-play. He abominates torture; the dungeons below Miraldra are empty, yet few criminals or footpads are at work in Troicinet because Aillas has given them all to the noose. Still, in my opinion, he would abandon the kingship tomorrow to a man he could trust.”
“That should be no problem! Many would gladly take over his post.”
“Those are precisely the ones he would not trust!”
Audry shrugged and drank wine. “I did not ask to be born king, or-for that matter-to be born at all. Still, I am king, and I might as well enjoy my luck to the hilt. Your Aillas, on the other hand, seems victimized by guilt.”
“I hardly think so.”
Audry filled his own and Sir Tristano’s goblets. “Let me send back with you a message for King Aillas.”
“I listen, sir, with both ears.”
Audry leaned forward and spoke in sententious tones: “It is time that Aillas should marry! What better match could be made than that between Aillas and my eldest daughter Thaubin, thus uniting two great houses? Look, see her yonder where she watches the game!”
Sir Tristano followed the direction of Audry’s gesture. “The comely lass in white beside the plain little creature so uncomfortably pregnant? She is indeed charming!”
Audry spoke with dignity. “The maiden wearing white is Thaubin’s friend Netta. Thaubin stands beside her.”
“I see… . Well, I doubt if Aillas plans an early marriage. He might well be surprised if I were to affiance him to the Princess Thaubin.”
“In that case-”
“One more matter before I depart. May I speak with candor?”
Audry grumbled: “You have done little else! Speak!”
“I must warn you that traitors report your every act to King Casmir. You are surrounded by spies; they masquerade as your intimates; they might include one or more of the gentlemen who just now sat here with you.”
Audry stared at Sir Tristano, then threw back his head and laughed hugely. He turned and called to his friends: “Sir Huynemer! Sir Rudo! Sir Swanish! Join us, if you will!”
The three gentlemen, somewhat puzzled and resentful, returned to the table.
King Audry, among chuckles, told them: “Sir Tristano insists that traitors are rife at Falu Ffail; indeed he suspects that one among you spies for King Casmir!”
The courtiers jumped to their feet, roaring in anger. “This fellow insults us!”
“Give us leave to show our steel; we will teach him the etiquette he has failed to learn elsewhere!”
“Poppycock and hysteria! The gabble of geese and old women!”
Sir Tristano smilingly sat back in his chair. “It appears that I have touched a sore nerve! Well, I will say no more.”
“It is all absurdity!” declared King Audry. “What are my secrets that spies should seek them out? I have none! The worst is known!”
Sir Tristano rose to his feet. “Your Majesty, I have brought you my messages; give me leave to depart.”
King Audry waved his fingers. “You may go.” Sir Tristano bowed, turned away and departed Falu Ffail.
SIR TRISTANO. RETURNING TO DOMREIS, went directly to Miraldra, a dour old castle of fourteen towers overlooking the harbor. Aillas greeted his cousin with affection. The resemblance between them, as they faced each other, was noticeable. Where Tristano was tall and loosely muscular, Aillas, less tall by an inch, seemed spare and taut. Their hair alike was light golden brown and cut square at ear-level; Tristano’s features were blunt where those of Aillas were crisp. Standing together and smiling in the pleasure of each other’s company, they seemed like boys.
At Aillas’ suggestion they seated themselves on a couch. Aillas said: “Before all else, let me mention that I am on my way to Watershade; why not join me?”
“I will be happy to do so.”
“We shall leave in two hours. Have you had your breakfast?”
“Only a dish of bread and curds.”
“We shall repair that.” Aillas called the footman and presently they were served a pan of fried hake, with new loaves and butter, stewed cherries and bitter ale. Meanwhile Aillas had asked: “How went your expedition?”
“Certainly it has included interesting episodes,” said Sir Tristano. “I debarked from the ship at Dun Cruighre, and rode to Cluggach where I was granted an audience with King Dartweg. Dartweg is a Celt, true, but not all Celts are red-faced louts smelling of cheese. Dartweg, for instance, smells of ale, mead, and bacon. I learned nothing of profit from King Dartweg; the Celts think only of drinking mead and stealing each other’s cattle: this is the basis of their economy. I firmly believe that they place higher value upon a brindle cow with large udders than upon an equally buxom woman. Still, I cannot fault King Dartweg’s hospitality; in fact, you can insult a Celt only by calling him mean. They are too excitable to make truly good warriors, and, while obstreperous, they are as unpredictable as virgins. At a moot-place near Cluggach I saw fifty men at loggerheads, shouting each other down, and often laying hands to their swords. I thought that they must be debating between peace and war, but, so I found, the dispute concerned the largest salmon caught during a season three years back, and Dartweg was in the midst, bawling the loudest of all. Then a druid appeared in a brown robe with a sprig of mistletoe pinned to his hood. He uttered a single word; all fell silent, then slunk away and hid in the shadows.
“Later I spoke of the incident to Dartweg and commended the druid’s counsel of moderation. Dartweg told me that the druid cared not a fig for moderation, and objected only because the noise offended a flock of sacred crows in a nearby grove.
“Despite the Christian churches which are now appearing everywhere, the druids still hold power.”
“Very well!” said Aillas. “You have told me enough of Godelia. To gain influence I must either ride down from the sky on a white bull holding the disk of Lug, or catch the largest salmon of the season. What next?”