Excerpts from books by Matthew Hughes
Excerpt from ‘Fool Me Twice’
Since his official investiture as the Archon’s apprentice, it had become the morning habit of Filidor Vesh to take a late breakfast on the streetside balcony of a place in the Shamblings district where he was known and well treated. Fortified by slices of spiced dolcetacc and cups of steaming punge, he would linger over the pages of the Olkney Implicator: not for news of weighty matters, but for the artfully phrased columns of the notorious scandal hound Tet Folbrey. The scribbler wrote in a ribald code that disclosed, to those who knew the key, which members of the city’s often wanton elite were doing things with and to each other that they would have preferred not to read about in the public prints. Lawsuits were often threatened, sometimes brought, rarely settled, but through all of it, Folbrey wrote on. Filidor had heard somewhere, though certainly not in the man’s column, that the tattler had gained his impregnable position at the Implicator by marrying the badtempered daughter of its owner, Lord Vadric Magguffynne.
The Archon’s apprentice himself was an occasional target of the scandalmonger’s barbs. Filidor was a young man, with a young man’s appetites and inclinations, which sometimes conspired to lead him into situations that lacked decorum, and among companions who pursued a life of continual romp and riot. On one such occasion, Folbrey had reported on a house party at which Filidor had presided over an auction of the hostess’s garments, which she had removed one by one as the bids increased in both size and fervor. Filidor did not dispute the accuracy of the Implicator’s account, but felt that his privacy — not to mention that of his hostess — had been invaded. Not one to trifle with underlings, he went to the home of the owner to complain.
Lord Magguffynne received him in a dark drawing room walled with shelves and cluttered with tables, all of which bore relics of his family’s ancient glories. The aristocrat was a tall, spare man of rigid posture, with a face as narrow and unyielding as a sword blade. He heard the young man’s complaint with an air of detachment, then dismissed the matter with a casual word. Filidor felt that the interview was not going well, and said, “Perhaps you would take a different tone if this affair was brought to my uncle’s attention.”
The Magguffynne smiled a thin smile and said, “I should think that would create more difficulties for you than for me.”
In truth, Filidor did not wish to test his uncle’s views regarding his recreations. His uncle was Dezendah VII, ninetyeighth Archon of those parts of Old Earth still inhabited by human beings in this, the world’s penultimate age. Some said the old man ought to be numbered as the ninety-ninth to exercise the vast but ill-defined powers of the Archonate, but that was because they counted the brief and unsuccessful usurpation by the detested Holmar Thurm, who had treacherously removed the Archon Barsamine V from office some centuries before. Among those who bothered to think about the matter, the majority opinion held that the lamentable Thurm had earned no place in the official record, the fact that his skin was preserved somewhere in the dusty archives beneath the Archonate palace notwithstanding.
Either way, all agreed that the Archon Dezendah VII was the pinnacle of Old Earth’s social order, with powers beyond limit, although the means and mechanisms by which those powers were exercised were unclear even to those who bothered themselves with questions of governance. Filidor’s appreciation of his uncle was less abstract. He was aware that his behavior had often failed to measure up to the Archon’s expectations, and the awareness caused him some inner pain.
His threat to appeal to his uncle had been a bluff, and Lord Magguffynne had called it. They therefore agreed to disagree, and the issue was dropped unsettled. Filidor attempted to be a little more discreet in his amusements, and for a time his name figured less often in Folbrey’s column.
Now he sipped his morning punge and deciphered a particularly savory item about an unexpected meeting between wizened old Lord Escophalate’s last mistress and her successor, a young lady of apparently remarkable character, which had escalated into a public charivari and the loss of at least one stook of dyed hair. Chuckling, he dropped his eyes to the next slanderous morsel and had read half of it before he grew aware that the subject of the report was himself.
What highly placed gadling, Folbrey wrote, was troughing it to his very hocks at The Prodigious Palate last night, gaggled by the usual hem tuggers? The rarest pressings from the eatery’s cellar flowed in cataracts, as the gourmands gobbled a path through the entire menu, then began anew with appetizers. Knowledgeable prognosticators believe that the boy’s uncle will absolutely fizzicate when he sees the bill.
A brief cloud of concern passed over the normally untroubled landscape of the young man’s mind, but soon evanesced into nothing, leaving his inner skies clear. It was a mild enough bite at his ankles, and Filidor was fairly sure that his uncle was not a devotee of the man’s column. And even if the item should somehow come to the Archon’s attention, the odds were that no censure more stringent than a mild reproach would descend upon his nephew; at least, no penalties had yet been exacted for a score of past libertinous routs he had hosted for his circle of aristocratic friends. Filidor would have liked to take more comfort from that argument, but the experience of his brief lifetime had shown him that sometimes his uncle would take considerable pains to teach him a lesson. Invariably, the pains were Filidor’s.
But, at the moment, all was peace and good order upon this sunny balcony, and Filidor was well practiced at living in the moment. He ordered another mug of punge, finished the remaining items in Folbrey’s column, then turned the page to find a critic’s notice of a theatrical event that he and his coterie had happened to witness in Indentors Square the evening before as they were making their way to the Palate. It was an openair performance by a traveling company that billed itself as Flastovic’s Incomparable Mummery Troupe and Raree Exposition. Masked and robed in imaginative costumes, the players silently enacted scenes from the works of a dramatist of bygone years known only as The Bard Obscure, while an austere disclamator, who Filidor thought was too fond of his own voice, stood to one side of the portable stage in mask and robe and recited the text of the drama.
Like most of his circle, Filidor had at least heard of The Bard Obscure, a maker of tragicomic plays and vignettes that were no longer popular among the sophisticated set. Many of them were set on the imaginary planet Far Forbish, a roughrambling frontier much distant from Earth, out at the other end of the Spray. The Archon’s apprentice had stopped with his friends at the rear of the small crowd of spectators when the disclamator portentously called out the title of the work they were about to perform.
“Love and Irony,” he said, “by The Bard Obscure.” He paused and swept his eyes across the almost empty square, as if surveying a vast throng, before continuing. “Into the mining camp at Flatpoke Creek came Badrey Huzzantz, his cheeks unburnt and his gear unscorched.”
A masked mummer jauntily crossed the stage and stood, legs widespread, knuckles on hips, as if taking stock of new surroundings. The rest of the troupe were off to the side, ignoring his arrival.
“Huzzantz announced that he had crossed the Spray to pry a bonanza in gems from the fumaroles, and to return home with a fortune plucked from the fiery magma.”
The other players now gathered round, nudging and elbowing each other in prelude to a prank, then one stepped forward and put his arm around the newcomer’s shoulders.
The disclamator said, “A grizzled veteran of the fire fields named Ton Begbo thought to make sport with the young tyro. He told Huzzantz that never could he name himself a true Forbishite until he had completed two tasks: first, achieve carnal congress with Madame Valouche, empress of the camp courtesans; second, deliver a resounding kick to the armored hindquarters of a sixpronged weftry.”
The mummer playing Badrey Huzzantz raised masked chin and clenched fist in a show of determination. The others mimed raucous encouragement.
“Huzzantz vowed he would fulfill all requirements, and would have set out forthwith, but the others assured him that every rite of passage must traditionally begin with buying each wellwisher a tot of fierce drink and toasting them singly and severally.”
The players leaned upon each other, bending their elbows and bringing cupped hands to lips, until the hero of the tale “stumbled forth from their midst, fist again raised like a banner with a strange device, and swore that he would not return till he had dealt, according to their natures, with both Madame Valouche and the dreaded weftry.”
The character staggered offstage, while the carousers carried on with their imbibery. Then from the wings came a great thunder and clatter that betokened a dire contest, rising thump upon clash to a ringing climax. There ensued a long silence, while the other mummers stood in attitudes of awed expectation, before the hero stumbled back into view, his robe rent, his mask askew, and his body bent at unusual angles.
The disclamator spoke. “‘Well enough,’ cried Badrey Huzzantz. ‘Now, where is this whore I’m supposed to kick?'”
The other Far Forbishers mimed amazement and mirth, slapping hands to knees and holding jiggling bellies. But then the curtains parted at the rear of the stage and a giant head appeared, a gold and green weftry crowned with six segmented spines. The mummers, save Huzzantz, froze in postures of horror. But then the weftry unrolled a long tongue of red velour, until the tip gently touched the hand of Badrey Huzzantz, who turned and affectionately stroked the glistering chitin of the beast’s forehead. Together, the head and the man backed through the curtain, until only the hero’s mask remained. Huzzantz shook his head dismissively.
“Never mind,” said the disclamator, and the stage went to black.
It had been a diverting performance, enlivened during the intermission by a shout and a bustle from the far side of the square, where someone cried out that his purse had been lifted. Filidor might have stayed for more, but the delights of The Prodigious Palate were beckoning, so he and his friends left just as the disclamator announced that the next playlet would be the classic, A Man, a Tavern, and a Duck.
The Implicator’s critic professed a less positive view of the troupe’s offerings, and thought it appropriate that the mummers would soon depart for a tour of provincial towns. Filidor sipped his punge and turned to the news page, which was topped by a headline about an intercessor from Thurloyn Vale who was believed to have been lost at sea after absconding with the contents of his clients’ trust funds. A wavering pain passed behind his forehead, no doubt brought on by last night’s excesses and made worse by a rumble of heavy wheels on Ipscarry Way where it ran below the balcony. He put down the periodical and turned to look for the source of the noise.
A stubby, ungainly vehicle of the kind commonly used to transport farm goods, but now roughly converted to carry passengers, was trundling up the street’s gentle slope. The bed of its cargo hold had been softened with cushions and duffels, on which sat two persons in rustic dress. Filidor glanced idly at them, and would have returned to the Implicator and his breakfast, but just then one of the travelers chanced to look up, and her eyes caught Filidor’s. And held them.
The eyes were large and seagreen, slightly slanted, and set in a heartshaped face that was topped by careless ringlets of coppery hair. The features were not so striking a vision as to stir Filidor’s inner workings — he saw more beautiful women at many of the evening salons and catered runavaunts to which his status as the Archon’s heir gave him entry — but then the girl smiled, and the effect was like the old orange sun finding its warm way through a chink in a cloud. The street seemed to glow with inner light, and Filidor felt his own cheeks stretching in a matching grin, which soon broke under the pressure of a small, spontaneous laugh. At that, the young woman’s smile also deepened, and had the vehicle not been carrying her steadily away from him, Filidor might have spoken, she might have answered, an acquaintanceship would have been sparked, and subsequent events would not have unfolded in quite so complicated a manner.
Instead, the conveyance belched bluish fumes from a rear orifice, grunted down into a lower gear, and turned the corner into Hennenfent Street, carrying her out of his sight, and plunging the young man’s world back into shadow. The change moved Filidor to an unaccustomed urgency. He left his morning pastry half nibbled and his second cup of punge unsipped, threw Folbrey to the floor tiles, and threaded his way among the tables toward the stairs.
He emerged below on busy Ipscarry and cast about for a jitney to hire. None was in sight, but then he blessed his luck as an official black and green Archonate cabriol suddenly eased out of the traffic and drew into the curb beside him. Filidor pulled open the front passenger door and launched himself into the interior, drawing forth his identification plaque as he did so, preparing to demonstrate superiority of rank to whatever bureaucrat had requisitioned the car, then to send it in pursuit of the hauler.
“Quickly,” he said to the controls, “turn onto Hennenfent and follow the carryall with the people in the back.”
“I regret,” said a moist and languid voice from the rear seat, “that pressing circumstances compel us in another direction.”
Filidor’s heart, lifted by the girl’s smile into the topmost reaches of his chest, now reversed course and plunged to the bottom of his belly. He well knew the voice; it belonged to Faubon Bassariot, a smooth, ovoid man of middle years and supercilious style, who wore much of his hair in a single curl pomaded to his forehead. He had risen to a high echelon among the panjandrums at the Archon’s palace before he was chosen by the Archon himself to assume a particular duty: to be Filidor’s majordomo and daily taskmaster. To that purpose, he had assembled and oversaw a staff of functionaries whose career hopes were tied to his own prominence, and these officials became the personal staff of the Archon’s apprentice. But though the staff was Filidor’s, and though Bassariot’s title was chief of that small bureaucracy, there was no question as to who was in charge; in all the vast apparatus of the Archonate, Bassariot was the one functionary to whom Filidor could never say no.
Nevertheless, he tried. “Those circumstances must wait,” said the young man. “I have urgent concerns.”
“Indeed you do,” said the official, “and I am carrying you to them.”
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