Fools Errant: A Novel of the Archonate
Chapter One

The Logodaedalian Club was renowned for three things: the zest of its cuisine, the draftiness of its common rooms, and the verbal wit of its leading members. Filidor Vesh could claim no comparable distinctions. His memberships at the Logodaedalian and a number of other select establishments he owed instead to an accident of birth.

He sat in the well-worn ease of the club’s salon, sampling tiny, rich pastries and murmuring polite appreciation for the two remaining contenders in a round-table contest of epigrams. The melee of wits had flowed and ebbed around a succession of sumptuous but subtle courses from the club’s ancient kitchens. Now, as the stewards deftly whisked dishes from the table, only Fornol Kray and Leetha Hanch remained in verbal arms.

Fornol Kray shifted his ample weight, cracked a walnut between thumb and forefinger, and plucked a word from his opponent’s last sally. “It may be, as you say, that ‘a life without dreams is no life, yet dreamers live only their dreams.'” Here he paused to admit the meat of the walnut into that process which would transmute it into yet more Fornol Kray. “I will say that life is lived as comedy, though everywhere it is experienced as tragedy.”

Leetha Hanch delayed only the moment required to place a tapered finger at her sharp chin before replying, “As with blessings, so with tragedies. If they are everyone’s, they are no one’s.”

The scattering of applause from the assembled members covered Filidor’s yawn. A slim young man of refined sensitivities, he lacked both enthusiasm and accomplishment, and was neither deft nor apt in wordplay. He was, however, the nephew and sole heir of Dezendah Vesh, ninety-eighth (or possibly ninety-ninth) Archon of those regions of old Earth still inhabited by human beings. This relationship conferred upon Filidor certain privileges, of which he took full advantage; it also imposed upon him a number of burdens, the full weight of which he would shortly begin to feel.

Filidor’s attention drifted. He turned toward the salon’s mirrored wall and attempted to admire from the corner of his eye his own delicate profile, then fell to arranging the meticulous folds of his saffron mantle, which overlaid a shimmering tunic of spun pearl. His legs, languidly extended, were enclosed in tight-fitting hose of a material that hardened gradually as they descended to form a half boot on each pedicured foot.

The contest was dwindling to its end. Fornol Kray had been reduced to the assertion that “insularity is mere mapmaker’s conceit,” against which Leetha Hanch was already forming a complicated trump on the theme of two-dimensionality.

While the company awaited the finishing stroke, Filidor gave thought to the possible diversions offered by the rest of the evening. A clutch of young lordlings planned a cruise by barge across Mornedy Sound, a noisy outing that would include potent drink and pliant ladies of the Upper Town. That was tempting.

On the other hand, Lord Afre would soon present a selection of phantasms coaxed through a tiny and transitory breach between this world and an adjacent plane. As Filidor weighed these attractive prospects, a steward appeared at his elbow to inform him that a messenger from the palace waited in the atrium.

Filidor pressed a coin into the man’s hand, bade him tell the messenger that no Filidor Vesh was on the premises, and moved swiftly to make the lie a truth. A side door led to a passage connecting the salon to the kitchens. He dodged through the clatter of pots and salvers, and into a storeroom with a small window set in its outer wall. Seconds later, he dropped noiselessly into an alley barely lit by the lantern above the Logodaedalian’s rear door. A few steps away was a public square where he could lose himself among the crowds taking the evening air. From there, it was a short walk to the seclusion of Lord Afre’s house in town.

The alley appeared deserted. Filidor padded toward the square, peered around the corner, saw no trace of the distinctive black and green Archonate livery. The square held only the usual stylish after-dinner throng, displaying their finery. He was about to step amongst them when he felt a tug on his mantle.

Turning, Filidor had to look down to see who had laid hold of his garment. He found a very small, very bald man of advanced age and yellowy skin, loosely assembled from knobbed joints and coarse dark cloth. The eyes were black pinpoints in a network of pocks and gulleys, the nose a careless afterthought, and the mouth a thin slice set in an unappetizing grin. The voice issuing from between straggling teeth might have learned speech by copying the creaks and rustles of centuries-old parchment.

“I believe you to be Filidor Vesh,” said the dwarf.

“You are entitled to your beliefs, however ill-founded,” Filidor replied. “No doubt you will wish to search further for this Vesh, rather than impose your presence upon a man called hence by urgent affairs.”

The dwarf transferred his grip from Filidor’s mantle to his arm. His gaze swept quickly over the young man’s features. “This belief is supported by the evidence, since you answer to a point the description furnished me.”

“You are plainly the dupe of some prankster, who abuses the dignity of your years by sending you on a fool’s errand,” said Filidor. “Were I you, I would seek out the rascal and thrash him.”

“I am accustomed to fool’s errands,” said the little man, “which this may well be. But the Archon orders you forthwith into his presence, and the proof of my assertion is here.” He displayed the Archon’s personal seal.

The ring seemed out of place among the dwarf’s crabbed fingers, but the intaglio of emerald and jet could not be gainsaid. Filidor sighed. A summons from the Archon meant a task to be performed. Invariably, Filidor knew, it would be a service whose significance no rational being could fathom.

He had once been ordered to record the expressions on the faces of spectators at a notorious felon’s “restitution,” and to write an analysis linking the crowd’s eye movements to the prisoner’s writhings and spurts of blood. Another time, the Archon had sent him by night to daub illiterate revolutionary slogans on imposing buildings. And, at the premiere of a fashionable author’s most wrenching melodrama, he had been required to laugh hysterically until the ushers ejected him into the street. In the gloom of the Archonate library, he had been set the task of counting and itemizing daily reports by officials now centuries dead. The Archon’s orders seldom made sense.

Therein lay the crux of Filidor’s uncertainty as to his place in the Archonate’s affairs. He recognized that as Dezendah Vesh’s sole heir, he must be drawn inevitably into the workings of the Archonate. Remotely, he had even considered that he would someday take for his own the regalia and trappings of his uncle’s office. And he hoped that by the time of his investiture he would have learned just what it was that an archon did.

It was universally agreed that the institution of the Archonate was fully right and necessary, and that the Archon wielded ultimate power. But the means of exercising that authority was a mystery to Filidor Vesh, to his friends, and even to their lordly parents.

Presiding at some high banquet or learned seminar, his uncle was the very image of magisterial power. But, equally, he might be come upon in an illlit corner of the archives, immersed in mouse-chewed tomes or tinkering with some pointless apparatus left over from a previous millennium. Although he was rarely seen outside the Archonate palace, it was said that the Archon often wandered through the world, guised as anything from an alms-seeking mendicant to a dealer in rare objects. Any stranger might be the Archon, and he might do anything at all to anybody at all; or he might do nothing. These wanderings were also seen as fully right and necessary, and had been referred to since time immemorial asĀ the progress of esteeming the balance.