Filidor knew that neither hauteur nor entreaty would move Bassariot. He drooped, and laid his head against the side window as the ground car negotiated its way through the traffic to a gate at the base of the heights that reared above ancient Olkney. Vehicle and gate conversed in the usual routine, then the barrier gave way and allowed the cabriol to ascend the winding road whose terminus was the sprawling palace of the Archonate, nestled in the crags above the rambling, sybaritic city of Olkney, at the tip of the peninsula of the same name.

Filidor saw none of the passing courts and gardens, the statuary and vistas arranged to intrigue the visitor during the long ascent. His awareness was fixed on an inward vision: a tumble of hair, a pair of eyes one might drown in, and most of all a smile to illuminate the hollow recesses of his being. He sighed. A paradise briefly glimpsed was now lost. But then a thought occurred: the apparatus of the Archonate was a by-word for farreaching power; could he not use its resources to identify and locate the young woman who had so instantly captured his senses? A few flicks of his finger in the direction of the appropriate device, and surely the answers would be divulged. Then he would. . .here the plan’s coherence began to unravel, yet Filidor was confident that he would somehow contrive to encounter again the wielder of that obliterating smile, and in a setting and context that would present him in a most admirable light.

He needed to get to his office. He sat up straight and lightly drummed his fingers on the car’s interior padding. “Will this thing not move faster?” he said.

A sniff was Bassariot’s only reply.

In time, the cabriol deposited them at a door near Filidor’s offices. The Archon’s apprentice hurried inside and down the short corridor to his suite, and did not breathe fully comfortably until the door was closed behind him. The Archon might be encountered in any part of the sprawling complex, and the young man was anxious to avoid a meeting.

The year before, their relationship had been much warmer. Filidor had won the Archon’s affection and respect by saving the old man’s life; it was also noteworthy that, at the same time, he had delivered the world from an ancient, recurrent evil that seeped in from an adjacent plane, where malevolence was merely a natural phenomenon, akin to weather or gravity in this cosmos. Although the young man had acted blindly, indeed in sheer panic, with no display of the cool and judicious tone for which the Archonate was renowned, his uncle had judged the intent and result of his actions to be of more significance than the style of their execution. Filidor had been welcomed to the little man’s firm embrace, and proclaimed the Archon’s official heir and apprentice.

A year ago, there had been no doubt that Filidor had come a long way, though there remained a long way yet to go. Today, the way ahead was even longer, because once he had returned to the familiar haunts and temptations of Olkney, Filidor had backslid. Old habits and old companions, both of them bad, had reclaimed him. At times — especially in the darkest hours of the night — he wished it were not so, wished that he could find again the sense of boundless possibility that had filled him on the plains of Barran, when he had saved his uncle and Old Earth from destruction.

He felt an echo of it now, remembering the face of the young woman in the carryall. Having reached his comfortably appointed office without encountering his uncle, Filidor made his way quickly to his desk. He seated himself behind its expanse and pressed one of the studs set into the ornamented edge. The simulacrum of a screen appeared in the air before him, at a comfortable height for viewing. A chime sounded, followed by a disembodied voice that seemed to speak from near the young man’s ear, saying, “What?”

“I need to find someone,” Filidor said.

“That is an essential part of the human condition,” said the voice, “often complemented by an equal need to be found.”

“I do not wish to meander through a philosophical discourse,” said Filidor. He knew that the circuits of the Archonate’s millenniaold integrator would often respond to his inquiries on practical matters with long-winded diversions involving abstract speculations and obscure commentaries. He suspected that his uncle had ordered it so. Filidor had long resisted the Archon’s attempts to educate him by frontal assaults on his ignorance, causing the old man to shift to flank attacks from unexpected quarters. “I wish to locate a young woman.”

“Stand on a corner,” advised the integrator. “Doubtless several will soon pass by.”

“I wish to find a particular one,” said Filidor.

“If she is very particular, she may well wish not to be found by you,” said the voice, rewarding itself with a small snort. “Here now, wasn’t that good?”

Filidor had always judged the device’s forays into humor to be less successful than did their author. “Let us begin again,” he said.

“No,” interrupted the majordomo, reaching over Filidor’s shoulder and disengaging the connection. “Indulge yourself later. Concerns of state outweigh juvenile fascinations. There are delegations to receive.”

Filidor sighed. This was always a duty, rarely a pleasure. It was not the petitioners themselves; most were polite, some even deferential. But the requests were too often presented in arcane and ancient forms, their substance obscured by forests of formal rhetoric and allusions to well-known-precedents that Filidor had never heard of. All too often, he would find himself staring politely at some earnest group of supplicants as they completed their arguments, then bowed and awaited his judgment. Sometimes he would continue to stare at them for periods of time too long to be called moments. They no doubt assumed that he was deliberating carefully, when in truth he was wondering what on earth they wanted, and what he was supposed to say about it.

For Filidor, the difficulty with his official life was that, most of the time, he had a slim grasp of what he was doing, and an even more tenuous grip on what he was supposed to be doing. The problem had begun soon after he had returned from the previous year’s journey in the discomfiting company of his uncle.

On their expedition, Filidor had been pressed unwillingly and unknowingly into the role of apprentice to the Archon as well as his heir apparent. He was propelled through a number of the singular societies that flourished in the world of Earth’s penultimate age, daily risking death and dismemberment to resolve paradoxes that threatened social happiness. An ignorant stranger in a succession of strange lands, often acting solely from instinct and terror, Filidor had somehow managed not only to survive, but to earn his uncle’s warm approval. When their meanderings brought them at last back to the Archonate palace on the tip of the Olkney Peninsula, Filidor had been invested with his plaque and sigil, assigned a dignified suite of offices, and left in the cold, damp hands of Faubon Bassariot.

Months had now passed, but Filidor knew little more today than he had in those hectic weeks during which he and his uncle had wandered from place to place, participating in actions that somehow indirectly restored a rough equilibrium to one or another society that had strayed too far from the mean — an ancient function of the Archon known as the progress of esteeming the balance — then they would move on to where they might be needed next. It became clear to Filidor that the Archon tended toward the tangential approach: he would arrange for an institution to tremble from a slight nudge at its foundation; he might subject a population to an unsought and unexpected demonstration of an alternative social arrangement; when their work was done, the agents of enlightenment would be on their way down the road, often in a hurry, and not infrequently just ahead of an outraged citizenry.

That much of the Archonate’s workings, Filidor knew from experience. The rest was still conjecture. Everyone knew that the Archon, revered and deferred to by all, exercised ultimate dominion over humankind. His palace housed legions of functionaries and underlings, most of whose duties seemed to involve moving things from one place to another, or standing in apparently deep contemplation. There was an Archonate bureau, fully staffed and equipped, in every human settlement of reasonable size. Built over uncounted millennia, the Archonate was universally regarded as the magnificent culmination of the science of governance, yet Filidor could not have specified exactly what it did or how it did it.

On one occasion when he had encountered his uncle in the warren of halls and corridors that riddled through the palace, Filidor posed the question bluntly. He seized the Archon’s threadbare black garment, causing the little man to execute a half turn, and demanded, “What is our function?”

His uncle freed himself from Filidor’s grasp by a subtle movement of his rootlike fingers, stroked his yellowy bald pate, and spoke in a voice like a rustle in dead grass. “Surely this is self-evident. The function of the Archonate is to arrange for the populace to have what it needs.”

“But how am I to know what the people need?”

“That is the art of governing, and like any art, it is acquired by diligent practice. Keep at it. I have every faith that you’re coming along admirably.” And with that, the little man was gone.

Thus was Filidor set adrift, without chart or compass, on a sea of administration. But, though aimless, his voyage was for the most part a placid one. Faubon Bassariot, aided by an efficient staff, dealt with many routine affairs, as well as some that were of more than passing weight, before they reached Filidor’s desk. But some petitioners must be granted direct contact with the Archon’s heir. And sometimes this led to Filidor’s experiencing the sensation known to waders who step beyond an underwater ledge and find themselves sinking abruptly into the darkness of an unplumbed abyss.

As Bassariot denied him his search for the girl seen from the balcony, Filidor felt an intimation that today would bring another floundering in the murk of Archonate business. The young man laced his fingers in his lap and said, “What have we this morning?”

“Two delegations, and some officers of the fiduciary section urgently desire to discuss your expenses,” said the functionary.

Filidor made a dismissive gesture. “All that before lunch?”

“One delegation must be received as soon as possible.”

“Why?”

Bassariot made an airy gesture. “Although the matter is not weighty, the petitioners are persons of note. But the other group might possibly keep.”

“Very well,” said the Archon’s apprentice, slumping a little in his chair. “Bring on the necessity.”

Almost an hour later, he was sitting in the same position, fighting his eyelids’ inclination to migrate down to the bottom of their range, as a quartet of worthies from the upper strata of Olkney society slowly reached the culmination of their petition. Filidor dragged his gaze from them and looked instead through one of the mullioned windows that broke the outer wall of his office. He saw a pair of phibranos swirling in multihued arcs around a blackened tower, feathers flamed by red sunlight, tumbling through the aerial combat of courtship. The birds swooped low and were lost from his sight, and he became aware again of the droning voice on the other side of his desk.

“…and therefore,” said the leader of the delegation, a plump man with silver hair and hooded eyes, which he now flicked back to the scroll in his stubfingered hand, “pursuant to Articles Seven and Twelve of the Policy of Amenable Leniency, we respectfully seek the Archonate’s concurrence in these, our worthy aims.” With a tidy flourish, he rerolled the document and presented it to Filidor. Then he guided his ornate hat to a soft landing on his well-coiffed locks, folded small pink hands across a brocaded paunch, and awaited the response of authority.

Which response Filidor was at a loss to give. He stared at the man in a lengthening silence until Faubon Bassariot discreetly cleared his throat.

“Well,” said Filidor, then after a moment said, “well,” again. He unrolled the scroll and studied its ornate script, but found no help; somewhere within its tangled thicket of traditional phraseology and timehonored language there may have been a simple statement of purpose — ought to have been one, he thought — but if so it was beyond his finding. He sighed: once again, not only did he not know what decision was expected of him, he was not at all sure what the subject of the petition was.

The chief petitioner now cleared his throat, with even more emphasis than Bassariot. Filidor could delay no longer. “This is a most interesting request,” he said. “I would like an opportunity to study it in depth, perhaps to consult with my officials…” He trailed off as he noted the four petitioners’ eyebrows molding into the position of offended disbelief. “No more than a perfunctory review…” Filidor tried again, and saw the eight carefully tended ranks of hair descend to the position of incipient outrage.

Another of the delegation stepped forward, a thin woman in black, whose shaven skull was haloed by a complex nimbus of gold filaments and precious stones. Filidor thought he recognized her as a dowager of a highly placed family, perhaps even those who owned the Implicator, and wondered if he might bargain for kindlier treatment by Tet Folbrey. He decided the idea was not advisable when the woman said, in a voice like tearing paper, “We did not come for shillyshallying. Our aims are clearly set forth, our methods are simple and efficacious, and all is animated by a lucid philosophy.”

A metal-plated fingertip sliced the air as she went on, “In any case, the Policy of Amenable Leniency admits of no unwarranted delay. You must decide, and now.”

Filidor had developed two strategies for dealing with delegations. His preferred course — to dodge the issue until it could be passed to someone else within the Archonate establishment — had just been rendered bankrupt. He smoothly shifted to the alternate approach.

“Of course, of course, just so,” he said, and allowed his fingertips to strike his forehead, “quite correct. What was I thinking? Proceed, by all means, proceed. You have my complete concurrence.”

In unison, the four petitioners performed an audible intake of breath. “Then you will graciously endorse the document with your sigil,” said the woman.

“Great pleasure,” said Filidor. He twisted the ring on his index finger, pressed its entaglioed surface against the paper, and felt the brief tingle as the mark of Archonate approval was indelibly impressed into the document. “There you have it,” he said, and passed the scroll to the chief petitioner.

The four petitioners eyed one another with a curious intensity, and Filidor had a faint inkling that each was sup pressing an urge to shout and caper energetically about the room. Instead, they hurried through the gestures that were appropriate to a formal occasion and departed.

Filidor let loose yet another sigh, this one a mingle of relief and despair. The flaw in agreeing to whatever was presented to him, he realized, was the constant risk of an unfortunate outcome. However, he comforted himself, that outcome could reasonably be expected to be at some distance in the future, or perhaps its impacts would be felt in some faroff place. This future Archon wished to believe that tomorrows could be trusted to look after themselves. He returned his gaze to the window, but the phibranos had gone off on other business.

Bassariot had escorted the magnates from the room. Filidor took advantage of his absence to recall the integrator’s screen into existence. “She was about my age, with red hair, green eyes, wonderful mouth,” he told it.

“Who?” said the integrator.

“The woman I want you to find,” said Filidor.

The screen blinked faintly, then the voice said, “There are somewhere between four and eleven million such women, depending on the definition of ‘wonderful.’ ”

“She wore simple clothing.”

“That is not a great help.”

“She was riding in a converted farm vehicle,” Filidor said. “There can’t be all that many women doing that.”

“Obviously, you do not frequent rural communities,” said the integrator.

“I don’t think you are trying your best,” Filidor said, “you old confustible!”

The disembodied voice dropped to a mumble, but Filidor thought he heard the phrase “trying my patience.” He would have to speak to his uncle about this equipment.

He gathered himself for a renewed effort, but it was forestalled by the reentry of Faubon Bassariot. “The other delegation awaits,” said the functionary.

“What do they want?”

The man’s smile was the only thin thing about him. “Your attention, one supposes.”

“Are they like the last ones, a cluster of magnates?”

“If you mean, are they the sort to complain in higher circles,” Bassariot said, his nose assuming an even more elevated angle than normal, “I think not. I take them to have come from some uncultured and distant community, their dress being simple and travel-worn.”

Filidor gestured to the screen and said, in a breezy tone, “You see that I am absorbed in intricate and consequential matters. I cannot be disturbed. Perhaps they might see my uncle.”

The official’s expression was artfully composed. “Indeed, they first sought the Archon’s attention; he suggested they might profit from an interview with yourself.”

A weight fitted itself upon Filidor’s shoulders. Petitioners referred by his uncle were often the most perplexing. He grasped for the last available straw. “Have they an actual appointment?”

Bassariot looked thoughtful for a while, then said, “Not as such.”

“Then make them one, at some convenient space in my schedule.”

“The earliest of which would be this moment,” said the majordomo, fixing his eyes on the empty air beyond Filidor’s shoulder.

“No, no,” said the young man. “No, no. My time is at present fully taken up. An urgent matter, which admits of no delay.”

Bassariot angled his head to one side, like a bird inspecting something edible. “I see.”

“Yes, good, well,” said Filidor and sought at once to buttress the flimsy foundations of his escape. “I have it! They could put their case in writing — which you could then review — and advise me before I meet with them…which I could do, shall we say…”

“Tomorrow morning?”

Filidor regarded the man’s round, cool face, as bland as a boiled egg, and recalled that nothing that happened within the palace could, with absolute safety, be considered unknown to Dezendah Vesh. “Tomorrow morning,” he agreed.

Bassariot departed, leaving Filidor to resume his interrogation of the integrator. But the machine seemed determined to frustrate his simple aim, and the more the Archon’s apprentice sought to steer the conversation toward practical ends, the further afield the device’s philosophical wanderings led them.

“Ultimately, of course,” it said, “all things devolve to a question of identity. I think, therefore I am, certainly. And one can say, as the ancient sage so succinctly observed: I am what I am, and that’s all that I am. But this begs the question, what am I? Am I what I think I am? Does thinking that I am what I am make me what I think I am? Perhaps I am not what I think I am, in which case does it not inevitably follow that I am what I think I am not? Or am I? What do you think?”

“I think I will turn you off,” said Filidor, and did so. He would make a search within the Archonate for someone more skilled in dealing with integrators, to see if there was a way to pose elementary questions without risking his emotional equilibrium.

He laid his head upon the desk and called up the vision of the face, the smile. A long, delicious sigh escaped him. He prepared to give another one, but was interrupted by the reappearance of Faubon Bassariot.

“If you are free,” he said, “the fiduciary officers are still here. They have brought a number of files, and are eager to join you in examining them.”