Excerpts from books by Matthew Hughes
Excerpt from ‘Fool Me Twice’
Filidor wasted no more time. “This integrator is faulty,” he said, “I shall seek out Master Apparaticist Berro and have him do things to it. Or with it. Or about it.” These options were listed as he made his way to the outer door, opened it, and stepped through into a warm midday, the tired orange sun winking and gleaming from the towers and urbanations of Olkney far below, so that the gaudy old whore of a city looked like a spill of trinkets on the gray-green blanket of the surrounding sea.
A short flight of stone steps led down and turned once, bringing Filidor through an inconspicuous portal into a public area of the palace grounds. He stepped out smartly and took a path that meandered among the melodious blooms of the tintinabulary gardens. Soon he reached the outer edge of the palace’s upper terrace, where a descender would bear him swiftly down to the city.
He stepped onto the next arriving disk, planted his feet on the scuffed metal, and grasped the handle firmly. The descender began its slide along an inclined plane of energies, and the uplifting breeze of Filidor’s passage streamed his hair from the nape of his neck as Olkney rose to meet him. Farther down, Filidor noticed the four magnates he had met with earlier grouped on a single wide disk. They were behaving in a most animated manner, hugging each other and slapping backs. As the young man watched, the chief petitioner seized his headgear and flung it into the air, not bothering to watch as it fluttered and plunged into a reflective pool far below. Then the woman raised to her lips the scroll Filidor had indented. She appeared to kiss it.
A few minutes later, the descender delivered Filidor onto a pathway that ringed the lowest of the palace’s tiered walls. A short walk through lawns and topiary brought him to the wide thoroughfare of Eckhevry Row, which led straight into Olkney’s bustling mercantile quarter, where it was said that a purchaser might acquire anything that was worth acquiring, amidst much that was not. The commerciants of Olkney were renowned for their egalitarian spirit, judging rich and poor alike solely by the weight of their purses.
Filidor, however, was beyond their judgment. As a ranking officer of the Archonate, he need carry no specie of any kind. Instead, he wore about his neck a light chain, from which depended a palm-sized plaque of an indestructible green substance, figured in black with symbols and emblems. Upon its presentation, the plaque would serve to afford him food, shelter, transportation, or goods and services whatsoever and to any value. Some accounting of these charges was eventually made to the public treasury; but that was not a matter on which the young man cared to dwell, being content with the simplicity of gaining whatever he desired merely by presenting the lozenge of green and black.
At the moment, the plaque nestled against his chest, under a loose shirt of fine pale stuff, belted at the waist by a cinch of linked semiprecious stones. A pair of twilled trousers, as red and as wide as fashion allowed and tucked into calf-high boots, a short cape of yellow, and a discreet cap bearing a gew-gaw of gold and turquoise, completed his ensemble. As he accompanied his own reflection past the windows of shops and emporia, Filidor was comforted by the unavoidable truth that he cut a fine figure. Any flaws he might offer in either dress or character were not apparent to his own sanguine gaze.
Eckhevry’s pedestrian walkways were only moderately abustle with shoppers and gawkers, and Filidor could see some distance ahead the four worthies to whose petition he had given assent. Their spirits continued high, he saw. They strode abreast down the avenue, arms draped across each other’s shoulders, their steps so elevated and frisky as to be more dance than mere locomotion. Whatever I have granted them, thought Filidor, has certainly met with their approval. A second thought briefly intruded: Might so much happiness for a few require payment in misery by the many? It was a troublesome notion, so he cast it aside with practiced ease.
The four now turned and gavotted their way up a brief staircase into a squat stone building. Shortly after, Filidor’s progress brought him level with the structure, and he glanced up to see a wall of unornamented blocks and a small massive wooden door. Beside the entry was a plain, new-looking placard identifying the place as the premises of “The Ancient and Excellent Company of Assemblors and Sundry Merchandisers.” Filidor recalled that name from the petition, but could not specify what its line of business might be.
Above the sign was an older insignia. He thought he recognized it as the arms of the Magguffynne family, but Olkney boasted dozens of such ancient bloodlines, whose members found in their genealogies a source of pride and who jealously guarded their positions on the social scale. Those who were not members of the selfconscious elite — in other words, the overwhelming majority of the city’s population — paid no attention to the aristocrats’ rivalries.
Nor did Filidor care to. It might be that the petition he had granted was a ploy in some arcane struggle between noble houses over who had the right to wear this or that panache in one or the other style of cap. The impenetrability of the plea’s language argued for it. If so, he did not care. The Archon outranked every other gradation of the social order, and presumably so did Filidor. He resolved, for better or worse, to put the matter behind him. Its ramifications, if any, would unfold in the future, leaving the present free for more pleasant concerns, chief among them a good lunch.
Filidor stepped into the traffic, dodged between motilators and drays, and crossed safely to the opposite side of Eckhevry, then turned into Vodel Close, a side street which boasted the premises of Xanthoulian’s, an eating house that was everything it ought to be.
He climbed a set of steps and entered a tastefully appointed room, well lit by tall windows that allowed diners to reflect at leisure on the qualities and singularities of passersby, and to enjoy the envy of those beyond the glass whose means could not encompass the exorbitant prices that gave the place its exclusivity. Filidor took his usual seat, considered the bill of fare, and casually arranged for his plaque to dangle openly on his shirtfront.
He decided to begin with an array of small piquant dishes, then follow with a robust stew, all ending with some subtle delicacy that would gracefully round out the whole. He beckoned to the servitor, a long, pale man with a pronounced stoop, well trained in skillful obsequiousness: he praised each of Filidor’s selections as evidence of the customer’s attainments as a gourmet of the first water. When Filidor began to name particular vintages to accompany the courses, the menial achieved such paroxysms of ecstatic adoration that the Archon’s apprentice feared the fellow might pitch a swoon and collapse across the table.
With his order carried triumphantly to the kitchen, Filidor turned his attention to the street outside. The usual flux of powered and pedestrian traffic flowed by: functionaries and mercantilists, identifiable by their symbols of authority and wealth; artisans and effectors with the paraphernalia of their crafts and disciplines; and those made idle by too much good fortune or too little, the latter often begging the former for some mite of support.
Occasionally, there passed by persons less easily defined: oddly clad outlanders and travelers pursuing their idiosyncratic ends across the face of the ancient globe; and, rarely, some representative of the ultramond races that had settled on Old Earth in distant, bygone millennia, transforming wastelands into facsimiles of landscapes whose originals were lightdecades distant.
Filidor watched the ebb and flux of passersby, until a rustically clad group of pedestrians moving along the walkway on the other side of Vodel Close reminded him of the passengers in the carryall, which made him think again of the instant when the young woman had turned her eyes up to his, flooding him with her smile. The remembered image was so strong that it almost prevented him from realizing that the people now passing out of view across the small street were none other than the very same folk from that morning, including the girl with the smile, and that he was now once again about to lose the opportunity to make himself known to her.
He sprang at once from his chair, and struck out across the crowded room, caroming off the waiter, upon each of whose extended arms balanced several small saucers filled with pickles, sweetmeats, and appetizers. The man went down with a clatter and a stream of observations on Filidor’s character that were at wide variance from those he had earlier vouchsafed. The Archon’s apprentice heard none of it. He burst through the street door and was down the steps and into Vodel Close before the last dish had ceased rattling on the restaurant’s floor.
He caught sight of his quarry a few score paces away and across the street, and immediately stretched his legs to catch them up. Heedless of persons in his way, or of the sharp opinions they expressed, he flung himself through the intervening distance until his outstretched fingers touched the shoulder of the girl.
She turned, startled, alarm and puzzlement in her seagreen eyes, which then widened farther as recognition dawned. Filidor was relieved to see that she remembered him from the morning, and then delighted to see that this second encounter appeared to be as welcome to her as it was to him. She set her top teeth lightly on her lower lip and regarded him with the frank appreciation she might have given to an unexpected present before tearing loose the ribbon.
“Well, hello,” she said.
“Hello, indeed,” he answered.
One of her companions, a solidly built young man for whom the word “thick” was an almost universal description — thick neck and wrists, thick hair and lips — now came around the girl and positioned himself more in front than beside her. His expression indicated that he doubted Filidor was any kind of gift at all. Another man, older and thin in every way that the other was thick, hovered behind them.
“This is my brother, Thorbe,” said the young woman, elbowing her way past the thickness. “And behind me is Ommely, our fetchfellow. I am Emmlyn Podarke, of the town of Trumble.”
Filidor affected the most expansive gesture of formal greeting, ending with a flourish that demonstrated practiced grace. “I am Filidor Vesh,” he said, “in service to the Archonate.”
For the second time in their very short acquaintance, the Archon’s apprentice saw raw surprise take charge of Emmlyn’s features. Identical expressions seized the other two, and the brother emitted a monosyllable of wonderment.
“This is a wondrous coincidence,” the young woman said. “You are the very man that we came to Olkney to see. We wrote to your uncle, and he replied that you were ideally placed to adjudicate our cause.”
Filidor’s heart now grew beyond all limits. Not only had he met the woman he felt certain could be the light of his being, but she had come to him with some great need that he was uniquely positioned to meet. He knew it must be great if it had brought her all the way to Olkney from a place so distant that he wasn’t sure that he had ever heard of it. He would surely meet that need, any precedents and procedures to the contrary be damned, because he would thus endear himself to her, gaining a vantage from which all manner of blessings might be pursued.
“I would be delighted to hear your case,” he said. “The Archonate exists to answer your requirements.”
“We have an appointment for tomorrow,” the brother said. “Meanwhile, we are to put our concerns in writing.”
Filidor said, “If you could sketch an outline now, I will be better prepared to weigh the intricacies tomorrow.”
Emmlyn tossed her head in a manner that Filidor found delightful. “There are no intricacies,” she said. “A cabal of out-of-county folk calling themselves the Ancient and Excellent Company of something or other wish to undertake certain operations on our land, against our expressed will. They cannot help but do harm to our clabber vines, which were planted centuries back by our ancestor Hableck Podarke. Their arrogance is insufferable. They must be stopped.”
She placed her hand on Filidor’s arm. “But now all is warmth and sunbeams. For here you are, and we are rescued.”
But a tiny chill had invaded the sunshine pouring into Vodel Close. “You mentioned a company,” he said.
Thorbe Podarke said, “They call themselves The Ancient and Excellent Company of Assemblors and Sundry Merchandisers.”
Emmlyn snorted in a feminine way that Filidor would have found enchanting if the chill was not deepening and spreading through his vitals. “Ancient, indeed,” she said. “They are but recently formed. Our uncle, Siskine Podarke, thinks them a shield for someone who does not wish to have his ends in public view.”
“They are not of respectable character,” put in Ommely, as if that judgment was all that ever need be said.
Filidor’s insides were now in the grip of full winter. The young woman must have read the distress on his face, for she took his arm in a firmer grip and said, “You look unwell.”
“I am so sorry,” said the Archon’s apprentice.
“I hope I am not in some way the cause of…” she began, but Filidor’s fear gave urgency, if not eloquence, to his confession.
“The Company,” he cried. “This morning…in my office…a petition…I didn’t know…Amenable Leniency, they said…” He held up the finger that wore his sigil ring, and made as if to impress the air between them. “I am so sorry.”
Emmlyn’s face reordered itself from concern to puzzlement, then moved on to comprehension, and finally settled upon outrage. Filidor flinched under her hardening gaze.
“You didn’t,” she whispered.
“I did,” he replied.
For a long moment, she merely stared at him, while Filidor was seized by a fear that she would walk away from him and that he would never see her again.
Instead, she drew back the hand that had been resting on his arm, made a fist of it, and thumped him soundly on the chest. Filidor staggered back, but she came after him, now bringing the other fist into operation, pummeling his torso with both hands as he backstepped through the pedestrians, and with each landed blow she issued an opinion.
“You bubble! You great noddy! Nibblewit! Lip thrummer!”
More from the effect of her epithets than of her thumpings, Filidor’s strength trickled away. His knees softened and he fell backward to the pavement. She came after him still, and he glanced at her sturdy country shoes in fear that she would next set about kicking him. But instead she stood over him for a moment, fists on her hips. Then, shaking her coppery ringlets in token of having come to a decision, she reached down and seized the plaque that hung about his neck. A swift yank and the chain parted. A moment later, she came again and pulled the ring from his finger.
“There!” she said. “Now, if you want these back, you’ll have to make yourself properly useful, won’t you?” Then she turned on her heel and marched away through the goggling spectators. Her brother and servant delayed a moment to close their mouths, then hurried after.
Filidor raised himself onto his elbows and appealed to the curious faces that looked down at him. “She can’t do that,” he said.
“Evidently, she can,” confirmed a large woman. “Because she just did.”
Comments are closed.
Sign up for my Newsletter
Or support me on Patreon
the Archonate Bookstore
Latest at the Archonate:
Search the site