The Archon’s summons must be obeyed. Still, Filidor knew from experience that a careful delay in meeting his obligations could take him safely to a point where the order might, from a change of circumstances, lapse. He favored the little man with a disarming smile. “There is no time for idle conversation. I must hurry to my uncle’s chambers, where weighty issues of state may hang in the offing. And so I will bid you the pleasantries of the evening.”

Filidor turned to depart, but the grip upon his arm exerted a renewed force, reminiscent of what mountain shrubs apply to vertical cliffs. “Your uncle expressed a concern,” the dwarf said, “that this or that matter might prevent your speedy arrival, or indeed that you might lose your way. He instructed me to accompany you, not leaving your side, until you are brought to his familial embrace.”

A lift of the dwarf’s arm, and an official car thrummed to a halt beside them. In a moment, Filidor was wedged into a rear seat, the dwarf leaping in beside him. The uniformed operator swept them aloft before the door had cycled shut, and Filidor felt his innards briefly rearranging their positions. Then the car leveled off and sped across the city toward the palace of Dezendah Vesh.

The city unrolling beneath them was old, even in a world where little was young. It had worn many names, received the attentions of innumerable builders and conquerors, and prided itself on any number of reasons for being what it was and where it was. It sprawled across the fingertip of the Olkney peninsula, a jeweled nail scratching at the tideless sea. The mansions of the mighty and the hovels of the hopeless straggled up from the shore to the crags of the Devinish Range, where the palace of the Archonate hung over the city like a black cloud.

The palace was a city within the city, a vast muddle of ramps and towers, keeps and baileys, arches and cupolas added one to another over the millennia of Earth’s penultimate age by a succession of archons of all architectural persuasions. In the second level of its seventh terrace, between the minaret known as Holmar’s Folly and the half-ruined Connaissarium of Terfel the Third, lay the formal gardens beyond which the Archon maintained his private study. As the last red rays of the ancient sun shifted the green of the grass to black, the car landed and deposited Filidor and the dwarf at the study’s outer door. Without knocking, the little man pushed open the portal and pulled Filidor after him.

The room brought back memories of Filidor’s childhood, none of them pleasant. It was here that his uncle had made fitful efforts to coax his nephew toward some acquaintance with learning, within walls that stretched high into shadow, each lined from floor to ceiling with books. There were tomes of every age, in every tongue, and in every form devised by humankind or most of the literate galaxy. Many were in languages now scarce remembered; some were merely dust confined between covers; and a few displayed their contents in emanations of light or sound well beyond the human range.

Besides books, the study contained only a chair, a carved and battered table, and a rug with its pattern long since trodden out. On the table lay two volumes, the larger one splayed out as if for autopsy.

“Your uncle does not seem to be here,” said the dwarf.

“Let us be bold, and state categorically that my uncle is not here,” Filidor snapped, but secretly he took the Archon’s absence for a hopeful sign. He might yet escape a wasted night.

The dwarf eyed him coolly. “Impatience,” he said. “I remind you that we are here at your uncle’s behest. Whatever concerns may delay him are possibly of more moment than a nephew’s urge to disport himself among reckless wastrels.”

“You misjudge me. I am eager to do my uncle’s bidding.” The little man favored the Archon’s study with a mild snort, as if about to call upon the crowded ranks of books to confirm his low opinion of Filidor. He crossed to a small door inset among the shelves and said, “I am sure you can contain your dutiful ardor while I seek out the Archon and report the completion of my charge.” Then he left.

Filidor made an impolite gesture to the empty study. He recalled too many hours of imprisonment among its tiers of volumes, warded over by testy tutors. His uncle had urged him, both by instruction and occasionally by resort to punishment, to acquire some smattering of the history of Earth and the dispositions of the people and places of its present latter age. But, since Filidor brought neither willingness nor aptitude to these labors, his uncle in time ceased to press the point, and left the young man to his own devices. The final remission of sentence had been delivered, not without a note of scorn, in this book-filled room. Since then, contact between the Archon and his nephew had been brief, formal, and infrequent.

The dwarf did not soon return. Filidor felt no inclination to browse among the shelves, and after a few minutes he sat down in the room’s only chair. Time passed, and no one came. Filidor itemized the things he might have been doing instead of sitting in a hard chair waiting to be sent to do something even less agreeable. In time, it might have occurred to him that his mental list recapitulated the series of empty pleasures, differing more in detail than in substance, which filled his days and caused each to blend indistinguishably into the next. But Filidor seldom followed any train of thought further than its first branching.

He glanced at the two books on the table beside him. The larger of the two lay spread by its own weight. It was an ancient tome, its pages yellowed and cracked at the edges, and covered in a thicket of spiky, black script. The words were archaic, perhaps appetizing to scholars but distasteful to Filidor. He managed to decipher the capitals of the open page’s heading, and learned that the rest of the page was filled with the details of the demise of Archon Imreet IV, then he turned his attention to the second volume. This was a slimmer work, bound in blue shamoy figured in gold leaf. Its cover bore the title: Discourses and Edifications of Liw Osfeo. No author was noted.

Filidor picked up the book and opened it at random, finding it to be a compilation of tales and homilies in the style of a preceding generation. He riffled the pages, until he was arrested by a singular illustration. A man was being chased by an enraged mob. His eyes slid to the accompanying text, and he began to read.

The County of Keraph boasted three noble cities, each jealous of its independence and time-honored privileges, yet each cooperating with the others in mutual endeavors.

The city of Caer Lyff was largest of the three, and produced the sophisticated baubles upon which, all agreed, civilization depended. The city of Alathe was somewhat smaller; its ateliers and factories manufactured the less intricate but no less necessary goods without which civilization rapidly descends to barbarism. Finally, the city of Dai was smallest of all, but its sturdy citizens raised the crops and kine which fed all Keraph.

In the center of the county, housed in the old ducal grounds, was the Institute. Here scholars and academes rubbed shoulders with chymists and apparaticists, and all combined to provide Keraph with the refinements of modern learning. Besides instructing the worthiest of the county’s youth in useful arts and abilities, the Institute undertook research into the creation of yet more subtle devices and systems of great value.

It happened that a certain Jever Smee had attained emeritus rank with the Institute, where he conducted private research into the less obvious relationships among time, energy, and what the common folk call matter. The fruits of his work were not known until the time of his eventual death, when it was discovered that he had designed and built seventeen intricate mechanisms. The principles by which these machines operated were beyond the ken of Jever Smee’s colleagues, but their application was soon understood from notes and jottings left in his workshop. The mechanisms, if fed with raw materials of the basest sort, transmuted them into rare and precious substances. Jever Smee’s devices promised immense wealth to the County of Keraph.

It further transpired that among his writings was the last will and testament of Jever Smee. This document ordained that the seventeen mechanisms were to be divided among the three cities according to a formula arbitrarily determined by the deceased. Caer Lyff was to receive one-half of the machines; Alathe would receive one-third; and Dai would receive one-ninth.

The will caused immediate consternation among the ruling syndics of the three cities, and among the Institute’s Board of Integrators. All saw at once that the lower orders of mathematics had not been among the disciplines absorbed by Jever Smee. It was impossible to allocate the seventeen devices in the proportions stipulated, without reducing some of them to useless fractions.

A long and bitter debate ensued. Some proposed a division according to the respective populations of each city. Others insisted on the sanctity of wills, demanding that Jever Smee’s creations be distributed as specified, and any remaining parts consigned to the scrap heap. A convocation of fellows of the Institute suggested that the machines be left where they were, under Institute control, and that their output of rare substances be shared according to Smee’s formula. Meanwhile, some merchants who imported and sold such precious wares, in small but profitable amounts, rioted and had to be put down by the provost.

It happened that the Illumino Liw Osfeo was at that time attached to the Institute as a visiting lecturer in applied metaphysics. When the imbroglio over the will had reached its fiercest pitch, and social war brimmed throughout Keraph, Liw Osfeo put it about that he could adjudicate the dispute for a handsome fee.

Calling together the Syndics and Integrators, he declared that he was in possession of Jever Smee’s prototype. This had been given him by the late emeritus in recompense for certain kindnesses, he said, and it had remained unused in his study. Osfeo volunteered to add the prototype to the other seventeen, thus making eighteen in all: a number divisible by Smee’s formula, without the necessity of reducing any of the mechanisms to fragments.

The Syndics and Integrators readily paid Osfeo’s fee, and the division was immediately made. One-half of Jever Smee’s machines—nine of them—went to Caer Lyff; one-third—that is, six—were loaded into wagons and transported to Alathe; and one-ninth or two machines—were taken to the grange hall in Dai. Osfeo then ruled that the disaffected merchants be allowed to purchase a monopoly on the export of the machines’ products beyond the county’s bounds, and pronounced the dispute satisfactorily resolved.

The Syndics and Integrators made much of the sage’s wisdom, until it was pointed out by one of his detractors—for he always had detractors—that the nine, six, and two machines added up to the original seventeen. There remained one unaccounted for.

“Of course,” answered the sage. “That is the one in my quarters, which naturally reverts to me.” It was agreed that Osfeo should retain his property, since it did not reduce any of the three portions of Jever Smee’s estate. But the enemy was not mollified. While the illumino was being feted by the dignitaries of Keraph, he stole into Osfeo’s rooms and determined that no such mechanism existed. Returning to where Osfeo sat among the magnates, his purse weighty with their contributions to his net worth, the enemy revealed the deception and denounced the sage for a fraud.

The cream of Keraph were outraged and demanded restitution. Osfeo rose to defend himself. It was true, he said, that the eighteenth mechanism was a mere figment. But what did it matter whether or not a thing existed, so long as it served a useful purpose?

Reason, however, was of no avail. Judging the temper of the crowd correctly, the illumino wisely exited through a nearby window. The magnates pursued him, their retainers and flunkies joining the chase. But the fleet and wily sage soon distanced them, and departed the county by little-used paths.

Filidor turned the page to continue, but was interrupted by the sound of the study door opening. The dwarf had returned, alone.

“We are too late,” said the little man. “It seems your uncle has been called urgently away on business.” Filidor rose in both body and spirit. The evening could yet be saved. “How unfortunate,” he murmured. “Doubtless he will require me upon his return, but in the mean-time…”

The dwarf approached and set his hand in its former grip on Filidor’s arm. Two of Filidor’s fingers tingled and went numb from the pressure, although the dwarf displayed no sign of exertion. “The Archon requires a service of you, and has charged me to bring you to him without delay. He is presently some distance down the peninsula, in the hamlet of Binch.”

“In that case,” Filidor grunted as he attempted to free his deadening arm, “I will make haste to arrange transport.”