The little man moved easily to retain his balance, and his grip did not slacken. “Your uncle again wondered if circumstances might conspire to detain you, should we somehow become separated. Consequently, I have already laid on a suitable vehicle.”

Filidor essayed one last time. “A few necessities for the journey, a brief visit to my chambers,” he proposed.

“Such a large palace, so easy to lose one’s bearings and miss appointments. Besides, all necessities are in hand.”

The dwarf produced from beneath his tatters a small satchel of scuffed leather, and opened it to display its contents. Inside was a selection of ingenious artifacts from the Archon’s personal effects. There was the wand of perpetual sufficiency, which could engender nutrition from any organic matter. There was the ward-web, which conferred invisibility and impregnability upon whosoever rested beneath it. And there was the traveler’s aide, a small cylinder which telescoped into a staff, and which envigored its wielder on the road or in self-defense, besides having several other remarkable properties.

Filidor’s eyes narrowed as he surveyed the satchel’s contents, which were surely more than would be needed on a short jaunt over well-known roads between the palace and Binch. But the dwarf rebuffed all queries, saying that each item had been specifically requested by the Archon himself.

“There is also this,” the little man continued, drawing from a concealed pocket a hand-sized box of tuka wood inlaid with ivory runes. “You are to carry this upon your person at all times, and deliver it into your uncle’s hands when he requires it.”

Filidor had no time to examine the box. No sooner had he taken it than the dwarf shifted his weight, and Filidor was propelled toward a bookcase that slid silently aside to reveal an unlighted corridor. The little man dragged him through, and the portal closed behind them. They stood in complete darkness, until with a rustle and a series of brief clicks, the dwarf deployed the traveler’s aide and raised a light from its upper tip. He then set off down a dust-choked, sloping side corridor and Filidor had to hurry to follow the wavering glow.

Their way took them through level below level of the palace, through suites of apartments and vast echoing halls sealed in decrepitude. Though he had lived within the palace walls more than twenty years, and explored it with all the dedication of boyhood, Filidor had seen none of the myriad rooms and passageways they now passed through. Nor had anyone else in living memory, to judge from the unbroken dust their footsteps disturbed into waist-high billows.

At some point in their passage, Filidor realized that he was still carrying the slim blue volume he had picked up in his uncle’s study. His first impulse was to drop it and leave it behind, but that seemed a petty spite. Besides, his uncle might later send him unescorted into this dark warren to retrieve it. He tucked the book away, next to the mysterious box in an inner pocket of his mantle, and pressed on after the dwarf.

The little man offered no conversation, nor did Filidor seek any. Their barely seen surroundings afforded no sights of interest, so for lack of occupation, the young man took to counting his footsteps. Some time after his second thousandth imprint in the dust, Filidor felt the first stirrings of moving air from ahead. A little while later, he followed the dwarf around a moss-shrouded boulder and discovered that he was outside. It was now almost full night, the last ocher gleams fading on the highest reaches of the Devinish Range above them. A few steps from the concealed exit and the dwarf extinguished the glow from the traveler’s aide. In the dimness, Filidor could discern the outline of an old surface car.

The vehicle’s flared skirts, scarred from encounters with untended pavements, settled almost to the ground as Filidor eased his weight into the passenger seat. The little man scrabbled spryly into the operator’s position, and after some initial difficulties encouraged the vehicle’s drive system to revive itself. The whine of untuned gravity obvertors set Filidor’s teeth to painful vibration.

With a lurch, the car surged toward Binch, thrusting Filidor against the protruding frame of his seat. The wind rushing across the open compartment and the protesting drive made conversation impossible. The little man was in any case intent upon the controls, gnarly hands yanking levers and swinging the steering bar like a war-crazed pilot on a suicide run, whistling tunelessly through the teeth dotting his gums as he rocked the vehicle past imaginary obstacles. Occasionally, he lined up the car’s lights on stationary objects beside the road and steered directly for them, emitting noises that imitated some rapid-fire weapon, then swerving away a finger-breadth from fatal impact. Filidor’s sangfroid evaporated in the chill night air. As the dwarf skimmed a derelict retaining wall with barely an eyelash’s separation, the young man screamed and wrenched at the controls to bring them back toward mid-road.

“We are going to die!”

“Eventually,” agreed the dwarf, shrugging Filidor’s grip from the steering bar. He steadied the vehicle’s course and grinned at his passenger. “In the meantime, however, why not live life to its fullest?”

The words struck an embarrassing chord within Filidor. Had he not once thrown some such remark at his uncle, rejecting the Archon’s urgings toward a sense of duty? He eyed the dwarf’s face for some sign of ironic intent, but the little man’s features were as inscrutable as an ancient god’s.

“Nonetheless,” Filidor shouted above the slipstream, “I would prefer to reach my uncle with all my parts in their present arrangement.” The dwarf grunted a noncommittal reply, but slowed the car a little, and deleted some of the wider arcs from his course.

Filidor settled back. Irritation at being denied his pleasures was now giving place to stirrings of fear. He knew that he did not like his austere uncle overmuch; it was possible that his sentiments were reciprocated.

The Archonate had no reputation for inflicting harm upon its subjects, but those arbitrarily pressed into its service might not fare so well. Filidor watched the moldering hummocks of the old city’s ruins sweep through the car’s lights, and began to wish he had paid more attention to his lessons. Whatever the inner workings of the Archonate, he sensed he was about to be drawn more deeply into them than ever before.

Fools Errant is available in print from Amazon. It is also available as an eBook from the Archonate Bookstore, Amazon (for the Kindle) and Kobo.