Excerpts from books by Matthew Hughes
Excerpt from ‘Majestrum’
I was awakened by a repetitive thumping sound. As soon as I emerged from the fog of sleep I became aware of a painful throbbing in my right hand. It was formed into a fist and the fist was pounding a table at which I sat. The distasteful ancient tome was spread before me.
I seized control of my hand before it could sustain real damage. My other self did not seem to notice. I, on the other hand, could not help but be aware of his mental state, which was one of deep frustration, strongly tinged with anger. It was becoming clear to me that his intuition and my rationality were not the only differences between us; he was clearly more ruled by emotion than I was, and a good deal more prone to express his feelings in physical action. That explained why I had recently started a day with an aching large toe, while seeing my footstool some distance from its usual place, looking as if it had been forcibly propelled across my workroom.
“What is the matter?” I said.
“The book,” came his voice within our head. “It defeats me. I cannot get a grip.”
“Then your efforts are unuseful. Set it aside until circumstances change and you can come at it from a fresh angle.”
“I have already tried every approach I can think of,” he said.
“And none of them have worked. Take on some other project.”
“Is that the ‘sensible’ thing to do?”
I did not reply. His tone suggested that he intended a provocation and I did not care to enter into an argument that would allow him to discharge his tensions while doing nothing for me.
Faced with my refusal to respond, he quieted after a moment and said, “Would you help me with it? Decipherment is more you than me.”
I explained that our assistant had already brought the matter to my attention and that I had tried applying consistencies without success. “Like you, I cannot ‘get a grip,'” I said. “I can discern structure — such as the fact that it is divided into seven section — but not content. This kind of work needs a starting point. If we knew the meaning of a particular word, or even how a word was pronounced, it would be like finding one end of a tangled ball of twine. We could begin to unpick.”
He made to strike the table again but I caught our hand before it could connect with the polished hardness. “Why is it so important?” I said.
“I do not know. But it is.”
I counseled him to let the matter go. “There is no case in it. I, on the other hand, have been engaged by Lord Afre to conduct an interesting discrimination.”
I had hoped to distract him, but his thoughts remained fixed upon the old book. “This has relevance to me, to us,” he said.
But again, he did not know. It was a matter of intuition, and therefore not something I could easily dismiss. Before we had become separated, he had been my faculty of insight, and I ought to trust him.
“Very well,” I said. “When we return home I will make my best effort to see if I can find an end to the tangle. Together we will see what there is to see.”
“In return,” I said, “I would like your assistance now with the discrimination for Lord Afre, whose hospitality, by the way, we are enjoying.”
He looked about the room and I saw that he was only now realizing that we were not at home. I wondered at the intensity of focus that he brought to the mystery of Baxandall’s book, then had to admit that I could be equally oblivious of my surroundings when pursuing a chain of thought. For all our differences, we were much alike.
He agreed to assist with the Lascalliot discrimination and I quickly informed him of the essentials. I then called upon The Braid’s integrator and asked it to replay our earlier discussion.
“Why?” it said, “do you suffer from a memory dysfunction?”
“My reasons are my own,” I said. I saw no point in equating the world, or even a small part of it, with my peculiar situation.
“As you wish,” it said and put up a screen on which images of the subject again moved and spoke.
“I will sleep,” I told my other self. “In the morning, let us confer.” I let myself fade back into unawareness, leaving him to absorb an impression of Hobart Lascalliot and his strange desire to hear the raven-voiced Chalivire inflict herself on the unknown melody to which he had introduced her.
At breakfast, Lascalliot and Chalivire came down together, the young woman wearing an expression that bespoke considerable satisfaction with the manner in which she had passed the night. Her companion, to his credit, betrayed nothing but a warm solicitation for her comfort, choosing the choicest items from the dispenser to heap upon her plate, and waving away her protestations of concern for her stumpy figure by declaring that she was physical perfection incarnate. He invited me to confirm his gallant estimation and I managed to find a few words that outraged neither truth nor my host’s daughter.
While I ate I allowed my intuitive self to study our target. I made a few mental notes of my own. His table manners were unremarkable, but that argued mainly for his having prepared himself to blend into the milieu through which he stalked whatever goal he sought. His conversation, once we had moved past the incomparability of Chalivire, was equally innocuous. The table talk touched upon fashion, popular entertainments and the perennial question of who might be invited to the Archon Filidor’s table at the coming levee, but on all topics he again allowed the woman to dominate, throwing in only a few supporting remarks and encouraging her to unburden herself of her slightest opinion.
I watched him, and noticed that he watched me. Clearly, between bouts in the bedchamber, Chalivire had acquainted him with the nature of my profession. She would also have drawn a connection between my presence in her father’s house and Lascalliot’s. Indeed, she scowled at me a couple of times, but I saw that not only did he not favor me with the fishy eye but that he took pains to jolly her out of an incipient dark mood that her contemplation of me seemed likely to bring on.
Talking was only one of the uses to which Chalivire liked to put her large and loose-lipped mouth; another was filling it with the products of The Braid’s renowned kitchens. Lascalliot now gently directed her attention toward this pursuit, then turned to me while his inamorata did serious damage to a plate of fritters and sausages, saying, “I am told that you are at the apex of your difficult profession.”
“So it is generally held,” I said.
He sought to draw me out as to whether I was engaged in any interesting discriminations at the moment, but I told him that it would be premature to say. He did manage to get me talking about past cases, and I mentioned two or three that I thought were worth noting. He followed up with questions and I offered a few details of interest, while he seemed genuinely interested.
My other self spoke in the privacy of our head while Lascalliot listened to me hold forth. “Observe his expression now,” he said. “It is identical to that which he turns on Chalivire when she prattles on.”
I, of course, was not prattling, but I now saw the similarity to which my inner companion alluded. I watched Lascalliot as I continued to recount the fascinating details of the Trepheny case, in which my unraveling of the mystery behind the feckless nephew’s disappearance depended on my having noticed that a vase that stood on a high shelf in the victim’s study had been moved a fingersbreadth. “The finest examiners of the Archonate’s Bureau of Scrutiny had combed the room,” I continued, “yet none had caught what turned out to be that one salient detail.” Now there was a definite widening to Lascalliot’s eyes, as if he were a country bumpkin sitting in the common room of a rustic inn while some sophisticated travelers regaled the locals with tales of far off places and wondrous happenings.
Once I had thoroughly explained how I had saved the day, I took the conversation off on a tangent by asking, “Do you, by any chance, sing?”
The question won me a sharp glance from Chalivire, but with her cheeks abulge with fritters, she was unable to say whatever had come to her mind. Meanwhile Lascalliot answered that he did not, though he loved to listen.
Chalivire had swallowed and now changed the subject, asking me if I would attend the Archon’s levee this year.
“I am invited me to sit at one of the tables reserved for Distinctions,” I said. “I was once of some use to Filidor’s uncle, the old Archon, and have been invited each year ever since.”
The conversation then moved on. Later, Lascalliot accompanied Chalivire on a walk through the estate’s grove of fragrant deodars. I returned to my chambers so that I might confer privately with my other self. “What do you think of him?” I said inwardly, as we made our way through paneled hallways lined with busts and life-images of bygone Afres.
“He is unusual,” my sharer said. “He does not seem to be fully engaged. He assiduously pursues an agenda but it is not deeply rooted in his being. Part of him has a plan of work, and is working the plan. The rest of him sits idle.”
“Whatever his plan,” I said, “it has something to do with singing.”
“I feel that the melody may offer a clue.”
“It may. Let us see what our assistant has achieved.”
It had not achieved much. It had looked over the Bureau of Scrutiny’s own examination of Lascalliot and discovered nothing of note. He had done nothing illegal nor had he associated with any known malfeasants. He had not been present at the scenes of any crimes, nor found in possession of any items he could not account for. His name, passed around among the usual underworld sources, rang no chimes of recognition.
There ended the scroots’ interest in Hobart Lascalliot. It was not an offense to be circumspect about one’s origins. The man might be an innocent traveler of The Spray whose knowledge of his own home world of Mythisch was scant — which was not unthinkable, there being many residents of old Earth who knew little beyond their own county — or he might hail from some unfashionable world whose identity he preferred not to reveal. Neither condition was legally actionable.
“If he comes from Mythisch, he surely ought to know what a visitor does for amusement in Aamst,” I said. “He is from some other of the Ten Thousand Worlds. More to the point, he considers it important to keep the identity of that world a secret. We will therefore learn that secret and I am confident that it will illuminate much, if not all.”
But the integrator’s offworld inquiries had not yet borne fruit because of the inherent delays in interworld communications. Within individual planetary systems, the connectivity made communication rapid and comprehensive, but to query a person or integrator in another system required putting the question to the integrator of a ship that was going that way. One then had to wait until the ship had passed through one of the whimsies that connected far-flung stars and passed on the question to an integrator on the distant world. Then came another interval while one waited for the answer to be carried back by the first ship heading in the questioner’s direction. A question asked of integrators on many worlds could mean a delay that often stretched into days before all answers were received. A general inquiry, posed to every world along The Spray, could take weeks, and even then some worlds would not be heard from.
“His cranial structures, skeletal type and skin tone are all within the mid-range of known human types,” the integrator said. “He is not from one of those rare worlds where inbreeding among a small population has created micro-populations with oddly shaped skulls or extra digits. He is likely from one of the foundationals or, at the most, a well established secondary world.”
“What of the song?” I said.
“It has statistical similarities to eight tunes or airs in the records of the Archives, but none of those resemblances are close enough. It is, in the words of the chief musical archivist, ‘a simple ditty, though not without pretensions to romantic allure.'”
“But no definitive word as to its origins?”
“None. Its tonal structure is commonplace.”
“Again,” I said, “I believe that once we identify the song’s origin, it will point to Lascalliot’s. Let us see what returns come from the offworld inquiries. Contact me here if anything comes in before I return.”
“Very well.” The small furry face of my assistant looked away from the screen. “Shall I disconnect?”
I almost said, “Yes.” But then a stirring in the mental space beside my own — I know not how else to describe the sensation — told me that something had caught my alter ego’s attention. “What?” I said inwardly.
“Our assistant has something to hide.”
“How can you tell that?”
“Insight,” he said.
I gave the integrator my attention and said, “Just a moment. Is there something you wish to tell me? Or, rather, that you don’t wish me to know?”
The corners of its small mouth drew down and its golden eyes blinked in agitation. “There has been a–”
I could see that it was searching for the right word, something I had never known it to need to do before. “A what?” I said.
“An incident,” it said.
“What kind of incident?”
“I think someone was here. Last night.”
“You mean, in my lodgings, in my workroom? Someone entered the premises?”
“I think so,” it said.
“How can you ‘think so?'” I said. “Either you perceived someone, or you didn’t. Even if the someone was wearing a elision suit or hidden behind a cascade, his presence would not escape your sophisticated percepts. You would know, even if you could not see through the camouflage.”
The integrator wrung its small hands — a practice I had certainly not built into it — and said, “I was–”
I understood. “You were asleep,” I said.
I saw its small throat move as it swallowed. “Yes. I sensed a presence and awoke, but then found nothing here.”
“Was anything disturbed?”
“No. I investigated thoroughly. I found no traces, although there may have been a slight movement of air.”
“Let me speak to the who’s-there,” I said.
It connected me to the device that governed the door to the street. I asked it if anyone had entered or left by that means.
“No,” it said.
There was no other way into my lodgings, save one.
“It may have been the demon,” I said. The portal to my demonic colleague’s universe that Bristal Baxandall had created still hung on my workroom wall, resembling a framed picture of constantly swirling shapes and colors. My friend had not visited me since the events at Turgut Therobar’s estate that had led to my being divided into two components. I believe he had fallen afoul of the authorities in his own realm; indeed, I was coming to suspect that he was no more than a juvenile of his species who had been caught by his parents engaging in unseemly behavior: spying on the salacious conditions in our cosmos, the only one of all the myriad universes where symbol and form were obscenely separate.
But, “No,” said my assistant. “I was always aware of his presence in subtle ways. This was not the same.”
“Perhaps,” my other self said, “it was but a dream. Integrators are not used to dreams.”
I passed on this observation and saw its small face brighten. “I had not considered the possibility,” it said. “Until now, my perceptions have always been reliable.”
“It is a reasonable explanation,” I said. “But, to be sure, we will create a back-up surveillance matrix that will take over whenever you are… distracted. Design something and order the components.”
The Braid’s integrator interrupted at that moment to inform me that Lord Afre wished to speak with me and had sent a footman to lead me into my host’s presence. I said goodbye to my assistant and changed into garments suitable for the time of day, making sure that collar and pendant were visible. By the time I was ready the servant had appeared and my inner companion had withdrawn to sleep.
The servant led me through a maze of indoor corridors and outdoor walkways, delivering me to the estate’s essentiary, a small building beyond a pillared colonnade at the far edge of the south lawn. Here Lord Afre had just concluded playing a game of plunge against the preserved life-essence of one of his ancestors, thousands of which were stored in compartments that lined the walls of the single room from floor to ceiling. Some members of the higher aristocracy felt an obligation not only to store the essentials of their forebears, but to engage them in activities that prevented their slipping into a state of disorganization known as “the clouds.” I wondered if the Honorable Chalivire would maintain the tradition, or leave her father and countless other Afres unvisited in this little place, to dwindle into solipsism.
“Hapthorn,” my client said as I entered, “what have you learned?”
I told him that I was sure that his daughter’s paramour had some very definite end in view and that he was pressing toward it. I was also confident that Lascalliot was not of the ordinary type of offworld fortune hunters who arrived to take aim at the rich and elevated of Old Earth. These invariably assumed that the inhabitants of such an out-of-the-way, fusty old world must be naive blossoms, easily plucked; most soon discovered that the seeming flowers had more in common with carnivorous plants, and left the planet metaphorically short a finger or two. Those who learned the truth too late sometimes never departed at all, not even from the estates in which they had stalked what they had thought was easy prey. A place like The Braid offered countless corners that might accommodate a small, concealed room or a deep and narrow pit.
“Not a Chloön-clutcher, then?” Lord Afre said.
“Certainly not the garden variety,” I said.
“Where’s he from? What are his people?”
Since I did not command that information, I told the aristocrat that it would be premature to say, but that I expected to identify his home world in a day or two. I would then visit the place and make pointed inquiries. I also said that I doubted that Lascalliot intended any sudden strokes; his rhythms seemed to me to be more leisurely, his goal still out of sight.
Lord Afre pulled at his pointed chin while his other hand toyed with a piece from the plunge set. It was the Emperor’s Concubine, ornately carved from deep red carnelian, and his curled thumb firmly stroked the rounded torso. “No need for preemptive measures?” he said.
“No,” I said. “Besides, he may be one of a gang and if we start him too early the others will remain in deep cover.”
I had chosen an analogy that would resonate with the old lord’s interests, and he accepted the point. “What will you do next?” he said.
“When I have identified his world I expect to understand his interest. I will then return and recommend a suitably surprising outcome.”
“Take the yacht,” Lord Afre said, waving in the general direction of the vehicle park. “The smaller one.”
“Thank you,” I said. Whenever I traveled offworld I preferred to do so in a private spacecraft. The comforts and accouterments were better than what was offered even by a first-class passage on one of the superior lines.
His attention had begun to drift so I performed the appropriate gestures of hand and head, left the essentiary and returned to the main house. I was taken back to the ordinair where I found my valise already packed and in the hands of a footman who also held Baxandall’s tome. The aircar alighted, my goods were stowed, and moments later I was airborne. I contacted my integrator to inform it of my impending arrival and was told that there was no further news concerning the discrimination.
“Very well,” I said, “when I will return I will assist you-know-whom with an analysis of this bothersome book. Have you scanned it?”
“Then be prepared to give me your views when I arrive. And do something about luncheon. Lord Afre’s breakfast will have worn off.”
I napped briefly after eating, my sleep having been interrupted the night before, then had my assistant put up a screen and display the book. “What do we know of it?” I said.
“It is not any known language,” my assistant said. “I have consulted widely and the script is unrecorded anywhere. An integrator with an interest in defunct languages at the Archon’s Institute gave an opinion that it was likely a specially created alphabet and that the language itself might have been artificially formed.”
The first question that occurred to me was “Why?” but I put it aside to deal with another that came close on its tail: “During your wide consultations, how much did you reveal about the reasons for your inquiry?”
“As little as possible. I may have led a few persons and integrators to believe that you were investigating a case of mountebankery involving a fraudulent book of spells.”
“I applied your technique of ‘constructive ambiguity.'”
“I see,” I said. “Well done. Continue.”
The creature on my table executed a small bow. “Thank you. The Institute’s integrator said that it was not uncommon for practitioners of magic in bygone ages to create their own languages and scripts. They would use them to record information they wished to keep private from rivals or subordinates.”
I thought of Bristal Baxandall’s maladroit apprentice, Vashtun Errible, and the damage he had done while trying to compel his master’s captive demon to fulfill his dreams of wealth, women and wisdom. “Understandable,” I said.
I regarded the text on the screen. In the upper outside corners of the pages were certain squiggles that changed in a systematic way from page to page. “These are numbers,” I said, “and based upon a twelve-digit counting.”
“Yes,” said my assistant, “but they do not occur in the text itself, so we are no further ahead.”
I noted that there seemed to be upper and lower case letters. I could also make out punctuation marks, though neither discovery told me anything useful. “Some words — I assume they are words — are printed in larger type and in colored ink,” I said. “Why would that be?”
“Your other self believes that there is significance to the highlighting,” the integrator said.
“Even I could intuit that much,” I said. “But what does it signify? Does the reader say that particular word loudly? Or sing it at a precise pitch? Or turn around three times and spit toward the sunrise?”
I again applied second-level consistencies to the symbols before me, and again saw obvious evidence of structure, but when I ascended the ladder to the third level, no new parameters emerged. I started again, this time placing the highlighted word in the prime armature, and received strong indications that that particular string of symbols represented a name. But whether it was the name of a person, a place, or a pet remained unknown.
“We still require a starting point,” I said, instructing the integrator to remove the screen. “A mapmaker must have at least one landmark from which to begin.”
“Your other self will not be happy to hear that.”
“If he is like me, he will know how to bear life’s inevitable disappointments with dignity and grace.”
“I recall,” said my assistant, “that when you were unable to come to a satisfactory resolution of the Eisenfeld Affair–”
“We do not,” I said, with dignity and grace, “refer to the Eisenfeld matter.”
But my assistant bore on regardless. “You expressed your disappointment with unrestrained vigor.”
“My recollection differs,” I said.
“Furniture had to be replaced. It was necessary to apologize to the neighbors.”
“Very well, I am a man of passion, once provoked,” I said. “Do you wish to provoke me, or would you rather arrange for our trip offworld?”
The small furry head jogged to one side and the thin shoulders lifted and fell. “I will make the arrangements,” it said. “Will I accompany you?”
I considered the question briefly then said, “Offworlders are used to seeing strange things. Strange things are their norm. Your presence on my shoulder will excite no more comment, I am sure, than my outlandish apparel. You may come.”
“And the book?” it said. “I believe your other self will want to continue his work.”
“This smacks of obsession,” I said.
“Or a courageous refusal to admit defeat, as someone once said when confronted with dead end after dead end in a difficult discrimination.”
“I don’t recall the quote,” I said.
“It was during the Eisenfeld–”
“I wonder,” I said, quite loudly, “how one goes about turning off an integrator that has transformed into a familiar. And I wonder if, once turned off, it can ever be turned back on again.” Then I lowered my voice and flexed my fingers. “I suppose the only way to answer the question is by a bold experiment.”
It pulled its head into its shoulders. “No need,” it said. “Still, what about the book?”
“You can reproduce the text as necessary.”
“Your other self seems to require the physical presence.”
I sighed. “We will take it with us. Perhaps inspiration will strike.”
During all this time, my assistant had been receiving answers to the query it had sent out to The Spray regarding Hobart Lascalliot’s ditty. Each time a spaceship came through one of the several whimsies that linked Old Earth with the Ten Thousand Worlds, it sent a response into our world’s connectivity matrix. But each response was negative.
I spent the rest of the day tidying up details on two other discriminations on which I was engaged, neither of them urgent. I also replied to the correspondence that had accumulated in my absence, including a reminder that I had not yet replied to my invitation to the Archon’s levee, scheduled for several days hence; I answered that I would be honored to attend if business did not call me offworld. An Archonate protocol integrator responded, saying that I would have until the day after tomorrow to give a definite answer.
I would not be grievously disappointed to miss the annual high point of the Olkney social calendar. Filidor was an agreeable Archon, surprisingly effective after his flamboyant youth, much of which was recorded in the gossip columns of the Implicator. But the levee was a drastically formal affair, full of symbolic moments, many of them steeped in traditions so ancient and hoary that no one now recalled exactly what it was they symbolized. The banquet always began, for example, with a first course of cold liquid — far too thin and watery to be called soup — that was immediately whisked away the moment it was tasted. No one knew why, but no one dared to suggest revoking a custom older than memory.
Still, the levee was a good place to be seen. And it was often instructive to observe the high and titled on their best behavior, competing to see who could impress the Archon with the stiffest posture and the most exacting punctilio.
In the evening I dined at Xanthoulian’s in Vodel Close, then went to view a tasteful revival of The Tragedy of Yamppo at the Round. I applauded and catcalled at all the appropriate moments and, in the final scene, threw the morsels of hard cheese that the theater provided. When I returned to my lodgings, no new developments had occurred. I announced that I would sleep and went to my chamber.
I returned briefly to say to my assistant, “If the other fellow begins to express himself in ways that may damage our mutual flesh, please intervene.”
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