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Three: Autumn-Winter, 995-996 afe

Three: Autumn-Winter, 995-996 afe

Out of the Mouth of a Fool

A man called Saltimbanco, better known as Mocker elsewhere, sat by Prost Kamenets’s Dragon Gate, his plot of muddy earth besieged by unwashed, half-clad children. They all giggled at him, or demanded a trick. The obese pseudo-philosopher, pretend-wizard, despairing of driving them away, tried to shout over their clamor while mopping floods of sweat from his dark face.

“Hai, Great Lord,” he called to a passing traveler, “have your future told! Fare not forth from glorious Prost Kamenets without hearing what Fates hold in store. This unworthy obesity is known as great necromancer, your future to foretell. But a single korona only, Lord, and potent cantrips enfold your person. A single korona and your worthy self is made proof against every evil spell.”

The traveler spat in the general direction of the fat man and passed on, out the Dragon Gate. His gaudy chariot rolled beneath smoking, putrid braziers of incense, past statues of winged lions and ugly gargoyles, between the two titanic green stone dragons, Fire-Eyes and Flame-Tongue.

Saltimbanco, casting his voice, cursed the traveler through the teeth of one of his collection of skulls. Ignoring his language, the children squealed with delight. They called their friends. The fat man continued, directing invective at himself for having attracted more of the rowdy brats. His large brown eyes, squinting angrily, were as baleful as those of Fire-Eyes at the gate.

He began a lengthy black invocation calling for thunder, lightning, fire from the sky to fall on the precocious urchins. Nothing happened. His magic was false, though impressive—and the children knew him a fraud.

“Pshaw!” Saltimbanco snorted, fat lips tight in a brown face as round as a melon, “Pshaw!” Speaking to himself, he muttered, “Mighty, generous, wealthy Prost Kamenets, my mother’s prize carbuncle! Three cold, miserable, rainy days sitting by famous Dragon Gate, and no shekels. Not even one little, very corroded copper cast this humble, helpful soul. What kind of strange city this? No profit here, unless spittle and dung be measured in shekels and talents. Saltimbanco, O closest and flabby, friendliest friend of my heart, time comes to travel on, to seek great greener pasture on other side horizon. Maybe more superstitious realm where people believe in gods and ghosts and powers of mighty necromancer. Self, would travel to fabled kingdom of Iwa Skolovda.

“Woe!” cried the fraudulent wizard, his belly shaking as he answered himself. “So far! This corpulence is in no wise able to walk so far! Large, well-fed student philosophic should perish of overexertion before marching of twentieth weary mile!”

Seeing his lazy nature would want convincing, his adventurous half marshaled its most potent—and least truthful—argument. “And, obese one, what dread future transpires should harridan wife of self discover recalcitrant husband returned to ungrateful Prost Kamenets? Reddest murder right in heart of filthy streets!” He paused for a moment of contemplation. Beneath his brows, he examined the watching children. They had fallen silent, hung on his words. They were ready.

“Moreover,” said he to himself, “man of tender feet, it is not meant that self should walk many miles on long path to Iwa Skolovda. Cannot we, being of many talents and supported by this loyal band of younglings, perchance purloin some worthy transport?”

His face brightened at the suggestion of theft. He answered himself, “Hai! When stared in face by fangy-toothed necessity, this obesity is capable of all things. Wife? Hai! What a horrible thought!” He was silent for a long moment, then looked up, selected a half-dozen youngsters, motioned them closer.

Loungers by the Dragon Gate, of which there were ever hosts ready to fleece unwary travelers, were treated to an unusual spectacle the following morning. A fat brown man in an ornate racing chariot, emblazoned with the arms of a powerful noble family, hastily fled the city. Behind the chariot ran a pack of laughing, ragged children. Behind these, hotly pursuing the vehicle but hampered by the youngsters, were a dozen pikemen of the city watch. Then came a band of professional thief-takers, anticipating a considerable reward from the chariot’s owner. Lastly, too late to have hopes of being in at the kill, came an aging beauty wailing like a Harpy deprived of prey (Mocker, too, had wailed at her price for playing his mythical wife).

The cavalcade thundered through the gate and north, the fat man laughing madly.

Presently, having lost the thief, the disgruntled pursuers returned. Out in the countryside, a laughing fat scoundrel trotted his new chariot up the road to Iwa Skolovda.

As soon as safety was apparent, Saltimbanco began vacillating. Each wayside spring was an excuse for loitering. The first inn he encountered had the pleasure of his windy custom for much of a week—till the landlord suspected deviltry and threw him out. He didn’t really want to go to Iwa Skolovda, though he wasn’t consciously aware of it.

Later, Saltimbanco stopped in for a talk with the owner of a prosperous farm. The farmer thought him feeble-minded, but considered that an advantage in the business of horse-trading. He got Saltimbanco’s chariot and horses for three pieces of silver and a bony, pathetically comic little donkey. This beast appeared ridiculous beneath Saltimbanco’s hugeness, but seemed not to notice the load. He plodded stolidly northward, unconcerned with his new master’s foibles.

The farmer left the trade laughing behind his hand, but so did Saltimbanco. He had back the money spent in Prost Kamenets, and a donkey besides. And the donkey would be half what he needed to make his Iwa Skolovdan entrance both noteworthy and innocent. Looking the part, he began building a reputation as a mad, windy, harmless fool.

He started by giving scores of moronic answers to questions asked him in the villages he passed, then demanded payment for his advice. He became righteously indignant if that payment was not forthcoming. The common people of the valley of the Silverbind loved him. They paid just for the entertainment. He laughed often, to himself, as Iwa Skolovda drew nearer and nearer.

His movement north was so slow that his fame advanced before him—which was what he had in mind. Soon each village prepared improbable questions against his coming. (Usually dealing with cosmogony and cosmology: the Prime Cause, shape of the Earth, nature of the sun, moon, and planets. Sometimes, though, serious requests for advice came, and those he answered more than usually madly.) When, almost two months after leaving Prost Kamenets, he at last passed Iwa Skolovda’s South Gate, his reputation was made. Few thought him anything but the lunatic he pretended—and this was the foundation of his plan. Without it he couldn’t succeed, would never see the pay for the job he had been hired to do.

A week after his auspicious and feted arrival, after he had taken suitably odd lodgings in a poor quarter of the town and had converted them into a weird temple, the fat man said to himself, “Self, should begin work.” On a cold, blustery morning he entered Market Square on his donkey, searched the stalls till he found one belonging to a farmer met in the country. “Self,” he said to the peasant, “would borrow empty box.”

“Box?” the mystified farmer asked.

“Box, yes, for pulpit.” He said it deadpan, but with enough intensity to convince the peasant some high madness was involved. The farmer grinned. Saltimbanco smiled back—secretly congratulating himself.

“Will this do?”

Saltimbanco accepted and examined an empty field lug. “Is good, but short. One more?”

“If you’ll return them.”

“Self, offer most sacred promise.”

A low mound of rubble, remains of a fallen building, rose at one end of the square. There, precariously, Saltimbanco set up his boxes, mounted them, bellowed, “Repent! Sinners, end of world, mighty doom, is upon you! Repent! Hear, accept truth that leads to forgiveness, eternal life!” Nearby heads turned. Suddenly terrified, heart hammering, he forced himself to continue. “Doom comes. World nears time of killing fire! O sinners, yield to love offered by Holy Virgin Gudrun, Earth Mother, Immaculate, that would save you for love! ‘Give me love!’ she says, ‘And life forever I return.’ ” He continued with a great deal of nonsense delineating the path of righteousness Gudrun demanded of her lovers if they were to achieve her grace and dwell with her in her place called Foreverness. He followed up with a little hellfire and brimstone, listing the fearsome tortures awaiting those who didn’t enter Gudrun’s love. A good deal of his adopted father’s love-me-or-else, why-do-you-hurt-me-so, you-cruel-little-child went into his interpretation.

At one time this mythology had been widespread in the Lesser Kingdoms, especially Kavelin, but was centuries dead. Neither Saltimbanco, nor any who heard him, had the slightest notion of what it was really all about. Yet success attended him. His fiery oratory and threats of present doom attracted attention. Then a bit more. Soon a full-blown crowd had gathered. He grew increasingly cheerful and confident as, more and more, the curious came to see what was happening. Half an hour after beginning, he had three hundred enthralled listeners and had forgotten his fears completely. Once he hit his second wind, he played the mob’s emotions with considerable skill.

The final result of the speech was what he desired. He saw it in their faces, in smiles hidden behind hands, in cautious, agreeing nods by those closest, people who didn’t want to hurt his feelings by disagreeing with self-evident insanity. His own smile of joyous success he kept carefully internalized. They had decided him a harmless and lovable screwball, the sort who wanted watching lest he catch his death of forgetting to get in out of the rain.

He also achieved success by bringing himself to the attention of Authority. In the crowd there were men of a sort he had seen in other kingdoms, too average, too disinterested, too carefully attentive beneath that disinterest to be anything but spies. Storm King spies, who would be very much interested in any large gathering. Nepanthe, their Princess, had proven cunning politically. She had made certain her followers, proven traitors once, couldn’t escape suffering if she fell. Their names and deeds would be made painfully available to any successor government—and they would die. They had to support her, take deep interest in anything which might foreshadow a movement to bring their Princess to ruin.

They were the shadow men who backboned the government Valther had built for his sister. Attracting their attention lay at the root of Saltimbanco’s plan. Everyone, especially them and their mistress, had to think him a harmless clown.

“What do you think?” one shadow man asked the other.

“A clown with a new act. I imagine he’ll end up asking for money.”

And at just that moment, Saltimbanco did so, proving himself less than wholly concerned with his listeners’ souls. He smiled to himself on seeing the spies’ knowing nods. He was safe for a while.

Day after day, week after week, he continued his idiot’s speeches, moving about the city so the greatest numbers might hear him. He spoke on a different subject each day, parlaying the philosophical nonsense of centuries into a mad but innocent reputation. In time he gathered a following of young enthusiasts who appeared at all his harangues. Those he feared. Would they taint his political neutrality? The young being the political idiots they were, and denied any other place of meeting, might be using his speeches as cover for some clandestine activity. But time showed his fears groundless. These were no activists, just bored youngsters enjoying themselves.

Because he was enjoying himself hugely, and making a fortune from donations, the weeks slipped away rapidly. Spring was but a month distant when he decided the city was ready for his magnum opus, a long-winded and, to the people in the street, laughable oration praising the Princess Nepanthe—for the political weather was growing more treacherous daily, and the woman faced increasing popular opposition. Daringly, the speech was to be presented on the steps of the Tower of the Moon.

Because most Iwa Skolovdans thought the speech a new high in his career of idiocy, Saltimbanco felt certain they would place him where he wanted. Indeed, they turned out in record numbers. When he reached the Tower, astride his patient donkey, he found a vast crowd waiting. They cheered. A nervous, redoubled Tower guard eyed them uncertainly.

The soldiers relaxed when they spied him. They now assumed nothing but storms of laughter would be raised. Saltimbanco prayed he would incite no insurrection.

Ponderously he mounted the steps leading to the Tower entrance, lifting the skirts of his monkish robe like an old woman about to go wading. His ears told him his audience would be warm before he spoke a word.

He stopped five steps below the soldiers, turned, launched upon flowery rivers of praise dedicated to Nepanthe. Soon the crowd was roaring delightedly.

Nepanthe sat in the shadows of her lonely chamber, mind in a stupor. A dark mood was on her. She cared not at all for the world, had but one foot in the realm of consciousness. The dreadful demons of her dreams now pursued her even by day. She could sleep only when she fell from exhaustion. This coming out of Ravenkrak had worsened things, not, as she had hoped, made them better.

Dimly, as through a sound-baffling curtain, the roaring reached her. The Werewind? was her first startled thought. Then: Those’re human voices!

She went to a window overlooking the street, walking stiffly, not unlike a woman twice her age. From a shadow she looked down on the crowd, awed. She had never seen so many people in one place. A thrill of fear brought her fully awake. She backed from the window, hands at her throat, then turned, ran. She seized a bell-cord and rang for her guard captain.

He was awaiting her summons, knocked before she finished ringing.

“Enter!” she commanded, trying to mask her panic.


She ignored the amenities. “Rolf, what’re those people doing?” She waved an unsteady hand at the window.

“A fool’s making a speech, Milady.”

“Who?” she demanded. She was certain she sounded terrified. But, if she did, he gave no sign of having noticed. He waited with the merest hint of a curious expression. “Let’s listen,” she decided.

They went to the window and stood, but could hear little over the laughter of the crowd—though Nepanthe thought she heard her name spoken several times. Timidly, little-girlish, she asked, “Why do they laugh so?”

“Oh, they think him a great clown and fool, Milady.” Rolf chuckled as he leaned on the windowsill.

“And you, too, eh?”

He smiled. “Indeed. Iwa Skolovda’s needed him for a long time. Too staid.”

“Who is he? Where’s he from?”

“There you’ve got me, Ladyship. Because he has the ear of the people, we’ve tried to find out. All we know is that he rode in some time ago, after preaching in the villages to the south. There’s some evidence he was in Prost Kamenets before that.

“After arriving, he spent several days alone, then started the speeches. He’s a folk-hero now. I’m sure he’s harmless, Milady. The people just gather to laugh at him. He doesn’t seem to mind. He makes a good deal off them.”

So. He did see my fear, she thought. And now he’s trying to reassure me. Aloud, “What’s he talking about? Why such a huge crowd?”

The soldier suddenly seemed distressed. He tried to hedge.

“Come, come, Rolf. I heard him use my name. What’s he saying about me?”

“As your Ladyship commands,” he muttered. Plainly he feared losing his position as her captain. “His speech is in praise of yourself, Milady.”

A spark blazed in Nepanthe’s eyes, a mote of fire that could easily become anger. “And for that they call him a fool?” The anger waxed, spread from her eyes to her brow. “Why?”

Rolf’s manner made it obvious he wanted to be elsewhere. He hemmed and hawed, shuffled, glanced at ceiling and floor, mumbled something inaudible.

“Captain!” Nepanthe snapped. “Your reticence displeases me!” Then, in a more kindly tone, “When was the last time I punished a soldier for expressing an opinion, or for carrying bad news?”

“I can’t remember. Milady.”

“If you think carefully,” she whispered, looking toward the window, “you’ll remember all punishments have been for breach of discipline, not for performing duties which discomforted me. Now, speak up! Why do the people laugh when this man praises me?”

“They despise you, Milady.”

A cold wind seemed to blow through the room. Indeed, swift-coming clouds in the north promised a winter’s storm.

“Despise me? But why?” There was a hint of hurt behind her quiet inquisition.

“Because you’re whom you are,” he replied gently. “Because you’re a woman, because you’re in power, because you overthrew the King. Why do men despise their rulers? For all those reasons, and maybe more, but mostly because you’re from Ravenkrak, get of the old foe, and because the ousted Councilmen, that you foolishly freed, keep inciting them.” The cold wind sighing round the Tower, down off the Kratchnodians, seemed as much spiritual as real. Chilling.

Would the reverberations of the Fall never cease? Ilkazar was dust, but echoes of the fury of her collapse still beat upon her scattered grandchildren. The shadowy wings of hatred still drifted across their lives like those of searching vultures.

The people still roared below.

“Tell me, Rolf—honestly—aren’t the people better off since I came here? Aren’t the taxes lower? Don’t I care for the poor? Haven’t I replaced a corrupt, lazy, indifferent government with an incorrupt, efficient, responsive one? Haven’t I repressed the crime syndicates that were almost a second government before I arrived?” She shuddered, remembering ranks of heads on pikes above the city gates. “What about my subsidies for trade with Itaskia and Prost Kamenets?”

“All true, but such things don’t mean much to fools, Milady. I know. I was raised here. Your reforms have won support among the small merchants, the artisans, especially the furriers, the guildsmen, and the more thoughtful laborers. All the worst victims of the old government and syndicates. But most of the people refuse to be fooled by your chicanery. And the rich, the crime-bosses, and the deposed Councilmen, keep telling them that’s what it is. And, irregardless of programs, you’re a foreigner and usurper.” He grinned weakly, trying to make light of the matter.

But the cold still filled the room.

Nepanthe eased Rolf’s nerves with one of her rare smiles. “Foreigner, ergo, tyrant, eh? Even if their ingrates’ bellies are full for the first time in years? Well, no matter. Their opinions don’t concern me—as long as they behave.”

She thought for a moment. Rolf waited silently, ignoring the pain his remarks had caused. Finally, she said, “I remember the words of an ancient wise man, in one of the old scrolls at home. He wrote, ‘Man is wise only when aware of his lack of wisdom,’ and went on to point out that the masses are asses because they’re ignorant to the point of knowing they already know everything worth knowing.”

Rolf said nothing in response, seemed unusually thoughtful—perhaps because she was being unusually verbose… She jarred him back with a change of subject.

“Does this man make a habit of talking about me?”

“No, Milady. It’s something different every day and, begging your pardon, always something idiotic. Far as I know, this’s his first political venture, though it’s hardly controversial.”

The cold wind blew, gathering strength with time.

“Give me some examples.”

Rolf, back on safe ground, relaxed, chuckled, imparted a bit of high nonsense. “Just yesterday he claimed the world is round.”

Nepanthe, who knew, was startled into wary curiosity. “Another example!”

Without a chuckle, Rolf hurriedly said, “The other day he claimed the sun was just a star, only closer. Skaane, the philosopher, challenged his claim. They had a real madman’s debate, with Skaane claiming the Earth revolves around the sun…”

“What’d he say the day before that?”

Rolf could maintain only a minimal air of sobriety. “Something religious, something about every seventh rebirth of the soul being into the animal with a nature most closely approximating the individual’s. His donkey, he claims, is Vilis, the last King of Ilkazar.”

A ghost of a smile played across Nepanthe’s lips. “Go on.”

Rolf grinned. He had remembered an excellent example. “Well, the Earth’s changed shape since last week. Then it was a big boat floating on a sea of Escalonian wine, the vessel being propelled by a giant duck paddling in the stern. He was drunk that day, which’s maybe why he saw the universe as a sea of wine.”

Another of those rare smiles broke across Nepanthe’s face. “Bring him here!”

“Milady, they’d storm the Tower if we stopped him now!”

“Well, wait till he’s done.”

“Yes, Milady.”

She crossed the chamber to a northern window. The snow-topped Kratchnodians loomed in the distance. The north wind muttered, threatening snow.

Saltimbanco recognized the importance of Rolf’s appearance the moment he came out the Tower door. Five minutes later his mad speech rolled to a hilarious conclusion. In a quarter-hour the street before the Tower was empty, save for his donkey and collection box. The box was overflowing.

Rolf asked the fat man into the Tower. Insides all aquaver, Saltimbanco followed. He reached Nepanthe’s chamber puffing and snorting like a dying dragon. His skin had reddened, his face was wet with perspiration.

Nepanthe’s door stood open. Rolf entered without formality. “The man whose presence you requested, Milady.”

Turning from the north window, Nepanthe replied, “Thank you, Captain. You may go.”


“You said he was harmless.”

“Yes, but…”

“I shall scream most loudly if I need your help. Begone!” He went.

Nepanthe faced her visitor, said, “Well?” When he didn’t respond, she said it again, louder.

Saltimbanco hauled himself out of the wonder the woman had loosed upon him. She was beautiful, with raven hair and ebony eyes, a fine oval face—did he detect a hint of loneliness and fear behind the frown-lines he had more or less expected? He was amazed. The woman wasn’t the aging Harpy he had anticipated. Getting on thirtyish, maybe, but not old. His innocent eyes insolently examined her body. He suspected this might be an assignment less unpleasant than expected.

At that point her voice drew him back.

“Yes, woman?” Playing his role to the hilt, he bowed to no nobility, accorded no superiority.

“Teacher, who are you?” she asked, granting him the title of learned honor. “What are you?”

An unexpected sort of question, but practice on the street enabled him to provide an answer that said nothing at all while sounding expansive.

“Self, am Saltimbanco. Am humblest, poverty-stricken disciple of One Great Truth. Am wandering mendicant preaching Holy Word. Am One True Prophet. Also Savior of World. Am weary Purveyor of Cosmic Wisdom. Am Son of King of Occult Knowledge…”

“And the Prince of Liars!” Nepanthe laughed.

“Is one face of thousand-faceted jewel of Great Truth.”

“And what’s this great truth?”

“Great Truth! Hai! Is wonder of all ages unfolding before sparkle in great and beautiful lady’s eyes…”

“Briefly, without the sales chatter.”

“So. Great Truth is this: all is lies! All men are liars, all things of matter are lies. Universe, Time, Life, all are great cosmic jokes from which little everyday falsehoods are woven. Even Great Truth is untrustworthy.”

Nepanthe hid her amusement behind a hand. “Not original—Ethrian of Ilkazar, five centuries ago—but interesting nevertheless. Do you always follow your creed, tell nothing but lies?”

“Assuredly!” He reacted as though his honor was in question.

“And there’s one of them.” She laughed again, realized she was laughing. It stopped, was replaced by wonder. How long since she had laughed for no better reason than because she was amused? Could this fat man, who was hardly as foolish as he pretended, also make her cry?

“Why do you preach such strange things?”

Saltimbanco, thoroughly frightened behind his mask of unconcern, thought carefully before replying. A little half-truthful misdirection would be appropriate now. “Numerous be numbers of men who think me no more than big-mouthed nonsense pedlar. Hai! The bigger fools they. They come, enjoy show, eh? Also, after show, many come to poor fat idiot, give him monies to help protect self from self. Great Lady, think! Many people in throng before Tower this day, eh? Maybe three, four, five thousand. Maybe one thousand take pity on moron. Each drops one groschen—one puny groschen, though some give more—into basket watched over by very sad and hungry-looking donkey belonging to cretinic purveyor of preachments. Self counts up swag. Have now ten kronen and more, one month’s wages. Goes on thus, every day of year. Self, being frugal, suddenly am as wealthy as wealthiest laugher at imbecilic preacher. Hai! Then self is laugher! But silent, very silent. Men are easily angered to kill.”

Saltimbanco chuckled at his fooling those who thought him a fool, then realized he was growing too relaxed. He was revealing his penchant for the accumulation of money. Fear-wolves howled in the back of his mind. He was a professional, yes, but never had learned to banish emotion in tight situations. He did hide it well, though.

“Do you like having people mock you?”

“Hai! Self, am performer, no? Multitudes laugh at fat one, true. No joy. But this one is known to enjoy gold thuswise wrested from unwrestable purses. Crowd and Saltimbanco are even, for fools we have made of one another.”

Nepanthe turned back to the north window, studied the storm brewing over the Kratchnodians. Then she whirled back, startling Saltimbanco from a moment of drowsiness.

“Will you take supper with me this evening?” she asked. Then she gasped at the temerity of her action, unsure of what she had done, or why. She only knew she enjoyed the company of this honestly roguish, outwardly jolly, inwardly frightened man. Perhaps there was a feeling of kinship.

While they stood staring at one another, the first snowy tendrils of the storm began whipping around the Tower. She ran to close her windows.

Saltimbanco did dine with the woman that evening, and accepted a further invitation to escape the storm by staying the night. He and she spoke at great length the following day, which eventually led to another dinner invitation, and that to another request that he stay the night. The day following that Nepanthe offered herself as his patron. Apparently prideless, Saltimbanco accepted instantly and quickly moved in—donkey and all. The chambers assigned him were next to Nepanthe’s, which caused talk among her servants. Try as they might, however, even the most prying could discover nothing improper resulting from the arrangement.

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