Previous Page Next Page

UTC:       Local:

Home Page Index Page

A Desperate and Despicable Dwarf: Section Four

       Last updated: Wednesday, November 19, 2003 01:51 EST



    CHAPTER IV. A Door Unlocked. A Magnificent Library, Marred By a Pathetic Scene. A Pathetic Scene Unmasked. A Wardrobe Transformed. A Philosophic Dispute!

    "Bah!" oathed Zulkeh, when Shelyid arrived downstairs in the foyer, where the wizard was impatiently waiting with Alf the heretic and Madame Kutumoff. "You have delayed me in my task with this pathetic swoonery!"

    Shelyid mumbled his apologies. He avoided Madame Kutumoff's eyes.

    "Oh, come now, Zulkeh!" protested Madame Kutumoff. "He seems like a nice boy." A speculative gleam came into her eyes. "Of course, you never know. Incredibly disreputable—a dwarf on the lam. What dastardly acts might he be capable of, eh?" She was chuckling to herself as she headed out the door to the grounds.

    Once outside, Madame Kutumoff took up a torch hanging by the front door and led the way around the mansion. Off to the side, a pathway led to the woods beyond. It was a further ten minute walk before they arrived in a clearing, in whose center rested a small mansion. It was impossible to discern many of its features by torchlight. Madame Kutumoff advanced to the front door. The door, it could now be seen, was barred from the outside by great bolts and chains.

    Madame Kutumoff placed the torch in a holder next to the door. She fumbled at her side with a huge key-ring.

    "We have to keep him locked up, I'm afraid. Poor Uncle Manya."

    It was the work of several minutes to unlock and remove the various contrivances which barred the door. The door creaked open. She led the way into a small vestibule, dimly lit by a single candle. There was no furniture in the room. Old portraits hung on the walls, depicting individuals both male and female. The faces portrayed shared both a common ancestry and a common look of delusion.

    "This is our madhouse," explained Madame Kutumoff. "The family built it long ago, to keep our crazy relatives. There's always been a lunatic in every generation of Kutumoffs."

    "Every generation?" asked the heretic Alf.

    "Oh, yes," replied Madame Kutumoff, shaking her head sadly. "It's the curse, you know."

    "What curse?"

    "The curse of the Kutumoffs. It was laid on us many centuries ago, by the Sultan of the Obeisant Nomenclature."

    "Oh, I remember him!" cried Shelyid. "The professor told me all about him in one of his lectures. He was the ancient ruler who dominated all of Grotum a thousand years ago, or even more. And his name was Robert. Sultan Robert. And one day he decided all of his subjects should be named the same as him, except that their names had to be, well, less majestic. So his wife was named Roberta, and his children were named Bobby and Bobbie, and his grand viziers were named Bob, and everybody else was named Bubba."

    Shelyid frowned. "But I don't see why he would have cursed the Kutumoffs."

    Madame Kutumoff smiled. "Well, what happened was that everybody in his realm agreed to change their names, after he decapitated a few thousand intransigents. Everybody, that is, except the people who were living in the Mutt—which was called the Pooch in those days. The people who lived here were all called Bubba anyway, so it really shouldn't have mattered to them, but they thought the Sultan was getting a little big for his britches. So they talked it over with the General Kutumoff of those days—Bubba Kutumoff, he was—and they decided that they would take names like Jimmy and Jackie and Judy and Janie, just to show the Sultan where to get off."

    Shelyid's eyes grew wide. "Oh, that must have made the Sultan mad."

    "It certainly did! The Sultan immediately invaded the Pooch with his huge army and a whole phalanx of headsmen. But, of course, he was defeated. He was so angry that he threatened to invade again. So naturally the people here changed the name of the Pooch to the Hound, and they renamed themselves Jim and John and Judith and Jane. So the Sultan invaded them again, and again he was defeated. Then he threatened to raise up another army and invade again. So the people change the name of the Hound to the Cur, and they started calling themselves James and Jonathan and Josephine and Janet."

    She led the way down a long, dimly lit corridor to a another doorway, still speaking over her shoulder.

    "So the Sultan invaded and was defeated again. The long and the short of it was that by the time the Sultan finally gave up, after a great number of defeated invasions, the land here was called the Base Cur of Low Degree and the people had names like Giltheniel Aladryad and Visayasutrakamehameha and Esmerelda Jezebel and Susanna O Susanna. There was even one woman called The Blazing Sapphire of the Evening Heavens, and a man named The Shining Son of Grotum's Soul."

    She reached the door and began fingering through her great key-ring.

    "The Sultan was so furious that he went berserk and had a stroke. But before he died, he called down a great curse on the Base Cur of Low Degree, the gist of which was that madness would afflict the leading family of the land for eternity. Of course, the curse was a silly gesture. The people of the Base Cur of Low Degree heard about it while they were having a big meeting where they decided to rename the land the Mutt and go back to having regular names. Everybody at the meeting thought the curse was a great idea, especially the Kutumoffs. In fact, Taufiq 'Uthman al-Basri al-Rashid ibn Kutumoff—who was the uncle of the General Kutumoff of the time—immediately changed his name to Uncle Dementia and went crazy on the spot. And ever since, there's always been a crazy Kutumoff. Usually an aunt or an uncle, although sometimes there's been a crazy cousin."

    Having finally found the right key, Madame Kutumoff turned the lock. Once opened, the door proved to lead to a small landing, from which descended a spiral staircase.

    "Uncle Manya's almost always in his library down in the basement," explained Madame Kutumoff as she headed down the stairs. After three full turns of the spiral, the stairs debouched into a large antechamber. Doors led off from three walls of the room. Madame Kutumoff headed for the door opposite the stairs. She knocked. A loud howling immediately began.

    "O, stop that!" cried Madame Kutumoff. "You have guests, Uncle."

    The howling grew louder, interspersed with ghastly sobs filled with fear and anguish. The words "Don't come in, don't come in yet!" were prominently featured.

    Madame Kutumoff sighed.

    "You'll have to make allowances," she said. "Uncle Manya's an absolute reactionary when it comes to his insanity. Insists on maintaining every single one of the formalities."

    She waited perhaps a minute or so before opening the door and striding through.

    "That should be quite long enough," she said firmly.




    Following on her steps, our heroes found themselves in a huge room. Three of the four walls were devoted to an immense collection of books, the which were stored on shelves which ran from the floor to the ceiling fifteen feet above. Along the right wall, a balcony ran the full length of the room, with a narrow staircase leading up to it from the far corner. Access to the books on the other two walls was provided by ladders which ran on rails located midway up the shelves. The fourth wall, at the opposite end of the room, was divided by a set of double doors. To the right of the doors rested a large rack, into whose many pigeon holes were crammed a multitude of scrolls. To the other side of those doors—but we shall describe that pathetic scene in a moment. Let us first complete our inventory of the library.

    Toward the center of the floor, rather nearer to the entry than the far door, rested a very large table surrounded by several comfortable-looking and ornately carved wooden chairs. Fully half the surface of the table was piled high with books, stacked in a precarious manner. On the far side of the table, cupped in a most cunningly designed frame, was a truly gigantic globe, upon whose surface was depicted in exquisite detail every salient feature of the earth's surface.

    Alas, this scholarly and intellectual setting was greatly disfigured by the situation even now unfolding in the far left corner of the room. For there, wailing like a banshee, squatting on the floor like an animal, naked except for a torn and dirty loincloth wrapped carelessly about his private parts, his rotund pink flesh beaded with sweat, his eyes streaming tears, his white hair disheveled in a manner to shame a musk-ox, his plump little fingers clawing at his cheeks, was a short, fat, stubby-limbed old man every aspect of whose person exuded the quintessence of maniacal despair. A raving madman, 'twas plain as day.

    "Please," he babbled, "kill me—slaughter me like a lamb! I can't take any more! The nightmares! The visions!"

    A look of exasperation came upon Madame Kutumoff's face. But before the no doubt peremptory words which she seemed about to utter could cross her lips, the Tullimonstrum began a rapid twittering.

    "What is it saying?" demanded Zulkeh.

    "It says the butterball in the corner is a fake and a fraud," replied the heretic Alf. "It says the tears are caused by recently-sliced onions, one piece of which is still lying on the floor where the careless huckster forgot to hide it; the sweat isn't sweat, it's water which he sprinkled on himself from that little bottle which is sloppily half-hidden in the upper left pigeon-hole of the scroll-rack; the loincloth isn't torn, it's been cut with scissors by a clumsy dissembler too innately compulsive to make any cuts except neat little triangles; it isn't dirty either—those are tobacco ashes smeared on it moments ago, which accounts for the fact that one of the embers is still glowing and is about to cause the charlatan some genuine pain in his private parts"—here the rotund little man in the corner began frantically slapping at his loincloth—"there's nothing sillier than a humbug who dishevels his hair while it's still coated with pomade; and finally, the Tullimonstrum says the clawing of the cheeks would be a nice touch if the clown didn't insist on having perfectly manicured fingernails."

    Madame Kutumoff began laughing. The maniac glared at her and sprang to his feet.

    "What is that miserable little monster?" he demanded, pointing to the Tullimonstrum.

    "It's a Tullimonstrum," replied the heretic Alf.

    The glare on Uncle Manya's face vanished, to be replaced by a stare of keen interest.

    "No kidding? They're supposed to be extinct." The round little man began to step forward, but his loincloth fell off. He grabbed it hastily and began retying it.

    The Tullimonstrum twittered. Alf translated.

    "It says only a chump ties a loincloth with a granny. Use a square knot. Better yet, put on some real clothes."

    Uncle Manya's glare returned. But he forbore response, choosing instead to beat a hasty retreat through the double doors.

    "Why don't you all sit down?" asked Madame Kutumoff. "Uncle Manya will be a while getting dressed."

    And indeed, it was several minutes before Uncle Manya returned to the room. The transformation in his figure was astonishing. Now dressed in silk trousers and a smoking jacket, hand-tooled slippers on his feet, his white hair pomaded and brushed, his eyes clear and dry, his ruddy and plump features the very picture of overfed health, he entered bearing a huge calabash gourd meerschaum pipe. This latter device was immediately lit. Great clouds of aromatic blue smoke began filling the room.

    The Tullimonstrum twittered.

    "It says," translated Alf, "that you shouldn't hold a meerschaum pipe by the bowl but by the gourd. It also says meerschaum pipes are a ridiculous affectation. Serious pipe smokers use briar."

    Uncle Manya babbled in an unknown tongue. The Tullimonstrum twittered.

    "The Tullimonstrum doesn't understand what you just said," explained Alf.

    "Of course it doesn't," agreed Uncle Manya cheerfully. "It's my own maniacal argot. Roughly translated, I said: 'Extinction is the fate of all species. Especially yours.'"

    The Tullimonstrum curled back on Alf's shoulders. The expression—if such it can be called—in its single great eye positively exuded reproach.

    "Bah!" oathed Zulkeh. "Enough of these pleasantries! I have come a long ways, through perils thick and thin, to consult with you, sirra Manya. And now I demand an answer to a plain and simple question. Are you, or are you not, a gibbering maniac?"

    "Course not!" barked Uncle Manya. "I'm the sanest Kutumoff around. That's why I got stuck being the hereditary madman. No-one else in the family could handle the strain."

    "Wolfgang said you might not be crazy," piped Shelyid.

    Uncle Manya glowered. "Wolfgang? Do you mean Wolfgang Laebmauntsforscynneweëld?"

    Shelyid nodded.

    "And what would that lunatic know about lunacy?" snorted Uncle Manya. The round little man pulled out a chair and sat down.

    "Introduce yourselves," he commanded.

    The introductions made, Uncle Manya drew on his pipe and commanded:

    "Explain why you have come to see me."




    Here the wizard launched into a lengthy discourse concerning the nature of his quest and mission, complete with a detailed recital of the King of Goimr's dream, the adventures which had ensued following his departure from Goimr, the seizure of the Rap Sheet in Prygg and the illuminations which had followed therefrom, and the events of the journey from Prygg to the Mutt, all of which I shall as your narrator pass over as the gentle reader is already familiar with these episodes, even though it grieves me greatly as a louse of education and reason to forego the pleasure of reciting the mage's extraordinarily cunning elaboration of his tale with manifold and multitudinous illustrations from the classics of both literature and historiography.

    The heretic Alf's explanation was more terse. "I'm just along for the ride. So far, so good."

    A minute or so of silence followed, with Uncle Manya puffing fiercely on his pipe. At length, the round little man shook his head solemnly.

    "Joetrics! I must warn you in advance, Zulkeh, that you tread on treacherous soil. But I shall give you what assistance I can."

    Then, suddenly, he was beaming from ear to ear. "But all that Joe stuff can wait! Oh, this is a marvelous opportunity! Zulkeh of Goimr, here in the flesh! And the notorious heretic Alf!"

    He rubbed his hands with glee.

    "We're going to have such fun! Let me begin by saying to you, Alf, that your theories about plasma cosmology are not only false and heretical but utterly misbegotten. Of course the universe began with the Puissant Pop! You would understand that if you had ever studied the estimable Zulkeh of Goimr's theory of gravity." Zulkeh drew himself up proudly. Uncle Manya continued: "Because if you had mastered the mage's concept that gravity is caused by graveness, the stupendous absurdity of the idea would have immediately led you—as it did me—to the pivotal insight that the beginning of the universe is conditioned by its eventual end, which is nothing less than the total collapse of all that is into what I have chosen to call the Pitiful Poof. Hence"—the furious clouds of smoke could in no way disguise the total indignation which sat upon the respective faces of the wizard and the heretic—"the reality of the Puissant Pop is necessitated by the eschatology of the Pitiful Poof, the which in turn is dictated by the Law of Gravity."

    Great billows of smoke.

    "And what, you ask, is the Law of Gravity?" demanded Uncle Manya. "The true Law of Gravity, properly so named only by myself." A look of total smugness came upon his face. "Simply this: There is no gravity. The Universe sucks."

    Zulkeh began a truly ferocious stroking of his beard. His eyebrows quivered. From beneath his lofty forehead, his eyes blazed like unto the lanterns of the heavens.

    "Bah!" he oathed. "Do I understand you correctly, Sirrah Manya? Do you seriously propose to explain the origins of the universe and the nature of its most profound force through an appeal to the treacherous quicksand of teleological causes?"

    "And what about experimental evidence?" demanded Alf.

    The heretic was immediately denounced by both Zulkeh and Uncle Manya as a wretched empiricist, a gibbering baboon, a retarded infant playing with mudpies even in the very shadow of the great Mountain of Logic, while, for his part, Alf responded with an equally vigorous characterization of his two opponents as a pair of quacking casuists, a brace of blustering mystificants, a duo of doddering dolts who resembled magpies squabbling in the shadow of the great Tree of Learning.

    All caution was now thrown to the wind. Within minutes, the three disputants were plunging deeper and deeper into a philosophic debate whose rancor grew in lockstep with the very evident pleasure which the three savants took in the process.

    The Tullimonstrum eyed Shelyid and twittered.

    "What'd it say?" asked the dwarf, tugging at Alf's sleeve. The heretic tore himself briefly from the debate and translated.

    "It says it hopes you've got a deck of cards in that sack. Otherwise, you're both doomed to die of boredom."



    Inasmuch as the ensuing theoretical wrangle required a full two months to run its course—with no result, of course, as is the nature of such disputes—this seems an appropriate time to break off our narrative and recount the simultaneous doings elsewhere of the wicked and the righteous.

    We will begin by presenting a portion of the Autobiography of Benvenuti Sfondrati-Piccolomini, the scoundrelous artist whose adventures continued to intersect the lives of all those who, like he himself, were so instrumental in the Great Calamity.




    In Which We Resume Our Scrutiny of the Duplicitous Conduct of the Now-Confirmed Desecrator Of Art's Mission, Benvenuti Sfondrati-Piccolomini, Casting A Cold Eye On the Villain's Progress in His Scheme To Worm His Way Into the Good Graces of Sfinctrian High Society (Such As It Was).

    Episode 1: Art, Angst, Adolescents and Aristocrats

    So it was on such a wretched barge that I arrived in the city of New Sfinctr.

    My actual arrival being in the dead of night, I elected to remain on board the barge until the next morning. Day dawned clear and bitterly cold. I could easily understand why mine had been the last barge of the season to make the trip from Münching to New Sfinctr. It was mid-December, and soon the river Coryza would freeze over.

    After disembarking, I found myself on a dreary wharf along the riverfront. I stood there shivering in the cold, examining my situation with no great feelings of glee and anticipation. The money I had obtained from Chief Counselor Gerard in Goimr was almost gone. I had perhaps enough left to obtain food and lodging for a week or so, but that was without reckoning the necessity—even now borne in upon me by the bitter wind blowing from the north—of purchasing more adequate clothing. Such clothing as I possessed was suited for the Ozarine climate, which bore little comparison to the fabled winters of northern Grotum.

    Shouldering my traveling sack and my easel, I strode from the wharf toward the commercial street which I espied not two blocks distant. There, I looked around. Despite the cold and blustering wind, the street was thronged. Tiny shops lined both sides of the street. Even tinier stalls and vendor carts were crammed along the narrow sidewalks. And it seemed that all the proprietors of all these commercial establishments were engaged in a contest to see who had the loudest voice.

    As I stood there, undecided which direction to take, a band of boys came charging up to me, hauling behind them a bizarre vehicle. Close examination revealed that the vehicle was a jerry-built rickshaw.

    "Where yez goin', cap'n?" demanded the foremost boy. "Wherever 'tis, we'll take yez. Cheap. Take yez bags, too. Cheap."

    "Cheap—cheap—cheap!" chorused the other four boys.

    "How cheap is cheap?"

    "One pence th'city block. Two pence inna Flankn."

    I decided I could afford it. I climbed aboard the rickshaw, stowing my belongings in the back. The chief of the band leapt onto a side panel next to me. The other four seized the handles.

    "Where yez goin', captain?" asked the leader.

    "I'm not a captain. I'm an artist. Benvenuti Sfondrati-Piccolomini, from Ozar. And what's your name?"

    "I knew yez from Ozar, captain—accent's 'orrible. I'm Oscar. Where yez goin'?"

    "Take me to the nearest art gallery."

    "'At's jist th' three blocks away," announced Oscar, as the four boys in front set off at a fast trot.

    "There's an art gallery in this part of town?" I asked, quite taken aback. The area seemed far too poor and slummish.

    But the boy spoke truly, at least by his own lights. Sure enough, not three blocks away, we arrived at a garishly (say better, obscenely) decorated establishment, which bore over its entrance the proud sign:

    THE ARTIST'S STROKE Paint Your Very Own Naked Lady! Be a Mud Sculptor! Private Booths!

    I sighed. "This is not what I had in mind, Oscar. I meant an art gallery."

    The boy frowned at me.

    "Oh. Funny, yez don' look th'type. But whatever yez wants, yez gets."

    At his command, the rickshaw raced around the corner and went up four more blocks. We screeched to a halt before an establishment decorated even more qrotesquely than the first. Reading the sign, I sighed again.

    THE ART OF DISCIPLINE Carve Your Very Own Naked Lady! Be a Mad Sculptor! Private Booths!

    "Oscar," I said firmly, "these are not art galleries. These are houses of lust and perversion."

    "Whazza diff'rence?"

    "I am beginning to see why Wolfgang called this city the pesthole of the planet," I muttered.

    "Armpit o' Grotum," agreed Oscar cheerfully. "Yez kin buy or rent anythin' yez kin imagine sommers in th'Embarcedero. Or iffen we's not got it, yez kin get it inna Flankn."

    "That's quite the boast," I chuckled. "What if I expressed a burning lust for squid?"

    Another command from Oscar and the rickshaw raced around a corner again. We screeched to a halt midway up the next block.

    "What kinda lust?" queried Oscar. "Gluttony or lechery? Either way—" He pointed to his left. Sure enough, a sign read:

    THE CEPHALOPOD CAFE All The Squid You Can Eat! Octopus Specials On Friday! Private Booths!

    He pointed to his right. Sure enough, a sign read:

    THE PALPITATING PALP! The World's Most Sensual Massage! Get Felt Up Like You've Never Been Felt Up Before! Private Booths!

    The ensuing few minutes were perhaps the most exasperating in my life. Plain to see, nothing in the boy's experience had prepared him to understand my needs. Eventually, the light of comprehension dawned in his eyes. And having so dawned, brought a flood of protestations and complaints, the gist of which was that boys of his class and status were simply not permitted to ply their trade in the—as he put it—"muckety-muck part of town." But at length, he agreed to provide me with transportation, on the proviso that I would intercede on his behalf should he and his fellows be accosted.

    "Have no fear," I assured him. "I will deal with any policemen who detain us."

    "Not worried 'bout no porkers," muttered Oscar. "It's th'others."

    Which "others" he might be referring to remained unclear to me, for when pressed Oscar would only make vague references to "muckety-mucks."




    The ensuing trip was quite interesting. In the end, reaching the area of the city where art galleries were clustered required a full hour of travel. And I will testify that Oscar provided me with a most illuminating and entertaining commentary on the various parts of the city which we passed through. I found his knowledge of the richer parts of New Sfinctr a bit puzzling at first, until he made the passing comment that he was not accustomed to viewing them in the daytime. My transporteer and guide, plain to see, moonlighted as a thief by night. But I will aver that I found him a charming lad, notwithstanding.

    Numerous twists and turns were required to depart the Embarcadero, but eventually we debouched onto a wide and (for New Sfinctr) reasonably straight boulevard. This boulevard, Oscar informed me, was blessed with the name of the "Avenue of Sfinctrian Splendor," and we were to clatter along it for quite some time.

    Both sides of the Avenue of Sfinctrian Splendor are lined with palaces. To be precise, as Oscar took pains to explain, there are some fifty seven palaces all along the boulevard. In addition, massive chateaux, elegant mansions, grand hôtels, august abbeys, crenelated castles and magnificent manor houses line the way, each more resplendent than the last. As we trotted along, Oscar kept up a running commentary about the origins, the ownership and history of the various piles. It pains me to report that, by in large, they were as a group utterly devoid of any architectural merit. The designers seemed to have been staunch advocates of what might be called the "Palace-as-Hovel-Writ-Large" School. Despite their grotesquely flamboyant trappings and ornamentations, the structures reeked of squalor; the air of the shanty hung over them like mist on a summer morn.

    One eighty room hut—disguised with a certain low architectural cunning as a Regency town house—caught my eye.

    "Who lives there, Oscar?"

    The lad gave me a sidelong glance and said, "Th' Baron de Butin, one o' yez mos' prominent grandees o' th' realm. A great hunter, they say, and a great connoyser o' th'arts. They say."

    He then pointed out the Old Royal Palace, the Winter Palace, the Summer Palace, the Former Royal Palace, the Little Palace, the Big Palace, the Bigger Palace, the Truly Enormous Palace, the Cardinal's Palace, the House of Cards, the Palace of the Fallen Dynasty and the Palace of Commercial Advantage—this last being a stupendous eyesore whose exterior gilding fairly shrieked: parvenu! bourgeois social climber!

    By this point, utterly exasperated by the seemingly unending display of misapplied, misunderstood and misconstructed architectural crassness and cliches, all surrounded by gardens of barbaric disorderliness, we arrived at (can you doubt it?) the "Square of Sfinctrian Grandeur." Here the life of the various commercial and governmental classes flourished. Large counting houses, the Hôtel de Ville and numerous bureaucratic anthills fronted the square.

    After circling most of the Square, we eventually debouched onto a well-maintained street which, I was delighted to see, was lined on both sides by art galleries and studios. A very chic neighborhood, insofar as the term can be applied to New Sfinctr. Bistros were profuse, intermingled with the art galleries. I told Oscar to let me off in the center of the block. After alighting and retrieving my things from the back, I paid him the fee he charged. Crude those his education might have been, there was nothing wrong with the boy's brain. He had faithfully counted off each block of the multitude we had traversed.

    His rapidly shifting eyes made clear his apprehension at being found in this neighborhood in broad daylight. I had expected some haggling, but Oscar seemed in such a hurry to leave that our transaction took but a moment. The boys raced off with their rickshaw, while I turned to examine the various galleries.

    But I turned back not ten seconds later, my attention drawn by a sudden clamor. Oscar and his fellows, I now saw, had been accosted by a band of well-dressed youths. These latter exuded in every nuance of their gestures, every aspect of their expressions, every subtlety of their strutting gaits, the very epitome of the rich young bravo.

    "The 'others'," I muttered to myself, hastily making my way toward the looming confrontation. As I came near, one of the bravos shoved Oscar against the rickshaw. The others—there were six of the them, all told—spread out around my former guide and his companions, barring every avenue of escape. Not only were Oscar and his friends outnumbered, but their opponents were several years older and armed, to boot. Indeed, even as I drew up, the bravo who had shoved Oscar drew his rapier.

    Briefly, I weighed my options. The obvious move, of course, was my—you will pardon the lack of false modesty—exquisite backstab. But I was forced to the reluctant conclusion that slaughtering a half-dozen rich youths in broad daylight on the very street where I soon hoped to have my works exhibited was perhaps not, all things considered, the shrewdest method of ingratiating myself into Sfinctrian high society. The more so as the looming fracas had already drawn a large crowd of sightseers pouring out of the galleries and studios.

    "When all else fails," my uncle Larue had often told me, "try tact and diplomacy."

    And so I attempted to reason with the belligerent youths, explaining to them that Oscar and his friends had found themselves on that street in my employ, taking the opportunity as I went to introduce myself as (here I admit to some exaggeration) a prominent citizen of Ozar.

    Alas, the youths did not respond well. Indeed, their belligerence now became transferred onto my own person, and escalated rapidly. Uncouth words were spoken regarding Ozarean fops, accompanied by martial descriptions of the mayhem soon to be committed upon my hapless body. All six of the bravos now took rapiers and poigniards to hand, brandishing them in a most pugnacious (if inept) manner.

    "If tact and diplomacy fail," my uncle Filberto had often told me, "fall back on homicide."

    And so it was that I dropped my traveling sack, drew my sword from its cunningly hidden sheath in my easel, and prepared to reduce the population of the city of New Sfinctr, which, I was now more than willing to agree, was indeed the pesthole of the planet.

    But at that very moment, an interruption occured.

    "What odds will you give me on the Ozarine, Hrundig?"

    This query was spoken very loudly, in a peculiar nasal accent which, I was later to learn, was the most de riguer of upper crust Sfinctrian accents.

    A rasping laugh came in response. "Odds, Prince? You must be joking! I'd as soon give you odds on a wolf in a sheep pen. Let's wager on something sporting. The question's not whether the Ozarine'll butcher these snots, it's how long it'll take him. I say he'll do it within two minutes. Tops. A hundred quid."

    "Done!" came the nasal voice.




    This interruption seemed to have taken the bravos aback, so I risked a glance to the side. There, standing a few feet in front of the crowd lining the sidewalk, were two men. The tall one on the left, judging from the opulescence of his clothing and the jewels bedecking the hilt of his sword, I took to be the "Prince." The one on the right wore a much more utilitarian leather garb, and carried a sword whose purpose was destructive rather than decorative. Average height, burly, scar-faced, blond, blue eyed, very fair-skinned—an Alsask from the look of him. But whatever his nation of origin, there was no mistaking his profession. Not, at least, for someone like myself, who could see not only with an artist's eye but with an eye, moreover, which had looked upon soldiers-of-fortune since I was a babe.

    The leader of the young hooligans now whined: "He doesn't look so tough to me, Hrundig. Besides, he's an Ozarine. They're all fops and cowards."

    Hrundig sneered. "Fops and cowards, are they? I suppose that's why Ozar is running half the world and you can't even run whores."

    This last jest produced a ripple of laughter in the crowd. The young bravo glared fiercely at Hrundig, but the humorless grin on the Alsask's hard face led the hothead to maintain a sagacious silence. After a moment, Hrundig turned to me.

    "By your stance, sirrah, I venture to say you've been trained by Rodrigo Sfondrati-Piccolomini."

    "My uncle."

    Hrundig's eyes widened slightly. "Your uncle, no less? Prince, I will bet you five hundred quid the Ozarine slaughters these sorry sods in one minute."

    I decided it was time to end the affair. Advancing on the young bravo, I said:

    "As I explained earlier, lout, these boys are under my care and protection. By threatening them, you have threatened me. I react badly to threats."

    Here I disarmed the clod with a flick of the wrist.

    "I become murderous and ill-humored."

    Here I sank an inch or so of blade into his upper left thigh. He cried out.

    "My sadistic streak—"

    An inch or so into the other thigh. He wailed.

    "—always close to the surface—"

    Here I disarmed the bravo to his left, removing a finger in the process. Another shriek.

    "—raging within my breast—"

    The bravo to the right lost his sword, and a fair amount of blood from the wound I placed in his forearm.

    "—like unto the very Hellhound of Orcus—"

    I thought a small cheek scar would look well on the young leader of men, so I thoughtfully provided him with one. He was now doing a fair imitation of a banshee.

    "—even now leaps to the fore."

    The rest of the pack here fled. The leader attempted to do the same, but stabbed thighs are not a sprinter's asset. After three steps, he stumbled and fell on his face.

    It was shameful of me, I know, but I couldn't resist. An inch of steel in the upthrust cheek of his ass brought a ululation which was most pleasing to my ear. So pleasing, in fact, that I matched the other buttock to the first.

    "Ah, sweet symmetry!" I exclaimed. Then, feeling a presence behind me, I spun around. His hands upraised in a placating gesture, Hrundig took a step or two back.

    "May I suggest," he chuckled, "that you leave the matter where it is. The young oaf is a worthless sod, but he is well-connected."

    I lowered my sword, shrugged.

    "I never intended it to go anywhere at all. But I had given my assurance to the boys that they'd be unmolested if they brought me here. A gentleman's honor and all that business, you know?"

    I turned and looked at Oscar and his friends. They were still huddled about their home-made rickshaw.

    "And what am I going to do with you?" I asked. "I see now that your fears were well founded. I suppose I'll have to accompany you back into the poor quarters and retrace my steps by some other means."

    "Be glad to take yez, guv'nor!" exclaimed Oscar. "O'course, it'll still be a penny th'block."

    "Outrageous!" I cried. "I'll be your bodyguard! By rights, you should pay me!"

    Oscar shrugged. "Canna be helped, guv'nor. Canna tote yez without charging yez." A look of great solemnity came upon his urchin face. "Professional ethics, don' yez know?"

    At this moment, the Prince advanced to the fore.

    "A penny a block, you say? D'you know the Lucky Lady? In the Flankn?"

    "Like my mither's lap, Yez Princeness!"

    "Splendid! Let's be off! I'm in the mood for slumming, and what better way to arrive in a slum than this unique vehicle?" And so saying, the Prince clambered aboard the rickshaw.

    He turned to Hrundig. "Do you care to come along? There's room enough for two."

    Hrundig shook his head. "Not tonight, Your Highness."

    The Prince laughed and snapped his fingers. "Hut! Hut!" he cried. Oscar and his fellows seized the handles of the rickshaw and set off down the street.

    "Not tonight, not any night," muttered Hrundig, "Your Lowness."

    "Your employer?" I asked.

    "The Prince? In a manner of speaking. Actually, I'm in business for myself. I run a salle d'armes not far from here. I pick up some money on the side acting as the 'boon companion' for the Prince. He fancies himself a hard man, you see? Likes being in the company of ruffians."

    "Who is he, exactly?"

    Hrundig looked surprised. "You must have just gotten off the ship from Ozar. He's Queen Belladonna's second son—His Highness, Prince Worret."

    He eyed me speculatively.

    "If you don't mind my asking, what are you doing here in New Sfinctr?"

    I briefly explained my ambitions as an artist. When I was done, Hrundig rubbed his chin thoughtfully.

    "You've no name for yourself yet, though?" he asked. I nodded.

    "Need a job—until you get set up?" I nodded.

    "I have an offer for you. One of my instructors quit on me, last week. I could use a replacement for him in my salle d'armes. Especially one who's been trained by Rodrigo. It's a rather unique style, his—not at all like the Groutch schools. You'll add some spice to my business."

    "I'm not a professional swordmaster," I protested.

    "You're good enough," countered Hrundig. Then, with a cheerful grin: "And besides, as soon as I take you on you will be a professional swordmaster."

    And so it was, quite unexpectedly, that I took on a new trade.



    In the event, I wound up living at Hrundig's salle d'armes as well as working there. The nature of the establishment was announced to the world at large by a gaudy sign hanging over the front door. The sign bore the name The Vented Spleen, a title for a salle d'armes which I myself thought in poor taste. The illustration which accompanied the name was in even poorer taste, exhibiting a graphic (if anatomically inexact), picture of a sword venting a spleen. The sign over the door was further embellished by several addenda painted onto the door itself:

Learn the ancient martial arts of Alsask!
The Thrusts! The Chops! The Strokes!
Study Impromptu Amputation!
Develop Disemboweling Skills!

Master of arms: Hrundig, Barbarian of Alsask,
Veteran of the Ozarean Legions.

    There were several vacant rooms on the second floor, which the swordmaster graciously allowed me to use for a nominal rent. One small room I used for my living chamber. Another I quickly set up as a studio.

    Then, as it turned out, my work as a fencing instructor proved to be my entree into the Sfinctrian art world as well as a way to make a living. For, within a few weeks, several of the nobles who trained with me became curious when Hrundig informed them of my artistic talents. I discovered that a certain layer of young Sfinctrian blades could not resist having their portraits painted in martial poses. The portraits were quite good, if I say so myself. And I was able to charge a preposterous fee for the work, which, I felt, was justified given the extraordinary difficulty of doing the portraits without laughing. I charged the Count de Gros a small fortune, so strained was the task of depicting his spherical form as a swashbuckler. And I charged Prince Worret a large fortune for the numerous portraits which he commissioned. In his case, the problem was not to keep from laughing. For he was actually quite a good swordsman, was the Prince, and a decent physical specimen. The difficulty here was in not depicting the man as the vile creature he was in every conceivable social, personal and moral aspect.

    "How can you stand his company?" I once asked Hrundig. The Alsask shrugged, grinning his cold grin.

    "Who cares? I'm an old soldier. You think he's the first superior I ever had who oinks?"

    But, all in all, I felt I was off to a good start. And there was this added benefit, that after a time I began to develop a friendship with the swordmaster which became, insofar as such was possible with the hard-bitten veteran, rather close.

    Not that the process was easy! A most difficult man, Hrundig. Most difficult.

    To begin with, he had an altogether unreasonable attitude toward swordplay. I had known since I was sixteen that, under my uncle Rodrigo's training, I had become a good swordsman. And I had recognized, without thinking about it much one way or another, that my uncle Rogrido was a very good swordsman.

    I discovered that my uncle was actually considered, among professional swordmasters the world over, to be one of the greatest swordsmen of his time. And—I credit this to his instruction—I also discovered that I could rank among the very finest myself.

    All this I learned from Hrundig, after our first fencing match. Hrundig himself was an excellent swordsman. His style was rather different from the one I had been brought up in, which I found difficult at first. But after a few minutes, once I became more acquainted with his techniques, the match went quite well.

    It ended, or so I felt, in a draw.

    Hrundig felt otherwise.

    "God, you're good!" he exclaimed, after we finished. He took a towel and wiped the sweat from his face. "I'll have to teach you to take it easy. I can't afford to have my clients humiliated. Touchy lot. Of course, they expect their fencing instructor to be better than they are, but not so much better that they feel like fools."

    I fear my chest swelled. Hrundig eyed me with some amusement.

    "Don't get too swell-headed," he said. "With these little toys"—here he held up his rapier—"you rank as a swordmaster. But don't ever make the mistake of confusing this hoity-toity business with the real world. In a real sword-fight on a battlefield, against any of the world's good infantry, you'd be so much dog food."

    I fear a haughty look came upon my face. Hrundig laughed. A very evil laugh, he had, rasping like a file.

    "Oh, my. I do believe I've offended the lad."

    My upper lip grew stiff.

    "I fail to see why a swordsman of my ability—these your own words, sirrah!—should have much to fear from a common infantryman. 'Tis well known that the rapier is the most modern and scientific hand weapon known to man. I really don't understand why the crude blades used by soldiers would pose any problems for me."

    Again, that evil rasping laugh.

    "Well known, is it? To whom? You are a scholar on military tactics?"

    I hemmed and hawed. Rasp, rasp—quite tiresome, it was. Alas, I uttered peremptory words to the effect that "the proof was in the pudding," or some such phrase of folly.

    Great folly, because Hrundig immediately challenged me to a real sword-fight. Under the circumstances, I could hardly refuse. He disappeared into an adjoining room. When he returned, he was garbed in armor—not plate armor, but a chain mail surcoat, a hauberk, greaves, the whole tiresome lot. He also bore a shield and a broadsword, the which implements of mayhem, I noted with unease, showed all the signs of much use.

    "All right, lad, let's to it. No, no, don't bother capping your point. I wouldn't want to ruin your rapier, so use one of the practice swords. Do your best. I'll only use the flat of my blade."

    The ensuing few minutes rank among the more embarassing of my life. My cunning thrusts and lunges were deftly pared with his shield, except one particularly skillful riposte, which failed to penetrate his cursed armor. After rasping for a while with amusement, Hrundig ended the affair by snapping my sword in half with a single chop of his blade.

    "Oh, my," he chuckled. "Ye modern an' scientific weapon 'as been broked! Imagine that!"

    Not to be thwarted, I immediately seized another rapier and returned to the fray. Another broken blade, accompanied this time by a playful swat of Hrundig's sword which left a great bruise on my arm for a week.

    "Oh, my," he chortled. "Ye modern an' scientific swordsman 'as been disarmed. If ye'll pardon the pun."

    Not to be thwarted, I immediately seized another rapier and returned to the fray. Another broken blade, accompanied by a not-so-playful blow of Hrundig's blade on my leg, which knocked me sprawling.

    "Oh, my. Ye modern an' scientific duellist'll not be turning a fancy leg to the ladies no more."

    Then, in his normal voice: "Are you convinced?"

    I muttered words which were perhaps uncouth, regarding the duplicity of using shield and armor.

    "Aye, an' it's the shame!" cried Hrundig. "Kin ye imagine that? Using armor and shields on ye battlefield for ye low purpose o' winning ye war!"

    Sanity fell upon me, pushing vanity aside. In the end, I received from Hrundig a rather interesting lecture—if such a term can be used to describe the grizzled veteran's discourse—on the nature of sword work. One would not have thought it, to judge from his harsh—even brutal—face, but the man was quite a perceptive student of human affairs, at least insofar as they bore on martial matters.



    "Every type of weapon and style of fighting is fitted to the circumstances," he explained. "A rapier's a useless weapon in a battle, but it's ideal for duels in high society. You don't have to sweat under a lot of smelly armor—the ladies hate that smell!—and you don't need much strength, beyond your arm and wrist. You've got a very powerful wrist, by the way, but if you ever want to learn real swordwork you'll need to condition your whole body. Especially your lungs and your legs. Anyway, as I was saying, a rapier's perfect for nobles settling personal quarrels. It's so pretty to watch! And unless your opponent manages to run you through a vital organ, you're likely to escape even a defeat without much more than a romantic, practically bloodless, little wound. Not at all like the aftermath of a real battle, Benvenuti, where you need carts to haul away the severed limbs and heads, and where the blood turns the field into a mucky mess."

    He began taking off his armor, still talking.

    "Then, even in real war, there're big differences between nations. This armor I'm wearing, and the broadsword I use with it, is Alsask. That's where I'm from, and I was raiding and freebooting since I was a lad. These weapons and armor suit the Alsask temperament and style of warfare perfectly. But they'd be no match against an Ozarine legion."

    "Why not?" I asked. "Your equipment's far heavier than the equipment of the Ozarine legions."

    "True enough," gasped Hrundig, finally free of his armor. "God, I hate wearing this stuff! It was fun, sort of, when I was a youngster, but I fear I'm getting old and gray. In response to your question, Benvenuti, I'd quite cheerfully go up against a single legionnaire in my Alsask gear. The legionnaire wouldn't stand a chance, at least not against a swordsman as good as myself. His light armor and short sword would be overmatched. But the thing is, legionnaires never fight alone."

    He gestured with his thumb toward the street.

    "That snotty little squirt you made a fool of can prattle all he wants about Ozarine foppery. He's an idiot. The plain and simple fact is that the Ozarine legions are the best army in the world. Their light equipment goes with their whole method of war. On a field of battle, the Ozarines can put three men against two on every line of the front. Their short swords are designed for close, disciplined combat. Under the command of good officers, an Ozarine legion can rout the most ferocious fighters in the world."

    He grimaced. "I know, believe me. I've been on both sides of the question. I was captured by Ozarines as a youth, when the idiot who was leading our raiding party led us into Ozarine territory. Then, it took me fifteen years to work my way out of slavery in the legions. Wound up a centurion, before I left."

    "You were a legionnaire?"

    He gave me a strange look. "I served under your uncle Ludovigo, as a matter of fact. In the Wrolsh."

    "That was where he resigned his commission."

    Hrundig nodded.

    "Why did he resign?" I asked. "He would never talk about it."

    Hrundig looked uncomfortable. "Well, I don't really know. I was just one of his centurions, and he didn't confide in me. We were rather close, mind you, in a soldierly sort of way. I admired him. And I believe he had a high regard for me. But still—"

    His face grew hard. "He never said anything. But I know he was quarreling with his superior officers over the conduct of the campaign. A general came to his tent one night, and hard words were exchanged. He resigned the next day."

    Hrundig shrugged. "After the Wrolsh army was broken, you see, the rest was—butchery. 'Pacification,' the statesmen call it. The scholars call it 'nation-building.' Whatever you choose to call it, your uncle despised the business."

    "You stayed?"

    He rasped a laugh. "Of course I stayed! I was a foot soldier, and a slave to boot. Nobody asked my opinions on anything, and I had no commission to resign. Officers resign. Foot soldiers do what they're told."

    "And besides," he added, his face now like iron, "it wasn't anything I wasn't used to. I'm no scion of the famous Sfondrati-Piccolomini clan, lad, I'm an Alsask barbarian. Fighting's what I do. And whatever else comes with it."

    "You're not a soldier now."

    "No, once I served out my fifteen years in the legions, I was manumitted. Even got a nice bonus. I left the legions the same day. One thing led to another, and I wound up here, running this salles d'armes. I'm my own boss, and it's nice, easy work. Pays good, and I don't even have to kiss up much to my noble clientele, because they expect a grizzled old soldier to be abrupt and harsh. Adds to the mystique, actually."

    He chuckled. "And that's enough of that! Take up a rapier, Benvenuti, and one of those daggers on the wall. Your Sfinctrian nobility's partial to dueling in the Grenadine style, with rapier and poignard. Stupid. A sword's a sword and a knife's a knife, and they're good for different things, so why mix them up? But that's the way my customers like it. I think it makes the buggers feel dangerous. Your uncle Rodrigo didn't teach you that style, I assume?"

    I shook my head. Hrundig snorted.

    "I should think not. But you've got to learn it, so let's be about the silly business."



    Under Hrundig's guidance, I learned the fencing technique favored by the Sfinctrian nobility. I soon became quite good at it, although I admit I came to share Hrundig's contempt for the flamboyant technique. Driven by some mad impulse, I also prevailed upon Hrundig to begin teaching me what he called "real swordwork." Learning to use a broadsword and shield, I discovered, was an entirely different affair from fencing. Brutally exhausting, for one thing. Chain mail armor doesn't look like much, until you have to wear it for hours while you're engaged in sword practice.

    But by then, my stubborn streak had become engaged, and I pushed on. I soon realized that I would have to undergo Hrundig's exercise program if I was ever to master fighting in armor. I had thought myself in good physical condition, which I was, by reasonable standards. But the vast difference between that and what was needed was brought home to me early, when I first saw Hrundig naked after we both finished bathing at the end of a session. I suspect an average man's eye would have been drawn to the many scars criss-crossing Hrundig's pale flesh, but my artist's eye was drawn to the flesh itself. Inhuman, it looked, as if the bulges under the white skin were so many bars of iron instead of muscles.

    Out of curiosity, I challenged him to an arm-wrestling match. I was much larger than he, and I realized that I was probably stronger. But it made no difference. Once he tested the strength of my arm, he grinned and said: "Oh, my. Such a muscular lad." Then he sat patiently, his arm like a post, while I wore myself out trying to bend it. After ten minutes or so, when he judged that I was exhausted, he ended the contest.

    "Fuck strength," he rasped. "Fuck lightning reflexes. Fuck speed. Endurance is the thing. The rest is just icing on the cake. That's the old soldier's creed, lad."

    I wasn't an old soldier, and I had no intentions of becoming one, but I took his words to heart. The following day, I began the training regimen which Hrundig laid down. That regimen was to become an unbreakable habit. Eventually, it would save my life. But that is for a later portion of my story.

    In the meantime, my artistic career was beginning to be a bit stifling. I was making a great deal of money, to be sure, and had even developed quite a reputation as a portraitist among a certain section of the nobility. But the fact remained that I had no desire to spend my life portraying nobles with delusions of martial grandeur.

    Then, as it happened, Hrundig proved to be the vehicle for my salvation here also.

    I had noticed, with some curiosity, that Hrundig disappeared every Sunday. Of course, I never asked him where he was going. A gentleman does not pry into the affairs of another gentleman. Perhaps more to the point, since Hrundig was not actually a gentleman, a sane man does not annoy the Hrundigs of the world by sticking his nose into their business. Good way to lose a nose.

    But there came a Sunday morning, some two months after I arrived, when Hrundig asked me if I would care to spend the day with him.

    "Might be to your advantage," he said, "to meet the people I'm going to visit." His cold grin. "Of course, I must warn you, they're not really respectable members of society. You might feel uncomfortable, as fond as you are of associating with the upper crust."

    I uttered several disparaging phrases concerning the upper crust.

    Hrundig clucked. "Oh, my. Such ingratitude toward your patrons and benefactors."

    So off we went. To my delight, I discovered that Hrundig had somehow managed to engage the transport services of Oscar and his urchin crew.

    "You've got a new rickshaw," I said.

    Oscar beamed proudly. "Idna it beautiful? Good business, we been gettin', from the Prince and 'is pals. Pretty soon we gonna buy a pony, like right proper coachmen an' all."

    "You've had no further trouble with bravos, coming into this part of town?"

    Oscar grinned at me.

    "I suppose not," I chuckled. "The Prince's patronage must protect you."

    Oscar sneered. "Piss onna Prince. Nobody bothers us on account o' Hrundig."

    I looked at Hrundig. He shrugged.

    "I spread the word that I had engaged the boys to provide me with transport on my Sunday outings. I treasure my Sunday outings, and I made clear that I would be chagrinned were they to be disturbed. No, no, 'chagrinned' isn't quite the word I used. What was it? Oh, yes. I believe I said I would be irked. Yes, that's it. Irked."

    Our trip took some little time, and took us into a part of New Sfinctr with which I was unfamiliar. We ended up in front of a walled villa in a secluded part of town. The villa was neither large nor opulent, but it was obvious that whoever lived here was not short of money. Strangely, the exterior of the villa almost seemed as if it were designed not to draw attention.

    Hrundig rapped a brass knocker on the gate. A moment later, an elderly man appeared. In some indefinable way, he gave the impression of being a servant, although he wore none of the usual livery.

    "Hrundig," he said, nodding. Then, to Oscar and his gang: "Take the rickshaw to the back. You know where it is."

    "Are they going to wait for us?" I asked Hrundig, as we followed the old man through the walled garden of the villa. "Oscar'll charge you an arm and a leg if they have to stay here all day."

    Hrundig chuckled. "Oh, I don't think so. In fact, Oscar doesn't charge me at all for these Sunday outings. Something to do with professional ethics, he says."

    The old man led us through the front door of the house. Once inside, he went through the left door leading off the foyer and through several rooms.

    "Madame and the girls are in the back garden," he explained.

    I was impressed with the decor and furnishings. Very subdued, but very excellent taste. In fact, I was so engrossed in examining the interior of the house that I almost stumbled on the way out the back door into the garden.

    There, sitting about a small fountain in some lounging chairs, were a middle-aged woman and three girls. All four were holding books in their hands, which they lowered upon seeing us enter the garden.

    The woman was quite attractive, in a plump sort of way. She wore a simple but well-made black dress. Her dark hair was streaked with gray, which she made no attempt to conceal. Her complexion was rather dark, and her features were plain. The most striking thing about her face, however, was the good cheer that infused it like an inner glow.

    "Hrundig!" she said, smiling. She extended her hands, which Hrundig enfolded in his hard fists.

    The specifics of Hrundig's relationship with the woman remained unclear to me. But no man, certainly not a man with an artist's eye, could have mistaken the expression on his face. The hard-bitten old soldier—and who would have believed it?—was head over heels in love.

    The woman looked at me. "And this must be Benvenuti." She extended a hand, which I took and kissed.

    "Such a gentleman!" she cried. She gave Hrundig a mischievous glance. "You never kiss my hand like that, you old grouch."

    "Not likely," grumbled Hrundig. The look he bestowed upon me was not filled with favor.

    I grinned at the woman. "I'm afraid Hrundig's not been brought up properly. I'll pay for this in our next practice session, but it was worth it."

    She laughed. "I am Olga Frissault. And these are my daughters. The oldest is Beatrice. Then Consuela. And the young one is Deirdre."

    I smiled at the girls. Young women, actually. I estimated their respective ages as nineteen, eighteen, and seventeen. All three bore a striking resemblance to their mother, except that the oldest—Beatrice—bore a severely studious expression. Her pince-nez glasses were perhaps responsible.

    At the moment, however, she was gaping at me, as were her two younger sisters.

    Madame Frissault chuckled. "You should have warned me he was so handsome, Hrundig." The girls flushed. Three jaws snapped shut.

    The look which Hrundig now bestowed upon me was positively black with ill-favor.

    "Never noticed, myself," he rasped. "But now that you mention it—" He looked back and forth between me and the girls, his face growing fiercer by the moment. "If there's any—well, I can fix his good looks, right quick."

    Fortunately, Madame Frissault was a past master at defusing awkward moments. Indeed, as the afternoon wore on, her immense cheerfulness turned the day into a warm glow. I confess to some uneasiness, however. For the girls—Beatrice, in particular—cast me many a sidelong glance, none of which escaped Hrundig's keen eye. I foresaw a difficult conversation in the future.

Home Page Index Page




Previous Page Next Page

Page Counter Image