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From: The Welcome Rain #18
Subj: A Sirenese Mirk
The Welcome Rain is silent for a full minute after the conclusion of the Jaseroque's tale. He then nods briefly, rises to his feet. "A moment of your time -- I have pressing business."
The Jaseroque watches as the Rain hefts a large bucket of green powder from the deck and balances it on its side over the rail. The powder drifts out in small discrete puffs; the Rain is careful not to touch or breathe any of it. After twelve doses, he draws the bucket back onto the deck and bids the Jaseroque: "Come and watch."
At first he sees nothing. Then a few diaphonous tendrils appear on the starboard stern, and finally, horribly, a large coelenterate bobs to the surface amid a swath of filaments.
"That," the Welcome Rain says softly, "was attracted by the gold coins you tossed overboard. It is attracted by anything shiny or colorful which falls into the water. I speculate that this has something to do with the appearance of Sirenese masks; to such creatures, brightwork means food."
"Your pardon," the Jaseroque says in muted tones of remorse. "I had no idea."
"Oh, it's nothing to worry about," the Rain reassures him. "Its stings cannot harm an honest sailboat, unlike the naetzu-driven craft of lesser seamen. In truth" -- is there a grin behind the mask? -- "I often trap them this way myself, though I doubt I am diminishing their numbers appreciably."
The dead coelenterate diminishes in their wake. They return to their chairs.
"Your story," the Welcome Rain reflects, "is worth an equal exchange. You have been honest to the point of self-deprecation; I shall strive for a similar hyaline candor in my own account.
"The Rhunes, as you have noted, are forbidden the use of air-cars and powered weapons. This is decreed and enforced by the Connatic, who rules all the worlds of the Alastor Cluster. The Rhunes devote themselves instead to ritualistic internal wars, in which no man may attack another of greater rank, and intricate scholarship.
"I was a minor noble of the house of Scharrode; I made trismet with a young woman of equally little distinction. I considered my circumstances unjust, since I was easily the equal of any Kang of Scharrode in combat, though my scholarship was eccentric by Rhune standards -- I specialized in musicology and social anthropology, neither of which was abstruse enough to gain the approval of my peers.
"In time, I became convinced that Rhune society was declining. Our martial skills fell into desuetude as the Kaiarks made truces in preference to transgenerational feuds. Our much-vaunted erudition likewise became increasingly irrelevant to the conduct of our lives...indeed, we positively gloried in our self-abnegation, when with our knowledge we should have been able to arrange comforts and conveniences for ourselves. Fewer children were born every year, and no great deeds had been done in decades.
"I proposed publicly that the Rhunes should reverse this process of decay. My plan was simple: Use our abstruse knowledge to reproduce or excel the technologies forbidden us, and take over the entirety of Marune. When the Connatic came, we would present him with a fait accompli and promise him our devotion, meanwhile consolidating our gains."
The Jaseroque's mask twitches once, sharply. His mazurkin remains silent on his lap.
A rueful twang of the gomapard accompanies the Rain's next words: "Yes, I was foolish. The Connatic was and is no mooncalf; he would have had no choice but to crush the Rhunes had we tried such a thing. However, the matter never required his response, since there was no rebellion.
"Not that I didn't try, of course. In fact, my plan had great appeal for those of low rank, like myself. Many fancied that they had been denied their rightful perquisites because of the timidity of their Kaiarks in advancing aggressively the interests of their houses. The Rhunes are an aristocracy, but even the most hidebound caste system rests on a mudsill of brute labor, and the brutes' voices cannot be entirely ignored. Many of them began to attack enemies of higher rank in battle, in contravention of Rhune practices. Others staged raids on isolated Marune villages, killing many and doing pointless damage."
"What was your response to this?"
The Rain is silent for a moment. "Nothing. I said nothing. I disagreed with their actions, of course, but I was too unsure of my support to reject any demonstrations on my behalf, however misguided. The acts continued with my implied consent.
"In time, the Kaiark Efraim demanded my presence. I went insolently to Scharrode keep, prepared to debate him point for point. Instead, I was simply made to wait in a small remote chamber for six hours, at the end of which I was dismissed without explanation.
"When I left, I met with sniggers and smirks in the street. I hotly demanded an explanation, whereupon I was informed that I had been spotted engaging in -- let us simply say sebalous excesses, in several public places. I protested my innocence, stated my whereabouts for the past several hours, but none would believe me.
"In anger I returned to Scharrode and demanded an audience with Efraim. He descended into the courtyard promptly, as if he had been expecting me.
"'You have damaged my reputation for your own purposes,' I shouted at him. 'Let us settle the matter this moment.'
"He smiled sourly. 'I do not care to fight you,' he said, 'and in any case we are not equals.'
"'Indeed not,' I shot back. 'I would never think to make light of your reputation -- this in spite of rumors about unorthodox conduct in your youth. You are therefore much inferior to me.'
"His retainers started toward me upon hearing this, but he gestured them back. 'Would it surprise you,' he said, 'to hear that I agree with your assessment of my actions, both today and in the past?'
"'It surprises me to hear you say it,' I said with a fleer. 'It does not surprise me that it is true.'
"At this Efraim grew angry. 'You are glib,' he rasped, 'but your own conduct in this matter is far from perfect. What of the raids? the murders done in honorable battle?'
"'A man killed by his social inferiors,' I observed, 'or a man killed by strangers, is no less dead than one who dies in the fashion prescribed by tradition. We must adapt our ethics to changing circumstances.'
"'Must we?' he said, and to my astonishment it seemed a genuine question. 'What point, then, in being Rhunes? Without our customs we might as well be anyone. In our taboos, however unjustified they may seem, lies our identity.'
"As I think back upon it now, I could weep for Efraim. This was clearly the accomodation he had made with his own reckless youth -- a complete faith in everything Rhune. In spite of all he did to me, I wish I could unsay what next I said, though it was true:
"'You do not understand the development of societies. Such a study is unfashionably unspecialized, but had you undertaken it, you would see what is coming. Inflexible orthodoxy is a late stage in the death of a culture; in your intractability lies the end of the Rhune.'
"His face drew closed. 'You offer us no hope,' he said bitterly. 'Why remain among us, then? To record faithfully our decline?'
"'I have little interest in staying now,' I replied with equal bitterness. 'You have blighted my life here. I would rather spend my time among the living than in this necropolis of dreams.'
"He sighed, slumped his shoulders. 'As you wish,' he said. 'Choose then a destination. I will arrange an honorable trismet for Jeniatte, so you need not worry on her behalf.' One of his footmen shuffled forward with an Oikumene atlas.
"My mind was spinning, I could not think. I sat in the courtyard and read the atlas by umber light. In a few minutes I was fascinated by what I saw therein -- the puppet-lords of Halma; the battle clans of Kokod, as tradition-bound as the Rhune; the Anome of Shant, so like the Connatic in his anonymous authority.
"At length I decided. 'Here is where I shall go.'
"Efraim peered at the page I selected. 'I have read a little of Sirene. Why there, where they are so intolerant of offworlders?'
"'Many reasons,' I said, too weary for anger. 'I know something of music and so should be able to get along. My fighting skill may in some degree translate as well. Best of all,' and here I faced him directly, 'they respect individual honor.'
"Efraim's expression did not change, however. Once more he was the Kaiark of Scharrode. 'By your own lights, then, you have chosen wisely. We regret the necessity --'
"'Spare me.' I rose to my feet. 'I will never forgive you for what you have done to me, whatever the reasons. My sole recompense will be the fact that you and your society will ultimately suffer for your decision today.'
"For one more moment he softened. 'I hope,' he murmured, 'that you may find better compensations in your life than that.' He laid a hand on my shoulder. I am ashamed to say I twitched away from it.
"We had no further words. He walked away, the weight of his robes reflected in his stride."
The last chord dies; the Rain lays aside his instruments, staring into
At this point, the story was placed on a long hiatus. During this time, one of the creators concocted, as a joke, a quick ending to the story.
The story proper now continues...
The elements of beauty are perhaps too intricate to be easily unravelled in but one volume of the present work, but regardless the reader may count upon me to do my solid best. Restrictions define and illumine the arts; each work of genius must somewhere place at least one firm foot upon the bedrock of reality, or be constrained within the cage of circumstance. Would the incomparable Rheimgeld compositions of Stresbik retain their velvety passion had the composer not been forced, from lack of funds, to scribe the pieces on the walls of his house using an ink compounded from his bodily excretions? But enough, for we approach the grand topic.
For a thing to excel in loveliness, I hold that some element of danger, intrigue or even rascality must be present. We find in nature many creatures of extravagant color, which serves to advertise their lethal qualities. A star is at its loveliest after it has died violently, throwing forth stunning nebulae of gas. Through a curious convergence of etymology, the word belladonna describes at once an attractive woman and a poison. And on the planet Sirene, the populace excels in callisty only slightly more than in the art of war and their omniprevalent prickliness of character. The poignancy induced within a sentitive soul by these counterpositions can scarcely be put into words, but that the project is feasible is surely evident to the reader who feels the great bulk of pages in his right hand, waiting to be turned...
Life, Volume XIV, by Unspiek, Baron Bodissey
The critics respond:
...lumbers towards its foredoomed conclusion like a curious mastodon approaching a tar pit.
-- Treismossifer Gunebid, _The Wyst Stellar Weekly_
It is the febrile yet limited mind that finds its greatest delight in simple juxtapositions between polar opposites, and at such play the Baron occupies himself for page after page, as his parallels ever promise to meet at the horizon and his hyperbolic discourse seeks its asymptote on the other side of infinity. The image arises of a composer who strikes two great chords at opposite ends of a piano keyboard, and, finding he has no fingers left for interpolating, uses his nose to pick out desultory notes between.
-- Edmalia Oris-Faate, _The Frenk-Spottle Review_
This work has without reservations convinced me of the futility of attempting to write further words. I now throw down my pen and resign my position as Lead Reviewer.
-- Jelar Pronzt, _The Tit-Tat._
Tut! Tut, tut, tut!
-- Meng Muso, _Froust: The Magazine of Seance Fiction_
The great haze of the jungle lifts in the heat of late morning, mingling with the myriad smokes of Zundar, seat of ancient splendor. Standing as a peer among the broad yellow banded cliffs that encircle her with natural sea walls, and sheltered behind by the terminus of the Drounze mountain chain, Zundar has stood for many centuries against the worst storms of the Titanic ocean. A broad rocky beach supports a grand curve of docks hosting many hundreds of ships; thousands of tents envelop the great central plaza in a flowerbed of dazzling color, while looming over all are the stone buildings of antiquity, the finest of which are carved directly into the cliff faces, hundreds of feet tall.
Passing through the spray thrown by the great seabreak, two resplendant sails surrounded by glimpses of rainbow add their clamor to the tumult of Zundar's daily existence...
At a long pier of a design recalling the bold strokes of the ideogram for "Waypoint for the vigorous traveller embarked on enterprises best finished rapidly", the two ships find portage. Slaves clamber over the rotund houseboat of the Dolorous Folly, reefing the sails and making the ship fast; on a sleeker vessel, the Jaseroque and the Welcome Rain work in similar manner to make their vessel secure. At length, the Dolorous Folly, the Welcome Rain, and the Jaseroque stand upon the pier. Around them the air stirs and shimmers with vitality; a concert of hundreds of Sirenese sharing jokes with friends, orating to passers-by, mocking and threatening their foes, making transactions, rattling orders to their slaves... a grand orchestration that always steers a tight course between harmony and cacaphony, and which merges pleasanty with the smooth slaps of water against the docks, the cries of sea birds, and the song of the rich warm wind.
The Dolorous Folly studies the patchwork sea of brightly colored canopies in the grand plaza and remains silent for a time, smelling the muddy tang of roasting durpa flesh, the hot orange odor of moyes incense, the bitter fish smoke that arises from Yirenthi distilling, all mixing with the sea air and resinous musk from the heated docks. With a sigh, he takes hold of his stimic and faces the Jaseroque, forcing doleful tones of warning from the instrument.
"Life engenders risk within its blood and bones; experience is the spouse of danger. The person from another world who visits Fan encounters obduration, strife, sharp criticism of musicianship, death if reckless; in Zundar are all these difficulties magnified. The wearer of the Welcome Rain stands among but a few from the outworlds who have visited Zundar more than once. An outworlder who would do the same unfailingly follows proper conduct! He does not over-exercise his strakh; he wears a quiet mask, makes as few transactions as possible, and strikes not a wrong note. He does not jostle the crowds; he is not the source of foul noises or objectionale odors. He attempts not to share the bed of a woman wearing turquoise and silver ribbons, and he does not wear nor attempt to acquire loose pantaloons, particularly those with vermillion chequers and azure fringes. He does not expectorate from behind his mask, no matter what the circumstance. When he sneezes, he combines it with a cough or a guttural exclamation, so as not to produce the offensive hushing noise associated with outworlders. He eats grapes while hopping briskly in circles on his right leg, using a wooden stem clamp and skewer held in the left hand, and crying 'benko!' at every third and seventh revolution..."
The Welcome Rain breaks in on his kiv, chuckling. "Save for the last, the dangers catalogued by the Dolorous Folly are real," he tells the Jaseroque, "but you need not fear for your life at every step. Be cautious and attempt no doubtful action without consulting us, and you will be as safe here as you would be elsewhere on Sirene." He exchanges his kiv for his gomapard and turns to the Dolorous Folly. "What do you intend next?"
The Dolorous Folly sheathes his stimic and takes hold of his strapan, playing strident tones. "No stone is cast without leaving its mark; even the rippling water recalls each pebble thrown. He who sings suggests an afternoon spent indulging in the pleasures and diversions that Zundar has to offer, and observing the words and deeds of others, thereby casting away the frowst induced by sea voyages while listening for items of note. As Mirielle begins to take leave of the heavens and the Drounze cast their shadows across the great concourse, a visit shall be made with a notable Wise Arbiter who is well known to he who sings, and who may provide further direction and sensible advice. Somewhere, that which is sought has touched Zundar in a manner which can be detected."
The Dolorous Folly cocks his mask slightly and gazes up at the broad yellow cliffs and their carved stone balconies and intricate volutes, awaiting the Welcome Rain's reply.
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