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Chapter 1

Darkness held sway over Europe, and nowhere more than in the little inn where Azzie — despite small journeys of reconnaissance and aid—was still busily recruiting people for his play.

"What news, Aretino?" Azzie asked.

"Why, sir, Venice already buzzes with rumors that something strange and unprecedented is going on. No one knows what, but there is talk. Venetians are not privy to the secrets of the Supernaturals, though we certainly ought to be, so special are we among the peoples of the world. Citizens meet day and night in San Marco's Square to discuss the latest marvel glimpsed in the sky. But you did not send for me, sir, to discuss gossip."

"I caught a glimpse of him as I was riding up," Aretino said without much enthusiasm. "It's a rather unusual way to cast a play, taking the first applicant and giving him the role willy-nilly. But no doubt he'll do. Who's next?"

"We wait and see," Azzie said. "If I am not mistaken, those are footfalls upon the stairs."

"They are indeed," Aretino said, "and by their sound I judge them to belong to a person of no particular quality in terms of station in life."

"How can you say so? I'd love to know your secret of distant perceptions."

Aretino smiled sagely. "You'll note that the boots make a scraping sound, even when heard through the material of a door and from the distance of half a corridor. That, sir, is the unmistakable sound of untanned leather. Since the sound is high-pitched, one must ascertain that the boots are stiff, and that the one rubbing against the other is like two pieces of metal rubbing together. No man of quality would wear such material, so it must belong to a poor man."

"Five ducats if you're right," Azzie said. The sound of the boots stopped just outside the door. There was a knock. "Come in," said the redheaded demon.

The door opened and a man entered slowly, looking both ways as if unsure of his reception. He 'was a tall yellow-headed fellow wearing a ragged shirt of homespun and boots of cowhide that looked as if they had been annealed to his legs.

"I'll pay you later," Azzie said to Aretino. To the stranger he said, "I do not know you, sir. Are you part of our pilgrimage, or did you come upon us in the dark?"

"In a corporeal sense, I'm one of the group," the stranger replied, "yet in a spiritual sense I am not one of the party."

"The fellow hath a pretty wit," Azzie said. "What is your name, fellow, and your station in life?"

"They call me Morton Kornglow," the man said. "My regular occupation is grooming horses, but I was impressed into the job of valet to Sir Oliver, since I live in his ancestral village and have always been handy with a currycomb. Thus I may fairly claim that I am one of you as far as the physical body is concerned, but a company is generally thought of as composed of like-minded members, and one does not include the dogs and cats who may stray along with them, nor the servants, who are no more than the animals, though perhaps a little more valuable. I must ask you at once, sir, does my lowly station in life bar me from participating in this event? Is your contest open only to nobles, or may a common man with dirt under his fingernails volunteer?"

"In the Spiritual World," Azzie said, "the distinctions men make between each other are meaningless. We think of you all as souls for the taking, wearing a temporary body and soon to give it up. But enough of that. Would you be one of our seekers of the candlesticks, Kornglow?"

"I would indeed, sir demon," Kornglow said. "For though I am but a commoner, there is that which I desire. I would go to a bit of trouble to procure it."

"Name your desire," Azzie said.

"That'll be enough," Azzie said. "Spare us the rest of your rustic pleasantries and tell me what you want of the lady."

"Why, that she should marry me, of course," Kornglow said.

Aretino gave a great laugh and muffled it forthwith as a cough. Even Azzie had to smile, so ill-matched was the loutish and out-at-elbow Kornglow with any pretty noblewoman.

"Well, sir," Azzie said, "you are not afraid to shoot high in your courting!"

"A poor man can aspire to Helen of Troy if he so desires," said Kornglow. "And in his fancy she may well respond to him above all men, and find him more desirable than delectable Paris himself. In a dream, whatever you want can happen. And is this not a sort of a dream, Your Excellency?"

"Yes, I suppose it is," Azzie said. "Well, sir, if we were to grant your wish, we'd have to have you ennobled in order that there be no impediment of station to the marriage ceremony."

"I'd be willing," Kornglow said.

"We'd also have to get Lady Cressilda's consent," Aretino pointed out.

"Leave that to me when the time comes," Azzie said. "Well, it's a challenge, Kornglow, but I think we can swing it."

Aretino frowned and said, "There's the fact that the lady is already married, my lord, that might stand as some impediment."

"We have clerks in Rome to take care of details like that," Azzie said. He turned to Kornglow. "There are a few things you will have to do. Are you ready to go to a little trouble?"

"Why, yes, sir, so long as it be not too strenuous. A man should not be taken out of his native temper even by the most outrageous of good fortune, and my own native temper is of a laziness so extreme that did the world but know about it they'd declare me a prodigy."

"There's nothing too difficult ahead of you," Azzie promised. "I think we can dispense with the usual sword fighting, since you were not educated to it."

Azzie fished in his waistcoat pocket and found one of his magical keys. He handed it to Kornglow, who turned it over and over in his fingers.

"You will go from here," Azzie said, "and the key will take you to a doorway. You will pass through it, and find a magic horse with a magic candlestick in his saddlebag. Mounting him, you will find your adventure, and, at the end of it, your Cressilda of the cornsilk hair."

"Great!" Kornglow said. "It is wonderful when good fortune comes easy like this!"

"Yes," Azzie said, "ease of acquisition is one of the great things of this world, and a moral I hope to preach to men: namely, good fortune comes easy, so why sweat it?"

Azzie smiled benignly. "Another happy customer."

"There's someone new at the door," said Aretino.


Chapter 5 | A Farce To Be Reckoned With | Chapter 2







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