Mavruche, or The Merchant of Essences (a tribute to Jack Vance)

by Paulus the Woodgnome

Authorís note: This story is a tribute to one of the finest living stylists in American letters, the science-fiction and fantasy author Jack Vance, whose "Dying Earth" tales directly inspired this piece.

On the easternmost edge of the old land of Gadolais, far from populous Parth Pol and the gardens of silken Laissa, lies the city of Mavruche. Though as ancient as any of the cities of Gadolais, as celebrated in the interminable histories that gather dust in the empty towers of Jangalore of the Scholars, it is yet a place little spoken of, almost shunned. Its people are melancholy and somewhat severe of countenance; its musics elegant but doleful; its ceremonies grave and restrained. Even the dim sunlight in its narrow streets seems to have an autumnal air, and its tall houses of glossy black brick turn shuttered faces to the world, and raise high walls about their gardens.

Beyond Mavruche there lie no lands of men, only the great desert called the Amber Waste, whose sands fill the streets of the city when the wind blows from the east. With each spring the sands of that dessicated wilderness come a little nearer the walls of Mavruche, and one day it will swallow that city, as it has swallowed other dwelling places - of men, and things that are not men.

To Mavruche, one fine spring, came Yrel the Wanderer, moved by youthful curiosity, and the malicious and wholly incomprehensible desire of various parties in Laissa, with whom he had but lately enjoyed a most fruitful business relationship, to visit indignities upon his person. He was a tall young man, agreeable of countenance, with large hazel eyes and a habitually quizzical expression; his hair, which was long, he wore in a topknot pierced with a carved oastbone pin, after the fashion of the young coxcombs of Western Gadolais.

On entering the Orchard Gate of Mavruche, named for plantations which now lay beneath the encroaching sand, he accosted a passer-by for directions to a decent hostelry. The man, cloaked and veiled like all the Mavruchoix, surveyed him coolly.

"There is the Seray of the Pale Illumination, across the Plascenty Square, should you have a taste for religious debate and hard beds; or there is the Workman's Hostel in the Arcade of Troubadors, where the beds also are hard, and the company rough, but there is ale to be had."

"Neither of these choices appears appealing," returned Yrel. "Is there no inn suited to a gentleman of quality, with wine and rare essences to complement a refined cuisine, and comfortable accomodation ?"

"Perhaps you should apply to Vade the Essence Merchant, if that is your need," replied the stranger sardonically. "Certainly so refined a young gentleman as yourself would find a warm welcome in his home."

"And where might I find this man of culture and hospitality ?" enquired Yrel.

"Why in the Street of the Perfumers, on the far side of Scandelume Plaza there. You may say if you wish that Cauvranche Miir sent you: we have had amicable dealings in the past, and I dare say that a recommendation from me will do you no harm with him." He nodded and passed on his way, leaving Yrel to reflect that his evident worth must have thawed the man's initially somewhat supercilious manner.

"And as well for him," muttered the Wanderer, "or I should certainly have mended his manners for him with a bodkin." And in a high good humour, he proceeded in the direction that the stranger had indicated, and found himself directly outside the establishment of Vade, a handsome building with an air of discreet prosperity. The door was firmly closed, but this posed no problem to the talents of the Wanderer.

On entering, he found himself in a dimly lit room, hung with rich silken brocades, figured with curious, and on closer inspection, rather disturbing images. A lamp suspended from a chain suffused the atmosphere with a golden glow and a rich scent, sweet but not cloying.

Having surveyed his surroundings with some care, Yrel rapped loudly upon the wooden counter at one end of the room.

"Ho there," he cried cheerily. "Are the servitors of Vade so neglectful in their duties ?"

A grey-haired man appeared abruptly from behind a hanging. He seemed surprised and not a little annoyed at the appearance of Yrel and glanced at the door crossly; but when he spoke, his voice was mild.

"Your pardon," he said. "For a fact, I was somewhat abstracted in the blending of a delicate distillation of fengari essence with oil of sweet pepper, and failed to hear your entrance. I am Vade: may I be of aid to you ?"

"In fact," replied Yrel offhandedly, "it may be that I can be of assistance to you. Cauvranche Miir mentioned to me that you have become somewhat reclusive of late; your friends grow concerned that you are too much by yourself, and should spend more time in refined company. Although my business is pressing, I at once determined to relieve the situation by passing a few days enjoying that hospitality for which you were once famous."

A curious gleam came into Vade's eyes.

"Cauvranche Miir, you say. Indeed, how generous. It is true I have been somewhat neglectful of my duty to society of late, for the needs of my business press upon me. Yes, indeed; it is an excellent plan. Allow me only a few moments to close up this shop, and I will at once accompany you to my home, where I have some rare essences on which I would value the opinion of so distinguished a traveller."

This suited Yrel well, and he waited in high good humour while the other made his preparations, noting against future necessity the location of Vade's strongbox and the fact that it was locked with a small silver key that the older man kept on a chain about his neck. Vade drew on the grey veil of Mavruche, and threw a hooded cloak about him.

"Come then," he said, and they went out into the street. Vade led Yrel through the winding and dusty lanes of the old city, until they came to a door in a high wall, much like a thousand others that they had passed. He laid his hand upon the lock, and murmured a few words to it in a tone too low for Yrel to catch, and at once the door opened a little.

"Ho: you are a magician then," commented the Wanderer.

"In no wise. But the lock employs an imp of the demon realm Genkath, bound by the spell known as Spardeloft's Iconic Compulsion; it is a heritage of this house and dates from the great Era of the Magicians. None now has the skill to fashion such a thing, I fancy. Magic is fading, as Science faded before it; now there is only ingenuity or brute defiance to sustain us until the sun goes out."

"That is a harsh philosophy," commented Yrel, "and takes no account of style and personal elan, which you have perhaps understandably omitted, but which in the person of a man such as myself may prove more sustaining than either."

"The concept is noted," replied Vade equably. "Come, enter." They stepped through the door into a walled garden of great beauty. Small trees with artfully contorted limbs grew among lush green grass and formed many pleasant bowers, and among them great drifts of pale lilies and blue-green telanxis that glowed in the dim light and scented all the air. Water splashed in fountains and dripped and sang in artfully contrived rills that ran beside the paths of pale stone. One side of the walled garden was the wall of a handsome manse with wide windows behind elegantly carved shutters, now open to afford a view upon this charming scene.

Vade clapped his hands, and straightaway from out of the house came two servants, a youth seemingly a little younger than Yrel, and a young woman. The young man had fine features, with pale skin and dark hair and eyes; the girl was also beautiful and striking, for her hair, which was long and bound with a fillet of silvery metal, was white, and shot through with iridescence like mother of pearl, but her eyes were as dark as the boy's. Both wore a simple grey overrobe, ankle-length at front and back, but open at the sides: from the glimpses of pale flesh thus afforded they appeared to be naked beneath, a conceit that Yrel found charming and not a little stimulating.

"The boy is Azirian, the girl, Tselais. They will attend to all your needs while you are a guest of this house," said Vade. "No doubt you will wish to refresh yourself and wash away the dust of travel. We will dine together at the hour of the Mouse." He bowed to Yrel, who responded with an extravagant courtesy; when he rose from his sweeping inclination Vade had gone.

"Hah," said Yrel, somewhat piqued. "I see that the niceties of the West are somewhat skimped on this dismal frontier. No matter; if his manner is a little abrupt, still Vade's hospitality is generous. Boy, you may show me to my rooms. Tselais, you may walk beside me."

The silent servitors accompanied Yrel to a room large and well-appointed, if somewhat sombre for that young man's taste. A bathroom adjoined it.

"Shall I prepare your bath ?" asked Tselais. Her voice was low in timbre and pleasantly husky.

"No: Azirian shall do so," decided Yrel. "You, my dear, may assist me to disrobe."

The girl bit her lip, and her expression showed that she did not much care for the idea.

"Come now," said Yrel. "Did Vade not direct you to attend to my whims ? Be warned: I am a kind man, but I brook no annoyances."

She lowered her eyes, and stepping forward began, with a clumsiness that was quite endearing, to unfasten Yrel's doublet and then his shirt; finally, with appropriate directions, she unlaced his hose and eased them down, kneeling before him to slip off his boots and pull the silken fabric from his feet. She reached up for his undergarment, but he caught both her hands in one of his and pulled her to her feet. His other hand slipped in under her robe to touch her smooth skin. Her breasts were small and hard as apples, her nipples large in proportion and rapidly stiffening under his clever fingers.

"Sir, your bath is ready," came the soft voice of the boy Azirian behind him. Yrel turned and motioned the boy forward. "And what of you ?" he murmured, slipping a hand into the youth's robe in turn, running it down the firm young muscles of the abdomen to cup the softness between the thighs and feel the member stir gently. As he ran a teasing finger upward again he felt a metallic hardness.

"Remove your robe," he told the boy sharply. Expressionless, the youth removed the heavy cloth and stood naked, slim and bright as a new sword. In his navel a small disk of silver had been fixed.

"And what is this ?" enquired Yrel.

"The badge of our servitude," replied Tselais. "All the servitors of Vade are so marked."

"You too ? Remove your robe also, that I may inspect you." The girl complied. Sure enough, the same disk of silver, matte and figured with a slightly raised circle, had been affixed in her umbilical cavity.

"It would be a pretty conceit, but a man of more style would have chosen a more fitting design," said Yrel. "Also, the unwise servant might consider it a thing of value to sell, in the event that he or she should leave their master's service abruptly."

"They can never be removed," said Tselais sadly. "Nor do we dream of escape."

Yrel allowed them to conduct him to his bath, where he commanded the boy to wash him while he performed certain intimacies on the girl. Cleansed, and annointed with several of the rare oils that the essence merchant's trade afforded, he clambered from the warm water allowed Tselais to dry him while he fondled the youth Azirian in turn, but the young man remained calm and unresponsive, piqueing Yrel's vast amour propre.

"What; do you defy me with dumb insolence ?" he cried. "There is a remedy for that." And taking up his leather belt from among his clothes he threw Azirian down upon the couch, and pulling to one side the loose robe the boy wore, he brought the supple leather down upon the pale moons of his backside. A red stripe flowered on the white flesh; and then another, and another. The watching Tselais grew pale, and her hand flew unnoticed to her mouth. At the eighth stroke the young man's breath hissed between his teeth.

"Ah," said Yrel merrily. "Now there will be singing to the tune that Yrel likes." He laid on with a will, and the boy began to gasp. As he writhed under Yrel's ministrations, however, his breathing took on a different rhythm, and a glimpse afforded by his movements revealed to Yrel that the youth had grown erect. Enthused by this discovery, Yrel chose to heed Azirian's tearful protests, and directed the boy to kneel at his feet and take Yrel's member, which had grown considerably during the exercise, in his soft lips and pleasure him. The youth proved adept at his task. Spent, Yrel dismissed the two servants, though not without noting that Azirian hobbled from the room his garments greatly extended at the front, and retired to the couch to rest. He slept there while the afternoon light waned, and awoke refreshed but hungry.

Presently the sombre tone of a bell sounded through the mansion of Vade, and Tselais and Azirian appeared to conduct Yrel to the dining room. Meeting Yrel's glance Azirian blushed prettily, and hung his head, but the suggestion of a smile lingered on his face.

The dining room proved to be pleasant and elegantly furnished. Vade was there, and greeted the Wanderer with the utmost cordiality, pressing upon him a black wine scented with violets, and morsels of smoked eel, and burdock comfits, to stimulate the appetite. Presently the meal was served by two more servants whom Yrel had not previously seen: course following course, each with its proper tincture or essence to accompany it.

"This is hospitality of a rare refinement and delicacy," commented Yrel over the fourteenth and final course: small balls of jellied rance served with a tart and smoky mangosteen wine. "Indeed, there are few men with the essential discernment to appreciate it as it deserves: in me, you are fortunate."

"Clearly so," said Vade, eyeing his guest as the latter downed yet another glass of wine. "I trust that you have found the hospitality of this house as adequate in other respects ?"

"In most respects I have been well served, although the quarters you have allotted me are perhaps a trifle narrow," said Yrel airily. "And I was compelled to urge the boy Azirian to a more responsive frame of mind concerning his duties."

Vade frowned.

"I do not understand," he said.

"For a fact, I found him somewhat sullen. But an application of leather to his hindquarters, and he moved with great despatch to mend his manners."

"What ?" cried Vade, his face colouring. "The work of months will be ruined !" His voice was sibilant with anger. Then, seeming to recollect himself, he shook his head as if in exasperation, and snapped his fingers. One of the servants came forward with a small squat bottle of antique design and two goblets.

"Forgive my outburst," he said in a quieter tone, "but the punishment of servants in this household is strictly regulated, and careless fustigation may spoil their training. Still, no matter; it can be retrieved. Come, let us finish the repast. I would welcome your opinion on this flask of Umber Lohock; it is at least five centuries old and came to me by very curious means from the ruins of a palace in the Amber Waste."

He poured two glasses of a rich, dark-golden liquid with a fragrance reminiscent of thyme honey and ozone. "Your good health, and growing wisdom," he said, and sipped a little from his glass.

Yrel raised the scented potion to his nostrils and savoured it before tasting. It was, indeed, the crown to an excellent repast, for the Umber Lohock tasted, purely and simply, of the essence of long drowsy summer days. Encouraged by Vade, Yrel consumed his glass with relish. Only on looking up and seeing the expression of malicious triumph on his erstwhile host's face did he suspect trickery, and by then it was too late, for as he strove to rise and draw the dagger he kept in his boot the room tilted queerly in improbable directions and darkness took him.

* * *

When Yrel awoke, with a head still groggy and a body that seemed to be filled with red hot wires where the nerves should be, it was to find himself back in the room that Vade had offered him, lying naked upon the bed with Tselais standing by the doorway, watching him with an expression in which were mingled regret and a certain bitter amusement.

He strove to rise, but fell back with a groan.

"Be still; the dizziness will pass," she said. "So also the pain, for the while."

"A malison upon Vade and all his works," groaned Yrel. "What does he seek of me ?"

"Nothing more than he has already: he would make you an asset in his trade, as he has done with us and many others," said Tselais.

Yrel frowned and seeing that he did not take her meaning the girl made a small sound of annoyance. Stepping into the next room she returned (to his distress) with a small hand mirror of Kandish manufacture which Yrel, finding it in the room and assessing it as of some little value, had packed away among his own things.

"Behold," she said, angling the mirror so that Yrel could see, nestling among the lean musculature of his own abdomen, the same small silver disk that Tselais and Azirian both bore. At once, his hand flashed to his navel, seeking to remove the thing, but as he tugged at it a wave of pain and nausea flashed through every part of him, so intense that he thought he might be dying.

Tselais looked alarmed.

"Do not," she said. "The gorgolid is still touchy from the implantation: it will chide you severely if you vex it."

At that moment Vade entered, in high good humour.

"It seems you have done me a favour," he said. "Azirian yielded three full flasks of the gold from this tapping. Clearly you stimulated him with some skill."

"I shall stimulate your neck with my fingers as I wring it," cried Yrel, rising from the bed, but Vade, with a twitch of the lips, merely raised a small wand that he carried, and the same dreadful pain shot through Yrel again, causing him to cast himself upon the floor writhing in his distress.

"You must do better," observed Vade. "Calm attention to your master's whims, and the cultivation of a stoic disposition: these will aid you and make your service tolerable. Displays of temperament will avail nothing but to taint the tappings; such remonstrances as you have just felt must then be deployed to excess, which results in damage. Tselais, take him to the tapping chamber: I shall be there directly."

The girl came forward, and helped Yrel to rise. She dressed him a long grey robe like her own: in truth, but a piece of heavy cloth two manlengths in one dimension and perhaps less than a metre in the other, with a hole in the middle for his head. Then they quit the chamber, Yrel leaning upon her perhaps more than was strictly warranted by his condition.

"What has been done to me ? What is this device by which Vade controls his servantry ?" asked Yrel in a low voice as they passed through a heavy door and down some stairs.

"I will show you: here, we are at the tapping chamber," replied Tselais.

Within, the room was brightly lit by some sourceless illumination. Vats were ranged about the chamber, and devices of curiously figured and contorted glass, in which liquids of various colours dripped; there were also a heavy wooden table and a bench, and some items of furniture of less certain denomination but somehow disturbing import. In one corner a great glass tank was filled with a cerulean liquid, and to this Tselais now went.

"See," she said, and following her Yrel perceived that within the fluid were moving curious things, like tangled balls of the finest silver wire, gossamer threads of which writhed out from their centre in all directions.

He shuddered. "What are these: some curiosity of the deep ocean ?"

"These gorgolids were brought to Old Earth long ago from the world Ts'ts'vang, which circles the star Canopus: so I have been told. Their organisation is unlike any earthly form of life at any rate: see how they are composed of a myriad threads, and each of these is capable of extension to the most exquisite fineness ? Such a creature has been implanted within each of us: the stuff of its body extends through us, twined around the fibres of our nerves. When the nerves are stimulated, so intimate is the connection that the creature is stimulated too, and after a while the rarest of essences is excreted, one which promotes health and repairs the ravages of age. Few men are wealthy enough to pay the prices that Vade charges for that elixir, but there are enough."

Yrel felt weak with the horror of this recitation. That such an unnatural excrescence should writhe within his body filled him with disgust.

"I shall cut it from me !" he cried in a passion, casting about the laboratory for some sharp instrument with which to do so.

Tselais looked alarmed.

"You will only harm yourself," she said. "As I said the connection is intimate, and the stimulus can be reversed. Harm the creature, and you will feel it, in every element of your being. It is by this means that Vade punishes us, and protects himself: the wand emits a vibration noxious to the gorgolids, which respond to its emissions in the manner you have already felt. Nor, in any case, can the creature be removed while the host lives, save by its own will. You would do best to take his advice, which was true, if not well-meant, and cultivate calmness in this matter: there is nothing else to be done."

"This concept is foreign to my essential nature," said Yrel. "Yrel is the master of traps, not the trapped beast. Others have sought to work me harm, but I am here and they are not. I shall overcome Vade and his loathsome parasites, never doubt it."

Tselais shook her head with an ironic expression. "I admire your resolution," was all she said.

At that moment Vade entered the room. He was followed by the youth Azirian, who seemed pale and unsteady, his head hung low as if unwilling to meet Yrel's gaze.

"Ah excellent," said Vade. "I see you have made the acquaintance of the bearers." Seeing Yrel's look of puzzlement, he condescended to explain: "So they are more properly termed in the tongue of Canopus: tk-mahoevey, or 'bearers of the life-essence'. It is a vulgar error to call them 'gorgolids', and one which, moreover, they themselves resent. But enough discourse: I have expended a fortune upon you, including the cost of a half-flask of Umber Lohock mixed with the distilled pods of robberweed to make you sleep. Now it is time for you to begin your repayment. Be so good as to remove your robe and lie face down upon that table."

Yrel set his face and folded his arms.

"I will not," he said.

"Really, this is most vexing: have you not already suffered those pangs which I can inflict upon you ? I am a reasonable man, and take no pleasure in the infliction of pain: still, it seems the lesson must be taught again, until you have it down." He waved the small silver wand at Yrel, who was again struck by a transitory wave of that terrible and nauseating pain which he had felt twice before.

So weakened, he was stripped and led to the table, which he now saw had a hole about two palm widths in diameter cut into its middle, and assisted onto it. He laid down along its length, his genitals hanging limply through the hole. To his alarm, fetters were then placed upon his wrists and ankles, binding him securely to the wood.

"Good: now to begin the stimulation," said Vade. "Tselais, you may begin with the Third Recension, I think, and then Azirian will apply the Seventeenth and you the Twenty-fourth." At that Azirian's head rose a little; a small smile appeared on the pale lips. Tselais nodded; then casting off her robe, she jumped onto the table and knelt astride Yrel's back like a rider on a horse. Her small hands began to massage the wood hard muscles of Yrel's shoulders; scented oil was brought, and she rubbed it in, her hands moving now down the bound man's back, and then, rising and re-positioning herself atop his calves, she worked on his buttocks, fondling and sqeezing, rubbing the slippery stuff deep into the cleft between his cheeks and down the perineum to caress and annoint his member and pair. Some warming element in the fragrant oil brought a delightful glow to Yrel's body. Pain was now fororgotten in the rush of more pleasant sensations.

The clever little hands continued their work, and Yrel felt himself begin to grow under her ministrations. At once, she leaped from the table, but before he had a chance to utter even a groan of disappointment he felt her address his manhood from beneath him, and understood the purpose of the hole in the table. Her hands moved silkily upon his now-stiff member: he must needs think that such servitude as this was not entirely bad !

"Now, Azirian," came Vade's voice from behind him. "Tselais, do not cease your efforts." Indeed, do not, thought Yrel, but at that moment there came a swishing sound and a line of fire seemed to draw itself across his buttocks.

With a yelp of surprise and pain Yrel turned his head as best he could and saw the boy Azirian, a triumphant smile upon his face, bring down a small crop, perhaps a third of a metre in length, down upon his helpless backside. It stung bitterly.

Yrel cursed aloud. "The next time, boy, you will pay for this: you shall not sit easy again after my hand and belt have dealt with you."

"You forget yourself," said Vade. "Lay on, Azirian: the allocation of punishments in this household is for me to decide, and none other. Do not slack in your duties, or I may indeed decide to give your chastisement over to Yrel, and reverse your situations."

The young man took Vade at his word, and the crop made its merry music on Yrel's helpless flesh. And all the while, Tselais continued her ministrations, and with cunning manipulations and pressures maintained the greatness of Yrel's erection even through the burning pain that Azirian was visiting upon him. Pain and pleasure seemed to merge into a vast wholeness; desire, humiliation and anger to blend and become a greater emotion, difficult to name.

"Stop ! " cried Vade. "Raise him up, I judge him ready to tap. Rarely have I seen so rapid a response. This is most promising." Yrel's fetters were released, and Azirian and Vade lifted him up as Tselais scurried from under the table like a mouse.

As Yrel looked down he saw that the silvery disk in his navel was bulging outwards. Like a snail putting forth its horns it pushed outwards into a long silvery tube, perhaps the width of a thumb and a handspan long, like some eery shrunken mimic of the natural member below it. He knew that he ought to feel horror at the sight, yet all he could feel was that vast swelling emotion of wholeness.

Vade produced a small flask of clear glass and held it to the silvery tube, which he stroked gently from its base to its tip. A few drops of clear liquid emerged and dripped into the flask. Vade stroked the tube again and suddenly a fragrant golden fluid began to gush from it.

Within minutes the flask was filled, and a second was produced. Five flasks were filled in this fashion, to Vade's delight, before the flow ceased, leaving Yrel feeling cold and spent, his own erection faded.

"Five flasks of the gold at first tapping: this is exceptional," exulted Vade. "Cauvranche Miir must be sent a suitable recompense for directing so lusty a specimen to us. Yrel, you have done well, despite your unfortunate manner. If you would heed my earlier advice you might even find your service agreeable: several of the recensions we employ before tapping would be, I think, to your taste. Azirian: you may take Yrel to the servant's quarters and see to it that he is well fed to restore his strength. Tselais you may remain: your last tapping was disappointing, only one of gold and one-and-one-quarter of the clear. Let us see if you can do better today." Tselais bowed her head, but as Yrel bent down to retrieve his robe he caught the flash of fear upon her face at these words.

Quitting the chamber, Yrel placed his arm about the boy's shoulders as if for support. In truth he had felt drained by the tapping, but his natural vitality was such that he already felt better. When they were safely away from the tapping chamber he tightened his grip, holding the youth firmly in a headlock and pushed him roughly against the wall.

"You wretch," said Yrel softly. "Did you think I would allow your actions to go unpunished ?"

Azirian's face lost its impassivity: now he looked afraid. "I did but obey Vade," he said. "Please, Yrel: what choice had I ?"

"Ha, so you say now: yet I saw you while you beat me, and you took pleasure in it. Deny it if you can."

Azirian flushed. "I . . . I did take some small pleasure in it, because of the thrashing you gave me earlier," he confessed. "I beg you: do me no harm and I will pleasure you as you wish."

"So you shall indeed," said Yrel grimly. "But my first pleasure shall be to see your upturned bottom grow hot and red as you howl for mercy. What lies behind that door ?"

"An old storeroom for discarded furniture and the like," said Azirian. "Please: I didn't mean it . . ."

"That will do us very well," said Yrel, cutting off the youth's protestations, and opening the door he dragged his victim within. Sure enough, piled tables, chairs and dressers filled much of the space within, but there remained enough space for Yrel to drag forward a low padded stool, somewhat worn, take his seat upon it and throw the hapless Azirian across his lap. He drew aside the grey robe to reveal buttocks still a little pink from the earlier application of Yrel's belt.

"Now you may howl as you please, for there are none down here to hear you," said Yrel, "and these walls are thick. I have no belt or paddle to treat you as you deserve: still, a hand properly applied can do valiant service." And he proceded to demonstrate that fact on Azirian's firm and pert buttocks with a will, bringing down a palm hardened by swordplay in hard fusillades of slaps that soon had the youth gasping and crying aloud. Up and down, base and crown: no inch of the writhing posterior was left unvisited by Yrel's vengeance. Gasps became pleas, and pleas became incoherent sobs before Yrel chose to stop. The bottom before him glowed an angry red, mottled with purplish marks from particularly effective blows, and here and there were raised crops of blisters.

"Get up," said Yrel, releasing the boy. Azirian got to his feet, his pale face now also red, and streaked with tears. Yrel drew off the young man's robe, and then his own. Naked, they stood together: Yrel having waxed mightily in his manhood. Azirian took the member in his hand and his own immediately rose.

"It seems that you are not so averse to a thrashing as you claim," said Yrel with raised eyebrows. "Twice I have corrected you, and twice you have grown erect."

Azirian flushed.

"You are very - masterful," he said. "I would I were your servant, and not Vade's: then I would find the recensions much more pleasant."

"You may serve me now then," said Yrel magnanimously. He pushed the boy down on his knees and indicated that he should again perform those actions at which he had earlier proved so expert. Nothing loath, Azirian set about his work with a will. Yrel closed his eyes with pleasure at the younger man's expert ministrations. When he opened them again, he saw with disgust that his gorgolid had once again extended itself and was dribbling golden liquid down onto Azirian, who jumped up in alarm.

Yrel frowned.

"Continue," he said.

"But this is strictly forbidden: under no circumstances does Vade permit the bearers to yield outside the tapping chamber."

"Unless you wish a further thrashing, continue to pleasure me," growled Yrel. "I will tell you when you may stop; until then, remain on your knees." He reinforced the message with a slap to the youth's bottom. Cowed and wide-eyed Azirian returned to his duties. The golden elixir trickled down his chest and slid down to his navel. As it touched the tube of his own gorgolid, which was also beginning to extend, the silvery substance quivered. Then it seemed to swell, thrusting outwards and thickening and lengthening rapidly. The boy spasmed helplessly, his eyes rolling up, and he collapsed to the floor. Alarmed and fascinated, Yrel watched as the gorgolid gradually withdrew its substance from its host, forming a large seedlike structure with a smooth outer shell that hardened to a mirror-bright metallic finish.

"So that is the trick of removing these monsters," he said under his breath. "Small wonder that Vade does not care for unscheduled amusements among his servantry and was annoyed when I beat Azirian: for he surely knows that the boy finds it exciting. Hah, Vade, I shall have my revenge yet !"

He began rousing Azirian, who presently came round.

"Yrel - what has happened to me ?"

"You have again been derelict in your duties," said Yrel sternly, "for which I shall punish you suitably at some future time. At present, however, you may rest here, for your ownership has been transferred from Vade to me, as you wished. Tell me: where does Vade store the elixir that he taps ?"

"In the strongroom at the end of this corridor," said Azirian. "But the door is spellbound and he keeps the key always with him, around his neck." His eyes fluttered shut again, and his breathing slowed.

Yrel nodded thoughtfully, and leaving the youth to rest slipped from the storeroom to explore the corridor. Sure enough at the end was a massive door of black ironwood across which dull red sparks crawled slowly and aimlessly from time to time. There was one tiny keyhole.

Yrel could see at once that there was no hope of opening the door without both the key and knowledge of the necessary counterspell. Attempting to do so would most probably have dire consequences.

"Fortunately, I am Yrel the Wanderer," he said aloud. Employing that talent which had given him his name, he stepped sideways in space-time, took three steps in a direction that might loosely have been categorised as forward, had direction any meaning in that place, and returned to the mundane world to find himself in Vade's strongroom.

It was not dark, for among the treasures that Vade had amassed was a sphere of white stuff from which streamed a pleasant warm yellow light: it was held in the paws of a dancing sphinx, the device of the old Lamak Empire, and must, Yrel reflected, be one of the legendary eternal lamps that had lighted their capital of Tamarrisond, now long buried beneath the waters of the Hlaiin Straits.

By its light, Yrel beheld a treasure trove to dwarf the treasuries of the Dukes of Laissa or the Margraves of Parth Pol; not even the old kings of Gadolais had amassed such a collection of the rare, the curious, and the valuable. Mere gold had no place here, although some of the objects were ornamented with precious metals and stones. No doubt Vade had other treasuries for that. But these, Yrel could see at once, were the things that Vade truly valued. So somewhere - ah, he had it !

A doorway led into an inner room. Its walls were lined with racks in which nestled flask after flask of golden, pale green, and clear liquid. This must surely be the stuff that Vade tapped from his hapless servitors. Seizing a flask of the gold, Yrel unstoppered it and with reckless abandon poured it down his chest. As it touched the silver disk in his navel he held his breath. For a moment nothing happened, and he knew an instant of unbearable disappointment. Then he felt a vertiginous sensation and beheld the gorgolid extruding itself from him, flowing and thickening into its seed-like protective form. Pain and nausea racked him, but he managed to keep himself from losing consciousness entirely.

At last he was free of it. As an experiment, he poured the remainder of the flask of elixir onto the seed, but it had no apparent effect.

"Ha," he said aloud. "Vade: now comes a reckoning." He rose, but a wave of dizziness swept over him and he must needs sit and rest a while. After some minutes, feeling more steady, he rose carefully and went to the door, speculating upon the value of some of the more notable pieces as he went.

Again a sideways excursion through that mysterious other dimension to which some art or heritage of his mother, the demi-witch Zaliel, had given her offspring access, and he stood once more in the corridor. Stealthily, he made his way back to the tapping room. Peeking around the door he beheld Vade and Tselais on all fours and engrossed in sexual congress; the merchant was tupping his servant girl from behind with some vigour.

Swiftly, Yrel strode up on silent feet behind them and cast a fold of his grey robe around Vade's neck, drawing it tight. Vade struggled briefly, and must have managed to reach his wand for Tselais screamed out and collapsed to the floor and there came a great threshing from the tank of blue liquid where the gorgolids were kept. Yrel though, freed of his creature, was unaffected, and maintained the pressure until he felt the essence merchant slump unconscious.

At once, he removed the ligature from the throat of Vade and tearing the heavy material into strips contrived a serviceable binding for the merchant's wrists. Then he sought to rouse Tselais, who at length could speak.

"Yrel, what have you done ? He will surely kill us all when he recovers: there are other ways to command the gorgolids than the wand. I have seen him do it with a word, or a note of music."

Yrel raised an eyebrow and indicated his own unblemished navel. Stark astonishment filled Tselais' handsome features.

"You have removed it ? We were told that it was impossible."

"Small wonder: Vade would hardly encourage experiment in that direction. But now, tell me quickly, before Vade recovers - how are the creatures implanted at the first ?"

A sly look passed across the face of Tselais.

"I will gladly tell you," she murmured, "so soon as you explain how I may remove the creature as you have done."

"Minx: do you dictate terms to me ?" asked Yrel. "Perhaps I should perform a recension or two upon you."

Tselais laughed harshly.

"You will find me well inured to such usage," she said. "All of Vade's ministrations have I borne, save the Forty-first and Forty-second, which are invariably fatal. Only give me my freedom, and I will gladly demonstrate them upon the merchant."

"I shall release you: for a fact, it is easily achieved. The elixir secreted by the creatures, applied liberally to another of their kind, promotes withdrawal and encystment; so I have found. Now tell me quickly how the implantation is performed, that we may serve Vade as he has served so many others."

This idea pleased Tselais mightily, and she directed Yrel to a pair of metallic tongs, and two stiff and curiously designed gauntlets in the corner of the laboratory.

"Remove one of the creatures from the tank," she directed. "Take the utmost care that not one thread of its substance should light upon you, or you are lost. Then you need only apply it to the flesh of your victim and the creature will do the rest."

"Very well then: loosen Vade's clothing, that I may apply the gorgolid," directed Yrel. Leaving Tselais to this task, he put on the gauntlets and gingerly removed one of the creatures from their tank. He carried it stiff armed across the laboratory and placed it on Vade's stomach, into which it sank like a drop of water on sand. Vade gave a great involuntary spasm and writhed within his bonds; then he was still, and as Yrel and Tselais watched in horrified fascination the silvery operculum that marked his body's infestation formed within his navel.

Yrel retrieved Vade's wand: it had a small button at the hinder end which he judged to be the means of activation. He toyed with the device and watched Vade rousing with an expression of polite enquiry. The merchant's eyes flickered open, took in Yrel above him with a momentary puzzlement, and then glanced down. The cry that escaped his lips was pitiful to hear.

"You seem distressed," commented Yrel. "Possibly you should cultivate that stoicism which you recently commended to me."

"Remove the gorgolid," pleaded Vade. "I will gladly share my wealth with you; to be sure, there is plenty for two. More, I will make you my heir and explain all the workings of my business."

"This is an excellent offer," said Yrel thoughtfully. He pressed the button on the wand and watched Vade's convulsions of agony with a kindly but distant air. "Alas, I have undertakings of my own, elsewhere in Gadolais, which would make such a course inconvenient. Perhaps I should install an agent to manage the business."

"Indeed, I would gladly undertake this onerous burden," said Vade once he had recovered the faculty of speech. "You need take no part in the day to day running of affairs, other than to receive your share."

Yrel laughed merrily.

"I had another agent in mind. Tselais, how would you care to be Vade's mistress ? Tselais ?" He spun around at her cry and the sound of breaking glass. Silvery branches like coral had pierced her skin in a dozen places: as he watched more pierced her skin and emerged from face, back, and belly, forking and dividing. Her eyes dulled, and a rush of blood came from her mouth. Her body collapsed backwards but was supported by the metallic coralline growths. Beside her on the floor lay a broken flask of essence, its last greenish drops forming a pool about her hand. She was clearly dead. Yrel spun back to face Vade's mocking features.

"What has happened here ?" he cried. Vade sneered, but his expression became one of fear as Yrel pointed the wand at him, and he spoke so fast that his speech became gabbled.

"Her gorgolid has been stimulated with green essence: the gold produces withdrawal and encystment, but the green promotes a change into the vegetative form, which devours the host from within to gain substance for its own growth."

"Alas, poor Tselais," murmured Yrel, his face contorted with disgust, but he was yet more horrified by the narrowness of his own escape; had he but picked a flask of the green from Vade's strongroom, he too might had died such a horrid death. He strode across the room to the gorgolid tank. "These monsters shall surely die," he said, and activating the wand he concentrated its input upon the tank.

The remaining gorgolids thrashed and writhed in the tank, or withdrawing their filaments sought to encyst, but were unable to do so. Vade moaned softly as he saw the sources of his wealth one by one become limp and lifeless and sink to the floor of their habitation but an attempt to rise and remonstrate with Yrel was met with a blast of the wand that sent him crashing back to the floor.

When the last gorgolid in the tank was still, Yrel applied the wand's insensible but noxious vibration to the creature that had so horribly destroyed Tselais; in a moment the coralline fronds withered and crumbled, leaving behind the husk of the dead girl, pierced in a hundred places.

"Now Vade," said Yrel darkly, "you have many repayments to make. Get up off the floor and cease your whinings, which are not likely to urge me to mercy. Quite the contrary ! Firstly - what is that extraordinary noise ?" For the sound of great crashings and cracklings had begun to make itself known, even through the thick walls of the old mansion.

The door was abruptly thrown open. It was Azirian, his head bleeding slightly from a cut.

"Yrel !" he cried. "Some great force seeks to break through the strongroom door from the inside. The whole house shakes upon its foundations - already stones and panels have fallen !"

"What ?" cried Vade. "My strongroom ? What have you done - how did you penetrate it ?"

"I have done nothing - save to leave behind an encysted gorgolid," said Yrel, somewhat shaken by this turn of events.

"Encysted - not near the store of gold essence ? None could have leaked upon it by chance ?"

"By chance, no: however, I poured a flask of gold upon the wretched thing to see if it would change further."

Vade grew white. "Within my store ?" he cried. "So energised it will attempt to reach the stars ! My treasures !" And before Yrel could bring the wand to bear he had pushed past and stumbled into the corridor. The great door blazed as if red hot, the magical binding upon it resisting whatever it was that strove to blast it from within. Vade bent low to whisper to it, but at that moment the spell failed. A great vortex of energy burst the stout wood into flinders, consuming the hapless Vade in raging fire, and something blazing with a painful golden light hurtled the length of the corridor, narrowly missing Yrel and Azirian, who cast themselves down upon the ground with no regard for dignity.

The encysted gorgolid, for so it proved to be, had embedded itself half within the stones of the wall through the violence of its onrush. Pulses of golden light throbbed through it with gradually increasing intensity, and with each pulse the old wall groaned and shuddered. A strong scent of ozone filled the air, as after a thunderbolt.

"We must leave this place," said Azirian. Yrel frowned, reluctant to leave the promise of the now burning strongroom, but at that moment the ceiling above them shuddered and cracked, letting down a great rain of dust.

"Very well: up the stairs," agreed Yrel, and the two sped from that place. Pausing only to send Azirian for his clothes and baggage, and to help himself to certain small and valuable keepsakes, Yrel quit the mansion and went out into the garden. No more than half a minute after Azirian came flying from the house, the ground heaved and the roof and the west wall gave way, collapsing with a great roar. Two muffled explosions sounded, and then a plume of flame seared upwards through the rubble. Rising upon it, outshining the dim and ancient sun, came the gorgolid, which arrowed into the dark blue sky towards the south-west and was gone.

Behind it the flames had taken hold of Vade's mansion with eager vigour; from time to time reports arose and the flames burned a strange colour for a while; or else smokes of more or less pleasing savour filled the air.

"This is most regrettable," sighed Yrel. "Vade has caused me some inconvenience, and had scarcely begun to pay for his crimes. Had I but had time and means to remove a suitable recompense from his strongroom the balance of affairs might have been better regulated." He looked upon the slim and youthful form of Azirian, who smiled shyly. "Still, matters are not entirely without profit. Boy, the evening draws on, and you are not warmly dressed. Come sit within my cloak and press yourself against me: we will sit by the fire Vade has provided us and sup from this flask of wine I found, and perhaps you will find the night proves instructive. I have some essences that it may please you to try, indeed !"

Copyright © 2001

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