Even the strongest leader has moments of weakness, hidden, gnawed upon in solitude.
Nicodamien did not often drink to excess. But there were times when a chill wind hollowed him and his blood seemed slow and old. He contemplated the state of his race, living like vermin burrowing in the earth, stagnant, arrested, pointlessly immortal. They staved off the eternal midnight with artificial light, the faintly tinkling crystals that glowed sunset orange and dusk purple, powered by the internal fires of their subterranean prison. No birth, no death, they labored repetitively to maintain their tedious lives, while the world above swarmed with idiot insect abundance. Humans spread their obscene noise and sewage over the face of the world, copulating and quarreling in the golden sunlight, free and foul and furiously fecund.
As the leader of the precious last survivors of the glorious race of people the humans called the Elders, Nicodamien had a crushing burden to keep them going, to stave off despair, apathy, ennui, all the natural consequences of a brilliant, powerful people kept in an earthenware jar. They possessed knowledge barely tapped, technological secrets unutilized, all held like the meat of a seed within a rocky shell, preserved. How long could such a seed remain viable? How long could its germ hang on to a will to live when its promise seemed to have been rendered sterile?
Nicodamien’s answer: As long as they had to. Many unexpected things can come in the fullness of time, and immortality granted them that fullness. They would endure until their day came, and it must come. No tragedy could be greater than the extinction of that singular sublime race that had already endured so much.
So he fired them with hope, reminded them of their magnificent achievements and the glorious past that had once been, breathed passion into their spirits. He strode among them, lightning in flesh, occult wisdom glowing in his night black eyes, the power and the glory forever. In his veins flowed the blood of greatness, of legendary leaders, warriors, the Prime of Primes. He saw what lay beneath the appearances of things and sparked awe in the hearts of all who looked upon him. It was an exhausting role to play, and demanded all his wits and energy. And so, Nicodamien did not often drink.
But the cold of winter had somehow crept down from the earth above into the warm, crystal-lit sanctuary of marble and titanium. Icy fingers sought his heart and hoar-frosted breath whispered mockery into his ear. It was hard to keep the furnace roaring hot when the world kept shoving wet green wood and damp canvas into his soul. In a moment of idle weakness, Nicodamien took up the cut crystal flask and sought refuge in the sacred labyrinth of what Arikinsa called the Place of Memories.
The halls of the Museum and Archives, the largest and most complex building in all the Subcity, were a full golden corn maze of wonders, secrets, precious jewels preserved. Immense banks of data cubes held within them solid and ever immutable the accumulated wisdom of their race. Music, images, formulae, essays, histories, everything ever recorded, copies of all of it were kept stored here. Even the forbidden scientific secrets that Nicodamien himself had made a loud show of removing from the possibility of human contact. They were still hidden here, inaccessible except to those who knew how to find them.
There were rooms filled with displays of artifacts, exquisite and terrible works of art, musical instruments of every sort, samples of clothing, worn and treasured utensils of daily life from past times, vast spreads of maps which could undulate and ripple to show how the world had changed over the eons. Books were kept in a vacuum of clear lyracite, untouchable except by remote means, pages turned without being touched to permanently halt the creep of decay. A stage could be filled with holographic images of places, people, times gone, performances of passion, drama and comedy, all conjured by the curious viewer with a touch on a terminal.
Humans were allowed here. They came to learn, a futile exercise. Humans die, and their progeny must learn again, and the race never really learns at all. But such was the agreement forged with the Outside, the treaty that allowed the great race to survive a little longer. The necessary farce of the present.
They had to be careful what the humans were allowed to learn. The Bloody Revolution had taught them what the vermin were capable of, if allowed too much power, and knowledge was power. His people guarded the power they held carefully. The humans resented it. Oh how they resented it! Just weeks ago four of the idiot creatures sought to steal the power from them. They had failed. And for the time being at least, they would not try it again. But someday they would. Humans could not be trusted.
Nicodamien did not wish to see anyone at that moment, least of all humans. He even avoided the curator and archivist, Passaconamus, whom he respected because of his immense age. Passaconamus and his mate, Apollodoria, were the only survivors of the old days, the days before Oblivion, the time of the great glory of their race. Nicodamien and Passaconamus often disagreed, sometimes violently, on certain issues particularly where humans were concerned. The ancient archivist was fond of the creatures, welcomed them in his hall of wonders, encouraged them in their May-moth pursuits of ephemeral wisdom. It disgusted Nicodamien, but he accepted the necessity of it. He had no choice but to overlook this perversity on the part of a being for whom he otherwise felt a profound respect.
In his present state of mind, however, Nicodamien had no patience for it. He put up a security screen to block off the wing, something Passaconamus would not approve of but which Nicodamien had the authority to do. He wanted no intrusion into his deep well of contemplative depression. He was pulled with morbid fascination into the Portrait Gallery to gaze into the unknowable abyss of the past. To commune with ghosts.
There they were, the long dead, the recently dead, the honored icons of a vanished era. He took a drink of burning self-reproach from the flask, its gem-cut rough surface hard against his fingers. Most of the faces meant little to him as he marched down their long rank and pierced their dead eyes with his own. He knew their names. He had studied their history. They had presided over the gangrenous decay of their race, its fall from soaring heights of astonishing triumph into a mouse squeak utter loss of potency. He walked past one who had survived oblivion, secretly evading the righteous suicide that had condemned the rest, but had died in the Bloody Revolution, murdered pointlessly by rabid humans.
That had all happened before Nicodamien was born. But he had read about it. Studied it. Chewed it over like a sour cud trying to derive some sort of nutritive sense out of it. They had sacrificed the Passion in an attempt to rise above animal drives and elevate themselves into intellectual godhood. But they were bodily beings, for all their intellect and immortality. Sex is life. The drives of Passion sustain the soul. Those who went into Oblivion altered, neutered, hollowed of reproductive power, died in Oblivion.
He braced himself, knowing what face would come before him next in this parade of ego facsimiles. A face that was intimately linked to his own, blood bondage, a mystery of re-creation. And then he looked into the eyes of one who had spat on the conventions of his contemporaries, who had defied, deviated, stealthily pursued his own agenda, scorned Oblivion, built his own world when the old one decayed like the slime of a collapsing mushroom. Mirramarduk, whose name had come to mean Prophet, Lord, Holy Master, Ultimate Evil, Deceiver, Old Snake, the Resurrected and Redeemed.
Mirramarduk. He had been a husk, a broken mirror, a beautiful empty snakeskin when Nicodamien was born. The last act of a once-great being, to procreate. His murder had been a mercy, a release from a life that did little more than batter him about in a humiliating travesty. But there had been moments, Nicodamien remembered, late in the night before the fire, his ancient father talking, musing aloud, the sad, soft ramblings of a soul that had seen far too much and did not know how to find its way out of the cruel maze. Nicodamien had been too young to understand, possessed with the fanatical myopia of the adolescent, a bloody little smug fool. He wished he had listened, asked questions, probed to find the sparks in that dying blaze. Now it was too late.
“If I had one wish,” Nicodamien said, “I’d wish to talk with you.” But there was nothing he could do to make that frozen image move or speak. Somewhere in the Arctic was a shaman named Arikinsa who was supposed to have been animated by the soul once named Mirramarduk. The corpse had passed into the Volcano and somehow, impossibly, the spirit had returned to the world in a new body, a new life. It made no sense. Yet, Nicodamien believed. He felt forced to believe when Arikinsa was with him, his energy rippling the waters around him, his shrewd intellect apprehending everything and pushing, pinching the clay to the shape he wanted. Lord. Holy Master. A spirit driven to seize life and control it, to ride it like a wild stag, gripping the sharp-horn antlers and pulling its head back through shear power of will. Mirramarduk, the indomitable.
But Arikinsa had no memory of his past life, only flashes of insight, fleeting ghosts of memory that might only have been self-deception. He could tell Nicodamien nothing. Only suggest through example what his father might have been in his prime, in the fierce noon-day blaze of his too-long life.
Nicodamien felt eyes on his back. He spun around and saw, separate in his own alcove, the other immortal who had scorned oblivion and remained stubbornly, doggedly aware through all the long centuries. The old warrior. Tristramacus.
If any legend loomed even larger than that of Mirramarduk, it was that of the Great Lord Tristramacus. They had hated each other, torn at each other over incomprehensible years, driving each other mad, yet the tension of their hatred kept each other alert, alive, driven to win an impossible war. In the end, Tristramacus had won. That was what they taught in the history texts. Mirramarduk had been broken, destroyed. Never to fight again.
“What did you win, Grandfather?” Nicodamien asked, approaching the stern, hawk-faced commander with his immense shoulders, oak tree limbs, blunt-force torso. Tristramacus had retired, gone away to the Arctic before Nicodamien was born. He never knew him. He knew only the legend, built as high and mighty as the Commander himself, the Great Lord, who became the Shaman of the Tribe of Ancients. They said he could see the waters more clearly than any others of his race. He saw the tides that pulled at the world and drove the detritus of events back and forth. It made him a military genius, made him able to match wits with Mirramarduk and win. Stubborn force, a fanatic sense of honor, compassion for the weak and foolish. Champion of humanity. But he got sick of it all and left when his final victory for them was won.
“You grew old and died. You went into the Volcano, too, but you never came back. You didn’t want to, did you? Life was nothing but a dried lemon, hard and sour. You asked Arikinsa to bury you, burn your corpse, do anything but don’t put you up for rebirth. You gave up. You fell gratefully into death like it was a feather bed. And you took her with you!”
He turned to confront the other, the third of the familial triad who haunted this place.
“Why?” he asked of the Thousand Year Prime, whose enigmatic smile held both mercy and iron justice. He had studied her methods, how she had held on to power for all that time, how she had risen from oblivion to take power again, only to have it blown shatter-glass into dust in the Bloody Revolution. She had never recovered from that.
“You let it defeat you. Why? Is that what happens after one thousand, two thousand headache, drum-beat years? Does it wear you down, like rain pounding on rock, weathering away the hard edge until you are flat and featureless? Will it happen to me?”
He went up to her, glaring, defiant. “It was because of him, wasn’t it? You dove into the Volcano after him. Everywhere he went, you followed. When he lurched away into the snow, mad as a rabid hare, you followed. When he hid himself away in the Arctic to brood and age and mutter salt-wound curses to himself, you followed. You loved him suicidally. Damn you! You didn’t need to die! Tristramacus was a walking dried insect shell, sick to retching with the nausea of living! All right, let him go, but you didn’t have to go dog-trotting after him! Passaconamus didn’t give up, Apollodoria didn’t!”
She merely continued to smile, powerfully benevolent, sublimely self-contained.
“Love!” he spat. “It’s passion that keeps us alive! Love is death!” He paced furiously, back and forth, “Bloody, wretched, dance of agony, love! Sucking the life out, a tender leech that kisses the heart! Blind killing stupor—“
He stopped. His shoulders fell, and he took another numbing pull off of the flask in his hand. His mind spun itself into knots. “The passion makes one foolish. That is what they say. Then what is love?” He looked up at her in desperate appeal. “My father loved you. He shared the passion with my mother and with anything else that caught his fancy and stood still long enough. But not with you. He loved you. Did you love him?” He nodded slowly. “I think you did. When he was murdered, gone, lost to you, then there was nothing to keep you from being pulled rip-tide back to Tristramacus and drowning with him.”
He sank down to the floor to sit at her feet, his mind picking at it, the knotted, twisted mess of yarn. What a mirror-maze puzzle it was! He could not deny the necessity of either, the wildfire animation of passion, or the strong-arms-holding, sunlight warmth of love. Yet he had seen the madness, the poisonous delusion and tears falling unto death that either could bring. There was no scalpel that could slice away the shadow and leave the joy. He himself had put aside both, undecided, suspicious. There had been too much else to demand his energies, so he had not indulged in either. The closest he’d ever had to a mate was lost to him, and just as well.
So he watched with avid interest the passions and love of others. But any truths he might have learned eluded him in the mud swirl weed tangle. Life, passion, love, death. It seemed so vitally important. It remained so stubbornly incomprehensible.
“Brinnalamaya.” He spoke her name aloud, turning over on his tongue the magic conjured by those syllables. “My father. My grandfather. You. Thrown into the crucible and poured into the flesh. What genetic distillation of which vital elements invoked my particular self? If that flesh should choke to death tomorrow and be thrown into the Volcano, what would endure, distinct enough to bear my identity and inhabit new flesh? What would I be?” He looked up at her. “What would you be?” He rose to his feet. “What would you be, Brinnalamaya, if Arikinsa is the coming-again of Mirramarduk? Would I see again the titanium will, the brilliant hair-balance conciliator, the ice diamond insight and calculus that could skillfully manage the lives of millions and slip through the razor-wire defenses of one solitary soul find where love was hidden? Could you help me find myself?”
He scrambled to his feet. “I need help! What am I going to do? I must break this cursed deadlock, this killing stalemate! How do I smash this bell jar that keeps our people preserved but paralyzed? How do I find the answer, and how do I keep this desperate performance going until I do? Why did you let your soul slip away? And why don’t you come back?”
His voice fell into the plaintive appeal of a child. “I have the power. I need something else. I have questions only you could answer. Help me. I am so tired of carrying this unspeakable weight alone. Grandmother. Brinnalamaya.”
Did he see her nod? Did he see her smile widen just a bit, her eyes grow warm for a moment? Did he hear a faint whisper of acknowledgement?
No. He was drunk.
“Fool!” he growled.
Nicodamien finished himself off with one last fire-bite draught, and then he lurched away to find a wretched hole to recover in.
The agonizing stasis of the Elders is broken open, first by the arrival of Arikinsa and his mysterious mate, Tenayama, who have come to the Subcity from their Arctic tribal home seeking a favor from Nicodamien. Then Dras the peddler delivers a particularly disturbing item among the relics brought for sale to the Subcity Museum and Archives. But it is not merely the item, but the peddler himself who interests Nicodamien.
The summons came while Dras and Rayn were at breakfast, deciding over tea, cheese and rolls what part of the Museum to lose themselves in that day. Passaconamus came in, looking grave.
“Nicodamien finally came to inspect the shipment,” the Elder Archivist said. “I expect he’s been quite busy, what with our distinguished guests from the Arctic–formal receptions and public appearances and what-all. Really quite a fool’s festival. I don’t know what Arikinsa and Tenayama must think of it. Mostly for domestic consumption, of course. The Shaman doesn’t give an elk’s backside for all these airs and honors, but Nicodamien has to put on a good performance for the citizens. We don’t get much excitement down here. Got to milk this for all it’s worth.”
“So, what did he say about the skull?” Dras asked, his voice casual, but a tension beneath it that Rayn could hear.
Passaconamus got himself back on the subject at hand, distracted for a moment by his digression into disgust over Subcity political antics. “Oh, yes. As I said, he finally made the time to come by. I didn’t tell him anything much before-hand, just let him see for himself. I thought it would be better that way. I mean, something like that—“
“What did he say?” Rayn asked impatiently, trying to keep her voice as polite as she could.
Passaconamus frowned. “Well. It did take him by surprise. Impressed him deeply. Hard to tell exactly what was on his mind. He didn’t say much. Didn’t say a damned thing, actually. Just held the skull in his hands, staring at it. Then he left. Took the skull with him. And he said he wanted to see you first thing this morning as soon as you were up.”
Dras nodded grimly.
“Well, did he sound angry or upset?” Rayn asked. “Surely you must have gotten some impression.”
“I’m afraid not,” Passaconamus apologized. “He’s impossible to read when he gets like that. It’s one of the things that is so damned unsettling about him. He keeps so much to himself. He broods. Sometimes he shuts himself up in the Portrait Gallery or some other part of the Museum, and spends hours doing who knows what. And he confides in no one. Solitary as the moon. It isn’t healthy, that’s certain.”
“I should say not,” Rayn murmured. “Well, however it may be, I suppose there is nothing to do but get it over with. We’ll go directly after breakfast, shall we?” She looked over at Dras. He didn’t answer. He was looking down into his tea mug, his cheerful mood gone.
Passaconamus cleared his throat uncomfortably. “I’m afraid it is just Master Dras that Nicodamien wishes to see. We’ll have to wait here and hope for the best.”
Rayn tossed her napkin down onto the table. “Certainly Dras cannot be expected to face that creature alone! Who knows what he might do?”
“I don’t know, and I wish I could say differently, but that’s the situation,” the Elder said regretfully.
“Don’t worry, dear lady,” Dras said, patting her hand reassuringly. “I know how to deal with that old hawk.”
“Do you really? I doubt it!”
The Peddler shrugged. “What choice do I have?” He took a last bit of roll and then got to his feet. “Wish me luck.”
He gestured dramatically. “Fear not! I don’t imagine the Powers spared my half-butchered self from death only for me to end up fried by Nicodamien.” He winked at her. “But if I’m wrong, don’t forget the party.” With a salute, he turned and trotted out.
“Honestly,” Passaconamus said to Rayn, “I don’t think we need to worry about Nicodamien doing anything violent. He’s too subtle for that.”
Dras was telling himself much the same thing as he walked through the streets of the Subcity on his way to the dreaded rendezvous. He marveled as he always did at this tiny empire of contradictions. It was an ancient city of stone and technology, computers among the ruins. He felt the curious stares of the citizens as he passed. Most weren’t openly hostile, but none were friendly. How must they feel, these remarkable beings, trapped in their glorious isolation, envying poisonously the humans who went about their business in the free sunlight? No wonder they hate us, he thought.
The guards swarmed around him as soon as he was within sight of the Administration Center. They didn’t touch him or even speak to him. They just shadowed him to the door of Nicodamien’s office where his presence was announced. They were then dismissed and Dras went in.
“You wanted to see me, sir.” He said it as a statement, rhetorical, a fact he accepted and was dealing with. No show, no fear or arrogance. Dras just stood quietly and waited for the Elder being to make the first move.
Nicodamien was sitting behind his desk, finishing up some notes on a databoard, glancing at the display on a terminal. He looked up, meeting Dras’s eye. “Come in,” he said, “Sit down.” No show, no arrogance, no exaggerated politeness. There would be none of that nonsense.
Dras did as he was told, hoisting himself up into the large chair and settling, waiting while Nicodamien finished what he was doing. The Elder read over what he had written, then without haste, put aside the data board and blanked down the screen of the terminal.
“The last time we spoke,” he said as he tidied up his desk, “we were distracted by that trivial unpleasantness involving those students. We didn’t really have the opportunity to discuss the matters which concern us.”
“And since that time,” Nicodamien continued, putting a data cube into a drawer and closing it, “A great deal has happened. Particularly to you.”
His desk now cleared, Nicodamien rested his elbows on its polished surface and folded his hands. He focused his laser gaze on the Peddler. Dras did not look him directly in the eye, but instead concentrated on the large moonstone ring the Elder wore on the third finger of his left hand.
“I have a great number of questions concerning you,” Nicodamien said. “The one which plagues me most is, why are you alive?”
Dras blinked. “Beg pardon, sir?”
“You were attacked by outlaws, who quite effectively blasted you full of holes, probably because you deserved it, no doubt for selling them over-priced defective parts or watered-down fuelcohol. You ought to be dead. But my esteemed brother saw fit to do a bit of rattle-shaking over you, and the Powers brought you back to life. I can’t help pondering why. You, an unwashed, undereducated, human peddler whose sole distinction in your short, larcenous life is to manage to make a marginal career out of an obsolete and obscure profession. Why in the sweet blessed world would the Powers choose to save you?”
Dras leaned back in the chair, considering his answer carefully. He took a deep breath. “Well, sir, first of all, with all due respect, I’ve never knowingly cheated anybody in my life. The business with the outlaws was mostly politics, which is what’s always gotten honest folks in trouble. As to your question of why I’m alive, I couldn’t tell you. Haven’t a clue.”
Nicodamien nodded. “Just a humble, honest peddler, eh?” he said, the faintest trace of mockery in his voice. “Well, my friend,” he leaned over to open a drawer, “What price would you put on this bit of goods?” He brought out the skull and put it on the desk.
“I don’t believe that’s for me to say, sir,” Dras replied.
“An honest peddler, who happens to traffic in the bones of the dead.”
“I don’t pick and choose what comes in those crates. I just pass on what I’m given.”
“Indeed? And just who gives them to you?”
No good could come of trying to lie about it, he knew that. So he told Nicodamien exactly what he had told Apollodoria.
When he was done, Nicodamien said, “I do believe there are rules about trafficking with outlaws as well, are there not?”
“Yes, sir, there are. At least, in the Valley there are. If you folks in the Subcity have rules about that, I’m not aware of them.”
“I don’t give a damn who you trade jerky with,” Nicodamien replied. “However, I have a keen interest in matters which pertain to my people.” He held up the skull. “This was one of my people.”
“Yes, sir. I did figure you would be interested.”
“No doubt.” Nicodamien rose from the desk. “What profit did you think you could gain from this, eh, Peddler? Because you didn’t just pass it on blindly, did you? You knew exactly what was in those crates and you thought this quite a prize! What kind of ghoul are you,” the Elder hissed with deadly venom, leaning over the desk, “to try to put a price on the remains of the dead?”
Dras rose to his feet which, when he was standing up as tall as he could, put him about at eye level with the Elder leaning over the desk. It made him feel near to nauseous with vertigo to hold that baleful glare, but he forced himself to do it. “Sir, I as I told you, I just passed it on. I ask no price for that skull. I set no price on any of it. The value is set by you and Passaconamus. I take what I’m given, and if it’s worth my while to bring more, I do it. So far, it has been. Barely. I don’t like dealing with outlaws, and you know what it’s gotten me. I’m no ghoul, sir, I’m simply a man trying to earn his living. And if grief and insults is all I’m going to get for my trouble, I’ll gladly stop doing business with the Subcity.”
“And give up the fat figure of credit we put in your sorry accounts?” Nicodamien sneered.
“Yes, sir. I got to keep my credits even same as any other person. But that’s not why I do what I do. You say what you like about me, Master Nicodamien, it cuts no hay. Folks that know me, know I bargain fair and I make an honest deal. That’s what counts. Now, you got anything else to say to me? Or can me and my partner take our train and go?”
A faint smile curled the corner of the Elder’s mouth. “It stands up on its hind legs and defends itself, does it?”
“I figure you’ve got little enough respect for me, but you’d have less if I didn’t,” Dras replied. He could feel the sweat soaking his shirt and forming on his brow.
Nicodamien abruptly straightened and walked around from behind the desk. “My true opinion of you might surprise you.” He went over to a cabinet and opened the doors. “May I offer you a drink?”
Dras had to carefully measure the exhale of relief that rushed out of him when Nicodamien turned away. “I’d be obliged,” he said. “Whatever you’re having is fine.”
“You intrigue me, Peddler,” he said as he poured an amber fluid into two glasses, one large and one small. “Do you know why?”
“No, sir, I don’t.”
Nicodamien came over and offered the smaller glass to him. “Because you can meet my eye. Do you know how many others there are who can do that?”
Dras accepted the glass keeping his hand steady with difficulty. “Thank you, sir. No, sir, I couldn’t guess. Not many, I would imagine.”
Nicodamien raised the glass to his lips. “Precious few. My mother. Arikinsa. And perhaps Tenayama. I haven’t tested her yet.”
Dras sipped the drink. It was very strong, but smooth. Its burn steadied him a bit. He played the card he suspected Nicodamien expected him to play. “I wouldn’t be surprised, considering who she is.”
“Ah, so you know. Of course you would know. You manage to know all sorts of things, don’t you?”
“I know what they say,” Dras replied.
“Do you believe it?”
He shrugged. “I couldn’t say. I’m just a peddler.”
“You are a great deal more than that, my friend,” the Elder said. “The Powers wouldn’t have saved your petty little life unless they thought you worth it. You must be destined for something exceptionally significant, and it isn’t just trotting that ridiculous train back and forth up the River Road hawking pots and pans.”
“What makes you so sure of that?” Dras countered, summoning his courage. “Maybe the Powers like humble folk. They sure are fond of the Tribe.”
“What do you know about the Tribe?” Nicodamien retorted. “They are the source of mysteries beyond your pitiful understanding!”
“I’m sure you’re right,” Dras said, “And I don’t pretend to know better than you, who’s been up there and seen.” He took another sip. “But it does seem to me from what I’ve heard that they do live pretty simple lives. They don’t build great cities or the like. Just live in peace day to day, doing what they can to make their waters beautiful.” Dras set his glass on the edge of the desk. “A shaman fellow said that once about me. Name of Diosadorik. He said everywhere I go I bring beauty to the waters. I thought that was right nice of him to say. Don’t know as there’s any truth to it, but it’s a thought.”
He waited for Nicodamien’s reaction, but it was very hard to read. The Elder didn’t say anything, merely sipped his drink, gazing thoughtfully at a marble statue of a leaping stag in the corner. It was almost as if he hadn’t heard at all. He walked over toward the stag and idly stroked his finger over a finely rendered antler. “How absurd,” he murmured, “to assert that simple bovine contentment could matter more than power and achievement.”
“I don’t know, sir. Some folks would say happiness is a pretty significant achievement. An awful lot of folks can’t manage it.”
Nicodamien nodded. He turned to look at him. “What about you, Peddler? Are you happy?”
“Well, some days are better than others, but on the whole, I’d have to say I’m pretty well content with my lot.”
“Is that so? With your grubby, marginal lifestyle?”
“Yes, sir. I wouldn’t expect you’d understand, but I’ve got what I need. And I do what I like. Pretty simple.” Dras sat back in the chair, stretching out his legs. He cocked his head. “What about you, sir?”
Nicodamien smiled unpleasantly. “No, Peddler, I am most assuredly not happy. My desires and ambitions are quite a bit more sophisticated than yours. My people are not the sort to be mindlessly satisfied scratching out a living from day to day. We were meant for far more than that.”
“I expect you’re right,” Dras said, folding his arms. “A pity.”
“I beg your pardon?” Nicodamien exclaimed with a short incredulous laugh.
“Well, all that pride and ambition, wanting to do great things, grand dreams and fires in the soul and all. Folks like that can’t ever really be happy. They get one magnificent achievement chalked up, why, before the sun sets they’re wool-itching for the next one. Never satisfied. It’s a sad thing.”
“Why, you pathetic bleating fool!” Nicodamien exclaimed. “That is the most incredibly ignorant thing I’ve heard spit out from between human lips yet!” He strode furiously to the desk and picked up the skull. “When he was alive my people built a civilization that mastered the world, even death itself! It will never be forgotten! You simian beasts gnash your teeth with envy at the knowledge my people amassed and covet our technology in your black little hearts! Those cretinous sheep who wander through life with idiot grins on their faces, happy to chew flowers and drowse in the sun, they die and rot and are forgotten. They do not accomplish wonders! They do not create marvels! Happiness!” Nicodamien spat. “Happiness does not build empires!”
Dras picked up his glass and contemplated the amber liquid that swirled around its bottom. “No, sir, I don’t expect it does. I guess it’s a matter of what you think is important. You don’t need me to tell you that.” He tipped the glass up to his lips and emptied it, setting it back down on the desk. “Will that be all, sir? My partner and I would appreciate receiving whatever compensation you think appropriate for what we’ve delivered, and then be on our way. We’ve got our schedule to keep.”
“Smug little rodent,” Nicodamien said with a hint of menace, “You’re pretty damn sure of yourself, aren’t you?”
“Yes, sir, I am. I know exactly who I am and what I am, don’t pretend to be any more or less. I know the power you got, and what you could do to me if you chose, and I got a healthy respect for it. But after what I went through when those outlaws jumped my train, there’s not much left that can put the terror in me. I was ready to die then, but for some reason the Powers figured I ought to keep on living. So that’s what I’m doing. If you decide you’re going to put an end to it now, well I’ve had more than a year anyway I didn’t expect to have.”
Nicodamien’s coldly threatening scowl melted with startling suddenness into an grin of pure delight. He clapped his hands and sat on the edge of his desk, laughing. “My dear fellow! You really are the limit! You are the most stimulating challenge to my intellect I’ve encountered in ages—more so than Savonarolius or Powatanduk or any of those tedious drudges. Killing you would be an act of self-defeating cowardice on my part, and I’m far beyond such egotistical foolishness. No, I intend to keep you around as long as possible. You are a walking paradox, an absurdity, a refreshing contradiction. Perhaps this is why the Powers preserved you, so that we could have this conversation.” He jumped off the desk and took Dras by the shoulder, conducting him to the door. “I’m done with you for today; you’ve given me a great deal to think about. But I’ll ask you to remain and enjoy the hospitality of the Museum and Archives a bit longer. Don’t worry, I’ll make it worth your while.”
Dras found himself in the outer office feeling somewhat dazed. He touched his shoulder where the Elder’s hand had rested to no ill effect. Well, that was it. For now. Puzzling it over, he walked past the guard and the assistant and headed back towards the Museum, not at all certain what had just happened.
As soon as the door was shut, the grin fell off of Nicodamien’s face. He went over to the desk and signaled Security on the messenger.
“I want the Peddler to remain in the Subcity until I give specific orders otherwise. Do not interfere with him or his companion in any way, but keep them under surveillance.” He switched off the messenger and went to pour himself another drink. Sitting at his desk, he gazed scowling into the empty eye sockets of the skull.
“What if he is right?” he asked it.