Authors: Christopher Stasheff
Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Science Fiction, #Fiction - Fantasy, #Fantasy, #Fantasy - General, #Fantastic Fiction, #Wizards, #Fantasy - Series
"In which universe?"
The others stared, floored. I felt a chill, even though I had guessed this, and said, "In that universe in which magic works by poetry, Majesty, and in which Hardishane's empire drove out the minions of evil, with the aid of Saint Moncaire."
"Ah! Saint Moncaire." The Spider King nodded. "I know the hundred of which you speak. Tell me more of it."
"Why," Gilbert said, "Alisande has become queen of Merovencc, five years past-" "The only one in which evil has not overwhelmed all of Europe'
Aye, I know it! Yet my attention has turned to the other universes near it, which are more in need of my aid."
"Allustria stands in need of your aid, Majesty, too, and desperately," Angelique protested. "We dwell in horror there, as fodder for evil men!"
The king shrugged. "I pity you, lady-yet what may I do? There must be some who wish the rule of right, and one to lead them; else I can do naught."
"Why, we wish such a rule," Gilbert cried, "and here is our leader." He clapped me on the back.
I regained my stability and forced a smile.
The king turned to me, interest whetted. "Is it so? Then tell me summat of this Allustria, and of yourselves."
But I shook my head and said slowly, "It's the Allustria that you brought me to, because you wanted me to fix it."
The king's mouth quirked toward a smile, but he said nothing.
"You have tendrils reaching into all the universes, don't you?" I accused.
"Not all," the king admitted, "only those in which I, or my analog, one very like to me, was born, or will be. I am outside time, as are the saints. In the universe that holds your home, I have been dead for almost five centuries; in life, I was known there as Louis XI of France. In this universe of which you speak, I was the Crown Prince Karl of Allustria-but when Suettay's grandmother slew the rightful queen, she also slew all her heirs, and all her possible heirs. Thereby did I die."
I stared, shocked. Then I gathered the remnants of my wits and said, "But that was a hundred years ago!"
"Two hundred," he said. "These sorcerous monarchs live far past their natural time."
"But why didn't you call me in sooner?" I bleated.
"Because you had not been born," he said simply, "and because the forces that can be gathered to oppose the queen did not yet exist. Now, however, Alisande rules in Merovence and has a most puissant Lord Wizard by her side, who defeated the evil sorcerer that sought to take her kingdom. When I saw how Allustria had fallen and my system of clerks been perverted, I resolved to one day cleanse both-and my chance came when a wizard rose who spearheaded the overthrow of the sorcerer-king of lbile-Matthew Mantrell, Lord Wizard of Merovence. " I stood galvanized, just staring at him. He knew why, too, the has
tard; he just smiled back at me with that small smile and that selfsatisifed look in his eyes.
Then I burst out, "Matt? A lord?"
"Aye," he said, "and a royal consort, after three years."
"Married?" I turned away, my brain whirling-and thoughts tumbling. Matt had always had the look of the kind who would get married, mind you-but to a queen?
Well. Good for him. I pulled myself together and turned back to the Spider King. "I'm glad to hear it-he's my best friend-but you knew that, didn't you?"
"The times were right, at last," he answered. "There is a similarity of talents to you two."
"So you just followed his back-trail and looked for a man who could do what he had done." I looked at him narrowly. "But you did say three years,"' The king nodded. "Time runs at different rates, in your world and mine. I sought a man who had a strong enough sense of self, whose individuality was so certain, that he would not compromise with any group force, but would maintain his integrity in spite of all temptations. " I backed away, staring, shaking my head, harder and harder. "No.
Not a chance. That's not me. No."
"Truth," the Spider King insisted, with iron tones. "Yet there was this flaw in the scheme: A man who is so obsessed with becoming his true self is not committed to either evil or good, and his commitment to himself may make him corruptible by self-seeking." Well. That sounded a bit more like me.
"That's really a minor danger," I said slowly.
"Self-aggrandizement would violate my integrity. I'd just like it clearly on the record that I resent being drafted, though."
"Noted," the king said, his eyes glowing, and somehow, I was certain the fact had just been written down, somewhere, by some being that I preferred not to know about. "Noted-but 'drafted' you are."
"Yes, damn it!" I snapped. "You know just what you've done, don't you? Throwing these really solidly good people in my path!
You've got me too caught up in this universe, now, to be able to reject it without trying to save it!"
"Therein am I indeed guilty." The bastard sounded proud of it.
"But you don't do anything!" I exploded. "You just sit here and watch! How can you call yourself a force for the good?"
"In your universe, and in many others, I was a force for goodness
overall," he qualified, "though I achieved my ends with guile and stealth, which laid a great deal of guilt upon my soul. I thus was able to see to your world and recruit you. Your friend the Lord Wizard would not do for this affair-he is too strongly allied with good and too scrupulous for some of the means we must use to combat Suettay. But you, with your determination not to commit yourself to any larger force, to remain yourself, alone if need be-you may be able to combat this system of Suettay's, that seeks to grind all souls into the same likeness."
"I do have an interest in fighting depersonalization," I admitted.
"But with the kind of power you have, I find it difficult to believe that you couldn't have just walked in and kicked out any of these evil monarchs, any time you wanted."
"The power," he agreed, "but not the right. if these people do not wish to change their queen, what right have I to meddle?" I stared. My companions stared, too, aghast.
Then the statement suddenly made sense to me. "It's not just the queen, is it? Her successor might not bring better rule, after all. So a new king can't do any good there, unless he changes the system of rule. That country can keep running just as well as it does now without any king-or just as poorly!"
"The monarch has appointed clerks and reeves enough," the Spider King said, by way of agreement.
I frowned, trying to pierce the man's emotionless mask by the sheer intensity of my own feelings. "And you think that's good, don't you? A good way to rule."
"If the clerks are mastered, aye. if a capable monarch of good intent commands them, they can strengthen the land immeasurably, preserving the peace and bringing greater wealth to all."
"Like Joseph in Egypt," I murmured, "storing up grain for the famine. That's your goal, isn't it? No one starving, no one wearing rags or sleeping on the streets."
This time, the king nodded as he smiled.
"But that's not enough." I frowned. "No one should have to kneel to somene else, just because that someone else is stronger. No one should have to live in fear of an overlord's cruel whim. No one should have to be locked into doing whatever job someone else assigns him, if he doesn't want it and can find other work that he likes better!
"None should have to marry where they do not wish," Angelique murmured.
"All should be free to seek their own paths to Heaven," Gilbert added.
The Spider King pounced on it. "Freedom for Heaven is in one's soul, squire. Earthly bondage will not hinder it; mundane freedom may not aid it."
"There is some truth in that," Frisson admitted. "Yet how if one dwells in agony of spirit, Majesty, as the peasants do in Allustria?
if they seek to live morally, they are sorely beset by the miasma of evil and tortured by its minions. The lives of the common folk need not be Hell on Earth."
The Gremlin just stood by, looking interested.
The king pulled his head down, glowering. "You speak truly," he admitted, "and the reign of sorcery must cease. Yet that is a fault of Suettay's, not of the form of her government. A rightful king, devoted to good, may transform that heap of clerks into a force for virtue. "
"The rightful king cannot return!" Frisson protested. "The heir cannot be found! For if he is, Suettay will slay him out of hand!"
"Then seek him out and protect him," the Spider King said, with an air of grim finality. "Bring him to the throne. For the clerks wield the law, look you, and the law preserves the weak against the assaults of the strong."
"Unless the law is made by the strong for their own advantage," I pointed out.
The king cast a quick frown at me, then turned back to Frisson.
"Those who are freed to seek their own destiny may ofttimes go astray and find instead their own ruination."
"Free or bound, 'tis they who must answer to God for the prosperity or corruption of their souls," Frisson said evenly. "Their lord cannot speak to God for them, when they are come to judgment."
"And shall their lord hinder them, if he is unjust and evil? "He shall," Frisson said, "if the torments he visits upon them try them unduly."
"All life is the trial of the soul, if the priests speak truly," the Spider King returned. " 'Tis God who allocates tribulation, each to the strength of his soul. The withstanding of it is the winning of Heaven. " "Then isn't it the king's job to make life as pleasant as he can for his people?" I put in. "He can leave it up to God to assign hardships."
The king's lips twitched with impatience. "Should the king, then, ennoble all his peasants?"
"Not a bad idea," I said. "And if he can't do that, he can at least stop preventing them from ennobling themselves."
"They who mislike their lowborn state, may aspire to clerkship," the king returned, "and rise within the king's service."
"Until they do their tasks too well," the Rat Raiser said. "Until the king says, 'Thus far, and no farther.' " But I addressed the larger issue. "The government of clerks may be led by a strong king, Majesty, true-yet unless he is extremely strong, the layers of clerks will choke off his will and govern in his stead."
The king turned to me again, frowning. "Why, how is this?"
"The clerks will begin by serving the government, but end by becoming the government," I explained, "a government that becomes like a living being itself and works to maintain its own interests, disregarding the good of the people."
"Is this an old wives' tale?" the king demanded. "Or have you seen such monstrous growths?"
"Oh, yes," I said softly. "In fact, they're so common where I come from that the law has even made them legal entities, and scholars have stated the rules of their behavior."
"Why, what rules are these?" the king demanded.
"They were deduced by a man named Parkinson," I explained, "and they describe the workings of a form of government called
'bureaucracy.' " The king frowned. "What is the meaning of that word?"
" 'Government by desks.' The problem is that any request for action has to go from one desk to another, higher and higher up the ladder, until it reaches the one that can actually do something about it."
"What monarch would so ignore his clerks?"
"Any one that doesn't enjoy work." I raised a hand to forestall the king's protest. "I know how scandalous that sounds, Your Majesty, but there have been quite a few of them."
"They cannot have been rightful kings."
I shrugged. "All right, so they were illegitimate. They stayed in power for fifty years and more, though, sometimes, and their sons and grandsons after them. It's all well and good to say they weren't fit to be kings-but no one else was doing the job." The Spider King gave me a fierce glare, but held his peace.
"Not that it matters," I qualified. "After all, once the bureaucrats
take hold, they set up so many layers of desks that the king can't pos
sibly keep in touch with all of them. That's one of Parkinson's lawsthat every clerk will try to hire more people to work for him."
"Who will allow him, if he does not need them?"
"Anybody who looks at his situation on paper-and paper is the key word. The ambitious clerk manufactures more and more pieces of paper that need to be filled out for any one decision, until he really can't do them all by himself-never mind that they don't really need to be written. And when each bureaucrat does that, pretty soon you have an immense number of people, and it takes a king's whole reign just to figure out who is really necessary and who isn't."
"It cannot be," the king scoffed, "for naught would ever then be done, and the land would sicken."
I carefully looked elsewhere. Gilbert cleared his throat with a covert glance at Angelique.
The king's gaze darkened. "Speak, then! For I know that Allustria does languish-but can this be why?"
"It is," the Rat Raiser said heavily, "and 'tis some fault of mine. I made a ladder of command from the smallest town to the queen's chancellery, that any command might be executed the next day.
'Twas for this Suettay cast me into the dungeon-yet she kept my ladder to make her will felt on the instant, wheresoe'er she wished.
'Tis even as the wizard says-each reeve chose bailiffs, and each bailiff chose a watch, and each watchman chose-" "Enough." The king chopped laterally. "I take your point. Yet all will jump to the king's whistle, will they not?"
"They will," Frisson said slowly, "when they hear it, which can take a great deal of time, if they wish-but the peasant who cries to the king for aid will not be heard."
"Why, how is this? Surely these clerks dare not withhold news from the king!"
"Well, not openly," I answered. "But the lower down the ladder they are, the less power each one has to make a decision-so each one thinks it over for a day or two, then passes it up to the man above him. Unless he takes a dislike to the person who made the complaint, of course-then he just loses the piece of paper with the complaint on it. Parkinson called that one, 'Delay is the deadliest form of denial.' " "And if it does come to the chancellor," the Rat Raiser breathed, "he will have piles of such petitions. He must decide which to show the queen, and which Her Majesty would count a waste of time .