"And which ones might make the chancellor look bad," I added.
"if the king should discover he has suppressed a report ... !"
"He'll have a good excuse. He 'lost' it, or it was too minor to trouble her Majesty with, or-" "Enough." The king closed his eyes, pressing a hand to his forehead. "Can a monarch care so little for his power?"
"No, Majesty, but she can care that little about her people. All Suettay really cares about is whether the taxes come in, and whether the orders she does give are obeyed."
"And her chancellor will always assure her they are," the Rat Raiser finished.
The king lowered his hand and looked up again, eyes burning. "Yet if what you say is true, the land would be near chaos! Bandits would be rife - - ."
"I was beset by armed bands three times, ere I met the wizard," Frisson murmured.
I1... barons would cease to fear the king's peace and would rise against one another in war - - ."
"We've seen it," I said, "and they do it with the queen's blessing."
The king stared, aghast. "And the peasants? Cares she not that they starve? " "She cares that they be able to farm," Frisson said,
"that they grow wool for her to shear. Beyond that? What cares she if they wallow in squalor? if their clothes are rags, and their faces pinched with hunger? When they are too weak to follow the plow, mayhap she will take notice . . ."
"Yet before they come to that," Gilbert put in, "they will have ablured the faith and gone to serve the reeve-or taken to the greenwood, and gone in banditry."
"Her minions set neighbor against neighbor," Frisson added, "by saying that whosoever the village watchman chooses as best plowman shall be accorded extra victuals-meat once a week, a sack of meal each month, and new cloth for his family."
"These are great prizes indeed," the Rat Raiser informed him. Angelique stared, shocked. "Will they not, then, seek each to plow harder? " "Aye, and all will excel. Yet the watchman must rank them, as first, second, and third-so each peasant seeks to curry favor with the watchman and to revile his neighbors. They, in turn, seek to take the credit for his work, by claiming 'twas of their doing; and each seeks to make all others believe poorly of his fellows."
"Each bailiff, meanwhile, accepts favors from his watchmen," the Rat Raiser added, "and the plowman is pressed to bring his comely wife, or his blooming daughter, to the bailiff for the night-" "If those chaste ladies have not come to the watchman themselves," Frisson pointed out, "seeking favor for their husbands-" "Or for themselves, in disdain of their husbands-"
"Anon the husband, discovering he's a cuckold, strikes down his wife-"
"And the plowmen ply the watchman with such gifts as they may discover-" "Uh, boys, I think that's enough," I said. The king looked ready to explode.
"Enough it is-a surfeit!" The king turned his back, stalking away toward the archway, where he stood looking down. "Alas for Allustria!
If matters have come to so foul a pass there, we must find a way to hale down this false queen!"
I breathed a sigh of relief and saw my friends go limp. I, of course, was as sturdy as spaghetti.
"Yet we cannot tear out her whole government, root and branch," the king mused, "or the land will be plunged into chaos absoluteand in that chaos, Satan's minions may well establish themselves anew. It
"But you cannot leave these parchment-bound clerks to plunder the people!" Gilbert cried.
"Nor shall I-but 'tis you who must do the work. I can aid you with knowledge, I can tell you where to seek the lever that will topple the tyrant; I may even lend you strength, through the strands of my web. Yet I cannot march with you; I must remain here, in the nexus of the worlds."
The others stared, not understanding, but the Gremlin nodded, and I pursed my lips. "We can't rightly ask for more-and the bureaucrats will be quick to reform, once they see their sorcerer overthrown, and a God-dedicated king on the throne. But how about the system, Majesty?
Any bureaucracy has certain inherent tendencies toward corruption. "
"Why, so does a man," the king cried, "and 'tis naught but the morality stemming from his sense of self that makes him retain his wholeness, his integrity, to resist the Tempter! And whence, I ask you, comes that morality, that self-warding wisdom?"
"Why-from the priests," I admitted, "and the philosophers. And the poets, and all the wise men who try to guide people away from ruin and toward fulfillment."
"An odd choice of terms." The Spider King frowned. "Yet they are nearly as true as to say that the men of God guide us away from the road to Hell and seek to set our feet on the path to Heaven. And as they do for men and women, so may they do for the government by clerks. " "A spiritual adviser for a bureaucracy?" I frowned.
"I'll have to nvinced a bureaucracy has think about that, Your Majesty. I'm not co
"Why, then, 'tis a beast, and not a soul, and may be purged and goaded without compunction! You have but to find your emetic and your prod."
"Now wait a minute!" I held up a hand. "It's made of human beings, after all!"
"Who need to be governed in their own right," the king returned,
"and justice meted out, even to those who mete out justice."
"Who shall watch the watchers?" I hazarded.
"Nay," Frisson said. " 'Who shall govern the government?' "Be mindful!" The king raised a forefinger. "If they are humans, may not another human be their conscience? For is not a 'conscience,' after all, but the wisdom to preserve one's own soul?"
"Recognizing one's ultimate good, even if it means a temporar or apparent loss?" I frowned. "Interesting notion. But even human consciences need to be made aware of the pain and disaster that befall those who stray."
"Then make them so aware! Find some device that will punish the clerk who strays, and will make his plans of malice go awry!"
"Why," the Gremlin chuckled, "that can I do." The Spider King bent his frowning gaze upon the monster. "I am sure that you can-but have you the self-denial to withhold your mischief when a clerk does rightly?"
I stared. "You two know each other?"
The king looked up, amused. "Whence did you think he came, Wizard? " "We are both outside the universes," the Gremlin explained,
"and flit from one to another, as need or inclination dictates." I found myself wondering about the forms of angels-or disguises.
"What is this?" Gilbert demanded. ,what shall the monster then do? " "Why, as I will," the Gremlin answered. "Does a clerk write out a writ of foreclosure? I shall make it go astray. Does a reeve set out a warrant? I'll make sure the writing's changed ere the bailiff comes
unto the victim. Does the chancellor seek to withhold reward from one who has toiled long? Does he seek to imprison one whose only fault is aiding those in danger? Does the king himself seek to draw and quarter one who would resist him, or to exile a saint on a desert isle, for no offense but that of lending comfort to souls in misery? In a sieve I'll thither sail!"
"And, like a rat without a tail," Frisson murmured, "he'll do, and he'll do, and he'll do!"
I clapped a hand over the vagabond's mouth. "Hold it, boy! You were coming perilously close to poetry!"
"Let him versify; he cannot cause havoc here, where we are beyond the laws of any universe," the Spider King said.
I took my hand away, and Frisson beamed with glee.
"Yet before he speaks," the king said hastily, "we must confer on ways of confounding your vile tyrant. The Spirit of Disorder will beset his clerks . . ."
"With effects that are comic and tragic," the Gremlin murmured.
"So much the better; you may then make these puffed-up clerks to see their own fallibility, thus restoring to them some measure of humility. " "Mayhap I shall even make them to laugh at the absurdity of their own vanities and strivings after dross!"
"Ah! If you can, if you but can! Then might they see themselves as t hey are, and see how petty are the goals for which they strive!"
"It would destroy them!" the Rat Raiser said, ashen-faced.
"Mayhap; but out of this crushing of the soul, they may emerge with some truer view of life, and greater inclination to labor for the common weal."
"Yet that cannot be," the Rat Raiser said, frowning, "for each clerk, in the end, labors for himself."
The Spider King wheeled toward him. "We have each the need to labor for something greater than ourselves, friend, so that we may feel less alone, and feel our lives to have worth."
But the bureaucrat only frowned, not understanding. I didn't blame him. I couldn't help thinking that this Spider King had an awfully idealistic view of bureaucracy.
The Gremlin clapped his hands and chuckled. "We shall craft a bureaucrat's bane! Ah, what fun! I have not had so grand a time for eons! I have grown rusty, I have grown stale!"
"We're going to pit entropy against perversity, then?" I asked. The Spider King nodded. "It may not succeed in great measure, since the one is but an aspect of the other ,Oh, no," I said softly.
"That could be very, very effective."
"Devastating." The Gremlin chuckled. "if an enterprising spirit doth move the confrontation."
"And on this kind of issue, you can be very enterprising, right?"
"So much for Suettay's ministers." The king dismissed them with a wave of his hand. "They may be rendered benign. Yet how shall you deal with the woman herself?"
That brought me up short. I spread my hands. "Confront her and try to match magics with her, I guess-and hope I've got better verses." The king shook his head with certainly. "That way lies disaster. You must enlist a power greater than your own, that together you may be more than the sorceress-queen."
I frowned, instantly suspicious. "How do I do that? Pray?"
"Nay." The King beckoned, and I came over to the archway with him. Looking down, I saw an azure field ringed with green and tan, and with a fleck or two of green in it. With a shock, I recognized the Mediterranean.
"Yon lies the world of Merovence and Allustria," the Spider King murmured.
I wondered how he had locked in the view of that one universe
-from this nexus. I began to realize why the man was called "the Spider King."
"There is a man who is bound for sainthood, though he knows it not." The king's arm reached past me, pointing at an island in the Aegean. "There, where Circe beguiled the men of Odysseus, dwells a nymph named 'Thyme'-and the sorceresses of Suettay's guild have kidnapped the saintly man and placed him there, within the bondage of her spell."
"What a way to get to sainthood! I take it he's having a good time?
"Nay. His spirit's sorely tried, and he is racked with the hot irons of desire-for he will not yield to the nymph's blandishments. He knows that no man can serve two masters, and that love is a most demanding one-but he chose Christ for his master long ago. He seeks to do Christ's work, aiding the poor and friendless, and there fore will not yield unto the nymph."
"Wholeness," I murmured. "Integrity. The unity of his spirit." I1 Even so. Yet from his enduring struggle, his soul has gained strength tenfold-and it was a mighty spirit ere he came there. Folk said that he worked miracles of curing, and of producing food, but he denied it. Yet if any man can give you strength 'gainst Sucttay, it is he. it "A veritable treasure," Gilbert mused behind him. "How shall we know the man?"
"By his sex-he is the only male on the island-and by his habit."
"Habit?" The squire frowned. "Is he a cleric, then?"
"He is-a monk, of the Order of Saint Louis, one Ignatius by name. And you will find him a source of strength in other conflicts, too; he may even rekindle the ideals of the clerks."
"If he can do that," I murmured, "he can work miracles."
"And so, away!" The Spider King clasped my arm, turning me around and propelling me toward another archway. "Yonder lies your path!
Together, now, and off upon your quest!"
"Hey, wait a minute!" I tried to backpedal, but the king's grip was surprisingly strong, and I found myself gliding over the smooth marble floor in spite of my efforts. "How are we going to get hold of you if we need help?"
"You will not-I will maintain touch with you! Each separate one of you is now at the end of one of my threads; you are all caught within my web! When you doubt it, find a moment in a place of stillness, and you will feel my power! Now, Godspeed! And may your patron saint stand by you!"
I tried to stop, but I skidded through the archway, and my friends came tumbling after me with shouts of alarm, tumbling after me into a warm, clinging darkness that enveloped us, rocked us, soothed us ... And vanished.
The trees crowded in on us, towering up to form a roof overhead, lowering down with an ominous susurrus. I swallowed against a knot of apprehension deep in my throat and glanced back at my companions. They were feeling it, too-some lurking presence that did not want us there.
Fortunately, we had the Gremlin along to chase the baddies away.
"Uh-you sure you know where you're going?"
"Of a certainty, I know!" Then why did the monster look worried?
"I am going to the bower of the nymph Thyme!"
"Uh-right." I frowned. "Did you, uh-have any idea what route we were going to take? " "As I told you, we follow the sun. If it is before us in its course as it arcs dawn to dusk, we go aright." I glanced back at my friends, noting Angelique's apprehension and the Rat Rasier's angry glower. "Right. Say, uh, Gremlin-we haven't been able to see the sun for six hours now. Not since we got kicked out of the Spider King's palace and found ourselves in this forest."
"Do you doubt me?" the Gremlin challenged. "Could I go astray without wishing it?"
"Just what I was going to ask."
"Mayhap the wood itself wishes to mislead you," Angelique suggested quickly.
The Gremlin halted and heaved a huge sigh. "You have said it, maiden, and I think you may have some hint of truth in that saying.