CHILD OF FORTUNE
And so, after a short shuttle flight to Ciudad Pallas and a quick floatcab ride through the unappealing streets thereof in the company of Urso Moldavia Rashid, I took up residence in the Clear Light Mental Retreat.
By the esthetic standards of Ciudad Pallas, this no doubt might have passed as a triumph of the architect's art. A sprawling, single-story, crescent-shaped structure, windowless from the vantage of the street upon which it was sited, its inner curve embraced about two hundred degrees of a large circular garden, the circumferential boundaries of which were completed by a high concrete wall cunningly hidden from the easy perception of those within by a closely planted screen of even taller fir trees. The garden itself was mostly green lawn, dotted randomly with oaks and veined with winding flagstone paths that went nowhere in particular. Here and there small beds of flowers had been planted, wooden benches set out, and little shaded gazebos erected.
My room, like those of all the other residents, faced this interior garden with an entire wall of glass which slid aside to allow egress directly thereto, and which could be opaqued at my pleasure. There was a bed, an armoire, several chests, and a chaise, all crafted of reddish rough-hewn wood, and the usual toilet facilities done up in grainy gray stone. The walls were a cheery yellow, the ceiling cerulean blue, and the carpet a tawny concoction of shaggy ersatz fur.
All in all, an environment crafted to tranquilify the mind and brighten the spirit, though to my eyes the enclosed garden with its cleverly concealed wall soon seemed rather reminiscent of the vivarium of the Unicorn Garden, which had similarly masked the reality of confinement behind a screen of trees.
Nor were the other terms of residency less than as promised. I was supplied with a small wardrobe of tunics, skirts, and trousers, and three meals were indeed provided daily in the refectory. And if these left a good deal to be desired in the way of culinary artistry by the standards of a Grand Palais, a proper Edojin restaurant, or even the finger food of the Gypsy Jokers, at least it could be said that the fare of the Clear Light was an improvement over that of the research dome storeroom, let alone the monotonous raw produce of the Bloomenveldt.
As for the promise of freedom to wander the streets of Ciudad Pallas when my presence was not required by the mages of the mental retreat, this was a privilege of which I sought not to avail myself for quite some time, for on the one hand my rapidly returning memories thereof were entirely depressing and uninviting in comparison to the bucolic ambiance of the Clear Light's garden, and on the other, I hardly felt myself yet ready to sally forth into the long-unfamiliar milieu of urban thoroughfares.
Nor was the vie of the mental retreat one of boredom or ennui, at least at first.
After weeks of spieling my endless tale to no other truly sapient ears than my own, indeed for that matter after perfect lack of avid audiences as a ruespieler in Great Edoku, it was quite exhilarating to find myself encouraged to babble on daily at great length to rapt audiences of Healers and mages, no less, and to observe that my least mutterings were duly recorded on word crystal for posterity.
This is not to say that I was set behind a podium in an auditorium like a learned lecturer. Rather did I spend four hours a day and more in a small windowless room in the bowels of the mental retreat seated across a table from two to half a dozen people at a time, with Urso usually presiding during this stage of the process.
As for my audiences, a different combination seemed to appear daily, apparently drawn from a pool that must have numbered several dozen scientists; how many of these were on the staff of the Clear Light itself I was never to learn.
At first, I was simply encouraged to retell the Tale of the Pied Piper of the Bloomenveldt over and over and over again sans interruption or interrogation and was not even properly introduced to the audiences for same, exactly as if I were indeed a ruespieler declaiming before random anonymous throngs, though alas no ruegelt was forthcoming at the conclusion of the performance.
During these first two weeks or so, such recitations seemed to be the sole form of my therapy, and I would be an ingrate if I dismissed the benefits thereof as accidental byproducts of entirely self-interested scientific inquiry. For I was allowed, indeed encouraged, to tell my tale in all its endlessly mutating versions long after the variety thereof must have been thoroughly exhausted from the point of view of my listeners, indeed beyond the point where it began to seem like so much repetitious babblement even to myself.
This, it would seem, was precisely the nature of the therapy.
First the endless retelling of the tale began to converge toward a consistent version, much as the odes of the preliterate bards must have converged toward the memorized consensuses that were to be eventually transcribed into those written versions which have passed down to us today.
Then I began to attain a certain self-consciousness of this very process, at which point craft entered the picture as I struggled to compose my verbal gushings into a coherent spiel capable of being reproduced for the understanding and delectation of the worlds at large. Which is to say I developed during this period the spiel which I was later to declaim for ruegelt in the uninspiring streets of Ciudad Pallas.
Finally, I began to perceive that the endlessly recurring motifs of the Piper, the sun, the Yellow Brick Road, ancestral trees, und so weiter, far from being venues, personages, or objects in an actual skein of events, were in fact images encapsulating complex gestalts of meaning beyond my entirely conscious apprehension strung together in a sequence that was somehow both literally false and spiritually true.
To those who would declare that the independent rediscovery of the hoary concept of literary metaphor was not exactly overwhelming evidence of intellectual puissance, I would point out that from the point of view of a singer who had long been entirely subsumed within the song, this satori, if no great and original contribution to the evolution of the literary art, was a powerful enlightenment indeed when it came to my therapeutic rediscovery of my own true self.
Indeed, if she who had roused herself from floral nonbeing to follow the synergetic mantra of the sun, the yellow, the Yellow Brick Road, across the forest canopy and into the Tale of the Pied Piper of the Bloomenveldt might have been said to have been in a state of schizoid cafard, then this reemergence of a self-conscious teller as a being distinct from the metaphorical creature of the tale might be said to mark sanity's full return.
Which is to say that upon gaining such insight, I had indeed finally followed the Tale of the Pied Piper of the Bloomenveldt all the way back from the ancestral flowers of mindless tropism to full sapient citizenship in the self-crafted worlds of men.
Nor were the mages and. Healers unmindful of the success of this therapy, for not long after my discourse had attained the coherence of a ruespieler self-consciously crafting her tale, the nature of our seances together changed.
Having allowed a quotidian personality capable of rational discourse to reconstruct herself out of this babble of metaphor, having cozened the teller to prise herself a sufficient distance from the protagonist of her tale, they gave over any further interest in the metaphorical version thereof and began to question me quite sharply on the objective events in question from the points of view of their various disciplines. Which is to say they became openly eager, indeed often owlishly impatient, to pin down with scientific precision the phenomenological realities behind the Tale of the Pied Piper of the Bloomenveldt.
Urso Moldavia Rashid for the most part presided over, not to say refereed, these interrogations, for interrogations rather than therapy sessions they had certainly become, and oft-times it became necessary for Urso to mediate among the mages present to prevent the proceedings from turning into an unseemly learned brawl.
If I neglect to properly transcribe herein their endless questions, my perpetually inadequate replies to same, their sometimes acrimonious disputations among themselves, and what at length seemed to become their fruitless reframing of the same interrogatories, the truth of the matter is that I remember precious little of the details, save that most of their efforts seemed aimed not so much at advancing theoretical knowledge as at extracting data which might aid them in advancing the pecuniary fortunes of Belshazaar's main industry, the development and marketing of psychotropics derived from the Bloomenveldt, an enterprise which had a good deal less than my enthusiastic support.
As far as I was concerned, the whole process was disjointed, mendacious, productive first of mental fatigue generated by my sincere if inadequate efforts to answer fully, then of indifferent boredom as I felt myself reduced to the role of a repetitious parrot, and finally of a sullen irked pettishness verging on rebellion. No doubt a full account of these sessions would be of genuine interest to those equally obsessed with the same subjects, and these I refer to the scientific annals thereof which they may peruse for decades without exhaustion, for it would be only slightly hyperbolic to declare that whole rooms full of word crystals on these sessions were dutifully recorded.
After a good many weeks of this, I was quite convinced that there were no more therapeutic benefits to be had by remaining in the Clear Light Mental Retreat as far as I was concerned, which is to say I had now come to view the establishment not as a place of succor but as a venue of confinement from which I must summon up the courage and resource to escape.
Once I had been a daughter of Nouvelle Orlean, once I had been an indigent naif on the streets of Edoku, once I had been a mindless creature reposing on the petals of a flower, once I had been the Pied Piper of the Bloomenveldt, and while certainement I was none of these things now, I knew just as surely that if my tale was not to end as tragicomic farce, the terminus of my Yellow Brick Road could not be my room in a mental retreat.
Vraiment, had not Pater Pan himself long ago declared that my road must be of my own choosing, and that if the destiny thereof should bring me to his side, he would greet me as an equal spirit? Certainement, as a patient in a mental retreat, as a scientific specimen, as a prisoner of penury once again, I could hardly style myself the equal of such a free spirit who tripped the life fantastic out among the stars. Mayhap Pater Pan was the Piper of my spirit's journey still, for whether or not destiny would ever place me once more at his side, I heard the song he had sung to that spirit calling me forth to resume my wanderjahr on the Yellow Brick Road as clearly now as ever I had upon the Bloomenveldt. I yearned to be the true ruespieler I had never really yet become, telling my tale not for room and board in a mental retreat, but in the streets of great cities for electrocoma passage among the far-flung worlds of men.
In terms of the financial realities, my situation was precisely what it had been when I had been forced to accept Urso's offer. Vraiment, I could quit the Clear Light whenever I chose, but I had neither funds to assure my survival, means of earning same in Ciudad Pallas, nor any way that I could see of removing myself to a more promising planet where I might at least have some real chance of surviving by the practice of my art.
I was caught, or so it seemed, in an economic trap whose confinement, though no more readily visible than the walls of the Clear Light hidden behind their screen of trees, were also no less concrete.
Before the desperate determination to escape this velvet prison had taken hold of my spirit, my vie in the mental retreat had been both ritualized and solitary, a recapitulation in some psychic sense of my days on the Bloomenveldt, for truth be told, if I could fairly be said to have regained my own full interior sapient sanity, I had yet to gain true re-entry into the social complexities of the exterior realm.
I slept, I ate, I took occasional strolls about the garden, but now that the interrogatory sessions had reached the stage where their profitability was strictly one-sided, they kept me at it for most of my waking hours, as if to deliver up the botanical and psychotropic details I was incapable of revealing by a torture of ennui.
Nor had I even regained sufficient social consciousness to feel keenly the lack of tantric exercise, for when the natural kundalinic energies intruded into the centers in which erotic imagery arises, what arose unbidden was my last sexual experience on the Bloomenveldt, to wit a combat for my very spirit against a vile floral version of eros.
And if this was not enough to keep my kundalinic serpent torpidly cold and coiled, the only social circle whose possibilities lay open to me was that of my fellow inmates, and when at length I began to feel the lack of congress with kindred spirits to the point where I attempted to engage them in discourse, I only learned what my instincts had already known.
This dispirited and pathetic lot were no spirits I would care to claim as kindred. The Children of Fortune of Ciudad Pallas, as I had long since known, eschewed the arts, crafts, entertainments, and shady enterprises whereby the tribes of Edoku had traded pleasure for ruegelt in favor of earning their way as psychonauts in the mental retreats and laboratories, where funds were to be acquired by indulging in what they otherwise would have paid to enjoy when they could afford it.
Which is to say that even the generality of this single-minded tribe had little to discourse upon but the psychic effects of arcane chemicals and which laboratories and mental retreats were presently paying the highest wage.
The inmates of the Clear Light were drawn from these unwholesome ranks to begin with, and most of them had been deposited here as the result of the inevitable unfortunate experiment that must be suffered by anyone who followed the psychonaut's trade long enough in Ciudad Pallas. Which is to say when at length they dutifully quaffed a potion which translated their psyche into a schizoid realm of sufficient extremity to prevent even the mighty and puissant sciences of the mind from extracting it.
Thus the garden of the mental retreat was frequented by two species of inmates: hebephrenic babblers whose mutterings and sputterings were entirely incomprehensible to anyone but themselves though of manifest cosmic import thereto, and those who had lapsed into stony catatonia and sat on the lawn or on benches gaping into some private void.
"As for me, at the moment I could happily count myself among neither, but the more I attempted to converse with creatures who were no more verbal than so many Bloomenkinder on the one hand, or who responded to any conversatiorial gambit with a stream of hebephrenic gabble in their own secret sprach on the other, the more fearful I became that I must sooner or later end my days as one or the other unless I contrived to escape from the mental retreat.
Finally, early one afternoon when I had been given a brief respite from my service to science, as I was walking aimlessly in the garden with the yellow sun shining out of a cerulean sky down upon me, I was put in mind of my days as the Pied Piper of the Bloomenveldt, and resolved out of ennui, pique, or desperation to strike back at the ambiance of the mental retreat with sheer devilment.
I decided upon a quixotic gesture which was not only to throw the place into the desired uproar, but which in the end was to lead to my escape from the situation. Mayhap my prescient spirit in the act thereof was wiser than my intellect knew, or mayhap the final movement of my therapy at the Clear Light Mental Retreat was designed to accomplish my voluntary egress. Mayhap both Urso and I had our own way in the end.
Be such retrospective speculations as they may, I selected a venue within easy earshot of some dozen or more inmates sitting on the lawn in various states of torpor or babblement, much as I had once sought out promising platzes or corners when I was a street peddler in Great Edoku. Here a wooden bench had been conveniently set out under the shade of a large oak. This I mounted even as I had once stood upon a similar bench before the ersatz Luzplatz volcano, summoned up sufficient courage to overcome my sense of the ludicrous, took a deep breath, and began to declaim in as loud a stentorian roar as I could muster.
"Merde! Caga! Chingada! Once you were Children of Fortune following the Yellow Brick Road of your wanderjahrs out among the stars to seek bright destiny and your own true names! See what in this Bloomenveldt of the spirit you have become! Dispirited wretches! Human legumes! Bloomenkinder!"
The sheer volume and shock of this novel verbal assault was sufficient to cause several of the babblers to lapse into momentary silence and gaze woodenly in my direction. Even two or three of the catatonics managed to focus their eyes more or less upon me, or so at least it seemed. Pathetic though this response might be by any objective standards, it served well enough to goad me on, for even this was more rapt attention than I could be said to have achieved when first I dared to essay the ruespieler's art in the Luzplatz.
"I too left the planet of my birth to follow the camino real that has led us from our ancestral trees to the far-flung worlds of men!" I screamed as loudly as I was able, for when it came to attracting and holding the attention of this audience, volume was no doubt a good deal more critical than a well-crafted tale told with erudition.
"Vraiment, I too fell into the nethermost psychotropic bowels of this loathsome planet! Indeed I found myself besotted, with perfumes and pheromones which make the psychotropics of the laboratories of Ciudad Pallas seem like the cold crystal air of a mountain!"
Whether I had touched at last upon the only subject sufficient to rouse the interest of these zombies, or whether it was only the volume, the rapid rolling cadence, the sheer passion with which I sought to imbue every shouted syllable, every eye now paid me rapt attention. Some of the inmates even rose slowly to their feet and shambled closer to my bench.
"You have become inmates of a mental retreat, but I became a perfectly mindless Bloomenkind, without so much as a spirit to call my own," I shouted most abusively in their faces. "Yet my spirit roused itself to follow once more the song of the Piper that we all once followed from apes into men and so must you all rouse your spirits now!" I bellowed at them, quite enjoying my own tirade by now. But what I craved now was some response.
"Behold the sun which forever arises above the Bloomenveldt of your spirits, my pauvres Bloomenkinder!" I shouted more craftily now. 'Behold the face of the Pied Piper which we have followed from the depths of the forest of unreason!"
Vraiment, I was raving with the best of the teppichfressers now, and yet another part of me observed the proceedings with calculating clarity and no little wry satisfaction and knew quite well what I was going to do next.
"Follow the sun, follow the yellow, follow the Piper, follow the Yellow Brick Road!"
I began to chant.
"Follow the sun, follow the yellow, follow the Piper, follow the Yellow Brick Road ..."
Most of the inmates in my vecino were on their feet now, and in the middle distance I could see more of them shambling across the lawn to the hubbub.
They began to sway to the rhythm of my words. Like a musical maestra, I began to move my arms to the beat, palms upward, enticing them to join in.
As for the erstwhile catatonics, these were never roused to more than a bobbing of their heads, but those who a few minutes before had been locked into their own hebephrenic sprachs of babble were easily enough cozened by my efforts and the communal reinforcement thereof to take up the chant.
"Follow the sun, follow the yellow, follow the Piper, follow the Yellow Brick Road!"
At length, when I had whipped up a veritable frenzy of chanting, there seemed nothing for it but to lead my Gypsy Jokers on a Mardi Gras parade about the garden. As to what in troth had moved me to carry this unholy prank to such an extreme, or indeed how far I was prepared to take it, je ne sais pas, for I had no sooner leapt from the bench and danced forward a few steps still chanting, when Urso, with at least half a dozen other functionaries of the mental retreat in train, came puffing and running across the lawn toward me.
"Cease this outrage at once!" he shouted at me, as red-faced with ire as with exertion. "Schnell, schnell, schnell, remove them all to their rooms!" he ordered his minions, gesticulating wildly with one hand, and dragging me away toward the main building with the other. Nor did he address me again until he had succeeded in removing my person well away from the tumult where my baneful influence could no longer make itself felt.
"And who do you suppose you are?" he demanded angrily. "What do you suppose you are doing?"
I pulled away somewhat haughtily from his grasp. I smiled a superior smile at him, filled with self- satisfied contentment, for the answer to his question was wonderfully clear and plain.
"I am Sunshine Shasta Leonardo, ruespieler," I told him with the voice of sweet reason. "Naturellement, I must practice my art."
A most peculiar change came over Urso Moldavia Rashid, for while on the surface his anger appeared unabated, beneath it I sensed some unknown satisfaction which sapped it of a certain credibility. "The Clear Light no public platz ist!" he snapped back with somewhat unconvincing spontaneity. "As perhaps you will notice, bitte, this is a mental retreat! We can hardly permit you to agitate our unfortunate patients in such an unseemly manner!"
"What do you suggest?" I demanded. "That I continue along as I have as an object of endless futile interrogation until I am indistinguishable from the poor wretches you seek to prevent me from addressing?"
"You are free to leave the Clear Light at any time," Urso pointed out fatuously. "And indeed if such an event occurs again, you will be expelled!"
"You would have me expire of starvation?"
We had reached the entrance to the building now, and Urso's demeanor abruptly altered. "You mistake my meaning and my spirit," he said in an almost apologetic tone. "I have only your best interests at heart."
"Well then what are you suggesting, Urso?" I demanded.
"That certainement your therapy has reached a stage where you must direct some thought and effort to your future life, for as you yourself have just so nobly declared, you certainly have no wish to remain an inmate in a mental retreat forever."
I looked at him with new eyes. Mayhap I had mistaken his spirit, for whatever else Urso Moldavia Rashid may have been before or after, in that moment he was a true psychic Healer, for he had spoken the truth that was in my own heart.
"I could not agree more wholeheartedly, Urso," I told him with unconstrained sincerity. "But what am I to do?"
"I may have some wisdom to offer in the practical realm as well," Urso said. "Let us make ourselves comfortable in my office and I will donate the time to elucidate at proper length."
To this I could find no reason to demur, and so what had begun as the hectoring and physical removal of a miscreant became a friendly tete-a-tete, or so at least it seemed.
"Neither of us wishes our arrangement to continue indefinitely, nicht wahr," Urso said when we had made ourselves comfortable in his cushioned lair of an office. "So while I am willing to grant you shelter and sustenance in exchange for your continued cooperation in our inquiries for a transitional period, I suggest that you avail yourself of your freedom to come and go and seek out means of gainful employment."
What a roil of emotion arose in me at these words! For while I wanted nothing so much as to regain my liberty, when it came to the economic means of securing same, my mind was utterly vacant. Which is to say that while I could hardly deny the wisdom and veracity of Urso's injunction, the emotions that they summoned up, alas, were frustration, anger, and dread.
"Gainful employment ...?" I muttered unhappily. "I am versed in no marketable skill or lore, and as for earning a wage as a subject for psychotropic experiments, my experiences on the Bloomenveldt have left me entirely unemployable as a psychonaut, even were I mad enough to resort to same."
"Indeed," purred Urso, and now the insinuating tone of his voice became quite evident, "but you are, as you have declared, Sunshine Shasta Leonardo, ruespieler, nicht wahr. Who has also righteously announced the necessity of practicing her art ..."
"In Ciudad Pallas?" I exclaimed. "You may indeed be a maestro of your own art, Urso, but it is evident you know nothing of that of the ruespieler! This wretched city is entirely devoid of the life of the streets! There are no suitable venues, the citizens thereof --"
"-- however unpromising, are certainly more promising in terms of both artistic appreciation and financial largesse than the indigent inmates of a mental retreat, nicht wahr?"
Once more Urso seemed to have earned his keep as a true psychic Healer, for I could hardly deny that it would take little more courage to declaim to the denizens of Ciudad Pallas than it had to stand up for myself in the Luzplatz and seek to entice the lordly attention of the indifferent Edojin.
Urso smiled at me. "What have you to lose by trying?" he said.
"Well spoken, Urso, well spoken indeed!" I declared, smiling back at him for the first time since this discussion had begun.
Would not the old spiels which had worn out their welcome in Edoku nevertheless be novel tales from a greater metropole to the bumpkins of this most culturally provincial of planetary capitals? Indeed did I not now have a grand tale to tell which was entirely my own and mayhap one of piquant local relevance to the inhabitants of this planet? Vraiment, had I not now prevailed by the power of the Word in the very Bloomenveldt itself? Had I not been willing to hector the very dregs of psychic disaster swept up from those self-same unpromising streets as they vegetated in a mental retreat? Did I have anything further to fear in the way of stage fright? Did I have any better alternative?
I shrugged. "Nothing ventured, nothing gained, n'est-ce pas?" I said almost gaily.
"Gut!" exclaimed Urso heartily. "And if you will forgive my anticipation of the decision I knew you would come to in the end, I make practical recompense in the form of this necessary gift."
From his desk he withdrew a portable chip transcriber such as are employed in private games of chance.
"Having researched the subject but scantily, I nevertheless believe I am correct in believing ruespielers, so-called, are traditionally paid in so-called ruegelt, actual physical tokens each representing a unit of credit ..."
My spirits suddenly sank. "I had forgotten that the very concept of ruegelt is unknown in Ciudad Pallas," I groaned. "How may I therefore command the citizens thereof to shower me with coin when none such exists?"
"With this device I have taken the liberty of providing for your use," Urso said. "The donor inserts a chip in one slot, the recipient in another, the amount of the transfer is selected, and the transaction is accomplished."
"It seems a rather unwieldy procedure in comparison to the simple tossing of some coins," I said uncertainly, though of course this was the normal mode of commerce throughout the worlds of men, and ruegelt only a concession to the demimonde on the more sophisticated planets thereof.
"Come, come, this is mere grumbling, is it not?" Urso chided in an avuncular tone. "To those whose spirits hold back from every venture, a less than perfect universe provides abundant excuses for sloth, nicht wahr?"
Once more I could not escape entirely from the feeling that he was serving his own self-interest no less than he was justly advising mine.
"Touche," I agreed nevertheless, for whatever else Urso might be, however I might have been manipulated to get me here, and at whatever profit to whom, Urso Moldavia Rashid, by means fair or foul, had guided me back to my Yellow Brick Road.
And so, the next afternoon, under an overcast sky, with my Cloth of Many Colors tied about my neck as a scarf and the chip transcriber in my pocket, I set forth.
Not having set foot on urban streets for months, I found those of Ciudad Pallas both daunting and strangely reassuring. For while I now found myself moving among more people than I had seen in one place for many weeks, and while the regular gridwork of streets, the geometrically rigid forms and unadorned facades of the palisades of buildings, indeed the very gray substance of the concrete beneath my feet seemed grim, lifeless, and ersatz, wandering in this venue was a far cry from the psychic perils of the Bloomenveldt, and Ciudad Pallas certainly seemed modest and quotidian enough in comparison to my memories of Great Edoku.
And while I might have been tempted to regard myself as a bumpkin fresh from the wilderness, or worse, as an inmate of a mental retreat taking her first tremulous steps out into the worlds at large, my perception of the citizens of Ciudad Pallas soon enough disabused me of any excessive humility.
For I saw no throngs of extravagantly clad and tinted Edojin promenading with the lordly and languid grace of folk who considered themselves the sophisticated crown of creation, nor even such haughty urchins as the Gypsy Jokers who had once seemed so daunting when I was a naif of the Public Service Stations.
Rather was I in the midst of modestly clad folk scurrying through the streets with, for the most part, the blank expressions that befitted this pallid venue. The majority of them seemed sober and industrious-minded citizens intent on affairs of business, while others, by the unlaundered look of their clothing and the dishevelment of their persons, could readily enough be identified as what passed in Ciudad Pallas for Children of Fortune, to wit the denizens of the waiting rooms of the laboratories and mental retreats with whom I had become all too familiar on my previous sojourn in the city.
Vraiment, I felt myself to be more connected to the spirit of Belshazaar, such as it was, than any of these natives and longtime residents thereof. For did not the life of its chief city revolve entirely about the psychotropics derived from the flowers of a continent upon whose treetop canopy most of these folk had never dared venture? Indeed was it not true that even the most adventurous natives of Belshazaar, the mages of the research domes, experienced the true reality of their own planet only within the alienating carapaces of their atmosphere suits? Was it not true that even the Children of Fortune of Ciudad Pallas, who imagined themselves psychonauts of the spirit, imbibed the essences thereof only second-or thirdhand in ampoules and vials?
Of all the humans who clung to the surface of this benighted orb, there was only one who had penetrated the central mystery of the dark soul thereof and returned with the tale to tell, and that was I, Sunshine Shasta Leonardo, true Child of Fortune, ruespieler, erstwhile Pied Piper of the Bloomenveldt.
What a tale I had to tell to the denizens of this city! For though they might have by unconscious act of will actively eschewed knowledge of the true nature of that upon which their world was founded, the Tale of the Pied Piper of the Bloomenveldt was their own true story, if only they had the courage to listen, if only I could summon up the art to touch their cramped spirits!
As for a proper venue within which to tell the tale, this, alas, was another matter, for one street was very much like the next, one indifferent knot of citizens much like every other. As far as I could tell, Ciudad Pallas was quite devoid of parks or civic centers or platzes where streets converged to provide a proper public forum.
At length, I gave over my futile search for such a venue, ceased my wanderings at the intersection of two streets much like a hundred others, stood before a towering building of glass and steel of no particular distinction, took in a deep breath, screwed up my courage, and began to spiel.
"The Tale of the Pied Piper of the Bloomenveldt!" I announced at the top of my lungs, and as I began the spiel itself, I found some inner craft modifying it away from the cryptic haiku form in which it had evolved as I lived it, away from the coherently crafted summation thereof which had emerged from the endless repetitions under interrogation, and toward an extreme condensation of the full version which years later I was to encode onto word crystal in this very histoire.
"Vraiment, all present here do surely know that the spirit of Belshazaar, the raison d'etre for your own presence on this planet, resides not in this grim gray city of lifeless glass and stone, but across the sea atop the mighty Bloomenwald where the great flowers exude the psychotropic substances upon which your economic vie depends and which is the sole fame of Belshazaar among the far-flung worlds of men!"
A few passersby had paused for a moment, if only to peruse this novel event, for never before had the streets of this city seen a ruespieler explode from anonymous silence into full-blown declamation. Half a dozen or so of these had remained when they heard me begin to speak of that subject surely dearest to any audience's heart, to wit the spirit and economic welfare of their very own selves. This in turn created a small eddy in the stream of street traffic, so that all must slow down a bit as they passed the spiel.
"I stand before you as one who has wandered deeper into the Bloomenveldt than any human spirit may safely go, who has walked among the fabled Bloomenkinder, seen the legendary Perfumed Garden of floral perfection, lost my elan humain to the puissant flowers, been rescued therefrom by the Pied Piper of the Bloomenveldt, and returned to this very corner upon which I now stand to regale you, good citizens of Ciudad Pallas, with this mighty tale!"
My audience had grown to more than a dozen now, and even some of those who had paused out of curiosity and then moved on seemed to do so with a certain reluctance, as if they indeed wished to hear more but were unfortunately required elsewhere.
"Hearken therefore to the Tale of the Pied Piper of the Bloomenveldt! Learn of the wonders and terrors and the true nature of the forest of unreason upon which the very life of this city depends! Hear of the bodhis of the Bloomenveldt! Cringe at the depths to which the human spirit may descend! Glory at the power of the Word to bring that selfsame spirit back from the ancestral flowers to full sapient awareness! Listen to the Tale of the Pied Piper of the Bloomenveldt, which is my own, and yours as well, the only true tale there is to tell, the one which we all have followed from apes of the trees to lordly citizens of the far-flung worlds of men, and in the process thereof become once more true Children of our species' Fortune on the Yellow Brick Road from tropism and determinism to sovereign captaincy of the great arkologies and gallant Void Ships which have made us the masters of the stars!"
I had attracted almost two score expectant listeners by the time I had finished this florid and extravagant preamble to my tale, a good many of them sober burghers of Ciudad Pallas, but more of them than not lost Children of Fortune of the laboratories and mental retreats, who no doubt heard more keenly in my words the song that had once been in their own hearts.
As for me, I was toxicated with my own spiel myself, though it was that state of clear and lucid toxication of which such as the sufis do speak, wherein the fiery passion of the spirit and the cool clarity of the intellect are revealed as one.
Which is to say that as I began to recount the story of my trek with Guy Vlad Boca into the floral heart of darkness, as I observed my descriptions thereof emerging spontaneously from the mysterious center of my own inner void, vraiment even as my body trembled with an arcane energy I had never felt before, there was a cool calm part of me that stood outside both the teller and the tale and knew with certainty that this was the very first time I had truly practiced the ruespieler's art.
This, all unknowing, was what I had sought to become when first I had listened to the ruespielers of the Gypsy Jokers and longed in my unformed ignorance to walk the path of their vie. This was what had been missing from my poor efforts in the Luzplatz as I parroted the oft-told tales of others before I knew a tale to tell that was my spirit's own.
And while the Tale of the Pied Piper of the Bloomenveldt with which I had heroically babbled my way across the forest canopy had certainly arisen from the depths of my own heart, when it came to the coherent craft which must carry even the most puissant of stories from the spirit of the teller to those of the audience, I had never been the master thereof until now.
And so, as I launched into the story of my escape from the Perfumed Garden, the beginning of my unmasked journey across the Bloomenveldt, even my description of how my insensate spirit had roused itself from the lotus of forgetfulness to follow the sun, follow the yellow, follow the Yellow Brick Road, I found myself able, for the first time, to tell my own true tale with a coherence and accessibility to ears other than my own of which I had never before been capable.
For now it could justly be said that I was at last what I had so grandly to Urso Moldavia Rashid proclaimed: Sunshine Shasta Leonardo, ruespieler, in the act of truly practicing her art.
And now in the living process thereof, at least while the telling of the tale continued, I cared not that I was an indigent forced to survive by dwelling in a mental retreat, nor that I addressed a bare handful of people on the unpromising streets of an unwholesome city on a world which I wanted nothing more than to leave.
For as I spoke of the Pied Piper of the Children of Fortune whom we had all followed along the camino real from the ancestral trees to the stars, as I spoke of the Pied Piper of the Bloomenveldt leading her charges out of the forest, as I spoke of Pater Pan, and Sunshine Shasta Leonardo, and all the true Children of Fortune who carried forth the Spark of the Ark, like all true tellers of all true tales, my own spirit was the most avid audience, to whom I addressed my spiel in my heart of hearts.
Be that as it may, when at length I came to the conclusion of my tale, I remained true to the quotidian necessities of the calling which I had now found, which is to say that while my spirit may have been filled with amour propre for the ding an sich, this did not prevent my more pragmatic side from seeking remuneration therefor.
At least a score of people remained attentively before me as I reached the finale, drawing forth my chip transcriber and waving it invitingly under their noses with a proper mendicant's flourish.
"And so this is my story, and this is our song, and if the Tale of the Pied Piper of the Bloomenveldt has touched your spirits, if you too style yourself a true Child of Fortune, then cast aside all mean-spirited minginess, bitte, insert your chips herein, and give what magnanimity requires so that the teller thereof may carry it forth among the far-flung worlds of men!"
Alas, while the telling of the tale had pleased these worthies fancies as evidenced by the rapt attention which they had remained throughout to bestow, when the Piper sought her pay, their enthusiasm was a good deal more restrained.
Which is to say that one by one they turned up their noses at my entreaties and swiftly began to melt away.
Only one fellow remained, a disheveled young man, or more properly put, mayhap, an aging boy, quite obviously one whose funds were secured as a subject in the laboratories, who stood there uncertainly, blinking rheumy and clearly worshipful eyes in my direction, and fingering something concealed in the pocket of his trousers.
"Come, come," I wheedled, "are we not true Children of Fortune, you and I, kindred spirits of the Yellow Brick Road? Will you not show the miserly folk of this city that we care for our own? Together, let us put these Bloomenkinder of the spirit to shame! A single unit of credit will do the deed if that is all your fortune can spare ..."
Strange to say it was a quite uncharacteristic modesty rather than a certain guilty shame which I felt as I observed this poor urchin mooning at me as once I must have gazed at the Gypsy Joker ruespielers when I was a waif such as he. How much older I felt as he smiled shyly at me, withdrew his chip of credit, and inserted it into my transcriber.
"Two credits for the Pied Piper of the Bloomenveldt," he said. "Someday I too would wish for such a tale to tell!"
I was moved to plant a kiss on his cheek when this transaction was concluded. "May the Yellow Brick Road rise up to greet you," I told him. "And may you summon up the means to follow it to a far better world than this!"
"Tu tambien ..." he muttered, blushing, and then he was gone.
Thus in this most unlikely of venues did I at last become the true ruespieler I had never succeeded in being in the far more lucrative streets of Great Edoku.
Which is far from saying that I was ever able to earn sufficient funds at the trade in Ciudad Pallas to quit my room and board at the Clear Light Mental Retreat. Indeed, even had the slim proceeds of my efforts been enough to secure a room in some modest hotel and enough nourishment to insure my survival, still I would not have given over Urso Moldavia Rashid's gratuit provision thereof, for when it came to the retention of my modest funds, I became a miser with the best of them.
Nor was this the result of a newfound meanness of spirit; au contraire, having fairly discovered my own true calling, having set my spirit if not quite my feet back on the Yellow Brick Road, all my efforts, energies, and funds were husbanded toward the purpose of escaping from Belshazaar and resuming my wanderjahr's journey on better worlds than this.
For even though my earnings as Ciudad Pallas's sole ruespieler were paltry indeed -- twenty-one credits in the best week I enjoyed -- I was confident that this was more the fault of the city's karma than my own. There were no proper platzes or parks where I might draw a decent crowd, what small audiences I did address were largely unacquainted with the traditions of my trade, the burghers of the city had little enthusiasm for street performance, and the dispirited children of Fortune of the laboratories and mental retreats who were the most generous of spirit were alas only slightly less indigent than myself.
Yet by my own lights, I seemed sufficiently advanced in my craft to meet with financial as well as artistic success, if only I could secure the funds to remove myself to some planet where the streets were alive with gay-spirited throngs and the joie de vivre so absent from Ciudad Pallas had reached a reasonably full flower.
For did I not possess not only a considerable repertoire of tales acquired from the Gypsy Joker ruespielers of Edoku but a unique tale as well that was entirely my own? And was not even my modest success against all odds here on Belshazaar proof that I had the wit and craft to properly tell them?
It was only a function of effort over time, or so I told myself during these weeks. Slim though my daily earnings were, every credit thereof was retained against the day when I had accumulated sufficient funds to purchase electrocoma passage in a Void Ship leaving Belshazaar for greener pastures. Sooner or later, though alas more likely the latter than the former, I would have enough credit on my chip to travel on.
And as far as I was concerned, it mattered little as to where, for the journey itself was what I now sought to resume. Once I had enough funds to travel to anywhere else, I would take myself forthwith thither, and on that new planet would I ply the ruespieler's trade until I had earned enough to pay my way to the next, and the next, and the next, worlds without end, tripping the life fantastic like Pater Pan, from star to star, following the Yellow Brick Road of the wandering ruespieler, vraiment star-tripping through the centuries even as he, mayhap even to meet him once more before my body's time ran out.
Was it a man I sought to follow, or the Pied Piper of a tale? Did I truly dream of regaining the companionship of a lost lover or was this merely an ultima Thule my spirit placed like the rising sun above a road that had no ending?
La meme chose, ne, for Pater Pan the natural man was a wandering spirit, and Pater Pan the Pied Piper of the Yellow Brick Road was the spirit of wandering, and to Sunshine the ruespieler, were they not one and the same?
Be that as it may, in the end my tale was to take a different turning, indeed as I spieled for pittances in the streets of Ciudad Pallas, the wheel had already turned, though I was to be the last to know. Far sooner than I could have dreamt, I was telling my last tale for the citizens of Ciudad Pallas, though at the time I knew it not, for my chip still held less than half the credit I needed to purchase passage to the nearest world.
The tale I was telling at the time was, appropriately enough, Spark of the Ark, the venue was an undistinguished Ciudad Pallas street like all the others, and the audience consisted of some half-dozen burghers, four Children of Fortune, and a handsome dark-haired woman whose form-fitting suit of iridescent gold and silver feathers seemed to mark her as a turista from some more sophisticated sphere.
"And where did he go when the Jump Drive rang down the final curtain on the great slow centuries of the First Starfaring Age?" I declaimed, segueing into my climactic appeal for funds. "Everywhere! Nowhere! Into the space between which lies within our human hearts! Here within the teller who brings you the tale, vraiment even within the Arkie Sparkie hearts of you, my poor lost Bloomenkinder, which is to say all of you who still retain the nobility of spirit to insert your chips into my transcriber and donate your funds to she whose life is the singing of the song!"
So saying, I waved my transcriber in the customary manner before them, and in their customary manner most of them chose to fade away, though two of the Children of Fortune were good enough to honor my efforts with a single credit apiece before departing.
Now only the dark-haired woman in the suit of feathers remained, neither fleeing at my mendicant's appeal nor making any move to loose the strings of what surely must have been an overflowing purse. Instead she stood there regarding me quite strangely, with a wry yet somehow warm smile on her lips, and a peculiar look of nostalgic merriment in her wide blue eyes.
"Quelle chose!" I demanded, forthrightly confronting her. "From your haute couture it is evident that you are a woman of wealth and grace! Surely you will not be so mean-spirited therefore as to deny the Piper her pay?"
She laughed good-naturedly, withdrew a chip from the folds of her garment, inserted it into my transcriber, and watched my eyes widen in delight and no little astonishment as she transferred a full hundred units of credit to my own.
"I too once practiced the ruespieler's trade long ago and far away," she said. "Hola, in a certain sense it might be said that I follow it still. At any event, I do believe that it is you I have journeyed to this tiresome planet to meet."
"Me?" I exclaimed.
"You are Sunshine Shasta Leonardo, are you not? Of whom the case histories speak? The Lady of the Ode?"
"Vraiment, Omar's ode, Our Lady of the Bloomenkinder, naturellement."
"Omar Ki Benjamin? He really wrote the ode he promised?"
She laughed. "Of course. The old roue is a man of his word. The problem has always been getting him to give it. "
"You are a friend of Omar's?"
She shrugged. "A subtle question, liebchen. We have been lovers from time to time for decades, yet I am still not quite sure. But then we know how such men are, ne?"
"We had better!" she declared. Then, sensing my complete befuddlement, which no doubt would have been evident to the coarsest oaf, she took me by the hand. "Come, kindelein," she said. "It would seem that I have much to tell you, though of course not half so much as you have to tell me. "
"Where are we going?" I managed to inquire.
She made a moue of distaste ... Alas, my suite at the Hotel Pallas," she said. "One cut above a rude bordello, as far as I'm concerned, but the best Belshazaar has to offer, I was given to understand."
I nodded. "I dwelt there once, " I told her.
"Well, then, you know what I mean!"
And so, hardly knowing how I had gotten there or why, I found myself ensconced with this bizarre yet somehow immediately simpatica woman in a suite in the Hotel Pallas much like the one Guy and I had once shared, all thick blue carpeting, brown plush upholstery, tawny wood paneling, polished brasswork, and dominated by a huge window that presented a grandiose and repulsive vista of this city of charmless gray and ugly expanses of glass.
"Feh!" my hostess agreed when she saw me gazing distastefully thereon. "You will be as happy to be quit of this place as I, ne? But come, be seated, have some of this wretched wine that they dare to charge such an outrageous price for, and hear my name tale, for naturellement, I already know yours."
She ushered me to a couch, sat down beside me, uncorked a bottle of wine, filled two goblets, wrinkled her nose, and gulped down a draught. The wine, when I tasted it, was nowhere near as vile as I had been led to expect.
"Bien," my new friend declared, for so I had already begun to consider her, though I did not quite know why.
"My name is Wendi Sha Rumi. My father, Rumi Mitsu Cala, was, or rather still is, a composer and performer of musique et lumiere native to no planet in particular, for he was conceived and raised to manhood aboard a succession of Void Ships, his mother, Cala Abdu Etroy, having been a freeservant thereon, and his father, Mitsu Bryan Chiri, being a Void Captain of same. His freenom, Rumi, he chose for the premiere of his first composition in homage to the legendary sufic poet of old.
"My mother, Sha Smith Gotha, alas deceased, was a Void Ship Domo. Her father, Smith Willa Carlyle, was an artisan of bijoux to the floating cultura, and her mother, Gotha Lee Kotar, was, to be frank, a courtesan thereof, of great beauty and tantric skill, or so it is said. Her freenom, Sha, she chose upon becoming a Domo homage a Sha Lao Hari, one of the earliest to follow that art, and the first to fit out her Grand Palais with a vivarium, or so the legend goes.
"My parents met when the courses of their endless voyages intersected aboard the Pegasus D'or, and one of the results of this union, naturellement, was myself, also raised entirely en passage, as it were. Thus I am a third generation native of the floating cultura, which no doubt does much to explain my distaste for planetary surfaces, let alone for such a pismire world as this.
"Eschewing parental largesse out of some ill-conceived rebellious pride and wishing to wallow in all that the worlds and the men thereof might have to offer, I passed my wanderjahr, and a long and wild one it was, ma petite, as a nouvelle indigent Child of Fortune making her way from world to world by the usual means, which is to say courtesy of wealthy lovers, via tantric performance, as a freeservant, by strategems amounting to little more than theft, and finally as an itinerant ruespieler with a plethora of dark and spicy tales to tell, my dear.
"At length, vraiment at great length, it slowly began to dawn on me that there were far more lucrative markets for same than streets and platzes, which is to say I began to record my romances and stories on word crystal, an alteration of medium which I commend to your attention, liebchen, for the sale thereof now allows me to live in the style to which all civilized folk should wish to become accustomed.
"My freenom, Wendi, I chose as a suitable nom de plume for the publication of my first word crystal, homage a the collector of lost boys in the tale of Peter Pan, for certainement I had collected enough of the same during my wanderjahr, and the gentlemen of the priapic gender were the audience I sought to capture for my libidinal romances --"
"Pater Pan!" I exclaimed. "The tale of Pater Pan?"
"Peter Pan," Wendi corrected. "Though it is arcane indeed that you should hear the other, for in fact long ago I briefly knew a man who styled himself thusly, and what a fellow he was too, liebchen, with a great golden mane of hair, the most outrageous blarney, and a suit you would not believe ..."
She smiled at me broadly as I sat there with my mouth gaping open. "Then again you might," she said archly, "seeing as how it was sewn together of a patchwork of assorted swatches not unlike the very scarf you wear!"
I gaped. I gargled. I gulped down a great swallow of wine. Wendi patted me on the knee and laughed uproariously.
"Pardon, ma pauvre petite, of course I was enjoying a small jest at your expense," she said. "Naturellement, your connection to the fellow, being recorded in the copious annals of your case history, was known to me from the start. Which is not to say that he and I were not lovers too, long ago and far away, verdad. C'est vrai. I tell you true."
At last I found my tongue. "Annals? Case history? Pater Pan?" I stammered. "I know not what to say. I am filled with questions I cannot frame."
Wendi raised an admonitory finger. "All in good time," she said, pouring me another goblet of wine. "But I have been babbling on at endless length and I have not come all this distance to hear the sound of my own voice, pleasing though it may be to my ears. It is your turn to speak, ruespieler. I would hear the tale of the Pied Piper of the Bloomenveldt from the lips of same, for the dry monographs which the proprietors of the Clear Light Mental Retreat have thusfar licensed for publication obviously omit the most spicy and piquant details. I would learn why Our Lady of the Bloomenkinder is presently reduced to spieling for pittances on these mean streets. Drink up, then speak! I swear a solemn oath that I will seek not to gain profit by stealing your tale. And when you have enlightened my ignorance, then I will surely enlighten yours, at least to the extent that my poor powers command. Drink! Speak! Favor me with the telling of your own true tale!"
And so, my loquacity along the way well lubricated by more goblets of wine than I could count, I related to Wendi Sha Rumi a greatly condensed summary of the events I have thusfar recounted in this very histoire, omitting only those matters which cast less than glory upon my own person, some of the more intimate details, and of course whatever mature retrospective analysis I have attempted herein, which was beyond my intellectual powers at the time.
"Ah, I knew we would be friends when first I perused Omar's ode!" Wendi declared when I had more or less concluded. "For surely you are a sister of the spirit to the girl that I once was, and with good fortune, I am surely a sister of the spirit to the woman you will one day become." She frowned. "But despite your natural talent as a teller of tales, there remain matters I do not entirely comprehend ..."
"That you do not comprehend!" I exclaimed. "Vraiment, there is little of your presence on Belshazaar or my presence in this very room that I comprehend at all!"
"Well, then, let us take turns as interlocutor and respondee, my dear," Wendi said. "The first question may be yours ..."
"What are you doing here, Wendi?" I asked. "What do you want from me?"
"Do you wish me to frame my reply in terms of spirit, art, or commerce, liebchen?"
"Surely," I told her dryly, ''as an author of romances, you are capable of combining all three ...?"
"Well spoken!" Wendi declared with a little laugh. "In terms of spirit, as I have said, I knew you were a time-warped sister of my own heart when first I encountered Omar's ode. In terms of art, when I then perused the dry details of your adventure in the annals, I recognized an incompleted tale of great promise that I wished to hear from the heroine herself in order to enrich my own mastery of the art, for as you will learn, a serious practitioner thereof must never give over studying the work of colleagues. As for commerce, I have secured a modest commission to assist you in preparing a proper version of your adventure on the Bloomenveldt for inclusion in the Matrix."
"Matrix? Commission? Annals? Que pasa?"
"One moment, liebchen!" Wendi chided. "For speaking of commerce, it is your turn to answer me. To wit, why in all the worlds do I find Our Lady of the Bloomenkinder, the heroine and author of the Tale of the Pied Piper of the Bloomenveldt, the subject of so much learned if far from artful publication, begging for pittances on these wretched streets?"
"In order to secure funds, naturellement!" I told her. "Why else? So that I may purchase my escape from what you have so justly styled this wretched place!"
Wendi regarded me with astonishment. "You are in fact declaring your indigence, child?"
"I do possess some two hundred and sixty units of credit on my chip ..." I said in a somewhat pitiful voice.
"Two hundred and sixty!" Wendi exclaimed. "With that you might purchase two nights lodging in this despicable hotel! I do not at all comprehend."
"I do not comprehend what it is you do not comprehend."
"Caga!" Wendi fairly exploded. "Nom de merde! The Clear Light Mental Retreat has licensed the publication of any number of learned and fatuous monographs dissecting your exploits, and while admittedly these are certainly less than popular fare, several thousand copies of each must surely have been purchased by institutes of learning. What wretched rate of royalty have they cozened you into accepting? One colleague to another, how mingy was the advance?"
"Royalty? Advance?" The more she spoke, the less I seemed to understand. "I am supplied with a decent enough room, three dull meals daily, and several changes of clothing, and that is the long and short of it," I told her. "You are saying I should receive something more?"
"WHAT?" Wendi shouted, bolting from the couch. She began pacing in small circles before me, fairly bellowing her outrage. "Chingada, what a naif! And to think I once had the temerity to style myself a proper thief! Child, while you have been spending all these weeks answering their stupid questions and begging alms in the street, the mages of the Clear Light Mental Retreat have been churning out monographs by the roomful on the data you have been so naively donating gratuit, at considerable profit to themselves!"
"They have ...?"
"Of course they have!" Wendi exclaimed. "Unlike you, my little ingenue, they were not exactly born the day before yesterday!"
Slowly, she subsided from her wrath, sat down beside me, and laid a friendly hand on my knee. "Fear not, Sunshine," she said in a much calmer voice, but one that was nevertheless edged with burnished steel. "I will aid you in dealing with these mountebanks forthwith. Healers they style themselves even as they rob innocent children!"
So saying, she grabbed me by the hand and fairly yanked me to my feet. "Andale!" she said. "We will have it out with this Urso fellow at once!"
"But ... the Matrix ...your commission ... what is happening ...? You haven't told me anything ..." I stammered as she dragged me toward the door.
"In the floatcab, liebchen, I will elucidate as best I can, though, hola, it would seem you have more to learn than even I can teach!"
Night had fully fallen by now, and as the floatcab followed its guiderail through the largely empty streets of Ciudad Pallas toward the Clear Light Mental Retreat, Wendi Sha Rumi told me of things that were at length to open up worlds,
"Consider, Sunshine," she said, "that since the Gyptians started carving graffiti on the walls of their tombs, or at any rate since Gutenberg printed his first book, our species has been churning out mountains of paper, tapes, cines, holos, word crystals, und so weiter on every conceivable subject and then some. And since some centuries before the Age of Space, these have all been replicated thousandsfold, to the point that to our Second Starfaring Age almost none of this knowledge and art has been lost. We now number hundreds of billions on nearly three hundred worlds, and still this process continues apace."
She shook her head in wonder and amazement. "The imagination boggles, ne. Paradoxically enough, there is so much knowledge that if some sense were not made of it, it might as well be lost. Thus the Matrix, wherein the sum total of human knowledge is stored in subatomic coding that makes word crystal seem as crude and coarse as tablets of baked clay. Or rather the Matrices, for each Void Ship contains a copy to be continually updated as their paths cross."
"Each Void Ship contains all of human knowledge?" I exclaimed in utter wonderment.
"Nein, nein, nein!" Wendi said. "What an impossible useless mess that would be! The sum total of all human knowledge, child, the edited sum total. For example, Omar's ode is in the Matrix, but most of the learned babble churned out by the mages of the Clear Light on the subject of your adventure is merely noted in the bibliographical index. And even with stringent editing, it requires years of study to learn how to properly extract what one desires from the chaos of the Matrix."
She turned to me and smiled. "Which brings us to our business at hand," she said. "It has been decided by those who decide such things, which is to say the inner circle of the floating cultura, as it were, that your sojourn upon the Bloomenveldt is of sufficient interest to posterity so that a short and definitive version is deemed worthy of storage in the Matrix. Thus I have been commissioned to journey to Belshazaar on the Mistral Falcon, which waits in orbit even now, to assist you in the preparation of same, along with certain mages who have come along for the ride. Your fee will be two thousand units, admittedly a mere token sum, but I assure you that inclusion of a summary in the Matrix will in no way reduce the sale of the full and glorious romance you will no doubt some day publish, indeed the cachet thereof will no doubt enhance --"
She cut herself off in midsentence, for our floatcab had now pulled up outside the Clear Light. "Speaking of credit units," she said, "I see we have reached our destination. So let us conclude this tawdry business as expeditiously as possible, so that we may swiftly flee this loathsome planet and begin our collaboration aboard the Mistral Falcon, ne!"
Thus, with my head reeling from this rapid-fire round of wonders and revelations to the point where I could scarcely think, I found myself being drawn down the hallways of the Clear Light by Wendi Sha Rumi, who shouted out to all and sundry for Urso Moldavia Rashid to be summoned to his office at once, and who refused to give over her strident demands until the whole mental retreat was in an uproar, and Urso at last appeared therein where we awaited him, scowling darkly, and muttering imprecations under his breath.
"What outrage is this?" he demanded angrily. "How dare you throw this mental retreat into a tumult and summon me from table like --"
"Like a thief caught in the act?" Wendi suggested in a cold, hard voice. "As for the nature of the outrage, that is for me to inquire and you to reply, Urso Moldavia Rashid! To wit, have you robbed this child of her droit of authorship out of mere pig-thick ignorance or deliberate guileful malice?"
"Who is this woman?" Urso shouted at me. "Speak at once, lest I expel you out upon the streets forthwith!"
"How dare you hector this innocent thusly?" Wendi bellowed. "As for expelling her from this establishment, I assure you that soon enough she will be gone. Which is to say as soon as you have rendered up some five thousand credit units, a modest enough estimate of the amount you have embezzled."
"Embezzled? Moi?" Urso said, shifting over at once from bellicose outrage to a tone of wounded innocence which would have seemed utterly sincere had not the transformation occurred with such rapidity. He sank down into the chair behind his desk and demurred not when I seated myself before him. Wendi, for her part, remained standing with one hand on her hip and the other pointing a finger of admonishment.
"Embezzled, you!" she declared. "For many long weeks has Sunshine been the subject of your learned interrogations, and many have been the monographs published thereon, to the great benefit of this institution's scholarly repute and to the pecuniary enrichment of all concerned save the font thereof herself."
"For those selfsame many weeks, she has enjoyed the benefits of our therapeutic ministrations," Urso pointed out defensively. "You know only the Sunshine Shasta Leonardo whom we have returned to full sapient sanity. Had you met the babbling creature who first emerged from the Bloomenveldt, you would not value our services to her so lightly."
"Well spoken!" I was moved to declare, for I could not deny the justice in his words.
Wendi, however, fetched my ankle a kick and shot me a look which further served to admonish me to silence.
"I do not undervalue the worth of your therapeutic efforts at all," she told Urso. "This I have already credited to your karmic and financial accounts. Otherwise, I would surely have demanded three times as much for the droits."
"The arrangement between us was freely entered into," Urso said in a rather whining tone, turning to me for support. "Will you deny this, Sunshine?"
Before I could begin to answer, Wendi held up her hand for silence. "Freely entered into?" she fairly snorted. "First you declare that your craft is entirely responsible for her present sanity, which is to say that she was quite barbled when you grabbed hold of her, and then you declare that the poor demented creature was capable of entering a business arrangement freely, and while in a state of perfect indigence to boot?"
Urso drummed his fingers on the surface of his desk. He shrugged. He sighed. His face took on an almost obsequious mien. "I am a Healer, not an author or an advocate," he said quite meekly. "I know nothing of these matters. Mayhap I have unknowingly violated some nicety thereof, but I am innocent of all guile or willful wrongdoing ..."
"Well spoken," Wendi said in a tone of poisonous sweetness. "Then you will no doubt be more than willing to rectify the innocent results of your ignorant actions, ne?"
Urso studied her narrowly. "In the interests of harmony and justice, I suppose I might bring myself to part with two thousand credit units ..." he said speculatively.
"Four thousand," said Wendi, "Seeing as how we have now established what you are, would it not be unseemly to haggle over the price?"
"Three thousand," Urso countered immediately.
"Three thousand five hundred. After all, just as the Clear Light Mental Retreat has gained a certain scholarly renown among the worlds of men courtesy of my young friend, so might it gain a certain odor of ill repute should the content of this conversation penetrate beyond these walls ..."
"Done," moaned Urso. "You drive a hard bargain, certainement."
"Au contraire," drawled Wendi Sha Rumi. "I am known throughout the worlds of men as a high- minded esthete hardly able to properly attend to the grubby details of commerce."
Urso fairly choked.
After Urso had transferred the funds in question, Wendi accompanied me to my erstwhile room, where I began to stuff the meager wardrobe with which I had been provided into my pack. She fingered one of the tunics distastefully.
"It is hardly worth the effort to pack this rubbish, liebchen," she said. "Hardly suitable for the society you are about to enter." She eyed me speculatively. "We are not that different in general measurement," she said. "It will be simple enough to alter some of my attire so that you may be properly dressed. Obviously there is no point in attempting to seek out haute couture in this nikulturni burg!"
With enough credit on my chip to purchase three or four electrocoma passages, I at last began to catch my psychic breath, which is to say I determined to seize control of my own destiny from the admittedly beneficent hands of my friend and would-be mentor, who had scarcely even given me time to ponder my own desires since we had met.
"I cannot thank you enough for your aid, Wendi," I told her. "But I have my own road to follow, and, thanks to you, I now have the funds to embark thereon."
"Your own road to follow?" Wendi said slowly, as if she had been presented with something of a novel notion. "Vraiment, we must all follow our own star, ma chere," she agreed forthrightly. "The fact that I have come all this distance to meet you should in no way be taken into account. But what, may I ask, is this destiny which in your heart supersedes telling your tale to the posterity of the Matrix? Never have I heard anyone eschew this honor before ..."
"To follow the path of the wandering ruespieler and see the worlds of men," I told her.
"If that were all, why do you object to traveling at least the first leg of your journey in proper style?" she said, eyeing me narrowly.
"The worlds of men are many, and lifespan's duration is limited," I told her. "I care not to waste weeks of mine voyaging as an Honored Passenger, for I wish to make the attempt to see them all, to trip through the centuries in the sleep of electrocoma in the process and experience thereby as much of our species' tale as I can manage before I must die."
Wendi smiled a strange little smile. "It seems to me," she said, "that I have heard these words before ..."
I stared back at her. "You really did know Pater Pan," I said.
"Indeed," Wendi said. "And it would seem he told us both the same story of his millennial heart's desire." She regarded me sharply. "Do you seek to emulate his example or are you still smitten by his charms?"
"Je ne sais pas," I told her in all honesty. "Mayhap they are one and the same. I seek to travel the road of the spirit that we share certainement ..."
"And at the end of it, if fortune is kind, to find the natural man?"
"Mayhap ..." I muttered. "Indeed, since I left Guy Vlad Boca in the Perfumed Garden I have been moved to seek the embrace of no other natural man ..."
"This is a confession of prolonged celibacy?" Wendi exclaimed.
"I suppose it is ..." I muttered. "Though somehow I have never thought of it that way before."
"De nada, liebchen, de nada!" Wendi exclaimed, perceiving my discomfort at this admission. "Men being what they are, it happens to us all from time to time, let me tell you. It will pass, it will happen again, it will pass once more."
"You do not think me a silly naif for being so smitten that I suffer sexual dysfunction, for seeking to live out a Gypsy Joker's tale ...?"
"As for the former, I may be no Healer, ma chere, but the natural woman's wisdom tells me that one whose most recent rounds of tantric exercise consisted of mass ravishment by spiritless male animals is presently not withdrawn from the arena out of mooning longings for a lover light-years gone," Wendi assured me. "As for seeking to live out the tale, this does impinge upon my area of professional expertise, for whether you know it or not, what you are truly seeking is a fitting ending to your wanderjahr's story."
"Vraiment, and justly so! For we must always end one tale truly before another can be fairly begun with a clear spirit, in life, as in the literary arts."
She shook her head and smiled to herself in a self-congratulatory manner. "I knew that I must hear your tale from your own lips or miss its essence!" she declared. "But I knew not why."
"And now you do?"
"Vraiment," Wendi said. "Omar's ode ended with your escape from the Bloomenveldt and the scientific literature considers your return to sapient sanity the proper climax, but while the tale of the Pied Piper of the Bloomenveldt is history, the tale of the wanderjahr of Sunshine Shasta Leonardo has not yet reached its proper esthetically satisfying conclusion, for you have not yet lived through its telling yet. Whether for reasons of the heart or by puissant unconscious literary instinct, you seek the right conclusion, liebchen, which is to say a proper conclusion to this romance requires a moment of triumphant reunion with your long-lost lover. Bon! Let us be gone! This must be accomplished in the interests of both kismet and art!"
I had finished packing while we spoke, and Wendi now grabbed up my pack and fairly shooed me out the sliding glass door into the garden. "Wait!" I found myself crying to her yet again. "Where are we going?"
Wendi paused in the doorway. "To the Mistral Falcon, where else?" she said.
"But you yourself have just agreed that I should seek out Pater Pan among the stars ...?"
"And how do you intend to do that, my dear?" she asked indulgently.
I shrugged. "By traveling among the worlds of men as rapidly as possible so as to maximize the probability of random encounter," I said. "Beyond that it is in the hands of fortune, is it not?"
Wendi shook her head ruefully. "I can see that your knowledge of mathematics is even more deficient than my own," she said, leading me by the hand out into the garden, where thousands of stars shone in the clear dark night. "Look up there, and see how the worlds of men are scattered among the stars," she told me. "I am not sure of the equations, but the approximate odds against such a random encounter occurring may be imagined by multiplying the count of the worlds of men by the mean distance between them."
"But ... but my path need not be entirely random ... I would of course seek out information along the way ..."
"Nevertheless, such a quest would consume your entire lifetime without reaching its proper climax."
"I don't understand you, Wendi," I complained pettishly. "First you tell me it is artistically right and proper that I seek out a reunion with Pater Pan, and then you tell me that success is all but impossible!"
"Impossible?" Wendi exclaimed. "When have you ever heard me declare that anything is impossible? Via the Matrix on the Mistral Falcon we shall winkle the fellow out soon enough."
"Via the Matrix?"
"Naturellement, how else do you imagine one keeps track of people in our Second Starfaring Age? While Pater Pan is hardly a figure of sufficient historical interest to have a running account of his wanderings recorded in the Matrix, certainement he has left a strong enough spoor of tales, legends, and little tribes in the process thereof for a maestra of the Matrix to construct a tracking program that will locate a recent locus in the data banks."
"How is such a thing possible?" I exclaimed.
Wendi shrugged. "Such mathematical legerdemain is entirely beyond my comprehension," she said. "But one need not trouble one's head with the same in order to employ it any more than one need be a mage of cosmological physics to travel by Void Ship."
Wendi began striding across the silent and empty garden to the main exit of the mental retreat, but I still hung back.
"What is it now, child?" she demanded impatiently.
"I cannot go with you," I told her. "For surely the three thousand five hundred credit units I possess, plus the two thousand unit fee you allude to, will at best cover the expense of a journey as an Honored Passenger to one nearby planet. And where will I be then? An immobile indigent cursing my own extravagance again!"
Wendi's irritation evaporated. "I see you have exchanged a quantum of innocence for a packet of practicality!" she said approvingly. "No longer the high-minded artiste incapable of attending to the grubby details of commerce!"
She stood there in the garden for a moment, pondering, then she rubbed her hands together in glee. "Bien!" she said. "Now I will instruct you in a bit of the lore of same. As she who has a commission to oversee the preparation of your Matrix entry, I do declare that the same cannot be properly finished without an esthetically satisfying conclusion, who can deny this, ne? And in my expert literary opinion, this requires a climactic confrontation with Pater Pan. So much for the art of it, ma chere."
She waved a finger in my face and assumed an owlish air. "Now attend to the means whereby we artists gain our pecuniary vengeance for the depredations of the merchants, who are forever seeking to take advantage of our high-minded innocence," she chortled, obviously enjoying herself immensely. "Since we are both agreed that a reunion scene with Pater Pan is essential to a properly crafted Matrix entry, expenses incurred to achieve the same may legitimately be charged to the cost of scholarly research."
"Are you suggesting what I believe you are suggesting?" I said, slightly aghast in a moral sense mayhap, but taking a certain delighted amusement in a ploy that would certainly do any Gypsy Joker proud.
Wendi hugged me proudly. "Indeed I am!" she declared. "By this accounting, we will travel in proper style until our quarry is found, and if this may take some time, why that is fortune's gift to circumstance, for we travel gratuit, liebchen, as is only our right as free spirits of the arts!"
Yet still something held me back.
"Merde, what ails you now, child?" Wendi said, for no doubt my final trepidation was writ clearly upon my face.
"In truth, the floating cultura pleases me not," I blurted rather sullenly. "I have passed that way before, and I have no wish to have such idle empty folk look down their excessively elegant noses at me again!"
"Am I an idle, empty person?" Wendi said gently. "Have you observed me peering down at you from heights of aristocratic haughtiness?"
"Of course not ... I didn't mean ..."
She took my hand and squeezed it as she led me inside the Clear Light and through the corridor to the streetside egress.
"Je comprend, liebchen, truly I do," she said. "The truth of it is that while you voyaged within a Grand Palais, you never voyaged within the floating cultura, you were never an Honored Passenger therein. You were treated as a mere fortunate urchin, and so you felt like a ragamuffin intruding into the fete, ne ..."
"One might I suppose style it thusly ..." I admitted grudgingly.
"Ah, but this will be another matter, Sunshine." Wendi said as we reached the street. "For you are that urchin no longer! For now you will travel by the invitation, hola, by the largesse of the floating cultura, not by purchasing intrusion therein."
With a little bow, she bade me enter a waiting floatcab. "For now you are no longer a ragged little Child of Fortune, but the heroine of an ode, a personage whose words are deemed worthy of the Matrix, with none other than Wendi Sha Rumi as your collaborator, friend, and patron! Surely she who trekked unaided across the Bloomenveldt lacks not the courage to brave as a darling daughter thereof the haut monde of our Second Starfaring Age?"
I laughed. I sighed. I shrugged. I entered the floatcab. "By now I should know better than to attempt to argue with Wendi Sha Rumi," I said as it bore us away.
"So say you now," said Wendi Sha Rumi. "But by the time our voyage together is over, we shall no doubt have disabused you of such unseemly humility. Then we will truly be sisters of the spirit, you and I!"