And then, after walking all day through a golden haze of humid warmth that gathered about him like fine wet fleece, Valentine came to a great ridge of outcropping white stone overlooking the city of Pidruid. It was the provincial capital, sprawling and splendid, the biggest city he had come upon since— since?— the biggest in a long while of wandering, at any rate.
There he halted, finding a seat at the edge of the soft, crumbling white ridge, digging his booted feet into the flaking ragged stone, and he sat there staring down at Pidruid, blinking as though newly out of sleep. On this summer day twilight was still some hours away, and the sun hung high to the southwest beyond Pidruid, out over the Great Sea. I will rest here for a while,
Valentine thought, and then I will go down into Pidruid and find lodging for the night.
As he rested he heard pebbles tumbling past him from a higher point on the ridge. Unhurriedly he looked back the way he had come. A young herdsman had appeared, a boy with straw–colored hair and a freckled face, leading a train of fifteen or twenty mounts down the hill road. They were fat sleek purple–skinned beasts, obviously well looked after. The boy’s own mount looked older and less plump, a wise and toughened creature.
“Hoy!” he called down to Valentine. “Where are you bound?”
“Pidruid. And you?”
“The same. Bringing these mounts to market. Thirsty work it is, too. Do you have wine?”
“Some,” Valentine said. He tapped the flask at his hip, where a fiercer man might wear a weapon. “Good red mid–country wine. I’ll be sorry to see the last of it.”
“Give me a drink and I’ll let you ride into town with me.”
“Done,” said Valentine.
He got to his feet as the boy dismounted and scrambled down the ridge toward him. Valentine offered him the flask. The boy was no more than fourteen or fifteen, he guessed, and small for his age, though deep through the chest and brawny. He came hardly elbow–high to Valentine, who was tall but
not unusually so, a sturdy man just above middle height, with wide flat shoulders and big capable hands.
The boy swirled the wine in the flask, inhaled in a knowing way, nodded his approval, took a deep gulp, sighed. “I’ve been eating dust all the way from Falkynkip! And this sticky heat— it chokes you! Another dry hour and I’d have been a dead one.” He returned the wine to Valentine. “You live in town?”
Valentine frowned. “No.”
“Here for the festival, then?”
“You don’t know?”
Valentine shook his head. He felt the pressure of the boy’s bright, mocking eyes, and was confused. “I’ve been traveling. I haven’t followed the news. Is this festival time in Pidruid?”
“This week it is,” said the boy. “Beginning on Starday. The grand parade, the circus, the royal celebration. Look down there. Don’t you see him entering the city even now?”
He pointed. Valentine sighted along the boy’s outstretched arm and squinted, peering at Pidruid’s southern corner, but all he saw was a jumble of green–tiled rooftops and a tangle of ancient streets following no rational plan. Again he shook his head. “There,” the boy said impatiently. “Down by the harbor. See? The ships? The five tremendous ones, with his banner flying from the rigging?
And there’s the procession, coming through Dragon Gate, just beginning to march Black Highway. I think that’s his chariot, coming up now by the Arch of Dreams. Don’t you see? Is there something wrong with your eyes?”
“I don’t know the city,” said Valentine mildly. “But yes, I see the harbor, the five ships.”
“Good. Now follow along inland a little way— the big stone gate? And the wide highway running through it? And that ceremonial arch, just this side of—”
“I see it now, yes.”
“And his banner over the chariot?”
“Whose banner? If I sound dim, forgive me, but—”
“Whose? Whose? Lord Valentine’s banner! Lord Valentine’s chariot! Lord Valentine’s bodyguard marching through the streets of Pidruid! Don’t you know the Coronal has arrived?”
“And the festival! Why do you think there’s a festival at this time of summer, if not to welcome the Coronal?”
Valentine smiled. “I’ve been traveling and I haven’t followed the news. Would you like more wine?”
“There’s not much left,” the boy said.
“Go on. Finish it. I’ll buy more in Pidruid.”
He handed over the flask and turned toward the city again, letting his gaze travel down the slope and across the woodsy suburbs to the dense and teeming city, and outward toward the waterfront, and to the great ships, the banners, the marching warriors, the chariot of the Coronal. This must be a great moment in the history of Pidruid, for the Coronal ruled from far–off Castle Mount, all the way on the other side of the world, so distant that he and it were almost legendary, distances being what they were on this world of Majipoor. Coronals of Majipoor did not come often to the western continent. But Valentine was oddly unmoved by the knowledge of the presence of his glittering namesake down below there. I am here and the Coronal is here, he thought, and he will sleep tonight in some splendid palace of the masters of Pidruid, and I will sleep in some pile of hay, and then there will be a grand festival, and what is that to me? He felt almost apologetic, being so placid in the face of the boy’s excitement. It was a discourtesy.
He said, “Forgive me. I know so little of what’s been happening in the world these past months. Why is the Coronal here?”
“He makes the grand processional,” said the boy. “To every part of the realm, to mark his coming to power. This is the new one, you know. Lord Valentine, only two years on his throne. The brother to Lord Voriax, who died. You knew that, that Lord Voriax was dead, that Lord Valentine was our Coronal?”
“I had heard,” said Valentine vaguely.
“Well, that’s he, down there in Pidruid. Touring the realm for the first time since he got the Castle. He’s been down south all month, in the jungle provinces, and yesterday he sailed up the coast to Pidruid, and tonight he enters the city, and in a few days there’ll be the festival, and food and drink for everyone, games, dancing, delights, a great market, too, where I’ll sell these animals for a fortune. Afterward he travels overland through the whole continent of Zimroel, from capital to capital, a journey of so many thousands of miles it makes my head ache to think of it, and from the eastern shore he’ll sail back to Alhanroel and Castle Mount, and none of us in Zimroel will see him again for twenty years or more. A fine thing it must be to be Coronal!” The boy laughed. “That was good wine. My name’s Shanamir. What’s yours?”
“Valentine? Valentine? An auspicious name!”
“A common one, I’m afraid.”
“Put Lord in front of it and you’d be the Coronal!”
“It’s not as easy as that. Besides, why would I want to be Coronal?”
“The power,” said Shanamir, wide–eyed. “The fine clothes, the food, the wine, the jewels, the palaces, the women—”
“The responsibility,” Valentine said somberly. “The burden. Do you think a Coronal does nothing but drink golden wine and march in grand processions? Do you think he’s put there just to enjoy himself?”
The boy considered. “Perhaps not.”
“He rules over billions upon billions of people, across territories so huge we can’t comprehend them. Everything falls on his shoulders. To carry out the decrees of the Pontifex, to sustain order, to support justice in every land— it tires me to think of it, boy. He keeps the world from collapsing into chaos. I don’t envy him. Let him have the job.”
Shanamir said, after a moment, “You’re not as stupid as I first thought, Valentine.”
“Did you think I was stupid, then?”
“Well, simple. Easy of mind. Here you are a grown man, and you seem to know so little of certain things, and I half your age and I have to explain. But perhaps I misjudge you. Shall we go down into Pidruid?”
Valentine had his pick of the mounts the boy was taking to the market; but they all seemed alike to him, and after making a pretense of choosing he picked one at random, vaulting lightly into the creature’s natural saddle. It was good to ride, after so long on foot. The mount was comfortable, as well it might be, for they had been bred for comfort for thousands of years, these artificial animals, these witchcraft–creatures out of the old days, strong and tireless and patient, able to convert any sort of trash into food. The skill of making them was long forgotten, but now they bred of themselves, like natural animals, and it would be a slow business getting about on Majipoor without them.
The road to Pidruid led along the high ridge for more than a mile, then began sudden sharp switchbacks down into the coastal plain. Valentine let the boy do most of the talking as they made the descent. Shanamir came, he said, from a district two and a half days’ journey inland, to the northeast; there he and his brothers and his father raised mounts for sale at Pidruid market, and turned a good living at it; he was thirteen years old, and had a high opinion of himself; he had never been outside the province of which Pidruid was the capital, but someday he meant to go abroad, to travel everywhere on Majipoor, to make the pilgrimage to the Isle of Sleep and kneel before the Lady, to cross the Inner Sea to Alhanroel and achieve the ascent of Castle Mount, even to go down south, maybe, beyond the steaming tropics, into the burnt and barren domain of the King of Dreams, for what was the use of being alive and healthy on a world as full of wonders as Majipoor if you did not journey hither and thither about on it?
“And you, Valentine?” he asked suddenly. “Who are you, where from, whither bound?”
Valentine was caught by surprise, lulled by the boy’s prattle and the steady gentle rhythm of the mount as it padded down the broad twisting road, and the burst of jabbing questions left him unprepared. He said only, “I come from the eastern provinces. I have no plans beyond Pidruid. I’ll stay here until I have reason to leave.”
“Why have you come?”
“Ah,” said Shanamir. “All right. I know purposeful evasion when I hear it. You’re the younger son of a duke in Ni–moya or Piliplok, and you sent someone a mischievous dream and were caught at it, and your father gave you a pouch of money and told you to vanish to the far side of the continent. Right?”
“Precisely,” Valentine said, with a wink.
“And you’re loaded with royals and crowns and you’re going to set yourself up like a prince in Pidruid and drink and dance until your last coin is gone, and then you’ll hire aboard a seagoing vessel and ship out for Alhanroel, and you’ll take me with you as your squire. Isn’t that so?”
“You have it exactly, my friend. Except for the money. I neglected to provide for that part of your fantasy.”
“But you have some money,” said Shanamir, not so playfully now. “You aren’t a beggar, are you? They’re very hard on beggars in Pidruid. They don’t allow any sort of vagrancy down there.”
“I have a few coins,” Valentine said. “Enough to carry me through festival time and a bit beyond. And then I’ll see.”
“If you do go to sea, take me with you, Valentine.”
“If I do, I will,” he promised.
They were halfway down the slope now. The city of Pidruid lay in a great basin along the coast, rimmed by low gray hills on the inland side and along much of the shore, save only where a break in the outer range allowed the ocean to spill through, forming a blue–green bay that was Pidruid’s magnificent harbor. As he approached sea level here in late afternoon Valentine felt the offshore breezes blowing toward him, cool, fragrant, breaking the heat. Already white shoals of fog were rolling toward the shore out of the west, and there was a salty tang to the air, thick as it was now with water that had embraced the fishes and sea–dragons only hours before. Valentine was awed by the size of the city that lay before him. He could not remember ever having seen a larger one; but there was so much, after all, that he could not remember.
This was the edge of the continent. All of Zimroel lay at his back, and for all he knew he had walked it from end to end, from one of the eastern ports indeed, Ni–moya or Piliplok, except that he knew himself to be a young man, not very young but young enough, and he doubted that it was possible to have made such a journey on foot in one lifetime, and he had no recollection of having been on any sort of mount until this afternoon. On the other hand, he seemed to know how to ride, he had lifted himself knowledgeably into the beast’s broad saddle, and that argued that he must have ridden at least part of the way before. It did not matter. He was here now, and he felt no restlessness; since Pidruid was where he had somehow arrived, Pidruid was where he would stay, until there was reason to go elsewhere. He lacked Shanamir’s hunger for travel. The world was so big it did not bear thinking about, three great continents, two enormous seas, a place that one could comprehend fully only in dreams, and even then not bring much of the truth of it away into the waking world. They said this Lord Valentine the Coronal lived in a castle eight thousand years old, with five rooms for every year of its existence, and that the castle sat upon a mountain so tall it pierced the sky, a colossal peak thirty miles high, on whose slopes were fifty cities as big as Pidruid. Such a thing as that did not bear much thought either. The world was too big, too old, too populous for one man’s mind. I will live in this city of Pidruid, Valentine thought, and I will find a way to pay for my food and lodging, and I will be happy.
“Naturally you don’t have a bed reserved in an inn,” Shanamir said.
“Of course not.”
“It stands to reason you wouldn’t. And naturally everything in town is full, this being festival time and the Coronal already here. So where will you sleep, Valentine?”
“Anywhere. Under a tree. On a mound of rags. In the public park. That looks like a park there, over to the right, that stretch of green with the tall trees.”
“You remember what I told you about vagrants in Pidruid? They’ll find you and lock you deep for a month, and when they let you out they’ll have you sweeping dung until you can buy your way out of your fine, which at the pay of a dung–sweeper will take you the rest of your life.”
“At least dung–sweeping’s steady work,” Valentine said.
Shanamir didn’t laugh. “There’s an inn the mount–sellers stay at. I’m known there, or rather my father is. We’ll get you in somehow. But what would you have done without me?”
“Become a dung–sweeper, I suppose.”
“You sound as though you really wouldn’t mind.” The boy touched his mount’s ear, halting it, and looked closely at him. “Doesn’t anything matter to you, Valentine? I don’t understand you. Are you a fool, or simply the most carefree man on Majipoor?”
“I wish I knew,” said Valentine.
At the foot of the hill the ridge road joined with a grand highway that came running down out of the north and curved westward toward Pidruid. The new road, wide and straight along the valley floor, was rimmed with low white markers stamped with the double crest of Pontifex and Coronal, the
labyrinth and the starburst, and was paved in smooth blue–gray stuff of light resiliency, a springy, flawless roadbed that probably was of great antiquity, as were so many of the best things of this world. The mounts plodded tirelessly. Synthetic things that they were, they scarcely understood fatigue, and would clop from Pidruid to Piliplok without resting and without complaining. From time to time Shanamir glanced back, checking for strays, since the beasts were not tied; but they remained blandly in their places, one after another, blunt snout of one close behind coarse ropy tail of another, along the flank of the highway.
Now the sun was faintly tinged with late–day bronze, and the city lay close before them. A stunning sight presented itself in this part of the road: on both shoulders of it had been planted noble trees, twenty times the height of a man, with slim tapering trunks of dark bluish bark and mighty crowns of glistening greenish–black leaves sharp as daggers. Out of those crowns burst astounding
clusters of bloom, red tipped with yellow, that blazed like beacons as far as Valentine could see.
“What are those trees?” he asked.
“Fireshower palms,” Shanamir said. “Pidruid is famous for them. They grow only near the coast and flower just one week a year. In the winter they drop sour berries that make a strong liquor. You’ll drink it tomorrow.”
“The Coronal has picked a good moment to come here, then.”
“Not by chance, I imagine.”
On and on the twin column of brilliant trees stretched, and they followed along until open fields yielded to the first country villas, and then suburban tracts thick with more modest homes, and then a dusty zone of small factories, and finally the ancient wall of Pidruid itself, half as high as a fireshower tree, pierced by a pointed arch set with archaic–looking battlements. “Falkynkip Gate,” Shanamir announced. “The eastern entrance to Pidruid. Now we enter the capital. Eleven million souls here, Valentine, and all the races of Majipoor to be found—not just humans, no, everything here, all mixed together, Skandars and Hjorts and Liimen and all the rest. Even, so they say, a little group of
“The old race. The first natives.”
“We call them something else,” Valentine said vaguely. “Metamorphs, is it?”
“The same. Yes. I’ve heard they’re called that in the east. You have a strange accent, do you know that?”
“No stranger than yours, friend.”
Shanamir laughed. “To me your accent’s strange. And I have no accent at all. I speak normal speech. You shape your words with fancy sounds. ’We call them Metamorphs,’ ” he said, mimicking. “That’s how you sound to me. Is that Ni–moyan talk?”
Valentine replied only with a shrug.
Shanamir said, “They frighten me, Shapeshifters. Metamorphs. This would be a happier planet without them. Sneaking around, imitating others, working mischief. I wish they would keep to their own territory.”
“Mostly they do—is that not so?”
“Mostly. But they say a few live in each city. Plotting who knows what kind of trouble for the rest of us.” Shanamir leaned across toward Valentine, caught his arm, peered solemnly into his face. “One might meet one anywhere. Sitting on a ridge looking out toward Pidruid on a hot afternoon, for example.”
“So you think I’m a Metamorph in masquerade?”
The boy cackled. “Prove that you aren’t!”
Valentine groped for some way to demonstrate his authenticity, found none, and made a terrifying face instead, stretching his cheeks as though they were rubber, twisting his lips in opposite directions, rolling his eyeballs high. “My true visage,” he said. “You have discovered me.” And they laughed, and passed on through Falkynkip Gate into the city of Pidruid.
Within the gate everything seemed much older, the houses built in a curious angular style, humpbacked walls swelling outward and upward to tiled roofs, and the tiles themselves often chipped and broken, and interspersed with heavy clumps of low fleshy–leaved roof–weeds that had gained footholds in cracks and earthy pockets. A heavy layer of fog hovered over the city, and it was dark and cool beneath it, with lights glowing in almost every window. The main highway split, and split again, until now Shanamir was leading his animals down a much narrower street, though still a fairly straight one, with secondary streets coiling off from it in every direction. The streets were thick with folk. Such crowds made Valentine obscurely uncomfortable; he could not recall having had so many others so close about him at once, almost at his elbow, smack up against his mount, pushing, darting about, a jostling mob of porters, merchants, mariners, vendors, people from the hill country like Shanamir bringing animals or produce to the market, tourists in fine robes of glowing brocades, and little boys and girls underfoot everywhere. Festival time in Pidruid! Gaudy banners of scarlet cloth were strung across the street from the upper stories of buildings, two and three on every block, emblazoned with the starburst crest, hailing in bright green lettering Lord Valentine the Coronal, bidding him welcome to this, his westernmost metropolis.
“Is it far to your inn?” Valentine asked.
“Halfway across town. Are you hungry?”
“A little. More than a little.”
Shanamir signaled to his beasts and they marched obediently into a cobbled cul–de– sac between two arcades, where he left them. Then, dismounting, he pointed out a tiny grimy booth across the street. Skewered sausages hung grilling over a charcoal flame. The counterman was a Liiman, squat and hammer–headed, with pocked gray–black skin and three eyes that glowed like coals in a crater. The boy pantomimed, and the Liiman passed two skewers of sausages to them, and poured tumblers of pale amber beer. Valentine produced a coin and laid it on the counter. It was a fine thick coin, bright and gleaming, with a milled edge, and the Liiman looked at it as though Valentine had offered him a scorpion. Hastily Shanamir scooped up the piece and put down one of his own, a squarish coppery coin with a triangular hole punched in the center. The other he returned to Valentine. They retreated to the cul–de–sac with their dinner.
“What did I do wrong?” Valentine asked.
“With that coin you could buy the Liiman and all his sausages, and a month of beer! Where did you get it?”
“Why, from my purse.”
“Are there more like that in there?”
“It could be,” said Valentine. He studied the coin, which bore on one face the image of an old man, gaunt and withered, and on the other the visage of a young and vigorous one. The denomination was fifty royals. “Will this be too valuable to use anywhere?” he asked. “What will it buy, in truth?”
“Five of my mounts,” Shanamir said. “A year’s lodgings in princely style. Transportation to Alhanroel and back. Any of those. Perhaps even more. To most of us it would be many months’ wages. You have no idea of the value of things?”
Valentine looked abashed. “It would seem that way.”
“These sausages cost ten weights. A hundred weights make a crown, ten crowns make a royal, and this is fifty of those. Now do you follow? I’ll change it for you at the market. Meanwhile keep it to yourself. This is an honest city and a safe one, more or less, but with a purse full of those you tempt fate. Why didn’t you tell me you were carrying a fortune?” Shanamir gestured broadly.
“Because you didn’t know, I suppose. There’s such a strange innocence about you, Valentine. You make me feel like a man, and I’m only a boy. You seem so much like a child. Do you know anything? Do you even know how old you are? Finish your beer and let’s move along.”
Valentine nodded. One hundred weights to a crown, he thought, ten crowns to a royal, and he wondered what he would have said had Shanamir pressed him on the matter of his age. Twenty–eight? Thirty–two? He had no idea. What if he were asked in earnest? Thirty–two, he decided. That had a good sound to it. Yes, I am thirty–two years old, and ten crowns make a royal, and the shining piece that shows the old man and the young one is worth fifty of those.