Authors: Brian W. Aldiss
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The Malacia Tapestry
Brian W. Aldiss
time under prisms
dawn and pollen clouds afloat
you are the glimpsed light
in my smokey existence
frail but enduring
You sing of the old gods easily
In the days when you are young,
When love and trust seem not at odds;
But I know there are gods behind the gods,
Gods that are best unsung.
K. G. St Chentero
Mountebanks in an Urban Landscape
Smoke was drifting through my high window, obscuring the light.
Something was added to the usual aromas of Stary Most. Among the flavours of fresh-cut timber, spices, cooking, gutters, and the incense from the corner wizard, Throat Dark, floated the smell of wood-smoke. Perhaps the sawdust-seller had set fire to his load again.
Going to my casement, I looked down into the street, which was more crowded than usual for this hour of day. The gongfermors and their carts had disappeared, but the Street of the Wood Carvers was jostling with early traffic, including among its habitual denizens a number of porters, beggars, and general hangers-on; they were doing their best either to impede or to further the progress of six burly orientals, all wearing turbans, all accompanied by lizard-boys bearing canopies over them â the latter intended as much to provide distinction as shade, since the summer sun had little force as yet.
The smoke was rising from the sweepings of an ash-merchant, busily burning the street's rubbish. One good noseful of it and I withdrew my head.
The orientals had probably disembarked from a trireme newly arrived. From my attic, between roofs, its furled sails could be glimpsed alongside Satsuma, only a couple of alleys distant.
I pulled on my blue ankle-boots, made from genuine marshbags skin; the black pair was in pawn and likely to remain so for a while. Then I went to greet the day.
As I went down the creaking stair, I met my friend de Lambant climbing up to meet me, his head lowered as if compulsively counting the steps. We greeted each other.
âHave you eaten, Perian?'
âWhy, I've been up for hours doing nothing else,' I said, as we made our way down. âA veritable banquet at Truna's, with pigeon pie merely one of the attractions.'
âHave you eaten, Perian?'
âToday not, if you refuse to believe in pigeon pie. And you?'
âI found a muffin lying idle on a baker's tray as I made my way here.'
âThere's a ship in. Shall we have a look at it on our way to Kemperer's?'
âIf you think it holds any advantage. My horoscope isn't profitable today. There's women in it, but not just yet apparently. Saturn is proving difficult, while all the entrails are against me.'
âI'm too hard-up even to get my amulet blessed by Throat Dark.'
âIt's marvellous not to be troubled by money.'
We strolled along in good humour. His doublet, I thought, was not a shade of green to be greatly excited about; it made him look too much the player. Yet Guy de Lambant was a handsome fellow enough. He had a dark, quick eye and eyebrows as sharp and witty as his tongue could be. He was sturdily built, and walked with quite a swagger when he remembered to do so. As an actor he was effective, it had to be admitted, although he lacked my dedication. His character was all one could wish for in a friend: amusing, idle, vain and dissolute, ready for any mischief. The two of us were always cheerful when together, as many ladies of Malacia would vouch.
âKemperer might give us a breakfast snack, even if there's no work.'
âThat depends on his temper,' de Lambant said. âAnd
depends on La Singla and how she has been behaving herself.'
To which I made no answer. There was some slight jealousy between us concerning Kemperer's wife. Pozzi Kemperer was the great impresario, one of the best in Malacia. Both de Lambant and I had been in his company for the better part of two years; our present lack of employment was nothing new.
On the quayside, a swarm of men were in action, mostly working bare-chested and barefoot, heaving on ropes, tugging winches, hauling boxes. The trireme was being unloaded. Various onlookers were delighted to inform us that the vessel had come up the River Toi from Six Lagoons, trading from the West. The optimists thought it might carry statuary, the pessimists that it might bring plague.
As we arrived, customs officials in tricorne-hats were marching off the vessel. They would have been searching for forbidden goods, in particular any new thing which might upset the mellow flow of existence in Malacia; although I could only approve their mission, they were a poor, mothy collection, despite their hats and uniforms, one man limping, one half-blind, and a third, judging by appearances, lame, blind and drunk into the bargain.
Guy and I had watched such scenes since we were children. Boats arriving from the East were a better spectacle than those from the West, since they often carried exotic animals and black female slaves. As I was turning away, not unprompted by the rumbling of my stomach, I noted a strange old figure hopping up and down on the deck of the trireme.
His body was cut into pieces by the yards, but in a moment he turned and came down the gang-plank, carrying a box under one arm. He was stooped and white of hair, while something about his dress suggested to me that he was a foreigner â though he was not one of the mariners; indeed, I believed I had seen him about Malacia before. He wore a tattered fur jacket, despite the heat of the day. What took me was the mixture of delight and caution on his whiskery countenance; I tried setting my face in the same expression. He made off smartly into Stary Most and was lost to sight. The city brimmed with crazy characters.
Several carriages were drawn up along the Satsuma. As de Lambant and I made off we were hailed from one of them. The carriage door opened, and there was my sister Katarina, smiling a sweet smile of welcome.
We embraced each other warmly. Her carriage was one of the shabbiest there, the Mantegan arms peeling on the coachwork. She had married into a ruined family; yet she herself was as neat as ever, her long, dark hair pinned severely back, the contours of her face soft.
âYou're both looking very idle,' she said.
âThat's part nature, part artifice,' said de Lambant. âOur brains are quite active â or mine is. I can't speak for your poor brother.'
âMy stomach's active. What brings you here, Katarina?'
She smiled in a sad fashion and gazed down at the cobblestones.
âIdleness also, you might say. I came to see the captain of the vessel to find out if there was word from Volpato, but he has no letters for me.'
Volpato was her husband â more often absent than present and, when present, generally withdrawn. Both de Lambant and I made consoling noises.
âThere will be another ship soon,' I said.
âMy soothsayer misled me. So I'm going to the cathedral to pray. Will you join me?'
âOur Maker this morning is Kemperer, sweet sister,' I said. âAnd he will make or break us. Go and act as our Minerva. I'll come and visit you at the castle soon.'
I said it lightly meaning to reassure her.
She returned me a concerned look. âDon't forget, then. I went to see Father last evening and played chess with him.'
âI wonder he had time for chess, burrowing among his old tomes!
A Disquistion on the Convergences
â or is it
â for I never seem to remember â
Between the High Religion and the Natural Religion and Mithraism and the Bishop's Nostrils!
âDon't make fun of your father, Perian,' Katarina said gently, as she climbed back into her carriage. âHis work is quite important.'
I spread my hands eloquently, tilting my head to one side to show pity and resignation.
âI love the old boy, I know his work is important. I'm just tired of being lectured by him.'
As de Lambant and I walked along the quay in the direction of the Bucintoro, he said, âYour sister in her dove-grey dress â really quite fetching in a sober way â¦ I must visit her in her lonely castle one of these fine evenings, though you are disinclined to do so. Her husband similarly, it appears.'
âKeep your filthy thoughts off my sister.' We talked instead about de Lambant's sister, Smarana, whose wedding day, determined by a useful conjunction of constellations, was little more than five weeks away. The thought of three days of family celebration cheered us, not least because the two families involved, the de Lambants and the Orinis, had engaged Kemperer's company to play on the second day. We should have work then, at least.
âWe'll perform such a comedy as all will remember ever after. I'm even prepared to fall down the stairs again for the sake of an extra laugh.'
He dug me in the ribs. âPray that we eat before that date, or I can see us treading the boards in the Shadow World. Here's the market â let's run different ways!'
The fruit market stood at the end of the Stary Most district. At this time of morning it was crammed with customers and buzzing with argument, gossip, and wasps the size of thumbs. De Lambant and I slipped among the stalls at a trot, bouncing off customers, swerving round posts, to arrive together at the other end laughing, with a good muster of peaches and apricots between us.