Saberhagen, Fred – Lost Swords 05 – Coinspinners Story

Trilby had developed an ability to incinerate small amounts of garbage magically, and now she put that particular talent to use. Not so much a squandering of energy, she told Adrian, as a last trial to make sure that her powers were in working order.

Now, as the two advanced students busied themselves with the trivial chores of cleaning up after their meal, Adrian found he had to make a conscious effort to keep himself from reaching out with his magical perceptions to try to see what was going on with his parents and his brother at the moment.

His natural ability to maintain such occult contacts, once very strong, had been fading naturally over the past few years as he grew older. And on this subject his Teacher had counseled him: “Your parents have been making their own way in the world for some time now; you are almost old enough to do the same, and the cares of state with which they are now chiefly concerned will be yours soon enough. Right now your primary responsibility is to complete your schooling here, and to avoid unnecessary distraction.”

Trilby now talked with Adrian about her parents. Her father was a middle-class merchant, her mother’s family farmers in the domain of Tasavalta, with little or nothing in their background to suggest that one of their children would be extremely talented magically.

And Adrian talked of his family, and expressed his wish that he could see more of them.

Trilby assured the Prince, and not for the first time, that she did not envy him his royal status. In many ways prosperous commoners, like her own people, had things easier.

“Are we ready to go on?” the girl asked.

“Ready!” Adrian shouldered his pack again.

“On into the City, then.”

Adrian, because of the superior sensitivity of his magical vision, was one step in the lead when the pair climbed again to the top of the broken stairs.

But Trilby, as the senior member of the expedition, did not forget to remind the boy that it was her duty to go first when the time actually came to cross the threshold.

This time when they reached the top of the stairs, Adrian stopped, took one more look and nodded, then let her go ahead, both of them muttering the words that Trimbak Rao had taught them.

Neither apprentice fell or even stumbled when they stepped beyond the last stair and over the subtle threshold. Both had successfully made the transition, at that point, to a somewhat different plane of existence. Both were able to establish solid footing upon the road that went on into the City, away from the tower-Adrian, turning to glance back at that structure, discovered that it existed in both planes. Here in the City it looked somewhat shorter, and did not appear to be so badly ruined after all.

The narrow road on which they now found themselves led forward crookedly, angling in long dogleg turns, toward the distant silhouette of the tall buildings clustered about the center of the City proper. The road was unpaved, of hard-packed earth, dry and yellowish, and at the moment it bore no traffic except themselves. The softer earth on either side of the way was reddish brown, stretching away in gentle undulations to a great smear of grayish dust that formed the whole circle of the horizon. Above that, the bowl of sky began as lemon yellow at the edges, and rose through shades of blue and green toward a small, gnarled cloud, quite dark and somehow hard to look at, around the zenith. The sun, thought Adrian, if it was anywhere, must be in concealment behind that cloud. The time of day, at least, had not changed greatly.

The young explorers kept walking.

“Well,” said Trilby in a quiet voice when they had covered a few score meters of the road, “here we are. Looks like we’ve done it.”

Adrian only nodded.

The explorers had now reached a point from which they could see that the thoroughfare on which they walked indeed led, after many turns, into the heart of the City proper.

And in that urban heart, which still appeared to be at least a kilometer away, they were now able to perceive in some greater detail the physical outlines of the City’s crowded structures. They were a strange collection indeed, of divers styles and shapes, as if they might have been gathered here from the far corners of the world. Close behind those silhouetted buildings the peculiar sky seemed to curve down to meet the dusty earth. And Adrian thought there was a strange richness, akin to electricity, in the very air that he and Trilby now breathed.

Trilby was nudging him with an elbow. She said: “Looks like a slug-pit over there.”

He followed the direction of her gaze, to a place of disturbed earth some forty or fifty meters away on the right side of the road. “Yes, I see it.”

They walked on without trying to investigate more closely. Both young people had been made well aware by their Teacher of certain perils in the City that had to be avoided; structures within it whose mere entry would almost certainly be fatal; snares that had to be watched for, and modes of travel that within its shadowy boundaries had to be strictly prohibited for reasons of safety. Just as Trimbak Rao had taken care to caution his advanced students about all these dangers before they set out to take their test, he had also reassured them that he considered them capable of successfully avoiding all the hazards.

Ordinary human eyes, viewing the City of Wizards from within, would have had this much in common with the eyes of the most perceptive magicians-both would perceive their surroundings as a vast jumble of ruins and intact buildings, strangely lighted under a changeable and often fantastic sky. The City’s central region was streaked by open vistas of barren and abnormal earth, and marked by some grotesque and extravagant examples of whole architecture. Inside the City, or so Trimbak Rao had instructed his apprentices, sunrise and sunset were sometimes visible simultaneously, along opposite edges of the sky; and sometimes there were two moons in the sky at the same time, one full, one crescent, though otherwise looking identical to the familiar companion of Earth.

There were many viewpoints of the subject that might possibly be taken. Looking at the matter one way, the City of Wizards could scarcely be called a city at all-or, if the phenomenon was looked at in another way, it consisted of portions of several cities, and of portions of the rural world as well, normally separated in space and time, but here blended by conflicting and persistent magics into a confusing juxtaposition.

Generally, folk devoid of the skills of wizardry found it impossible to discover an entrance to the City at all-or to enter it even if they should manage to locate a threshold. People unskilled in magic might have journeyed all the continents of the mundane earth from north to south and east to west in search of the City and never have seen its gates. But to the skilled and properly initiated, many ports of entry were available.

Wizards of vastly different character and varying classes of ability came here to the City. So had they come from time immemorial, sometimes only to amuse themselves, sometimes to duel, sometimes to train their more promising apprentices. And here in the City, by the general agreement of their guilds, the more responsible among the workers in enchantment carried on many of their more dangerous experiments, researches that might otherwise do damage to some portion of the generally habitable world.

Sections and shards of the outside world, samples from a number of real cities and countrysides, had all been incorporated into the City from time to time. Houses and temples of every kind, even whole fortifications, had sometimes drifted or been hurled here, places wrenched out of their proper space-time locations by the contending or experimental forces of magic. Surprisingly, at least to Adrian, there had even been a substantial amount of original construction in the City over the centuries of its known existence, some of it carried out by human hands to the designs of human architects. But most of this deliberate building was badly designed. Much of it was never completed, and little of it endured for long.

As the Teacher had explained, both things and people judged unendurable by normal society were sometimes banished from the normal world, to end up here. Among the human inhabitants were the mad, the desperate, the fugitives, the utter outcasts of the world.

And also among the inhabitants were many who were not, and never had been, human.


West of the city of Sarykam the sky grew clear before midday, and then promptly began to cloud again with a speed that suggested the possibility of some cause beyond mere nature. The sun had moved well past the zenith, and into a fresh onrush of gray scud lower than the nearby peaks, when the Culmian Crown Prince, now riding near the rear of his fast-moving cavalcade, halted his riding-beast and turned in his saddle to look back. From this position he was able to observe a great deal of the landscape, mostly a no-man’s-land of barren mountains with which his small force was surrounded. The domain of Tasavalta was physically small and narrow, and the border in this area was ill-defined. But the leader of the fleeing Culmians felt confident that he had already left it behind him.

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