FRADI HAD RECENTLY DIED, which made it all the more remarkable for him to realize that he was once again awake. That is to say, on the one hand he was rather surprised, but on the other hand he
was scarcely surprised at all. He was aware that "recently" was a relative term under the circumstances, but his attendance at his own deathbed, surrounded by those glad to see the last of him, did seem to have taken place not long before. That, in any event, was not the point. By any standard it was a refreshing situation. He was not in pain. He had been in no shortage of pain, and had expected (if anything) to awaken into an environment where the continuation of mere physical pain would be the least of his worries.
Renewed life after death was an article of faith, but the multiplicity of faiths differed sharply on the nature of that life, and on the correlation of one's circumstances in the next with one's behavior in the last. Out of self-defense Fradi had cleaved to a faith that stressed accomplishment rather than slippery value judgments of good and evil, but he had always harbored some residuum of doubt. He was quite happy, though, to be reassured. One so rarely gets an article of faith confirmed.
Nevertheless, it was surely a miracle. "To the gods," he began ritually, "I offer thanks -"
"You're welcome," said a voice from behind his head. He opened his eyes. Above his head was a ceiling of cunningly carved stone inset with patterns of dancing light. The vision through the fovea of his left eye was clear, unblurred by the annoying swirl of white whose curdling presence had significantly impaired his accuracy with a bow. In fact, all his senses seemed to leap at him with unparalleled clarity, his deadly hands unhindered by knotted joints, the paths of his thought undimmed, his natural (or, as one brief adversary had maintained, unnatural) vigor fully restored. He was resting on his back in a long coffin-shaped basin whose sides he could see through, covered with a white toga?like garment fringed in gold. The figure of a woman, presumably the one who had spoken, moved into his field of view. She would not actually be a woman, of course, since the circumstances were what they were, but to his newly restored eyesight no divergence could easily be found. He suddenly discovered that another anatomical feature to whose activity he had long since bade farewell had also returned abruptly to consideration.
A squared-off scepter whose face glowed in mysterious patterns was in her hand. The figure extended it toward him, examined its patterns searchingly, and then moved it slowly in the Swirl of Sinalla. He raised his own hand and made the Swirl himself, concluding with the extra touch of fingertips above his heart. The figure smiled at him a benign smile. "Behold," she said, "for your master approaches."
The transparent bier pivoted downward, leaving him perched halfway between the horizontal and the vertical. The carved wall ahead of him seemed to dissolve into mist. Beyond the mist was a vast open place, of darkness above an endless silver plane. In the middle distance was a pillar of steam. From the midst of the pillar he felt the force of a Presence.
The pillar spoke. "Fradjikan! You have been called!"
Fradi felt the words rumble through his body with an almost-curdling resonance as the pillar felt silent. Although the cloud exhibited no feature that might be considered an eye, still he felt it examining him with a deep and searching gaze. Then, somewhat to his surprise, he heard a low, virtually subterranean peal of laughter; no, not laughter really, but more of a chuckle. A chuckle?
"You have aroused Our mirth," said the pillar, "for reasons that are Ours alone to know. However, this you may know. In reward for your virtue, your devotion, and your dedicated development of such a useful set of skills, you have been honored with Our grace."
He found he had to fight an urge to babble. "I am honored beyond all honors, O Preeminent One. I sing your praises. There is no way to properly show my abasement, no way to adequately repay -"
"This is true. However," the voice of the Presence said consideringly, "there is a certain thing you can do. Indeed, We have granted the benison of our favor in anticipation of your accomplishment of a specific task."
Underscoring the benison, the steam pillar smiled a beneficent smile. "The name of this job is Max."
"Not much to look at, is he?"
Two men stood over a third. The one who had spoken had hair that cascaded in curls past his shoulders, and a light brown mustache to match. He wore a cloak of severe, high-collared cut but of expensive weave and fabric. A set of reading glasses slouched low on his nose; a wide-brimmed hat wound with fur trim rested on the table beside him. He was, in short, a merchant, and not a struggling one.
"No, Meester Groot," said his companion. "Companion," of course, would by all accepted standards of the day have been too strong a word, implying a degree of social equality to which even enlightened merchants would rarely lower themselves. The relationship between Haalsen Groot and his employees, though, was scarcely typical, since the esteemed Meester Groot did not restrict his activities - or his colleagues - to those a scrupulously proper merchant might assume without reproach. The third member of the tableau, the recumbent one, provided ample illustration of this point.
Admittedly, Haalsen Groot was no colossus. Nevertheless, for a figure half again as tall as Meester Groot, the mass and bulk of the man on the cot should have been proportionately greater as well. Where one would have expected only the sleek curves of corded muscles, though, the sight of stretched, somewhat mangy skin and the protruding angles of bones, sunken cheeks and hollowed eye sockets betrayed a barbarian swordsman far from home and lost in the strange convolutions of civilization. He had yet to open his eyes. Instead, he was spending his time and energy on the occasional fever chill, uncontrollably chattering his teeth and contorting his body into strange representations of the fetal position, as perhaps illustrated by one of the members of the Nightmare Realism school of modern painters.
Following this line of thought, Meester Groot commented, "Life may be life, but aesthetics are certainly aesthetics," to which his clerk replied, as was his habit, "Indeed so, sir." The barbarian interrupted with a deep liquid cough, a fine froth of pink bubbles appearing on his lips.