"I don't suppose you know how your brother damaged his wrist," said Baron Chan Poulaan.
"I don't keep track of his business," said his son Togura.
The baron harrumphed, but did not press the point.
The two were riding side by side. They were on a road, or what passed for a road in those parts, which led to the city state of Keep. The baron was riding a brindled mare and his son was riding a donkey. Following on behind, riding Kloggles the Mule - and it took a brave man or a foolish man to venture that - was Prick, the baron's venerable secretary.
"The fog seems to be closing in," said Togura, looking around.
"I'd noticed that," said his father.
"Perhaps we should stop till it clears."
"We might be here all day," said his father. "We'll go on."
And they did.
Visibility swiftly became zero. The road abruptly became peat bog. After floundering around in the mist for a while, they staggered out of the bog, hauling their animals along with them, only to find themselves waist-deep in flourishing gorse. The baron cursed and struck out with his sword, accidentally clouting Prick with the flat of the blade.
Fortunately, it then began to rain, causing the fog to dissipate swiftly. Unfortunately, they found themselves on a small gorse-covered island surrounded by peat bog.
"There's the road!" said Togura, pointing to an indeterminate ribbon of mud and stones lying some distance from the island.
"Your powers of observation astound me," said the baron grimly, leading the way back into the bog.
Kloggles the Mule was most reluctant to leave the little island, but, after a savage battle with no holds barred, they forced him back through the bog to the road. By this time, they were mud from ankle to shoulder. Fortunately, the rain was rapidly becoming a solid downpour, suggesting that they might be able to strip off their dirty clothes, take a shower in the rain then change into clean clothes. Unfortunately, they had no clean clothes to change into.
"I think," said Togura, "that perhaps this is not the best of days on which to go and visit the king."
"You are young, my son," said his father, "but not entirely devoid of wisdom. Come, let us make for home."
And they retreated back down the road, which was rapidly becoming a quagmire.
The next day, in fine clear weather, they set out again. The road was muddy, but they reached the outskirts of Keep in good order. It was then that they encountered what appeared to be a free-floating monster.
In some places, this apparition might have been taken for a ghost, a hallucination or a trick of the light, but this was Sung, and they knew the intruder for what it was - an ilps.
The ilps was very large.
It had seventy-nine teeth, shared between two mouths of generous dimensions.
Five of the teeth were poisoned.
It stank of rotten oranges.
Its fingernails smoked with blue light.
"Who are you?" said Baron Chan Poulaan, speaking roughly.
"Ska," said the ilps.
"Where do you come from?"
"Ska. Nanesh stel."
It was fading rapidly.
"Where were you born?"
One of its mouths collapsed.
The baron assaulted the ilps with harsh, insistent questions. Disintegrating under the attack, it started to retreat. But he followed, urging his horse forward, asking one question after another. Finally, battered to death by his verbal assault, it broke apart into a dozen rainbows, which scattered into discordant chords of music.
Nothing remained but the smell of rotten oranges.
"That was a large one," said Prick.
"They get larger all the time," said the baron. "And more numerous. Unless someone brings the Wordsmiths to heel, we'll have a regular disaster on our hands."
The Wordsmiths claimed that their precious odex held all the knowledge of the ancient long-lost civilizations which had existed before the Days of Wrath. They claimed to be learning how to control and manipulate the odex, but all they had produced so far was a string of distorted monsters.
Baron Poulaan could reasonably claim to be the most powerful man in Sung, but that meant little; as yet, he lacked the power to challenge the Wordsmiths, for his fellow barons were not yet convinced that the odex was a bad thing.
Brooding about the ilps, the odex and the Wordsmiths, the baron led the way into Keep, passing between mountainous slag heaps. They passed a few houses then a mine shaft. A fire was burning by the shaft, helping to draw stale air up from the depths and keep the miners alive. A creaking bucket lift was bringing up gemstock from one of the veins which ran far underground.
"Dismount," said Baron Poulaan.
They went on foot thereafter, leading their mounts through the tilted, canting streets. After five generations of mining, which had hollowed out a considerable portion of the rock beneath the town, the whole urban area was very slowly subsiding. Hence the odd angles of the streets, which were buckling and twisting, and the nightmarish angles of the shops and houses.
After a slow and dangerous journey, they reached the far side of Keep and set off for the palace of King Skan Askander, scourge of the Hauma Sea and lord of the Central Ocean. They had gone through the town rather than around it because Baldskull Mountain lay on one side and Dead Man's Drop on the other.
Once out of town, they mounted up again, but soon had to climb down to lead their animals across a massive subsidance in the road, which was only slowly being filled in with slag.
"That's new since I was here last," said Baron Poulaan. "And that was scarcely a month ago."
One day, he expected to come this way and find that the entire town of Keep had fallen into a hole. He would not be unhappy when it did. After all, his estate never saw a single flog or splorin's worth of the town's mining profits. He had no love for the earthgrubbing miners, or for the merchants who fattened on the profits of the trade in opal, topaz, jade, japonica, russellite, kolzaw, fuze, buff, celestine and carnelian which the miners recovered from the gemstock.
"My lord!" said Prick, pointing. "Ahead! The palace!"
"I saw it some time ago," said the baron.
Togura, who had never been this way before, looked for the building of white marble which so many people had spoken of, but could not see it for the fences, sheds, huts and granubles of the surrounding piggeries.
Shortly afterwards, they were shown into the presence of the king, who invited them to dine with him.
"We will be having swedes, rutabaga and the kidneys of several pigs," he said.
"We will be honoured," said Baron Poulaan.
"And, dear baron," said King Skan Askander, "my darling daughter will be dining with us, so your son will have a chance to meet his future bride."
Togura nerved himself for this ordeal. But he was confident that it could not be as bad as people had led him to believe. After all, Slerma was only sixteen years old; there was scarcely time for her to have grown to the enormous size which she was alleged to have attained. She was probably just a little fat and sludgy. Well, he could endure that - he thought. It would mean that he would one day inherit the palace and the piggery, which would be a valuable asset once it had fully recovered from the effects of the swine fever which had caused the Devaluation.
If Slerma was no great beauty, she would doubtless welcome the attentions of a real man like himself. She would at least be a real woman, hot and wet in the right places. She would complete his sentimental education and initiate him into manhood.
They were shown into the dining room. The king seated himself on a couch, which creaked ominously beneath his weight. Then he snapped his fingers, and a young woman entered. Togura's face fell. This was Slerma? She was worse than he had expected. She was more than plump; she was positively bloated.
"My wife," said the king.
And the young woman bowed to them.
Togura was relived.
"Where is Slerma, my dear?" said the king.
"She's just coming now, my lord," said his wife.
"Ah, there you are," said the king. "Hello, Slerma. Meet our new guests."
As he was speaking, a vast and slovenly giantess was in the process of forcing her way into the room. She was huge. She was gross. She was impossible. Togura wanted to scream and run, but found himself paralyzed by fear.
"Is this it?" she said in a thick, slurred voice, eyeing him with disapproval.
"Yes, my dear," said the king happily.
"There's not much to it," said Slerma, laying one prodigious paw on Togura's shoulder.
She squeezed. He felt as if he was being crunched by a vast nut cracker. Then, just before she did permanent damage to flesh and bone, she released the pressure.
"There's no meat on it," she complained. "I want Guta."
"No!" said her father sharply. "You cannot marry the baker's boy. I forbid it."
"He's a real man," said Slerma. "Not like this - this thing. Do you speak, thing?"
"I am articulate, intelligent and proud of it," said Togura, finding his voice at last.
"What does articulate mean?" said Slerma.
"It means," said the king, "that all his working parts are in good order."
"They'd better be in good order, thing," said Slerma, addressing Togura. "I'm a girl with big appetites. Remember that! Once we're married, you'd better be faithful, too. Or I'll kill you."
"Now dear," said her father mildly. "Don't frighten him. He's a good little boy. I'm sure he'll behave himself."
"Far too little!" said Slerma. "Not like Guta."
"I'm sure you can fatten him up," said the king. "In fact, now is as good a time as any to start."
He clapped his hands, and their meal was brought in. There were two or three plates apiece for Togura, the baron and Prick, a number of heavily laden platters for the king and his wife, and a large trough for Slerma.
Togura found his appetite had failed him.
"Eat!" ordered Slerma, filling the room with the ominous rumble of her thick, slurred voice. "Eat! Food is good for you!"
And she set an example, gouging out huge handfuls of swede, rutabaga and kidney, slapping them into her mouth then swallowing, apparently without chewing. Togura tried to see if her teeth were missing, but failed. It was impossible even to tell whether her vast, wallowing face had a jawbone. Technically, some of that flesh must have belonged to her face and some to her chin, but such distinctions vanished in the awesome slurry of fat which constituted her face.
"You're not eating!" she bellowed.
She seized Togura and plastered his face with kidney. Some went up his nose, some squeezed its way into his mouth and some fell into his lap.
"Eat!" she yelled, hurting his ears.
She gave him a shake. If she used any more force, she was going to dislocate bones. Togura tried to wriggle free, but it was impossible.
"Eat, thing!" hissed Slerma, spraying him with spittle.
To his dismay, he began to weep, crying hot tears of agony and shame. Slerma gave him another shake then tossed him aside.
"Your son insults us," said King Skan Askander, his voice going very cold.
"Togura!" shouted Baron Poulaan. "Pull yourself together!"
His son got to his knees.
"I hate you!" he said, clenching his fists.
Then he took another look at Slerma, and suddenly vomited.
Then he fled.