(With humblest apologies to Jack Vance.)
The Feast of Regrets — held annually, biannually, or at irregular intervals at Boumergarth, the four-towered castle of Ildefonse the Preceptor — was in full swing. The bloated red sun had limited its worrisome eructations to nothing more than a polite belch or two during the last month and Ildefonse’s guests appeared in a mood of pleasant high spirits rather than the perfervid gaiety that often accompanied festivities held during the sun’s more extravagant lurches toward oblivion.
Thirteen magician’s abiding in the Almery and Ascolais river valleys (or in the vicinity thereof) enjoyed Ildefonse’s hospitality. Among the notable guests were Mune the Mage, gruff and bulky Hurtiancz, the graceful youth (in appearance, at least) Byzant the Necrope, and the dapper Rhialto the Marvelous. The dining hall of Boumergarth scintillated. Smokeless flambeaux floated overhead emitting flames of emerald, carnelian, and brilliant azure. Tapestries of two aeon’s past, preserved in temporal stasis, adorned the walls, depicting fantastic and outré scenes of prior ages. Savory aromas suffused the feasting hall. The strength of the dining table’s legs was tested by the weight of viands, platters, decanters, and glasses burdening it in extravagant profusion.
Flush with wines and exotic liqueurs, the edges of appetite dulled with titbits and delicacies brought in from far reaches of the Dying Earth by Ildefonse’s indentured Sandestins, the magicians had reached a merry state, happily anticipating the main course: the roast Djinbird, famed for its vermillion plumage, rarity, uncertain provenance, and richness of flavor. At previous Feasts of Regret the very prospect of a succulent Djinbird had been enough to bring otherwise feuding members of the association of magicians, of which Ildefonse was Preceptor, to share the same table.
Rhialto, savoring a silver goblet of a yellow wine, abruptly tilted his head to one side, as if attuned to an auditory communique he alone could receive. He set down the goblet, rose, and sauntered to the head of the table to share a word with Ildefonse. Ildefonse nodded acquiescence and Rhialto left the dining table, returning some minutes later, followed by a pair of servitors bearing a domed platter beneath the weight of which they strained.
Rhialto retook his seat, tugging at his brocaded velvet doublet to ensure a becoming fit.
Hurtiancz launched into a relation of the safari he had undertaken aboard his whirlabout to secure the bird, an anecdote listened to with increasing impatience. After Byzant the Necrope’s eloquent clearing of the throat, Hurtiancz brought his narration to a close with “and then once I had flushed the beast I dispatched it by invoking Benellis’ Leaden Spray.”
Ildefonse now rose and addressed first Hurtiancz and then his guests.
“We are all edified by that succinct account. Ahem. Colleagues, esteemed practitioners of the esoteric arts,” he began.
“The bird, Ildefonse,” interrupted Mune the Mage. “Get on to the Djinbird before the sun winks out at last.”
“Behold, the main course,” Ildefonse summed up. “Feast and abandon all regrets.”
One of the servitors raised the gleaming dome from the great salver, releasing a fulsome odor and revealing the moist, browned main course to a patter of jaded applause and one sotto voce “About time.”
Platters clattered and goblets teetered, tottered, and toppled, deluging portions of the table. A figure appeared atop the table by the centerpiece, adjacent to the Djinbird, a figure that seemed to have stepped through a non-existent doorway. He presented a curious appearance, a man of angles, of long, lean limbs, a long nose, clad in scarlet hose and matching doublet trimmed with gold. He bowed, doffing a feathered cap to reveal jet black hair. A sword of extraordinary length jutted ceilingward as he bent. He straightened and as he did, was seen to pocket what appeared to be an oddly angled door handle.
“Pray forgive the unseemly intrusion,” he said in a voice both droll and insinuating. “And any inadvertent trodding upon the vittles. I beg your indulgence for the nonce, whilst I transact certain essential business. Then I shall depart, leaving you to mourn my absence.”
“You, sir,” quoth Ildefonse, “were not invited.”
“It is, I am afraid, often that way,” replied the stranger. “Life’s vicissitudes compel me more frequently than I could wish to avail myself of involuntarily generosity. Today serves as a prime example.” He sighed a sigh of the unjustly beleaguered. “Only last night I paid a social call upon the witch Fascolas. A call that, admittedly, she had neither requested nor expected. She discovered me admiring her collection of Whispering Opals. Now, perhaps you esteemed gentlemen are not familiar with the character, the err…voluptuous charms, and prurient nature of Fascolas.”
A shifting in seats and guttural throat clearings ensued, during which a statistically unlikely failure of eye contact ensued.
“Well,” continued the stranger, “Fascolas enjoined me to fetch the wishbone of a Djinbird on pain of compulsion to serve three years as her bath attendant.”
A horrified intake of breath followed this statement.
“Indeed. Your sympathies are appreciated. She loaned me this enchanted object that provided me ingress to this quaint abode,” the stranger said, producing the door handle. He took a half step closer to the salver, nudging aside a silver gravy boat with the heel of one tall leather boot. He crouched, his length of limb and protruding knees putting one in mind of an immense crimson grasshopper.
“This useful tool also functions as a means of egress. While I do wish I could remain and enjoy the repast with such witty, clever magicians as you, the truth is that there is none as clever as Cugel.”
“Quick,” cried Mune the Mage, “someone employ Mandelard’s Mesmeric Manacles!”
Alas, it was too late for any cantrip or spell. Cugel had a firm grip on one vast drumstick. He turned the door handle with his other hand. Then taking a crabbed, sideways step he, and the entire bird, vanished.
“What effrontery,” harrumphed Hurtiancz.
“How could you have allowed this unseemly disruption, Ildefonse?” charged Mune the Mage, as did several others with variations on the recrimination and certain choice selections of calumny.
“I passed up bilbutter scones to save room for Djinbird,” wailed Byzant the Necrope.
Through all the crosstalk and obloquy, Ildefonse merely smiled.
Rhialto stood up. “Colleagues, please calm yourselves.”
“Whyever should we?” whined Byzant the Necrope.
“I knew of Cugel’s impending arrival,” Rhialto the Marvelous said, “though not, of course, of its exact nature. I supplied the local Minuscules infesting the gardens of Boumergarth with four ounces of clover honey when I arrived today. In exchange they agreed to observe and report any strange activity. They noted this larcenous fellow skulking in the garden. One cannot always rely upon Minuscules, but this time they were true to the bargain and passed along the information.”
“Very interesting, I am sure,” said Mune the Mage. “Yet I hardly see how it renders the situation less appalling.”
“Patience, good Mune. Once I learned of the imminent arrival of a guest, I paid a visit to the kitchen. There I immobilized a Sandestin that owes me seven debentures and cast upon it the Spell of Impenetrable Seeming, imparting upon it the look, smell, and even tactile semblance of the Djinbird the cooks were even then extracting from the oven.”
Rhialto paused to chuckle at his own cleverness. “Our friend Cugel — not to mention the witch Fascolas — will have quite a surprise when the spell terminates. Absent the Djinbird and its wishbone, I fear Cugel the Clever’s goose is cooked.”
A welcome fragrance preceded the arrival of the actual Djinbird, borne by a brace of servitors.
“Let us all give thanks,” proclaimed Ildefonse. “And, in the spirit of the Feast of Regrets, let us all spare a thought for the purloining gentleman of our recent acquaintance. Despite his distinct lack of plumage, I suspect friend Cugel is well and truly plucked.”
If you enjoyed that bit of nonsense, more of my scribblings are available here. Or (some of them at least) wherever you buy books online.