Читать книгу A Farce To Be Reckoned With - Roger Zelazny

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Roger Zelazny Robert Sheckley

A Farce To Be Reckoned With


Chapter 1

Ylith congratulated herself on her luck. She had chosen a perfect day for her journey from Heaven to the neat little graveyard outside of York, England. It was late May. The sunshine was glorious. Little birds of all sorts cavorted on mossy tree limbs, singing away on the edge of the surround. And the best of it was, the dozen little angels in her charge were being very good, even for angels.

The youngsters were playing together nicely, and Ylith was just starting to relax when suddenly a cloud of sulfurous yellow smoke puffed into existence not ten feet from her. When the smoke cleared, a short, red-haired fox-faced demon wrapped in a black cloak stood before her.

"Azzie!" Ylith cried. "What are you doing here?"

"I thought I'd take a little time off from infernal affairs, check out some shrines," Azzie said.

"Not thinking of changing your allegiance, are you?" Ylith asked.

"Not like you," Azzie said, referring to Ylith's former career as a witch. "Nice bunch you've got." He waved at the little angels.

"They're being terribly good, as you can see," Ylith remarked.

"It is not news when an angel acts good," Azzie said.

In fact, the little angels had begun running around the graveyard and quarreling. Their voices rose, high-pitched and sugar sweet:

"Look what I've found! It's the tomb of St. Athelstan the Mealymouthed!"

"Oh, yeah? I've found the gravestone of St. Anne the Anxious, and she was much more important!"

The angels all looked very much alike with their snub features and their uniformly blond, smooth honey-colored hair that curled up beneath in the pageboy bob so fashionable that century. They all had plump wings, still covered with baby feathers and concealed under white and pink traveling cloaks. It was customary for angels visiting Earth to hide their wings.

Not that anyone would have been surprised to see angels in that year of 1324. It was well known that angels went back and forth between Earth and Heaven on a regular basis then, as did imps and devils and other supernatural creatures who had managed to remain in existence during the change of major deities, along with several anomalous immortal beings that no one had gotten around to identifying. In terms of deities, the Renaissance was an eclectic sort of an age.

"What are you doing here, Ylith?" Azzie asked.

The beautiful dark-haired witch explained that she had agreed to take this group of pubescent angels on a tour of Famous Shrines of England as part of their summer term Religious Training course. Ylith, perhaps because of her past history as a witch in the service of Bad — before she changed sides due to her love for a young angel named Babriel—was very much in favor of religious education for the young. They had to know something, so that when people asked questions, Heaven wouldn't be embarrassed by their answers.

Their starting point, the Martyr's Field in the north of England, had many famous tombs; the little angels were busy discovering who had been planted where.

"Here's where they buried St. Cecily the Unwary," one of the little angels was saying. "I was talking to Cecily just the other day, in Heaven. She asked me to say a prayer at her grave."

Azzie said to Ylith, "The children seem to be doing fine. Why don't you come with me and let me give you some lunch?"

Ylith and Azzie had been an item once, back in the days when they were both Bad Creatures in service to Evil. Ylith still remembered how crazy she had been for the high-stepping, sharp-muzzled young fox demon. That was quite some time ago, of course.

Now she walked over to where Azzie indicated, near a spreading oak tree, and was more than a little surprised when a light flashed and the scene shifted abruptly. Suddenly she seemed to be standing on the shore of a great sea, with palm trees swaying on the beach and a big fat red sun lying low on the horizon.

Near the edge of the water was a table laden with good things to eat and drink. And there was a broad bed, too, there on the beach, close to the table and made up with satin sheets and with innumerable cushions of all sizes and shapes and colors. Beside the bed a small chorus of satyrs sang the music of seduction.

"Just lie down over here," Azzie said, for he had accompanied Ylith into the new construct. "I will ply you with grapes and iced sherbets and we will know such delights as we once enjoyed — entirely too long ago."

"Hey, take it easy!" Ylith said, evading Azzie's amorous lunge. "You're forgetting I'm still an angel."

"No, I'm not," Azzie responded. "I just thought you might like to take a break."

"There are certain rules we must follow."

"How do they apply to your little fling with Dr. Faust?"

"That was a mistake," she said, "a case of bad judgment on my part while under emotional stress.

Anyway, I repented afterwards. I'm okay. Just like before."

"Except that you and Babriel broke up over it."

"We still see each other. How did you hear about that, anyway?"

"The taverns of Limbo are the great exchange posts for Heavenly and Hellish news."

"I hardly see that my love life rates as particularly important gossip."

"Hey, you used to be big-time, lady. You used to hang out with me, remember?"

"Oh, Azzie, you're impossible," she said. "If you want to seduce me, you should be telling me how beautiful and desirable I am, not how important you are."

"As a matter of fact, you do look terribly good," Azzie said.

"And you are being terribly clever, as always," she said. She looked around at the seaside. "It is a beautiful illusion you've created here, Azzie. But I really must get back to the children."

She stepped out of the oceanside illusion, arriving back in the churchyard just in time to prevent Angel Ermita from pulling the ears of Angel Dimitri. Azzie soon appeared beside her, looking not too crestfallen for his recent rejection.

"Anyhow… I don't think it's me you want so much. What is bothering you, Azzie?" Ylith asked. "What are you doing here, really?"

"I'm between engagements," Azzie said with a bitter laugh. "I'm out of work. I came here to consider what to do next."

"Came here? To England?"

"To the Middle Ages, actually. It's one of my favorite periods of Earth history."

"How can you be out of work? I should think you'd be well employed by the Powers of Bad, especially after the masterful way you handled things in the recent Faust game."

"Ah! Don't talk to me about the Faust game!"

"Whyever not?"

"The judges of Hell have robbed me of the real honors I should have received after Mephistopheles bungled things so badly. The fools in Hell go on as though their positions are assured for all eternity, little realizing that they stand in imminent danger of going out of fashion and vanishing from men's thoughts forever."

"The Forces of Bad, on the verge of vanishing? But what would happen to Good?"

"It would vanish, too."

"That is quite impossible," Ylith said. "Mankind cannot live without firm opinions on Good and Bad."

"You think not? They did so once. The Greeks lived without absolutes, and so did the Romans."

"I'm not so sure of that," Ylith said. "But even if it's true, I can't imagine mankind living in that strident but morally bankrupt pagan way again."

"Why not?" Azzie asked. "Good and Bad aren't like bread and water. Mankind can get along nicely without them."

"Is that what you want, Azzie?" Ylith asked. "A world without Good or Bad?"

"Certainly not! Evil is my true work, Ylith, my vocation. I believe in it. What I want is to come up with something impressive in favor of what they call Bad, something that will motivate mankind, seize its attention, bring it back again to the dear old drama of Good and Bad, gain and loss."

"Do you think you can do that?" she asked.

"Of course. I don't want to boast, but I can do anything I set my mind to."

"At least," Ylith said, "you have no problem with your ego."

"If only I could get Ananke to see things my way!" Azzie said, referring to the personified spirit of Necessity who ruled gods and men in her inscrutable way. "But the silly old cow persists in her ambiguities."

"How can you stand being around those brats all the time?" Azzie asked.

"Getting yourself to like what you ought to like is half the trick of being good."

"And what is the other half?"

"Saying no to the blandishments of old boyfriends. Especially demonic ones! Good-bye, Azzie, and good luck."

Chapter 2

Disguised as a merchant, Azzie walked into the nearby city of York. Crowds were streaming toward a central point in the city, and he allowed himself to be carried along through the narrow winding streets.

The people were in a holiday mood, but Azzie didn't know the cause of celebration.

A play was being enacted on a wooden platform in the middle of the city's central square; Azzie decided to watch. Stage plays for the general public were a fairly recent invention. Suddenly it had become a fad that was sweeping Europe.

It was all pretty simple and straightforward. Actors came out on a raised platform and pretended to be someone else. If you'd never seen it before it could be quite thrilling. Azzie had seen many plays in his tune—a long tune that stretched all the way back to the primitive goat dances of the ancient Hellenics —

and he considered himself something of an expert. After all, he had

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