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Plumage from Pegasus
by Paul Di Filippo

The Stealer of Marketshare


ELRIC OF Melniboné, last Emperor of a once-mighty people, dropped on one knee to the cold stones before Arioch, his patron Lord of Chaos and a most puissant Duke of Hell. Using his scabbarded sentient soul-taking sword Stormbringer in one hand as a prop to uphold himself, the albino said, "But my Lord, I fail to understand why the mechanism of distribution across the empire for these new ethereal 'ghost tomes' concerns you so."

Arioch's ghastly and intimidating appearance today took the form of a multi-tentacled abomination, levitating slightly above the floor, whose manifold appendages brandished all manner of consumer goods, as tokens of the wealth and comforts he could bestow upon his followers. Incongruously, the pullulating deity's voice resembled the smooth and seductive tones of a rich uncle seeking to insinuate himself into the good graces of a beautiful young niece.

"It is not part of your allegiance to me to comprehend my motives or goals, and I certainly do not owe you any explanations. But I am in a generous mood today, and shall indulge your curiosity to some small degree. Suffice it to say that these nebulous scrolls, addictive vessels of disembodied information, so different from the leather and parchment codices of yore, are a new thing upon this old world, and contain the potential for much disruption as well as many riches. As master of all disruptive forces, I must be in control of them! I cannot let the White Lords of Law take the reins from my hands. Especially not that accursed Donblas, my hated rival.

"Donblas has leagued with Myshella, the Dark Lady of Kaneloon, Empress of the Dawn, to hatch and etch these ghost scrolls in many alluring forms. Literate citizens are clamoring for these new productions. But Myshella and her minions have chosen to distribute these potent products willy-nilly, in defiance of my former monopoly on codices, and they greedily charge whatever the marketplace will bear. Consequently, their sales are limited in scope to those who possess sufficient wealth to meet their demands. What short-sighted fools, to forsake a slice of a larger pie for short-term extortion! I, on the other hand, would charge only a nominal fee for each ghost tome, insuring that they penetrate to the multitudes, ensnaring even the hoi polloi in my web of servitude. Now, is that sufficient rationale for you, so that you will undertake my orders without further quibbles or cavilling?"

Elric rose to both feet, his innate royal pride combining with his impatience and the weariness of his unnatural physiology to assert a token independence before this patron from Hell. "Yes, I can understand now why we must act. The forces of Order are not capable of maximizing their own influence and profits from these ghost scrolls, and so it is incumbent on Chaos to show them the way. The old Order, regnant without challenge for so long, must fall."

"Quite so. Now, raise up your armies and be prepared to take the Castle of Kaneloon. By the way, just to make certain you do not have a change of heart and betray me, I am sending my representative to act as your second-in-command. She should arrive at any hour now."

With that cryptic promise, Arioch vanished.

Before day's end, unto the dreaming city Imrryr came a blond, armor-clad woman of immense proportions, a true Amazon. Brought into Elric's chambers, she announced herself as Prïmella, leader of the Amazon tribe known as the "Free Shippers" for their omnipresent fleet of cargo vessels that ranged from the Boiling Sea to the Eastern Ocean.

Prïmella's booming voice hurt Elric's sensitive ears. "Ho, white weakling! It is good that Arioch dispatched me to aid you! I doubt you could master a mouse with a puny physique such as yours. Let us now indulge in some healthy carnal gymnastics to cement our alliance. Perhaps you will derive some strength from my lusty embrace!"

Elric fingered the hilt of Stormbinger as he briefly contemplated sucking out the soul of this annoying woman, the antithesis of his beloved dead Cymoril. But then, with a sigh, he gave in to her blandishments, finding them not quite as unsavory as he had foreseen.

 

*   *   *

 

Elric sat upon his halted steed on the dreary dun-turfed plain outside Castle Kaneloon, which reared like a series of cliffs to the sky, at the very edge of the roiling pits of Chaos itself, as if guarding the material world from that inchoate dimension. At his side, Prïmella the Amazon bulked upon the massive drayhorse needed to support her. Their mighty forces stretched away behind them as far as the eye could see.

"Let us try a parley first," suggested Elric. "Fighting should be avoided whenever possible."

"For once I agree with you," Prïmella replied. "We Amazons tend to buy out our rivals with gold rather than assault them."

And so a lone messenger was dispatched, bearing a flag of truce. Some hours later the messenger returned, trailed by none other than Myshella herself, with a small retinue surprisingly constituted: no warriors or diplomats or mages, but rather scribes, proofreaders, compilators, and other members of the inky tribe.

The dark-eyed, majestic and beautiful Empress of the Dawn brought her steed up nose-to-nose with Elric's. Prïmella glared daggers at her opponent, but to no effect.

"Emperor of Melniboné, why do you besiege Kaneloon, a sovereignty which has never done you harm?"

"My Lady, know you this: I do not threaten you out of any personal hostility. It is only at the behest of my patron, Arioch, the genius of disruption. He bids me to deconstruct your empire of ghost tomes, which he feels you have overvalued, to the detriment of a wider dissemination of knowledge."

"Bah! This is mere sophistry! Arioch cares naught for the improvement of the minds of any citizen! He only wishes to amass all power and wealth to himself, rendering the forces of Order feeble and subservient."

"Be that as it may, I can only carry out his bidding, upon pain of tortures indescribable."

The Empress indicated with a wave of her arm the assembled inky tribesmen behind her. "Look upon these humble servants of art and wisdom, Lord Elric. All they ask is a pittance to keep body and soul together, while they pursue their craft. Would you deny them and their brotherhood their deserved remuneration?"

"Now who indulges in sophistry, Dark Lady? I know precisely in what ratio the profits from the ghost tomes are apportioned, and these wretches get but the barest ten per centum, while your coffers receive the rest. Arioch offers them a full seventy per centum. Even at the reduced price he would charge per unit, your scholars would earn much more."

A discontented murmuring rose up among the scribes, proofreaders, compilators, and others, till they were silenced by a loud command from the Empress.

"Do not listen to this agent provocateur! He merely seeks new chattels for Arioch. Once you are under the thumb of Chaos, he will arbitrarily change the terms of your servitude whenever he wishes, for his own benefit. With the House of Kaneloon and Order, you have a legacy of gentlemanly conduct that goes back centuries. Your forefathers sealed all dealings with my ancestors with but a handshake, and their backlist was kept ever in print."

Still reluctant to order his troops to battle, Elric was about to try another line of persuasion when matters were taken out of his hands.

Above the armies of Melniboné, the hideous form of Arioch materialized, writhing like a bucket of worms. Spying this manifestation from afar, the inhabitants of Castle Kaneloon opened their gates and the armies of the Empress poured forth in a rush. They halted not more than a spear's throw from Elric, and above their ranks leaped into being their patron Lord of Law, Donblas the Justice Maker, a tall, handsome man clad in the finest of silks and metals, with a slender sword at his side.

"Arioch!" bellowed Donblas. "This time you have gone too far! These ghost tomes are my intellectual property, and you may not arrogate to yourself edicts about the manner in which I sell them, nor their worth!"

"Fool!" riposted Arioch. "You are like a man with an infinite well of sweet water, who turns away the thirsty peasants in hope of selling one dipperful to a rich man for a hundred ducats!"

Not lightly receiving that insult, Donblas launched himself through the air at Arioch. The gods met with an enormous explosion of sound and light, sending waves of pressure acrosss the field that knocked heavily weighted horsemen entirely over. The intensity of their battle was such that it utterly unnerved the mortal soldiers. The doughty warriors forgot all enmity and fled in many directions. Nonetheless, thousands on both sides were crushed to a red paste as the deities grappled and struggled.

Panting in an unseemly fashion and disheveled, Elric found himself somehow safely immured in Castle Kaneloon with the Empress and Prïmella. On the plains, the forces of Chaos and Order continued noisily to contend.

"Truly," observed the albino in a sardonic tone, "when dragons fight, the ants are trampled."

Myshella eyed Elric and Prïmella with a dignified lust stoked by their narrow escape. "Let us retire to my private chambers and discuss such matters, on cushions and with wine. There is naught we mortals can do to affect the outcome."

Prïmella licked her lips, and Elric nodded agreement. "If worse comes to worst, I can always impale the three of us on Stormbringer, and escape all controversies in death. Sometimes I think that would be preferable to serving either Law or Chaos."

With thanks and apologies to M. Moorcock

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