Though Ines, his wife, had pleaded with him to leave off gambling, Iriom, the ruler of the empire of the Sulfanids, had retired to his gaming room once again with his neighbor, Trull, the cruel ruler of the Vulkanados. Iriom was a good ruler, loved by his wife and his people, and pleased when he saw happy faces gathered around him. But he needed the thrill. When they cast the dice for a space-wrinkle, or when they disputed who had won a time fracture, his breath went faster, a glitter came into his eyes, his soul expanded.
He was, as I said, happy, and thus, like all gamblers who have reserves, he almost always won. In life as in gambling, no one should sit at the table who would have to cast himself into an abyss at his first loss. He who is successful has many enviers. To be sure, Iriom knew how to read the hearts of men, but on this evening they had put something into his cup, the powder of a snake which lives in the Vulkan Mountains and produces a poison which confuses the senses.
Thus, before he realized it, and after they had permitted him to win a few times in trifles, Iriom found himself in a game for his empire, his wife, and his own life. A witch from the mountains of the planet Alabaster, which is famed for its beautiful, seductive inhabitants, rolled the dice. One die remained lying on its edge, and when it finally tipped, under the gaze of the witch, it showed the seven, while Trull rolled a twelve.
A notary, who had been waiting in a mirrored closet, stepped up to their table, and though he well recognized Iriom's state, the contract according to which Iriom relinquished all rights over his kingdom was undersigned. More wine was brought, and then the dice were cast again, robbing Iriom of his wife, Trull making the malicious remark that he could have made do with six eyes, for she was hardly in the bloom of virginity any longer.
At last the game was for Iriom's life, which in fact was already lost, for shadows dwelt in his breast, his head was fogged, and the faces swayed before him, mean and drunk, as if snakes were weaving their heads to the melody of a flute. Meanest of all was Rita, Trull's fourth concubine, who had forgotten an unhappy childhood in the poorhouses of the planet Pearl and who took every opportunity to give Iriom, whom she envied for his happiness, a box on the ears.
She made the observation that some people were so drunk that they no longer knew what stakes they were playing for; but perhaps the poison of their evil hearts was working in them, and they no longer noticed when the cup of hemlock was passed to them; and similar remarks, which she made unabashed, but which no longer really reached Iriom, caught in the upper zones of his brain as if in a sieve, like too-large marbles which can no longer be caught.
After seven piglets had been slaughtered, which squealed and bled and were soon still, and which Iriom took for an enemy defeated and slain in battle, they shuffled the cards, and Iriom was given a jack of hearts, to lull him into a sense of security. With the power of her mind the witch had transformed all the other cards into jacks of clubs, and so there could be no doubt as to the outcome of the game.
Trull, having laid the cards on the table, said with gleaming eyes, "As you know, my brother, we Vulkanados are a generous race. Now that your life is in my hand, I will make you a present of it, on the condition that you really give up your wife and that you never voice the intention of entering your land again, which now belongs to me. We will send you into exile, and a poisoned arrow or the ray of a telepath will overtake you if you fail to keep to this agreement. Under these conditions nothing will happen to Ines."
However, the Trulls, like all these creatures, are cowards, and though Iriom agreed to the conditions, for his will was paralyzed, they feared his revenge when the effect of the poison should wear off. They knew the strength of his fleet and feared the light-guns with which Iriom's men fought, a secret which Trull hoped to get his hands on as well. And it was an uncertain matter how Iriom's advisors and officers would comport themselves when they heard of the agreement. In the end Ines would be able to convince them to revolt.
In short, when Iriom stood up to go to his space yacht, they stabbed him in the back in the dark of the corridor and opened the mirror through which Iriom entered the shadow world. There he was sealed, after being robbed of his identity. Heedlessly, like cowardly thieves who do not know the real value of their loot, they cast aside the positive and beautiful things which came from his brain; they took only the plans of his light machines and fortresses, and they even failed to appreciate the strategic considerations with which he waged war.
When Hark, Trull's cousin, came to Ines' room in Hohenschoenstein Castle in order to take her according to the agreement, she had already been informed by spies who had been in hiding in the shadow world, though admittedly she did not know all that had played its part in the game. Hark was as if blinded by Ines' beauty. He had seen her once at a feast where sacrifices were made to the space gods, but only from a distance, and thus it was that for a moment he felt weak before her.
But then, as he bethought himself of the heritage and tradition of his terrible clan, gathered his courage and stretched out his moist sweating hand toward her, she took an axe which had been used the day before to prepare a stalled ox for the coming festivities. Ines was unafraid, like many women when they know what they are fighting for. Before Hark could recover from his surprise, Ines had split his skull in two, and would have been hard put to say which half she liked the least.
She escaped through a hidden door which Isabelita, a maid, had opened, and her heart was heavy, for she did not know what had happened to her husband. While Trull's men drowned Hohenschoenstein Castle, the surroundings and the rebelling planet in blood, Ines drifted through the planet's shadow in a tiny space boat, accompanied only by Isabelita, whom she trusted, and Gorm, a bodyguard whose tongue had been cut out by the Alabites, and who was now devoted to Ines, for she had saved his life.
Now it is not the case, as in fairy tales, that all problems solve themselves as if on their own. Hardly were Ines' first tears dried, when a squall of wind, having traveled for fifty thousand years out of the center of the Milky Way, seized the ship and hurled it upon Bigworld, a desolate planet covered with deserts, upon which the inhabitants led a spartan life, though in the proud knowledge that they served no false masters.
In the solitude of the mountains, news of bloodbaths and atrocities perpetrated by Trull reached their ears. Ines' kin were slaughtered. A nephew, Absalom, who had tarried on a distant planet, was blinded, broken on the wheel, and beheaded when he returned guilelessly. Elisa, a third cousin, who arrived unsuspecting on a pleasure spaceship, was driven insane on a field on thinking stones, until she ended her life with her own hand.
While the aether thus resounded all the more with the abominations and the terror brought by the Trulls, the less they were loved on the planet Astarte, Ines, who knew in her heart that Iriom was still alive, listened in vain for a sign, a rumor, however slight, which would reveal to her his whereabouts, his state, or anything. Indeed, it came so far that Trull's agents, who had invaded Bigworld in the night, bribed the mountain dwellers to murder Ines, which was thwarted only by Gorm's presence of mind and the proud stance of the sons of the desert. Years later, for a small glimmer of light still dwelt in Ines' heart, an interstice wanderer, a shadow came to this planet, for a space fracture was impending, and he wanted to inquire whether the inhabitants would be prepared to direct the space currents, in cooperation with the mind-readers of Tarr VII, in such a way that the space structure would not unfold in their depths. He was a pale, lidless creature, and looked like a worm. When he looked at them they quailed in their hearts, for they felt the cold of space in him.
But they knew that every being has its place in the order of the cosmos, and that it is wrong of us to despise the snakes which twist through the sand and across the plains, even if we need not love them. And it was also in their interest, for they did not wish the destruction of their own planet. And so they overcame their fear as they beheld the pale body of the wanderer. And collected themselves when he carelessly rummaged around a bit in their heads, though many of them were cold and empty thereafter, as if their souls or their shadows had been cut away.
The wanderer had seen Ines too. We do not know what went on inside him. But when he had attained his goal he let slip that there was a man who lived in an energy wrinkle between the stars, a man who had been robbed of energy, intelligence and consciousness, and who did nothing but demand a game of cards, for he believed that he had lost a game which he should at all costs have won. But they gave little credence to such disconnected talk, and since they found no door to his heart - if they ever could have - they gave him a pitcher of water or a piece of bread or a little cheese now and then and let him go on believing that he had once been the lord of a planetary empire.
When Ines heard this, she took alarm. At her urging a spaceship was made ready to take her to the silver currents in which he was held captive, for the queen had managed to rescue some gold pieces and jewels in her flight. On the day of her departure the people of Bigworld wept, for they believed they would never see Ines again. How petty and weak the human being sometimes thinks itself. It does not think a single step further, it does not know that all things develop, and few suspect how much courage our heart is capable of.
After a journey of seven days and seven nights, which led through electron storms, past space polyps and over interstice holes, she found Iriom, crouching on a cliff on a mirrored planet which had been artificially shrunk, with long hair and beard blowing in the wind, in such a state that one hardly recognized him, staring into the floods which roared as if since the dawn of time.
His gaze was empty from all his staring, and it seemed that a time lock had been put upon his heart, so that he was unable to recognize Ines when she revealed herself to him. He treated her coldly, like a stranger, and not until she questioned Orr, the worm, who had achieved wisdom because of his old age, did she understand that first she had to free his shadow, which was in a mirrored closet; for she had noticed that at first sight, that Iriom did not cast a shadow - in the bright sun of the planet, and after his release from space - neither to the south nor to the west nor to the north nor to the east.
Ines, whose task this was, came close to snatching up the soul in the cabinet. There was much lamenting in the realm of the dead, where all the deceased souls of the universe were gathered. Many were pale and begged that life be restored to them. Others promised to carry Ines in their arms and love her if she would remember them with a single smile which was necessary in order to leave the realm of shadows.
Though her heart was heavy as she beheld all this, she found Iriom's shadow, which had been hung in a mirrored closet and wept red tears. With her knife she cut the thread on which it was hung and led it up into the world, where both, Iriom and his shadow, hesitated in uncertainty, as if they did not recognize each other; but Ines brought the two of them together, so that the shadow of Iriom's figure fell far over the sea and into the reaches of space.
Heed the transformation which now took place in Iriom. Where before he had been pale, haggard, sad and without all hope, now his features filled with life. His eyes began to shine. His gestures grew lively. He began to radiate an energy such as few people in the universe have ever felt. He gazed at Ines, who had come to him from afar, and drew her to him to kiss her.
Later, sitting in the shadow of the spaceship, he listened calmly, but with a grim expression, to Ines' tale, interrupting only now and then. He spoke in the deep voice of a person who is loved, but those who knew him knew that the undertone of this voice was to be feared. He read newspapers and announcements, studied plans and brain diagrams and listened to the weather report, for a journey through the universe is not without risk.
In the meantime, however, Trull had learned of Iriom's return, and of the wonderful shadow which the king now cast before him, from the many scouts and myrmidons which he sent throughout the entire known universe. When he was told the news, in the green waters in which he was bathing with the seven unhappy virgins who were to be sacrificed to the gods, he went as pale as the water and began to tremble all over.
He frothed at the mouth, he flailed about him, and he tore his hair, for they had thought Iriom harmless in the space wrinkle. But his sister Kirjam, who observed this through a mirror, forgot about the powder which she had been meaning to give Trull the next day, for she eyed the throne greedily; instead she pondered the fact the kingdom was in danger, for she knew Iriom, and that the people would revolt when they beheld him, and that a throne upon which she would be slaughtered was worth nothing.
Thus, comforting her brother with false words, she sent him a snake, the sort which is found in the rivers of the planet Goblein, whose bite cast a spell over Trull. That which was still human about him, fell away. Now he was able to see only in the fourth dimension, and as if through a fog, which must have only increased his panic. His teeth chattered with the cold as he lifted the light sword in his hand.
From then on dragon seed rained on the planets. Wherever Iriom was suspected of being, the sky opened, and snakes plunged out of the interstice and rained down in showers of flames. Two or three dozen planets, on which the most fertile provinces were found, drowned in the fire which fell from the interstice. On the world of Tobagor all the women were slaughtered because of a rumor that Ines was hiding there.
A month later, when Trull looked into the mirror one evening, he took fright at his appearance; his eyes had sunk into their sockets, his cheeks were like those of an old man, his lips were cracked, and madness smoldered in his features. Corpses lay in his dungeons, mind-reading bats fluttered over the battlements to report and suppress the thoughts which opposed Trull.
When he lay in bed at night, he started up in fright because he thought Iriom was hiding in the double floor of his bedchamber. Though now he took only the most meager of nourishment, he had it tasted by five eunuchs beforehand, for he thought that Iriom had smuggled poison into his food and drink with the help of parapsychological bats. But nothing helped. Only the shadows grew longer, and even with his second face Trull was unable to penetrate the mist which veiled the future.
Thus, as Iriom and Ines were pursued over all the planets of the universe, fleeing before their myrmidons and bailiffs, whom they often escaped by mere light-seconds, driven to exhaustion, covered with aching wounds, leaping from planet to planet, they grew in strength. For before then Iriom had had only a superficial knowledge of how his realm was actually administered, and how the people really lived there.
Indeed, in order to deceive his persecutors, he was even forced to take up simple work, simple clothes, and the habits of simple people. With the first calluses on his hands, with the first sweat he had to shed himself, with the first bitterness which, as he well noticed, he swallowed over it, he grew stronger and stronger, as all of us grow stronger through work.
He grew to know the tin mines of his realm, and realized that false advisors had deceived him. Now he realized how the uranium was being extracted from the drifts of Morg VII. He saw the great solar mirrors which hung in orbits about the planets, and knew at last how to use them himself. Again and again Iriom and Ines managed to extricate themselves from difficult situations, balancing on the edge of the universe, caught in an interstice hole and whispering with the whispering stones, who release no one who does not speak as they do.
While in earlier times Iriom's people had loved him only because he had distinguished himself from his predecessors through his clemency and mercy, and said to themselves that this was because he was loved by a wonderful woman, now they knew him truly, and the hunt around the universe brought both sides closer, so that he came to know first-hand all the great and small cares and worries of the people and peoples, even if Trull's grasp over the worlds was still firm.
For the books by which the worlds are governed contain the legend of an overthrown king, who, after losing his realm at the gaming table, was able to win it back only by finding the core which holds the universe together; and with this power in his hands he unmasked the false king and cast him from his throne into eternal night, into darkness and ruin, where the stars no longer shine.
One night, as they were about to go to bed, a woman in a hair shirt came to them in their chambers and laid a finger to her mouth to signal that they should be quiet, and several tears rolled down her cheeks.
"What do you want?" asked the king. "Why are you disturbing us at this hour of the night? Do you not know where you are intruding here?"
But she said: "My husband was murdered. My brother lies in his own blood. My children, all but one, were delivered up to the singing stones, and perished."
"You unhappy woman," said the king. "Much suffering has come upon you and upon the world. Only he who has experienced something like your suffering will be able truly to understand you. Speak, who has caused you this suffering? Why were all but one of those you love murdered?"
"He is the ruin of the universe, oh lord," the woman answered, "the snake, the murderer, the beast which ravages the stars. It is Trull who drowned my kin in blood. The raging beast, the monster hatched in a wormhole. You wish to know, lord, to what circumstances I owe my misfortune? It is merely that my husband voiced his displeasure with Trull in an inn. Oh, he was never able to hold his tongue once the wine had loosened it. His heart overflowed. And now, like so many, he dwells in the realm of shadows."
"Indeed," said the king, "the reasons to rid ourselves of Trull are many. But what about the child?"
"My light, my life?" asked the woman, and began to weep again. "He is my youngest. Born seven months ago. As I heard, Trull wanted to experiment on him in his laboratories. They are under the stars, in a radiation which is produced artificially, but I feel that he is still alive. I heard that you will soon journey into this region of space. Take me with you, oh lord, so that I can rescue little Kjell."
"So be it," said the king, "we have room left in our ship, and the laughter of a child will bring us joy."
The next day they set sail and sucked up the energy which blew vigorously from the center of the Milky Way. Then many winds came, seeking to tear the little ship apart. But Horg, the helmsman, held the rudder. They fought the snake Narnig, whose body, which consisted of pure energy, wound over seven suns. In a bend of space they found a turtle so old that she had experienced the creation of the universe.
They asked this turtle the way to the Imperial Experiments. And when she answered, her voice whispered in their thoughts that she had seen the laboratories, hidden behind dark clouds; they were so terrible that she was glad that she was not a human being; indeed, she was immortal, and Trull wished to be as well. Then Kjell's mother grew afraid, and the turtle showed them a path which led through energy vortices and past radiation outbursts.
On their way they were often subjected to violent jolts, and stardust covered their clothes. And they were affected by the radiation; now they grew enormous, now tiny. On a planet inhabited by giants they drank radioactive water which made them glow blue. On a world full of spiders, surrounded by their trills, they gazed into the future, and quailed at the sight, even though it was only one of many possible futures, for the spiders said that they would permit them to determine the development themselves.
For they had seen the life extracted from small children, the marrow pared from their bones, all that mixed to an elixir of life, so that Trull and his people might grow big and strong and live eternally, while the little people who had given up their future for them languished and died. But Kjell's mother urged haste, for she sensed that her child too was to meet his end in a bottle.
But when they reached the laboratories, which revolved shimmering in space, it was too late; the good woman swooned, her hand pressed to her heart, and there was a whispering across the stars, a murmur and a weeping, as only the gods can weep when they lose their favorite children, who are bottled to lead an existence like shadows.
Before the laboratories lay a lindwurm five thousand ells long, with fiery jaws and glowing eyes, stretching out its paws and striking glowing comets out of space. But winged with fury, wrath and hatred such as is rarely felt by men, they slipped past his paws, withstood the firestorms which he blew from his nostrils, entered his throat and, escaping through his left ear, blew up his brain, which was the size of a hazelnut.
Then anger led them to the laboratories, over which the stars still whispered and sang. Iriom, with flaming eyes, wanted to shatter the retorts and bottles in each of which the blue flame of life leaped, but the good woman, who had come to herself again, though nearly broken with sorrow, gathered all her strength and said that she knew of a legend that only a giant who had kept his innocence would be able to vanquish Trull.
Thus, making a few simple arrangements, they put all the flames into one single retort and sealed it with a big ancient cork, laying a magnetic barrier around the darkly-glowing retort. Thus they rode calmly through the waters, and soon it was known for a hundred light years and several ells about them that they were invincible. Then the peoples rose up, and the cry for revenge and retribution surged beneath the stars.
But Trull, pale and desperate, already abandoned by several of his advisors, frothing at the mouth and with the fever of madness glowing in his eyes, sent a fleet against them, which surely set out only because he held the wife, child or parents of many a soldier as hostages. With the courage of desperation the soldiers fought the tiny ship, which floated there in a blue shimmer.
At the very beginning of the battle Iriom opened a bottle, and out climbed a brown youth with golden hair and golden eyes, a single great tear rolling down his cheek, who said: "Oh lord, my master, tell me what I must do, and I will vanquish your enemies!"
"Do not spare their lives," said the ruler, "slay those who were cruel, capture in bottles those who fought under compulsion, and bring to our side those who were only blinded by Trull."
And so it happened. Many of the imperial ships were dashed to pieces. Space was populated with corpses, who were mute and spoke no longer. Some were shaken with repentance. One was a traitor, his lips were split and his tongue hissed like a snake. They let him escape, so that he could bring Trull the terrible news.
Then the ruler's own creatures laid hands on him, for they were racked with fever and fear and thought that if they made the gods a sacrifice, fate would be kind to them. Thus Trull and his sister and the witch and all who had taken part in the card game were slain and mirrored, and they were hung over the battlements of Hohenschoenstein Castle, where they long remained hanging, swaying in the wind.
But Iriom, to the rejoicing of the people, took the scepter again and vowed never again to gamble, and he spoke of how all could win through work alone, for what one won in gambling, another must lose for him. He seated the youth at his side, that he might watch over the starry realm with his soul and his spirit. Ines bore Iriom many children, all of whom were splendid and would rule the kingdom well. But the question of what held the universe together was long since decided, for now that Iriom was in power, all knew the answer in their hearts.