The Book of Vermilion

Simon Whitechapel

    “And, if such things interest you, as mayhap they do, we have a library that is stocked with rare tomes, with precious manuscripts, with the finest works of heathendom and Christendom, even to certain unique writings that survived the holocaust of Alexandria.”

         Clark Ashton Smith, “The End of the Story” (1930).

Surpassing strange were the scripts and symbolisms of the library of the Emperor U, for his agents knew his desire to own a text in every graphology of every tongue, but one thereamong was strangest: The Book of Vermilion. When his interest in all others was eclipsed — the text that was a candle, releasing its syllables with its scents; the text that was a single sable wall of psychrographic blocks, read by the gliding fingertip; the text that was an enchanted icosahedron, read litteratim, throw-by-throw — he could read the Book with an unfading delight, spiced by the knowledge that he alone on earth could understand its periods now. For it had belonged to a sect whose votaries had been slain at his command, when once he had learnt their script and tongue. And the script was thirty-two characters, whereof each was a fourth of a mirror-versible quartet, as minuscule p is of q, b, and d, in sanserif forms of our own script: whereby the Book comprised four-in-one, for the vermilion ink traced on the obverse of each papyral page had seared legibly to its reverse, and yold meaning there equally, by the cunning and cleverness of the Book’s composition. Which is to say, if on one side the phrase ran qod boq, “the falcon stoops”, on t’other ’twould run pod bop, “fragrant almond”; or, inverted, doq pod, “hasten the sun-chariot”, and boq pob, “golden strings of the citharæ”.

Wherefor, seeing that the beauty, simplicity, and science of the quadruple text matched those of any other in the Emperor’s collection, the Book was greater than all, for few thereof could be read even palindromically and those were stilted and unlovely in their phraseology. Thus the Emperor counted the Book less precious only than his life, his eyes, and his imperium, reading therein daily till it seemed to him he had its tongue as maternal and that an accent thereof crept in among his edicts and ukases or checked his speech now and then, for its lexicon lay readier in his brain than his true maternal’s. But one phrase, in one mode, had always remained obscure amidst the Book’s pellucid profundity: three words on the seventeenth page, or two-hundred-and-fifty-sixth, rather, for the mode was the fourth and final, being that of the Book’s being read in reverse and upside-down. In the three other modes — forward-simplex; forward-inverse; reverse-simplex — the phrase yold its meaning readily enough; in this fourth, the Emperor had long and satisfyingly racked his brains thereover. For was this not the Book’s final perfection, in its very imperfection? He turned to the Book always when he wearied of other text in his library; and should he ever weary Thereof, he could turn to the Obscure Phrase Therein, in hope of coaxing, someday, a sliver of sense Therefrom.

Had he known of the Phrase when a votary of the sect was still alive, he might have had the meaning of its three words tortured forth with the rest of the sectarian tongue, when grammars and lexica were being prepared for him by scholars later to be slaughtered with the tortured — and torturers too, for all that those last had had their ears wax-plugged while they plied their tools and worked the rack. But mayhap it had been obscure even to the sect, for why should they have concealed this when all else they had revealed, their brains unlocked by keys of iron, fire, and agony? Yet he recalled now how the last of the sect had seemed to smile in articulo mortis, having sipped the cup wherein the imperial physician had mixed an analgesic death-dose. Had he smiled for cancellation of pain and imminence of oblivion? Or had he known that somewhat had been held back by himself and his fellows, some essential secret of the sect been withheld from its dissolutor? The Emperor knew not, but pondered the matter ever more frequently as he leafed those torture-won grammars and lexica, re-polishing his skill in the sect’s tongue ere taking again the Book to delight anew therein.

And increasingly he could not bear to be parted Therefrom, but had the Book by him day and night, secure in a golden cistella when ’twas unread. Therein it sat beside his bed the night he dreamed of a northern jacquerie, which ignited his empire as a spark might ignite a gorgeous tapestry, that his realm blazed with rebellion and fell as the tapestry’s cloth might blaze, blurred and blackened by lambent flame, ere passing to ash and nothingness. Waking from his dream in shivers and sweat, he rang for his slaves, ordering lamps lit and dulcimers played, while he soothed himself with the Book. But imagine how he gaped, opening the cistella with his own hands, to see the Book fallen to a red-flecked dust amid an esurient writhing of eyeless white larvæ, which nevertheless seemed to lift and peer their heads at him as light invaded their dark. With a cry of disgust, he inverted the cistella to shake the larvæ therefrom to the marble of his floor, whereon they pattered moist and noisome.

When he peered down upon the larvæ, to see if aught legible remained of their jaw-work, the dust thereof made him sneeze, whereby a last fluttering scrap of the Book was propelled across the room that might otherwise have escaped his notice. He croaked for it to be caught and brought to him, final fragment of his greatest treasure; and when this was done, his heart hammered in his throat to see — or had he waked from dream to dream? — that it comprised the three words of the ever-obscure phrase. First mode he read and understood, then adjusted it twice to read and understood again, ere he attempted fourth and final mode as of old. And it seemed to him he knew the meaning now, as though, even through a rap of urgent news on his bedchamber’s door, a voice whispered in his ear in the tones of that last doomed sectarian:

“Behold the Conqueror Worm!”

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