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Chapter One —On a Roof in Jikaida City
There are more ways than one hundred and one of stealing an airboat and this was going to be way Number One. Just walk up to the craft, step aboard, and take off —first making sure she was not tethered down.
That was the theory.
The guard stepped from a shadowed doorway on the first landing and stuck a glittering great cleaver under my nose.
"Stand where you are, dom, or your head will go bouncing down those stairs you've just walked up."
Light from the lamp held in the hand of a bronze cupid at the head of the stairs struck sparks from his eyes. All he could see of me must be a silhouette. The muffling mask of gray cloth over my face and head and the dull baggy clothes were unrecognizable.
"Why, dom," I said. "You're making a mistake—"
No doubt he understood me to be attempting exculpation. When I lowered him gently to the carpet with my left hand gripped in the fancy front of his uniform, and, my right hand tingling just a little, took away that murderous cleaver, he slumbered peacefully —but he'd wake up understanding the mistake I had pointed out to him well enough.
Stepping carefully over him I went on up the next flight of stairs. This hotel, a veritable palace in the Foreign Quarter of Jikaida City, was occupied by the great ones of the world who came here to play Jikaida without affiliation to the Blue or the Yellow. On the roof rested the only flying boat in the city. That airboat was my ticket out of here and, because it was owned by a man from Hamal, and Hamal was at war with my own country of Vallia, it was morally quite proper for me to steal the craft.
Well —morals take the devil of a beating when there's a war on. There are, to be sure, far too many wars and battles on the world of Kregen, four hundred light years from Earth, but I was sincerely doing what I could to lessen the number.
The time was just on halfway between midnight and dawn. The hotel remained quiet. The carpets muffled my tread. There must be a few more guards about and, sentry duty being what it is, there were bound to be one or two having a quiet yarn up on the roof, one eye on the airboat.
The quicker I got out of Jikaida City and, if the Star Lords permitted, back to Vallia, the better. A caravan across the Desolate Waste to the east would be far too slow for me in my mood. Vallia was in good hands, that I knew; but I still felt the need to get home. Also, knowing the way fate —which is a poor second best in any confrontation with the Star Lords —has the nasty habit of hurling me headlong into adventures that are none of my seeking, I fancied I had a few sprightly moments in front of me before I reached home. Well, by Vox, that was true.
As I stole up the next flight of stairs sounds floated down from above. I frowned. There was laughter, and high shrieks, and a tinny banging. A small orchestra was playing and trying to make its music heard over the din. I went on and came out onto the top landing. In the corner the small door that led onto the roof was unguarded. I had only to cross the stretch of thick pile carpet, open the door, close it carefully after me, and creep up the stairs, my sword in my fist...
More confounded theories.
A door opened and a man staggered out. He wore only a blue shirt and he was highly excited, his arms draped over the shoulders of a couple of sylvies half-dressed in tinsels. He roared, his head thrown back, warbling out a song whose words were unintelligible and whose tune was unrecognizable.
The wall at my back felt flat and hard. I pressed in as though trying to burrow through into the room beyond.
Beyond that suddenly opened door the lamplight glowed, spilling out and casting shadows over me. The noise in there racketed away and now the orchestra, no doubt having made up its mind to be heard, howled and shrilled and scraped. Men and women shrieked with laughter and shouted over the music, determined to be heard. The clink of bottles and the crash of overturning glasses added a genial blend of bibulous accompaniment. The man and the girls staggered past, screaming with laughter, to disappear into a darkened room along the corridor.
Lamplight fell across the carpet in a butter-yellow lozenge.
To reach the door leading onto the roof it was necessary to pass that lozenge of light.
The orchestra and the people —all grimly determined to be heard —redoubled their efforts. The racket coruscated. The door remained open and people passed and repassed —or staggered and restaggered —from side to side. Another man came out. He crawled on hands and knees. A slinky little Fristle fifi rode his back, alternately hitting him with a slipper and giving him sips of wine from a glass. Most of the wine —it was a light straw color —soaked into the carpet. They were both yelling their heads off. I shoved another inch or two into the wall.
Somebody else reeled out of the door, tripped over the man on his knees and the fifi, and collapsed, howling with laughter. His wine went all over them. He had been drinking a deep red wine, and the color blazed up in the lamplight.
Copyright © 1979, Kenneth Bulmer.