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Signing death warrants is no decent occupation for a man. Yet there was no question in my mind that I, Dray Prescot, Lord of Strombor and Krozair of Zy, should delegate the wretched task.
The day had dawned bright and clear with the promise of a breeze to mellow the heat, and the drifting linking lights of the Suns of Scorpio bathed the early world through the windows in pastel tints of apple green and palest rose. By Zair! but this was a time to be alive. I breathed deeply and sat myself down at the balass desk and pulled the official forms nearer and forced myself to the job.
Nath Nazabhan, stony-faced, looked on. The small room was furnished with books and maps, chairs and the desk, and not much else. It was a room that suited me. But I had to sit there and scrawl Dray Prescot, Emperor of Vallia, in the abbreviated Kregish script, a mere DPEV, at the foot of each warrant, at the foot of what was a tree and a dangling rope and smashed neckbones. The reality sickened me.
"Thirteen this morning, majister."
"Aye, Nath. Thirteen miserable wights to be shuffled off."
"You have pity for them?"
"Perhaps. I can't afford pity for myself."
"Vallia would have been finished without you. As it is we've a task on our hands to tax my mythical namesake." Nath took up the first warrant as I pushed it across, signed. "The factions continue to squabble and the country is drenched in blood. The enemies of Vallia seem to grow stronger every day, by Vox, even though we hold the capital. Vondium is--"
"Vondium will stand!"
I looked up and I know my face held that leem-look of primeval savagery that sodispleases me and puts the frights up those unfortunate enough to be loo'ard. Nath fingered his chin and fell silent.
He wore a square-necked tunic of a soft pastel tint, girdled by a thin belt from which swung one of the long thin daggers of Vallia. He wore normal morning dress, as did I, and the spread fingers of his right hand groped for the hilt of an absent sword. My gaze shifted to the arms rack. No one on Kregen, that marvelous and mystical world of terror and beauty, strays far from a quick snatch at a weapon. It is not healthy.
"Yes, majister." Nath might be a fine limber young fighting man, commanding the Phalanx; he was a terror for strict discipline properly administered and maintained. Yet he could temper justice with mercy, as I well knew, understanding the ways of command. We had fought together to free Vallia from the enemies who had swarmed in to feast on a bleeding corpse, and his loyalty and devotion were unquestioned. The pen scratched as I signed, and then poised, the black ink glittering like an ebon diamond.
"Renko the Murais?" The name leaped out at me, written in that perfect script of Enevon Ob-Eye, my chief stylor. "I know a Renko the Murais. A tearaway, yes, very quick with an ax." I looked at the charge. "But not, I would have thought, the man to slay a Relt stylor."
"The charge was proved, majister."
Very stiff and formal, on a sudden, Nath Nazabhan.
"You are satisfied? Renko said nothing in his defense?"
"The case was tried by Tyr Jando ti Faleravensmot. A hard man, yes; but just."
I nodded. "You did not attend?"
"No, majister. The Second Jodhri was receiving new colors at the time, and I--"
"Yes. We were there together. The management of a city and what we have of an empire, quite apart from the army, takes up too much time." I shuffled the warrant aside. "Have in this Renko the Murais. I'll see him before I sign."
"It may not be the same man."
"Exactly my thought. But I must be sure."
The papers lay on my desk and the tiny breeze whiffled in through the open casement and lifted the corners. I pondered. There just was not enough time. But--twelve men and the thirteenth might go free, if there had been a miscarriage of justice and Renko the Murais was the Renko I'd known in Valka. He'd been a Freedom Fighter then, when we'd cleared the island of Valka out and the people had fetched me to be their lord. Time would have to be found. I stared at Nath.
"Have Enevon send me in all the papers on these cases. Delay the executions," I said. "I would like to satisfy myself..."
Without going on, I could see that Nath both fully understood why I did what I did, and despaired of me as an emperor who would have a fellow's head off in a trice.
The blurred shouts as orders were cracked out and repeated and the clink-clank of weapons drifted up from the court below where the guards worked at the drills that might keep them alive in battle. The flick-flick plant on the window-sill twined its long green tendrils hungrily, its orange cone-shaped flowers gaping emptily. Later on a dish of fat flies would have to be brought in to keep the flick-flick happy and lush.
"All the same, majister," said Nath, stroking his chin. "When you fight for your rights men must die. It is a law of nature. Death comes to us all--sooner or later--and--"
I smiled. I smiled at Nath Nazabhan and let the smile linger for a full heart-beat before my face resumed its usual craggy mask. I pushed the papers aside and picked up a fresh batch, details of weapons, stores, conditions of wagons. The paperwork was never-ending.
"You quote proverbs at me, Nath. Well, and so it may be true. But the state of the country demands we push out from Vondium and consolidate the midlands and the northeast. I do not know what rights there may be in this."
"You have been fetched to be Emperor of Vallia."
At my instinctive gesture of displeasure, he went doggedly on.
"Everyone shouts for you and they know why they shout. If we are to re-conquer Vallia--"
I glared up at him, sternly, and this time he paused. Then, without embarrassment, he said: "Yes, majister, I know your words. It is more liberation than conquest. But the facts remain and they cannot be altered. If our country is to find any peace at all we must unite ourselves under one flag. And that means the new flag of Vallia you have shown us."
"You have heard me speak of the Wizard of Loh called Phu-Si-Yantong? Yes, well, he is a damned great villain filled with a maniacal desire to subdue and control and hold in his hand all the lands of Paz. It is an insane dream. But, in Vallia, where he has caused us so much trouble--what is the difference? Why should I take the throne and crown and not Yantong?"
Nath's gasp halted me. His face screwed up into the most ferocious scowl, like a chavonth about to charge.
"Because we've seen how the rast treats those he enslaves! By Vox, majister, as soon consign us all to Cottmer's Caverns as let that cramph Yantong rule us."
"So we consolidate what we have and then bring war and bloodshed and misery to the rest of the country--"
He shook his head, angry at the way I was treating him, for which I couldn't blame him. The truth was, and I think he saw a little of it, that I carried the blood-guilt badly.
"We can move with safety in the Imperial provinces surrounding Vondium. The northeast and all the Hawkwa country stands firm for Jak the Drang, Dray Prescot, as emperor. The midlands will rise for us. The northwest--we must deal with the arch-traitor Layco Jhansi and after that teach the Racters a lesson. They fight each other, for which Opaz be praised."
"The Blue Mountains," I said, mildly, "and the Black Mountains are nearer than Jhansi's province of Vennar."
He shook his head. "Only if we strike more westerly of north. And, majister, do not forget the Ochre Limits bar off Vennar and Falinur."
My glance favored the map hung on the wall. The colors mocked me. The mountain chains and rivers, the canals and forests, the badlands and the lush agricultural heartlands, they all demanded attention. Movement of armies bedevils those who would bring overwhelming force to bear on their enemies.
"That is so, Nath. But the Blue Mountains--"
"The Empress, may Opaz shine the light of his countenance upon her, commands the hearts of all, and none more than those ruffians, the Blue Mountain Boys. I think whoever tried to subdue the Blue Mountains has rued the day."
Again, I smiled. Well, Delia and her Blue Mountain Boys are enough to make any old sweat perspire a trifle.
"I had thought we would use the Great River and hit the northwest by curving in from the east." My pointing finger described an arc in the air, extending those phantom lines of march on the map. "As we came in from the south. I had in mind a man to command that army."
He knew exactly what I meant. And, the stubborn old graint, ignored that with sublime self-confidence.
"Any man would be proud to be appointed Kapt and command any army you entrusted into his hands. And there are many men in the army worthy of the task." He looked at me, his eyebrows drawn down, almost challenging me. "As for me, majister, I command the Phalanx with your blessings and where you march there I march."
I grumped at this. "And have I not explained to you, Kyr Nath, that the Phalanx is not best suited to mountain work?"
"Layco Jhansi, who deserves to be shortened by a head, does not foment his insurrections in a mountainous country. The land up there is ideal for my Phalanx."
"And after you've seen off Jhansi, you'll go haring after those damned racters north of him? Yes, well, they all deserve to be made to see the error of their ways."
The papers before me now detailed the condition of the canal narrow boats I had ordered collected. From the famous canals of Vallia the vener were trudging in, hauling their boats, answering the call. The basins and pools of the capital were filling with the brilliantly painted boats. I needed a fleet, and the canalfolk, always proud and independent and disdainfully removed from the petty party politics of the island empire, had decided that for the sake of peace and prosperity and the movement of trade their star must be linked with the new emperor in Vondium. I was happy about that. I had good friends among the canalfolk. And they would be invaluable in the coming struggles.
The future loomed dark and ominous--as so often it does on Kregen, by Zair--and everyone who would stand with us and strike a blow for freedom, in the cant phrase, was welcome.
I say "in the cant phrase." But for the colossal task facing us more than cant would be needed. If we were to cleanse all Vallia, and the island was frighteningly large with many areas still virtually unpopulated, we must seek to make allies of all whom we could and only in the last resort take up arms against them. This was a view not highly regarded, I knew. But the new Dray Prescot saw the wisdom of it, even if my other persona, that wild leem Jak the Drang, was toughly contemptuous of shilly-shallying.
As though Jak the Drang flared up in me I pushed the papers away pettishly and stood up.
"By Vox! I need some fresh air."
Crossing to the arms rack I took down a solid leather belt with a fine rapier and main gauche already scabbarded, the lockets of plain bronze. The weapons were workmanlike, nothing fancy, with silver-wire wound hilts. A matched pair, they were balanced to perfection. Belting the gear on I half-turned to speak to Nath and saw a shadow move against the map. No shadow could be thrown there by the light from the window.
Nath leaped back and the slender dagger appeared in his fist. His face looked stricken.
"Daggers are useless here, Nath," I said, on a breath, quickly. "I think."
The shadow writhed and thickened and flowed, and smoked coiling into the semblance of a man, a hunched man in a black cowl, the hood drawn forward so that only the deep furnace-glow of feral eyes showed, demoniac, peering.
Nath shuddered, a deep hollow revulsion of flesh. The dagger shook.
The thought flamed into my mind: "Thank Zair I had not marked the map with my intentions!"
The projected image of the sorcerer wavered, as though his powers fought to coalesce his immaterial substance within the imperial palace. The whole structure had been sealed by my own Wizard of Loh, Khe-Hi-Bjanching, against such lupal projections; but that had been some time ago. The sealings must be weakening with the passage of time. And Bjanching, along with my other old friends, had been hurled back to his home by the mightier sorcerous powers of Vanti, the guardian of the Sacred Pool of Baptism in far Aphrasöe.
We needed sorcerous help here. But Nath Nazabhan after that first stricken reaction responded as a warrior responds. A streak of light hurtled across the room. The dagger glittered as it flew from his hand. Straight through that insubstantial image it whisked, to clang and chime against the map, gouging out a chunk of Falinur, and so drop harmlessly to the floor.
"Devil's work!" burst out Nath, moving back, going for the arms rack, his fist already raking out for a fresh weapon.
"That will do no good." I stood quietly, feeling the blood in my veins, wondering what Phu-Si-Yantong intended now.
For, quite clearly, this lupal projection was Yantong. An evil emanation, certainly, and a dangerous one. He spied on us and he didn't give a single block of ice from Sicce if we knew or not.
The ruby eyes within the enveloping hood would strike a cold chill into the stoutest heart. Narrowly I surveyed this sorcerous apparition of a hated enemy. A cripple--that was the part Yantong had played during the only time I had met him. And it had not been face to face. Always, he kept himself hidden, shrouded. Perhaps he was in very truth a cripple. Maybe that might explain his crippled ambitions. The shadowy form moved of and within itself, as smoke coils upwards. The colors of the map showed through the image, fragmentarily, their brilliance dimmed.
As always and with everyone, I attempt to see the best side. Always, the remembrance of the frog and the scorpion is with me, that a man no less than a scorpion must act to his nature. But, also, I do not forget that a man can judge the consequences, and although he might not fully comprehend all that will follow, must by the very nature of manhood understand that his actions will inevitably be followed by results. Yantong could not, I thought, be all evil. There had to be some streak of better feeling in him. So I looked at the hunched shadowed shape and I pondered.
Nath remained transfixed by the arms rack, held there, I fancied, no less by my words than by the apparition.
For six heartbeats Phu-Si-Yantong's lupal projection hovered in the room. I know, for I counted.
The spell broke as a trumpet pealed outside, high clarion notes against the blue. The outlines of the figure shimmered as though bathed in invisible heat. The hooded head turned. The glitter from those ruby eyes dimmed, sparking feebly, paled. As the form vanished, the last of it to disappear was that pair of demoniac eyes.
I let out a breath.
Nath wiped the back of his hand across his forehead.
For a space neither of us spoke. We did not care to break the spiderweb of silence that fell after those silver trumpet notes.
Then I said, "By Vox! May Opaz rot the fellow. At least, he got nothing out of us."
A fraction unsteadily, Nath walked across to retrieve his dagger. He gestured with the blade.
"Falinur will never be the same."
I warmed to him. The experience through which he had just been would have left many a man gibbering.
"Seg wouldn't know whether to be glad or sorry."
"As to Seg Segutorio, the Kov of Falinur," said Nath, re-sheathing the dagger with a snick. "I know he was a blade comrade of yours; but he is peskily absent from his kovnate when we need all the friends we can muster."
It was not a rebuke. Merely a hard-headed comment.
I chose to say, with a little snap, "Seg is a blade comrade, not was."
Nath half lifted his chin; but he chose not to reply.
"Now, Nath, not a word of this to a living soul."
"Good. Yantong spies on us with an advantage. We must cloak our designs in shadow, sheath our plans in subterfuge. We hew to the plans I have mentioned--unless unforeseen circumstances force us to alter them. If they do, we will."
The clepsydra on its own shelf told me that the hour was almost up and we were due on Voxyri Drinnik. A small ceremony was to be held there to mark the presentation of medals, 'bobs' the swods in the ranks called them, like phalerae, and the importance of keeping the army happy outweighed much. The matter of Renko the Murais had been dealt with in court by one of the judges appointed to the task. It might be thought that presenting new colors to a Jodhri could not rank as importantly in a humanitarian scheme of government as being present in a court of justice. But a man has only so much time on Earth, or Kregen. No matter that because I had dipped in the Sacred Pool of Baptism I was assured of a thousand years of life, each day still contained only forty-eight burs. So we had been presenting standards when Renko had been sentenced. Now we must present bobs when we had promised. The apparition of Yantong must be pushed into its proper perspective.
And, anyway, what was there I could do about the Wizard of Loh? He worked through human tools. His minions sought to enslave the country. In our turn we must resist them.
Anything else was fantasy.
The days were filled with hard work. There was everything to do. The country was still in turmoil and no one talked of the Time of Troubles being over merely because Vondium was in our hands. Vondium, the proud city, was mostly ruins, with the grandiose rebuilding schemes of Yantong halted in mid-execution because I would not flog on the people to work as slaves, and, also, because they insisted on flocking to join the colors and form fresh regiments to help clear out the rest of the island.
Walking out into the mingled streaming suns shine of Antares, I hoisted up the rapier to sit more comfortably. The chances of assassins, stikitches, still being active and seeking my life, in the pay of any number of cramphs who would as lief snuff me out as they would snuff a last candle, remained high. A man must be ready always on Kregen to fight for his life, just as he is ready to sing or to drink, to eat or to laugh.
Many of my new comrades waited. Nath Nazabhan was a relatively new comrade, also, for we had been together since we had trained up the Phalanx in Therminsax ready for that great battle. My choice band waited for me. A right rough and tumble crowd, festooned with weapons, brilliant in a motley of uniforms, they greeted me with a roar. I bellowed back, most affably, banishing the dark schemes of Yantong from my mind. Together we rode for Voxyri Drinnik where the great victory had been gained that gave over Vondium to our hands.
The last of the Hamalese prisoners were being sent off back to their homes in Hamal. This had aroused great controversy and acrimony, men saying why did we not keep the rasts as slaves. I would not execute them, for I knew the Hamalians, knew their army, knew the swods in the ranks. I would not kill or enslave, and so they were sent home to Hamal. We still had a debt outstanding with the Empress Thyllis of Hamal, the despotic ruler of the greatest empire in the southern continent of Havilfar. Yantong had used her to further his own schemes; but Vallia had been invaded by Hamalese, there was the matter of the defective airboats, and, also, there was the island of Pandahem to be liberated.
Every way I turned there was work to my hand.
And, always, the greater menace of the Star Lords hovered over me. At a whim they could dispatch me back to Earth, hurl me four hundred light years through the deeps of space, send me back to the planet of my birth and, perhaps, forget me and let me rot.
Fresh concepts about the Star Lords, the Everoinye, had been plaguing me. I had begun to wonder if their designs were so baffling, after all, for certain events seemed to me to bear of only one interpretation. I will leave the reasoning by which I reached this surprising conclusion until later, contenting myself with the simple remark that, if there was good in every man, might there not be a greater good in the Everoinye, who were so much greater than men?
"Lahal, Majister!" bellowed Cleitar. He had once been Cleitar the Smith, and he bore his wicked war-hammer into action. But now he was generally called Cleitar the Standard, for he carried my own battle flag, that yellow cross on a scarlet field fighting men call Old Superb. He rode a zorca and his uniform was splendid.
I raised my hand in salute as we rode out. Vondium was a shadow of the great city it once had been. The other spirits in my choice band were mostly, at this time, from the provinces, for we had recruited there in our drive to the capital; but they were aware of the despoliation. We would rebuild; but our aim was to rebuild the heart of the country through the people and the agriculture and husbandry. Bricks and stones and mortar must follow that.
Volodu the Lungs, a leathery man if ever there was one whose appetite for ale could never, it seemed, be quenched, blew a stentorian blast on his immense trumpet. And that silver instrument was immense. With it Volodu had crushed in the head of a too froward Hamalese Hikdar, smashing through helmet and bone to the very brains beneath. The blast echoed through the streets and cleared a way for us as though we were a pompous procession of robed priests.
There was no need for lictors or any other street-clearing violence as the Emperor of Vallia rode out.
The ceremony passed off well, brilliant and dashing in the glitter of the Suns. I will not go into detail, save to say the old sweats took their medals with a swagger, and no doubt, like Vikatu the Dodger, would trade shamelessly on their prowess to dodge the column for a few sennights to come. And good luck to them. They had risked their lives and limbs in the battle line.
Like any good Kregen who tells the time of day by the state of his innards, I felt the time was ripe for a meal and so we wended our way back to the palace. I had barely crossed the first of the twin canals straddled by the Bridge of Voxyri with the confused onward shrilling of that great fight ringing in echoing remembrance in my head, and Naghan ti Lodkwara was as usual engaged in a slanging match with Targon the Tapster, when the shadows fleeted in.
A lancer, Naghan Cwonin, reined across. Dorgo the Clis shouted. Cleitar the Standard began to furl up the flag. Naghan ti Lodkwara and Targon the Tapster took mutual breaths and, instead of slanging each other, yelled the alarm.
The airboats floated down as though guided by rails.
There were six of them, and each one was of a capacity to hold a dozen fighting men.
So--we were in for a fight.
The devils had chosen their place well. The troops back on the Drinnik would never be over the Bridge in time to assist us. The streets were filled here with ordinary folk about their business trying to put Vondium back together again. Phu-Si-Yantong's spying mission must have told him what he wanted to know, and this was a direct result.
Shades of Rafik Avandil, Lion-man!
I ripped out the clanxer scabbarded to my zorca. He was a fine black, mettlesome, whom I called Snowy out of stupid humor as much as contrariness, and I'd ridden him because he needed the outing. The stables were not too well provided as yet, and discretion had to be used. But the men tumbling out of the airboats almost before they touched down were afoot, and so we, mounted on zorcas, were by that much better off.
Two fliers landed in our rear, cutting off a flight back the way we had come.
Cleitar had the flag furled and stowed away now, and his hammer glittered as he lifted it.
Nath Nazabhan drew his clanxer and called across to me, "Ride, majister--there is an alley mouth there--"
I looked at him.
"Well," he said, huffily, swirling the straight cut and thrust sword about, loosening up his muscles. "It was just an idea."
We numbered about twenty or so, bright rollicking companions of my choice band. We faced about four times our own numbers. Well. Yes, a situation in which I had found myself more than once, and usually through my own block-headedness. I lifted in the stirrups. I'd gone out for a breath of fresh air. I was like, and my companions also, to taste blood as well as air. And the air we tasted might well be let in through our ribs.
"Straight through them!" I bellowed. "Slap bang and no tickles. No man stands for handstrokes. Ride like the agate-winged jutmen of Hodan-Set!"
We clapped in our heels and in a rampaging bunch roared into the forming ranks of our Chulik foemen.