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I have often been in two places at once; the superhuman powers of the Star Lords can arrange that little trick without trouble. Less frequently have there been two different versions of myself in the same place at the same time.
Walking along in the bustle of the city of Huringa, I was under the impression that to solve half of the problems confronting me I had only to bid farewell to my comrades Tyfar and Jaezila, secure an airboat and fly home to Vallia. The other half of the problems limped along spryly at my side, chattering away, and without a doubt presented the much more intractable half.
Unmok the Nets and I had become partners in the wild-animal business, dealing fairly with each other, and he expected us to set off on a new voyage to collect a fresh selection of savage beasts for the Arena. If ever there had been an occasion for two of me to be in the same place at the same time--then it was now.
As we passed under a balcony from which a cascade of multicolored flowers scented the air, I said, "Don't look back, Unmok. There is an unpleasant-looking fellow dogging our footsteps and I think he means us a mischief."
That, then, was an extra little problem for the evening.
Presently Unmok contrived a glance back as we neared the arched entrance to the Souk of Trifles. The twin Suns of Scorpio were almost gone and the sky blazed in cloud-banded jade and ruby.
"A nasty, devilish-looking customer, Jak."
"Just walk along quietly. We'll dodge into the Souk of Trifles. It might be interesting to play this fellow. Find out why he follows us like a burr in a blanket."
"Aye, it willbe fun to bedevil him--"
"I said nothing about fun."
Unmok had no need to laugh. He might be a little six-limbed Och not above four feet six inches tall, and with a stump in place of his middle left limb; he was accustomed to handling the ferocious beasts employed in the Arena here.
"I know you, Jak the Shot," he said, sidestepping a man rolling an amphora along, single-mindedly concentrating on his rhythm. "You will play him and suck him dry, aye, and have fun in the doing of it."
"And if he is an assassin?"
"You have your sword, as I have mine."
Torches threw ragged light into the shadows cast by the declining suns. People bustled everywhere, intent at this time on finishing up their labors and enjoying themselves, and on offering a multitude of services to entertain and to relieve their customers of their cash. The Arena had, this day, remained empty and silent. People were dry-throat thirsty for sensation. At the entrance of the Souk, situated between three-story buildings of gray brick, the nearest stall furnished, as it were, a foretaste of what lay beyond. This stall, partially covered by a striped awning, piled with ankle-bells whose qualities were touted in un-bell-like bellowings by a woman whose bodice strained with lung power, offered us concealment as we struck off down the Souk. At once we were engulfed in a jostling tide of humanity.
"Perhaps," said Unmok as we edged our way through the throngs, "there are others with him."
"The thought is in my mind."
The noise of hundreds of people shouting and laughing, chaffering and bartering, bounced from the crystal roof. With the last of the daylight, the mineral-oil lamps were lit. They depended on brass chains, high above, and as the agile monkeylike girls and boys clambered among the girders and chains with nerveless skill, the light within the Souk brightened. The vista of those long lines of light, the hanging chains, brought a vivid image of the Swinging City of Aphrasöe to my mind.
"Well, I can't see anyone else with the rast."
"They'll hang back and await his signal--if there are any more assassins with him." I could feel the soreness of the wounds I had taken still on me. I would not welcome another fight. All day Unmok and I had spent resting at our camp well outside the city walls, and we needed that rest. Froshak the Shine and the slaves waited for us, and Unmok had insisted he would go with me into Huringa. As for our gold, that was buried just outside the camp. Ifthese assassins dogging our footsteps wanted that, they would be unlucky.
"So," I said, continuing the thought, "what does this fellow want of us?"
Unmok dodged a blundering Gon carrying a tray filled with sweetmeats. His little Och face screwed up. "Rather, who would want us killed?"
"Noran, for one. Vad Noran, for falsely taking the credit for fighting the schrepims in his private arena yesterday. His honor was very touchy on the matter."
"Perhaps. I was convinced when he paid us, for the animals and for the fight, that was the end of it. But you never can tell with these nobles."
This Vad Noran, a puffed-up bladder, but a bladder with much power, had bought many of the animals Unmok and I had brought into Huringa. When the schrepims, fearsome scaled warriors, had broken free and sought to slay anyone in their path and we had been forced to put them down, Vad Noran had, willy-nilly, been credited with the victory. It had been called a Jikai, a warrior triumph. Perhaps he wanted to shut our mouths, in case we talked and revealed the hollowness of his claims.
An excited bunch of people wearing blue favors crowded in a rowdy uproar, laughing, already very merry, a whole mixture of races united in their partisanship for the Sapphire Graint. The blues rode at the highest point of the victory totems just now, their prianum filled with trophies of triumph. This mob was celebrating and didn't mind who knew.
"The Sapphire Graint! Kaidur!" they yodeled, reeling along, shouting, waving bottles, pushing people out of the way. It was all good-natured fun, and nothing untoward. I looked back.
The man who followed us so tenaciously persisted, waiting by a booth, crossing to the other side of the Souk, forcing his way through folk who, after one look, gave him plenty of room. He was an apim, a member of Homo sapiens, wearing nondescript brown clothes, a brass-studded jerkin and pleated kilt and with a Hyrklanian hat pulled low. I caught only the jut of a dark beard. He wore sword belts strapped diagonally over his shoulders.
"He sticks with us." Unmok's middle left stump gave that small characteristic twitch, a reflex he could not control, a pointer to his state of mind. That limb, the middle, set between the upper and the lower, is used as either a leg or an arm by Ochs, who are sprightly, agile folk. Unmok's middle left had been chewed off by a wild animal--before he earned the sobriquet of Unmok the Nets.
"He knows his trade."
"And I know mine. He is ripe for netting, that one."
Along each side of the Souk extended arcades, each a heaped treasure-house of Trifles. Extending the illumination of the high suspended lamps, myriad torches and cheap mineral lamps cast ruddy light upon the scene. Multicolored clothes, the glint of jewelry, the massy banks of hanging carpets, the furtive glitter of teeth and eyes, the smile that concealed, the merry jingle of coins, the uproar of bartering, all the normal everyday chaos of a busy bazaar flowed about us. The smells were quite comfortable, spicy, tangy, quite unlike some of the more odiferous of the Souks of Huringa.
"Out at the other end, Unmok, then double back and--"
"And find out what his tripes look like."
A sharp-toothed angerim, all hair and ears, spat at us for jostling his stall, where an untidy mixture of pots and pans and cutlery rang and chimed together. Angerims as a race of people are singularly messy in their life-style.
"Easy, dom," said Unmok quickly. "No harm done."
"Fuddled Ochs, clumsy apims," said the angerim. And then: "Buy a pot--here is a fine brass pot chased in Cervantern style, cheap for you, doms, a quality piece for your fire."
We walked on past hanging drapes of cheap cloth of brash color and pattern festooning the next stall. The angerim spat after us, wiping swatches of hair across his ears. The man who patiently dogged our footsteps padded on, keeping to the shadows.
The uproar within the Souk of Trifles continued and increased. A multitude of people from many of the fabulous races of Kregen presented an unforgettable spectacle, vivid with life and energy, laughing, bartering, quarreling, shouting, but alive, alive! At the far end the Souk opened out onto the Street of Running Werstings. Other bazaars riddled this area with noise and color and confusion. We passed under an overhanging balcony protruding from the level over the arcades, which are often called Monhan terraces. A woman leaned over and emptied a pot. To her evident disappointment, the pot's contents missed us. The splash cleared a circle.
A mob of people running wildly and screaming in fear scattered back from the exit to the Souk. They were all a mixture of races and colored favors and they pushed on blindly, their faces contorted, their eyes staring, their mouths open, screaming. The throngs picked up the panic. They began to recoil, and turn, and join in the flight. An enormous Rapa whose beaked face stuck up, surrounded by bristling feathers, blundered past and knocked Unmok flying. The little Och skidded back into a confusion of basket-protected amphorae. He flailed about, trying to get his balance, as the crowds streamed past. I had to skip smartly to get out of the line of stampede, and hitched myself up under a beam from the arcade.
"Hold on, Unmok! Stop thrashing about like a stranded fish."
Unmok got his feet under him and staggered up and was immediately knocked over again by a fleeing Rhaclaw, whose immense domed head tried pathetically to twist on the pitiful plate of gristle that passed for its neck to stare back. The Rhaclaw wore armor and swords, and he ran with the rest, ran in blind panic.
The words the crowd was shouting spurted up mingled with the shrieking.
"Sorcerers! Wizards! Run! Flee! Sorcerers!"
Well, I generally steered clear of sorcerers myself, unless they were friendly.
The scattering of basket-protected amphorae dislodged by Unmok at last made a kind of breastwork. He staggered out, wild, flailing his arms about. When folk with three or four arms do that it makes you blink. He looked down the Souk and then up at me as I dropped down to join him.
"The rast is still there, Jak. Crouched in a doorway on this side--"
"I saw him. And his fellows are with him now."
"Do you fancy assassins or sorcerers?"
"You give a man a hard choice. If there is nothing else for it--"
"Unless you can batter a way through the walls."
He took the suggestion seriously, in that dour way some Ochs have, but he knew the thickness of the walls needed to uphold the overarching crystal. "Unless we find a door, we'll never knock a hole through in time."
"I judge the same."
The rout streaming past thinned and a last few crazed individuals fled past, sobbing, casting agonized glances back. We looked along the Souk under the lights and the crystal roof toward the end that gave egress onto the Street of Running Werstings.
Two beings stood there in the puddled light, facing each other. It was a Confrontation.
One of the figures stood tall and robust and encased in a solidly glittering robe. A splendid figure, a dominating figure, one who commanded and knew nothing of disobedience, one who wore splendid vestments of silk and gems and gold thread, this one was a Sorcerer of the Cult of Almuensis. For the briefest of moments I fancied he was San Yagno, who had disappeared down the Moder, but he was not. His face, lined with the seasons of knowledge and power, bore a fierce, predatory look as he intoned the spells from the great book in his beringed fingers. The book was covered in lizard skin, gold-bound, gold-locked and fastened to his belt by golden chains. From this book, this hyr-lif, came the sorcerer's very real powers.
The Sorcerer of the Cult of Almuensis sparkled with the radiance of power within the lights of the bazaar.
The other figure presented the most marked contrast.
This was an Adept of the Doxology of San Destinakon. His gown swathed his figure in a drab but bewildering array of brown and black lozenges. The hood peaked to his right, for a woflovol perched on his left shoulder, the little batlike animal's membranous wings now extended and fluttering in echo of the rage suffusing his master. The woflovol was chained to the Adept's waist by a slender bronze linkage. In the sorcerer's right hand, a hand devoid of ornamentation, a wooden-hafted bronze flail, a scourge, was uplifted, for the followers of San Destinakon are not above the outrage of physical chastisement. Now the bronze flail hung limp, but it quivered with the passions of the Adept.
Two figures in marked contrast, yes. But they held and controlled power, undeniably. Between them, shimmering and sparkling, grew a dish-shaped circle of light. Constantly changing in color and texture, shooting forth rays of brilliance, the center of the conflict between the two sorcerers shifted back and forth and spat fire, crackling with the dissipation of energy.
"An Almuensin and a Destinakon! This is no place for an honest man, Jak. Let us--"
"Loosen your sword and let us hit the damned assassins first--"
"Yes! As Ochenshum is my witness, let us die by an assassin's hand as by the malignancy of a wizard!"
Just like Unmok the Nets. I knew him to be brave and loyal, but brave only when he had to be and loyal only to those he valued. If he could have paid some of his good red gold to a fine gang of cutthroats to insure his safety out of here, he would have done so, faster without another thought. Well, and wasn't that the sensible course?
"Sink me!" I said. "We won't get ourselves killed. Come on. Let us hit them fast and break through and then--"
Then a noise broke about our heads like the last trump. The colossal smash of sound bore in on us and made our heads jump on our shoulders. I thought the sound more like a battery of thirty-pounder Parrotts all firing together right beside us than a battery of twelve-pounder Napoleons. The air in the Souk was thick and the noise bellowed along, amplified and channeled and directed personally, so it seemed, at every individual's eardrums. But, on Kregen, they had not yet developed gunpowder or guns. This was no battery of cannon firing, this was sorcery venting in deafening discharges the overflowing plasma of thaumaturgy. I glanced up.
The crystal roof split.
In spinning sheets of crystal, in razor-edged plates of shimmering fireglass, the roof collapsed. It rippled as though shaken. The metal supports buckled. Over an area a full hundred paces long and the full width of the Souk, the roof fell in.
Unmok let out a screech and dived for the upended barrow that had contained the amphorae. I wasted no time in joining him. Together, heads down, we crouched in the hellish din.
Sharp slivers of crystal slashed into the paving. Chips flew like shrapnel. The uproar smashed at us so that we gasped for air. The barrow and the amphorae clattered with the scattering crystal chips. Amphorae exploded. Wine gushed forth, staining the basketwork and the straw and running gleaming red across the paving. The whole place quivered as though in the grip of an earthquake.
The avalanche of crystal thundered down for what seemed an eternity of Kregan nights and days. At last in a final clashing of shining slivers the noise ceased. Unmok lifted his head.
"If that is what the end of the world is going to be like, I do not believe I will wait around to see it."
"Sensible," I said, brushing dust from my clothes.
We crawled out from under the barrow and shook our heads, bloated with sound.
The order in which we took stock of the situation might have reflected a mutual dependence in a coming battle; it could just as easily have revealed our nervous preoccupations. Unmok peered through the swirls of dust toward the two wizards. I looked back into the Souk for the assassins.
Assassins are hardy souls, the stikitches' trade being of a demanding nature, and two leather- and bronze-clad men still sheltered in an arcade opening, peering out at us. Their beards showed black against the pallor of their skin. The rest of the gang had fled; at least, they were nowhere in sight. Leaving my observation of the assassins and that problem, I turned to look where Unmok stared, rigid with a terror he made valiant attempts to conceal.
The two sorcerers had by no means finished their altercation. The disc of light spun between them, coruscating and throwing off streams of radiant matter as though a Catherine Wheel spun to a crazy destruction. The shards of light struck the walls of the Souk with thunderclap noises. Chunks of masonry were blasted away. Dust sifted among the wreaths of smoke.
"Let us--" said Unmok, and he swallowed and wet his lips before he could continue. "Let us get away!"
I nodded. The wizards' quarrel was no concern of ours and we were like to be harmed by its side effects. The assassins presented a simpler and more approachable problem, for all that I had looked their way first. I have no truck with sorcerers unless I count them as friends or must use them despite all.
We began to move back down the Souk.
The crackle of splintered crystal under our feet sounded like mahogany leaves. The assassins eased out from their arcade.
"Two," said Unmok. "I think we will be able."
The assassins bared their swords, the weapons glinting in the light of the sorcerer's quarrel.
The Souk presented a melancholy spectacle, empty of people apart from us four, with the paving strewn with smashed Trifles, stalls overturned, bales of cloth unrolled and abandoned in serpentine meanderings, smashed glass and pottery, feathers and ivory and knickknacks scattered everywhere. The noise and light at our backs persisted. We moved on.
"Arethey assassins?" asked Unmok, as the two men ahead of us hesitated. They began to withdraw, steadily, their weapons lifted, going slowly, but they drew back before us as we advanced.
Without looking back, and just to cheer up Unmok's little Och heart, I said, "They need not be retreating because of us."
Unmok burst out with a comment that almost made me smile. He whirled to look back.
"The sorcerers still fight, Jak--you devil! You had me going then..."
"Tell me why I shouldn't throw you into one of my wild-beast cages."
"Riddles were never one of my easiest marks."
The assassins--if they were stikitches--halted again and then once more drew off. They moved with purpose.
"It could be they seek to lure us on--"
"On to our doom!" Unmok cast another look back. "Well, there is no getting out that way."
Keeping a very sharp lookout in all the nooks and crannies of the Souk, bathed in that supernatural fire, we pressed on.
The occult radiance drove our shadows ahead of us, long and dark and leaping, seeming to draw us on as the fires forced flames and smoke into the Souk. The mineral-oil lamps cast gobbets of flame as they fell in the continuing crashing destruction of the roof. We were running now, leaping obstacles and diving past overturned stalls as the crystal burst and the lamps showered down and the fires raged.
We must have looked like two phantom figures bursting through veils of smoke from some time of forbidden lore, some realm of ancient magic. The assassins hovered, their steel glinting. Then they swung away, looking back for only heartbeats; Unmok ripped out his sword and waved it--and the assassins fled.
"That," said Unmok with immense satisfaction, "has seen them off."
"By Harg!" I said, leaping forward. "I want to know more about this--who sent them--what the hell they're up to!"
The backs of the assassins leaped and dived among the Trifles scattered over the Souk. The roof fell in successive crashings. The fire crackled. Smoke streamered in long layers, stinging the eyes and making us cough. I roared after the fleeing assassins.
The whole area had been cleared of people, and any thoughts that the first roof-falls had finished the business were now seen to be ill-founded. What the sorcerers had begun the fire and the domino effect along the roof would finish.
One of the men running ahead of us skidded on a mess of squishes upended from a basket. His arms flailed. He staggered into a rack of cheap zorca trappings, and before he could recover I put my fist around his neck. He squeaked like a rabbit.
"Let me go!" he shrieked. "The sorcerers--"
I let my dagger make an acquaintance with the space between his third and fourth ribs. "Do not fret over the wizards, dom. They quarrel between themselves. You should rather fear for your fate--" the dagger twitched "--here and now."
He gasped, twisting, trying to kick, trying to bite. I moved the dagger.
"Tell me who sent you, and I will let you live."
"Very well. You have your stikitche honor. You may adhere to your code and die, here and now. I do not care. I will find your comrades. One will tell me."
"So I am told."
"I cannot tell you!"
"You mean that for a short moment you will not."
"Listen, dom--take that dagger away. It is sharp!"
"A blunt dagger is like a grave without a corpse."
He knew that old Kregish saying, which may be taken in two ways, both of them apposite. He went limp in my fist.
"Just speak up."
"I am no stikitche."
Unmok arrived then and made a disgusted sound.
"We guessed as much. As assassins you would make passable dung-sweepers."
"So," I said, "Vad Noran sent you. And you've failed him."
I felt the quiver of him in my grip. "I did not tell you that! I did not! As Havil is my witness, I did not speak!"
I gave him a resounding kick up the backside and let him go. He had merely confirmed what we suspected. I bellowed after him as he scampered off.
"If you dare to face Noran, tell him we will keep our silence. We will keep that and the gold. Tell him."
He did not answer, did not look back. He just ran.
Unmok rubbed his middle right across his face; his upper right still gripped his sword. "Now that I've seen him close to, I do recognize him. He's one of Noran's men, all right. They call him Hue the Grasshopper. But the others with him..."
"Of a tougher frame of mind, I would think. But if they are not assassins, I, for one, am profoundly grateful."
There was no need for me to elaborate. Once stikitches take out a contract, they will, within the framework of their so-called honor codes, fulfill it, or arrange the recompense on annulment. If I was to do what I had to do in Huringa, I did not want a horde of hairy, unwashed assassins breathing down my neck all the time.
What I had to do now was to find some way of taking my leave of Unmok the Nets so that I could bid farewell to Tyfar and Jaezila. If one problem had been resolved the rest remained.
All the same...
"I wonder--" I said as we dusted ourselves off and started off toward the far end of the Souk. "I wonder what the quarrel was between the two sorcerers."
Unmok gave a little cluck of sound, a dutifully respectful and at the same time dismissive appraisal of all wizardly doings.
"Who can say? They are unto themselves--thank all the gods."
People began to move about at the far end, creeping out of hiding places, standing up to look with bewildered horror upon the catastrophe. The fires burned fiercely at our backs. We went on and found an arcade with an opening onto a narrow side alley. One or two people evidenced a desire to talk to us; we had no wish to engage them in conversation. By Krun, no!
The fires burst through between the empty walls and threw orange and crimson weals against the evening sky. We dodged along the alley and turned right and then left between shuttered buildings and came out onto the Street of Condiments where people stood about, staring up, talking among themselves, watching the fires. The conflagration would be brought under control by fat Queen Fahia's officials, for like most monarchs of important cities, Fahia kept up services to deal with emergencies of this kind.
Ashes blew on the evening breeze. We went through the throngs, their eternal chatter about the Arena for the moment forgotten, and thought about a wet.
"My throat is as dry as a Herrelldrin Hell," said Unmok.
"There's a swinging flagon."
We went into the low-arched opening and sat at a wooden table, and the Fristle fifi brought us a jug and two flagons. Unmok poured and we drank. By Vox! I was thirsty. My Och companion scattered a few copper coins on the table, a handful of obs, and we refilled the flagons.
"Talking of money," said Unmok, which was a perfectly logical process of thought for him, "I am in poor case to see Avec. He will think my talk of gold a cod to catch him." He started again to bang at his clothes and to pull and tweak them about to make them fit better.
"We have the gold now, Unmok, and no man will quibble when his hand jingles the bag of yellows. Just tell him straight out."
"I will. You are right."
Unmok the Nets was a wily enough fellow when it came to money matters, and his banking connections with Avec Parlin, I fancied, would not altogether favor the banker. Unmok's burning desire now was to buy a cage voller, an airboat fitted for the carriage of wild beasts. With such an airboat in his possession, with his connections, he ought to make money like wildfire.
The Fristle fifi in her yellow apron--for she was not a slave--came over with a wooden tray filled with odds and ends of munchables, and we popped a few into our mouths and chewed as we talked. The wine, a middling Stuvan, lowered in the jug.
"Avec will know the best bargains," said Unmok, with confidence. "We need a large vessel, but she must be economical to run. A few deldys more on the initial costs to insure that will pay dividends."
I fretted within myself, for I had more or less promised Unmok I would ship out with him on his next voyage, and yet I could not in all conscience do so. I knew that, although my own country of Vallia was in good and capable hands, I wanted to return there and finish up the business of uniting the land and turning out the villains who had so destroyed and brought low the Empire of Vallia. I sipped wine to conceal the turmoil of my thoughts, and Unmok burbled cheerfully on, already in command of his famous cage voller and soaring through the skies with a full cargo of fearsome, snarling, savage beasts.
Then he stopped talking, and his jowly Och face changed, a frown of concentration drawing down his brows.
"Hue the Grasshopper--Vad Noran's man you lifted up to inspect--may not have been a stikitche, being at best a stable hand. But the man who followed us, dogging our footsteps--he was an altogether more ugly customer."
So I guessed Unmok had seen this altogether more ugly customer pass outside the tavern, still seeking us, no doubt.
I felt relief.
The persistence of this tracker afforded me a chance to postpone telling Unmok that I would not be shipping out with him, that our partnership was ended unless he chose to go with me. I stood up.
"You go and see Avec Parlin. Make sure he lays his hands on the very best cage voller we can afford. All the gold is yours. I may not be able to ship out with you--"
"--But I will see you again. You know you have my word on that. Now, which way did this ugly customer go? I will sort him out--"
"--So there is no good arguing, there's a good fellow."
Unmok swelled out those jowly Och chops and tilted his head back to look at me. He did not stand up, and in that I felt the smaller of the two of us.
"He went along toward the Avenue of Sleeths. No, there is no profit in arguing with you. You have secrets, that I do know. I will see Avec and arrange the cage voller. After that--you must decide. As for me, we are partners, and remain so."
Little, are Ochs, puffy and with six limbs, and not apims like me at all. But in that moment Unmok the Nets displayed a dignity surpassing many and many a blowhard apim lout I have known. And that thought should surprise no one in two worlds.
"Although--" and here Unmok shivered his whole body, as though gripped by a vampire spider of Chem. "Although if you go away I will take it hard. We have been partners for only a small length of time, as these things are measured, and yet in that time we have been through much together. It is of value to me to think of that, and those times..."
"It is of value to me, also. I think you know that." The lamplight glittered on the bronze studs of Unmok's jerkin beneath the opened fold of his tunic. "Secrets--yes, we all have secrets. It is difficult for me to explain. I believe you would find it well-nigh impossible to credit. But explain I will. I will."
His regard of me did not waver.
"May the hands of all the gods rest lightly on you, Jak the Shot, and may Ochenshum have you in his keeping."
I nodded and without the usual remberees on parting, I went out and along the street toward the Avenue of Sleeths.
After all, as I tried to tell myself with some hollow vehemence, how could a partnership with a little Och wild-beast catcher and a half-promise to him possibly weigh in the balance against the preoccupations of an emperor and the fate of an empire?