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"Oh, yes, it is common knowledge," said Travok Ott expansively, leaning back, sipping his light white wine with a most delicate air. "Delia, the Princess Majestrix, is continually indulging in affairs. Why, her latest inamorato is this muscular wrestler, Turko. Oh, yes, a lovely man. Who can blame her?"
The perfumed currents of warmed air moved caressingly about the group of men sitting in the ord chamber of the Baths of the Nine. The chamber presented a comfortable, modish, relaxing atmosphere. Young girl slaves carried wine and parclear in glazed ceramic flagons, and bronze trays of sweetmeats and tempting cakes. No lady bathers were allowed here, their establishment was separated off by a stout masonry wall. The scented air cloyed.
"Surely, this is just rumor, Travok?" said Urban the Gloves, popping a paline into his mouth.
"Hardly." Travok Ott, a slender man with the brown hair of Vallia cut into a curled bang, sipped his wine with a knowing smile. He, like them all, was naked, covered only by a small yellow towel. "Have you seen this Turko? A Khamorro, so I am told, from somewhere outlandish deep in southwestern Havilfar. But a lovely man. Oh, yes, beautiful--"
"I hold no brief for the emperor," cut in the overfed man with the three chins and swag belly, all quivering as he shook his head warningly. "But he'd have your head if--"
"Of a certainty, Ortyg--perhaps!" Travok cast a sliding glance at the shadowed alcove where a yellow towel draped down from the arm of a bronze faun, prancing, abandoned, garlanded with loomins. "But I mean him no disrespect. He understands business, and that is good enough forme."
They were all businessmen here, traders, merchants, shopkeepers to whom war and country-wide distress could bring profit, for they were shrewd in the mysteries of bargaining and gaining a corner and of stocks and the human frailties of supply and demand. This particular establishment of the Baths of the Nine stood at a crossroads in the southern part of the great city of Vondium, the capital of the Empire of Vallia. It was not one of the enormously luxurious first-rank establishments; but its entrance fees were high and it catered to a certain clientele of the middle rank, merchants and traders who could afford to pay for a night's comfort.
These men were habitués of the place, they knew one another, had been coming here for years to relax and gossip. The fellow who sat somewhat removed from them along a marble bench on pink and yellow towels smiled and nodded and joined in the conversation and listened with due respect; but he was a stranger. So the talk was more circumspect than normally the case in these secluded, sybaritic and seductive surroundings.
A beautifully formed Fristle fifi glided forward to refill Travok Ott's glass, for he found the flagons tiresomely too heavy. The Fristle's fur was of that deep plum color that limned her lissom form, made of her a sprite of beauty in that place. Travok grunted as the wine reached a whisker below the rim, and trembled, and stilled. Had the Fristle spilled any it would have gone hard for her.
"I've always stood by the emperor," Travok went on. "Did I not give thanks to Opaz when he recovered from his illness? Did I not put up the shutters on my shops when those Opaz-forsaken Chyyanists went on the rampage with their Black Feathers? Have I not a son at sea?" The wine gleamed on his lips. "Vallia is built of men like me."
"You say this Turko is the princess's inamorato," said Ortyg. "But is she his inamorata? That is a conundrum."
A low, fruity chuckle ran around the circle of men lounging in their chairs or on the benches, warmed and caressed by the scented air.
"The princess owns men's hearts--but I wager Turko has his own little inamorata tucked away somewhere safe in Valka."
Ortyg leaned a little forward, his belly bulging. "The princess does not own my heart."
The shrimp of a fellow in the corner where the warmest breezes blew puckered up his lips, his little tuft of goat's beard blowing. His brown Vallian eyes were deeply sunken under sandpapery brows. He hitched up his yellow towel and said: "Of a certainty, Travok, Vallia is built of men like you--and of Kov Layco."
The words might mean what the listener cared to put into them. This Travok Ott construed them as a compliment.
"Kov Layco Jhansi is the emperor's right-hand man, Vandrop, true. It is said he slew Ashti Melekhi with his own hand. The guards--"
Ortyg laughed, waggling his chins. "Those guards will not be seen in Vondium again."
"All the same, he, too, is aware of the Princess Majestrix's infidelity. She is becoming notorious--"
"And this shaggy clansman, her husband. He knows nothing?"
"He knows nothing of Vallia, that is sooth, by Vox!"
They appeared to be in general agreement about this.
Vandrop put a hand to his shaggy tuft of goat's beard. He stroked reflectively. "This shaggy clansman is shaggy. It is said he has a beard to his navel."
A young fellow on the other side of Travok shouted: "And that's quite long enough for a barbarian."
Travok nodded. "By Vox! A great hairy clansman from far Segesthes has the impudence to barge in and carry off our princess like a graint or a cramph or a leem--"
"But," persisted Vandrop, "was he not there, in the palace, last night? The stories are confused, garbled, but--"
"He was there, Vandrop," Ortyg told him. "I had the news red hot from my freedman who got it from the palace--a shishi there who saw much--and this Dray Prescot was in the palace. How he got there no one knows. But Kov Layco saved the emperor from Ashti Melekhi--"
A babble of voices broke in, and so Ortyg was persuaded to tell them the story as he had heard it. He made the most of it, how the Vadnicha Ashti Melekhi sought to poison the emperor and of how Layco Jhansi had slain her with his dagger. There were dead guards and blood everywhere; but Ortyg's information offered no explanation for them, even though, it was whispered, they were Jiktars of the Chulik mercenary guard--aye--and their Chuktar, also.
The talk wended on in the scented air. With the long night to get through men and women sought rest and relaxation before bed at the Baths of the Nine. Soon these men would rise and then, each to his whim, either dress and go home or partake of the Ninth Chamber. Strangers might elect to sleep in the establishment in the tastefully appointed hostelry. The stranger, a well-built young man with hair darker than the normal Vallian brown, would probably sleep in. Vandrop yawned.
"By Vox!" he said, his goat's-beard tuft quivering. "What you say about Delia, the Princess Majestrix, is hard to believe. I think I shall not believe it."
"You always were a credulous old fool, Vandrop," bellowed Ortyg, slapping his gut, reaching for his towel.
"Anyway," said Travok. "When Queen Lushfymi gets here she will soon find out--"
"--Aye, a sharp queen, that," said Urban the Gloves.
"--And she'll have this Turko's head off and the princess packed off back to Valka, or Delphond."
"D'you think Queen Lushfymi will marry the emperor?"
"If she has any sense, Urban."
They spoke of the Queen of Lome as Queen Lushfymi. The emperor had intemperately threatened to have off the heads of all those who blasphemously called her Queen Lush.
With two strangers present in the ord chamber these men spoke with more restraint than usual. Without clothes their allegiances were not at once apparent, and their words hid what they did not wish revealed. As middling tradesmen and merchants they were probably of the Racter party, some perhaps of the Vondium Khanders, those who looked to the business community for combined strength. The Racters were the most powerful party in Vallia, formed of aristocrats and nobles, and the merchants looked to them for the continuance of the status quo and a stable economy. But without the colored sleeves, without symbols and favors, they were simply men, naked in the flesh, so much alike and each one different in his own personal ways.
They spoke with a caution. But they had said a great deal, also. They were of the general opinion that it was high time the emperor married again and got himself a son to carry on the line, if the prince could hold in his hands what would come to him, and dispatched his daughter Delia and her grizzly graint of a clansman husband back to the Great Plains of Segesthes. One or two even said the Prince and Princess Majestrix could even go to the Ice Floes of Sicce for all they cared.
In these last moments before they left they talked again of the interests most pressing to them, as businessmen do: the prices and sources of supply, trading prospects, the cost of money, the laziness of slaves, the prospects of renewed war with the Empire of Hamal, the hedging against future disasters.
They even spoke of Income Tax; but obscenities found little favor in the Baths of the Nine--at least, of that kind.
Travok Ott, genial, yawning, looked across at the stranger.
"You put up here tonight, Koter? You have not told us your name."
"Yes, I think I shall. And my name is Nath Delity."
The others nodded. Their thoughts were transparent. A provincial, seeing the sights of Vondium, the greatest city of Paz.
Nath Delity half smiled. "I am from Evir, and I find Vondium a trifle warm."
They laughed at this, proud of their city, half-contemptuous of any provincial place and particularly of Evir, the northernmost province of Vallia.
"You should have been here when the emperor lay dying, or the Chyyanists were rampaging or the Third Party was active, Koter Delity. You would have been more than warm then."
Vandrop tweaked his goat's-beard tuft and looked across at the alcove where the yellow towel lay draped across the bronze statue of the faun. "And you, Koter," he spoke civilly, smiling. "You have said not a word. We would not wish you to think we are unsociable here. It is just that we know one another so well. Your name, Koter--if you wish to tell us."
Some of the others had already risen to leave and now while some pushed on, laughing and shouting, others hung back to listen. No doubt they wanted reassurance. Perhaps, their thoughts probably went, perhaps they might have said something less than wise. Spies from anywhere and serving any cause could cause troubles...
"My name is Jak Jakhan," I said, speaking smoothly and just quickly enough so that they would not know I lied. "From Zamra. And I have enjoyed your conversation, Koters."
"Zamra?" said Travok Ott.
"Zamra?" said Ortyg. His three chins wobbled.
"Zamra is, I believe," said Vandrop, "a Kovnate of the Prince Majister's?"
"Oh," I said. "I have not been there since I was a child--"
They visibly relaxed at this. I ought to have said I was from some damned Racter province, or, better still, have said nothing of my origins. Anyway, I am fond of Zamra.
As we went out through the different doors, some to debauchery, some to a night's sleep, others to the many amusements afforded to the night owls of Vondium, I fell into step beside Vandrop. We entered the robing room together and I hung back, for I did not wish Vandrop--just yet--to see my clothes.
"Is it true, Koter Vandrop--about the Princess Majestrix, I mean?"
He squinted up at me.
"I have never seen this Dray Prescot--well, few of us here would have, although Travok claims he was within spitting distance of him at the wedding--still, that is like Travok. But as to the Princess Delia, the Princess Majestrix--I do not know. There are rumors--"
"And who would have told Travok Ott?"
Vandrop edged along to his locker with the key handed to him by the robing slave in attendance on him.
"By Opaz, I do not know. He likes to keep abreast of things."
The slave unlocked the cabinet and began to fuss around Vandrop, whereat he pushed him away and dressed himself in his evening clothes. Typical of Vallia, a lounging robe in a dark rich hue of plum color, with silver embroidery, the clothes at once gave him a dignity, a measure of command, more in keeping with his character. It is said that clothes make the man. I looked at the favor pinned to his left breast. It was not black and white, the colors of the Racters, nor white and green, the colors of the Panvals. Shaped like an opened book, with an ancient abacus and a writing pen, it was stitched in white, green and yellow. The favor was that of the Vondium Khanders.
He saw my glance.
"I believe we businessmen must stand together. You may be a Racter, for all I know, Koter Jakhan; but the Racters will hold for themselves, for the nobles, I think."
"And the emperor and his family?"
At once I said: "I have overstepped the bounds of common usage, Koter Vandrop. Put it down to a stranger's uncouthness."
His frown remained and he sighed, "No, no, Koter Jakhan. Rather, put it down to the evil days that have fallen on Vallia and Vondium. Once, we would all have shouted for the emperor. And for his daughter. But there are forces at work--you may know of some, and there are others I know nothing of, but can sense, can feel. I am almost a hundred and seventy-five. So I know about these things. Put it down to this strange and unpleasant new world in which we live."
The slave handed him a belt with a few tasteful jewels studding its length, and with lockets from which swung the long thin dagger of Vallia. He buckled up the belt, sighed again, and said: "If you are not staying the night, here in the Bower of the Scented Lotus, perhaps--?"
About to say I would walk with him for a space, I checked.
I had things to do. The blood had been washed away. But I still had things--urgent things--to do before I could rest.
And, could I ever rest?
In Zair's truth, could I ever rest?
I said: "Could you direct me to the house of Travok Ott?"
His goat's-beard tuft quivered. But he said: "He is a good man, Koter, do not forget that. He has labored hard for what he has, here in Vondium. He is an ivory merchant, and may be found in the Souk of Chem."
"I give you thanks." I turned to go and, as Vandrop moved away, said: "Remberee, Koter Vandrop."
"Remberee, Koter Jakhan."
I caught a quick glimpse of the stranger, Nath Delity, going past as Vandrop went away to his respectable bed.
The robing slave--he was a little Och and his middle left limb was withered--fussed over me as I reached the cabinet assigned to me and unlocked it. My suit of decent Vallian buff looked the worse for wear. It had come from the wardrobe I kept up in the Palazzo of the Four Winds in Djanguraj. But I shrugged it on, philosophically, and drew on the tall black Vallian boots. The weaponry was rolled in the cloak. I held the cloak and did not unroll it, standing ready to leave as I had entered here, after the fracas at the emperor's palace.
When the Och saw I gave him a silver stiver he babbled his thanks; but I merely nodded and stepped out along the marble floor, over the geometric tessellations, to the doors. Outside, the night of Vondium pressed down, and wayfarers were only too pleased to hear the link men's calls of: "Loxo! Loxo!" and see them come hurrying up with their torches and lanterns.
One of the lesser moons of Kregen went hurtling past, low, casting down a thin scattering of light. Shadows lay heavy and dark, pierced by lanterns at corners and the winking sparks of the link men's torches as they guided their customers home--or, given the nature of a Kregan's desires and expectancies of the good life--to the gaming halls, the theatres, the dancing places, that would carry on right through to what on Earth would be called the small hours.
The palace of the emperor dominated its island between the canals and the River--She of the Fecundity. I passed along, not caring to employ a link man, moving fast. The emperor was safe now. Kov Layco Jhansi, the chief minister, had slain Ashti Melekhi who had sought to kill the emperor, and that particular plot had misfired.
Of course, there would be other plots against the emperor.
That was natural.