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The Telnarian Histories: Book III
By John Norman
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1993 John Norman
All rights reserved.
"Let us see if there are men here," said Abrogastes. He handed the empty drinking horn to a shieldsman. He wiped his face with the back of his right forearm.
Retainers, and clients, pounded on the long tables lining the edges of the hall.
Drinking vessels were brought hastily by former ladies of the empire.
The drinking horn, refilled, was handed to Abrogastes by his shieldsman.
Abrogastes, seated on the bench, between the tall, carved high-seat pillars, looked down from the dais, on the hall, and the tables, grasping the drinking horn, formed from the horn of the hoofed sorit, adorned, enwrapped, with golden filigree, foaming with bror, spiced and honeyed, brewed from golden lee.
This was the season of the storms, of the rain of stones between the world of the Alemanni and its yellow star.
The lionships slept in their steel sheds.
In the season of the storms was sealed the world of the Alemanni, the stones in their annual tides, streaming in the skies, some visible at night, closing the gates of the world, closing it to those without, locking within, as well, those on its surface.
But in the spring the skies would clear.
It was then that the lionships would awaken.
Abrogastes was moody of late.
He stared sullenly into the drinking horn.
Bror was on his beard.
Behind him, to his left, his shieldsman carried his sword. On the bench beside him, at his right, lay an imperial pistol. It was a simple, yet precious weapon. In the empire, only one of senatorial rank, or above, would be likely to possess such a weapon, or a limited number of charges for it, privately. In billions of years, you see, resources which once seemed inexhaustible proved themselves finite, after all, and often unrenewable.
In many places even imperial troops were armed with simple weapons. A parity, thus, had developed in many places between the empire and its encroaching foes, and foes not unoften, former federates, within its own borders. The advantages of the imperial troops on many worlds lay sometimes in little more than military engineering, discipline, and tactics. Acres of land, or a woman, had often been exchanged for no more than an ancient bullet. Yet there was no doubt as to the strength of the empire yet, an empire concerned to husband its resources, and resist tenaciously incursions into its central systems. It could still destroy worlds. Yet there were many worlds and once one was destroyed, the energy, the means, to destroy such a world no longer existed. That bullet, so to speak, had been fired.
There was the sound of slim, belled ankles, as former ladies of the empire, bearing great wooden trenchers, hurried barefoot over the dirt, rush-strewn floor to serve the guests, the clients, the retinue, the men at arms, the high men, the ambassadors, the merchants, the scholars, the sons of chieftains in fosterage, the hostages, seated beneath the high-roofed hall of Abrogastes, lord of the Drisriaks, largest and fiercest of the eleven tribes of the Alemanni nation, that nation referred to commonly in imperial records as the Aatii.
Abrogastes handed his drinking horn, emptied, to his shieldsman, who laid it to one side.
Such a horn must be drained before it can be put down.
This is common among the Alemanni, the Vandals, and other such nations.
The former ladies of the empire hurried about. The switches of lads in attendance, here and there, in colorful garments, in colorful cloaks, a livery of sorts, would brook neither delays nor dallyings on the part of the beauties.
Abrogastes seemed angry.
He was often so, of course, when the sword, his signet on the pommel, for signing deeds, was not in his hand, when he was not aflight, when he was not adventuring.
Yet Abrogastes was not a simple adventurer, no ordinary raider, no simple brigand or pirate, sniffing about here and there, watching for his chance, prowling at the outskirts of cities, then slipping into a port at night, bringing the storm of fire and steel to some town, and then slipping away again, almost as swiftly as he had come, before the imperial cruisers could, or would, reach the scene.
Some worlds, he was sure, had been abandoned to the predations of such as he, as they lay open and inviting, whereas others, doubtless richer, were zealously guarded, so much so that they might cost a fleet.
Was this supposed to constitute an unspoken contract, he had wondered, a concession of sorts, that he might occupy himself somewhere, and content himself with what he was offered?
That he should then give up the rest?
Did they think to cast him a bone, that he might carry it away, and gnaw on it, and worry it, thereby being distracted from the stores of roasted beeves, the scent of which was on every wind?
Did they think he was a dog, to be so easily distracted?
Those of the empire, he knew, regarded him, and his kind, as dogs.
But they did not know the dogs of the Alemanni, he thought to himself, one of which lay to his right, on the dais, humped, alert, its crest half-aroused, watching the tables between halfclosed lids.
The dogs of the Alemanni, and of many worlds, were large, agile, restless, vicious beasts.
Dogs, mused Abrogastes, have teeth, and will.
With some worlds, still nominally within the empire, many of which on whom federates were housed, he had formed arrangements. On many of these worlds citizens still sacrificed to the empire on the public altars, whereas resources, and tributes, secured their impunity from incursions. These became, in effect, tacit client states of the Alemanni. They increased the power of the Alemanni, and, indeed, of other peoples who were engaged in similar projects, enterprises of an economic and political nature. Imperial insignia, and standards, continued in such places to dignify public buildings, theaters and such, whereas, in justice, a banner of pelts, flown from a pole in a field, or mounted on a great wagon, might have been more appropriate.
At this very assemblage in the hall were men from such states, and others.
There were representatives here, as well, from each of the eleven tribes of the Alemanni people.
Too, present, were others, from other tribes, and other peoples, some officially allied, or federated, with the empire, at least in some titular fashion, and some not, and there were present, too, others from outworlds, of diverse species, eager for soil, seeds, gold, and power.
The shieldsman, the sword of Abrogastes in its leather sling behind his left shoulder, like the dog, surveyed the assemblage. At such gatherings he did not drink. He, a shieldsman, would remain, like the dog, watchful, and alert.
Abrogastes was no ordinary bandit, no ordinary brigand.
He saw far, he thought deeply. His appellation was the Far-Grasper. Abrogastes, the lord of the Drisriaks, Abrogastes, the Far-Grasper.
Had he been an ordinary brigand, he would not have called, nor could he, in plausibility, have called, this gathering.
There were present guests of many tribes, and many species.
There was a small sound of chain, from the dais, to the left of his bench, with the high-seat pillars. He felt something soft press itself against his fur boot. He thrust with his boot to the side, irritably, forcing it away. There was another sound of chain, that of a heavy chain, and a tiny whimper of misery, of timid, pleading protest.
"Would milord be fed?" inquired the shieldsman.
"I would be fed," said Abrogastes, the Far-Grasper.
The shieldsman lifted his hand, and made a peremptory gesture.CHAPTER 2
"The greatest danger to the empire," said Iaachus, the Arbiter of Protocol, "is not from beyond the stars, not from the ships of barbarous dogs, but from traitors, within the empire."
"Surely," she said, putting down her tiny bowl of kana, and leaning back in the chair.
It was late at night, in one of the many palaces of the imperial family. It does not matter which palace, as it might have been any one of several. Nor was the palace on the Telnarian home world. It was, however, within the first imperial sector. I mention this that one may conjecture the nature of its grounds, the extent and arrangement of its gardens, the splendor of its fountains, its securities, the fields, forces, and armaments, the richness of its furnishings, the lavishness of its appointments and such. Many rich individuals in the empire, incidentally, had their own palaces, members of ancient families, some of whom putatively dated back to the early worlds of the empire, some of them members of the hereditary senatorial class, still officially required to confirm the appointment of an emperor; high officials, such as prefects civil and military; rich merchants; great landlords, and such. But this was a palace of the imperial family, though none of the imperial family, Aesilesius, the emperor; Atalana, the empress mother; or the two sisters of the emperor, blond Viviana and brunet Alacida were currently in residence. That was not a matter of coincidence. On the other hand, we may surmise that the affair afoot this late night was not one undertaken without the knowledge of, and approval of, the empress mother, Atalana.
Iaachus glanced to one side.
"Elena," he said. "Leave us."
The girl addressed, a beauty, with brown hair and gray eyes, hesitated only a moment, but then, barefoot, in a white, ankle-length, sleeveless gown, hurried from the room.
"I do believe she is jealous," said the young woman sitting across from Iaachus.
"Who would not be, of one such as you?" he asked.
His guest stiffened, ever so slightly, in the investiture of her ornate, brocaded robes.
"The fortunes of your family have declined, as I have heard," said Iaachus.
"Imperceptibly," she said.
"The burning of the piers at Governor's Landing, the seizure of granaries at Losann, by unruly coloni. The raids on the storehouses on Clarus IV. The loss of the cargo contract between Archus and Miton. The salt monopoly abolished on Teris. The razing of the resort complex at Felnar. The closing of the routes to Canaris and the Drakar Archipelago."
She was silent.
"I am very sorry," he said.
"There are many disturbances within the empire," she said. "It is a time of unrest."
"But not of change," said Iaachus.
"In its essence the empire is changeless, and eternal," she said.
"True," said Iaachus.
"Such things are minor considerations," she said. "They are negligible, at best."
"I am so pleased to hear it," he said.
She did not speak.
"To be sure," he said, smiling, "though the empire is changeless, and eternal, its forms imperishable and such, there might be changes within the empire."
"Oh?" she said.
"Changes, for example, in power, in the positions, and fortunes, of families, of individuals."
"Perhaps," she said.
"Such things have occurred, countless times in the past," he said.
"That is true," she said.
"Your family is among the highest, and most revered, in the empire," he said.
"True," she said.
"If there has been a decline in its fortunes, that is a tragedy not only for the family, but the empire, as well."
"I have little to do with my family any longer," she said.
"There is a rumor," he said, "that they have dissociated themselves from you."
"Possibly," she said.
"Perhaps they have reservations pertaining to your character, your tastes, your friends, your manner of living?"
"Perhaps," she sai0d. "They are fools," she added. "I am well rid of them."
"Are you in debt?" he asked.
"I have an allowance," she said.
"It seems you were heavily in debt," he remarked.
"'Were'?" she said.
"I have consolidated your debts," he said, "and have discharged them."
"They have been discharged?" she asked.
"Yes," he said. He put papers before her.
"You recognize the items, the vouchers, and such?"
She lifted her head from the papers, and regarded him.
"I did not request such a thing," she said. "Nor did I suggest it, nor bargain for it."
"Of course not," he said.
"I do not recognize the signatures," she said.
"Those of agents," he said. "It was done through private, concealed accounts."
"Why did you do this?" she asked.
"You owe me nothing," he said.
"Why?" she pressed.
"In respect of your lineage," he said. "For the sake of your name, the honor of your family, the good of the empire."
"I do not understand," she said.
"I could see to it," he said, "that your fortunes might considerably improve. That they might far, in the future, outdistance even the residues of your family's fortune. I could manage it in such a way that you could become one of the wealthiest, and most envied, women in the empire, honored, rich with dignities, welcome even at the imperial court."
"I do not understand," she said.
"Let us say," he said, "merely that I think your prospects are splendid."
She did not speak, but regarded him.
"I gather you are not overly fond of your family," he said.
"Oh?" she said.
"Are my informants reliable?" he asked.
"Perhaps," she said.
"Nor they of you," he said.
"Perhaps," she said.
"You have been repudiated, disowned," he said, "save, of course, for a not ungenerous allowance."
"It is a pittance," she said.
"They do not care in the least for what happens to you," he said.
"Nor I for them," she snapped. "They are all fools, fools!"
"You would have no objection to becoming independently, and fabulously, wealthy, I would suppose."
"I think I might manage to accommodate myself to such a modality," she said.
"You could even look down upon your family, and ruin it, if you wish, with the power I could give you."
"Ah!" she said, her eyes sparkling.
"It would be a splendid vengeance, would it not?" he asked.
"Yes," she said.
"I owe you nothing," she said.
"But you are interested, are you not?" he asked.
"Perhaps," she said. "What would I do?"
"You must serve the empire," he said.
"The empire has, of course, my undivided allegiance," she said.
"Your allegiance is only to yourself," he said.
"As yours is only to yourself?" she inquired.
"In my case," smiled Iaachus, "the interest of the empire, and my own interest, coincide perfectly."
"A most happy coincidence," she observed.
"Precisely," he said.
"As I mentioned earlier," he said, "the greatest danger faced by the empire comes not from without, but from within, from traitors."
"Of course," she said.
"And, particularly," said he, lowering his voice, "from traitors of insatiable ambition, villains who, with the help of barbarians, would aspire to seize the throne itself."
Her eyes widened.
"You have heard of the Aurelianii?" he asked.
"Of course," she said. "They are kin even to the emperor."
"Which makes them even more dangerous," he said.
"Their loyalty is unquestioned," she said.
"No," confided Iaachus.
She reached for the tiny bowl of kana, but her hand shook.
"Julian, of the Aurelianii," said he, "has designs upon the throne. He plans to enlist barbarians in the mobile forces, as mercenary companies, with ships, with weapons, at their disposal. They will owe their allegiance only to him, not to the empire."
"Have him seized," she said. "Confiscate his property. Surely it is considerable."
The Aurelianii were one of the oldest, and richest, families in the empire. They traced their roots back to the original Telnarian world, the home world of the empire itself.
"He is too powerful, we must be careful how we proceed, we do not wish to precipitate civil war. There are portions of the navy which are loyal to him."
"What are we to do?" she asked.
"We must drive a wedge between him and his barbarian cohorts, we must frustrate his scheme of enlisting barbarians in the regular forces. That is crucial. That is the first step. We must deprive him of these allies, and, in doing this, cast discredit entirely upon his probity, and the feasibility of his plan to defend the empire."
"Can the empire defend itself?" she asked.
"Of course," he said.
"Who is the barbarian, or barbarians, in question," she asked.
"First, and primarily, one whom he encountered, it seems, on the forest world of Varna, a chieftain of the Wolfungs."
"I have never heard of them," she said.
"They are a tribe of the Vandals," he said.
"I have not heard of such a people," she said.
Excerpted from The King by John Norman. Copyright © 1993 John Norman. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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