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The Stricken Field
A Handful of Men: Book Three
By Dave Duncan
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1993 D.J. Duncan
All rights reserved.
Lord Umpily had never experienced anything in his life as bad as the dungeon. He did not know how long he had been lying there, alone in the cold, stinking darkness, but when he heard the clatter of chains and locks and saw the flicker of light through the peephole in the door and could guess that they had come to take him away ... well, then he did not want to leave.
Probably he had been there for no more than a week, although it felt like at least a month. In the darkness and silence he would have welcomed even a rat or two for company, but the only other residents were the tiny, many-legged kind. He itched all over; there was a lot of him to itch. He had developed sores from lying on the hard stone, for the straw provided was rotten and scanty. He had lost count of meals, but they seemed to come only every second day, or perhaps twice a week. He had passed the time mostly in thinking of some of the great banquets he had attended in his time, mulling them over in his mind, dish by dish. When he had exhausted even that fund of entertainment, he began reviewing all his favorite recipes, planning the perfect meal, the one he would arrange in celebration were he ever to be restored to court and a normal existence again.
The mental torment was much worse than the physical. He was no stranger to hardship. As advisor to the prince imperial, he had journeyed with Shandie to almost every corner of the Impire, living in the saddle for weeks on end, bedding in army camp or hedgerow hostel. He had survived forests and deserts, blizzards and breakers — he had never tasted anything worse than this prison gruel, though. At least on those expeditions he had understood why he was there and what he was doing. Life had made sense then, and even if warfare itself sometimes seemed nonsensical, there had always been the consolation that he was helping a future imperor learn his trade.
He wondered how Shandie was managing now, deposed and dispossessed within minutes of his accession, a hunted outlaw battling omnipotent sorcery. Ironically, when Legate Ugoatho arrested Umpily, he had not ordered him searched, and the magic scroll still nestled safely in the inside pocket of his doublet. Writing in the dark was trickier than he had expected, but he had scrawled a warning that his spying days were ended. Disregard future communications! He could not tell if Shandie had received the message or had replied.
Always Umpily's thoughts would return to the dread vision he had seen in the preflecting pool. That prophecy had been fulfilled. A dwarf now sat on the Opal Throne. After more than three thousand years the Impire had fallen, and almost no one knew it. With its immense occult power, the Covin had overthrown the Protocol, deposed the wardens, replaced the imperor, and yet had managed to hide the truth from the world. The sorcerous would know the secret, of course, or most of it — practically all of them had been conscripted into the Covin anyway — but no mundanes did, except for a tiny handful. Zinixo undoubtedly intended to keep his triumph secret indefinitely. What would he do to those who knew it?
Umpily was about to find out. Light flickered outside the spy hole, chains rattled, the lock squeaked.
* * *
Blinded by the lanterns, he was dragged along a corridor and up a flight of stairs. When the cruel hands were removed, he toppled limply to a bare plank floor.
"Oh, you needn't be so formal," said an odious, familiar voice.
Umpily forced himself to his hands and knees. Squinting, he made out a pair of smart military sandals in front of him, and shiny greaves above them. "How long?" he croaked.
"How long have I been in there?"
"A little more than a day."
Aghast, Umpily registered the reflection on the polished bronze before him. Thinned down by the curvature until it seemed narrow and bony, his own face stared back at him. It wore no beard. He felt his chin and found only stubble. One day?
"The imperor wants to see you," Ugoatho said. "Can you stand?"
Grimly, grunting with the effort, Umpily heaved his bulk upright. His eyes were adjusting, even if his mind would not. Swaying, he stared at the hard, hateful face of Legate ... no, not Legate. His cuirass was set with gems and gold inlay. The horsehair crest on the helmet was scarlet. Legate Ugoatho had been promoted.
"Congratulations. Was I responsible for that?"
The new marshal of the armies had a grim chuckle. "Partly. I was told to bring you at once, but nobody said anything about passengers."
Ugoatho wrinkled his nose. "Wash him!" he snapped. He spun around and headed for the door.
* * *
The court was still in mourning for Emshandar IV. Statues and pictures were draped in black crepe. The corridors and halls were almost deserted, and spooky in scanty candlelight. Apart from that, the palace seemed eerily normal. There were no dwarves in sight. Guards, secretaries, footmen ... mercifully few spectators saw Lord Umpily being conducted to the imperial presence.
The clothes that had been found for him were absurdly tight. He could not fasten the doublet, and he was certain things would rip if he tried to sit down. His escort of Praetorian Guards could have no inkling that they served an imposter. Umpily would be dismissed as a raving lunatic if he ever tried to explain that the imperor he was being taken to see was not Shandie, but his cousin, Prince Emthoro, sorcerously disguised.
In silence the prisoner was conducted across the great expanse of the Throne Room, deserted and huge. There was no sign of Marshal Ugoatho. The usual challenges and responses were proclaimed, all very normal, and then the big door swung open, and Umpily was ushered through into the Cabinet.
This part of the palace dated from the XVth Dynasty. The Throne Room was for show, the Cabinet was the inner sanctum. A score of imperors had ruled the world from this room. Emshandar had sat at that great desk for half a century, and his grandson had ruled there for half a year as unofficial regent in the old man's last decline. He had never had a chance to sit there in his own right as Emshandar V.
Defiance! Umpily thought. I know he is a fraud, and he knows I know it. I will be true to my loyalties. I will not concede.
The door closed. The big room was scented by the beeswax candles burning over the desk. Heavy, soft shadows outside their oasis of golden light could not conceal the opulence of the chamber — fine carved woods, fabrics of silk. Peat smoldered in the hearth, adding its friendly odor to the candles'. The fake imperor was alone, sitting at the desk, head resting on a hand, studying one of the endless papers that flowed into this center of power. In a moment he marked his place with a finger and looked up.
It was Shandie!
For a moment he seemed tired, and worried. Then a slow, familiar smile of welcome spread over the nondescript features. He sprang to his feet.
Umpily's heart twisted in his chest. His eyelids prickled. Shandie — the real Shandie, Umpily reminded himself — the real Shandie had not used that foolish diminutive in ten years. Back when he had been an awkward, friendless adolescent, yes. Never since then.
Umpily hinted a bow. "Your Maj — Highness."
The fake Shandie winced. "Lord Umpily, then. What in the Name of Evil have they told you?" He strode over, with Shandie's urgent walk. He spread his arms, as if to embrace his visitor, then peered anxiously at him. "You're all right? Believe me, it was a mistake! I had no idea the idiots would put you in a cell! 'Find him,' I said. I meant that you needed help! I never intended that you should be thrown in jail, old friend!"
"I am as well as could be expected, your Highness!"
The imposter shook his head sadly, disbelievingly. "Come and sit down."
He led the way over to a green kidskin sofa. Umpily eased himself onto it circumspectly. Fabric strained, but held. His waistband tightened like a tourniquet. The disguised Emthoro settled at his side, studying his visitor with obvious concern.
"Perhaps you'd better tell me exactly what you believe."
Gods! It was Shandie to the life — an ordinary-looking, serious young man, with nothing remarkable about him except a burning intensity in his dark imp eyes.
"Believe?" Umpily said. "What I know of the truth, you mean?"
The imposter nodded. Shandie never wasted words, either.
"You were ... his Majesty was sitting on the Opal Throne when word came of your, er, his grandfather's death. We were rehearsing the enthronement. The warden of the north appeared and warned you, him ..." Umpily went through the story, struggling to believe that even sorcery could produce so perfect a likeness. Eyes, mouth, voice ... The telling was unnecessary, but he kept talking, describing how North and West had acknowledged the new imperor, but South and East had not appeared at all. The destruction of the four thrones, the meeting with King Rap of Krasnegar and with Warlock Raspnex again, the escape to the Red Palace and then to the boat ... It was old history, months old. The enemy must already know far more than he did.
As he talked, Umpily was surprised to realize that he had another listener, back in the shadows. Someone was sitting in the blue silk armchair to his left, although he had been certain that there was no one else present when he came in. He glanced quickly that way, but the chair was empty. He was quite alone with the incredibly convincing imposter. An odd trick of the light ...
When the tale was done, the fake Shandie shook his head sadly.
"I knew it must be something like that. Shall I tell you what really happened?"
"Er ... Please do." The vague, half-seen shape was back in the corner of Umpily's vision again. If he looked directly at the blue armchair, it was empty.
The imperor sprang up and began to pace. "Ever since Emine set up the Protocol, three thousand years ago, the wardens have ruled the world. Witches and warlocks, the Four have been the power behind the Imperial throne, correct?"
Umpily nodded. The real Shandie would not move around like that when he talked. He sat still always, inhumanly still.
"It is a terrible evil!"
"Evil, your Maj ... your Highness?"
The imposter paused to look at him with a raised eyebrow, then shrugged and continued his restless pacing. "Yes, evil. If it is not evil, why does the Impire rule only part of Pandemia and not all of it? We have a stable, prosperous civilization. The outlying races are for the most part primitive, or even barbarous. They fight among themselves and between themselves, constantly. Time and again we have tried to take the benefits of enlightened rule to the lesser breeds. At some times and in some places we have succeeded — but only for a while. Always we have been driven out again, although we have the greatest mundane military power, and the greatest occult resources, also, in the Four. This does not make sense, does it? Do you not see? Ostensibly the Four's job is to control the political use of sorcery. But who controls them, mm? No one, of course! They play with us, Umpy!"
Again that long-discarded incivility! "Play with us?"
"We are tokens in the longest-running game in the universe. The Four amuse themselves by playing war games with mundane mankind."
The only warden Umpily could claim to know even slightly was Warlock Olybino. As ruler of the Imperial Army, East had certainly enjoyed playing at war. Umpily had not thought the others did, though. He said nothing.
"At last one man arose who saw the terrible truth," Shandie continued. He paused and for a moment seemed to be studying that mysterious blue chair in the shadows. "Twenty years ago, a clear-thinking, peace-loving, well-meaning young man succeeded to the Red Throne. You know to whom I refer?"
"Warlock Zinixo?" Umpily did not recall the dwarf as clear-thinking, peace-loving, or well-meaning. More like crazy, deluded, and murderous.
"Zinixo, correct. He became warden of the west, and resolved to stop this evil senseless slaughter." Shandie — Emthoro — resumed his restless movement to and fro. "He was very young. Perhaps the others tolerated him at first because they thought he would grow out of what they regarded as juvenile idealism. When they realized that he was serious in his intent, they closed ranks against him. They ganged up on him. He was overthrown."
"I understood —"
Shandie nodded sadly. "They had help, yes. Even all together, the other three were not strong enough to prevail against him, for he had the Good on his side, and the Gods. They enlisted to their misbegotten cause a sinister, perverted accomplice — a sorcerer of frightful capacity, a faun mongrel who went by the name of Rap." He spat the word, scowling.
"But he cured your grandfa —"
"A sadist!" Shandie shouted. "An evil, power-crazy barbarian, who mocked at law and flouted the Protocol! With his help, the other three wardens overturned and dispossessed the rightful warden of the west!" He paused and then smiled almost bashfully, as if ashamed of his strange show of anger.
"Fortunately," he continued more softly, "the Blessed One survived. He was driven from Hub, out into the darkness, but he did survive. For many years he gathered strength in secret, never flagging in his dream of bringing justice and peace to all of Pandemia. Eventually, of course, the Four learned of their danger. The events you witnessed in the Rotunda were a frantic effort to impose their ancient evil system on yet another imperor — me!"
Umpily licked his lips and said nothing. This man might look exactly like Shandie, and his voice might sound like Shandie's, but Shandie would never talk with such vehemence.
Neither, for that matter, would the foppish, languorous Emthoro, who had never been known to work up a passion over anything or anyone: masculine, feminine, or neuter. Whoever this Shandie-figure was, real or fake, he was not his own master.
"Hoping to forestall the reformer," the imperor continued, pausing for a moment by the fireplace to adjust the Kerithian figurines on the mantel, "the Four chose to preempt the enthronement ceremony. Two of them would be enough to confirm my accession, of course, and even one of them could bind me to their will."
"But you thought the imperor was sacrosanct? You thought the Protocol defended him against all use of sorcery? Oh, you poor dupe! And yet millions of others have believed that lie, for thousands of years. No, the imperor has always been a puppet of the Four. That was why Raspnex and Grunth appeared in the Rotunda, as you saw. South and East were elsewhere, attempting to hold off the Godly One long enough for the dwarf and troll to complete the rite. When they failed, when they saw that they were not strong enough to prevail, then they destroyed the four thrones. It was an act of desperation, and of desecration."
The dwarf Raspnex had admitted doing that, or at least the faun had said he admitted ...
"My wife and I escaped in time," Shandie said, walking faster now. "You and a few others were not so fortunate. One of those who fell into their clutches was my poor cousin. Prince Emthoro. Do you understand? The dwarf sorcerer who stole you away cast an occult glamour on him so that he appeared to be the rightful imperor! He believed it himself, of course, and so did you, but neither of you is at fault. Whatever Warlock Raspnex may have told you, he sought only to uphold an ancient evil, whose time has now — thank the Gods! — has now passed. The man you thought to be me was actually Emthoro." The burning eyes turned back to Umpily. "I do not blame you, old friend. You were deluded by a hideous evil."
Shandie? Umpily's heart had started to pound. He could feel sweat trickling down his ribs. Which of the two was the real one? Had he been misled all this time? Had he betrayed his best friend, his liege lord?
"Fortunately," Shandie said, smiling grimly, "there is little harm done. Their mischief was of no avail, except to deceive you and a few who were with you. I reign, as you see. The Four are all still at large, but we shall run them down in time, and they will suffer for their own sins and the sins of all their uncounted predecessors, back for three thousand years. The Almighty is with us."
Excerpted from The Stricken Field by Dave Duncan. Copyright © 1993 D.J. Duncan. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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