Fred Saberhagen – Empire of the East Trilogy

Now he looked cautiously about. The only other humans remaining in the grove had made food for scavengers already. He faced no immediate threat.

Wood spewed out words of power, barking commands and questions into the air, which soon crackled with invisible presences. His first orders were for food and drink-he was ravenous and thirsty now, as well as stiff in every muscle and joint. Next he demanded information.

What he learned was, for the most part, reassuring. The horde of rogue demons had scattered around the world, which was an annoyance, but no more -obviously Orcus had not escaped. Quickly Wood set in motion the processes necessary to bring the others back under his control. Then, clumsy and aching, he set out on foot across tree-dotted grassland in the direction where, as his invisible informants now assured him, Ominor’s army was presently encamped.

With no better means of travel than his old legs, the journey was slow. But the kind of steed he had once ridden was not readily replaceable, and he was saving his powers now for essentials. After an hour, however, the hiking grew oppressively difficult. He took thought, noted that the light breeze was at his back, and nodded to himself with satisfaction. With a few words he changed his shape into that of a wind-rolled, rootless weed, a feat he could manage with no great expenditure of energy.

In this guise he traveled faster than before, and by late afternoon had come within sight of his goal. Resuming his usual shape, he now made himself completely invisible, a condition hard to maintain for more than a brief time. In this way he passed sentries and minor wizards alike without being detected, until he stood inside the pavilion of the Emperor himself. Wood was surprised-though not enormously so-to discover the woman Charmian standing before Ominor. She was simply dressed now, and shy-looking, with downcast eyes. There were a few other people about.

The dialogue between the Emperor and Charmian was interesting to Wood, as it somewhat concerned him; but the first time John Ominor’s eyes flicked his way they seemed for just a moment to rest directly on Wood, and after that Wood could no longer completely convince himself that his invisibility was proof against the Emperor’s gaze. A fear that he could not master began to grow in Wood, and with a faint shudder he retreated, passing out through the pavilion walls as a demon might, or smoke; and once outside he looked for a suitable place nearby where he might let himself be seeable again.

To Charmian, John Ominorwas saying, in his customary loud, half-angry tone; “You still seem surprised at the sight of me, girl. What did you think I would be like?”

“That you would be impressive, Lord. As indeed you are.”

The Emperor half smiled, and enjoyed looking at Charmian a little longer before answering her. “As indeed I am not, you mean. Not loathesome or demonic-looking. Or even particularly handsome.” Though as usual the Emperor gave the impression of impatience, yet he was in no hurry to conclude the conversation.”! have heard of you, most memorable lady,” he went on. “Attempted to attach yourself to Som the Dead, in the Black Mountains; yes, and nearly thawed him back to life, didn’t you? I can well believe it… though that man always seemed quite inhuman to me. Whereas I am an ordinary man in all but power. The powers I was born with, and those I have since accumulated -rather greater than those of Som. Or anyone else. Charmian, you will find my desires much more ordinary than those of many other men whom you have tried to please; that is not to say that I am easily satisfied.”

“My Emperor, I wish only that I may someday be granted the privilege of trying to satisfy your every – ”

“To take whatever I want. To punish all my overt enemies, and to maintain fear in all who are too frightened of me to be my enemies at the moment-what more is the East but this?”

Charmian, in silence, made deep obeisance toward the carved chair in which the Emperor sat.

Ominor said: “Before you attempt more energetic ways of contributing to my happiness, answer me a question or two; repeat to me how you and the man came to be out there where you were found by my patrol. What went wrong with Abner, and what has become of my chief wizard?” There came a hoarse scream from somewhere not far away, probably from another chamber of the elaborate tent. “They are still asking the same questions of the man who was with you, but it seems he is as witless as he looked. He does nothing but yelp. You may be our only witness, so try to remember things in a little more detail. Exactly where is Wood?”

“My dread Lord, I will do the best I can.” Char-mian had already told of Abner’s fate and Wood’s, leaving out of course her attack on the Constable from behind. She began to repeat the story now, adding such detail as she could remember; still she could not say exactly where it had all happened. She had wandered for two days with the dazed Chup before the Eastern patrol found them. She had no more information about Wood to give the Emperor, who was listening carefully.

Now and then another mindless outcry drifted in from Chup. In a moment of private thought it occurred to Charmian how enjoyable it would be to watch Chup’s slow destruction, but then in the next moment she realized that she would miss him when he was no more. She recalled feeling a certain joy mixed with her fear on recognizing him as the man forcing his way into her rooms at the caravanserai, and again in the Constable’s tent. Of course Chup might have killed her either time if she had crossed him; but this man here, on whose favor she was counting, might well kill her someday for amusement.

John Ominor asked her: “When this group of demons, as you put it, came pouring out into the world, was there any one among them notably larger or more impressive than the rest?” He seemed to think the question very important.

“I think not, dread Lord, if you can accept the opinion of one not well acquainted with demons, or able to view them without fear.”

“No, of course not,” Ominor mused, as if to himself, “we would have known.” His eye fixed Charmian once more. “And the man with you? He is of the West, you say, and yet you seem to have known him previously?”

There was no telling how much the Emperor might already know, and Charmian now boldly gave the truth. “He was once of the East, my Lord, and he was once my husband. A deserter and a turncoat. I cannot believe his present madness is a sham; but be that as it may, I would be pleased to see his suffering as well as hear it.”

Ominor grunted and flicked a glance back over his shoulder. Apparently the signal was relayed and heeded for presently the dismal outcries ceased. A moment more, and two black-garbed torturers came in bringing with them Chup, bound to an iron frame on wheels. He was stripped and bleeding here and there, where patches of skin were missing; but he was not the mangled object Charmian had imagined. His head turned to and fro, eyes glaring wildly.

Another pair of men had come in, wizards to judge by their dress. Ominor now turned to them. “Try some gentler means of restoring his memory. It could be important. If he knows aught of what was befallen Wood – ”

There came a hail from outside the pavilion. A stir at the entrance, and then Wood himself appeared there. He hurried forward, scarcely glancing at Charmian, made obeisance, and quickly rose. “A word with you, at once, my Lord.”

Ominor arose promptly and led the way out of the chamber, motioning Wood to come along. Charmian was left to contemplate her husband, now being treated kindly, with a mixture of anger and relief that she did not fully understand.

Ominor and Wood confronted one another within an inner chamber of black silk, a tent within a tent, guarded round by most dependable powers of secrecy, and filled with a darkness that sometimes could press upon the eye like glaring light.

Wood got to business at once. “Supreme Lord, I can rouse that man that they are working on out there; it is one of my spells that still oppresses him. Has he any information of importance?”

“Not since you are here. Where were you?”

“Mobilizing reserve forces, my lord Emperor. We shall soon have urgent need of them.”

“And you were struck down in the process? So the woman told me, but I doubted… what, who, were you trying to call up?”

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