Fred Saberhagen – Empire of the East Trilogy

So Ekuman did not mean to trust a power as great as the Elephant’s under the personal control of anyone except himself. At least, he meant to reserve that option until he had learned much more about the Elephant than his wizards had yet been able to tell him.

Ekuman said to Garl, “Signal at once to those across the pass. No human is to enter that cave until I personally have given permission.”

This signaling was promptly attended to. Then noticing the Master of the Harem hovering in the background, Ekuman was reminded of anothermat-ter to be taken care of. He beckoned to the eunuch and said, “That girl I had last night acted like one half-sick. Dispose of her.”

“At once, Lord.” Then the eunuch reached behind him and with a conjurer’s motion pulled forward a short slender figure, garbed in a harem gown -until now the girl had been hidden behind his bulk. “This girl I think will be very lively, Lord. She was brought in two days ago, and at my direction has been examined carefully and reserved for you.”

“Hm.” Engrossed as he was with other matters, Ekuman took time to look at this girl. Dark-haired and very young and certainly attractive. Her face colored when the eunuch opened her gown. Silent, yet brave enough to scowl openly at him in hate – yes, she was interesting. “Very well. But now is not the time for harem matters.” He dismissed the eunuch with a wave.

The Master of the Reptiles stood now at Ekuman’s side, and put what seemed to be a new sense of his own importance into a tiny sound of throat-clearing. “Lord? Is it your wish that I should make ready a courier to send East? With word of our discovery?”

The man was already grown presumptuous. But Ekuman would let him puff a little yet, that correction when it came might be the more precise and salutary. “No, I will send no word of this discovery yet. Not until I am more certain of just what has been discovered yonder.” If Elephant’s power was all that had been hinted, it was just possible that with it under his control he might even be able to face east one day without cringing in utter subservience-but no, he would not let even his inner thoughts follow that line. Not yet.

From the direction,of the ascending stair, a loud masculine voice said, “Well! The prettiest little piece I’ve seen in about a month!”

Ekuman turned once again, to greet his neighbor and son-in-law to be. The Satrap Chup was just mounting to the roof-terrace, golden Charmian on his arm. Ekuman knew quite well the signals of his daughter’s face; and glancing at her now he felt immediately certain that Chup’s thoughtless exclamation of praise for the new young dark-haired slave would cost Chup some future moment’s peace if nothing more. ‘.

Ekuman’s chief sensation as he thought’about his daughter’s impending marriage was one of relief; her dedication to petty malice was so strong that he felt sure her departure would rid his household of a whole vortex of minor intrigues. In fact he thought with some approval that Charmian’s presence might ultimately weaken Chup, and that would bode well for Ekuman’s own ambition. There were recurring whispers on the wind saying that some one of the coastal Satraps might soon be promoted to a position of suzerainty over all the others. These were whispers only, perhaps meant merely to keep them all vying with one another to serve the East, but still…

Chup came pacing to Ekuman’s side. He leaned his tall warrior’s frame, dressed in rich cloth of red and black, upon the parapet, and looked out at the activity of men and reptiles on the north side of the pass.

Ekuman said conversationally, “I thought, brother, that I might ride forth this afternoon, to oversee this treasure-hunt my men are on. No doubt you’ve heard the tales? If you would care to ride with me, of course, you will be welcome.”

Ekuman had phrased the invitation in a style that left it quite open to acceptance or polite refusal, and Chup elected to return the latter. “Naturally, elder brother, your company is always a delight. And riding, even to poke around among some rocks, would be a form of exercise. But-well, unless you – ”

Ekuman let himself suddenly remember something. “In truth it was a rather poor suggestion for amusement. I have another, much more suited to a true warrior’s taste. You might divert yours elf and at the same time render me a true service in preparing for the wedding celebration. As you know, I plan some gladiatorial entertainment on that day-nothing professional, just some of these sturdy farm lads – ”

“I like to watch amateurs go at it, if they’ve any spirit.”

“Just so, Brother Chup. Would you deign to visit the dungeons with my Master of the Games? I’m sure no one in my employ could pick out fighting men as well as you can. You may even find one or two with real training -if not, I knowyou’ll spot the raw ability…”

Chup was nodding agreement, though with little enthusiasm, as Ekuman maneuvered him away toward the stair. The Master of the Harem trailed in the rear, the arm of the dark-haired slave-girl firmly in his massive grip. Charmian, her ethereal face disfigured by one of her petty rages, was staring after them. The princess was now alone upon the roof-terrace, except for her personal maid -and one other.

Elslood the wizard stood before Charmian and bowed his massive gray head slightly. He was marking the hatred with which her eyes followed the lovely slave-girl. “My Princess?”

Her eyes turned on him, losing their look of hate but remaining as hopelessly distant as ever. “Well?” she demanded. Soon she would be gone, and he unable to follow. While she was yet here, he would take great risks, hoping nothing more than to please her. Such was his doom, and he could do nothing about it but try to conceal it from others; he could not even do that, he knew with a sinking feeling, the very maidservant was now smiling at him openly.

Elslood said, “That new harem-slave, my Princess; there is a circumstance I now of, that I might be able to turn to your amusement – ”

Listening, Charmian began to smile.

Following the jovial Master of the Games and the sallow chief warden through the low-roofed dungeons, Chup wrinkled his nose and tried to hold his breath against the stench. So far he had had nothing to say about the prospective gladiators but a few terse expressions of scorn. Sturdy farm lads they might once have been, but now they had rotted in their cages overlong. He suspected that all the hale ones were up above, unloading barges or building walls. Faugh! What did it serve, to pen men up like this? It served no aim that Chup could see, but only created a foulness. If the men were objectionable and useless, let them be killed. If good work was to be gotten from them, then at least house them in fresh air and feed them, like draft animals of some value.

Chup had as yet made no pilgrimage to the East, had pledged no allegiance to Som or the other mysterious lords. He supposed he would go, some day soon. All men must serve some master, or so the way of the world seemed to be. Charmian was already egging him on, to get his wizards to arrange the matter. Charmian…why did he want to marry her? He had women enough -ah, but none so fair. And the greatest warrior must have the fairest princess, that was one of the things a man fought for. So, once again, was the way of the world.

The warden stopped before yet another dim and noisome cage, and delicately reminded Chup of the fact that no gladiators had as yet been chosen: “We’d best pick out today whatever your Lordship decides should be reserved for the games, I think the foremen of the work-gangs will be down here soon enough, taking all the bodies that can be made to lift and haul.” And then the warden fell abruptly silent, having just got a dirty look from the Master of the Games. Probably new work-gangs were going to be sent across the pass to dig, and that business was not something to be discussed before a visitor.

Chup had a fairly good idea of what the Elephant-search was all about, and of course he was keen on learning more. He knew that if he had ridden out with Ekuman, he would not have been taken where there was anything worth the seeing. But he meant to learn in good time about whatever they found. Charmian, who would certainly have her uses, wanted very much to be the queen of an overlord. Chup’s wizards had heard hints that one of the Satraps here along the coast might soon be raised to such an eminence….

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