Fred Saberhagen – Empire of the East Trilogy

Turning his head, Ekuman said to the Master of the Games, “See that some other entertainment is set before my guests, and then do you attend me also.” He shot his glance across the arena, and raised his voice from its confidential level: “My dear daughter and my son, please come with me.”

But as Ekuman arose he had to delay, for now the Master of the Reptiles was pressing toward him along the aisle before the lowest tier of seats, creating a fresh wave of puzzled comment among the guests. The Reptile Master’s face showed clearly that he thought his errand urgent. In his hands he held a reptile courier’s pouch, that had some bulky weight inside.

“Bring it along,” Ekuman told him, and strode along the passage that opened for him between courtiers, heading for the keep. He noticed clouds coming with portentous suddenness over the lowering sun, and behind him he heard the Master of the Games call out, “Lords and ladies, I pray you come inside! The weather conspires with other disturbances against our celebration here. My Lord Ekuman bids you make merry in his hall, where he will join you when he can!”

Once inside the keep, Ekuman drew the Master of the Reptiles aside.

The Master of the Reptiles whispered, “My Lord, this pouch was most likely sent toward us from the Oasis, for it was found in the desert. It was sent some days ago, for the fallen courier’s body was decayed when one of my scouts discovered it during this last hour. The courier may well have fallen in one of those untimely rainstorms that have raged over the desert for the past few days.”

“What’s in it?”

“There must have been a message, Lord, but – see? -the pouch’s lock is broken, from storm orfall, and the desert wind has left no paper. Only this.” The Reptile Master let the torn pouch fall away; his hands remained holding up a weighty case of metal, the size of two clenched fists. It looked as if it had come through fire and battle both.

Ekuman took the thing. The graven markings tickled his stroking thumbs with power; he knew strong magic when he felt it in his hands. “You did well to bring this straight to me.”

Problems were encircling him like armed men, attacking all at once. He would just have to fight them all off as best he could, dealing a stroke here and another there, till he could pin one down and settle it; it was a common predicament for a ruler.

“Summon Elslood to the Presence Chamber too,” Ekuman ordered a soldierwho was standing by. The man saluted and ran off. Ekuman let two more soldiers pass him, bearing between them the fallen gladiator on a litter. Then he walked himself in the same direction. Passing a narrow window, he marked how sudden a gloom had fallen outside. The Master of the Games had been right to summon the guests into the hall.

Rolf had been willing enough to be disarmed; at the moment he wanted never to touch a sword again. He stood there in the arena, not knowing whether he wished to live or die. Only once since Nils had fallen had Sarah looked in Rolf’s direction, and that look had stabbed him like a blade.

At least Nils still lived -whatever his life might be worth. A pair of robed men came to minister to Nils and supervise his being carried off. Rolf was soon prodded on to follow. Under a suddenly threatening sky, all the gaily appareled spectators were also starting to file into the keep.

Rolf was marched indoors and upstairs. Gradually he began to understand that something about his fight with Nils was perturbing the great folk of the Castle; the faces of his guards were concerned about something more important than avoiding a rainstorm.

An officer came to search Rolf, then preceded him and his escort through a large and richly furnished hall, filling up now with the spectators from the arena. They stared at Rolf as he passed and whispered curiously, while the Master of the Games called to them, trying to rouse interest in his jugglers. Servants were putting torches in wall sconces, against the sudden onslaught of the night.

One more flight of steps, then a wait in a rich antechamber. Then Rolf was brought into a large circular room, the lower level of the squat tower that crowned the keep. Against one wall was Ekuman, enthroned on a great chair. In flanking chairs sat Chup, and golden Charmian, haughty as a statue. At Ekuman’s back the curving wall was hung with many trophies, of war and of the chase, and among these were some Old World things -Rolf thought he could recognize them as such, seeing their precise smooth workmanship, like that of the far-seeing glasses and the Elephant.

Nervous attendants milled about. On the floor of inlaid wood before Ekuman was set the stretcher with Nils on it, the robed men bending over him to stanch the flow of blood. And standing before Ekuman was the soldier who had taught Rolf his swordplay, at attention now, quivering with a rigidity of discipline. And there was Sarah, between two soldiers who gripped her arms to keep her from collapsing or going to her lover on his pallet.

Rolf had only a moment to look at these others, as he was hurried forward to be confronted by the Satrap himself. Ekuman’s baleful eye swung round on him, and the two men who held Rolf’s arms forced him to kneel.

The Satrap’s voice struck him all the more impressively for seeming mild. “You fought well today, sirrah. What would you have by way of reward?”

“I would have -only what I thought I had. The chance to fight against the one I thought was wearing that devil-painted helmet!” Rolf did not look at Sarah, but he could hope that she had heard him.

“And whom did you think you were fighting?” Ekuman asked him calmly.

Rolf turned his head to look at Chup.

It was a moment before the warrior-lord understood just what the prisoner meant. Then Chup sat up straight in his chair. “Me? You clod of dung! You thought that I had arrayed myself in helm and shield to descend and fight a formal duel with you ?”

Thinking back, Rolf realized that it had been only his own foolish assumption, that Chup would fight him. Others had used his foolishness to lead him on, to make him murder Nils to give them sport.

“Clod of dung?” mused Ekuman. “Yes, a peasant, by all signs -but that stroke was well put that felled the other. Young master, where were you taught to use a sword?”

Intrigue was foreign to Rolf’s experience, but he could feel very plainly the mutual distrust and malice of all the evil folk around him. He could sense divisions arraying each of them against the others. If he had known what lie would be most like to set them on to mutual destruction, he would have tried to tell it. As matters stood, he instinctively chose the truth as his weapon.

“All that I know of swordplay,” he said clearly, “I was taught here in the Castle.” And he realized the truth had scored, somehow; if Charmian’s eyes could kill he would have died in that moment.

“Taught by whom?” asked Ekuman reasonably.

“By this one.” Rolf leveled a pointing arm at the old soldier. The man did not look at Rolf. Behind his stoic front he seemed to quiver neither more nor less than before.

Lightning came, not far away. An easy ripping crackle at the start, and then a giant tore the sky in two from top to bottom, letting through a momentary blaze that seemed to come from some furnace-glare beyond. The light was strong on Charmian’s face, as she raised her eyes with an expression of relief. She was looking over Rolf’s shoulder. Rolf turned his own head for a moment; a tall gray figure, wizard if there ever was one, was standing now within the door.

“Face the Satrap!” A guard’s fist struck Rolf’s face; Rolf turned back. Somehow an afterimage of the gray wizard’s hollow eyes came with him, superimposing itself on Ekuman’s face.

“And you were well fed?” Ekuman asked, as if all that moved him was some mild concern for Rolf’s welfare.

“I was.”

One of the robed men by the stretcher turned up his face, and Rolf saw with fascinated horror that a creature that was a toad and something more than a toad crouched half-hidden on the wizard’s shoulder, under his cloak. “Lord, I am sure now, this man who lost was starved and weakened. Deprived of rest. The signs are very plain.”

After that Rolf could-hear nothing more for a few moments. In the very abyss of his fear and hate he came near feeling pity for people grown so pettily malignant, to play such games with helpless slaves. But he had believed them -that he would have a chance at Chup -he had wanted to believe. He felt himself swaying on his knees. Just now he could not have turned to face Sarah to save his life – his life?

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