Fred Saberhagen – Empire of the East Trilogy

Chup had stepped outside again, and remained gaping upward until prompted by Hann’s diplomatic voice. “When you have rested and refreshed yourself, Lord Chup, and dressed in finer garments, your lady waits to see you.”

Lowering his eyes, Chup saw six serving girls approaching. All were young but ugly; his lady preferred her servants so, he knew, to heighten by contrast her own beauty. Carrying towels and garments and what might be jars of ointment, the girls advanced very slowly, looking almost too frightened to put one foot before another. Chup nodded. He would have to relax his guard sometime. “I would put down this sword that I have won, but I seem to have no scabbard.”

Hann hastened to amend this lack, unburdening his own waist, wincing when he moved his wounded arm. “Here, take all. Indeed I think I am well rid of it. Let the shoemaker stick to his last.”

When he had wiped and sheathed his sword, Chup let the servants of Charmian lead him along a short path into another garden, and from that into another wing of the same low, sprawling building that Charmian had entered. He could not yet see its full extent; perhaps all of Som’s court lived in its separate apartments. In a luxurious room the servants stripped away Chup’s filthy rags, and tended the light cut along his side with what seemed ordinary ointments, not the demon’s cure. The girls’ fear of him abated rapidly, and by the time they had immersed him in hot water in a sunken marble tub, they were talking almost freely back and forth among themselves. After serving Charmian, he thought, any other master must be a relaxation and a pleasure.

He hung the love-charm of springy golden hair upon the twisty hilt of his captured sword, and set both close beside him as he soaked and washed and soaked again. He was too weary to give the least thought to his attendants as females. Amid their nervous chatter, though, he caught their names:

Portia, with the blackest skin and hair that he had ever seen, and a bad scar on her face; Kath, blond and buxom, with eyes that looked in different ways; Lisa, shortest and youngest, nothing quite right about her looks; Lucia, shaped well enough except for her huge mouth and teeth; Samantha and Karen, looking like sisters or even twins, with sallow skins, pimples, and stringy hair bound up in the same peasant style as that of the other girls.

When Portia and Kath had finished scrubbing his back, Lisa and Lucia poured on rinse water, and Samantha and Karen held a towel.

When he had been clothed in rich garments, Karen and Lucia fed him soup and meat and wine. Between mouthfuls he touched the golden charm, safe now in an inner pocket of his tunic of soft black. He only tasted the wine, for already sleep hung like weighty armor on his eyelids. “Where is my Lady?” he demanded. “Is she coming here, or must I go to her?”

There was a moment’s hesitation before Kath, with noticeable reluctance, answered: “If my Lord permits, I will go and see if she is ready to receive you.” At this the other girls relaxed perceptibly.

His weariness was great, and he reclined on a soft couch. Though he had much to think about, his eyes kept closing of themselves. “Keep talking,” he ordered the five girls. “You there, do you sing?” And Lisa sang, and Karen fetched out an instrument with strings. The music that they made was soft.

“You sing quite well and easily,” Chup said, “for one who serves the Lady Charmian. How long have you been her servant?”

The girl paused in her song. “For half a year, my Lord, since I was brought to the Black Mountains.”

“And what were you before?”

She hesitated. “I do not know. Forgive me, Lord, my head was hurt, my memory is gone.”

“Sing on.”

And then he was waking, with a start, the golden charm clenched in his hand inside his pocket. It seemed that no long time had passed, for the sun still shone outside, and the young girls still made their soft music.

His tiredness was like the hands of enemies gripping all his limbs, but he could not rest until he had made sure of her, at the very least seen her once again. He arose and walked out of the building, into the garden under the upper mountain’s looming bulk. On legs that pained but could not rest, he paced the paths and lawns, emptied now of men and cleaned of signs of violence. He entered the building where she had gone in. In a narrow passage he caught a whiff of perfume that woke old memories clamoring, and at a little distance heard Charmian’s well-remembered laugh. He put aside a drapery.

Some distance inside a vast and elegantly female room, Charmian sat on an elaborate couch. She was facing Chup expectantly, though his coming had been soundless. The man who sat there with her, facing her, had fair hair that fell with a slight curl around his ears. His long, strong arms emerged from the short sleeves of a lounging suit of black and pink. As this man arose, turning toward Chup the wary, pouting eyes of Tarlenot, Chup could do nothing but stand frozen in the doorway, marking well the scar, wide and long but neatly healed, that ran down from the joining of neck and shoulder to vanish on the hairy chest -ran down from just below the metal collar that bore a little shiny spot left by a sword.


Djinn of Technology

The army of the West lay camped for the night, a day’s march to the northeast of the Castle. Around them the plain was no longer a true desert, but a gentle sea of sparse grass, now drying and dying before the approaching winter. Once long ago the flocks of peacetime had grazed here.

Thomas now had with him more than four thousand soldiers, all holding in common a hard hatred of the East. The ranks of his own fighters of the Broken Lands had been greatly swollen by volunteers from Mewick’s country and others in the south, from the offshore islands, and from the north, whence came warriors who wrapped themselves in unknown furs and made strange music from the horns of unknown beasts.

In the early evening the camp murmured, with the feeding of the army and the digging of temporary defenses for the night, with the hundred matters of organization and repair that must be tended to before the second day’s march. Inside Thomas’s big tent were crowded the score of leaders he had called into a meeting.

The first matter that Thomas raised with them was the golden charm, and its sudden departure to the East. That the charm was magic of great power was obvious to all, and none blamed Rolf for having fallen so deeply under its influence that he had not spoken of it during the long months since he had found it, while it forced him to cherish secret thoughts of a woman he would otherwise have hated. Still he was downcast and somewhat ashamed as he sat at one side of the circle in the tent. Thomas, Gray, and a few others were at one end of the long test, their chairs around three sides of a plain table, the fourth side being open to the wide circle of onlookers who made themselves comfortable upon the matting of the floor. Thomas sat at the center of the table looking up at Gray who was on his feet and holding forth.

“Some of you know, but some do not,” Gray was saying, “that I and other wizards of the West have for some years spent most of ourtime in a desperate search for the life of Zapranoth, the Demon-Lord in the Black Mountains.”

There was a faint murmur round the tent. Rolf felt a little better, seeing how many of the others’ faces mirrored his own ignorance of what the higher wizards did.

“It now seems possible,” continued Gray, “that I stood next to the life of Zapranoth where I had scarcely thought to look for it: inside the walls of that strong Castle we left yesterday. It is possible -I think not likely -that the Demon-Lord’s life was hidden in that twist of hair.”

Eyes turned to Rolf, enough of them so that he felt he had to speak. “I had no thought or feeling of any demon near me, before or after the charm was taken from me.”

Gray had paused to survey his audience. Now he said: “A number of you are still looking at me blankly, or frowning suspiciously at that young man. I am convinced that a short lecture on the ways of demons is in order.” Having received a nod of agreement from Thomas, he went on. “The ordinary layman, soldier or not, has little hard knowledge of magic, though it almost daily influences his life. And to him the ways of demons are as unaccountable as those of earthquakes.

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Categories: Saberhagen, Fred