Fred Saberhagen – Empire of the East Trilogy

He put the thing back in his pocket. Still foremost in his thought was the resurrection he had witnessed. “So, Tarlenot will be magically healed, whenever and however he is slain?”

“If he falls here, in sight of Som’s citadel and with his collar on. Didyou not hear him say just now that he will leave his Guardsman’s collar here when he goes out as a courier again? The valkyries will not fly more than a kilometer or two from the citadel.”

“The what?”

“The valkyries, the flying machines of the Old World, that take the fallen Guardsmen up to Draffut to be healed. They get but little practice now.”

“What is this Guard of Som’s?”

“An elite corps of men he thinks reliable.” She had released his hand and was talking in a businesslike way. “They number about five hundred; there are no more collars than that.”

He observed: “You have not yet managed to get one of these protective collars for yourself.”

“I will depend upon my strong Lord Chup for protection; we will see that you have a collar, of course, as soon as possible.”

“You have been depending on the strong Lord Tarlenot till now, I gather. Well, I will wait and catch him with his collar off.”

Charmian laughed again, this time even more delightedly, and curled up amid her silks. “That messenger? Why, you are joking, lord. You must know I am only using him, and to make him really useful I must lead him on. My only true thoughts are for you.”

Grimly and thoughtfully, he said: “I remember that you do not have true thoughts.”

Now she was hurt. Her eyes looked this way and that, then sought him piteously and fluttered. One who did not know her as he did might easily have been convinced. He knew her, and was not fooled; but she was still his bride, and all-important to him. He frowned, wondering why he did not wonder. There must be a reason, and he ought to have remembered it, but somehow it eluded him.

“My every thought has been for you,” his all-important bride was pouting. “True, when you arrived today I pretended to be angry -surely you could not have been deceived by that? I wanted Tarlenot to fight you, so you would put him in his place. You must have understood that! Could he ever have beaten you, even on the sickest day you’ve ever had?”

“Why, yes, he could, and handily.” She avoided his reaching hand and jumped to her feet. “How can you dare to think that I have ever meant you harm? If you will be rude enough to ask for proof of my intentions, I can only point out that here you are, restored to life and health and power. And who is responsible for your restoration, if not I?”

“Very well, you saved me. But for your own reasons. You wanted this.” Again he pulled the charm out of his pocket. Looking down at the soft, shiny thing resting so lightly in his open hand, he could remember vaguely that he had felt misgivings about picking it up for the first time, but he could not remember why. He asked: “What do you want it for?”

“Put it away, please.” When he had done that, Charmian sat down again and took his hand between hers. “I want to use it. To make you Viceroy in the Black Mountains, in Som’s place.”

He grunted in surprise, beyond mere disbelief.

“Be at ease, my lord,” she reassured him. “The wizard Hann, who is with us in this enterprise, has made this apartment proof against Som’s spies.”

” I came in quite unnoticed.”

“Not by me. I wanted you to enter, my good lord.” Her small hands pressed his fingers tenderly. “Ah, but it is good to have you sitting with me once again. You will be Lord of High Lords here, with Zapranoth and Draffut as your vassals and only the distant Emperor himself above; and I will be your consort, proud beside you.”

He made another boorish noise.

Unruffled, she pressed his arm. “Chup, do you doubt that I would like to be the lady of a viceroy?”

“I don’t doubt that.”

Her nails spurred his forearm. “And do you think that I would want some lesser man than you beside me, one who could not hold such a prize when we had won it, or try for something higher still. By all the demons, you underrate me if you do!”

Viceroy, Lord of High Lords… armies numbering tens of thousands under his command…beside him, Charmian, looking as she did now. He could no longer wholly doubt what she was saying. “Has Viceroy Som no need of you, to hold his place and help him try for something higher still?”

Her eyes flashed anger, mixed with determination. “I want a living man, not dead… but you are right, my lord, Som is the key. We must dispose of him.” She said it easily. “He gave me shelter when my father fell, thinking I would be useful to him one day; I convinced him you would be useful too. He does not know that you have brought the means of his downfall.”

Chup’s manner was still scornful. “And what are we to do with Som the Dead? How shall we topple him?”

Her eyes, that had gone to feast upon some distant vision, came back to his unwaveringly. “The circlet woven of my hair must go into his private treasure hoard, unknown to him. Only thus can he be made vulnerable to -certain magic that we shall use against him.”

“He must have protection against such charms.”

“Of course. But Hann says that the one you carry is of unequalled power.”

Chup said: “You speak much of this wizard Hann, and what he says. What does he gain, by helping you?”

Charmian pouted. “I see I must soothe down your pointless jealousy again. Hann wants only vengeance, for some punishment that Som inflicted on him long ago. I know that Hann gives no impression of great skill at magic, yet he is stronger in his way than Elslood was, or Zarf-”

“Then why can he not make a stronger charm than Elslood wrought?” He thought he could feel it in his pocket, like a circle of heavy fire.

She shook her head impatiently. “I do not understand it perfectly, but it seems that Elslood, wanting me to care for him, stole some of my hair and wove the charm. But he tapped some power greater than he understood, the charm only made him dote all the more on me. Never mind. We need not struggle with these technicalities of magic. All that you need worry about, my lord, is getting the charmed circlet woven of my hair into Som’s private treasure hoard.”


“I have already gone far in learning ways and making plans for that. But the execution of the plan requires someone like yourself, my lord; and who is there but you?”

“How?” His voice was still heavy with his skepticism.

She seemed about to tell him, but first she recounted once more the joys of being viceroy. Her soft voice wore him down, so that he passed the midpoint between doubting and belief; all things were possible, when his bride whispered that they were.

Now she was telling him what he must do: “Now hear me, my lord. Three things must fall together ere we strike. First, the human guards who watch the outer entrance to the treasure vault must be those we have suborned. Second -are you listening?-the new breed of centipedes in the second room must not yet have hatched. Thirdly, the word for quieting the demons in the inner vault must be the one we know…”

Demons again. He ceased to listen. He was wearying quickly of all these endless words, even if they came from her, when she herself was here. Shaking his head to break the spell of words, he reached for her.

“My lord, wait. Hear me. This is vital – ”

But he would not wait, nor hear her any longer, and with a small sigh of vexation she let him have his way.

On the next day, when he had truly rested, there came to him officers of Som’s Guard, who wished to question Chup about the military situation in the West. Chup related the rumors common in the Broken Lands, for what they might be worth. He told the officers what he had observed of troop movements, from his beggar’s post, and of other matters bearing on the military, the conditions of roads and livestock in the Broken Lands, the feelings and prosperity of the populace, the state of the harvest. He could give the Guardsmen little comfort, except as regarding the relative smallness of Thomas’s force. Thomas would need great reinforcement before he could attempt an attack upon this citadel.

Chup was soon sitting at ease with the officers, military men like himself. He was now dressed like them in a uniform of black, except that he had as yet no rank, and of course no Guardsman’s collar. In the course of exchanging soldiers’ talk he asked about the collars. He could not imagine how it would feel to enter a fight with the knowledge that you could be glued together again if you were hacked apart; would it be a spur or a hindrance to the most effective action? Would a man who wearied let himself be killed to gain a rest?

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