Fred Saberhagen – Empire of the East Trilogy

“I see.” Chup could now take time to think. “Maintain your guard here as if nothing had happened. If an inspector comes, say nothing. I left no traces down below. I will be back, or will send word, to tell you what to do.” Now he could see the logic and the details of his plan, and he was grinning as he went out and shut the door.


Be as I am

The corpse’s face had been shattered into unrec-ognizability, as if by a long fall onto rock, and the appearance of the rest of the body suggested that it had been nibbled by some kind of scavenger; reptiles, perhaps. The soldiers who had brought the body to Charmian-led by two officers who were not of her small group of plotters -stood by watching stolidly, as she attempted to make the requested identification.

She looked long at what had been the face, and at the heavy limbs that had once been powerful. They did not seem to have anything to do with Chup, but in their present state they might be his as well as not. Charmian was not squeamish about death -in others -and put out a hand and turned the ruined head. The build and hair color of the dead man were Chup’s, and the tattered black uniform might be. She could see no marks of weapons on the body.

Haifa day after Chup had set out upon his mission for her, she had sent word to Som’s chamberlain inquiring whether her husband had been detained on any business. Word came back that nothing was known of his whereabouts. Haifa day after that, the search was begun in earnest. Now another day later, this. Events were proceeding as she had planned.

“Where was this man found?” she asked.

“Wedged in a deep crevice, lady, in one of the deep caves. He might have fallen from a bridge.”The officer’s voice was neutral. “Canyou make an identification?”

“Not with certainty.” She lifted her eyes calmly; no one high in the councils of the East would be expected to show much grief for the loss of any other. “But yes, I think this is the body of my husband. Tell the Viceroy Som that I am grateful for his help in searching. And if it was no accident that killed the Lord Chup, then those who did it are as much Som’s enemies as mine.”

The officers bowed.

And half a day after they and their men had gone, wheeling their gruesome charge upon a cart, other messengers came from Som, more cheerfully garbed and with far merrier words to speak -it was a summons for her, to appear before the viceroy, but it came couched in the welcome form of gracious invitation.

Soon after those emissaries also had departed, leaving her time for preparation, the wizard Hann sat watching Charmian. They were in a central room of her elaborate suite. Hann sat a-straddle of a delicate chair turned back to front, his sharp chin resting broodingly upon his wiry, somehow unwizardly forearms, crossed upon the chair’s high back.

The clothes that Charmian was to wear, close-fitting garments of raven black, hung thin and shimmering beside a screen. She herself, swathed in a white robe and soft towels and newly emerged from her bath, sat primping before an array of mirrors. She would make an imperious motion of her finger or her head, or merely with her eyes, and Karen or Kath would jump to adjust the angle of a mirror or lamp, or Lisa or Portia would fetch a different comb or brush, jar or phial, most of which their lady considered and rejected. Samantha was upon some errand for Charmian, and Lucia had earlier been judged guilty of some gross error and was not here; there was blood drying on the small silvery whip that lay at one end of the long dressing table. Charmian’s face, utterly intent on appraising itself in all its multiple reflections, was for the time devoid of youth and softness, was ageless as ice and equally as hard.

Hann, observing her thus disarmed and charmless, was able to appraise her with something of the feeling he had when watching another magician pull off a perilous feat; professional respect.

He need never have worried about her nerves, he told himself. This girl-woman had matured considerably in the half year since she had come here as a frightened refugee. From the start she had been enormously ambitious; now she could be cold and capable, self-controlled. She probably could command an army, given a tactical adviser and mouthpiece to pass on orders -a man like Tarlenot. And she would have the nerve and ruthlessness to manage the other powers that were the viceroy’s, even the power called Zapranoth -given the aid of a wizard of great skill, Hann.

The rulers of the Empireof the East would not care if Som were overthrown by one of his subordinates; that would mean only that a more capable servant had replaced a less. And now it did seem that Som’s hand was faltering. (Only in the back of Hann’s mind the question waited: why had the body been so mutilated, impossible to certainly identify? Well, why not? The Dwarf and Scarface swore that they had put the Lord Chup down a crevice as planned. And there were little scavenger beasts, that strayed out from the dungeons where they bred… )

Charmian was dismissing her attendants. As soon as the last of them had left the room she turned to Hann a questioning look. Hann, understanding, quickly made use of the best developed of his powers to quickly scan the suite and its environs. In this branch of magic he thought that he was unexcelled. The voices of invisible powers, inhuman and abject and faithful, muttered their reports to him, speaking close and softly so none but he could hear.

“Speak safely,” he said to Charmian. “No one is listening but me.”

Fingering a tiny perfume bottle, she asked: “How did our viceroy and master acquire his name?”

Hann was perplexed. “Som?”

“Who else, my learned fool? Why is he called ‘The Dead’?”

He sprang up from his chair, aghast. “You don’t know that?”

A light danced in Charmian’s eyes. Looking at Hann in her mirrors, she was quite relaxed, save for her fingers on the little phial. “You know that I have met Som only twice, both times briefly. I realize of course that the purpose of his name must be to frighten those who hear it. But in what sense is it true?”

“In a very real sense!” Alarmed at her ignorance, Hann tilted his head from side to side in agitation.

“In a real sense, then. But tell me more.” Charmian’s voice was soothing and deliberate, her eyes tranquil.

Hann absorbed some of hercalm, turned his chair around, and sat down properly. “Well. Som does not age at all. He is immune alike to poison and disease, if what I hear is true.” The wizard frowned. “He has reached some balance, struck some bargain with death. I admit I do not know how.”

Charmian appeared to disbelieve. “You speak as if death were some man, or demon.”

Hann, who had been to the center of the Empire of the East, said nothing for a moment. He had tied his fortune to this girl, and now her inexperience and rashness were beginning to frighten him. There was not time to teach her much. “I know what I know,” he said at last.

She inquired, calmly enough: “And what else do you know of Som?”

“Well. I have never seen him enter battle. But it is said on good authority that any man who raises a weapon against Som finds himself smitten in that very moment with the same wound that he is trying to inflict.”

On hearing this, Charmian’s many mirror faces marred their foreheads with thoughtful frowns. “Then when I have put my ring of magic through Som’s nose, and led him from his throne, how are we to do away with him? If no weapon can kill him…”

“There may be one.”


“Though what the weapon is, I do not know. Nor does Som himself know, I believe.” Through the powers that served him Hann had recently heard of recent threats to Som, by some mysterious power of the West, threats implying that the one effective weapon was known and would be used when the time came. “I do not know, but I could quickly learn, if I was given all the tools and wealth I needed for my work.”

“When I am consort of a new viceroy, you shall have all you need and more. Now what else must I know of Som before I go to him?”

Hann went on worriedly:”There is sometimes the smell of death upon him; though when he is inclined to deal mildly with those around him, he covers up his stink with perfumes.

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Categories: Saberhagen, Fred