Fred Saberhagen – Empire of the East Trilogy

“And -I warn you. When you see him at close range and from the corner of your eye, you are liable to see not a man’s face but a noseless skull. Can you smile and coo at that and not show your disgust?”

Once more she appeared to be concentrating completely on her reflection, adding a final something to her lips. “I? You do not know me, Hann.”

“No! I admit that I do not.” He jumped to his feet again and began to pace. “Oh, I know that you are able. But also that you are very young, and from the hinterlands. Inexperienced and untraveled in the world.”

Her mirrors all laughed at him in light and easy confidence.

Annoyed, and worried all the more, he pressed on: “I know, back in your father’s little satrapy, men were ruining themselves to win your favor. Some here, also… but remember that not everyone here will be so easily manipulated.”

She gave no sign that she had heard.

He raised his voice. “Do you suppose you have enthralled and bedazzled me? I am your full partner in this enterprise, my lady. It is magic that is drawing Som to you; see that you do not forget it.”

“You do not know me,” Charmian repeated softly. And with that she pushed away her clutter of towels and jars and phials and turned to him from her mirrors. The room seemed brighter, suddenly. Even clothed as she was, in the loose concealing robe…

“Never have I seen…” said Hann, in a new, distracted voice; and after the four words fell silent, marveling.

She laughed, and stood up, with a single swaying of her hips.

Hann said in a blurred voice: “Wait, do not go just yet.”

Her lips swelled in a pretended pout. “Ah, do not tempt me so, sly wizard. For you know how weak I am, how subject to your every trifling spell and whim. Only the knowledge that I must go, for the sake of your own welfare, enables me to tear myself away.” And with that she laughed again, and vanished behind the screens where her attendants were, and Hann was left with no more than the memory of a vision.

By the time she had finished dressing and set out, the time of her appointment was near at hand, but she did not hurry; the audience chamber was not far off. On her walk deep into the citadel she was bowed on and escorted by a series of the viceroy’s attendants, some of whom were human. Others were more beastlike or more magical than men, and had shapes not commonly encountered away from the Black Mountains. Charmian no longer marveled at them, like a backwoods girl; twice before she had walked this way.

At her first audience with Som, nearly half a year ago, the viceroy had told her simply and briefly that it suited his purposes to grant her asylum. At her second audience she had stood silent and apparently unnoticed amid a number of other courtiers as Som announced to them the opening of a new campaign to recover the lost seaboard satrapies, and particularly to crush the arch-rebel Thomas of the Broken Lands; little or nothing had been heard of the campaign since then. On neither occasion had Som shown her any more interest than he might have bestowed upon an article of furniture. She had soon learned from the gossip of the other courtiers that he was dead indeed regarding the pleasures of the body.

Or so they all thought; what would they say today?

Looking into Som’s great audience hall from just outside the door, she was vaguely disappointed to see that it was almost empty. Then as she was bidden enter by the chamberlain she saw that the viceroy had just finished talking with a pair of military men, who were now walking backward from his presence, bowing, noisily rolling up their scrolls of maps. Som was frowning after them. Charmian could not discern any change since her last audience in the man who sat upon the ebony throne. Som was a man to all appearances of middle size and middle age, rather plainly dressed except for a richly jeweled golden chain around his neck. He was rather sparely built, and his aspect at first glance was not unpleasant, save perhaps for his rather sunken eyes.

The soldiers backed past Charmian and she heard them stumbling and colliding with each other at the doorway as they left; but the viceroy’s aspect softened as his eyes refocused on her.

The chamberlain effaced himself, and Charmian was alone with her High Lord in the great room where a thousand might have gathered-alone save for a few Guardsmen, heavily armed and standing motionless as statues, and for a pair of squat inhuman guardians-she could not tell at once if they were beasts or demons -that flanked his throne at a little distance on each side.

Som beckoned to her, with a gesture whose slightness she found enviable: that of one who knows he has complete attention. With humility in every move, her eyes downcast, steps quick but modest, she walked toward him. When still at a humble distance, she stopped, and made obeisance deeply, with all the grace at her command.

All was silent in the vast hall. When she thought it time to raise her eyes to the ebony throne, Som was gazing down at her, solemnly, with the stillness of a statue or a snake. Then like a snake he moved, with a sudden flowing gesture. In his dry, strong voice he said: “Charmian, my daughter-I have come to think ofyou as in some sense a relative of mine-you have lately begun to assume importance in my plans.”

She dipped her eyes briefly and raised them again; so might a girl perform the gesture who had but lately begun to practice it before her mirror. A perfect imitation of innocence would never be convincing, here. “I hope these thoughts of me are in some measure pleasing to my High Lord Viceroy.”

“Come closer. Yes, stand there.” And when he had gazed upon her from closer range for a little while, Som asked: “Is it then your wish to please me as a woman? It is long since any have done that.”

“I would please my High Lord Som in any way he might desire.” There was perfume in the hall, of high quality certainly but stronger than the delicate scent she had put on herself.

“Come closer still.”

She did so, and sank on one knee before him so close that he might have reached out a hand and touched her face. But he did not. For just a moment her nostrils caught a whiff of something else beneath the perfume; as if perhaps a small animal had crawled beneath the viceroy’s throne and died.

“My daughter?”

“If you will have me so, my High Lord Som.”

“Or should I say ‘sister’ to you, Charmian?”

“As you will have it, lord.” Waiting for the next move of the game with her eyes cast down submissively, she saw (not looking directly at him) that Som had no nose, and that his sunken eyes were black and empty holes.

“My woman, then; we’ll settle it at that. Give me your hand, golden one. In all my treasure hoard I have not such gold as you have in your hair. Do you know that?”

The statement gave her a bad moment of suspicion. But when she looked straight at her lord again, she saw an ordinary man’s face, smiling thinly and nodding. However, she could not hear him breathe. And his hand, when she touched it, felt like meat that had been kept somewhat too long in the kitchen of a palace. Her hand did not for a moment tense, or herface change. She would take the fastest, surest way to power, though it meant embracing dead meat, and waking in the morning beside a noseless skull on a fine pillow.

In his dry voice, lowered now, he, asked her: “What do you mark about me?”

Truthfully and without hesitation she replied: “That you do not wear the collar of the Guard, High Lord.” It was a sign that Hann had mentioned, meaning that Som enjoyed some protection better than the valkyries.

The viceroy smiled. “And do you know why I wear it not?”

Impulsively she answered: “Because you are mightier than death.”

He gave a silent, shaking grimace that was his laughter. He said: “You are thinking that it is because I am already dead. Butyet I rule, and crush my enemies, and have my joys. Dead? I have become death, rather. No weapon, no disease, not even time, has terrors for me now.”

She only vaguely understood him, and she could not think what to reply. Instead of speaking; she bowed her head and once more pressed to her lips the sticky tissue of his hand.

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