The viceroy said: “And all that is mine, my golden one, I have decided to share with you.”
With unconcealed joy Charmian rose in response to the viceroy’s tug on her hand. Som’s dead hands pulled her to him, and she kissed him on the lips, or where lips should have been and seemed to be. “As your willing slave forever, gracious lord!”
Holding her at arms’ length now, and smiling in great pleasure, he said: “Therefore you will become death too.”
These last words of his seemed to stay circling like birds in Charmian’s awareness, uncertain whether or not they meant to land. When at last they came fully home to her, her new triumph shattered like glass. Not yet did her distress show in her face or voice; her surface was her strength, where terror would reach only when it had already conquered all within.
She only asked, like a girl expressing sweet wonderment at a reward too great: “I shall become as you are, lord?”
“Even so,” he assured her happily, patting her hand between his, with faint sticking sounds. “Ah, I could almost regret that such goldenness must perish at its peak, like the beauty of a blossom plucked; but so it must be, for the woman who shares my endless life and power.”
With a shock of terror as sharp as the pain of blade or fire, she caught herself barely in time from trying to pull her hands away from his. In the back of her mind she was aware that other presences, human she thought, were coming into the audience chamber. But she could pay them no attention now.
She must express her joyful acceptance of Som’s offer, without the least appearance of hesitation. But moment by moment her understanding of his meaning grew more certain and her fear grew more intense. Never for an instant had she expected this. She would rather die a thousand times, a million times, than become as he was. She could smile without a tremor at his dead face, she could embrace it warmly if she must. But to see the like of it in her mirror was unimaginable, was fear more pure than she had ever known.
No longer knowing whether she could conceal her horror, faint with the dizziness of it, she whispered: “When?”
“Why, now. Is anything the matter?”
“My High Lord – ” Charmian could scarcely see. Would not some crevice open in the earth to swallow her? “It is only that I would preserve my beauty for you. That you may continue to enjoy it.”
He made a gesture of impatience. “As I said, it is annoying that your appearance must be so much changed. But never mind. It is only mortal men who find those superficialities of great importance. What draws me to you is primarily your inner essence, so like my own -now, there is something wrong. What is it? Is the process causing you discomfort?”
“The process, my High…now? It happens to me now?” She was only half-aware of losing control, of pulling free from him and moving back a step.
He peered at her in evident astonishment. “Why, yes. I am impatient. Once having decided that you should rule beside me, I had the magicians begin the process of your transformation as soon as you entered the chamber. Already the change is far advanced – ”
There was a rushing passage of the world, and screaming. Vaguely Charmian realized it was herself who screamed, and that the sound of pounding steps on wood and stone came from her own running feet. She had no longer any plan, no thought except to flee the death that moved and spoke and would engulf her with its own decay. A tall shape loomed before her, very near; she had run into it and rebounded before she saw it was a man, and knew his face.
The living face of Chup.
Still mad with panic, she tried to run around Chup, but he caught her by the arm. She had never seen his face so hard, not even on that day so long ago when he had slapped her. Now his voice came as if ground out between two stones: “Does it surprise you, Queen of Death, to see that I am still alive?”
Then Charmian understood what Chup’s presence here must mean, that all her plotting had been discovered, her hopes destroyed. Her fear was so extreme she could not move or speak; she sank down in a faint before attendants came to carry her from the chamber.
Som, relaxed now upon his throne, spent a little time in the enjoyment of his almost silent, grimacing laughter. Chup waited, standing motionlessly at attention, until the viceroy had composed himself and beckoned him to come nearer.
“My good Chup, all your warnings to me have been borne out by investigation. The wizard Hann has been arrested. The circlet of the lady’s hair has been found where you left it, in my treasure vault, with no trace visible of how you put it there. Needless to say, my security measures will be extensively revised. Fortunately, I am less susceptible to love-charms than these unhappy plotters thought; so it was shrewd of you to cast your lot with me.”
Chup bowed slightly.
Som went on.”Unhappily, the man Tarlenot has departed on a courier’s mission, on Empire business; it maybe difficult to get him in our grasp again. But he left behind him his Guardsman’ collar, which shall be yours, along with some substantial military rank.”
For the first time since entering, Chup allowed himself to smile. “That’s how I’d choose to serve, my High Lord Som. I am a fighter, with little taste for these intrigues.”
“And you shall have your command.” The viceroy paused. “Of course there is one matter first-your pledging to the East.”
Ah, said Chup to himself, without surprise. I might have known.
Som continued: “When you were a satrap in our service, unlike others of your rank, you never came here to make a formal pledge. That has always seemed to us rather odd.”
There was no satisfying the powers of the East. Always the certainty of great success was one more step away. Chup said, rather wearily: “I have been six months a crippled beggar.”
“You were a satrap, free to come, for a much longer time than that.” Som’s voice was no longer so relaxed. “Before you lost your satrapy.”
There was no good answer Chup could give. As a satrap, he had certainly been busy fighting, and he had told himself that he served his masters betterin that way than by partaking in mysterious rituals. But they had never seen it exactly that way.
Now Som was looking at him from his sunken eyes, and Chup thought that he could smell the death. The viceroy said: “This pledging is more important than you seem to realize. There are many who ask to bind themselves completely to the East, to share in its inner powers, and are not allowed to do so.”
As a soldier long accustomed to orders and the ways of giving them, Chup understood that there was now but one thing for him to say. “I ask to be allowed to make my pledge, High Lord. As soon as possible.”
“Excellent!” Som took from around his own neck a richly jeweled chain, which he tossed carelessly to Chup. “As a mark of my good favor, and the beginning of your fortune.”
“Thanks, many thanks, High Lord.”
“Your face says there is something else you want.”
“If I may retain for the time being the lodgings of that treacherous woman. And her servants, those who had no part in her plotting.”
Som assented with a nod. The chamberlain was evidently signalling him that other business pressed, for he dismissed Chup with a few quick words. After backing deferentially from the chamber, Chup hung the chain of Som’s favor around his neck, and made his way to what had been Charmian’s apartment. With the chain around his neck, he was now saluted by soldiers of the common ranks. People of more standing, some of whom had not deigned to notice him before, now nodded or eyed him with respect and calculation.
When he reached the apartment he found it swarming with men and women in black, each of whom bore a skull insignia upon his sleeve. In the past Chup had noticed only a few of these uniforms and had not thought of their significance. They were searching Charmian’s rooms, thoroughly, leaving casual wreckage in the process. Chup did not attempt to interfere until he found their leader, whose sleeve bore a much larger skull. This woman, though she maintained an air of arrogance, was like everyone else impressed with the chain that hung about Chup’s neck. In answer to Chup’s question, she led him to a service passage in the rear of the apartment. There waited Karen, Lisa, Lucia, Portia, Samantha, and Kath, chained together and huddled against the wall.
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