Fred Saberhagen – Empire of the East Trilogy

Chup said: “You may release them, on my word. I am to occupy these rooms, and I will require a good staff, familiar with the place, to restore order from this mess that you have made.”

“They have not been questioned yet,” the leader of the skulls said, finality in her voice.

“I am somewhat aware of how the plotting went, and who was involved, as our Lord Som can tell you. These were innocent. But they will be here when you want them for your questions.”

It took a little more argument, but Chup did not lack stubbornness and pride, and there was Som’s favor hanging down upon his chest. When the searchers in black at length departed, the six girls, unchained, were left behind. When they were alone with him the six of them came slowly to surround Chup. They said nothing, did nothing but gaze at him.

He bore this silent, disturbing scrutiny only briefly before issuing curt orders for them to get to work. The shortest, Lisa, turned away at once and started in; he had to bark commands, and kick a couple of the others, to get them moving properly. Then he walked out into the garden, turning ideas over in his mind.

On the next day Som’s chamberlain came to Chup, and led him down into the mountain. Through devious and guarded tunnels they passed, until the tunnel they were in broke out into the side of a huge and roughly vertical shaft. This chimney had the look of a natural formation; it was about ten meters wide here, at a level well below the citadel. It seemed to widen gradually as it curved upward through the rock. Sunlight came reflecting down through it, from what must be an opening at the unseen top, beyond a curve. A precarious ledge winding round the inside of the shaft, made a narrow pathway going up and down. At the level where Chup and the chamberlain now stood, this ledge widened, and from it several cells had been dug back into the rock, and fitted with heavy doors.

Only one of these doors was not closed. Gesturing at it, the chamberlain, as if imparting necessary information, said: “In there lies she who was the Lady Charmian.”

When Chup had nodded his understanding of this fact, if not of its importance, the chamberlain said quite solemnly: “Come.” And started down the rough helix of a path that wound both up and down the chimney.

Chup followed. The two of them were quite alone on all the path, as far as Chup could see, peering down a long drop. From below, round a lower curve in the gradually narrowing chimney, in regions where the daylight scarcely reached, there came up a roseate glow. “Where are we going?” Chup asked the silent figure ahead of him.

The chamberlain glanced back, with evident surprise. “Below us dwells the High Lord Zapranoth, master of all demons in the domain of Som the Dead!”

Chup’s feet, that had been slowing down, now stopped completely. “What business have we visiting the Demon-Lord?”

“Why, I thought you understood, good Chup. It is the business of pledging. Today I will explain how your initiation is to be accomplished. I must take you nearly to the bottom, to make sure you are familiar with the ground.”

Chup drew a deep breath. He might have known they’d put demons into this, the one peril that could make him sweat from only thinking of it. “Tell me now, what is the test to be?”

He listened, frowning, while the chamberlain told him. On the surface of it, it sounded easier than Chup had expected. He’d have to face Zapranoth, but not for long and not in any kind of contest.

But there was something -wrong -about it.

Still scowling, Chup asked: “Is there not some mistake in this? I am to serve Som as a fighting man.”

“I assure you there is no mistake. You will not suffer at the hands of the High Lord Zapranoth if you do properly what you are sent to do.”

“I don’t mean that.”

The chamberlain looked at him blankly. “What, then?”

Chup struggled to find words. But he could not make it clear in his own mind what was bothering him. “The whole business is not to my liking. I think there must be some mistake.”

“Indeed? Not to your liking?” The chamberlain’s haughty glare could have withered many a man.

“No, it is not. Indeed. Something is wrong with this scheme. Why am I to do this?”

“Because it is required of you, if you wish to participate fully in the powers of the East.”

“If you cannot give me any more definite reason, let us go back to Som, and I will question him.”

It cost Chup some further argument, and the nearly incredulous displeasure of the chamberlain, but at last he was led upward again, and admitted to see Som once more.

This time he found the viceroy apparently quite alone, in a small chamber below the audience hall. In spite of half a dozen torches on the walls, the place seemed dim and cold. It was a clammy room, nearly empty of furniture except for the plain chair Som was sitting in, and the small plain table before him. On that table there stood upright mirrors, and at the focus of the mirrors a candle guttered, topped with a wavering tongue of darkness instead of flame, casting all around it an aura of night instead of luminance. Som’s face turned toward the candle was all but invisible, and what little Chup could see of it looked less human than before.

In answer to the silent interrogation of that face turned toward him, Chup came to attention. In a clear voice he said: “High Lord Som, I have taken and given orders enough to understand that orders must be followed. But when I think an order is mistaken, then it is my duty to question it, if there is time. I question the usefulness of this initiation, in the form I am told it is to follow.”

Som the Dead was silent for a little time, as if such an objection were outside his experience, and he had no idea how to deal with it. But when he answered, his dry voice was hard to read. “What is it you dislike about the pledging?”

“Excuse me, High Lord Som. That I dislike it is beside the point. I can carry out orders that I find unpleasant. But this… I see no benefit in this, for you, for me, for anyone.” That sounded weak. “Excuse me if I speak clumsily, I am no courtier… That’s just it, High Lord. I am a fighter. What can a thing like this prove of my ability?”

Som’s voice did not change; his face remained unreadable. “Exactly what did my chamberlain tell you was required of you?”

“I am to take the woman Charmian from her cell. Tell her that I’m helping her escape. Then I am to lead her down into the pit, where dwells our High Lord Zapranoth, There I am to give her to the demon, to be devoured -possessed-whatever Zapranoth may do with human folk.”

The answer was quick and cold. “The chamberlain spoke our will correctly, then. That is what we require of you, Lord Chup.”

A good soldier, if he had ever got himself in this deep, would know that this was the moment to salute, turn and leave. Chup knew it; yet he lingered. The hollows of darkness that were Som’s eyes remained aimed at him steadily. Then Som said: “The strong magic of a love-charm once bound you to that woman, but my magicians tell me you are free of that. What are your feelings for her now?”

In a flash of relief Chup understood, or thought he did. “Demons! I’m sorry, lord. Do you mean, have I affection for her? Hah! That’s what you’re testing.” He almost laughed. “If you want me to feed her to the demons, well and good. I’ll drag her to the pit and toss her in, and sing about my work!”

“In that case, what is your objection?” Som’s voice was still cold and hard, but reasonable.

“I… High Lord, what good will it do to test my skill in lying and intrigue? To see if she believes me when I promise to help her? You’ll have other men in your service far more cunning in such matters than I am. But you’ll have few or none who’ll fight like me.”

“The test seems useless to you, then.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Does a good soldier argue all orders that seem to him useless? Or, as you said before, only those that seem mistaken?”

Silence stretched out following the question. Chup’s stubborn dissatisfaction remained, but his will was wavering. The more he tried to pin down what was bothering him and put it into words, the more foolish his objections seemed. What harm could he suffer, in obediently carrying out this test, that could compare with all he stood to gain from it? Yet, encouraged by Som’s seeming patience, he made an effort and tried once more to speak his inner feelings.

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