Fred Saberhagen – Empire of the East Trilogy

In his view the lake stretched east to meet the sky, and in that sky there frowned a lone high thun-derhead, its cloudy base below the watery horizon. Something in the appearance of the cloud suggested a giant air-elemental, but of course that could not really be. The demons charged with the defense of the palace would long since have taken the field against any such intruder, and the sky above the lake would no longer be innocent and summery.

The man who was to die-there was supposedly some evidence to link him with a plot against the Emperor-let out his first unbelieving cry, as the sharpened wood began to have its way with him. Ominor had not been paying close attention, he had larger matters on his mind today, but now he uttered a small sound of satisfaction and leaned back a little in his chair.

The Emperor of all the East appeared to be neither old nor young (though in fact he was very old indeed) and was not noticeably thin or fat. His coloring approximated the human average. His clothes were simply cut, and were for the most part white, with here and there fine trimmings of deep black. Around his neck on a transparent chain there hung a sphere of black, the size of a man’s fist, shining as if with oil. It was nowhere pierced by any fastener, but held to the chain by being enclosed in a light basketwork of silver filaments.

While listening to his entertainment, John Ominor gazed out across the near-monotony of the watery plain. Much closer than the thunderhead, but infinitely smaller, a pair of wings were beating, with gradual enlargement. A courier reptile, who perhaps embodied the final relay of a message that had started halfway round the world. This pleasant confirmation of his power crossed the Emperor’s mind vaguely; time enough later to discover if the messenger brought good news or bad. His gaze dropped to a fishing boat, that sculled past no more than half a kilometer from shore. His eyes followed a fisherman now, but yet his mind was elsewhere.

Today Ardneh was coming to the palace.

By electronics and witchcraft the Emperor had sought round the whole earth for his most tenacious enemy. At first the objective of the hunt had been simple: to find and kill. Then, when it had become apparent that finding Ardneh’s life might be endlessly difficult if not impossible, the searchers’ efforts had been bent toward arranging contact, negotiations.

Of enemies John Ominor had plenty, both within and without the power structure he controlled; but Ardneh was unique.

The noises of the impaled man were wholly animal now, and the Emperor turned to watch for a few moments. But he could not relax and enjoy himself, as he had planned to do for a few moments before confronting his visitor. The meeting was now less than an hour away. And Ardneh was beginning to loom too large.

True enough, most of the West looked to Prince Duncan of Islandia as their foremost leader. And Duncan was certainly formidable; he was now maintaining an army on this very continent, where Ardneh’s seaboard territory, the Broken Lands and a few other contiguous provinces, gave Duncan a strategic base in which to rest his forces between campaigns. Ominor of course continually planned reoccupation of the seaboard, but somehow could never quite amass enough troops and demons and materiel for the job, not while he was distracted and his strength was drained by a hundred other guerilla conflicts and rebellions around the world. And Duncan would never remain for long in his coastal stronghold, but pour his army out again like some uncontainable liquid into the heart of the continent, where among the vast forests and plains Ominor’s generals would fail once again to bring him to decisive battle.

Not far from the sea-wall, and from where the Emperor sat, there stood a summerhouse roofed with dark glass and sided with viny trellises. Glancing toward this shelter, the Emperor saw that his councilors were beginning to assemble within it.

Eight high subordinates had been summoned to attend the confrontation with Ardneh. All wore fine black garments edged and piped with white, negative images of the Emperor’s own distinctive garb. When he had counted the six men and two women into the summerhouse, John Ominor rose from his chair and without haste walked down to join them. The two torturers left off their careful work for a moment to fall with foreheads to the ground as he passed near. Orninor glanced with passing amusement at the victim on his stake, boldly upright as if in insolence, and unlikely to be punished for it.

Inside the summerhouse, the eight remained with foreheads against the sandy floor until he had taken the chair at the head of the long table. Then they seated themselves in order of precedence. He was certainly the most ordinary-looking of the nine assembled.

There were no formalities; Ominor simply looked enquiringly at the man who sat at his right hand. This was his chief wizard, the High Sorcerer of all the East, who had many names but was at present known simply and conveniently as Wood.

Wood understood at once what question he was required to answer. He said flatly: “Ardneh is not a human being.” Today Wood himself was wearing his most human aspect; he appeared old and gnarled, like some ancient tailor with bowed legs and stringy-muscled arms. He had a big, bent nose, and oddly bulging eyes that very few folk cared to meet.

“Some elemental power, then,” the Emperor commented. When confirmation of his statement was not immediately forthcoming, the Emperor added quickly: “Surely Ardneh is not a beast?” Ominor’s speech as usual was loud and quick, and as usual it was difficult for his hearers to gauge the exact degree of his impatience.

Wood answered quickly, daring to look his Emperor in the eye. “My Supreme Lord, Ardneh is neither man nor woman, and surely he is no beast. He is therefore a power, but I hesitate to call him elemental. And I think he is not a djinn. He fits no known category. I must confess that there are things about him I do not yet understand.”

“An understatement, surely. Keeping in mind this persistent lack of understanding, what do you propose we do today?”

“That we proceed as planned, my Supreme Lord.” The answer came without noticeable hesitation. Wood could scarcely have maintained his rank just below the Emperor without considerable courage, as well as the proper amount of prudence. Around the table the seven other councilors were waiting, still as carven images. Abner, High Constable of the East, commander of Ominor’s armies, sat straight backed at Ominor’s left hand, a thick muscle bulging in his neck as he looked with unreadable eyes past the Emperor at Wood. The Emperor was silent, watching Wood as he might have watched a prisoner on trial. But it was the way he looked at everyone.

Wood went on: “If Ardneh is so powerful that we cannot defend ourselves from him here, at the center of our world…” With a little shrug he let the sentence trail off.

For a few moments no one in the summerhouse spoke. From the middle distance came the gurgles of the wretch who labored hard at dying on his stake. Then Ominor lifted his weighty gaze from Wood, and flicked it toward the foot of the table. “You who labor in the uncommon arts, what can you tell me today that I have not already heard?”

The junior of the two technologists present only bowed his head in answer, while the senior stood up as spokesman, stammering: “V-very little, Supreme Lord. The electronic direction-finding stations continue in operation, and sites for two new stations have been established since our last meeting. But where the life of Ardneh may be hidden, that we still cannot say.” Candor, even about failures, was the least dangerous course to take with Ominor. All who survived as his top aides had learned this well.

Most of the others around the table were indicating by their expressions how scornful they were of such esoteric methods as the two technologists were striving to employ. Technology was well enough in its place, making wheels for wagon or chariot, forging swords with hammer, bellows, and anvil. But no one understood electronics, no, not even the technologists who played with Old World gear.

Ominor was not so scornful. The Western enemy had more than once used unorthodox technology with good success.

“Let me hearwhat the rest ofyou have to say,” the Emperor ordered now, sweeping his eye around the circle. “Can any one of you give me a reason why we should amend or delay our plan for meeting Ardneh?” None could; they murmured one by one, bowed, and shook their heads. The Supreme Lord touched that which hung around his neck, the sphere of blackness on its crystal chain. “And this is what I had best offer Ardneh as a bribe?”

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