Fred Saberhagen – Empire of the East Trilogy

Of course Abner might have summoned to the capital the people he wanted to talk to, eyewitnesses who had been engaged in the various battles in which Ardneh was known to have taken a hand. But then they would keep re-working their stories to put themselves in a more favorable light. He had to convince them that information was what he wanted, not more scapegoats. Just talking directly to the High Constable was intimidating enough for most of them.

A few had other reactions. One of these had engaged the Constable’s interest for reasons that had nothing to do with Ardneh; she had been traveling with him now for half a month. Two days after he met her he had sent home his other concubines.

The stone walls of the caravanserai were thick, but the fit of the massive wooden doors was far from tight, and now from the apartment next to Abner’s there came plainly the slide and thump of baggage being moved, and the voice of the Lady Charmian in the shrill tones she used with servants. Abner listened. In the very ugliness of that voice, which at other times could hold all the female sweetness in the world, there was a fascination. Even by its incongruity the voice evoked the unbelievable beauty of her face and body. Truly a most remarkable woman, even in the eyes of a man who had his pick of what the East and the subjugated lands could offer. And it was a nice touch that he could blend his business with his pleasure. Charmian had been at the debacle of the Black Mountains. Not that she had been able to tell him much of Ardneh.

Abner squinted against the lowering summer sun in the northwestern sky. Along the shaded porch of the brothel-tavern, some of its girls were quarreling, and had reached the stage of pulling hair. At the other side of the courtyard, three travellers, evidently some kind of traders, were being let in through the massive, narrow gate.

… yes, the woman was already assuming a ridiculous importance in his life. Not for the first time, he suspected magic. When he heard the door close behind his servants and knew he was alone he reached for amulets of great power that hung around his neck inside his outer garments. With these devices given him by Wood himself, Abner probed for any indication of a love-charm being worked. But to his passes and mutterings now no answer came. The woman’s magic was no more than feminine beauty and cleverness. No more? Those were quite enough.

When Abner had met Charmian she was living with the commander of a small cavalry post, in a place even more desolate and isolated than this caravanserai-a great come-down for her. Obviously she saw Abner as a miraculous chance to not only regain lost ground but leap far ahead of the places she had fallen from. The lady wanted power and position, and would spare no pains to get them. The cavalry commander had been unable to hide his chagrin at his loss, when Abner had invited the lady to accompany him, even as she herself had been openly overjoyed. Well, someday Ominor might claim her for himself; but neither he nor Abner would ever be so openly dismayed at the loss of this or any other woman…

Rolf, Chup, and Loford, having passed the brief scrutiny of the Master of the Station and been admitted through the gate – no very strict precautions against bandits were being taken, it seemed, because of the unusually large party of armed men who lay within the walls tonight-were sent on to find such lodgings as they might. They had put on clothing suitable for merchants and had counterfeited the general appearance of such as well as they were able. Their apparent caste thus achieved might at another time have gained them lodgings in the second or possibly the uppermost floor of one of the dormitory buildings, but today a small room on the lower level of servants and stables was the best that they could do. The Constable’s retinue and a party of well-to-do slave dealers had taken over everything else from the top down.

Even with some guidance from Ardneh it had taken Mewick and his patrol several weeks to find Abner’s trail. They had been following him closely for four days now, being too few to attempt an open assault on such a large party. Rolf still felt the certainty, send wordlessly by Ardneh, that the strange object they were to seize was in the baggage of Abner or someone traveling with him. Ardneh’s influence had become so convincing that Mewick had turned his patrol in the desired direction even before orders to do so came by bird-messenger from Duncan. The orders when they came were explicit, brought by birds who told how Duncan was starting to turn his whole army north: the seizure of the jewel was to be attempted at all costs to the patrol.

Abner’s decision to stop at the caravanserai offered at least some prospect of a chance. Thus, the plan to send three men behind the same walls as the Constable. The very added security of the walls might induce the enemy to let down his guard, and make some action possible.

Once in their ground-floor room, which they had claimed by evicting a miscellany of beasts of burden into the open courtyard, the three putative merchants had no difficulty, looking out through their uncloseable window, in picking out the high narrow windows of the Constable’s chambers in the building opposite. It was certain that he would have taken the poor best that the place could offer; and Chup and Loford had had enough experience with caravanserais of similar design to know where the most desirable rooms must be.

After seeing to their animals, and stowing their meager baggage in the most easily watched corner of their room, the three of them held converse in voices inaudible more than an arm’s length away.

Chup mused: “It will not be easy, I think, to get near enough to strike.”

Loford could look the mild tradesman part quite easily, and had been the spokesman at the gate. He answered now: “It is too early yet to tell. Give them a night of carousing, and see if by tomorrow they have not begun to be a little slow to notice things, a little lazy.”

Rolf said: “Also, remember this. Just getting near and striking will not avail us anything.”

Chup shook his head a centimeter or two in disagreement. “To kill Abner would be something, a deep wound for the East. Worth taking a chance for, whether or not we can do the job for which we came.”

Rolf, putting flat authority into his quiet voice, said: “No, to kill Abner is nothing if we cannot get the stone we want and get away with it. So Ardneh says.” Beyond that he could give his friends no explanation, for Ardneh had given none to him. Should Rolf be captured and questioned, still he would be able to say no more. But he spoke with conviction, having faith in Ardneh.

The other two exchanged a look of age and experience above his head. “Well,” said Chup, “what you say about getting away is suitable to me. I have no objection to my own survival.’

Loford put in: “Suitable, and interesting. Sometimes it pays to plan from start and finish toward the middle. Suppose we have what we came for, and are getting away-will we absolutely need the animals that we rode in here on?”

“No,” said Rolf. “Mewick and I discussed that. There are at least three good spare animals with the patrol. If we can rendezvous with them outside the walls all should be well.”

“And I,” said Chup, “came thinking we might go out over the roof.” He patted his midsection under his loose merchant’s garb. “I have some rope coiled here. That gate seems to be well watched, and not easy to open in a hurry.”

“Let us suppose,” said Rolf, “we are going overthe wall with a rope. What is next to be considered?”

Chup: “Since the plump wizard here is going with us, I suppose we must consider how to strengthen the strands, with a little magic perhaps.” Chup was better suited for this kind of work than any normal man could be; the prospect of desperate action actually cheered him up. Were it not that some in the West still mistrusted the sincerity of his conversion, he would have held a high command. “As he must have done for the backbone of his riding-beast.”

Loford did not seem disconcerted. “Would I could strengthen your wits as easily, dull swordsman. About getting away… Rolf, is it any clearer now, where the thing must ultimately be taken?”

“Let me think.” Trying to find what Ardneh wanted was like trying to find a half-forgotten memory of one’s own. Glimmerings came, as if grudgingly. “Farther than we’ll be able to ride from here in a single night. More I cannot see.”

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