Fred Saberhagen – Empire of the East Trilogy

Still the others remained silent. He himself wondered why he was going on like this about her. Was he making the point that she meant nothing to him one way or the other, or only raising doubts about it?

He had no doubt that she hated him now, that horrible things would happen to him if he ever fell into her power. Well, she was like that. For a time he had hated her, too. Now she was no more important than some poisonous insect, to be avoided or, if the opportunity came, squashed flat.

Rolf and Loford were looking off into space in separate directions, doubtless waiting to make sure that Chup had finished what was for him a lengthy speech.

Loford said at last: “I am glad that your feelings are not involved here.” And Rolf: “We will not go out of our way to kill her, then, if she is not at hand when we take the jewel. Of course, if she should get a look at us, it will be better if we do not leave her able to answer questions.”

“Of course,” said Chup at once. But still he frowned. It was odd. He could picture himself killing Charmian, or almost anyone else. But he could not picture in his mind how she would look when she was dead. Yes, it was odd.

They went back to refining. From all that Catherine had told them, three expertly violent men with the advantage of surprise should be able to get into Charmian’s apartment, dispose of the immediate resistance, and get the gem into their hands. When it came to getting away, though, difficulties multiplied.

Chup wished aloud: “If only this girl Catherine could steal the gem for us, bring it out to us.”

Loford shook his head. “From what Rolf tells us, there’s not a chance of her getting into the treasure box. Charmian’s not one to be at all careless with her valuables.”

They talked it over, assuming themselves inside the apartment, the jewel in their possession. Now there were poundings on the single door, demands to know what was going on inside.

Chup: “Maybe no one will notice a few screams and a little commotion. That kind of thing’s no novelty in my Lady’s rooms.”

“But suppose they do?”

“Then… I wonder if the Constable truly dotes on her? I wonder if she could serve us as a hostage?”

That idea and others were debated. The discussion went on far into the night, when it was set aside for rest. The three men took turns at watching throughout the remainder of the night.

Shortly before dawn, Loford strolled outside as if to stretch some stiffness from his limbs. There, as pre-arranged with Mewick, he spelled out the essentials of the plan they had decided on, using gestures natural to a man who had waked up with some aching joints. They meant to be coming out from the rooftop tomorrow night, with the gem in their possession. He hoped that his gestures were being watched by one of the great birds, circling on hushed wings well above the walls. If they were lucky, a bird or two had been able to join Mewick’s patrol tonight.

The remainder of the night passed uneventfully, and so did the greater portion of the following day. Late in the afternoon Catherine made what would be, if things went well, her final trip down to the well. This time Rolf did not meet her, but watched from the concealment of his room as she gave the unobtrusive signal meaning that nothing had arisen to require a change in plans or a final consultation. As expected, the Constable’s party showed no signs of leaving. They had been on the road for many days, and men and beasts alike were doubtless ready for a day of rest.

Night fell, and in their little ground-floor room three merchants became Western warriors once more, removing extra weapons and equipment from their packs to be distributed about their persons, then covered with long travelers’ cloaks. Then there was nothing to do but hold final vigil at the window.

Time dragged. Chup was just beginning to ask: “Are you sure that she will come – ” when there she came, Catherine emerging from the dark mouth of the stair opposite, making her way across the ill-lit courtyard. She too had put on a long cloak, but her feet were still bare. Rolf hoped she was carrying at least a pair of sandals for the trip; there was no way to be sure when they would meet Mewick and the others and be able to ride.

The plan called for her to come to them openly, as if she had been sent to the three merchants with a message.

“Gentlemen, you are asked to come,” she said in a low voice when she had reached their open door.

“Asked?” Rolf echoed. He was not sure for the moment whether Catherine was only playing her role, orwhetherAbneror Charmian actually wanted to see the “merchants” about something.

“It is I who askyou,” she said with feeling, looking from one of them to the other. The hood of her cloak was thrown back, and her brown hair was looser than it had been. Her eye looked a little puffier, if anything, than yesterday.

“We are ready for some bargaining, “said Rolf, and stepped forward to the doorway and took her gently by the elbow, both to reassure her and to keep her from turning thoughtlessly and starting back at once -the three merchants must take a little time to ask a question or two, gather their sample wares, see to their own appearance, before calling on such an eminent lady. Catherine’s arm had a, lifeless sub-missiveness in Rolf’s grip; it was a feeling that he had met before, on touching slaves, slaves who had had reason to take him for an Eastern master. It came to Rolf that in a sense this girl had now become his slave, his property, and there was a twinge of forbidden pleasure in the thought.

The proper moments for delay soon passed, and the four of them set out across the courtyard, the three men unhurriedly walking ahead.

“I could learn nothing more that will be helpful,” the girl whispered to Rolf, from her position close behind him.

“All right.” He tried to sound calm and reassuring. “Do what I say, without hesitating. We will bring you out.”

A moment more and they were ascending the stairs of the building in which Charmian and the Constable were lodged. As they passed the open doorway of a second-floor apartment, through which several junior officers of the East could be seen gaming around a table, Loford said, as though continuing a conversation: “… we can procure what your Lady wants, if we have it not in the goods we carry with us. We stand ready at any hour of the day or night to serve so illustrious…” He let his voice fade to a meaningless mumble as they passed the door and started up the next-to-final flight of stairs. The uppermost flight, and the doors and landing at its top, were still invisible. As they turned the corner and started up the final flight the expected sentry at the top came into view, looking down coldly at them.

“Right up to the top, your honors, please,” said Catherine clearly from just behind Rolf, and could not keep the strain out of her voice. Behind the sentry were the two doors she had described to Rolf; the right one would lead to the Constable’s quarters, the left to the Lady Charmian’s. From behind the right door male voices could be heard, in low and serious talk, too muffled for words to be distinguishable.

The sentry was Rolf’s to cope with, for Chup’s greater effectiveness with the sword might be needed to meet the unexpected at one door or the other, and Loford might be needed just as suddenly for magical action and was too clumsy in any case to be trusted with a knifing.

On the topmost landing the men stood awkwardly, for it was not large, and the cold-eyed guard refused to give much ground. He was not truly suspicious yet. Catherine slid among the men to Charmian’s door, to tap and call softly. It seemed Charmian did not like even her maids to take her by surprise. Rolf stood rigidly waiting until he heard the bar lifted inside the door, then saw the door open a crack to frame the eye of another servant girl inside; he turned then, with unhurried smoothness that was practised but still not easy, not for him, brought a long dagger from under his cloak without any unnecessary flourishes, and pushed it up firmly beneath the sentry’s breastbone.

The sound life made in going out was not loud, and was covered by the whimpering little cry of the surprised servant-girl as Chup pushed in the door she had unlocked, and pushed his way inside, Loford right on his heels. Rolf with his unarmed hand caught his falling victim around the waist, and half-carried, half-dragged the dying man along into the apartment. Catherine, still waiting at the door, pulled it shut and barred it once everyone was inside.

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