“Little man in black, it concerns not you,” grunted the nearer of the two. “Go your way and leave us be.”
“Wait!” said the other. “Ask first whether he likewise is bent on the same errand!”
“A good point!” conceded the first, and raised his great cudgel menacingly. “Speak, you!”
“First I must know what your errand was, before I can say if mine is the same or not,” the traveler pointed out.
“A good point!” admitted the second, who had now also approached to threaten him. “Know that I am Ripil of the village called Masergon-”
“And I,” interrupted the first, “am Tolex of the village called Wyve. Last week I set forth from my father’s house, he having six other sons older than I-”
“As did I!” Ripil broke in. “Exactly as did I! You’ve registered my name, I trust, stranger? You will have good cause to remember it one day!”
“All men will!” snapped Tolex contemptuously. “They will remember your name to laugh at it, and when boys scribble it daringly on the wall with charcoal old women will spit on the ground as they hobble past!”
Ripil scowled at him. “Booby! Possessed of unbelievable effrontery! Go your way before it is too late, and the people of this city hang you in chains before the altar!”
“Your errand, though!” cried the traveler, just in time to forestall a renewal of the fighting.
Tolex gave him a huge but humorless grin. “Why, it’s all so simple! This idiot called Ripil came hither thinking to make his fortune, dethrone Duke Vaul, and claim the hand of Lorega of Acromel! As though a dunderheaded village lout could do more than dream of such glories!”
“And your own ambition?”
“Why, I have come to make my fortune and be chosen as heir to Duke Vaul, when naturally I shall be assigned Lorega’s hand!”
The traveler, not unexpectedly, burst out laughing. In a moment Tolex began to laugh also, thinking that it was Ripil’s foolishness alone which had caused the joke, and Ripil, his face black like a storm-cloud, caught up his quarterstaff and began to belabor him anew.
The traveler left them to it, and went forward into the city.
In this city called Acromel there was a temple, crowning the black tower about which the buildings clustered like a single onyx on a pillar of agate. In this temple, before the red idol of the god Lacrovas-Pellidin-Agshad-Agshad, Duke Vaul yawned behind his hand.
“Take her,” he said to the chief priest, nodding his large black-bearded head to his left. The priest bowed to the hard slippery floor and signaled his minions. In a moment the consort who had shared Vaul’s life for fifteen years, and until that moment had also shared his throne, was hanging from the gallows in front of the altar, her heart’s blood trickling onto Agshad’s hands outstretched like a cup to receive it.
And still that was not enough.
Duke Vaul knitted his brows until his forehead was creased like a field trenched to grow vegetables, and drummed with his thick fingers on the arm of his ebony chair. He looked at the idol.
From the vantage-point where he sat, he saw Agshad in the attitude of accepting sacrifice: mouth open, eyes closed, hands outstretched and cupped with blood filling them. On the left Pellidin, who shared Agshad’s body but not his head or his limbs, was portrayed in the act of executing justice: to wit, wringing the life from three persons of indeterminate sex-indeterminate, because Pellidin’s cruel grasp had compressed their bodies into a gelatinous mess and left only their arms and legs sticking out like the limbs of a beetle. On the right, Lacrovas was portrayed in the mode of obliterating enemies, with a sword in one hand and a morning-star in the other. And finally, facing away from the spot where by preference Duke Vaul had his throne located, there was the second Agshad in the attitude of devotion, with hands clasped together and eyes cast heavenward in a beseeching look. That was the aspect of the Quadruple God with which Duke Vaul had the least concern.
Below the dais on which he presided, priests and acolytes by the hundred-predominantly sacrificers, men expert in every art of human butchery-wove their lines of movement into traditional magical patterns. Their chanting ascended eerily towards the domed roof of the temple, along with the stink of candles made from the fat of those who had hung earlier in the chains before the altar. There was no point in letting their mortal remains go to waste, was there?