King and Emperor by Harry Harrison. Chapter 16, 17, 18

“Take him out,” said the Emperor briefly. “He drew a weapon in the presence of his Emperor. Let him see a priest and hang him. Tell the Count of his county to recommend to me on the succession to Béziers. Send his men home.”

He reflected a moment longer. “They will be rebellious. Take ten of them, cut off left hand and right foot, tell them it is the Emperor’s mercy. You, your grace,” he added to the bishop. “You provoked him. I fine you a year’s income of your see. Till it is paid you have our permission to undergo the discipline which your hot blood needs. Ten strokes a day with a choirmaster’s scourge. My chaplain will see to it.”

He stared across the table at the whitening face, the face which after a very brief interval decided not to provoke the Emperor a moment further. The baron vanished, on his way to the already loaded gibbets on the edge of the camp. The bishop backed out, bowing and wondering how rapidly he could possibly raise a thousand solidi in gold.

“What’s that noise?” asked the Emperor.

Tasso the Lanzenbrüder looked carefully out across the lines of tents and pavilions.

“Agilulf,” he replied. “Come at last.”

The Emperor’s face broke into its unexpected charming smile. “Agilulf! He took his time getting here. But that means a thousand men, good Germans with Lanzenorden officers to control them. We can pull out those rascals we have guarding the west face and put some reliable fellows in their place. And I dare say Agilulf can find a couple of dozen good men with ropes’ ends to keep those lazy devils on the rocks working. Ha, they have had a nice holiday by the sea, they will be ready for some real work.”

Tasso nodded. The Emperor seemed to have cheered up, his moods Swung a good deal these days. If the idiots in the tent had watched him carefully they would have seen it was no time to provoke him. Now, there might be a chance.

“Those men, you told me to cut their hands and feet off,” he ventured. “Ten, did you say? Or five? Hands and feet, was it?”

The Emperor’s smile vanished, he was across the tent before Tasso could blink or think of protecting himself. Not that he would have tried.

“I know what you’re up to, Tasso,” he said, looking up from his little more than average height to the eyes of his strapping captain. “You think I’m getting too tough with these bastards. Well, I’m getting tough because things are getting tough. There is no room for failure any more. Not with the devil loose. Not with the devil loose.”

“Is the devil loose?” broke in another voice, the harsh and hostile one of Erkenbert the deacon, reporting to his master from the ground where he labored continually at perfecting his siege catapults. “When that happens we can expect signs and wonders in the sky.”

In the Caliph’s camp too, the bodyguards were uneasy. Every dusk, as the army camped, the impaling-posts were set up, every night was made hideous by the shrieks of men who felt the spike driving up through their bowels, as they fought to keep their footing on the iron ring that held them from death. A brave man, it was said, could sink down and let the spike tear out his bowels and his liver from inside. It was a long way from rectum to heart, though: too long for any normal courage. The Caliph was in a black mood, perturbed by the continuous defeats to which the followers of the Prophet were little used. His navies burned, or fled, his armies were trampled underfoot, or hesitated, came on slowly and reluctantly as now. There would be more screams and deaths unless good news came soon. Maybe even among the bodyguards. As they spread out the leather carpet and poised their scimitars, they prayed for distraction.

The captain of the cavalry patrols approached, dust matting his clothes. A young man dragged behind him by the wrists, struggling to get to his feet and shrieking imprecations. The bodyguards eyed each other with relief, waved the cavalryman through. A sacrifice for this evening already. Perhaps it would ease the master’s mood.

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Categories: Harrison, Harry