“Hit you? Hit you Then who in all the hells was that, astride that flying thing?”
“It was whoever hit me, I suppose. How the hell should I know? I couldn’t see him.”
Ben closed his eyes. In memory he could see how Zoltan had come from one room of the ruined shed into the other. And he, Ben, had seen Zoltan as Zoltan, not as Mark or Barbara. “I should have known,” the big man muttered to himself, and opened his eyes again.
His fears were quickly confirmed. There was no longer any sword belt at Zoltan’s waist. No jeweled scabbard, and, of course, no Sword.
Again Ben turned his gaze again out over the darkening lake, then back to Zoltan. He said: “Whoever it was, it seems he has taken Sightblinder with him.”
Zoltan nodded, then paused for a few breaths to deal with whatever was going on inside his skull. Then he asked dazedly: “What do we do now?”
Ben swore a few more oaths. Then, in a quiet voice, he said: “As soon as you’re able to walk a straight line again, you can help me find a boat. What else?”
The wind from the south side of the lake was picking up, distant thunder also rumbling from that direction, and the surface of the water was growing choppy when the Maid of Lakes and Rivers under light sail eased up to the small docks at the foot of the castle. The small stone docks seemed pinned down by the frowning mass of those high, gray walls.
Basket torches, hanging from those high walls, and mounted in several places on the docks themselves, made the immediate surroundings very nearly as bright as day. Lady Yambu, still intent on reestablishing her rights as a person of importance, froze the captain and some crew members with a single glance, and was allowed to be the first to disembark once lines had been secured. The captain even bowed his head in her direction as she stepped ashore. She felt inclined to pardon his earlier lapses in matters of protocol, as doubtless he had other matters on his mind that he considered much more important. Yambu had heard him talking to his mate during the brief crossing, both men were worried that their boat was going to be seized by the new masters of the lake and islands, and what would happen to them and to their crew in that event they did not know. Still, they had not dared to refuse the summons to come here.
Quite possibly, thought Lady Yambu, they were too much afraid of demons to do that.
She herself, during her years of power, had had too much experience of those inhuman entities to fail to sense their spoor now. It was not an immediate presence, but still the subtle sickness of them hung about this castle like a polluted mist.
Behind the lady, as she stood on the dock waiting to be noticed by someone in authority, the riverboat’s crew had begun a hasty unloading of her cargo, apparently in obedience to orders already received somehow from within the walls. Whatever part of the lading the new masters of the castle might find valuable would doubtless go no farther.
She took note that several beautiful sailing craft, as well as vessels of a more utilitarian nature, were already tied up at these docks.
On the mast of one of the sturdy cargo boats nearby was stuck a poster; the torchlight Lady Yambu could read its largest print, advertising the forthcoming return of the Magnificent Show of Ensor, whatever that might be.
And now her presence had indeed been noticed by someone in authority. And the first decision regarding her had already been taken. A man in a uniform she took to be that of a junior military officer appeared at an open gate, and with a few words and a deferential gesture indicated that he was ready to conduct her within the walls.
They passed in through a postern gate that was doubly guarded, and after, a brief passage between tall stone walls, beneath a narrow strip of clouded sky. Then they entered another door. This led them to a dark chamber furnished with several benches, worthy to be the anteroom of a prison. Lady Yambu was invited to take a seat, then left to wait alone.
Again she chose to remain standing. Her wait had lasted only a few minutes when another official, this one obviously of higher rank, appeared. This man, bowing low, announced that the Ancient Master was willing to see the great Queen Yambu at once.
“Queen no longer,” she declared.
But the elegantly dressed courtier, holding the door open for her now, might not have heard her objection. He led her from the anteroom and along a different passageway. Soldiers in uniforms of gray trimmed with red, a livery she had seen in the town but still did not recognize, opened door after door for her, offering salutes. Torchlight showed the way, indoors and out, but the castle as a whole was now too deeply bound in darkness for her to form any estimate of how strongly it might be defended-making such assessments was a habit that had stayed with her, it seemed.
At one point she passed a descending stair, ill-lighted, that looked to her like a way down to a dungeon. Yambu made a mental note, as well as she was able, of the stair’s location.
She was making swift progress, she believed, toward the Ancient Master, whoever that might be. Evidently no games of power and rank were going to be played in the nature of keep-the-old-lady-waiting. Probably the new lord of the castle was something of a stranger to this part of the world, and he expected, or at least hoped, that she might be able to provide him with some useful information. Well, perhaps she could.
It was good that she was not going to be kept waiting. Still, she could almost have wished for a few hours’ delay, to give her two allies time to get to the island.
It seemed oddly reasonable and natural to Yambu that she should be here, inside a castle again, with men of rank bowing deferentially before her, and events of great moment to be decided. Suddenly she found herself wondering how far she really would be willing to go to help her old enemy, Prince Mark. And what had happened to her search for truth? Only hours ago she had been serenely convinced that finding some abstract truth was all that mattered to her any longer.
But that, of course, had been before another Sword had touched her hand.
She had just finished congratulating herself on her swift progress toward her meeting with the Ancient One when she was made to wait once more, this time in a more comfortable place. Hardly had she settled herself to inspect the artwork on the walls-left over, she supposed, from the days of Honan-Fu-when a door opened and a man entered, dressed in rich garments and wearing a jeweled collar. He was a large man, aging, scarred, and somewhat overweight, and he limped heavily on his left leg.
“Amintor,” she said, surprised-but then on second thought she was not really all that surprised. This man had served her as a general, years ago. And more than once during those distant-seeming years he had also shared her bed.
Amintor bowed. “The last time we met, my lady, you were certain that you had withdrawn from the world.”
“I have discovered no other world but this one in which to live.” She looked him up and down. “You seem to be prospering, Baron.”
“Indeed, fate has been kind to me of late.”
They chatted for a few moments, of old times, mostly of inconsequential things. Presently Amintor turned her over to the guidance of another officer, who led her out into the corridors of the castle again.
Following her new guide, she climbed steep stairs. They emerged from these stairs onto a balcony overlooking a central courtyard of the castle, an enclosure much disfigured by what must have been quite recent vandalism. A crude new construction, looking like a sacrificial altar, occupied the center of the space. But she had little time to look at this, or the rest of the setting-the figure that awaited her on the balcony demanded her attention.
This figure was manlike-with some surprising qualifications-and as the former queen drew near, it rose from its throne as if to greet an equal.
The torchlight here was adequate, and her first good look at the Ancient One, his vestigial wings and certain reptilian attributes, afforded Her Ladyship something of a shock. But Queen Yambu had seen strange things before, and she was not going to show that she was shocked unless she chose to do so.
The formalities of greeting were got through routinely, despite the no more than half-human aspect of her host. In a minute Yambu found herself seated near the throne, on a chair almost as tall as it was, and of fine workmanship compared to the crudity of the throne itself. No ordinary throne would have done for this particular ruler, Yambu realized; there was the problem of accommodating his tail.