But she had to pay attention. Her host, in his harsh and somewhat absentminded voice, was declaring that the fame of Queen Yambu, great as it doubtless was in these regions of the world, had somehow escaped his ears until very recently. The implication seemed to be that until very recently he had been far away, in some other part of the world altogether. But he did not say where he had been.
She asked: “And where, my lord, are these remote areas, in which I am unknown?”
He chuckled. “It is not a matter of where, so much, dear lady, as of when. But that doesn’t matter now.” He paused. “My leading counselors inform me that you are an old and bitter enemy of Prince Mark of Tasavalta.”
“Indeed, sir, until now my relationship with the Prince has been conducted almost entirely across battlefields.”
“And I am given to understand that you are also an old acquaintance of Baron Amintor, my military commander?”
“I am more than an old acquaintance, I should say. He is a skillful officer, and served me well.”
“Ah, my lady, I could wish that I had met you sooner-I wonder how many more of your former associates I am likely to encounter in these parts?”
Already Lady Yambu was morally certain that this man knew something of her meeting in the inn with Mark’s two companions. She said: “I myself have seen one other, during the past two days. And with him was one who was presented to me as a nephew of the Prince-but I cannot vouch for the truth of that relationship.”
“Ah.” The beast-man did not sound surprised. “And your old friend was-?”
“Hardly a friend of mine. An interesting fellow, though-Ben of Purkinje is his name. Which way he and the princeling nephew went after I had terminated our meeting, I have no idea.”
“And in what way-if I may ask-is this man interesting?”
“You may ask of me whatever you like, dear Ancient Master-is that title an appropriate one for me to use to you?”
“It will do, Your Ladyship, it certainly will do.”
“Good… an interesting man, then, and I do not mean only in physical terms-I suppose you will have heard about his remarkable strength. He was presuming rather desperately on his status as an old enemy, to ask my help.”
“An intriguing thought.” The tailed creature shifted on its throne; for just a moment Lady Yambu had the impression that it, or he, was flirting with a change of shape into a much more fully human aspect. “And what did you tell him, dear lady, if you do not mind sharing your discussion with me?”
“I do not mind. The idea of helping an old enemy -at least some old enemies-might have its interest. But I have other interests now. Ben was disappointed when he learned that my status as a pilgrim is quite genuine.”
“Your status, then, is still quite genuine? Your pardon, Queen Yambu, I did not mean to question your sincerity. But I thought that you might now be in the process of returning from some spiritual quest, and therefore ready to replace your gray robe with something more-well, more regal.”
“Alas, no. My pilgrimage, though it is several months old, can hardly be said to have begun as yet.”
“I see. A difficult venture, then. I thank you for interrupting it to visit me. And what god or goddess is its object, estimable lady?”
“The goddess Truth, Your Ancient Lordship.”
The figure on the throne threw back its head and gave vent to an honest laugh, which gave the impression, if not the look, of greater humanity. “I do not know that goddess yet. But then I have been absent from the world’s affairs for a long time.”
“I do not know her either,” Yambu admitted readily enough. “Oh, once or twice in my life I think that I have seen her, passing through the air above a battlefield; but never did she linger there for long.” And now the tone of Lady Yambu’s voice changed suddenly; a certain dreaminess appeared in it, as if in anticipation of a pleasure. “And now, sir, I have a question of my own. I would like to know what you have done with Prince Mark.”
“I have done that which ought to please any old enemy of his.” Having said that, the Ancient One paused for a moment as if in thought. “He is another interesting man, this Mark. They tell me he is a child of the Emperor, though I am not sure in what sense that description is to be taken. The expression is new to me, a part of this new world in which I find myself. Proverbially, it would mean anyone subject to great misfortune, would it not?”
“Something like that, sir. But in Mark’s case I think it is meant in a literal sense. There really is an Emperor, you know.”
“There were those who claimed that title in the world from which I came. Perhaps they had earned the right to it. But I understand that this Emperor is something different.” The Ancient Lord’s eyes, purely reptilian for the moment, probed at Yambu. “They tell me further, Your Majesty, that when you were only a girl yourself you bore the Emperor’s girl-child. At that time, apparently, he was still considered a person of some importance.”
“He was so considered by many people. Yes.” There was much more that Yambu might have said on the subject, but she saw no reason to enter into such a lengthy discussion now.
“Interesting. But not a matter of vital concern, I think. Rather an example, it sounds to me, of a potentially important power whose day has already come and gone.” The grotesquely misshapen man stroked his chin-more precisely, his lower jaw-and said to her: “Of much greater interest to me in this new world are the Swords-all the more since I have seen what one of them is capable of doing.”
And with a flourish the figure on the throne leaned forward slightly, into fuller torchlight. The Ancient One’s right hand brought forward, where Yambu could see it, a black-hilted weapon that she was sure must be Shieldbreaker, though just now whatever symbol might be on the hilt was covered by a clawlike hand.
The man who was holding the Sword said to her: “I have heard that the adoptive father of Prince Mark was the smith who actually worked at the forge to make these twelve fascinating toys.”
She shook her head. “Look at the workmanship, dear Ancient Lord. If that is even an adequate word for it. I think it transcends workmanship; it almost transcends art. Can you believe that it is merely human? Even Old-World human? No, it was Vulcan, the god, who forged these blades. But I believe there is some truth in the story, that the man called Jord was also there, pressed into providing some kind of assistance -and Mark was born to Jord’s bride less than a year thereafter.”
She had made sure to register restrained surprise when first the Sword was shown to her. And now she let herself react again, when her host suddenly leaned the cruciform hilt a little closer to her, and moved his claws to let her see the small white hammer-symbol on the black.
Yambu said: “I have, at one time or another, held others of the Twelve in my own hands. But never this one.”
As if he suspected that she yearned to hold it now, its present owner drew it back. He asked: “You would agree that this is the most powerful Sword of all?”
The lady smiled at him faintly. “All twelve have great magic. And also little tricks. The most powerful Sword of all is that one whose powers happen to be required at the moment.”
“Well answered, Queen Yambu!”
“Queen no longer, as I have already told your people.”
“But queen again, perhaps, one day.”
She wondered suddenly if this man might really be anxious to recruit her to his cause. If all this part of the world was truly new to him, it might really be hard for him to find trustworthy and capable subordinates-that was hard enough to do at any time.
She said: “I think not, Lord of the Lake-but that sounds too small a title for a man of your obvious accomplishments.”
“Oh, it is, Your Ladyship, far too small. I mean to be Lord of the World one day-one day not too far distant.” He sounded calmly confident.
He drank wine then, and suddenly arose from his throne. A rich cape, which had been draped behind the chair, now fell about his body, covering most of the deformity from the shoulders down. Standing, the Ancient Lord was taller than Yambu, somehow considerably taller than she had expected.
Around his upper back his cape bulged out, a symmetrical enlargement quite unlike the deformity of a hump. And as Yambu watched, the bulge stirred lightly, giving her the sudden idea that rudimentary wings might be enfolded there. Wings on a man, she thought, would make no sense at all; but they would not be the first thing about this one that did not make sense.