He said: “Come with me, lady, and I will show you what has happened to Prince Mark.”
They descended the interior stairway from the balcony, and this time turned out onto the courtyard and across it. On its far side a postern gate let them out through a comparatively thin interior wall. The place they entered was more a grotto than a courtyard, a narrow space surrounded by high walls, in which a narrow rim of paving surrounded a well or inlet of dark, chill water. On the far side of the well a low arch of stone covered the entrance to a watery tunnel under the castle, which was defended by a heavy steel grillwork against any commerce with the lake outside.
Standing on the narrow stone rim of the pond, Lady Yambu watched as attendants took hold of a heavily secured rope and hoisted an ice-encrusted form, in human shape, out of the water in which it had been shallowly submerged. Lake water, she thought, oughtn’t to be quite that cold, not at this time of year anyway. Magic, of course.
Two of the soldiers who had done the hoisting held the bound form up between them, while another leaned forward and struck it where the face ought to be. The blow seemed impersonal, as if he were trying to get a good look at a frozen fish. The soldier’s fist shattered the white integument sufficiently for Yambu to be able to recognize the features of Prince Mark. The Prince’s battered face was blue and gray with cold, and there was bright blood around his mouth, as if he might have bitten his tongue with the violence of his shivering, perhaps, or in some effort not to cry out. But Mark’s eyes were open, and alive, and when they rested on Yambu she thought they recognized her.
A moment later she had taken a step forward, and swung her own arm. It was more like a warrior’s blow than an old woman’s slap, and the Prince’s helpless head bobbed sideways with the impact.
Yambu stepped back with a sigh. “I have long dreamed of doing that,” she assured her host. And in the privacy of her own thoughts she marveled at this strong new evidence of how suddenly and completely her dedication to the abstract truth seemed to have evaporated. Evidently some things, after all, were more important.
“Is there anything else that you would like to do?” her host inquired. When she turned to face him she saw that his reptilian aspect was entirely gone, and the wings too; in place of the grotesque creature she had been talking to now stood a fully human man, young and strong and of surpassing beauty. The rich cape hung now in different, straighter folds. Golden curls fell to the young man’s muscular shoulders; his clear blue eyes regarded her.
“Not at the moment, Your Lordship,” she replied, and bowed her appreciation of his magic.
At a nod from the lord of the castle, the Prince was allowed to splash back into the lake. He sank like a stone, his rope tugged taut again.
Then Yambu gestured toward the second rope nearby, which presumably led to another submerged form. “And who is our dear Prince’s companion, Ancient One?”
“None other than this castle’s former owner, my dear queen. Another acquaintance of yours, perhaps-? No? Well, no one can know everyone of importance in the world. I should like to try to do so, though.”
Interruption in the form of a flying messenger spiraling softly down between the grotto’s walls came at that point to cut their conversation short. The Ancient Lord, having heard the message that the beast had come to hiss into his ear, announced as much, with what seemed genuine regret.
“But we have much more to say to each other, dear Yambu. I insist that you remain here as my honored guest for some time before you resume your pilgrimage.”
She would not have dreamt of trying to decline.
ARNFINN awoke, on that unreal morning after his first arrival at Lady Ninazu’s manor, into what seemed at first a gloriously prolonged dream. He was lying naked amid the marvelous white softness of her bed, and he thought the place was still warm where she had lain beside him. Even after he had experimentally cracked his eyelids open, it was perfectly easy to believe that he was still dreaming. This world in which he found himself this morning seemed to bear but small resemblance to the ordinary waking universe in which he had spent his life before encountering the Sword of Stealth.
It was in fact the nearby voice of the young lady herself, raised in shrill and ugly tones as she berated one of her servants, that convinced Arnfinn of reality.
Turning his body halfway over amid the bed’s incredible luxury, he lifted himself up on one elbow and surveyed the room in which he had awakened. Lady Ninazu’s voice sounded from beyond rich draperies concealing a door, and for the moment Arnfinn was alone. His own clothes, the few poor garments he had worn upon his journey, made a crude and grimy scattering across the floor’s thick bright rugs and colored tiles. But the Sword of Stealth, with sheath and belt and all, was with him in the bed. Even at the peak of last night’s excitement he had remembered to make sure of that. If the lady had been at all aware of Sightblinder’s presence between her sheets, she had been diplomatic enough to say nothing about it.
She had said several things, though, that were already, despite the considerable distractions he now faced, coming back to Arnfinn’s thoughts this morning.
For example, at one time last night she had said: “I am surprised, lord, that you have come to me alone and unattended.” Only to amend that a moment later with: “But then I suppose a wizard with powers like yours is never really unattended anywhere.”
Last night Arnfinn’s attention had been consumed by other matters. But this morning that last statement struck him as important. He could not help thinking that it could be of great importance indeed to know exactly which wizard Lady Ninazu thought he was.
It appeared that he was going to have a few moments longer for reflection; Lady Ninazu was still out of sight behind closed and brocaded draperies, tongue-lashing her servants in the next room over some female triviality of hairdressing or clothing. He shifted again in the bed, marveling anew at its whiteness and softness. He had never really imagined that anyone lived like this.
And now another memory of last night came back: Her Ladyship, unbelievably naked, incredibly lying in bed with him, sleepily clasping Arnfinn’s work worn, underfed arms and shoulders in her hands, and murmuring, without the least trace of mockery in her voice, about how marvelously muscular he was.
And again she had declared, in a voice soft with passion, “I sometimes wonder, lover, whether I fear you or I love you more.”
And again: “It is now, as you must well remember, two years since we first met-a little more than two years. And yet sometimes I feel I don’t know you at all.”
And yet again, in what now seemed to Arnfinn her most mysterious utterance of all: “I have heard from others that there are times in which the appearance of your body changes. I hope that is only a lie, spread by your enemies.”
“Changes?” Arnfinn had dared to ask. She wasn’t, at least he hoped she couldn’t be, talking about the changes wrought by the Sword of Stealth-but if not that, what?
And that was the only moment during the night in which the lady had apparently come close to being disconcerted. With lowered, fluttering lashes she had murmured: “I meant no offense, my dread lord.”
“It does not matter,” her supposed dread lord had responded awkwardly, not knowing what else to say, having no idea of how a real lord might have phrased the thought. And the lady had looked blank for a moment, as if something in her bed-partner’s speech or manner puzzled her. But still the power of the Sword prevailed; whatever else the victim of its deception might suspect, the identity of the person who held Sightblinder was usually the last thing that the victim could be made to doubt.
After that exchange of words Lady Ninazu had busied herself again with dedication to Arnfinn’s pleasure, and he had forgotten her words until now.
And now he forgot them again, for the draperies opened. The lady, wrapped in a loose garment of white fur, stood in the doorway smiling down at him for a long moment before she closed the curtains behind her again and came over to the bed. On her way toward it she paused to wrinkle her pretty little nose at some of the disgusting peasants’ clothing on the floor, and kick it out of her way. “Where can that have come from?” she murmured crossly to herself.