But she was smiling again by the time she reached the bed. “I am very pleased,” she said, “that my lord, who for a thousand years, or perhaps ten thousand, has had his choice of women, continues to be pleased with me.”
Arnfinn, who had had exactly two women in his lifetime previously, without the idea of choice having really entered into it on either occasion, swallowed. “How could I not be pleased?” he responded.
The lady curtsied, a small movement that flirted with mockery while still managing to give an impression of humility; but at the same time he, even Arnfinn the innocent, could see the calculation in her eyes, and the fierce pride.
She whispered: “And will I continue to please you?”
Despite the enchantment of her beauty, there was something… Arnfinn could feel a wariness developing in him. What would a real great lord have said in response to her question? “You will always please me. But there are many demands upon my time.”
“I am sure that there are more than I can possibly imagine. But now you have at least established firm control of my father’s stronghold. Tell me-that bothersome man-my father-I take it he is no longer in a position to bother anyone?”
Moment by moment the dream was developing imperfections. There was something in the way this girl spoke of her father that began to curdle both lust and satisfaction.
“No,” Arnfinn answered, going along with what she evidently wanted, again not knowing what else to say. “He is not.” This, then, he was thinking, was a daughter of Honan-Fu. And a daughter who rejoiced in her father’s downfall. Once again Arnfinn knew the beginning of fear. Without really understanding why, he could feel a disagreeable knot beginning to form in the pit of his stomach.
Approaching the bed, the lady sat down close beside him. Then, as if it were a gesture requiring boldness, she reached out to put her hand on her dread lord’s arm.
“And”-her voice dropped; something of great importance was about to be said-“my twin brother. How is he?” Lady Ninazu seemed to be holding her breath as she awaited her wizard lord’s answer to that. Her eyes were enormous.
The lady was hanging on Arnfinn’s response so raptly that it almost seemed that she had ceased to breathe. The rise and fall of her breast was almost suspended. Arnfinn could feel the knot in his own gut grow tighter in the presence of this intensity of will and of emotion, neither one of which he understood.
What to say?
“He is as well as can be expected,” Arnfinn replied at last. “Under the circumstances.”
“Ahh!” It was more an animal’s unthinking snarl than it was a word. Her eyes blazed at him fiercely, though what the passion was that made them blaze he could not tell. “What does that mean?”
A moment ago this girl had been all fluttering subservience, and now she was almost threatening. The fear induced in her by Sightblinder had been and continued to be genuine, though she was keeping it under control; what could bring her to raise such a challenge despite her fear?
Arnfinn’s own fear awoke again, as if in sympathy with hers. He knew that if he once allowed himself to give in to his own timidity in this situation, terror could overwhelm him. Instead he forced himself to sit up straight on the edge of the bed-making sure that he was still touching the sword belt with one hand-and to stare at the woman with as much regal authority as he could try to mimic.
She quailed at once; before he had to say a word, her eyes fell before his gaze.
“Oh, well,” she murmured. “If you will not answer.” Then, to Arnfinn’s amazement, a tear appeared in the corner of Lady Ninazu’s eye. She folded her arms in the sleeves of her white fur robe and rocked back and forth in the immemorial way of women grieving. Her voice dropped so low that he could barely hear it. “It has been more than two years since my brother and I have been allowed to see each other. Since that day on which we served you so well, master, he has not even been allowed to see the light of day. And year after year, day after day, my father has treated him so cruelly. He was still like a child two years ago; and anyway what we did was right-Kunderu and I opened the way for you to come into this world, didn’t we? Isn’t it wrong, isn’t it monstrous, that his punishment should have gone on so long?”
“Your twin brother,” Arnfinn muttered to himself, gaping at the lady, trying to understand. It was the first time he had ever heard of the existence of any such person.
“My dread lord, do not toy with me!” The words burst from the lady’s lips, though a moment later she would have bitten them back. Arnfinn had never seen anyone so gripped by emotion-not even the madwoman in the village, though she had been much noisier.
In the next moment Lady Ninazu had fallen on her knees before him. “My brother, Kunderu. Why cannot you let me see him now? Even though he is a great wizard himself as you well know, all power is in your hands now. Can you not at least allow me to see him? If I could see my brother again, if I could know that he is free, and happy-for two years now I’ve lived for nothing but that. Oh, great lord, oh, great lord, help me!”
The world was beginning to turn gray in front of Arnfinn. Shame and love and guilt and fear swept over him together. He had all that he could do to keep himself from leaping up and running from the room, even as he had run from the poor people on the roads and in the town, the deluded fools who had thought that he was tire most important person in their lives.
“I will be your loyal slave forever,” she implored him. “What does it matter to you now that he once angered our father? Unless-unless, oh, gods, unless you have some agreement now with Honan-Fu-?”
It was like that woman in the first village all over again, only a hundred times worse. Like the girl with the baby in the town square, only a thousand times more terrible.
“I will do what I can!” Arnfinn barked at last, almost shouting. At the same time he jumped to his feet, and even as he jumped his left hand went out and grabbed the jeweled belt, dragging the Sword with him. It came with him as inexorably as some prisoner’s chain. With muscles energized by desperation, he pushed the lady violently away from him.
Ninazu cried out in pain as her body crumpled to the floor on a soft rug.
Arnfinn stood momentarily paralyzed. Now, on top of everything else, he had hurt her, bruised her physically. He stood in the middle of the room, eyes shut, hands clenching his head, one arm looped through the sword-belt, holding it to him, in agony lest in his own fear and torment he should commit some greater violence that would hurt her yet again.
But Lady Ninazu was not much hurt. She scrambled to her feet, and in a moment was at Arnfinn’s side again, murmuring in his ear, soothing him when she saw that he appeared to be stricken. It seemed that she had made an amazingly swift recovery from her grief and pain. Now she moved lightly about Arnfinn, talking, almost as though a moment ago she had not been on the verge of hysterics.
And Lady Ninazu must have given some signal to her servants, for now some of them were entering the chamber, pushing before them a cart that rolled on large silver wheels and was topped with a golden tray. The metal part of the cart looked like solid gold to Arnfinn, and it was laden with food on golden plates. He could recognize none of the dishes, but the aromas reminded Arnfinn, even in his distress, that he had not eaten for many hours.
Despite his ravenous hunger, he had to get away. He could no longer face the lady, knowing how he had deceived and cheated her. Her every worshipful glance accused him. Her beauty and her tears had become more than he could stand.
He kissed her once more, hopelessly and chastely this time. To her look of astonishment he muttered half-incoherent promises of return and promises of help. Meanwhile he was busy pulling on his clothes, going through contortions in the process so that the Sword of Deception should remain always close at his side.
Then he fled, at the last moment grabbing up some food from the cart to eat on the way. When Lady Ninazu called after him, Arnfinn only roared at her and rushed on, as he had run from one woman in the small village, and from another in the streets of Triplicane.