But that the men outside would not even notice the absence of their sentry was too much to expect. Soon there came a hearty pounding on the gate, and soldiers’ voices murmuring questions to each other. Ben waited, looking to his hostess; it was up to her now to come up with some cleverness. But she continued silent and passive; then she turned her head back toward the manor house, and there were small sparks as of torches reflected in her eyes.
A man, by the look of him a steward or something of the kind, was hurrying out from the house. He was being lighted on his way by torches in the hands of a couple of lesser servants.
When the steward came close enough to get a look at Ben he stared at the big man uncomprehendingly, even fearfully; but he asked no question and made no comment. It was as if he feared to question any presence that the lady obviously accepted. A moment later he had shifted his hopeless gaze toward the gate, where the soldiers’ knocking continued with grim patience.
“Never mind that noise,” the lady snapped at him. “What have you come out here for?”
“There has been-an arrival at the front gate, my lady.”
“What sort of an arrival? Speak up!”
The man gestured helplessly. “First, a number of wagons, Lady Ninazu. Half a dozen of them at least. It is the Show of Ensor. And then a-a crowd of soldiers.”
“Ah!” she cried with delight, and looked at Ben. “Come with me!”
For a moment Ben considered trying to vanish into the orchard, but the lady’s imperious eye caught him and dragged him along. He consigned himself to the fates, and followed with a sigh. His only hope was probably her protection anyway, he thought.
Maintaining a respectful interval, he followed her into the house and through its splendors. This was a very long, wide structure, all or very nearly all of it built upon a single level. When they had passed outside again through the front door Ben could see the front gate of the grounds standing open some thirty meters ahead of him. Beyond the open gate more soldiers were milling around.
Lady Ninazu hurried eagerly toward the gate, but he hung back.
Then he saw something that made him advance until he was able to see a little more. Outside the gate, soldiers were indeed arriving, and nonmilitary wagons too, a poor-looking little train of them with crude signs blazoned on their canvas sides. The Magnificent Show of Ensor.
The lady turned and beckoned Ben impatiently, signaling him to join her outside the gate. Slowly he complied. Amid a sudden new prodigality of torches, which were rapidly being lighted at the orders of the lady of the manor, Ben moved outside the gate, where he gazed with dull wonder at the five or six poor wagons, being pulled by tired-looking load beasts into camp position.
“Ho, there!” One of the officers in red and gray, who appeared to be in charge of the milling troops, bellowed impatiently toward the wagons. “Who’s the boss of that flea circus?”
At once the driver of one of the wagons waved back energetically. He reined his animals to a halt and jumped down from his high seat. Ben, staring at him, felt something in his heart almost stop; and then his blood was pumping steadily again, a little faster than before.
Meanwhile the officer had turned away, to deal with some evidently more urgent problem just brought to him by a noncom. The proprietor of the show had changed course and was now coming straight for Ben.
Ben waited. It seemed that there was nothing else that he could do.
The proprietor of the show was a middle-sized, sturdy-looking man clad in nondescript gray, with a short cloak to match. Dark hair, showing no sign of gray, curled crisply. The only remarkable feature of his attire was a magnificently painted clown’s mask that covered his own face completely.
He approached Ben with the familiar manner of an old friend-or perhaps an old military commander. He said, in a pleasant though undistinguished voice:
“Maxim! I’m glad to see that you have found the right place.”
“Uh, yes sir.”
“Between us, Maxim, no formalities are necessary.” And the masked man reached out with one hand to clasp Ben familiarly by the arm.
No one else, for the moment, was paying the least attention to their conversation. Ben licked dry lips. He said: “We have met before-I think. You are the Emperor.”
The other nodded. “Of course. And we have met -but you had no way of knowing me then. I sat on a hillside overlooking the sea, and greeted you as you climbed past me. You answered, but you were not minded to stay and talk to me that day.”
Ben swallowed and nodded. Since that day years ago he had learned a great deal, about the nature of the world and the powers that moved in it, and now he felt relief almost as at the arrival of a friendly army. And yet at the same time he felt newly uneasy, even somewhat fearful, in this man’s presence.
“Will you join us for the evening?” the other went on in his mild voice, gesturing toward his wagons. “Or for longer, if you like.”
“I… for this evening, certainly, if you wish it.”
“I think it would be a good idea. Each member of my little troupe here must be ready to play his or her assigned part. Tonight I have the urge to be a clown. Often I have that urge, and give way to it. A little joke or two, here and there, hey, to lighten up the world?”
Ben nodded again. “Your son,” he said, choking a little, “Prince Mark, is out there on the island. I mean, I don’t know if he’s-”
“Oh, he’s alive,” the Emperor assured Ben quickly. “Not as fully and pleasantly alive as he has been, or ought to be, but… it is not easy to kill one of my children.” The eyes behind the clown’s mask glittered out at Ben. “My daughter Ariane lives also. You may see her again, one day, when both of you will have to make great decisions.”
Ben could not speak.
The smaller man clapped him reassuringly on the arm again. “Come, strongman. Did you see which wagon I was driving? Hop up into it, and put your costume on. You’ll find it there. Then be ready to use your strength to help your Prince.”
Feeling somewhat dazed, Ben walked out among the wagons. Momentarily he felt now as if he had returned to the days of his youth. He had spent years then in the carnival with Barbara, the dragon-hunter Nestor, and later with Mark himself, long before there had been any suspicion in Mark’s mind that he might one day occupy a princely throne.
Glancing in under the canvas of the other wagons as he passed them, Ben saw in one a small mermaid coming out of a bathtub-tank. She looked like one of the creatures that Zoltan had described to him, who could be found rarely in the rivers hereabouts, and somewhat more commonly farther south. This one was certainly not an animal captive, but another member of the small troupe, chatting with a woman in pink tights who was now handing her a towel.
Outside the next wagon were a couple of young men in the tight costumes of jugglers or acrobats, looking enough alike to be a team of brothers. And there, a pair of short-skirted dancing girls who resembled each other even more, enough to be twins.
He came to the indicated wagon, found a step, and hopped right aboard, pulling back the canvas flap. His weight made the light frame tilt strongly on the wooden springs. Someone’s cramped living quarters, perhaps those of the Emperor himself. No one else was in it now. Hanging on a prominent peg was a large garment of some leathery animal skin, with spots of fur still on it, and on the floor below it waited a pair of buskins sized for large feet.
Ben changed quickly into the costume, which fit him well. Meanwhile he wondered how in all the hells the Emperor had known to greet him as Maxim. Ben had made up that name on the spur of the moment-or he thought he had.
Might he have seen it or heard it somewhere else? He couldn’t recall doing so. But that problem, like some others, would have to wait.
A couple of minutes later, when he rejoined the Emperor and the other members of the troupe in the field outside the front gate of the manor, the process of setting the show up for a performance was already well under way. Little had to be done, beyond arranging some scantly decorations to mark out a portion of the field in front of the manor as a circus ring, and moving a couple of wagons to provide wings behind which it might be possible to organize something approaching a theatrical entrance.