Saberhagen, Fred 02 – Sightblinder’s Story

He would have to be one of the lower class of servants now; no one else would wear a garment so disreputable as this smock. Acting on an inspiration, Zoltan grabbed up a pot sitting on the closet floor. The vessel looked as if it might once have been used to carry water, or grain; he would take it with him. Looking as if you were already busy was the best protection against the curiosity of authority.

Now he could postpone the real search for his uncle no longer. Ready or not, he was going to have to let himself be seen.

He made his way, with some difficulty, from the area of the storerooms and closets into the base of one of the lighted towers. Zoltan could curse himself for not having foreseen the complexity of this place; but he had not, and the only thing to do now was try to get on with the job. Still, it was beginning to seem to him that the job of finding his uncle must be a hopeless one.

Then he urged himself to get a grip on his nerves. Surely it would not be necessary for him to search everywhere inside the castle. The number of apartments in this particular tower was certainly quite limited, and when he had somehow eliminated all of them he would move on to the next-

Rounding a sharp corner, Zoltan unexpectedly found himself confronting two figures in the corridor just ahead of him. The taller was a being with reptilian attributes: short, leathery wings, and a face no more than halfway human. In an instant he knew that he was facing, for the second time in his life, the terrible wizard known now as the Ancient One.

Zoltan recoiled, his hand going to his side in search of a weapon that was no longer there, that had been taken from him when he was captured. A weapon that would have been useless in any case, because-because-

The horror in front of him was standing still, looking at him, saying nothing. But over its bestially deformed shoulder there appeared another face, calm and recognizable, that of Lady Yambu.

She said: “Zoltan, you need not be afraid. This is not who you think.”

Zoltan sagged against a wall. “Ben?” he asked softly.

The horror shook its head. “I am not Ben,” it informed him.


THE fastest and most direct route from the front of Lady Ninazu’s manor back to the docks lay through the grounds rather than around the outer wall. Ben, half-urging the lady, half-towing her with him, was moving from the arena where the performance had taken place back toward the main gate. He was about to reenter that gate and then cut through the grounds to reach the boats when he was accosted by two men wearing rough civilian garb.

He might have pushed them aside, but at the last moment he recognized the younger one as Haakon of the bushy eyebrows, who had once introduced himself as a member of Honan-Fu’s constabulary.

Ben stopped. Haakon and Ben gazed at each other for a moment in silence. Both of the local men ignored Lady Ninazu completely. On the field in front of the manor, meanwhile, the laughter was becoming louder, more certainly hysterical.

Raising his voice to make himself heard above the noise, the man who was accompanying Haakon said to Ben: “Haakon tells me you are no friend of those rats who have moved in on the island. Well? Quickly, we have no time to waste.”

“Well then, Haakon is telling you the truth. What of it? I’m in a hurry too.”

Lady Ninazu did not appear to be offended by the fact that the men were ignoring her. She stood waiting patiently for the moment, looking from one to another of the three men as if trying to gauge the truth about them.

“Nor are we friends of this invader who calls himself the Ancient One,” said the speaker to Ben. He was tall, with brown skin, white hair, and a grave manner. “I am Cheng Ho, and I was once a captain in the Triplicane constabulary.” He jerked his head toward the Emperor, who was still cavorting down at the far end of the field while waves of noise, noise that could no longer be called merriment, surrounded him. “Who is this man in the clown mask? We have served Honan-Fu for years, and have seen the magicians who visited him, and their contests; and yet we have never seen wizardry like this.”

Suddenly Lady Ninazu seemed to awaken. She was impatient to be gone, and not about to allow Maxim the Strong to waste any more of his time with this riffraff.

Ben didn’t want to lose her, or offend her either, and so he had to be quick. He said to the two local men: “All I can tell you in a few words about the one in the mask yonder is that you should trust him, if you are no friends of the invading soldiers. That is what I am doing now, trusting his advice. As far as I know, he is a magician without equal-and certainly he can have no love for those who now occupy the castle on the island.”

Haakon and Cheng Ho had both taken notice of the lady now, and it seemed to Ben that they were about to speak to her-or to him about her. But her brief interval of patience was evidently exhausted. She would brook no further delays, and Ben allowed himself to be towed and ordered after her.

The uproar made by the soldiers in the field behind them went on without pause as Ben and the lady passed through the unguarded gate and reentered the manor grounds. Taking a last look back Ben could see that the great majority of the civilian audience had already departed. A few of the soldiers were still on their feet, and appeared to be running aimlessly about. But the ground was covered with bodies in gray and red, kicking and convulsing.

The sounds made by the Emperor’s enemies followed Ben and Lady Ninazu all across the darkened grounds. Again she led him at a fast walk, as if her vision was indeed keener in the dark than that of any ordinary girl or woman. Or perhaps it was only that she had spent so much time in these grounds that she knew the location of each tree. Presently they were moving past the arbor in which Ben had first encountered her, its lanterns now burning low; and now they were once more approaching the gate that led out to the boathouse and the docks.

Together they listened carefully at the portal before Ben opened it. All was quiet outside, and when Ben swung back the gate there was no one there. Probably, he thought, all the soldiers had gone round to the front of the manor, attracted by sounds the like of which they had never heard before.

Those sounds, not much diminished by the modest distance and the intervening walls, were still a great deal louder than he would have preferred.

The oars that Ben had begun to put in place were still where he had dropped them, in the bottom of the little boat. There was no one to stop him now as he handed the lady down into the boat, and saw her seated in the stern, wearing an attitude of somewhat precocious dignity.

“You are a worthy servant, Maxim.” She gave the pronouncement a judicious sound.

“Thank you, ma’am,” Ben returned. And I may at last prove myself a worthy friend, he thought, if lean still get out to that demon-damned island in time to do the Prince some good. And he told himself, for perhaps the thousandth time since Mark had been taken, that whoever had taken him was not likely to have killed him as quickly as this, or even to have harmed him very much as yet. They would be hoping to learn too much from him to do that. Hoping to learn too much, and also to collect a royal ransom.

Ben cast loose the boat, and then settled himself on the middle thwart, and with steady, powerful strokes of the oars he began to propel himself and Lady Ninazu toward the glittering, magical-looking castle on its distant island.

He rowed and rowed, but for a long time the terrible laughter of the stricken soldiers, like the dancing reflection of the manor’s lights, continued to follow them over the water. Plainly all of the townspeople of Triplicane, from one end of the settlement to the other, would be able to hear that sound. Those who had been present would spread the story. All who heard the sound or the story would marvel, and some of them would be brave enough to investigate to find out what was happening. Before morning the great bulk of the local population would be aware that the invaders had been dealt a serious blow. Ben had not stayed long enough to be sure exactly what was happening to the garrison, but he suspected that a good portion of their fighting force was being effectively wiped out.

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