Saberhagen, Fred 02 – Sightblinder’s Story

If the lady, seated on her cushions in the stern of the rowboat, had any thoughts at all about the horrible laughter and what might be happening to those who laughed, she kept those thoughts to herself. It was rather as if she was almost entirely caught up in the anticipation of reaching some long-desired goal, and that goal involved her getting to the castle. Holding herself elegantly erect, she leaned forward slightly on her seat, staring into the night past Ben. Evidently she was feasting her eyes upon the torchlit structure ahead of them as his efforts slowly but surely brought it nearer. From time to time, in crisp impatience, she uttered a sharp word or two, urging Ben to greater efforts at the oars.

He responded with eager nods and smiles to these commands, and continued to set his own pace, which was already about as brisk as he felt capable of keeping up across the distance without exhaustion. He expected that he might well need some reserves of strength and wind when he arrived.

Facing the stern of the boat as he rowed, Ben observed how the dark bulk of the manor and its surrounding walls and trees still hid the continuing performance of the Show of Ensor from his sight; a concealment for which he continued to feel grateful. Even with his own immediate fate to be concerned about, along with Mark’s and Zoltan’s, he still found even the sounds of that performance to be unpleasantly distracting. There were stretches of time as Ben rowed, sometimes periods of several minutes, in which the cacophony of that murderous laughter seemed to be abating not at all with the increasing distance.

Only in Ben’s imagination could he now see what might be happening in the arena of the performance; and that uncertain vision showed him the Emperor still playing his own kind of joke, still cavorting in the guise of humility and humor even while the ground around him was littered thickly with his victims, who one after another expired in purple-visaged chokings.

There was no wind tonight to blow those sounds away, and sound as always traveled far over water. At least what slight current there might be in the lake appeared to Ben to be favorable, bearing the rowboat on toward its goal.

Ben rowed, and in the midst of his rowing there came a noisy but more natural-sounding disturbance from some distance in the darkness to his left. He looked in that direction, but the faint glow of moonlight on the broad expanse of water showed him nothing helpful. Now the noise came again, of men’s voices shouting raggedly, followed by a heavy splashing as if a boat might have been somehow overturned. Ben altered his course a trifle, intending to give a wide berth to the trouble, whatever it might be.

“What are you doing, Maxim? You are turning off course.”

“Beggin’ your pardon, ma’am, but it sounded like some trouble off that way. Drunken soldiers or whatever. We don’t want to be stopped now, we want to get on to the castle without any interference.”

“You have a point there, Maxim. Very well, you may deviate. But not too widely.”

Again the lady sat gazing at the faerie structure ahead, all faint moonlight and mysterious shadows punctuated by sparks of flame. “That is my home, Maxim. And now at last, after many years, I am going there again.” Suddenly she fixed Ben with a sharp look. “You have never seen my twin brother, have you? The young lord Kunderu?”

“No, ma’am. I haven’t had that privilege.”

“You are right to put it in those terms. He is, you know, more like a god than like a man, more beautiful even than… and when I think of what our father has done to him-I do not see why the new lord of the castle refuses to set him free.”

Ben had no ideas on that subject, and in fact he judged it best to keep as silent as possible on all matters political and familial. He grunted and wheezed a little, to demonstrate that he was going to need all his breath just to keep up the pace at which he continued to row. And in truth he was in a hurry. Looking at the stars and estimating the remaining distance to the castle dock, he judged that they would do well to complete the trip within an hour.

Briefly he considered whether he might do better to pull all the way around the island, and try to come ashore on the side opposite the castle docks. But there might well be no way to get into the castle on that side. And besides, the lady’s growing tension as they approached the island convinced him that she would stand for no further detours without a very vigorous protest. There would be screaming, at the least.

So far the wench had said no more about her father. Even stranger than that, perhaps, was the fact that her father seemed to have had her under long-term house arrest, in her own house-and still more curious, the new regime had evidently continued the confinement.

What would be the reaction of the soldiers on the docks when they saw that the daughter of Honan-Fu had been rowed out to them? Surely she had at least some arguable right to visit the castle, and so a simple, bold approach would be the best. As for Ben himself, particularly in his strongman’s costume of animal skin, with arms and legs left bare, he was probably not the most convincing personal attendant for a lady of high rank. But he was committed now to playing the role-and the Emperor had seemed to think he was capable of succeeding in it.

By now, at last, those horrible sounds from the mainland had faded to the point where they could only intermittently be heard at all. Chances were that the people in the castle would not have heard them, and very likely they would not know that anything untoward had happened to their garrison ashore.

Such was the continuing confusion on the docks as the little boat approached that its arrival was scarcely noticed. One large rowboat appeared to be loading with soldiers, at the direction of a shouting sergeant, while another one unloaded. And all the time occasional swimmers came straggling in, some supporting themselves on oars or bits of driftwood, others relying upon no more than their limbs and lungs. Some of these attempted to cling to the boat that Ben was rowing as he drew near the dock, but at a sharp command from the lady he beat them off with an oar. When he saw that they were castle soldiers he had no reluctance to do so.

As soon as they touched at the dock, Ben jumped out briskly and tied up. Then he turned to offer proper assistance to the lady. She accepted his arm, as impersonally as she might have gripped a ladder’s rung, and stepped ashore to face the blank stares of a pair of officers in red and gray. By now these men had become aware that this arrival represented something unusual, even for this night, and they had suspended their argument over some other matter to see what the lady’s presence might portend.

Confronting these officers with her best regal stare, Lady Ninazu demanded: “I am the daughter of Honan-Fu, and the twin sister of your prisoner Kunderu. You will take me to my brother at once!”

The officers exchanged wary glances with each other, then turned back to this demanding woman. Ben reflected that it was probably not strange that they should not recognize her-they were doubtless as much outlanders here as he was himself.

At last one of the men replied, with cautious courtesy: “I know of no such person in this castle, lady.”

“Oh, do you not? Then I will see to it that you soon learn. Take me at once to your lord, the Ancient Master. He will teach you to speak to me with more respect!”

That set the pair of them back a little. After a brief whispered conference their next step, as Ben had already foreseen, was to summon a superior. Meanwhile Ben himself stood back as much as he could on the small dock, trying to be as unobtrusive as his size and costume would allow, a model slave or servant. If the superior when he arrived should happen to be one who happened to be able to identify the much-sought Ben of Purkinje at a glance…

But the fates were kind, and it was a total stranger. This man, bowing lightly to the lady, took charge of the situation skillfully. Treating her with soothing words, he got her to follow him, telling her that in a minute or two all would be arranged just as she wished.

Ben, feeling impossibly large and conspicuous to fit his chosen role of shadowy attendant, nevertheless fell in behind. He would seize the first chance that presented itself to let him slip away.

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