The subtler sounds of her husband’s return awoke her, though. Her eyes opened as Ben came back into the room, cast aside a towel that might have served as a ship’s sail, and started to get dressed.
“I was up late,” she greeted him, “with Beth. She was babbling about strange wizards and I don’t know what. What happened is catching up to her. You can’t expect it not to.”
“How is she now?”
“Sleeping. I was up with her most of the night, while you slept like a log.”
He granted, pulling on a garment.
“Why are you up so-? Oh, yes. That council meeting.”
“That’s right, I must be there.”
Barbara rearranged herself in bed, grabbing pillows and stuffing them under her head so she could sit up and talk in greater comfort. “While you’re there, I think there are a couple of things you ought to remind the Prince about.”
“Yes. It was you who gave him the most valuable Sword of all, before he had any thought that he was to be a Prince. See if he remembers now who his friends were in the old days. See if he remembers that.”
“He remembers it, I’m sure.”
I shatter Swords and splinter spears None stands to Shieldbreaker My point’s the fount of orphans’ tears My edge the widowmaker
The verse had in fact been running through Ben’s head ever since he had awakened. The recent fighting had brought the Sword of Force to everyone’s mind, it seemed. Now Ben whistled a snatch of tune to which he’d once heard someone try to set the Song of Swords, or a couple of verses of it anyway. When Ben was very young he had decided that he was going to be a minstrel. The dream had stayed with him stubbornly for years. By all the gods, how long ago and far away that seemed! He’d be thirty-five this year, or maybe next; he’d never been able to find out for sure exactly when he’d been born. Anyway, there’d be gray showing up in his hair soon enough.
“Yes, Shieldbreaker.” Barbara was musing aloud, energizing herself for the day by discovering extra things to fret about, as if she, like everyone else, didn’t have enough of them already. “I wonder if he does remember where he got it.”
Ben grunted again.
Giving the Sword of Force to his old friend Mark hadn’t really been any great act of sacrifice for him, or for Barbara either-or at least he had never thought of it that way. Eight years ago, on that last day in the war-torn city of Tashigang, Shieldbreaker had come into Ben’s hands unexpectedly, and his first impulse had been simply to hide it somewhere. But his own house in the city had been in danger of total destruction, the tall structure so badly damaged on its lower levels following the fight with the god Vulcan that it was ready to collapse into a heap of rubble, rooftop gardens smashing down into servants’ quarters, then the family rooms, then everything into the weapons shops that had occupied most of the ground floor.
Surrounded by dangers, faced with a multitude of other problems, including their own survival and that of their baby daughter, Beth, neither Ben nor Barbara had been able to think of anything better to do with the Sword of Force than take it to Mark, as soon as they heard he had survived the day, and was in good favor, to say the least, with the victorious Princess Kristin and her generals. Ben, looking back now, thought silently that he’d do the same thing again. The Swords, any and all of them, were too much trouble for anyone to own who aspired to any kind of a peaceful life-yet there was no practical way to destroy the god-forged weapons. And no way to hide them so they’d nevermore be found-the Swords themselves seemed to take care of that.
Dressed and as ready for the day as he could be, Ben said good-bye to Barbara with a kiss, to which she responded enthusiastically for all her nagging. On his way out of the house, Ben looked in on sturdy little Beth, still their only child and twice precious to both of them for that. Beth was, as her mother had said, asleep. Her father stopped off in the kitchen and grabbed himself a fresh pastry to eat for breakfast en route. Later in the day would be time enough to get down to serious feeding.
He was not a vindictive man, and as a rule he detested violence. But if he’d been able to get one of those bandits from in front of the cave mouth into his hands …
To reach the Palace from his house required only a short walk through the busy morning streets of Sarykam. High official that he was, Ben made his way there on foot, amid the sometimes jostling throngs of merchants and customers, workers and passersby. In Tasavalta, most people walked unless some physical disability prevented it. Outward display of wealth or position, except by means of certain subtle modes of dress, was considered in bad taste for anyone except actual royalty. Ben and Barbara, as much outlanders here as was the Prince their patron, had adapted. The condemnation of display was another thing that bothered Barbara, her husband supposed, though she could hardly complain about it openly.
Well, Ben and his wife no longer possessed the riches that had briefly been theirs when they dwelt in that great house of their own in Tashigang. Wealth had been lost, along with the house, the business, and the treasury of elegant weapons that for a while had been their stock in trade. But certainly they had done well enough here in Tasavalta, where they stood high in the councils of the Prince and Princess. Well enough, perhaps, for anyone Ben knew except Barbara.
Ben rated a sharp salute from the two guards in blue and green who flanked the small and almost private gate through which he entered the complex of the Palace proper. The guards, who knew him well, took care to look alert while in his presence. Ben’s job included a number of duties, all related in one way or another to security, and to the gathering of intelligence in foreign lands. It was a post that had been created for him at Mark’s behest, and when Ben was appointed to it there had arisen something of a storm of quiet protest among influential Tasavaltans who did not yet know their new Prince well, and did not know Ben at all. It would have been hard to find anyone in the whole realm who looked the part of intelligence adviser less than Ben of Purkinje did.
The first matter to occupy Ben’s attention this morning, once he was inside the Palace, was not the council meeting, but something more routine. He thought it was time that he looked in at the private section of the royal armory, to check for himself on its most valued contents.
To reach the private armory he had to pass two more sets of guards, each more determined-looking than the last. Each of these also saluted sharply when he approached them, and took care to be alert while in his presence.
Now Ben entered a cave like, windowless room, lighted only by a rare Old-World lantern on one wall, which bathed the whole chamber in a cool, perpetual glow. This room was fenced round with powerful magic as well as with physical barriers and human guards.
Once alone inside the room, Ben approached a large shelf built out of one wall at waist level and opened the first of a series of ornate wooden cases resting on it. Each case had been made, with great craftsmanship, in the shape of an enlarged Sword, with intertwined serpents carved to form the lid at the place where it looked like a hilt. Inside this first case, the Sword Coinspinner had lain for several years following the last war. Mark had fought the last day of that war with Coinspinner in his hand, and it had sent certain of his enemies to death and had kept him alive where no ordinary sword could have. Upon its ebon hilt the Sword of Chance bore as its symbol a pair of dice outlined in stark white.
Today Ben was able to see that hilt only in his mind; for the Sword itself had taken itself away, and the blue velvet of the interior of the case was empty when he opened it. To Coinspinner, the spells of Karel that bound the armory around had mattered no more than had the human guards. Like its eleven brothers, the Sword of Chance disdained all magics lesser than its own.
Who holds Coinspinner knows good odds Whichever move he make But the Sword of Chance, to please the gods, Slips from him like a snake