With Chilperic now standing at the Tyrant’s right hand and giving the newcomers a stern look, Hissarlik was ready to speak out boldly from his tall chair.
He addressed Koszalin. “Well then, fellow, what use do you think you can be to us here?”
Chilperic got the impression that the youthful captain was totally unimpressed by this other youth who claimed hereditary power. But Koszalin, who appeared now to be making an effort to be pleasant, scratched his uncombed head and addressed the Tyrant.
“Why, sir, it’s like this. I hear that you’re on no great terms of friendship with those people across the water, the ones who call themselves Malolo.” When Koszalin shifted his glance to Chilperic, his voice, perhaps unconsciously, grew more respectful. “Nor are you, sir, I suppose.”
Chilperic was gradually becoming certain that these were a couple of the same mercenary scoundrels who had been hanging around the Malolo manor intermittently when he had visited there. He had had only the briefest contact with any of them then, but now he could not help wondering whether some of them might recognize him. He would have to make sure of that as soon as possible.
“Ah,” said Hissarlik to the captain. “So you’ve had some contact with the Malolo, have you?”
“Damned unfriendly contact.” The commander of the honorable company, wiry muscles working in a hairy forearm, scratched his head again; Chilperic wondered if he was going to have to ask Tigris for a minor spell to repel boarders. Koszalin went on: “Well sir, I’ll tell you the exact truth. Their new chief over there, name of Bonar, said that he wanted to hire myself and my men, and then he refused to pay us. Reneged on a deal, he did. Promised pearls and then wouldn’t give us nothing. We can’t make our living on deals like that. I’ve got thirty men in my company to look after, men who look up to me like I was their father. You, sir, being a real chief yourself, will understand that kind of responsibility.” The last remark was ostensibly addressed to Hissarlik, but with the words the speaker’s eyes turned briefly to Chilperic to include him.
Chilperic supposed it was time he took an active part in the questioning. “When was this reneging, as you call it?”
“That’s what anyone would call it, sir. It was just a couple of days ago. So, my men and I have decided to see if we can find a better reception on this side of the water.”
Chilperic turned his stare briefly on the second mercenary, the powerful sergeant, who straightened up to a position even closer to military attention, but still had nothing to say.
“Well,” said Chilperic to Koszalin, “suppose we do hire you. It would have to be on a trial basis. To begin with I’d expect to hear a good deal from you regarding conditions over there in the Malolo camp. We know a good bit already, mind you, and I’d expect what you told us to match in every detail with what we know already. Stand up when you’re in this room, I didn’t hear anyone offer you a seat.”
Koszalin, who had begun to relax himself casually onto the table again, hurriedly straightened up. If he was upset by the sudden order, he gave no sign of it. Yes, undoubtedly a veteran soldier, even if his promotion to captain was quite likely self-awarded. “We could tell you a lot about them, sir. If we can reach a deal, that is, and if you can pay us something adequate on account.”
“Very well.” Chilperic made a motion with his head. “You and the sergeant wait outside now. We must discuss this matter first.”
Koszalin saluted and turned, with his sergeant moving a step behind him.
Chilperic and Hissarlik were left alone. They were on the point of beginning their discussion when Aunt Megara, looking grim and pale, and dressed in a pale robe with a kind of turban wound round her head, surprised them by appearing in a doorway.
“Who were those men?” she demanded, sounding to Chilperic like one who might be ready to assume control.
Hissarlik explained to his aunt. He sounded ready to defend the power he had already taken.
Tigris, who entered close behind her patient, explained in a whisper to Chilperic that Aunt Megara was making good progress though she was still weak, and she had insisted on starting to get about.
“What did those men want?” Tigris added.
Chilperic explained. He was basically in favor of hiring the mercenaries, and told Tigris as much. He added that he privately intended to secure such loyalty as Koszalin and his men might be capable of for the cause of the Dark Master, Wood.
“Of course,” Tigris agreed. “They don’t appear very effective, but I suppose there’s no one better available.”
Chilperic nodded. “Soon I’ll take Koszalin aside and speak to him.”
Hissarlik now joined their conference, apparently without suspicion. He was also in favor of hiring Koszalin and his men, believing rightly or wrongly that they would be tougher and more reliable than his own militia when it came to combat. From what the clan chief said, it was plain that he envisioned another and final assault on the Malolo, with or without the Sword, defeating the ancient enemies of his house once and for all.
The Lady Megara listened to the discussion among the other three, and took some part in it herself. To Chilperic, observing carefully, it seemed that she was not so much interested in the question of hiring the mercenaries as she was in finding an opportunity to talk to them, once she learned they came from the south bank of the river.
PRESENTLY the mercenary officer and his sergeant were summoned back into the house. This time Chilperic pointedly invited Koszalin to sit down.
With Chilperic doing most of the talking, Bonar in his tall chair, and Megara standing by, an offer of employment was made to the mercenaries. Modest terms of payment were agreed upon, with the proviso that bonuses would be awarded later in the event actual combat became necessary.
When the agreement had been sealed with a round of handshakes, and the payment of a small handful of coin brought up from some subterranean Senones treasury, the Senones and Chilperic began to question the captain further.
Yes, of course, Koszalin said, everyone over on the Malolo side of the river had been talking about the Sword of great magical powers, with which last month’s battle had been fought. And the people over there were all wondering where Farslayer might be. But in fact little effort was actually being made to find it.
“Then,” asked Chilperic, “is it possible that the Malolo secretly have Farslayer hidden?”
“It’s hard to say that anything’s impossible, sir, as you know. But I don’t think so.”
Koszalin went on to add that the Malolo now generally thought that Farslayer was over here on the Senones side of the river.
“Well, it isn’t,” said Hissarlik. “And if it’s not here and it’s not there, where in all the hells is it?”
Naturally no one had an answer for that.
After a time, when odors of food preparation started to waft into the great hall, Hissarlik in a whispered conference with his new vizier asked whether the oflBcer ought perhaps be invited to dine with the family tonight. Chilperic whispered back that he thought not.
Arrangements were made to feed the mercenary captain and his men outside. Before Koszalin and Sergeant Shotoku went out, they were instructed by Chilperic to make their encampment somewhere outside the grounds of Senones manor. They were also ordered sternly to refrain from bothering any of the local people.
In the morning, Chilperic awakened alone in his room, feeling reasonably well rested.
The first order of business was to try the demon-summoning again. The ritual was no more effective than before. Well, there was nothing to be done about it except to try to obtain the Sword without the demon’s help; and Chilperic had to admit that he would feel a certain relief if the damned creature was really gone for good.
Descending from his room, he bypassed for the moment the great hall, where something in the way of breakfast would be served, and walked out alone into the misty morning to see how events were progressing in the matter of the mercenaries.
He soon located the small encampment, which had been established near running water as he expected. The captain, up early, came to greet him. Surveying the small handful of tents and shelters, Chilperic remarked to Koszalin: “You said last night that you had thirty men.”
The other’s mouth changed shape. Perhaps you could have called its new shape a smile. “Some of my men are out on patrol, sir. You see, we’re already at work.”
“Commendable enthusiasm,” Chilperic responded dryly. “Well, until I see them back here, and have a chance to count them for myself, I won’t call upon you to do any jobs that might require thirty men.”