“Sir, General Rostov, I was trying to bring it back to you! But now it is gone, and through no connivance of mine. These men who have been detaining me can at least assure you of that.”
The General rounded on the innkeeper. “Well?”
Briefly, as Murat listened in disbelief, the events of the dice game came out.
Kebbi put forward a story that Murat had to admit sounded almost plausible. The Culmian renegade claimed simply that he had been on his way to restore the Sword of Chance to Princess Kristin, and had thought to profit enough in a small wager to provide himself with coin for the journey.
“You bet the Sword itself? To win a few coins?”
“No, sir. In that case I stood to win a huge and dazzling jewel. Ask these men here, they’ll tell you. A jewel, let me hasten to assure you, I would have given to Her Majesty Princess Kristin, as compensation for-”
“Never mind the jewel for now. You threw dice, while holding the Sword of Chance-and you lost?” This time it was Karel who asked the question.
“It happened that way, sir. I can’t explain it, but it did. Ask these men.”
The locals, even under threat, only confirmed the Culmian traitor’s tale.
“And who was this man who won Coinspinner away from you?” Again it was Karel who asked, though by now he, and Rostov at least among the Tasavaltans, had come to realize who the successful gambler must have been.
“I have no idea, sir,” said Kebbi helplessly.
The General and the wizard exchanged glances.
“And I repeat, sir, that I had no notion of any plot to steal the Sword if we were denied in our appeal to borrow it. I was shocked and horrified when I realized that my commanding officer contemplated such a theft, and at the first opportunity I did what I could to make amends. I could not get my hands on Woundhealer, but I thought that the Sword of Chance might provide the Princess decent compensation.”
Murat saw with satisfaction that none of the Tasavaltans appeared inclined to accept the claim. As for himself, he began to denounce it violently.
“Shut up,” Rostov told him.
Murat and his cousin glared at each other in silence.
The General, fists on his hips, faced the renegade lieutenant. “I ask you once again. Where is Coinspinner?’
“That stranger has it, sir. I repeat, I have told you the simple truth. I thought I would need money for my journey, to pay my bill here if nothing else, and to buy food. And so I gambled-and lost. These-gentlemen here can confirm my story.”
Rostov kept hammering away. “You gambled with that Sword in hand, and lost it?”
“I say again, that is the truth.”
The General nodded slowly. Suddenly, more than a little to Murat’s amazement, the Tasavaltan leaders appeared ready to concede that the story might be true.
“Tell us more about this tall stranger and his companion. Tell us every detail you can remember.”
The descriptions given by Kebbi and by the locals agreed in all essentials.
“How was he armed?” pressed Karel in his soft voice.
Kebbi blinked. “Why-with a sword. Not that he even had to draw it.” Realization began to dawn on him. “I don’t know if it was one of the Twelve-I don’t know that much about the others. The hilt at least looked like Coinspinner’s or Woundhealer’s.”
Karel nodded to his compeer. “Shieldbreaker-and that means Wood was here. And that he has Coinspinner now.”
“And the woman with him,” Rostov muttered. “She’ll have been that hellcat Tigris.”
Kebbi, speaking up boldly, did his best to find out whether the Tasavaltans had managed to retake Wound-healer. He soon heard enough to convince him that they had not.
“Where shall we begin to look for it, sir?”
“What do you mean ‘we’?”
Kebbi at first pretended to be quietly crushed at the suggestion that he was going to be taken away by the Tasavaltans in the status of a prisoner, like Murat.
Murat, since he had been unbound, had been silently considering what his chances might be of escape, and had concluded that for the time being they were not worth considering.
Argument between the two Culmians, flaring up again, was interrupted by the arrival of a winged messenger, its wings spanning about the reach of a man’s arms. This creature arrived in the sky above the arguing men, uttered cries of greeting, and came spiraling right down, to perch upon the neck of Rostov’s riding-beast.
With quick but steady fingers the General untied the small white packet from the bird’s leg, and ripped the enclosure open. The wizard looked over Rostov’s shoulder as he read, and Murat watching carefully could see both men’s faces cloud. Then they raised their eyes together to look at him, in a way that gave no comfort.
“What is it?” he demanded.
“Prince Adrian,” the wizard responded slowly. “An attempt had been made to kidnap the young Prince or kill him. They don’t know yet in Sarykam if he has survived or not.”
Kebbi, very quiet now, was watching and listening, calculating as best he could.
In his mind’s eye Murat saw again the lovely Princess; in his imagination he felt the grief and shock that would be hers. “Villainous,” he muttered.
“Is that what you think, then?” The General’s tone was sharp.
“Of course. An attack upon a child …” His voice trailed off as he saw the suspicion in his captors’ eyes. “You can’t think that I-”
“Or that I, either-” Kebbi burst in.
“We have been given some understanding of your honor. Both of you.” Old Karel glared at them for a moment. Then his head moved in a brisk nod, telling the cavalry escort to get ready to move on.
Murat for a moment hung his head in shame, feeling the justice of that last rebuke. But only for a moment. Then he began to ask urgent questions, wanting to know more details of the attempt on Adrian.
The Tasavaltan leaders ignored him, though they did not try to prevent his hearing the few details that were known, when they passed this information on to the concerned soldiers.
In the leaders’ minds, trying to go to the aid of the Prince was of course going to take precedence even over trying to recover Coinspinner-that would be pretty much a lost cause anyway, if Wood still had it.
Rostov told his sergeant to make sure that the men were ready to ride. There was some suspicion, exchanged in whispers between Karel and Rostov, that the theft of Coinspinner and the assault on Adrian were somehow connected.
“We have no evidence of that as yet. Rostov, my friend, if we are to try to help Prince Adrian we must go into the City of Wizards to look for him.”
“If you can get us there, my men and I are ready.”
Karel informed the General that he knew a way to reach the City fairly quickly from this place-or, indeed, from almost anyplace.
“What of these two Culmian birds? I want to bring them back to Sarykam alive, eventually, if that’s at all possible. But I don’t want to spare the men to escort them back there now. Not if the Prince is-”
“Then I think we must bring them with us, General. Physical bonds will no longer be necessary,” said the wizard. Karel waited until Kebbi’s boots had been retrieved for him, and some suitable outer clothing provided. Then, when the two Culmians were already in the saddle, he proceeded, with gestures and swift words, to treat each of them to his own satisfaction. The process was completed in the space of a few breaths.
Murat felt nothing from the wizard’s work. Meeting Kebbi’s cold glare with his own, he wondered whether they were now really bound at all. Well, he’d test that later.
Karel and Rostov, with their two half-willing prisoners, and the determined help of their six soldiers, set out to do their best at finding Adrian.
THE range of mountains in which the magician Wood had chosen to establish his headquarters arose near the center of a remote wasteland, many kilometers from any permanent human habitation. Wood’s fortress, constructed more by means of magic than by physical labor, was indeed forbidding.
There were moments in Wood’s life in which he felt the urge to surround himself with luxury, to taste some of the softer enjoyments that he was still capable of sharing with the great mass of mankind. For this reason the gardens, and some of the interior rooms, had come into existence. But today the great wizard was much too busy to pause for such pleasures. Attended by demons, familiars, and other nonmaterial powers, he and a very few close human associates were industriously practicing their black arts.
The main thrust of today’s magical effort was the continued gathering of intelligence. And so far the results had not been pleasing. Prince Adrian, the spawn of Wood’s old enemy Prince Mark, had so far succeeded in completely eluding the trapping spells and powers with which Wood had sought to bind him and crush him inside the City of Wizards.