“I wonder if there’s anyone in it now?”
“Alas, that question lacks a simple answer.”
Karel, who had heard a thing or two about this particular facility, explained some of its peculiarities to his frowning listeners. This was a very special Red Temple, containing within itself access to the City from the outside. By this means certain preferred customers were brought here (at a premium price, of course) from certain of the Temple’s sister establishments around the world.
Here, in a Red Temple enclave within the City of Wizards, the forces of magic could be employed in a certain, relatively economical, way, to augment the effects of pleasures available elsewhere; and, perhaps more importantly, to provide certain pleasures that were nowhere else available at any price. Or so some of the discreet advertising claimed.
Inside those misshapen walls, magic was used, almost routinely, to augment the effects of alcoholic drink and other drugs. To heighten the delights of the gourmet, and the glutton.
“And, naturally, to increase the pleasures of sex as well,” Karel said. “In there, inhuman powers are capable of assuming for a time the human form, incubi and succubi more beautiful than any natural human flesh can be.”
“It sounds an interesting place,” the General commented dryly. “Shall we begin, then?”
DAYLIGHT was fading rapidly when Adrian and the two people with him finally came ashore for the night on the first day of their trip downriver from Smim. Sometime before they landed, Marland had begun to complain earnestly to his two companions about how grossly he had been maltreated by the Red Temple. Adrian at least was ready to listen, and to him the man recited many details about how the priests and guards of the pleasure palace had cheated him, and accused him falsely of cheating and of murder.
Adrian thought that Amelia probably had at least equal cause for complaint, but she was not complaining. Her resigned expression indicated that she thought complaining would be useless anyway. She seemed less disposed to seek revenge than to find some peace and quiet for herself. Adrian got the feeling that she really did not care much for Marland, but was putting up with him because he had got her out of prison, and because for the time being no one better was available.
On that first night, the three found shelter-you could hardly call what they did making camp-under a half-fallen and almost completely hollowed log, a snug and really comfortable place to which Adrian felt sure they had been led by the powers of the Sword of Chance. Marland, poking about on shore at dusk, his Sword in hand, had stumbled on the place without surprise. Already he was accepting miraculous good luck as no more than his due, and he had evidently come to trust in the Sword’s powers without thinking much about them. Stretched out on the deepest drift of dead leaves available, with the black hilt clutched in one hand and the stained copper scabbard in the other, he was soon snoring.
Amelia, now evidently feeling a need to talk, stayed awake conversing with the weary Adrian for some time.
She asked the boy about his background, and he felt somewhat guilty for making up a fictitious family, a collection of cruel and demented people from whom he hoped to remain separated.
Amelia listened with half an ear. What she was really interested in was the chance to pour out some of her own troubles, which never got a very sympathetic hearing from Marland.
During this conversation the young woman revealed that she’d spent some time in the pay of the Red Temple-she didn’t say specifically what her job had been, and Adrian had tact enough to refrain from asking.
It was while she had been working there that Marland- “He didn’t call himself that, then”-had got to know her, and she him.
Two meters away, Marland, the copper-scabbarded Sword securely tucked under him, was snoring, dead to the world. Adrian, curious, asked Amelia: “Did he really try to swindle the Temple?”
“Hush!” hushed Amy automatically, with a glance in the direction of her sleeping man. Then, looking cynical and worn, she went on in a whisper: “What does it matter? In this world everyone tries to cheat everyone else anyway. And you know what? We’re all sentenced to death already. So why not?”
Perhaps something in Adrian’s face as he listened to this philosophy persuaded her not to elaborate on it. “Never mind, kid. Try to get some sleep.”
And the truth was that the Prince was beginning to have great difficulty in keeping his eyes open. Remembering his grandfather’s praise and encouragement gave him confidence enough to go to sleep.
He passed a comfortable and almost dreamless night. Awakening early in the morning, Adrian, lying still and doing mental calculations, decided that eight days had now passed since he and Trilby had so optimistically entered the City of Wizards. Where was she now?
The Prince’s two companions were awake shortly after him. Marland was in a good mood, and allowed his guide to touch Coinspinner’s hilt before beginning a hunt for food-although the man, ever cautious in matters concerning his good luck, kept gripping it at the same time. Doubtless the brief touch had some good effect, for Adrian quickly located a large clutch of birds’ eggs, which were soon frying on a flat rock set next to the fire. While waiting for the eggs to cook, the three munched on some delicious fruit, just turning ripe, that happened to be growing nearby.
Again Amelia took note of Adrian’s fire-starting methods. Taking advantage of a moment when Marland was absent in the woods nearby, she asked the boy straight out: “How’d you make that fire?”
The Prince had been expecting her to get around to direct questioning sooner or later, and had his answer ready. “I have a trick,” he admitted openly. “It comes in handy lots of times.” A fair number of people in the world had one bit of magic that they could do, some trick they had managed to perfect to the point of real usefulness.
“I bet it does.” And Amelia looked thoughtful. Adrian watched to see whether she would pass this information quickly on to Marland. He couldn’t be sure; but if she did, the man, to judge by his reaction, was not much interested.
Shortly after breakfast the three resumed their voyage downstream, with Adrian paddling as before. They had been under way for several hours when the Sword once more engineered the extraordinary.
The travelers were in the process of passing the junction of their river with another, slightly smaller, that came in from the direction of some hills. The onrushing tributary was fast and turbulent, even foaming from its rough plunging trip.
It was Amelia who saw the thing first, half buried in the mud, and called out to the others, and pointed. There on shore, in a minor promontory just where the rivers joined, was a squarish object of beautifully carved wood. Adrian paddled closer, beached the canoe, got out into the mud and began to dig in it with his hands.
What came to light was a tightly constructed wooden chest that must have fallen in from some bridge or boat upstream along the tributary.
“Don’t open it yet.” Sword still in hand, Marland took off his broken prison shoes and waded, grimacing at the mire, to join Adrian. “First let’s get it solidly up on shore somewhere.”
Between them that was soon accomplished, though the chest was encouragingly weighty. The next task was to get it open. The finely crafted lid was tightly closed, but secured only by a light clasp and lock that soon yielded to Coinspinner’s flawless edge and steely weight.
Amelia let out a little cry in the moment after the lid went up. At first glance the chest appeared to be full of clothing, and on the top were women’s dresses, all dry and unstained. As the upper contents were removed-Amelia seized them very carefully and spread them out on mud-free gravel-the receptacle proved to contain both men’s and women’s garments. The former fit Marland well enough for him to wear them, and most of the latter fit Amelia almost perfectly.
Her plaintive cry was for a mirror. And sure enough, that was the next item Marland, now rummaging toward the bottom of the box, managed to turn up.
Now Amelia, carrying an armload of clothes from the chest, dodged quickly into the brush out of sight of the others. There she discarded her hated prison garb, putting on a new yellow dress.
By the time she emerged, carrying a new pair of shoes- she had decided to save them for later-Marland too had changed his clothes. He had also discovered a flask of brandy, and was ready for a minor celebration.
“Well, Mudrat-looks like there’s nothing here for you. That’s all right, you can walk around bare-assed and nobody minds. For dear Amy and myself here, though, things are different. We’re going to have to upgrade our appearance considerably, and this’s a good start.” Wiping his chin, he offered her a drink, which she accepted, giggling.