Chapter one-2

2269 Words
The projected image of the sorcerer wavered, as though his powers fought to coalesce his immaterial substance within the imperial palace. The whole structure had been sealed by my own Wizard of Loh, Khe-Hi-Bjanching, against such lupal projections; but that had been some time ago. The sealings must be weakening with the passage of time. And Bjanching, along with my other old friends, had been hurled back to his home by the mightier sorcerous powers of Vanti, the guardian of the Sacred Pool of Baptism in far Aphrasöe. We needed sorcerous help here. But Nath Nazabhan after that first stricken reaction responded as a warrior responds. A streak of light hurtled across the room. The dagger glittered as it flew from his hand. Straight through that insubstantial image it whisked, to clang and chime against the map, gouging out a chunk of Falinur, and so drop harmlessly to the floor. “Devil’s work!” burst out Nath, moving back, going for the arms rack, his fist already raking out for a fresh weapon. “That will do no good.” I stood quietly, feeling the blood in my veins, wondering what Phu-si-Yantong intended now. For, quite clearly, this lupal projection was Yantong. An evil emanation, certainly, and a dangerous one. He spied on us and he didn’t give a single block of ice from Sicce if we knew or not. The ruby eyes within the enveloping hood would strike a cold chill into the stoutest heart. Narrowly I surveyed this sorcerous apparition of a hated enemy. A cripple — that was the part Yantong had played during the only time I had met him. And it had not been face to face. Always, he kept himself hidden, shrouded. Perhaps he was in very truth a cripple. Maybe that might explain his crippled ambitions. The shadowy form moved of and within itself, as smoke coils upwards. The colors of the map showed through the image, fragmentarily, their brilliance dimmed. As always and with everyone, I attempt to see the best side. Always, the remembrance of the frog and the scorpion is with me, that a man no less than a scorpion must act to his nature. But, also, I do not forget that a man can judge the consequences, and although he might not fully comprehend all that will follow, must by the very nature of manhood understand that his actions will inevitably be followed by results. Yantong could not, I thought, be all evil. There had to be some streak of better feeling in him. So I looked at the hunched shadowed shape and I pondered. Nath remained transfixed by the arms rack, held there, I fancied, no less by my words than by the apparition. For six heartbeats Phu-si-Yantong’s lupal projection hovered in the room. I know, for I counted. The spell broke as a trumpet pealed outside, high clarion notes against the blue. The outlines of the figure shimmered as though bathed in invisible heat. The hooded head turned. The glitter from those ruby eyes dimmed, sparking feebly, paled. As the form vanished, the last of it to disappear was that pair of demoniac eyes. I let out a breath. Nath wiped the back of his hand across his forehead. For a space neither of us spoke. We did not care to break the spiderweb of silence that fell after those silver trumpet notes. Then I said, “By Vox! May Opaz rot the fellow. At least, he got nothing out of us.” A fraction unsteadily, Nath walked across to retrieve his dagger. He gestured with the blade. “Falinur will never be the same.” I warmed to him. The experience through which he had just been would have left many a man gibbering. “Seg wouldn’t know whether to be glad or sorry.” “As to Seg Segutorio, the Kov of Falinur,” said Nath, re-sheathing the dagger with a snick. “I know he was a blade comrade of yours; but he is peskily absent from his kovnate when we need all the friends we can muster.” It was not a rebuke. Merely a hard-headed comment. I chose to say, with a little snap, “Seg is a blade comrade, not was.” Nath half lifted his chin; but he chose not to reply. “Now, Nath, not a word of this to a living soul.” “Quidang, majister.” “Good. Yantong spies on us with an advantage. We must cloak our designs in shadow, sheath our plans in subterfuge. We hew to the plans I have mentioned — unless unforeseen circumstances force us to alter them. If they do, we will.” The clepsydra on its own shelf told me that the hour was almost up and we were due on Voxyri Drinnik. A small ceremony was to be held there to mark the presentation of medals, ‘bobs’ the swods in the ranks called them, like phalerae, and the importance of keeping the army happy outweighed much. The matter of Renko the Murais had been dealt with in court by one of the judges appointed to the task. It might be thought that presenting new colors to a Jodhri could not rank as importantly in a humanitarian scheme of government as being present in a court of justice. But a man has only so much time on Earth, or Kregen. No matter that because I had dipped in the Sacred Pool of Baptism I was assured of a thousand years of life, each day still contained only forty-eight burs. So we had been presenting standards when Renko had been sentenced. Now we must present bobs when we had promised. The apparition of Yantong must be pushed into its proper perspective. And, anyway, what was there I could do about the Wizard of Loh? He worked through human tools. His minions sought to enslave the country. In our turn we must resist them. Anything else was fantasy. The days were filled with hard work. There was everything to do. The country was still in turmoil and no one talked of the Time of Troubles being over merely because Vondium was in our hands. Vondium, the proud city, was mostly ruins, with the grandiose rebuilding schemes of Yantong halted in mid-execution because I would not flog on the people to work as slaves, and, also, because they insisted on flocking to join the colors and form fresh regiments to help clear out the rest of the island. Walking out into the mingled streaming suns shine of Antares, I hoisted up the rapier to sit more comfortably. The chances of assassins, stikitches, still being active and seeking my life, in the pay of any number of cramphs who would as lief snuff me out as they would snuff a last candle, remained high. A man must be ready always on Kregen to fight for his life, just as he is ready to sing or to drink, to eat or to laugh. Many of my new comrades waited. Nath Nazabhan was a relatively new comrade, also, for we had been together since we had trained up the Phalanx in Therminsax ready for that great battle. My choice band waited for me. A right rough and tumble crowd, festooned with weapons, brilliant in a motley of uniforms, they greeted me with a roar. I bellowed back, most affably, banishing the dark schemes of Yantong from my mind. Together we rode for Voxyri Drinnik where the great victory had been gained that gave over Vondium to our hands. The last of the Hamalese prisoners were being sent off back to their homes in Hamal. This had aroused great controversy and acrimony, men saying why did we not keep the rasts as slaves. I would not execute them, for I knew the Hamalians, knew their army, knew the swods in the ranks. I would not kill or enslave, and so they were sent home to Hamal. We still had a debt outstanding with the Empress Thyllis of Hamal, the despotic ruler of the greatest empire in the southern continent of Havilfar. Yantong had used her to further his own schemes; but Vallia had been invaded by Hamalese, there was the matter of the defective airboats, and, also, there was the island of Pandahem to be liberated. Every way I turned there was work to my hand. And, always, the greater menace of the Star Lords hovered over me. At a whim they could dispatch me back to Earth, hurl me four hundred light years through the deeps of space, send me back to the planet of my birth and, perhaps, forget me and let me rot. Fresh concepts about the Star Lords, the Everoinye, had been plaguing me. I had begun to wonder if their designs were so baffling, after all, for certain events seemed to me to bear of only one interpretation. I will leave the reasoning by which I reached this surprising conclusion until later, contenting myself with the simple remark that, if there was good in every man, might there not be a greater good in the Everoinye, who were so much greater than men? “Lahal, Majister!” bellowed Cleitar. He had once been Cleitar the Smith, and he bore his wicked war-hammer into action. But now he was generally called Cleitar the Standard, for he carried my own battle flag, that yellow cross on a scarlet field fighting men call Old Superb. He rode a zorca and his uniform was splendid. I raised my hand in salute as we rode out. Vondium was a shadow of the great city it once had been. The other spirits in my choice band were mostly, at this time, from the provinces, for we had recruited there in our drive to the capital; but they were aware of the despoliation. We would rebuild; but our aim was to rebuild the heart of the country through the people and the agriculture and husbandry. Bricks and stones and mortar must follow that. Volodu the Lungs, a leathery man if ever there was one whose appetite for ale could never, it seemed, be quenched, blew a stentorian blast on his immense trumpet. And that silver instrument was immense. With it Volodu had crushed in the head of a too froward Hamalese Hikdar, smashing through helmet and bone to the very brains beneath. The blast echoed through the streets and cleared a way for us as though we were a pompous procession of robed priests. There was no need for lictors or any other street-clearing violence as the Emperor of Vallia rode out. The ceremony passed off well, brilliant and dashing in the glitter of the Suns. I will not go into detail, save to say the old sweats took their medals with a swagger, and no doubt, like Vikatu the Dodger, would trade shamelessly on their prowess to dodge the column for a few sennights to come. And good luck to them. They had risked their lives and limbs in the battle line. Like any good Kregen who tells the time of day by the state of his innards, I felt the time was ripe for a meal and so we wended our way back to the palace. I had barely crossed the first of the twin canals straddled by the Bridge of Voxyri with the confused onward shrilling of that great fight ringing in echoing remembrance in my head, and Naghan ti Lodkwara was as usual engaged in a slanging match with Targon the Tapster, when the shadows fleeted in. A lancer, Naghan Cwonin, reined across. Dorgo the Clis shouted. Cleitar the Standard began to furl up the flag. Naghan ti Lodkwara and Targon the Tapster took mutual breaths and, instead of slanging each other, yelled the alarm. The airboats floated down as though guided by rails. There were six of them, and each one was of a capacity to hold a dozen fighting men. So — we were in for a fight. The devils had chosen their place well. The troops back on the Drinnik would never be over the Bridge in time to assist us. The streets were filled here with ordinary folk about their business trying to put Vondium back together again. Phu-si-Yantong’s spying mission must have told him what he wanted to know, and this was a direct result. Shades of Rafik Avandil, Lion-man! I ripped out the clanxer scabbarded to my zorca. He was a fine black, mettlesome, whom I called Snowy out of stupid humor as much as contrariness, and I’d ridden him because he needed the outing. The stables were not too well provided as yet, and discretion had to be used. But the men tumbling out of the airboats almost before they touched down were afoot, and so we, mounted on zorcas, were by that much better off. Two fliers landed in our rear, cutting off a flight back the way we had come. Cleitar had the flag furled and stowed away now, and his hammer glittered as he lifted it. Nath Nazabhan drew his clanxer and called across to me, “Ride, majister — there is an alley mouth there—” I looked at him. “Well,” he said, huffily, swirling the straight cut and thrust sword about, loosening up his muscles. “It was just an idea.” We numbered about twenty or so, bright rollicking companions of my choice band. We faced about four times our own numbers. Well. Yes, a situation in which I had found myself more than once, and usually through my own block-headedness. I lifted in the stirrups. I’d gone out for a breath of fresh air. I was like, and my companions also, to taste blood as well as air. And the air we tasted might well be let in through our ribs. “Straight through them!” I bellowed. “Slap bang and no tickles. No man stands for handstrokes. Ride like the agate-winged jutmen of Hodan-Set!” We clapped in our heels and in a rampaging bunch roared into the forming ranks of our Chulik foemen.
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