Chapter one-1

2009 Words
Chapter one Death warrantsSigning death warrants is no decent occupation for a man. Yet there was no question in my mind that I, Dray Prescot, Lord of Strombor and Krozair of Zy, should delegate the wretched task. The day had dawned bright and clear with the promise of a breeze to mellow the heat, and the drifting linking lights of the Suns of Scorpio bathed the early world through the windows in pastel tints of apple green and palest rose. By Zair! but this was a time to be alive. I breathed deeply and sat myself down at the balass desk and pulled the official forms nearer and forced myself to the job. Nath Nazabhan, stony-faced, looked on. The small room was furnished with books and maps, chairs and the desk, and not much else. It was a room that suited me. But I had to sit there and scrawl Dray Prescot, Emperor of Vallia, in the abbreviated Kregish script, a mere DPEV, at the foot of each warrant, at the foot of what was a tree and a dangling rope and smashed neckbones. The reality sickened me. “Thirteen this morning, majister.” “Aye, Nath. Thirteen miserable wights to be shuffled off.” “You have pity for them?” “Perhaps. I can’t afford pity for myself.” “Vallia would have been finished without you. As it is we’ve a task on our hands to tax my mythical namesake.” Nath took up the first warrant as I pushed it across, signed. “The factions continue to squabble and the country is drenched in blood. The enemies of Vallia seem to grow stronger every day, by Vox, even though we hold the capital. Vondium is—” “Vondium will stand!” I looked up and I know my face held that leem-look of primeval savagery that so displeases me and puts the frights up those unfortunate enough to be loo’ard. Nath fingered his chin and fell silent. He wore a square-necked tunic of a soft pastel tint, girdled by a thin belt from which swung one of the long thin daggers of Vallia. He wore normal morning dress, as did I, and the spread fingers of his right hand groped for the hilt of an absent sword. My gaze shifted to the arms rack. No one on Kregen, that marvelous and mystical world of terror and beauty, strays far from a quick snatch at a weapon. It is not healthy. “Yes, majister.” Nath might be a fine limber young fighting man, commanding the Phalanx; he was a terror for strict discipline properly administered and maintained. Yet he could temper justice with mercy, as I well knew, understanding the ways of command. We had fought together to free Vallia from the enemies who had swarmed in to feast on a bleeding corpse, and his loyalty and devotion were unquestioned. The pen scratched as I signed, and then poised, the black ink glittering like an ebon diamond. “Renko the Murais?” The name leaped out at me, written in that perfect script of Enevon Ob-Eye, my chief stylor. “I know a Renko the Murais. A tearaway, yes, very quick with an ax.” I looked at the charge. “But not, I would have thought, the man to slay a Relt stylor.” “The charge was proved, majister.” Very stiff and formal, on a sudden, Nath Nazabhan. “You are satisfied? Renko said nothing in his defense?” “The case was tried by Tyr Jando ti Faleravensmot. A hard man, yes; but just.” I nodded. “You did not attend?” “No, majister. The Second Jodhri was receiving new colors at the time, and I—” “Yes. We were there together. The management of a city and what we have of an empire, quite apart from the army, takes up too much time.” I shuffled the warrant aside. “Have in this Renko the Murais. I’ll see him before I sign.” “It may not be the same man.” “Exactly my thought. But I must be sure.” “Quidang, majister!” The papers lay on my desk and the tiny breeze whiffled in through the open casement and lifted the corners. I pondered. There just was not enough time. But — twelve men and the thirteenth might go free, if there had been a miscarriage of justice and Renko the Murais was the Renko I’d known in Valka. He’d been a Freedom Fighter then, when we’d cleared the island of Valka out and the people had fetched me to be their lord. Time would have to be found. I stared at Nath. “Have Enevon send me in all the papers on these cases. Delay the executions,” I said. “I would like to satisfy myself...” Without going on, I could see that Nath both fully understood why I did what I did, and despaired of me as an emperor who would have a fellow’s head off in a trice. The blurred shouts as orders were cracked out and repeated and the clink-clank of weapons drifted up from the court below where the guards worked at the drills that might keep them alive in battle. The flick-flick plant on the window-sill twined its long green tendrils hungrily, its orange cone-shaped flowers gaping emptily. Later on a dish of fat flies would have to be brought in to keep the flick-flick happy and lush. “All the same, majister,” said Nath, stroking his chin. “When you fight for your rights men must die. It is a law of nature. Death comes to us all — sooner or later — and—” I smiled. I smiled at Nath Nazabhan and let the smile linger for a full heartbeat before my face resumed its usual craggy mask. I pushed the papers aside and picked up a fresh batch, details of weapons, stores, conditions of wagons. The paperwork was never-ending. “You quote proverbs at me, Nath. Well, and so it may be true. But the state of the country demands we push out from Vondium and consolidate the midlands and the northeast. I do not know what rights there may be in this.” “You have been fetched to be Emperor of Vallia.” At my instinctive gesture of displeasure, he went doggedly on. “Everyone shouts for you and they know why they shout. If we are to re-conquer Vallia—” I glared up at him, sternly, and this time he paused. Then, without embarrassment, he said: “Yes, majister, I know your words. It is more liberation than conquest. But the facts remain and they cannot be altered. If our country is to find any peace at all we must unite ourselves under one flag. And that means the new flag of Vallia you have shown us.” “You have heard me speak of the Wizard of Loh called Phu-si-Yantong? Yes, well, he is a damned great villain filled with a maniacal desire to subdue and control and hold in his hand all the lands of Paz. It is an insane dream. But, in Vallia, where he has caused us so much trouble — what is the difference? Why should I take the throne and crown and not Yantong?” Nath’s gasp halted me. His face screwed up into the most ferocious scowl, like a chavonth about to charge. “Because we’ve seen how the rast treats those he enslaves! By Vox, majister, as soon consign us all to Cottmer’s Caverns as let that cramph Yantong rule us.” “So we consolidate what we have and then bring war and bloodshed and misery to the rest of the country—” He shook his head, angry at the way I was treating him, for which I couldn’t blame him. The truth was, and I think he saw a little of it, that I carried the blood-guilt badly. “We can move with safety in the Imperial provinces surrounding Vondium. The northeast and all the Hawkwa country stands firm for Jak the Drang, Dray Prescot, as emperor. The midlands will rise for us. The northwest — we must deal with the arch-traitor Layco Jhansi and after that teach the Racters a lesson. They fight each other, for which Opaz be praised.” “The Blue Mountains,” I said, mildly, “and the Black Mountains are nearer than Jhansi’s province of Vennar.” He shook his head. “Only if we strike more westerly of north. And, majister, do not forget the Ochre Limits bar off Vennar and Falinur.” My glance favored the map hung on the wall. The colors mocked me. The mountain chains and rivers, the canals and forests, the badlands and the lush agricultural heartlands, they all demanded attention. Movement of armies bedevils those who would bring overwhelming force to bear on their enemies. “That is so, Nath. But the Blue Mountains—” “The Empress, may Opaz shine the light of his countenance upon her, commands the hearts of all, and none more than those ruffians, the Blue Mountain Boys. I think whoever tried to subdue the Blue Mountains has rued the day.” Again, I smiled. Well, Delia and her Blue Mountain Boys are enough to make any old sweat perspire a trifle. “I had thought we would use the Great River and hit the northwest by curving in from the east.” My pointing finger described an arc in the air, extending those phantom lines of march on the map. “As we came in from the south. I had in mind a man to command that army.” He knew exactly what I meant. And, the stubborn old graint, ignored that with sublime self-confidence. “Any man would be proud to be appointed Kapt and command any army you entrusted into his hands. And there are many men in the army worthy of the task.” He looked at me, his eyebrows drawn down, almost challenging me. “As for me, majister, I command the Phalanx with your blessings and where you march there I march.” I grumped at this. “And have I not explained to you, Kyr Nath, that the Phalanx is not best suited to mountain work?” “Layco Jhansi, who deserves to be shortened by a head, does not foment his insurrections in a mountainous country. The land up there is ideal for my Phalanx.” “And after you’ve seen off Jhansi, you’ll go haring after those damned racters north of him? Yes, well, they all deserve to be made to see the error of their ways.” The papers before me now detailed the condition of the canal narrow boats I had ordered collected. From the famous canals of Vallia the vener were trudging in, hauling their boats, answering the call. The basins and pools of the capital were filling with the brilliantly painted boats. I needed a fleet, and the canalfolk, always proud and independent and disdainfully removed from the petty party politics of the island empire, had decided that for the sake of peace and prosperity and the movement of trade their star must be linked with the new emperor in Vondium. I was happy about that. I had good friends among the canalfolk. And they would be invaluable in the coming struggles. The future loomed dark and ominous — as so often it does on Kregen, by Zair — and everyone who would stand with us and strike a blow for freedom, in the cant phrase, was welcome. I say “in the cant phrase.” But for the colossal task facing us more than cant would be needed. If we were to cleanse all Vallia, and the island was frighteningly large with many areas still virtually unpopulated, we must seek to make allies of all whom we could and only in the last resort take up arms against them. This was a view not highly regarded, I knew. But the new Dray Prescot saw the wisdom of it, even if my other persona, that wild leem Jak the Drang, was toughly contemptuous of shillyshallying. As though Jak the Drang flared up in me I pushed the papers away pettishly and stood up. “By Vox! I need some fresh air.” Crossing to the arms rack I took down a solid leather belt with a fine rapier and main gauche already scabbarded, the lockets of plain bronze. The weapons were workmanlike, nothing fancy, with silver-wire wound hilts. A matched pair, they were balanced to perfection. Belting the gear on I half-turned to speak to Nath and saw a shadow move against the map. No shadow could be thrown there by the light from the window. Nath leaped back and the slender dagger appeared in his fist. His face looked stricken. “Daggers are useless here, Nath,” I said, on a breath, quickly. “I think.” The shadow writhed and thickened and flowed, smoked coiling into the semblance of a man, a hunched man in a black cowl, the hood drawn forward so that only the deep furnace-glow of feral eyes showed, demoniac, peering. Nath shuddered, a deep hollow revulsion of flesh. The dagger shook. The thought flamed into my mind: “Thank Zair I had not marked the map with my intentions!”
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