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Authors: Peter Morwood

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BOOK: The Dragon Lord
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“... intend to do without them, or my weapons? No. Not until I’m clear of this place. And much more confident of the company that I keep.” His eyes met hers, feline gray-green and gemlike sapphire blue, each probing for reality beneath the facade of studied, obviously false ironic humor. “May I be entirely open with you, lady?”

“By all means.” That sardonic undertone was not a pleasant thing to hear in any pretty woman’s voice, and especially hers. Because she was so pretty. No— beautiful. Naturally beautiful; and expensively beautiful.

And she knew the power it gave her.

“I don’t trust you, lady—I’m sorry, but there it is. I have what you might call a feeling about this whole affair, from the fire at the tavern to your apparent generosity. For which I thank you. But I can find no proof. Nothing I can hold, nothing I can be sure of. So I must accept your motives at face value.”

“Now that is uncommonly kind of you.” Her words were flat and the thought behind them vicious, but even though her tone scoured his ears like ground glass Aldric was glad he had made himself quite plain. At least he had proved that he was not quite as naive as she might have thought. Though she was still so very, very beautiful.

“And if you did not accept,
hlens’l
?” It was the first 1 time he had heard her use that particular Drusalan word amongst the smoothness of her Jouvaine, and it jarred. : “What would you do?” Now she was mocking him, subtly but not so subtly that it passed him by.

“What would I do?” he echoed, picking up his
tsepan
with the ghost of a respectful bow, no more than an inclination of his head, before thrusting it through his 1 snugly-cinched weapon belt. There was a moment’s hesitation, as though he was considering his next words; and ; in that hesitation he lifted Isileth and looped her cross- strap across his shoulder, hooking it low so that the longsword rode diagonally across his back. Her hilt reared alongside his neck like an adder poised to strike, but for all her threatening appearance the
taiken
was being carried in peace posture. It was a courteous gesture and a compliment of sorts, one which would be understood by whoever had set the longsword on her stand with her straps wrapped just-so in accordance with lore and ritual.

But it was also an insult, one so subtle that only the same knowledgeable person would appreciate it—if “appreciate” was the right word with insults. For wearing a fighting sword like that, in the presence of a suspected enemy, proclaimed unconcern and disdain and announced
I
consider you no threat
in elegant cursives clear as the noon sun to those who knew how to read them.

“Do?” he said again, almost tasting the word. The grin which followed was a pleasant thing to see, all white teeth and sparkling eyes—unlike the words which went with it. “Truly, lady, I have no idea. But I would ask you, now and later—do not press me into finding out. I doubt that either of us would enjoy the revelation.”

He bowed from the waist and it was a false, theatrically elegant sweep of movement which was not an Alban obeisance and was therefore another insult to any who chose to regard it as such. “And now,” Aldric lifted his saddlebags and hefted them into a comfortable carrying position on one shoulder, “I thank you for your kindness towards me and I take my leave.”

“Leave, Alban?” Surprise and shock; if they were feigned, then she was as much a talented actress as she was a seductively beautiful woman—and it was undeniably for the latter reason that Aldric wanted to be out of her house, out of her city, out of her circle of influence. One of the worldly-wise savants of history had said: “It is a wise man who knows his own failings.” Aldric knew his, only too well. “In the name of the Father of Fires, what are you running away from? Why leave so soon?”

“Because, lady, as you say: I am Alban. I want to go home. And if this is Tuenafen, as I believe, then there should be a ship to suit me in the harbor.”

“I… think not.”

Had her voice been amused, or mocking, or sardonic— or indeed, any of several things which Aldric had no desire to hear, then he might just have dropped the saddlebags and drawn on her. Woman or not, pretty or not. Beautiful or not.

But she sounded, looked, perhaps was, sincerely annoyed and regretful. Sufficiently so at least to still what was as reflex a fear-born action as the hunched and bristling back of a wildcat. A
kourgath
of the Alban forests.

But even then he had to draw in a slow, deep breath so that the thunder of his heartbeat would not come vibrating up to leave a tremor in his voice when he said softly, “Explain.”

“There have been no ships in Tuenafen harbor these two days past. I’m sorry. Truly. Had I but known. With the blow on your head and the drags which my physician recommended, you were unconscious for almost three days and nights. Oh, Lord Father of Fires, if I had
known!”
Her expression changed, altering as the eddies of several consequent thoughts and considerations fled across it. “But after all,” she said at last, “this is really for the best.”

“Is it? What is?”

“You being here with me, and I in your debt.”

“For those damned horses?” The foggy recollection of their earlier and rather one-sided conversation was growing much clearer. “All I did, lady, was to make a reasonable attempt at killing myself—and to no good purpose.”

She tut-tutted at him and waved one finger in the air, as reproving as any tutor. “Not without purpose, I insist on that. Those horses weren’t just damned, especially the carriage ponies. They were—are, thanks to you— damned fine, damned expensive and damned healthy. I owe you, Alban, yes. Say it is because of the horses.”

“Lady, I don’t understand what you’re trying to tell me.”

“If there was a ship in the harbor today, now, this very minute, and you went aboard to buy passage for yourself—oh yes, and for your
own
horses—then you would be wasting your time. Because you couldn’t afford to. Not since the fire.”

Though he made no sound and had not even formed the words with his mouth, Aldric’s question was plain enough in his eyes for her to answer it at once.

“Your money is gone. All of it.”

A chill like the touch of an ice-dipped razor slithered down the Alban’s spine and he seemed to see the bars of a cage closing around him. But there was still one possible key that no one knew about. If only… He forced his voice to a flat calm. “How much damage was done? I… missed the end of it.”

“Enough and to spare,” she said quietly. “The tavern was gutted, burnt to a shell. Stables, kitchen, tap-room— and most of the guest-rooms too. Yours among them. Somehow your saddlebags weren’t there.”

Yes, they bloody were
! He caught the snapping contradiction just in time; let her think she was playing him for a fool a little longer. But his saddlebags were invariably in the same room where he slept, even disregarding the presence of money; they contained the clean clothes and the razor which he needed first thing every morning. So who had moved them?

“... they were found at last, and investigated—”

“Of course!” This time he did interrupt aloud, but his sarcasm seemed almost an expected response to her confession and consequently went unremarked.

“Investigated,” she spoke with heavy patience now, “for some idea of who you were, no more. Because there was a stage when my concern was only to find some true words for your grave-marker.”

Aldric stared at her and his mouth twitched slightly without completing any one of the dozen possible expressions which it might have formed—and not one of them an expression the Drusalan woman would have liked. But for her part she lifted both shoulders in an ostentatious shrug and let it go at that. Why start to worry now? the shrug said. You’re still alive, aren’t you?

“There was no money in the saddlebags, none at all. Nor in your pockets. If there had been, it would have been given to me for safe-keeping. And yet the innkeeper kept insisting that you were rich. ‘Free with Imperial silver,’ were his exact words. Not any more, I’m afraid. Whatever wealth you might have had is melted slag among the ashes of the inn. Now do you understand what I mean when I say that I owe you?”

“I understand that I can no longer pay my own way in the Drusalan Empire,” Aldric returned a trifle frostily. Either the silver in question
had
been destroyed—which was unlikely to a degree—or it had been stolen afterwards to convey that impression.

“Quite so.” She refused to be baited by his tone, which was natural enough in the circumstances anyway. “Until I repay my debt, you are my guest, Alban. Because otherwise—here at least—you are a pauper.”

“Oh.” That was all. Aldric set his saddlebags down again and allowed his shoulders to sag. Not all of it was pretence; everything was far too neat, far too obviously planned in advance. And far too obviously planned for his especial benefit, if benefit was quite the word he wanted.

But for all her pretended omniscience, the woman didn’t know everything. And in that lack of knowledge lay his one hope and his one chance to get himself clear of this mess before the cage was fully shut.

“I want to see my horses, lady; and to check that all my gear is as safe as you assure me. And then I want a look at the harbor anyway.” It felt odd not having used her name once, for all that they had spoken together for so long; but then he didn’t yet know it—nor she his. Well, maybe that was for the best. Time enough for names—even assumed names—when they were going to be of some use.

“I’ll have a servant escort you,” she said quickly. Too quickly for Aldric’s liking.

“I’d sooner go alone.”

“No!”

“No… ?”

“No. It would be too dangerous.” He quirked one eyebrow at that. “You are a foreigner.
Inyen-hlensyarl
. And people are uneasy about foreigners right now.”

His mind went back to the attitudes displayed in the tavern common-room. “I’ve noticed that much already. Why?”


K’shva sho’tah, ‘n-tach chu h’labech
.”

“They fear you, because they fear spies.”

Strange that she could not trust the explanation to Jouvaine, for all that they had spoken it comfortably up until now. Or maybe not so strange at all. In a strange country, inhabited by strange people, the strange becomes ordinary. Or at least acceptable. Without doubt he had found that to be true, in the Jevaiden at least.

“Why,” she asked softly, as if the answer was obvious, “do you think that your bedroom door was locked?”

Aldric blinked once. He had planned to spring just that very question on
her
and glean what he could from the expression it provoked. But not now; indeed, it required an effort of his own will and facial muscles to prevent the position from being reversed. “To keep me from running away?” he hazarded flippantly.

The woman stared at him: Was that contempt he saw in her eyes, or was he just imagining it? “No.” the denial was flat and toneless, “It was to keep everyone else out. Otherwise… Oh, Father of Fires, I don’t know. Call it too much caution and let it go.”

“Understood,” Aldric lied, very reluctant to let it go at all. “Now. To stretch my legs and check my horses. The harbor?”

“Of course.” She turned to leave, then hesitated and swung back with one hand extended. There was something nestling on the proffered palm, a thing of looped steel and silver, partially wrapped in snow-white buckskin.

The spellstone of Echainon.

And Aldric’s heart came crawling crookedly back up his throat.

“This is yours. I kept it safe—as I would with anything belonging to a
guest”
Aldric thought privately that she came down over-heavily on that last word, but passed no remark. “It’s a beautiful gem.”

Gem?

She had called it nothing more; the meaning of the Jouvaine word was plain enough. So the stone had somehow kept its own secret, concealed the eldritch blue glow which would have marked it as much, much more than just a gemstone. Even though he couldn’t fathom how or why. Aldric’s mind worked rapidly to make his position more secure, to explain away what she might have read from his eyes.

“Not even a gem, lady. Just semiprecious quartz, without intrinsic value even if it is a pretty thing. Of course, it
is
very old and there are those who would set a price on that.”

The glibness with which the lies came to his tongue unsettled him. Almost as if someone—maybe the stone itself, for all he knew—was prompting him and guiding his reasoning for its own protection.

“But it’s an heirloom of my family, nobody else’s. I inherited it—”

Or stole it? The conjecture in her eyes was plain enough.

“And though nobody else might, yet I consider it to have some small worth.”

His fingertips closed on the talisman, pincering it neatly off her hand and confirming repossession even as he bowed courteously to her. This time there was no suggestion of any insult; there was nothing insulting about a formal Alban Third Obeisance, even this abbreviated version. But the bow gave him opportunity to relax the muscles of his face, which felt as if they were cramping permanently into an expression of careful neutrality. Only the palms of his hands might have betrayed him with their light film of sweat, but the shaking of hands was Gemmel’s custom, not his. “I thank you, lady.”

The meaning of his hesitation was obvious enough. “Call me Kathur, Alban. Everyone does.”

“Apt enough,” said Aldric, allowing himself to smile. “Kourgath-eijo, of… south and west of here.” Now it was Kathur’s turn to smile at his small double witticism, both of them content with their exchange of lies. He had told her only that he was named for the lynx-cat on his heavy silver collar, and anyone with wit would realize that this was no more than a nickname; south and west took in a sizable slice of the Empire, as well as Vreijaur and the independent city states of Jouvann. An answer, in truth, that answered nothing.

Her reply had been as vague, thought Aldric as he took his leave. Kathur, indeed! So she had been named—or chosen a name—for the rich color of her hair. Because
en-K’thar
in Drusalan meant “the fox,” and she had given him the feminine equivalent with its soft shift of vowels.
In-K’thur
meant no more or less than “female fox.” The Vixen.

BOOK: The Dragon Lord
3.12Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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