Read The Dragon Lord Online

Authors: Peter Morwood

Tags: #Fantasy

The Dragon Lord (11 page)

BOOK: The Dragon Lord
8.58Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads
Chapter Four
The Hour of the Fox

Aldric reached out and gave the door a single firm push. It swung inward, silently, and a broad bar of dusty golden light speared past him into the gloomy stable, pinning his shadow against the deep straw on the floor. He remained in the doorway for several minutes, not moving, saying nothing, just watching the hard-edged contrasts of sunlight and darkness and half-expecting sudden movement.

More than half-expecting. Widowmaker was hooked in battle position now, close in to his left hip on her silver-plaqued weaponbelt, and his right hand had returned to her hilt after opening the door with a blurred flick that was too fast and precise for accident.

His caution was not required, for slowly—as his eyes became accustomed to the dimness within—they were able to see that everything was in order. Exact order. And that very neatness made them go narrow and flinty.

The horses were safe. The harness was safe
(good!)
. The pack-saddle and its armor-boxes were safe—though doubtless carefully searched.

All safe. Everything he owned—except the silver which would have taken him out of here at a time of his own choosing. Yes, a selective fire indeed. Who set it? Not a flicker of the sardonic thought showed on his face for the interested scrutiny of the man who stood nearby. The promised escort.

And the expected spy.

All of his suspicions were confirmed now; not that they were meant to be allayed for long, or indeed at all, by so transparent an excuse. But if the inn had indeed been fired deliberately as the first step to getting him right where somebody—
who
?—wanted him, then it was an act of such casual ruthlessness as to take the breath away—the act of somebody who cared nothing for consequences. Or because of who supported them, didn’t
have
to care. And that thought was the most frightening at all.

Aldric walked lightly inside and patted Lyard’s questing muzzle as the big Andarran courser shifted in his stall, recognised the one man in this whole place he trusted absolutely and demanded attention. Aldric gave the black stallion an apple, autumn-wrinkled but still sweet, which he had filched from a fruit-bowl as he left Kath-ur’s house, then for fairness’ sake gave another to the pack-horse and crunched into a third himself as he scanned the stable building. His gaze swept over fresh bedding, noted new grain and clean water; he smelt the sweet and slightly dusty aroma which told him the place was well-aired and dry, and nodded faintly with reluctant approval, honest enough with himself to admit that he had wanted to find fault somewhere. He watched as the horses noisily consumed their presents, then walked slowly towards the tack set on a wooden frame at the far wall, turning his head to stare arrogantly at Kath-ur’s servant.

“How far to the harbor?” He asked the question around a mouthful of fruit, deliberately rude.

There was no answer and Aldric tentatively considered repeating himself in Drusalan—even though the apple clogging his mouth could prove a challenge when speaking that guttural, slipshod language, especially when it was a language he had been at pains to prove he neither spoke nor understood. He decided not to bother. “I’ll walk anyway.”

He neither knew nor cared if he was understood, for as he spoke he stroked the flat of one hand casually over the elaborate, expensive tooled leather of his high-peaked saddle. More expensive than any footslogging or carriage-riding Drusalan could understand; his touch was that of a man sliding his hand across the naked body of a lover, and with reason.

He was still in control of his own fate.

The embossed pattern was a formal, elaborate and classic design for horse furniture, an abstract design of interlacing arabesques, and it would have required a more expert eye than existed outside two or three centers of scholarship—or else the systematic and absolute destruction of a plainly undamaged saddle—to discover the single welt which was fractionally thicker than all the others. Its very presence—
and
ensuring that nobody, not even Gemmel his own foster-father, knew of the discrepancy in the pattern—had cost Aldric three and one-half pound’s weight of raw gold ingots. He had paid for the work two days after a particularly unpleasant conversation with no less a person than King Rynert himself, and had considered the metal well spent.

For within the slightly-too-thick-for-authenticity length of leather was a cylinder of parchment, rolled as thin as a goose-quill. A letter—and no ordinary letter, even on this far from ordinary mission for the king. Its very presence set the young Alban’s mind a little more at rest. Let my lady Vixen say whatever she pleased about the state of his finances: he could afford to buy a rapid, secret passage after all.

Or a ship. Aldric thought a moment and consciously had to will the grin from his lips. Ship, nothing! The realization had not occurred until now. He could buy an entire merchant fleet!

For the letter was indeed very far from ordinary; it was credit scrip drawn on what Aldric had decided was the largest and wealthiest merchant guild in the northern Empire. A note of hand good—if need be—for thirty thousand Alban deniers’ worth of bullion gold.

Despite what Rynert the King had opined on that subject, Aldric had been undisputed master of Dunrath and
ilauem-arluth
Talvalin for long enough—just long enough—to make good use of the fact. He wondered if anyone had yet noticed the guild-stamps in Dunrath’s treasury which effectively depleted it by one-third; and had to resist the desire to laugh out loud.

Despite his reconfirmed wealth, Tuenafen made Aldric uneasy. Anywhere in the Western Empire would have had the same effect. Young Emperor Ioen and his rebellious Grand Warlord were heading inexorably towards an armed Confrontation after the sudden and mysterious deaths which had struck the Imperial Court like a plague—or, as some fanatics proclaimed, the retribution of an outraged Heaven. The deaths had begun with Crown Prince Ravek, killed in a hunting accident which many believed was no accident at all, and had moved like a scythe in wheat through courtiers, councillors, advisors and ultimately to the emperor himself who was found dead—of poison, said some; of another sort of excess altogether, said others—on a concubine’s couch in the Pleasure Palace at Kalitzim. And until their sudden demise, all had been puppets who danced most obligingly when
Woydach
Etzel pulled on the appropriate strings.

The emperor’s surviving son, Ioen, had suddenly found himself thrust to center stage in a political drama for which he was totally unrehearsed; and that had raised certain suspicions about the passing of his father and his brother, for all that four years had separated their deaths. Not that the boy himself was accused; at the time of his accession to crown prince he was sixteen and hardly capable of such ruthlessness. But his guardian and mentor was; Lord General Goth was capable of anything he could justify—and recent months had shown him remarkably able to discover reasons for what he did.

Reports were rife of an assassination here, a kidnapping and imprisonment there and of skirmishes far more serious than the clashes between partisan gangs which Aldric had witnessed once or twice in other towns. It had already happened in Tuenafen, for the consequences were plain: broken windows, smashed doorway lanterns— and those as yet undamaged screened from harm by shutters or by grilles of heavy mesh. Minor streets were sealed by barriers and main thoroughfares had checkpoints manned by the city militia—armed men empowered to stop, search and if need be detain any who aroused their suspicions.

The atmosphere was tense, strained, brittle as thin ice, yet to Aldric’s surprise people were going about their business in an ordinary way. It was only when he surreptitiously listened to a few conversations that he realized how false that first impression had been. They talked[* *]about what was happening in the Empire: the political divisions, the religious schism of the Tesh heresy—but always in roundabout terms that were vague, ill-defined and comfortable. “Dissent.” “Difficult times.” “Troubles.” But never the obvious.

Civil war.

Almost as if by not naming the actuality, they could deny that it existed. But their laughter when it came was forced and over-loud, and they had an unpleasant tendency to follow strangers with their eyes while never looking fully at them. Aldric had caught such sideways glances more than once, out of eyes that flinched away directly his own gaze met them. And it made his skin creep.

Somebody, somewhere, had told him why, and it was a reason so ridiculous that he had given it no credence then.
Then
. Now, he wasn’t so sure. His taste in clothes was the problem; his preferred black and silver garments apparently reflected partisan support—for
Woydach
Etzel the Grand Warlord, of all people!—and that, with his foreign air, was enough to influence any who saw him. No one in the Empire was neutral; either they approved of the way he dressed—or somebody, somewhere, would find him so provocative that he would end up knifed. Purely as a form of political statement, of course, and with no personal animosity intended, as if that mattered.

The fact that any political extremist attacking Aldric while Isileth Widowmaker rode openly across his back would find himself sliced in half—purely as a reflex defensive response, of course, and with no personal animosity intended, as if that would carry weight with an Imperial court—was small comfort. That was not the way to fade unobtrusively into any background.

But it would soon be Aldric’s name-day, and he planned to be alive and healthy on that day to celebrate it properly. If that meant borrowing enough money from Ka-thur to buy himself new clothes, then so be it; after all, she did keep insisting how much she was in his debt.

In twenty-three days he would be twenty-four years old: a quarter century, near enough, although there had been many times when both he and others had doubted aloud that he would ever attain so venerable an age. It would be ironic, therefore—no, it would be downright stupid—if some fanatic with a belt-knife managed to accomplish what Duergar, and Kalarr, and Crisen (and all their respective minions) had failed to do, all because of an unfortunate choice of dress.
Light of Heaven
, the Alban thought as he mentally reviewed the list again,
were there so many
?

Then all of his random thoughts jarred to an abrupt, shocked standstill as he strolled around a corner and took in his first view of Tuenafen harbor—and the things that had got there before him.

Battlerams. Three of them, for the love of…

Feeling like a cat gone mousing in an occupied kennel, Aldric slackened what had once been an eager pace and shaded his eyes with one hand, scrutinising the anchored warships sourly and remembering his encounter with the
Aalkhorst
. That memory was anything but reassuring.

No, not three, he corrected silently as another predatory shape slid with heavy grace around the sea-wall. Four. Four fully armored first-rate ships-of-the-line, each of whose seven steel-sheathed turrets contained a chain-geared repeating catapult capable of reducing an enemy vessel to matchwood and drifting splinters. He knew; he had. seen what they could do.

Aldric watched the new arrival as she came into harbor. Although long maneuvering sweeps had been deployed from oarlocks near her waterline, they were extended clear of the water and served only to give the battleram the look of some monstrous, malevolent insect. Only her spritsail was rigged. But that small white sail was puffed like a pigeon’s breast by a wind from astern the ship, despite the offshore breeze which raised choppy ripples and sent them straight toward the oncoming bow.

It appeared that, despite the Empire’s stringent legislation against sorcery, the fleet’s requested waiver of such restrictions was still effective. This warship, and perhaps her consorts as well, had a witch-wind charmed into her sails. She could go wherever she pleased, whenever she pleased, regardless of the irritating vagaries of real weather; and she could do it far, far faster than any honestly propelled vessel could hope to match.

Now if only he could see whose side these brutes were on…

But they had stowed their sails, struck their colors and displayed no marks of allegiance anywhere on their reptilian hides. There was a nameplate clamped to the flank armor of the new ship’s hull, but that was of little use for two reasons: firstly, it would require a knowledge of the Imperial fleet from coastal tenders up, to work out whether Emperor or Warlord owned any given vessel; and secondly—Aldric couldn’t read Drusalan. Oh, speak it—at least in the formal mode—yes; that was straightforward enough. But the language was written in a different alphabet from that shared by Alban, Jouvaine, Vreijek—for no other reason than sheer perversity, he thought sometimes. And they only wrote characters for consonants; vowels were represented by dots, bars and chevrons, nothing more.

At least the merchant guilds had more sense. A swift glance along the waterfront revealed what he had come to check: a painted wooden sign above a doorway which bore the same crest as his credit scrip—and as that stamped into a great many bars of Talvalin gold. The glance was very quick indeed, for Aldric could feel the escort/spy close up behind him, doubtless watching for anything worth reporting back—such as excessive interest in routes of departure from the Empire. Well, he would have little to tell apart from the fact that Albans were unsettled by the presence of the military. Since that held true for most Imperial citizens as well, it was not information with a great deal of use.

Until he knew more about the whys and wherefores of what had brought the warships here at such an inopportune time, Aldric considered that it might be prudent if he got off the public street and awaited developments somewhere more secluded. Kathur’s house was one such place—indeed, so far as Tuenafen was concerned, it was the only place he knew.

There was a splash and a clatter of anchor-chain from the harbor; sailors yelled instructions at each other as they secured the new battleram at her moorings and began to warp her alongside the others. Aldric looked incuriously towards the men as he began to retrace his steps, then at the ship itself. Dear God, but she was huge!

BOOK: The Dragon Lord
8.58Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Other books

The General of the Dead Army by Ismail Kadare, Derek Coltman
Small Town Girl by Ann H. Gabhart
The End of the World by Paddy O'Reilly
Barbarian by Scarrow, Simon
The Director's Cut by Js Taylor
The Ghost Files by Apryl Baker