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Authors: Peter Morwood

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The Dragon Lord (45 page)

BOOK: The Dragon Lord
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Goth was here. Of course Goth was here. Aldric might have—and at the back of his mind probably had—expected it; certainly he betrayed not even a flicker of adverse emotion at first sight of the jutting, pugnacious spade beard. Instead he offered beard and general alike a lazy, deep, utterly false bow of respect. And even now, an hour and much talking later, he hadn’t yet decided whether or not Goth was glad to see him alive. Or even if he had been troubled by Bruda’s murder. It was, as always, impossible to tell what, might please or annoy such a man.

Ioen the Emperor, younger, with a freckled milk-pale skin and flaming red hair, was somewhat easier to read. The very presence of this armored storm-column so relatively close to the borders of
Woydach
Etzel’s territory was an indication of how he felt about—what? That was the real question. His sister—or the policies which her capture had affected? But either was sufficient reason to make him pleased to see her free and unhurt; and enough to make him wax generous.

“My lords, my lady,” he said in stilted Alban—a compliment which, following Aldric’s lead, both Gemmel and Kyrin acknowledged with courteous nods—”for this gift of my dear sister, her liberty, gift I in turn gold, land, riches.”

Maybe it wasn’t just because of those policies after all, Aldric thought; then he saw Goth lean over in his saddle and whisper something which, although he couldn’t hear it, was probably an exhortation to restraint. He grinned slightly and made quite sure that Goth saw him do it. “I’m not a poor man, General. Nor particularly greedy. So there’s no need to fear for the Exchequer. Not this time.”

Goth straightened with a jerk, clearing his throat and pretending that he hadn’t said a word. He even had the decency to color slightly—if it was a blush born of decency and not the flush of rage.

“But there are two matters I’d like settled, Majesty,” Aldric continued. “One concerns the Jevaiden holding of Seghar.”

That name provoked a deal of muttering between Ioen and Goth, so much so that Aldric wondered what he might have started. He was privately relieved to see the beginnings of a smile on the Emperor’s freckled face. An absolute monarch with freckles and a schoolboy’s face, he thought irrelevantly, Lord God!

“Your concern is for Gueynor-Overlord, rather than the holding itself, yes?” There was an archness in the light, youthful voice that had no place there and could easily become an irritation, but in the circumstances Aldric thought best to let it go.

“Uh. Yes. Put like that, Majesty, yes.”

“Concerned with regard to her safety, yes?”

Feeling certain that this was a speech prepared in advance and learned by rote, Aldric nodded silently. He had left Gueynor abruptly, with only a middle-aged demon-queller as protector—he, and the keys to hidden money-chests which gave her power over the long-unpaid garrison. But second thoughts had been suggesting that it might not have been enough. He had to know.

“Then have ho fear; she was confirmed as Overlord, with all due rights of rank and privilege within the Empire, two months ago. It pleases me that your wish has been so quickly answered, yes?”

“Yes.” Aldric bit the word off short; it pleased Goth as well, apparently, for the width of his grin was such as to put the general’s ears in jeopardy. So quickly answered, thought Aldric maliciously—and so cheaply. He coughed in a significant fashion and saw the grin snuffed out. “You forget, General,” he reminded delicately, “I said
two
matters. The second involves passes for three to any part of the Empire.
Any
—regardless of current political allegiance. I’m sure that you can think of some clause to ensure that, dear Goth. Yes?”

“No!” Goth was shocked beyond measure. “Never! Of course not… !”

Aldric wasn’t amused to see how, after his first vehement refusal, the general had to pause and think of reasons
why
not. To cover the workings of that tricky brain, Goth began to bluster about foreigners and lack of rights, and—more dangerously than he knew—duty and obligation. Aldric didn’t trouble to hide his grimace of distaste.

But then his attention shifted beyond both General and Emperor, to where Princess Marevna sat side-saddle on a palfrey—red-roan like all the Imperial mounts— and watched and listened. Her simple white clothing had been changed in this past hour to the rich crimson and burnished gold more fitting to an Emperor’s sister, but save for that quarter-hour she had heard the whole exchange between the scarlet and the black. Always herself quite silent, not even coughing in the icy air; saying and doing nothing.

Until now.

Now she leaned down to where Chirel stood by her horse’s head, tapped the woman on the arm with a slim, scarlet-lacquered scroll cylinder plucked from the long cuff of one glove, and directed that it be taken straight to Aldric.

Aldric himself had seen their little by-play—he was ostentatiously ignoring Goth—and there was already a laugh simmering within his rib-cage as Chirel reached up past his stirruped leg to hand the scrollcase over.

“That should prove sufficient.” Marevna’s voice, not particularly loud, still cut across all the other sounds—, of Goth, of the horses, of the military camp two hundred yards away. But the General and the Emperor jerked round in their saddles, not expecting to hear this little quiet mouse of a sister speak at all. Then they exchanged glances and turned slowly back to Aldric…

Who sat, cylinder in one hand, tapping it indolently on the gloved palm of the other as he met Goth’s stare with a bland, cool smile. Then, holding the General’s eyes with his own, he held out the little container to Gemmel.

“I only speak it,
altrou-ain
. Could you do the honors here?”

Gemmel did so, scanning the high-quality parchment with its neatly brushed characters and the red-and-black cluster of seal impressions both at top and bottom. He didn’t read the message aloud, but his indrawn whistle of amazement—an unfamiliar reaction from him, and one which made Aldric look round with raised eyebrows— said more than enough. The sorcerer looked at his fosterling, and at that fosterling’s lady, and tapped the scroll with one long finger. “Citizenship,” he said, “while we’re within the Empire’s borders. Scholarly passes. Confirming that we are without any political bias. Commanding aid and protection. Senatorial seals: High, Low and Priestly.” He let the scroll snap shut and returned it almost reverently to its case. “Go anywhere, do anything, where the law permits. Lady…” he bowed very low towards Marevna, “you have my thanks.”

“What point,” said the princess, “in having high-placed friends, if they aren’t sometimes of use?”

“You listened,” Aldric said, faintly accusing. But pleased for all that.

“One learns that way.”

“Uh… true. My lady, Majesty, oh yes, and Goth. Thanks to you all. For a great many things. Education, mostly. And now we really must be going.”

They went.

Aldric stood up in his stirrups again, scanning a nonexistent horizon for non-existent signs of life, then settled back into Lyard’s saddle and exhaled a smoky sigh of relief. It was now four in the afternoon—the Hour of the Serpent—and they had ridden constantly since half-past one, pushing their horses as much as they dared. Seven horses now; the three additional pack-ponies loaded with provisions were a token of Imperial generosity and also, Aldric had suspected at first, a means to slow them up. He distrusted Lord General Goth, who was the sort of man to overhaul them and take away (heir Imperial travel passes, not for any really malevo-lent reason but simply in order to regain face by having the power to withhold or return them.

But perhaps he was wronging the General by such a thought, because there had been no sign of pursuit all afternoon—and now at last the day was darkening into twilight once more. Or maybe, Aldric thought with a quick grin, someone else had suspected how Goth’s mind might work and had forbidden any move which might resemble an attempt to follow them.

No matter now. All that truly mattered was that there had been nothing to see and nothing to fear. Only Kyrin and Gemmel, a little way away, sitting with the horses in a thin fog of exhaled breath which clung about them all like the skeins of spider-silk that night glimmer on a meadow in the first light of dawn. Only Ymareth, high above where the first cold jewelled stars began to show.

Only snow, and more snow, its once-blinding whiteness shading down now to a silver and smoke-blue in the shadowed dusk as it flowed out like a waveless sea towards the cloudless evening sky. Aldric touched heels to Lyard’s flanks and rode forward, eastward, to be with his companions; the lady lost and regained, and the father more than any parent. At his back, the pale blue of Heaven was washed with rose and saffron as the sun set into a distant fringe of haze which was all that showed where a horizon might have been. Ahead was that same haze, velvety, darkening to a star-fired night where the world reached up to touch, to meld with, to become the very sky itself.

A sky that went on for ever.

BOOK: The Dragon Lord
3.47Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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