Authors: Robert Asprin,Eric Del Carlo
Tags: #sf_fantasy, #Fiction, #Fantasy, #General, #Fantasy fiction, #Adventure fiction, #War stories, #Epic, #Fantasy fiction; American, #Grief, #Magicians, #Warlords, #Imaginary empires, #Weapons, #Revenge
AT LAST HE rode to a halt. The hot living scent of the lathered mount permeated the rough traveler's clothes Bryck wore. He uncoiled from the saddle, climbing off, and stretched his softening middle-yeared body. The late evening was mild, with a hint of sultriness to the air. Above, stars and a crescent of moon stamped the sky. There were clouds, probably harboring late summer rain, to the distant north.
Bryck was sore to his bones. He was keenly aware of his every muscle and sinew, because each part of himself seemed to ache individually. Three days and two nights he had driven the fast borrowed steed, sleeping only during the darkest watches—and then only on a less than luxurious bedroll. It was all so very primitive, so brutally
Not at all the sort of activity in which he routinely engaged. Yet, this unaccustomed discomfort was pleasing. It was tangible evidence of the righteousness of his actions and of his personal sacrifice in undertaking this venture.
He surveyed the courtyard of the Chancellery to which the city guards had directed him. The building was a mean affair of grey stone—squat, functional, and unassuming, save for the high vaulted doors he now faced. The peaked panels were of glossy wood and etched with ornate images depicting the history of the city-state of Sook. It was not an awe-inspiring chronicle. Neither was Sook itself, which from what he'd seen was much less cosmopolitan than Bryck's home city of U'delph. He had wended its streets to this court, passing ramshackle structures and shabbier citizens.
Still, he had made this arduous journey to seek military aid from these people, so it wouldn't do to flaunt his disdain. And regardless, the humbleness of these surroundings only added to the marvelously crude reality of this adventure. Doubtlessly he had accumulated a wealth of creative material for his next several theatricals.
A lad with wispy red stubble outlining his jawbone detached from the courtyard's shadows and took the reins of Bryck's grey mount. The boy gurgled the unintelligible sounds of someone born deaf and waved toward the doors of the Chancellery.
Oh the pomp, oh the circumstance,
Bryck thought wryly. He hid his smile and watched his horse being led off to the stables, admiring the raw stamina of the creature. Its hooves clomped on the stones of the yard.
A pair of city guards bracketed the vaulted doors. They watched dispassionately as Bryck finished stretching the worst of the kinks from his body. Their uniforms were of blue and scarlet, the colors faded to similar states of drabness. Each leaned on a spear. Bryck wiped away the last trace of his droll smile and approached. This was serious business, after all.
"I was told I'd find an audience here."
The female half of the tiny guard contingent asked, "You the
Not even trying to decipher that rustic
Bryck said simply, "I am."
They drew open the doors for him. He stepped through, unable to entirely suppress another small smile. Going unrecognized was most unfamiliar. In his home city-state, his face was well known, his reputation as a satirical play-wright even more so—to say nothing of his social standing as a noble, with lands, capital, and all the respect and prestige that his status presupposed.
Here, however, he was merely a rider from a neighboring city, seeking an audience with the local authorities. U'delph required military assistance ... required it desperately. The Felk wizards and their army were on the move. That was common knowledge. Now, however, those forces were closing toward U'delph. Scouts had assured that the city-state had six days of safety left to it. Before then, support from some other city must be secured. U'delph's standing army wasn't much to speak of, a few companies of undertrained recruits under the command of a handful of aging, experienced military leaders. They needed more and better numbers.
Volunteers had been needed to ride out to petition for aid. Too many of Udelph's concerned citizenry had turned out to offer their services. Dice had been thrown to decide who would take the fastest mounts.
Bryck wanted to do his share. Noble or not, celebrated dramatist notwithstanding, he wanted to help. He felt strongly about the matter. He felt, perhaps, magnanimous that he would risk a ride through open country to save his people. There was something heroic about it all.
He looked about the empty vestibule. Another set of doors stood at the far end. He crossed the dull tiles toward it.
He had cheated. He had used that trick of simple wizardry that aided him now and then in his gambling pastime. No one had ever trained him in magic; it came instinctively. Such minor talents were fairly common among noble bloodlines in the major cities.
He had influenced the roll of the dice. And had been selected to ride. And bade a farewell to his wife and children and friends. And rode off valiantly toward nearby Sook.
It might well be that he wasn't the most qualified of U'delph's citizens to have made this journey. He had, he admitted to himself, gotten lost on the way and used up much of a day reorienting himself after losing his bearings in a thick patch of woods. But he'd gotten back on course soon enough.
Bryck missed his wife, Aaysue, terribly, and his children—Bron, Cerk, Ganet, little Gremmest—and the comforts of his villa and lifestyle. But no matter. What he was doing was proper, honorable. And if his entreaty for military assistance met with success here in Sook, he might well prove himself to be the savior of U'delph.
Beyond the far doors of the vestibule, a corridor led deeper into the Chancellery. There were more guards here, their uniforms in no better repair than those he'd already seen. They eyed him warily. Receiving no verbal instructions, Bryck strode past them down the corridor, carrying himself with a lofty gait that was not quite a swagger. He smelled of the road. A steaming perfumed bath would erase these odors, but for the present, he was content to reek of his rough travels.
He couldn't recall the last time he had exerted himself so. He was nearing the end of his fourth tenwinter, moderately fit for a man his age. He was of average height, sagging a bit around the middle, owing to the luxuries of his class and the sedentary life of a playwright, which he'd been leading these past many years. His thick dark hair was streaked mildly with grey. His face, etched and some-what full, often lit readily with merriment.
These were grim times. With the Felk army mobilized and backed by powerful wizardry, the historically precarious stability of the entire Isthmus was threatened. No one knew what the Felks' ultimate goal was—expansion of their territory, full conquest? Individual city-states lay ahead of the Felk forces like so many children's stacking blocks, waiting only to be tumbled.
Grim times, indeed. Not the sort of period in which one would expect a satirical playwright to thrive. But so it was. Perhaps it was Bryck's audiences' need to lose themselves in his comic—and frankly silly—works that accounted for the durability of his fame. Bryck's name was synonymous with humor. People always needed to laugh. They perhaps needed that release now more than ever.
Bryck, of course, was aware of the perilous state of things. The pall of the Felk hung over the land. Yet, the threat had seemed remote, detached from the familiar daily business of living ... had seemed so until now, that was, when the invaders were suddenly closing toward U'delph, toward home, toward everything he held dear.
He didn't fault himself for his attitude. It was human nature. Certainly he felt proper sorrow for Windal and— what was that other conquered state?—Callah, yes ... but Bryck knew a menace only became truly real when it was directed at oneself.
He reached the end of the corridor, finding yet another set of doors and one lone stocky guard. In addition to the standard blue and scarlet costume, this one wore a gold scarf twisted in a complicated knot.
A royal retainer,
thought Bryck, being careful not to smile this time as he met the man's rather stony gaze.
"I've come from U'delph for an audience," he said.
The guardsman's eyes softened at that. Some not quite identifiable emotion crept onto his plump features. He dipped his thick chin and opened the doors, and Bryck entered the chancellery's main chamber.
Once more the dearth of stately trappings tickled his innate sense of the ironic. The room was a simple square, the walls bare but for Sook's blue and scarlet standard, which hung behind a large table. Around this table sat a collection of what Bryck assumed to be Sook's ministry. They were men and women with the harried look of bureaucrats, rather than the reserved air of nobility. Some eight of these figures were in agitated conference as he approached. Parchments were scattered across the long table, being passed hand to hand and flourished, as one minister or an-other tried to drive home some point in the free-for-all de-bate.
Bryck couldn't pick a leader out of the bunch. Not one of these people, each wearing a scarlet mantle and the chains of office, appeared above any other, either in demeanor or in the deference the others would offer a superior. Their squabble continued as he came to a halt, no one showing any awareness of his presence.
He tried to unravel the topic of deliberation, but it was hopeless. The matter had evidently digressed into niggling particulars of the central issue, and what was left was a jumble of mere argument. He studied the scene a moment. By the madness of the gods, Bryck thought, he could create a fine political farce from these characters, merely by emphasizing their petulance and making the subject of their debate something absurdly trivial. Yes, perhaps they would be wrangling over the ponderous question of the true color of the sun, since at dawn and dusk it was red, during the day yellow, and grey when the weather was inclement. Yes...
He shook this off just as a smooth-headed minister raised his face and asked, "Yes?"
This didn't slow the surrounding quarrel, as papers continued to fly and voices rose.
For the fourth time since his encounter with the city guards at Sook's limits, Bryck said, "I've come for an audience. I am from U'delph."
These words brought everything to a standstill. The seven remaining faces turned his way, expressions ranging from anticipation to something like curious pity.
Well, thought Bryck nonplussed, he had their attention at least. Making a bid for a greater impression, he added, "My name is Bryck," purposely leaving off his title. He calmly searched the attentive faces for reaction.
Oddly, the normal magic of his name's invocation didn't seem to be working. Odd, since his repute as a play-wright was widely known, far beyond the confines of U'delph. His theatricals were regularly exported and staged by traveling troupes in cities as distant as Q'ang and even Petgrad. It wasn't vanity to presume that at least
of these squabbling ministers should know who he was and be duly awed.
He waited through the lengthening silence and the strange stares. Something evidently was amiss. It might be, he realized, that they didn't believe his claim. These men and women wouldn't know his face, only his name; and here he stood in his coarse traveler's apparel, unshaven, smelling quite like the horse he'd been riding. He nearly chuckled.
Before he could, another of the ministers—an elderly woman with unhealthy, milky eyes—said, "If you wish asylum, we will grant it." Her tone was almost reverential, and she carried only a trace of the bucolic Sook accent.
Bryck's brows drew together slightly. "Why ... no." He didn't know with what name to address this body and so did not, avoiding any potential breach of etiquette. Who knew what behavior this ministry of yokels expected from a petitioner? Bryck, however, was a noble and knew the ways of stately protocol.
"What, then?" asked the minister with the hairless skull.
Bryck gathered a breath. "I bring a formal appeal from the city of U'delph. I—"
"From U'delph?" asked a third one among the mantled figures. He was a spindly male, the youngest at the table. He gazed at Bryck with patent incomprehension.
Bryck suppressed an impatient sigh. Had he not made it clear where he came from? "Yes. U'delph. Your neighboring city. We ask your support, humbly and respectfully. We are in a time of urgent need, as you may—"
"Udelph?" echoed die crone with the poor eyes. They were now all peering at him as though he babbled nonsense.
Bryck blinked at die group, thoroughly bewildered.
"How can you bring an appeal from U'delph?" asked the first minister.
"I assure you I have been authorized to do so by my city's ruling council," he countered, wondering if this was the source of this body's baffling response to his petition. It was true he carried no official documents substantiating his right to make the appeal. Evidently that had been an oversight—and one he might have to pay for in the form of this wasted journey. Three days and two nights on the jouncing back of that steed, all the hardships of his excursion, all his intrepid efforts ... for nothing.
A hot blossom of indignant anger opened in his chest. How
these boors! Didn't they know who he was, what sacrifices he had made?
Checking his ire before it bloomed fully, he tried an-other tack. "The military situation is grave. The Felk are nearing the borders of my city. We do not have sufficient numbers to hope to oppose them. We ask, I promise, with die deepest esteem for this good state of Sook, for aid in countering this threat. The armies of the Felk, as you must know, are formidable. It is no great stretch to imagine that once they have finished with my people, they may turn toward yours."
There, Bryck thought with some satisfaction. Make it personal for them. Let them see that their own throats are exposed.
Again the response wasn't what he expected. The bald minister—perhaps the leader after all—said, "We're very aware of the menace of the Felk, make no mistake. Our scouts are desperately monitoring their movements." He waved a fistful of papers, scrawled with text and slapdash maps. "We are presently trying to see to our own defenses."