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TEN: Lord of Lords

"It's a whole new world, Tarn," said Tran. The forester couldn't stifle his awe of Liaontung.

"What's that?" Tam asked their escort, an old centurion named Lo. Tam and Lang were as overwhelmed as Tran.

"Ting Yu. The Temple of the Brotherhood. It was there before Shinsan came."

Lo was their keeper and guide. Their month in his care hadn't been onerous. An intimate of Lord Wu and a senior noncom of the Seventeenth Legion, Lo had been a pleasant surprise. He was quite human when outside his armor.

"Where do you live, Lo?" Tam asked. "You said you had your own house that time we visited the barracks."

The boy's curiosity invariably amazed the centurion. He had never married, and had had no childhood himself. He knew only those children in legionary training. "It's not far, Lord." With a hint of embarrassment, "Would it please you to visit. Lord?" Behind his embarrassment lay a gentle, almost defiant pride.

Tran sipped tea and shook his head as Lo showed them his tiny garden.

"What's this one?" Lang asked, fingertip a whisker off the water.

Lo leaned over the pool. "Golden swallowtail." Sadly, "Not a prime specimen, though. See the black scales on this fin?"

"Oh!" Tam ejaculated as another goldfish, curious, drifted from beneath the lily pads. "Look at this one, Lang."

"That's the lord of the pool. That's Wu the Compassionate," Lo said proudly. "He is purebred. Here, Lord." He took crumbs from a small metal box, dribbled a few onto Tarn's fingertips. "Put your fingers into the water-gently!"

Tam giggled as the goldfish sampled his fingerprints.

Tran studied the exotic plants surrounding the pool. There was a lot of love here, a lot of time and money. Yet Lo was a thirty-year veteran of the Seventeenth. Legionnaires quailed before him. But for an intense loyalty to Lord Wu, he could have become a centurion of the Imperial Standard Legion, Shinsan's elite, praetorian legion.

What was Lo doing breeding goldfish and gardening? Obviously, Shinsan's soldiers had facets outsiders seldom saw.

Tran wasn't happy. The revelation made it difficult to define his feelings. Soldiers shouldn't stop being sword-swinging automatons and start being human....

Liaontung was a nest of paradoxes and contrasts. Once it had been the capital of a small kingdom. A century ago Lord Wu and the Seventeenth had come. Liaontung had become an outpost, a sentinel watching the edge of empire, its economy militarily dependent. Reduction in enemy activity had drawn colonists, then merchants. Yet the military presence persisted.

The Tervola, with their vastly extended lives, under the Princes, were patient conquerers. Take it a week or a century, they pursued operations till they won. They knew they would outlive their enemies. And no foe had their command of the Power.

Wu's latest foes, the Man Chin, were gone. The frontiers of his domains had drifted so far eastward that the Seventeenth soon would have to relocate. Liaontung would change, becoming less a border stronghold.

Lord Wu himself was an enigma. He could slaughter an entire race without reluctance or mercy, yet his subjects called him Wu the Compassionate.

Tran asked why.

"To tell the truth," Lo replied, "it's because he cares for them like a peasant cares for his oxen. And for the same reasons. Consider the peasant."

Now Tran grasped it. The poor man's ox was his most valued possession. It tilled his earth and bore his burdens.

"No," Lo said later, when Lang wandered too near a city gate. He gently guided them toward Liaontung's heart, Wu's citadel atop a sheer basaltic upthrust. It had been a monastery before Shinsan's advent.

Lo was the perfect jailor. He kept the cage invisible. Soon Tarn had few opportunities to stray. Lord Wu directed him into intensive preparation for Tervola-hood and laying claim to the

Dragon Throne. Lo remained nearby, but seldom invoked his real authority.

Tarn's principal tutors were Select Kwang and Candidate Chiang, Tervola Aspirants destined to join Shinsan's sorcerer-nobility. Both were older than Lo, and powerful wizards. Kwang had but a few years to wait to become full Tervola. His destiny was guaranteed. Chiang's future would remain nebulous till the Tervola granted him Select status.

His chances were excellent. Lord Wu was a powerful patron.

The Tervola of the eastern legions, including Wu, also contributed to Tarn's education. He was the child of their secret ambitions.

Aspirants, usually the sons of Tervola, were selected for their raw grasp of the Power, and advanced by attaining ever more refined control.

Tarn stunned his tutors.

He learned in weeks, intuitively, what most Aspirants needed years to comprehend.

His first few tricks, like conjuring balls of light, amazed Lang and Tran.

"His father is a Prince Thaumaturge," Lo observed, unimpressed.

Time marched. Tarn's magicks ceased being games and tricks. And, despite the swiftness of his progress, his instructors grew impatient, as if racing some dread deadline.

"Of course they want to use you," Tran responded to an unexpectedly naive question. "They've never hidden that. Just don't let them make you a puppet."

"I can't stand up to them." Kwang and Chiang had shown him his limitations.

He could best neither, though his raw talent dwarfed theirs.

"True. And don't forget. Be subtle. Or suffer the fate they plan for your father."

Blood began to tell in a growing need to dominate.

"Lord Wu," Tarn once protested, when the Tervola was his instructor, "can't I go out sometimes? I haven't left the citadel for months."

"Being O Shing is a lonely fate, Lord," Wu replied. He set his locust mask aside, took Tam's hands. "It's for your safety. You'd soon be dead if the agents of the Princes discovered you."

Nevertheless, Tarn remained antsy.

The roots of his malaise lay in his treatment by minorfunctionaries. They granted honors mockingly, treated him as O Shing only when Wu was present. Otherwise, they bullied him as if he were a street orphan. Till Tran cracked a few skulls. The persecutions, then, became more subtle.

When Tam was promoted to Candidate-nominee the bureaucrats tried separating him from his brother and Tran. He threw a fit, set his familiar on his chief tormentor, one Teng, and refused to study.

Wu finally intervened. He permitted Tam to retain his contacts and interviewed everyone who came in daily contact with Tam. Many left with grey faces. Then he summoned Tam.

"I won't interfere again," he said angrily. "You have to learn to deal with the Tengs. They're part of life. Remember: even the Princes Thaumaturge are inundated by Tengs. Only men of his choler, apparently, become civil servants."

There was something about Wu that Tam had, hitherto, seen in no one else. Maturity? Inner peace? Self-confidence? It was all that, and more. He awed Tam as did no other man.

The bitter years began when Tam was fourteen.

Treacheries took wing. Double and triple betrayals. A wizard named Varthlokkur destroyed Tarn's father and uncle, Yo Hsi.

Lo brought the news. "Pack your things," he concluded.

"Why?" Lang demanded.

"The Demon Prince had a daughter. She's seized his Throne. It means civil war."

"I don't understand," said Tam, gathering his few belong-ings.

"You, you, get packing," Lo snapped at Lang and Tran. "The Throne, of all Shinsan, is up for grabs, Lord. Between yourself and Mist. And she's stronger than we are. The western Tervola support her." More softly, "I wouldn't give a glass diamond for our chances."

"She's that terrible?"

"No. She's that beautiful. I saw her once. Men would do anything for her. No woman like her has ever lived. But she's that terrible, too, if you look past her beauty. Lord Wu believes she conspired in the doom of the Princes."

"Why involve me?" Silly. This was the deadline Kwang and Chiang had been racing.

"You're Nu Li Hsi's son. Come on. Hurry. We have to hide you. She knows about you."

It was all too sudden and confusing. Willy-nilly, tossed by thewhims of others, he fled a woman he didn't know.

O Shing was, Wu believed, the strongest Power channel ever born. But he hadn't the will to back it, nor the training to employ it. He had to be kept safe while he grew and learned.

"Oh, lord," Tam sighed. They were three miles from Liaontung. The band included Lo, Chiang, Kwang, and a Tervola named Ko Feng.

A black smoke tower had formed over Liaontung. Lightnings carved its heart. Here, there, hideous faces glared out.

"She's fast," Ko Feng snarled. "Come on! Move it!" He ran. The others kept up effortlessly. Being physically tireless was an axiom in Shinsan. But Tam....

"Damned cripple!" Feng muttered. He caught the boy's arm. Lo took the other.

The black tower howled.

"Lord Wu will show her something," Kwang prophesied.

"Maybe," Feng grumbled. "He was waiting."

Tam found most of the Tervola tolerable. He liked Lord Wu. But sour old Feng he loathed. Feng made no pretense of being servant or friend. He plainly meant to use Tam, and expected Tam to reciprocate. Feng called it an alliance without illusion.

Their flight took them to a monastery in the Shantung. Feng left to rejoin his legion. Elsewhere, the Demon Princess routed the Dragon Prince's adherents.

Her thoughts seldom strayed far from O Shing. She traced him within the month.

Tam sensed the threat first. Pressed, his feeling of the Power had developed swiftly.

"Tran, it's time to leave. I feel it. Tell Lo."

"Where to, Lord?" the centurion asked. He didn't question the decision. One of his darker looks silenced Select Kwang's protest. That made clear whom Wu had put in charge.

O Shing knew little about the nation being claimed in his name.

"Lo, you decide. But quickly. She is coming."

Kwang and Chiang wanted to contact Wu or Feng. "No contact," O Shing insisted. "Nothing thaumaturgic. It might help them locate us."

They didn't argue. Was Wu using this hejira to further his education?

Again they were just miles away when the blow fell. This timeit was mundane, soldiers directed by a Tervola Chiang identified as Lord Chin, a westerner as mighty as Lord Wu.

"Tran," said Tarn, as they watched the soldiers surround the monastery, "take charge. You're the woodsman. Get us out. Everyone, this man is to be obeyed without question."

There were complaints. Tran wasn't even a Citizen.... Lo's baleful eye silenced the protests.

Chin stalked them for six weeks. The party declined to six as the hunters caught a man here, a man there. Chiang went, victim of a brief, foredoomed exchange with Lord Chin. He didn't choose to go. Surprised, in despair, he fought the only way he knew.

His passing allowed the others to escape.

In the end there were Tam, Lang, Tran, Kwang, Lo, and another old veteran from the Seventeenth. They hid in caves in the Upper Mahai. Their stay lasted a year.

Men drifted to the Mahai, to O Shing. The first were regular soldiers from legions torn by the conflicting loyalties of their officers. Later, there were Citizens and peasants, fleeing homes and cities ruined by the Demon Princess's attacks.

Lord Wu, though far from Mist's match in the Power, won a reputation as a devil. Her chief Tervola, Chin, could defeat but never destroy him.

O Shing gave the recruits to Tran to command.

Tran played guerrilla games with them. His tactics were unorthodox and effective. Much enemy blood stained the rocky Mahai.

Tam learned to keep moving, to be where his foes least expected him. He learned to command. He learned to stand by his own judgment and will. He learned to trust his intuitions, Tran's military judgments, and Lang's assessments of character.

In the crucible of that nightstalk he learned to control and wield his awesome grasp of the Power.

He learned to survive in an inimical world.

He became O Shing.

Mist's attempts to hunt him down became half-hearted, though. Overconfident of her grip on Shinsan, sure time would bring the collapse of the eastern faction, she and her Tervola became embroiled in foreign adventures. Greedily, her Tervola devoured small states all round Shinsan's borders.

It was a different Shinsan without the balance and guidanceof the Princes Thaumaturge. Everything speeded up. Patience and perseverance gave way to haste and greed. Old ways of doing, thinking, believing, collapsed.

In one year six men became thirty thousand. More than the barren Mahai could support. Peasants and Citizens received war-training in their Prince's struggle to stay alive.

"It's time to move," Tam told his staff one morning. He seemed almost comical, commanding captains ages older than he. "We'll go to the forest of Mienming. It's more suited to Tran's war style."

Lord Chin was-adapting. He was using a semisentient bat to locate and track Tran's raiders. Food could be stolen but concealment could not.

The old sorcerers returned to their commands and prepared for the thousand-mile march. No one questioned O Sning's wisdom.

M ist's troops met them at the edge of the Mahai. Skirmishing continued throughout the long march. A third of O Shing's army perished forcing a crossing of the Taofu at Yaan Chi, in the Tsuyung Hills. For three days the battle raged. Sorceries murdered the hills, and it seemed, toward the end, that O Shing would become one with the past, that his gamble had failed.

Tam redoubled his stakes, raising hell creatures few Tervola dared summon.

Mist's army collapsed.

Eyebrows rose behind a hundred hideous masks as the news spread. Chin defeated? By a child and a woodsman untrained in the arts of war? Six legions overwhelmed by half-trained peasants scantily backboned by the leavings of shattered legions?

The Tervola weren't bemused by Yo Hsi's daughter. They didn't enjoy being ruled by a woman. Quiet little missions penetrated the Mienming. This Tervola or that offered to slip the moorings of a hasty alliance if O Shing dealt her another outstanding defeat.

Seizing power wasn't the lodestone of Tarn's life. Survival was the stake he had on the table. Chin was a tireless hunter.

O Shing was still in hunted-beast mind-set when Wu reentered his life.

Mist's Tervola had coaxed her into invading Escalon. Escalon was no impotent buffer state. The neutralist Tervola,constituting most of their class, joined the venture. Expansion was ancient national policy.

They weren't pleased with the war's conduct. Escalon was strong and stubborn. Mist had no feel for imaginative strategy. Her angry hammer blows consumed legions.

In Shinsan soldiers weren't, as elsewhere, considered fodder for the Reaper. Tervola loved spending men like a miser loved squandering his fortune. Two decades went into preparing a soldier. Quality replacements couldn't be conjured from beyond the barrier of time.

Divining future trouble, they had begun training enlarged drafts years ago, but those wouldn't be ready for a decade.

Their wealth and strength were being squandered.

They simmered with rebellious potential.

Wu and Feng wanted to take advantage.

"No!" Tam protested. "I'm not ready."

"We aren't ready," Tran growled. "You'll waste what little we've husbanded."

"It's now or never," Feng snarled.

Lord Wu tried persuasion. And O Shing acquiesced, overawed by Wu's age and ancient wisdom.

Tran got to choose the time.

Most of Escalon and a tenth of Shinsan lay under the shadow, terror, and destruction of M ist's assault on the M onitor and Tatarian, Escalon's capital. Lo led Tran's best fighters through the transfer....

O Shing followed minutes later. Mist had fled. Want it or not, he had inherited a war. The legions were in disarray. Tervola were demanding orders. He had no time to think. With Tran's help he battled the Monitor to a draw.

Afterward, Tran muttered, "We haven't gained anything. We're on the bull's-eye now, Tam." He indicated Wu and Feng, who were celebrating with small cups of Escalonian wine.

"Drink," Feng urged, offering Tam a cup. The professional grouch was radiant. "They say it's the world's finest wine."

"Sorry," Tam mumbled. This was the first time he had seen Feng without his mask. He was as ugly in fact as spirit. At one time fire had ravaged half his face. He hadn't fixed it. Tam feared that said something about the man within.

"Celebration's premature," Tran grumbled. "Somebody better stay sober."

O Shing's reign lasted a month.

Mist did as she had been done. Her shock troops transferred through during the height of a battle.

In the Mienming, Tarn sat in the mud craddling Lo's head. The centurion was almost gone.

"This is the price of our lives," Tam hissed. Wu, maskless, moist of eye, knelt beside the man who, possibly, had been his one true friend. "Was a month worth it?"

Wu just held Lo's hand.

The centurion had fought like a trapped tiger. His ferocity had allowed O Shing, Wu, Feng, and the others to escape.

"No more, Wu," said Tam. He spoke in a tone suited to his title. "I've seen children more responsible. Amongst the forest people you despise." He indicated Tran, sitting alone, head between his knees. He and Lo had grown close.

"What'll satisify you? All our deaths? This time Lo and Kwang. Next time? Tran? My brother? If you persist, I promise I'll be the last. After you, My Lord."

Wu met his gaze, recoiled.

Neither he nor Chin seemed able to learn. They bushwhacked one another repeatedly. Chin finally got the upper hand.

O Shing remained in Mienming nursing his grudge against Tervola.

Mist completed her Escalonian adventure. Success stabilized her position, though not solidly. Her sex, the casualties, and her failure to capture the Tear of Mimizan remained liabilities.

O Shing first heard of the Tear from Wu. Wu wasn't sure what it was, just that it was important. It was the talisman which had made possible the Monitor's prolonged defense of Tatarian.

"It's one of the Poles of Power," Feng opined.

"Bah!" Wu replied. "Monitor's propaganda. There's no proof."

The Poles were legendary amongst the thaumaturgic congnoscenti. One, supposedly, was possessed by the Star Rider. The second had been missing for ages. Even the highest wizards had nearly forgotten it. During the recent conflict the Monitor had hinted that the Tear was the lost Pole.

Every sorcerer living would have bartered his soul to possess a Pole. The man who mastered one could rule the world.

In time, sensing the restlessness of the Tervola, Mist looked for another foe to divert them. She took up a program inherited from her father, which she had quietly nurtured since her ascension.

O Shing spent ever more time alone, or with Tran and Lang. Only those two still treated him as Tam. Only they considered him as more than a means to an end.

Lo's death cost Wu O Shing's love and respect.

Wu was changing. No one called him "the Compassionate" now. A poisonous greed, a demanding haste, had crept into his soul.

And O Shing was changing too, becoming cynical and disenchanted.

The man in the cat-gargoyle mask made his first presentation to the Pracchia. Nervously, he said, "Mist plans to invade the west now. She's suborned the Captal of Savernake. Maisak, the fortress controlling the Savernake Gap, will be Shinsan's. Ehelebe-in-Shinsan can assume control of the invasion whenever the Pracchia directs. We have moved with care, into leading positions in both political factions. I have become Mist's chief Tervola. Members of my Nine are close to the Dragon Prince. We still recommend that nominal rule be invested in the latter. He remains the more manageable personality." He detailed plans for eliminating Mist and making O Shing the Pracchia's puppet.

"Absolutely perfect," said he who was first in the Pracchia. "By all means encourage Mist's plans. She'll take care of herself for us."

O Shing, Lang, and Tran watched the commandos disappear. O Shing still shivered with the strain of a recently completed sorcery. Mist and the Captal certainly would be diverted.

"Why're we here, Tran?" he whispered.

"Destiny, Tam. There's no escape. We must be what we must be. How many of us like it? Even forest hunters ask the same question."

O Shing met Wu's eye. Lord Wu was in disguise. He wore no mask. His expression was taut, pallid, frightened.

Lang whispered, "Friend Wu is spooked." Lang took tremendous pleasure in seeing the mighty discomfited, perhaps because it brought them nearer his own insignificance. "That thing you called up.... He wasn't looking for that."

"The Gosik of Aubuchon? I was just showing off."

"You scared the skirts off him," Tran said. "He's having second thoughts about us."

Wu was frightened. Not even the Princes Thaumaturge, at the height of their Power, had dared call that devil from its hell. And, though O Shing hadn't gone quite that far himself, he had opened a portal through which the monster could cast a shadow of itself, a doorway through which it might burst if O Shing's Power weren't sufficient to confine it.

Wu wasn't certain whether O Shing had overestimated himself or was genuinely able to control the devil. Either way, he had trouble. If the Gosik broke loose, the world would become its plaything. If O Shing truly commanded it, the Dragon Prince was more powerful than anyone had suspected, and had trained himself quietly and well. Those who intended using him might find the tables turning.

Worse, the youth was winning allegiances outside the Tervola. He was popular with the Aspirants. This sudden Power might tempt him to replace Tervola with Aspirants he trusted.

But it was too late to change plans. Rectifications had to wait till Mist had been destroyed.

Wu felt like a man who bent to catch a king snake and discovered that he had hold of a cobra.

News filtered back. Mist had been completely surprised. Only a handful of supporters, all westerners, were with her. Tran's commandos were occupying Maisak. The woman would be theirs soon.

The same promises were still coming through two days later. The lives of Tervola had been lost, and the survivors kept saying, "Soon".

"This'll never end," Tam told Lang while awaiting their turn to transfer. "She'll get away. Just like we always did. There must be a reason."

Tran had been sitting silently, lost in thought. "May I hazard a guess?"

"Go ahead."

"I think there're other plots afoot. One catches things here and there if one listens."

"They'd let her get away?"

"Maybe. I'm not sure. She's smart and strong. Whatever, there's something happening. We'd best guard our backs."

O Shing would remember that later, when Wu brought Lord Chin to swear fealty.

Tam remembered escaping Mist's hunter almost miracu-lously. He graciously accepted Chin's oath, then became thoughtful. Tran was right.

He told Tran and Lang to be observant. No conspiracy could operate without leaving some tracks.

The battle at Baxendala upset everyone.

The preliminaries proceeded favorably enough. Chin assu-med tactical command, quickly drove the westerners into their defense works. Then he had no choice but frontal attack. Nobody worried. The westerners were a mixed lot, from a half-dozen states, politically enmired, commanded by a man with little large-scale experience, and already had shown poorly against the legions. They would punch through.

The battle, as Shinsan's did, opened with a wizards' skirmish. O Shing, emboldened by Wu's reaction earlier, conjured the Gosik himself....

A bent old man, high above the battlefield, became enraged. This wasn't in his plan. He took steps, knowing the result might delay his ends.

But O Shing was becoming dangerous. He was outside the control of Ehelebe-in-Shinsan....

He ended the efficacy of the Power, using his Pole of Power, which had the form of a gold medallion.

The cessation of the Power rattled O Shing. His Tervola were dismayed. Never had they known the Power to fail.

"We retain our advantages," Chin argued. "They're still weak and disunited. We'll slaughter them." His confidence was absolute.

Chin's prediction seemed valid initially. The westerners were stubborn, but no match for the legions. Their lines crumbled....

Yet Tam couldn't shake a premonition of disaster.

Tran felt it too. And acted. He ordered O Shing's bodyguard to be ready.

Then it happened. Western knights exploded from a flank long thought secured by local allies. They hit the reserve legion before anyone realized they weren't friendly.

The soldiers of Shinsan had never encountered knights. They stood and fought, and died, as they had been taught-to little real purpose.

Chin panicked. It communicated itself to O Shing.

"Stand fast!" Tran begged. "It'll cost, but we'll hold. They won't break."

Nobody listened. Not even the youth who had vowed to respect Tran's advice above all others'.

The horsemen turned on the legions clearing Ragnarson's defense works. Chin and Wu cried disaster.

Tran cajoled and bullied enough to prevent a rout.

That night O Shing ordered a withdrawal.

"What?" Tran demanded. "Where to?"

"Maisak. We'll retain control of the pass, transfer more men through, resume the offensive." He parroted Chin. "The Imperial Standard will reman here." His lips were taut. He hated that sacrifice. The legion would be lost if reinforcements didn't arrive in time.

"Stand here," Tran urged again.

"We're beaten."

Tran gave up. When O Shing's ear went deaf there was no point in talking on.

Maisak greeted them with arrows instead of paeans for its overlord.

The King Without a Throne had gotten there first.

Chin blew up. Never had soldiers of Shinsan been so humiliated.

"Attack!" he shrieked. "Kill them all!"

O Shing ignored Tran again.

The assault cost so many lives, uselessly, that Chin's standing with the Tervola plummeted. They wouldn't listen to him for years.

Tervola also questioned O Shing's acceeding to Chin's folly when the barbarian, Tran, had foreseen the outcome....

After that secondary defeat O Shing put his trust in Tran again. The hunter guided the survivors across the wilderness, through terrible hardships. Two thousand men reached Shinsan. Of twenty-five thousand.

The western adventure, so optimistically begun, traumatized O Shing. The bitter trek across the steppes renewed his acquaintance with fear. Three times he had endured the fleeing terror: with the Han Chin, ducking Mist, and now escaping the west.

He wanted no more of it.

The terrors would shape all his policies as master of Shinsan.

That much he had gained. Mist had been beaten. She resided with the enemy now, lending her knowledge to theirs.

He became a dedicated isolationist. Unfortunately, the Tervola didn't see it his way.

NINE: A Short Journey | All Darkness Met | ELEVEN: Marshall and Queen