Colonel Oryon had no idea what had happened at Karak Strabger. He did know he rode with a man possessed. His hard-faced, grim companion, closed of mouth, perpetually angry, wasn't the Ragnarson he had accompanied eastward. This Ragnarson was an avenger, a death-Messiah. There was the feel of doom, of destiny, about him.
Oryon watched him punish his mount, and was afraid.
If this man didn't mellow he could set a continent aflame.
He knew no pain, needed no comforts, wanted no rest. He plunged on till Oryon, who prided himself on his toughness, could no longer stand the pace. And still he rode, leaving his companions at an inn ten miles from Vorgreberg.
"Derel!" he roared through the Palace, as he stalked toward his office. "Prataxis! You south coast faggot! Where the hell are you? Get your useless ass up here on the double."
Prataxis materialized, partially dressed. "Sir?"
"The Thing. I want it assembled. Now."
"Sir? It's the middle of the night."
"I don't give a damn! Get those sons of bitches down there in two hours. Or they'll find out what it was like in the old days. We never threw out the hardware from the dungeons. And if you don't get it done yesterday, you'll be first in line."
"What's happened, sir?"
Ragnarson mellowed a little. "Yes, something happened. And I've got to do something about it before the whole damned house of cards falls in on us. Go on. Go, go, go." He waved a hand like a baker sending his boy into the streets, all rage gone. "I'll explain later."
He had arrived ahead of the news. And would stay ahead unless Oryon learned something, or Ragnar shot his mouth off. Ragnar had promised to say nothing, even to the ghost of hismother. Gjerdrum and Wachtel would keep everyone else locked up in Karak Strabger.
"Before I leave," Prataxis said, "there's a woman in town looking for you. She showed up the day after you left."
"A woman? Who?"
"She wouldn't say. She gave the impression she was very friendly with bin Yousif."
"Haroun? About time we heard from that.... No. I won't say that. I think I understand him now. Go on. I'll see her after I talk to the Thing. H ow many of those bastards are in town, anyway?"
"Most of them. It's getting close to Victory Day and time to debate the Guild appropriations. They don't want to miss that."
"That won't be a problem anymore. I told Oryon to pack his bags. We'll pay them off. Thanks to you, Derel. You'll be rewarded."
"Service is my reward, Marshall."
"Bullshit. About two hundred Rebsamen dons fawning at your feet after you publish your thesis is what you're thinking about. You get the look a thief does when he sees loose gold whenever you talk about it."
"As you say, Lord."
"Get out of here. Wait! Before you go, send for Ahring, Blackfang, and Valther."
"The Queen, sir. She... ?"
"Derel, don't even think about her. If they ask, say I need a vote of confidence on my army alert."
Blackfang and Valther arrived together.
"How're the kids, Haaken?" Bragi asked.
"Upset. You should see them."
"As soon as I can. Valther, you get anything yet?"
"Not a whisper. But there's a woman here...."
"Derel told me. Who is she?"
"Won't say. It looks like she wants us to think she's bin Yousif's wife."
"Wife? Haroun doesn't have.... Well, he never admitted it. But Mocker thought he might. That'd be his style. They keep their women locked up in Hammad al Nakir. And he wouldn't want El Murid to know. Not after killing his son, crippling his wife, and masterminding the kidnapping of his daughter. Yeah. He might have a wife. But I don't think she'd turn up here."
"I'm watching her," Valther told him. "And I'm backtracking her. I put a girl into her hostel. She's just waiting for you."
"Good. Haaken, send messengers to Kildragon and AI-tenkirk. I want their shock battalions moved here."
"Yes. Derel's getting the Thing together. I want to invoke martial law as soon as we're in session. Keep the Guild troops confined to barracks. Got that, Jarl?" he asked Ahring, who had just arrived.
"Uhm. Case Wolfhound?" Wolfhound was a contingency plan drawn up years ago, at Fiana's direction.
"Yes. Oh. Valther. Another problem for you. I met an innkeeper in Forbeck who said there's been men like our assassins going back and forth through the Gap. A gang went east right ahead of me. Catch a couple."
"Better put somebody in."
The Savernake Gap, only good pass to the east for hundreds of miles north or south, controlled all commerce between east and west. Because Kavelin controlled the Gap, the kingdom and Gap-defending Fortress Maisak were constantly the focus of intrigue. Shinsan's plot to seize the Gap had been the root cause of Kavelin's civil war.
"You're spreading me awful thin," Valther complained.
"I'll try not to dump anything else on you. Wish Mocker was here. This's his kind of job.... Anything on that yet?"
"I came up with a Marena Dimura who saw him with three men in Ulhmansiek."
"But the men are dead."
"My man asked the Marena Dimura to describe them. Instead, he showed my man their graves. Two of them, and that of a man who wasn't with them originally. He's a good man, that Tendrik. Dug them up."
"He identified one as Sir Keren of Sincic, a Nordmen knight who disappeared at the right time, and another as Bela Jokai, the battalion commander who vanished with Balfour. Judging from the size of the third body, and from the list of friends of Sir Keren who're missing, the other one was probably Trenice Lazen. He was Keren's esquire, but had connections with the underworld. He and Keren ran a little swords-for-hire business. They were riding with that one-eyed Rico creature who sometimes worked for El Murid's people."
"Any sign of him? Or Mocker? Or Balfour?"
"No. The Marena Dimura down there aren't very friendly. Tendrik thinks it went something like this: Keren, Lazen, and Rico were taking Mocker to Al Rhemish. Jokai and Balfour waylaid them. They fought. Rico turned out to be Balfour's man. They killed Keren and Lazen, and lost Jokai, then made off with Mocker." "End of story?"
"Apparently. Not a trace after that. I've got the word out on what's left of the merchant network, but that hasn't turned up anything. And the Guild still wants to know what happened, so they aren't having any luck either." "Unless they're smoke-screening."
"They're not that subtle. They're like your mean money-lender who comes round demanding the deed to the old homestead."
"We'll see. I told Oryon we're paying him off." "We've got the money?"
"Thanks to Prataxis. Jarl, watch the Treasury. Haaken, the same at the Mint. In case somebody tries something." "You're getting paranoid."
"Because people are out to get me. You were at the house that night."
"All right. All right."
"Jarl, I want to see Oryon when he gets back. I'll tell him about Jokai. See how he reacts. Now, it's time I wandered over to the Thing."
The Thing met in a converted warehouse. Its members kept whining for a parliament building, but Fiana had resisted the outlay. Kavelin remained too heavily indebted from the civil war.
Ragnarson waited in the office of the publican consul. One of the Vorgreberger Guards stood outside. Another remained on the floor. He would inform Ahring when the majority of the members had arrived.
Case Wolfhound included sequestering the Thing. Several delegates, especially Nordmen, were suspect in their loyalty. They would happily precipitate another civil scrimmage.
The Nordmen had been stripped of feudal privilege for rebelling, then offered amnesty. They had accepted only because the alternatives were death or exile.
No one had believed they would keep their parole, though Ragnarson and Fiana had hoped for an extended reign duringwhich recidivists would pass away and be replaced by youngsters familiar with the new order.
The soldier knocked. "Most of them are here, sir. And Colonel Ahring's ready."
"Very good. Have you seen Mr. Prataxis?"
"He's coming now, sir."
"How'd it go, Derel? What feeling did you get?"
"Well enough. All but three of them were in town. And they suspect something. No one refused to come."
"You look them over downstairs?"
"They're nervous. Grouping by parties."
"Good. Now, I need you to take a message to Ahring. I'll tell you what happened later."
Prataxis wasn't pleased. This would be one of the critical points in Kavelin's history.
"Here. A pass so you can get back in."
"All right. Stall. I'll run."
Ragnarson chuckled. "I'd like to see that." Prataxis, though neither handicapped nor overweight, was the least athletic person Ragnarson knew.
Bragi went downstairs slowly. Ahring would need time. His bodyguard accompanied him. The man was jumpy. A lot of hard men would glare at them from the floor, and debate there sometimes involved the crash of swords.
Pandemonium. At least seventy of the eighty-one members, in clusters, were arguing, speculating, gesturing. Ragnarson didn't ask for silence.
Word of his arrival gradually spread. The delegates slowly assumed their seats. By then Ahring's troops had begun to fill the shadows along the walls.
"Gentlemen," Ragnarson said, "I've asked you here to decide the fate of the State. It will be a fateful decision. You'll make it before you leave this hall. Gentlemen, the Queen is dead."
The uproar could have been that of the world's record tavern brawl. Fights broke out. But legislative sessions were always tempestuous. The delegates hadn't yet learned to do things in a polite, parliamentary manner.
The uproar crested again when the members became aware that the army had sealed them in. Ragnarson waited them out.
"When you're ready to stop fooling around, let's talk." They resumed their seats. "Gentlemen, Her Majesty passed on aboutforty hours ago. I was there. Doctor Wachtel attended her, but couldn't save her." His emotion made itself felt. No one would accuse him of not feeling the loss. "Every attempt was made to prevent it. We even brought in a wizard, an expert in the life-magicks. He said she's been doomed since the birth of her daughter. The breath of Shinsan touched her then. The poison caught up."
His listeners began murmuring.
"Wait! I want to talk about this woman. Some of you did everything you could to make her life miserable, to make her task impossible. She forgave you every time. And gave her life, in the end, to make Ravelin a fit place to live. She's dead now. And the rest of us have come to the crossroads. If you think this's a chance to start something, I'm telling you now. I won't forgive. I am the army. I serve the Crown. I defend the Crown. Till someone wears it, I'll punish rebellion mercilessly. If I have to, I'll make Ravelin's trees bend with a stinking harvest.
"Now, the business at hand."
Prataxis hustled his way in burdened with writing materials. He had run. Good. Ahring and Blackfang would be sealing the city perimeter against unauthorized departures.
"My secretary will record all votes. He'll publish them when we make the public announcement."
He grinned. That would give him an extra ten votes from fence-sitters. He should be able to aim a majority any direction.
"Our options are limited. There's no heir. The scholars of Hellin Daimiel have suggested we dispense with the monarchy entirely, fashioning a republic like some towns in the Bedelian League. Personally, I don't relish risking the national welfare on a social experiment.
"We could imitate other League towns and elect a Tyrant for a limited term. That would make transition smooth and swift, but the disadvantages are obvious.
"Third, we could maintain the monarchy by finding a Ring among the ruling Houses of other states. It's the course I prefer. But it'll take a while.
"Whichever, we need a Regent till a new head of state takes power.
"All right. The session is open for arguments from the floor. Mind your manners. You'll all get a say. Mr. Prataxis, handle the Chair."
Someone shouted, "You forgot a possibility. We could elect one of our own people Ring."
"Hear hear," the Nordmen minority chanted.
"Silence!" Prataxis bellowed. Ragnarson was startled by his volume.
"Let me speak to that, Derel."
"The Marshall has the floor."
"'Hear hear' you shout, you Nordmen. But you can't all be Ring. Look around. You see anybody you want telling you what to do?"
The point told. Each had, probably, considered himself the logical candidate. Ravelin's nobles were never short on self-appreciation.
"The commons delegate from Delhagen." '
"Sirs, I think the Barons missed the point of the suggestion. I meant the Marshall."
That precipitated another barroom round. Ragnarson himself denied any interest. His denial was honest. He knew what trying to break this rebellious bronc of a kingdom had done to Fiana.
He understood the delegate's motives. There was a special relationship between between himself and Delhagen and Sedlmayr, the city there. They operated almost as an autonomous republic federated with Ravelin, under a special charter he had urged on Fiana. In return the commons there had remained steadfastly Royalist during the civil war. Sedlmayr, with the similarly chartered "Sieges" of Breidenbach and Fahrig, were nicknamed "The Marshall's Lap Dogs."
Ragnarson smiled gently. The man had made the suggestion so he could gradually back down. Relieved, some opponent would propose the Marshall as Regent instead.
And that task he would accept. He had, in reality, been Regent since Fiana's seclusion. He could handle it. And a Regent could always get out.
Once, years ago, Haroun had tried to tempt him with a kingship. The notion had been more attractive then. But he had seen only the comforts visible from the remote perspective.
The moment gone, he fell asleep in his chair. It would be along session. Nothing important would get said for hours.
Raveliners were a stubborn lot. The arguing lasted four days. Weariness and hunger finally forced a compromise. The Thing named Ragnarson Regent by a fat majority-after every alternate avenue had been pursued to a dead end.
Ragnarson left the hall physically better than when he had entered. He had made a vacation of it, getting involved only when delegates threatened to brawl.
Vorgreberg anxiously awaited the session's end, sure the news would be bad.
When it came out Kildragon and Altenkirk were on hand. Vorgreberg was secure. Loyal troops were poised at the kingdom's heart, ready to smash rebellion anywhere.