These things sometimes begin subtly. For Mocker it started when a dream came true.
Dream would become nightmare before week's end.
He had an invitation to Castle Krief. He. Mocker. The fat little brown man whose family lived in abject poverty in a Vorgreberg slum, who, himself, scrabbled for pennies on the fringes of the law. The invitation had so delighted him that he actually had swallowed his pride and allowed his friend the Marshall to loan him money.
He arrived at the Palace gate grinning from one plump brown ear to the other, his invitation clutched in one hand, his wife in the other.
"Self, am convinced old friend Bear gone soft behind eyes, absolute," he told Nepanthe. "Inviting worst of worse, self. Not so, wife of same, certitude. Hai! Maybeso, high places lonely. Pacificity like cancer, eating silent, sapping manhood. Calls in old friend of former time, hoping rejuvenation of spirit."
He had been all mouth since the invitation had come, though, briefly, he had been suicidally down. The Marshall of all Kavelin inviting somebody like him to the Victory Day celebrations? A mockery. It was some cruel joke....
"Quit bubbling and bouncing," his wife murmured. "Want them to think you're some drunken street rowdy?"
"Heart's Desire. Doe's Eyes. Is truth, absolute. Am same. Have wounds to prove same. Scars. Count them...."
She laughed. And thought, I'll give Bragi a hug that'll break his ribs.
It seemed ages since they had been this happy, an eon since laughter had tickled her tonsils and burst past her lips against any ability to control.
Fate hadn't been kind to them. Nothing Mocker triedworked. Or, if it did, he would suffer paroxysms of optimism, begin gambling, sure he'd make a killing, and would lose everything.
Yet they had their love. They never lost that, even when luck turned its worst. Inside the tiny, triangular cosmos described by them and their son, an approach to perfection remained.
Physically, the years had treated Nepanthe well. Though forty-one, she still looked to be in her early thirties. The terrible cruelty of her poverty had ravaged her spirit more than her flesh.
Mocker was another tale. Most of his scars had been laid on by the fists and knives of enemies. He was indomitable, forever certain of his high destiny.
The guard at the Palace gate was a soldier of the new national army. The Marshall had been building it since his victory at Baxendala. The sentry was a polite young man of Wesson ancestry who needed convincing that at least one of them wasn't a party crasher.
"Where's your carriage?" he asked. "Everyone comes in a carriage."
"Not all of us can afford them. But my husband was one of the heroes of the war." Nepanthe did Mocker's talking when clarity was essential. "Isn't the invitation valid?"
"Yes. All right. He can go in. But who are you?" The woman before him as tall and pale and cool. Almost regal.
Nepanthe had, for this evening, summoned all the aristo-cratic bearing that had been hers before she had been stricken by love for the madman she had married.... Oh, it seemed ages ago, now.
"His wife. I said he was my husband."
The soldier had all a Kaveliner's ethnic consciousness. His surprise showed.
"Should we produce marriage papers? Or would you rather he went and brought the Marshall to vouch for me?" Her voice was edged with sarcasm that cut like razors. She could make of words lethal weapons.
Mocker just stood there grinning, shuffling restlessly.
The Marshall did have strange friends. The soldier had been with the Guard long enough to have seen several stranger than these. He capitulated. He was only a trooper. He didn't get paid to think. Somebody would throw them out if they didn't belong.
And, in the opinion locked behind his teeth, they pleased himmore than some of the carriage riders he had admitted earlier. Some of those were men whose throats he would have cut gladly. Those two from Hammad al Nakir.... They were ambassadors of a nation which cheerfully would have devoured his little homeland.
They had more trouble at the citadel door, but the Marshall had foreseen it. His aide appeared, vouchsafed their entry.
It grated a little, but Nepanthe held her tongue.
Once, if briefly, she had been mistress of a kingdom where Kavelin would have made but a modest province.
Mocker didn't notice. "Dove's Breast. Behold. Inside of Royal Palace. And am invited. Self. Asked in. In time past, have been to several, dragged in bechained, or breaked-broked- whatever word is for self-instigated entry for purpose of burglary, or even invited round to back-alley door to discuss deed of dastardness desired done by denizen of same. Invited? As honored guest? Never."
The Marshall's aide, Gjerdrum Eanredson, laughed, slapped the fat man's shoulder. "You just don't change, do you? Six, seven years it's been. You've got a little grey there, and maybe more tummy, but I don't see a whit's difference in the man inside." He eyed Nepanthe. There was, briefly, that in his eye which said he appreciated what he saw.
"But you've changed, Gjerdrum," she said, and the lilt of her voice told him his thoughts had been divined. "What happened to that shy boy of eighteen?"
Gjerdrum's gaze flicked to Mocker, who was bemused by the opulence of his surroundings, to the deep plunge of her bodice, to her eyes. Without thinking he wet his lips with his tongue and, red-faced, stammered, "I guess he growed up...."
She couldn't resist teasing him, flirting. As he guided them to the great hall she asked leading questions about his marital status and which of the court ladies were his mistresses. She had him thoroughly flustered when they arrived.
Nepanthe held this moment in deep dread. She had even tried to beg off. But now a thrill coursed through her. She was glad she had come. She pulled a handful of long straight black hair forward so it tumbled down her bare skin, drawing the eye and accenting her cleavage.
For a while she felt nineteen again.
The next person she recognized was the Marshall's wife,
Elana, who was waiting near the door. For an instant Nepanthe was afraid. This woman, who once had been her best friend, might not be pleased to see her.
But, "Nepanthe!" The red-haired woman engulfed her in an embrace that banished all misgivings.
Elana loosed her and repeated the display with Mocker. "God, Nepanthe, you look good. How do you do it? You haven't aged a second."
"Skilled artificer, self, magician of renown, having at hand secret of beauty of women of fallen Escalon, most beautiful of all time before fall, retaining light of teenage years into fifth decade, provide potations supreme against ravishes-ravages?-of Time," Mocker announced solemnly-then burst into laughter. He hugged Elana back, cunningly grasping a handful of derriere, then skipped round her in a mad, whirling little dance.
"It's him," Elana remarked. "For a minute I didn't recognize him. He had his mouth shut. Come on. Come on. Bragi will be so glad to see you again."
Time hadn't used Elana cruelly either. Only a few grey wisps threaded her coppery hair, and, despite having borne many children, her figure remained reasonably trim. Nepanthe remarked on it.
"True artifice, that," Elana confessed. "None of your hedge-wizard mumbo jumbo. These clothes-they come all the way from Sacuescu. The Queen's father sends them with hers. He has hopes for his next visit." She winked. "They push me up here, flatten me here, firm me up back there. I'm a mess undressed." Though she tried valiantly to conceal it, Elana's words expressed a faint bitterness.
"Time is great enemy of all," Mocker observed. "Greatest evil of all. Devours all beauty. Destroys all hope." In his words, too, there was attar of wormwood. "Is Eater, Beast That Lies Waiting. Ultimate Destroyer." He told the famous riddle.
There were people all around them now, nobles of Kavelin, Colonels of the Army and Mercenaries' Guild, and representa-tives from the diplomatic community. Merriment infested the hall. Men who were deadly enemies the rest of the year shared in the celebration as though they were dear friends-because they had shared hardship under the shadow of the wings of Death that day long ago when they had set aside their contentiousness and presented a common front to the Dread Empire-and had defeated the invincible.
There were beautiful women there, too, women the like of which Mocker knew only in dreams. Of all the evidences of wealth and power they impressed him most.
"Scandalous" he declared. "Absolute. Desolation overtakes. Decadence descends. Sybariticism succeeds. O Sin, thy Name is Woman.... Self, will strive bravely, but fear containment of opinion will be impossible of provision. May rise to speechify same, castrating-no, castigating-assembly for wicked life. Shame!" He leered at a sleek, long-haired blonde who, simply by existing, turned his spine to jelly. Then he faced his wife, grinning. "Remember passage in Wizards of Ilkazar, in list of sins of same? Be great fundament for speech, eh? No?"
Nepanthe smiled and shook her head. "I don't think this's the place. Or the time. They might think you're serious."
"Money here. Look. Self, being talker of first water, spins web of words. In this assemblage famous law of averages declares must exist one case of fool headedness. Probably twenty-three. Hai! More. Why not? Think big. Self, being student primus of way of spider, pounce. Ensnare very gently, unlike spider, and, also unlike same, drain very slow."
Elana, too, shook her head. "Hasn't changed a bit. Not at all. Nepanthe, you've got to tell me all about it. What have you been doing? How's Ethrian? Do you know how much trouble it was to find you? Valther used half his spies. Had them looking everywhere. And there you were in the Siluro quarter all the time. Why didn't you keep in touch?"
At that moment the Marshall, Bragi Ragnarson, spied them. He spared Nepanthe an answer.
"Mocker!" he thundered, startling half the hall into silence. He abandoned the lords he had been attending. "Yah! Lard Bottom!" He threw a haymaker. The fat man ducked and responded with a blur of a kick that swept the big man's feet from beneath him.
Absolute silence gripped the hall. Nearly three hundred men, plus servants and women, stared.
Mocker extended a hand. And shook his head as he helped the Marshall rise. "Self, must confess to one puzzlement. One only, and small. But is persistent as buzzing of mosquito."
"What's that?" Ragnarson, standing six-five, towered over the fat man.
"This one tiny quandary. Friend Bear, ever clumsy, unable to defend self from one-armed child of three, is ever chosen bygreat ones to defend same from foes of mighty competence. Is poser. Sorcery? Emboggles mind of self."
"Could be. But you've got to admit I'm lucky."
"Truth told." He said it sourly, and didn't expand. Luck, Mocker believed, was his nemesis. The spiteful hag had taken a dislike to him the moment of his birth.... But his day was coming. The good fortune was piling up. When it broke loose....
In truth, luck had less to do with his misfortunes than did compulsive gambling and an ironhard refusal to make his way up any socially acceptable means.
This crude little brown man, from the worst slum of the Siluro ghetto, had had more fortunes rush through his fingers than most of the lords present. Once he had actually laid hands on the fabled treasure of Ilkazar.
He wouldn't invest. He refused. Someday, he knew, the dice would fall his way.
The fat man's old friend, with whom, in younger days, he had enjoyed adventures that would've frightened their present companions bald, guided him onto the raised platform from which his approach had been spotted. Mocker began shaking. A moment's clowning, down there, was embarrassing enough. But to be dragged before the multitudes....
He barely noticed the half dozen men who shared the dais with the Marshall. One eyed him as would a man who spotted someone he thinks he recognizes after decades.
"Quiet!" Ragnarson called. "A little quiet here!"
While the amused-to-disgusted chatter died, Mocker consid-ered his friend's apparel. So rich. Fur-edged cape. Blouse of silk. Hose that must cost more than he scrounged in a month.... He remembered when this man had worn bearskins.
Once silence gained a hold, Ragnarson announced, "Ladies and gentlemen, I want to introduce somebody. A man I tracked down at considerable inconvenience and expense because he's the critical element that has been missing from our Victory Day celebrations. He was one of the unspoken heroes who guided us up the road to Baxendala, one of the men whose quiet pain and sacrifice made victory possible." Ragnarson held Mocker's hand high. "Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the world's foremost authority."
Puzzled, the ambassador from Altea asked, "Authority on what?"
Ragnarson grinned, punched Mocker's arm. "Everything."
Mocker had never been one to remain embarrassed long. Especially by public acclaim. He had forever been his own greatest booster. But here, because he had a predisposition to expect it, he suspected he was being mocked. He flashed his friend a look of appeal.
Which, despite years of separation, Ragnarson read. Softly, he replied, "No. I didn't bring you here for that. This's a homecoming. A debut. Here's an audience. Take them."
The wicked old grin seared the fat man's face. He turned tothe crowd, fearing them no more. They would be his toys.
Boldly, insolently, he examined the people nearest the dais. Themerry mayhem in his eyes sparkled so that each of them
recognized it. Most perked to a higher level of gaiety ere he
spoke a word.
He founded the speech on the passage from the epic, and spoke with such joy, such laughter edging his voice, that hardly anyone resented being roasted.
The years had taught him something. He was no longer indiscreet. Though his tongue rolled inspiredly, in a high, mad babble that made the chandeliers rattle with the responding laughter, he retained sufficient command of his inspiration that, while he accused men of every dark deed under the sun, he never indicted anyone for something whispered to be true.
In the Siluro quarter, where dwelt the quiet little men who performed the drudgework of civil service and the mercantile establishments, there were a few secrets about the mighty.
He finished with a prophecy not unlike that of the poet. Punctuation, hellfire and brimstone.
And envoi, "Choice is clear. Recant. Renounce high living. Shed sybaritic ways. Place all burden of sin on one able to bear up under curse of same." He paused to meet eyes, including those of the sleek blonde twice. Then, softly, seriously, "Self, would volunteer for job."
Bragi slapped his back. People who remembered Mocker now, from the war, came to greet him and, if possible, swap a few lies about the old days. Others, including that svelte blonde, came to praise his performance.
Mocker was disappointed by the blonde. There was a message in her eyes, and nothing he could do.
"Oh, my," he muttered. "That this obesity should live to see day...." But he wasn't distraught. This was his happiest eveningin a decade. He wallowed in it, savoring every instant.
But he didn't stop observing. He soon concluded that there were skunks in paradise. The millennium hadn't arrived.
Three hard men in fighting leathers stood in the shadows behind the dais. He knew them as well as he knew Ragnarson. Haaken Blackfang, Bragi's foster brother, a bear of a man, a deadly fighter, bigger than his brother. Reskird Kildragon, another relic of the old days, and another grim fighter, who sprang like a wolf when Bragi commanded. And Rolf Preshka, that steel-eyed Iwa Skolovdan whose enmity meant certain death, whose devotion to Bragi's wife bordered on the morbid, and should have been a danger to her husband-except that Preshka was almost as devoted to him.
And, yes, there were more of the old comrades, in the out-of-the-ways, the shadows and alcoves of balconies and doors. Turran of Ravenkrak, Nepanthe's brother, white of hair now but none the less deadly. And their brother Valther, impetuous with blade and heart, possessed of a mind as convolute as that of a god. Jarl Ahring. Dahl Haas. Thorn Altenkirk. They were all there, the old, cold ones who had survived, who had been the real heroes of the civil war. And among them were a few new faces, men he knew would be as devoted to their commander-otherwise they would be on the dance floor with the peacocks.
All was not well.
He had known that since climbing to the dais. Two of the occupants of seats of honor were envoys from Hammad al Nakir. From their oldest enemy, El Murid. From that hungry giant of a nation directly south of Kavelin, behind the Kapenrung Mountains. It had taken the combined might of a dozen kingdoms to contain that fanatic religious state in the two-decades-gone, half-forgotten dust-up remembered as the El Murid Wars.
These two had survived that harrowing passage-at-arms, as had Mocker and Bragi and most of those iron-eyed men in the shadows. They remembered. And knew that that argument wasn't settled.
One, in fact, remembered more than any other guest. More, especially, than this happily self-intoxicated little brown man.
He remembered a distant day when they had last met.
He remembered whom it was who had come out of the north into the Desert of Death, using cheap mummer's tricks toestablish a reputation as a wizard, to strike to the heart the hope of his master, El Murid, the Disciple. The envoy had been a young trooper then, wild, untameable, in the rear echelon of Lord Nassef's Invincibles. But he remembered.
A fat, young brown man had come to entertain the guardians of El Murid's family with tales and tricks-and then, one night, had slain a half dozen sentries and fled with the Disciple's treasure, his Priceless, the one thing he valued more than the mission given by God.
The fat man had kidnapped El Murid's virgin daughter.
And she had never been seen again.
It had broken El Murid-at least for the time the infidels needed to turn the tide of desert horsemen sweeping the works of the Evil One from their lands.
And he, Habibullah, who slew like a devil when his enemies came to him face to face-he had lain there, belly opened by a blow struck in darkness, and he had wept. Not for his pain, or for the death he expected, and demanded when the Disciple questioned him, but for the agony and shame he would cause his i master.
Now he sat in the palace of the infidel, and was silent, watching with hooded eyes. When no one was listening, he told his companion, "Achmed, God is merciful. God is just. God delivers his enemies into the hands of the Faithful."
Achmed didn't know how, but recognized that this embassy to the heathen had borne fruit at last. Unexpected fruit, sweet and juicy, to judge by Habibullah's reaction.
"This charlatan, this talker," Habibullah whispered. "We'll see him again."
Their exchange passed unnoticed.
All eyes had turned to the shadows behind the dais. Mocker whirled in time for the advent of the Queen, Fiana Melicar Sardyga ip Krief. He hadn't seen her for years, despite her inexplicable habit of wandering the streets to poll Vorgreberg's commons. Time hadn't treated her kindly. Though still in her twenties, she looked old enough to be the blonde's mother.
It wasn't that beauty had deserted her. She retained that, though it was a more mature, promising beauty than Mocker remembered. But she looked exhausted. Utterly weary, and buoyed only by wholehearted devotion to her mission as mistress of the nation.
She seemed unexpected.
She came directly to Bragi, and there was that in her eyes, momentarily, which clarified Elana's bitter remark.
It was a rumor he had heard in the Siluro quarter.
Hardly anyone cared as long as her affairs of the heart didn't collide with affairs of state.
Mocker studied Rolf Preshka. The man's pained expression confirmed his surmise.
"Your Majesty," said Bragi, with such perfected courtliness that Mocker giggled, remembering the man's manners of old. "An unexpected honor."
The assembly knelt or bowed according to custom. Even the ambassadors from Hammad al Nakir accorded the lady deep nods. Only Mocker remained straight-necked, meeting her eyes across Bragi's back.
Amusement drained five years from her face. "So. Now I understand the hubbub. Where did they exhume you?"
"Your Majesty, we found him in the last place anybody would look," Ragnarson told her. "I should've remembered. That's the first place to go when you're hunting him. He was here in the city all the time."
"Welcome back, old friend." Fiana did one of those things which baffled and awed her nobles and endeared her to her commons. She grabbed Mocker in a big hug, then spun him round to face the gathering. She stood beside him, an arm thrown familiarly across his shoulders.
He glowed. He met Nepanthe's eyes and she glowed back. Behind the glow he felt her thinking I told you. Oh, his stubborn pride, his fear of appearing a beggar before more successful comrades....
He grinned, laid a finger alongside his nose, did to the Queen what he had done to so many of his audience, roasting her good.
The lady laughed as hard as anyone.
Once, when she controlled herself long enough, she rose on tiptoes and whispered to Ragnarson. Bragi nodded. When Mocker finished, Fiana took her place in the seat that, hitherto, had been only symbolic of her presence. She bade the merriment continue.
Winded, Mocker sat cross-legged at Fiana's feet, joining her and the others there in observing the festivities. Once she whispered, "This's the best Victory Day we've had," and another time, "I'm considering appointing you my spokesman to the Thing. They could use loosening up."
Mocker nodded as if the proposition were serious, then amused her by alternately demanding outrageous terms of employment and describing the way he would bully the parliament.
Meanwhile, Bragi abandoned them to dance with his wife and visit with Nepanthe, whom he soon guided to the lurking place of her brothers. She hadn't seen them in years.
Mocker had a fine sense of the ridiculous. There was funny-ridiculous and pathetic-ridiculous. He, dancing with a wife inches taller, was the latter.
He had an image to maintain.