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THREE: Old Friends

It was the day after, and Mocker had remained in Castle Krief. Merriment had abandoned everyone but himself. Business had resumed. Bragi took him to a meeting, he explained, so he would get an idea of what was happening nowadays, of why old friends lay back in shadows wearing fighting leather instead of enjoying a celebration of victories won.

"Self," Mocker said as they walked to the meeting, "am confessing overwhelming bambazoolment. Have known large friend, lo, many years. More than can count." He held up his fingers. On those rare occasions when he wasn't proclaiming himself the world's foremost authority, he pretended to be its most ignorant child.

Ragnarson hadn't brought him because he was ignorant or foolish. And Mocker had begun to suspect, after the Queen's entrance last night, that he hadn't been "exhumed" just because he was one of the old fighters and deserved his moment of glory. Nor even because Bragi wanted to give him a little roundabout charity by introducing him to potential suckers.

Bragi trusted his intuitions, his wisdom. Bragi wanted advice-if not his active participation in some fool scheme.

It was both.

Those the Marshall had gathered in the War Room were the same men Mocker had discovered in last night's shadows, plus Fiana and the ambassadors of Altea and Tamerice. Their countries were old allies, and the ambassadors Bragi's friends.

"Mocker," Ragnarson told him after the doors were locked and guards posted, "I wanted you here because you're the only other available expert on a matter of critical importance. An expert, that is, whose answers I trust."

"Then answer damned question."

"Huh? What question?"

"Started to ask same in hall. Bimbazolment? Fingers?"

"All right. Go ahead."

"Self, am knowing friend Bear long ages. Have, till last night, never seen same shaven. Explain."

The non sequitur took Ragnarson off stride. Then he grinned. Of that device Mocker was past master.

"Exactly what you're thinking. These effete southerners have turned me into a ball-less woman."

"Okay. On to question about Haroun."

Ragnarson's jaw dropped. His aide, Gjerdrum, demanded, "How did you...?"

"Am mighty sorcerer...."

The Queen interrupted, "He gave enough clues, Gjerdrum. Is there anybody else who calls both bin Yousif and the Marshall friend?"

Mocker grinned, winked. Fiana startled him by winking back.

"Too damned smart, this woman," he mock-whispered to Bragi.

"Damned right. She's spooky. But let's stick to the point."

"Delineate dilemma. Define horns of same." Mocker's ears were big. He lived in a neighborhood frequented by exiles who followed El Murid's nemesis, Haroun bin Yousif, The King Without a Throne. He knew as much of the man's doings as anyone not privy to his councils. And he knew the man himself, of old. For several years following the El Murid Wars, before he had grown obsessed with restoring Royalist rule to Hammad al Nakir, bin Yousif had adventured with Mocker and Ragnarson. "Old sand rat friend up to no goods again, eh? Is in nature of beast. Catch up little chipmunk. Does same growl and stalk gazelle like lion? Catch up lion. Does same lie down with lamb? With lamb in belly, maybeso. Mutton chops. Mutton chops! Hai! Has been age of earth since same have passed starved lips of impoverished ponderosity, self."

Bragi prodded Mocker's belly with a sheathed dagger. "If you'll spare us the gourmet commentary, I'll explain."

"Peace! Am tender of belly, same being..."

Bragi poked him again. "This's it in a nutshell. For years Haroun raided Hammad al Nakir from camps in the Kapenrungs. From Kavelin and Tamerice, using money and arms from Altea and Itaskia. I've always looked the other waywhen he smuggled recruits down from the northern refugee centers."

"Uhm. So?"

"Well, he became an embarrassment. Then, suddenly, he seemed to get slow and soft. Stopped pushing. Now he just sits in the hills with his feet up. He throws in a few guys now and then so's El Murid stays pissed, but don't do him no real harm.

"And El Murid just gets older and crankier. You saw his ambassadors?"

"Just so. Snakes in grass, or maybe sand, lying in wait with viper fangs ready...."

"They're out in plain sight this time. They've delivered a dozen ultimatums. Either we close Haroun down or they'll do it for us. They haven't so far. But they're on safe ground. Attacking Haroun's camps would cause a stink, but nobody would go to war to save them. Not if El Murid doesn't try converting us to the one true faith again. It might even solve a few problems for cities with a lot of refugees. Without Haroun keeping them stirred up, they'd settle down and blend in. Distracting the troublemakers is the main reason Haroun gets help from Raithel."

Altea's ambassador nodded. Prince Raithel had died recently, but his policies continued.

"So. Old friend, in newfound, secure circumstance, is asking, should same be safeguarded by selling other old friend down river?"

"No. No. I want to know what he's up to. Why he hasn't done anything the past few years. Part I know. He's studying sorcery. Finishing what he started as a kid. If that's all, okay. But it's not his style to lay back in the weeds.

"El Murid is a sword hanging over Kavelin by a thread. Is Haroun going to cut the thread? You know him. What's he planning?"

Mocker's gaze drifted to his wife's brother Valther. Valther was the shadow man of Vorgreberg, rumored to manage Bragi's cloak and dagger people.

Valther shrugged, said, "That's all we know. We don't have anybody in there."

"Oho! Truth exposes bare naked, ugly fundament before eyes of virginal, foolish self. O Pervert, Truth! Begone!" And to Bragi, perhaps the simplest statement he had ever made: "No."

"I didn't make my proposition."

"Am greatest living necromancer. Am reader of minds. Am knowing blackest secret at heart of hearts of one called friend. Am not one to be used."

Gjerdrum countered, "But Kavelin needs you!"

An appeal to patriotism? No bolt could have flown wider of its mark. The fat man laughed in Gjerdrum's face. "What is Kavelin to me? Fool. Look. See self. Am clear blue-eyed Nordmen? Am Wesson?" He glanced at Bragi, shook his head, jerked a thumb at Eanredson.

Bragi knew Mocker. Mocker was terribly upset when he spoke this plainly. Ragnarson also knew how to penetrate the fat man's distress.

He produced a large gold coin, pretended to examine it in a shaft of light piercing one of the narrow windows. "How's Ethrian?" he asked. "How's my godson?" He spun the coin on the polished tabletop inches beyond Mocker's reach. He produced another, made a similar examination.

The fat man began sweating. He stared at the money the way alcoholics stare at liquor after an enforced abstinence. They were Kaveliner double nobles specially struck for the eastern trade, beautiful pieces with the twin-headed eagle and Fiana's profile in high, frosted relief. They weren't intended for normal commerce, but for transfers between commercial accounts in the big mercantile banks in Vorgreberg. The gold in one piece represented more than a laborer could earn in a year.

Mocker had seen hard times. He did mental sums, calculating temptation's value in silver. The things he could do for Ethrian and Nepanthe....

Ragnarson deposited the second coin atop the first, dropping his eye to table level while aligning their rims. He produced another.

M ocker changed subtly. Bragi sensed it. He stacked the third coin, folded his arms.

"Woe!" Mocker cried suddenly, startling the group. "Am poor old fat cretin of pusillanimity world-renowned, weak of head and muscle. Self, ask nothings. Only to be left alone, to live out few remaining years with devoted wife, in peace, raising son."

"I saw the place where you're keeping my sister," Turran observed, perhaps more harshly than intended.

Bragi waved a hand admonishingly.

"Hai! Self, am not..."

"Like the old joke," said Bragi. "We know what you are. We're dickering price."

Mocker stared at the three gold coins. He looked round the room. Heads pointed his way like those of hounds eager to be loosed.

He didn't like it. Not one whit. But gold! So much gold. What he could do for his wife and son....

He had aged, he had mellowed, he had grown concerned with security. Having to care for others can do that to a man.

He raised his left hand, jerkily, started to speak. He looked round again. So many narrowed eyes. Some he didn't know. He had things to say to Bragi, but not here, not now, not before an audience.

"Define task," he ordered. "Not that poor old fat mendicant, on brink of old age, near crippled, agrees to undertake same. Only purpose being to listen to same, same being reasonable request to allow before telling man to put same where moon don't glow."

"Simple. Just visit Haroun. Find out what he's up to. Bring me the news."

Mocker laughed his most sarcastic laugh. "Self, am famous dullard, admitted. Of brightness next to which cheapest tallow candle is like sun to dark of moon. Forget to come in from rain sometimes, maybeso. But am alive. See? Wound here, here, everywhere, from listening to friends in time past. But am favored of Gods. Was born under lucky star. Haven't passed yet. Also, am aware of ways men speak. Simple, says old friend? Then task is bloody perilous...."

"Not so!" Ragnarson protested. "In fact, if I knew where Haroun was, I'd go myself. But you know him. He's here, he's there, and the rumors are always wrong. He might be at the other end of the world. I can't take the time."

"Crippled. Excuse limps like sixty-year-old arthritic."

Actually, it was unvarnished truth. And Mocker knew it. He rose. "Has been enjoyable matching wits with old half-wit friend. Father of self, longtime passing, said, 'Never fight unarmed man.' Must go. Peace." He did an amusing imitation of a priest giving a blessing.

The inner door guard might have been deaf and blind. Or a path-blocking statue.

"So! Now am prisoner. Woe! Heart of heart of fool, self, told same stay away from palaces, same being dens of iniquitous...."

"Mocker, Mocker," said Bragi. "Come. Sit. I'm not as young as I used to be. I don't have the patience anymore. You think we could dispense with this bullshit and get down to cases?"

Mocker came and sat, but his expression said he was being pushed, that he was about to get stubborn. No force in Heaven or Hell could nudge a stubborn Mocker.

Ragnarson understood his reluctance. Nepanthe was abso-lutely dead set against allowing her husband to get involved in anything resembling an adventure. Hers was an extremely dependent personality. She couldn't endure separations.

"Turran, could you convince Nepanthe?"

"I'll do it," Valther said. He and Nepanthe had always been close. "She'll listen to me. But she won't like it."

Mocker grew agitated. His domestic problems were being aired....

Bragi began massaging his own face. He wasn't getting enough sleep. The demands of his several posts were getting to him. He considered resigning as publican consul. The position made limited demands, yet did consume time he could use being Marshall and virtual king-surrogate.

"Why don't you list your objections-take them down, Derel-and we'll deal with them in an orderly fashion."

Mocker was appalled. "Is end. Is perished. Is dead, absolute, friend of youth, wrapping self in cocoon of time, coming forth from chrysalis as perfect bureaucrat, all impatient and indifferent. Or is imposter, taking place of true gentleman of former time? Rising from Sea of Perdition, snakes of rules and regulations for hair-not my department, go down hall to hear same-Bastard Beast-Child of order.... Enough. Self, am beloved get of Chaos. Am having business of own. Otherwheres. Open door."

He was irked. And Ragnarson was tempted to apologize, except he wasn't sure what to apologize for. "Let him go, Luther. Tell Malven to take him to his room." One by one, he palmed the double nobles.

Part of his failure came from inside, he reflected. He had changed. But as much blame lay with Mocker. Never had he been so touchy.

Michael Trebilcock, one of the faces Mocker didn't know, asked, "What now?"

Ragnarson gestured for silence.

Mocker didn't make it past Luther. As the guard steppedaside, the fat man turned and asked musingly, "Double nobles five?" He grinned. "Hai! Might soothe conscience, same being sufficient to keep wife and son for year or two in eventuation of certain death of cretinic chaser-after-dreams of old friends." He then railed against the Fates for several minutes, damning them for driving him into a corner from which he had no exit but suicide.

It was all for show. The mission Bragi had shouldn't be dangerous.

They settled it then, with Mocker to leave Vorgreberg the following morning. The group gradually dissolved, till only Bragi and Fiana remained.

They stared at one another across a short space that, sometimes, seemed miles.

Finally, she asked, "Am I getting boring?"

He shook his head.

"What is it, then?"

He massaged his face again. "The pressure. More and more, I have trouble giving a damn. About anything."

"And Elana, a little? You think she knows?"

"She knows. Probably since the beginning."

Fiana nodded thoughtfully. "That would explain a lot."

Bragi frowned. "What?"

"Never mind. You have trouble with your conscience?"

"Maybe. Maybe."

She locked the door, eased into his lap. He didn't resist, but neither did he encourage her. She nuzzled his ear, whispered, "I've always had this fantasy about doing it here. On the table. Where all the important laws and treaties get signed."

There were some things Ragnarson just couldn't say, and first among them was "no" to a willing lady.

Later, he met with Colonel Balfour, who commanded the Guild regiment being maintained in Ravelin till the country produced competent soldiers of its own. High Crag was growing a little arrogant, a little testy, as the inevitable withdrawal of the regiment drew closer. Each year the Guild grew less subtle in its insistence that the regiment's commission be extended.

There were mercenaries and Mercenaries. The latter belonged to the Guild, headquartered at High Crag on the western coast just north of Dunno Scuttari. The Guild was abrotherhood of free soldiers, almost a monastic order, consisting of approximately ten thousand members scattered from Ipopotam to Iwa Skolovda, from the Mountains of M'Hand to Freyland. Ragnarson and many of his intimates had begun their adulthood in its ranks and, nominally, remained attached to the order. But the connection was tenuous, despite High Crag's having awarded regular promotions over the years. Because the Citadel recognized no divorce, it still claimed a right to demand obedience.

The soldiers of the Guild owned no other allegiance, to men, nations, or faith. And they were the best-schooled soldiers in the west. High Crag's decision to accept or reject a commission often made or broke the would-be employer's cause without blows being struck.

There were suspicions, among princes, that the Citadel- High Crag's heart, whence the retired generals ruled-was shaping destiny to its own dream.

Ragnarson entertained those suspicions himself-especially when he received pressure to extend the regiment posted to Ravelin.

Ragnarson had, on several occasions, tried to convince the Guild factors that his little state just couldn't afford the protection. Ravelin remained heavily indebted from the civil war. He argued that only low-interest loans and outright grants from Itaskia were keeping the kingdom above water. If El Murid died or were overthrown, that aid would end. Itaskia would lose its need for a buffer on the borders of Hammad al Nakir.

Following the inevitable bitter argument with Balfour, Bragi spoke to the Thing, doing his best to shuffle his three hats without favoring any one. Still, as chief of the armed forces, he concentrated on an appropriations measure.

The bill was for the maintenance of the Mercenary regiment. The parliament supported its hire even less enthusiastically than Ragnarson.

Such matters, and personal problems, distracted him so much during subsequent months that he took little notice of the enduring absence of his fat friend, whom he had instructed to disappear, so to speak, anyway.

His immediate goal, Mocker decided, had to be Sedlmayr. Ravelin's second largest city nestled between the breasts of the

Kapenrungs within days of Haroun's primary camps. He would make inquiries there, alerting Haroun's agents to his presence. Their response would dictate his latter activities.

There were a dozen moving camps within fifty miles. He might end up wandering from one to another till he located Haroun.

The rooftops of Vorgreberg had just dipped behind the horizon when he heard the clop-clop of a faster horse coming up behind him. He glanced back. Another lone rider.

He slowed, allowing the rider to catch up. "Hail, friend met upon trail."

The man smiled, replied in kind, and thereafter they rode together, chance-met companions sharing a day's conversation to ease the rigors of the journey. The traveler said he was Sir Keren of Sincic, a Nordmen knight southbound on personal business.

M ocker missed the signs. He had taken Bragi at his word. No danger in the mission. He didn't catch a whiff of peril.

Until the four ambushers sprang from the forest a half day further south.

The knight downed him with a blow from behind as he slew a second bushwhacker with a sword almost too swift to follow. Half conscious, he mumbled as they bound him, "Woe! Am getting old. Feeble in head. Trusting stranger. What kind fool you, idiot Mocker? Deserve whatever happens, absolute."

The survivors taunted him, and beat him mercilessly. Mocker marked the little one with the eye-patch. He would undergo the most exquisite tortures after the tables turned.

Mocker didn't doubt that they would. His past justified that optimism.

After dark, following back-ways and forest trails, his captors took him southeastward, into the province of Uhlmansiek. So confident were they that they didn't bother concealing anything from him.

"A friend of mine," said the knight, "Habibullah the ambassador, sent us."

"Is a puzzlement. Self, profess bambizoolment. Met same two nights passing, speaking once to same, maybeso. Self, am wondering why same wants inconsequential-though ponder-ous, admit-self snapped up like slave by second-class thugs pretending to entitlement?"

Sir Keren laughed. "But you've met before. A long time ago.

You gutted him and left him for dead the night you kidnapped El Murid's daughter."

That put a nasty complexion on the matter. Mocker felt a new, deeper fear. Now he knew his destination.

They would have a very special, very painful welcome for him at Al Rhemish.

But Fate was to deprive him of his visit to the Most Holy Mrazkim Shrines. They were somehwere in the Uhlmansiek Kapenrungs when it happened.

They rounded a bend. Two horsemen blocked their path. One was Guild Colonel Balfour, the second an equally hard and scarred Mercenary battalion chieftain. Mocker remembered both from the Victory Day celebration.

"Hai!" he cried, for, if Sir Keren had made any mistake at all, it had been leaving him ungagged. "Rescue on hand. Poor old fat fool not forgotten...." The little fellow with an eye missing belted him in the mouth.

Sir Keren's rogues were old hands. Despite his circum-stances, Mocker found himself admiring their professionalism. They spread out, three against two. There was no question of a parley.

The currents of intrigue ran deep.

The one-eyed man moved suddenly, a split second after Sir Keren and his comrade launched their attack. His blade found a narrow gap below the rim of Sir Keren's helmet.

Balfour's companion died at the same moment, struck down

(by Sir Keren's companion. Balfour himself barely managed to survive till the one-eye skewered the remaining man from behind.

Mocker's glee soon became tempered by a suspicion that his rescue wasn't what it seemed. It might, in fact, be no rescue at all. He seized the best chance he saw.

Having long ago slipped his bonds, he wheeled his mount and took off.

They must be ignorant of his past, he reflected as forest flew past. Otherwise they would've taken precautions. Escape tricks were one way he had of making his meager living.

He managed two hundred yards before the survivors noticed. The chase was on.

It was brief.

Mocker rounded a turn. His mount stopped violently, reared, screamed.

A tall, slim man in black blocked the trail. He wore a golden cat-gargoyle mask finely chased in black, with jeweled eyes and fangs. And while words could describe that mask, they couldn't convey the dread and revulsion it inspired.

Mocker kicked his mount's flanks, intending to ride the man down.

The horse screamed and reared again. Mocker tumbled off. Stunned, he rolled in the deep pine needles, muttered, "Woe! Is story of life. Always one more evil, waiting round next bend." He lay there twitching, pretending injury, fingers probing the pine needles for something useful as a weapon.

Balfour and the one-eyed man arrived. The latter swung down and booted Mocker, then tied him again.

"You nearly failed," the stranger accused.

Balfour revealed neither fear nor contrition. "They were good. And you've got him. That's what matters. Pay Rico. He's served us well: He deserves well of us. I've got to get back to Vorgreberg."

"No."

Balfour slapped his hilt. "My weapon is faster than yours." He drew the blade a foot from its scabbard. "If we can't deal honorably amongst ourselves, then our failure is inevitable."

The man in black bowed slightly. "Well said. I simply meant that it wouldn't be wise for you to return. We've made too much commotion here. Eyes have seen. The men of the woods, the Marena Dimura, are watching. It would be impossible to track all the witnesses. It'll be simpler for you to disappear."

Balfour drew his blade another foot. Rico, unsure what was happening, moved to where he could attack from the side.

The thin man carefully raised his hands. "No. No. As you say, there must be trust. There must be a mutual concern. Else how can we convert others to our cause?"

Balfour nodded, but didn't relax.

Mocker listened, and through hooded eyes observed. His heart pounded. What dread had befallen him? And why?

"Rico," the stranger said, "Take this. It's gold." He offered a bag.

The one-eyed man glanced at Balfour, took the sack, looked inside. "He's right. Maybe thirty pieces. Itaskian. Iwa Skolovdan."

"That should suffice till the moves have begun and it's safe for you to return," said the masked man.

Balfour sheathed his weapon. "All right. I know a placewhere no one could find us. Where they wouldn't think of looking. You need help with him?" He nudged Mocker with atoe.

The fat man could feel the wicked grin behind that hideous mask. "That one? That little toad? No. Go on, before his friends hear the news."

"Rico, come on."

After Balfour and Rico had departed, the tall man stood over Mocker, considering.

Mocker, being Mocker, had to try, even knowing it futile.

He kicked.

The tall man hopped his leg with disdainful ease, reached,touched....

Mocker's universe shrank to a point of light which, after a momentary brightness, died. After that he was lost, and time ceased to have meaning.


TWO: Mocker | All Darkness Met | FOUR: Intimations



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