Blade was arrested the next morning. Six of Rahstum's men came for him. They allowed him to keep his wooden dagger and whip and, amid laughter, poked him along with their lances. There was no sign of Sadda.
Blade was taken to a small watch tent near the Khad's Imperial enclosure. He was pushed inside and told to keep silent and wait. In a few moments Rahstum came in. For a minute he said nothing, standing and surveying Blade with keen gray eyes and fingering his silver chain. His armor was burnished to a higher sheen than ever before. The horsetails of authority on his shoulders swung in unison as Rahstum began to pace. Then he wheeled on Blade.
"You have spoken to Baber? And the dwarf came to you?"
"Yes, to both questions, Captain." Respect without servility, thought Blade. The truth was that he did respect this man.
Rahstum stroked his beard and frowned. "I will be brief. I only risk this interview because the Khad is - is busy with other matters at the moment." No mistaking the disgust on Rahstum's face.
Blade nodded. "I have heard of this."
Rahstum's fine teeth glinted in a thin smile. "No doubt you see and hear many things, Blade, and remember them all. I have been watching you. You play the slave well enough, but you do not fool me. But no matter for that - are you with me in this?"
It was time for a little bold bargaining.
Blade lowered his voice. "If you speak of killing the Khad I am with you. That is a good thing. But what of my future? What am I to have of this?"
The Captain's eyes narrowed. "What you most desire in the world, Blade. Your freedom! And you will have position. You will be second in command to me. And, if and when your ransom comes..." here Rahstum smiled slyly - "if it comes, you will be permitted to go back to the Caths. I hope you will not do this. I saw you kill Cossa and I need such a warrior as you. There is also mystery about you, Blade, which intrigues me. But none of that now. You are with me?"
"Then listen closely. I must take you before the Khad in a few minutes. I myself insisted on this, for the purpose of this meeting, and I do not think you in any great danger. Anyway Sadda will plead for you. But keep your mouth tight and do not anger the Khad. He is full of madness just now and hard to predict. In his madness he suspects no danger and will see none if we are careful. It is Sadda who must be fooled. In the next two days you must keep her amused as never before. You understand me, Blade?"
Blade nodded. "I understand. But suppose the lady is not in the mood?"
"Get her in the mood. Keep her so. At least until the celebration of the Khad's birth time. After that it will not matter. Now listen well\'85"
They talked for another five minutes. Then Rahstum struck Blade hard across the mouth to draw blood. "That is to explain the delay. You were stubborn and gave me trouble. Come now."
With Rahstum leading the way, Blade was taken to the Khad's great black tent, escorted by the six warriors who had arrested him. They would be the Captain's men, sworn to live or die with him. Blade wondered how many others Rahstum had recruited?
Sensuous music leaked from the tent as they approached. But when he was pushed inside, he was surprised to find it almost empty. Musicians played in one corner. In another corner a squad of the Khad's men guarded a Cath who stood in chains. The Khad and Sadda were on the dais, on their respective thrones. To the right of the Khad, on a miniature throne, sat a pretty girl wearing filmy pantaloons and soft leather shoes and a little jacket that partially concealed small breasts. Mong women matured early, as Blade knew, but he did not think this girl could be more than thirteen. She looked as though she had been crying. As Blade approached the dais, the Khad stroked the girl's shiny hair and whispered something to her. She looked up at him and nodded gravely.
Sadda, her thick hair in a coronet, had shadows beneath her brown eyes, visible even through the veil. Her eyes brightened at the sight of Blade, but then she looked away.
Near the Khad's feet, juggling his four balls in the air, was Morpho the dwarf. He ignored Blade, staring at nothing with his comic-sad smile showing his teeth.
The Khad, his chalky spine twisting him forward at a cruel angle, glared at Blade with his good right eye. He wasted no time.
"That whore Empress Mei is missing you, Blade. She sent one to find you and plot escape." He pointed a finger at the Cath in chains. "Did you know of this, Blade?"
Blade shook his head. "I knew nothing of it, O Scourge of the World." That much was true.
The Khad's single eye glittered. It was rolling and bloodshot and showing a lot of the white, and in the murky depths the shadows of madness moved and coiled.
The Khad showed bad teeth in a grim smile. "So he says, also. He does not implicate you. Yet Rahstum does not trust you and coaxed me that I should question you."
The Cath was pushed rudely forward, his chains jangling over the soft music as the musicians played on, paying no heed to the grisly tableau being enacted so near them.
The Khad leered at both Blade and the Cath. "You have seen this man before, Blade?"
"Never." More truth. The Cath was wearing the Mong leather armor, with markings of a subchief. His lemony skin had been darkened, the dye now wearing off, and some shreds of dark beard still clung to his face. They had cut the beard off a dead Mong and pasted it on this man in an effort at disguise.
The Khad turned to the Cath and pointed to Blade. "You have seen this man before, Cath?"
The Cath gazed at Blade without expression. "I have seen him. He is the great Sir Blade, Courier-Chief from Pukka. He slew your champion in fair battle and was taken when his horse threw him. Because of treachery, I was sent to speak with him and plan his escape. I have never spoken with him."
The Cath had given up. He was plunging to his own destruction, yet he was trying to save Blade - and himself, as Blade found out a moment later.
"I have spoken the truth," the Cath went on, "for which I was promised an easy death."
The Khad's eye rolled and glittered. "I made no such promise."
"Your men did, when I was being tortured." The Cath was standing slim and tall, but he had begun to sweat. Blade's heart went out to him. He would not have an easy death.
Sadda leaned toward the Khad, her eyes on Blade.
"You have seen, brother, and you have heard. Blade has not been plotting to escape, so give him back to me unharmed. I still have use for him."
The Khad went into a roar of manic laughter. He slapped his chest and the tears welled from his eye. "I know, sister. I know! He must please you greatly, by Obi! And so I will not judge him. Not I. I will let my horse judge him. Bring my Thunderer to me. He shall decide."
Blade got it immediately and did not dare look at Morpho. So he was to be judged by a horse!
If the dwarf, who was a fool but no fool, meant to play him false now was the time for it.
Thunderer was led into the tent. The stallion was as shaggy as the other Mong ponies, but much larger. He was docile and the music did not appear to disturb him. Blade guessed that it was not the first time the Khad played such a joke.
A black slave took the reins and led Thunderer to the dais. The Khad, reaching painfully, stroked the animal's velvety muzzle for a moment and his voice softened.
"You will answer my questions, old war friend. First about the Cath. Is he guilty of spying?"
Blade watched carefully. The black made a slight movement and the reins twitched. Thunderer nodded. The dwarf's lips did not move at all.
"The Cath is guilty," said the horse. Blade was amazed and puzzled. Not at the ventriloquism but at the art of it. He had never heard a horse talk, but if a horse could talk he would, Blade thought, have spoken exactly as Thunderer did.
The Khad laughed' like a child. "I agree with you, Thunderer. And we know the punishment is death - but shall it be swift and easy? Or cruel? On this, Thunderer, I will follow your advice."
Blade, who had great empathy, found himself holding his breath. But what could the little fool do? Only, of course, what the Khad expected and wanted him to do!
Thunderer spoke again. "He must die a cruel death, master. He is a confessed spy and must suffer for it."
Blade risked a sidelong glance at the dwarf. Morpho, spinning his colored balls, stared back with his deathly grin.
The Khad pointed at Blade. "And this one, Thunderer? What of this one? Is he so innocent as he claims, and as my good sister claims?"
The horse was silent. The brightly colored balls twirled in the air. The black did not twitch the reins, waiting for his cue.
"Blade is not a fool," the horse said. "He is innocent of this thing. He waits, though not patiently, for the ransom that will free him. In all this your sister speaks truth, great Khad. Let Blade not be punished for that he did not do."
The Khad turned sideways to leer at Sadda. "My Thunderer agrees with you, little sister. I find that interesting. Have you been feeding him sweets on the sly?"
Sadda joined in the laugh. Her dark eyes glowed at Blade. "You are wise, brother, to listen to Thunderer. The horse may be wiser than both of us."
The Khad raised a hand. "Blade is not guilty. I return him to Sadda to be slave as before. Let the Cath be taken to the execution place at once. Summon all who do not have pressing duties to attend." The doomed Cath was dragged to his feet and led out.
Blade, no longer a prisoner, accompanied Sadda to her apartment, walking a few paces behind her as befitted a slave. She had women with her, but as they drew near the big tent she waved them aside and fell back to speak with him.
"That was too near a thing," she said. She studied him over the veil. "I do not understand why I try so hard to keep you alive, Blade."
He allowed himself a smirk that was in character. "Because I please you, my lady?"
"Perhaps. But you will cease to please me if I find you in more trouble."
"The trouble was not of my making, my lady."
"That is true - this time. And it puzzles me why Rahstum was so insistent that you be questioned. Rahstum himself puzzles me a great deal."
For the moment they were walking alone, out of earshot of any of the Mongs streaming to the gallows ground.
Sadda watched Blade, her eyes fathomless over the veil. "I give you a command now, Blade. You will watch this Rahstum when you can. In a way that will not be noticed. You are sly, as I know. Use that slyness. I would know where Rahstum goes, what he does, who he speaks with. You understand?"
Blade, concealing his elation, looked both eager and slavish and at once began to exploit the situation.
"I understand, my lady. But to do that I must have more freedom to come and go. I cannot watch Rahstum from the women's quarters."
She nodded. "This I know. I will arrange for more freedom. But be you warned, Blade!" She pointed to the execution ground. "Play me false and the death this Cath is going to suffer will seem merciful in comparison to what you will suffer."
That night Blade made love to Sadda with a pure cold hatred that left her gasping and enthralled. When Blade was spent at last, and she long since, she did not turn over and fall into sleep as usual. She lay close to him and whispered in his ear.
"No man has ever made me feel like this before, Blade. I do not understand it. I am not sure I like it."
He had released tension enough so he could wear the mask again, a mask that had nearly slipped during their lovemaking. He said: "Have you ever had a real man before, my lady?"
He felt her nod. He was laying with his back to her, she nuzzling him from behind.
"I thought they were men. I had Cossa, whom you killed, and many other famous warriors. I had the Emperor Mei Saka." She dug into his shoulder with her long nails. "Another week and he would have opened the wall to us. He had promised. I cannot understand how he was slain in battle. Our warriors had strict orders that he should not be attacked. For once my brother and I agreed, and it was he who issued the order. Yet the Emperor was killed and all my scheming went for nothing. The wall still stands and the Khad will never get the cannon. I would like to know which of my people killed the Emperor Mei - he would be treated as that Cath was today."
Blade kept discreetly silent. Only he and Lali knew who had killed the Emperor. Lali had seen to that. He was curious as to how Sadda, a Mong Princess, and the Cath Emperor Mei Saka could have had a love affair. But he did not want to seem too curious.
But Sadda was full of surprises tonight. She kissed his shoulder where she had clawed him. "Are you not curious, Blade? About the Emperor and myself?"
Blade stifled a grin. "It is not my place to be curious, my lady. I am a slave."
"See that you remember it. But you have made me feel very good and I will tell you. But just because I take you into my confidence does not mean that you can forget your place."
"Never, my lady."
There was, she explained, a postern gate some miles westward along the great wall. Far beyond the battlefield. On occasion Sadda, with a few trusted men and ladies, would ride out after dark and pitch a small tent on the plain near the postern. When he could get away from his captains, and his Counsel, and his wife, the Emperor would leave the wall by the postern and ride to join Sadda in the tent.
Finally he had promised to betray the Caths and open the main gate. The Empress was to be turned over to Sadda.
"Another great disappointment," she said now. "I was looking forward to that, Blade! I had a cage built for her."
He was hard put to restrain his laughter. A cage for Lali. A cage for Sadda. The ladies thought a great deal alike.
She was silent for a long time. Blade thought her asleep and was puzzling over her new behavior, this sudden warmth for him, and wondering how much of it was due to his sexual prowess and how much to her own devious mind and desires. The next moment he found out. "Blade?"
"Yes, my lady."
"I had thought you asleep. Now listen - I have decided to trust you."
He was instantly alert, all sleep banished. Was she at last going to come out with it? He weighed his words carefully.
"You honor me, my lady. You will find that I am worthy of your trust." He could lie as well as any Mong or Cath.
She was whispering into his ear again. "I plan that the Khad Tambur shall die. Then I alone will rule the Mongs. And you are going to help me."
Blade turned to face her, pretending to be surprised and a little frightened. It was what she would expect. Yet he was careful not to overdo it.
"How can I help you in this, my lady? I am a slave without power or weapons."
Sadda kept a single taper burning in the bed apartment. She did not like total darkness. They lay face to face now and looked into each other's eyes.
When she first removed her veil for him. Blade had not known what to expect. Was she ugly or a beauty? She was neither. She had the slightly flattened nose of most Mong women, but her cheekbones flared higher. This, with her almond dark eyes, gave her an exotic look that the common Mong women did not possess. Her teeth were marvelously even and white and her mouth was large, and, belying what he knew she was, had a sweetness about it. All this with a matte complexion that had the sheen of old gold with a honey patina.
He saw his reflection in her pupils, as she must be seeing hers. "You will have power," she said softly. "If you aid me in this you shall rule beside me. No - I will not lie. I will rule! But you will sit beside me."
Blade did not have to pretend now. He really was confused, and more than a little uneasy. Two plots to kill the Khad, developing side by side, along parallel lines, each with no knowledge of the other. It was dangerous. A thousand things could go wrong.
"You say nothing, Blade?"
"I - I must think, my lady. I had not expected this." Not so soon, at any rate, though he had known she was up to something.
"To murder the Khad," he went on, as though the thought was brand-new, "will be very difficult. He is guarded night and day by his personal troops, his bodyguard. They are loyal to him?"
She nodded, frowning. "They are loyal to him. But I also have warriors loyal to me."
And Rahstum had warriors loyal to him. The web was becoming more intricate by the minute.
Sadda tickled his nose with a painted nail. "If my plan works there will be no fighting. I do not want that. I would lose because I do not have enough men. No - I shall kill the Khad by cunning, Blade. Which means that I will not kill him at all, nor you. There is another who will do the deed for us, who will take the blame, and who will die for it. No suspicions will attach to us."
"And how is this to be done?"
"You know of Morpho the dwarf? The Khad's fool?"
The fine hairs prickled on Blade's neck. Morpho? The dwarf held both Blade and Rahstum's lives in the palm of his hand. All he need do was denounce them and—
"The dwarf is my man," Sadda said. "I know something about him, yet keep it to myself, that ensures his absolute loyalty to me. He only pretends loyalty to the Khad, because I wish it so for now. But in the end he will obey me!"
Did Rahstum know of this? Blade thought not. His stomach began to feel a bit queasy. Morpho was playing a many handed game. And yet Baber, whom Blade did trust, also trusted the dwarf.
Sadda had been silent for a moment. Now she said, "When the time comes, and it will be two days hence at the celebration of my brother's birth date, the dwarf will slay the Khad. I can make him do that, Blade!
"That is when I will need you. I will give you more freedom and allow you to carry a real dagger instead of that wooden toy. You will be at the celebration with me. Now, when the dwarf kills my brother, he must not be allowed to speak. Not one word that can implicate me. You, Blade, will dagger the little man as soon as he has slain the Khad!"
She laughed and caressed Blade's arm. "You see how cunning and simple it is? Morpho is blamed for killing my brother. You gain much, in the eyes of my people, and my officers, by slaying the assassin. I am not involved in any way. I will bury my brother with much pomp and many tears. I cry easily, Blade. Later I will rule alone and you shall sit at my right hand."
But not for long, Blade thought. She would tire of him all the sooner because of what he knew about her.
Cautiously he asked, "How can you be so sure that Morpho will kill the Khad? It is a good plan, my lady, but only if you can be absolutely sure that the dwarf will do his part."
"I am sure. But that I will not tell you. You know enough for what you must do. And keep a sharp eye on Rahstum. I do not know where his loyalties lie, but to himself. I would not have him interfere."
One thing Blade knew. He could no longer put his entire trust in the dwarf. And he must speak to Rahstum of what he had just heard.
Sadda wrapped one smooth arm about his neck and pulled him close to her. "All this talking, Blade, has made me desire you again. You will make love to me, as fiercely as before. Then I can sleep."
In just that moment, Blade thought, she sounded sad and a little lonely. As he obeyed the royal command, he thought that even a pit viper must have its moments of sadness and loneliness.