The rape of the Cath city had taken a little over four hours. By noon it was a smoking ruin and the corpses had been collected and dumped on the green plain near the Mong encampment. All had been slain according to the Khad's orders.
By those same orders only the Governor of the city had been spared. He had been taken before he could commit suicide by falling on his sword. His name was Ozmandi, and he was a man of great dignity. He appeared in chains before the Khad, wearing a richly colored cloak of messaline and a yellow headdress. He was tortured for an hour, to deliver him of his secrets, and then he was killed and his body placed with the rest of the dead.
All this.came later, by hearsay, to Blade who was in his wagon resting and being ministered to by Baber. Blade's rib wound was superficial, painful and bloody, but nothing to bother him. Baber cleansed it, muttering that he did not think the fire necessary. Blade was happy to hear this. He having watched them put the hot iron to Rahstum's arm. He could still see the Captain's contorted face as he fought to keep from crying out.
Khad Tambur was building a monument of bodies that he hoped would ensure his lasting fame. A great slab of jade was brought from the city and an artisan found who could engrave it with the primitive Mong characters.
Read and tremble, all ye who view this stone, Khad Tambur, Lord of The World, Scourge of the Universe, passed this way. These are the bones of those who resisted him. Take heed.
The Khad, who was directing matters in person, found this an occasion for a great deal of mad laughter. He was well into the madness now, and drinking heavily of bross.
Sadda sent a message to Blade by one of her mute and deaf black slaves. On a piece of flat wood she scribbled in black tallow: Do not come near me until tonight. He rages because you still live. Do as you must tonight, quickly, instantly, and all will be well.
Blade fingered the golden collar as he read the note over again. Baber had gone.
Do as you must. He was to kill Morpho the instant the dwarf killed the Khad. Blade pondered for a long time. He had no intention of killing the dwarf and he could not kill Sadda because of the child. It amounted to this: Sadda thought he was going to kill Morpho. Rahstum thought he was going to kill Sadda.
He was still puzzling when the note came from Rahstum. It was short. Come to me after dark.
By the time the sun fell out of the sky, the Mong camp was one great convulsive orgy. The bross was flowing freely. Men quarreled and fought and laughed and sang. Children and women kept out of the way. Horsemen, so drunk they could hardly stay in the saddle, galloped madly around the camp, whooping and screaming and at times riding through and over tents. At first the provost, a cadre of the Khad's own men, tried to cope with the disorders, but presently gave up and joined in the bross drinking. It was going to be a wild night.
Blade, by taking back ways and avoiding the fires, reached Rahstum's tent without being noticed. Though he wore the golden collar he was now a personage. He had gained much prestige that day. The Mongs had seen him fight and seen him lead, along with the Captain, while the Khad sat on his throne. None of this. Blade knew, would endear him to the Khad.
Matters would have to be settled tonight, one way or the other. He had walked the tightrope as long as he could. He must put his luck to the final test before it ran out.
One of Rahstum's lieutenants stood guard outside the tent, along with half a dozen warriors. They were all heavily armed and all sober.
The lieutenant touched his helmet. "The Captain awaits you, Sir Blade."
Blade grinned as he ducked into the tent. His title had been returned.
Morpho was sitting beside a raised pallet on which Rahstum lay. His eternal grin swiveled toward Blade as the big man entered. He nodded, but said nothing.
Rahstum's stub had been heavily bandaged and was held up and against his chest by a sling of rawhide. He was livid in the torchlight and his eyes bespoke his pain. He had refused to drink bross as the surgeons of the Khad had urged. He wore dress armor of light leather and near the pallet was his helmet and sword. He raised his left hand in greeting.
"Sir Blade! We talk at last. No more sly looks and mincing of words and slinking about like carrion apes. This night we strike!"
Bold words. Blade must have shown his surprise, for Rahstum laughed harshly. "We are safe here for this hour at least. Only my men are sober, on pain of death and..." The dwarf interrupted. "Sadda's men will be sober also. She is no fool. She will also choose tonight." Blade nodded. "He is right, Captain." Rahstum closed his eyes and winced as a spasm of pain clawed him. Then: "He may be. It matters not, for we will strike first. My men will be more heavily armed than hers, and will be in such position as to watch them closely. Now, Morpho, tell Blade how it is to be done."
The dwarf fingered his clean-shaven chin and squinted at Blade. "I will poison him. A deadly poison, with no antidote, but it will take several minutes to act. But it will act! When it does you will rush in and kill Sadda with your sword."
"Then defend yourself as best you can," broke in Rahstum. "It will not be for long. I will be there, on my pallet, but in the background because I will plead my pain. The moment Sadda is dead I will raise my voice and take command and my men will do the rest. It is risky, Blade, but if we are determined enough and carry it through without delay, with no hesitation, we will bring it off. It only takes resolve!"
It was time to tell them.
"I cannot murder Sadda," Blade said. "She is with child. My child."
Both men looked at him in shocked silence. The silence grew. Blade heard the shift and stomp of feet and lances outside the tent. Somewhere a troupe of horsemen went shrilling past.
Blade had not expected difficulty with the dwarf. He, because of Nantee, was sure to understand. And so it was. The dwarf studied him in the silence and if he could have smiled, instead of that etched grin, Blade knew he would have.
Rahstum raised his left hand, clenched, the muscles knotting along his forearm. His gray eyes flashed cold at Blade.
"You have known this? And you wait until now to tell me!"
"I meant to tell you before, Captain. There were always interruptions, and our plans not yet so firm. But I tell you now. I cannot kill Sadda."
He hastened on before Rahstum could speak. "What need to kill her? Take her prisoner. I will do that gladly enough, and collect some of my debt in the doing. I care nothing of what happens to Sadda, only the child. After it is born and taken from her you can do with her as you choose."
The Captain's lips twisted in derision. "You are a fool, Blade! You are a man, and I saw how you fought today, and I acknowledge you warrior and a man I would have by my side. But you are a fool nonetheless. As long as that whore is alive our heads are not safe and we shall have no peace."
He looked at the dwarf for confirmation. "Tell him how truly I speak, little man. Put some sense into his thick head."
The question trembled on Blade's lips. The question that had bothered and puzzled him for days. How was it that Sadda was so positive that the dwarf would slay the Khad for her! She had called Morpho her man! Why?
He did not speak. It was not the time, and complicating matters further was not the answer to his problem. But he resolved to watch Morpho as closely as he watched the Khad and Sadda.
The dwarf paced a few steps, frowning, his short arms crossed over his brawny chest. He was dressed in preparation for the celebration, and the bell on his peaked cap chimed as he moved.
"I think," he said at last, "that we must let Blade have his way in this, Captain. I - I can understand his feelings. It will be a little more dangerous to let Sadda live, this I admit, but surely when you are leader of all the Mongs you will be able to watch and control one small woman? Anyway the plan is set and firmed and we cannot change it now."
Pain came to Blade's aid. The Captain lay with his eyes closed, his face twitching and sweat beading on his high forehead. Yet when he opened his eyes it was to glare at Blade.
"So be it, then. But be warned, Sir Blade. I make her your responsibility. If we succeed tonight I mean to make you my second in command. There will be heavy burdens and now you add to them. If Sadda causes trouble, plots, escapes, or in any way seeks to disrupt my rule I will have your head for it. I warn you in good time. Mark it well!" Blade bowed slightly. "I mark it, Captain. I accept the responsibility for Sadda. Until the child is born. Then I will gladly turn her back to you."
Some of the old wolfishness was in Rahstum's grimace. "You do that, Sir Blade."
They talked for another half-hour. Outside, the camp grew ever more riotous. Now and again a woman screamed and the drunken laughter never ceased.
The dwarf would not tell Blade how he intended to poison the Khad.
Blade said: "You are taster to him, Morpho. You must taste of everything he eats. How will you poison him?"
The dwarf shook his head. "I will. But I cannot tell you. I have not told the Captain. If things should go wrong and you are taken and tortured I would not have you know this secret. Then it will be good for another day."
Blade had to let it go at that. They made final plans and, at the last moment of parting, pledged themselves one to the other. Blade went back to his wagon and put on his best finery.
The great black tent of the Khad was heavily guarded by warriors. They were a mixed group, half the Khad's men and half Rahstum's. That was all right. At a signal from Rahstum each of his men was to put a sword to the throat of one of Khad's men and demand surrender.
The Khad's men were drinking bross. The Captain's men were not. Blade saluted the subcaptain on duty and entered the tent, to be immediately caught up in the wild swirl of music and dancing and drunken laughter. The tent sweltered with the heat of closely packed bodies and the heady fumes of bross made him gasp and hold his breath for a moment. A man could get drunk just by breathing!
Torches, garish and smoking, cast a smudged yellow light over the scene. Blacks passed in the crowd with bowls of bross. Scattered about were platters of fruits and fine foods taken from the ruined city. In one corner the musicians, their number augmented tonight, brayed and drummed and plucked and chimed in a frenzy of wanton music.
Six women were dancing before the thrones of the Khad and his sister. Their oiled bodies glinted and writhed in the light. They wore only skimps of cloth around and between their legs. They waited for a cue from the music, then faced each other, pairing off, and began to make symbolic love, woman to woman, dark burnished skin to dark burnished skin. Twelve well-formed breasts wiggled and bounced and trembled. The audience roared drunken approval.
Blade waited near the entrance. Against his better judgment he had promised Baber that he might be here tonight. The old man had pleaded hard and Blade had at last given in. Baber was his slave, after all, and so had some right there if the master permitted. Blade shrugged. Small matter. The die was cast now. Baber could not affect the outcome one way or the other.
Sadda had not yet seen him. He watched her peering around, glancing at the entrance from time to time. Blade made himself small and moved behind a group of drunken officers. Khad's men.
Soon there was altercation outside and he heard Baber's voice raised in profane demand. A moment later the old fellow came wheeling in on his cart, propelling himself with the sticks. He spotted Blade immediately and rolled to him. Blade grinned down at the legless man.
"You are finely turned out, old man. But you do not smell much like a warrior. What did you do - tub yourself in perfume?"
Baber was trimmed and clipped and arrayed in his best. He smoothed hair over his bald spot and winked up at Blade. "For an occasion like this a man must look his best. Even a slave. How soon, Blade?"
"Sir Blade, you rascal. Have you not heard?"
"I had not. But I am glad. Could it be that I will not be a slave much longer?"
"That could be. Now quiet - and keep your eyes and ears open."
Morpho entered the tent, carrying a small box of melons packed in snow that had been brought in that afternoon. The dwarf did not glance at them. He went to the dais and took his usual place to the Khad's right. After a moment he took his colored balls from a pocket and began to twirl them absently. The dancers were just finishing their simulated orgy in a sensuous blare of music.
The music soared to a great clashing finale. The dancers ran off through a side entrance in the tent.
Blade waited. Fretting a bit now. He was not to move until Rahstum was carried in. He peered through the crowd. Sadda was watching the door now with no attempt to hide her annoyance. She moved impatiently and clamped white teeth over her scarlet nether lip.
Rahstum was carried in. The crowd parted and four of his men carried the pallet through art aisle to a prominent place near the cleared space before the dais.
Khad Tambur stood up, painfully, swaying, his inclined back thrusting him forward nearly parallel with the floor. Blade doubted that he felt pain now. He was swimming in bross.
The Khad made a sign and trumpets called from the orchestra. Silence now, but for whispering and coughing and drunken chuckles. The Khad pointed to Rahstum.
"I give you greetings, my Captain. And I give you all my thanks. And your men, and mine, I also thank. This day you taught the Caths a lesson they will never forget. I regret your grave wound. What say the surgeons?"
The Captain, raising himself a trifle on the pallet, held his bandaged stub aloft for all to see.
"The surgeons, great Khad, are angry because they could not cut it off themselves. They curse the Cath that did it, thus robbing them of practice - which they sorely need."
A great roar of laughter went up. The Khad smiled, his eye glittering and rolling.
When the laughter died Rahstum said: "It was only a hand, gracious One. A small thing to offer my Khad."
That was Blade's cue. Rahstum had judged perfectly how the scene would fall out, even to the Khad's words and his own reply. Blade moved toward the dais. The people stepped aside for him and the whispering began.
Blade came into the open space, floored with rugs, and approached the two thrones. The music had stopped. Sadda's eyes were soft as she watched him draw near. She raised a hand in greeting.
Blade bowed first to the Khad, then to Sadda, then straightened and faced the Scourge of the Universe.
"My thanks, great One, for allowing me to be here. It is splendid, but not as great as your splendor, gracious Lord;.
I respected the Caths before as soldiers, but no more. Today I learned. You are the Scourge of the Universe!"
The Khad leaned toward him. His face twitched and his eye seemed to spin and flash. Blade sensed that he had not even heard the cloying flattery. The Khad was fighting for self-control.
But when the great one spoke his voice was low, harsh, with a neutrality that must have cost him dear. At first he spoke for Blade's ear alone.
"You were fortunate today, Sir Blade. Most fortunate. Twice. Or was it three times?"
Blade gave him back stare for stare. "Twice, Lord. Only twice." He saw it now. The Khad was going to bide his time. Play out the farce and settle with Blade at a better time.
The Khad gnawed at his lip with bad teeth. "I thank you as I thank the others, Sir Blade. But I will do more than thank in mere words - you are Sir Blade once more, so cast off that golden collar."
At last. Blade unfastened the collar and flung it away from him. One of the black eunuchs pounced on it.
The Khad held up a hand for silence. This time he waited until the crowd obeyed. Then: "We have seen how Sir Blade fought today. We have seen his valor in our cause. We have also noted his luck." The eye glinted at Blade and the thin mouth smiled.
"We Mongs know the value of luck, of good fortune. This man has it. So I permit his marriage to my sister, in due time and with great ceremony, and I make him an officer of mine. Of mine! Responsible solely to me. As my officer he shall have whatever he desires - of my treasure, anything. And he shall sit on this dais, beside my sister, and be consort to her even before they are married. You have heard me."
Two blacks came running forward with another throne. It was put down beside Sadda and the Khad motioned to Blade.
"You see, Sir Blade, how I keep my word."
There was a roar of approval from the gathering. For the first time Blade knew just how popular he was at the moment. It would not last, but for the moment he had status. He had displayed that day the two things that Mongs worshiped above all else - courage and fighting ability.
Blade took his seat beside Sadda to a buzz of excited approval. She thanked her brother, then leaned to put a hand on Blade's. Her eyes were bright with excitement and anticipation.
"Soon now. Remember what you must do," she whispered.
The Khad waved a hand at the dwarf. "A melon, fool. All this ceremony dries my throat and makes me hungry." He took a huge quaff of brass from a bowl beside him.
Blade watched the dwarf. How? How was it going to be done?
A black slave came and whispered something into the Khad's ear. He nodded and waved the slave away.
Morpho selected a plump melon from the snow-filled box. He whipped a knife from his belt and carefully sliced it. With a little bow he extended half of it to the Khad.
In the past Blade had noted that the Khad did not always question his food. At times, especially when he was drinking heavily, he would forget, or did not bother, so secure did he deem himself.
Blade was so tense his muscles ached. Sadda was looking at him rather strangely.
The Khad raised the melon to his mouth, then hesitated. A sly look flitted over his ravaged face and he rolled his eye at the little man. He half laughed as he said, "You taste first, fool. Do I not pay you to taste? So taste!"
Morpho held up the half melon in his hand. The crowd was watching now, once more silent.
The half melon in Morpho's hand spoke in a tiny voice: "Eat me, fool. Eat me. So the Khad can eat my brother. Such nonsense!"
The melon laughed squeakily. "I was whole when I came. My skin was not broken. Everyone saw you cut me. Does the Khad fear a wizard, then, who can poison a melon without breaking the skin? What nonsense. Eat me. Eat me!"
The dwarf took a huge bite out of the melon. The crowd roared with laughter in which the Khad joined. He sank his teeth into his slice of melon, chewed and swallowed.
Blade felt the sweat creeping out on his forehead. Morpho had said it would take a little time.
Sadda leaned to him, her hand on his knee. "What is it, my Blade? You look so strange."
The Khad took another bite of melon, swallowed it, and stood up. He raised a hand and the gathering fell silent once more.
"I have more news," said the Khad. "Concerning myself. I, your ruler,, am also to be married soon. I have at last found the moon of my desire. My heart is smitten after all these years."
He clapped his hands sharply. "Bring in the bride of Khad Tambur. Bring her who will soon share the throne of the Ruler of the World."
The crowd sighed and hushed. The Khad smiled in triumph at having so surprised and caught them off guard. He raised his bowl of bross and drank, his eyes feral over the rim. Of all things in the world they had not expected this.
Only Sadda was not surprised. Blade saw that and also saw the flutter of malice and hate and anticipation in her eyes. Her gaze eluded his and followed the blacks. She formed the words with her red lips. "Soon now. Be ready."
The blacks came back. Between them, led by one of them, was a slim little figure, a girl. A child-girl. She was richly arrayed, her dark hair piled and caught on her head with scarlet combs. She was beautiful. Blade's heart stopped beating. Too late now, but he understood.
The girl stumbled and one of the black slaves caught her. She peered around, her eyes blank, and she raised a hand and said, her voice chiming in the dead silence:
"My father? Are you here, my father? I do not like this place. I am afraid, my father." Nantee.