“So You Seek Combat?”
“Even with yourself!” said Coral Bud.
Rustad smiled. “Nay, it is not allowed a seasoned warrior to fight such
as you. But combat you shall have.”
He turned to the slaves and thundered: “Set up the battle ring—and uncage
a burrow rat!”
In spite of herself, Coral Bud trembled. No one could survive in the
battle ring against those fangs!
BERKLEY BOOKS, NEW YORK
A Berkley Book / published by arrangement with the author
Berkley edition / July 1980
All rights reserved.
Copyright ? 1980 by Sam Nicholson
Cover illustration by Courtney.
This book may not be reproduced in whole or in part, by mimeograph or any other means, without permission. For information address: Berkley Publishing Corporation, 200 Madison Avenue, New York, New York l0016.
A BERKLEY BOOK? TM 757,375
PRINTED IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
“HO, BARGEMASTER! attend your prow! What barge approaches Mus-al-ram, great mistress of the Desert Cities?”
The newly betrothed bride hidden within the splendid tent on the barges midship platform sat up impatiently on her cushions, reflecting that the Gatemaster‟s question was just a stupid ceremony. This barge was known on all the canals from the Desert Cities to the Seacoast.
The ceremonious answer came, “The barge of Bulbul, Chief Eunuch to the
Wizard Amfi, master of the parthogen bottles!”
The girl listened further. The barge was humming at a standstill. There was no rumble or clank of a bronze watergrid being raised. What were the awkward land crabs doing now?
Coral Bud, daughter of the sea king Hamar, master pirate of the planet sprang to her feet and tossed her soft dark hair back from her shoulders. She put her hand to the tent fold—and drew back, feeling the immodest
discomfort of her harem attire.
On her father‟s ships Coral Bud had worn the wool and leather of a seaman, a bright scarf binding up her hair, a sharp dagger sheathed at her waistband. But since her father had escorted her aboard Bulbul‟s barge, she had been shivering in flimsy gauze-ankle-length pantaloons, short braided jacket, a nose veil that hung crookedly beneath her flashing dark eyes.
She could not show herself—and yet she was curious. She heard the
watergrid rise in its grooves. The barge hummed into motion, Old fat Bulbul himself must be at the prow. She could hear his high, giggling “Make way!” as the barge arrogantly shoved and bumped other canal traffic.
Oof! That was a bump. They were at a standstill again. Bulbul suddenly called out in a mocking tone.
“Light-Bearer! Second seed-son of my gracious master! A word. I pray, young Lord Zeid!”
“Zeid ben Amfi!” breathed the girl. At last she could catch a glimpse of the young Lord Zeid—Moonship apprentice—messenger of the Space
Givers—her future husband!
Drawing her flimsy jacket modestly over her high young breasts, Coral Bud opened the tent curtain a crack and peered out.
The scene was strange to the eyes of the pirate girl. The late-afternoon sun, its bright beams knifing through the parched air, was slipping toward the horizon of wind-swirled sand. In the great city of Mus-al-ram, the tightly packed mass of mud brick dwellings were throwing open their shutters to the oncoming night. From the surrounding oasis came the rattle of palm fronds against the rising breeze.
In the crowded bazaar along the main canal, the outcries of vendors were reaching a crescendo.
“Ai—ai—come hither, master buyer from the Marble Lands! Touch this carpet, woven from the silken floss of the Space Givers! . . . see, abu Falat, how the fool bends like a barley sheaf with gold!”
“Hoy—hoy—young man from the sea kingdoms! Buy beauty this day! Cross the stone bridge at the palace canal to the rose-and-lily doorpost, and find duplos fashioned within the parthogen bottles of the Wizard Amfi himself! Smooth-skinned, sleek-tressed, love-instructed duplos—!”
Woolen cloaks jostling embroidered satin robes—lurid colors—strident
voices—the barbarous tumult of an illiterate planet.
Coral Bud gazed long at the bazaar before turning her attention to the barge itself and the fat, satin-clad eunuch standing on the command platform at the prow. Bulbul wore a green jacket over a white blouse, flaring pink pantaloons, gilt slippers. His turban was thick rolls of white silk, pinned by a gold brooch dangling with gems.
To whom had Bulbul called? The girl‟s glance followed the direction of his outstretched arm and pointing, bejeweled finger.
A lustrous-eyed, soft-bearded young man in a hooded white robe was walking slowly through the throng which hushed and gave way before him. Also a vendor, he carried his wares hanging on gold chains from his staff—globes of pure light, as many-colored as the stars now glowing forth in the darkening sky.
Zeid had paused at the eunuch‟s shout. His expressive eyes were glinting
thoughts that boded ill for the insolence. He turned from the bazaar, walked to the canal edge, rested his staff on the stone blocks retaining the canal, and waited.
There was a silent duel that delighted the watching maiden. Bulbul was the loser. Having craved an audience, he perforce had to climb down
from the command platform, with much wheezing and wobbling, and go across the cargo barge moored between his own barge and the waiting Zeid. He stumbled and waddled on the cargo, smearing his gilt slippers and pink pantaloons on bundles of black incense bark.
Finally he hauled his bloated flab to the stone retaining wall, and Coral Bud laughed to herself. Serve the bloated slave-tyrant right! How his gossip had bored her on the journey from the Seacoast!
But what was he saying to the Light-Bearer?
* * *
“AH, ZEID BEN AMFI!” he was complaining, as he straightened his turban. “Once too often will you make jest of your servant! And yet I hail you but to enrich you!”
“More likely to enrich yourself, Bulbul,” smiled Zeid. He glanced at the bronze-shielded barge and the gold-bordered purple tent at midship. The veiled, dark-eyed face at the tent fold startled him. He demanded, “Who is the girt? Another chattering wife for my brother Rustad?”
Bulbul averted his head and watched the setting sun bring sparkles to his jeweled fist. “Hasn‟t the Princess Serada told my lord Zeid of the girl?”
“My mother Serada is as close with her counsel as with her gold.”
“Then it is not my humble place to reveal secrets.”
Zeid laughed aloud. “A looser-tongued talebearer never existed! However, the girl is certainly no concern of mine! Why did you hail me? What traitorous scheme must be spoken here because it cannot be spoken within my fathers walls?”
“Bulbul a traitor? Not so! But the Wizards commands must sometimes be executed in stealth. Lord Zeid, look upon this glass! Have you seen better loveliness for the parthogen bottles?”
The eunuch drew a glass rectangle from inside his jacket. He rubbed his palm over the surface and handed the rectangle to Zeid.
The blank glass shimmered. A female figure lay there, as if floating in a silver sea. Her tresses were coppery waves—her eyes sea-green—her
breasts high—her limbs fair.
“No coarse-pored big-footed, hairy-limbed grape treader, that one!”
giggled Bulbul, “With her seed in the parthogen bottles—”
Revulsion darkened Zeid‟s countenance. “What swine would sell such beauty to the parthogen bottles?”
“Well now, Zeid, if she could be sold, there would be no need for
conniving. But she is Fire Lotus, free princess of the Marble Lands, and wishes to sell her seed but not herself.”
“Wishes to sell her seed—?”
“No princess is so rich that she does not desire more. And who will pay better than the Wizard Amfi?”
“He will pay not a copper. He will entice the princess to the Seacoast and send Rustad to capture her.”
“Yes. And how will that profit Fire Lotus—or poor Bulbul—or my Lord
Zeid, whose mad whims need more gold than he earns from the Space Giver lamps?”
Zeid was gazing wistfully on the delicate features. “Surely no crass desires animate such tender eyes!”
“I don‟t know at what point desire for pearls, rubies, and emeralds becomes crass, my Lord Zeid. I only know that Fire Lotus demands gold, not slavery. She is daughter to the Prince of the Milk White Quarries, and her fortress would hurl even Rustad into the deep quarry lakes.”
“And you would send me to bargain on her behalf with my father—to bear
his greed and wrath?”
“To beard an old lion, one sends a young one.”
Zeid sighed. “I can‟t believe—Fire Lotus doesn‟t know what she‟s doing—”
“But my Lord Zeid can speak to the Wizard? Keeping silent as to the paltry sum he and Bulbul have been promised by the princess?”
“I never could make such a contemptible bargain—yet I wish I could speak
with the princess. I could pretend to my father—”
He lost himself in the beauty of the portrait. Bulbul glanced at the now closed purple tent, and he smiled a mean smile. He took the glass and slid it into the sleeve-slit of Zeid‟s robe. “Yes, young prince, speak cunningly to the Wizard.”
Zeid came out of his dream and bethought himself of the evening‟s duties. He had completely forgotten the dark-eyed girl within the tent.
* * *
THE SKY WAS NOW overspread by myriads of low-hanging stars, whose colors filled the air with a mottled shifting light. Aiming the glow of his lamps ahead of him, Zeid hurried into a narrow street.
Rioting beggars were fighting before a closed door with a circle carved on the lintel above it. Each of the planet‟s lords, wizards, and merchants had an elaborate seal which they wax-stamped, carved, or painted as identification. Zeid, the Moonship apprentice, could read and write, and he believed a circle most clearly represented himself and his ideas.
The beggars—the crook-backed fighting and cursing the lamed—rushed him
as he approached. “The hospice dog has barred us—and admitted others!” they whined.
“Begone, scum that would twist your own limbs rather than work!” raged Zeid, swinging his lamps at their heads. “Begone!”
The heavy door opened, and Zeid strode over the threshold.
The dimly lit inner chamber was thick-strewn with pallets and bodies. At the back of the chamber a large cauldron was bubbling with spicy stew. Somewhere children wailed as if in pain.
“Full house tonight, as usual, Lad Zeid.” said a sturdy man in white robe and leathern apron, “and not more than six honest souls. Didn‟t the Space Givers tell you how to separate sheep from goats?”
“They said it couldn‟t be done, good Jibbo. Why are the children crying?”
“Alas, my lord, a father maimed two babes and thrust them at the hospice door so that they could live on your bounty until they could beg.”
“The babes we will keep and heal. Do you know the father? Tell the public executioner to slit his throat and display the body in the bazaar.”
The sturdy man paled, then bowed and said. “It will be done, Lord Zeid.”
For all his Moonship learning, Zeid, too, was a barbarian—and a lord.
* * *
HE WALKED THE LONG WAY around the Wizard‟s walls to the gate farthest from the canal grid and the turmoil Bulbul‟s arrival must be occasioning.
He paused before the massive bronze and spoke. “Open O gate! Zeid the son commands!”
The gate swung smoothly aside. Zeid entered a quiet courtyard lit by larger globes. A group of young girls—identically fair, in gossamer
trousers and jackets—ran laughing away from him into a colonnaded passage.
One girl remained, lying along the alabaster rim of the central fountain. She seemed to be asleep, but when Zeid walked over to her, he saw that she was dead.
He called angrily, “Aya!” and an old woman hobbled from the colonnade.
“So another must be thrown into the Wizards lightning oven!” she grumbled in a cracked voice. “We were unlucky with that year‟s parthogen bottles and will hardly mature enough for a profit!”
Zeid left her with the dead duplo and walked up the broad steps into the pillared palace hall. At the far end was the harem door, a mirror on its gold paneling.
He recalled Bulbul, and his hand went briefly to the portrait glass in his sleeve. He hesitated while he extinguished the lamps hanging from his staff. Then he walked to the mirror, pressed an embossing on the rim, and said, “It‟s your son Zeid, O Wizard.”
His own face was replaced by his father‟s harder, heavier, more darkly bearded countenance. “With important news, since you interrupt my pleasure?”
Zeid drew out the portrait glass, rubbed it, and held it to the mirror, “His father‟s eyes widened; his fleshy lips curved back from his teeth. “Who and where, most excellent son!”
“Fire Lotus, free princess of the Milk White Quarries. The rascal Bulbul would have had her by guile—but failed, and now would send me to bargain for some obscure reason, which, perhaps, your greater wits can understand.”
Humor came into his father‟s eyes. “I understand it so well that I bid you discuss the journey‟s expenses with your mother, true daughter of
Serad the Miserly. Bulbul would rather not bargain in that direction, either.”
The mirror blanked in dismissal.
Zeid replaced the portrait in his robe, took up his lamps, and walked to his own quarters.
* * *
AS BOYS, BOTH ZEID and his elder brother Rustad had been carried aloft in the Space Giver‟s cloud to the giant Moonship. In a richly heaped bazaar they had been asked to choose a Gift which they could take back to their home.
Rustad had seized upon swords and battle axes—and had been returned
with the trophies to the palace in Mus-al-ram. Zeid had been interested only in the glowing lights hung above the wares.
“They‟re really not part of the Gifts,” said the white-coveralled Givers,
“but you may have one if you like.”
“But then you might lack a lamp,” said the observant boy. “You said I can have anything I want. I want to learn to make lamps. Keep your promise and teach me.”
The Space Givers smiled and kept him aloft until manhood. When he returned to the Wizards palace, a Space Magic workshop descended with him and was now an ell continuing from his palace rooms. Always locked because of danger to meddlers, it had barred skylights which opened automatically to let in the cool night air.
However, on this evening, Zeid did not enter the workshop. He left his staff at the workshop door, threw open the shutters of his dressing chamber, discarded his dusty robe—carefully setting aside the
portrait—bathed in his mist-fountain, reclothed himself in princely gold-thread gauze and gold-braided turban, and ascended the staircase to his mother‟s apartments.
The eunuchs at the double doors bowed and admitted him. In the first chamber, the currently matured duplos were singing and dancing while slave-tutors instructed them. Short-lived, sterile, with no capacity for thought, the duplos cheerfully bestowed pleasure and died without really having lived.
Seated on gold cushions in the next chamber was the dark-eyed girl from the barge. She was clad in rainbow gauze and had a gold circlet holding back her heavy tresses, She was looking at a casket of jewels a slave girl was offering her.
So, thought Zeid, the maiden was to be Rustad‟s wife, She was not Ill-looking. Slim-bodied, like a boy, with a direct, fearless gaze.
He bowed to her but did not speak, and approached his mother‟s audience chamber, At the threshold he paused. His mother was resting carelessly among her cushions, and his brother Rustad was seated cross-legged beside her.
When she saw Zeid, she smiled and waved him to enter.
Serada, daughter of Serad the Miserly, was still a beautiful woman with warm-toned flesh, cinnamon hair, and pearl-gray eyes.
Rustad sprang to his feet, a magnificent figure in the long, scarlet-brocaded tunic and narrow trousers of a warrior and a cloth-of-gold turban.
“Brother Zeid comes to hear his good fortune,” he sneered. His hand went to his jeweled dagger as he spoke, and Serada quickly rose to stand between her Sons.
“Sweet Rustad, most beloved of first-born Sons,” she coaxed, “don‟t
begrudge poor Zeid the cheap purchase Bulbul has fetched from the Sea Kingdoms. A wife Zeid must have, and a less costly one we could not find. Be content, dearest Rustad, with your wives and duplos—and leave
the weary business of the palace to your doting mother.”