Authors: John Dechancie
“I didn't mean to gast your flabber, even a little.”
She laughed at this. “You're a strange man.”
“One of the strangest, depending on what connotation of the word you mean to imply.”
“I know you're one of the most powerful men in the universe . . . the universes.”
“I can't deny the truth. You haven't contradicted me, by the way.”
“When I said that I know my love is requited.”
She shrugged. “I can't deny the truth.”
“So you do. You do love me.”
They stood looking at each other for a protracted moment. Then they embraced, and their kiss was long and involved.
Starlight threw the shadow of the window's tracery across the big bed.
the imperial palace was a huge many-columned affair of marble and granite. Now deserted, it rang with the banging and clanging of outland pillagers trying to find something of value overlooked by local looters. The imperial family and court had long since vamoosed, taking what valuables they could carry with them.
The emperor himself was dead, assassinated, it was rumored, by a cabal of his own imperial guardsmen, who were themselves put to death by loyalists.
The city of Orem was open to rapine and looting.
Gene went out onto one of many terraces overlooking the city. The palace stood on the highest of Orem's many hills and afforded a good view. Faint screams rose on the blood-tinged air. A bit of rape going on out there. He'd ordered there be no more rape, no more murder. But it was hard to stop barbarians from doing what they did best.
The emperor was dead, and so was his empire, finally overrun by outlanders. Rognar was dead, too, as of yesterday; he'd taken ill during the siege. Heart attack, or so Gene had diagnosed it. Poor Rognar had all the symptoms. There was little medicine in this world, and the barbarians had almost none. Rognar had succumbed, and Gene and Snowy, who had risen in the ranks very quickly, had taken over field operations.
“My lord Gene . . .”
Gene turned to find Gruesome standing in the doorway.
“What is it?”
“My lord, the imperial guard has surrendered.”
Gene chuckled. “Thought they would. They're not about to fight to the last man.”
“On one condition,” added Gruesome (whose proper name was Hurvaat, but let that pass).
“What? They're in a position to ask for conditions? We already have the palace. Tell them we'll just seal âem into that garrison of theirs and let âem rot.”
“They could last indefinitely with the stores they have,” Gruesome pointed out.
Gene sat on the balustrade. “Very well. What condition?”
“That you become emperor.”
“What? Me? I'm no emperor.”
“They say there must be an emperor, even an outlander one.”
“Sure, if there's no emperor, they're out of a job.”
“True, my lord.”
Gene looked out over the scene below. It was a grand city, full of beautiful temples, libraries, theaters, and other fine structures. There was art here, culture. Learning. The libraries were being looted, their books hauled away for cooking fuel. Statues had already been toppled, frescoes defaced. It was a pity.
“Maybe they're right,” Gene said.
Gruesome was silent.
Gene nodded. “Yeah, they are right. There's stuff here that needs to be saved. The fall of any civilization is a terrible thing. A dark age is to be avoided at all cost. Sure, the Empire had its rotten aspectsâslavery, foreign bullyingâbut it also had stuff worth preserving.”
“Surely you're right about these things, my lord. I myself am ignorant of such matters.”
“Yeah, yeah. Okay, tell the guard that I agree to act as emperor until I find a suitable replacement, one whom they can accept as well. And while you're at it, tell them to fan out into the city and see what they can do to stop this wholesale rapine.”
“But our men will oppose them.”
“Send out word that the imperial guard has capitulated and sworn loyalty to me.”
“Yes, my lord.”
Gruesome bowed and took his leave just as Snowclaw walked out onto the terrace carrying a bloody battleaxe across his huge shoulders.
“Hi, Snowy. Had your fill of fighting yet?”
“There's no one left to fight.” Snowy let the axe clatter to the floor and sat on the balustrade. “Actually, I'm bushed.”
“It's been three weeks,” Gene said. “We've done a hell of a lot of fighting. I'm bushed myself. And I should get back to the Castle.”
“What for? You missed the wedding, didn't you?”
“Don't think so. I figure about two days have passed at the Castle since we left. If I get back to the portal by tomorrow, I just might make it. I have to leave now, though.”
“Up to you,” Snowclaw said.
“But there's a political crisis to deal with. A power vacuum.”
“I don't know about that stuff. But anytime you're ready to go, so am I.”
“No, I want you to stay here, as my lieutenant. I'll go back to the Castle, get married, and return immediately.”
“Yeah, but what do I do in the meantime?”
“Nothing. Just relay my orders, which I'll write down . . . Hell, no one can read. Never mind. Just listen to me and remember what I tell you.”
“Hey, wait a minute. You know I don't know anything about human affairs. I can't make any decisions.”
“It's easy, just remember my orders. Snowy, you're smarter than you think. In fact, sometimes I think you're trying to hide how smart you are. Don't think I've forgotten how many times you beat Linda and me at bridge.”
“Bridge is just a game.”
“If you can remember what cards have been played, you can remember my orders.”
Snowclaw sighed massively. “Oh, all right.”
“I want the looting and rape and killing stopped. You'll have to keep issuing orders on that, and see that they're carried out. The guard will back you up. There's some kind of city police force here. Try to round them up and enlist their support. See what you can do to get the water supply moving again. The city needs water. Once the fighting dies down and the looting stops, refugees might come back to the city, and among them will be the city managers to accomplish all this. Just let things take their natural course. The Empire might wither away, but the city of Orem is eternal, or so the legends say.”
Gene stood and looked out over the array of grand buildings again.
“Actually, it's a hopeless task. I think the whole kit and caboodle is doomed. But we've got to try to save it. I'll be back as soon as I can.”
“Okay, Gene. Say hi to Linda for me. I miss her.”
“I will. If she even speaks to me.”
Gene left the terrace.
Snowclaw looked down at the plaza below.
Growling, he pointed a clawed finger.
“Hey, you! Put that down and clear out of here! Yeah, you, you little weasel!”
a brilliant flash of lightning split the night sky. Raindrops beaded on the windows like glistening jewels; it had been threatening to rain in earnest all night but never really got around to it. Thunder rolled across the heath, and the wind kept the willows busy rattling their bare branches.
“Three murders,” Dalton said, shaking his head. “Three murders and not a lot of clues.”
“Or too many,” Thaxton said.
They sat in wing chairs by the window of their upstairs bedroom. There was one bed in the room, and although the covers were turned down, the bed remained unslept in.
“Too many suspects is what you have,” Dalton said. “And not enough unambiguous clues.”
“Or clear motives,” Thaxton said gloomily.
“Want to go over them again?”
Thaxton shook his head. “We keep going over the same ground. I must say, this one is a puzzler. Nothing like the Peele Castle murders.”
They were silent while another flash lit up the room and thunder shook the eaves.
Dalton had mused before asking, “Do you think Wicklow hanged Thayne-Chetwynde and then went to get his milk?”
“Rather cold-blooded, don't you think?”
Dalton shook his head. “His performance of being shocked was fairly convincing.”
“It isn't when you consider his acting background.”
“Eh? I missed that.”
“Motherwell told me while you were downstairs getting a drink. Wicklow is an amateur thespian and often talks about trying his luck as a professional.”
“Oh. Well, that doesn't mean much. Does it?”
Thaxton lifted his shoulders. “Perhaps. Perhaps not. As an isolated fact, it's rather neutral. He had no known motive for killing the man.”
The conversation lulled for more lightning displays.
“Appropriate atmosphere,” Dalton commented, looking out the window.
Thaxton was lost in thought.
“You know,” Dalton began, “it just could be thatâ”
He was interrupted by a shot coming from outside, followed by shouts.
Both men rose.
“We'd better see about that,” Thaxton said grimly.
“Do we have to?” Dalton pleaded.
His friend the amateur sleuth didn't answer as he rushed out of the room. Resigned to the workings of fate, Dalton followed.
Motherwell was at the opened front door, staring out into the rain. He turned at the approach of Dalton and Lord Peter.
“They've caught someone skulking,” he said. “One of the village men took a shot at him with a shotgun. Missed. They'll be bringing the culprit in shortly. Why don't you gentlemen wait in the conservatory?”
“Who'd be snooping about on a night like this?” Dalton asked Thaxton as they left the foyer.
“More suspects,” Thaxton said dourly. “Where is the conservatory, by the way?”
“Here, I think.” Dalton said, pushing aside one of a set of double sliding doors.
It was dark inside, and Dalton groped for a light switch. As he did, an oblong shaft of light appeared on the left wall and quickly disappeared with the sound of a door closing.
“Someone just went out the other way!” Thaxton said. “I'll try to catch her!”
“Her?” Dalton wondered, but found he was alone. He wandered blindly into the room and bumped up against something big. A dissonant chord rang out.
“Ouch, damn it. I wish people would watch where they put their damned grand pianos.”
He stumbled around the concert grand and walked cautiously out onto the bare floorâand promptly tripped over something. He went sprawling.
Just then the lights came on. Dalton looked up to see Motherwell standing at the light switch, which some idiot of an electrician, probably long ago, had installed well away from the double doors.
“What in the blazes is this?” Motherwell demanded.
“I have no idea,” Dalton answered, still on his knees. He stared at the dead body he had just stumbled over. The haft of an ornate dagger grew prettily out of its back.
“The Mahajadi!” Motherwell exclaimed. “And we have his murderer. Bring him in, Featherstone.”
Featherstone, along with a villager, escorted the handcuffed prisoner in. It was a small, dark, almost emaciated man wearing a turban or something similar. The rest of his garb was conventional and neat, if a trifle threadbare. Caked mud covered his shoes. He was soaking wet.
“What's your name?” Motherwell demanded of the prisoner.
“I am Shrinam Vespal.”
“Why did you kill the Mahajadi? Political reasons?”
“I did not kill him!”
“What were you doing lurking about the property of decent people, then?”
“I wanted to see the Mahajadi. I wanted to speak to him. I have been trying to gain an audience for a year but he would not grant me one.”
“Speak to him? About what?”
“About my brother, who is falsely accused and imprisoned in my home country, which the Mahajadi and his family rules.”
“So you killed him.”
“I swear to you I did not! I merely wanted to ask him to pardon my brother.”
“A likely story, but no matter. We'll get the truth out of you sooner or later.”
“Good Lord, another one!”
Thaxton entered the conservatory with a tall, long-haired woman in a nightgown in tow.
“What's the meaning of this, Lord Peter?” Motherwell asked.
“Of what?” Thaxton said, disbelieving eyes still on the body.
“Of dragging Miss Pembroke in here!”
“I have no idea myself,” Daphne Pembroke said. “I needed a glass of milkâmy nerves are a frightâ”
“Milk again!” Motherwell said, scowling.
“I'm sorry,” Miss Pembroke said haughtily. “Didn't know there was anything wrong with getting a glass of milk to calm one's nerves.”
“With killers running about? Really, Miss Pembroke, you'll have to do better than that. There's been another murder.”
Miss Pembroke looked at the body as though it were something unpleasant lying in the road. She sniffed. “Oh, dear.”
“Yes, quite. Know anything about it?”
“Heavens, no. As I saidâ”
“We heard the door slam when we came in,” Dalton interjected. “Someone was in here.”
“Yes, and I caught a glimpse of a woman rushing out,” Thaxton said. “Couldn't tell who it was, but the woman had long tresses and was wearing a nightgown.” Still holding Miss Pembroke by the arm, he looked her up and down. “This nightgown, in fact.”
“Really,” said Miss Pembroke. “I haven't the slightest idea what you're talking about.”
“Were you in here with the Mahajadi?” Motherwell asked her.
Miss Pembroke looked down her pert nose. “Certainly not. I would not meet with a man in the middle of the night.”