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Douglas Niles

Emperor of Ansalon

Prologue

The great bazaar of Khuri-Khan remained as Ariakas had remembered it, a dense throng of humans and kender mingling with more occasional elves and even a rare minotaur or domesticated ogre. A maelstrom of noise surrounded him: persuasive, singsong arguments of merchants, loud cries of outrage from overcharged cus shy;tomers, background cacophonies from minstrels and flutists, even sporadic clangs of daggers against shields or gauntlets. Each sound added to the unique and ener shy;getic character of the grand marketplace.

The warrior strode among the teeming crowds, and those in his path intuitively stepped aside to give pas shy;sage. Perhaps it was his height that inspired fear-for he stood a handspan taller than most other men-or his bearing, which was erect and apparently imperturbable. Broad shoulders supported his solid neck, and his head rose like a lion's, his dark eyes studying the crowd from beneath a mane of long, windblown hair.

Ariakas paused a moment at the central fountain, where water arced upward and then spattered across a sun-drenched basin of mosaic. He hadn't visited the shop of Habbar-Akuk for many years, but he was certain he could still find the place.

There, to the left of the fountain, he recognized the nar shy;row alley. A colorful stall, draped in bright fabrics gath shy;ered from across Ansalon, marked the alley entrance. Countless varieties of incense fogged the air around the canopy, triggering an olfactory memory that could not be mistaken. Beyond the scent-merchant, he saw a corral where short-legged mountain ponies were bought and sold, and he knew for certain he was in the right place.

He found the unpretentious facade of Habbar-Akuk's shop against the wall at the back of the alley. It was hard to imagine from the weather-beaten planks and the worn string-beads hanging across the entrance that this was the establishment of the wealthiest moneylender in all Khur. Perhaps, Ariakas thought with a tight smile, that's why Habbar has remained in business for so long.

Parting the colorful beads, Ariakas ducked his head in order to pass through the low doorway. The tall warrior remembered that in the past he'd always felt claustro shy;phobic in these chambers, but perhaps that, too, was part of Habbar-Akuk's success. In any event, he knew that on this visit he wouldn't be staying long.

'High-Captain Ariakas! This is indeed a pleasure!' Habbar-Akuk himself, bowing deeply, emerged from behind his small desk to take the warrior's hand.

'Ah, you old crook,' Ariakas replied, with affection. 'All you see is my money walking through the door!'

'My lord, you do me injustice!' protested the plump moneychanger, his pointed beard quivering in indigna shy;tion. 'I extend to you a welcome, a welcome most warm — and yet you wound me with your tongue!'

'Not so badly as I wounded the bandits that used to plague your southbound wagons,' Ariakas noted, amused at the merchant's protestations.

'Ah, so you did. Never did I have a guard captain so capable, so diligent in his duties! I should never have let the warlords hire you away.'

'Don't waste your regrets,' Ariakas replied. 'There was too much money to be made in the ogre campaigns — even if they were doomed from the start.'

'Ah, ogres!' Habbar-Akuk made a great show of spit shy;ting into one corner of his office-a corner that had seen a great deal of expectoration in its time. 'Even if Bloten still stands, your men gave the brutes an accounting they won't soon forget!

'In fact,' continued the merchant, his eyes narrowing, 'I had heard that the warlords intend to mount another expedition. I should think you'd be their first choice for command.' His eyes asked the question for which his words were too discreet.

'Of course they want me-they're no fools,' Ariakas noted without bragging. 'I'm the only reason even a few of us returned from the last invasion.'

Habbar-Akuk remained silent, knowing that he would receive further information. His instincts proved correct.

'I was promised full command of the invasion. They reminded me that it was ogres who killed my father-as if I could forget! But that reason only worked so long as Red Tusk was alive-naturally, that was a score that could not remain unavenged. Now that slate is clean- the killer of my father is dead by my own hand.'

'Well said,' murmured the moneychanger. 'A man who does not pursue revenge is no man at all.'

'Still, the warlords tried to kindle the old blood-lust, sure that I'd leap at the chance to continue these campaigns. And once, of course, I would have done so.

'But I tell you, good Habbar,' continued the warrior, 'I have no stomach to make war for fighting's sake. I've done too much of that, and where has it got me? Lucky to be alive, I'd say. And so I told the warlords as well.'

The moneychanger nodded sagely, his eyes narrow shy;ing.

'They offered me more money, then,' said Ariakas. 'Enough to make me rich beyond my dreams. But I asked myself, what good is money to a man who lies in the dust, his skull crushed by an ogre club?'

'Say not-surely no such fate awaited the great Duul-ket Ariakas!'

'Such a fate awaits every man who invades Bloten, sooner or later,' replied the mercenary captain. 'These continuing campaigns are madness! It will take nothing less than a full-scale army to bring the ogre nation to its knees, and the warlords have no wish to spend that kind of money-even if there were such an army to be hired. I decided that I will remove myself from the risk.'

'And I may play a small role to help?' Now Habbar-Akuk allowed his eyes to drift to the obviously heavy saddlebags the warrior carried over his shoulder.

'I have decided to try my fortunes across the moun shy;tains, in Sanction,' Ariakas explained.

Habbar-Akuk nodded thoughtfully, as though the arduous mountain crossing were a thing attempted every day. 'There are perils enough in the Khalkists, wherever you go. The savages of Zhakar block passage to the east, while the fortress of the bandit lord Oberon stands to the north of Bloten. Why to Sanction?'

'I have heard there are comforts there for a man who has money. That a gold piece from Khur can buy its equal in pure steel from the merchants of Sanction.'

'Of course… and, too, you will be a man with money?' inquired Habbar-Akuk with a guileless look of curiosity.

Smiling tightly, Ariakas heaved the two satchels onto the heavy counter. Despite its sturdy construction, the platform shuddered under the weight of clinking metal, and Habbar-Akuk's eyes sharpened in avaricious appraisal.

'It would seem that the warlords have already paid you well for your services,' the merchant allowed with a pleased nod.

'Five years of my life should be worth something,' Ariakas snapped. 'Now, what I want is this: to convert these coins into valuables I can carry comfortably in my pack, something I can take on a long journey.'

'Naturally,' Habbar murmured. He touched the satchels. 'Steel pieces, of course.'

'For the most part, though there's gold and platinum too. Tell me, do you have something suitable?'

'These matters cannot be hurried,' explained the moneychanger, opening each of the saddlebags and allowing his pudgy fingers to run through the metal coins. 'Still, I think that I shall be able to accommodate you.'

'I suspected as much. A fat diamond, perhaps-or a string of pearls?'

Habbar-Akuk held up his hands in mock horror. 'Please, my lord. Nothing so mundane for one such as yourself! An occasion like this calls for a unique treasure, a thing suitable for yourself alone!'

'What's the matter with gemstones?' demanded Aria shy;kas. 'I don't want you loading me down with some statue, or a supposedly enchanted mirror that'll break the first time I take a rough fall!'

'No, no-nothing of the sort,' disputed the merchant. 'But, it's true, I have just the thing for you.'

The pudgy merchant disappeared into his tiny back room and was gone for several minutes. Ariakas sus shy;pected that Habbar had a secret trapdoor connecting to underground treasuries, but he had never tried to find

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