myself-but did not, I admit. We are even, then. I have no wish to serve you further. Hire Saram, here!'

Saram was startled out of his silence. 'I? Oh, no; I am no adventurer.'

The Forgotten King ignored Saram and said, 'Is there then nothing that you seek, Garth? Are you content with your lot?'

There was a moment of silence; Garth contemplated the shadowed face while Saram looked back and forth, and neither could see where the old man's gaze fell. Finally the overman admitted slowly, 'No, I am not content. I still seek what in truth I sought before; I want to know that I am not insignificant, not merely a meaningless mote in an uncaring cosmos. I sought eternal fame because it seemed to me that that was as close as I could come to making a real difference, and my nearest approach to immortality. I see little point in wealth or power or glory that will last only so long as I live. What, then, can you offer me? I no longer feel that the promise of undying fame will suffice to comfort me; can you offer more?'

'Under the proper circumstances I can give you whatever you want. If you fear death, I can promise you life to the end of time. If you seek to give your life a significance beyond the norm, then we are at one, for it is to work a fundamental change in the nature of our world that I seek your aid.'

There was another moment of silence; then Garth asked, 'What is this change you seek? You speak around your purpose. When I served you before you had me fetch you the basilisk and would not say why you wanted it; was it for this same mysterious goal?'

'My goal is unchanged.' The harsh monotone of the old man's voice was likewise unchanged, but his head sank slightly, deepening the shadows that hid his face.

Garth sat back, considering. He had concluded, after much thought, that the Forgotten King's use for the basilisk-a use for which it had proven inadequate-included the old man's own death. He had no idea why the ancient would want to die; had he perhaps wearied of his long life? Nor had he any idea why a single old man should have difficulty in dying should he choose to do so, yet it was indisputable that he had survived whatever he had done with the basilisk. Perhaps, Garth thought, he had somehow misinterpreted previous events, for how could one lonely old man's suicide have cosmic repercussions?

That assumed, of course, that the old man spoke the truth. It was possible that he was indeed under some sort of curse of immortality which he hoped to break with Garth's aid-and dead men are under no obligation to fulfill their promises, so that he would offer whatever the overman wanted, knowing that he would never have to pay.

Then again, it was possible that the old man-who was very probably a wizard of some sort-really was attempting some world-shaking magic. That did not mean that his purposes were anything Garth sympathized with.

'What is this goal? Why will you not tell me? It could be some monstrous evil, some affront against nature and the gods.'

'I seek only to fulfill that purpose the gods have given me, Garth; I swear this to be true.'

'You still do not say what it is.'

'Nor will I.'

'And yet you ask me to serve you in this, without knowing?'

The old man said nothing, but nodded very slightly, once.

'I must consider this carefully. I will speak with you again when I have decided.' Garth rose and strode from the table; Saram stirred, but reseated himself, and when the overman had left the tavern and the door had closed behind him, he turned back to the Forgotten King.

'It seems you offer a bargain only a fool would accept, full of vague terms and mysteries.'

The Forgotten King said nothing, but Saram detected a faint shrug of his sagging shoulders.


As Garth rounded the last corner and came in sight of the marketplace, he saw Galt standing talking to someone. His fellow overman towered over the surrounding crowd, readily distinguishable, but at first Garth could not see who it was he was speaking with; then, as he began threading his way into the throng, he caught the glint of sunlight on a steel helmet and realized that Herrenmer had returned, presumably bearing the Baron's decision. He hastened his pace; the villagers, awed by his size and terrified by his face, parted before him, so that a brief moment later he was at Galt's side.

'Ah, Garth, it would seem that the local government wishes to speak with you and you alone. I offered myself as your representative, but was refused.' Galt spoke smoothly and quickly, in a light tone, but Garth recognized a note of tension in his voice and saw that Herrenmer's hand was on his sword hilt. Behind their captain stood a full dozen guardsmen and, though no weapons were actually drawn, it was plain that a confrontation had been brewing.

'Oh? I apologize for my absence, Captain Herrenmer, but one of your townsmen wished to speak with me in private.'

'The Baron also wishes to speak with you, overman; immediately.' The man's voice shook slightly.

'I will oblige him momentarily. Larth, I leave you in charge. Galt, you come with me, in case we need to discuss business.' The other overmen nodded; Garth took a step toward the mansion, but was halted by Herrenmer's hand raised in restraint.

'Wait a minute; I was told to bring you, not this other monster.'

'But Galt is the business manager for our party. Should we need to discuss exact terms I will want his advice.'

'If it will ease your mind, Captain, I will promise not to speak unless spoken to.' Galt's voice was honeysmooth.

Herrenmer looked from one hideous face to the other, from Garth's crimson eyes to Galt's golden ones, and at last shrugged and led the way across the square.

The Baron's audience chamber was much as Garth remembered it, a fairly spacious room hung with old tapestries, with three small windows high in the northern wall behind the Baron's seat providing the only light. The Baron's seat was a simple oaken chair, and the Baron himself sat slouching in it, a small, slender man wearing a richly embroidered scarlet robe, with a circlet of gold on his brow. He fingered his thin black beard for a moment, then spoke.

'So it's true; you have returned.'

This being self-evident, no reply seemed necessary, but Garth did not care to antagonize the Baron further with insolent silence; he replied simply, 'Yes.'

'I had not thought you would have had the gall to do so, despite your boast to that scum Saram, yet here you are. You have even brought others of your filthy race.'

'We have come on a peaceful trading mission.'

'So I am told. Are you aware that you are under sentence of death here, on charges of trespass, espionage, and crimes against the state? And that all your stinking species are enemy aliens?'

'I was aware that you were not eager to have us here. I hope to convince you that it would be to your advantage to welcome us.'

'And how do you plan to do that?'

'In two stages: firstly, I will convince you that a regular trade between Skelleth and the Northern Waste will be very much in your own interests; and secondly, that killing me or otherwise thwarting me would make that trade impossible.'

'Very well, then, I will listen. Why should I allow you monsters to trade on my lands?'

'Because we have much gold, from hidden mines in the northern mountains, with which to pay for what we want. Surely, much of this gold will find its way to you, in the form of taxes and tariffs. You told me once that you were not happy with your inheritance and hoped to improve your lot by war and plunder; would it not be equally satisfying to make yourself rich by peaceful means? Or even if it is the blood and glory of war you seek, will not our gold help to finance such an ambition? The terms of our former agreement, which you apparently feel I violated but which I feel I merely interpreted differently from yourself, included a statement that all overmen crossing your lands would pay what tribute you might rightfully demand; we will honor that, so long as such tribute

Вы читаете The Seven Altars of Dusarra
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