Shadowplay Chapter 8: The Unremarkable Man

While writing Shadowplay, Tad shared the occasional excerpt of his work-in-progress with members of the message board (aka “Smarchers”). This is from one of those postings, with Tad’s comments as preface. -LT

I realized I promised another chapter of SHADOWPLAY. My bad! Herewith repaired, I hope. Be aware, of course, that this is still a first draft, as I haven’t really begun rewrites. Be aware, too, that it’s lost all my italics and I can’t be arsed to go back and find them all and put them in again…

(This chapter will also go in the American paperback of Shadowmarch, I think, as a teaser, so it’s only a temporary exclusive to the board.)

At times like this, when Pinimmon Vash had to look directly into his master’s pale, awful eyes, it was hard to remember that Autarch Sulepis had to be at least partly human.

“It will be done, Golden One,” Vash assured him, praying silently to be dismissed and released. Sometimes just being near his young ruler made him feel queasy. “Just as you say.”

“Swiftly, old man. She has tried to escape me.” The autarch’s gaze slid upward, until he seemed to be staring intently at something invisible to anyone else. “Besides, the gods…the gods are restless to be born.”

Confused by this strange remark, Vash hesitated. Was it something that needed to be understood and answered, or was he at last free to scurry away on his errand? Although he might be the paramount minister of Xis, the old man reflected with some bitterness, and thus in theory more powerful than most kings, he had no more real authority than a child. Still, being a minister who must jump to serve the autarch’s every whim was much better than being a former minister: the vulture shrines on the Orchard Palace’s roofs were piled high with the bones of former ministers. “Yes, the gods, of course,” Vash said at last, with no idea of what he was agreeing to. “The gods must be born, it goes without…”

“Then let it be done now. Or heaven itself will weep.” Despite his harsh words, Sulepis began to laugh in a most inappropriate way.

Even as Vash hurried so swiftly from the bath chamber that he almost tripped over his own intricately decorated silk robes, he found himself hoping that one of the eunuchs shaving the autarch’s long, oiled limbs had accidentally tickled him. It would be disturbing to think the man with life-and-death power over oneself and virtually every other human being on the continent had just giggled like a madman for no reason.

Partly human, Vash reminded himself. He must be at least partly human. Even if the autarch’s father Parnad had also been a living god, the autarch’s mother must surely have been a mortal woman, since she had come to the Seclusion as the gift of a foreign king. But whatever the godlike (although now fairly inarguably dead) Parnad’s heritage, few mortal traits had made their way down to the son. The new autarch was as bright-eyed, remorseless, and inscrutable as his family’s heraldic falcon. Sulepis was also full of inexplicable, seemingly mad ideas, as proved by this latest strange whim — the errand on which Vash was now bustling toward the guard barracks.

As he left the guarded fastness of the Quince Court and hurried through the cavernous ministerial audience chamber at the heart of the Pomegranate Court lesser folk scattered from his path like pigeons, as frightened of his anger as he was terrified of the autarch’s. Pinimmon Vash reminded himself he should conduct a full sacrifice to Nushash and the other gods soon. After all, he was a very fortunate man – not just to have risen so high in the world, but also to have survived so many years of the father’s autarchy and this first year of the son’s: at least nine of Parnad’s other high ministers had been put to death just in the short twelve months or so of Sulepis’ reign. In fact, should he need an example of how lucky he was compared to some, Vash only had to think about the man he was going to see, Hijam Marukh, the new captain of the Leopard guards – or more to the point, think about Marukh’s predecessor, Jeddin.

Even Pinimmon Vash, no stranger to torture and execution, had been disturbed by the agonies visited upon the former Leopard captain. The autarch had ordered the entertainment conducted in the famous Lepthian library, so he could read while keeping an eye on the proceedings. Vash had watched with well-hidden terror as the living god danced his gold finger-stalls in the air in rhythm with the shrieks, as though enjoying a charming performance. Many nights Vash still saw the terrible sights in his dreams, and the memory of the captain’s agonized screaming haunted his waking mind as well. Near the end of Jeddin’s suffering, Sulepis had even called for real musicians to play a careful, improvised accompaniment to the man’s horrendous cries. At points, Sulepis had even sung along.

Vash had seen almost everything in his more than twenty years of service, but he had never seen anything like the young autarch.

How could an ordinary man know whether or not a god was mad?


“This makes no sense,” said Hijam,

“You are foolish to say so,” Vash hissed at him.

The officer known as “Stoneheart” allowed only a lifted eyebrow to animate his otherwise inexpressive face, but Vash could see that Hijam had realized his error – the kind that in Xis could swiftly prove fatal. Recently promoted to kiliarch, or captain, the squat, heavily muscled new master of the Leopards had survived countless major battles and deadly skirmishes, but he was not used to the dangers of the Xixian court, where it was to be assumed that every word would be overheard by someone and that one of those listeners either wanted or needed you dead. Hijam might have been cut, stabbed, and scorched so many times that his dark skin was covered in white stripes like a camp mongrel’s, might have earned his famous nickname by passing unmoved through the worst carnage of war, but this was not the battlefield. This was the Orchard Palace, where no man’s death came at in him from the front, or in plain sight.

“Of course,” Hijam Stoneheart said now, slowly and clearly as if for the benefit of other ears, “the Golden One must have his contest if he wills it so. But I am just a soldier and I don’t understand such things. Explain to me, Vash. What good is there in having my men fight with each other? Already several are wounded and will need weeks of healing.”

Vash took a breath. Nobody was obviously eavesdropping, but that meant nothing. “First of all, the Golden One is wiser than we are, so perhaps we are not clever enough to understand his reasons. All we can know is that they must be good. Secondly, though, I must point out to you that it isn’t your men, the Leopards, who are fighting for the honor of the autarch’s special mission, Hijam. It is the White Hounds, and although they are valuable fighters, they are only barbarians.”

Vash had no more idea than the captain of why Sulepis had demanded a contest of strength among his famous troop of White Hounds, foreign mercenaries whose fathers and grandfathers had come to Xand from the northern continent, but as Vash knew better than almost anyone, sometimes gods-on-earth just did things like that. When the autarch had woken from a prophetic dream one morning in the first weeks of his rule and ordered the destruction of all the wild cranes in the land of Xis, it had been Paramount Minister Vash who had called the lower ministers to the Pomegranate Court to pass on the order, and hundreds of thousands of the birds had been killed. When the autarch declared that every axhead shark in the city’s saltwater canals should be caught and dispatched, the streets of the capital stank with rotting sharkflesh for months afterward.

Vash forced his attention back to the combat. The abruptness of the autarch’s demand had forced them to improvise this arena here in an unused audience chamber in the Tamarind Court, since the autarch’s miners and cannoneers were all over the parade field and could not move their equipment on such sudden notice, even at threat of their lives – some of the artillery pieces weighed tons. Two sweaty men were struggling in the makeshift ring. One was big by any ordinary standard, and muscled like a bullock, but his yellow-bearded opponent was a true giant of a man, a head taller, shoulders wide as the bed of an ox-cart. This fair-haired monster clearly had the upper hand and even seemed to be toying with his adversary.

“Why is it taking so long?” Vash complained. “You said that this Yaridoras was by far the strongest of the White Hounds. Why does he not defeat his opponent? The autarch is waiting.”

“Yaridoras will win.” Hijam Stoneheart laughed sharply. “Trust me, he is a fearsome brute. Ah, look.” Yellow-bearded Yaridoras had just raised the other man over his head. The huge man held his opponent there just long enough for everyone to appreciate the glory of the moment, then flung him down onto the stony floor. The loser lay, senseless and bloody, as Yaridoras raised his arms above his head in triumph. The other White Hounds hooted in appreciation.

“Is that it?” Vash ached from standing, and wanted only to lower himself into a hot bath, to be tended by his young boy and girl servants. He wished he had not been too proud to accept the kiliarch’s offer of a chair. “Is it over? Can we finish with this?”

“There is one more man,” Hijam said, “a fellow named Daikonas Vo. I am told he is the best swordsman in the White Hounds.”

“But the autarch ordererd them to prove themselves in barehanded combat!” Vash shook his head in irritation, surveying the dozens of assembled Perikalese soldiers, perhaps four or five dozen in all. None of them looked big enough to give Yaridoras a contest. “Which one is he?”

For answer, Hijam stood and shouted, “Now the last challenger – step forth, Vo.”

The man who rose was so unremarkable that, discounting his Perikalese heritage, the telltale fair hair and skin that marked him as a foreigner, any man of Xis might have passed him on the street without a second look. He was wiry but slightly built, and his head barely reached the chest of brawny Yaridoras .

“That one?” Vash snorted. “The big yellow-haired one will snap his back like a twig.’

“Likely.” Hijam turned and bellowed, “You two may bring no weapons into the sacred space. So has our master Sulepis, the god-on-earth, the Great Tent, the Golden One, declared. You will fight until one of you can get up no longer. Are you ready?”

“Yes — and thirsty!” bellowed Yaridoras , making his fellow mercenaries laugh. “Let’s get this over with so I can have my beer.” The thin soldier, Daikonas Vo, only nodded.

“Very well,” said the captain. “Begin.”

At first, the smaller man put up a surprisingly good defense, moving with serpentine fluidity to stay out of Yaridoras’ powerful grasp, once even hooking his foot behind the big man’s heel and throwing him backward to the tile floor, which earned a percussive shout of surprised laughter from the other White Hounds, but the giant was up quickly, smiling in a way that suggested he himself was not very amused. After that, Yaridoras was more careful, and Vo began to find it increasingly difficult to stay out of his hands. Vo did not give in easily, and several times he landed swift blows whose power was clearly greater than his size would have suggested, one of them opening a cut above Yaridoras’ eye so that blood ran down one side of his face and into his beard. However inevitable the outcome seemed, the bigger man was clearly not enjoying the delay, and in the course of trying to get a finishing hold on his opponent, left several long, bleeding weals across the little man’s face and arms. The shouts and rowdy suggestions that had filled the room at the beginning of the bout began to die down, replaced by a murmuring unease as the match slowly took on the characteristics of something more desperate.

The big man lunged. Vo ducked under the groping arms and put a knee into his opponent’s belly, so that Yaridoras’ surprised gasp sent red froth flying, but the big man’s knob-knuckled man lashed out and caught Vo retreating, smashing him to the floor with an impact like a slaughterer’s hammer. Yaridoras threw himself on top of Vo before the little man had recovered his wits, and for a moment it was as though the smaller soldier had been swallowed whole.

It’s over now, thought Vash. But he fought a surprisingly good fight. The paramount minister was more than a little surprised. He had always thought of the Perikalese foreigners as benefiting mostly from their size and barbaric savagery. It was strange, even disturbing, to see one who could think and plan.

For a moment as they grappled on the floor, Yaridoras caught the smaller man’s head between his legs. He began to squeeze, and Daikonas Vo’s face darkened to a bruised red before he managed to elbow his opponent in the crotch and wriggle free. He was injured and tired, though, and he did not get far: Yaridoras caught him again, this time with a massive arm around his throat. The giant rolled his body over on top of his opponent’s, then began trying to sweep away the bracing arms and legs that were all that were keeping Vo from being pressed belly-first onto the floor. The big man grinned ferociously through the sweat and blood, while Vo showed his own teeth in a grimace as he struggled to get air.

“He’ll kill him,” Vash said, fascinated.

“No, he’ll just choke him until he gives in,” said Captain Hijam. “Yaridoras won’t kill anyone needlessly, especially another White Hound. He is a veteran of such matches.”

Daikonas Vo’s purpling face was sinking closer and closer to the floor, his elbows bowing outward as the bigger man’s weight overcame him. To Pinimmon Vash’s astonishment, Vo deliberately took one hand off the tiles and, just before he was driven to the ground, brought his elbow down so hard against the floor that a noise loud as a musket-shot echoed through the room. A moment later the two of them collapsed in a writhing, grunting heap, and for a moment it was hard to make sense of the tangle of limbs. Then the two bodies lay still.

Face and upper body shiny with blood, Daikonas Vo at last pulled himself out from under Yaridoras , rolling the giant aside so that the shard of stone floor tile sticking in the yellow-bearded man’s throat rose into view like a sacred object being lifted above a parade of believers. The audience of White Hounds gasped and cursed in shock, then a roar of anger rose from them and several of them moved toward the exhausted, bloody Vo with murderous intent.

“Stop!” cried Panimmon Vash, and as they realized that it was the autarch’s chief minister speaking, the White Hounds halted and fell into surly, murmuring attention. “Do not harm that man.”

“But he killed Yaridoras!” growled Hijam. “The autarch’s law was that no weapons could be used!”

“The autarch said that no weapons could be brought into the arena, Kiliarch. This man did not bring a weapon, he made one. Clean him up and bring him to the Chamber of the New Sun.”

“The Hounds will be angry. Yaridoras was popular…”

“Ask them to consider whether keeping their heads will be compensation enough. Otherwise, I’m sure their autarch will be happy make other arrangements.”

Vash shook his robe free of wrinkles and passed from the room.


The Golden One was reclining on the ceremonial stone bed in the Chamber of the New Sun, naked except for a short kilt decorated with jade tiles. On each side of him a kneeling priest was binding the cuts in his arms, delicate wounds made only moments earlier by sacred golden shell-knives. The small quantity of royal blood, enough to fill two tiny golden bowls which at the moment were on a tray held by the high priest Panhyssir, would be poured into the Sublime Canal just after sunset to assure the sun’s return from this, it’s farthest yearly distance from its bride the earth.

Sulepis turned lazily as the soldier Daikonas Vo was led in. The man of Perikal had been wiped clean of blood, but his face and neck were still crisscrossed with raw, scraped flesh.

“I am told you killed a valuable member of my White Hounds,” the autarch said, stretching his arms to test the fit of the bandages. Already tiny blooms of red could be seen through the linen.

“We fought, Master.” Vo shrugged, his gray-green eyes as empty as two spheres of glass. There was nothing notable about him, Vash thought. He had forgotten the man’s face in the short time since he had last seen him, and would forget it again as soon as the man was gone. “At your request, as I understand it. I won.”

“He cheated,” said the captain of the Leopards angrily. “He broke a floor tile and used it to stab Yaridoras to death.”

“Thank you, Kiliarch,” said Vash. “You have delivered him and nothing more is required of you. The Golden One will decide what to do with him.”

Suddenly conscious that he was drawing attention to himself in a place, and in front of a ruler, where attention was seldom beneficial, Hijam Stoneheart paled a little, then bowed and backed out of the chamber.

“Sit,” said the autarch, surveying the pale-skinned soldier. “Panhyssir, bring us something to drink.”

A strange honor, to be served by the high priest of Nushash himself, thought Pinimmon Vash. Panhyssir was his chief rival for the autarch’s time and attention, but it was a contest Vash had lost long ago: the priest and the autarch were thick as thieves and always full of secrets, which made it seem all the more odd that the powerful Panhyssir should be serving drinks like a mere slave.

As the high priest of Nushash moved with careful dignity toward a hidden alcove at the side of the great chamber, one of the autarch’s eunuch servants scuttled up with a stool and placed it so that Daikonas Vo could seat himself within a few yards of the living god. The soldier did, moving gingerly, as though his wounds from the combat with Yaridoras were inhibiting him. Vash guessed that they must be painful indeed: the man did not seem the type to show weakness easily.

Panhyssir returned with two goblets, and after bowing and presenting one to his monarch, gave the other to Vo, whose hesitation before drinking was so brief that Vash could have almost believed he had imagined it.

“Daikonas Vo, I am told your mother was a Perikalese whore,” said the autarch cheerfully. “One of those bought and brought back from the northern continent to serve my troop of White Hounds. Your father was one of the original Hounds – dead, now. Killed in at Dagardar, I’m told.”

“Yes, Golden One.”

“But not before he killed your mother. You have the look of your people, of course, but how well do you speak the language of your ancestors?”

“Perikalese?” Vo’s nondescript face betrayed no surprise. “My mother taught it to me. Before she died it was all we spoke.”

“Good.” The autarch sat back, making a shape like a minaret with his fingers. “And you are resourceful – and ruthless as well. Yaridoras is not the first man you have killed.”

“I am a soldier, Golden One.”

“I do not speak of killings on the battlefield. Vash, you may read.”

Vash held up a leather-bound account book which had been brought to him by the library slave only a short while before, then traced down a page with his finger until he found what he sought. “Disciplinary records of the White Leopards for this year. ‘By the verified report of two slaves, Daikonas Vo is known to have been responsible for the deaths of at least three men and one woman’,” Vash read. “’All were Xixians of low caste and the killings attracted little public attention so no punishment was required.’ That is just the report for this year, which is not yet over. Do you wish me to read from earlier years, Golden One?”

The autarch shook his head. A look of amusement crossed his long face as he turned back to the impassive soldier. “You are wondering why I should care about such things, and whether you are to be punished at last. Is that not true?”

“In part, Master,” said Vo. “It is certainly strange that the living god who rules us all should care about someone as unimportant as myself. But as to punishment, I do not fear it at the moment.”

“You don’t?” The autarch’s smile tightened. “And why is that?”

“Because you are speaking to me. If you only wished to punish me, Golden One, I suspect you would have done so without wasting the fruits of your divine thought on someone as lowly as myself. Everybody knows that the living god’s judgements are swift and sure.”

Some of the tension went out of the autarch’s long neck, replaced by a certain stillness, like a snake sunning itself on a rock. “Yes, they are. Swift and sure. And your reasoning is flawed but adequate – I would not waste my time on you if I did not require something of you.”

“Whatever you wish, Master.” The soldier’s voice remained flat and emotionless.

The autarch finished his wine and gestured to indicate that Daikonas Vo should do the same. “As you have no doubt heard, I am no longer content merely to receive tribute from the nations of the northern continent. The time is coming soon when I will take the ancient seaport of Hierosol and begin to expand our empire into Eion, bringing those savages into the bright, holy light of Nushash.”

“So it has been rumored, Master,” Vo said slowly. “We all pray for the day to come soon.”

“It will. But first, I have lost something that I want back, and it is to be found somewhere in that northern wilderness – the land of your forefathers.”

“And you wish me to…get this thing, Master?”

“I do. It will require cunning and discretion, you see, and it will be easier for a white-skinned man who can speak one of the languages of Eion to travel there, seeking this small thing which I desire.”

“And may I ask what that thing is, Golden One?”

“A girl. The daughter of an unimportant priest. Still, I chose her for the Seclusion and she had the dreadful manners to run away.” The autarch laughed, a quiet growl that might have come from a cat about to unsheathe its claws. “Her name is…what was it? Ah, yes — Qinnitan. You will bring her back to me.”

“Of course, Master.” The soldier’s expression became even more still.

“You are thinking again, Vo. That is good. I chose you because I need a man who can think and plan. This woman is somewhere in the lands of our enemies, and if someone learns I want her, she may become the object of a contest. I do not want that.” The autarch sat back and waved his hand. This time it was only an ordinary servant who scurried forward to refill his goblet. “But what you are wondering is this — Why should the autarch let me go free in the lands of my ancestors? Even if I sincerely try to fulfill his quest, if I fail there is no punishment he can visit on me unless I return to Xis. No, do not bother to deny it. It is what anyone would think.” The young autarch turned to one of his child servants, a silent Favored. “Bring me my cousin Febis. He should be in his apartments.”

As they waited, the autarch had the servant refill Vo’s cup. Panimmon Vash, who had some inkling of what was to come, was glad he was not drinking the strong, sour Mihanni wine, so unsettling to the stomach.

Febis, a chubby, balding man with the reddened cheeks of an inveterate drinker made even more obvious by the pallor of fear, hurried into the chamber and threw himself on his hands and knees in front of the autarch, bumping his forehead against the stone.

“Golden One, surely I have done nothing wrong! Surely I have not offended you! You are the light of all our lives!”

The autarch smiled. Vash never ceased to marvel at how the same expression that would bring joy if it were on the face of a young child or a pretty woman could, just by transferring it to the autarch’s smoothly youthful, bony features, suddenly become a thing to inspire terror. “No, Febis, you have done nothing wrong. I called you here only because I wish to demonstrate something.” He turned to the soldier Tykon. “You see, I had a similar problem with those of my relations, like Cousin Febis, that remained after my father and brothers had died – after I, by the grace of Nushash, had become autarch. How could I be certain that some of these family members might not ponder whether, as the succession bypassed several of my brothers upon their deaths and came to me, it might not continue on to Febis or one of the other cousins after my untimely death? Of course, I could have simply killed them all when I took the crown. It would only have been a few hundred. I could have done that, couldn’t I, Febis?”

“Yes, yes, Golden One. But you were merciful, may heaven bless you.”

“I was merciful, it’s true. Instead, what I did was induce each of them to swallow a certain…creature. A tiny beast, at least in its infant form, which had long been thought lost to our modern knowledge. But I found it!” He smirked. “And you did swallow it, didn’t you, Febis?”

“So I was told, Golden One.” The autarch’s cousin was sweating now despite the warmth of the Chamber of the New Sun, great droplets the size of pearls that dangled from his chin and nose before splashing to the floor. “It was too small for me to see.”

“Ah, yes,” said the autarch, and laughed again, this time with all the pleasure of a young child. “You see, the creature is so small at first that the naked eye cannot see it, and it can be swallowed in a glass of wine without the recipient even knowing.” He turned to Daikonas Vo. “As you received it when you first drank.”

Vo put down his goblet. “Ah,” he said.

“As to what it does, it grows. Not hugely, mind you, but enough that when it lodges at last in the body of its host, it cannot be dislodged no matter what. But that does not matter, because the host will never be aware of it. Unless I wish it to be so.” The autarch nodded. “Yes, let us say, for the sake of argument, that its host fails to carry out a task I have given him in the specified time, or in some other way incurs my anger…” He turned to burly, sweating Febis. “As, for instance, telling his wife that his master the autarch is mad and will not live long…”

“Did she say that?” shrieked Febis. “The whore! She lies!”

“Whatever the crime,” the autarch went on evenly, “and no matter how far away its perpetrator, when I know of it, things will begin to happen.” He gestured. “Panhyssir, call for the the xol-priest.”

Febis shrieked again, a bleat of despair so shrill it made Pinimmon Vash’s toes curl. “No! You must know I would never say such a thing, Golden One!” Febis began to scramble toward the stone bed, and two burly Leopard guards stepped forward and restrained him, using no little force. His cries lost their words, became a sobbing moan.

The xol-priest came in a few moments later, a thin, dark, knife-nosed man with the look of the southern deserts about him. He bowed to the autarch and then sat cross-legged on the floor, opening a flat wooden box as though preparing to play a game of shanat. He spread a flat piece of fabric like a tiny blanket, then took several grayish shapes which might have been lumps of lead out of the box and arranged them with exacting care. When he had finished, he looked up at the autarch, who nodded.

The man’s spidery fingers picked up and moved two of the gray shapes and Febis, who had been twitching and sobbing obliviously in the grip of the guards, suddenly went rigid. They let him go; he tumbled to the floor like a stone. Another movement of the shapes on the little carpet and Febis began to writhe and gasp for breath, his arms and legs thrashing like a man about to sink beneath the water and drown. One more and he suddenly vomited up a terrible quantity of blood, then lay still in the spreading red puddle, eyes wide with horror. The xol-priest boxed up his gray shapes, bowed, and went out.

“Of course, the pain can be made to last much longer before the end comes,” the autarch said. “Much longer. Once the creature is awakened it can be restrained for days before it begins to feed in earnest, and each hour is an eternity. But I made Febis’ end swift out of respect for his mother, who was my own father’s sister. It is a shame he should have wasted that precious blood so.” Sulepis looked a moment longer at the gleaming pool, then nodded, allowing the servants to rush forward and begin the removal of both blood and Febis’ body. The autarch then turned to Daikonas Vo.

“Distance is no object, by the way. Should Febis have gone to Zan-Kartuum, or even the northern wastes of Eion, still I could have struck him down. I trust the lesson is not lost on you, Vo. Go now. You will be a hound no longer, but my hunting falcon – the autarch’s falcon. You could ask for no higher honor.”

“No, Golden One.”

“You will learn all else you need to know from Paramount Minister Vash.” Sulepis started to turn away, but the soldier still had not moved. The autarch’s eyes narrowed. “What is it? If you succeed, you will be rewarded, of course. I am as good to my faithful servants as I am stern with those who are less so.”

“I do not doubt it, Golden One. I only wondered if such a…creature…had been introduced to the girl, Qinnitan, and if so why you would not use such a certain method to bring her back to Great Xis.”

“Whether such a thing has been done to her or not,” the autarch said, “is beside the point. It is a clumsy and dangerous method if you wish your subject to survive. I wish the girl returned alive and well – do you understand? I still have plans for her. Now go. You sail for Hierosol tonight. I want her in by hands by the time Midsummer’s Day arrives, or you will be the most sorrowful of men. For a little while.” The autarch stared. “Yet another question? I am minded to wake the xol-beast now and find someone less annoying.”

“Please, I live to serve you, Golden One. I only wish to ask permission to wait until tomorrow to set out.”

“Why? I have seen your records, man. You have no family, no friends. Surely you have no farewells to make.”

“No, Golden One. It is only that I suspect I have broken my elbow fighting the bearded one.” He held up the arm he had smashed against the tile floor, using his other arm to support it. The sleeve was a lumpy bag of blood. “That will give me time to have it set and bandaged, first, so I can better serve you.”

The autarch threw back his head and laughed. “Ah, I like you, man. You are a cold-blooded fellow, indeed. Yes, go now and have it seen to. If you succeed in this task, who knows? Perhaps I will give you old Vash’s job.” Sulepis grinned, pale eyes as bright as if he were fevered. That must be the explanation, thought Pinimmon Vash: this man – or rather this god-on-earth – was in a perpetual fever, as though the sun’s fiery blood really did run in his veins. It made him mad and it made him as dangerous as a wounded viper. “What do you think, old man?” the autarch prodded. “Would you like to train him as your replacement?”

Vash bowed, keeping his terrified, murderous thoughts off his face. “Whatever you wish, Golden One. Whatever you wish.”

© 2007 by Tad Williams. All rights reserved

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The Shadowmarch Series

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