Read Arena of Antares Online

Authors: Alan Burt Akers

Tags: #Fiction, #Science Fiction, #Fantasy

Arena of Antares (20 page)

“Had I known you were a kaidur, Drak the Sword, perhaps I would not have been so swift in my just vengeance.”

There was a very great deal to be read into that statement.

I decided to play the most obvious reading, the one most likely to reflect the state of the game. I said, “I believe I did not express my very real sorrow at the destruction of the neemu.” I was deliberately refraining from calling her queen or majestrix or any other of the many terms for referring to royalty I spare you. “I feel I am able to make restitution.”

“Ah!” she said, and she sat forward, and again her chin settled onto her upturned fist. Her eyes regarded me now with a look reminiscent of the look that leem had first given me. “Yes, Drak, I think you may!”

Again pushing what I fancied the Star Lords, in their usual obscurantist way, were urging me to, I said, “You have but to command.”

“I know that!” Her chin went up, off her fist, and her eyes blazed at me. “My commands are obeyed. But before that, Drak, I would talk of your great victory, for the leem was a mighty and powerful beast, and notable for its kills.”

So we spoke for a space, of this and that, and presently she motioned for me to come and sit on a stool brought forward by a flunky — a little Och in embroidered livery — and placed at her feet. I sat down and told her a pack of lies, about swinging the sword as one would an ax, and of how I rather fancied I would use it again, Havil willing, in the Jikhorkdun. She nodded and sucked in her breath, her bosom rising and falling, her eyes bright and leechlike upon me as she heard talk of other combats, some she had seen and some not. Her passionate interest in the arena was not faked. Statecraft, love, food, money — all were of secondary interest to her beside this consuming passion for the Jikhorkdun.

Knowing this, thinking I knew what the Star Lords were about, I forced down my desires to smash them all up and get out of here and aboard a voller and make for Valka — for I knew another great supernatural gale would brutally beat me back.

This game here must be played out first.

As a queen and a despot she had her pick of the kaidurs. Her chambermaids would bring them to her chambers at night, and she would use them as she saw fit, and so send them back to fight for her in the arena. I already knew that apart from the four color corners, there existed a small and select band of kaidurs devoted to the queen — Queen’s Kaidurs — and on special occasions these would fight wagered combats of phenomenal value. Usually they won, and would dispose of the opponent fighting them, no matter what color he happened to be. Much later, long and long, I discovered just why the Queen’s Kaidurs almost invariably won.

She did not make me an offer to become a Queen’s Kaidur. She had said, though, “You are a hyr-kaidur now, Drak. And as a great kaidur you may wander the streets of Huringa. Would you seek to escape? I remember the flier . . .”

Here was where I took two korfs with one shaft, as Seg would say.

“No idea of escape enters my head. There was a girl — I have completely forgotten the shishi, now, since — since—” And, artfully and contemptuously, I hesitated, and looked at her, and looked away. “No, I would on no account seek to escape from Huringa which is ruled by Queen Fahia.”

The performance sickened me. But if the Star Lords wished me to remain here, and I was to do so with my head still affixed between my shoulders, the pace must be forced a little. All that natural charisma I have told you of was working for me now, keeping me alive, as I know; I had to give nature some assistance, some better chance.

“I believe you, Drak the Sword.”

This first interview — first in our altered circumstances — drew to its close. But she was a sharp lady, and a queen, and so as I was retiring, she said, her voice roughened and back to its habitual coarseness from the more mellow tones in which we had conversed: “And, Drak the Sword! You swore to make restitution for the slain neemu!”

“Aye. Point out the way—”

“Sufficient that you remember. Now go. I shall send for you again.”

Amid much scraping and inclining — she insisted on the full incline in matters of state — we went out. I guessed I was expected to report back to the red barracks where no doubt Nath the Arm and Naghan the Gnat would greet me kindly enough, even if Cleitar Adria might glower with jealousy.

I found myself walking along the corridors with the marble wall-facings and Pandahem jars of flowers and Lohvian mirrors from Chalniorn in company with Orlan Mahmud nal Yrmcelt and his friend, a commanding-looking apim with a somewhat pudgy face and plump body, sumptuously dressed, who I gathered was Rorton Gyss, Trylon of Kritdrin. Orlan Mahmud had been overeager to push up to my side, nudging other people out of the way, for a hyr-kaidur is assured of constant attention from admirers and well-wishers. I knew what was troubling him.

“Simmer down, Orlan,” said the Trylon of Kritdrin. “The hyr-kaidur is a man, by Havil! He knows the value of a closed mouth.”

Orlan Mahmud shot me a glance. “My father,” he said, all his liveliness gone. “I still fear him.”

“That, my boy, is why I never married. I like women, Havil knows, but I prefer to cast my bread upon private waters.” And Rorton Gyss chuckled. A genial, pleasant, thoroughly civilized Horter, this Rorton Gyss, and, as I was to find, with a mind of his own and a will of alloy-steel.

They took me down from that high fortress of Hakal, frowning over the city of Huringa, and by more open ways this time we crossed to the Jikhorkdun. Here we stopped by a tavern into which, by virtue of my new status, I was now allowed. Many taverns and inns had been built into and alongside the Jikhorkdun and its surrounding warrens but inevitably never enough for all the public. Only nobles and high Horters might venture into the amphitheater tavern. One seldom ever heard anyone addressed as plain Horter; it was all Kyr and Kov and Tyr and Rango and Strom. We sat at a plain sturm-wood table and an apim girl served us light yellow wine from Central Hyrklana — reasonable stuff, light and refreshing and ideal for the heat of the day. If a deal was to be proposed, Mahmud and Gyss were going about it in a civilized manner.

The deal was simple.

I kept my mouth shut about Orlan Mahmud’s involvement with those people plotting the queen’s downfall, or I had my throat slit by certain paktuns whose names needn’t be mentioned among Horters.

“You would take my word?”

“Of course. You may be a kaidur, but we can tell you are also a Horter.”

I sipped my wine and inwardly I laughed at them. Fools! I was no gentleman — I never had been, save by a king’s commission to walk the quarterdeck of a King’s Ship, and I never would be. But, for all that, if I gave them my word I would keep it. Also, and I did not discount this aspect, they knew that it would take more than one paktun of very great skill indeed to deal with me, and further, that the queen would be most wroth and would relentlessly pursue an inquiry.

“Perhaps,” I said. “You do not ask yourself what I was doing there, at the time the great slate slab fell.”

This had occurred to them. It was not a weapon they might use against me except after I had denounced them, as they knew.

“You, too, are against” — Orlan’s gaze flicked around the tavern and back — “the queen?”

He whispered that, a conspirator to the life.

“It might very well be,” I said. And added, “Or, it might not. For I think the queen will smile on me now.”

“Aye!” Gyss drank his wine at a single gulp and called for more. “And we know where the queen’s smile leads! A garrote, and a stone lashed to the legs, and a hole in the River of Leaping Fish.”

Then someone recognized me and a crowd gathered and I had to rise and smile at them — most painful — and so make my escape in a shower of back-claps and handshakes and adulatory speeches. We walked quickly along the alleyways threading the warrens of the Jikhorkdun, and my state attracted so much attention that in the end I had to bid Orlan Mahmud and this Rorton Gyss farewell and run for the red barracks.

“We will see you tomorrow, Drak the Sword!” called Rorton Gyss. This Trylon of Kritdrin had impressed me. He seemed a man who knew his own mind, and went for the truth, no matter what or who stood in his way.

He was a supporter of the yellow; that was unfortunate, but as I have said, color supporters might mingle freely with only the occasional fight, for Mahmud was of the red. And, if Gyss was of the yellow it would mean he could bring a whole new dimension of support to the cause he espoused with Mahmud.

Nath the Arm greeted me with a great bellow.

“By Kaidun! Drak the Sword — you are a hyr-kaidur now! It was superbly done, Kaidur to the life! Just remember: easy come, easy go. There are many coys pushing up, and the glass eye and brass sword of Beng Thrax may smile on them also!”

Naghan the Gnat jumped up and down in his excitement, and all the red barracks waxed warm over the triumph. The silver collar of the leem was a great trophy. I thought of the leem’s tail — and I did not smile.

I had not missed the shifty liquid eyes of the little fellow who had followed me, keeping as he thought out of sight, his plain brown tunic and kilt worn without color favor. A spy, he was, spying on me . . . following me through the Jikhorkdun to the red barracks of Nath the Arm. He could not follow me inside, and on that I cursed him and forgot him . . .

Chapter Fourteen

The life of a hyr-kaidur in the Jikhorkdun

My life in Huringa proceeded much as any other kaidur’s at this time, for I was waiting for the signal to which I might respond. If the queen was to be overthrown, poor soul, for all her evil, then the plan must be good and absolutely watertight. She controlled everything personally, with pallans to convey her orders and, sometimes, to venture on advice. I palled up with Mahmud and Gyss, and was sent into the arena from time to time, usually to rapturous applause, and otherwise lounged around fretting over this damned interdict of the Star Lords, and drinking and having what fun was offered. Here I brushed up on my knowledge of Havilfar, as you shall hear when overt knowledge is essential. A parcel of Chulik slaves were brought in.

We all went down to the bagnios to see them.

Now Chuliks are not often kept as slaves. Their chief value lies in their fanatical obedience to orders and their absolute loyalty while they are being paid. They are superb fighters. I had met a Chulik render captain; that had been unusual.

Chuliks are an extremely fierce manlike race of people with oily yellow skin, the head shaved so as to leave a long pigtail, two three-inch-long tusks thrusting upwards from the corners of the cruel mouth, and round black eyes. On the Chulik islands stringing off the coast of southeastern Segesthes the training of the males from birth is designed to produce high-quality mercenary soldiers, and they generally command higher fees than other races. There are large colonies of Chuliks in other islands and continents, of course, as I had found in the Eye of the World and in the Hostile Territories, and these people, like the other races about them, know nothing of the outside world. Chuliks may share some of the normal attributes of mankind, like two legs and two arms and two eyes; but they have little of the attribute of humanity.

So it was that the idea of Chulik coys intrigued us all.

“Well, Drak, and how do you fancy their chances?”

“By Kaidun, Balass,” I said. “They are a mean bunch.”

Balass laughed. Balass liked laughing. He was a black-skinned man from Xuntal, with fierce predatory hawklike features, and brilliant eyes, and he was a fine fighter, a kaidur. I had found in him a chord of friendship that I was loath to touch, for fear he would be dragged across the silver sand smearing his lifeblood, hauled out by the cruel iron hooks. He was named Balass the Hawk. Balass, as you know, is an ebony wood, often used for purposes of correction and chastisement.

“A cage voller flew in today with many volleems,” said Balass the Hawk. His bright eyes showed all the mischief and merriment the news meant.

“Oho!” I said. “Then it behooves us to see this, kaidur. Indeed, yes, Balass the Hawk, this must not be missed.”

“Beng Thrax’s silver kneecaps must support us all.” Balass chuckled. We both knew what these Chulik coys would face, pitted against volleem.

Volleem, the flying form of the leem, is a nasty brute at the best of times, and we wondered what the Jikhorkdun managers would think up to make the spectacle more interesting.

You see — I have reported this conversation as I remember it — how bound up I was becoming with this whole evil business of the arena. And yet, it was not wholly evil. In straight combats between men of equal skills and armed in the same fashion, many virtues for a warlike nation must accrue, especially when that nation is faced with ferocious depredations by vermin like the Leem-Lovers from the southern oceans.

Each of the four colors received their quota of Chulik coys and the managers designed a different test in each case.

The greens were caged, a Chulik and a volleem together, and left to fight it out with spears.

The blues were herded in altogether, with a variety of weapons, into a vast cage erected in the center of the arena and all their quota of volleems released upon them at once.

The yellows, being in the ascendant, were kept in reserve.

The reds were given an assignment that brought howls from the red benches where the kaidurs lolled on their ponsho fleeces and shrieks from the red terraces soaring up in the amphitheater.

Each red coy had a strong steel chain attached to his left ankle, and the chain passed to a ring riveted around the front rear leg of a volleem. The thraxters the Chuliks were issued would not cut the steel chain, light as it was.

The resultant spectacle raised a pandemonium of noise and screams and yells.

Silver sand puffed. Bright blood flew. The battering of the volleems’ wings, the shrieks as men and beasts were torn and slashed, all blended into a bedlam of horror and revulsion — and yet men and women of many races sat in the terraces and enjoyed it as a spectacle!

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