Mar 3 2010 10:05am
The Jewel in the Skull, Part Two: Chapters One and Two
Those who dare swear by the Runestaff must then benefit or suffer from the consequences of the fixed pattern of destiny that they set in motion. Some several such oaths have been sworn in the history of the Runestaff’s existence, but none with such vast and terrible results as the mighty oath of vengeance sworn by the Baron Meliadus of Kroiden the year before that aspect of the Champion Eternal, Dorian Hawkmoon von Köln, entered into the pages of this ancient narrative.
— The High History of the Runestaff
Baron Meliadus returned to Londra, gloomy-towered capital of the Dark Empire, and brooded for almost a year before he settled on his plan. Other affairs of Granbretan occupied him in that time. There were rebellions to put down, examples to be made of newly conquered towns, fresh battles to be planned and fought, puppet governors to be interviewed and placed in power.
Baron Meliadus fulfilled all these responsibilities faithfully and with imagination, but his passion for Yisselda and his hatred of Count Brass were never far from his thoughts. Although he had suffered no ignominy for his failure to win the count to Granbretan’s cause, he still felt thwarted. Besides, he was constantly finding problems in which the count could have helped him easily. Whenever such a problem arose, Baron Meliadus’s brain became clogged with a dozen different schemes of revenge, but none seemed suited to do everything he required. He must have Yisselda, he must get the count’s aid in the affairs of Europe, he must destroy Kamarg as he had sworn. They were incompatible ambitions.
In his tall tower of obsidian, overlooking the blood-red River Tayme where barges of bronze and ebony carried cargo from the coast, Baron Meliadus paced his cluttered study with its tapestries of time-faded browns, blacks, and blues, its orreries of precious metal and gemstones, its globes and astrolabes of beaten iron and brass and silver, its furniture of dark, polished wood, and its carpets of deep pile the colours of leaves in autumn.
Around him, on all the walls, on every shelf, in every angle, were his clocks. All were in perfect synchronization, and all struck on the quarter, half, and full hour, many with musical effects. They were of various shapes and sizes, in cases of metal, wood, or certain other, less recognizable substances. They were ornately carved, to the extent, sometimes, that it was virtually impossible to tell the time from them. They had been collected from many parts of Europe and the Near East, the spoils of a score of conquered provinces. They were what Baron Meliadus loved most among his many possessions. Not only this study, but every room in the great tower, was full of clocks. There was a huge four-faced clock in bronze, onyx, gold, silver, and platinum at the very top of the tower, and when its great bells were struck by life-size figures of naked girls holding hammers, all Londra echoed with the din. The clocks rivaled in variety those of Meliadus’s brother-in-law, Taragorm, Master of the Palace of Time, whom Meliadus loathed with a deep attachment as rival for his strange sister’s perverse and whimful affections.
Baron Meliadus ceased his pacing and picked up a piece of parchment from his desk. It contained the latest information from the province of Köln, a province that, nearly two years previously, Meliadus had made an example of. It seemed now that too much had been done, for the son of the old Duke of Köln (whom Meliadus had personally disemboweled in the public square of the capital) had raised an army of rebellion and almost succeeded in crushing the occupying forces of Granbretan. Had not speedy reinforcements, in the shape of ornithopters armed with long-range flame-lances, been sent, Köln might have been temporarily taken from the Dark Empire.
But the ornithopters had demolished the forces of the young duke, and he had been made prisoner. He was due soon to arrive in Londra to pleasure the nobles of Granbretan with his sufferings. Here again was a situation where Count Brass might have helped, for before he showed himself in open rebellion, the Duke of Köln had offered himself as a mercenary commander to the Dark Empire and had been accepted, had fought well in the service of Granbretan, at Nürnberg and Ulm, winning the confidence of the empire, gaining command of a force comprised mainly of soldiers who had once served his father, then turning with them and marching back to Köln to attack the province.
Baron Meliadus frowned, for the young duke had provided an example that others might now follow. Already he was a hero in the German provinces, by all accounts. Few dared oppose the Dark Empire as he had done.
If only Count Brass had agreed…
Suddenly Baron Meliadus began to smile, a scheme seeming to spring instantly and complete into his mind. Perhaps the young Duke of Köln could be used in some way, other than in the entertainment of his peers.
Baron Meliadus put down the parchment and pulled at a bellrope. A girl-slave entered, her naked body rouged all over, and fell on her knees to receive his instructions. (All the baron’s slaves were female; he allowed no men into his tower for fear of treachery.) “Take a message to the master of the prison catacombs,” he told the girl. “Tell him that Baron Meliadus would interview the prisoner Dorian Hawkmoon von Köln as soon as he arrives there.”
“Yes, master.” The girl rose and backed from the room, leaving Baron Meliadus staring from his window at the river, a faint smile on his full lips.
Dorian Hawkmoon, bound in chains of gilded iron (as befitted his station in the eyes of the Granbretanians), stumbled down the gangplank from barge to quay, blinking in the evening light and staring around him at the huge, menacing towers of Londra. If he had never before needed proof of the congenital insanity of the inhabitants of the Dark Island, he had, to his mind, full evidence now. There was something unnatural about every line of the architecture, every choice of colour and carving. And yet there was also a sense of great strength about it, of purpose and intelligence. No wonder, he thought, it was hard to fathom the psychology of the people of the Dark Empire, when so much of them was paradox.
A guard, in white leather and wearing the white metal death’s-head mask that was uniform to the Order he served, pushed him gently forward. Hawkmoon staggered in spite of the lightness of the pressure, for he had not eaten for almost a week. His brain was at once clouded and abstracted; he was hardly aware of the significance of his circumstances. Since his capture at the Battle of Köln, no-one had spoken to him. He had lain most of the time in the darkness of the ship’s bilges, drinking occasionally from the trough of dirty water that had been fixed beside him. He was unshaven, his eyes were glazed, his long, fair hair was matted, and his torn mail and breeches were covered in filth. The chains had chafed his skin so that red sores were prominent on his neck and wrists, but he felt no pain. Indeed, he felt little of anything, moved like a sleepwalker, saw everything as if in a dream.
He took two steps along the quartz quay, staggered, and fell to one knee. The guards, now on either side of him, pulled him up and supported him as he approached a black wall that loomed over the quay. There was a small barred door in the wall, and two soldiers, in ruby-coloured pig masks, stood on either side of it. The Order of the Pig controlled the prisons of Londra. The guards spoke a few words to each other in the grunting secret language of their Order, and one of them laughed, grabbing Hawkmoon’s arm, saying nothing to the prisoner but pushing him forward as the other guard swung the barred door inward.
The interior was dark. The door closed behind Hawkmoon, and for a few moments he was alone. Then, in the dim light from the door, he saw a mask; a pig mask, but more elaborate than those of the guards outside. Another similar mask appeared, and then another. Hawkmoon was seized and led through the foul-smelling darkness, led down into the prison catacombs of the Dark Empire, knowing, with little emotion, that his life was over.
At last he heard another door open. He was pushed into a tiny chamber; then he heard the door close and a beam fall into place.
The air in the dungeon was foetid, and there was a film of foulness on flagstones and wall. Hawkmoon lay against the wall and then slid gradually to the floor. Whether he fainted or fell asleep, he could not tell, but his eyes closed and oblivion came.
A week before, he had been the Hero of Köln, a champion against the aggressors, a man of grace and sardonic wit, a warrior of skill. Now, as a matter of course, the men of Granbretan had turned him into an animal — an animal with little will to live. A lesser man might have clung grimly to his humanity, fed from his hatred, schemed escape; but Hawkmoon, having lost all, wanted nothing.
Perhaps he would awake from his trance. If he did, he would be a different man from the one who had fought with such insolent courage at the Battle of Köln.
Torchlight and the glinting of beast-masks; sneering pig and snarling wolf, red metal and black; mocking eyes, diamond white and sapphire blue. The heavy rustle of cloaks and the sound of whispered conversation.
Hawkmoon sighed weakly and closed his eyes, then opened them again as footsteps came nearer and the wolf bent over him, holding the torch close to his face. The heat was uncomfortable, but Hawkmoon made no effort to move away from it.
Wolf straightened and spoke to pig.
“Pointless speaking to him now. Feed him, wash him. Restore his intelligence a little.”
Pig and wolf left, closing the door. Hawkmoon closed his eyes.
When he next awoke, he was being carried through corridors by the light of brands. He was taken into a room lighted by lamps. There was a bed covered in rich furs and silks, food laid out on a carved table, a bath of some shimmering orange metal, full of steaming water, two girl-slaves in attendance.
The chains were stripped from him, then the clothes; then he was picked up again and lowered into the water. It stung his skin as the slaves began to lave him, while a man entered with a razor and began to trim his hair and shave his beard. All this Hawkmoon took passively, staring at the mosaic ceiling with blank eyes. He allowed himself to be dressed in fine, soft linen, with a shirt of silk and breeches of velvet, and gradually, a dim feeling of well-being overcame him. But when they first sat him at the table and pushed fruit into his mouth, his stomach contracted and he retched. So they gave him a little drugged milk, then put him on the bed and left him, save for one slave at the door, watching over him.
Some days passed, and gradually Hawkmoon began to eat, began to appreciate the luxury of his existence. There were books in the room, and the women were his, but he still had little inclination to sample either.
Hawkmoon, whose mind had gone to sleep so soon after his capture, took a long time to awaken, and when at length he did, it was to remember his past life as a dream. He opened a book one day, and the letters looked strange, though he could read them well enough. It was simply that he saw no point in them, no importance in the words and sentences they formed, though the book had been written by a scholar once his favourite philosopher. He shrugged and dropped the book onto a table. One of the girl-slaves, seeing this action, pressed herself against his body and stroked his cheek. Gently, he pushed her aside and went to the bed, lying down with his hands behind his head.
At length, he said, “Why am I here?”
They were the first words he had spoken.
“Oh, my lord Duke, I know not — save that you seem an honoured prisoner.”
“A game, I suppose, before the Lords of Granbretan have their sport with me?” Hawkmoon spoke without emotion. His voice was flat but deep. Even the words seemed strange to him as he spoke them. He looked out from his inward-turned eyes at the girl, and she trembled. She had long, blonde hair and was well-shaped; a girl from Scandia by her accent.
“I know nothing, my lord, only that I must please you in any way you desire.”
Hawkmoon nodded slightly and glanced about the room. “They prepare me for some torture or display, I would guess,” he said to himself.
The room had no windows, but by the quality of the air Hawkmoon judged that they were still underground, probably in the prison catacombs somewhere. He measured the passing of time by the lamps; they seemed to be filled about once a day. He stayed in the room for a fortnight or so before he again saw the wolf who had visited him in his cell.
The door opened without ceremony, and in stepped the tall figure, dressed in black leather from head to foot, with a long sword (black-hilted) in a black leather scabbard. The black wolf mask hid the whole head. From it issued the rich, musical voice he had only half-heard before.
“So, our prisoner seems restored to his former wit and fitness.”
The two girl-slaves bowed and withdrew. Hawkmoon rose from the bed on which he had lain most of the time since his arrival. He swung his body off the bed and got to his feet.
“Good. Quite fit, Duke von Köln?”
“Aye.” Hawkmoon’s voice contained no inflection. He yawned unselfconsciously, decided there was little point in standing after all, and resumed his former position on the bed.
“I take it that you know me,” said the wolf, a hint of impatience in his voice.
“You have not guessed?”
Hawkmoon made no reply.
The wolf moved across the room and stood by the table, which had a huge crystal bowl of fruit on it. His gloved hand picked up a pomegranate, and the wolf-mask bent as if inspecting it. “You are fully recovered, my lord?”
“It would seem so,” answered Hawkmoon. “I have a great sense of well-being. All my needs are attended to, as, I believe, you ordered. And now, I presume, you intend to make some sport with me?”
“That does not seem to disturb you.”
Hawkmoon shrugged. “It will end eventually.”
“It could last a lifetime. We of Granbretan are inventive.”
“A lifetime is not so long.”
“As it happens,” the wolf told him, tossing the fruit from hand to hand, “we were thinking of sparing you the discomfort.”
Hawkmoon’s face showed no expression.
“You are very self-contained, my lord Duke,” the wolf continued. “Strangely so, since you live only because of the whim of your enemies — those same enemies who slew your father so disgracefully.”
Hawkmoon’s brows contracted as if in faint recollection. “I remember that,” he said vaguely. “My father. The old Duke.”
The wolf threw the pomegranate to the floor and raised the mask. The handsome, black-bearded features were revealed. “It was I, Baron Meliadus of Kroiden, who slew him.” There was a goading smile on the full lips.
“Baron Meliadus…? Ah… who slew him?”
“All the manliness has gone from you, my lord,” Baron Meliadus murmured. “Or do you seek to deceive us in the hope that you may turn traitor upon us again?”
Hawkmoon pursed his lips. “I am tired,” he said.
Meliadus’s eyes were puzzled and almost angry. “I killed your father!”
“So you said.”
“Well!” Disconcerted, Meliadus turned away and paced toward the door, then wheeled around again. “That is not what I came here to discuss. It seems, however, strange that you should profess no hatred or wish for vengeance against me.”
Hawkmoon himself began to feel bored, wishing that Meliadus would leave him in peace. The man’s tense manner and his half-hysterical expressions discomfited him rather as the buzzing of a mosquito could be distracting to a man wishing to sleep.
“I feel nothing,” Hawkmoon replied, hoping that this would satisfy the intruder.
“You have no spirit left!” Meliadus exclaimed angrily. “No spirit! Defeat and capture have robbed you of it!”
“Perhaps. Now, I am tired…”
“I came to offer you the return of your lands,” Meliadus went on. “An entirely autonomous state within our empire. More than we have ever offered a conquered land before.”
Now just a trace of curiosity stirred in Hawkmoon. “Why is that?” he said.
“We wish to strike a bargain with you — to our mutual benefit. We need a man who is crafty and war skilled, as you are —” Baron Meliadus frowned in doubt — “or seemed to be. And we need someone who would be trusted by those who do not trust Granbretan.” This was not at all the way Meliadus had intended to present the bargain, but Hawkmoon’s strange lack of emotion had disconcerted him. “We wish you to perform an errand for us. In return — your lands.”
“I would like to go home,” Hawkmoon nodded. “The meadows of my childhood…” He smiled in reminiscence.
Shocked by a display of what he mistook for sentimentality, Baron Meliadus snapped, “What you do when you return — whether you make daisy chains or build castles — is of no interest to us. You will return, however, only if you perform your mission faithfully.”
Hawkmoon’s introverted eyes glanced up at Meliadus. “You think I have lost my reason, perhaps, my lord?”
“I’m not sure. We have means of discovering that. Our sorcerer-scientists will make certain tests…”
“I am sane, Baron Meliadus. Saner, maybe, than I ever was. You have nothing to fear from me.”
Baron Meliadus raised his eyes to the ceiling. “By the Runestaff, will no-one take sides?” He opened the door. “We will find out about you, Duke von Köln. You will be sent for later today!”
After Baron Meliadus had left, Hawkmoon continued to lie on the bed. The interview was quickly gone from his mind and only half-remembered when, in two or three hours, pig-masked guards entered the chamber and told him to accompany them.
Hawkmoon was led through many passages, marching steadily upward until they reached a great iron door. One of the guards banged on it with the butt of his flame-lance, and it creaked open to admit fresh air and daylight. Waiting beyond the door was a detachment of guards in purple armour and cloaks, with the purple masks of the Order of the Bull covering their faces. Hawkmoon was handed over to them and, looking about him, saw that he stood in a wide courtyard that but for a gravel path was covered by a fine lawn. A high wall, in which was set a narrow gate, surrounded the lawn, and on it paced guards of the Order of the Pig. Behind the wall jutted the gloomy towers of the city.
Hawkmoon was guided along the path to the gate, through the gate, and into a narrow street where a carriage of gilded ebony, fashioned in the shape of a two-headed horse, awaited him. Into this he climbed, accompanied by two silent guards. The carriage began to move. Through a chink in its curtains, Hawkmoon saw the towers as they passed. It was sunset, and a lurid light suffused the city.
Eventually the carriage stopped. Hawkmoon passively allowed the guards to lead him out of it and saw at once that he had come to the palace of the King-Emperor Huon.
The palace rose, tier upon tier, almost out of sight. Four great towers surmounted it, and these towers glowed with a deep golden light. The palace was decorated with bas-reliefs depicting strange rites, battle scenes, famous episodes in Granbretan’s long history, gargoyles, figurines, abstract shapes — the whole a grotesque and fantastic structure that had been built over centuries. Every kind of building material had been used in its construction and then coloured, so that the building shone with a mixture of shades covering the entire spectrum. And there was no order to the placing of the colour, no attempt to match or contrast. One colour flowed into the next, straining the eye, offending the brain. The palace of a madman, overshadowing, in its impression of insanity, the rest of the city.
At its gates yet another set of guards awaited Hawkmoon. These were garbed in the masks and armour of the Order of the Mantis, the Order to which King Huon himself belonged. Their elaborate insect masks were covered in jewels, with antennae of platinum wire and eyes faceted with a score or more of different gemstones. The men had long, thin legs and arms and slender bodies encased in insectlike plate armour of black, gold, and green. When they spoke their secret language to each other, it was the rustle and click of insect voices.
For the first time, Hawkmoon felt disturbed as these guards led him into the lower passages of the palace, the walls of which were of deep scarlet metal that reflected distorted images as they moved.
At last they entered a large, high-ceilinged hall whose dark walls were veined, like marble, with white, green, and pink. But these veins moved constantly, flickering and changing course the length and breadth of the walls and ceiling.
The floor of the hall, which was the best part of a quarter of a mile long and almost as wide, was filled at intervals by devices that Hawkmoon took to be machines of some description, though he could not understand their function. Like everything he had seen since arriving in Londra, these machines were ornate, much decorated, built from precious metals and semiprecious stones. There were instruments set into them unlike anything he knew, and many of the instruments were active, registering, counting, measuring, tended by men who wore the serpent masks of the Order of the Snake — the Order that consisted solely of sorcerers and scientists in the service of the King-Emperor. They were shrouded in mottled cloaks with cowls half-drawn over their heads.
Down the central aisle a figure paced toward Hawkmoon, waving to the guards to dismiss.
Hawkmoon judged this man high in the Order, for his serpent mask was much more ornate than those of the others. He might even be the Grand Constable, by his bearing and general demeanour.
“My lord Duke, greetings.”
Hawkmoon acknowledged the bow with a slight one of his own, many of the habits of his former life still being with him.
“I am Baron Kalan of Vitall, Chief Scientist to the King-Emperor. You are to be my guest for a day or so, I understand. Welcome to my apartments and laboratories.”
“Thank you. What do you wish me to do?” Hawkmoon asked abstractedly.
“First, I hope you will dine with me.”
Baron Kalan signaled graciously for Hawkmoon to precede him, and they walked the length of the hall, passing many peculiar constructions, until they arrived at a door that led to what were obviously the baron’s private apartments. A meal was already laid. It was comparatively simple, judged against what Hawkmoon had been eating over the past fortnight, but it was well cooked and tasty. When they had finished, Baron Kalan, who had already removed his mask to reveal a pale, middle-aged face with a wispy white beard and thinning hair, poured wine for them both. They had scarcely spoken during the meal.
Hawkmoon tasted the wine. It was excellent.
“My own invention, the wine,” said Kalan, and smirked.
“It is unfamiliar,” Hawkmoon admitted. “What grape…?”
“No grape — but grain. A somewhat different process.”
“It is strong.”
“Stronger than most wines,” agreed the baron. “Now, Duke, you know that I have been commissioned to establish your sanity, judge your temperament, and decide whether you are fit to serve His Majesty the King-Emperor Huon.”
“I believe that is what Baron Meliadus told me.” Hawkmoon smiled faintly. “I will be interested in learning your observations.”
“Hmm…” Baron Kalan looked closely at Hawkmoon. “I can see why I was asked to entertain you. I must say that you appear to be rational.”
“Thank you.” Under the influence of the strange wine, Hawkmoon was rediscovering some of his former irony.
Baron Kalan rubbed at his face and coughed a dry, barely heard cough for some several moments. His manner had contained a certain nervousness since he removed the mask. Hawkmoon had already noticed how the people of Granbretan preferred to keep their masks on most of the time. Now Kalan reached toward the extravagant snake mask and placed it over his head. The coughing stopped immediately, and the man’s body relaxed visibly. Although Hawkmoon had heard that it was a breach of Granbretanian etiquette to retain one’s mask when entertaining a guest of noble station, he affected to show no surprise at the baron’s action.
“Ah, my lord Duke,” came the whisper from within the mask, “who am I to judge what sanity is? There are those who judge us of Granbretan insane…”
“It is true. Those with blunted perceptions, who cannot see the grand plan, are not convinced of the nobility of our great crusade. They say, you know, that we are mad, ha, ha!” Baron Kalan rose. “But now, if you will accompany me, we will begin our preliminary investigations.”
Back through the hall of machines they went, entering another hall, only slightly smaller than the first. This had the same dark walls, but these pulsed with an energy that gradually shifted along the spectrum from violet to black and back again. There was only a single machine in the hall, a thing of gleaming blue-and-red metal, with projections, arms, and attachments, a great bell-like object suspended from an intricate scaffold affair that was part of the machine. On one side was a console, attended by a dozen men in the uniform of the Order of the Snake, their metal masks partially reflecting the pulsing light from the walls. A noise filled the hall, emanating from the machine, a faintly heard clatter, a moan, a series of hissings as if it breathed like a beast.
“This is our mentality machine,” Baron Kalan said proudly. “This is what will test you.”
“It is very large,” said Hawkmoon, stepping toward it.
“One of our largest. It has to be. It must perform complex tasks. This is the result of scientific sorcery, my lord Duke, none of your hit-and-miss spell singing you find on the Continent. It is our science that gives us our chief advantage over lesser nations.”
As the effect of the drink wore off, Hawkmoon became increasingly the man he had been in the prison catacombs. His sense of detachment grew, and when he was led forward and made to stand under the bell when it was lowered, he felt little anxiety or curiosity.
At last the bell completely covered him, and its fleshy sides moved in to mould themselves around his body. It was an obscene embrace and would have horrified the Dorian Hawkmoon who had fought the Battle of Köln, but this new Hawkmoon felt only a vague impatience and discomfort. He began to feel a crawling sensation in his skull, as if incredibly fine wires were entering his head and probing at his brain. Hallucinations began to manifest themselves. He saw bright oceans of colour, distorted faces, buildings and flora of unnatural perspective. It rained jewels for a hundred years, and then black winds blew across his eyes and were torn apart to reveal oceans that were at once frozen and in motion, beasts of infinite sympathy and goodness, women of monstrous tenderness. Interspersed with these visions came clear memories of his childhood, of his life up until the moment he had entered the machine. Piece by piece, the memories built up until the whole of his life had been recalled and presented to him. But still he felt no other emotion save the remembrance of the emotion he had had in that past time. When at last the sides of the bell moved back and the bell itself began to rise, Hawkmoon stood impassively, feeling as if he had witnessed the experience of another.
Kalan was there and took his arm, leading him away from the mentality machine. “The preliminary investigations show you to be rather more than normally sane, my lord Duke — if I read the instruments correctly. The mentality machine will report in detail in a few hours. Now you must rest, and we shall continue our tests in the morning.”
The next day Hawkmoon was again given over to the embrace of the mentality machine, and this time he lay full-length within its belly, looking upward while picture after picture was flashed before his eyes and the pictures that they first reminded him of were then flashed onto a screen. Hawkmoon’s face hardly altered its expression while all this went on. He experienced a series of hallucinations where he was thrown into highly dangerous situations — an ocean ghoul attacking him, an avalanche, three swordsmen as opponents, the need to leap from the third storey of a building or be burned to death — and in every case he rescued himself with courage and skill, though his reflexes were mechanical, uninspired by any particular sense of fear. Many such tests were made, and he passed through them all without ever once showing any strong emotion of any kind. Even when he was induced by the mentality machine to laugh, weep, hate, love, and so on, the reactions were chiefly physical in expression.
At length Hawkmoon was released by the machine and faced Baron Kalan’s snake mask.
“It would seem that you are, in some peculiar way, too sane, my lord Duke,” whispered the baron. “A paradox, eh? Aye, too sane. It is as if some part of your brain has disappeared altogether or has been cut off from the rest. However, I can only report to Baron Meliadus that you seem eminently suited to his purpose, so long as certain sensible precautions are taken.”
“What purpose is that?” Hawkmoon asked with no real interest.
“That is for him to say.”
Shortly afterward, Baron Kalan took his leave of Hawkmoon, who was escorted through a labyrinth of corridors by two guards of the Order of the Mantis. At length they arrived outside a door of burnished silver that opened to reveal a sparsely furnished room entirely lined with mirrors on walls, floor, and ceiling, save for a single large window at the far end that opened onto a balcony overlooking the city. Near the window stood a figure in a black wolf mask who could only be Baron Meliadus.
Baron Meliadus turned and motioned for the guards to leave. Then he pulled a cord, and tapestries rippled down the walls to hide the mirrors. Hawkmoon could still look up or down and see his own reflection if he desired. Instead he looked out of the window.
A thick fog covered the city, swirling green-black about the towers, obscuring the river. It was evening, with the sun almost completely set, and the towers looked like strange, unnatural rock formations, jutting from a primordial sea. If a great reptile had risen from it and pressed an eye to the grimy moisture-streaked window it would not have been surprising.
Without the wall mirrors, the room became even gloomier, for there was no artificial source of light. The baron, framed against the window, hummed to himself, ignoring Hawkmoon.
From somewhere in the depths of the city a faint distorted cry echoed through the fog and then faded. Baron Meliadus lifted his wolf mask and looked carefully at Hawkmoon, whom he could now barely see. “Come nearer to the window, my lord,” he said. Hawkmoon moved forward, his feet slipping once or twice on the rugs that partially covered the glass floor.
“Well,” Meliadus began, “I have spoken to Baron Kalan, and he reports an enigma, a psyche he can hardly interpret. He said it seemed that some part of it had died. What did it die of? I wonder. Of grief? Of humiliation? Of fear? I had not expected such complications. I had expected to bargain with you man to man, trading something you desired for a service I required of you. While I see no reason not to continue to obtain this service, I am not altogether sure, now, how to go about it. Would you consider a bargain, my lord Duke?”
“What do you propose?” Hawkmoon stared beyond the baron, through the window at the darkening sky.
“You have heard of Count Brass, the old hero?”
“He is now Lord Guardian, Protector of the Province of Kamarg.”
“I have heard that.”
“He has proved stubborn in opposing the will of the King-Emperor, he has insulted Granbretan. We wish to encourage wisdom in him. The way to do this will be to capture his daughter, who is dear to him, and bring her to Granbretan as a hostage. However, he would trust no emissary that we sent nor any common stranger — but he must have heard of your exploits at the Battle of Köln and doubtless sympathizes with you. If you were to go to Kamarg seeking sanctuary from the Empire of Granbretan, he would almost certainly welcome you. Once within his walls, it would not be too difficult for a man of your resourcefulness to pick the right moment, abduct the girl, bring her back to us. Beyond the borders of Kamarg we should, naturally, be able to give you plenty of support. Kamarg is a small territory. You could easily escape.”
“That is what you desire of me?”
“Just so. In return we give you back your estates to rule as you please so long as you take no part against the Dark Empire, whether in word or deed.”
“My people live in misery under Granbretan,” Hawkmoon said suddenly, as if in revelation. He spoke without passion but rather like one making an abstract moral decision. “It would be better for them if I ruled them.”
“Ah!” Baron Meliadus smiled. “So my bargain does seem reasonable!”
“Yes, though I do not believe you will keep your part of it.”
“Why not? It is essentially to our advantage if a troublesome state can be ruled by someone whom it trusts — and whom we may trust also.”
“I will go to Kamarg. I will tell them the tale you suggest. I will capture the girl and bring her to Granbretan.” Hawkmoon sighed and looked at Baron Meliadus. “Why not?”
Discomfited by the strangeness of Hawkmoon’s manner, unused to dealing with such a personality, Meliadus frowned. “We cannot be absolutely sure that you are not indulging in some complex form of deceit to trick us into releasing you. Although the mentality machine is infallible in the case of all other subjects who have been tested by it, it could be that you are aware of some secret sorcery that confuses it.”
“I know nothing of sorcery.”
“So I believe — almost.” Baron Meliadus’s tone became somewhat cheerful. “But we have no need to fear — there is an excellent precaution we can take against any treachery from you. A precaution that will bring you back to us or kill you if we have reason no longer to trust you. It is a device recently discovered by Baron Kalan, though I understand it is not his original invention. It is called the Black Jewel. You will be supplied with it tomorrow. Tonight you will sleep in apartments prepared for you in the palace. Before you leave you will have the honour of being presented to His Majesty the King-Emperor. Few foreigners are granted so much.”
With that, Meliadus called to the insect-masked guards and ordered them to escort Hawkmoon to his quarters.
Cover art and interior illustrations by Vance Kovacs