As Big Katia took the short-cut into the Autocrat's palace, through the bean-vines and around the melon-patch, two assassins jumped her. It was a fine morning, with the fresh scents of the garden sharp on the breeze, and a thrush was singing in a nearby acacia, so she restricted herself to kicking the one she kicked just hard enough to discourage him, and she threw the one she threw against a cone of bean-poles rather than against the wall or into the compost heap.
This was even easier than it might have been, because of their cart-wheel ruffs and the vast expanse of their brocade sleeves. She had never understood how the Lethonese could so egregiously place ornateness before practicality. You never got a mug of ale in Lethony that had not been intimately acquainted with several droopy items of innkeeper's haberdashery. That was what people deserved for living in cities ruled by merchant princes instead of having proper rulers, with the right sort of people as ancestors. The Autocrat had some family at least, but the man was still in trade.
She picked the garrotter up with one hand, and the daggerman with the other, banged their heads together, dropped them and stood with her boot-toes gently prodding their respective throats. Your old boyfriends only get married once in a while, so you may as well make an exception and be nice to their subjects, even idiot assassins.
'What do you think you're doing?' she said, watching their hands as well as their eyes. They discouraged awfully easy, even for assassins.
'Oh,' said the garrotter, sticking his garotte back into its loop in his belt with the sort of tentative and attentive expression that constantly reassures you that I'm putting this away, look, I'm putting this away, honestly, 'we thought you were someone else.'
'And that,' said Big Katia, 'is supposed to reassure me?'
'Well,' said the daggerman, 'there's a rumour going round the city that the Autocrat has asked one of his foreign whores to the wedding.'
'And that would never do,' said the garrotter. 'It's a matter of the honour of Lethony.'
'The honour of Lethony,' the other echoed, in a blank tone, a bit like the tolling of a distant muffled bell.
'Even if he is marrying a foreigner,' the first said, 'he should know better than dishonour her.'
'By flaunting,' the daggerman added.
'This Katerina de Yevonde de Haute Saint Clair,' the garrotter concluded, 'in her depraved silks and bangles. He may have pledged Lethony to Darkness, a states-manlike policy in my view, if a controversial one, but we still have moral standards here.'
Big Katia dusted her hands off on her second-best pair of bear-leather trousers.
'And how do you know I'm not her?' she asked.
'You have the movements of a serious person,' the daggerman said.
'Besides,' said the garrotter, in admiring tones, 'I have had your headband and locket described to me. You're Big Katia, aren't you? The chatelaine of the Dark Lord?'
'Yes,' she said, 'and I am also Katerina de Yevonde de Haute Saint Clair. Which do you want me to be?'
'Ah,' said the daggerman.
'Um,' said the garrotter. Big Katia reflected that the training of assassins in Lethony owed too much to protocol and too little to decisiveness, not that she was complaining. They do things differently in Lethony.
'Which are you here as?' said the garrotter.
'I am here,' said Big Katia, 'as the Autocrat's Security Consultant. I'm not a chatelaine; I'm a Security Consultant. If the honour of Lethony is to be guarded-'
'The honour of Lethony,' the two men intoned.
'- Then the wedding must go without a hitch. And who better to ensure that than someone the Autocrat knows he can trust? An old companion in desperate adventures.'
'True,' said the daggerman.
'As long as it is for the honour of Lethony,' said the garrotter.
'Yes,' said Big. Katia, 'it is for the honour of Lethony.'
The two assassins bowed to her and left over the garden wall, as swiftly and silently as was consistent with not tearing their clothes. Big Katia memorized the route they took, and promised herself to stick broken glass on all of the foot-holds, as well as along the top of the wall. Poisoned broken glass for preference.
Then she whistled down her hawk-thing, and sent it after them. It always seemed better fed- after taking its' prey by surprise. From the other side of the wall, there came the most gratifying crunches.
Big Katia turned left at the cherry tree and in through the picket gate. The thrush was still singing is the acacias, but one of its more grating high notes was cut off suddenly amid a snapping of branches - the hawk-thing had got too big for acacia trees, but then Big Katia had been busy lately.
The hawk-thing lumbered through the air towards her, the blood on its cruel beak glistening prettily in the morning sun, and then thumped on to the ground beside her.
She scratched it behind its lop-tailed ears, one of the many points that had stopped its being entered on the lists as a proper gryphon. Then she looked at it reprovingly, and it quailed gratifyingly, if, she suspected, not wholly sincerely. Sometimes she thought it understood her every word; animals can't be that disobedient by accident.
'I've told you before about song-birds,' she said. 'They only spoil your appetite between meals. Assassins, that's different, they're work, and you deserve a reward. But that thrush was sheer greed.'
The hawk-thing rumbled apologetically. She reflected a second, and then led it over to one of the manure-piles; the Autocrat had many weaknesses, but he kept an orderly kitchen garden. The hawk-thing proceeded to produce a satisfactory hiss of spoil and a pile of fewmets, which she shovelled on to the pile with a spade.
She knew of old that the Autocrat just hated mess, even on his roofs; typical of a merchant, poor thing, nothing better to think about, no broader horizons.
There was a stable-boy waiting at the stable with a particularly spavinned horse.
'The Autocrat said you might need this, after your journey,' he said.
'Thank you for the thought,' said Big Katia, 'but the hawk-thing just ate. Perhaps you could put it aside for him for later.'
But then the hawk-thing, which had followed on her on foot, nuzzling the back of her neck with its beak, started keening and whining, and the horse, tiresome like all its breed, began rearing and frothing and whinnying. From within the stables there came a racket of other horses kicking their hooves against the walls and neighing and making a general nuisance of themselves.
'Oh, shut up,' Big Katia shouted, and then said into the general silence, 'You, lad, hold that horse still.'
With a struggle, he held it tight by those complicated strap things. Big Katia wandered over and brought her fist down hard on the top of its head. The horse crumpled; the hawk-thing walked over, sniffed at it, sat up on its hind legs and seized it with its beak and the claws of its front paws. Big Katia was always amazed at how it managed to get itself into the air with large pieces of food, but then there's no reason for magical beasts to manage their affairs elegantly.
'You,' she said to it, 'take that horse somewhere out of the way, and eat it quietly. Yes, quietly.'
It staggered into the air, and then soared lumpily towards the palace roofs.
'And dump the bones somewhere out of sight,' she continued. 'I spoil that animal sometimes, great soft evil-tempered thing,' she confided to the stable lad.
'Have you a horse to stable, ma'am?' he said.
'Oh, call me Big Katia,' she said. 'If I stood on ceremony, there is probably no one in the whole of Lethony of sufficient lineage to address me, but what the hell? No, I haven't a horse.'
'Is that your steed then, ma'am?' he asked.
'Gods, no,' said Big Katia. 'You wouldn't get me up on one of those things; I hate riding, always did.'
'But isn't it a long way from the Dark Land, to walk?'
'Yes,' she said, 'but I hate to ride. Besides - now listen to this, lad, it might be useful to you one of these days - my old father once told me that the spring or summer before major wars is always a good time to go for a long walk. See the country at its best - springs before the war are always special - flowers and blossom and all that. Plus, you never know where you might be campaigning, or retreating. Always a good thing to know the terrain on foot - this year's handy wayside tavern is next year's desperate last stand, is what I always say.'
'Big Katia to you,' she said, cuffing him for disobedience, then wandered past the stables to the side door of the palace.
The bigger the palace, Big Katia had always found, the more inconvenient the geography.
'Which way did you say the bedrooms were?' she asked the attentive flunky, whose anxiousness to please in no way went with the ruffles, and, she liked to think, was a tribute to the reputation for ill-temper she had been at pains to cultivate when young. He had dogged her heels all the way up from the stables, until she finally deigned to admit she was lost. The Autocrat had done so much building since last time she was here.
'Up that staircase, madam,' he said, 'and along the corridor to the left on the third landing, and then around the corner into the Blue Wing. Third suite on the right; we've put you in Azure. It was going to be Indigo, but your friend said it didn't go with her eyes.'
'What friend?' said Big Katia. 'When I got the Autocrat's message, I sent for Dzarella to meet me here in Lethony, but I can't believe she has got here already.'
'Your friend,' and his tone was a little too heavy on the ingratiating, 'Your friend has been here for several days already. She is a great favourite with the staff, already, madam. And the Autocrat has been most impressed with the arrangements she has made for the gifts.'
As he spoke, there emerged from around a corner of the stairs a trim ankle with a particularly impractical set of filigree greaves around them, not tied on especially straight.
Big Katia took the stairs three at a bound, straight up to the landing. There was an ominous familiarity to that ankle.
'Oh, hi, Katia,' said Zenobia. 'I was wondering when you'd turn up.'
'Where's Dzarella?' said Big Katia. 'What are you doing here?'
'Well,' said Zenobia, looking more innocent than a cat with a mouthful of goldfish, 'you know how people are always being silly and mistaking me for my sister...'
'And, of course, you never do anything to encourage mistakes,' said Big Katia.
'Well,' Zenobia said, 'of course there's a family resemblance, but I like to think I'm just a little bit prettier. And I wouldn't be seen dead in her clothes.'
'What's wrong with the way Dzarella dresses?' Big Katia said. 'Dzarella wears the same sort of clothes I do.'
'Well, precisely,' Zenobia said. 'And it's all so practical.'
'If you're doing a job,' Big Katia said, 'practicality is -'
'Yes, yes,' said Zenobia, 'but my clothes don't get in my way either, and I think they look nice. So does Cuddles.'
'About Dzarella,' Big Katia hauled the conversation back, by the scruff of its neck, to the point. 'Where is she?'
'I don't know, well, not precisely,' said Zenobia; 'I was just sitting in this tavern in Zandomir, quietly doing my nails over an iced Dragonsblood and cream surprise, and this man plunked a piece of paper on the table next to me, and left through the window. He seemed in a hurry, so I told the two men who came in next that he had gone up the stairs, into the gambling hell. Well, anyway, I had to wait until my nails had dried before I tried to undo the scroll - it had his Darkness's seal on it, and I do work for him as well, and his Darkness does send me letters sometimes, you know - and then I had to find someone to read it to me.'
'Can't you read?' said Big Katia.
'No,' said Zenobia. 'I find men aren't attracted to intellectual women, myself.'
Big Katia kept starting to count to ten, only there was always something new to do it about, and somehow she never got very far past six and a half.
'So, anyway,' said Zenobia. 'Once I'd found this nice man to read it to me, and he'd explained that it was about a job guarding wedding presents, and wasn't that a coincidence because he was going to exactly the same wedding, and he'd read me some of his poems, and I'd told him how good they were, and he'd bought me several more Surprises, well, anyway, I went and found a courier, and you owe me money for that, because I sent it on after Dzarella, but I thought, well, she might not get it in time, and there's poor old Katia, stuck at the wedding with no one to share her shift or help her with her hair, poor thing, might as well help out, and then there's her geas, poor love, does handicap her so, and everyone says I'm quite good with a sword, make up for her, and Clytander, I told you about him, had a horse, going the right way, seemed a godsend really, all concerned.'
'No,' said Big Katia, 'no, I don't think so.'
'What don't you think?' said Zenobia.
'I don't think that the purple basque goes with the filigree greaves,' said Big Katia. 'I don't think you should ever wear your hair that way. I don't think I shall break more than two of your legs. And I don't think it was a god-send.'
Zenobia's face fell.
'I was only trying to be helpful,' she said. 'Not my fault if rotten old couriers mistake me for her; not my fault last time if rotten old couriers' rotten old stallions tread on the rotten old Patriarch of Zandomir's rotten old sacred mouse...'
'And, one last time, where is Dzarella,' Big Katia said.
'Up north,' Zenobia said. 'In Carrankmoor. Visiting our parents. But you know what it can be like actually find_ing them, what with following the herds and all that. Like I said, I sent a courier after her.'
'Mesdames,' said the flunky, from below, acting as if he hadn't heard a word. 'Dinner will be in half an hour. We dress. Will there by anything else?'
'Well...' said Big Katia.
'Look,' said Zenobia, 'give me a break, this once. You won't regret it.'
'That really is,' said Big Katia, 'the most transparently fallacious prophecy I have ever heard.'
'Besides,' said Zenobia, 'I know the Autocrat is getting married the day after tomorrow. But I already call him Cuddles. Got to keep the customer happy, haven't you, dearie?'
Trying to snub this woman was like wading in money, Big Katia thought. But if Zenobia was on Cuddles terms with Cuddles, she wasn't bluffing.
'So what are these arrangements?' she said, heading up the stairs to the room. 'I bet you've made a total hash of it.'
'No,' said Zenobia, dancing round her heels like an anxious young wolfhound. 'No, I haven't. I went round the room with my ear to the wall, and I knocked hard every two paces - for secret chambers, you know; and then I did it again on my knees, and again on a guardsman's back - that was fun. And I had them take all the pictures off the walls, just to be sure and then put them back again. I had the carpets up; and I tapped all the way round all the flagstones.'
'What,' said Big Katia, 'about the ceiling? Bet you didn't try the ceiling.'
'Well,' said Zenobia. 'I went upstairs and checked the floor above and that was OK, and then I had them take the chandelier down, because I saw this play once, and people swing on them.'
'What about the space between the ceiling and the floor above?' said Big Katia.
'Eh?' said Zenobia.
'Sometimes,' said Big Katia, 'sometimes there's this space people can crawl in, and kick their way through the ceiling.'
'Oh,' said Zenobia, 'I didn't know that.'
'What about the drapes?' said Big Katia.
'I asked Cuddles to have them taken down,' said Zen_obia. 'They were magenta. And I really hate magenta.'
'Anything else,' said Big Katia.
'Oh, yes,' said Zenobia. 'I remembered what Dzarella told me about getting the guards' attention, and I waited for one of them to think he could take liberties, and then I asked Cuddles very nicely and he had him impaled. And the rest of his squad flogged. You know, I never really appreciated just what high squeaky noises people make when you impale them; it's very interesting. And there's the cellars, but Belphoazar said he would take care of the cellars; they're up to something in the cellars, him and Cuddles.'
'That's where they keep the Room these days,' said Big Katia.
'No, don't be silly, I know all about the Room, something apart from the Room,' said Zenobia. 'Anyway, how did I do?'
'I'm sorry to say,' said Big Katia, 'but you seem to have done a reasonably good job. It's stone ceilings here, if you'd thought; you can't kick your way through a stone ceiling, can you?'
'You could if you were a demon,' said Zenobia. 'You ever met any demons who were burglars, Katia.' He voice was even more wheedling than usual.
'Oh, all right,' said Big Katia. 'You can help out for the moment. If Dzarella turns up in time, you'll just have to clear it with her. And you get apprentice rates, no more. And don't bother Cuddles when you need sameone impaled; it's in our contract. We work for Darkness; Cuddles only pays our wages. And Darkness never needs an excuse for an impaling.'
'Time and a half,' said Zenobia. 'It's time and a half for royal weddings. I checked. Did you know they have a Mercenaries' Guild in Lethony; with all these rules. And all found.'
'Oh,' said Big Katia, 'and watch it with the Cuddles stuff, in front of the citizens. Honour of Lethony, and al that.'
'Don't be silly,' said Zenobia. 'No one could think that I mean, Cuddles is a sweet old man.'
Big Katia, who had held a candle at the Autocrat's name-taking ceremony, forbore to comment.
She hadn't thought in advance about the implications of sharing a room with Zenobia. In particular, she had never realized that the woman travelled with so much underwear. Most of it was sitting in bowls of water, with a scum of soap on top; the rest of it was being shined up by a minion with a greasy rag.
She had also taken over the larger of the two beds, and stolen all the eiderdowns from the smaller one. It was simply easier to take them back, and occupy the smaller bed. What the hell, there was no way Big Katia was going to even touch the pink plush chimaera Zenobia seemed to sleep with, let alone pick it up and pitch it across the room.
Dinner was excruciating, of course. Big Katia reflected that it was a shame no one had ever told Zenobia how to hold a fork. And the way she ate snails was even worse than Dzarella. Still, the Autocrat thought she was Dzarella, of course, and was making allowances.
Down here in Lethony they were probably surprised that mountain dwellers had caught on to plates already, and could hardly expect them to have worked out that you impale snails on tiny forks, you don't suck them. Big Katia had to suck them, of course, but that was a matter of her geas; and everyone knew that she had a geas. Quite different from mere bad manners.
Big Katia had dressed for dinner to the extent of re-tying her headband, changing into a jerkin that had not been washed, but had had a chance to air, and put on her best pair of bear-leather trousers. Zenobia had changed out of the purple basque into a filigree breast-plate that was of quite stunning tastelessness and impracticality, but at least went with the greaves.
Cuddles was wearing all the sartorial nonsense that went with being Autocrat of Lethony; all sorts of frills and dangling bits - made Zenobia look restrained and aesthetic by comparison. Even before he got to be Autocrat, Cuddles had had appalling taste, Big Katia thought. It was his dress sense that had got them into such trouble in the Mines of Sulphur.
This dining hall had to be the worst in the Kingdoms. You couldn't expect Southerners to have the right sort of beams and shields and stuffed heads and gloom - that takes generations of breeding; but all of these gilt wall decorations, and chandeliers with too many candles, and all these big tactically indefensible windows with pictures in the glass of Cuddles being heroic in the Mines of Sulphur, and Cuddles appeasing the Salamanders, and Cuddles doing acts of charity to the sweaty masses. Obiously Cuddles had to give his citizens the right sort of impression of wealth, but there is decent necessary ostentation and there is sheer vulgarity.
On her left, Big Katia had this Clytander stooge of Zenobia's, a fairly standard poet type, soulful brown eyes to die for and one of the more obvious false moustaches she had ever seen. But he did seem to be a poet, because he had this wodge of scrolls with him, and every so often would have these little spells of silence, where he would stare fixedly into space and not pass the wine, and then start scribbling, sometimes not on the table-cloth. She looked over his shoulder.
I have Placed all my anxieties and sorrows In a bag Lo! I depart, chanting in a profound manner Raven, farewell.
Not Big Katia's sort of thing at all; poems should be about battles or huntin', and should rhyme, lots, preferably in the middle of lines. But they do things differently in Lethony.
On her right was the Autocrat's mage, Belphoazar; he was more interested in talking than The Drip, but Big Katia knew him of old. All right, until you let him start talking about how unreasonable it was of the Evil Wizards not to recognize his qualifications, and then he'd go on and on, and his accent would get stronger.
She didn't know why he bothered, fella made enough in a year to buy the whole Fastness and plate it in gold if he wanted. Besides, though he might be very talented, he had a particularly unpleasant line in upper-lip perspira_tion and a way of looking at you as if he were weighing fish at a stall - that was something that had definitely got worse with the years.
'Have you met the Spouse?' Belphoazar asked. 'I'm really looking forward to your meeting the Spouse.'
Big Katia could not help noticing that The Drip's moustache quivered, fake or not, when Belphoazar said this.
'No,' she answered. 'Thought I'd better wait to be introduced. In the circumstances.'
'Quite so,' said Belphoazar. 'How tactful of you.'
'How's business?' said Big Katia.
'A little of this,' said the mage, 'a little of that; and a little of something else entirely.'
When he had come North from somewhere beyond the Mines of Diamonds and the Mines of Serpents, hoping to do advanced study, Belphoazar had brought with him some ideas that neither the magicians of the near south nor the Sorcerers of Sorcerer's Isle were prepared to let him explore. Big Katia suspected that the Evil Wizards were not too fabulously keen either, which was why they had kept him at arm's length and let him settle in Lethony, which was near enough that they could keep an eye on him, and far enough away that all it could take with it would be others of the Twenty-Four Kingdoms.
Cuddles had backed him. Cuddles wasn't very rich then, or Autocrat, and all of that had come out of Belphoazar's Room. So, in a sense, had Big Katia's reputation, and the journey to the Mines of Sulphur, and the damned geas. Come to that, they hadn't pledged to Darkness then. Takes you back really...
The Room was a bit like a Horn of Plenty; only it was a room, and not a Horn. You went into it every day, and you brought out whatever was in there. Sometimes it was jewels, and sometimes it was spices, and once in a while it was something useful, like bottles of snake venom. Cuddles and Belphoazar kept a whole staff of people busy finding out what things were. Cuddles' great skill was always knowing who would pay most for them. Big Katia sometimes wondered who had bought the snaky venom, and who had put it in bottles in the first place. It is often useful to know such things.
'I shall give the Spouse away,' said Belphoazar. 'In the circumstances.'
'What circumstances are those?' said The Drip. 'Ane you her kinsman, then?'
'Oh, no,' said Belphoazar, 'but you could say that brought her into the world.'
'Oh, Bel,' said Big Katia, 'you're not marrying poor old Cuddles off to some Roomlost waif and stray.'
'Political necessity,' said Belphoazar, 'smart idea really. Anyone from the Houses of Lethony and you'd be knee deep in relatives playing politics. Anyone from the Twenty-Four Kingdoms - same really, only a bigger scale. Cuddles needed a wife, just a first wife to be going on with. Afte the Battle, well, politics will be different then. Keeps our options open.'
'What Bel means,' said Cuddles' nephew Valentine, 'is that my uncle needs another heir in case I get killed come Samhain, or do something else to annoy him.' He was an intense young man in a red velvet outfit whose cut was positively austere by local standards.
He had once tried to teach Big Katia how to fence, saying that all this stuff about the geas was just a matter of confidence. No spell could stop her using a sword if she put her mind to it, he said. He had been most put out when she kicked the rapier out of his hand and broke several of his fingers
'I can't see why you have to go off to the Last Battle at all,' said Cuddles testily from the throne at the end of the table. 'We're pledged to Darkness here, of course, but they will be quite content with our acting as a strategic bridgehead, without our having to do anything silly, like fighting. And it's time you took an active role in the business, rather than just hanging around the palace trying to get discounts on used swords for all your friends.'
'Yes, uncle,' said Valentine.
'And you may as well involve that useless crowd of parasites yes, you three - while you're at it,' said the Autocrat. 'Their fathers have been complaining. They say it's all getting too like a royal court.'
He said this in a tone of voice that made it sound as if a royal court was a place where one ate buzzard livers for fun.
'Yes, uncle,' said Valentine.
'Yes, sir,' said the three almost identically dressed young men standing around him.
'You see what I have to put up with, Katerina,' said Cuddles. 'People who will not understand that pledging to Darkness is not some sort of crusade, or a simple matter of wrong and right, but a complex manipulation of geopolitical equations and a decision based on the interests of my citizens.'
He hadn't used to go red in the face like that when he talked, Big Katia thought to herself, and he used to smile when he said my name.
'I wouldn't know about that sort of thing,' said Big Katia. 'I am just a simple soldier with no interest in politics. But surely they expect you to send some troops at Samhain.'
'Oh, surely, surely,' said Cuddles, remembering for whom she worked these days.
'But we see our primary contribution,' said Belphoazar, 'as strategic.'
'But that's enough of that,' said Cuddles. 'Valentine how dare you take the conversation into sensitive areas Go to your room at once - and you three with him.'
They left, stiffly, and an attentive flunky brought Cuddles their plates, so that he could see if they had left anything tasty. Starved as a child, thought Katia, chewing the flesh of a guinea-fowl.
'Your colleague has managed admirably,' said Belphoazar.
Zenobia dimpled prettily.
'I wouldn't have expected anything less of my apprentice,' said Big Katia.
'But I thought Dzarella was your colleague,' said BelBelphoazar.
'She is,' said Big Katia, 'but this is her sister Zenobia. Dzarella may be with us in due course; but her exact whereabouts are Restricted.'
'And I never said I was Dzarella,' said Zenobia anxiously, 'I just didn't say I wasn't.'
'Anyway,' said Cuddles, still picking anxiously through the mound of vegetables on Valentine's plate, 'it's time you all met the Spouse. You especially, Big Katia.'
He clapped his hands, and someone started doing headache-making things with drums and trumpets. The men with the kettle-drums couldn't keep in time, or maybe they weren't supposed to, and the trumpeters kept having to break off to spit. One of the problems with civilization, thought Big Katia, is the way people feel it necessary to invent music; there will have to be a reckoning, after Samhain. After Samhain, she had been promised, all sorts of categories of heads would roll.
Eventually flunkies, wearing several smaller kingdoms entire output of lace and braid, wandered out with a silken canopy, under which there walked a woman wearing veils. To be precise, there walked so many veils that one had to take it on faith that there was a woman underneath them.
'Behold,' said Cuddles, 'my Spouse!'
He and Belphoazar looked at Big Katia with an air first of all of anticipation, and then of mild disappointment.
'Very nice,' said Big Katia.
'Hi, there,' said the Spouse.
'I've been thinking,' said Zenobia, 'that maybe you should try an outfit like that, Katia; it would show off your height really nicely - you could carry it off, you really could. Not very practical, I suppose, though.'
'Zenobia,' said Big Katia, 'I will not warn you twice about helpful fashion hints.'
'Sorry, I'm sure,' said Zenobia. 'I was just thinking it was a useful coincidence, her appearing in something that might suit you. Isn't it odd how useful coincidences happen all the time. Like Clytander here having an invitation to your Autocracyship's wedding, just when I needed to read your note. I mean, fancy you knowing him, Cuddles.'
'What do you mean?' said the Autocrat, looking up from his nephew's plate. 'This poet chappie. I thought the fellow was with you; baggage handler or something.'
Big Katia turned, urgently, and grabbed at Clytander's sleeve as he rose from his chair. It was one of those droopy Lethony sleeves, but unlike those droopy Lethony sleeves, it had weakened stitches and tore off in her hand as he shook free and jumped on to the table, grabbing two carving knives from among the suckling pig slices as he went, and pausing only to plant one firmly in Belphoazar's throat.
'Tremble, rapist of innocence,' he bellowed at the Autocrat as he ran towards him, keeping his balance in spite of treading in an overturned syllabub.
He glanced beyond the Autocrat at the Spouse. 'I am here to save you, Princess.'
As he neared the Autocrat, Big Katia threw the remnants of her guinea-fowl at his head, followed swiftly by the silver plate off which she had been eating it, and Zenobia made a thrust with her dagger. Belphoazar pulled the knife out of his throat, leaving a small gap that healed over as Big Katia watched, and threw it in Clytander's general direction, missing him by feet and taking a plume off a guard's helmet.
Instead of diving at the Autocrat's throat, as he had intended, Clytander missed by a clear six inches and tumbled off the table among the sweet rushes and small dogs around the Autocrat's throne. Zenobia was instantly on his back, his head back and her dagger at his throat. Big Katia contented herself with rising, walking over and placing her foot firmly on his hamstrings.
'Who sent you?' said the Autocrat, leaning from his chair, and nervously chewing a small sausage that had fallen into his lap from Big Katia's plate.
'No one sent me, vile tyrant,' said Clytander, 'I am the sword of righteousness which needs no master.'
'The carving knife of righteousness, surely,' said Big Katia, grinding his knee under her foot to get his full attention. Zenobia pulled off his moustache, which was glued on firmly enough that he winced under her knife.
'Spouse,' said Cuddles, as she wandered over to get a clear look at what was going on through the thick veils around her face, 'is this man something to do with you?'
'I am your knight, here to save you, Princess,' said Clytander. 'I heard you were in distress, and I came.'
'Never seen him before in my life,' said the Spouse to her husband in what struck Big Katia as an improbably business-like tone for a damsel in distress. 'In any case, I am not a princess. We don't believe in princesses where I come from.'
'But Princess,' said Clytander, 'I am your knight, here to save you.'
Zenobia looked round at Big Katia for permission and Big Katia nodded and threw her one of the table napkins. Big Katia stood on his ankles to keep them from drumming - the clients always find that such a distressing noise. Zenobia opened his throat neatly and used the napkin to keep the blood from spoiling the rushes unnecessarily. Then she looked round apologetically.
'He had an invitation to the wedding,' she said.
'I think it unlikely I would have asked one of the Knights of the Order of Virtue to my wedding,' said Cuddles, inspecting the inside of one of the rings he had pulled from the dead man's hand, and stuffing the others into his pocket.
'But he had an invitation,' Zenobia wailed. 'I could tell, because it had the arms of Lethony all over it.'
'But you can't read,' said Big Katia, 'remember. Whose name was on the invitation?'
'Well, his, I suppose,' said Zenobia. 'Oh, I see. You mean he lied to me.' She stood up and kicked the corpse.
'Fine thing when perfect strangers come up to you and lie to you. What kind of Virtue is that?' she added. 'I've been sworn to Evil and to Darkness ever since I was twelve, but I have some principles.'
'We'll talk about it later,' said Big Katia.
Cuddles and Belphoazar were clearly not best pleased about all of this.
'What kind of Security do you call this?' said Belphoazar, forking several roast potatoes from the dead man's plate, and picking up at least two of the sausages that had fallen from Big Katia's plate. Big Katia noticed with interest that there was now not even a scar on his neck. She knew from her geas that the Salamanders were good at what they did, but this was extraordinary.
'Well,' said Big Katia, 'we killed him, didn't we? Besides, what you have got to understand is that Security Work is not an exact science. These Knights of Virtue are tricky fellows; when I was on guard at the tower of the Dark One, at least three turned up pretending to be wandering minstrels, or selling chestnut sweetmeats or that sort of thing. And you can't just assume that everyone who comes to the front door is a Knight of Virtue, can you? No way to run an evil empire. More than my job's worth. What you have to do is wait patiently until they draw a knife from under the sweetmeats, and then hit them with a chair.'
Cuddles did not look convinced.
'The Dark One,' Big Katia continued, 'would always rather get his chestnut sweetmeats delivered fresh to the heart of the Black Waste, even if it means the occasional swordplay in the Room of the Sable Throne. He took me into His service, even when I couldn't use a sword anymore, because of the geas. He made me his Security Consultant. He taught me everything I know.'
'Seems sensible to me,' said the Spouse. 'By local standards, anyway.'
'What do you want us to do with the body?' said Big Katia.
'Oh,' said Cuddles shiftily. 'We have an arrangement for deaths; the servants will do that for us.'
And indeed as he spoke two Lethonese servants, who had no ears and no tongues, came in with a sort of covered trolley, and bundled the corpse into it, closed the lid and wheeled it off.
'Hey, nice mutes,' said Zenobia, into the awkward silence. 'Local boys, too.'
'There are penalties in Lethony,' said Cuddles, 'for slandering the Autocrat. But I am not a man to, hold grudges, once they have paid their debt to society.'
'Cuddles sees himself as an Equal Opportunities Employer,' said the Spouse.
'It is not a matter of the personal preferences of an individual Autocrat,' said one of the dignitaries at the end of the table. 'It is a matter of the honour of Lethony.'
The usual mumbled responses ensued.
'Can't you stop them doing that, Cuddles?' said the Spouse. Big Katia was definitely warming to this woman.
Cuddles started to look harassed and then pulled himself together into testiness.
'Now, look here, Big Katia,' he said, the folds in his neck getting red. 'I asked the Dark One to send me his top Security team, just as a favour. And I get you, well, fair enough, old friend and all that, but instead of Dzarella, I seem to have got her idiot twin, and she brings an assassin straight into my palace with her. What kind of security is that?'
Zenobia started to wail. 'But He Had an Invitation.'
Big Katia kicked her firmly in the shins. You have to defend your underlings at all times, but there are times when disciplining them is both for their own good, and a pleasure.
'I can assure you,' she said, 'that you are getting as good a service as we give the Dark One himself.'
'But,' said Belphoazar, 'he wears the Garment of Invulnerability, and he has the Touch of Corruption, and he has the Gaze of Entire Confusion. It doesn't matter if you let assassins through to him.'
'No,' said Big Katia, grudgingly, 'but he doesn't want to waste a good blasting on just any old assassin, does he? We in his Security Service like to see ourselves as a sort of filter. Nothing but the best for the Dark One, don't you know?'
Cuddles did not look reassured.
'But I don't have any of those things. What am I supposed to do if one of the Knights gets past you to me?'
'Listen to what the nice lady says,' said the Spouse. 'You wait until he pulls out his knife, and then you hit him with a chair.'
'Actually,' said Zenobia. 'Last three times that an assassin got through to the Dark Lord when I was on duty, that was what He did. I mean, the Touch of Corruption wreaks havoc with the decor and the Gaze of Entire Confusion gives him a terrible migraine afterwards It wasn't even the Sable Throne of Awful Seatedness that he hit them with; it was just this chair, from against the wall.'
Belphoazar and Cuddles looked at each other, with what Big Katia had learned to identify as that look with which merchants shrug 'Soldiers!' She and Zenobia looked at each other, with that look with which soldiers shrug 'Civilians'. The Spouse watched them all, fascinatedly.
'You people here have such a rich culture,' she said.
As early as she could politely do so, Big Katia went back to her room. The rest of the meal was going to be a confusion of toasts, most of them to the Honour of Lethony, probably, and dancers with joint disorders, and unpleasant sticky southern sweetmeats, and more damned tootling and scraping from the musicians, and it was all right for Zenobia - hollow legs that one - but Big Katia had rules about drinking on duty, particularly indoors where the hawk-thing wasn't going to be useful.
And it was all very unfair, but it was clear that Cuddles and Bel were in a terrible sulk about the Clytander business and about Dzarella's failure to turn up - she could tell, not entirely insensitive; nice that the Spouse was taking such a reasonable attitude. Whatever universe she came from, it was clearly a sensible one, with the right attitude to small local difficulties.
She went to the window and whistled. The hawk-thing stooped to her from the flying buttress where it had roosted. She stroked absent-mindedly at the spot just above its left eye until it keened delightedly to itself. Nice to have something that values you uncomplicatedly on the basis of what you can do for them.
Then she took from around its neck the crystal it wore there for her. She pressed the crystal to her forehead, and concentrated; suddenly a testy arrogant presence was riffling through the corners of her mind, going over the last few hours with a brutal efficiency that made her feel almost inadequate.
'What were we going to do next?' said the Dark Lord silkily inside her forehead. It felt as if his elbows were pressing urgently on her temples.
'I was going to check the cellars,' she gasped. 'I don't like the idea of there being something in the cellars we aren't allowed to look at.'
'Very good,' said the Dark Lord,' We were going to tell you that you were going to do that, and you have saved us the trouble. How thoughtful.'
'I aim to please, master,' said Big Katia, knowing that he knew that actually this was a form of words expressive of respect for his desire for forms of submissiveness as a matter of good business, but actually indicative of a gratitude and respect for competence he had by no means forced on her.
'What about this assassin, then?' he said.
'Well,' said Big Katia, 'that was all a bit odd, wasn't it. I mean, I don't think he was one of the Knights of Virtue, whatever Cuddles said. I mean, they always go on and on about themselves - all that Hauberk of Righteousness, Gauntlets of Wrath stuff - and he didn't. Probably just some tedious knight errant getting in people's way like a civilian. And the stuff with the inside of a ring was just a piece of nonsense; I thought everyone knew they had a tattoo on the soles of their feet.'
'Which brings us,' said the Dark Lord, 'to the interesting point of why the Autocrat should claim he was a Knight of Virtue.'
'I'll just treat it as another suspicious circumstance,' said Big Katia.
'When you give Zenobia a talking-to, say it comes from us.'
'Don't you want to discipline her yourself?' thought Big Katia, hopefully.
'You only have to put up with her conversation,' thought the Dark Lord. 'Imagine what it is like having to listen to her mind; it's like being force-fed sugared chestnuts. So you think this Roomlost Spouse is potentially of interest and benefit to us?'
'Well, she just seems to have a pragmatic cast of mind,' thought Big Katia. 'It means she can see a necessity when it confronts her.'
'Always useful,' the Dark Lord acknowledged. 'One of the many things I like about you, Katia.'
The discomfort disappeared from her skull as his presence withdrew; she placed the crystal back in its bag and fed the hawk-thing a couple of strings of sausages she had abstracted for it on her way out of the dining room. It keened contentedly and withdrew its head. It perched on the buttress, shining its scales and preening its feathers.
There were many advantages to the Dark Lord's trusting you a lot, Big Katia reflected, and among them was staying alive, but another was that if he trusted, you, he only rummaged painfully through your brain once in a while. It wasn't being naked before a rimless eye she minded. It was the headache.
Indeed, the headache went on for long enough that she was still sitting on the edge of her bed, gloomily contemplating the plush chimera and the soaking underwear and the burdens of command, when Zenobia bounced in, and immediately started cleaning and sharpening her knife. She always travelled with a dinky little whetstone; just the thing for a headache.
'Hi, Katia,' she shouted after a bit. 'That was pretty good, wasn't it? Straight through both veins and the windpipe in a single cut - told you you needed help. Nice of you to knock him over for me; I'm not fussy about working by myself, not like some people. I really like the way you use whatever's in the room; I suppose you have to when you've got a geas. But I really admire how you've made it a feature; I mean, there aren't many people who are dead shots with chickens.'
'It wasn't a chicken,' said Big Katia, 'it was a guinea-fowl.'
'I'm a bodyguard,' said Zenobia. 'Not a gourmet. I really like that about you, you know, Katia, so does Dzarella; the way that you bring a bit of class to the job, knowing things about what birds are and what wine you drink with and what knife and fork to use, if you could use a knife and fork that is. That's one of the reasons why I've always wanted to work with you, you see, because you're an aristocrat as well as all the rest of it. Well, of course, Dzarella and I come from a perfectly good family, as the mountains go, several stormgods in our ancestry, only reason I feel able to be in the same room as you, and a couple of large farmers, well, farmers who had large farms, only Uncle Wilbert was a half-giant and had a large farm, but it's not the same, is it? But you, you know things. Might rub off, mightn't it?'
'Zenobia,' said Big Katia. 'Do shut up.'
Zenobia looked sheepish.
'Zenobia,' said Big Katia. 'I know I was partly to blame. I haven't learned to pick things out from the general background noise you call conversation, and I was tired from the journey, and I was thinking about something else you mentioned in passing. But I hope I won't ever have to talk to you again about chance-met strangers conveniently going the same way; particularly good-looking young men with transparently false moustaches. You did well down there, but it shouldn't have been necessary.'
'Sorry,' said Zenobia.
'Luckily,' said Big Katia, 'we are the emissaries of the Dark Lord; who sends his regards and a reprimand. Otherwise, had you been doing this freelance, Cuddles would quite cheerfully have had some of those idiots who go on about the honour of Lethony take you out into the court-yard and saw on your veins and windpipe a lot less efficiently than you would manage. Probably suffocate you in lace sleeves quicker than get your head off.'
'But Cuddles is sweet,' said Zenobia.
I was here when he suppressed the Conspiracy of the Shaven Otters,' said Big Katia. 'Him and Bel. I'm in the business, and I work for his Darkness, and I've seen a thing or two, but that was nasty. Bits of conspirator everywhere, and then there was what they did to the Otters. Quite took my breath away. Took theirs too, come to that.'
Zenobia gave a good impression of looking chastened. 'What's the story on Belphoazar?' she said, perking up.
'Foreigner with nasty habits,' said Big Katia. 'They used to be nasty, and they've probably got nastier. Cuddles has his faults, more than he used to, but I never liked Bel. He was the only one of us who came out of the Mines of Sulphur without a scratch and it was him that negotiated with the Salamanders. And I was the one who paid most in that whole business. Pretty slick with the knife in his throat, though, even if he couldn't hit a barn door. Mind you, I never trust a magician who keeps his soul in a box somewhere; means they don't trust their magic. If they don't trust it, why should you? And when they're a creep like him, what's else to trust?'
'Oh, honestly,' said Zenobia. 'You're so prejudiced, Katia. Bel's a southern charmer; he's got bedroom eyes.'
'So has an incubus,' said Big Katia. 'But you don't let one near you all the same. Anyway, we've got work to do. Orders from above - well, I thought of it too. Cellars.'
'They can't be up to much,' said Zenobia. 'I mean, I went and looked round most of them. Really feeble old racks and some oubliettes you can see the bottom of; hardly worth bothering with. Couple of cute prisoners, but I was on duty. Whatever they're up to, it's probably harmless.'
'One of the burdens of command,' said Big Katia, 'is that you are not allowed to assume anything is harmless. And one of the burdens of being commanded is that when a grumpy old commander gets paranoid, you have to humour her.'
'Oh,' said Zenobia, 'do I have to? I've had a rotten evening. It's such a bore having to kill your date, you know, afterwards; I mean, here I am, prime of my youth, quite good-looking, dressed to die for. And when I went to talk to men at the ball, they all chewed their lower lips and remembered urgent appointments in another palace, even the plain ones. So I thought I'd come up here, and wash my hair. It's got blood in it, and it doesn't go with my shade.'
She looked young and innocent and helpless; Big Katia did not soften, but thought that on the other hand there was a lot to be said for going solo. Her arms master had read her a lot of long lectures about not going into a dark room, possibly full of monsters, by yourself; but he had died too young to ever face the prospect of going into a dark room, possibly full of monsters, with Zenobia. True, she might talk the monsters to death, or frighten them with her colour scheme, but there are monsters out there who are deaf and blind, or merely very brave.
Big Katia left the room, assuring Zenobia that everything would present itself in a new light in the morning - she'd probably feel much livelier then. Big Katia had a quick look down the corridors in both directions, paying par_ticular attention to the eyes in the portraits, actually going over and flicking her fingers at a couple - just to be sure, works every time. Then she reached into one of her jerkin pockets and pulled out the Sphere of Invisibility.
Some things don't change in a palace, even when they rebuild it. She had once told Cuddles that it was always a good idea to rebuild your secret passages every few years, but one of the many things she had always noticed about him, and had, in the past, excused, was that he mostly did not listen to a word she said.
Convenient, this time, particularly since it was one of the ones without any little magical kinks, but with a good solid length of chain that you could go down hand-over=hand for several floors, straight down the middle of a load-bearing pillar. Being a secret passage, it was dark - always preferable when going hand-over-hand when in-visible. At the bottom, with light showing from a crack in the wall, she had to shut her eyes and put her hand on the lever from memory; still, easily done. Even when you're checking up on an old boyfriend's malfeasances, it shouldn't be like taking sweetmeats from an infant.
Most of the cellars were taken up with the Room and its storehouses; best leave those to last, probably not there. And of course some of them were where Cuddles kept his mediocre collection of overpriced wine. Big Katia wandered quietly through a collection of overdressed sutlers and butlers sleeping off the evening's unfortunate accidents with rare vintages, natural breakages, honest your Honour. She wasn't here to check this sort of dom_estic trivia, and anyway Cuddles could afford it.
Further along there were shrieks and moans and the screeching of hideous engines. Big Katia decided she had better have a quick look, just in case, but she couldn't believe that Cuddles' secret was here. You don't put a secret in the dungeons, because you have to keep too many other things there too - of course, in principle, you can always butcher all the prisoners for having caught sight of it, but that isn't always convenient, because sometimes you need to use prisoners again later. And you can't just kill all your guards and torturers. Guards are expendable, but you always have to have some, and a good torturer takes years to train up.
And that was another thing. Here Cuddles was, rich as Whatsits, perfectly competent creep of a magician at his beck and call, and what kind of dungeons does he keep? Dark, gloomy and damp, unpleasant for all concerned. Well, prisoners, it's supposed to be unpleasant for them, but there are other ways of doing that, and you don't get good help with bad working conditions, Enough muscle strain involved turning a rack, without doing it in damp cellars. Civilians think most torturers are hunch-backs, but actually it's just the rheumatism that makes them stand that way.
Typical arriviste, she thought unkindly of Cuddles; not interested in getting the job done, just in its being bigger and better than the one down the road, but in other respects exactly the same. After Samhain, there'd be changes, of course. The Dark Lord was a great advocate of modern methods. Particularly when it came to dungeons.
Pausing only when she saw a sweet old torturer almost passing out over the Cobbler's Vicious Daughter he was applying to some civilian, to give the screws, an extra turn - to do good by stealth, her father had always taught her, is the hallmark of true nobility - Big Katia kept going down the dark corridors, lit by increasingly rare torches. In one room, peering through its grated door, she found a bunch of off-duty guards playing dice - Cuddles had a down on gambling and she felt obliged to cough meaningfully from the shadows and disrupt their game, even though one of them had just scored Dragon's Bounty.
In the darker dungeons, she recognized three Knights of Virtue, being kept in conditions that almost ap_proached the civilized. Hostages, she supposed, all very well, but you shouldn't cosset that sort of chap, only leads to them expecting clean straw, three square meals and a minstrel. Then the corridor did a bend and crescented back the way she had come. Nothing down here, so she went to the other end of the cellars and checked the Room and its environs.
She knew better than try to enter the Room - never a safe thing to do, even when the wards were off. Most of the storerooms were full of the usual incomprehensible junk - room after room of boxes full of thin sheets of parchment with the same face on them; a few had statues and jewels and musical instruments in them, but nothing of military or political application.
In one of the darker corridors, Big Katia turned a corner and found herself bumping into, and getting entangled with, a vast heap of fabric. It proved to be a number of veils, twined across the corridor from two torch brackets with no torches in them.
'Hi, there,' said the Spouse, from behind her. 'I thought I might find you wandering around down here. I thought it time we had a little chat.'
'I'm invisible,' said Big Katia, 'You're not supposed to be able to see me.'
'Ah,' said the Spouse, from behind the two torches she was holding, 'but when you're tangled up in veils, and there's light behind you, you don't throw a shadow, but the tangle does.'
'Oh,' said Big Katia, freeing herself, 'I never knew that.'
'Free lesson,' said the Spouse. 'Also, it means I get a chance to talk to you from shadow before you get a chance to look at my face.'
'Bad, is it?' said Big Katia. 'Thought there must be some reason he kept you in veils. Always thought character more important myself.'
'That's not precisely the problem,' said the Spouse. 'I don't know whether you realized, but they were sort of hoping something awful would happen when we were in the same room together. I hope you're not superstitious or anything.'
She moved the torches, so that Big Katia could see her face. She was a bit younger, and she didn't have the scar over the right eye, and she clearly hadn't ever developed the shoulders for a broadsword.
'We really are most awfully alike,' she said. 'I was a bit worried you might think I was your doppelganger or something.'
'Like you,' said Big Katia, breathing only slightly more heavily, 'I'm not superstitious. Besides, in my family, we don't have fetches, we have a perfectly respectable banshee.'
'Well, that's all right,' said the Spouse. 'Anyway, I'm sure you're not here to make polite conversation. It's not in the dungeon. It's out the back. In the lazar pits.'
'What's out the back?' said Big Katia.
'The other bit of no good that they're up to,' said the Spouse.
'You mean, apart from the scheme to have me drop dead, whether from terror or by some eldritch procedure involving the principle of contagion or the principle of conservation of reality, from being in the same room as my equivalent from another universe, whom they think they can control and send back to the Dark Lord as his Security Consultant,' said Big Katia.
'Yes,' said the Spouse. 'Apart from that. They have classes in military schools here on summarizing obvious strategic positions, then?'
'No,' said Big Katia. 'It's a bad habit I developed all by myself.'
'Fair enough,' said the Spouse. 'I had always wondered if it was something I could have avoided.'
'You in the business back there then?' said Big Katia.
'We don't call them Security Consultants,' said the Spouse. 'We call them Military Advisors.'
'So what's the other big secret?' said Big Katia, putting the Sphere of Invisibility back in her pocket, and following the Spouse up a sloping corridor to the back of the palace, and through a picket gate, whose guards lay slightly further up the corridor in attitudes not indicative of any repose save the last.
When Cuddles was a boy, he used to collect lepers, not a nice habit, and his mother had always made him keep them outside; typical of the way she spoiled him, she'd had lazar pits specially built. Sucking noises came from one of them, and endless hungry chittering from another.
'Cuddles finally trade in his leper collection, then?' said Big Katia.
'I imagine they just served as lunch for the new occupants,' said the Spouse.
'More Roomlost waifs and strays, then,' said Big Katia, might as well remind this woman of her status before she gets too cocky.
'Pests and vermin,' said the Spouse, thrusting one of her torches down into the pits. In one of them there pullulated vast maggot-like things with suckers, that crawled over and entwined each other, thick as summer bindweed. In the other, there were a lot of eyes and bright teeth and the smell of damp fur.
'Sort of giant rats,' said Big Katia.
'Part rat, part ferret, part wolverine,' said the Spouse. 'Magic then,' said Big Katia.
'Not where I come from,' said the Spouse.
'Live in sewers, do they?' said Big Katia.
'No,' said the Spouse. 'They swarm, and they eat everything in sight, and they breed, and then they swarm some more. Do you a nice line in plague for an encore, too.'
'What about the maggots?' said Big Katia. 'Turn into very big bluebottles, do they? And buzz people to death?'
'No, they're neotenous,' said the Spouse.
Big Katia looked blank.
'They grow big, not up,' said the Spouse.
'Why didn't you say so?' said Big Katia.
'It's called eco-war,' said the Spouse. 'You let them loose in the enemy's territory. Soften them up.'
'Darkness go in for that sort of thing where you come from, then?' said Big Katia, uneasily.
'I don't work for Darkness, said the Spouse. 'I am a major in the marines, sworn to his Majesty Alexander 7th Hamilton-Iturbide-Hapsburg of the Unified State of America. We don't do this sort of thing, but the enemy does, possibly. So we have to be prepared.'
'So what are Cuddles and Bel up to?'
'Winning your war for you, presumably,' said the Spouse.
'Hardly,' said Big Katia, 'or they'd have sent lots of grovelling emissaries to the Dark Lord to boast about their wonderful free contribution to his manifest destiny and ask for lots of gold to cover unavoidable personal expenses.'
'Private enterprise, then,' said the Spouse.
'Treason,' said Big Katia, regretfully. 'When I was walking here, old habit before campaigns, I stopped over in a lot of taverns. Now I often drink with grain merchants, because as merchants go, they're not too bad. And they were all even more keen to buy me a round than they usually are; ever so prosperous they were. But a bit secretive about it. So, when I let slip I was coming down to do some work for Cuddles, they all opened up, thought I knew all about it. He's only bought up every last grain of corn and wheat going spare in the Twenty-Four Kingdoms. Now that could be just investment against a bad harvest in a war year, and then again, it could be investment against a very bad harvest any year he wants one. And, well, his Darkness and I, we're not conquering the known world just so that we have to sell it to Cuddles afterwards for a loaf of bread.'
Just thought you'd like to know,' said the Spouse. 'We aim to please.'
'But your loyalty is to this United Kingdoms of Thingy,' said Big Katia.
'Listen, girl,' said the Spouse. 'That's there, and this is here. And you are me, sort of. So, if Darkness, is good enough for you, I'm sure it's a perfectly good employer. I mean, I can hardly go up to the Knights of Virtue and say, Pardon me, I know I look exactly like the Dark Lord's chatelaine ...'
'Security consultant,' said Big Katia.
'... But I'm not her and I want to join the forces of Light, so give me a good job on the Staff. Never happen, would it?'
It is very strange shaking hands with yourself, particularly when you are trying to squeeze their hand a bit to show who's boss and they're doing exactly the same. She wasn't even less strong, Big Katia realized, just wiry; probably uses a rapier then.
It was almost light by the time Big Katia got back to her room; cocks were crowing and the hawk-thing was somewhere in the sky, making its own helpful contribution to the racket. Someone had thoughtfully left a breakfast tray outside the room, and Big Katia picked it up and took it in. There really was the most awful smell in here, probably something that girl puts on her hair.
'Rise and shine,' she shouted, to let the child know she didn't have a monopoly on tactlessness.
'I don't think I can quite manage that,' creaked a skeletal voice from Zenobia's bed.
'Feeling like death, are we,' said Big Katia, drawing a curtain. The light revealed a Zenobia whose pallor tended towards the green where it was not the white and red of stripped skull. She'd always gone on about her cheek-bones, and indeed, they were very nice. Her right arm was stripped to the bone as well, though the way it clutched her dagger indicated that it still more or less worked.
'I am dead,' said Zenobia. 'That's just typical of you, Katia Saint Clair. While you were out, and they weren't best pleased about that, let me tell you, they came and they took me to Belphoazar's chamber, and he killed me, and raised me from the dead. And he set great worms to eat my flesh, and healed me. And then he did it all again. It hurt. It hurt lots. And now I am an undead lich, smelling of decay and uncovered bone. And it's ruined my nails and hair.'
'Never mind,' said Big Katia, sitting beside her on the bed. 'One thing about being dead, or undead come to that, is that your nails and hair keep on growing. Just hell on your complexion.'
She stroked the kid's forehead, hoping it wouldn't come off on her fingers.
'I'm sure his Darkness can help a little,' she continued.
'But what if he thinks being hideously disfigured will be good for me?' said Zenobia, 'the way being unable to use any edged or thrusting blade was for you?'
'That's different,' said Big Katia. 'The geas was placed on me by the Salamanders, and the Dark Lord doesn't want to offend the Salamanders, not until after Samhain anyway, Besides, there's supposed to be a trick built into the geas; they said I'd sort it out when I got a grip on the problem. And death and undeath spells aren't like geases; you can't do anything about them while the magician is alive. And I can't do anything about the magical aspects of the situation, but the magician's being alive is a situation I can sure as hell rectify.'
'But Belphoazar has a magic sword as well as everything else he's got down there; and he's probably expecting you.'
'Well,' said Big Katia, 'he and Cuddles have failed to kill me once already since we've been here. And I don't imagine they plan to stop trying. Far better to try and take them separately.'
'Cuddles.' Zenobia made motions with her partially exposed gullet that indicated a desire to spit. 'He stood and watched. When Belphoazar did things to me, I pleaded with him on what was left of my knees, and he just said "Sometimes Bel likes them stiff, but mostly he likes them squishy." And then he reached over, and gouged out one of my eyes, and stared deep into the other and said "My god, but you're lovely." I mean, say what you like about Belphoazar, but at least he was too busy chanting to come out with cheap patter. And I said I wouldn't tell them anything, and they said that there wasn't anything I could tell them that they needed to know.'
'Yes, well dear,' said Big Katia. 'It's all very horrid, but it's best not to brood on these things. My father always told me that an officer's first duty is to look after the wounded. Yes, I know you're dead, dear, but it will be a lot more helpful if you think of yourself as wounded. It's all a matter of attitude.'
She went to the window and whistled. The hawk-thing stopped its demented cawing and stooped down from the sky to hover conveniently beside the window-sill. Big Katia tended not to ride him, but there was a convenient hollow in his shoulders, and Zenobia carried a lot less flesh round her middle, particularly now. As Zenobia settled down on its shoulders, the hawk-thing keened consolingly and reached round with its long tongue to lick the blood from her bones. Big Katia ran through what she knew of Cuddles' schemes.
'There may come a time in the course of the morning,' said Big Katia, 'if all goes well, when I need you two to create a diversion.'
'Hadn't you better speak to his Darkness?' said Zenobia, 'He hates it when you rush off and do something drastic without asking him first.'
'One of the things about dealing with his Darkness,' said Big Katia, 'is that sometimes, particularly when dealing with personal matters, it is better to avoid his all-seeing rimless eye until after you've done it.'
She handed Zenobia over on to the hawk-thing's back and stepped back from the window, knocking over the breakfast tray. When the ale spilled on to the oatcakes, both fizzed alarmingly. She stepped back, holding her breath against the fumes.
'That's two,' she said. 'And having to kill old friends without any breakfast makes it very personal indeed.'
The cacophony of cockerels was gradually replaced by a brassy tintinnabulation as the bellringers of Lethony started earning their generous overtime. One of the many superiorities of the north, thought Big Katia, is that when a couple of the right sort decide to get themselves married, they just wander into breakfast and say so, and everyone has some more ale. None of this noise and fuss.
The noise was particularly abrasive as she strode invisibly up the stairs to Belphoazar's apartments. You would think that he would want to sleep downstairs with the Room keeping an eye on the job - might do something about the damp in the cellars if he did - but, oh no! Bel has delusions of grandeur, always did have, and wants to be the sort of elegant mage who ponces around in swish chambers on the tops of towers, dropping the names and sexual habits of constellations with whom he is on intimate terms.
There were few guards on these upper floors; typical of a civilian like Cuddles, strip protection from your major asset to swell the honour guard at the ceremony. May mean he thinks Belphoazar is capable of seeing me off all by himself, of course. Insolent young puppy.
Once she got near the door of the observatory, Big Katia put the Sphere back in her pocket. Belphoazar might not be up to the Spouse's tricks with light and shadow, but he was probably up to the old gag with the bucket of flour balancing on the door. Just because he is a powerful magician and necromancer does not mean he is above those old tricks which work every time.
There's no point in rushing into this, she thought; simply leaping in bellowing is going to get me killed straight off, and it is what he expects, always thought I was just some dumb grunt of a soldier. On the other hand, not much call for subtlety in the situation, either, is there?
She beat three times on the open door with her open palm.
'Belphoazar the Mage,' she said in a quiet formal sort of voice, 'I, Katerina de Yevonde de Haute Saint Clair, do summon, attaint and challenge you for most foul treason against your tributary lord, the Dark One, in that you and others did do violence, physical and metaphysical, to his trusty and well-beloved servant, namely Zenobia of the White Knife, and planned actions, present and future...'
'Oh, do shut up, Big Katia,' said Belphoazar from the other side of the heavily furnished room. He was standing in long over-ornate black and gold brocade robes, holding in front of him a dark-metalled sword with runes engraved on the sharp blade and a crystal full of many colours throbbing in the pommel. 'I want to get this over, and I have a wedding to attend in a few minutes. You needn't bother with the rest of the formula. You plan to kill me, and you have no weapon, nor any capacity to use one, and I have a magic sword, and my soul and life are elsewhere, so why don't you just come over here and let me kill you quickly, if not painlessly?'
'If there is one thing I hate more than a traitor,' said Big Katia, 'it's a conceited traitor.'
'Look, Big Katia,' he said, 'I know that you are very stupid indeed and I may have to take you through all of this even more slowly than I have already, but surely someone with the intelligence of a flea can simply accept the inevitable.'
'You can have me,' said Big Katia, 'if you can catch me. But it will cost you.'
She walked through the open door, noticing the bucket of flour that was indeed poised just above it on a shelf. Watching his eyes very carefully, she strode over to his telescope, a vast object in black obsidian - Darkness knows how long it took to grind a channel through the stone, and the crystals cost a fortune, there ought to be some military application for the things if they weren't so expensive. She picked it up, hefted it in her hands meditatively and then swung it at the large glass jars with ivory stoppers, full of the red, green and blue liquids in which Belphoazar kept some rather scrofulous homunculi.
There was a really quite gratifying splintering, splash-mg and scrabbling of small dying creatures, which almost drowned out the din from the belfry across the courtyard. On the upstroke, she detached an orrery from its mounting in the ceiling, sending it spinning to the flagstone floor; its mountings crumbled into shards of filigree and the little planets and stars went scurrying off like quicksilver cockroaches.
She tipped the tube of the telescope, and all of the expensive crystals came rushing out as glittering dust at her feet. She had not ceased to stare defiance at Belphoazar, who stood still at the other side of the room, glaring at her.
Marian,' he said. Have you no respect for the tools of Knowledge?'
'I am not a barbarian,' said Big Katia. 'I am an aristocrat, and no one who tortures my assistant to un-death has the right to talk to me about respect.'
'You're so stupid,' said Belphoazar, striding across towards her and thrusting with his sword in a distinctly unsoldierly manner. 'Your whole life has been wrecked by the geas, and you never even realized that it was my payment to the Salamanders for what I wanted from them. I mean, Cuddles can be pretty dense, but at least he caught on to what we were doing in the Mines of Sulphur in the end.'
'I wouldn't say my life has been wrecked by it,' said Big Katia, batting his thrusts aside contemptuously with the telescope. 'I'd say it has been quite character-forming.'
The room rang with the noise of steel against stone. She continued to watch his shoulders for the first signal of a move, and stay just at that point where her control over the cylinder of stone she was hefting in one hand was sufficient to block his thrusts. Even though he was quite remarkably clumsy, he was getting worryingly better as the duel proceeded, and the sword had a pain-fully bright blue light playing along its runes that struck Big Katia as ominous.
His nervousness indicating it so much in advance that she thought he was trying to fool her by overacting, Belphoazar thrust at her viciously. Big Katia danced aside, catching him with the telescope so that his pomaded fringe was soon soaked in blood from the cut high on his forehead.
While she was out to his side, she reached over, caught up one of the more obnoxiously over-carved footstools with her free hand, and tossed it between and into his shins. He stumbled and nearly lost his balance altogether.
'Come on,' she said. 'Do the whole thing again about how easy it is going to be for you to kill me; I like a good laugh when I'm fighting.'
He was starting to breathe heavily.
'Or, if you like,' she reached behind her and knocked his grimoires off his work bench, then swept a flask of vitriol he used for spoiled pages over on top of them, 'you could do the other bit of the gloat scene. The one where you tell me all about the wonderful schemes you will be able to put into operation the moment you've killed me. I know about the thing with the Spouse; sensible woman, that one, though I should think so too in the circumstances. So what's the plan with the wildlife collection?'
He rushed at her again, and stumbled, putting his right foot straight through the hem of that awful robe.
'Don't think rending your garments counts as an apology where I'm concerned,' said Big Katia. 'This is a duel to the death, not to the destruction of overpriced haberdashery.'
She parried yet another thrust, still watching the mixture of anxiety and complacency in his eyes and the tiredness of his sword hand. They say magic is hard work, but wizards never seem to be up to an honest five minutes' swordplay.
She watched her strikes and his thrusts in a mirror behind his head in the gently abstracted fashion she always liked to see creeping over her at this point in a fight; far more genteel than going berserk, she'd always thought.
It was in the mirror that she noticed one of the marble arms that held torches drop its torch, reach for a rapier that was hanging next to it and make a thrust at her from behind, She dodged, kicked another stool under his feet, took a healthy swing and smashed the wall-arm's elbow with a pleasing crunch.
'Stab in the back, eh?' she said.
'Your talent for stating the obvious,' gasped Belphoazar, 'has never ceased to amaze me.'
'Indulge me,' said Big Katia. 'Stabs in the back, other examples of' - he was still getting better and he almost got me with that one, not quite though - 'at Samhain, you wait for us to win, or them, and then you let loose the wildlife on the lands of the victor. We don't know where it's coming from, just bad luck, we think. And what a good thing nice old Cuddles and Bel happen to have a lot of granaries, and how little money they want for the grain, considering.'
'Well, obviously,' said Belphoazar. 'Why else would we go into alliances, if not to make a profit?'
'Merchant,' Big Katia spat.
When she parried his next thrust, the carved stone of the telescope shattered. For, a second she was left holding a shard with a wicked point at its end; then pain flared in her hand, and she had to let her weapon go. Bel smirked and thrust; she backed away from him fast, but her left heel touched the wall.
He paused; savouring the kill, and she reached round, grabbed the wrist of the wall-arm and thrust at him with its hand, still clutching the rapier. Belphoazar backed, trod on the hem of his robe again, and went flying back-wards over another footstool. His sword went flying from his hand; its blue lights dimmed and the crystal flashed ever more urgently.
'I've got to get a grip on the problem, have I?' said Big Katia. She walked over, kicked Belphoazar smartly in the side of the head, and pulled the puce velvet sash loose from his waist.
He lay there, concussed.
'I don't know what good that is going to do you,' he said. 'My life and soul are elsewhere, and strangling is not my death.'
Big Katia walked over to the fallen sword.
He raised himself on one elbow.
'I know,' he said, 'that you have the attention span of a mosquito, but you have a geas on you. The Salamanders put it there for me. You have no power to use edged or thrusting blades.'
She tried to slide the sash under the sword, but the mere proximity of the blade she was trying to find a way of controlling set her hands to burning again. She kicked Belphoazar in the side of the head again, while she thought over her next move.
'The geas means you can't even touch a common sword,' he sneered. 'So how can you be so stupid as to think you can manipulate that sword!'
'You mean the sword into whose pommel your life is bound with what was once my swordplay?' Big Katia said.
'It took you a while,' said Belphoazar. 'But it's not going to do you any good.'
'I don't know,' Big Katia said, flexing the sash. 'One of the things my old father taught me is that the truely noble mind will always find a way of solving any problem.'
She knelt, tying Belphoazar's ankles together with one end of the sash, and took the rest of the sash and slung it over the hook where the orrery had hung. Ignoring the offers of wealth and glory that merchants usually manage to come up with when you are about to kill them, she hoisted Belphoazar upside down into the air. The sword was lying on the floor so that its pommel was directly underneath him. Keeping a hold with one hand on the sash, she dropped him so that his head struck the crystal with an unpleasant thud. Nothing happened the first time, and so she hauled him back up into the air, and did it again.
The more he gibbered, the more lurid grew the colours in the crystal. She was impressed by the strength of the silk, or whatever it was, because it managed, though starting to fray, to outlast both the crystal and Belphoazar's skull. When crystal and skull finally shattered together, it was the crystal that oozed red blood and brains; the skull was white and thin-boned and empty, letting loose only a stench and smoke, hardly perceptible in the incense-laden air, that dissipated, quick and imperceptible as his dying sigh.
She tried to pick the sword up again, but the geas still burned at her hand. Sometimes, in magic, it is not what they took that is important. It is the fact that they took it from you for ever.
Big Katia walked back over to the work table, wiping a mild sheen of sweat off her forehead. Belphoazar had obviously been more nervous than he let on, because he had hardly touched his breakfast oatcakes. No point in going to a wedding on an empty stomach, Big Katia thought.
Even taking the stairs down two at a time, it was a high tower, and things were well under way by the time Big Katia burst into the great hall. So well under way that no one particularly noticed her for all the chanting of hymns to the honour of Lethony, singing of madrigals about the beauty of the Spouse - gross exaggeration that - and orations about the benefits to the State of the Autocrat's enlightened rule.
Up on the dais, some religious gentleman with a high hat and over-long fingernails was chanting in some thank-fully dead language full of glottal stops and elisions about the blessed state of matrimony and the advantages it brought in the shape of progeny, licensed pleasure and tax breaks. Big Katia was glad to see that the Spouse had the common sense to yawn. But, from what she could hear through the babbling of the overdressed multitude, they hadn't got yet to the bit she was interested in.
That followed almost immediately.
'Does anyone know of any just cause or impediment-' the religious personage began in a voice startlingly more strident than his earlier falsetto warblings.
'Here,' said Big Katia, elbowing her way past three representatives of the Cheese-makers' guild, two ambassadors and a rather expensive-looking courtesan. 'Stop everything. Arrest that bridegroom. Stop twisting that bride's arm behind her back. And you,' as a promotion-hunting guard on the dais dipped his halberd and tensed his muscles, 'you, you horrible looking little man, what kind of an excuse is that for a clean weapon on a ceremonial occasion. Bloody disgrace, I call that.'
She elbowed him aside and stepped on to the dais.
The Autocrat turned and crooked a finger, to his guards.
'Arrest that woman; she is an agent of a foreign power and, since he has not turned up for the wedding, in all probability the murderer of my old friend and colleague Belphoazar.'
Big Katia crooked her own finger, without the sheer conviction that comes from being decadent.
'Arrest that man,' she shouted, 'for treason against his tributary lord, the Dark Lord of the Sable Empire.'
The guards looked slightly baffled, and a couple of them turned inquiringly to the elderly religious gentleman.
'The Lord of the Sable Empire,' he quavered, 'hath no jurisdiction in this realm of Lethony.'
'Besides,' Big Katia continued, 'the actions of the Autocrat have imperilled the Honour of Lethony.'
The response came in a rumble like tumbril wheels.
'You are merchants,' she said, biting her lower' lip to force herself not to say the word with her usual scorn, 'and your word is the tool of your trade. How can you have a ruler who betrays his sworn word to his ally and master? Who kills his guests and mocks them dying? Who plans to unleash plagues on the world for the sake of a temporary profit?'
Cuddles looked at his courtiers, and they looked back at him with tentative hostility. A couple of guards started to move in his direction.
He sidestepped them swiftly, and placed a not entirely ornamental dagger against the Spouse's throat.
'One step further, Katerina,' he said, 'and I will slit my beloved wife's throat. We don't know what that would mean for you, but are you feeling lucky?'
In a ripping of silk so nerve-rending it was almost an ache, the Spouse kicked backwards into his groin. Cuddles bent over, winded, and vomited half-digested oatcake all over his pointed shoes.
'I'm not your wife, shithead,' she growled. 'Not yet, anyway. I didn't say "I do" yet and there ain't no ring on my finger.'
'But you are,' said Big Katia. 'You were his wife from the moment the ceremony started. They have a law here. Trust me. It's important.'
Cuddles straightened. With a tight look of strain on his face, he turned to his guards.
'Rid me of this foreign whore,' he shouted.
A sergeant stepped forwards.
'Sorry, your Magnificence,' he said in one of those flat, these are the rules voices, 'but we cannot do that. It is all very clear in the statutes and constitution of the city; She has arraigned you, and you must answer her charges. It's a matter of the honour of Lethony.'
This time the response came as a rhythmic and repeated shout.
'Will none stand by me?' shouted Cuddles.
Valentine and his three henchmen stepped forwards.
'Look, Katia,' Valentine started, 'I really am most awfully sorry about this. But he is my uncle, and I am his heir, and, though I agree with you about his being a terrible old shit, you know how it is.'
'Don't be silly, you cute boy,' growled the Spouse, digging her fingers into the base of his sword-hand, and taking his sword with her free hand. She turned and glowered at his companions, who retreated along the dais. Valentine stepped back too, ineffectually nursing his wrist, which hung limp. Nice trick, that.
Cuddles began to look seriously impatient; somewhat belatedly, a group of bravos forced their way to the front of the crowd to the hisses of the multitude.
'Mercenary Guild, at your service, Sir,' a mustachioed heavy with a broad-sword began. 'Triple rates for emergency call-out and all found.'
There were plenty of chairs at the back of the dais; Big Katie picked one up in each of her hands, tossing one at random into the middle of the bravos and using the other hit Moustaches over the head. He sank to his knees and the Spouse stepped forward and set her sword to the base of his throat.
'Here,' said Moustaches, 'who're you? That's really sneaky. Tell you what, Sir, two Big Katias, that'll be quintuple rates and overtime, and that's our final offer.'
Big Katia pursed her lips and whistled. The great East window shattered delightfully as Zenobia and the hawk-thing swept in through it; the wedding guests took it in part and cheered to the echo, except for the rabble at the back who were too busy picking fragments of the Autocrat's Works and Deeds out of their paltry hides.
The mercenaries looked at each other, bowed to Big Katia and the Spouse, and left by the nearest door. The hawk-thing seized Cuddles in its talons and hovered; there is after all an argument for high ceilings, Big Katia re_flected.
'Just thought we'd drop in,' croaked Zenobia. The girl has a new sparkle to her bones now Bel is out of the way, Big Katia thought with relief.
'I appeal,' Cuddles said quickly from above, 'to the high justice of the Dark Lord in person.'
'I really object, your Magnificence,' said the elderly religious gentleman, 'to your going over the heads of the people of Lethony like this.'
'Easily done,' said Big Katia. 'Zenobia, the crystal in the bag round the hawk-thing's neck, if you'd be so kind.'
'Oh,' said Zenobia, 'can I do this bit? I've always wanted to do this bit. And I can do this bit really well now.'
'I suppose so,' said Big Katia. Zenobia reached up and placed the crystal into her empty eye socket. Instantly she looked down on the scene with a new and unappealing balefulness.
'Put him down,' said her voice, with a dark seriousness and the huskiness of a distant bass.
'This is all a misunderstanding,' said Cuddles, regaining his feet. 'Your servant here has chosen wilfully to misinterpret a mere pilot project as a coherent intention to engage in environmental warfare behind your back. Looked at in the right light, the whole affair is all very innocent. I really wish that you respected your allies enough to send them a higher class of officer than this paunchy, grubby, overgrown, simple-minded bitch.'
'Autocrat of Lethony,' said the voice, 'Autocrat of Lethony, why do you insult us? And what are we to do with you? Katerina is our hand and our eye, and whatever she does has our entire approval.'
'Oh, honestly,' Cuddles said. 'The woman is completely incompetent.'
'That,' said the Dark Lord, 'is very precisely where you are wrong. Katerina is most seriously competent. Not brilliant, we'll grant you that, but then brilliance is a virtue we have always considered redundant, in a sub-ordinate. And besides, Katerina is loyal. Let us, for your future heirs, recommend loyalty, an underrated Virtue, unlike mercy.'
'But if she is so awfully good,' said Cuddles, 'why is she only your chateleine.'
'She is not our chateleine,' said the Dark Lord. 'She is our Security Consultant, in whom we are well pleased. Anyway, Cuddles Saint Evremonde de Santa Clara di Hijuelas da Krakowiak, you have burdened the earth too long. We don't like treason.'
'You don't understand,' Cuddles said. 'I don't regard it as treason. Merely as greasing the wheels of statecraft.'
'Personally,' said the Dark Lord, 'we have always considered blood a far more salutary lubricant. You have appealed to our high justice. You can try appealing to the mercy of our servants. Katerina, this all seems fairly straightforward, so could you look after this now? We have got seventeen divisions of orcs to review, and three dragons to discipline. Thanks a lot. Oh, and Zenobia-'
'Yes, my Lord,' she answered herself.
'Don't do any sunbathing. Carry on.'
And he was gone.
'Well,' said Big Katia. 'As to my mercy ... Zenobia, pick him up again and fly him out the back, would you?'
Many of the crowd had left on the arrival of the Dark Presence; it was clear there was going to be no banquet and that the fountains of wine were likely to be turned off at any moment. But a scattering of guards and dignitaries followed Big Katia round to the back of the palace and the lazar pits. The creatures in the depths looked even nastier in daylight.
The hawk-thing hovered, and Cuddles hung shivering from its talons.
'Which one shall I drop him in?' said Zenobia. 'The furry ones or the squelchy ones?'
'Be my guest,' said Big Katia. 'Up to you.'
'Oh,' said Zenobia, 'you know I feel really spoiled for choice. I mean, I know what it's like having the squishy ones all over you and sucking bits of your flesh up in their suckers and chewing on it with little mouths that you can see masticating what used to be your flesh, and that's quite appropriate. But, on the other hand, the furry ones look as if they could do quite a nice job, sharp teeth and sweet little claws and all, and it might be fun to watch them, because after all I've seen what the squishy things do already. What's a girl to do?'
'Excuse me, ma'am,' said the flat-voiced sergeant. 'But couldn't you just toss him up in the air and see which way he comes down. Heads or tails, sort of thing?'
'Fair enough,' said Zenobia.
'Only you wouldn't believe,' the sergeant went on, 'what a pain he is about gambling. Always sneaking around, trying to catch us at it on duty, and having people impaled just for a handful of pasteboards. I mean, only last night, there I was, just scored Dragon's Bounty, and there's this cough in the corridor, and I say to the lads, that's it, better pack it in, there's His Nibs getting touchy. Anyway, couldn't let the lads have their revenge then, could I? So now they've asked me to let them take a side bet?'
Zenobia tugged on the hawk-thing's ruff and it soared to the clouds. A second later, down came Cuddles tumbling like a leaf, to fall precisely across the barrier between the pits. Adventurous worms sucked at his heels and ingenious rats formed pyramids to nibble at his head; it was a while before the rats managed to get enough leverage to pull him over and by that time he had stopped whimpering altogether.
Big Katia spat.
'How are you feeling now?' she asked Zenobia, solicitously. 'I always find, quite apart from breaking any spells that might be going around, that the best cure for momentary depression is final and bloody revenge...'
The religious gentleman came forward.
'Don't grovel, man,' she barked. 'I hate grovelling.'
'What is your intention for the realm of Lethony?'
'Don't look at me,' she said. 'Like you said, the Sable Empire hath no jurisdiction, save of course when we need to kill a traitor, You have a perfectly good Dowager Autocrat and a perfectly good Autocrat Presumptive. I am sure they can come to some convenient arrangement.'
She turned to the Spouse, who appeared to be bandaging Valentine's wrist with a torn off bit of wedding dress.
'Put that boy down a second -' she summoned the Spouse over '-I need someone to run this dump, and I am sure you can handle it.'
'Can do, ma'am,' said the Spouse, pointing her fingers to the side of her head for some incomprehensible reason.
'Usual stuff, levy of troops come Samhain, trade pact against the Forces of Light, free hand otherwise,' Big Katia rattled off. 'Oh, and dump some boiling oil in those pits.'
'Aren't you going to use them?' said the Spouse, 'I thought you were the Forces of Darkness, the Evil Sable Empire and all that stuff.'
'I don't know how they' run these things where you come from,' said Big Katia. 'But the Dark Lord and I, his trusty servant, intend to win this war, come Samhain, and that means we plan to rule the world afterwards. Can't have things like this crawling over the landscape: I mean, I may not be very clever by the standards of the United Kingdoms of Thing, but I can see that. Spoil the crops, for one thing, and for another, they'd absolutely ruin the huntin'.'
It was a tedious journey back to the realm of the Sable Throne; Zenobia kept complaining that her feet hurt and she didn't want to ruin her best boots by smearing ichor all over the insoles. That meant she got to ride the hawk-thing almost all of the way, and to keep up meant that Big Katia had to borrow a horse. And keeping the hawk-thing from eating it meant endless sulking from that quarter.
And the damn things keep having to stop and eat grass; what a waste of time that is. At least when the hawk-thing went off to feed, it brought back something you could eat too, except when it brought back senile peasants, of course. Big Katia and Zenobia were travelling light, and so were restricted to meat tender enough to roast on a spit.
Zenobia and the hawk-thing were off, foraging or sky-larking, whatever, and the horse was nibbling at some ferns in a particularly idiotic way, and Big Katia was leaning against a tree, minding her own business. Suddenly, from out of the forest, came three men wearing white armour and nasty expressions.
'Katerina de Yevonde de Haute Saint Clair,' one of them said. 'We are the Knights of Virtue.'
'Astound me,' she said. 'I'd never have guessed what the white armour meant without your help.'
'Katerina; he continued, 'you stand accused, so make your peace with whatever it is you worship.'
'Easily done,' she said. 'I am at peace with myself.'
'You stand accused of allegiance to Darkness; of the betrayal of old love; of the foul murder of the Knight Clytander; of sponsoring adultery, usurpation and incest; of instigating the destruction of small furry animals and great white squishy things; and of being the Dark Lord's consort and chatelaine. How plead you?'
'Well,' she said. 'Nobody's perfect.'
'We are,' they said in unison.
'I guess you just had to be there at the time,' she continued.
'We were,' they said. 'We were in the dungeons. But our ally, the late Autocrat, who was keeping us there out of sight, released us the morning of his demise.'
'How thoughtful of poor Cuddles,' Big Katia said.
One of the knights stepped forwards, raising his sword to swing at her. He disappeared into the pit she and Zenobia had dug next to their camp-site the moment the hawk-thing had started sniffing disgustedly as if he smelled something beneficent. Zenobia had done a good job with the spikes too; Big Katia could tell from the squelch, gurgle and rattle that ensued.
A second knight stepped up, rather more gingerly, and kicked the brushwood and ferns that covered the pit after his dead companion.
'Another death to your account, 0 most sinful of women; he said. 'When will you learn proper submission to your moral superiors?'
'Probably never, you silly, jumped-up little peasant,' Big Katia said.
He looked suitably outraged and was concentrating so heavily on going purple in the face that he never saw Zenobia swoop down from the sky on the hawk-thing, swing sideways from its shoulders, keeping a firm grasp of its neck wattles with her free hand, and take out his throat with a single pass of her knife.
The third knight made a series of gestures as his second companion crumpled into the pit and Big Katia found herself entirely unable to move. Zenobia and the hawk-thing shuddered to a halt in the air, and thudded none too gently to the ground.
'You shall endure torments,' said the third knight. The Knights of Virtue usually considered magery pretty suspect, Big Katia reflected, but sometimes you just get unlucky.
'Resistance is impossible,' he continued. 'Have the grace to die as quietly as you can manage, without stupid threats or promises or attempts to persuade me that there is someone behind me.'
'I wouldn't dream of telling you that there is someone behind you,' Big Katia said.
'No,' Zenobia said. 'Why should we tell you that there's someone behind you? You're a Knight of Virtue, after all, and that probably means you're not noble enough for us even to speak to you.'
'I mean,' said Big Katia, 'you'd have to have at least three royal quarterings and noble beasts for supporters, before we'd even tell you that your hair was on fire...'
'If it was, which it isn't,' Zenobia interrupted. 'And as for telling you that someone was behind you, well, either they'd be less noble than you in which case we couldn't tell you because that would be interfering in quarrels among the lower orders, which is fearfully bad form, or they'd be more noble than you, in which case we couldn't possibly tell you, because we'd be on their side. Noblesse Oblige sort of thingy.'
'So,' Big Katia said, 'we can absolutely positively guarantee that we are definitely not going to tell you there is someone behind you.'
'Bloody aristocrats,' the Knight of Virtue grumbled. 'Always thinking you're so grand, doing all this laughing in the teeth of death thing. Never catch me doing that; a prayer and decent silence thereafter, that's my rule.'
'I'm ever so glad you feel like that,' said Big Katia, as with two loud explosions his upper torso disintegrated.
Dzarella stepped from the shadows, blowing the smoke from a mysterious device that seemed mostly to consist of two steel cylinders and a hand-grip, but was probably more complicated than that.
'Where have you been?' Big Katia said.
'I was on my way,' Dzarella said. 'And when I got to Lethony, the new Queen, odd woman, funny thing is she looks just like you, put this in my hand, don't know what it is but it seems to work all right, muttered about discrepancies in the dungeon records, funny thing for a grown woman to waste her time on, and said ride east after them. Seemed a good idea, so I did it. Good job really. Can't say I like the new look, Zen, supposed to be fashionable, is it?'
'If will be, Za,' Zenobia said, grinning from ear to ear-hole with teeth that seemed to get whiter all the time. 'It will be. How's mother? And everyone at home?'
The two sisters proceeded to ignore Big Katia altogether and have one of those tedious family conversations, full of squeals of girlish laughter, about old retainers and favourite dogs. Big Katia wandered over and stroked the back of the hawk-thing's neck before throwing it the lower half of the third knight and tossing his head into the pit.
She looked down at the three dead Knights.
'And that's another thing,' she said. 'I'm not a chatelaine...'