Authors: Alan Burt Akers
Tags: #Fiction, #Science Fiction, #Fantasy
Alan Burt Akers
Dray Prescot is an enigmatic figure. Reared in the inhumanly harsh conditions of Nelson’s navy, he has been transported many times through the agencies of the Star Lords and the Savanti nal Aphrasöe to the beautiful and brutal world of Kregen, four hundred light years from Earth. A coherent design underlies all his headlong adventures; but so far the pattern remains indecipherable.
His appearance as described by one who has seen him is of a man above middle height, with brown hair and level brown eyes, brooding and dominating, with enormously broad shoulders and powerful physique. There is about him an abrasive honesty and an indomitable courage. He moves like a savage hunting cat, quiet and deadly. On the exotic and perilous world of Kregen he has fought his way to become Vovedeer and Zorcander of his wild Clansmen of Segesthes, Lord of Strombor, Strom of Valka, King of Djanduin, Prince Majister of Vallia — and a member of the Order of Krozairs of Zy. To this plethora of titles he confesses with a wryness and an irony I am sure masks much deeper feelings at which we can only guess.
Prescot’s happiness with Delia, the Princess Majestrix of Vallia, is threatened as the notorious Wizard of Loh, Phu-si-Yantong, seeks to destroy Delia’s father, the emperor. Together with their friends, Delia and Prescot save the emperor from a poison attempt by other factions and return him to power in Vondium, the capital. But their comrades are scattered over the face of Kregen. Now, blood-splashed from the last fight in the palace, Prescot is determined to seek the whereabouts of his daughters, alienated from him during a forced absence on Earth. But the brilliant world of Kregen under Antares will always challenge Prescot with new problems and adventures. Dray Prescot knows only too well that he must continue to struggle against himself as well as the malignant fates that pursue him in the mingled streaming lights of the Suns of Scorpio.
Alan Burt Akers
Before the Dawn
“Oh, yes, it is common knowledge,” said Travok Ott expansively, leaning back, sipping his light white wine with a most delicate air. “Delia, the Princess Majestrix, is continually indulging in affairs. Why, her latest inamorato is this muscular wrestler, Turko. Oh, yes, a lovely man. Who can blame her?”
The perfumed currents of warmed air moved caressingly about the group of men sitting in the ord chamber of the Baths of the Nine. The chamber presented a comfortable, modish, relaxing atmosphere. Young girl slaves carried wine and parclear in glazed ceramic flagons, and bronze trays of sweetmeats and tempting cakes. No lady bathers were allowed here, their establishment was separated off by a stout masonry wall. The scented air cloyed.
“Surely, this is just rumor, Travok?” said Urban the Gloves, popping a paline into his mouth.
“Hardly.” Travok Ott, a slender man with the brown hair of Vallia cut into a curled bang, sipped his wine with a knowing smile. He, like them all, was naked, covered only by a small yellow towel. “Have you seen this Turko? A Khamorro, so I am told, from somewhere outlandish deep in southwestern Havilfar. But a lovely man. Oh, yes, beautiful—”
“I hold no brief for the emperor,” cut in the overfed man with the three chins and swag belly, all quivering as he shook his head warningly. “But he’d have your head if—”
“Of a certainty, Ortyg — perhaps!” Travok cast a sliding glance at the shadowed alcove where a yellow towel draped down from the arm of a bronze faun, prancing, abandoned, garlanded with loomins. “But I mean him no disrespect. He understands business, and that is good enough for me.”
They were all businessmen here, traders, merchants, shopkeepers to whom war and country-wide distress could bring profit, for they were shrewd in the mysteries of bargaining and gaining a corner and of stocks and the human frailties of supply and demand. This particular establishment of the Baths of the Nine stood at a crossroads in the southern part of the great city of Vondium, the capital of the Empire of Vallia. It was not one of the enormously luxurious first-rank establishments; but its entrance fees were high and it catered to a certain clientele of the middle rank, merchants and traders who could afford to pay for a night’s comfort.
These men were habitués of the place, they knew one another, had been coming here for years to relax and gossip. The fellow who sat somewhat removed from them along a marble bench on pink and yellow towels smiled and nodded and joined in the conversation and listened with due respect; but he was a stranger. So the talk was more circumspect than normally the case in these secluded, sybaritic and seductive surroundings.
A beautifully formed Fristle fifi glided forward to refill Travok Ott’s glass, for he found the flagons tiresomely too heavy. The Fristle’s fur was of that deep plum color that limned her lissom form, made of her a sprite of beauty in that place. Travok grunted as the wine reached a whisker below the rim, and trembled, and stilled. Had the Fristle spilled any it would have gone hard for her.
“I’ve always stood by the emperor,” Travok went on. “Did I not give thanks to Opaz when he recovered from his illness? Did I not put up the shutters on my shops when those Opaz-forsaken Chyyanists went on the rampage with their Black Feathers? Have I not a son at sea?” The wine gleamed on his lips. “Vallia is built of men like me.”
“You say this Turko is the princess’s inamorato,” said Ortyg. “But is she his inamorata? That is a conundrum.”
A low, fruity chuckle ran around the circle of men lounging in their chairs or on the benches, warmed and caressed by the scented air.
“The princess owns men’s hearts — but I wager Turko has his own little inamorata tucked away somewhere safe in Valka.”
Ortyg leaned a little forward, his belly bulging. “The princess does not own my heart.”
The shrimp of a fellow in the corner where the warmest breezes blew puckered up his lips, his little tuft of goat’s beard blowing. His brown Vallian eyes were deeply sunken under sandpapery brows. He hitched up his yellow towel and said: “Of a certainty, Travok, Vallia is built of men like you — and of Kov Layco.”
The words might mean what the listener cared to put into them. This Travok Ott construed them as a compliment.
“Kov Layco Jhansi is the emperor’s right-hand man, Vandrop, true. It is said he slew Ashti Melekhi with his own hand. The guards—”
Ortyg laughed, waggling his chins. “Those guards will not be seen in Vondium again.”
“All the same, he, too, is aware of the Princess Majestrix’s infidelity. She is becoming notorious—”
“And this shaggy clansman, her husband. He knows nothing?”
“He knows nothing of Vallia, that is sooth, by Vox!”
They appeared to be in general agreement about this.
Vandrop put a hand to his shaggy tuft of goat’s beard. He stroked reflectively. “This shaggy clansman is shaggy. It is said he has a beard to his navel.”
A young fellow on the other side of Travok shouted: “And that’s quite long enough for a barbarian.”
Travok nodded. “By Vox! A great hairy clansman from far Segesthes has the impudence to barge in and carry off our princess like a graint or a cramph or a leem—”
“But,” persisted Vandrop, “was he not there, in the palace, last night? The stories are confused, garbled, but—”
“He was there, Vandrop,” Ortyg told him. “I had the news red hot from my freedman who got it from the palace — a shishi there who saw much — and this Dray Prescot was in the palace. How he got there no one knows. But Kov Layco saved the emperor from Ashti Melekhi—”
A babble of voices broke in, and so Ortyg was persuaded to tell them the story as he had heard it. He made the most of it, how the Vadnicha Ashti Melekhi sought to poison the emperor and of how Layco Jhansi had slain her with his dagger. There were dead guards and blood everywhere; but Ortyg’s information offered no explanation for them, even though, it was whispered, they were Jiktars of the Chulik mercenary guard — aye — and their Chuktar, also.
The talk wended on in the scented air. With the long night to get through men and women sought rest and relaxation before bed at the Baths of the Nine. Soon these men would rise and then, each to his whim, either dress and go home or partake of the Ninth Chamber. Strangers might elect to sleep in the establishment in the tastefully appointed hostelry. The stranger, a well-built young man with hair darker than the normal Vallian brown, would probably sleep in. Vandrop yawned.
“By Vox!” he said, his goat’s-beard tuft quivering. “What you say about Delia, the Princess Majestrix, is hard to believe. I think I shall not believe it.”
“You always were a credulous old fool, Vandrop,” bellowed Ortyg, slapping his gut, reaching for his towel.
“Anyway,” said Travok. “When Queen Lushfymi gets here she will soon find out—”
“—Aye, a sharp queen, that,” said Urban the Gloves.
“—And she’ll have this Turko’s head off and the princess packed off back to Valka, or Delphond.”
“D’you think Queen Lushfymi will marry the emperor?”
“If she has any sense, Urban.”
They spoke of the Queen of Lome as Queen Lushfymi. The emperor had intemperately threatened to have off the heads of all those who blasphemously called her Queen Lush.
With two strangers present in the ord chamber these men spoke with more restraint than usual. Without clothes their allegiances were not at once apparent, and their words hid what they did not wish revealed. As middling tradesmen and merchants they were probably of the Racter party, some perhaps of the Vondium Khanders, those who looked to the business community for combined strength. The Racters were the most powerful party in Vallia, formed of aristocrats and nobles, and the merchants looked to them for the continuance of the status quo and a stable economy. But without the colored sleeves, without symbols and favors, they were simply men, naked in the flesh, so much alike and each one different in his own personal ways.
They spoke with a caution. But they had said a great deal, also. They were of the general opinion that it was high time the emperor married again and got himself a son to carry on the line, if the prince could hold in his hands what would come to him, and dispatched his daughter Delia and her grizzly graint of a clansman husband back to the Great Plains of Segesthes. One or two even said the Prince and Princess Majestrix could even go to the Ice Floes of Sicce for all they cared.
In these last moments before they left they talked again of the interests most pressing to them, as businessmen do: the prices and sources of supply, trading prospects, the cost of money, the laziness of slaves, the prospects of renewed war with the Empire of Hamal, the hedging against future disasters.
They even spoke of Income Tax; but obscenities found little favor in the Baths of the Nine — at least, of that kind.
Travok Ott, genial, yawning, looked across at the stranger.
“You put up here tonight, Koter? You have not told us your name.”
“Yes, I think I shall. And my name is Nath Delity.”
The others nodded. Their thoughts were transparent. A provincial, seeing the sights of Vondium, the greatest city of Paz.
Nath Delity half smiled. “I am from Evir, and I find Vondium a trifle warm.”
They laughed at this, proud of their city, half-contemptuous of any provincial place and particularly of Evir, the northernmost province of Vallia.
“You should have been here when the emperor lay dying, or the Chyyanists were rampaging or the Third Party was active, Koter Delity. You would have been more than warm then.”
Vandrop tweaked his goat’s-beard tuft and looked across at the alcove where the yellow towel lay draped across the bronze statue of the faun. “And you, Koter,” he spoke civilly, smiling. “You have said not a word. We would not wish you to think we are unsociable here. It is just that we know one another so well. Your name, Koter — if you wish to tell us.”
Some of the others had already risen to leave and now while some pushed on, laughing and shouting, others hung back to listen. No doubt they wanted reassurance. Perhaps, their thoughts probably went, perhaps they might have said something less than wise. Spies from anywhere and serving any cause could cause troubles. . .
“My name is Jak Jakhan,” I said, speaking smoothly and just quickly enough so that they would not know I lied. “From Zamra. And I have enjoyed your conversation, Koters.”
“Zamra?” said Travok Ott.
“Zamra?” said Ortyg. His three chins wobbled.
“Zamra is, I believe,” said Vandrop, “a Kovnate of the Prince Majister’s?”
“Oh,” I said. “I have not been there since I was a child—”
They visibly relaxed at this. I ought to have said I was from some damned Racter province, or, better still, have said nothing of my origins. Anyway, I am fond of Zamra.
As we went out through the different doors, some to debauchery, some to a night’s sleep, others to the many amusements afforded to the night owls of Vondium, I fell into step beside Vandrop. We entered the robing room together and I hung back, for I did not wish Vandrop — just yet — to see my clothes.