A kingdom besieged, p.14
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       A Kingdom Besieged, p.14

           Raymond E. Feist
 

  He felt the man stirring before he heard a sound or saw movement, then realized someone was in the corner watching him from the shadows. It was only a moment before he heard a voice say, ‘Ah, at last. Light.’

  From behind Jim someone else lit a lantern and Jim at last could make out his companion in the room. A dark-skinned man with a fashionably trimmed beard stood up slowly. He wore rich robes in the fashion of the people of the Jal-Pur and he smiled. He was young, more than twenty years Jim’s junior, but Jim knew he was already a man to fear.

  ‘Kaseem abu Hazara-Khan,’ Jim said and found his voice came out as little more than a whisper.

  With a wave of his hand, the Keshian said, ‘Water. Quickly. And untie his hands.’

  Two men appeared from the corners behind him, one cutting the ropes around Jim’s wrists, and the other putting a cup of cool water to Jim’s lips. Jim’s hands were shaking when they came up to grip the cup and he drank greedily. When he finished, he spoke and his voice was stronger. ‘How long?’

  ‘Two days. I’m sorry to say my agent was a bit more enthusiastic in fetching you here than I had instructed. He shall be punished.’ He stood looking down on Jim. ‘Lord James Dasher Jamison, it is good to see you again. Or should I be calling you “Jim Dasher?” From your current attire, I’m uncertain. Or would you prefer, “Jimmyhand”, or “Quick Jim?”’

  ‘What do you want, Kaseem?’ said Jim. As the unnamed head of Keshian Intelligence, like his father and grandfathers before him, the young Keshian had played the role of minor court noble in the Imperial Court of Kesh, never for a minute revealing his knowledge of Jim’s position. It was an amiable fiction they both observed. To be dropping all pretence meant something significant.

  After a long pause Kaseem said, ‘What makes you think I want anything?’

  Jim sighed. ‘Fine. If I must play. For you to have a man on that ship means you were following me since Hansulé. You’re a powerful man, but even you can’t have an agent on every single ship in that fleet.

  ‘For your man to drop his role as a sailor and bring me in before I escape to return to the Kingdom means either you want me dead or you want something from me, and as I am not dead, I assume it’s the latter. So, what do you want, Kaseem?’ he asked for the third time.

  ‘Ah, Jim,’ said the Keshian noble. ‘You and I have a problem.’

  ‘Which is?’

  Coming to kneel beside Jim, the young Keshian desert man put his hand on Jim’s shoulder in an apparently friendly fashion. ‘Our two governments seem suddenly to be populated by madmen, and as ironic as the gods can be at times, nothing like this has happened in my lifetime. This is the long and short of it: you are the only man I can trust to help end this insane war, and I am the only man you can trust.’

  There were many things Jim thought he might hear from his opposite number, but this hadn’t once occurred to him as a possibility.

  Chapter Nine

  Conclave

  PUG CAST HIS SPELL.

  Without any apparent physical effort, he gestured and a wall-frame rose off the ground where the carpenters had laid it, and hovered in the air for a moment. Two workers grabbed it by the ends and Pug moved sixty feet of wall into place without difficulty where it was quickly attached at the base by large iron spikes driven into the foundation stones. Straps of iron were then attached at the corners to link it to the already-standing rear wall of the main house.

  ‘Thank you, Pug,’ said the chief builder.

  ‘You’re welcome, Shane.’ He liked the rough-mannered stone-mason who would now oversee the placing of each stone against the frame. The interior would be plastered and when they were finished there would once again be a Villa Beata on Sorcerer’s Isle.

  Pug turned to see his son directing the disposition of a huge pallet of stones. Two younger magicians, Herbert and Lillian, were using their abilities to lift and steer the stones that Shane would use to face the building. Pug’s decision was not to rebuild the villa to its original specification, but to build it more to his own personal taste and to change a few things he hadn’t cared for over the years he had resided on the island.

  For one thing, he was not rebuilding the ancient communal bath. It had proved to be a waste of resources for it was rarely used and when it was it was hard to keep the hot water hot and the cold water cold because of the younger magicians’ seemingly uncontrollable impulses in playing pranks on one other. Some of the cultures from which his students hailed had a strict segregation of the sexes while others did not, and one person’s modesty was another’s oddly amusing behaviour.

  Thinking of a group of sisters who had been students years before, he also amended that some of them found the baths an ideal place to hold parties that quickly got out of hand. He was certain at various times both his sons had found themselves in a steaming bath with an assortment of playful companions. Thinking of Caleb caused Pug to pause for a moment, but there was no use indulging in maudlin thoughts. Letting go of the sadness, he forced himself to remember a happy moment with Caleb and Marie, then turned his attention back to the work at hand.

  He would install bathing rooms in every dormitory: if students wanted to frolic nude, they could do so on the other side of the island; there was ample water in the lake.

  A voice from the top of the ridge caused Pug to turn. A young student was waving down at the building site, shouting something Pug could not understand, but his behaviour implied it was of some urgency.

  Pug used his magic to suddenly appear next to the youngster who stumbled back a step. ‘What is it, Phillip?’

  ‘Ships!’ answered the student. ‘Jack sent me to tell you that many ships are passing to the south.’

  ‘Thank you,’ said Pug, and vanished.

  A moment later he stood atop the highest tower of the black castle, above two windows which conveniently flickered an evil blue light should any ship pass within sight at night, both to alert anyone in the castle and as a warning for seafarers not to come ashore. It was part of the entire charade surrounding the person of the ‘Black Sorcerer’, a creation of Pug’s father-in-law, Macros the Black, and one continued after his departure by Pug. It protected the privacy of those on the island: anyone who ignored it was either someone welcome on the island, or someone subjected to less subtle means of dissuasion.

  The young magician there turned without surprise and said, ‘I make it at least a dozen sails.’ Jack was slender with sandy-coloured hair, and piercing blue eyes. Pug also knew those eyes were capable of seeing quite a bit farther than most, a natural ability of magic that was as yet untrained. Pug took advantage of that by putting the young man on lookout duty at least once a week.

  ‘I haven’t your eyes,’ said Pug with a smile. He formed a circle with his hands, spoke a soft incantation, and suddenly the air in the circle shimmered. The image of the distant horizon within that circle suddenly shifted, seeming to jump towards Pug as he willed the very air to bend, magnifying the image.

  ‘I’ve never seen ships like those,’ said Jack.

  ‘Not on this sea, no,’ said Pug. The ships were square-rigged, fast in a following breeze, most carrying only a single mast, with one or two larger vessels possessing a second mast with a lateenrigged sail. The shorter ships had four rowers a side and the longer ships eight, so it was clear the rowing would only be for short periods of manoeuvring, not for long travel. On the bow of each ship was a colourful figure: a dragon, eagle or hawk, each with a carved woman’s head in miniature just below, painted in bright hues. ‘They’re Keshian.’

  ‘I’ve never seen their like in Durbin,’ said Jack.

  ‘Those are Brijaner longships, from the eastern shores of the Empire of Great Kesh. The Brijaners are raiders, but this is too far from home for them to be operating without the Empire’s approval. Something is going on.’ He waved his hands and the image vanished.

  ‘I see sails farther to the south,’ said Jack, peering as if he could will himself to see further than th
e limits of his sight.

  Pug said, ‘I’ll go take a look.’ And he disappeared.

  An instant later Pug stood in mid-air, using his arts to keep him aloft. He was so high that if a lookout on the topmast of one of the ships below glanced up, he’d appear like nothing more than a bird soaring aloft.

  Pug lingered long enough only to apprise himself of what was underway, then he returned to the villa construction site.

  Magnus said, ‘Father?’

  ‘Send word, I want everyone back here as soon as possible for a meeting of the Conclave.’

  ‘Everyone?’ Since the attack on the island during which his wife Miranda had died, Pug had never requested more than two or three members of the Conclave be present at any one time. The mad magician Leso Varen had somehow managed to circumvent the island’s many magical defences and Pug had become almost obsessed with never allowing his most important lieutenants to gather and become a single target again.

  ‘Everyone,’ Pug repeated.

  Magnus didn’t hesitate, using his considerable skills to transport himself in an instant to his father’s study in the Black Castle. A device had been constructed that could be used to summon any or all members of the Conclave of Shadows’ inner circle, those men and women upon whom the organization effectively rested. The device was a large sphere with runic markings around it, each attuned to a member of the inner circle. By depressing the mark associated with that member, the indicated person would receive an unmistakable sensation, a feeling akin to an itch that couldn’t be scratched, annoying enough to awaken any but the soundest sleeper. It would last for ten seconds and then repeat in half an hour and would continue until the member arrived on the island. Pug used the irritation the device caused to drive home the point that these devices he provided were precious and needed to be closely guarded. The idea of having to travel from the other side of the world by conventional means with the recurring itch was a strong goad.

  Almost immediately members of the inner council began to arrive. Magnus could feel the magical energies even as far away from the meeting cave as he was. He transported himself to a position just outside and walked into the large cavern set within the hillside on the north side of the island.

  Pug was already there, along with Jason, the magician who acted as Pug’s reeve when he and Magnus were both absent from the island, and the first of the thirty-three summoned members of the Conclave.

  Grand Master Creegan of the Order of the Shield of the Weak, the martial order of the Temple of Dala, shook his head ruefully. ‘I trust this is important. I was about to begin a meeting with the senior members of my order when the call arrived. I can put them off for a few hours, but even the authority of my office has limits.’

  ‘Understood,’ said Pug, shaking his hand.

  The arrivals continued for a full twenty minutes. The last to make it through were those on the other side of the world, who had been asleep when the call came, several of whom still looked barely awake. A quick head count showed they were all present save two, and Pug began. ‘We can’t wait. I’m sorry to convene this meeting so abruptly, but something has occurred and we need to address it at once.’

  The cave had remained unchanged since they had first been introduced to it by Gathis, the odd, goblin-like servant of Macros the Black. Like so many things associated with Macros, two things remained a mystery: the whereabouts of Gathis who had simply vanished one day, leaving Pug alone in charge of the Island; and the true nature of the cave.

  At first it appeared to be little more than a deep depression in the side of the hill, but when you turned a corner inside it, the cavern presented itself. In a semi-circle along the walls was a ledge of stone that provided a natural seating area, allowing the members to sit in relative comfort. And in the centre of the cavern rose a pillar of stone, on top of which rested a statue to Sarig, the lost god of magic. Over the years the aspect of the bust had changed by mysterious means so that it represented men, women, and other beings who were somehow at that moment an avatar of the god.

  Pug could never quite fathom if there was something truly significant about the statue, or if it was merely some manifestation of Macros’s love of the theatrical.

  A still-sleepy magician named Jerome hurried in, obviously having just got dressed after bathing, his wet hair still plastered to his skull. ‘Sorry,’ he said, nodding in greeting.

  That left just one member missing. Glancing around the cave, Pug said questioningly, ‘Sandreena?’

  It was Grand Master Creegan who replied. ‘There is no reason I can imagine that would keep her from answering the call. She must be incapacitated somehow.’

  Magnus said, ‘Or the device failed.’

  Pug sighed and nodded. The ancient Tsurani transportation orbs were becoming a problem. Translocation or teleportation was one of the more difficult feats, even for practised magicians. Magnus was unparalleled in his ability to travel anywhere he had visited before, as well as certain places he had never seen on the basis of unique features well described to him. Pug could travel easily to any place he could see, or knew, and Magnus had helped him master greater range. But only a handful of magicians could match even Pug’s more limited abilities, and many of the agents of the Conclave, like Grand Master Creegan, were not magicians.

  Pug whispered to Magnus, ‘If it’s the device, make sure to turn off the summons. I can’t have her itching every half-hour.’ He paused. ‘Unless you’d like to face her and her mace when she finally does get here?’

  Magnus vanished and in a moment he was back. ‘Taken care of, Father.’

  Pug said, ‘And Amirantha?’

  Magnus said, ‘Despite his residency here for the last few years, you’ve never formally invited him into the Conclave, so he doesn’t have means to return in a hurry. I’ll have to fetch him from the elven city.’

  Pug said, ‘Later. I’d rather not disturb him while he’s at E’bar.’ His gaze travelled around the assembled members of the Conclave. Then he took a deep breath and announced, ‘Apparently a very large war is erupting between the Empire of Great Kesh and the Kingdom of the Isles.’

  Everyone in the room appeared surprised, yet there was little evidence of shock. One magician, by the name of Brandtly, whom Pug had serving as a liaison with Stardock, said, ‘We’ve heard rumours, and some of the Keshian magicians at Stardock have been absent of late, but rumours of war in the Vale are constant.’

  Grand Master Creegan asked, ‘You’ve had no word from agents in either court?’

  ‘We don’t properly have an agent in the court in Rillanon,’ Pug said, ‘though we enjoy a special relationship with their intelligence service.’ Most in the room knew of Pug’s treatment of the future King of the Isles, Prince Patrick of Krondor, at the end of the war with the Emerald Queen, when Kesh had tried to press its advantage against the Kingdom’s weakened defences in the West. Pug had ended the war, but had publicly embarrassed the hot-tempered young monarch. Since then, relations between the Conclave and the Kingdom had been strained at best, hostile at worst. ‘If James Jamison had heard anything that had any bearing on this, I can’t imagine he wouldn’t share that intelligence with us. He more than anyone in the King’s service has a sense of what is at stake, what dangers are still out there.’ His hand waved vaguely towards the cave entrance, but everyone knew he meant those unknown beings behind the onslaught of demons against this realm. ‘It may have been years since our enemies last assaulted us, but they will come again, there is no doubt. And we will need every force at our disposal to oppose them. We cannot permit this war. Two devastated armies will not do; two plundered populations will not do.’ His voice rose. ‘Two severely weakened nations will not do.

  ‘None of our friends in the court of the Emperor have hinted at such an undertaking. We’ve had reports detailing debates within the Chamber of Lords and Masters, some calling for a more aggressive policy towards the Kingdom, especially regarding the Vale of Dreams. But no warnings, no alarms, noth
ing.’ Pug let out a long breath. ‘This is no mad adventure conducted by dissidents or a break-away faction in the Empire. For something of this scale, the Emperor himself had to give approval, or at least be in no position to object.’

  Pug looked at Creegan. ‘Had the temples any warning?’

  ‘No, just the usual: some members of the Congress of Lords urging a more belligerent posture towards Kesh, and closer ties with Roldem.’ He stopped. ‘Usually, those in favour of adventure turn their eyes to the Eastern Kingdoms, seeking to expand in that direction. War with Kesh is never anyone’s notion of a good idea.’ He paused, then added, ‘But we haven’t received any reports from our temples or shrines in the south of Kesh for over a month now. And Sandreena was investigating some reports of . . .’

  ‘What?’ prompted Pug.

  ‘Just some things that sounded to her as if the Black Caps might have returned.’

  The Black Caps were a group of murderers and thugs attached to those who had been in the service of Belasco, the mad magician who had attempted to bring the Demon King Dahun into this realm and had been possessed by him for his trouble. In the end both the magician and the Demon Lord had been destroyed, but many of those serving them had escaped into the wilds of Kesh. Any rumour of their re-emergence would have attracted Sandreena’s attention, as she had more run-ins with them than anyone else.

  ‘You didn’t think this worthy of a mention?’ asked Magnus.

  ‘I would have once she returned,’ said Creegan. Members of the Conclave were not merely Pug’s agents, but powerful men and women in their own right, and many bristled at the idea they had to defend their choices within their own areas of influence.

  Pug held up his hand, forestalling any argument. ‘I trust each of you to let me know what’s critical.’

  He looked from face to face, almost as if trying to read their thoughts, then seized upon something Creegan had said. ‘Sandreena ventured to the south of Great Kesh?’

 
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