The rich palanquin was set down under the rose-pink awning of the House of Mansoor. Outrider bodyguards dismounted. The bearers drew aside the curtain so the high lady could alight from her cushioned luxury.
Guards at the establishment’s door noted the conspicuous arrival and came to attention. One of them slipped inside to find a comm-unit and warn of the visitor. Before the noblewoman could even dismiss her litter-bearers to wait for her in some shadier spot, the Mistress of the House was at the door, chivvying retainers to meet her customer with feather-fans, a sun-shade, chilled water and Turkish candy.
“Greeting, madame, greetings!” Molossa the Purveyor bade her unknown arrival. “Welcome, welcome to the Inn of Abu Mansoor!”
The visitor was a foreigner. Her fair skin and dark hair might make her Cimmerian or Old Daedalian. Her beauty made her remarkable. Her costly apparel and jewelled necklace made her rich.
Her tones left no doubt about her status. “I am Princess Aria,” she announced.
“Of course, of course.” Molossa was a hugely-fat Tyrrhennan woman, swathed in gaudy silks that bore sweat-stains where the flesh bulged over them. She wore more and larger gems than those that decked the princess, but somehow they seemed gaudy compared to Aria’s tasteful choices.
Tybald tan Throg gawked as Aria reduced the merchant woman and her entire household to fawning compliance. In his supporting role as princess’ bodyguard he had to concentrate on watching the house warriors rather than his supposed mistress, but it was hard.
“Never seen Aria play royalty before?” Blackthorn asked with a smirk. He spoke to the lord’s son but never turned his face from the hard-looking swordsmen that observed from the upper gallery. “Except she’s not playing. She is royalty. This is what she’s like when she forgets to turn it off!”
Oglok the Mock Man, reduced to carrying a heavy teakwood casket as a slave porter, growled low in his throat that Aria believed she ruled the entire planet.
“This way, this way!” called Molossa, shepherding the princess into the shaded interior of the market-house. It was cooler under the shadowed arches of the interior courtyard where a running fountain trickled water down three tiers of basins, and exotic birds perched on topiaried trees. Tybald, Blackthorn, and Oglok followed the princess into the Inn of Abu Mansoor.
Molossa clapped her flabby hands. House slaves rushed forward with couches and a low table. Fruit and sherbet appeared, along with a green-glass hookah that smoked with some alluring opiate. Three shaven-headed indentured clerks stood ready with scribing pads and databases to record any transactions.
“You are most welcome here, highness, most welcome!” the fat saleswoman promised. “What delights can we show you at the Inn of Abu Mansoor? All of our merchandise is of the finest quality. Dazzling maidens from Isidis and Syrtis, some trained from birth in service and pleasure, others newly captured and fresh to servitude. Boys and girls that sing like birds and dance like angels! Hard young men fit for combat in war or the bedroom! Shall I call forth a selection for your consideration?”
“That will not be necessary,” Aria said. “I came here looking for something very specific.”
“Purchase is not always necessary,” coaxed Molossa. “For the right fee ownership can be temporary. The Inn of Abu Mansoor owns many specialists who can…”
“A specific item,” Aria cut off the saleswoman coldly. “I need a slave girl suitable to be offered up as a possible Bride of Night.”
“Ah.” Molossa nodded sagely. Now she understood. “You have been unfortunate in the lottery. You are summoned to the Palace of Whispers.”
“Why I need such an item is not the issue. You will understand, however, that I require a girl of extraordinary qualities. Not just a maiden, not just good looking, but clever, educated, refined, and of noble birth. Have you such merchandise?”
Blackthorn caught Tybald’s eye. He directed a subtle nod to the balcony above the courtyard. Four decorative slits in the ornamented balustrade concealed automatic weapons. House guards stood soberly at every exit. A pair of huge iron robot-golems stood sentry to the inner rooms. However expensive it might be, the Inn of Abu Mansoor was a slaver’s shop and brothel, and security was taken seriously.
Molossa considered Aria’s need. “Such a rare girl would also be expensive, most expensive,” she noted.
Aria dismissed the concern. “Cost is not an issue. Time is. I require a suitable maiden today.”
Molossa raised chubby palms in a helpless gesture. “I have many properties in my catalogue, exotic and wonderful, delights to the senses and to all tastes, but to find someone of the lineage and qualities you require takes time and planning. It requires… advance ordering.”
Tybald restrained a snarl. The house merchant was talking about kidnapping to order. So someone had paid those raiders to make the dangerous trek to Promethei specifically to take his sister!
Aria toyed with a slab of sugared candy. “It has come to me that such a girl may have passed through your doors recently,” she suggested. She didn’t mention that the information came from the secret Runner rebels who co-ordinated planet-wide dissidence to the ruling First Men. “A fair-haired Promethean who would be most suitable for my requirements.”
“I have no memory of such an article.” Molossa sounded less happy now. There was a hard undertone to her voice that suggested she was not always the fawning merchant.
“A shame. I would have offered a considerable sum for her. I might even now offer a good price to whoever purchased her, with a generous fee for an introduction to her new owner for the agent who sold her on.”
“Ah.” The fat slave-seller crammed a handful of sweetmeats into her mouth and chewed them while thinking. “How much do you think livestock like that might be worth?”
“We’d have to negotiate,” Aria replied. “I’d start the bidding with her master at two hundred drachma.”
Molossa’s gaze flicked over the heavy wooden casket that Oglok bore, a box that chinked when it was moved. “And how much to you think you might be worth, princess?” she asked slyly.
Aria’s gaze locked on the slaver.
“I think you will sell for a very high price indeed,” Molossa promised. “I was warned that Ysilde might be pursued. My fee included a generous bonus to deter such followers.”
The guards all raised their weapons at once.
“Now!” shouted Blackthorn.
Oglok tore open the treasure box. The automatic screamers inside blasted to life, blanketing the courtyard with high-frequency sonics. Battle-ready guards were pounded to their knees, clutching their ears. Only the visitors, fitted with aural protection plugs, remained unaffected.
Blackthorn swung the unthreatening cylinder from his belt-loop and thumbed the Sword of Light to life. He hurled a fireball onto the balcony, right where the needle-casters were, slagging the heavy artillery into molten uselessness. Tybald danced his rapier-like vibra-blade through the nearest of the guards, glad at last to be able to strike back against his sister’s oppressors.
Oglok charged straight at the huge iron robots that flanked the interior gate. Even as the steam-pistoned combat engines clanked and hissed to life he grabbed one from the ground and swung it round as a club to hit the other! The mighty Mock-Man tore an arm off the war machine and used it to hammer the golem back down.
The screamers faded out. More guards poured from concealed watchpoints at the edge of the garden. Blackthorn hoisted a grenade-pellet into one cluster and seared a laser-beam slice across the other. Men went down screaming.
A silk-clad Isidian dacoit somersaulted from the gallery and landed ready to fight, twin blades whirling in his hands. Tybald went in; all those long tedious hours on the practice grounds suddenly locked into place and he knew what he had to do. The dacoit slipped in low for fast and deadly thrusts. Tybald fended him off and returned with a series of short-stabs in the classic Promethian style.
Aria was surprised when the maidservants attending Molossa all drew needle-thin daggers from their skimpy attire and lunged at her. “Don’t mark her!” the slave-seller commanded.
The princess peeled of a quartet of arcane bolts. The livid purple energies seared into the assailants, dropping each twitching to the ground. Her subsequent spell at Molossa unexpectedly sheared off; the slaver had bought protection. The fat woman moved her bulk with unexpected speed and vanished through a trap-door beside the fountain.
“Blackthorn!” Aria called, indicating the spot where the slaver had gone. The General finished the tall black Elysian he was wrestling and ran over to carve through the stone flooring and chase Molossa.
Oglok slammed the robot-golems together with a savage fury. Each slash ruptured more of the djinn-powered pistons that animated the machines. He ignored their crushing grip on him and concentrated all his rage on hammering the engines together. The damaged spells on each conflicted with the other, confusing and weakening the iron guardians.
Tybald felt his tunic rip as the dacoit’s blade got too close. He countered with a feint his father had shown him and managed to score the tip of his vibra-sword across his enemy’s throat. The dark-swathed Isidian went down, rasping for breath, clutching his severed wind-pipe.
“This way!” Blackthorn called to the others. He jumped through the trapdoor he’d carved open and dropped to the floor below. Aria leaped after him.
They landed in a long undercroft supported by thick brick pillars. The columns also acted as the corners to the barred cells containing the House of Abu Mansoor’s livestock. Fifty or more captives cringed behind bars awaiting lives of slavery.
Molossa was waddling away to an exit at the far end of the stock-room. Bulky bare-chested pen guards rushed to intercept the General as he pelted after her. Blackthorn cut down the ones that got nearest to him. Aria’s hexes brought down the rest.
The corpulent slave-seller made it to the annex door. She slammed the gate behind her. A force field fizzed to life, reinforcing the metal of the barrier. Blackthorn switched the Sword of Light to dagger mode and jammed it into the energy field. The barrier generator squealed as it overloaded.
Aria took down the last of the cell guards. She was not gentle. Oglok and Tybald dropped down to join her.
“Where’s Blackthorn?” the lord’s son asked.
“Having a word with Molossa the Purveyor,” the princess replied. “Get these cages open. Set these people free!”
Blackthorn carved through the end gate and broke into Molossa’s strong room.
The slave-seller stood at bay, clutching a gaudy unconventional rifle that made a disconcerting cheeping sound. Four secondary automatic barrels swivelled round to also orientate on the General.
“Stay back,” the slaver warned. “This thing is fire and forget. I fire and you’re a forgotten corpse. How much do you want to die for your mistress?”
“Tell me where Ysilde is,” Blackthorn demanded. “Who ordered her stolen? How can we find her now?”
Molossa laughed scornfully. “All this damage, all this cost, for nothing! You’re too late, mercenary. She’s beyond your reach with the Sisters of Silence. She will wed the Sorcerer of Night. She will be his undying bride in the cold shadows of his Palace of Whispers. Nothing you do can stop that now.”
“When did she leave here? Who took her? What route?”
Another mocking snort. “The Sisters do not use caravans or airships. Why should they when they are keepers of Night’s lore, priestesses of darkness? They took the virgin three days ago, and left through a shadow-door.”
Blackthorn heard Tybald’s gasp behind him. The worst had come to pass.
“We’ll just have to get her back from the Sisters then,” the General shrugged.
“And the fact that has never been done…?” Aria asked.
“Irrelevant. Like you keep saying, princess, the world’s changing.”
Molossa shook her head. “No. For you the world’s ending. I only told you about little Ysilde so your last thoughts would be despair. My client left me this device to ensure that any who came after the girl, no matter how puissant, would never leave alive!”
Oglok roared warning. The bright clashing colours, the bizarre technology, the odd operating sounds – that was a weapon of the Lord of Fatal Laughter!
“Don’t use that!” Blackthorn blurted even as the slaver pulled the trigger.
Aria crafted a shield around the General, Tybald, Oglok and herself. It was the largest such defence she could manage, murderous on her arcane reserves.
The gun spat out projectiles that travelled in anything but logical trajectories. The canisters corkscrewed round, seeking targets. A pair blunted themselves on the princess’ sorcerous bubble and fell spent to the floor. A third embedded itself in a dead guard on the ground. Another shot straight into the chest of the nearest caged slave. The last turned on Molossa herself.
Molossa was hurled back into her treasure-horde. Her fat breasts were covered with blood. She screeched in agony.
The slave screamed too. She clawed at her face where finger-like projections were swelling out of her flawless skin. The stubs squirmed and wiggled like digits, proliferating across her body.
“A bio-weapon!” Aria called. “Everybody out!” She reconfigured her shield to contain the end of the room where the canisters had burst. The Lord of Fatal Laughter’s plague toys could decimate the whole of New Trinachria. He’d consider it a great joke.
Molossa howled as her own skin ruptured with alien growths. The finger-like protrusions were growing tiny faces too now, each squealing in unison with their pain-wracked host.
The miniature faces even resembled the Lord of Fatal Laughter.
Oglok grabbed Tybald by the scruff of his neck and pounded for the exit. The slaves they’d released stampeded with them.
Aria turned to craft a spell that would unlock the remaining cages at the farther end of the stock-room, but she was too late. The tiny finger-faces coughed and the slaves nearby fell screaming as the virus passed to them.
“Get out, Aria!” Blackthorn called to her. “It’s time for a scorched earth strategy!”
The princess nodded and raced after the Mock-Man and the lord’s son.
Blackthorn thumbed the red button on his Sword of Light and detonated a huge fireball payload to turn the whole back end of the cellar to inferno. He hoped the Sword would somehow get the magnitude right and not fry its wielder too.
The basement of the Inn of Abu Mansoor detonated in a welter of flame. The temperatures sterilised Fatal Laughter’s bacilli and set the building above blazing.
Blackthorn doused the fire in his hair and decided he wasn’t trying that again any time soon. He staggered a little, lost in the blinding fumes.
Oglok the Mock-Man loomed out of the fire, hauled the General over his shoulder, and sprinted off.