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Authors: Alan Burt Akers

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Mazes of Scorpio

BOOK: Mazes of Scorpio
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Mazes of Scorpio

Alan Burt Akers

Mushroom eBooks

A Note on the Pandahem Cycle

Dray Prescot often calls himself a plain sailorman, yet the picture he paints of himself in these narratives is highly enigmatic. In
Mazes of Scorpio,
the first volume of the Pandahem Cycle, a completely new era in his life begins to develop. True, he was a powder monkey in Nelson’s Navy, and clawed his way through the hawsehole to the quarterdeck to become first lieutenant of a seventy-four. But he was disappointed with his posting. When the Savanti, those mortal yet superhuman people of the Swinging City of Aphrasöe on far Kregen, called him to serve as a Savapim in their schemes, he crossed the gulf of four hundred light-years more than willingly.

Rejected by the Savanti, he in turn spurned them for the sake of Delia. Only through the machinations of the Star Lords was Prescot brought back to Kregen. He has fought his way on that marvelous and brilliant world of savagery and beauty, and has made a name for himself. But now all that changes.

Called to be the Emperor of Vallia, he, with his comrades, has vanquished poor old mad Thyllis, Empress of Hamal, and now seeks to create a fresh and lasting unity among all the nations of Paz. They all face a common foe in the Shanks, the Fishheads who raid their coasts. And, there are worms within the bud, secret enemies who desire only to drag all down for their own selfish ends.

Dray Prescot has been described as an immensely broad-shouldered man of enormous vitality, a little above middle height, with brown hair and eyes, a man conveying an impression of passion held in check, moving with the savage grace of a wild beast of the jungle. From sources outside his own testimony we know him to be a man of complete integrity, holding within himself a cool center of calm; a passionate, dominant, commanding and yet truly humble man.

Prescot is chivalrous — in what many people would see as a comically old-fashioned way — to any woman deserving of chivalry. He acknowledges, and tolerates and attempts to be sympathetically understanding toward, any woman who is not.

A plain sailorman? Hardly. Life on Kregen under the mingled streaming lights of Zim and Genodras, the Suns of Scorpio, has changed and matured Prescot in ways unknowable to denizens of this Earth. We can guess that his headlong career has barely begun, that the many friends and foes surrounding him, the horrendous experiences he has endured, the future perils he must face, will continue to mold his character, hardening what is already harsh, softening what is already gentle. All we can say is — Hai Jikai!

Alan Burt Akers

Chapter one

At The Ruby Winespout

At the beginning of rhododendron time two of my spies were fished out of the river with their throats cut from ear to ear.

The banked masses of leaves, black-green and shining, burst — it seemed in the course of a single morning — into explosions of color. The blossoms scattered flecks and rushes, swathes and coruscations of all the colors of the rainbow across the dark green leaves. Color rioted and scents perfumed the air. And two good men were dead.

Anger and self-contempt were useless. Anger at the waste of human life, contempt that I had asked Nogan the Artful and Lifren the Soft to spy for me; and now they were dead. I told my friends what I intended to do. Their reactions were predictable.

“No!”

“It is impossible.”

“You cannot go running headlong into danger!”

But Seg Segutorio, regarding me with his mocking gaze much modified by thought, said, “You probably need to let some of the bad humor out, Dray. Your blood is getting thick. We’ll just toddle along to this infamous Ruby Winespout and exercise our muscles a trifle.”

Good old Seg!

“And our brains.”

“Oh, aye,” said Seg. “Brains.” His fey blue eyes regarded me with amusement, clearing both mockery and thought. “Between us, we’ve not used our quota all that well, have we?”

I was surprised.

In all the concerns pressing in on us as we sought to assist a shattered empire to regain its strength with one hand and with the other repel fishlike marauders from over the curve of the world, I had thought Seg secure. He had overcome his grief for his wife Thelda and was now, I was convinced, the most balanced of us all. Except and despite that he could become a wild and raving maniac if he got into a spot of hand-to-hand. As the best Bowman of Loh in all Kregen, in my view, Seg Segutorio could handle himself in any situation. He was a comrade, the greatest comrade any man could have, and I relied on him absolutely.

“I don’t know what you’re on about for yourself, Seg. But if you’re referring to the bother I’m having with Drak over this emperor of Vallia nonsense—”

He interrupted with the ease of valued friendship.

“No troubles you can put a shaft into. I’ve managed to steer clear of half a dozen designing families with marriageable offspring. Since Thelda — well, Dray, I’ll tell you. I feel like those flowers out there.”

So that was it.

We were standing in the long room with the serried windows overlooking a panorama of gardens dropping away to the River Havilthytus. The imperial palace, the Hammabi el Lamma, rearing imposingly on its artificial island in the river, had now become a place I could tolerate. The profusion of flowers helped, for the place always struck cold and hard. Delia had with her usual skill contrived comfort from the rooms of the apartments in the Alshyss Tower given over to our use.

Here in Ruathytu, the capital city of the Empire of Hamal, we people of Vallia were never allowed to forget we were strangers. We had concluded a magnificent treaty with the Hamalese and their new emperor, Nedfar, and everything looked promising for the future. We had to patch the empire together again for the Hamalese, and resist with the last drop of blood in our bodies the devilish Shanks who raided us all.

Seg shifted his belt on his hips, settled it. He coughed. “The problem now is those rogues in The Ruby Winespout. They are a notorious gang—”

“So we’ll stroll along, as you suggest, and take a look.”

The protests from our people, the vehemence with which this hero and that vowed he or she would accompany us — well, I cut all through the babble.

“This is a task for one or two only. Kov Seg and I will go. That is all there is to say.”

Deft-fingered Minch, crusty, bearded, my camp commandant, said dourly, “Majister — if the Empress Delia were here she would stop you, for a certainty.”

“Well, Minch,” I said, somewhat testily, “as she is gallivanting off somewhere and is not here, she can hardly stop me, can she?”

So that decided
that.

We were going deliberately to put our fool heads into a tavern notorious for murder, foul play and evanishments, where two of our best men had been cruelly done away with, and Seg and I tended to regard it all rather lightly.

We kitted ourselves up to look like mercenaries. This was not a disguise, for we’d both been mercenaries in our time. Our clothes were hard, sober, workmanlike, with much leather and a little metal, for we did not wish to appear grand.

Seg picked up the silken cords from which dangled the representation of a mortil’s head sculpted in silver. The ferocious snarling hunting-beast’s head looked devilish life-like, a miniature head of destruction. This mortilhead, the pakmort, signified that its wearer was a paktun, a mercenary who had gained fame and notoriety, who perhaps controlled his own freelance band, although that was more likely to be found among the wearers of the pakzhan, the hyr-paktuns.

“If you like, Seg,” I said. “A paktun wearing the pakmort will receive better service than a simple paktun.”

“All the same... I don’t fancy a knife in my back.”

“I agree. You are wise not to wear your pakzhan. The glitter of gold at your throat might tempt a blade.”

So, in the end, we hung the silken cords of the pakmorts around our necks and secured the cords to our shoulder points. No mercenary likes an enemy to grip a cord around his neck and choke him to death. Then, flinging short blue-grey capes over our left shoulders and pulling our floppy hats low over our eyebrows, we set off.

We elected to fly saddle birds from the palace.

“We’ll have to stable them in a commercial scratching bar establishment,” said Seg, “before we get anywhere near The Ruby Winespout.”

“True. One wonders if they’d steal ’em to sell as saddle flyers, or steal ’em to roast and feast on.”

The two saddle birds flew strongly through the late afternoon air. We flew high over the river and slanted down toward the southeast, leaving the Sacred Quarter to our rear. We flew over the Blind Walls and the little creek beyond. Ahead a maze of streets and alleyways surrounded the Eastern Arena. Here lay the homes and hovels of the working folk, the guls, who yet prided themselves they were far better off than the great mass of the clums, who although free and not slave were poor beyond poverty.

Work on the new aqueduct bringing water from the southeast had halted during the recent wars. There were signs around the piles of stones that the building would soon begin again. Like any civilized city of Kregen, Ruathytu consumed vast quantities of water.

We flew down well short of our destination and stabled the two fluttrells; inconspicuous saddle birds, fluttrells, in Ruathytu. The scratching-bar establishment appeared clean and honest. We set off walking in the last of the light from the twin suns.

The street — Seg said he was sure it was the Street of a Thousand Strangers — wore a faded look, with many of the shops and houses shuttered. The skyline was broken here by the looming overhang of the aqueduct, broken sharply at the point where construction had ceased. The clouds hovered overhead, tinged with crimson and jade. Shadows faded and disappeared and then grew again, hard-edged, twinned shadows from the roofs and walls.

“Well, my old dom,” said Seg. “And there it is.”

The Street of a Thousand Strangers — if that was its name — opened into a small kyro and the square contained the last of a small outdoor conjuring act packing up. They had evidently not attracted much of a crowd. The fire-eater was disconsolately quenching his little brazier. A lady with spangles and not much else to cover her embonpoint stood with a little dark-haired fellow counting the takings.

Seg laughed. “They’d better be off with their gold before night falls.”

“Aye!”

Some jugglers slammed the wicker lids on baskets no doubt containing balls and hoops they could spin with dazzling skill. A little breeze whisked leaves and dust. Seg’s nod indicated the tavern across the square. A single tree grew outside, a wilting, drooping, yellowish tree. The tavern was built of grey brick, well-weathered and mortared, and the windows were small and mean. It did not look an inviting place.

Seg’s nod, besides singling out this dolorous building, stiffened my resolve. The dump looked the kind of place to pass in a hurry and not look back. A shuttered house stood to its right side, and on its left, an open space still showed the rotted teeth of a demolished building.

No reason, apart from the unfavorable aspect of this place, should have made me feel a breeze of alarm.

Seg started across.

I followed.

The smell? The feel of that little breeze? This place was wrong.

For all that feeling, I was determined and knew Seg shared my determination that we would not be overawed. We were out for a spot of enjoyment. If spying came into it, all well and good. But we’d been rusting for too long after the tremendous battles in which we’d managed to defeat and, for the moment at least, drive off the hateful marauding Shanks. Those Fishheads from the other side of Kregen were the menace for the future. Right now Seg and I were a couple of harum-scarum mercenaries, out for a night on the town.

Seg Segutorio, who hails from Erthyrdrin, is a wild fey brand of fellow, with black hair and bonny blue eyes, feckless and reckless and, with that otherworldliness of his people, shrewd and canny when he has to be. He and I had adventured a very great deal since Seg had first hurled a forkful of dungy straw into my face. I would not be without Seg for — well, for practically anything at all in two worlds.

As so often occurred, Seg must have picked up the empathy of my feelings, for as we approached the door he said, “Now if Inch and Turko were here, and—”

“Aye,” I said.

There was no need to lament between us the absence of our comrades. They had their work to do on Kregen, as we had ours.

A smell of roasting ordel reached us as we strode up the steps to the door. The smell of cooking was good. I cocked an eyebrow at Seg and he nodded, firmly.

“I am sharp set.”

So, as we entered the low-ceiled taproom, looking around at tables and chairs positioned about the sawdusted floor, we wrinkled our noses, sniffing the aromas. To the smell of roasting meat was now added the divine scent of fresh momolams.

A man with only three arms wiped his three hands on his blue and yellow striped apron. His jowly face and lemon-shaped head bobbed.

“Welcome, horters, welcome. You are hungry? We have the best meal this side of the River Mak. Come in, come, and sit down. Hey, Fluffi! Wine for the horters.”

BOOK: Mazes of Scorpio
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