Bewildering Stories

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The Thief of Joy and Light

part 3

by Danielle L. Parker

Table of Contents
Part 2 appeared
in issue 139.


“There are... intrigues,” hissed Kzirth. “What I tell you must not be repeated, Earthman. If your fat tongue ever wags it, be assured, I will be there to speed you on your way to your human hell !” The Aspian paused to sigh. It was an oddly human sound. “But I suppose you must know this much.”

The booth inside the dining room of the Pestilent Pilgrim was small, and Blunt and his taller companion sat nearly knee to knee in its cramped confines. The Aspian’s cowled head was bowed close to his companion’s, and his yellow orbs, larger than a human’s, glowed disturbingly in the dim light filtering through their striped privacy curtain. Blunt was uneasily conscious of the proximity of that oversized thumb-claw, which, with its more harmless digits, was wrapped around a thin beaker of pulverized kvav.

And he was, unfortunately, drinking a beaker of the same. Human food had not yet reached Fzil, and likely never would. Dourly, Jim Blunt picked up his drink. Given his general lack of familiarity with Fzil’s gustatory offerings, he had been forced once more to order the known quantity on the menu. He was getting very sick of it.

“Snakehead politics are of no particular interest to me, once this is done,” he growled. “Spit it out, Kzirth. I’m listening.”

The Aspian tasted his own drink with a delicately flickering tongue and put it aside with a hiss of aristocratic distaste. “There is an old custom,” he answered at last. They were speaking English, which Blunt doubted had yet been heard on Fzil, but all the same, the Earthman was forced to lean uncomfortably close to hear Kzirth’s hissed explanations against the background noises of vociferous customers outside. “There is a Champion... and by ancient custom, there may also be a Challenger. And if, in that fight to the death, the Champion falls, then the Challenger becomes a new half of the Duality.” He paused to raise his drink in his curving claws, regarding its dark contents with yellow-eyed contempt. “This is how, in ancient and barbaric times, power passed to the strong.”

“Humans have done the same sort of thing,” Blunt grunted. “Go on!”

The Aspian set down his untasted drink once more and licked his poison claw meaningfully. “Ah,” he murmured. “There are rumors... there are ambitions. One might, if one were bold, take up the old custom, which has never been laid to rest, though it has been two hundred and thirty-five of Fzil’s years since it has been officially invoked. I suspect certain kinsmen of mine of such... ambitions.”

“Any particular time happen to be appropriate for invoking this old custom?” Blunt queried dryly.

“Perhaps,” said Kzirth. “Perhaps two days from now, when the Duality honor Aztot the Fertile Obscenity.” He shrugged mockingly. “If the fight is fair and the Champion falls, well, perhaps it is indeed the will of Kavi of the Poisonous Breath. But then... perhaps not. I suspect these... kinsmen... of entreating the favor and help of Lziren, which is not honorable for a warrior.” He tapped the tabletop between them contemptuously, leaving a clear bead of venom upon the scarred surface, and then spat a phrase that Blunt translated silently into several pungent Anglo-Saxon expressions.

“Sounds like a straightforward power play to me,” he commented flatly, easing his fingers discreetly away from the drop that Kzirth had deposited. “I don’t know about this god business. Your gods are nothing to me. Although,” he squinted grimly down at the venom bead, which was still scorching an odorous hole in the tough plastic surface of the table, “I’ll admit, there was something in that Lziren — something as foul as a ten-day-dead chicken.”

“Foul, and old, and evil,” Kzirth agreed calmly. “Does it astonish you to know we too understand evil, Earthman? I honor Kavi, who is fierce, and pitiless, and joyous in battle. Of Aztot the Fertile Obscenity,” he made a swift, strange, averting sign in the air, “of that One, I dare not speak. Yet I know Lziren to be enemy to all we both call life. You are fortunate to be alive, my fat-tongued friend, after visiting the halls of that One!”

“Ain’t easy to kill an Earthman,” Blunt shrugged. “And that may be a bit of a problem.”

The Aspian responded with a fluting laugh. “Ah,” he invited mockingly. “You have a plan, Captain? Martyrdom, perhaps?”

Blunt sampled his drink gloomily. There was no doubt its chief component was blood... the diet was beginning to take its toll on him. He’d found himself thinking of Sam’s mystery stew with unexpected longing more than once during the last few days. “Only way in the fortress,” he answered flatly. “I spent two days canvassing it, up, down, front and back. Every entrance is guarded. I think your suspects are entering through a private underground access. And unfortunately,” he scowled, “Only one kind of visitor is allowed inside. The dead kind.”

“An intriguing idea!” The Aspian inclined his golden head ironically. “I was not aware that humans could spontaneously revive after death, however. A Gmacian, now, or so I am told, but...“

“I need to fool ’em,” Blunt said. “It won’t take much. If it doesn’t move, it gets loaded on the cart and taken away.” He frowned. “By the reek inside, I don’t think they incinerate them. At least I hope not.”

“I too suspect a hidden access,” Kzirth murmured. “The kvav among my kinsmen whom I suspect of entreating Lziren’s vile favors would not dare to worship openly.” He paused and considered, tapping his claw thoughtfully on the tabletop. “And if you are also able to divert Lziren during the Challenge I believe will come two days from now... who knows what that may win us?”

“Bit of a problem though,” Blunt grunted. He rubbed his bristly chin absently. “I’ve been told not to come back. So I’ll need a disguise. Amby will do, I think. I’ve seen a few around, and the basic body shape is the same. I just need a few dyes and the like.”

The Aspian bowed slightly, a graceful movement even from his sitting position. “But there is a more difficult problem you may not be aware of,” he said. “If you will permit me, Captain?”

The Earthman hesitated, his blue eyes suddenly hard and watchful, but Kzirth moved with great delicacy. The chill digits, three fingers and thumb more bone than flesh, closed carefully about the Earthman’s wrist. Captain Blunt sat very still. He had never, perhaps, been so close to death, for the merest brush of the tip of that claw would convulse heart and limbs in a mortal torment within seconds... He could feel the faint pulsation of the poison sac against his skin, the cold curve of the deadly, bulbous claw... and then, once, twice, the swift, chill flicker of Kzirth’s forked tongue upon his wrist.

“It is the smell,” the Aspian said at last, releasing Blunt’s hand as carefully as he had taken it up. Blunt, conscious again of breathing, leaned thankfully away. “Humans have a very distinctive smell... sometimes unpleasant, to us. In appearance, I believe you can be made to resemble an Amby. But ah, the smell. That is not so simple! The breath, the sweat, the emanation of your hairy human loins, we Aspians distinguish such odors most minutely. But I shall do my best; tomorrow, I will bring vials to disguise your scent. You will smell as much like an inoffensive Amby as is possible for one of your odorous kind.”

“Thank you,” Blunt replied with biting politeness. “I suppose the best time to get inside may be during this Challenge you’re talking about, two days from now.”

The Aspian shrugged. “To your venture then success, oh fearless one! I will meet you tomorrow as before outside this same foul eatery, and bring with me your vials.” He rose abruptly, bending his towering height perforce beneath the lower ceiling of the booth. “It is best we do not be seen leaving together; wait before you follow.”

And drawing up his cowls of both scales and coarse cloth, Kzirth’s tall hunched form passed silently beyond the curtain. Blunt, with a sigh, finished his kvav. It was enough to make a decent Earthman turn vegetarian... he’d have to risk something unknown on the menu next time, and hope it wasn’t either alive or poisonous. A few more days, and he’d be willing to take on at least the former of those options.

Leaving his payment on the table, Jim Blunt rose at last and threaded his way through the Pestilent Pilgrim’s lively, if somewhat disreputable customers. He stepped out into Fzil’s rain-splattered night and glanced about searchingly. There was no sight of a cobra-like Aspian in the mixed-species crowds still thronging the wet streets. Pulling up his hood, the Earthman set forth toward the small inn that served as his own discreet place of rest. It had been a long day. And somehow, he could still smell the reek of Lziren’s hall inside his lungs, as if he had breathed in a foulness that could not be cleansed away...

To be continued...

Copyright © 2005 by Danielle L. Parker

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