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"So THERE YOU were, deep in the Ibars Mountains, with one pair of trousers, a dagger, and a sling among the three of you. How did you contrive a way out?" Mishrak sounded more amused than suspicious.
"We found help," Conan said. "Not that they wanted to help us, but we persuaded them."
"Four bandits," Raihna put in. "They were holding a mother and daughter captive. The women were from a village destroyed by the Transformed.
They fled the wrong way in the darkness and ran into the bandits."
"They must have been grateful for your help," Mishrak said.
"They helped us too," Conan added. "Bora and I crept close to the camp.
Raihna stayed back, then stood up. Clothed as she was not, she made a fine sight. Two of the bandits ran out to win this prize.
"Bora killed one with his sling. I took the other with my dagger. One of the others ran at me but I knocked him down with a stone and Raihna kicked his ribs in.
The mother hit the last one with a stick of firewood. Then she pushed him face down into the campfire, to finish him off."
The delicate faces of Mishrak's guardswomen showed grim satisfaction at that last detail.
"Does it need telling? We took the bandits' clothes and everything else that we could carry and left the mountains. We saw no sign of the Transformed or Eremius's human fighters.
"On the third day we met the soldiers from Fort Zheman. They mounted us and took us back to the fort. We told Captain Khezal the whole tale.
You may hear from him any day."
"I already have." The voice under the mask sounded meditative. "You left Fort Zheman rather in haste, did you not? And you took the tavern wench named Dessa with you."
"We heard that Lord Achmai was bringing up his men, to help scour the mountains for the last of the Transformed. Considering what happened at our first meeting with Lord Achmai, we decided it would serve the peace of the realm if we did not meet again."
Mishrak chuckled. "Conan, you almost said that as though you meant it.
How is Dessa taking to Aghrapur?"
"She's in Pyla's hands, which are about the best to be found," Conan said. "Beyond that, she's a girl I expect can make her own way almost anywhere."
"More than equal to the task, if you describe her truly. Is it the truth, by the way, that Pyla is buying the Red Falcon?"
"I'd hardly know."
"And if you did you wouldn't tell me, would you, Conan?"
"Well, my lord, I'd have to be persuaded it was your affair. But it's the truth that I don't know. Pyla can keep a secret better than you, when she wants to."
"So I have heard," Mishrak said. "You are no bad hand at telling tales, either. Or rather, leaving tales untold."
Conan's fingers twitched from the urge to draw his sword. "It is not well done, to say that those who have done you good service are lying."
"Then by all means let the truth be told. Did you intend to spare Yakoub?" A laugh rolled from under the mask, at Conan's look. "No, I have no magic to read your thoughts. I only have long practice in reading what is not put into letters, as well as what is. I could hardly serve King Yildiz half so well, did I lack this art.
"But my arts are not our concern now. I only ask-did you intend to spare Yakoub?"
Conan judged that he had little to lose by telling the truth. "I asked him to go back to his father and suggest they flee together."
"You thought High Captain Khadjar was a traitor?"
"His son was. Had Khadjar been innocent, would he have told everyone that his son was dead?"
"True enough. Yet-the son might also have hidden his tracks from his father. Did you think of that?"
Conan knew he was staring like a man newly risen from sleep and did not care. Was Mishrak trying to argue for Khadjar's innocence? If he was not, then Conan's ears were not as they had been, thanks to Ulyana's magic.
"I did not."
"Well, let us both consider that possibility. If I need either of you again, I shall summon you. For your good service, my thanks." One gloved hand rose in dismissal.
At such brusqueness, Conan's first urge was to fling his reward money into the pool at Mishrak's feet. Raihna's hand on his arm arrested the gesture, giving wisdom the time to prevail.
Why offend Mishrak, if he was in truth going to seek justice for Khadjar, rather than merely drag him to the executioner? Nor was there much Conan could do about it, if Mishrak was determined otherwise.
Others might have use for Mishrak's gold, even if the Cimmerian did not care to let the blood-price for Yakoub soil his fingers. Dessa, Bora and his family, the Hyrkanians who had guarded so faithfully and so carefully-he could find ways for every last bra.s.s of Mishrak's money if he wished.
Conan thrust the heavy bag into his belt pouch and held out his arm to Raihna. "Shall we take our leave, my lady?"
"With the greatest of pleasure, Captain Conan."
They did not ask Mishrak's leave to go, but his guards made no obstacle to their leaving. Conan still did not feel his back safe until they had left not only Mishrak's house but the Saddlemaker's Quarter itself behind them.
Raihna drank from the same well she'd used as she led Conan toward Mishrak's house, what seemed months ago. Then she wiped her mouth with the back of her hand and smiled for the first time since they reached Aghrapur.
"Conan, did I once hear you say you preferred to embrace me unclothed?"
The Cimmerian laughed. "When there's a bed ready to hand, yes."
"Then let us spend some of Mishrak's gold on that bed!"
They spent all of two nights and much of the day between in that bed, and little of that time sleeping. It was still no great surprise to Conan when he awoke at dawn after the second night, to find the bed empty.
It was some days before Conan had time to think of Raihna or indeed any woman. There was gold to be sent to Bora, Dessa, Pyla, Rhafi, and a half-score of others. There was a new sword to be ordered. There was a good deal of laziness to be purged from his company, although the sergeants had done their best.
When all this was in train, he had time to wonder where Raihna might have gone. He also had time to consider what might have become of High Captain Khadjar. In the time Conan had known the man, Khadjar never let more than three days pa.s.s without a visit to his men. Now it was close to six days. Was there a way to ask, without betraying the secrets of his journey into the mountains?
Conan had found no answer by the morning of the eighth day. He was at the head of his company as they returned from an all-night ride, when a caravan trotted past. Through the dust, Conan saw a familiar face under a headdress, bringing up the rear of the caravan.