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Wielding a Red Sword

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Wielding a Red Sword

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Author: Piers Anthony
Publisher: Del Rey, 1986
Series: Incarnations of Immortality: Book 4
Book Type: Novel
Genre: Fantasy
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(33 reads / 8 ratings)


Mym was a dutiful son, but rather than agree to his father's choice for his marriage, he took up the Red Sword, symbol of office of the Incarnation of War, in order to ameliorate some of the suffering caused by Earth's constant petty wars. But Mym discovered that Satan was waiting to trap him, and he must now take desperate measures to outwit the evil genius who aimed to destroy the world....



It was a traveling show, the kind that drifted from village to village, performing for thrown rupees. There was a chained dragon who would snort smoke and sometimes fire when its keeper signaled, a harpy in a cage who flapped her wings and spat curses at the audience, and a mermaid in a tank who would, for a suitable fee, bring her head out of the water to kiss a spectator. Standard stuff, hardly impressive, but fun for the children. The dragon was old and flabby, the harpy was ugly, and the mermaid, though pretty enough, evidently spoke no local dialect. But at least this show was convenient and cheap, and the crowd was thick.

The man who watched was undistinguished. He was slightly below average height, wore a faded gray shawl, and he kept his mouth shut. He had evidently suffered some abrasion of the face, for it was to an extent swathed in dirty bandages, so that only his eyes, nose, and mouth were exposed. He had the mark of the Sudra caste, though he could have been taken for an Aryan in race. Since none of the twice-born would mix voluntarily with the more lowly merchants and laborers of the once-born, his identity had to be taken at face value.

Of course, caste had been legally abolished in most of the kingdoms of India. But what was legal did not necessarily align with what was actual. One had only to watch the reaction of anyone who inadvertently brushed by a Pariah to understand that!

Now the main show developed. A stage magician performed sundry acts of illusion, causing the faces of demons to manifest in smoke and a flock of birds to startle out of his hat. One of the birds let a dropping fall on the head of a spectator, who complained loudly, whereupon the magician gestured and changed the bird into a shining gold coin, which tumbled to the ground and rolled. The spectator pounced on the coin--but it converted to a venomous snake that hissed and struck at him, while the other spectators laughed. Good magic!

Then there was an exotic dancer, who undulated in the company of a giant python. Her performance was partly artistic and mostly erotic, and the percentage of men in the throng increased. Then the python opened its mouth and took in her left hand. The dance continued, and the reptile swallowed her arm and then her head, and finally the rest of her body. There was strong applause as her two kicking feet disappeared into the maw and the snake slithered heavily back into its curtained cage.

Now a startlingly lovely young woman took her place on the small stage. Her skin was so pale as to be almost white, and her hair was the color of honey. She had a little harp and she set herself and began to play and sing. The song was in English, a language generally but not universally understood in this region. This was a novelty, and the audience was quiet.

The song and music spread out to captivate the listeners. There was a special quality to it that caught them up, even those who could not follow the words. It was as if a mighty orchestra were playing and a chorus of deific beings singing--yet there was only the one woman and her instrument. This was a phenomenon beyond what had been presented before, and all stood entranced.

When the song was done, there was a hush. Then the rupees began flying, landing at the woman's feet, fairly burying them in metallic brightness. All that the audience had came forth, begging for another song.

The woman smiled and sang again, and it was as before: every person within range was transported. Even the old ones were rapt. Now those of the Vaishya caste, the husbandmen and merchants, entered the throng, heedless of propriety, listening. When the second song was done, the shower of money from these higher-class listeners overwhelmed the prior contributions. Applause enough!

The Sudra man stood transfixed, even after the woman had taken up her harp and retired to her wagon and the next show had come on. Jostled by his neighbors, he recovered enough to walk away, his gaze almost vacant. He had evidently been smitten and hardly knew how to cope with it.

He found his way to a wall that offered some slight seclusion and leaned against it. Then he reached into an inner pocket and brought out a ring in the form of a coiled little snake. He set this ring on his smallest finger and brought it covertly to his bandaged face.

"She?" he whispered in English.

The snake-ring came alive and squeezed his finger once.

The man removed the ring from his finger and returned it to his hidden pocket. He paused, considering. How was he to approach this lovely and talented woman, and how would she receive him? He could get more specific advice from the ring, but he preferred to work it out for himself, as his possession of the ring could identify his nature if it were seen by others.

In the end, he waited till dusk, when the throng dissipated and the traveling show was closing up for the night. He approached the covered wagon he had seen the woman with the harp enter. He stood by it and clapped his hands, gently, so as to attract attention without generating too much of it.

The woman appeared. "Yes?" she inquired. Now her lovely fair hair was bound in a heavy kerchief, and she wore a functional skirt and jacket, but her beauty overcame these restrictions.

The man opened his mouth, but did not speak. He gestured helplessly.

"I am sorry," the woman said. "I can see that you have been injured, but I do not speak the local dialect. Do you know English?"

The man tried again. His mouth worked, and finally the sounds came out. "Ah-ah-ah--I do," he said.

She glanced sharply at him, tilting her head. "You are shy?" she inquired. "There is no need to be. What is it that you wish?"

The man struggled again to speak. "N-n-n-not sh-sh-shy," he said. "I st-st-stu-stu-stutter."
She did not even smile. "Come inside," she said.

He followed her into the wagon. Inside, the space was tight, but well organized; there was room for two to sit facing each other, and this they did.

"I do not know you," the woman said. "I have not before talked directly with a person with your problem. Forgive me if I am clumsy; I don't quite know how to help you."

Again the man tried. It took time for him to get the words out, but the woman was patient and did not try to interrupt or to fill in the words for him. Digested, what he said was this: "I need help to leave the Kingdom."

"But if you have committed some crime, and are fugitive from justice, I shall not help you," the woman said.

He asserted that he was not a criminal; he just had need to depart anonymously.

"Forgive me again," she said, "but I must ask you to touch my harp. This will advise me whether what you say is true."

He touched her harp. Nothing happened.

She smiled. "Thank you. Now let us be introduced. I am Orb Kaftan of Ireland, and I sing for my supper. My harp is a gift of the Mountain King and it will not suffer the touch of a dishonest person. I am sorry I had to doubt you before."

"I--must not tell you my identity," the man said haltingly. "I am not injured; I wear the bandage to conceal my face."

"Ah--a political refugee?"

"Approximately." His stutter was diminishing as her warm attention helped him, but that word remained a considerable challenge.

"May I see your face?"

He unwound the bandage. His face was clear and handsome, almost aristocratic. "But I must not show it openly," he said.

"I think we might help you, but I am not sure you would like the manner," Orb said. "We always have need of inexpensive labor, tending the animals, cleaning the cages, menial chores. I think you are of higher birth than that."

"I am. I will do the work."

"Perhaps we can improve upon your camouflage," she said. "Let me fetch you a mask."

She set him up with a clown-mask. She assured him that it would not seem unusual, as long as he remained with the group, as most of the members had more than one task, doubling as entertainers and workers.

And so he joined the group and shoveled dragon manure and cleaned the harpy cage and fed fish to the mermaid. He was paid only with food, a bunk in a wagon, and his right to be anonymous.

The group moved slowly from village to village, on wagons hauled by rented elephants, and put on its show at every stop.

After several days, the man approached Orb again. "I think I could perform," he explained haltingly.

"But everybody laughs at the clowns!" she protested.

Copyright © 1986 by Piers Anthony


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