Tukali lounged on a wide stone bench in the shade beneath the pale, ceramic-tiled roof of the wooden colonnade, sipping the last of the water from a brass goblet. He poured himself another draught from the steel decanter in the middle of the rough-hewn stone table. Girtham’s rooftop garden lay spread out around him, invisible from the street below and thus ensuring a choice degree of privacy for their imminent meeting with the noblewoman. Tukali continued ridding himself of the last vestiges of his hangover, brought on by his unscrupulous consumption of wine and ale the night before.

Close by, Conan stood at the edge of the roof, one foot resting precariously on the parapet as he scanned the city around him, enjoying the relatively unobstructed view. A few other rooftops, like that of the Pig’s Eye, had similar gardens and enclosures, no doubt because the higher premiums on space within Khorshemish had gradually forced landowners to expand vertically instead of horizontally, especially since the recent surges in population.

If the city had previously appeared from a distance as being crowded with towers, now it seemed to Conan like a thick, impenetrable forest of soaring architecture grew within the central regions of the city, the highest tower of all being Tsotha-lanti’s scarlet citadel perched atop the large hill just overlooking the royal palace. If there were many of the lofty aeries, then there was a multitude of shorter structures; row upon row of houses, shops and public buildings lined a complex, interconnecting web of paved streets. In a few districts Conan could even see the new foundations of what would eventually become a series of aqueducts, designed to shoulder the burden of the city’s need for water, a need that was barely being handled by public and private wells. Conan marveled at just one of the many wonders of engineering within the Queen of the South. He couldn’t think of any city he’d ever heard of as being inhabited by a more numerous crowd of people than Khorshemish, except for maybe Tarantia, Aquilonia’s capital.

The mid-morning sun lay partially obscured by the march of an army of small, billowy white clouds across the dark blue heavens. Silenced reigned in the rooftop garden as both men managed to actually relax for the first time during a week that had consisted of hard travelling, subterfuge and even a bit of combat.

Their reverie was broken by the dull clank of a trapdoor opening up into the garden. Girtham emerged from the depths of the inn, followed by a beautiful, raven-haired woman clad in linen robes of forest green that matched her deep green eyes. Her flawless skin glowed with a sheen and tint like purest honey.

Girtham closed the trapdoor and shot the bolt home, securing their meeting from the distractions of the inn below. He led the woman over to the table where Conan joined them. Tukali rose from his place on the bench.

“This is the Lady Jessica,” Girtham said, nodding toward his lithesome guest. He turned to Jessica and indicated each man in turn. “This is Tukali, who hails from Turan.” Tukali bowed deeply, his turban bobbing below his waistline and back up again. “And this is Conan, a Cimmerian.” Conan bowed also, not so much as a gesture of protocol, but out of appreciation for her readily apparent grace and beauty.

Jessica was the first to speak. “I am honored to make the acquaintance of such fine warriors.” Her voice was soft, but it held a certain dignity, an authority that demanded their unwavering attention. “Let us sit and discuss the matters at hand,” she continued.

Jessica asked the warriors for some background about themselves, each man replying with most of the facts that either already knew about the other. Both men tastefully elected to omit the more graphic details of their recent encounters with the wizard in the Hills and the knaves who’d attacked Girtham. Instead they gave brief summaries of their experiences as soldiers.

Jessica nodded at the conclusion of their stories. “Now that I know a little about you, I shall tell you about myself. I’ve lived in Khorshemish all of my life, though I’ve had many occasions to journey to the further reaches of my family’s holdings throughout the land. I am a courtier at King Strabonus’s royal court, where representatives of all the major districts, organizations and industries within Koth gather on a daily basis to run the affairs of state. I represent the many needs of the people living on my family’s lands, and I also head several groups concerned with more… special interests.”

Jessica poured herself a cup of water from the decanter, took a sip, then went on. “As you can guess, with all the responsibility of my position at court, I have a number of opponents, enemies even, who would see their own interests advanced ahead of mine.” Jessica probed the men’s faces with her sharp green eyes. “This is a game of politics, gentlemen, a subtle game that can be both deadly and highly rewarding.”

Tukali’s head had since stopped pounding enough that he could now speak without grimacing in pain. “If I may be so bold, what happened to your other guards? Surely we aren’t the first to enter into your service?”

Jessica smiled faintly, a rueful look in her eyes. “Up until a few days ago, I had two other bodyguards. I’d befriended them from the day that my father, in an effort to protect me from his rivals, hired them out of his own home village in southern Koth. They served me faithfully for quite a number of years.”

“So what happened to them?” Conan asked.

“They disappeared. One day they were escorting me to and from the royal court, and the next day they were gone, along with a couple of other members of my personal staff.” At Conan and Tukali’s questioning looks, she continued. “At first, I thought maybe one of my rivals had gotten to them. But after I made a few inquiries and several of my house staff came forward, I determined that they had become victims of the gilded madness.”

Conan’s face was grim. “How can you be sure?”

“Some of my servants told me about strange metal patches that had shown up on the limbs of my guards and some of the other servants, and of the increasing forgetfulness and frequent lapses by those suspected to have been infected.” Jessica’s voice wavered for a moment. “I guess I was too busy at court to notice that something was wrong, and the armor my guards wore could have hidden the more visible signs of the disease from view. I doubt they even knew what was happening to them,” she sighed. “Since then I’ve hired replacements for the house staff, and now I wish to hire you as my new bodyguards.”

“It appears the plague is more widespread than previously thought,” Girtham intoned, “which is just one of the reasons your new job should be quite demanding.” He turned from the two warriors, his one eye coming to rest on Jessica. “Now would be a good time to tell them, as it bears directly on their duties.”

Conan looked from Girtham to Jessica; he’d caught the undercurrent of saliency in Girtham’s suggestion, the note of caution in his voice. Tukali perked up, also sensing that something of import was about to be said.

“I suppose you’re right,” conceded Jessica. She cleared her throat softly. “One of the special groups I head, and which I hold most dear, is one aimed at abolishing slavery within Koth.” That said, she looked around the table, and seeing only nods and hearing grunts of approval, she went on, a fresh note of enthusiasm in her voice. “I want to outlaw the filthy practice of ripping men, women and children away from their native lands and forcing them to work for us.”

“A noble cause, if I may say so,” Tukali said.

“Aye, and a most ambitious one at that. I’m sure that’s created a host of enemies for you at court,” said Conan. “I now begin to see the real urgency behind your need for men to guard you.”

“You have the right of it, Conan,” Girtham agreed. “In fact, the day before you arrived, I had two other men lined up to fill the position you currently seek, that is until I sent them packing with a cock-and-bull story of the position having been filled. I’d discovered they were secretly working for one of the biggest slavers in all of Koth, and that their true intentions toward the Lady Jessica here were far less than honorable.”

Jessica’s eyes widened as she looked at Girtham in surprise. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

Girtham shook his head. “Telling you would only have served to alarm you, making your position all the more precarious. Anyway, that’s why people come to me for dependable mercenaries, because of my careful screening process.” Girtham grinned proudly. “I knew I’d found what you needed when these two strolled in. The fact that my good friend Walel sent them here and not to the Red Rooster down the street means he considered them first-class material, and Walel is never wrong.”

“Yes, yes, I know,” she said thoughtfully. “And you told me how they helped you out yesterday; admirable actions on their part to be sure. You did well to hire men from outside of Koth, men who wouldn’t already be embroiled in our local politics.” Jessica clasped her fine-featured hands together on the table before her. She looked into the faces of both men, her normally smooth brow slightly creased in anticipation. “Now that you know what you’re getting yourselves into, the question is this: Will you take the job?” Jessica was too used to the affairs of court and the scrutiny of the public eye to show any real sign of nervousness, but deep down inside, she knew what answer she desperately wanted to hear. To her relief, it took only a second to hear it.

“I can’t think of anyone else I’d rather work for.” Conan’s face split into a smile. “That’s why we came to Khorshemish in the first place.”

Tukali sat back against one of the pillars of the colonnade. “Aye, I’m in.”

Smiling, Jessica pulled a small pouch from the silk belt at her waist and handed it to Girtham. “It looks like you’ve more than earned your fee this time.”

Girtham took the purse, hefted it and took a quick peek inside. He raised his eyes in pleased astonishment. “I think you gave me the wrong purse!”

Jessica laughed. “Nay, a suitable reward for your services, as excellent as ever.”

Girtham stood and bowed. “My lady is most kind! I hope we might do business again.”

Conan and Tukali stood along with Jessica. “We’ll meet you in the main room after we get our gear,” said Conan.

Jessica nodded as Girtham opened the trapdoor. He led her below. “Don’t be long,” she called, descending the spiral staircase. “We have to make a couple of stops before we reach my estate.”

At Jessica’s request the men had not donned their armor, but instead they packed it with the rest of their equipment, except for the swords belted at their sides, in canvas duffle bags provided by Girtham. For the past few hours they’d carried their burdens as they trekked through the city, first passing out of the mercenary quarter and into the outer ring of the lower class tenements, which were better kept and much sturdier-looking than their counterparts in some of the other cities Conan had visited in his travels. Gradually, as the hours flew by, they passed through the middle-class districts, and finally emerged into the wealthiest parts of the city. As Conan had noted from the rooftop of the Pig’s Eye, Jessica’s section of the city looked like a mammoth stretch of lawn, with the spires and towers as blades of grass.

Other buildings proliferated here, like the dwellings of insects amongst the blades of grass; broad marble structures with glittering domes; a large number of miniature, castle-like fortresses owned by the more security-oriented individuals; long, column-fronted mansions that rambled for entire city blocks, and countless other buildings, some private, some public, that filled the gaps between the monolithic edifices of the aristocracy.

Jessica led Conan and Tukali toward one of the smaller structures, about the size and style of one of the more modest urban villas. The group passed through a small courtyard teeming with fountains and shrubs that buffered the doorless entrance of the building from the street outside.

“What is this place?” Conan considered his surroundings. The yard looked well maintained, the shrubs lining the gravel path they trod upon were neatly pruned, the bubbling fountains scrubbed clean of algae. Carved in bas-relief around the open portal, cherubs and animals danced gaily within the stonework. The entire place oozed cleanliness and relaxation.

“It’s a bathhouse. Not one of the fancier ones, but it will suffice to rid you of the dust and grime of your travels.” Jessica playfully wrinkled up her nose, sniffing in the direction of the two men; a not altogether unattractive gesture to Conan’s eye, who was glad to find out his new employer had a sense of humor. “I can’t bring you into the royal court smelling of horses and dried sweat.”

They stepped through the open doorway that led them into a sunken chamber via a wide delta of stone steps. “I have an errand to run, so I’ll be back in about an hour to fetch you. In the meantime, see that you try to relax and enjoy the ministrations of your hosts. I’m sure the dangers of your profession leave you two high-strung enough of the time as it is.” Jessica winked. When they reached the bottom of the staircase, Jessica handed some coins to the silk-clad maiden waiting there and whispered some instructions in her ear. The girl nodded and beckoned at Conan and Tukali to follow her. As they left, another attendant took the place of the first while Jessica turned back the way they had come.

The girl led them beyond the waiting-room and through another open doorway to a series of pools set into a ceramic-tiled floor. Various occupants, men and women alike, swam or floated within the pools while a silken-robed servant like their own patiently waited on them. Each pool was fed at one end by a short length of pipe jutting from the wall. A glowing brazier beside each pool cast yellow light upon the water, which in turn reflected wavering medallions of gold upon the high ceiling.

They came to an unoccupied pool and the girl turned and spoke. “You may disrobe and bathe yourselves. Fresh towels will be given to you before I take you to the steam room.”

Seeing that nobody else seemed to care that there were dozens of people swimming around naked, Conan shed his garments and dove into the pool. He found the water cool, clean and ultimately refreshing as he swam. Their female guide, only just noticing Conan’s giant and brawny frame, gasped in surprise. Conan assumed there weren’t many in the warrior classes who frequented this particular bathhouse.

Tukali finished unwinding his turban, revealing straight, short-cropped black hair beneath. He handed the headscarf to the pair of man-servants who came to bear off their clothes, presumably to be washed. “Please be careful with the clasp, it’s very delicate.” One of the men nodded as he carefully tucked the steel clasp and turban-cloth into a large pouch sewn into the side of his vest. The other handed a couple of towels to the girl before the men left with the clothes, weapons and duffel bags.

Tukali breached the water some distance away from where Conan was sporting about, swimming to the bottom of the pool and up again with powerful strokes. Tukali, himself an accomplished swimmer after many years of living beside the Vilayet Sea, did the same and managed to find three of the drainage grates that kept the pool fresh by allowing the water to flow steadily through.

The men soon had their fill of swimming and climbed out, taking the towels proffered them by the girl and wrapping them around their waists.

The girl led them to a sauna where they relaxed for a while, enjoying the steam thrown up by the hot coals. From there they were led to a small white room and made to lie upon cloth-covered stone couches where a team of women, skilled masseuses all, pounded their tight muscles into submission. At one point, because of Conan’s huge size and dense musculature, one of the women stood upon his back, using the weight of her body and her nimble feet to accomplish the task that mere strength alone would not permit her.

After the massage, Conan and Tukali were brought to yet another bath, this one smaller and more private than the first. In turn, each man was bathed from head to foot with soapy water by a pair of women. After the men were rinsed and dried, the women rubbed scented oils into their skin and hair. Their guide then led them into a dressing room where their clothes, washed and pressed, awaited them on a large stone table, and their duffel bags, still containing all of their equipment, weapons and armor, leaned against a wall. They clothed themselves, and for ease of travel placed their swords within the duffels, deciding that there was minimal risk now that they were in the more affluent section of Khorshemish, and were then led back out to the receiving area. True to her word, Jessica soon reappeared and they left the bathhouse behind. Both men left feeling greatly refreshed, well and at ease.

Their next stop, after trekking down a few more streets, these not so crowded as most others, was at an armorer’s. “This is the royal armory,” explained Jessica, “maintained for the troops of Strabonus’s own royal guard. Because of my connections at court and my father’s high position on the king’s personal council, we have access to the finest armor made within the walls of Khorshemish.”

Tukali scratched his chin. “We already have armor.”

“Aye, but I’ll wager we’re getting something more appropriate to our current positions,” guessed Conan.

“Correct. There are certain guidelines and requirements that must be adhered to if I’m to take you with me on my daily rounds,” Jessica explained. “The chief armorer, Zem, has set aside some equipment for you based on the estimates I gave him concerning your sizes.”

They entered the long, squat building. Not unlike many armories Conan had seen in his time, this one sat relatively low to the ground. Entire portions of the front and back walls were open rectangular spaces, which allowed for a greater throughput of air to fuel the forges and carry off some of the excess heat. The armory, like some of the mansions they had passed, spanned the length of the street, its bulk occupying a good half of a city block.

The inside of the building, other than being hot and dry, was quite spacious, and its broad walls were lined with weapons and armor of all types and styles. The ceaseless hammering of metal on metal rang loudly above the din of dozens of men pumping bellows, mixing alloys, and creating, repairing or disassembling various instruments of war.

A line of forges stretched from one end of the armory to the other. Jessica led Conan and Tukali to the centermost and biggest forge of all where an enormous, bare-chested Kothian close to Conan’s stature pumped an equally colossal bellows at regular intervals. Noticing the trio headed his way, Zem stopped pumping and wiped the sheen of sweat from his brow with the back of his forearm. The blue-black hair of his head was cut close to his skull, his face clean-shaven, no doubt in an effort to ward off the heat. “Ah, you’ve returned!” he boomed at Jessica as she strode within earshot.

“Meet my new bodyguards, Tukali and Conan,” she replied.

Zem extended a hand to each warrior. “I have your armor over here,” he said, turning and leading them to a nearby bench. “From Lady Jessica’s descriptions of you, I think the sizes should be about right. The straps are adjustable in any case.” He turned back to them and considered Conan. “I used my own size as an estimate when I picked out your armor. I think it should fit nicely.”

Conan nodded and examined the equipment laid out on the table. The larger suit did look to be about his size. The armor consisted of a burnished steel cuirass, hinged at the front and sides; by the looks of it, the armor would allow full forward and sideways ranges of motion. Conan admired the virtually seamless construction that made the curving, hinged midsection appear as a stylized abdominal plate. “This is fine work,” he stated, impressed.

“You know your armor, Conan. Methinks maybe you’ve worked a little at the anvil yourself?” Zem queried.

“Aye, I’ve hammered my share of steel, but this is truly masterful work.” Conan inspected the rest of the armor. Chain mail sleeves extended from the tapered, extended shoulders of the cuirass down to the elbows. The shell of the cuirass itself consisted of two main sections, front and back, again seamlessly hinged into place where their edges met the top shoulder plate, though with some upward play to allow shoulder movement, and were buckled together at the waist and again at about chest level with thick, adjustable leather straps.

The leg armor was an agreeable compliment to the cuirass; chestnut-brown leather with a padded, black iron loin guard, and leggings studded with rows of matching black iron pyramids. Buckles down the sides of each leg allowed for the steel thigh and shin guards to be quickly secured. The leggings would extend upward above the hips to reach just underneath the midsection of the cuirass, so that even the slightest bit of the wearer’s waistline would not be left uncovered. Steel forearm guards and a pair of steel-reinforced black leather boots rounded out the body of armor.

“Try it on and see how you like it,” suggested Jessica.

As the two men started what turned out to be a swift and easy process of donning their armor, Zem motioned to one of his assistants across the armory. The man, a hawk-nosed Shemite, walked over and handed a belt each to Conan and Tukali, then strode off after a nod from Zem. Both men affixed the belts to their waists. “The embossment on the buckle is my family seal, proof that you are in my employ,” Jessica said, pointing at the steel ovals fronting the thick, steel-mesh belts. Sure enough, both men could see that the design represented a triskelion-like coat-of-arms of some kind.

Zem squinted at Conan and Tukali above pursed lips. “How’s the fit?”

The men flexed their limbs and walked around for a bit in the sweltering heat. “Perfect,” Conan rumbled, pleased with the armor. “It’s much lighter than it looks. Quiet, too.”

Tukali grunted in agreement.

“When I created the new suits for the royal guard, I used a newer, harder steel alloy, which allowed me to use a thinner gauge of metal and to add padding to the inside. The only things different about your armor from the royal guards’ is that yours lacks the gorget around the neck, the helmet, the painted sigil of the guard on the breastplate, and the cape.” Zem turned to Jessica. “Are they in need of weapons?”

“Only if they want them.” Jessica arched her eyebrows questioningly at her bodyguards.

Conan held up a hand. “Just a moment.” He went over to his duffel bag and pulled out the large sheathed broadsword, which he slung across his massive back with the sword’s shagreen belt. A long, wickedly curved Ilbarsi knife came next out of the bag, and Conan hooked that to his new belt. “I’m set,” he decreed.

Zem could only nod, slightly intimidated by the imposing figure Conan presented. He looked to Tukali. “What of you, Easterner?”

Tukali glanced up as he finished buckling his own scimitar and a small hunting knife to his belt. “Aye, show me your stock.”

Zem led Tukali over to a far wall where a wide variety of weapons hung on racks and stands.

Jessica moved over to the table where Conan was rooting through his old armor in its canvas bag, pausing briefly to examine his steel helmet, adorned with a pair of bull’s horns, before sliding it down onto his head. He placed the bag containing the rest of his old armor on the table. “My scale mail served me well, but I won’t be needing it now that I have this,” he said, tapping his steel breastplate. “Zem can have it if he wants, though I’d hardly call it a fair exchange.” Conan took a long draught from his waterskin.

“We should be going. It’s fairly boiling in here, and you and Tukali are wearing all that armor. I can’t imagine how you can stand it.” Jessica dabbed at her temples with a silk kerchief as she shifted her gaze to view the progress of Tukali at the weapons-racks. “Ah, here they come!”

Tukali drew near, Zem at his side. Tukali smiled and patted the handle of a spiked morningstar hanging from his waist. “I learned the use of these during my army days. I like the increased range of attack they afford.”

“They’re very effective against armored foes as well,” Zem added. “What a sword cannot cut through, one of these will surely crush.”

The men collected their belongings, and Zem, having no use for their old armor, bade them keep it along with the new. As they left, Jessica waved in thanks to the armorer, who bowed back graciously before returning to his work.

The air outside was cool compared to the blast furnace heat of the armory, and all three were glad to embrace the mild breeze sighing across the golden-hued afternoon sky. The activity on the streets temporarily increased as the richest inhabitants of the city headed out with their particular retinues to dine at a favorite eatery or a fellow noble’s estate. Even here amongst the dwellings of the wealthy, no horses or other travelling beasts were to be found, and most of those who understood the nature and power of their affluence chose to forego such extravagances as the slave-borne litters favored by the newly rich of the merchant class.

The trio soon arrived at the high granite walls of Jessica’s main residence in Khorshemish. Conan noted that the walls looked sturdy enough, but he would have to remember to check them out for himself later. A granite tower protruded far above the walls, reaching a median height directly comparable to the dense nest of neighboring spires.

Jessica extracted a key from the folds of her robe and unlocked the sizable gate of fat iron bars guarding the entrance to her manor. Conan stepped forward and pushed on the gate, barely needing to get his back into the effort. The gate swung smoothly inward and Conan and Tukali escorted Jessica within the protective walls of her domicile. Conan swung the gate shut and Jessica locked it again before they continued on.

The grounds within the walls, though expansive, were kept in simple order; a few shrubs and trees were sprinkled throughout the green lawn that surrounded the house on all sides. The house itself was pink-speckled granite like the walls and tower, but the flat roof was of grey slate and the windows had white wooden frames and shutters, all thrown open. From the hub of the wheel-shaped dwelling, the tower, half as wide as the house itself, grew like an axle into the sky overhead.

A balding white-robed man in later years of his life emerged from the heavy oaken portals facing the main gate and ambled toward the group, his long silver-streaked beard flapping slightly as he moved over the cobbles. “Greetings milady,” he said cheerfully as he drew close, “I see Girtham did not steer you wrong.” He beamed at the two armored men. “Milady has gone too long without protection, and you two look as if you could hold off a horde of bandits by yourselves!” he exclaimed.

Jessica made the introductions. “Markus, this is Tukali, and this is Conan.” The men clasped hands with Markus in turn. “Markus heads the servants in this and the rest of my households, or wherever I happen to travel. He has been a retainer in my family for many years.” She turned to Markus. “Please show them to their quarters, then bring them to my study. I’d like to give them a tour before the evening meal.”

They followed Markus into the manor, Jessica splitting off from the group to attend to other business. The interior of the house was decorated simply but tastefully. All of the necessities were present, and even a few works of metal and stone sculpture adorned the walls of the curved hallways and the rooms that led off of them, but the place lacked the more excessive displays of wealth so often flaunted by many of the noblewoman’s peers. Jessica’s personal tastes appeared to veer away from wasteful acts of hubris while still managing to provide a high degree of comfort.

Their rooms were housed near the servants’ quarters, both of which were as well furnished and maintained as the rest of the property. The doors to their rooms, opened by Markus, revealed a level of luxury and comfort uncommon among the accommodations of mere servants and guards. In fact, to the best of either warrior’s knowledge, the rich usually boarded their help in lodgings at the edge of or entirely away from the main premises of an estate.

Markus sensed their surprise. “Jessica is a rare flower among the thistles of this city’s aristocracy. She’s not afraid to be generous, as you have no doubt realized by now.” His voice was rough with age, but the tenderness and loyalty with which Markus spoke impressed itself immediately upon Conan.

“This is truly what I sought when I left Ophir for Koth,” Conan said.

Tukali shared the sentiment as well. “It shan’t be difficult to find inspiration enough to work hard here!”

Markus’s grizzled face broke into a smile. “We’re all paid well, and the Lady rewards us for our efforts, something she learned from her father.” He started walking back the way they had come. “New clothes will be brought to your rooms within a few hours. Stow your gear and I’ll meet you back in the main foyer. Then I will show you to the study.” He left them as they began unbuckling their armor and stacking it within their rooms.

Markus tugged on the handle of a door cut from maple and ushered the men into the study, then left them. Like the majority of the rooms in Jessica’s manor, the study was wedge-shaped with the point cut off by the foundational walls of the tower that sprouted from the building’s center. Jessica sat working behind a marble desk in the middle of the room. Above her, fading daylight streamed in through an expansive skylight equipped with a panel that could be pulled closed or pushed open from below with the aid of a long, hook-tipped bamboo pole, currently propped against the side of the capacious desk.

Jessica put the finishing touches on her work as her new bodyguards drew near. She stood from behind the desk, handing a piece of parchment to each warrior. “Take these, and keep them on you at all times, especially if you go out after nightfall.”

Conan examined the stamp below the writing on the parchment he held. “This is your seal.” It was the same as the embossments on their belts.

“Yes, and those writs declare in specific terms that you are in my employ.” As the men stashed the papers away within their shirts, Jessica shut the panel in the roof and placed several items in a desk drawer. “Now I’ll show you around.”

They followed her out into the hallway, and she led them around the building, pointing out in turn the kitchen, the pantry and an internal well, the main dining room, guest quarters, various equipment and storage closets, baths, a laundry with another internal well, the staff’s quarters, including their own, and a parlor for the entertainment of visitors.

When at last they arrived at the foyer, Jessica steered them past a pair of couches and over a thick rug to a door at the back of the room. “This is the main entry to the tower. We’ll go up there now.” She motioned to a torch on the wall near Tukali’s shoulder, and he pulled it from its sconce and handed it to her. “We have a tradition here in Khorshemish of lighting up the towers at night. Not only is it a glorious sight to behold from up high and in the streets below, but the accumulation of light serves to illuminate the city more than the street lamps alone ever could.”

“And any rogues prowling the streets after nightfall must think twice before seeking victims in the glare of so many lights,” Conan mused, “especially when the guards can see as plainly as they.”

Jessica smiled. “True enough.”

They entered the bottom of the tower. In the center of the room a stone staircase spiraled tightly upward into the ceiling. Jessica held the torch high and pointed at a bucket set before a huge barrel atop a stand beside the stairs. “Conan, if you would fill that bucket with oil, we can proceed.”

It took but a few minutes for Conan to fill the wooden bucket from the spigot at the base of the barrel, and then they climbed the stairs. Seconds later they reached the first landing, and Conan lifted the lid of the bucket and poured some of the oil into an iron brazier standing upon a tripod in the center of the room. Jessica touched her torch to the brazier’s lip and flames ignited within the pan. Windows had been cut into the walls of the tower at the eight major points of the compass, and the polished bronze plates affixed within the top of the frame of each window reflected the light at an angle into the streets below.

They climbed further into the tower, at each level Conan pouring the fuel and Jessica lighting it, until finally they reached the top room, and Conan emptied the rest of the oil deep in the bottom of the bucket into the last brazier. Night was already descending through the twilight when the dancing flames cast their orange radiance about the room. Through the tall arched windows they could see similar beacons sparkling to life within the legions of surrounding towers.

Conan leaned out slightly over the windowsill and scrutinized the manor below. From behind him, Jessica spoke. “In addition to the armor, weapons and clothes I’m providing you, you will each receive a weekly stipend of five gold pieces, as well as the free room and board. In exchange, I ask only that you perform your duties to the best of your abilities.”

Conan turned away from watching the ant-like specks of the people walking below. “Markus wasn’t lying when he said you were generous. Your terms are more than fair.” He nudged Tukali in the arm, breaking off whatever thoughts the Turanian had had while staring out at the lights of the city.

“Eh? Yes, more than fair!” Tukali exclaimed, slightly embarrassed at letting his mind wander. “You would have had our best at even only one gold a week.” He stroked his goatee thoughtfully. “This place is very secure. The walls are high and sturdy and the grounds are visible from all areas of the house. Even a small mob couldn’t breach the gates in front.”

“It would seem to me that our protection will be needed most in the more public of places, like the open streets and bazaars,” Conan suggested.

“My other bodyguards thought the same,” said Jessica. “Within the walls of all the royal buildings there are watchmen enough to virtually guarantee the security of everyone present, including my own. My responsibilities, however, often require that I travel far within the city, even outside of it at times.”

Conan grunted in assent. “You’ll be safe in our company. You have my oath on it.”

“And mine, by Erlik,” swore Tukali.

“Good,” Jessica replied. “But since we’re in such a somber mood, perhaps a little food and drink would help put us all in a lighter frame of mind?”

The men grinned, the seriousness of the moment quickly dissipating, though none of its resolution.

“Aye, I’d reckon it would. We haven’t eaten since midday.” Tukali patted his stomach, which growled hungrily back at him.

Jessica left Tukali and Conan sipping wine in the firelight of the parlor while she went off to instruct her cooks to prepare dinner. The two were lounging easily upon upholstered couches amidst their comfortable, if not excessively luxurious surroundings, when a cry was heard from outside. Both men were instantly on their feet and halfway into the hall when they espied the source of the commotion. A young servant girl came running toward them, tears streaming down her face as she sobbed in distress. “Markus is hurt! He’s trapped beneath an ale drum! He-he can’t get up!” She flew into Tukali’s arms, who patted her comfortingly on the back as she wept into his shoulder. “There was nothing I could do! He’s in the old stable. P-please, hurry . . .” She broke down into a fit of sobbing.

“Come on!” Conan growled, racing down the hall.

Tukali gently pried himself away from the servant girl and took off after the Cimmerian, who was already bounding past the foyer and out the main entrance some two dozen yards away.

Conan remembered seeing the stable at the back left corner of the property from the top of the tower, and he fairly flew over the lawn, his powerful legs pumping furiously. Somewhere behind him he could make out the sounds of Tukali trying to catch up.

Within seconds he was at the door of the stable, once home to Jessica’s horse team but now bereft of its former occupants. Darting inside Conan could see within the glow of a wall-mounted lantern that the stable had been converted to store supplies of many kinds. Markus was lying on the floor at the midpoint of the building, a large barrel pinning him to the ground.

As Conan drew near, he could hear the old servant’s wheezing breath as his lungs strove against the partial weight of the barrel to take in more air. The rest of the barrel’s weight was taken up at one end by a small cask to the left of Markus’s prone form, and at the other by the wooden base the barrel had stood upon. Apparently the base had cracked and the keg had tipped, knocking Markus over and landing against the cask as it pinned the man down. Conan quickly observed that some of the iron bands ringing the barrel sported metal handles, no doubt to simplify the job of conveying the vessel from one location to another.

The old manservant noticed Conan’s arrival and gasped out a greeting. “Thank Mitra you came, Conan! I think the cask is slipping . . .”

“It’s a miracle you’re alive,” Conan answered as he worked his way carefully behind the overturned drum. “If that cask or its base hadn’t held more than they have, you’d have been flattened!” Conan looked up just as Tukali sped inside, panting. “Tukali!” He waved him over. “When I lift the barrel, pull Markus clear before it has a chance to come down again.”

“Aye.” Tukali hooked his hands under Markus’s shoulders while Conan hugged the barrel’s middle, grasping a handle beneath it and another near its foot where it had rested upon the stand.

Conan took a couple of deep breaths, tensed his upper body, and then heaved with all the strength his massive thews could muster. Veins stood out on the side of Conan’s neck as his muscles bulged under the strain. Slowly Conan dead lifted the huge keg into the air. When it was clear of Markus’s torso, Tukali dragged him out from under it.

Just as Conan’s legs and back straightened out Jessica rushed in, followed by the girl who had gone for help. Jessica abruptly halted, her eyes widening with awe, the girl behind her gaping likewise. “I never would have believed it if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes . . .” she said quietly. Jessica stared as Conan eased the lower end of the barrel onto the ground, then tipped it upright with a mighty heave. Dust flew from the floor of the stable as the heavy barrel thumped into place next to the stand of kegs and casks.

Jessica shook her head in wonder. “That was almost a full barrel. I doubt even Zem could have lifted it.” Then she put aside her amazement as she looked Markus over, who had stripped off his shirt so Tukali could check for broken ribs. “Are you still in one piece?” she asked him, her voice quavering slightly in her concern.

“Just a few bruises, milady. Nothing a few days’ rest won’t cure me of.” Markus winced a little as he pulled his shirt back on. “I don’t believe I’d be speaking to you now though, had it not been for the Cimmerian.” With Tukali and the girl supporting him, Markus limped out of the stable and back to the house.

Conan stretched and massaged his arms. “I’ve worked up quite an appetite this day.” He looked at Jessica. “That keg rack will need to be repaired. I can do it on the morrow, if you’d like.”

Jessica could only nod while he picked up the small cask of ale that Markus had managed to fill before his mishap. Shouldering the ale, Conan snuffed out the lantern before walking back with the speechless and awestruck Jessica to the house’s rear kitchen doors.

Conan dove through his meal, mounding his plate with second helpings after plowing through the first generous serving. Tukali on the other hand picked at his food as if he were already full. It wasn’t that he hadn’t truly felt hunger pangs earlier; he had. The problem was that his mind had been thrown into a tumult over his present state of affairs. Conan was a traitor and a deserter and it was Tukali’s job to bring him to justice.

But things were more complicated than that. He had witnessed Conan’s character first-hand, from his openhandedness toward his friends to his willingness to lend aid to others in situations of dire need. As much as he was loath to admit it for potentially dooming himself to the wrath of his superiors, Conan had become a real friend to Tukali. Mission or not, how could he carry out orders that clashed with his sense of honor and decency?

Tukali poked languidly with his knife at the meat and potatoes on the plate before him. There was also the matter of Conan’s prowess in battle. Not only had he taken down three armed men in the Pig’s Eye with naught but his wits, but he’d just hefted a drum of wine that at least four ordinary men would have found a precarious task!

He sat back in his chair and sighed after taking a few gulps of wine. Sharif had made Conan out to be some kind of heartless monster when he’d persuaded Tukali that by completing his directives, he’d be protecting the honor and empire of King Yildiz and avenging the slain Orkhan. Now that he mulled it over in his own mind, on his own terms, it seemed unlikely that the words or actions of a lone barbarian could cause harm to mighty Turan, although, knowing Conan . . .

He shook his head. It didn’t matter. Tukali deeply suspected that his higher-ups were motivated either by vengeful hatred alone or some other personal interest, and not by a need to protect Yildiz’s imperium as they claimed. He wouldn’t be surprised if Sharif’s own drive to avenge Tughril and Orkhan were secondary to an attempt to curry favor with the royal family by delivering a wanted and somewhat infamous man into their dungeons.

Besides, Yildiz had many relatives scattered throughout the empire, none of whom seemed immune to scandal, and Yildiz had weathered their improprieties well, no matter how they’d besmirched the family name. Tukali had even heard whispered rumors of King Yildiz’s bastard children living within the uppermost rooms of the imperial palace. So far, nothing had come of that, and nobody had challenged the king’s honor because of it.

Tukali guzzled down the last of his wine and pushed his chair away from the broad dinner table. The more he pondered it, the more unlikely it seemed that his mission was serving any worthwhile purpose, and he refused to let himself be manipulated into serving the interests of Sharif’s, or anybody else’s, personal gain.

At last Tukali resolved himself. He would contact this priestess of Damballah, Ashlara, and ask her to inform Sharif that he was respectfully resigning his commission. She could even use his ensorceled turban clasp since he had no further use for it. Due to his rank as captain, Tukali had the option of resigning at any time, but of course only with advance notice. He’d seen too much of the world to keep thinking only in terms of his homeland, as dear as it was in his heart, and the life of a mercenary had its appealing aspects.

Tukali rose from the table and cleared his throat. “Lady Jessica?”

Jessica, who had been contemplating the Turanian’s apparent lack of appetite with some concern, glanced over at Conan before replying. Conan had also noticed Tukali’s disconsolate mood, and was now watching him from the corner of his eye as he washed down the last remnants of his meal with a draught of ale. “Yes, Tukali?” she asked.

“If I may ask your leave for the evening, I promised a friend that I would visit her upon my arrival in Khorshemish.” It wasn’t really a lie. He had told Sharif he would seek out Ashlara when it was readily convenient to him, but it still felt disagreeable to him for not being totally forthright, given his present company.

“Ah-ha! A lady-friend, eh?” Conan boomed. He grinned knowingly at the Turanian.

“Of sorts,” said Tukali. Conan’s good-natured mirth made him feel more confident about his decision.

“Far be it from me to stand twixt two . . . friends,” said Jessica. “Go ahead then. Here’s your key to the front gate.” She tossed a leather-thonged iron key to Tukali, and slid an identical one across the table in Conan’s direction. “I meant to give these to you earlier. Go on Tukali,” she waved, “we’ll see you on the morrow!”

“Watch your back out there, Turanian!” Conan called as Tukali’s figure disappeared through the doorway.

Conan conversed with Jessica for another hour about security matters while they took an after-dinner stroll around the grounds, circling the house. The flaring braziers in the tower above shed enough light over them that they could see to the far walls of the estate without straining.

Jessica soon parted company with the Cimmerian to go check on Markus’s recovery, while Conan stayed out a few minutes longer inspecting the wall that enclosed the compound. He unlocked the gate with his key, then locked it behind him as he walked the perimeter outside the estate. The hard granite of the walls showed little wear from exposure to the elements, and nary a crack marred the rough-hewn surfaces of the barrier’s blocks.

Looking up, Conan calculated the wall at just a little taller than three man-heights. Hardly one to resist a challenge, Conan began scaling the fortification, regardless of his growing weariness from the day’s travelling. He jammed the tips of his callused fingers into the narrow seams between the granite blocks and hauled himself upward using his powerful upper body strength alone; his sandals wouldn’t allow his toes the same purchase his fingers found with ease. To anyone watching this spectacle from afar, it would have appeared that Conan had suddenly developed the powers of a spider for the speed with which he gained the top, a feat that only another Cimmerian might have accomplished without aid.

The wall was thick enough for Conan to stand with his legs shoulder-width apart, and he walked easily atop the barrier until he came to the roof of the stable which he swiftly clambered down to the ground below. Satisfied that it was unlikely anyone else dwelling within Khorshemish could breach Jessica’s estate as easily as he, Conan decided to turn in for the night.

For Tukali, the night was only just beginning. It hadn’t taken long for him to locate the general area where the temple of Damballah was said to be found. Tsotha-lanti’s scarlet citadel rose high above every other tower in the city like a brooding vulture, and Tukali was able to use it as a landmark to guide him near his destination.

The going had been fairly easy, and only twice had he been stopped and made to show his pass to the city watchmen before moving on. Now Tukali strode down a small lane of buildings that hedged the steep hill supporting the wizard Tsotha-lanti’s ill-reputed abode.

Halfway down the lane Tukali found the place he sought. The temple, small compared to the capacious mansions bordering it, sat quiet and unassuming, its exterior revealing no signs of life beneath the tarnished bronze dome capping the pile. The plain white marble facade gave no hint as to the building’s purpose, yet Tukali immediately knew it for what it was, tipped off by the structure’s very ordinariness. From his own travels Tukali knew that Damballah was the name given by the black tribes of the south for the god known in these lands as Father Set, the Great Serpent.

Anonymity served the followers of Set well by masking their worship from the suspicious and often hostile eyes of the surrounding people. The worship of Set, centralized in Stygia, was seen in many lands as a domineering and evil religion that ultimately served only to empower the elite of Stygia itself. Tukali knew that no matter what name Set was called by, the image of his ancient coils and fanged visage represented arcane rites, sacrifices and horrors perverse enough to drive most folk gibbering-mad. Many cities, like Khorshemish, had outlawed the worship of the snake as wicked and traitorous to humankind.

Knowing all this, Tukali struggled to master the dark thrashings of instinctual fears lurking in his mind as he approached the temple’s door, a tall slab of rock embedded in the marble’s face just below the dome.

The door stood unadorned by any handle or bell, and Tukali was about to pound on the heavy grey slab when it grated inward of its own accord. Neither light nor movement appeared inside the black confines of the temple, and Tukali had barely considered the thought of leaving when a voice spoke from within, brittle and dull. “State your business here.”

Tukali addressed the open doorway, fighting to keep his voice steady and authoritative. “I am Tukali, here at the bidding of my master Sharif to seek out Ashlara, priestess of Damballah.” His words reverberated flat and lifeless against the darkness before him.

Silence reigned for the next few moments. After what seemed like an eternal pause, the same hollow voice as before finally replied. “You are expected. Enter.”

A hesitant step took Tukali over the threshold, and then he was inside. No light emerged from the inky blackness all around, only the voice, now in front of him, instructing him to reach out with his arm. Unsure of what to expect but expecting the worst, Tukali did as the voice commanded. A hand, cold as the grave, grasped his own and placed it on what Tukali guessed was the speaker’s cloth-enshrouded shoulder. The shoulder moved forward, pulling Tukali’s arm with it. Blindly, he walked as he was led into the temple.

Somewhere up ahead a noise grated out, as of stone sliding on stone, and their path gradually took on a slight downward grade. Unable to see where he was going, Tukali could only discern that they were headed down a gradually spiraling ramp of some kind that descended below the temple. Most of the time their padding footsteps stayed muffled by the darkness around them, but at times the noise of their movements echoed fleetingly down unknown side corridors. Periodically Tukali heard tiny scratches emanating from the murk around him, which he at first took for rats, but he soon discarded that notion after counting the sounds of too many legs clattering about from the source of each disturbance. Tukali shivered. Maybe the absence of all light here was a disguised blessing.

Eventually Tukali’s silent guide halted after whatever corridor they were in had levelled off. A key clicked in a lock and hinges squealed as light poured in through a widening crack in the blackness ahead. The guide spoke, deep and haltingly. “Through… here.”

Tukali walked toward the open doorway. In the semi-darkness he glanced at the face of his guide, who turned back toward the corridor behind them. To his horror, Tukali glimpsed two empty sockets gazing sightlessly out of a hairless, pallid face. Recoiling in abhorrence, Tukali barged into the lighted room, the portal groaning shut behind him.

He was now in some kind of waiting room, the wood-panelled walls around him bare of decoration and lit by a sputtering lantern. Another hairless slave, clad only in a white loincloth, entered by a lone door in the far wall of the room and beckoned Tukali on. “Ashlara awaits you.”

Tukali followed the slave through the underground temple, passing through vast audience chambers and alabaster-encrusted sites of worship crowded with the chanting followers of Set bowed before graven images of their unholy god. Everywhere black-robed priests and shaven-headed acolytes scurried about in the light of glimmering torches and the cloying smoke of censers, intent on performing one or more of the bizarre rites demanded by their deviant religion.

They stopped before a narrow iron door at the end of a long, winding hallway. The slave rapped on the door thrice, then left hurriedly. The door was pulled open by a fat eunuch who waved Tukali inside. A sibilant female voice emanating from the center of the richly furnished chamber called out. “Leave us.” The eunuch quietly retreated through another door on the left side of the room, leaving Tukali alone with his hostess.

“I’ve been expecting you.” A tall, slender woman with aquiline features stood up from a cushioned divan. “I am Ashlara, the high priestess of Damballah.” The long and straight sable tresses trailing over the ebony skin of her shoulders marked her as a descendant of several heritages, the blood of Stygia mixed with that of a tribe from the black kingdoms, if the reference to Damballah meant anything. “Sharif said you would arrive soon. Come, sit down and tell me of your mission.”

Tukali walked over and sat down upon a couch opposite the divan. Ashlara poured him a cup of wine from a jug on the short table between them, then poured some for herself. Tukali sniffed at the wine, but refrained from drinking it just yet. “My orders for the past year have been to track and find Conan of Cimmeria, and to deliver him into Aghrapur.”

“Yes, Sharif told me as much.” Ashlara studied the Turanian before her. “I would think such a task would not have been laid upon any one man.” She took a dainty sip from her goblet.

“I had a squad of men assisting me, but they were killed up in the Hills before we had a chance to subdue the Cimmerian.”

Ashlara’s eyes, brown and flecked with gold, narrowed in interest. “Killed? By whom?”

“Some lunatic sorcerer blasted them at our designated ambush site, then he tried to kill us further on down the trail, but I managed to plant an arrow in him first. We haven’t seen him since.” Tukali took a small sip of the wine, the fruity liquid washed pleasingly over his palate.

Ashlara leaned against the pillow of her divan, contemplating Tukali. “Tell me more of your journey.”

Tukali considered Ashlara’s request, wanting to say why he was really there, then leave, but he shrugged mentally. What could it hurt? He related the story of their trip into Khorshemish, touching upon what he felt was relevant. As he spoke, he became slowly aware of Ashlara watching him from across the table. It had been some time since he’d last had an opportunity to seek female companionship, and the priestess stirred feelings within him that he’d set aside in lieu of the importance of completing his assigned task.

Her eyes were strange, fascinating. He found himself staring into them, wondering at their bewitching charm. Something about the shape of the irises was wrong though, more like slits than circles . . .

Tukali’s voice dropped off into stillness as he was utterly lost in Ashlara’s spell, the wine goblet slipping out of his hand and clattering onto the carpet.

Ashlara leaned forward, maintaining her locked gaze with Tukali. “Now tell me,” she purred, “do you truly wish to capture Conan for execution in Aghrapur?”

Tukali spoke slowly, the words dripping off his tongue against his will. “No. It would be wrong. Conan has become my friend. I want to leave the army and resign my post.”

The priestess sat back, satisfied with her discovery. “Sharif told me he suspected you of having second thoughts. I see he was correct.”

Tukali sat speechless, unaware of his surroundings and unable to leave even if he could remember he had the desire to do so. Ashlara drew forth a copper bowl from under the divan and set it upon the table. She emptied the jug of wine into the bowl, then called in the eunuch, who promptly arrived. At Ashlara’s bidding the eunuch produced a small dagger and cut his forearm, spilling the blood into the bowl where it mixed with the wine.

Ashlara spoke then, sounding words unutterable by any human mouth, her tongue forking obscenely as she did so. While she recited the incantation thin tendrils of smoke floated up out of the bloody wine and formed a face in the air. Sharif’s face. Shadowy eyes rolled to look at her, and she addressed the foggy visage. “It is as you said. Your minion has lost his direction.”

Lips of smoke vocalized a single command. “Proceed.”

Ashlara reached across the table and touched the clasp on Tukali’s turban. A slight glow emanated from beneath her fingers, and she drew back her hand. Tracing arcane symbols in the air with talon-like fingers, Ashlara chanted several more phrases of the serpent-speak, bending and twisting sound as she wove her magic. Within seconds, two pairs of eyes, Sharif’s and Tukali’s, rolled up in their skulls as the spell took effect. Tukali’s turban clasp flashed brightly and then dimmed. Sharif’s hovering face of mist drifted apart and disappeared.

Ashlara stared expectantly at Tukali. The Turanian sat still for a moment, tense and rigid with some unknown strain. Then he relaxed, his eyes resuming their natural proclivity to look forward, focusing on the priestess. “He put up a bit of a fight, but I now control Tukali’s mind.” The voice was Tukali’s, but the statement left no doubt that it was indeed Sharif who now commanded the warrior’s body.

Ashlara distractedly waved away the eunuch, who once again left them alone. “In time, your mind will recede from its dominant position, leaving you to control Tukali’s actions from his subconscious. Though he will function as he normally does, he will think that your intentions are his own, and thus act on them.” Ashlara lay back on the divan, stretching a slim, graceful leg out in front of her.

Tukali, now controlled by Sharif, stood and approached Ashlara, gazing down at her from in front of her perch. “It has been some time.” Lust shone brightly in his eyes, and his pulse throbbed deafeningly in his ears.

Ashlara took his hand. “It has been a long time indeed,” she agreed, pulling him down on top of her in an embrace that grew only more heated as the night wore on.

Some hours later, Ashlara and the ensorceled Tukali sat drinking the last of a pitcher of spiced wine, Sharif enjoying the sensations of his host body. As the priestess had claimed earlier, Sharif’s influence over Tukali was gradually sinking into the background while Tukali’s personality reemerged to the forefront of his mind. Now it was Tukali who spoke, unconsciously influenced by Sharif’s thoughts. “What is your stratagem for capturing Conan?”

Ashlara smiled. “I think you’ll appreciate the subtlety of what I have in mind.” She rose and walked to the door at the front of her chamber. “Come with me, and I’ll show you the basis for my plan.”

Tukali followed the priestess out. They weaved their way through the maze of corridors and rooms, following a complex route that only the denizens of the temple would have found time to memorize. Before long they descended through a trapdoor into a dank and mildewed hallway, flanked on either side by rows of cells. Ashlara walked to the end of the hallway and stopped before a heavy iron door, bolted on the outside by a thick bar. The priestess slid the bar to the side and pulled the door open, ushering Tukali inside. “What you will see in here is quite unlike anything you have ever laid eyes upon,” Ashlara promised.

Tukali peered around fruitlessly in the darkness. Sparks suddenly danced at the tip of one of Ashlara’s taloned fingers, igniting a torch set just inside the door. Flames bloomed and lit the tiny cell. Against the opposite wall and shackled with heavy chains sat a single figure on a pile of straw tugging listlessly at his bonds, though to no effect.

Tukali stepped closer. It looked as if a human boy, Tukali guessed, had been covered head to foot with strange, angular pieces of metal. The metal pieces clustered mainly about the boy’s head and shoulders, as if someone had sought to create some bizarre configuration of armor out of the boy’s skin.

“Look closely, Turanian,” advised Ashlara. “It is the gilded madness. Those chains are all that keep our guest from wandering back into the temple or the crypts below.”

“Where did he come from?” Tukali wondered aloud.

“We found him roaming around in our temple. He must have strayed in through an unknown passage. We drove him down here so we could study him. As far as we can tell, his plague is not a result of any design of our deity’s.” Her voice quickened in her excitement. “But we can use this disease, use it to capture Conan!”

“How? I don’t see how infecting the Cimmerian will do aught else but cover him in that,” he pointed at the metal-encrusted skin of the boy, “and make him disappear. We want him in Aghrapur.” Sharif’s control manifested itself strongly, already masking Tukali’s original intentions of aborting the mission from the warrior’s own mind.

“One important aspect of the gilded madness we’ve discovered is that it drives the victim into a mindless state,” Ashlara explained. “Your Cimmerian will forget himself, and when he does it will be but a simple matter to bind him thus,” she gestured to the prisoner, “and drag him back to Turan.”

“How do we infect him?” asked Tukali.

Ashlara hesitated. Her spell linked Sharif’s mind to Tukali’s so that the wizard could control the thoughts and actions of his minion, but she was unsure whether or not the wizard’s control would extend to supporting a directive that could be suicidal for the Turanian warrior. She decided to risk the chance of Tukali’s mind rebelling and regaining control. If worse came to worst, she could always try to displace Tukali’s spirit from its earthly vessel and grant Sharif complete dominance over the warrior’s body, though it would cost her dearly. “The gilded madness is spread by touch, so you will touch him,” she nodded toward the pathetic form on the floor before them, “and then you will touch the Cimmerian.” She stopped, waiting for a reaction from Tukali as she let the information sink in.

Tukali, for his part, seemed unaware or uncaring about his personal welfare. Only the mission mattered. “I understand,” he said after a second’s pause. “How will I be able to capture and transport Conan if the disease causes me to forget myself as well?”

Ashlara smiled, chuckling silently at the irony. “Your master will guide your actions for you through magic. When you arrive in Aghrapur, Sharif will be able to tend to your ailment directly.” No doubt, she thought, by killing him before the Cimmerian himself was slain.

Not even a shadow of doubt flickered across Tukali’s face at Ashlara’s explanation. Through the haze of Sharif’s control Tukali blindly accepted whatever fate they bestowed upon him. He stepped forward, looking down at the glimmering boy plucking feebly at his chains. Tukali’s hand reached out, tentatively, then grasped the boy’s bare upper arm. The boy didn’t even flinch, lost in whatever waking nightmare the gilded madness had trapped him in.

Ashlara summoned forth the eunuch, who had quietly followed the two into the small dungeon. “Take him to the surface, and see that he touches none within the temple. Have the Keeper lead him out by a short length of rope–we can’t have him getting infected.”

The eunuch bowed, then carefully herded Tukali back up to the streets of Khorshemish so he could deliver his virulent parcel, perchance to his only real friend in all the world.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email