Jessica and her bodyguards trudged their way through the dwindling shadows cast by surrounding buildings as the noonday sun crept up high into the firmament. Conan and Tukali strode on either side of their mistress, the daunting presence of the two armored warriors clearing a path through the press of city-dwellers on the streets around them.

Jessica’s green eyes sparkled with a mixture of jubilance and determination. Her meeting earlier that morning with a delegate out of the merchant quarter had gone fairly well. The delegate, representing the concerns of various influential and affluent leaders among the merchant guilds, had vowed to support Jessica’s move to abolish slavery throughout Koth. The only problem had been that without official action on the part of King Strabonus’s government, the merchants were apprehensive of openly supporting Jessica’s views for fear of reprisals from the slave lords. So Jessica would have to finish convincing the royal council to assemble a tribunal to investigate the moral import of allowing the slave trade to continue. Once the royal council started to make inquiries, she could convince her wary allies like those among the merchant guilds to come out into the open with their support. With the royal council breathing down their necks, even the powerful slave lords wouldn’t dare use force to silence their opposition. Now the trio marched back to the king’s palace so Jessica could resume her cause at court.

Standing far taller than the masses of bustling people around them, Conan had no problem sighting their way along the busy streets. Up ahead Conan spotted a growing density of peddler’s carts and stalls that extended to a greater concentration of the same in a broad open square. “There’s a market up ahead.”

“Good, we can stop for something to eat,” Jessica said, temporarily setting aside her many concerns. “I’ll buy us some lunch.”

“Thanks,” Conan rumbled. “I haven’t eaten since dawn.” He glanced aside at Tukali, who kept on as he had, mute and strangely distracted. For the past two days, Conan’s friend and accomplice had seemed distant, inhabiting a world of his own. Conan figured that maybe Tukali was having trouble readjusting to the many sights and distractions of city life. Whatever the case, he hoped the Turanian would snap out of it soon. Large cities like Khorshemish tended to make short work of the unwary.

A sundry flood of sounds and smells washed through the wide expanse of the marketplace. Standing in the shade of various stands, booths and tents, peddlers hawked their wares to those browsing amongst the displays of merchandise. Conan and his group were concerned mainly with food, and they looked over the assortment of edibles with watering mouths.

Jessica finally settled on an apple, some cheese and a bit of goat’s milk while the two men ate chunks of roasted chicken served in bowls of hard biscuit-like bread. Conan marvelled aloud at the novelty of a bowl he could eat while he and Tukali washed down the last of their meal with ladles of wine from the portable cask of a roving wine-seller. Tukali, for his part, didn’t have much to say on the matter, only grunting noncommittally. Conan decided not to press him further; if his friend wasn’t in the mood for conversation, pushing for such would likely only irritate his lately taciturn companion.

Finished with their brief repast, the group made to continue on when Conan suddenly halted them, sensing something awry within the square.

“What is it?” asked Jessica, looking around at the faces of the crowd. Tukali scanned the throngs of people, but to no avail.

Peering over the heads of everyone there, Conan had a clear enough view of the marketplace. People were nervously edging away from a number of black-clad figures wending their way through the carts and stalls. The dull roar of the crowd gradually faded as people cut off their conversations, curiously watching the scene unfolding in their midst. Conan finally answered Jessica’s question. “We’re about to be waylaid,” he said in lowered tones, considering the situation while he yet had time.

The men had spread out across the marketplace, approaching Conan’s direction at staggered intervals. A wrinkled old street preacher standing on a rickety wooden crate at the square’s edge spotted the drawn weapons of the cloaked men. “Assassins!” he cried, pointing to the nearest of the veiled figures. He would have repeated the warning, but a friendly hand clamped itself over the oldster’s mouth and dragged him safely from view. His cry didn’t go ignored, however, as more people scampered out of the paths of advancing fistfuls of naked steel.

Conan wasn’t eager to wait around either, but he also refused to be hunted through the streets like prey. “Tukali, guard Jessica,” he ordered. “I’m going to see if these scum can fight.” Conan’s blood boiled in anticipation of the impending battle, the adrenaline shooting like lightning through his veins.

As Tukali drew Jessica away behind him, Conan crouched slightly in a fighter’s ready stance, preparing for the onslaught. One-handed he drew his broadsword, and the people around him hastily cleared out, giving him room to maneuver.

Up ahead and to the side, three of the leather-armored assassins were about to converge on Conan when one of them split off from the small band, stalking after Tukali and Jessica instead. The other two obviously felt confident enough to take on the Cimmerian alone, as they breached the rim of what was left of the crowd in front of him and raised their weapons for a charge.

Conan’s teeth bared wolfishly, and the dense muscles of his thighs coiled tightly beneath him. He roared out a thunderous Cimmerian war cry when he sprang, a cry that chilled the hearts of the two men looming before him. As he landed, Conan’s sword arced downward in a powerful overhead chop, his sudden attack catching both of his opponents completely off guard. The broadsword descended, slashing easily through the nearest assassin’s padded leather jerkin, then the bone and viscera of the man’s right shoulder, shearing deep into the lung. The attacker-turned-victim tried to scream, succeeding only in coughing up a viscous gush of blood.

Conan kicked out sideways with a hobnailed boot, smashing his other opponent in the belly and sending him sprawling into an apple cart, winded. Unbelievably, Conan’s first victim still clung to life, even with a broadsword dividing his torso. Conan’s steel cuirass turned aside a dagger thrust as he ripped his sword free of the man’s chest in a vicious upward stroke. The broadsword shimmered above Conan’s broad armored shoulders as he swung the weapon around and beheaded his first would-be assailant in a spray of blood. The body toppled into a heap upon the cobbles, the severed head landing squarely atop the dead man’s back.

Meanwhile the second assassin painfully regained his feet amongst a carpet of shiny red apples. Having lost his sword in the fall, he unhooked a short-handled mace from his belt and advanced warily upon the Cimmerian. Moving cautiously, he and Conan circled each other, searching for exploitable weaknesses. Out in the now near-empty square the next pair of assassins had altered their heading and fanned out, slowly picking their way through the marketplace’s clutter toward Conan’s companions while yet another man hung back.

Tukali fended off the blows of his own opponent, his scimitar clashing loudly against the assassin’s short sword. Jessica stood behind Tukali, momentarily safe as he wove a glittering web of steel before them. The assassin tried repeatedly to lunge around Tukali, attempting to slip past his guard, but with each attempt the Turanian launched his own brutal counterattack, threatening to turn the battle from a rough stalemate to his own favor. Both men fought on furiously, neither giving nor taking ground.

Conan didn’t tarry long with his second adversary, sacrificing finesse for raw power in an effort to finish him off as expeditiously as possible. With relentless determination he chopped and hacked, beating his foe’s weapon ever backward. The assassin tried vainly to hold his own, but his efforts could not equal the deadly speed and strength employed by the Cimmerian. Within mere seconds Conan’s sword drove downward and crunched through the iron-laced wooden shaft of the mace with savage force, splintering the upturned weapon and continuing on to slice open the assassin’s chest and belly in a diagonal slash. Conan’s enemy slumped to the ground where blood and entrails spilled out to mingle with the scattered fruit.

Hearing the ring of steel on steel behind him, Conan rushed to the aid of his partner and employer, spotting the third attacker fighting in a deadlock with Tukali. Unaware of death approaching at his back in the form of an enraged barbarian, the assassin crumpled soundlessly as Conan’s sword split his skull in twain from crown to jaw. A ragged cheer went up from the lines of onlookers gathered at the edges of the market square, and for a fleeting moment Conan recalled the pit-fighting days of his youth, though he had trouble attaching any sense of fondness to the memory.

“Tukali, you have to get Jessica away from here!” Conan scanned the area, his eyes quickly coming to rest on a section of bare stone wall on the rim of the marketplace. “Over there.” Conan pointed. “Put your backs to that wall.”

“Who are these men? I must know who sent them!” demanded Jessica. Her slender hands tightened into fists as she strained to control her anger.

“We’ll know soon enough,” Conan promised. He turned away, focusing his attention on the remaining assassins.

Knowing better than to refuse Conan’s orders, Tukali was about to lead Jessica away when a devious thought came unbidden to his mind. Reaching out, he grasped Jessica’s forearm in a move that was perfectly natural to the situation at hand. “Follow me,” he said, pulling her towards the far wall. As their flesh met, Tukali knew the gilded madness had just found its way to Jessica. A malign satisfaction wafted in from a far corner of Tukali’s mind; by infecting their employer, Tukali had a better chance of spreading the disease to Conan than if he had tried to touch the Cimmerian himself. Not only would Tukali not have to take the risk of making Conan suspicious by trying to infect him personally, but Jessica, as a female, had much better excuses to make physical contact with Conan.

They arrived at the wall and Tukali placed himself in front of Jessica, shielding her bodily from any possible attacks. Now he had even more reason to defend Jessica’s life, at least until she had accomplished his mission for him. Tukali shook his head, amazed at what he thought was his own craftiness, and looked on intently as Conan moved to encounter another pair of assassins. Somewhere in far-flung Aghrapur, Sharif was laughing with the triumph of his own cunning.

Conan recognized that the remaining trio had no interest in himself, preferring instead to directly pursue their main goal which was apparently Jessica’s demise. One man openly threaded his way through the marketplace toward Tukali and Jessica from their front, doing nothing to disguise his movements, while the other took advantage of their diverted attention and circled around using various carts and stands as cover, intending to flank them unawares. The final assassin, the one who’d hung back with the crowd, struggled to draw back the string of a heavy arbalest. Conan knew it wouldn’t be long before the bowman managed to knock a bolt in the powerful weapon and Jessica would be dead, assuming Tukali didn’t precede her in passing on from this life to the next.

Like a ghost Conan faded into the welter of vendor’s stalls. To the startled eyes of the spectators it appeared as if he had been swallowed up by the very earth itself. Tracking game and eluding bands of invading Picts, Vanir, Aquilonians, and even other Cimmerians had been but a sampling of the harsh lessons he’d been taught as a boy by his wild homeland. Years as a thief in Shadizar the Wicked and other cities besides had honed further those skills of subterfuge, and a high level of mastery had been soon to follow after Conan had joined the ranks of various armies–not all of them entirely legitimate–where he’d often found himself exercising his aptitude for stealth to the utmost in scouting for warrior hosts marching through hostile territory or leading expeditions into uncharted lands. With all of his knowledge and experience in the matter, it was a wonder Conan couldn’t literally evaporate into the air at will.

Now he prowled wide of the nearest of the assassins, the wily flank-man, by employing the same tactic of using the motley assortment of carts and shacks for cover, though with far more stealth than most would have believed possible by a man of his prodigious size. Amid the turbulent shouts and chattering from the watching crowd, Conan’s movements went unheard and unseen.

He was close upon the heels of his quarry when he spotted a round and fair-sized tent some fifteen yards ahead on his side of the assassin’s path, its canvas walls crowded close by a multi-hued variety of other merchants’ pavilions. Conan surged ahead through the merchants’ clutter on a course paralleling the assassin’s route, bent so low that he could just as easily have gone on all fours. Having passed the other man, he scuttled up close to the back of the tent unobserved.

Out came the wicked curve of steel that was his Ilbarsi knife, and with a hasty swipe he cut a vertical slit in the bulge of the rear wall. Conan’s face was a mask of stone as he wormed his way in through the opening.

Nabu skulked toward the unsuspecting noblewoman and her bodyguard with scarcely more disturbance to his surroundings than a Vendhyan cobra gliding through the verdure. He was not one to throw caution to the four winds, to forget his training and rush heedlessly upon his targets; gold was only good if you were around to collect it.

He stayed within the shadows, his dark wrappings making him appear as but one more of their silent number. Though the sun beamed down in its full glory, Nabu sweated not at all. His heart beat at a crawling pace within his chest, calmed by methods taught only to the most seasoned initiates of his dark order by its masters, men who likewise worshipped Death in all its forms, men who viewed their secret society as more of a religion than a guild. Nabu was of a like mind, for Death came eventually to all things, even the gods. He saw nothing wrong with speeding along the inevitable, especially if it meant his own profit.

He stole beneath the shade of an awning set before a large tent, the first of a line of such. While he flitted past the canopies, his senses tracking every movement around him as he kept his own form imperceptible, he couldn’t help wondering what had happened to the noblewoman’s other bodyguard. Had the brute fled? Nabu didn’t think so. One did not slay armed men with such ease and abandon as the big man had and then flee at the sight of but a few more.

Nabu was passing by a gaping entrance that looked into a pavilion’s darkened interior when a troublesome thought occurred to him, and he stopped suddenly. Was it possible that he, the hunter, might have unwittingly become the hunted? Could it be that somewhere around him the enormous bodyguard was closing in for the kill? For a moment Nabu’s mental concentration shifted focus and his heart thudded out an extra beat. He strained his ears and eyes for any hint of danger.

Then the assassin smiled behind his cowl and almost laughed aloud at his own foolishness–he knew that only one of his own could even hope to catch him off guard. Again he slunk forward, his confident gaze roving on past the lowered flaps of the next tent.

Nabu could plainly see Jessica and her lone bodyguard up ahead, both of whom appeared sufficiently distracted by the bold approach of one of his brethren. Nabu reached into an inner pocket of his tunic and his hand closed upon the shaft of an iron throwing dart, the weapon’s sharp end sticky from being steeped in the lethal juice of the black lotus. The poison would swiftly solve the problem of the noblewoman’s remaining defender, and then she herself would fall to the assassins’ blades. Nabu allowed himself another smile.

Too late did Nabu realize his oversight when the tent flaps beside him snapped outward and someone pulled him bodily through the opening as if he weighed no more than a child.

The tent shook violently several times, its walls vibrating drum-like, and then the struggles within ceased. A crimson puddle oozed slowly outward from under one canvas side.

Conan emerged from the tent, alone and spattered lightly with fresh blood not from his own veins. He glanced toward the bowman, and through the maze of peddler’s structures Conan barely caught a glimpse of him; he had succeeded in loading the crossbow, and was now picking his way through the ramshackle spread of vendor’s stands, evidently trying to get close enough for a clear shot at Jessica.

Between himself and the bowman Conan sighted the next black-clad attacker. Without pause he sped toward the nearer man, knowing that time was scarce, though he was forced to temporarily lose sight of the bowman in his rush.

He smelled burning meat as he ran, just like the roasted fowl he and Tukali had previously dined upon for their midday fare, and in moments he came across the same roasting pit where they’d procured their meal. Long wooden spits lay across the stones of the broad fire pit, the carcasses speared upon them charring in the absence of a cook to see that they were properly turned. Several of the rods had actually caught fire and, inspired, Conan snatched one of these up as he loped past.

Conan carried the makeshift spear beside his shoulder like a javelin. Flames spread steadily backward from the juice-dripping roast near the forward point, fanned hotter by the air blowing past the running Cimmerian. He ignored the danger of the blossoming fire and kept on, until suddenly he was afforded a clear line of sight to the assassin about to cross further along his current path. Conan took only time enough to judge roughly where the man’s steps would take him in the following seconds before letting fly with the firebrand. He didn’t even wait to see whether his aim was true. If he missed, Tukali was more than capable of holding his own against the one assassin until Conan got through with dispatching the other. He veered direction, altering his steps to take him at an oblique angle to where he’d last seen the arbalester.

Tukali hefted his scimitar, brandishing it menacingly as his only visible opponent approached him head-on from a short stone’s-throw away. Conan was nowhere to be seen and Jessica alone stood at his back with hers pressed to the stone wall behind them. Tukali shifted his grip on his sword’s handle and waited patiently, loathe to go out and meet his enemy for fear of leaving Jessica unguarded. His mission to capture Conan now lay upon her unknowing shoulders, and she would be of no use to Tukali and Sharif dead.

The assassin’s head suddenly flicked sideways and he started as if at an unexpected intrusion. Tukali stared, amazed to see what appeared to be a blazing meteor shoot out of nowhere. His first impression was that perhaps the ghost of the sorcerer he’d struck down in the Hills had come back seeking vengeance, but the idea vanished as soon as he realized the flaming missile was not aimed at himself, but at the assassin.

The other man threw up his arms and backpedaled in a reflexive attempt to ward off the flare, and for the most part he succeeded. The strand of fire passed by the front of his half-turned body without touching it. But at the last instant, just as the flames licked past the black cloth covering his armpit, something upon the fiery spear brushed against the bottom of his upraised arm and was dislodged from the shaft. The flaming bundle rolled down the side of the man’s chest and the length of his leg, leaving a thin trail of fire behind it. The firebrand itself clattered upon the paving stones some distance away where it continued to burn.

Panic seized the assassin and he danced around like a madman, slapping at the flames breaking out like a rash over his body. His frantic actions only fueled the fire, and within seconds his entire torso was ablaze.

Jessica gasped at the man’s awful screams, and even Tukali grimaced to see the flesh of the assassin’s neck and face blistering amid the conflagration. The man seemed abruptly to run out of energy and he lurched stiffly to his knees, then toppled forward onto his face, trailing smoke and fire as he went down.

Conan skidded to a halt as he lit upon the last assassin kneeling down to aim his crossbow from behind the cover of a narrow wooden spice booth. Jessica and Tukali stood over by the wall, but they were looking in the direction of Conan’s previous encounter, unaware that one of them was about to be skewered. The clamoring from the droves of people at the edges of the square would drown out any warning Conan could shout, so without hesitation he grabbed hold of the thick wooden lid of a nearby fish barrel and rushed forward.

The assassin had Jessica directly in his sights. Her bodyguard stood too far to her left to protect her from imminent doom. Ignoring the shouts and taunts of those massed on the sidelines, Robell pulled back on the arbalest’s trigger, thinking of how richly he would soon be rewarded. Movement registered at the periphery of his vision just as the recoil from the crossbow mashed hard into his shoulder. He watched in slack-jawed disbelief as a muscular giant streaked out into open air, intersecting smoothly with the crossbow bolt as if performing in an act rehearsed countless times before. Robell barely had time to understand that his attempt to kill the noblewoman had failed before he was up and running.

The hard wooden lid absorbed the full impact of the barb, and Conan let it tumble aside before he hit the ground. Rolling with his momentum, Conan was on his feet in a split second and sprinting after the retreating bowman. Several long strides took the Cimmerian within arm’s reach of the assassin and he grabbed the man by the shoulder, spinning him around.

Robell stared in terror as Conan wrapped a meaty hand around his neck and easily lifted him off the ground like a sack of oats.

“Who is your master?” Conan demanded, his already grim countenance darkening further.

Robell floundered helplessly, clawing at the hand that bit into his windpipe.

“Answer me, dog!” Conan shouted. With his other hand he ripped the black cloth away from Robell’s face. “Tell me who sent you or you’ll join your friends in Arallu!” he swore.

Robell gasped in a lungful of air as Conan eased up slightly on his grip. “W-Westlun! Westlun sent me!”

Impatient, Conan backhanded Robell viciously across the face. “Who is this Westlun? Speak, dolt!” Conan shook the assassin for good measure, rattling the man’s teeth.

“Westlun is one of the wealthiest slavers in Koth.” Jessica’s voice spoke from Conan’s back. “He is one of my rivals. It is his staunch opposition to my cause that has slowed my progress the most, though I’m surprised he had the gall to try assassinating me in public.”

While the big bodyguard was distracted by the noblewoman’s words, Robell’s hand strayed to the back of his cloak, his fingers closing around the handle of a wide-bladed dirk. His arm whipped around, the knife lashing out toward the Cimmerian’s exposed neck.

Feeling the slight shifting of weight beneath his fingers, Conan had guessed the assassin’s intent before Robell even gripped the dirk. Faster than the eye can see, Conan blocked the slash with a lightning reflex, the blade snapping on his burnished steel forearm guard. Conan clamped his free hand under Robell’s loin guard and hefted him effortlessly aloft. To the cheers of the spectators, he flung the assassin across an impressive length of the square, and it was just Robell’s luck that instead of having one of the many carts or stands break his fall, he landed head first upon the ground. With a wet crunch as of a melon being rent asunder, Robell’s brains found a new home on the scuffed and weathered cobbles of the marketplace.

An obscure figure watched from the fringes of the crowd, hidden within the folds of a cloak. Those gathered around Mach gave him a wide berth without quite knowing why, perhaps sensing an aura of dangerous power emanating from his hidden form. Beneath the cover of his hood, Mach’s violet eyes took in the spectacle of Conan defeating the band of assassins practically single-handedly. Now the trio conferred with a small troop of guards that had come to investigate the incident. As the bodies of the dead marauders were rounded up and carted away in what was becoming a familiar sight in the presence of the Cimmerian, the market square once again filled up with its vendors and customers, eagerly discussing the fight as they went about their usual business.

Mach observed as the noblewoman Jessica spoke with a guard captain, evidently explaining what had happened. There were more than enough witnesses to back up her story, among them the crusty old street preacher who had shouted the first warning.

Mach edged a little closer to Conan’s group, maintaining his anonymity within the cluttered square. He had learned from his first encounter with the Cimmerian that much caution was called for if he was going to make any meaningful contact with the giant warrior. As he pretended to look over the loaves set out for display by a distracted bread-seller, Mach considered the fact that the one called Tukali was still with Conan, which meant that the treachery of Conan’s partner had not yet been discovered. It was also obvious that the Turanian had not succeeded in whatever foul scheme he plotted. Mach smiled to himself. He would wait patiently, watching for the proper opportunity to make himself known to Conan.

As Jessica and her bodyguards exited the marketplace and headed for the royal palace, the dark shape that was Mach dislodged itself from the encircling masses and followed the small band at a prudent distance down the street.

The gathered assemblage listened intently as Jessica, pacing the open marble floor of the royal court’s center, finished relating the story of the attack in the marketplace earlier. “And do you know who the assassin named before he died? None other than Westlun himself!” At the astonished gasps and whisperings throughout the court, Jessica went on, stoking the fire. “This is only a small example of the cruelty and ruthlessness of the slave lords. I state again as I have stated countless times before, that slavery is a repugnant, evil thing, and it is tearing down the fabric of our society!” She paused, letting her words sink in before continuing. “There are those of you here who do not believe that slavery is a threat to Koth, so I ask you: If that is so, then where is Westlun to defend himself and his industry? I find it very convenient of him not to show his face this day.”

Conan was impressed with the powers of speech possessed by Jessica, and from his seat he looked around the room at the collected nobles and representatives, noting that her words were having some effect.

From his seat beside Conan at the edge of the audience hall, Tukali stared blankly into space, perhaps listening to the ongoing debate, mayhap only wrapped in his own thoughts.

One of the slavers that was present argued heatedly with Jessica for the next few minutes, attempting to refute her claims. From the looks on the faces of the court councillors seated behind their long mahogany bench at the end of the sunken chamber, Conan could tell that the slaver’s argument was futile. The members of the council only looked increasingly annoyed at the slaver’s continuing tirade. One of the centermost councillors interrupted the debate, cutting off the slaver’s diatribe in mid-sentence. “We have heard enough of this. We will now decide whether or not to grant the Lady Jessica her request that we look into the slavery issue.” At the words of the speaker, all parties fell silent, waiting as the councillors spoke amongst themselves.

Jessica looked to Conan from her spot before the bench, who nodded back in support.

Tukali, lost in thought and momentarily oblivious to the world, scratched absently at a spot on his head just beneath his turban. His fingernail slid over metal. Tukali flinched, coming out of his reverie. Alarmed, he gently prodded at his scalp, careful to keep his turban from sliding back on his head. He could feel the hard smoothness of more of the metal spots strewn about the surface of his skull. Panic threatened to overwhelm his senses, but a sudden and mysterious calmness enveloped him, seeping forth from the far reaches of his mind and quelling his distress like a flame caught under a waterfall. Tukali settled back in his seat, relaxing as he waited for the action of the court to resume.

Before long the councillors came to their decision. The speaker addressed the members of the court: “At the bidding of Lady Jessica and her colleagues, and in light of the evidence brought to us by her and confirmed by our own reports, we have decided to investigate into this matter. To carry out our inquiry, a team will be assembled before King Strabonus’s royal court convenes again tomorrow.”

Jessica beamed in triumph as her supporters, spread throughout the court, applauded and pounded their hands on the tabletops in approval. Jessica took her place among her fellow nobles while the court continued on with the day’s affairs until it finally adjourned late in the afternoon.

Mach descended unobserved from the heights of the palace. With a keen interest he had watched the proceedings within the royal court through a window high above where even the guards didn’t bother to patrol.

His garments changed color, shifting to match the hues of the pink marble as he crawled head-first down the side of the palace wall. Had any among the guards seen him, they wouldn’t have believed the impossible tale their own eyes would tell as Mach crawled downward over the polished surface like a not-quite human fly. Even his long dark braids defied gravity, flowing upwards over his broad shoulders beneath his robes. When he reached the bottom of the wall, Mach spun around in place and jumped to the decorative tiles bordering the palace, quickly melting into the shadows while his cloak shifted colors once again.

As the court let out, Mach spotted Conan and his companions exiting the palace amidst a swarm of nobility and he hurried to follow. Noticing that fewer people were abroad on the streets, Mach hung well back and out of sight as he trailed the group back to Jessica’s estate. Having witnessed Jessica’s politics firsthand, Mach at least had some idea of what she was about. He was sure she had no ulterior motives, unlike Tukali. If he had to, Mach could probably confront Jessica as a means to win over Conan, but only if his other efforts bore no fruit.

Mach rounded a final street corner in time to view Jessica leading her bodyguards through an iron gate set in the high wall encompassing her residence. Seeing that nobody else was about, he doffed his hood, letting the early evening breezes stir the fine braids of his hair. The ebony skin of his face glowing vermillion in the twilight, Mach approached the nearest side wall of the compound and scaled it effortlessly, his limbs flowing up the granite blocks as if he were sliding over a sheet of ice.

Reaching the top he discovered that the wall was much higher than the roof of Jessica’s house. Grasping the edges of his cloak and spreading his arms wide, Mach leapt from the top of the wall. His billowing cape stretched and spread out like a huge set of wings, the material stiffening and allowing him to glide like some dinosaurian bird of prey over the expanse of open lawn and onto the slate roof of Jessica’s home.

Mach walked briskly and soundlessly over the tiles of the roof to the base of the tower, looking up all the while at the brightening streams of light reflecting down from the bronze mirrors set in the windows above. Instead of relying on whatever medium he’d used previously to scale the walls, he jumped up and caught hold of the lowest of the window ledges, nimbly pulling himself inside the tower. From there he climbed upwards by means of the stairwell.

Reaching the top room of the tower, Mach removed his versatile cloak and laid it out upon the floor under one of the windows away from the fiery brazier in the middle of the room. Stretching out upon his makeshift bed, he sought out a little rest. Later he would reconnoiter the premises for anything that could potentially help him gain Conan’s trust. For now he was content to wait until the inhabitants below wound down for the night so that he might have the run of the household.

Jessica, her bodyguards, and all of her servants sat around the large dining room table enjoying the feast held in celebration of Jessica’s success in court that day. Old Markus, now recovered from his accident several days past, could barely contain his laughter when Jessica described the looks on the faces of the slave lords when they’d heard about the forthcoming investigation.

When she told of their battle against the assassins earlier in the day, the room’s jovial spirit turned to one of concern, although a few of the maids, upon hearing of Conan’s valor against superior numbers, leaned forward with interest, obvious admiration shining in their bright young eyes.

“I suspect the king’s inquiry will head to Westlun’s doorstep first,” creaked Markus. “Though hopefully he’s already having an interesting time talking himself out of the care of Strabonus’s dungeon master.”

“Methinks by now a few purses of gold bandied about by this Westlun have absolved him of his crimes.” Conan’s face was somber as he spoke between bites of his meal.

Abruptly breaking his pensive silence, Tukali joined in. “Aye, such is usually the way with the rich and powerful–present company not included, of course,” he said, bowing slightly toward Jessica, who acknowledged his exception with a nod. “But mayhap when the king’s men seek out the slave master there will be too much scrutiny for his gold to subdue.”

“I do indeed hope so,” Jessica replied, “For if officials as high as the court councillors can be made to succumb to the graft of Westlun’s ilk, then all I have fought for may be for nothing.”

Conan shook his head as he swallowed a mouthful of wine. “Nay, as long as you maintain the cause of the populace and the loyalty of your wealthy supporters, there should be voices and gold enough to decide the royal council in your favor.” Conan dug into the large steak before him hungrily. “In my experience, the majority of people usually get their way, somehow or other, and you appear to have the masses on your side.”

Markus’s visage adopted a note of mock seriousness. “Aye, and the slavers have only themselves and their customers, while milady has Conan the Eloquent to defend her!”

The room erupted in laughter, and Conan, not immune to a jest, chuckled along with the mirth of his dinner companions. Conan’s words had rung true, however, and the mood of all present brightened considerably. From the opposite end of the table, Jessica smiled at Conan. He smiled back, noticing how her green eyes shone warmly in the light of the silver candelabras.

The last of the dishes were whisked away from the table and the group dispersed for the evening, the servants heading back to their quarters after tidying up. Tukali also excused himself from the company of Conan and their employer, begging off to get some sleep. He had snapped out of his strange mood for the duration of the meal, and had acted more like his usual self, even making conversation with one of the servant girls. The haze that had floated like mist through his mind had cleared a little, but now it was returning, along with a bizarre urge to go somewhere, someplace he couldn’t quite figure out. Right now he felt tired, and his bedchamber remained the only destination he cared to arrive at.

Lying in bed, Tukali considered that he might be feeling the effects of the gilded madness. There was something else, too. What, he didn’t know, but through the roiling clouds of his mind he unconsciously sensed another presence, another soul in connection with his own. Instinctively he tried to grasp at the essence of the intruder, but to no avail. It was like a phrase on the tip of his tongue, like dredging up a thought that couldn’t be remembered after years of forgetfulness.

Tukali gave up and lapsed into a slumber which soon gave way to fitful dreams of being trapped in an enormous dank cavern. He dreamt of being surrounded on all sides by an ocean of people wandering aimlessly amid a confusion of stone ruins basted in metal, of being herded by giant, gleaming overseers . . .

Sharif mopped at the sweat on his brow, finally able to rest after endless hours of controlling the mind of his puppet in distant Koth. He could sleep when Tukali slept, easing the burden his sorcerous powers endured when he sought to maintain his hold over the man’s waking thoughts and actions from so far away.

The worst thing was–and Sharif didn’t bother to fool himself as he did Tukali about the dire implications of this matter–was that somehow the gilded madness had managed to spread to himself. Since he had only been in contact with Tukali’s mind, he deduced that the plague must have some sorcerous nature and origin about it. Soon he would ask Ashlara for the aid of her priests and the magic of Set to find a cure to the dreaded ailment, but until then he would have to stave off the physical effects of the disease and the weird compulsion to travel to Khorshemish with the incantations and spells he’d managed to glean from his own grimoires.

For now, he knew, the best treatment for his affliction, in addition to the magical nostrums he’d employed, was sleep. Lying back upon the lush pillows and silks of his luxurious bedstead, Sharif gave way to the respite his tired brain so desperately craved.

Sipping mulled wine in the privacy of the candle-lit parlor, Conan and Jessica lounged easily as they conversed on the day’s events. While they talked Conan became increasingly aware of his strong affection for his new employer, and the liking that she seemed to have taken to him. Her every glance was open and inviting, even if her words did not yet betray her thoughts as such. Conan cautiously played along, hesitant to risk ruining his working relationship with Jessica by acting on a misreckoning of her emotions.

Feeling the need to get up and walk about after idling within the confines of the parlor since dinner, Jessica stood and beckoned to Conan to follow her. The headiness of the wine and the high from her win at court that day mingled together in Jessica, loosening her tongue and raising her spirits. As she walked with Conan through the halls of her house she told him stories of when she was little, and how her father used to, on occasion, buy the slaves of local lords and then set them free. The slaves would often stay on and work for her family for a while out of gratitude before going off on their own. Markus was one such slave who stayed, never feeling the need to leave. So great was his loyalty to Jessica’s family that Markus continued to work in Jessica’s service after she went out to live on her own.

In turn, Conan regaled Jessica with some of the tales of his adventures since leaving his native land of Cimmeria. So strange and incredible were some of the exploits he related that Jessica almost suspected Conan of weaving fables from his own fertile imagination, but by the serious expression on his face and having witnessed his mettle herself, she was inclined to believe him. If even a miniscule portion of what he asserted were true, then she had gotten much more than her gold’s worth upon hiring the giant warrior into her service. Her thoughts strayed, and she soon found herself thinking about how Conan looked in combat, his hard muscles twisting and flexing as he swept aside her enemies with an almost wanton intensity, his wild black hair playing upon the bright steel of his armor . . .

Jessica halted their stroll upon reaching the bronze door that guarded her bedchamber. “I’d like to show you something, Conan,” she said, her voice growing husky. Tentatively she raised her hand and laid it upon his chest. “Won’t you come inside?”

“Aye, if that’s an invitation,” Conan murmured. His powerful hands traced the sides of her bare shoulders, her skin warm and silky against his.

“It is.” Jessica pushed open the portal and Conan followed her through the doorway.

Jessica’s bedroom was adorned with rich satin and fine linens, the floor carpeted in heavy fur rugs. Against one wall an oval mirror stood atop a low dressing table of chestnut. The center of the chamber was dominated by a voluminous bed covered in plush cushions and pillows. Above an open skylight the stars shone down upon the two as Jessica led Conan to the center of the room.

Pulling at the sash around her waist, Jessica stepped out of her sleeveless gown, the white material whispering to the floor around her feet. Conan gazed in rapture at her sensuous body, the gentle curves of her hips, her long raven-black hair spilling around high, firm breasts.

With the help of Jessica’s nimble fingers Conan shrugged out of his tunic. He pulled her close and her body pressed up hard against his, their lips hotly seeking each other out in the first wave of their passion. Tenderly, he pulled her down to the bed where Jessica moved atop him beneath the twinkling starlight.

Several hours of troubling nightmares had pressed hard upon Tukali’s mind, and he had awakened to the sound of footsteps passing by his door in the benighted hallway outside. Mindful of his aching head, Tukali had gingerly rolled out of his sweat-soaked sheets and donned a light pair of cloth pantaloons before quietly slipping out into the corridor. In the dimness of the winking torchlight, Tukali had espied Conan’s unmistakable physique walking beside the form of their mistress, and he had silently followed.

Having just witnessed the prelude to the couple’s passion outside of Jessica’s door, Tukali now ambled back to his own room, heedless of the few metal patches caught glittering in the torchlight from beneath the dark hair of the uncovered parts of his head. Through the dull ache in his skull his mind seemed to have cleared a bit, at least enough for him to recognize that his plan had worked. Jessica had indeed come into contact with the Cimmerian, who had unknowingly caught the plague through his affectionate fondling of her. Now Tukali had only to wait, the most difficult phase of his mission accomplished for him by Conan himself. It was odd though that after all of his plotting and shrewd machinations to trap the Cimmerian, only now did he feel a twinge of guilt, as if his conscience had suddenly awakened from a long slumber. Unbeknownst to the Turanian warrior, he still believed Sharif’s lingering thoughts to be his own.

Passing by the lancet arch of one of the many windows that looked out upon the manor’s well-tended landscape, Tukali felt a sudden buzzing sensation in his head that drowned out the throbbing pain of his disease. He had that odd feeling again, of a foreign presence in his mind, but he was unable to discern who or why before the strange buzzing stopped and he was left alone with the remains of his headache. Looking around in puzzlement, Tukali still failed to discover the source of the mental intrusion, and rubbing the back of his skull in aggravation, he stalked back to his quarters.

Mach had been prepared only for part of what he’d found in the Turanian’s mind when he’d probed him. Hanging upside down above one of the windows, Mach had peered in through the tip of the window’s arch, between the slats of the closed shutters, to see Tukali walking down the corridor. Instead of climbing in through the window as he’d planned, he had reached out with his thoughts, using his mental abilities in an attempt to ascertain the entirety of the warrior’s scheme against Conan.

The presence of the gilded madness had not really been a surprise at all. Mach had much experience with the likes of the magical affliction, having watched as multitudes of his fellow Rhan’eitat had fallen victim to similar plagues that had forced them into the servitude of a corrupt ruling elite. Agents like Mach had eventually created and dispensed cures that had freed the minds and bodies of his interstellar people, resulting in the overthrow and flight of the merciless tyrants.

Finding a slave plague on this planet had been expected, and when Mach had uncovered it in the brain of Tukali, his own magical and mental defenses had protected him from the gilded madness long enough for him to break contact.

But before his mental retreat, he had unexpectedly discovered that Tukali’s mind played host to another, connected by dark sorcery and controlling the Turanian utterly, though at the moment the other mind seemed to have gone dormant. Severing the link between Tukali and the governing entity wouldn’t take much labor on Mach’s part were he to assume the task himself. Owing to his brief encounter with the gilded madness, he knew that if he waited for it, days could pass before the plague eventually caused the submergence of one or both minds and severed the psychic bond. Tukali’s true colors would finally be allowed to surface and Mach would then know whether or not to kill him, disregarding of course any ill feelings he may have toward the Turanian after having been shot by him. But time was precious, and Mach wasn’t sure he could spare enough of it to let the disease do his work for him.

Spinning around like a giant spider on the cold stone surface of the wall, Mach defied gravity and snaked his way back up into the tower. There he would contemplate this latest information and decide on a course of action while watching over Conan and his comrades.