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I have no opportunity for further enquiries as Makri, myself and everyone else are summarily evicted from the grounds. We share a landus home with Pontifex Derlex, who is so excited by the whole affair he doesn't seem to mind travelling with Makri, the demon from hell. It's a lot for him to be excited about, I suppose. Derlex is a fairly lowly local priest. He'd never normally be found at the Palace but he had been invited there as the guest of Bishop Gzekius, who was presiding at some religious ceremony for the Royal Family.
The sensational story soon spreads all over Turai. People gather on street corners and bars to speculate over the affair and study the latest reports in the special editions of the news-sheets. It's one of the most serious scandals anyone can remember, and it is bound to have great repercussions. Senator Lodius is already fulminating against corruption in the Royal Family. The Populare candidates in the forthcoming elections are fighting to outdo each other in condemning the decadence and graft that they say is gripping the city. Personally I take little interest in politics, and any enthusiasm I might have for reform is tempered by the fact that Senator Lodius is in reality a nakedly ambitious power-seeker ready to use any means to attain his ends. Deputy Consul Rittius belongs to his party, which suggests how bad it is.
None of this matters to me right now. What does matter is the sensational events at the King's zoo.
The dragon had its belly slit open, not the easiest of things to accomplish, given that a dragon's skin is like armour. Arrested at the scene along with the Princess was Strongman Brex, with an axe over his shoulder. When the Princess was found to be carrying a large quantity of dwa it was presumed that she had somehow drugged the beast before Brex hacked it open. As far as I can learn, no one knows why they did it.
Naturally the Orcs are furious. The King is furious. The population is in uproar. And when you consider that the Niojan Ambassador is still threatening war if the murderer of Attilan is not brought to justice, it might be a good time for the faint-hearted to vacate the city. Senator Lodius is going to exploit this to the utmost, which means the elections will be more violent than usual. We're in for a tough time this summer, unless the Niojans just invade and get it over with.
Makri is hurrying her meal before rushing out to tonight's class. Principles of geometry, I think. She's wrapped in the all-over cloak she's obliged to wear at the Institute to prevent her from panicking the young scholars.
"What are you going to do?" she asks me.
"See if I can find out where the Princess has hidden the Cloth. It hasn't come to light yet, and no one else seems to realise that it was hidden inside the dragon. I might still be able to recover it for the Elves."
"Aren't you going to help the Princess?"
"Of course not. She isn't paying me, and I don't owe her any favours." Sometimes Makri just doesn't understand the commercial nature of my business. I don't help people for fun. I do it for money.
Anyway, the Princess may well be beyond help. If she's foolish enough to be caught slaying the King's dragon, that's her problem.
Of course, if I keep on looking for the Cloth it might be harder to convince those murderous people who think I already have it to leave me alone. But that's my problem.
This evening, life in the Avenging Axe is in full swing. Mercenaries, dockers, labourers, pilgrims, sailors, local vendors and shop workers drink heartily, washing away their troubles. Young Palax and Kaby arrive and get out their mandolins, flutes and lyres and start entertaining the crowd with some raucous drinking songs, stomping traditional folk dances and a few maudlin ballads for the tavern's lonely hearts. They're good musicians and popular with the crowd, which is just as well really, or they might suffer more than the friendly abuse they already get for that brightly dyed hair and those colourful clothes and pierced ears and noses. Gurd pays them with free drinks. Quite a good scam really. Makes me wish I played an instrument.
Despite all the jollity Gurd is looking as miserable as a Niojan whore and fails to respond when I clap him on the back and ask him if he remembers the time we faced fourteen half-Orcs in the Simlan Desert with only one knife between us and still came out on top. He looks at me gloomily then asks if I'll come and see him tomorrow.
I nod, though it's not something I'm looking forward to. The talk I imagine will be about the cook, Tanrose, with whom Gurd thinks he may be in love. As an old bachelor who's spent most of his life wandering the earth as a mercenary, Gurd finds this very confusing. He can't make his mind up what to do, not wishing to offer her his hand in marriage and then find out that what he thought was love turns out later to be merely an infatuation with her excellent venison pies. He frequently asks my advice on the matter, even though I've pointed out that I have a poor record in affairs of the heart. Still, lending him a sympathetic ear is always a good thing. Makes him more tolerant when I'm late with the rent.
People laugh, dance, gamble, swap stories and talk about the day's scandalous affair. By the light of the oil lanterns Palax and Kaby work up a furious rhythm which has the whole tavern either dancing or stamping their feet. I bang my tankard on the table in time to the beat, and shout for more beer. All in all, it's a fine night in the Avenging Axe; more fun with the poor of Twelve Seas than I ever had with the aristocrats at Palace social functions. I end up hideously drunk, which would be fine but, just as Gurd and Makri are carrying me upstairs, Praetor Cicerius arrives. He is Turai's most famed Advocate and a man of great influence in the city. He informs me that I have to come up to the Palace and interview Princess Du-Akai right away.
It takes me some time to realise what he means, and for a while I keep trying to tell the Praetor it's no good. I've heard the rumours about his wife but I don't do divorce work.
"There are no rumours about my wife," retorts Cicerius, who is not the sort of man you can have a laugh and a joke with. He's around fifty, thin, grey-haired, austere, and is famously incorruptible. I invite him to join in an obscene Barbarian drinking song I learned from Gurd. He declines.
"Why don't you sort things out in this city, Praetor?" I demand, suddenly aggressive. "Everything's going to hell and the government's about as much use as a eunuch in a brothel."
Colour drains from the Praetor's face. Gurd and Makri abandon me in disgust. The Praetor's two servants pick me up bodily and bundle me outside and into a landus, which Cicerius is allowed to ride at night as part of his senatorial privilege. I begin to enjoy the experience, and start bellowing the drinking song out the window as we ride through the quiet streets of Pashish. Cicerius looks at me with contempt.
Let him. I didn't ask him to come visit me.
"No use looking at me like that," I tell him. "If the Princess chopped off the dragon's head, it's her fault, not mine. Bad thing to do. Poor dragon."
I fall asleep, and have only dim memories of being carried into the Palace. The servants are insulting about my weight. I insult them back. I'm not the first man carried drunk into the grounds of the Imperial Palace, though I may well be the heaviest. I'm deposited in some building I don't recognise and the servants start forcing deat down my throat. Deat is a hot herbal drink. Sobers you up. I detest it.
"Gimme a beer," I say.
"Get him sober," says Cicerius, not bothering to conceal his loathing and contempt. "I will bring the Princess. Though why she insists on seeing him is beyond me."
I drink some deat, fail to sober up, and start wondering exactly where I am.
"The reception room of the Princess's chambers," a servant tells me.
"Right," I grunt. "I suppose Princesses don't get thrown in the slammer like ordinary people."
I think of all the times I've been thrown in jail and get slightly maudlin. "Nobody loves me," I tell the servant.
Cicerius arrives back with Princess Du-Akai. I greet them genially. The Princess thanks me for coming. She doesn't comment on my drunkenness. Good breeding.
"I am in grave trouble."
"I bet you are."
"I need you to help me."
"Too bad," I say, again gripped by alcoholic aggression. "I'm all out of help for clients who lie to me."
"How dare you speak to the Princess like that," roars Cicerius, and we start to argue. Princess Du-Akai intervenes. She motions both the servants and the Praetor outside, and draws up a chair next to me.
"Thraxas," she says, in the most pleasant of voices. "You are a drunken oaf. Tales of your misdemeanours while working at the Palace do not do you full justice. In the normal course of affairs, I would have nothing whatsoever to do with you. You're so far below me in the social ladder I wouldn't notice if I stepped on you. That woman with the Orcish blood is better bred than you. As well as being a drunk, you're gross, and a glutton, both qualities I despise. You belong in your slum in Twelve Seas, and I'd much rather you were there than here in this room with me. However, I need your help. So sober up, stop playing the fool, and get ready to listen."
"I seem to be doing a lot of listening already. Why should I help you?"
"For two reasons. Firstly, I shall pay you extremely well. I understand you are badly in need of money. Gambling is another of your bad habits."
I curse. My gambling debt seems to be the most talked about thing in this city. Even the Royal Family knows about it.
"What's the second reason?"
"If you don't help me, I will ensure that your life in this city is hell on earth. I may be heading for a secure cell in a nunnery but I'm still third in line to the throne, and I have more influence in my little finger than you have in your whole fat body. So listen."
She holds out a heavy purse. I listen.