Many cities bore appellations, 'the Mighty' or 'the Wicked,' but Aghrapur, that great city of ivory towers and golden domes, seat of the throne of Turan and center of her citizens' world, had no need of such. The city's wickedness and might were so well known that an appellation would have been gilt laid upon gold.
One thousand and three goldsmiths were listed in the Guild Halls, twice so many smiths in silver, half again that number dealers in jewelry and rare gems. They, with a vast profusion of merchants in silks and perfumes, catered to hot-blooded, sloe-eyed noblewomen and sleek, sensuous courtesans who oft seemed more ennobled than their sisters of proper blood. Every vice could be had within Aghrapur's lofty alabaster walls, from the dream-powders and passion-mists peddled by oily men from Iranistan to the specialized brothels of the Street of Doves.
Turanian triremes ruled the cerulean expanse of the Vilayet Sea, and into Aghrapur's broad harbor dromonds brought the wealth of a dozen nations. The riches of another score found its way to the markets by caravan. Emeralds and apes, ivory and peacocks, whatever people wanted could be found, no matter whence it came. The stench of slavers from Khawarism was drowned in the wafted scent of oranges from Ophir, of myrrh andcloves from Vendhya, of attar of roses from Khauran and subtle perfumes from Zingara. Tall merchants from Argos strode the flagstones of her broad streets, and dark men from Shem. Fierce Ibars mountain tribesmen rubbed shoulders with Corinthian scholars, and Kothian mercenaries with traders from Keshan. It was said that no day passed in Aghrapur without the meeting of men, each of whom believed the other's land to be a fable.
The tall youth who strode those teeming streets with the grace of a hunting cat had no mind for the wonders of the city, however. Fingers curled lightly on the well-worn leather hilt of his broadsword, he passed marble palaces and fruit peddlers' carts with equal unconcern, a black-maned lion unimpressed by piles of stone. Yet if his agate-blue eyes were alert, there was yet travel weariness on his sun-bronzed face, and his scarlet-edged cloak was stained with sweat and dust. It had been a hard ride from Sultanapur, with little time before leaving for saying goodbye to friends or gathering possessions, if he was to avoid the headsman's axe. A small matter of smuggling, and some other assorted offenses against the King's peace.
He had come far since leaving the rugged northern crags of his native Cimmerian mountains, and not only in distance. Some few years he had spent as a thief, in Nemedia and Zamora and the Corinthian city-states, yet though his years still numbered fewer than twenty the desire had come on him to better himself. He had seen many beggars who had been thieves in their youth, but never had he seen a rich thief. The goldthat came from stealing seemed to drip away like water through a sieve. He would find better for himself. The failure of his smuggling effort had not dimmed his ardor in the least. All things could be found in Aghrapur, or so it was said. At the moment he sought a tavern, the Blue Bull. Its name had been given him in haste as he left Sultanapur as a place where information could be gotten. Good information was always the key to success.
The sound of off-key music penetrated his thoughts, and he became aware of a strange procession approaching him down the thronging street. A wiry, dark-skinned sergeant of the Turanian army, in wide breeches and turban-wrapped spiral helmet, curved tulwar at his hip, was trailed by another soldier beating a drum and two others raggedly blowing flutes. Behind them came half a score more, bearing halberds and escorting, or guarding, a dozen young men in motley garb who seemed to be trying to march to the drum. The sergeant caught the big youth's glance and quickly stepped in front of him.
"The gods be with you. Now I can see that you are a man seeking--" The sergeant broke off with a grunt. "Mitra! Your eyes!"
"What's wrong with my eyes?" the muscular youth growled.
"Not a thing, friend," the sergeant replied, raising a hand apologetically. "But never did I see eyes the color of the sea before."
"Where I come from there are few with dark eyes."
"Ah. A far traveler come to seek adventure. And what better place to find it than in the army ofKing Yildiz of Turan? I am Alshaam. And how are you called?"
"Conan," the muscular youth replied. "But I've no interest in joining your army."
"But think you, Conan," the sergeant continued with oily persuasiveness, "how it will be to return from campaign with as much booty as you can carry, a hero and conqueror in the women's eyes. How they'll fall over you. Why, man, from the look of you, you were born for it."
"Why not try them?" Conan said, jerking his head toward a knot of Hyrkanian nomads in sheepskin coats and baggy trousers of coarse wool. They wore fur caps pulled tightly over grease-laced hair, and eyed everyone about them suspiciously. "They look as if they might want to be heroes," he laughed.
The sergeant spat sourly. "Not a half-weight of discipline in the lot of them. Odd to see them here. They generally don't like this side of the Vilayet Sea. But you, now. Think on it. Adventure, glory, loot, women. Why--"
Conan shook his head. "I've no desire to be a soldier."
"Mayhap if we had a drink together? No?" The sergeant sighed. "Well, I've a quota to fill. King Yildiz means to build his army larger, and when an army's big enough, it's used. You mark my words, there will be loot to throw away." He motioned to the other soldiers. "Let us be on our way."
"A moment," Conan said. "Can you tell me where to find the tavern called the Blue Bull?"
The soldier grimaced. "A dive on the Street of the Lotus Dreamers, near the harbor. They'll cutyour throat for your boots as like as not. Try the Sign of the Impatient Virgin, on the Street of Coins. The wine is cheap and the girls are clean. And if you change your mind, seek me out. Alshaam, sergeant in the regiment of General Mundara Khan."
Conan stepped aside to let the procession pass, the recruits once more attempting unsuccessfully to march to the drum. As he turned from watching the soldiers go he found himself about to trample into another cortege, this a score in saffron robes, the men with shaven heads, the women with braids swinging below their buttocks, their leader beating a tambourine. Chanting softly, they walked as if they saw neither him nor anyone else. Caught off balance, he stumbled awkwardly aside, straight into the midst of the Hyrkanian nomads.
Muttered imprecations rose as thick as the rank smell of their greased hair, and black eyes glared at him as dark leathery hands were laid to the hilts of curved sword-knives. Conan grasped his own sword hilt, certain that he was in for a fight. The Hyrkanians' eyes swung from him to follow the saffron-robed procession continuing down the crowded street. Conan stared in amazement as the nomads ignored him and hurried after the yellow-robed marchers.
Shaking his head, Conan went on his way. No one had ever said that Aghrapur was not a city of strangenesses, he thought.
Yet, as he approached the harbor, it was in his mind that for all its oddities the city was not so very different from the others he had seen. Behind him were the palaces of the wealthy, the shops of merchants, and the bustle of prosperous citizens.Here dried mud stucco cracked from the brick of decaying buildings, occupied for all their decay. The peddlers offered fruits too bruised or spoiled to be sold elsewhere, and the hawkers' shiny wares were gilded brass, if indeed there was even any gilding. Beggars here were omnipresent, whining in their rags to the sailors swaggering by. The strumpets numbered almost as many as the beggars, in transparent silks that emphasized rather than concealed swelling breasts and rounded buttocks, wearing peridot masquerading as emeralds and carbuncle passing for ruby. Salt, tar, spices, and rotting offal gave off a thick miasma that permeated everything. The pleadings of beggars, the solicitations of harlots, and the cries of hawkers hung in the air like a solid sheet.
Above the cacophony Conan heard a girl's voice shout, "If you will but be patient, there will be enough to go around."
Curious, he looked toward the sound, but could see only a milling crowd of beggars in front of a rotting building, all seeming to press toward the same goal. Whatever, or whoever, that goal was, it was against the stone wall of the building. More beggars ran to join the seething crowd, and a few of the doxies joined in, elbowing their way to the front. Suddenly, above the very forefront of the throng, a girl appeared, as if she had stepped up onto a bench.
"Be patient," she cried. "I will give you what I have." In her arms she carried an engraved and florentined casket, almost as large as she could manage. Its top was open, revealing a tangled mass of jewelry. One by one she removed pieces and passed them down to eagerly reaching hands.Greedy cries were raised for more.
Conan shook his head. This girl was no denizen of the harbor. Her robes of cream-colored silk were expensively embroidered with thread-of-gold, and cut neither to reveal nor emphasize her voluptuous curves, though they could not conceal them from the Cimmerian's discerning eye. She wore no kohl or rouge, as the strumpets did, yet she was lovely. Waist-length raven hair framed an oval face with skin the color of dark ivory and melting brown eyes. He wondered what madness had brought her here.
"Mine," a voice shouted from the shoving mass of mendicants and doxies, and another voice cried, "I want mine!"
The girl's face showed consternation. "Be patient. Please."
Three men with the forked queues of sailors, attracted by the shouting, began to push their way through the growing knot of people toward the girl. Beggars, their greed vanquishing their usual ingratiating manner, pushed back. Muttered curses were exchanged, then loud obscenities, and the mood of the crowd darkened and turned angry. A sailor's horny fist sent a ragged, gap-toothed beggar sprawling. Screams went up from the strumpets, and wrathful cries from the beggars.
Conan knew he should go on. This was none of his affair, and he had yet to find the Blue Bull. This matter would resolve itself very well without him. Then why, he asked himself, was he not moving?
At that instant a pair of bony, sore-covered hands reached up and jerked the casket from the girl's arms. She stared helplessly as a swirling fight broke out, the casket jerked from one set of hands to another, its contents spilling to the paving stones to be squabbled over by men and women with clawed fingers. Filth-caked beggars snarled with avaricious rage; silk-clad harlots, their faces twisted with hideous rapacity, raked each other with long, painted nails and rolled on the street, legs flashing nakedly.
Suddenly one of the sailors, a scar across his broad nose disappearing beneath the patch that covered his right eye, leaped up onto the bench beside the girl. "This is what I want," he roared. And sweeping her into his arms, he tossed her to his waiting comrades.
"Erlik take all fool women," Conan muttered.
The roil of beggars and harlots, lost in their greed, ignored the massive young Cimmerian as he moved through them like a hunting beast. Scarface and his companions, a lanky Kothian with a gimlet eye and a sharp-nosed Iranistani, whose dirty red-striped head cloth hid all but the tips of his queues, were too busy with the girl to notice his approach. She yelped and wriggled futilely at their pawings. Her flailing hands made no impression on shoulders and chests hardened by the rigors of stormy, violent Vilayet Sea. The sailors' cheap striped tunics were filthy with fish oils and tar, and an odor hung about them of sour, over-spiced ship's cooking.
Conan's big hand seized the scruff of the Kothian's neck and half hurled him into the scuffle near the casket. The Iranistani's nosecrunched and spurted blood beneath his fist, and a back-hand blow sent Scarface to join his friends on the filthy stones of the street.
"Find another woman," the Cimmerian growled. "There are doxies enough about."
The girl stared at him wide-eyed, as if she was not sure if he was a rescuer or not.
"I'll carve your liver and lights," Scarface spat,
"and feed what's left to the fish." He scrambled to his feet, a curved Khawarismi dagger in his fist.
The other two closed in beside him, likewise clutching curved daggers. The man in the head-cloth was content to glare threateningly, ruining it somewhat by scrubbing with his free hand at the blood that ran from his broken nose down over his mouth. The Kothian, however, wanted to taunt his intended victim. He tossed his dagger from hand to hand, a menacing grin on his thin mouth.
"We'll peel your hide, barbar," he sneered, "and hang it in the rigging. You'll scream a long time before we let you--"
Among the lessons Conan had learned in his life was that when it was time to fight, it was well to fight, not talk. His broadsword left its worn shagreen scabbard in a draw that continued into an upward swing. The Kothian's eyes bulged, and he fumbled for the blade that was at that moment in mid-toss. Then the first fingerlength of the broadsword clove through his jaw, and up between his eyes. The dagger clattered to the paving stones, and its owner's body fell atop.
The other two were not men to waste time over a dead companion. Such did not long survive on the sea. Even as the lanky man was falling, they rushed at the big youth. The Iranistani's bladegashed along Conan's forearm, but he slammed a kick into the dark man's midsection that sent him sprawling. Scarface dropped to a crouch, his dagger streaking up toward Conan's ribs. Conan sucked in his stomach, felt the dagger slice through his tunic and draw a thin, burning line across his midriff. Then his own blade was descending. Scarface screamed as steel cut into the joining of his neck and shoulder and continued two handspans deeper. He dropped his dagger to paw weakly at the broadsword, though life was already draining from him. Conan kicked the body free--for it was a corpse before it struck the pavement--and spun to face the third sailor.
The Iranistani had gotten to his feet yet again, but instead of attacking he stood staring at the bodies of his friends. Suddenly he turned and ran up the street. "Murder!" he howled as he ran, heedless of the bloody dagger he was waving. "Murder!" The harlots and mendicants who had so recently been lost in their fighting scattered like leaves before a high wind.
Hastily Conan wiped his blade on Scarface's tunic and sheathed it. There were few things worse than to be caught by the City Guard standing over a corpse. Most especially in Turan, where the Guard had a habit of following arrest with torture until the prisoner confessed. Conan grabbed the girl's arm and joined the exodus, dragging her behind him.
"You killed them," she said incredulously. She ran as if unsure whether to drag her heels or not. "They'd have run away, an you threatened them."
"Mayhap I should have let them have you," he replied. "They would have ridden you like a posthorse. Now be silent and run!"
Down side streets he pulled her, startling drunks staggering from seafarers' taverns, down cross-alleys smelling of stale urine and rotting offal. As soon as they had put some distance between themselves and the bodies, he slowed to a walk--running people were too well noticed--but yet kept moving. He wanted a very goodly distance between himself and the Guardsmen who would be drawn to the corpses like flies. He dodged between high-wheeled pushcarts, carrying goods from harbor warehouses deeper into the city. The girl trailed reluctantly at his heels, following only because his big hand engulfed her slender wrist as securely as an iron manacle.
Finally he turned into a narrow alley, pushing the girl in ahead of him, and stopped to watch his back-path. There was no way that the Guard could have followed him, but his height and his eyes made him stand out, even in a city the size of Aghrapur.
"I thank you for your assistance," the girl said suddenly in a tone at once haughty and cool. She moved toward the entrance of the alley. "I must be going now."
He put out an arm to bar her way. Her breasts pressed pleasurably against the hardness of his forearm, and she backed hastily away, blushing in confusion.
"Not just yet," he told her.
"Please," she said without meeting his eye. There was a quaver in her voice. "I ... I am a maiden. My father will reward you well if you return me to him in the same ... condition." The redness in her cheeks deepened.
Conan chuckled deep in his throat. "It's not your virtue I want, girl. Just the answers to a question or three."
To his surprise her eyes dropped. "I suppose I should be glad," she said bitterly, "that even killers prefer slender, willowy women. I know I am a cow. My father has often told me I was made to bear many sons and ... and to nurse all of them," she finished weakly, coloring yet again.
Her father was a fool, Conan thought, eyeing her curves. She was a woman made for more than bearing sons, though he did not doubt that whoever she was wed to would find the task of giving them to her a pleasurable one.
"Don't be silly," he told her gruffly. "You'd give joy to any man."
"I would?" she breathed wonderingly. Her liquid eyes caressed his face, innocently, he was certain. "How," she asked falteringly, "is a post horse ridden?"
He had to think to remember why she asked, and then he could barely suppress a smile. "Long and hard," he said, "with little time for rest, if any."
She went scarlet to the neck of her silken robe, and he chuckled. The girl blushed easily, and prettily.
"What is your name, little one?"
"Yasbet. My father calls me Yasbet." She looked past him to the street beyond, where pushcarts rumbled by. "Do you think the casket, at least, would be there if we went back? It belonged to my mother, and Fatima will be furious at its loss. More furious than for the jewels, though she'll be mad enough at those."
He shook his head. "That casket has changed hands at least twice by now, for money or blood. And the jewels as well. Who is Fatima?"
"My amah," she replied, then gasped and glared at him as if he had tricked her into revealing the fact.
"Your amah!" Conan brayed with laughter. "Are you not a little old to have a nursemaid?"
"My father does not think so," Yasbet replied in a sullen voice. "He thinks I must have an amah until I am given to my husband. It is none of my liking. Fatima thinks I am still five years of age, and father sides with her decisions always." Her eyes closed and her voice sank to a weary whisper. She spoke as if no longer realizing she spoke aloud. "I shall be locked in my room for this, at the least. I shall be lucky if Fatima does not ... ." Her words drifted off with a wince, and her hands stole back to cover her buttocks protectively.
"You deserve it," Conan said harshly.
Yasbet started, eyes wide and flushing furiously. "Deserve what? What do you mean? Did I say something?"
"You deserve to have an amah, girl. After this I shouldn't be surprised if your father takes two or three of them in service." He smiled inwardly at the relief on her face now. In truth, he thought she deserved a spanking as well, but saying so would be no way to gain satisfaction for his curiosity. "Now tell me, Yasbet. What were you doing alone on a street like that, giving your jewels to beggars? It was madness, girl."
"It was not madness," she protested. "I wanted to do something significant, something on my own. You have no idea what my life is like. Everymoment waking or sleeping is ruled and watched by Fatima. I am allowed to make not the smallest decision governing my own life. I had to climb over the garden wall to leave without Fatima's permission."
"But giving jewels to beggars and strumpets?"
"The ... the women were not part of my plan. I wanted to help the poor, and who can be poorer than beggars?" Her face firmed angrily. "My father will know I am no longer a child. I do not regret giving up the pretties he believes mean so much to me. It is noble to help the poor."
"Perhaps he'll hire six amahs," Conan muttered. "Girl, did it never occur to you that you might be hurt? If you had to help someone, why not ask among your own servants? Surely they know of people in need? Then you could have sold a few of your jewels for money to help."
Yasbet snorted. "Even if all of the servants were not in league with Fatima, where would I find a dealer in gems who would give me true value? More likely he would simply pretend to deal with me while he sent for my father! And he would no doubt send Fatima to bring me home. That humiliation I can do without, thank you."
"Gem dealers would recognize you," he said incredulously, "and know who your father is? Who is he? King Yildiz?"
Suddenly wary, she eyed him like a fawn on the edge of flight. "You will not take me back to him, will you?"
"And why should I not? You are not fit to walk the streets without a keeper, girl."
"But then I'll never keep him from discovering what happened today." She shuddered. "Or Fatima."
Wetting her lips with the tip of her tongue, she moved closer. "Just listen to me for a moment. Please? I--"
Abruptly she darted past him into the street.
"Come back here, you fool girl," he roared, racing after her.
She dashed almost under the wheels of a heavy, crate-filled cart, and was immediately hidden from view. Two more carts pressed close behind. There was no room to squeeze between them. He ran to get ahead of the carts and to the other side of the street. When he got there, Yasbet was nowhere in sight. A potter's apprentice was setting out his master's crockery before their shop. A rug dealer unrolled his wares before his. Sailors and harlots strolled in and out of a tavern. But of the girl there was no sign.
"Fool girl," he muttered.
Just then the tavern sign, painted crudely, creaked in the breeze and caught his eye. The Blue Bull. All that had happened, and he had come right to it. Aghrapur was going to be a lucky city. Giving his swordbelt a hitch and settling his cloak about his broad shoulders, he sauntered into the stone-fronted inn.
Copyright © 1983 by Conan Properties, Inc.