The Pirates of Ersatz-Twenty-Seven
The Lady Fani went out the door she’d entered by. Some of the spearmen went ahead, and others closed in behind her. Hoddan followed. There were stone steps leading upward. They were steep and uneven and interminable. Hoddan climbed on aching legs for what seemed ages.
Stars appeared. The leading spearmen stepped out on a flagstoned level area. When Hoddan got there he saw that they had arrived at the battlements of a high part of the castle wall. Starlight showed a rambling wall of circumvallation, with peaked roofs inside it. He could look down into a courtyard where a fire burned and several men busily did things beside it. But there were no other lights. Beyond the castle wall the ground stretched away toward a nearby range of rugged low mountains. It was vaguely splotched with different degrees of darkness, where fields and pastures and woodland copses stood.”Here’s a bench,” said Fani cheerfully, “and you can sit down beside me and explain things. What’s your name, again, and where did you come from?”
“I’m Bron Hoddan,” said Hoddan. He found himself scowling. “I come from Zan, where everybody is a space pirate. My grandfather heads the most notorious of the pirate gangs.”
“Wonderful!” said Fani, admiringly. “I knew you couldn’t be just an ordinary person and fight like my father said you did today!”
Thal cleared his throat.
“Hush!” said Fani. “You’re a nice old fuddy-duddy that father sent to the spaceport because he figured you’d be too timid to get into trouble. Hush!” To Hoddan she said interestedly, “Now, tell me all about the fighting. It must have been terrible!”
She watched him with her head on one side, expectantly.
“The fighting I did today,” said Hoddan angrily, “was exactly as dangerous and as difficult as shooting fish in a bucket. A little more trouble, but not much.”
Even in the starlight he could see that her expression was more admiring than before.
“I thought you’d say something like that!” she said contentedly. “Go on!”
“That’s all,” said Hoddan.
“I can’t think of anything else,” he told her. He added drearily: “I rode a horse for three hours today. I’m not used to it. I ache. Your father is thinking of putting me in a dungeon until some scheme or other of his goes through. I’m disappointed. I’m worried about three lights that went across the sky at sundown and I’m simply too tired and befuddled for normal conversation.””Oh,” said Fani.
“If I may take my leave,” said Hoddan querulously, “I’ll get some rest and do some thinking when I get up. I’ll hope to have more entertaining things to say.”
He got to his feet and picked up his bag.
“Where do I go?” he asked.
Fani regarded him enigmatically. Thal squirmed.
“Thal will show you.” Then Fani said deliberately, “Bron Hoddan, will you fight for me?”
Thal plucked anxiously at his arm. Hoddan said politely:
“If at all desirable, yes. But now I must get some sleep.”
“Thank you,” said Fani. “I am troubled by the Lord Ghek.”
She watched him move away. Thal, moaning softly, went with him down another monstrosity of a stone stairway.
“Oh, what folly!” mourned Thal. “I tried to warn you! You would not pay attention! When the Lady Fani asked if you would fight for her, you should have said if her father permitted you that honor. But you said yes! The spearmen heard you! Now you must either fight the Lord Ghek within a night and day or be disgraced!”
“I doubt,” said Hoddan tiredly, “that the obligations of Darthian gentility apply to the grandson of a pirate or an escap…. To me.”
He’d been about to say an escaped criminal from Walden, but caught himself in time.
“But they do apply!” said Thal, shocked. “A man who has been disgraced has no rights! Any man may plunder him, any man may kill him at will. But if he resists plundering or kills anybody else in self-defense, he is hanged!”
Hoddan stopped short in his descent of the uneven stone steps.
“That’s me from now on?” he said sardonically. “Of course the Lady Fani didn’t mean to put me on such a spot!””You were not polite,” explained Thal. “She’d persuaded her father out of putting us in a dungeon until he thought of us again. You should at least have shown good manners! You should have said that you came here across deserts and flaming oceans because of the fame of her beauty. You might have said you heard songs of her sweetness beside campfires half a world away. She might not have believed you, but–“
“Hold it!” said Hoddan. “That’s just manners? What would you say to a girl you really liked?”
“Oh, then,” said Thal, “you’d get complimentary!”
Hoddan went heavily down the rest of the steps. He was not in the least pleased. On a strange world, with strange customs, and with his weapons losing their charge every hour, he did not need any handicaps. But if he got into a worse-than-outlawed category such as Thal described–
At the bottom of the stairs he said, seething:
“When you’ve tucked me in bed, go back and ask the Lady Fani to arrange for me to have a horse and permission to go fight this Lord Ghek right after breakfast!”
He was too much enraged to think further. He let himself be led into some sort of quarters which probably answered Don Loris’ description of a cozy dungeon. Thal vanished and came back with ointments for Hoddan’s blisters, but no food. He explained again that food given to Hoddan would make it disgraceful to cut his throat. And Hoddan swore poisonously, but stripped off his garments and smeared himself lavishly where he had lost skin. The ointment stung like fire, and he presently lay awake in a sort of dreary fury. And he was ravenous!