In the end, Togura Poulaan accepted the invitation to attend Slerma's wedding. As resident hero, he hardly had a choice. By declining, he would have offended both the Suets and the royal family, which would in turn have earnt him the disapproval of the Wordsmiths.
Because of the wedding, Togura's departure for Estar would be delayed by two days. He was not entirely unhappy with this. Though he had only been with the Wordmiths for a short time, he felt at home in the Wordsmiths' stronghold; though his mission no longer seemed suicidal, he was not exactly enthusiastic about setting out.
For the wedding, Togura dressed in new breeches, new boots, a stout jerkin and a padded jacket; he wore a sword at his side and flaunted a feather in his cap.
"Etiquette does not permit swords at weddings," said Brother Troop.
"For ordinary people, no," said Togura. "But certain things are expected of a hero."
"You may be right," said Brother Troop, and let him go dressed as he pleased.
The wedding was scheduled to take place in the morning in the Suets' Grand Hall, a building which Togura had never visited before. Arriving early in bright autumn sunshine - a good omen, surely, as it had been unbroken rain for days previously - he found this immense wooden building almost empty except for workmen who were finishing off reinforcements to a section of the floor, and Suet women who were responsible for catering.
Togura walked through the building, strutting a little in his fine new clothes, and admiring all the good things to eat which had been provided in such profusion. Among other things, there were marvellous cakes created in the image of the new coinage.
The building echoed with bright, happy voices. Louder, ominously hollow echoes came from underfoot as people walked this way and that across the wooden floor. Togura walked across one spot where queasy floorboards sagged beneath his weight; he cleared the area quickly, then tapped the floor with his heel and toe, listening to the echoes.
"There's a mine shaft underneath us," said a well-fleshed well-dressed elderly man.
"It must be a big one," said Togura.
"One of the biggest. It was Shaft Suet, the richest gemstock sounding in all of Keep. It gave the family its start in life. By the time Shaft Suet was exhausted, the family was rich. Anyway, enough history. You're Barak the Battleman, aren't you?"
"I am. And you?"
"Name's Raznak the Golsh. I'm a Suet by birth and by breeding."
They idled there for a while, talking of nothing in particular - weddings, cakes, music, the weather. But Togura sensed that Raznak the Golsh had a proposition for him. He was not wrong. Soon Raznak began to speak his mind.
"I hear you're soon to set off on your quest."
"Very soon. Tomorrow, in fact."
"What a pity. At the moment, we've got an opening which would just suit a fierce young warrior like yourself. We need a commander for the fighting force we're forming."
"Honesty compels me to tell you that I'm not the fighter I'm cracked up to be," said Togura. "Besides, I'm too young. Few men would follow me."
"We can use your reputation," said Raznak. "You'd grow into the job. We've got people who can help you find your feet. You'd be a regular sword-slaughterer in a few short years."
"I'm not the type," said Togura, who had heard the rumours of civil war, and wanted nothing to do with it. "I'll never have the fighting prowess."
"Don't run yourself down. I was lucky enough to see you kill the monster which you rode up out of the mine pit. You've got what it takes, young man."
"That was a fluke."
"Perhaps. But your reputation's solid. So I'm making you an offer. Join us. Sung will soon be a proper kingdom. Soon enough, we'll be the royal family. Skan Askander won't last forever."
And Raznak winked.
"I've got my duty to Day," said Togura.
"You've been offered a daughter Suet before," said Raznak. "The offer still stands. It wasn't your fault that the little girl met her unfortunate end. Don't go throwing your life away on an impossible quest. I met some of those who went questing and were never seen again. Strong men. Brave men. Not a fool amongst them. They were strong, determined, capable. But they vanished, one and all."
"All five of them."
"Five! The Wordsmiths told you that? There's been fifty men go questing, if there's been one."
The revelation shook Togura.
"Tell me you'll join us," said Raznak the Golsh.
"I'll think about it," said Togura.
"You do that, young man. You do that."
And he most certainly did, pondering the options while the hall filled with guests. Fifty heroes, all missing in action! Could it be true? If it was, then Raznak's offer certainly had its temptations. So who could he trust? Who could he believe?
His troubled mind worried away at the problem until his cogitations were interrupted by the announcement of the arrival of Roly Suet. The young groom, fatter than most people but thin for a Suet, was dressed like a peacock. He looked calm - too calm. His eyes had a glazed, fixed expression. Togura suspected he had been drugged.
"Enter the sacrifice," muttered a voice.
"The things people do for power!" said another.
Shortly after, the hum of conversation in the hall fell away to an absolute silence as Slerma entered. She was led into the hall and then seated by guides and helpers who made sure she kept strictly to the reinforced section. At the sight of her, one tender young lady blanched and fainted. Two old ladies, a spinster and a relict, began to titter, and then, unable to help themselves, broke into frank and horrified laughter.
Slerma did not appear to hear. She stared around her, letting her eyes ooze slowly over the vast mounds of food which were on display.
"Slerma will eat well," she said. "This is good."
Two female Suets with fixed smiles draped a veil over her countenance, but Slerma mauled it away from her face. She had gone to a lot of trouble with her appearance, and did not want her efforts to go to waste.
Slerma's makeup represented a unique experiment in abstract art. Stains of green and red were smeared across the flanks of her face, creating washes of gently undulating colour which swelled and contracted as she chewed her cud. She had applied mascara; dabs and dobs of black were scattered above her eyebrows, looking like the distant heads of soldiers peering over the brow of extensive earthworks.
Togura felt it rude to stare, yet could not help himself. He was not alone. Slerma was as huge as he had remembered - if anything, worse. A buxom girl could have been made from each of her forearms, and a respectable whore from each of her thighs; her belly could have given birth to a regular conclave of washerwomen. Her fingers, as fat as sausages, looked deceptively soft and helpless; remembering the true strength of those bone-crushing hands, Togura shuddered. To think that he had almost been married to this!
Watched by a disbelieving audience, the wedding ceremony was conducted.
"If any man alleges prior claim to possession of this woman, let him speak now or forever afterwards remain silent," said the marriage celebrant, looking around sternly. No claims being forthcoming, he announced: "I find, rule and declare that there are no prior claims on this woman."
"What woman?" cried a wit.
Who was suppressed, strenuously.
At the conclusion of the wedding ceremony, Slerma embraced Roly Suet, engulfing him in her arms. She held him close. She had decided to be very loving today. After a while, Roly began to make violent, animated movements with his arms and legs. It appeared he was suffocating. This was highly embarrassing! Senior Suets stood by, one openly wringing his hands, while people pushed and shoved to get a good view, standing on tiptoe and craning their necks. Gladiatorial sports were unknown in Sung, so they had never seen anything like it.
Finally, Slerma released her prey. He slid down to the ground and lay at her feet, limp but still breathing. Taking him by the hair, she hauled him onto her lap, where he lay like a rag doll, his face plastered with red and green and black; he had been kissed.
Someone cheered. Infected by an outbreak of mob hysteria, the others took up his theme; the hall rocked and resounded with applause. Slerma beamed. She was a success. She was glorious. She was beautiful. She was loved. Her happiness would have been complete if her father had been there to see her triumph, but unfortunately he was laid up with gout.
Determined music began; the cheering died away, and was replaced by a babble of talk, gossip and speculation. The festivities were underway.
As a skavamareen wailed along in the wake of a galloping thrum, Togura encountered a girl named Zona, who made it appear that she met him almost by accident.
"Are you a Suet?" he said.
"Yes. How did you guess?"
"What else would they send to seduce me?"
"The cheek of the animal!" she said.
"A kiss would be a good way to start," said Togura.
She blushed, and Togura saw his suspicions were correct. The Suets had sent one of their expendable females to romance him. He was flattered.
"Dance with me," he said.
She yielded, so soon they were dancing the Dalataplash, kicking their heels and punching the air, whooping at the war-scream and shouting at the hoot, then embracing each other in the couple and the grind. She laughed a lot. She might have been sent, but she was willing. He was young, handsome and a hero, and a baron's son besides, heir to the estate if he killed his half-brother Cromarty. There was good meat on her bones; he knew himself lucky.
They danced then ate, danced then drank, then danced again. Togura cast occasional glances in the direction of young Roly Suet, who seemed to be making a remarkable recovery from his traumatic experience with Slerma. The royal couple were not dancing: Slerma was still eating, with Roly at her side feeding her choice morsels from a bucket.
"Would you marry me?" said Togura to Zona.
"Would I if what?"
"If I asked."
"That's no answer."
"Still, it's the answer deserved. Are you a hero or aren't you?"
"I'll think about it," said Togura. "Come, the music's wasting. Let's dance."
And dance they did. She was smooth, lithe, clean-limbed and lively. He wanted her. She was his answer to the urgency of the flesh. She was part of a contract for a fabulous future. In the face of such offers, what wisdom in questing? Fifty men missing, most probably dead? Where was the temptation in that?
It was many generations since Togura's ancestors had been sharp-bargaining Galish merchants, but, nevertheless, a trader's caution was still part of his heritage; he disliked unnecessary danger on principle, being entirely lacking in the kind of hang-devil recklessness which welcomes impossible odds.
How could he forget about Day?
How could he write her off like this?
He tried to bring her face to mind, but failed. He could not remember what she looked like. He tried, in a dutiful way, to fabricate feelings of regret and remorse, but failed.
"Kiss me," said Zona.
And he could hardly decline.
As they danced, the music grew louder. An old-fashioned canterkade beat out a rhythm in direct opposition to a new-fangled clay. A sklunk back-thumped, a chanter whined, a snot-pipe shrilled, then massied plea whistles hooted and honked, joining the screaming high pinions in a caterwauling fanfarade.
"So what's it to be?" said Zona, as the last of the music jogged down to nothing. "Where will you sleep tonight and tomorrow? By some bone-rotting mountainside bog? Or elsewhere, far warmer?"
"Give me time to think," said Togura, with a laugh of joy and triumph which he was unable to suppress.
Already he knew his answer. It was no contest. The people of Sung - even the young men - were essentially too sane and sober to make good questing heroes. They seemed wild enough, with their feuding and fighting, but such localised sports are essentially civilised in that they never take you more than a couple of days from your own warm bed and a hot-bread kitchen.
Though the Wordsmiths did not know it yet, Togura had just cancelled his quest for the index.
"Let's find a seat," said Zona.
"Let's," said Togura, coughing.
"It's rather smoky," said Zona, waving a hand in front of her face.
"Rather," said Togura, looking round to see who was smoking the acrid pipe.
He blinked. His eyes were stinging. People were starting to shout. Somebody screamed. Suddenly Togura realised there were clouds of smoke curling and coiling overhead. People were panicking, rushing for the exits. Togura drew his sword, then looked at it in astonishment. Why had he done that? He sheathed it hastily, before Zona noticed. Zona?
"Zona!" shouted Togura.
His voice was lost in the uproar. She was gone. She had fled. Somewhere, a loud voice boomed, roaring:
"Fire! Fire! Fire!"
Togura jumped on a table.
"Don't push!"he bawled. "People will get crushed!"
But he was ignored. He coughed; the air was harsh with smoke. Looking round, he saw a disturbance. He saw part of a wall breaking down, admitting bright sunlight and a wedge of - masked men!
"We're under attack!" shouted Togura.
But nobody heard him.
He jumped down from the table and waded toward the attackers. With Suets and their guests crushing each other to death in the jam-packed exits, he figured that the break in the wall offered him the best chance of escape from a building now definitely burning.
He drew his sword again, and this time did not feel stupid for doing so.