The Players - Cover

The Players

by Everett B. Cole

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: A Playboy is someone with power, too much time on his hands, and too little sense of a goal worth achieving. And if the Playboy happens to belong to a highly advanced culture....

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

Through the narrow streets leading to the great plaza of Karth, swarmed a colorful crowd--buyers, idlers, herdsmen, artisans, traders. From all directions they came, some to gather around the fountain, some to explore the wineshops, many to examine the wares, or to buy from the merchants whose booths and tents hid the cobblestones.

A caravan wound its way through a gate and stopped, the weary beasts standing patiently as the traders sought vacant space where they might open business. From another gate, a herdsman guided his living wares through the crowd, his working animals snapping at the heels of the flock, keeping it together and in motion.

Musa, trader of Karth, sat cross-legged before his shop, watching the scene with quiet amusement. Business was good in the city, and his was pleasingly above the average. Western caravans had come in, exchanging their goods for those eastern wares he had acquired. Buyers from the city and from the surrounding hills had come to him, to exchange their coin for his goods. He glanced back into the booth, satisfied with what he saw, then resumed his casual watch of the plaza. No one seemed interested in him.

There were customers in plenty. Men stopped, critically examined the contents of the displays, then moved on, or stayed to bargain. One of these paused before Musa, his eyes dwelling on the merchant rather than on his wares.

The shopper was a man of medium height. His rather slender, finely featured face belied the apparent heaviness of his body, though his appearance was not actually abnormal. Rather, he gave the impression of being a man of powerful physique and ascetic habits. His dress was that of a herdsman, or possibly of an owner of herds from the northern Galankar.

Musa arose, to face him.

“Some sleeping rugs, perhaps? Or a finely worked bronze jar from the East?”

The stranger nodded. “Possibly. But I would like to look a while if I may.”

Musa stepped aside, waving a hand. “You are more than welcome, friend,” he assented. “Perhaps some of my poor goods may strike your fancy.”

“Thank you.” The stranger moved inside.

Musa stood at the entrance, watching him. As the man stepped from place to place, Musa noted that he seemed to radiate a certain confidence. There was a definite aura of power and ability. This man, the trader decided, was no ordinary herdsman. He commanded more than sheep.

“You own herds to the North?” he asked.

The stranger turned, smiling. “Lanko is my name,” he said. “Yes, I come from the North.” He swept a hand to indicate the merchandise on display, and directed a questioning gaze at the merchant. “It seems strange that your goods are all of the East. I see little of the West in all your shop.”

Normally, Musa kept his own council, assuming that his affairs were not public property, but his alone. There was something about this man, Lanko, however, which influenced him to break his usual reticence.

“I plan a trading trip to the Eastern Sea,” he confided. “Of course, to carry eastern goods again to the East would be a waste of time, so I am reserving my western goods for the caravan and clearing out the things of the East.”

Lanko nodded. “I see.” He pointed to a small case of finely worked jewelry. “What would be the price of those earrings?”

Musa reached into the case, taking out a cunningly worked pair of shell and gold trinkets.

“These are from Norlar, a type of jewelry we rarely see here,” he said. “For these, I must ask twenty balata.”

Lanko whistled softly. “No wonder you would make a trip East. I wager there is profit in those.” He pointed. “What of the sword up there?”

Musa laughed. “You hesitate at twenty balata, then you point out that?”

He crossed the tent, taking the sword from the wall. Drawing it from its scabbard, he pointed to the unusually long, slender blade.

“This comes from Norlar, too. But the smith who made it is still farther to the east, beyond the Great Sea.” He gripped the blade, flexing it.

“Look you,” he commanded, “how this blade has life. Here is none of your soft bronze or rough iron from the northern hills. Here is a living metal that will sever a hair, yet not shatter on the hardest helm.”

Lanko showed interest. “You say this sword was made beyond the Great Sea? How, then, came it to Norlar and thence here?”

Musa shook his head. “I am not sure,” he confessed. “It is rumored that the priests of the sea god, Kondaro, by praying to their deity, are guided across the sea to lands unknown.”

“Taking traders with them?”

“So I have been told.”

“And you plan to journey to Norlar to verify this rumor, and perhaps to make a sea voyage?”

Musa stroked his beard, wondering if this man could actually read thoughts.

“Yes,” he admitted, “I had that in mind.”

“I see.” Lanko reached for the sword. As Musa handed it to him, he extended it toward the rear of the booth, whipping it in an intricate saber drill. Musa watched, puzzled. An experienced swordsman himself he had thought he knew all of the sword arts. The sword flexed, singing as it cut through the air.

“Merchant, I like this sword. What would its price be?”

Musa was disappointed. Here was strange bargaining. People just didn’t walk in and announce their desire for definite articles. They feigned indifference. They picked over the wares casually, disparagingly. They looked at many items, asking prices. They bargained a little, perhaps, to test the merchant. They made comments about robbery, and about the things they had seen in other merchants’ booths which were so much better and so much cheaper.

Slowly, and with the greatest reluctance, did the normal shopper approach the object he coveted.

Then, here was this man.

Well,” Musa told himself, “make the most of it.” He shrugged.

“Nine hundred balata,” he stated definitely, matching the frank directness of this unusual shopper, and incidentally doubling his price.

Lanko was examining the hilt of the sword. He snapped a fingernail against its blade. There was a musical ping.

“You must like this bit of metal far better than I,” he commented without looking up. “I only like it two hundred balata worth.”

Musa felt relief at this return to familiar procedure. He held up his hands in a horrified gesture.

“Two hundred!” he cried. “Why, that is for the craftsman’s apprentices. There is yet the master smith, and those who bring the weapon to you. No, friend, if you want this prince of swords, you must expect to pay for it. One does not--” He paused. Lanko was sheathing the weapon, his whole bearing expressing unwilling relinquishment.

Musa slowed his speech. “Still,” he said softly, “I am closing out my eastern stock, after all. Suppose we make it eight hundred fifty?”

“Did you say two hundred fifty?” Lanko held the sheathed sword up, turning to the light to inspect the leather work.

The bargaining went on. Outside, the crowds in the street thinned, as the populace started for their evening meals. The sword was inspected and re-inspected. It slid out of its sheath and back again. Finally, Musa sighed.

“Well, all right. Make it five hundred, and I’ll go to dinner with you.” He shook his head in a nearly perfect imitation of despair. “May the wineshop do better than I did.”

“Housewife, this is Watchdog. Over.”

The man at the workbench looked around. Then, he laid his tools aside, and picked up a small microphone.

“This is Housewife,” he announced.

“Coming in.”

The worker clipped the microphone to his jacket, and crossed the room to a small panel. He threw a switch, looked briefly at a viewscreen, then snapped another switch.

“Screen’s down,” he reported. “Come on in, Lanko.”

An opening appeared in the wall, to show a fleeting view of a bleak landscape. Bare rocks jutted from the ice, kept clear of snow by the shrieking wind. Extreme cold crept into the room, then a man swept in and the wall resumed its solidity behind him.

He stood for an instant, glancing around, then shrugged off a light robe and started shedding equipment.

“Hi, Pal,” he was greeted. “How are things down Karth way?”

“Nothing exceptional.” Lanko shrugged. “This area’s getting so peaceful it’s monotonous.” He unsnapped his accumulator and crossed to the power generator.

“No wars, or rumors of wars,” he continued. “The town’s getting moral--very moral, and it’s developing into a major center of commerce in the process.” He kicked off his sandals, wriggled out of the baggy native trousers, and tossed his shirt on top of them.

“No more shakedowns. Tax system’s working the way it was originally intended to, and the merchants are flocking in.”

He walked toward the wall, flicking a hand out. An opening appeared, and he ducked through it.

“Be with you in a minute, Banasel,” he called over his shoulder. “Like to get cleaned up.”

Banasel nodded and went back to the workbench. He picked up a small part, examined it, touched it gently a few times with a soft brush, and replaced it in the device he was working on.

He tightened it into place, and was checking another component when a slight shuffle announced his companion’s return.

“Oh, yes,” said Lanko. “Met your old pal, Musa. He’s doing right well for himself.”

Banasel swung around. “Haven’t seen him since we joined the Corps. What’s he doing?”

“Trading.” Lanko opened a locker, glancing critically at the clothing within. “He set up shop with the load of goods we gave him long ago, and did some pretty shrewd merchandising. Now, he’s planning a trip over the Eastern Sea. He hinted at a rumor of a civilization out past Norlar.”

“Nothing out there for several thousand kilos,” growled Banasel, “except for a few little islands.” He jerked a thumb toward the workbench. “I can’t show you right now, because the scanner’s down for cleaning, but there isn’t even an island for the first couple thousand K’s. Currents are all wrong, too. No one could cross without navigational equipment.”

“I know,” Lanko assured him. “We haven’t checked over that way for a long time, but I still remember. I didn’t put it exactly that way, of course, but I did ask Musa how he planned to get over the Eastern. And, I got an answer.” He paused as he gathered up the garments he had discarded.

“It seems there’s a new priesthood at Norlar, who’ve got something,” he continued. “It’s all wrapped up in religious symbology, and they don’t let any details get out, but they are guiding ships out to sea, and they’re bringing them back again, loaded with goods that never originated in the Galankar, or in any place accessible to the Galankar.” He hung up the last article of clothing and turned, a sheathed sword in his hand.

“Musa sold me this,” he said, extending the hilt toward Banasel. “I never saw anything like it on this planet. Did you?”

Banasel accepted the weapon, drawing it from its scabbard. He examined the handwork on the hilt, then snapped a fingernail against the blade. As he listened to the musical ping, the technician looked at the weapon with more interest. Gently, he flexed it, watching for signs of strain. Lanko grinned at him.

“Go ahead,” he invited, “get rough with it. That’s a sword you’re holding, Chum, not one of those bronze skull busters.”

Banasel extended the sword, whipping it violently. The blade bent, then straightened, and bent again, as it slashed through the air.

“Well,” he murmured. “Something new.”

He put the sword on the workbench and took an instrument from a cabinet. For a few minutes, he busied himself taking readings and tapping out data on his computer. He sat back, looking at the sword curiously. At last, he glanced at the computer, then put the test instrument he had been using back in the cabinet, taking another to replace it. After taking more readings, he looked at the computer, then shook his head, turning to Lanko.

“This,” he said slowly, “is excellent steel. Of course, it could be an accidental alloy, but I wouldn’t think anyone on this planet could have developed the technology to get it just so.” He held the sword away from him, looking at it closely. “Assuming an accidental alloy, an accident in getting precisely the right degree of heat before quenching, and someone who ground and polished with such care as to leave the temper undisturbed, while getting this finish--Oh, it’s possible, all right. But ‘tain’t likely. Musa told you this came from overseas?”

“To the best of his knowledge. He got it from a trader who claimed to have been on a voyage across the Eastern Sea.”

Banasel leaned back, clasping his hands behind his head. “You must have had quite a talk with Musa. Did he remember you?”

Lanko shook his head. “Don’t be foolish,” he grunted. “You and I were blotted out of his memory, remember? So are quite a few of the things that happened around Atakar, way back when. He’s got a complete past, of course, but we’re not part of it.

“No, he had a booth in the Karth market. I came through, just looking things over, and recognized him. So, I picked an acquaintance. Beat him down to about half the asking price for this sword, still leaving him a whopping profit. He went to dinner with me, still bewailing the rooking I’d given him. Told you, he’s a trader. We had quite a talk, certainly. But we were strangers.”

“Yeah.” Banasel looked off into space. “Seems funny. You and I were born on this planet. We were brought up here, and a lot of people once knew us. But they’ve all forgotten, and we don’t belong any more. I’m beginning to see what they mean by ‘the lonely life of a guardsman.’”

He was silent for a time, then looked at his companion.

“Do you think these priests at Norlar might be in our line of business?”

“Could be,” nodded Lanko. “There’s a lot of seafaring out of Konassa, and there are several other busy seaports we know of. But no one in any of them ever heard of navigation out of sight of land, let alone trying it. There’s nothing but pilotage, and even that’s pretty sketchy. And, there’s this thing.” He crossed to the workbench, picked up the sword, and stroked its blade.

“Normally,” he mused, “technical knowledge gets around. Part of it’s developed here, part there. Then someone comes along and puts it together. And someone else adds to it. And so on.

“Then, there are other times, when there’s an abnormal source, or where there are unusual conditions, and knowledge is very closely guarded. This might be one of those cases, and those priests might be fronting for someone very much in our line of business.” He broke off.

“Any maedli hot?”

“Sure.” Banasel picked a pot from the heater and poured two cups.

“Think we should set up a base near Norlar and have a look?”

“Probably be a good idea.” Lanko accepted a cup, took a sip, and shook his head violently.

“Ouch! I said hot, not boiling.” He blew on the cup and set it aside to steam itself cool.

“These mountains were an excellent base,” he continued, “but this area seems to be developing perfectly. There’s no outside interference, all traces of former interference have been eliminated, and there’s very little excuse for us to hang around.” He picked up the cup again, cautiously sampling its contents. “And it’s about time we moved around and checked on the rest of the planet.”

Banasel turned back to the workbench. “Good idea,” he agreed. “I’ll get this scanner set up again, and we’ll be ready to load out.” He picked up his tools. “As I remember, Norlar has a mountainous backbone where no one ever goes. We should be able to set up right on the island.”

On the eastern slope of the Midra Kran, a cloud of dust paced a caravan, which wound up the trail, through a pass. The treachery of the narrow path was testified to by an occasional slither, followed by a startled curse.

Musa stood in his stirrups, looking ahead at the long trail which twisted a little farther up, then dropped to the wide Jogurthan plateau. Far ahead, over the poorly marked way, he knew, was another range, the Soruna Kran, which blocked his way to the Eastern Sea.

He looked back at the straggling caravan.

“Better get them to close up, Baro,” he remarked. “We’d be in a lot of trouble if a robber band caught us scattered like this.”

The other trader nodded and turned his mount. Then, he paused as shouts came from the rear of the line. Mixed with the shouting was the clatter of weapons.

“Come on,” cried Musa. “It’s happened.”

He kicked his mount in the ribs, and swung about, starting up the steep bank. The bandits would have bowmen posted to deal with anyone who might try to get back along the narrow path, and he had no desire to test the accuracy of their aim.

As his beast scrambled up the bank, Musa saw a man standing on a pinnacle, alertly watching the center of the caravan. His guess had been right. The bandit leader’s strategy had been to cut the caravan in two, and to deal with the rear guard first. As the watcher started to aim at something down on the trail, Musa quickly raised his own bow and sent an arrow to cut the man down before he could fire.

It was a good shot. The man made no sound as the arrow struck, but clawed for an instant at the shaft in his side, then dropped, to slide down the face of a low cliff. Musa, followed by his guards, stormed up the slope.

They went through a saddle in the hill, to find themselves confronted by a half dozen men, who swung about, trying to bring their bows to bear on the unexpected targets. Two of these went down as arrows sang through the air, then the traders were upon the rest, swords flailing, too close for archery.

One of the bandits swung his sword wildly at Musa, who had drawn a twin to that blade he had sold back in Karth. The slender shaft of steel rang against the bandit’s bronze blade, deflecting it, then Musa made a quick thrust which passed through the man’s leather shield, to penetrate flesh. The bronze weapon sagged, and its holder staggered. Musa jerked back violently, disengaged his sword, and made a swift cut. For an instant, the bandit sat his mount, staring at his opponent. Then, he slumped, and rolled loosely from his saddle.

The action had been fast. Only one bandit, a skilled swordsman, remained, to keep Baro busy. Musa rode quickly behind him, thrusting as he passed. Baro looked across the limp body.

“Now, what did you have to do that for?” he demanded. “I was having a good time.”

“Let’s get down to the trail again,” Musa told him. “We can have a wonderful time there.” He pointed.

The caravan’s rear guard was in trouble. Several of them were in the dust of the trail, and the survivors were being pressed by a number of determined swordsmen.

Baro wheeled and slid down the incline, closely followed by the rest of the group.

The surrounded bandits fought desperately, but hopelessly. The charge from the hill had driven them off balance, and they were never given a chance to recover. At last, Musa and Baro looked over the results of the raid.

They had lost several guards. One trader, Klaron, had been killed by an arrow launched early in the attack. Several of the survivors were wounded.

“We’ll have to hire some more guards and drivers in Jogurth,” said Baro. “And what are we going to do about Klaron’s goods?”

“We can divide them and sell them in Jogurth,” Musa told him. “Klaron has a brother back in Karth who can use the money, and money’s a lot easier to carry than goods. You’ll see him on your return trip.”

Baro nodded, and started up the line, reorganizing the caravan. At last, they got under way again, and resumed their slow way toward the plateau.

The caravan went on, to enter the plateau, where the traders started resting by day and traveling by night, to avoid exertion during the day’s heat.

They came to the city of Jogurth, which for most of them was a terminal. From there, they would return to Karth, a few possibly going on to their homes still farther west. Musa stayed in town for a few days, trading his few remaining eastern goods for locally produced articles, and helping in the sale of Klaron’s goods. At last, he joined another caravan, headed by an old trader, Kerunar, who habitually traveled between Jogurth and Manotro, on the east coast.

The trip across the Soruna Kran was uneventful, and Musa finally saw the glint of the Eastern Sea. He did not stay long in Manotro, for he discovered that the small channel ships traveled frequently, and he was able to guide his pack beasts to the wharf, where his bales were accepted for shipment. Leaving his goods, he led his animals back to the market.

Old Kerunar shook his head when he saw Musa. “Be careful, son,” he cautioned. “I’ve been coming here for twenty years. Used to trade in Norlar, too. But you couldn’t get me over there now for ten thousand caldor.”

“Oh?” Musa looked at him curiously. “What’s wrong?”

Kerunar looked at his newly set up booth. Hung about it were durable goods and trinkets from a dozen cities. There were articles even from far-off Telon, in the Konassan gulf. He looked back at Musa.

“Norlar,” he declared, “has fallen into the hands of thieves and murderers. You can trade there, to be sure. You can even make a profit. But you cannot be sure you will not excite the avarice of the Kondarans, or arouse their anger. For they have a multitude of strange laws, which they can invoke against anyone, and which they enforce with confiscation of goods. Death or slavery await any who protest their actions or question their rules.” He paused.

“Some manage to trade, and come back with profitable bales. Some leave their goods in the hands of the priests of Kondaro. Some remain, to find a quick death. But I stop here. I prefer to deal with honorable men. When I face the thief or the bandit, I prefer to have a weapon in my hand. A book of strange laws can be worse than any bandit born.”

Musa looked about the market. “Here, of course,” he acknowledged, “are the goods of the Far East. But I must see them at their source.” He shook his head. “No,” he decided, “I shall make one trip at least.”

“I’ll give you just one word of caution, then,” he was told. “Whatever you see, make little comment. Whenever you are asked for an offering, make no objection, but give liberally. Keep your eyes open and your opinions to yourself.”

“Thanks.” Musa grinned. “I’ll try to remember.”

“Don’t just remember. Follow the advice, if you wish to return.”

Musa’s grin widened. “I’ll be back,” he promised.

The harbor of Tanagor, chief seaport of Norlar, was full of shipping. Here were the ships which plied the trackless wastes of the Eastern Sea. Huge, red-sailed, broad-beamed, they rode at anchor in the harbor, served by small galleys from the city. Tied up at the wharves, were the smaller, yellow and white-sailed ships which crossed the channel between the mainland and the island empire.

Slowly, Musa’s ship drew in toward the wharf, where a shouting gang of porters and stevedores awaited her arrival. Together with other passengers, Musa stood at the rail, watching the activity on the pier.

Four slaves, bearing a crimson curtained litter, came to the wharf and stopped. The curtains opened, and a man stepped out. He was not large, nor did his face or figure differ from the normal. But his elegantly embroidered crimson and gold robes made him a colorfully outstanding figure, even on this colorful waterfront. And the imperious assurance of his bearing made him impossible to ignore.

He adjusted his strangely shaped, flat cap, glanced about the wharf haughtily, and beckoned to one of the slaves, who reached inside the litter and took from it an ornately decorated crimson chest. Another slave joined him, and the two, carrying the chest with every evidence of reverent care, followed their crimson-cloaked master as he strode into a pier office.

Musa turned to one of the other merchants, his eyebrows raised inquiringly.

“A priest of Kondaro,” whispered the other. “In this land, they are supreme. Take care never to anger one of them, or to approach too closely to the sacred chest their slaves carry. To do so can mean prompt execution.”

As Musa started to thank the man for his friendly warning, a cry of “Line Ho!” caused him to turn his attention to the mooring parties. Lines had been cast aboard at bow and stern, and the ship was rapidly being secured to stout bollards ashore.

A gang of stevedores quickly rigged a gangway amidships, and porters commenced streaming aboard to carry the cargo ashore. Another gangway was rigged aft for the passengers. At the foot of this, stood one of the priest’s litter bearers, a slave with a crimson loincloth. In his hands, he held a large, red bowl, which was decorated with intricate gold designs. Beside him, stood his companion, a sturdy, frowning fellow, who held a large, strangely shaped sword in his hand. Musa’s previous mentor leaned toward him nodding to the group.

“Don’t forget or fail to put a coin in that bowl,” he cautioned. “Otherwise, you’ll never get passage on one of the sacred ships.”

“How much?” queried Musa.

“The more, the better. If you want quick passage across the Great Sea, better make it at least ten caldor.”

Musa shrugged, reaching into his purse for a gold coin.

“Maybe I should be in the priesthood myself, instead of the trading business,” he told himself silently.

As he passed the bowl, he noted that the other trader dropped only a silver piece. On the wharf, the incoming passengers were being guided into groups. Musa noted that his group was the smallest, and that his previous friend had gone to another, larger group. An official, tablet in hand, approached.

“Your name, Traveler?”

“Musa, trader, of Karth.”

“You have goods?”

“I brought twelve bales. They are marked with my name.”

“Very good, sir. We will hold them for your disposal. You may claim them at any time after mid-day.” The man wrote rapidly on his tablet.

Musa thanked him, then turned to see how his shipboard acquaintance was progressing. He had questions to ask about gold and silver coins.

He watched the older merchant complete his conversation with an official, and, as he started to leave the wharf, quickly caught up with him. At Musa’s approach, the other held up a hand.

“I know,” he said. “Why did I tell you to make a generous offering, then put a smaller coin in the bowl myself? That is what you want to know?”

“Precisely,” Musa replied. “I’m not a poor man, but I’m not a wealthy holiday seeker, either. This voyage has to pay.”

The other smiled. “Exactly why I advised you as I did. Come into this wineshop, and I’ll tell you the story.”

Over the drinks, the older man explained himself. An experienced trader, he had been operating between the mainland and Norlar for many years. It had been a profitable business, for the island had been dependent upon the mainland for many staple items, and had in return furnished many items of exquisite craftsmanship, as well as the produce of its extensive fisheries and pearl beds.

Then, the prophet, Sira Nal, had come with his preachings of a great sea god, Kondaro, ruler of the Eastern Sea. Tonda told of the unbelief that had confronted the prophet, and of the positive proof that Sira Nal had offered, when he had gathered a group of converts, collected enough money to purchase a ship, and made a highly successful voyage to the distant lands to the east. Upon his return, Sira Nal had found a ready market for the strange and wonderful products he had brought. He also had found many more converts for his new religion.

His original group, now a priesthood, were the only men who could give protection and guidance to a ship in a voyage past the sea demons who frequented the Eastern Sea, and they demanded large offerings to compensate for their services. Of course, a few adventurous shipowners had attempted to duplicate Sira Nal’s feat without the aid of a priest, but no living man had seen their ships or crews again.

The profits from the rich, new trade, plus the alms of the traders visiting Tanagor, had rapidly filled the coffers of Kondaro. A great temple had been built, and the priests had become more and more powerful, until now, not too many years after the first voyage of Sira Nal, they virtually ruled the island.

For some years, Tonda, a conservative man and a firm believer in his own ancestral gods, had paid little attention to this strange, new religion. Upon arrival at Tanagor, to be sure, he had sometimes placed small offerings in the votive bowl, but more often, he had merely strode past the Slave of Kondaro, and gone upon his affairs.

At last, however, attracted by the great profits in the new, oversea trade, he had decided to arrange for a voyage in one of the great ships. Then, the efficiency of the priestly bookkeeping methods had become apparent. The Great God had become incensed at Tonda’s impiety during his many previous trips across the channel, and a curse had been placed upon him and upon his goods. Of course, if Tonda wished to do penance, and to make votive offerings, amounting to about two thousand caldor, it might be that the Great God would relent and allow his passage, but only with new goods. His former possessions had been destroyed by the angry Kondaro in his wrath at Tonda’s attempts to place them in one of the sacred ships. Empty-handed, Tonda had returned to the mainland.

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