Arus the watchman grasped his crossbow with shaky hands, and he felt beads of clammy perspiration on his skin as he stared at the unlovely corpse sprawling on the polished floor before him. It is not pleasant to come upon Death in a lonely place at midnight.
Arus stood in a vast corridor, lighted by huge candles in niches along the walls. These walls were hung with black velvet tapestries, and between the tapestries hung shields and crossed weapons of fantastic make. Here and there too, stood figures of curious gods – images carved of stone or rare wood, or cast of bronze, iron or silver – dimly reflected in the gleaming black mahogany floor.
Arus shuddered; he had never become used to the place, although he had worked there as watchman for some months. It was a fantastic establishment, the great museum and antique house which men called Kallian Publico’s Temple, with its rarities from all over the world – and now, in the lonesomeness of midnight, Arus stood in the great silent hall and stared at the sprawling corpse that had been the rich and powerful owner of the Temple.
It entered even the dull brain of the watchman that the man looked strangely different now, than when he rode along the Palian Way in his golden chariot, arrogant and dominant, with his dark eyes glinting with magnetic vitality. Men who had hated and feared Kallian Publico would scarcely have recognized him now as he lay like a disintegrated tun of fat, his rich robe half torn from him, and his purple tunic awry. His face was blackened, his eyes almost starting from his head, and his tongue lolled blackly from his gaping mouth. His fat hands were thrown out as in a gesture of curious futility. On the thick fingers gems glittered.
“Why didn’t they take his rings?” muttered the watchman uneasily, then he started and glared, the short hairs prickling at the nape of his neck. Through the dark silken hangings that masked one of the
many doorways opening into the hallway, came a figure.
Arus saw a tall powerfully built youth, naked but for a loin-cloth, and sandals strapped high about his ankles. His skin was burned brown as by the suns of the wastelands, and Arus glanced nervously at his broad shoulders, massive chest and heavy arms. A single look at the moody, broad-browed features told the watchman that the man was no Nemedian. From under a mop of unruly black hair smoldered a pair of dangerous blue eyes. A long sword hung in a leather scabbard at his girdle.
Arus felt his skin crawl, and he fingered his crossbow tensely, of half a mind to drive a bolt through the stranger’s body without parley, yet fearful of what might happen if he failed to inflict death at the first shot.
The stranger looked at the body on the floor more in curiosity than surprize.
“Why did you kill him?” asked Arus nervously.
The other shook his tousled head.
“I didn’t kill him,” he answered, speaking Nemedian with a barbaric accent. “Who is he?”
“Kallian Publico,” replied Arus, edging back.
A flicker of interest showed in the moody blue eyes.
“The owner of the house?”
“Aye.” Arus had edged his way to the wall, and now he took hold of a thick velvet rope which swung there, and jerked it violently. From the street outside sounded the strident clang of the bell that hung before all shops and establishments to summon the watch.
The stranger started.
“Why did you do that?” he asked. “It will fetch the watchman.”
“I am the watchman, knave,” answered Arus, bracing his rocking courage.