Chapter Two

                                       Zazesspur:  Through the Eyes of a Child

         The calishite caravan was pulled into a tight circle.  The fluttering and uncertain light of the campfires within contrasted sharply with the silvery light of the huge desert moon which hung low above the horizon, making the area within the caravan circle seem even darker than that without.
         A nervous little man, dressed in expensive finery and flanked by four men-at-arms, sat huddled over a small glowing campfire.  Seated directly across from him was an old woman, dressed in rags and eating voraciously from the bowl she held protectively in her lap.
         The man watched for a time, disgusted by the woman's growling and smacking, as she consumed the stew he had given her.
         At length she finished, and with a grin held out her bowl for more.
         "Not yet," said the merchant.  "It isn't good for the digestive system to overindulge.  Let's talk for a while, and if I like what you have to say, you may recieve more."
         The old woman cackled.  "You want to know about the demon, eh?  Well, I might have a story or two."
         "I want more than stories, old woman.  Everyone has heard stories."
         She cackled again.  "I've seen him.  Not once but twice.  These old eyes of mine know what he looks like.  Now there's a story I'll wager you haven't heard yet!"
         The merchant leaned forward eagerly.  "Tell me!"
         "The first time was the night before Castle Tethyr fell.  I may be the only survivor of that place.  Oh, and the child too - one of the prince's bastards.  That was the reason I left that night, to take the child to safety.  Lucky for me I did.  If I hadn't I would no doubt have perished the following day."
         "The Viper!" broke in the merchant angrily.  "Tell me of the Viper!"
         "He met with the prince that evening.  I don't know why.  I saw him leaving the prince's quarters.  He was dressed as a royal guardsman, but I knew it was him.  I only saw him for a second, but there was something in the way he moved, something that spoke of danger.  He saw me."
         "What did you do?"
         "What did I do?"  The woman laughed.  "I bundled the child up and got out of there as quickly as I could.  I had intended to take the child to the druids, but the next day Castle Tethyr fell and the the mobs rose.  You remember what it was like?  I knew my life would be forfeit if anyone found out who the child was.  Even now, four years later, they hunt down and execute those rumored to be even remotely related to the royal family.  And there I was with the prince's son in my arms!
         "I dumped the brat with the first old couple that would take him."  She reflected.  "They seemed kindly enough, though they might've been planning to sacrifice the child in some bizarre ceremony, for all I knew.  I didn't really care one way or the other by that point.  Much longer, and I'd have left the child by the roadside to die."
         "Devils fly off with your high-born child!" sputtered the merchant.  "I asked about the Viper!  If he saw you, why would he have let you live?"
         The old woman shrugged.  "Who knows what goes through the mind of such a one?"
         The merchant shook his head in disgust.  "I'm sorry I wasted my stew on you, old woman.  Your concocted story does me no good.  How can you even be certain it was the Viper you saw?"
         A craftly look passed over her face.  "I wasn't, until yesterday, when I saw him a second time.  But if you've no wish to hear my tale-"
         "Sit!" barked the merchant as she started to rise.  "Tell me, and if your story rings true, you will be rewarded."
         The old woman smiled and sat again.  "It was at that last hamlet.  I saw something.  A man, dressed like one of them."  She jerked a thumb towards the four men-at-arms.  "I heard him cry out from a back alley.  I only stopped for a moment, to look in.  I was afraid the demon might see me."
         The merchant looked unconvinced.  "One of my men?  But that's impossible."  Instinctively he glanced up at them.  "None of my men are missing."
         The old woman shrugged.  "I didn't say he was one of your men.  I only said he was dressed like one of your men.  And from the brief glance I stole before hurrying on, he was being tortured by the Viper."
         "Then you saw him?  You saw his face?"
         She nodded.  "It was the same man I saw that night in the palace."
         "What did he look like?"
         She shrugged  "Ordinary.  Nondescript.  Average.  The only feature that stood out were his eyes.  He had the eyes of a demon!"
         The merchant frowned.  "It might have been the Viper," he said doubtfully.  "It might have been him.  But why me?  I am not important.  I have few enemies.  why would the Viper be after me?"  He glanced up to his guardsmen.  "Did any of you talk to the man she-"
         Only one of the four still stood the other three were lying in their own blood.
         "Gods!" shrieked the old woman, bolting back from the fire instinctively, not yet aware that she was already dead.  One of the assassin's daggers was planted in her left eye, the hilt protruding slightly.
         "Wha-!" began the merchant as he scrambled backwards in a movement that saved his life as the dagger meant to take his life merely took off his right ear.
         The assassin frowned at the man's incredible luck, then stepped forward slowly.  There was no reason to hurry.  "It's the walk," he said, almost conversationally.
         The merchant was dumbfounded.
         "The walk," the assassin repeated again.  "Every person has a way of walking that is entirely unique to that person.  Once you've mastered a person's walk, it becomes quite a simple matter to emulate their mannerisms.  You hardly need any other form of disguise.  Watch."
         For a moment the assassin was gone; the guardsman had returned.  So perfect was the impression that even though the merchant knew that the man who stood before him was no guardsman he was fooled, just for a second.
         "You see?" asked the assassin, back again.  And the merchant did.
         "Please," he moaned, clutching his mangled ear, "I want to make a deal!"
         "Oh?'  A sword came into the assassin's hand.  The point nudged the merchant's throat.  "I'm listening.  Who do you want me to kill?"
         "I.. I'm willing to pay!"
         The assassin nodded.  "You will pay.  My services are very expensive, but my work is absolutely guaranteed.  I never miss.  Who do you want me to kill?"
         The merchant was weeping softly.  "I don't want anyone killed!  I'll pay you whatever you want if you will only spare my life!"
         The assassin smiled.  His sword darted forward, taking the merchant through the heart.
         The merchant looked down at his wound in shock and amazement, then looked dumbly up at his killer.
         The assassin shrugged.  "I am in the business of assassinations.  I don't intend to let a perfectly good contract go unfulfilled."
         The merchant's eyes glazed as he died.

                                                                     * * *

         Joram and Hyullis never asked where the child came from, and the nursemaid never volunteered the information.  It was a troubled time; questions were dangerous.  The old couple never even asked the nursemaid's name.  The child was enough.
         They named him Athos.
         The old couple had never been able to have children.  To them, the infant represented a second chance at the family they had hoped for in earlier years.
         And they were certainly good parents, gentle and kind.  Perhaps they spoiled him.  Certainly they tried to.
         But Athos was strange, even in his youngest years.  He was a quiet child, even when he was a toddler.  He tended to be thoughtful.  And, when Joram or Hyllis spoke, his listened.  Certainly not traits common to young  children.
         He was quiet when he moved too.  He displayed an astonishing dexterity.  He taught himself to walk before his first birthday.  His hands were nimble and quick, and his coordination was surprising for one so young.  Once, when he was playing with some of the older children from the nearby farms, he was dared to balance on one foot atop a high wooden fence which had been greased.  The other children had never really taken to Athos, and had devised the prank as a way to humiliate the boy.  Once he had climbed up onto the fence, they rushed forward and began shaking it.  Unconcerned, Athos had maintained his position, never even placing his other foot down.  (The other children were not pleased with this, especially young Bilyth, the oldest of the lot, whose grip had slipped on the grease, causing him to fall and wrench his shoulder painfully.)
         But, more than that, Athos was intelligent. He had learned to speak before his second birthday - cohesive sentences with properly pronounced words; no babytalk.  Even before he learned to speak he was putting together fairly intricate puzzles.  By his fourth summer he had already learned writing, reading, and basic mathematics - at least as much as Joram had been able to teach, which was far more than what most grown men had mastered.
         And he was mature.  Sometimes he was even somber.
         He was a small boy.  Not scrawny or undernourished really, but slight.  Hyllis sometimes worried about him.  Wasn't he too thin and oughtn't he eat more?  Joram would shake his head when she voiced her concerns, explaining that Athos was just a boy yet, that he would get bigger, just give him time.
         Hyllis would muble something about how men didn't understand children, and would worry anyway.
         Indded, Athos did look fragile, as if he were cut from fine porcelain.  He was an attractive child.  He was never cute; never cherubic.  Nor was he truly handsome.  He was beautiful, with features so perfectly and finely cut that he could almost be mistaken for a girl.  His only physical drawback, if it could be called that, was his pale skin.  Both his hair and his eyes contrasted with it, and it simply refused to darken, even under long hours of sunlight.
         Still the old couple loved him.  His intelligence and accomplishments made them proud.  And even if once in a while, late late at night one or the other of them wondered who his natural parents had been, or pondered whether or not royal blood flowed in his veins, it didn't matter.  Whoever he might have belonged to before the nursemaid came, he was theirs now.  And they were proud of it.
         And so the days went by and the seasons changed; winter into spring into summer into fall.  And life remained the same for Athos.
         Until the day Joram allowed Athos to journey with him into the nearby city of Zazesspur.