When the alien Lord Svet hired Shaddo to steal a gladiator known as the Purple Avenger, Shaddo thought he could just get in, get out, and get paid.
But it didn’t work out that way.
He didn’t expect to run afoul of the Emperor Na-Ret – really more of a gangster than a monarch, but don’t tell him that – or find himself fighting the Purple Avenger in a cage match over a tank of hungry bloodworms.
Here’s an excerpt. I hope you like it:
Svet’s elegant host-body looked like money. He stood poised and uncertain as a debutante at the door of Tiny’s Saloon, peering into the gloom and the haze of smoke. He looked past the bar patrons, mostly Froggies wiping each others’ skins with sponges soaked in alcohol and arguing theology. His eyes located me after a few moments and he relaxed visibly.
Svet crossed the bar looking like he didn’t want to touch anything, not even the soles of his expensive, gloved feet on the filthy floor, and took a seat at the table in the back corner where I often held business meetings.
I was sitting at the table already, drinking some beer echoed from dynastic Egypt. Ancient Egyptians brewed the best beer.
“Mr. Shaddo, I understand you’re in the property retrieval business,” he said to me with a little, conspiratorial smile.
I took a long pull on my cigarette, and let the smoke out of my mouth slowly for effect. “You could say that.”
Svet winked. “I have some personal property I wish to have reclaimed. It’s definitely my property, nothing I want you to steal, of course.”
“Smooth,” I said. “If there was a cop listening in, he’d never guess you want me to steal something.”
Svet looked crestfallen. Literally. The body he wore had a big blue crest at the top, and it fell. He hunched his shoulders and looked around furtively.
Svet hissed, “Do you think we’re being watched by the police?”
“I doubt it,” I said. “We don’t get any cops in here unless they’re after free booze. What do you need me to get?”
Svet composed himself.
“The … property of mine I wish … reclaimed is a host-body,” he said.
“Like the one you’re wearing now.”
“Nothing like the one I’m wearing now. This host-body,” he said, and gestured with a long, elegant arm, “is a mount suitable for a gentleman such as myself to wear on business around town. The body I wish reclaimed is a gladiator.”
“A fighter.” I made boxing motions with my fists.
“Just so.” The elegant head nodded once again.
“And who’s got the gladiator?”
“The Purple Avenger.”
I gave him a look. The look said: Huh?
Svet explained: “That is the name of the gladiator host-body. The Purple Avenger.”
“So who’s got him?”
“Who’s your cousin?” I was getting annoyed.
“Oh, forgive me, I thought even a human would know. My cousin is Na-Ret. King Na-Ret XII, Emperor of all the Burmachi in the City Between.”
This “emperor” business was less impressive than it sounds. The Burmachi are long on titles, short on actual substance. Na-Ret was head of the Burmachi community in the City Between. He had a lot of money, and a few tens of thousands of subjects, which made him formidable, but hardly an emperor.
“So how did your cousin get a hold of the, uh, what did you call it again?”
“The Purple Avenger. My cousin stole the gladiator from me in a combat match. He cheated.”
I waved it off. I didn’t care whether Svet’s cousin cheated. “Where is the Avenger now?”
“My cousin maintains a menagerie for his gladiators and other sport host-bodies at the Burmachi Palace a few miles outside the city. All we need to do is get out there, collect the Avenger and then bring him back.”
“I suppose your cousin has security.”
“Nothing a master like you can’t defeat.”
“I’ll look into that myself. If the deal looks good, then I’ll do it.”
Svet paid cash, half up front and half on delivery of the Purple Avenger, which made him my best friend in the world. He left in a rustle of Burberry topcoat and cloud of expensive cologne.
Tiny’s stood on a street of buildings that the Temlakites had echoed from city downtowns from all periods of human history. The streets were crowded with people of every species in the City, walking, talking, children playing games, merchants pushing pushcarts and shouting to peddle their wares. The light was the same gloomy twilight gray that it always is, the sky as always boiling with angry black clouds. But it never rains. I have talked to people who claimed they knew for a fact that it used to rain in the City, but I never talked to anyone who had ever actually been here when it supposedly happened.
I lit another cigarette, thinking I should stock up on a few cartons of smokes while I was flush, and set off. The sidewalk was a patchwork of wood planks, cobblestones, flagstones, modern concrete, and all manner of paving materials from throughout human history. It made for challenging walking when drunk. Today, I was sober as a Temlakite. After a couple of blocks, I hailed a passing taxi. It was a Victorian coach, black and boxy, with its wheels and undercarriage replaced by modern truck tires.
The driver knew me, and he cursed me amiably in colorful Victorian Cockney patois, until I paid him the money I owed him and he agreed to take me to the Stupendous Theater.
The Temlakites had echoed the Stupendous Theater from 1921 Philadelphia. A vaudeville palace, it loomed six stories over the surrounding buildings, festooned with gingerbread and gewgaws and lights. The place was closed for rehearsal when I arrived, the sidewalk out front deserted except for a lone Tasmaroid selling fried grubs from a pushcart, and a guard in front of the theater entrance.
The guard wasn’t really a guard, just one of the bigger male dancers posted there to keep lovestruck fans from barging in and bothering the chorus girls and boys.
The guard went by the name Tony. His original on Earth had been an eighteenth century priest, echoed from France years ago. He had forsaken his vows – actually, according to gossip from the showgirls, he had forsaken them enthusiastically. He was certainly not the first virtuous lad to be corrupted by the glamor of showbiz.
“Boss inside?” I said.
Tony grimaced, which told me that, yes, the boss was inside, and he was in a mood, too.
I went past Tony and into the theater, passing through the ornate lobby, dark now. I went through the doors to the audience area, and paused at the rear of the theater. From the front of the auditorium, a man’s baritone voice berated one of the rehearsing dancers.
The voice was loud, magnificent, and huge. It filled the theater, dripping with disdain.
Eventually, the voice ran out of momentum, and wound down to a stop. The assistant director called a break, and the dancers left the stage.
I descended the darkened aisle, where the source of the voice resolved itself into the face of my friend, the owner of the Stupendous Theater, and director of its lavish floor shows.
He had thick, grizzled hair and a handsome, square face, anchored by an imposing Roman nose.
He came by the nose honestly; he was Roman, a patrician and citizen of the Empire, echoed to the City Between from the Second Century A.D. His name was Gaius Vipsanius Felix.
When he saw me emerge from the shadows, his gloomy face split into a wide grin. “Mr. Shaddo, my friend!”
“Problems with the talent, Felix?”
“It’s amazing they don’t love you more, considering how charming you are.”
“They’re jealous of my manly physique,” he said, and raised himself from the his chair.
Gaius Vipsanius Felix was under five feet tall, not all that short for a man of his time and place but much shorter than a 20th Century American like me. His left leg was paralyzed, and his left arm withered and useless. He still dressed as he had on the streets of Rome. He wore a belted tunic under the toga of a Roman citizen. But he’d traded in his sandals for a pair of good, American New Balance sneakers.
“I want a drink. You want a drink.” It wasn’t a question. We walked to the rear of the audience area, him hopping along with surprising agility using a crutch on his left side. We went through the lobby and through a hidden doorway.
Felix’s office was a cluttered, windowless room with three desks. He unlocked the bottom drawer of one of the desks with an enormous iron key and removed three items: A clay jar, a copper beaker and a glass. He poured wine from the jar into the beaker for himself, and the glass for me, and diluted both with warm water and honey. He managed the whole thing adeptly with only his good right arm.
He raised the beaker to me and said something in Latin. It sounded like a toast, so I raised my glass and responded, “Here’s mud in your aqueduct.”