the pomp and splendor, all the homage and adulation which you have received, will dissolve into some casual observer of your image inquiring: 'Who was Cene?'
"What is royalty, Cene? If you have the strength and the power to rule well, then you deserve credit, of course. But what of yourself? Have you no desires of your own? Is it necessary for you to sacrifice all the pleasures of a lifetime because of one little mountain kingdom? Perhaps you have the impression that you could not be replaced or that the order of your dynasty should not change? What say your subjects? As long as they possess a wise and untroublesome ruler, do you think they care what dynasty produced their figurehead? There are lights in your eyes that proclaim you to be too young for celibacy, Cene!"
"Are you proposing yourself as a fitting——"
"Why not? I could have been a king. I can fight better than most of them, I have found. But I discovered the life of a common mercenary is apt to last longer. I have fought in many wars and under many ensigns. I have slept in royal beds. Maybe the next night I slept in a gutter–but what of it? Once I was a thief in Forthe; once a slave under Hagar. But if I died this next moment I can still say that I have lived! Could you?"
"I–believe not," answered the queen. She thoughtfully prodded at the sand with her sword.
"Thwaine!" shouted Rald.
His comrade detached himself from the group of women gathered about the skeleton; that is, he detached himself from the ring of inquisitive females but not from Ating, who skipped happily along behind his squat figure like the rudder of a ship.
"Thwaine is a competent fellow," explained Rald to the queen. "A clever diplomat and a fierce fighting-man. On occasion, he can become even wiser than I, though I hate to endanger his complacency by admitting it."
"Indeed?" Cene's eyebrows were arched.
"Yes. Let Thwaine and Ating rule your precious kingdom of rock and sand for the space of a year. Then return to see if your former subjects are prepared to cast roses beneath your feet or are willing to stage a rebellion to place your–well, to reseat you on the throne!"
"And where would I be during this time?"
"With me," said Rald, simply. His features were eloquent.
Cene stared at him but could not manage a reply.
"Come," ordered Rald; "get these overwrought females off these polluted sands and back to their respective stations; find me a place to sleep for what remains of the night, and tomorrow you may guide me to the waterfall. Together we will breathe some purer air than the fetid atmosphere I detect here. No?"
"Yes," said Cene, and the smile on her crimson lips caused the mercenary's heart to skip its regular beat.