Conan and Kalya come to a market town in Ophir, hoping to dredge up rumors of a Keshanian leading a band of brigands. As Ophir is at war, the place is under a bit of a lockdown.
“Very well,” said the scribe. “You must arrange for lodgings for yourselves and your animals. There will be no sleeping on the streets or in the public square. As soon as you have found a place that will take you in, you must report your location to the office of the city watch. Each day of your stay, you must confirm your location before noon, or the watch will search you out and throw you into the city dungeon if you cannot pay the fine. When you leave, report to me so that I may cross your names off my list. Is that understood?”
“Perfectly,” she said through gritted teeth. They paid their toll and rode into the town.
“I have slain men ere now for using such a tone,” Conan said. “If this is the way cities are run, I prefer the life of a barbarian.”
She smiled at him, a rare occurence. “I have been in far worse places, where a stranger is issued a papyrus which must be signed each day by the authorities and surrendered upon demand to any official. If you are caught without it, they clap you into the dungeon. But, do not worry. The worst places are the small remote cities like this one. They are eager to prove how civilized they are, and so they insist upon these niggling little rules. The great cities like Tarantia are wide open and there you may do as you like, within reason.”
This is a lot of administration for an iron age society. Even Rome didn’t tend to enforce any laws more strict than “only legionaries are allowed to carry swords within city limits,” and Rome was head and shoulders above their contemporaries in terms of legalism and efficient bureaucracy.
During Conan and Kalya’s trawling for rumors while watching a tavern show:
The acrobats made a sweaty exit and were followed by fire-eaters and jugglers. These were followed by a spell of more sedate entertainment as a group of minstrels played upon instruments, singing of the latest news from near and far. Conan and Kalya listened closely to these songs, but none mentioned the men for whom they searched.
Don’t get me wrong, minstrels serving as primary means of hearing news is a perfectly reasonable way for an iron age society to work, but it makes me think of a world where Autotune The News and similarly gimmicked competitors are people’s primary news source. It’d be better than the world we’ve got, where people’s primary news source is Twitter and Facebook.
There’s an illusionist in the show, whose powers of illusion are so implausibly extensive and whose appearance is so necromantic that he’s pretty definitely another priest of the Ancient Aliens. Maybe even the same one with a slightly altered appearance.
Expecting some crowning marvel, Conan was startled when a small mirror formed before his eyes. Round and no more than a handsbreadth in width, it quickly expanded until it was as high as a standing man. He was reflected in it faithfully, then the image faded and was replaced by another. It was that of a tall, well-built man whose black hair and short beard had gone iron-gray. He sat at a desk of precious wood, reading from a scroll. Conan could not see his face, but his clothes were magnificent and his forehead was circled by a narrow band of gold. On a stand next to the man were a splendid formal robe and crown. He turned as if he had heard something, a puzzled look on his face. Conan drew a breath of astonishment. It looked like the face of his father, but where would a Cimmerian blacksmith get the trappings of a king? Then he realized that he was looking at his own face, aged by thirty years or more.
That’s two Conan books in a row that have felt the need to reinforce that Conan is destined to be king someday. The very first Conan story ever published was set during his reign over Aquilonia, it’s not like Conan’s coming ascension is a big twist that needs foreshadowing. With how often Conan’s sovereignty is being predicted, I’m kind of imagining that he wasn’t even slightly surprised when a bunch of exiled Aquilonian nobles looked him up and asked for his help in deposing Numedides.
On the other hand, both the stories making these predictions were origin stories, and there’s a certain poetry in the first story predicting the apex of Conan’s career.
The point of this whole chapter, in any case, is that the illusionist eventually shows Conan another image, that of Taharka in an evil throne room with nubile slave girls and surrounded by niches containing decapitated heads. So apparently Taharka is not just one of a dozen-odd action heroes running around, with Conan also amongst them, but Conan’s cosmic nemesis, a barbaric villain to oppose our barbaric hero. Not that Conan is always particularly heroic, he’s often a thief, pirate, or mercenary in it purely for himself, but I guess he did do right by Aquilonia upon assuming the throne, so probably he was a net benefit for Hyboria. If the only options are him and Taharka, then he does have the advantage of not being a super villain. On the other hand, given that Conan was sometimes a total asshole but turned out great for Aquilonia, how do we know that Taharka’s not just showing off all the decapitated heads of all the super villains he’s killed while dressing up his actually-completely-free serving girls in chains because he’s into that?
I’ll grant you it’s a bit of a stretch that he’s secretly the good guy when he has visibly chained slave girls in his throne room, especially when he is currently a terrible human being, but my point here is that Hyboria doesn’t operate on the good-vs-evil morality of the modern world, which makes tropes directly referencing it feel out of place. Conan’s not the avatar of goodness this prophecy makes him out to be, so why should we be certain that Taharka turns out to be an avatar of evil?
Then at the end, Conan and Kalya finally catch word of Taharka’s raiding and decide to join a large caravan passing through the area he’s been marauding through, hoping Taharka will attack them.
This entire chapter is just about Taharka planning a raid on the caravan that Conan joined last chapter, and then also Axandrias is super freaked out by Kalya’s Javert-esque pursuit of him for eleven years. One of the fodder bandits insults him to his face, so he challenges them to a duel and rips them open. Then in the aftermath it turns out that – twist! – he was only able to work up the courage by taking some of the magic cocaine they used to get their gladiators worked up into a frenzy back at the Nemedian border.
We’ve definitely reached the point where there’s little for me to say without repeating myself. The narrative is as it’s always been: The fights are mostly good, albeit sometimes a bit too “left fist to right cheek” fiddly to be easily followed, the basic plot is an uncomplicated and semi-episodic tale of revenge in which Conan and Kalya chew through the survivors of the raid on Cimmeria in ones and twos, unambitious but well within the author’s ability execute competently, and Kalya and Axandrias are carrying most of the emotional arc while Conan and Taharka stand in their vicinity barbarianing whenever required. All the chapters with Axandrias early on are even paying off as the deterioration of his confidence forms the emotional core of the story as we enter the third act (not that this is necessarily three of three, since this story hasn’t been following a standard three act structure, it just has separate acts at all and we’re on the third one). The only weird thing is the Ancient Aliens priests and I’m not sure how that’s gonna get paid off, or if it’ll be any good.
Which is why there’s not much to say about the bit where Conan and Kalya fight off some of the raiders on the caravan, but others, including the Hyperborean lieutenant leading them, make off with several captives. One of them is an acrobat they’ve befriended, and her husband the knife thrower joins them to try and rescue her. So much for that.
When we pivot back to Taharka’s perspective, though, an unnatural sleep descends upon his men, from which they cannot be roused, and he is confronted by the same illusionist Ancient Aliens priest who confronted Conan with his future in the tavern a few chapters ago. Taharka and Ancient Aliens priest #2 discuss Taharka’s first encounter with an Ancient Aliens priest.
“True, true,” said the man. “We now approach a time when mighty adventurers, be they but bold enough, may seize the thrones of the world in their bloody hands. Certain of them, through their ruthlessness, may go on to rule empires. There are some, a very few, so surpassingly without compunction in their pursuit of absolute power that it is in their power to conquer and rule the whole world of men! Did he not reveal all this unto you?”
“Aye, that he did,” Taharka hissed, “and he showed me as well what lay at the end of my reign! He showed me the unspeakable god that your sect would conjure from the blood of the slaughter wrought by me in my climb to the throne of the world. He made plain to me how that god would devour my substance and that I would reign for ten thousand years or more as some sort of obscene hybrid!” He sat back and his expression grew to be as stone. “Nay, I thank you, priest, but I choose to remain a simple bandit, taking my ease and enjoying my modest pleasures, living day-to-day. The attractions of empery are pleasant, but the price of them is too high.”
I mean, would you rather first be a regular human emperor and then be transformed into an obscene hybrid to reign for ten thousand years, or be a regular human emperor and then die? Just how obscene a hybrid are we talking? ‘Cause if you still get to be emperor after the transformation, I’m not seeing how being some weird snake monster could be worse than death unless the form itself is really disturbing or painful. Like, are we talking “yuan-ti” or “shoggoth” here? Because personally if I’m casting morality aside to embrace my most wicked imperialist dreams, turning into a yuan-ti monster emperor sounds like a bonus.
Anyway, Ancient Aliens priest #2 wants Taharka to embrace his destiny, but Taharka adamantly refuses, and Ancient Aliens priest #2 is like “eh, whatever, I’ll just look up the second most evil barbarian of this generation.”
After that encounter, it’s briefly back to Conan’s perspective as he meets up with a cavalry squadron of one of the satraps of Ophir hunting the same bandits, and they agree to follow Conan as he tracks them back to their lair. We’re about two-thirds of the way through, now, so it looks like we may be killing the Hyperborean whose name I can never remember in the same fight as Axandrias and Taharka.