We race into the night on my best black mare, Thracia, my warhorse.
The war is lost.
You’ve asked for my tale and while I’ve a mouth I must tell it. Such opportunities are rare for a man who has spent centuries without one, nor skin nor hair. Human bodies are fragile, and even ones which can bear my weight must die. Who knows how many centuries may pass till a new host falls prey to the unending song of seduction I sing. That I cannot stop singing. That renders me deathless, in perpetuity, till the end of time. No matter how many times I die, I will never, ever rest.
And this -the night, the war, the mare and the girl who rides her, this was the eve of my self-condemned hell. The night the reckoning came, my debt called in, my purgatory birthed. It is my daughter who flies into the dark, bearing me in a sack upon her shoulder. Once a man, now a thing. Immortal, sexless, and cold.
A jeweled circle of gold.
“No Ordinary King,” by James Zapata (http://jameszapata.deviantart.com)
“Is this him?” the king said softly, gesturing to the shivering huddle of a man at his feet.
There was a rustle through the hall, but no reply came from the oppressively silent court, a silence so complete that it seemed to reach the mottled glass dome at the very top of the throne room six stories above. This dome shot beams of afternoon light down through the lofty space, golden and angelic and sharp as swords. Between each towering window was carved a sun with crystalline rays, the symbol of the Kingdom of Light. The king stood before hundreds of his subjects, chin high, peering down at them with eyes so dark they neared black.
“Please – I beg of you, my Lord – ” the huddled man said.
“Silence. I asked, is this him?” He paused. “Will no one answer me?
“My – my Lord -” the man said again.
“Silence!” the king barked. With a whispered word and a quick gesture of his hand the king tore the air from the huddled man’s lungs. The court gasped in fear. The man arched, grasping, face reddening, unable to draw a breath from the vacuum which suddenly formed around his head. When the king brought his hand up he dragged the suffocating man along with it, displaying him like a hunting prize.
“Is this the one who brings foul superstition into my capital?” he asked the court. He descended the steps leading down from the throne, pulling the wriggling man behind him with the force of the vacuum he summoned with his pale, long-nailed hand. “Tell me or he dies.”
“Yes, your majesty,” someone called from the back of the hall, voice broken.
“Come forth!” the king ordered.
The crowd separated like oil from water for the caller, who approached the king wincing.
“Duke Barot,” the king said. “You knew of this?”
The man beneath the king’s hand flailed for the Duke, arching, his face turning blue.
“Will die before you now if you do not tell me what you know,” the King said smoothly.
“I did not know of his actions till this morning, your majesty, but after the guard came for him I saw items in his belongings which confirm it – please my lord, I beg of you – ”
“What items were these?” the King asked.
“Letters, icons. Tracts. Please,” the Duke said.
“You will deliver these items into the custody of my guard at once.”
“Yes – yes – anything your majesty, but please – have mercy on the boy – ”
“A man of twenty one is no boy, Duke Barot, but in return for your cooperation he will not die now,” the king said, finally releasing his hold on the young man, who collapsed gasping to the floor. The Duke dropped to his knees to gather his son in his arms. The king observed this for a moment before turning to his guard, who snapped to attention at his glance.
“Take the boy to the edge of the frozen waste, strip him of his belongings, and send him on his way,” the king ordered. A rustling gasp traveled through the assembly as the guards stepped forward to take the not-yet-recovered man from his father’s arms.
“But – but you said he would not die!” the Duke protested.
“I said he would not die now, not that he would not die, Duke Barot.” The king gestured to the head of his guard. “Take the Duke to the gaol to await further investigation,” he said.
“Please!” the Duke wailed. “Please, my lord, I beg of you, he is just a boy, have mercy!”
“Mercy?” the king said, turning to his subjects, who clutched one another, eyes locked on him and wide with fear. He smiled. “This is mercy, Duke. This is the mercy a king shows to his people. It is an act of mercy to free them from the contamination brought about by superstition, to keep sacerdotal corruption from their minds. It is mercy to root such danger out, to tear it from its foul nest before it can enslave right thinking people. Those who allow themselves to be debased by this sickness shall be banned to the wastes, where they can infect nothing but snow.”
With this the king turned to look at the young woman who sat in the smaller throne next to his, a small dog in her lap. There was another rustle as the court averted their eyes, a slight which the king had long learned to ignore. The years proved no amount of growling threats could entice his subjects to look directly at his daughter.
//Do you remember the lesson of the rat, my dear?// he asked, sending her his thought.
She swallowed and nodded. He felt the shudder circle through the crowd and smirked. He knew seeing the king and princess speak without words terrified them. He turned back to the gathering.
“Remember the mercy I’ve shown here today,” he said to them. “You are dismissed.”
He swept up the stairs. His purple and gold robes, on the back of which was sewn the crystalline sun which was the symbol of his reign, trailed behind him. He too his daughter’s arm, and the two of them departed the throne room to the private hall leading into the royal wing. The king patted her pale hand, smiled at her. She returned the smile but it didn’t touch her eyes. When her little dog fussed she released his arm to tend to it.
An attendant, slight and wan with bowl-shaped black hair, stepped forward and bowed. “Your Majesty, the general has returned from the provinces and wishes an audience at once.”
He gave a single nod. “I’ll receive Hane in my study, thank you Wellis.”
“Your Majesty,” Wellis said, bowing, and quickly ran off.
The king briefly touched his daughter’s arm, then stalked down the hall towards his study, robes and cloak billowing.
//Father – //
//Annella, you are a woman now. Seventeen. You needn’t wait for me to dismiss you,// he sent back without turning around.
//I’m sorry. I forgot.//
//Forgivable my dear, it’s new yet. I’ll see you in the evening.//
//I hope Hane brings you good news.//
//So do I, little one. So do I.//
“Summoned To The Thone Room” by (http://tryingtofly.deviantart.com)
“General Hane, your Majesty,” Wellis said, bowing before the study door before making for the commanding officer of the King’s military. The General looked dirty and out of place in the polished wood surrounds of the King’s study, in this room strewn about with parchment maps and priceless books. The General’s footfalls were weighty and awkward, sending reverberations through the floor, enough to rattle artifacts beneath glass domes, to shake the King’s delicate geared instruments of shining brass.
“Thank you Wellis. Leave us,” he commanded.
The General descended the small staircase with a heavy gait, mud-streaked plates of armor sliding loudly against themselves, stopping only when the General knelt.
The King peered down at his officer. “Hane. You come to me filthy and still armored from the waist down? Could you not take a moment to right yourself before being received by your king?”
The General straightened. “Pour me a drink and fuck yourself while you do it, Cymus.”
The king raised his thick white eyebrows.
“You heard me. Fuck all six and a half feet of you, you bearded goat.”
The king slowly grinned, tugging at the tie which bound his long white beard. “There’s my girl. What will you have?”
She stood, and removed an armored glove to wipe dirt from her aristocratic, dainty face. “Anything and a lot of it.”
He selected a velvet covered bottle from a shelf which bore many and shook his head. “This news cannot be favorable.”
She sat heavily on the bullhide couch with her elbows on her knees and ran her hands through her grubby hair, mouse brown streaked with white. She sighed. “It could be worse, it could be better. Excuse my state, I am exhausted.” He handed her an earthen cup of whiskey. She threw it back in one go and wiped her mouth, then rubbed her eyes and pushed her hair behind her ears, which bore the same slight point as Cymus’s.
The King raised an eyebrow. “You do look a wreck.”
“What of it? I’m not one of your women, you old twat.”
“Not with that attitude, you icy-quimmed pig.”
The glared at one another for a moment before laughing. Cymus poured two more earthen cups of whiskey. “Ah, I’ve missed you, Hane. Cheers,” he said, touching his cup to hers. “Now tell me your dreadful news.”
She sighed. “They take after their god, the AnaSancti. You think you’ve flushed them out but they build a new hive to preach from. The tracts get around, they recruit, they live to sting another day. I don’t understand it. What about that stupid religion is so damned alluring? Restrict your mind, deny yourself pleasure, strip yourself of individuality – become a drone in the hive, and for what? A reward in some hereafter of perfect hexagons?”
Cymus drank his whiskey and shrugged. “I haven’t an answer for you, the appeal escapes me as well. Did you take back the city?”
She nodded. “Aye. Aye we did. But it rook a river of blood and I doubt it helped your standing among the provinces.”
“My standing? Well what would they have their king do? A cult walls themselves inside our grain capital and I’m just to idle by and let them starve the six cities till they decide I’m not the demon incarnate?”
“No one with any sense would blame you, Cymus,” she said. “Sadly sense is lacking and superstition fills that void nicely.”
He grumbled and rubbed the bridge of his large, aquiline nose. “What were our losses?”
She closed her eyes. “The vanguard took the brunt of the damage. I suppose they knew we would take the gates eventually, they had a dozen crossbow cannons aimed right at it. Filled the vanguard and half the second company with flaming arrows.”
Cymus startled. Blinked. “Crossbow cannons?”
She nodded. “They rigged the rest of the city with all manner of traps. It was….” She shook her head and looked down into her whiskey. “It was a disgrace.”
Cymus frowned. “Crossbow cannons and traps? That does not sound like typical AnaSancti behavior. They’ve stepped up their operations, I see.” He stroked his beard. “This is bad news indeed.”
“They’ve certainly pushed their supposed hatred of violence ever further behind them,” Hane said bitterly. “The God of the Compound eye grows ever more comfortable with the sword.” Her jaw twitched. She threw back the remainder of her whiskey. “Marn’s delivered an invoice to your secretary with the details. In any case it was a bloody fucking disgrace and you ought to have me flayed. What sort of general loses her vanguard to a walled city filled with nuns and merchants?”
His eyebrows raised. “One doesn’t expect nuns and merchants to be so well armed. In the past all they’ve tossed over their barricades were rocks and arrows with prayers tied them them. Crossbow cannons? You are an excellent general, but you cannot predict the future. You can’t have expected that.”
“I should have. I should expect anything,” she said sharply, then looked into her drink. “I promise you, my king, I shall never underestimate their barbarism again. Not after that. Not after … not after the children.”
“They …” she paused here, set her jaw, shook her head, eyes burning. “When the bulk of our forces entered the city they sent children out with flowers in their hair. They carried little glass jars. They ran to us, dove between our feet, and when they opened the jars they began to smoke with some sort of acrid, foul gas. It made the eyes bloat and water, swelled the throat shut.”
“They sent children to do this?”
“Yes. Not many of them survived it. I am certain they told them lies of the Honeyed Realm before sending them off to die.”
Cymus stood and went to his desk. “This story must be told. I shall have Wellis draw up tracts at once.”
“Tracts must be printed posthaste. Send your men into the cities to tell this tale. All must know the depths of depravity to which a people will sink when whipped into apocalyptic fury. Tell them how the AnaSancti committed this act of evil in their misguided fight against the ‘kingly servant of demons.’ Ask them who befits a higher seat in the undead world, their vigilant King or the the fools who sacrifice their children to lies? They gain followers with their venomous fictions of my daughter and I?” he asked, holding an AnaSancti tract for Hane to see. “I’ll have tracts of my own, and based in truth.”
“Cymus, I am concerned that with the desperation reaching these levels -”
“Have you read these lies?” he asked, shoving the AnaSancti tract at her. “What they say about me. About my daughter. After all the good I’ve done for this kingdom, all the progress. This is the payment I get. Regression. Deterioration. Backsliding into superstitious nonsense!” He slammed the tract down on the dark, polished desk.
“Perhaps they weren’t ready, my King.”
“Weren’t ready? Weren’t ready for what? To be moved forward? Past ignorance? Into a better world? When I took the throne the Kingdom was one paltry city full of the poor and ignorant. Now we are six cities, we are wealthy and learned, we thrive! The schools I opened, the trade I fostered, the battles we won to secure merchant routes and resources. It was my hand that built the Kingdom of Light! Are we not the most powerful Kingdom in the known realm? Are my people not well fed and secure? Are they not blissfully free of religious manipulation, of that which would curdle and destroy their minds?” He stalked back and forth, deep brown eyes afire. “I know the citizenry is not as long lived as you and I. I know their memories are short. But if a single one of these devoutly AnaSancti trash could remember the pile of mud and shit and disease that was their ‘kingdom’ when Rhaim ruled – when the AnaSancti had him by the testicles of his own misguided idealism – if they could remember they’d be thankful for all I’ve done. When they eat and dress and work I am the one feeding and clothing and employing them. I’ve done everything for those religious maggots but let them run my kingdom like they ran Rhaim’s, and this – this is what I get for my efforts.” He picked up another tract, scanned it. “My magic is not demonry!” he said, slamming his hand on his desk. “Lies! Every word!”
Hane sighed heavily. Looked at the floor. “Yes. I know, Cymus. I know this rant by heart.”
“I should have every last one of them torn at the rake for what they print about Anella,” he fumed, eyes shining and wild. “The frozen wastes were too good for that boy. Ah, and the Duke Barot claims he was ignorant of his son’s AnaSancti leanings, yes, oh, I’m entirely convinced. I’m sure he’ll tell a different tale after an afternoon tea with Rahkti and his blades. I’m half expecting the Guard to unearth a hive in his cellar. In the capitol city, Hane. My capitol!”
Hane rubbed her temples. Closed her eyes.
“No. No no. We’ll fight words with words.” He strode to the door and opened it. “Wellis!” he called “To me!”
“Can’t it wait?” Hane asked, incredulous. “Might I at least bathe before I’m debriefed by your gnome?”
He paused. Chuckled. “Never did like Wellis, did you?”
She made a face, shook her head.
“Yes your majesty?” Wellis said, bowing before the door, out of breath.
He shook his head. “Nevermind, Wellis. As you were.”
“Yes your majesty,” Wellis said with another bow and shut the door. Cymus descended the small staircase to stand behind the couch, letting his hand rest on Hane’s shoulder. “My apologies, dear. You do know how I get ahead of myself. Rest this evening, come to me tomorrow, we’ll start fresh.”
She nodded and rose to her feet. “Thank you my Lord. The Duchess Swarn has calls upon me this evening.” She smiled wryly. “Thank the honeyed heavens for small happinesses, eh?”
He grinned. “You of all women ought be familiar with honeyed heavens.” Hane rolled her eyes, and Cymus laughed. “Is it Duchess Swarn now? Well done Hane, she’s quite something on a four poster.”
She tilted her head curiously. “And how did you come by this knowledge?”
“How do you think? I had the Duchess Swarn once. Thrice! Years ago.”
Hane huffed. “I should think not, Vrona would sooner touch a fresh leper than a male member.”
Cymus chuckled. “That’s not how I remember it.”
“And how long ago was this?”
“It was – ” he stopped for a moment, calculating. He stroked his beard. “You know, I may be thinking of her mother.”
Hane smiled. “So I thought. Vriona’s mum touched her share of male members.” She stood on her toes to kiss Cymus on the cheek. “And died of leprosy, as I recall.”
“Very cute, Hane. Now shove off, I’ve king things to do.”
“Looking at tracts and muttering? Bad for your health.”
“My hundred and fifty years disproves your theory.”
“Ah ah ah, you had some help with that.”
“As did you, Hane, I need not remind you. Now get out.”
“As you wish, my Lord,” she said. She went to the door, then turned, and with a big grin grabbed mannishly at her crotch.
Cymus rolled his eyes. “Both of you, out.”
“Both of us?”
“Aye, you and your cunt.”
She gasped in mock outrage, but grinned took her leave. When the door shut behind her Cymus sighed, poured himself another drink, and sat at his desk, over which was spread a dozen or so AnaSancti tracts. All bore clear block lettering and the AnaSancti symbol, a bee with wings made of hexagonal cells. With a grimace he picked one up to read.
He slammed the tract down on the desk and moved to pick up another, but stopped mid-reached when he heard his daughter’s sudden voice in his head, that small, muted flower of a voice.
//You told me always to be honest with you,// Anella sent.
//Tell me,// he sent to her.
// I understand the lesson of the rat. But I do not think I can do what you do.//
He gave an exasperated sigh and rose from the desk. His long, aristocratic hand hovered over the half finished drink, then pulled away.
//I’ll be right there.//
When he arrived at her rooms the door was open, but he knocked anyway, softly, with the back of his hand.
“Come in,” she said, her voice soft. He stepped into her parlor, a cozy white room, everything in shades of eggshell or cream, dusty pinks and blues. Pink roses climbed up a latticed bay window, at the bade of which was an overstuffed cushion. Piles of books lay stacked upon the floor, her bookshelves overwhelmed. Anella stood with her back to the roaring hearth, over which hung a tea kettle, blackened from use. She looked uneasily up at him, wringing her hands.
He shut the door behind him. “What’s this about doing what I do?”
Her little flat-faced black and white dog ran to the doorway of her bed chamber and stood there yapping loudly at Cymus, his yips so forceful they lifted all four paws off the floor.
“Maka, stop that! Go to bed!” Anella said, shooing him away.
The dog kept barking. She glanced at her father and grew flustered, then stomped her foot loudly. “To bed!” she ordered the dog, pointing at the doorway to her bedchamber. When Maka still did not obey she bent down, looked him in the eye, and growled. It was not the sound of a girl imitating a growl. It was the genuine, low, warning growl of an angry wolf. Maka’s ears flattened. He whined and finally obeyed, dashing to the next room to sit on the pink silk pillow at the foot of her great white bed.
She straightened, looked up at her father, and swallowed nervously, drawing her long white-blond braid over her shoulder to fiddle with. “Won’t you sit down?” she asked Cymus, gesturing to one of the overstuffed armchairs before the fire, the one which wasn’t surrounded by piles of books, a girl-shaped dent in the cushions. When he sat she did too, upon the hearth, her back near the fire.
“Well?” he asked.
She looked down at her hands. “Father, I … might I speak plainly?”
“I insist upon it. You’re a woman now, Anella, and you’re to inherit the Kingdom of Light. We must have no secrets from one another, you and I.”
She nodded. Swallowed. “Very well then. The Duke Barot’s son … Father, he was just a boy.”
He was quiet for a long moment, interlacing his long fingers beneath his chin. “That you would say such a thing leads me to conclude that you didn’t understand the lesson of the rat at all,” he said softly.
“No, I -” Anella began, twisting her hand into her braid. “I did.”
“I – ”
“How long did it take you to kill the rodent, Anella?”
She looked at her hand, flexing it the way she had when, trying not to weep, she tore the air from the rat’s lungs till it died. “Not – not long.”
“Too long. And after you killed it, did you seek out the nest? Root it out at the source? Or did you take pity upon the diseased creature? I should hope not, for that creature would not have shown you the same mercy. It would bite Maka. It would walk upon your bed with filthy feet as you sleep. Have mercy upon it and it will reproduce, spread and grow, and soon your pretty white rooms would be be overrun with rats.”
“You know I killed it,” she said. “You were there.”
“Yes. I was. And yes, you did, but only upon my order. You did what I told you to do, but it is clear you did not understand why.”
She winced. Looked at her hands.
“Duke Barot’s son was a rat, little one. Rats- bees – they are all the same ilk – pests. And like all pests he must die before he can multiply. One should not allow infestations in one’s rooms, one’s crops, or one’s kingdom.” He leaned forward to gently lift her chin. “You are compassionate and tender of heart, and these are good qualities, but like all things they must be applied in moderation. Too much compassion and you’ll be tread beneath the feet of those who would use you to their own ends. You’ll be a dog wagged by it’s tail, like King Rhaim. You remember what I’ve told you of King Rhaim, yes?”
She nodded but didn’t meet his eyes. “King Rhaim’s generosity to his enemy was the end of him.”
“Exactly. Rats are the enemy. You must not make his mistake.”
She pressed her lips together. Looked at the ground.
“What?” Cymus asked.
“I … I know pests must be dealt with. But perhaps the boy could have been reformed? Re-educated? He was so young.”
“He was older than you! Boy, you say. Twenty one is no boy. At twenty one I was running this kingdom.”
She looked askance. “Father, you didn’t ascend the throne till you were thirty six.”
“Yes. At twenty one I was was power behind it. That sort of delicacy is no small feat for a man thrice twenty one,” he said, smirking.
She nodded, but looked disturbed.
He titled his head. “There’s something you’re not telling me.”
“It’s – it’s nothing. Probably … stupid.”
He clucked his tongue. “Have I taught you nothing? You are to be Queen. Do not admit weakness lest you wish your subjects to hold you to that weakness. Speak your mind.”
She swallowed. Licked her lips. “I – I just – ”
“With confidence! Assert yourself!”.
She took a deep breath, winced, and said “Why not just let them have their religion, if it means so much to them? If it will keep them happy and obedient?”
“Because it won’t!” he snapped. She jumped. “We’ve been over and over this, little one. You’ve seen their tracts, what they’re written about me. About you. Religion is a dive for power, as it ever has been, only power without a shred of legitimacy, built entirely on lies. I do not share power. Not with phantoms and fairy tales, no. Not with imaginary insect gods. No high priest who’s never known a woman nor spilled a man’s blood knows enough about the world to label my daughter a demon.”
Anella sighed. “I … I suppose you’re right.”
“No supposition needed, little one. I am right.”
She nodded, then turned to the kettle over the fire. She reached in and took it barehanded from the hearth. She poured herself a cup of boiling tea, brought it to her lips, and took a long drink. The steam billowed about her face.
“Oh, how rude of me,” she said. “Some tea, Father?”
“Certainly.” He chuckled. “You still use that little girl’s tea set. Since you were six, that tea set.”
She smiled, pouring him a cup of tea which she set aside to cool. “I love it.”
“That’s my beautiful girl. You were beautiful then and you’re beautiful now.”
Her face briefly fell. She raised her hand to her smooth, bulbous, browless forehead, the hornlike bumps about her hairline, then drew it down along the delicate white scales which ran down either side of her neck. She briefly shut her small yellow eyes, hiding their slit pupils. Her jaw, powerful and square with a slight underbite, twitched. Cymus cocked his head at her and she forced herself to smile, revealing sharp white teeth.
“Thank you, Father,” she said, and drank her tea.
Onward to Chapter Two: http://elizabethnice.com/chapter-two-the-price/
“Gazing Down Into The Dark Waters of the Forest Taun” by John Bauer.
THE CROWN © 2013