Read Hand of the King's Evil - Outremer 04 Online

Authors: Chaz Brenchley

Tags: #Fantasy

Hand of the King's Evil - Outremer 04 (87 page)

There might in fact have been the glimmer of stars shifting deep within the blackness of his eyes, but no greater sign than that. He sat before them like an old man, quite nondescript, and migh
t have been almost any man of
his age; there might have been a dozen such men at market in any town on any day, and it would have been hard to tell their station, peasant or lord, if they all dressed as plainly as he did. Not one of them would have stood out among the crowd. This one could hardly stand out from himself, so modest he seemed. And yet, and yet: the girls and Fulke knew him as immediately, as coldly, as certainly as the one man who had known him long ago, the other who had known him then and since. Granted that no other man could have been sitting just here at the centre, the point, the purpose of the world — even so, this one man wore his kingship like a crown, despite the dull simplicity of his dress. If they had met him in that marketplace among a hundred, a thousand other men, they would still have recognised him on the instant; they would still have felt that sudden urge to kneel, to lower their eyes and wait for his word of greeting or dismissal.

They felt the urge, but none of them yielded to it. Even the Shadow, who knelt to the Emperor of Marasson without an apparent thought: even he stood stern and upright before his own master. His daughter was mildly surprised at it, but they had been friends first; perhaps they were friends still. Or perhaps he was more angry than he let show.

Elisande was less angry than she had claimed to be, more nervous than she would ever admit. A lifetime victim of the legend, now that she was finally where she had never expected to find herself, face to face with the King, she found herself entirely robbed of speech. She had intended to be brusque, demanding, uncharitable; instead she was silent like a child, gawping like an idiot, cruelly aware of her own mouth moving and of no sound coming out.

It was the Princip who spoke at last, and his voice was more tentative than a robust man's ought to be, as though he were feeling his way through the dark towards a long-forgotten doorway.

'Well. It is you, then.'

'Indeed. It has always been me.'

'Mmm. I did wonder, sometimes.'

'Did I give you cause?'

'No, but I wondered anyway. This seems — unlikely,' with a gesture round about, 'this eggshell. You always loved the world too much to be a monk for long.'

'And still do. I am not a prisoner here.
Nor a monk,' smiling at him gentl
y, 'whatever my reputation.' Julianne remembered her rather saying that it had been the Princip in a former incarnation who had rousted the young man out of his monastery and away from his books, to teach him life and war. It had perhaps not taken too much rousting, to judge by that smile. 'I do go out into the Kingdom, in other guise than this.'

'Do you? Aye, then, so do I. Or did, while I had a son to guard my borders for me.' It was a bleak truth, bleakly said; its reminder of a life lost drew him back from memories of a life long gone, and set him plainly on his path again. 'You know why we're here. How many of my questions are you going to answer?'

'As many as you care to ask. Or dare to. Remember that questions have consequences, and nothing is more dangerous than knowledge.'

'I have never forgotten. Even so, I have questions. I risked the journey here to ask them of you; I will risk the
answers.' He was torn, manifestl
y torn; friendships are built on familiar deceits, and he feared to break a long, long-lost friendship on the rocks of truth. He had been lord
of his land, though, more recentl
y and for longer than he had been a friend of the King. Besides, his son was dead and his land in peril; either of those must weigh heavier in the balance than a love that had gathered dust for a generation, and the two together were insuperable.

Still he was torn, he did hesitate, he did take a long slow breath before he broke the habits of a wary lifetime to demand answers from his friend; and so he was forestalled by someone much younger and much less careful, someone whose heart and mind could match each other in their anger and distress.

'There can be no risk attached to truth. Truth is the best weapon that we have against heresy, and I am not afraid to seek it; the God will watch over me even here in the hall of His enemies.'

'I am no enemy to your God, or any.'

'You say that, and yet you live, you
live
in this place where the air is still poisoned with Catari incense, where every wall is covered with their foul verses, where every breath and glance corrupt. You say that, and yet you welcome
him
- a gesture towards the Princip as he would give neither name nor tide to one so rank, although they had fought the same enemy a week ago and travelled together ever since - 'as a friend and a subject although his every thought is blasphemous, although he led his people in rebellion against you and against the God
...'

'Not so,' the Princip said, quite mildly. 'I never rebelled against the Kingdom. The other states rose up against me, with fire and sword — as you have done since, Marshal Fulke, slaughtering the innocent in the name of your sweet God. I closed my borders to protect me and mine, as any prince would do under such an assault. I was a loyal subject to the King then, and I am still.'

'You closed your borders with damned magic!'

'If you choose to call it that. I say with knowledge. And we have gone on learning since; and it is as well for you, for the Kingdom, for all of us that we did so, or the 'ifrit would rule in Surayon by now.'

'Can we be so sure that they do not? I hear that they can inhabit men and possess their will. If they failed in their invasion by force, why should they not invade by
subtle
ty? That land is fit for it, where no one serves the true God t
ruly. I saw them in Roq de Ranco
n, and thought they were demons there; I see no reason to change that opinion, and where better should demons find a home than in the Folded Land?'

'Folded no longer, alas; prey now to every fanatic who sees evil in doubt and wickedness in curiosity. But how did you see them at the Roq? I had not heard that they were active there, except for that one that Julianne drew through into the hermit's cave . . .'

Of course he had not heard, who would not speak to Ransomers on all the long ride here. Fulke said briefly, 'I saw them issue forth from the sealed tower. They did not stay; how could they, in a stronghold of prayer and purity? They went to seek a more suitable home and found it in Surayon, until we destroyed them.'

'From the Tower of the Kings Daughter?' The Princip's eyes turned to the man who had named it so. 'When Rudel tried to lead his party out that way, he found it closed against him.'

'Indeed,' the King said. 'Closed by the 'ifrit, who must have known that he was coming and preferred to keep the Daughter in this world, and out of Surayon. They wanted it for their own man, for the Sand Dancer Morakh.'

'He was not theirs at the ti
me, surely?'

'What does time mean, to an 'ifrit or any spirit?' the Shadow asked. 'Dangerous or otherwise, some answers are simply too elusive to be gripped; that one I have been chasing for forty years, and not come near. If they knew they would want the Daughter, they would act to keep it close and bring it closer.'

'How could they close the Tower, though?' Elisande demand
ed, finding her voice at last. ‘I
was there, we both were, Julianne and I. It was hard even to get in, harder than it should have been; and then when my— when, when Rudel tried to take us through to the land of the djinn, there was a wall there that blocked us utterly
...'

'The two worlds do not easily or willingly share their substance,' the King said. 'The stuff of one has power in the other; it becomes dangerous out of its proper place. Lisan, you know how the djinni Esren Filash Tachur was trapped by a rock from the land of the djinn, and so held slave in the Dead Waters.'

She could do no more than nod.

'Similarly, a pebble taken from the other world and set in the tongue of a ghul will enslave it to the will of the 'ifrit. Do that to a man, or something like it, and you will close his mouth to the world; do it to a gateway, and you close its access to the other world. Jemel did that unwittingly at the Pillar of Lives, when he brought a stone through and set it there. Which is why the 'ifrit had to go so much further, to use the gate at Roq de Rancon. They must have closed that earlier by taking a stone through from this world and setting it in the tower on the other side — or by having a ghul do it, more likely. They would be afraid of the thing themselves, unwilling to touch it.'

Esren had refused to go near Jemel until he had crushed such a stone to powder, that he'd cut from the tongue of a ghul. To be sure, Esren had particular reasons to fear such stones, but even so
...
The two girls exchanged glances, which said
how does he know so much?
in each direction and
because he is the King
in reply.

It was a good trick, but had barely scratched the surface of their uncertainties so far. All the little questions, they could ask them all and still be deep down in murky waters, understanding nothing. They needed some more solid rock to stand on, to lift them up above the flood; they needed to know why, what lay behind or underneath. And the Princip had fallen conspicuously
silent, and was signing discreetl
y to them to do the same; which left Fulke free to speak unchallenged, which was either capitulation or unkindness, no telling which.

'You talk of other worlds than this,' Fulke said, yet I know only of Paradise and hell beyond, as the word of the God has taught us. You talk of the djinn and the 'ifrit and other creatures, where I see only demons without souls. You are the man who led the armies here, to win these lands for the God; your faith was rewarded, and the Church has supported you ever since. And yet you speak with His enemies in their own manner, and against His teachings
...'

'The Princip of Surayon also fought, to free the Sanctuary Land from the possession of the Ekhed princes and their Catari God,' the King said mildly, gazing at Fulke with a curious interest. 'That's why I gave him the land and the title, as a reward for courage and diligence in his service.'

The Princip snorted. 'You gave me Surayon to stand as a buffer between Ascariel and Less Arvon, to keep those hothead fools from making war with each other while the Sharai raged around the borders and every Catari vassal was sharpening his mattock against the prospect of another change of overlord.'

'Well,' with a smile, 'that too. And it worked, did it not?'

'Only because you fed me to them as a bone they could both gnaw at.'

'That would always have been true, whatever I said. The Dukes of Less Arvon, the Great Duke and the
Little
Duke his son have both of them proved too greedy to look at a rood of land beyond their borders without wanting the profit from it; my own son the Duke here in Ascariel is too holy to believe that the God could possibly want anyone other than himself to govern. You'd have thought he'd want to be here today, would you not? But I didn't need to forbid him from coming. He's occupied already, on his knees in his new cathedral, giving thanks for a deliverance he does not understand.'

'He is on his knees and praying, giving thanks - and you are mocking him.' Fulke's voice grated at them furiously. 'You might have been wiser to have joined him. This man led an army here on a holy quest, but has been long lost to righteousness - but what of you? I hoped not to challenge my King when I came in here, I hoped only to protect him; but I will challenge you now, you give me no choice. Tell me this, straight and true — do you still serve the God I worship?'

'Serve? No. I do not serve. But then, I never did. And for that question, for this answer, I will claim a payment that is already overdue. The war is done; the Ransomers will have no further need for a Marshal Commander.'

'I do not understand you—'

Just then, just at that moment, none of them understood him, nor any part of what he had just said. The others had better hopes of it than Fulke, who was ill-made for this country and ill-trained to see what lay outside his narrow range, his strict and careful understanding of the world. The old men might have hoped to find clues from their youth together or their long experience since; the girls might have looked to sharper eyes, less trusting minds to break some hint of news before it happened.

They might all have been disappointed in themselves, but that must of necessity come later. For now, the King's voice went on speaking but none of them was listening to it; their minds were still stumbling over the sense of what he had said already, while their eyes were entirely caught up with trying to make some sense of what he was doing now, while he spoke, while his mouth did not move although his face was breaking apart.

'.
..
You question whether there is truly another world than this, yet you have walked within it. When you open the King's Eye you see as I see, Magister,' and the voice was rising higher all the time and losing inflection as it rose, and yet there was still a
scalding weight behind that titl
e, you see two worlds contiguous, the land of men and the land of the djinn; when you walk within the open Eye, you pass from world to world and still you doubt me, because this is no
t what is reported within your littl
e lore. Luckily I do not require imagination of my servants. You need not try to run to your men outside, my own man there will prevent you; nor will your Ransomers hear you if you scream
...'

Other books

I Grew My Boobs in China by Savannah Grace
Manly Wade Wellman - John the Balladeer SSC by John the Balladeer (v1.1)
Night Walker by Donald Hamilton
Crime Fraiche by Campion, Alexander
Forbidden Lord by Helen Dickson