The Crown of the Conqueror (5 page)

BOOK: The Crown of the Conqueror
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  Furlthia grunted with annoyance. This was exactly what he had warned Anglhan would happen; the Askhans taking what they wanted and leaving nothing for anyone else. He knew any protests he might make would fall on deaf ears. Anglhan was involved in every part of the city, from the gate taxes to the bribes and contract levies. No doubt the governor was enjoying every moment of the boom.
  And there was little likelihood of the situation changing. Magilnada was perfectly placed between Greater Askhor and Salphoria, and when the empire had conquered everything to duskward, the city would remain the pivotal centre of trade, dominating the road between the mountains.
  As Furlthia cut through the Garden of Spirits, he dawdled for a while, paying his respects at the multitude of shrines. He looked at the decorated trees, the piles of pebbles on the chapelstones, the prayer-scripts and colourful ribbons hanging tattered from the flowering bushes. At least Anglhan had kept the Askhan Brotherhood out of the city. If he had not, these shrines would have been swept aside. Furlthia imagined one of the austere pyramids of the Brotherhood where he was standing, glowering down upon the city below.
  As he heard bells ringing the time, he admitted to himself there were a few Askhan innovations that were preferable. The water clocks and watch candles were one example. Furlthia had learnt their Askhan measure of time when he had been among the pretend rebels who took Magilnada for Ullsaard. It was the second hour High Watch, halfway through the afternoon. He had another hour until he was due to meet Anglhan and left the gardens to find something to eat.
  A plaza dawnwards of the gardens was filled with tables and benches, which in turn were filled with people eating and drinking. The majority of them seemed to be native Magilnadans, doubtlessly driven from their usual haunts by the mass of soldiers coming in and out of the city.
  He found a space on a bench beside two older women, who were happy to ignore him and carry on their conversation in hushed voices. A serving girl, no more than eight or nine years old, came over with a steaming bowl and a cup of water.
  "What is it?" Furlthia asked as she plonked the bowl in front of him. The contents were brownish-grey sludge with islands of unidentifiable meat poking from a gravy sea.
  "Meat stew," she said.
  "What sort of meat?"
  The girl gave him an exasperated look and held out her hand.
  "Best not to ask. Seven salts."
  "Seven?" Furlthia was horrified at the price, almost double what he would have paid before the arrival of the Askhan legions. He glanced at the bad fare as he counted out the tin coins. There were pitifully few left; the loose group of anti-Askhan sentiment he represented gave him a stipend for each visit, but he could not afford to stay in the city any longer than necessary. Next time he would have to ask for more from the shadowy collection of Magilnadan chieftains, traders and ex-rebels who supported the cause for a free Magilnada.
  Despite its grisly even gristly appearance, the stew was not unpleasant. The meat was probably rabbit, though it was impossible to tell for sure. It certainly didn't come from any animal raised on a farm. The water was also clean and refreshing, one of the other benefits of Askhan influence. In the short time they had been in control of the city, half a dozen more wells had been dug and improvements had been made to the sewers beneath the city.
  Furlthia idled for a while, glad to surround himself with the normal folk of the city. He listened in to their conversations, detecting excitement about the Askhan invasion. He didn't hear a single word of dissent or anger, which irritated him considerably. He wanted to ask how they could be so careless about the future of their city, and point out just how hard times would be for them once they became just another Salphorian province of Greater Askhor.
  He knew it would make no difference and held his tongue. He, and others who shared his allegiance, had tried hard to build a popular movement against Askhan rule, but they had failed to stir up any trouble at all. The Askhan system was clever, giving people the illusion of security and wealth, while at the same time it robbed them of dignity and freedom. It was no great thing to labour under the self-serving warlords of Salphoria, but at least the chieftains were a part of the society they ruled, raised in the same traditions and values. The Askhans obliterated people's identity; crushed their beliefs in everything but the glory of Askhor; imposed their laws and their customs.
  Getting agitated, Furlthia left the plaza and headed up the Hill of Chieftains to the governor's palace. Anglhan's influence was clear to see. The plain white pillars of the great porch on its front were now covered with gilded pictures, and the steps up to them had been replaced with red and black marble. Colourful banners hung from newly constructed balconies, while a full company of legionnaires from the First Magilnadan stood guard to either side of the huge double doors.
  The doors were open and a steady procession wound in and out; the palace did not just house the governor, but also his many treasurers, clerks, customs officers and sundry officials. Supervising this organised chaos was Lenorin, Anglhan's chamberlain, chief treasurer and overall civilian second-in-command. He was, luckily for Furlthia, also a vehement opponent of the Askhans and one of the chief sponsors of Furlthia's anti-Askhan movement. The chancellor saw Furlthia enter the dim hallway and gestured for him to approach.
  "Busier than usual," said Furlthia as the two of them sat down on a low bench along the wall.
  "Ullsaard's army will be marching in a few days' time," said Lenorin. "Everybody's running around trying to sell their last stock, or secure a contract, or offer their services. It's embarrassing."
  Furlthia raised an eyebrow.
  Lenorin nodded, keeping his voice even but there was the faintest curl of sneer on his lip.
  "Look at them all," he said, waving a hand to encompass the milling crowds of merchants, chieftains and craftsmen haggling, chatting and arguing. "Like dogs fighting for the scraps from the table of their master. Look at him, the tall one with the red hair. That's Gelthar, one of the Pretari chieftains. The moment he heard of the Askhan invasion, he deserted his tribe and came to the city to become a captain. His family has given blood and sweat for their lands for generations, but as soon as the Askhans show up he forgets all that and wants to sweep away his neighbours. He's not the only one. Half the men in this building are traitors and cowards."
  "So, what's the plan to stop them?"
The row of houses along the street was a testament to wealth and privilege. In a city where space was at a premium, the large gardens, high walls and multi-storey buildings were proof of the power of their owners. Each was built from white stone and dark red brick, with slate roofs and heavy wooden beams to support them. When a lot of Magilnadan families shared just one or two rooms, each small palace was a bold extravagance with half a dozen bedchambers, deep cellars, separate kitchens, feasting halls and multiple lounges and rooms of study and relaxation.
  Originally they had been the homes of the city's founders and as Magilnada had fallen under the influence of the Salphorian tribes, the chieftains had taken residence. Some still showed evidence of this, with ancient flags hanging from the eaves and weather-beaten shields mounted beneath the upper windows.
  The Magilnadan nobility had all been slain over the last couple of years and now the Hill of Chieftains was the select province of Anglhan's favourites; and Ullsaard, who had secured one of the properties for his family when he had taken the city for Askhor.
  The king dismissed his bodyguard at the end of the street and walked alone past the fresco-covered walls and brightly painted gates. He came to the third house, its gate a vivid scarlet, the plastered walls adorned with paintings of the mountains, eagles flying above the peaks, golden lions prowling the valleys.
  A smaller door opened in the gate as he approached, the servants within warned of his arrival. Stepping inside, the king found himself in a cobbled yard, an empty ailur pen to the right, a covered space for chariots and carriages to his left. A handful of servants greeted him, heads bowed respectfully. The man who had opened the door bowed and introduced himself as Irian. Ullsaard guessed him to be Anrairian or Ersuan by his stocky build and accent.
  "Your family awaits your pleasure in the main reception hall, majesty," said Irian.
  Ullsaard gestured for the servant to lead the way and dismissed the others back to their duties. He followed Irian across the courtyard and into the shadow of the wide porch. The doors to the house were already open and Irian stepped aside to allow the king to enter first.
  Fresh flowers flanked the hall in tall vases and were hanging from the rafters overhead, filling the house with their strong perfume. The floor was lined with a deep red wood and the walls covered with patterned, abstract tapestries. Ullsaard advanced slowly, taking in every detail even as his thoughts were occupied by what he was going to say to his wives. He mentally cursed Anglhan for not delivering Ullsaard's letter, while at the same time he conceded that perhaps talk of divorce was best done in person. He just wished he was not the person who had to talk about it.
  He passed several open archways and came to a set of double doors at the end. Irian slipped past at the last moment to fling them in.
  "King Ullsaard!" the servant declared, stepping aside.
  Ullsaard stopped level with Irian and stooped to whisper to him.
  "This is my family, not a faceless rabble to be awed. They know who I am."
  Irian shuffled nervously and bobbed his head in mute agreement. Ullsaard straightened and entered the hall with steady strides, unsure what to expect. In his mind, nothing had really changed, but he knew that he was king now and even his family would treat him differently.
  The reception hall was about thirty paces long and twenty wide. It opened onto an internal garden at the far end and a long table ran almost the full length of the room. The floor was covered in a mosaic depicting a flock of red-feathered birds flying across a sky, the circle of the sun beneath the chair at the head of the table.
  Ullsaard's family clustered around the chair, eyes fixed on the king; his wives, Allenya, Luia and Meliu; two of his sons, Ullnaar and Urikh; and his mother, Pretaa. A little further away stood another pair – two daughters-in-law, one of them holding Ullsaard's granddaughter Luissa.
  The king saw none of them save for Allenya. His eldest wife looked at him with a mixture of relief and happiness and stepped forward to accept his long embrace when he crossed the room. Ullsaard buried his face in the thick curls of her hair and stroked the back of her head. The two of them held each other for some time, saying nothing, enjoying the moment of reuniting.
  Eventually Ullsaard pulled himself back, planting a kiss on Allenya's lips. Meliu was the next to greet him, skipping up to receive his kiss on her forehead. She planted her own welcome on each bearded cheek. Luia nodded politely, but even her severe expression softened and a smile played on her lips when Ullsaard bowed his head to her. He shook hands with Urikh and Ullnaar, ruffled Luissa's hair and then waved for them to be seated at the table, which the servants were quickly lading with all manner of food.
  He stood behind the head chair for a moment, hands on its back, and looked at his gathered family. Only Jutaar, his second son, was missing. Instated as First Captain of the First Magilnadan legion he was at the main camp overseeing his men's preparations for the invasion.
  "It seems like an age since we've all been together," said Ullsaard. He shook his head, not quite believing himself. "Without all of you, I would have failed. Now I am king, and you are the most powerful family in Greater Askhor. It makes me so proud to be your husband, your father, and your king."
  He sat down and grabbed a cup of wine. In one long draught, he emptied the cup and slapped it back onto the table. Smacking his lips, he grinned at Allenya.
  "This may not be Askh, but it's good to be home!"
  He was about to help himself to some chicken when he caught sight of Meliu gazing intently at him. Seeing her suddenly reminded him of something he had forgotten in the excitement of his homecoming. He rose to his feet so quickly that his chair toppled back to the floor.
  "Where is Noran?" he asked, looking at Meliu. She flushed red, remembering her indiscretion with Ullsaard's friend.
  "He is upstairs," said Allenya. She leaned across the table and laid a hand on Ullsaard's arm. "Please, eat with us. Enjoy your meal. You can see Noran when we are finished."
  Ullsaard nodded. He waved away the pair of servants that stepped forward to help him right the chair. Sitting down again, Ullsaard leaned forwards, elbows on the table.
  "Let's eat."
A bird chirped happily to itself in a gilded cage, answered by others of its kind from a tree in the gardens outside the window. Ullsaard barely noticed the bird as he entered. His attention was fixed on Noran. The former herald to King Lutaar lay on a low cot, sheets pulled back, his yellowish chest and shoulders catching the sun coming through the window. As well as its jaundiced tint, Noran's skin had a thin, weathered look to it. There was little fat and muscle left, his face gaunt, his limbs withered.
  Meliu followed Ullsaard into the small bedroom, a bowl of broth on a tray. She placed the soup on a table beside the bed and knelt down next to Noran. Spoonful by spoonful, she fed him, dribbling the liquid between his parted lips.
  "He breathes, and he swallows, but that's about it," Meliu said when she was done. She pulled a spindly hand from beneath the covers and held it, locking her fingers with those of Noran. "I have to let the servants clean him up and change the sheets."
BOOK: The Crown of the Conqueror
3.79Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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