Authors: Duncan Lay
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Science Fiction & Fantasy, #Fantasy
To Terry, the father I was given
to Bruce, the father I would have chosen
I am writing this for you, my son, because there are so many things I want to tell you and will never get the chance. This is the truth about what really happened — and the truth about me. Read this and think better of me.
‘You want the treasures of Dokuzen. I can give them to you,’ Sumiko whispered seductively to the Forlish king. She could see the greed and hope written across his face and knew he would fall into her trap, just like Lord Jaken had. Jaken thought she was doing his bidding — the fool even thought she was in love with him. After Jaken had saved Dokuzen from the Forlish invasion, the people had hailed him as their hero, called him ‘gaijin slayer’ and made him Elder Elf. They would not easily be persuaded to turn from him and accept her rule. Something dramatic had to happen to shake their confidence in Jaken. The Forlish king would be her weapon to achieve that. She would use the pair of them to destroy each other.
‘How?’ the Forlish king asked.
‘There are too many ears here,’ Sumiko said, glancing up at the galleries but more concerned with those in her party. The guards would be reporting to Jaken.
‘I grant Lady Sumiko the right to a private audience,’ the Forlish king said.
She allowed bowing servants to lead her after the king, through a crudely carved wooden door and into a smaller room. She peered inside, seeing only a few chairs. Tapestries covered the stone walls, while a thick bearskin rug took up most of the floor and left the carved chairs and small table wobbling on its surface. No doubt she was supposed to be impressed with the richness of the furnishings. She held back her sneer. To someone used to the magnificence of Dokuzen, it was crude indeed.
‘Wait here,’ she ordered her companions. ‘We cannot insult the Forlish king. Archbishop, stay close, however, for I shall call on you if all goes well.’
Inside, the king was accompanied only by one warrior, although he was dressed in court finery — at least, what passed for court finery among these barbarians, she thought scornfully.
‘Please, sit,’ the warrior said and she settled herself on the chair, no doubt the pinnacle of their craftsmanship but looking to her eyes like it had been put together by a child. She took a deep breath, trying to get a feel for these humans.
A far door opened and a richly dressed woman burst in, her face twisted with bitterness. She dragged after her a muscular young man with plump lips and vacant eyes. Sumiko watched them closely.
‘Prince Wilfrid should be present at this meeting!’ the woman demanded.
‘Madam! You will leave here instantly — or I shall have you hauled away!’ the king raged, the veins standing out on his thin neck.
‘He is your son!’ the woman cried. ‘You cannot ignore him!’
‘Begone!’ the king roared.
Sumiko watched as the pair hesitated, then the woman pulled the young man out of the room, her eyes flashing poison. The door closed and the silence grew until the warrior cleared his throat and spoke.
‘Why would you give us anything after I led an army to your gates? Why are you not trying to bring this castle down around our ears even now?’
Sumiko allowed a small smile to flicker across her face. So this was the king’s general? Curious he was not in armour and even more curious he was still alive. A failure so great should have been punished, not rewarded.
‘You were the leader of the Forlish invasion then. Well, I was the one who stopped you. I drove your men into the woods, screaming, with my magic. So believe me when I say you are only alive thanks to my good will,’ she said casually. ‘Why are you here when even the king’s son is forbidden?’
‘Edmund speaks for me,’ the Forlish king rumbled hoarsely, as if his outburst against his wife and son had drained him of energy. But there was still power behind his eyes and Sumiko was not about to underestimate him. Still, the little family drama had set her mind spinning ahead, another plan within her many plans.
She inclined her head. ‘I can hear why. But I can help you with that.’
‘Why are you here making offers — and threats — with a handful of elves, not an army?’ Edmund repeated coolly.
‘The barrier that kept us away from the world is gone — the elves are now part of it again. But we do not want to destroy every nation that surrounds us. We have shown you our power. Now we show you our mercy. You lust after what we have — so we shall offer it to you, make a lasting peace between us …’ She spoke persuasively, using the same tone that had seen the likes of Asami follow her for the last few years. But the two humans exchanged a glance.
‘Nobody gives away their power like that. Tell us the truth,’ King Ward rasped.
Sumiko kept her face impassive as she looked at them both. Time for a different approach. She let out a theatrical sigh, her face twisting into a reluctant grimace, as if she had no choice but to say these things. ‘So be it. There is a power struggle within Dokuzen. Our leaders want to rule you. They see themselves as far above you. They despise you as petty barbarians and believe you should be our slaves. If they had their way, an army would arrive at your gates within a few moons. You would live just long enough to see your people led away into slavery.
‘I can change that. I am the leader of the Magic-weavers and, with your help, I will be the ruler of Dokuzen. Your reward is not just freedom but the treasure and magic you so desperately want.’
She looked from one to the other and smiled ingratiatingly. The trap was almost ready. She would have to bait it with a little truth but that was the way to get them to swallow a bigger lie.
Ward looked up at Edmund and signalled him to silence. Now the real business had begun, he would take over the discussion. Curiosity, caution and a rising hope that this might be the way out of his looming death warred within him. He had to force his tired heart to calm down. Apart from his own life, he sensed all Forland might hinge on this.
‘Go on,’ he said levelly.
‘I was the one who defeated you and saved Dokuzen. And yet the Elder Elf, my enemy, is the one my people hail as their saviour. While they think he will keep them safe, I have no chance to rule. Though I could overthrow him in an instant, the people would fear me and never obey. I must do something dramatic to change that. I will use magic to transport Edmund and a small group of soldiers into the heart of Dokuzen. There they will capture the Elven Council, the leaders of our clans, as well as other high-ranking elves such as the Elder Elf’s wife, and burn the Council Chambers down before I send you all back safely. You shall send them a ransom demand for the Elven Council. The humiliation of being forced to beg for the return of his wife, family and clan leaders will destroy Jaken’s power. My people will turn on the Elder Elf. As the leader of the Magic-weavers, they will look to me in their time of need and I shall take control. Then you shall receive the treasures and magic you wanted to take by force — and, of course, my promise that we shall live in peace.’
‘You will send us into the middle of your city, surrounded by your warriors?’ Edmund asked.
Sumiko smiled. ‘Apologies. I did not explain myself. While I smuggle Edmund into Dokuzen, Jaken and his warriors will be in Vales, watching you, King Ward, destroy the ragtag army of Vales. Jaken sent me here to fool you into destroying Vales for him, allowing him to destroy you afterwards.’
‘But the Velsh fought and died for you!’ Edmund blurted.
‘Indeed. You see the gratitude of the Elder Elf? No wonder I seek to overthrow him,’ Sumiko said, the bitterness apparent in her voice.
Ward waved Edmund down. ‘And what do we get?’
‘What do you want?’ Sumiko offered.
‘There is only one thing I want. Your elven immortality.’
Something flickered across her face and she leaned forwards on her chair. ‘Where did you hear of that?’
Ward smiled. ‘I have amassed as much knowledge about the elves as possible. That came in an old scroll from Breconia, tales of elves still young when humans who met them were grandparents.’
Sumiko leaned back and the chair creaked, so she sat forwards again. ‘That was not quite correct,’ she said. ‘But it is true we are able to live far longer than you can, thanks to magic and a few other little tricks. What you need is a priest of Aroaril to heal you. But elves are not immortal.’
Ward and Edmund exchanged a glance. ‘And what if I think you are lying to me now? What if I take the Council and tell this Elder Elf they will die unless he gives me the secret of immortality?’
Sumiko sighed. ‘He cannot give you what he does not have. Keep the Elven Council for long enough and you will see them age and die. Trust me. As a sign of my good faith, I shall call Archbishop Fushimi in here now and get him to save your life.’
‘What?’ Edmund said, surprised.
‘How?’ Ward asked in the same instant.
‘He will heal whatever it is that is killing you,’ Sumiko said pleasantly.
‘Do it,’ Ward said instantly.
‘Sire, do you think this is wise —’
‘Edmund, I am dying. There is nothing to lose. But, if he kills me, your first act as the new king of Forland will be to slaughter these elves.’
‘With pleasure.’ Edmund glared at Sumiko.
Sumiko waited while Edmund opened the door and spoke quietly to the guards outside, giving the orders.
‘There is nothing to fear. You will be healed and see that my words are to be trusted. But we cannot speak of our plans with the archbishop in the room. He may not understand the subtleties.’
Ward smiled back at her. ‘I see.’
Fushimi was ushered into the room, offering a short bow to all of them.
‘Archbishop, as a sign of our good faith, we need to heal the Forlish king,’ Sumiko said immediately.
Fushimi stared at her. ‘This was approved by the Lord Jaken?’ he asked stiffly. ‘Because he knows my concern about using Aroaril’s power on the humans —’
‘I speak with his voice. It must be done,’ Sumiko said roughly.
Glaring at her, Fushimi strode forwards and held out his hand to Ward.
‘Place your hand in mine. What is it that is killing you?’ he grunted.
‘A growth inside, the doctors tell me. It is agony to piss —’
‘I do not need to know all the details!’ Fushimi sniffed. ‘That will do.’ He closed his eyes, muttering under his breath, then both Ward and Edmund gasped.
Ward felt the life flow back into him. Before his eyes, his hands, which had seemed like skin stretched over bone, filled out once more. He pointed to a bronze mirror on a side table and Edmund wordlessly held it up for him. It was as if a stranger was looking back at him: his hair was darker, his eyes clearer and the deep wrinkles in his skin had smoothed out. Best of all, the constant pain was gone.
‘You are back to health,’ Fushimi said. ‘However, the growth may return. We have seen this happen before. If it does, then you will need our help once more.’
Ward released Fushimi’s hand and looked at his own, marvelling at it.
‘Now that is magic,’ he said, his voice shaking slightly. He surged to his feet, his clothes fitting properly again rather than hanging off his frame.
‘Thank you, archbishop,’ Sumiko said softly. ‘King Ward, we shall leave you now to think about our proposal. When you are ready to make a deal, talk to me again.’
Ward ignored her, more interested in exploring himself, chuckling as he felt muscle instead of bone wherever he placed his hands.
‘We shall consider what you said and reply soon,’ Edmund answered for him.
Bows were exchanged and then Sumiko reached out and took Ward’s hand. He felt a sudden warmth and a strange sensation that made his whole arm jump, as if every nerve had been tickled.
‘Your very good health, Lord King,’ she said, before allowing herself to be escorted out of the room.
Edmund waited until the door had closed before falling to one knee.
‘Sire, I cannot tell you how happy I am to see you restored to health.’ He smiled broadly. ‘You don’t have to make me your heir, you can —’
Ward stopped feeling his face and body and focused on Edmund again.
‘Get up,’ he said irritably. ‘We can’t discuss things with you on the floor. Forget about me. Can we trust those elves?’
Edmund stood slowly. ‘Sumiko is willing to betray her own people to gain power. Those who have betrayed once will betray again. We cannot trust her to keep her word.’
Ward stretched his arms above his head and then reached out and lifted up one of the chairs, just because he could, glorying in the strength he thought he had lost forever. ‘So you have been listening to me these last moons! Good. But you forget that we have used traitors before. Greed, the lure of power or a threat to families can be a powerful tool to make men do our bidding and find ways into seemingly impregnable fortresses.’
‘We can trust her to do whatever is necessary to gain power. I understand traitors. I have used them myself to get inside a wall. But this is different. Once we are inside a fortress, we have our victory and we do not need the traitor any more. What Sumiko proposes gives us hostages but not complete victory. We shall still need to rely on her. And at that time she could turn on us.’
‘Yes, she could. But we would be safely back here, with hostages in our power. Even if the elves do not give us everything we want, we have enough of them to make them use their magic to help us. And we can also use them if she turns on us. We tell them the deal we made with Sumiko and then send them back, use them to destroy Sumiko. If that happens, the elves will fight among themselves and we can swoop in and pick up the pieces.’
‘So you are going to accept her offer?’ Edmund asked stiffly.
Ward held up his hand. He felt he could stand here all day and admire how good it looked, nothing like the wizened claw it had been only a matter of heartbeats ago. He had gone from the depths of despair to the summit of triumph. He could see only success and glory for Forland now.
‘They have what we want. I am proof of that. For this, it is worth risking everything!’
‘Sire, what if it all goes wrong?’