A Discussion about Death
Zeph found the Great Hall not nearly as grand as its name. It was more of a mezzanine, with doors on each side and a single long table set near the wall. He had the feeling a Greater Hall lie somewhere in the castle, but given the limited number of guests, this provided a more intimate setting. Bordering the room, was a waist-high railing, arching majestically to reveal an atrium below. A smattering of torchlight illuminated small shops in the atrium, already closing for the evening.
Zeph and the others were shown to a table set with fine pewter plates and goblets. Few servers attended the guests, and there was no pantler to deliver the bread and no steward to watch over the staff. The king himself carved the meat. The menu featured regional Embian dishes, a stark contrast to the exotic delicacies they had enjoyed at Duradune. His Majesty was the first to taste, and while it turned out the meal wasn’t poisoned, Zeph found the flavors altogether ordinary.
Not so ordinary was the seating arrangement. It wasn’t every day you sat next to royalty. Zeph had the honor of being seated to the right of the queen, and Cahrin sat to the left of the king. The only other guests were several less-than-notable visitors who seemed to have dined in the Great Hall before.
Queen Pandare was not what Zeph had expected. Half the king’s age, if that, she tossed back flowing hair the color of red wine with a deep, throaty laugh she was not afraid to use. She wore a white gown with wide, open arms and a neckline that formed a low-cut V that clung to her curves.
“So tell me,” she asked Zeph in a thick southeastern accent, “what does the Council have you do?”
“This and that,” he responded evasively.
“Can you give me an example of ‘this or that’? Stuck in this keep all day, I must live vicariously through the few visitors we receive.”
“Since you insist, I’m often asked by the Council to eliminate certain individuals.” He was anything but shy about his profession; in truth, he reveled in the shock factor.
“Really?” She rubbed her hands together. “That could come in useful, I would think. Do you ever take any side jobs?”
Side jobs. It turned out he was the one who was shocked.
She gave his chin a stroke. “I am joking, my darling. You’re so cute with that look on your face.”
Zeph shook off a tingling sensation. “This can’t be all so boring, especially with Azren calling.”
“Oh, I suppose—though I cannot believe my husband is even considering an alliance.”
“So you’re advising the king against it?” The wine he sipped had a musty aftertaste that reminded him of the dust-caked tapestries.
“Wouldn’t you? Azren is at the root of our current crisis. During the Great War, my husband’s grandfather chose a simple truce. We would not attack Azren’s forces, and he would leave Embia alone. And look where that got us. The other kingdoms were not so happy with our arrangement. After the war, they sent their most powerful water elementalists to dry up the river Yute where it passed by this beloved city. Without the river, there were no fish and no more trading partners. It was like taking a dagger through the heart—which I imagine you know something about.”
“Actually, I don’t tend to aim for the heart. It’s not such a big target, at least in those I kill, if you catch my drift. I like to slice my targets across the neck”—he made a motion with his table knife—“maybe tear open their gut, or stab them through the eye, preferably while they’re sleeping and can’t fight back.”
Queen Pandare laid down her fork with a horrified look. “If you say so.”
“I definitely do,” said Zeph. “Everyone thinks killing someone is so simple, like trimming your nails. Turns out most people don’t want to die. It would surprise you the fight they put up, and that’s if they’re alone. Sometimes they have a bodyguard or three with them. Then things get interesting.”
“I see.” The queen took a sip of wine, regaining her composure. “May I ask why you do it?”
“I’m ordered to, of course.”
“I meant why do you choose such a profession? Even if it’s for good reason, you’re ending a life forever. Don’t you feel remorse for those you kill?”
“Not in the least. Their death is not my doing. Don’t get me wrong, I may do the deed, but the goddess Dela spun their life’s thread long ago.”
“So if you took mercy on your intended victim and decided not to kill him, he would die by some other means?”
“Yes—and no.” Even to Zeph’s ears, Carc beliefs could be convoluted. “I’ll put it this way: If I were to spare his life but his life’s thread was at an end, it is unlikely the job would have been assigned to me in the first place. But if I was ordered to complete the assassination yet I decided to let him live, it would be because his thread continued.”
“Interesting.” She tapped her finger thoughtfully against her pewter goblet, then tossed back the rest of her wine in a single gulp. “So the very nature of your success proves the victim was meant to die.”
“What a wonderful way to think about death.”
“It’s just how I was brought up.” He had a flash of prune-faced Darseer Orsey in theology class droning on about how a person’s thread length determined a thousand outcomes while he and Baldric colluded in the back.
“At least you do not have regrets killing someone.”
“Regrets, no. But I do sometimes feel sorry for those who cared for the victim.”
“Like a grieving wife?”
Or an orphaned child—just one way the Carcs ended up with recruits. “Um, sure. Though I’d imagine the types that I kill bring more relief than sadness.”
“Indeed.” Queen Pandare was not looking at Zeph anymore. Her eyes had turned away in contemplation.
Cahrin spent the evening trying to persuade King Hybris that an alliance with Azren was fraught with risk. So far, she might have had better luck convincing the mountains to bear fruit.
“When my people sided with him during the Great War,” she said, “he used our armies as a buffer against his enemies. They were the first to die and the last to be left on the field when he retreated. Few of our warriors made it back alive.”
“Delightful,” replied a ruddy-faced King Hybris for the fifth time since dinner had started. Apparently, inebriation stoked his sense of optimism. “Your people experienced the glory of battle without having to march all the way home.”
She longed for someone to share a spiteful offhand comment with. Regrettably, the only companion near enough was Demetrius, who was deep in conversation with a comely noblewoman.
“Perhaps your eminence would like to experience the glory of battle without having to walk back to his bedroom,” she replied, smiling as if she had offered the king some sweet plum pudding.
“Yes, yes,” he agreed, infuriatingly, as he slopped more wine into and around his mouth.
But it was the arrival of the king’s latest guest that set her blood boiling.
The man in the gray cloak was escorted to an area not far in front of their dining table. Cahrin was tempted to fulfill her grim oath that very moment, with everyone watching. She clenched the hunting knife hidden beneath her dinner attire, releasing it when Norweegee poked his head out from her pocket. She gave him a pat. We will have our revenge—just not now.
“Your Majesties,” said Cahrin’s nemesis in a dry, squeaky voice she knew all too well. At King Hybris’s prompt, he rose and continued. “I present you this gift from my master, Azren.” He reached into the folds of his cloak to produce a golden circlet studded with gemstones. It shone in the torchlight, casting a gleaming yellowish halo.
“Delightful,” exclaimed King Hybris, placing it on his head as if Azren had anointed him.
Cahrin’s bowels twisted in disgust.
“And for Her Grace…” The man in gray presented a bracelet encrusted with diamonds. Cahrin had never seen such exquisite jewelry.
The queen gasped, eyes widening. She regained her poise before speaking. “Azren is most gracious. But he must understand that no amount of glitter could sway our decision.”
“Of course. My master awaits the king’s answer on the morrow.”
“And he shall have it,” said the queen.
The emissary was just beginning his farewell bow when he paused, his head tilted toward Raven. “What an unexpected surprise. The master will be pleased.”
“Why is that?” Raven’s smooth baritone voice was the polar opposite of his antagonist’s.
“Because you were lost and now you’re found.” And then he bowed so deeply, starting with Raven but rising toward the king, that Cahrin wasn’t sure how he kept his balance. Walking backward, the despicable little man left the chamber.
Regret washed over Cahrin. She had lost her chance at exacting vengeance on the one who had ruined her life. What a coward I have become. Not so long ago, she would have stuck a knife into his gut and not thought twice about it. These ghasiv ways she followed weakened her, she was sure of it. There would be another time, she consoled herself, and then she would not hold back.
Her thoughts were interrupted as Queen Pandare rose. The guests followed suit.
“I’m afraid I must part this lovely company,” she said, pursing her crimson lips. “It seems a queen can never get enough sleep.”
The king scraped his chair backward, nodding. “Mysstones await,” he slurred. He moved behind chairs, bumping into his guests on his way toward the door.
Cahrin crossed the room to the railing and stared without focus down at the atrium below. It was peaceful, and outside of a smattering of torches, darkness prevailed. The scene reminded her of times she stood on the edge of Ked’coon watching the last of the day’s light disappear. Will I ever witness such again?
If only that man in the gray cloak had not shown up in her homeland, everything would be different. Instead of living in prisons of stone built by ghasiv, she would be walking the pristine peaks of Ked’coon with Pa’hu, her dirksa, by her side. A mixture of feelings welled up inside her: hatred for the servant of Azren who had done this to her; scorn for the ghasiv who pervaded her daily existence; and frustration with the Great Owl God, Ofunu, for not guiding her wisely.
Absorbed in her own thoughts, she didn’t notice Zeph until he sidled up beside her. “You look as if you’re about to pounce on some poor mountain lion,” he said.
“Any nearby prey would do.”
He coughed uncomfortably. “What’s the verdict with the king?”
The king? Just another drunk, self-centered ghasiv. “His Majesty was too full of spirits to have any meaningful conversation. Speaking of mountain lions, Queen Pandare’s paw marks are all over you.”
“Few can resist the Greymoon charm.” Zeph ran a hand through his unkempt hair.
“Yes, the way you chew with your mouth open is truly irresistible.”
“Who would have thought that table manners were the way to a Northerner’s heart?”
“It is one of the few things I have picked up from the ghasiv I’m rather fond of.” It bothered Cahrin that manners mattered to her. When you were starving among the frigid peaks of Ked’coon, nobody cared about table manners.
“Which explains why you’re so fond of Demetrius.”
“He’s all right, I supposed.” She glanced over at the young lord, still deep in conversation with the lady of distinction. “At least he picks his teeth after eating, rather than saving it for later, as is present company’s preference.”
“Hey, you never know when you might be hungry later.”
“Though I wonder if he’s too much like his father. He speaks of grand plans, but I’ve yet to see action behind his words.”
“Demetrius is a better man than Lord Berrian. He means what he says—it’s just hard to be taken seriously when you have such clean teeth.”
“Possibly, or perhaps he just hasn’t been given the opportunity to prove himself.” She gave Zeph a wry smile. “We can’t all charge headlong into everything without a second thought.”
She meant it as a jibe, but in that instant, Cahrin wished she had some of his careless gusto. If she had, she certainly wouldn’t have let the charcoal-cloaked man leave the dining hall alive.
Zeph raises his chin in pride. “I didn’t think you noticed.”
“It’s hard not to. Some would call it—”
“Bold and daring.”
“I was thinking along the lines of reckless and altogether foolish.”
“At least I’m not a coldhearted ice witch.”
Her eyes welled up unexpectedly. Not that she cared what Zeph said about her. No, it was that servant of Azren. Like the scent of the wind after a bloody raid, he had brought with him a somber reminder of loss. She clung to the railing for support, attempting to hide her face by peering down at the atrium.
“I didn’t mean anything by it,” said Zeph, putting a comforting hand on her back. “We were just going at it like usual, I thought.”
She brushed away his touch. “It’s not you. It’s that man. All I could think of is how I want to strangle him with that gray cloak of his.”
“I could make arrangements,” said Zeph.
Please do, she almost said. “That’s something I need to handle myself.”
“Okay. But if you change your mind, remember, I am qualified.”
“I know,” she said, her mood easing. “Now if you will excuse me, I would like to be alone for a time.”
“Oh yeah, of course. I understand.”
She reached out and clasped his arm. “Thank you. It was…”
She laughed and then sniffled. “Really now, Zeph. Just when you were getting on my good side.”
“And here I didn’t even know you had a good side,” he said in an amiable way.
She released his arm. “You should go. But thank you, truly.”
“My lady.” He gave her a flourishing bow before spinning about.
She left the Great Hall with the full intention of going to her room. Then she recalled what Lord Berrian had said about delving into the history of the Gems of Tazanjia. Perhaps she could learn their story and for once not be such an ignorant Northerner.
Unfortunately, like many ghasiv structures, she found the keep’s design confounding. After wandering aimlessly for far too long she came across the mustached Bentar.
“Would you be so kind as to direct me to your library?”
“Certainly, my lady. Follow me.”
He started in the direction she had just come from, walking stiffly in his armor and clanking with each step. “I heard what you said earlier about why you’re here.”
“It seems our warning falls on deaf ears.”
“Do not look badly upon our king. He too knows the ways of Azren. It is for the sake of his subjects he considers such a truce. You have seen our struggle for stone, but even food is hard to come by here. The dirt is not much better than No Man’s Land for farming. People crowd into structures wherever they can find four walls and a roof. And the winters are very, very cold. We lost a dozen from frostbite this past winter.”
This talk of hard lives among the ghasiv made her want to sneer. They suffered nothing like what her people went through every day. A dozen dead in the winter—her clan would rejoice. They should try sleeping in a hastily constructed shelter in the middle of a snowstorm with hungry, desperate animals waiting outside for them to let their guard down.
Bentar continued. “King Hybris believes the riches Azren promises could stop all the suffering.”
“Then he is a fool.”
If Bentar was taken aback by her words, he gave no indication. “Many of us are hesitant to put our lives in Azren’s hands. Yet we do the bidding of our liege lord. It is his decision to make.”
“But you are one of his people. His Majesty would want to hear your voice.” Yet even as she said it, she was not so sure. She remembered how King Hybris had treated Demetrius’s impertinence. How would he react if a simple guard confronted him? In her clan, Schie Bura listened to the counsel of any, although like the king, his decision was final.
He stopped in front of a doorway. She could see rows of books on the other side.
“I was hoping,” he said, “that you might lend your voice to the cause.”
And have the king belittle my people’s deaths again? Certainly not. But looking up into Bentar’s pleading eyes, she realized he had already placed his faith in her. “I will do what I can.”
“Thank you, my lady.” Bentar smiled beneath his bushy mustache. “I’ll leave you to your reading.”
She stepped inside, immediately overwhelmed. Never had she seen so many books. Master Ulfin’s collection had comprised a single bookshelf. She still remembered her first attempt at deciphering the strange characters. It had taken countless hours and an inordinate amount of patience from Master Ulfin.
She wandered among the rows. Glancing at a spine or two at a time, she tried to get her bearings, to determine how everything was organized. Was it in chronological order? It was hard to tell; she knew so little of ghasiv history. Some shelves were sorted alphabetically yet grouped another way as well. Perhaps by category?
The furthest part of the room held several tables and chairs. Beyond them, in a reading nook inset into the base of a grand window, sat King Hybris, gazing outward. Startled by the king’s presence, she failed to take a knee as she approached. His Majesty gave her a glance before returning his focus outside.
“What do you see?” he asked.
A clear view of No Man’s Land spread before them like a beach with no waves. To the northwest, she could make out Riverrock Crag, crescent-shaped ridges that hid the Blighted Lands and Azren’s domain. Towering above it to the north stood pinnacles of ice and rock—Ked’coon. Her heart rejoiced and crashed in the same instant. She missed the pristine peaks, but she knew she could never return.
“I see despair,” Cahrin whispered.
“You see true,” replied the king, but he was not looking into the distance. He looked downward into the city itself, drawing an imaginary line from west to east with a finger. “The walls were once this high and as white as pearls. She would sit here, my queen, for hours on end and watch the sentries roaming the ramparts. She called them our cloudwalkers.”
Cloudwalkers. Cahrin bet the ramparts had not reached one-tenth the height her people regularly camped. And unlike these guards of Einor, the men and women of the Clan of the Owl enjoyed no reprieve from their constant state of vigilance. “It must have been quite a sight,” she managed politely.
“Now look.” He pointed at a crumbling section of the wall. “It cowers down, old and fragile, barely able to stand. In not so long, these walls will be stripped bare, and when its walls go, a city is no more.”
He spoke clearly; the effects of the alcohol had ebbed. This was her opportunity to say what she wished.
“Nothing lasts forever,” she blurted. It wasn’t exactly the gentle cajoling that may have been needed, but it was the truth. King Hybris had little hope of saving Einor. It was dying, and allying with Azren would only hasten its demise.
“That is what I thought as well.” He stared with mournful eyes. “I told her this, my queen. I was young and foolish. She proved me wrong, that she did. It turns out there are a great many things that last forever. Love, for one thing, and every other deep desire and tenacious feeling that permeates our core. It’s what makes us who we are. It’s tied to a past that even time cannot obliterate. To be sure, time muddles the mind, softens the pain—it’s the great flask of wine always at your lips, sipping away. But the passage of it can never completely erase a memory.”
Which is what Einor will soon become. “The elders say that the mountains themselves cannot outlive time.”
“It is not until one gets old himself does he realize the wisdom age brings,” said the king. “Do you know what soars without wings, crawls without knees, deadens without killing, is infinite, and yet cannot be amassed? Time.”
She nodded somberly. Lost time away from her people—this, she knew well. “Your Majesty.” She squatted down to his level. “Azren cannot help this city.”
“But can his wealth keep ruin at bay at least for another generation, until perhaps a new savior comes along?”
She tried to answer, but the king held his hand up in protest. The discussion was over. “You did not come to the library to speak with an old fool about the inevitable, did you?”
She had not. And she had done her part, lent her voice as Bentar had requested. King Hybris wanted no more of it.
“I’m here to find information on the Gems of Tazanjia.”
An eyebrow arched. “The Gems of Tazanjia? That’s an archaic topic. Are you looking for something specific?”
“Anything specific, I would say.”
“Council business, I presume?” He rose.
“Yes, Your Majesty.”
He appeared disappointed that she did not elaborate. “You know the legend, I gather?”
She shook her head.
“In that case, I’ll attempt to enlighten you.” He stood and began to stroll through the library. She had no recourse but to follow. “The Gems of Tazanjia were purported to be powerful relics that would drive Azren and his allies from our lands during the Great War.”
Relics of war—no wonder PIKE wants them. “Why haven’t I heard stories of the gems from my people? Surely such mighty weapons did not go unnoticed.”
“That’s because they were never found—or needed, as it turned out. Once the seer Kalendistrafous made his prophecy about the gems, he began attracting followers in droves to his cause. Azren was winning the war, and people were desperate to cling to whatever hope they could find, even a false one. But after many fruitless months of searching for the gems, the fortitude of Kalendistrafous’s followers began to wane.”
As he spoke, he scanned texts on the shelves while wearing a thoughtful expression. “The seer himself had all but given up. By then, he had amassed an impressive force of able-bodied men. He decided to turn them over to an apt military strategist named Geldrich the Glaive, who led them in a decisive battle against Azren. There are many who say this battle was the turning point in the war.”
“Do you have any books that elaborate on the seer’s prediction?” She hoped that’s what the king was looking for.
“You won’t find such details in any history books. Historical records shy away from anything that does not directly bolster the genius of our generals or the bravery of the foot soldiers. But I believe I have something you will find interesting—somewhere.” The king continued his search, sweeping texts to the side, even standing on his toes to feel the top of shelves. Finally he turned to her. “I was so sure I had it, but it seems to have disappeared. Like stones from the city, they vanish one after another, and who knows where they end up.”
He clapped a hand over his mouth. “My stones,” he cried, muffled. “I must tend to them at once. A king’s work is never done.”
And with that he spun about and left Cahrin alone in the library.
Zeph made sure not to step on any cracks in the stone on the way back to his room lest he end a life prematurely, according to the old gypsy proverb. Not that he believed in such things. Death came only at the end of one’s thread, over which Dela had sole mastery.
Or so he had been taught.
Darseer Caspar’s revelation that Azren could disrupt the threads had sent ripples of doubt through his core. Zeph had always believed Dela to be the caretaker of life and death, the most powerful of the gods. Why could she not simply cut Azren’s thread and be done with him?
The ramifications gnawed at him. It was he who had suggested they warn the kingdoms of central Draza, putting them in direct conflict with Azren—a dangerous proposition, to be sure. Demetrius especially should be at home, warming himself by the fire, instead of following them on this fool’s errand.
Zeph skipped over a large crack. The simple children’s game was good for his dexterity. He upped the difficulty by increasing the number of cracks he had to leap over with each step. Soon he was jumping five at a time, then eight, and fifteen, until he failed and started at one crack again. He grew so absorbed with this game he stopped paying any attention to where he was going, thinking only how he could break his personal record.
After about twenty minutes, he was exhausted. He had also lost track of where he was. As he tried to retrace his steps, he heard the heavy accent of Queen Pandare from around the bend.
Finally, someone I can ask for directions. He rounded the corner, anticipating seeing the queen with the king. Queen Pandare was leaving her bedchamber, but it was the little man in gray who accompanied her.
Zeph ducked back behind the corner he’d come from. Now what would those two have to talk about?
“And that is just the beginning,” came the dry, squeaky voice of Azren’s emissary.
“I see why your master holds you in such high esteem, Kreeb,” replied the queen.
Their voices faded as they drew farther from Zeph.
Now that, he thought, was a fair amount more interesting than hopping cracks.
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