Before dinner that Tuesday, I sat back in my leather-bound chair and indulged in a few moments of feeling quietly safisfied. Recently I had even felt the beginnings of optimism. After years of cloud and storm, the sun had broken through and I could at last bask in the success that I deserved. After all, who else now stood between me and the ear of the King?
On Tuesdays I always dined with the Treasurer, Flacio Abs: friend, rival, and sometime co-conspirator. We commonly held our meetings informally after government work was over. Roast quail and plum wine topped with gossip were the usual agenda items. As a side order, we touched on issues related to our two departments – Flacio’s Treasury, and the Chancery that I ran, source of the King’s letters and proclamations of state.
The meal that day was adequate, the talk good, but not startling. I felt that Flacio was holding something back. As we ate our dessert and finished our second bottle of wine, I asked him if he had anything he wished to share with me.
Flacio grinned. “You know, Benetus,” he said, “I was wondering when you would ask. Now that our meal is over, the news is ripe for me to pluck.” Flacio stood up then, which surprised me as I was hoping he would now share his news.
“Where are you going; aren’t you going to tell me the news?” I was annoyed with his play-acting. He was a bean-counter, for Viest’s sake, not a paid entertainer.
Flacio nodded and smiled. “It might be best if I show you. A picture is worth a thousand words, they say.”
“Not a thousand of my words, Flacio.” Nevertheless I stood and followed him to the door. I was concerned by Flacio’s behaviour. He seemed to be enjoying the fact that he knew something I didn’t. If I was ignorant of something important, that could be a big problem. Life as a courtier could be very short, and I had lived as long as I had only by knowing absolutely everything of significance that happened within the walls of the palace.
The air was warm outside the tavern; the warm evenings of summer were just beginning. The gentle waters of the Gulf of Storms lapped at the harbour walls as we passed revellers in the sailors’ quarter. Walking north, I realised we were heading back to the Palace District.
“Something in your rooms you want to show me? Why couldn’t you have brought it to the tavern?” Flacio’s apartments were near his place of work, a stone’s throw from the administrative buildings of the Western Annex. This journey, however, took me farther from where I lived. I preferred a place in the city, hidden in the anonymity of the crowd.
“No, no, but you are right to think we are heading towards the palace.” After that I could not get another word from him on the subject.
We nodded to the guards as we entered the palace complex, fierce-looking Usure tribesmen from the north. We had both passed the same men a hundred times or more. Still they demanded to see the seals of office that proved our identities. But this was wise practice when enemies threaten from so many sides. Their discipline and loyalty to the King was a comfort to me.
We walked past more guards, knights of the King’s own familia, into the central atrium of the palace, through the exotic gardens designed personally by the King with help from a Nukushite natural scientist. This was the heart of the palace, where one might expect to pass princes of the realm, members of the royal family and even the King. From nearby, somewhere hidden by the foliage of the garden, came the soft rhythm of poetry being read. The fuzzy glow of dim lamps indicated a gathering on the far side of the atrium-garden. The smell of strong Abatian wine and rolled tirbic sticks met our nostrils. The gathering was of the King and his closest familiars. A group that on many occasions in the last year I had been proud to belong.
I brushed the sleeves of my silk coat and started towards the group, thinking of a witticism with which to greet my beloved king, but Flacio stopped me with a tug on my sleeve.
“No, wait. There is something here I wish to show you.” He ushered me towards some shrubs and low trees that screened the King’s gathering.
From the undergrowth we had a clear view of the King’s party, but were invisible from their view. I felt a lump in my throat – was spying on my king an act of treachery?
But once I saw who accompanied the King, that guilt turned to rising anger, made more acute by the lack of opportunity to vent it by shouting and cursing. Flacio could be a cruel friend. I had not recognized the voice of the reader at first, perhaps because I could not imagine that he had returned so soon. Fanis Poll, the man I had helped to send into exile and my bitterest rival at court, was standing in front of an admiring audience reciting a poem that he had no doubt composed himself. I could see the king smiling with pleasure at the clever verses. And when the king smiled, all the courtiers around him smiled too.
I did not need to see any more. Flacio and I left our hiding place and I walked purposefully away through the palace. Tomorrow was Council day and I needed to be prepared. Flacio wished me a goodnight, but the smile was now gone from his face. He could see the depth of my reaction. I thanked him for letting me know the news. It was not his fault, I realised, as I walked along the sea-wall towards the tumbledown slums which were my home. In fact, he was a better friend for being strong enough to bring me the bad news. As I unlocked the door to the ground floor flat of the tenement block, I mused on how to play the encounter tomorrow. To be surprised yet unfluttered, perhaps? Or maybe pretend full knowledge of his return. But why had I not seen the correspondence to the keep commander releasing his prisoner from exile? Why had it not come through Chancery?
I fastened the three bolts of the heavy inner door and waved my hand over the locks twice with a brief, muttered phrase. That would seal it from any night-walkers.
The order must have come from the King’s own chamber or perhaps his own hand. Why would the King do this? Had I done something to displease him?
I pulled up the carpet under the small kitchen table and drew open the trapdoor. The steps led down into the rock of the headland. I would travel the spirit-river tonight.
But first, maybe a glass of brandy. I realized that my hands were shaking. I did not like surprises.
* * *
Heavy mist hung over the harbour-city that morning as I made my way to the palace. Guards of state accompanied me as I rode a sedan chair heavily curtained against the milling crowds of a busy market day. I preferred to walk unnoticed through the streets, but the days of High Council demanded their protocol, and the flattery of such prestige was an indulgence that I allowed myself now and then. I pondered the day ahead. The official council meetings could be lengthy. Not because of their formality, which the King had much reduced once he took on his majority, but because of the sheer activity that his court and the governance of his interests both in the kingdom and abroad now produced. Military, legal, religious, economic, industrial, agricultural, cultural. The interests were many and the views of his courtiers encouraged. Open debate could be a dangerous thing, but I lived on my wits, my sharp brain, and well-chosen words. I had not failed yet.
Failure. How to measure that concept now? My best laid and executed plans of six months ago had removed that troublesome thorn, who had grown so near the flower of my joy that I came near to a grievous wound. It had grown back. Despite the night spent thinking and talking to those I relied upon, I was no nearer a decision. My mind felt fuzzy now, so tired I almost didn’t care what happened today. But I would have to care. I would have to be sharp.
The spirits had been most unhelpful. I had ended up cursing them for their obscure answers and tangential advice. I regretted it. The gruesome threats they had thrown back at me before my dismissal had only ushered me into a worse mood.
The sedan chair suddenly stopped and was lowered. I was at the palace already. Hurriedly, I composed myself and gathered my papers, and the curtain was drawn aside and hands of servants were extended to help me down. The steps of the palace’s Council Hall stretched up to the massive iron gates of the chamber that lay open, welcoming me to my fate.
* * *
The King rose, and the rest of us stood and bowed deeply. With a sweep of royal gowns and the click of feet from armoured guards, he left the council chamber. This was where alliances could be strengthened and signalled – in the aftermath of the council meeting, where one could observe who spoke to whom and who snubbed whom despite passing within inches of each other.
Imagine my surprise and discomfort when Poll came over and shook my arm warmly in greeting.
“It has been too long,” he said.
“The kingdom has missed you,” I replied and was ready to move away, expecting him to do likewise, when he tugged on my long hanging sleeve and pulled me to a corner of the room.
“It is best if you appear my ally and long-lost friend, Benetus. The King knows there was a plot to discredit me and he still searches for those within the court responsible for it.”
I grimaced. He held my arm and continued. “I know you have no love for me, and I have the same feelings for you, but like the King, I recognise your talents. I would advise you, however, to keep your ambition in check and to serve your king by not serving yourself.”
The bastard. So superior and full of himself, having returned to lick the cream of the court from his jowly chops. If this had been the street outside I would have considered a pointed riposte. Through his heart with my dagger.
I bowed curtly. “I understand,” I replied.
We parted, outwardly to the court the best of friends reunited after the Narboleit’s brief exile. Six months were more like a holiday retreat than a proper exile, and you could hardly call Ufmanas a prison. There were beautiful views of the peaks of Ebyr Arkana, I was told, and the diet of hard bread, goat cheese, and the meat of the same could not be all bad. Poll looked no worse for it, at least. He still had those rakish white streaks in his greased-back black hair.
I retreated from the council chamber. I would stop by the Chancery to confirm I had no urgent commitments for the day and then rally myself at home. The gleaming marble of the council chamber steps dazzled me. It would be a beautiful, languid afternoon, but the sunshine held no joy for me. The King had dashed my hopes of that. I felt disappointment with myself for blaming him. Poll had done well to prove his innocence; his agents had been active in investigating the allegations and had managed to disprove the link between him and the wayward priest whose disgrace had brought Poll down as well.
Besides, Fanis Poll, Narboleit of Skiponibit, highest-ranking priest of the Creator mysteries, was the best diplomat in Fei Usure. Diplomacy was sorely in need if we were to avoid war with the theocrats of Belgania that summer. The King had been adamant in council about this. “We need another year and secure borders in at least the north and west before we can contemplate war. That is why” — I had visibly gulped at this point — “the Narboleit, proved innocent of the allegations against him, has been given the mission of Embassy to the Court of the Purple Valley.”
The embassy to the Purple Valley, the capital of the Belganian priest-lords. The ultimate mission of trust for a member of the King’s court.
Yes, I thought, perhaps I would.
* * *
My eyes opened and above I saw grey, overcast skies. I could hear the creaking timbers of the boat beneath me, and the gentle lapping of water just a few inches from me, where I lay in the bottom of a small river boat. My nose wrinkled at the smell, which was like the latrine on Pigonal Street, the smell of something rotten and faecal. I did not move for a moment, but then I sat up sharply, my heart beating hard. The boat swayed violently as I turned to look on all sides around the boat. I had to calm my movements as water started to slosh over the sides of the boat and wet my clothes. Foul water it was, slimy with dead weeds and algae gone brown.
I was alone and scared. And the wet air was cold.
I was in a marsh of some sort. Brown mists lay heavily over the water of the channel that lay between muddy banks, where twisted black trees and yellow tufts of rough grass grew. I sat there clutching the two pewter coins I had stolen from the eyes of a dead man earlier that day when I had been back in my own world. But the boatman was not there to take his usual toll.
This had not happened before. The boatman was always the guide and guard on visits to the spirit-river. The boatman always rowed the boat for visitors from the earthly world to the river of the spirits. I had never read of a wizard left on his own to row where he liked. Perhaps it did happen, but if so then those who experienced it had never returned to write about it.
I looked around for oars, but there were none. The boat was drifting down the narrow channel, but did not get very far before hitting a mud bank. I hesitated. None of the spirits I had visited before dwelt in such an unpleasant miasma. Was this wise? Surely only the foulest, most evil spirits would dwell in such a place. But what choice did I have? The only way back was through the boatman, or maybe through the help of one of the spirts of the river.
I stepped gingerly over the side of the boat, my feet slipping a bit in the slime. I managed to get up the muddy bank by clutching clumps of grass to pull myself.
This was not what I had been hoping for. I had taken a potion and recited a conjuration that I hoped would put me before a powerful spirit that would help me get rid of Poll. I had expected to be in quite a different part of the spirit-river, with the boatman to guide me in my negotiations. Perhaps at a powerful waterfall, or a large lake, or on the edge of a mighty whirlpool to speak with the dangerous spirits who dwelt there. But this place just stank of decay and despair. What hope could I find here?
I walked along the mud-bank, which at least was dry and seemed to open out into a flat area of ground dotted with reeds and small trees. I walked for a little way along paths through the reeds. If I was lucky I would come across a minor spirit in this marsh, and by granting him the pewter coins I had saved for the boatman I would be returned to my home again safely.
Then, through the mist, I caught sight of a low, squat tower – brown it was, probably made of clay and wattle taken from the local vegetation. Certainly a humble enough dwelling. A white trail of smoke rose up from it, indicating a warm fire and hopefully a friendly inhabitant. I clutched my pewter coins and made my way along the muddy paths through the trees and reeds of the swamp.
But as I was walking purposefully towards the lone tower, I stepped on an area of earth that gave way under me with a belch of moist mud. In a moment my legs were sunk in the mud up to my knees. As I floundered I found myself sinking quickly into the foul slime. Soon only my shoulders and arms were above the surface. There was nothing to grab for. No reeds or branches. I was not sinking as fast now, but I was stuck, and every time I moved I seemed to go down a little bit more. I desperately tried to think of some conjuration that might help me.
“If only Poll hadn’t come back,” I said to myself. “I’d be free of this swamp, and back home.”
“If only they had listened to me in the city,” muttered another voice. “I wouldn’t have to put up with this swamp.”
I was silent. I was waiting for the owner of the muttering, bitter voice to appear. But he did not. Instead, the mud below my feet seemed to give way a bit and now the mud crept up to cover my whole upper body.
“What a fool to hope. This is it, then; I’m going to die in the mud, and tomorrow the housekeeper will find me drowned in my own study, with mud in my throat!”
“At least you don’t have to put up with the smell of it day in and day out,” the voice I had heard earlier replied. “And what do you think the food tastes like here? That tastes of mud too, you know!”
“Help me, please, help me, I’m sinking,” I cried. I felt cold, slimy mud slip down the back of my neck as I sank a little farther.
“At least you’re not sinking too fast,” said the voice, which belonged to an old man, bent and short because of his age, who now appeared from a bank of tall reeds directly in front of me. “How high are you? Just under six lengths? If you’re lucky, you may survive, the mud is not much deeper hereabouts. But if you want my help, grab my staff.”
I did as the old man bade me, and like a cork out of a brandy bottle I was pulled out of the quagmire, to stand dripping and breathless at the old man’s side. He was either very strong or there was magic involved.
“Come, let’s get you warm,” he said.
I followed the old man through the reeds, and soon we came to the tower I had spied earlier. The old man didn’t speak and merely grunted when I tried to ask him anything.
He opened the wooden door of his home without a key and left it ajar for me to enter. I bent low and went in. The tower was small, the ground floor looked much like any peasant hovel anywhere does. There was a fire, well-polished pots and pans, and what looked like a small larder. A ladder was propped up against a hole in the ceiling that must lead to the other levels of the low tower, which couldn’t be more than three storeys in height.
The old man fussed around near the fire, arranging some pots and ladles on a low table. Eventually he turned when he remembered my presence and motioned me to sit on a rough wooden stool near the fire.
“Thank you for saving me. Can I ask your name?” I said.
“Let’s get you warm, I’ll stoke up this fire a bit, add some of this wood. Awful wood it is, though, damp nearly all the time; rubbish stuff.”
I tried another question when the old man turned towards me again; after all, perhaps he was a bit deaf. “Do you know which spirit rules this part of the river? I have become separated from my guide, the boatman; maybe you can help me.”
“Would you like some soup?” said the old man. He was smiling at me, although it looked more like the surface of his face had cracked in two when he did so. The smile didn’t seem to come naturally to him.
“Yes, some soup would be nice,” I said.
“Good.” He had heard me this time!
“I don’t get many visitors,” he said. “My own fault, I expect. I probably brought this isolation on myself. This stinking marsh, and only myself for company. But now and then, there is a visitor. A person like you, so I always keep some nice spices around that might help.”
“Oh, good,” I said, unsure about what he might mean.
“Do you pray?” asked the old man.
“What? Er, not really.”
“Go on, why not? What do you do?” The old man sat opposite me now, his hands round an empty clay bowl. He stared at me intently, his eyes changing from green to brown to yellow and then black again, like a muddy rainbow. He was no longer the bumbling deaf fool he had seemed moments before.
“I ignore the gods. I conjure spirits instead to help me with my ambitions in the world. I have many enemies, my life is very dangerous, and I need assistance from the spirits. The gods only get in the way with their rules and their requirements.”
“I see,” said the old man. He turned away and filled the clay bowl from the cooking pot he had set-up over the fire.
“Here,” he said, “take this; drink the soup deep down into your stomach.”
I clutched the bowl. It was fiery hot, but I did as I was told and drank from the edge of it. The contents were spicey and warming and I felt at peace.
“Not too fast, leave some,” said the old man. “Look into the bowl at what remains.”
Images danced on the surface of the pale liquid of the soup. They were images that portrayed me, standing on trial, and then my execution. Hanging like a thief in the market place of the city. The last image I saw before the soup clouded over was of Poll standing smiling as I died on the gallows.
“You must be a powerful spirit to foretell the future,” I said. “Who are you? I know of no spirits that live in a marsh.”
“No, marshes are ignored places, inhabited only by those who thrive on the ruin of others. I was a wizard once, like you want to be maybe, but more ambitious than you. I craved eternity and the status of a god. But I made the mistake of spending my time only on the study of how to become immortal. I am Arax.”
“Arax? I do not know the name,” I said.
“Exactly,” said the old man, who shook his head and looked sadly down at the fire.
“What happened?” I asked.
“Nothing. I was too caught up in my ambition and forgot that to be a god requires either the adoration or the fear of mortals. Neither of which I gained. My own city ignored and shunned me. I was an outcast for my practices. Too much death and smell accompanied my researches. So I am here, an immortal existing in a ghetto off the main course of the spirit-river. But, you have come and you can change that.”
“You want that man dead?”
“Yes I do, that’s why I came to the spirit-river, I have been searching for a spirit who would help me, in exchange for a reward, of course.” I fumbled in my pocket and produced the two pewter coins that had been meant for the boatman. “See, I have these.”
The old man coughed. “I was thinking of something else. Come, let us talk further.”
* * *
Many months later I stood waiting in the Temple of Arax, next to the altar, and contemplating how things had turned out. The altar took the form of a wide and shallow bowl, blackened on the inside from fire and dusty with ashes. Behind the altar and looming above me was the graven image of Arax at the foot of the mountain streams of the gods, bowed down with his own insignificance. In another image to the right of this one, Arax could be seen walking hunched down on a long path, one foot moving forward but the other turned backward and striding in the opposite direction.
Apart from a couple of hired acolytes, I was alone in the temple. I sighed. Being the high priest to Arax, the God of False Promises, was not very fulfilling. This new religion had not begun with a stampede of popularity. Yet, last week at the main gods-day service, there had been a trickle of worshippers. Curious perhaps about the new cult, or maybe desperate for hope in troubled times. War could make people do strange things.
I would much rather have been back at the palace, even though this was my day off. At my desk there were countless letters to compose and have copied. War and diplomacy walked hand in glove in these times. My role was to find neutral powers who could support us against our enemies, the Theologians of Belgania, through the craft of my letters. I sometimes even regretted that Poll had died. For all his other faults, he was a skilled diplomat. War might have been averted.
Then, in small groups, worshippers started to come in through the doors of the temple. Their boots and cloaks muddy from the swamp waters outside. They would have had to row themselves or hire boats to get here. Quite some devotion they had to show to pray to Arax. Bad times, indeed. I recognized a few from the previous week, and nodded in acknowledgement to them. But there were more. Those who had come last week had brought others. Word was spreading. Maybe I was wrong, perhaps the time was right for the cult of Arax. The congregation taking their seats on the benches certainly looked bitter and disappointed enough to be devout, that couldn’t be denied. Many of them clutched the sacrifice appropriate for Arax, a rolled parchment where they had written about their dreams and ambitions and the promises made to them. All of which they had never fulfilled.
I waited until the temple was a third full, about fifty people in all. Not bad. I began the service. I spoke the usual liturgy, asking all those who were true believers to present their offerings to Arax, so that he could take vengeance, and reminding them of their sacred duty to spread the word of Arax. “For they were each to tell six people, who in turn would tell another six people each, and so on. And thus the word of Arax would be spread in the same way as the mountain of the gods finishes with one grain at the top yet spreads down to many, many grains below, outwards and vast.”
To my amazement, the congregation actually seemed to pay attention to these words that Arax and I had made up.
“And so each grain that was part of the cult of Arax would contribute to the fulfillment of the dreams of all. Never again would each stand alone and hopeless, but instead their fellow Araxians would believe in them and see that their promises were fulfilled.”
I was near the end of the liturgy now. The worshippers came up one by one to hand their scrolls to an acolyte. As they did so, I made a sign of blessing over them and they went back to their seat, each seemingly pleased. To my surprise the last worshipper was someone I knew well, Treasurer Flacio Abs. He pressed his scroll directly into my hands.
“Don’t burn this one,” he said. “I will talk with you later.”
Flacio approached me as soon as the service finished. We walked outside along an area of flattened reeds and swamp grasses.
“I’ll be glad to get back to the palace,” I said.
“I can’t blame you. You will have to be careful; soon the Belganian armies will be in this area.”
“But what would they want with a marshy swamp?”
“That’s a fair point,” said Flacio. “But it is in a direct line of march to the capital.”
“I haven’t looked at this scroll yet, what is it?”
“An extract I took for you from a journal we found in Poll’s house.”
“Oh, has the will been settled now?”
“Yes, all his possessions have been ceded to the crown. It seems that when he made his final will, he was not of clear mind because of the swamp-fever that eventually killed him.”
“That’s convenient for the Treasury, isn’t it,” I said.
“There’s a war on; we need the money. You had better look out, we may start taxing temples next. Take a look at the scroll I gave you. I have the original journal, there is some interesting information there about courtiers and the like. I’m happy to share it with you.”
“Thanks, I will take you up on that.”
Flacio went to his barge and was punted off into the twilight. I had some temple business to look after, so I would stay in the temple complex that night and then go back to the palace tomorrow morning. The two hired acolytes would see to any needs I had.
I was counting the collection made that day, a good one for once. It would actually cover our expenses for the week. If this kept up I wouldn’t have to reach into my own pocket anymore. Perhaps the appeal of Arax would be wider than I imagined? After all, there were many people out there who had hopes and ambitions that never amounted to much. Perhaps my own ambitions would eventually be fulfilled if this war did not last too long.
I remembered the scroll Flacio had passed me and drew it out of my pocket and unfurled it. I recognized the clear script of Poll’s handwriting immediately. The journal page contained a single entry:
Benetus: Chancellor of Fei Usure.
A man of doubtful moral character and, I suspect, looks for any means to advance his career. Fiercely loyal to his king and to his country, his devious and clever nature will be an asset to the kingdom. I should meet with him. I think he needs guidance and help.
Not part of the plot against me. I begin to suspect some Vysian interference was to blame. Belgania involved?
My hands trembled and my heart beat faster. A tear of anger came to my eye. I ripped the page in two and thrust it into the fire of Arax’s altar.
I would have liked to thrust myself into that fire and be consumed as well. Through my vanity I had destroyed the one good chance the kingdom had of making peace. I could blame the lies told to me by Arax, who in gratitude I had raised from obscurity. But if I had not been so eager for gain and status might I have been wiser to the lies told to me?
In the distance I could hear, on the soft breeze that blew across the marshes, the drums of war. The Belganians were coming. *
About the Author: Mark Lord is a UK-based writer, living in the southeast of England. He mostly writes historical fiction with a dollop of fantasy stirred in (i.e., he makes it up). His website and blog is located at http://www.marklord.info, which seems to be particularly popular amongst the UFO and Viagra community. He has a story soon to be published in Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction, a non-paying market.
Story copyright 2010 Mark Lord.
About the Artist: Romeo believes that the art justifies the means.
Illustration copyright 2010 Romeo Esparrago.