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WHEN MADNESS WEARS THE CROWN
Night hovered on black and filmy wings above the spires of royal Tarantia. Along fog-silenced streets cressets burned with the feral eyes of beasts of prey in primal wilderness. Few there were who walked abroad on nights like this, although the veiled darkness was redolent with the scent of early spring. Those few whom dire necessity drove out of doors stole forth like thieves on furtive feet and tensed at every shadow.
On the acropolis, round which sprawled the Old City, the palace of many kings lifted its crenelated crest against the wan and pallid stars. This castled capitol crouched upon its hill like some fantastic monster out of ages past, glaring at the Outer City walls, whose great stones held it captive.
On glittering suite and marble hall within the sullen palace, silence lay as thick as dust in mouldering Stygian tombs. Servants and pages cowered behind locked doors, and none bestrode the long corridors and curving stairs except the royal guard. Even these scarred and battle-seasoned veterans were loath to stare too deeply into shadows and winced at every unexpected sound.
Two guards stood motionless before a portal draped in rich hangings of brocaded purple. They stiffened and blanched as an eerie, muffled cry escaped from the apartment. It sang a thin, pitiful song of agony, which pierced like an icy needle the stout hearts of the guardsmen.
“Mitra save us all” whispered the guard on the left, through pinched lips pale with tension.
His comrade said naught, but his thudding heart echoed the fervent prayer and added: “Mitra save us all, and the land as well …”
For they had a saying in Aquilonia, the proudest kingdom of the Hyborian world: “The bravest cower when madness wears the crown.” And the king of Aquilonia was mad.
Numedides was his name, nephew and successor to Vilerus III and the scion of an ancient royal line. For six years the kingdom had groaned beneath his heavy hand. Superstitious, ignorant, self-indulgent and cruel was Numedides; but heretofore his sins were merely those of any royal voluptuary with a taste for soft flesh, the crack of the lash, and the cries of cringing supplicants. For some time Numedides had been content to let his ministers rule the people in his name while he wallowed in the sensual pleasures of his harem and his torture chamber.
All this had changed with the coming of Thulandra Thuu. Who he was, this lean, dark man of many mysteries, none could say. Neither knew they whence or why he had come into Aquilonia out of the shadowy East.
Some whispered that he was a Witchman from the mistveiled land of Hyperboria; others, that he had crept from haunted shadows beneath the crumbling palaces of Stygia or Shem. A few even believed him a Vendhyan, as his name—if it truly were his name—suggested. Many were the theories; but no one knew the truth.
For more than a year, Thulandra Thuu had dwelt in the palace, living on the bounty of the king and enjoying the powers and perquisites of a royal favourite. Some said he was a philosopher, an alchemist seeking to transmute iron into gold or to concoct a universal panacea. Others called him a sorcerer, steeped in the black arts of goëtia. A few of the more progressive nobles thought him naught but a clever charlatan, avid for power.
None, though, denied that he had cast a spell over King Numedides. Whether his vaunted mastery of alchemical science with its lure of infinite wealth had aroused the king’s cupidity, or whether he had in sooth enmeshed the monarch in a web of sorcerous spells, none could be sure. But all could see that Thulandra Thuu, not Numedides, ruled from the Ruby Throne. His slightest whim had now become the law. Even the king’s chancellor, Vibius Latro, had been instructed to take orders from Thulandra as if they had been issued from the king himself.
Meanwhile Numedides’s conduct had grown increasingly strange. He ordered the golden coinage in his treasury cast into statues of himself adorned with royal jewels, and oft held converse with the blossoming trees and nodding flowers that graced his garden walks. Woe unto any kingdom when the crown is worn by a madman—a madman who, moreover, is the puppet of a crafty and unscrupulous favourite, whether a genuine magician or clever mountebank!
Behind the brocaded hangings of the guarded portal lay a suite whose walls were hung with mystic purple. Here a bizarre tableau unfolded.
In a translucent sarcophagus of alabaster, the king lay as if in deepest slumber. His gross body was unclothed. Even in the slackness of repose, his form testified to a life besmirched with vicious self-indulgence. His skin was blotched; his moist lips sagged; and his eyes were deeply pouched. Above the edge of the coffin bulged his bloated paunch, obscene and toadlike.
Suspended by her ankles, a naked twelve-year-old girl hung head down above the open casket. Her tender flesh bore the marks of instruments of torture. These instruments now lay among the glowing embers in a copper brazier that stood before a thronelike chair of sable iron, inlaid with cryptic sigils wrought in softly glowing silver.
The girl’s throat had been neatly cut, and now bright blood ran down her inverted face and bedrabbed her ash-blonde hair. The casket beneath the corpse was awash with steaming blood, and in this scarlet bath the corpulent body of King Numedides lay partially immersed.
Set in a precise ellipse around the sarcophagus, to illuminate its contents, stood nineteen massive candles, each as tall as a half-grown boy. These candles had been fashioned, so rumour ran among the palace servants, of tallow stripped from human cadavers. But none knew whence they came.
Upon the black iron throne brooded Thulandra Thuu, a slender man of ascetic build and, seemingly, of middle years. His hair, bound by a fillet of ruddy gold, wrought in the likeness of a wreath of intertwining serpents, was silver grey; and serpentine were his cold, thick-lidded eyes. His mien declared him a philosopher, but his unwinking stare bespoke the zealot.
The bones of his narrow face seemed moulded by a sculptor. His skin was dark as teakwood; and from time to time he moistened his thin lips with a darting, pointed tongue. His spare torso was confined by an ample length of mulberry brocade, wrapped round and round and draped across one shoulder, leaving the other bare and exposing to view both of his scrawny arms.
At intervals he raised his eyes from the ancient, python-bound tome that lay upon his lap to stare thoughtfully into the alabaster casket, wherein the bloated body of King Numedides rested in its bath of virgin’s blood. Then, frowning, he would again return to the pages of his book. The parchment of this monstrous volume was inscribed in a spidery hand in a language unknown to scholars of the West. Row upon row of hooked and cursive characters marched down the page in columns. And many of the glyphs were writ in inks of emerald, amethyst and vermillion, unfaded by the passage of the years.
A water clock of gold and crystal, set on a nearby taboret, chimed with a silvery tinkle. Thulandra Thuu once more looked deep into the casket. The tight-lipped expression on his dark visage bore wordless testimony to the failure of his undertaking. The rich red bath of blood was darkening; the surface became dull with scum as vitality faded from the cooling fluid.
Abruptly the sorcerer rose and, with an angry gesture of frustration, hurled the book aside. It struck the hangings on the wall and fell open, face down upon the marble floor. Had anyone been present to study the inscription on the spine and understand its cryptic signary, he would have discovered that this arcane volume was entitled: The Secrets of Immortality, According to Guchupta of Shamballah.
Awakened from his hypnotic trance, King Numedides clambered out of the sarcophagus and stepped into a tub of flower-scented water. He wiped his coarse features with a thirsty towel while Thulandra Thuu sponged the blood from his heavy body. The sorcerer would allow no one, not even the king’s tiring men, into his oratory during his magical operations; therefore he must himself attend to the cleansing and tiring of the monarch. The king stared into the brooding, hooded eyes of the magician.
“Well?” demanded Numedides hoarsely. “What were the results? Did the signum vitalis enter my body when drained from that little brat?”
“Some, great king,” replied Thulandra Thuu in a toneless, staccato voice. “Some—but not enough.”
Numedides grunted, scratching a hairy paunch with an unpared fingernail. The thick, curly hair of his belly, like that of his short beard, was rusty red, fading into grey.
“Well, shall we continue, then? Aquilonia has many girls whose kin would never dare report their loss, and my agents are adept.”
“Allow me to consider, O King. I must consult the scroll of Amendarath to make certain that my partial failure lies not in an adverse conjunction or opposition of the planets. And I fain would cast your horoscope again. The stars foretoken ominous times.”
The king, who had struggled into a scarlet robe, picked up a beaker of empurpled wine, upon which floated the crimson buds of poppies, and downed the exotic drink.
“I know, I know,” he growled. “Troubles flaring at the border, plots afoot in half the noble houses … But fear not, my trepidatious thaumaturge! This royal house has lasted long and will survive long after you are dust.”
The king’s eyes glazed and a small smile played at the corner of his mouth as he muttered: “Dust—dust—all is dust. All save Numedides.” Then seeming to recover himself, he demanded irritably: “Can you not give answer to my question? Would you have another girl-child for your experiments?”
“Aye, O King,” replied Thulandra Thuu after a moment of reflection. “I have bethought me of a refinement in the procedure that, I am convinced, will bring us to our goal.”
The king grinned broadly and thumped a hairy hand against the sorcerer’s lean back. The unexpected blow staggered the slender mage. A flicker of anger danced across the alchemist’s dark features and was instantly extinguished, as by an unseen hand.
“Good, sir magician!” roared Numedides. “Make me immortal to rule forever this fair land, and I will give you a treasury of gold. Already I feel the stirrings of divinity—albeit I will not yet proclaim my theophany to my steadfast and devoted subjects.”
“But Majesty!” said the startled sorcerer, recovering his composure. The country’s plight is of more moment than you appear to know. The people grow restless. There are signs of insurrection from the south and from the sea. I understand not—’
The king waved him aside. “I’ve put down treasonous rascals oft ere this, and I shall counter them again.”
What the king dismissed as trifling inconveniences were, in truth, matters worthy of a monarch’s grave concern. More than one revolt simmered along the western borders of Aquilonia, where the land was rent asunder by wars and rivalries among the petty barons. The populace groaned beneath their ruler’s obduracy and cried out for relief from oppressive taxation and monstrous maltreatment by agents of the king. But the worries of the common folk concerned their monarch little; he turned a deaf ear to their cries.
Yet Numedides was not so wedded to his peculiar pleasures that he failed to mark the findings of his spies, collected for him by his able minister, Vibius Latro. The chancellor reported rumours of no less a leader of the commons than the rich and powerful Count Trocero of Poitain. Trocero was no man idly to be dismissed—not with his peerless force of armoured cavalry and a warlike, fiercely loyal people ready to rise at his beckoning.
“Trocero,” mused the king, “must be destroyed, it’s true; but he’s too strong for open confrontation. We must needs seek out a skilful poisoner … Meanwhile, my faithful, hardfisted Amulius Procas is stationed in the southern border region. He has crushed more than one arrogant landowner who dared turn revolutionary.”
Inscrutable were the cold black eyes of Thulandra Thuu. “Omens of danger overwhelming to your general I read upon the face of heaven. We must concern ourselves—’
Numedides ceased to listen. His trancelike slumber, together with the stimulus of the poppied wine, had flogged his sensual appetite. His harem newly housed a delectable, full-breasted Kushite girl, and a torture—yet unnamed—was forming in his twisted brain.
“I’m off,” he said abruptly. “Detain me not, lest I blast you with my shafts of lightning.”
The king pointed a taut forefinger at Thulandra Thuu and made a guttural sound. Then, roaring with boorish mirth, he pushed aside a panel behind the purple arras and slipped through. Thence a secret passage led to that part of the harem whispered of, with loathing, as the House of Pain and Pleasure. The sorcerer watched him go with the shadow of a smile and thoughtfully snuffed out the nineteen massive candles.
“O King of Toads,” he muttered in his unknown tongue. “You speak the very truth, save that you have the characters reversed. Numedides shall crumble into dust, and Thulandra Thuu shall rule the West from an eternal throne, when Father Set and Mother Kali teach their loving son to wrest from the dark pages of the vast Unknown the secret of eternal life …”
The thin voice pulsed through the darkened chamber like the dry rustle of a serpent’s scales, slithering over the pallid bones of murdered men.
Copyright © 1979 by Conan Properties, Inc.
Posted June 6, 2013
This story starts in a typical conanish way. However you are then transported to a world of mercinaries, women and magic. I think this is a good book for those who like fantasy.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted July 11, 2011
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Posted February 4, 2012
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