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To a browser of dusty library shelves:
My name, in academic circles, is Powl Inpres. Otherwhere I am titled Earl of Daraln. I am enclosing with this letter a history of events of some importance to our nation: events which took place in the seventh year of reign of Rudof I. It was written by a man named Nazhuret, whose own history and surname are obscure (at least they have been while I could help it) and who was my first student. My most perfect student. In this I claim no credit, for anyone could have taught Nazhuret anything, as long as the knowledge rang true to him.
He was assisted, both in the experience and in the memoir, by Charlan Bannering, daughter of the late Baron Howdl of Sordaling. Of all swordsmen I have trained, she was the most elegant and the most deadly with a rapier, but she refuses to put pen to paper on her own account, and but for her lasting affection for Nazhuret, would not have cooperated even so far as to think back.
I have held this manuscript privately until now, because there is always a danger when officialdom becomes aware of a person, either to disapprove or (worse) in approval, and I do not want my friends to suffer more entanglement than their own fates decree. But officialdom rarely follows the academic papers and never frequents libraries at all.
I have suspicions my health is failing, and lest death take me unprepared I leave this manuscript like an orphan baby. Like Nazhuret himself, may it linger in obscurity long enough to be safe from malice, and rise again in the hands of someone who cares.
My dear Powl,
I hope you will forgive my tone of bitterness; this year has been such a time of catastrophe: blood and confusion for all the northern world. Perhaps worst for Nazhuret is that I feel myself to have been part of the violence—a pawn of sorcery, and as a careful scientist I do not believe in sorcery. When because of sorcery men let themselves be butchered, it leaves me angry. When because of human arrogance, or twisted loyalty, or fear, they go out to be butchered, that makes me even more angry. I think war is a kind of black sorcery in itself.
In this, my twenty-eighth year, I have lost many things I grieve to do without: friends, peace, faith in the coming seasons. I, who was a happy beggar, have found my limits. All I have gamed in my turn is an understanding of my name, and it is a name I never wanted.
I wish you had asked for this history a year from now, or ten. Then I might have been able to show some understanding of all that happened to me in the country of my mother, or upon my way to it, or on my way home. As it is, I have nothing but images, locked in the eyes, and against them my understanding is useless.
But I know that what I have to give is what you want—my memories, whether sane or insane—for you will not let any other person do your understanding for you. You are the scientist in this, and I can be only your subject. Observe me well.
Watching through a window I saw five assassins assault my lady, who was carrying in her a four-months' child. They were armed with axes and daggers, with which they first attacked her horse: well-trained men. The white mare went down in a heap and I saw Arlin for a moment perched on the sinking back, and then she, in her black shirt, was hidden.
I went through the closed window, which was stupid of me, for the door was open to the summer air only ten feet away. I remember only the brilliance of scattered glass and the brilliance of my horror as I ran down the oratory walkway in my breeches and stockings, smashing against the ornamental maples that marked each curve of the path.
I was three hundred feet away; too far to be of any help. I came skidding along the gravel to a heap of bodies and gushing blood—red blood on white hide and blood staining dark woolens darker. Amid the pile of hands and teeth and staring eyes I sought for Arlin's, but in my shock I could not make out what belonged to what, not even horse from human, and then Arlin swung out from behind a tree, holding to the bole with both hands. Not standing straight. "Go," she said, and pointed to where the walk widened and met the wagon drive.
In leaving her alone and chasing the fleeing assassins I think I acted like someone else entirely, not Nazhuret of Sordaling. Not Zhurrie of the Forest Oratory, certainly. But Powl—who am I to say I know myself, and that self dipped in horror especially?
The river pebbles of the drive, so laboriously gathered and laid generations ago, slid and shifted and slowed me, but I did not feel their imprint against my stockinged feet, nor feel the heat of the effort.
Only a little way beyond, at the well with the stone benches, where even now local people did leave gifts of food and flowers, I found two men, leaning, gasping, one clenching one arm in the other and one holding his stomach. Holding his stomach as Arlin had. By this and by their dun hunters' jackets and breeches I knew them to be two of the assailants, and my mind reproduced the picture of slaughter and I could see now that there were three dead men around the dead horse, one of them pinned and obscured by the mare's bulk.
These two had no more than a few seconds' warning of my approach, but the man with the stomach injury already had a knife in his hand. The broken arm turned and ran.
The knife-fighter was experienced, and I hate encountering knife-fighters more than I do any armored knight, for their art is a deadly stroking, close in the belly and hard to predict. Arlin is a knife-fighter, however, and so I have had much practice. I let him think he was disemboweling me neatly, but tucked away and caught his hand at the end of its figure and disemboweled him instead. I did it of a purpose, for convenience's sake, because I wanted him out of the way. I wanted time to think about things.
Never before in my life had I killed a man for such a small reason. At times I wonder if that deed did not stain the events of the year to come.
(Perhaps that conceit is human arrogance—to think that events revolve around the condition of my own soul. Or perhaps it is a subtle awareness, and in reality my soul reflects the condition of events. Whatever, humans like myself will always think that way.)
Before the assassin could look down and see his own guts spilling, I broke his spine at the neck. That was not done for convenience, but rather because I thought he would want it so.
The last assassin did not try to resist, but stumbled away from me, face white, eyes black, his arm bone protruding from both skin and jacket. I caught him by the collar, and he watched as I dropped my breeches on the road. The poor brute of a man must have thought I was going to rape him—or even defecate on him—but I used the garment to wrap his ruined arm against his body and I led him back to the carnage.
Arlin was sitting beside her mare, regardless of the pooling blood, crouched over her own middle, and her face was not much better than my prisoner's. When she saw me she straightened and wiped the pain away.
"There were two," she said tentatively. I gestured behind me and made some sort of sound and Arlin understood. She rose as I came to her and, holding the man at arm's length, I let her lean against me.
She looked closely, not at him but at me, and she asked why my face and scalp were bleeding.
"I broke some glass," I told her and she made the traditional response: "God keep us from bad luck."
That was ugly writing, old friend, and I had to get up and weed the border for a while before I could go on. Above my desk is the very window I smashed—a window of fourteen panes—and it shows the signs of my own carpentry and glazing. (I am a better optician than I am glazier.) Now I must return to this story and write things much uglier.
Arlin had a red weal on her abdomen in the shape of an ax handle, and at the top was a patch of broken skin in the oblong of the back of an axhead. She sat on our cot, hands clenched, silent as ever and staring at the rotten old silk window screen. An hour passed and the mark darkened. Though I had explored medicine with you, Powl, in the last few years, I could do nothing to cure this and she would take nothing for the pain. I took the elixir of opium I had ready and went down the long hall to the closet where we had locked the broken assassin, and I forced a good amount down him. In a few minutes he was oblivious, and I set the arm as well as I could and wrapped it against him again.
The other beggars in the oratory warily watched me emerge with my lantern from the closet, and they said nothing. They were not used to seeing me take prisoners: no more than I was used to it. Nor did they attempt to enter Arlin's and my room, for her black silences and bright blades kept people at a distance. Some of them knew she was a woman and some did not. Some who had known had forgotten it again, as a thing too inexplicable. No one besides myself knew yet that she was carrying.
When I returned she told me she was beginning to miscarry. She said it as one would say, "I think I smell a dead mouse": with indifferent disgust, and she kept her gaze on the soft, discolored light of the screen.
We had raspberry leaf infusion, I told her. We had the stinking preparation you brought back from Felonka and left in the medicine chest, which was supposed to be effective to prevent such things.
Arlin said, "If it is dead, then it had better pass out," using the same dry tone of voice. I looked at the spreading weal and I tried to ask her if it was dead, if she had a way of knowing, but I could not speak at all. Then the blood started, and horrible cramping against the injury, and I could do nothing but hold her hand until from her grip the long bones of my own hand ground against one another.
When the worst of it had passed, I went down the hall to see to the other patient. Cown, the redhead with one eye, stopped me to ask about Arlin: was he well and would we want any dinner? I gave him a single "no" and brushed by.
The prisoner had awakened. He had hanged himself by his own belt from a roof beam and there he was, dangling, hours dead, his right arm still neatly bound to his side.
I cut him down. The next day I ripped out the silk screen (the last one left from when the oratory was rich and filled with religious). I could not bear to see the light shine through it.
This had been the third assassination attempt that summer, though the other two had been with fewer assassins, and both had been directed at myself. I had killed three men— four, if you counted the prisoner—and one had gotten away, first cutting the throat of his injured partner. This day Arlin had killed three.
And now our five years together, first with her as a student of my own teacher, and then two years wandering, seemed a paradise of innocence, not to be regained—certainly not by a man who killed as a matter of convenience.
I had been either arrogant or naive. I had thought I had the skills to control any man and keep him from injuring either me, my friends, or himself. That attitude was nothing I got from you, Powl. It had been nurtured by my years in Sordaling, where I was more experienced than any other student, and at the boundary of Norwess and Ekesh, where the worst enemy I encountered was a single renegade soldier. Now that I had met professed assassins, I knew I was not even a minor god.
The years of our honeymoon—I call it that though we could not be legally married—had been splendidly quiet. Even when Arlin pursued the blood-drinker (who turned out to be only simple and insane), that was more a matter of intellectual curiosity than of dread, and as I lay in bed in the late hours of this terrible night, I longed for the sunny triviality of worrying about the next meal, or keeping the resident beggars from one another's throats.
I had no real doubts where the assassins had come from. No one with money to hire such had any reason to want me dead except those who had inherited my father's dukedom, and who believed I would go to the king some day and demand it back.
I can understand their worry, for I know the love of countryside. I have learned to love the oratory King Rudof gave us, which is beautiful, and earlier in my life I learned to love a square block of brick and brass, which was not. I also understand the fear of being robbed, although all I possess is education, which can only be taken from me by rattling my brains hard.
And Arlin, of course. I can't say I possess her, but I might be robbed of her, and I have found that that possibility will cause me to kill.
It would have been simpler had there been only one gainer by my father's loss, but there were at least three—Towl Kuby: Viscount Endergen; Karl Bonn: Baron Fowett; and of course the Duke of Leoue, whose father Arlin had slain. The young duke was only seventeen, but his age was no impediment to employing a man for any purpose, and even if I did not find Leoue lovable, his son might have done so. If he did not, still there was the sting of humiliation and reduced holdings to spur him on.
Which of these men had sent the blight upon us, I could not know. I do not live the sort of life where I would be likely to meet any of them and judge. It could have been all of them, adding to a common fund. For his sort of problem I needed you, in your role as Earl Daraln, for politics are chess to you and you play chess very well.
But you were off alone somewhere, free of students for once, acting the eccentric philosopher and gatherer of exotic knowledge. The king, too, was off in Old North Velonya, acting the king, and there was no one here but Arlin, who is a social renegade, and myself, who have been called "simple" sufficient times for me to remember the word.
The next day Arlin continued to bleed from the miscarriage, and although she denied the loss of black blood to be dangerous, I feared her black mood.
Education changes nothing, nor does understanding. Before I endured your tutelage I was Zhurrie the Goblin, Zhurrie the Clown. Now I am ten times more the clown, and ten times happier to be one. Lady Charlan Bannering was a silent, saturnine girl and full of black secrets. Arlin the sword spinner took that persona further and darker, and his (her) secrets were deadly. As a graduate of our exclusive school (two students, one master, or perhaps three students altogether), Arlin was more brilliantly black than ever.
The next day a new beggar arrived, having heard of the shelter through a beggar's peculiar information services, and the original two beggars departed. One of these was short and rosy, and blond as a baby duck, and the other was wolfhound tall, with white skin and black hair. No one heard them leave and no one marked their absence, though according to the writ of the king, the oratory belonged to them and their heirs forever. Beggars have different writs.
The summers of high Velonya are as hot as the winters are cold, but the forests of maple and birch cut the heat into manageable slices, and even the short summer nights become cuddling-comfortable, soiled only by the presence of mosquitoes. For two years Arlin and I had floated from the North Cliffs down to Warvala City and back again, our only home being barns or byres taken for the evening in exchange for labor, or the occasional inn room which meant I had sold a pair of eyeglasses or Arlin had won a game of cards.
In the summer this style of life had been as comfortable as any other, and in spring it was paradise, but with the first snows it became deadly, and all our attention was necessary to keep us a step in front of starvation, or the loss of fingers, ears, or toes.
No man, however beggarly, sleeps in the woods of Velonya from November through March, and the gray downpours of April are not much easier. These past four months in the oratory had been an unexpected release from hell, teacher. We had refurbished the kitchen and cleaned every chimney. We had gone so far as to decide which room the baby would have. Like our own room, it had a private garden.
I didn't know who would take that room, or whether the others would use it to shit in now we were gone.
Excerpted from King of the Dead by R.A. MacAvoy. Copyright © 1991 R.A. MacAvoy. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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