Read an Excerpt
KAIRN TELEST, ABARRACH
“FATHER, WE HAVE NO CHOICE. YESTERDAY, ANOTHER child died. The day before, his grandmother. The cold grows more bitter, every day. Yet,” his son pauses, “I’m not certain it is the cold, so much, as the darkness, Father. The cold is killing their bodies, but it is the darkness that is killing their spirit. Baltazar is right. We must leave now, while we still have strength enough to make the journey.”
Standing outside in the dark hallway, I listen, observe, and wait for the king’s reply.
But the old man does not immediately respond. He sits on a throne of gold, decorated with diamonds large as a man’s fist, raised up on a dais overlooking a huge hall made of polished marble. He can see very little of the hall. Most of it is lost in shadow. A gas lamp, sputtering and hissing on the floor at his feet, gives off only a dim and feeble light.
Shivering, the old king hunches his shoulders deeper into the fur robes he has piled over and around him. He slides himself nearer the front edge of the throne, nearer the gas lamp, although he knows he will extract no warmth from the flickering flame. I believe it is the comfort of the light he seeks. His son is right. The darkness is killing us.
“Once there was a time,” the old king says, “when the lights in the palace burned all night long. We danced all night long. We’d grow too hot, with the dancing, and we’d run outside the palace walls, run out into the streets beneath the cavern ceiling where it was cool, and we’d throw ourselves into the soft grass and laugh and laugh.” He paused. “Your mother loved to dance.”
“Yes, Father, I remember.” His son’s voice is soft and patient.
Edmund knows his father is not rambling. He knows the king has made a decision, the only one he can make. He knows that his father is now saying good-bye.
“The orchestra was over there.” The old king lifts a gnarled finger, points to a corner of the hall shrouded in deep darkness. “They’d play all during the sleep-half of the cycle, drinking parfruit wine to keep the fire in their blood. Of course, they all got drunk. By the end of the cycle, half of them weren’t playing the same music as the other half. But that didn’t matter to us. It only made us laugh more. We laughed a lot, then.”
The old man hums to himself, a melody of his youth. I have been standing in the shadows of the hall, all this time, watching the scene through a crack in the nearly closed door. I decide that it is time to make my presence known, if only to Edmund. It is beneath my dignity to snoop. I summon a servant, send it to the king with an irrelevant message. The door creaks open, a draught of chill air wafts through the hall, nearly dousing the flame of the gas lamp. The servant shambles into the hall, its shuffling footfalls leaving behind whispering echoes in the all-but-empty palace.
Edmund raises a warding hand, motions the servant to withdraw. But he glances out the door, acknowledges my presence with a slight nod, and silently bids me wait for him. He does not need to speak or do more than that nod of the head. He and I know each other so well, we can communicate without words.
The servant withdraws, its ambling footsteps taking it back out. It starts to shut the door, but I quietly stop it, send it away. The old king has noticed the servant’s entrance and exit, although he pretends that he doesn’t. Old age has few prerogatives, few luxuries. Indulging oneself in eccentricities is one of them. Indulging oneself in memory—another.
The old man sighs, looks down at the golden throne on which he sits. His gaze shifts to a throne that stands next to his, a throne done on a smaller scale, meant for a woman’s smaller frame, a throne that has long been empty. Perhaps he sees himself, his youthful body strong and tall, leaning over to whisper in her ear, their hands reaching out to each other. Their hands were clasped together always, whenever they were near.
He holds her hand sometimes now, but that hand is chill, colder than the cold pervading our world. The chill hand destroys the past for him. He doesn’t go to her much, now. He prefers memory.
“The gold gleamed in the light, then,” he tells his son. “The diamonds sparkled sometimes until we couldn’t look at them. They were so brilliant they’d make the eyes water. We were rich, rich beyond belief. We reveled in our wealth.
“All in innocence, I think,” the old king adds, after some thought. “We were not greedy, not covetous. ‘How they’ll stare, when they come to us. How they’ll stare when they first set eyes on such gold, such jewels!’ we’d say to ourselves. The gold and diamonds in this throne alone would have bought a nation back in their world, according to the ancient texts. And our world is filled with such treasures, lying untouched, untapped in the stone.
“I remember the mines. Ah, that was long ago. Long before you were born, My Son. The Little People were still among us, then. They were the last, the toughest, the strongest. The last to survive. My father took me among them when I was very young. I don’t remember much about them except their fierce eyes and thick beards that hid their faces and their short, quick fingers. I was frightened of them, but my father said they were really a gentle people, merely rude and impatient with outsiders.”
The old king sighs heavily. His hand rubs the cold metal arm of the throne, as if he could bring the light back to it. “I understand now, I think. They were fierce and rude because they were frightened. They saw their doom. My father must have seen it, too. He fought against it, but there was nothing he could do. Our magic wasn’t strong enough to save them. It hasn’t even been strong enough to save ourselves.
“Look, look at this!” The old king becomes querulous, beats a knotted fist on the gold. “Wealth! Wealth to buy a nation. And my people starving. Worthless, worthless.”
He stares at the gold. It looks dull and sullen, almost ugly, reflecting back the feeble fire that burns at the old man’s feet. The diamonds no longer sparkle. They, too, look cold and dead. Their fire—their life—is dependent on man’s fire, man’s life. When that life is gone, the diamonds will be black as the world around them.
“They’re not coming, are they, Son?” the old king asks.
“No, Father,” his son tells him. Edmund’s hand, strong and warm, closes over the old man’s gnarled, shivering fingers. “I think, if they were going to come, they would have come by now.”
“I want to go outside,” the old king says suddenly.
“Are you sure, Father?” Edmund looks at him, concerned.
“Yes, I’m sure!” The old king returns testily. Another luxury of old age—indulging in whims.
Wrapping himself tighter in the fur robes, he rises from the throne, descends the dais. His son stands by to aid his steps, if necessary, but it isn’t. The king is old, even by the standards of our race, who are long-lived. But he is in good physical condition, his magic is strong and supports him better than most. He has grown stoop-shouldered, but that is from the weight of the many burdens he’s been forced to bear during his long life. His hair is pure white, it whitened when he was in his middle years, whitened during the time of his wife’s brief illness that took her from him.
Edmund lifts the gas lamp, carries it with them to light the way. The gas is precious, now; more precious than gold. The king looks at the gas lamps hanging from the ceiling, lamps that are dark and cold. Watching him, I can guess his thoughts. He knows he shouldn’t be wasting the gas like this. But it isn’t wasting, not really. He is king and someday, someday soon perhaps, his son will be king. He must show him, must tell him, must make him see what it was like before. Because, who knows? The chance might come when his son will return and make it what it once had been.
They leave the throne room, walk out into the dark and drafty corridor. I stand where they may be certain to see me. The light of the gas lamp illuminates me. I see myself reflected in a mirror hanging on a wall across from them. A pale and eager face, emerging from the darkness, its white skin and glittering eyes catching the light, looming suddenly out of the shadows. My body, clad in black robes, is one with the eternal sleep that has settled on this realm. My head appears to be disembodied, hanging suspended in the darkness. The sight is frightening. I startle myself.
The old king sees me, pretends not to. Edmund makes a swift, negating gesture, shakes his own head ever so slightly. I bow and withdraw, returning to the shadows.
“Let Baltazar wait,” I hear the old king mutter to himself. “He’ll get what he wants eventually. Let him wait now. The necromancer has time. I do not.”