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King of the Dead [Book Two of the Lens of the World Trilogy] [MultiFormat]
eBook by R. A. MacAvoy

eBook Category: Fantasy
eBook Description: Book two of the award-winning Lens of the World trilogy, this volume finds the dwarflike Nazhuret a modest and fastidious lens grinder. Although he could have chosen an exalted and wealthy life as a noble member of the court, he wishes to live in humble and undisturbed poverty with his lady Arlin. But the ordinary life that Nazhuret wants is abruptly shattered when a vicious attack by paid assassins forces him to run. With possible enemies on all sides, the only place to go is the neighboring kingdom of Rezhmia, where Nazhuret has an ancient blood-tie. However, he finds that Rezhmia is no safe haven, for dark clouds are gathering there, intent on destruction of the homeland of Nazhuret's heart. Evil tidings, treacherous family members and powerful sorcery threaten to overtake him, but Nazhuret must survive for the sake of those he loves.

eBook Publisher: E-Reads, Published: 1991
Fictionwise Release Date: October 2001


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King of the Dead
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.

Powl

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 this 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.

The first day we woke up in the woods, I felt a peace of spirit I hadn't known since before the morning in March when two men leaped out of the shrubbery at me with razors in their hands. Even had we been forced to flee into country strange to us, I doubt any Velonyan assassin could have discovered us, but these woods were our own park, by law as well as usage, and were like rooms of our house in their familiarity. Last year, passing north from one market town to another, we had discovered a stand of vine maple on an acre's island in the stream that watered the oratory plantings, and I had braided a large stand of branches into a living pavilion three or four feet off the black soil. This spring, upon settling into the oratory, I rediscovered my architecture. All the braids had matured into elflocks, but that only added to the concealment. I had scraped the dry leaves out and scattered them into the stream, so that movement within made no sound, and corrected the roofing, twig and leaf, to minimize the effect of rain. No boy of ten years could have enjoyed the making of a hidden fort more than I had, though I was twenty-eight. When I was ten, there had been no opportunity for fort-making.

Now Arlin lay upon the faded carpet I had brought from our own room, and the sunlight through the red and green leaves of the maple ceiling gave the wool more exotic colors than it had ever known. Arlin's face, too, was a study of colored shadows, making it difficult for me to trace her expression.

"I had hoped to see your face in our baby," she said, having said nothing since our dry breakfast.

I was very pleased to hear her talk, though she sounded very weary. "Then you have a broad range of curiosity, or a broader sense of humor," I answered her. "But I expect you will have that chance yet. Why not?"

My question irritated her, and under the drifting lights of pink and green I saw an expression I recognized well. "Nazhuret, that question displays the essential difference between you and me. You wake up thinking your heart's desire may come today and I wake up wondering why a tidal wave has not washed us all away ere now."

She gave a great sigh and plucked a leaf out of the ceiling. "Why not? Because I do not conceive easily, even before having an ax blow to the belly. Because you or I or both may be murdered at any moment. Because there may come a plague. There are infinite 'why nots.' It's a wonder I ever got a child started."

I remained silent long enough so she would not think I dismissed her worries out of hand. "Yet I don't think murderers will find us here, Arlin. I don't think even hounds could track us over the running water. And as for plagues -- well, what's the use of anticipating plagues?"

For perhaps a minute Arlin listened to the sounds: birdsong, the water, the hiss of leaf against leaf. "You're right about that, Nazhuret. About this concealment. Last year when we camped here, we were unobtrusive, but there was the horse. Now we are simply invisible."

I glanced out the hole in the shrubbery, small and at ground level, and thought no badger den was less obvious. By the sounds she made and the bitter smell of leaf juice in the air I knew she had destroyed the leaf in her hands.

"I miss her," said Arlin. "I miss Sabia very much. For a few days the loss of the baby overwhelmed that, but I had Sabia with me for fourteen years."

"She was a good horse," I said, though I did not have Arlin's educated appreciation for quality in the beasts.

"She was a valuable horse, when I had nothing else valuable. Three times I sold her, but I always got her back."

I almost asked Arlin whether "got her back" meant the same as "bought her back," but I decided if Arlin stole her own horse it was years ago and she was in no mood to be teased.

Still, I cannot hide my thoughts from her, even under a canopy of green and pink. "Once I stole her back, and once I bought her back -- you remember that time, for I returned in time to find you stuck between the king's temper and Powl's obstinacy."

"...In time to save the king, you mean."

She shrugged, her flat shoulder blades against the ground. "To save a king and kill a duke. Whatever. The other time I sold her I was honest about it, but she stole herself, and came to me bloody-nosed, dragging a chain cavesson. I heard later that she broke the buyer's head for him."

Arlin spoke with very little sympathy for the man, and she added, "I should have had her bred. Now there's nothing to remember."

I looked at my paramour, stretched out in all her length on the carpet, skin white against the dark wool shirt which was all she wore, and I thought of her father. "No matter, Arlin. Children are not much like their parents, anyway."

Arlin peered at me appraisingly with her cloudy gray eyes, but she let me have the last word.

There are three problems that dominate life for the homeless: staying warm, staying dry, and staying fed. The season took care of the first and the second, but it was up to me to supply the victuals.

First I raided the oratory garden -- the garden I myself had planted and kept. It was an awkward time of year for vegetables, for the greenstuffs had already bolted in the heat and the filling crops of later summer -- horsebeans, roots, and all the sundry grains -- had not properly headed yet. I found that a large number of the parsnips and turnips I had planted were already taken out half-sized, and so I sneaked into the old pantry to dip into the grain stores.

Here had been further depredation, more than one would expect, considering that only five people besides ourselves had been staying in the oratory. I heard voices beyond the wooden door, and they were very merry. Peeking through the lock-hole, I found four of our five seated around the refectory table, with an assortment of jugs and bottles scattered about. I did not need to put my nose to the hole to scent raw wine and beer.

This gave me to think. We had lived in the oratory as beggars among beggars since the first one knocked on our door in April and found us scrubbing old mildew from the windows. At least we had announced the place to be a haven given by the king to the homeless (true enough as far as that went). We had lived soberly in all, since neither Arlin nor I have a great lust after food and we were usually cooking. And since there were always more mouths than anticipated, and we were conscious that the sacks of provision which followed us from court to the borders of Norwess were charity. One had better not become too used to living on charity.

The fact that our "fellows" had squandered their little capital within two days after our departure meant to me that we had acted more the part of the landlord than we had thought, and that these others felt no stake in the future of the place.

Well, why should they? Beggars were mobile by nature; their lives had taught them to take and go. For them this sour beer might be the equivalent of old wine in crystal.

I excused them, but still I was angry, and so I took bags of flour and of broken oats, and sneaked out again to snare a rabbit. Since I hate snaring rabbits, I was in a worse mood than ever when I splashed back to our shelter.

I found Arlin engaged in a short sword dance, and I watched as I skinned the animal. I cannot dance with Arlin's grace, though I have danced with Arlin often enough. After this exercise, she had a faint glaze of sweat over her face, which would not be the case with Arlin in good health. I made a small, almost invisible fire, grilled the meat, and made oatcakes while she sat in her open, empty silence: what I call the belly of the wolf. I was determined not to let her know I had been upset by my visit to our house, and so I hummed and mumbled in my work.

Copyright © 1991 by R. A. MacAvoy


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