It was a room better suited to his character than the royal apartments by the strength and plainness of its gray stone walls and simple adornment. It had a single window, near the ceiling, to let in light which it did adequately but no more than adequately. There was a fireplace though no fire in it. Candles burned on a table near the king’s narrow bed. His eyes were shut. His body was still as if he practiced the death he would soon receive. The only indications of his rank were the golden jeweled rings upon his fingers.
Kalesthenes the Chamberlain motioned the wizard into the room and said, “He’s been still like that for three days now.”
The wizard nodded but said nothing as he moved to the king’s side and felt for his pulse. It was there but it was faint. Only when he had gently put the king’s arm down did he speak, and then quietly. “The Doctors?”
“Smell the air. It still stinks with their potions.” Kalesthenes spoke in cold, hard tones. “They’ve smeared him with salves and unguents, poured sour juices down his throat, burnt runes in that fireplace and scrawled mystic emblems on the floor with the ashes.” He spat. “A pox – their own – upon them.”
The king breathed raggedly and faintly through slightly parted lips.
“Have you gotten food into him?”
“Broth, poured down his throat when he comes partly conscious, which happens occasionally. Nothing more.” Terihm shrugged. “He’s dying. The doctors know that much.”
“The bonesetters know nothing. They failed.”
“They knew they were powerless. They did what they did.”
Kalesthenes rubbed big, scarred hands against the rough cloth of the workman’s trousers he wore instead of robes of office and looked around. He spied an empty chair and went to it. “What a pious cynic you are, Terihm. Don’t apologize for them. As an object lesson three of them were put to death while the others watched.” Kalesthenes smiled coldly. “Leeches.”
“Don’t you think that was appropriate?” Kalesthenes turned his head away and coughed to clear his throat. He was a peasant, big ruddy-faced and angry. He wore peasant’s clothes like a badge of office. Terihm began hearing stories about him almost the moment he set foot in this land. How Kalesthenes was a soldier whose recklessness, backed with courage, brought him to Arjhis’s attention. His shrewdness and single-mindedness kept him there. His appointment as chamberlain was controversial but not many of his opponents were brave enough to advertise their opposition where he could hear it. Looking at the man, Terihm could understand that.
Kalesthenes said, “We have pits in the dungeon. Three surgeons, selected fairly by lot were chained to the floor of one. Leeches were applied to their naked bodies. Lots of leeches. They were left there until they got so swollen they fell off. Then we put on more leeches to replace them.”
“Possibly,” admitted Kalesthenes, “though I felt it instructive to the other doctors.”
“But there wasn’t anything they could do,” the wizard said without expression. “Four men die where only one would have.”
“The fourth is not yet dead,” Kalesthenes said. He got to his feet and approached Terihm. His manner was that of a bluff farmer discussing crops. “Nor will he be. That’s why you’re here Sir Wizard.”
“He will die. I cannot stop that.”
“Then you will bring him back to life. Or else die also. Oh not with leeches, not like the doctors. In some new way, some more painful way better suited as instruction to the next wizard I bring in. I like things simple.”
Terihm shrugged. “I am no necromancer.”
Kalesthenes studied his face a moment before speaking. “Do you want to die?”
“Of course I do.”
Kalesthenes was still watching Terihm’s face. His reaction gave no indication what he found there. He stuck his thumbs into the waistbands of his trousers and hitched them up over his belly. “Good. You’re in luck. Should you fail, whether by neglect or error, or any other reason, including simple fate, you will endure a most disagreeable death. But before you do we will select one village and I will turn it over to my soldiers. They will burn it to the ground and bring every man, woman and child here and you will watch each one of those poor innocents die in the most horrible way we can devise.”
“You are good at that, I suspect.”
“I am good at what I have to be good at. I don’t have to like what I’m good at.” He seemed older and more tired than when they had come into this room just moments ago.
Again he wiped his scarred hands on the legs of his gray trousers. “I’ll leave a man to help you. He can get whatever you need. His name is Gom and he has experience helping sorcerers. He used to be an embalmer.”
Gom was thin and balding. He had a squint that gave his narrow face a suspicious cast. But his eyes, which were brown beneath their drooping eyelids, struck Terihm as the sort of eyes that missed very little. Almost as soon as Kalesthenes was gone, Terihm wrote down a list of things he needed and handed it to Gom, wondering if the man could read. He could. Gom’s face registered only mild surprise at some of the items on the list. Then he left to get them.
The list was important. There actually were things on it Terihm might need depending on the direction circumstances took him. But it was unlikely that Gom would have been given the job of assisting him unless he was firmly in Kalesthenes’ pocket. So the list had a second purpose: to buy Terihm some time alone to think.
Once he was alone with the dying king, Terihm began a careful examination. Arjhis paid no heed to the resultant proddings and probings. If possible, Terihm wanted to determine whether or not the king’s illness was from natural causes. He could not be sure, of course. But the examination suggested natural causes were likely.
That done with, he turned his attention to his own situation. Sticking his head through the doorway he confirmed the presence of two guards in the passageway beyond. He justified his looking by demanding a pitcher of water.
His real interest was the room he was in. It had one window, square and uncovered, near the ceiling. It was large enough to squeeze through, should he find a way to climb up to it. He doubted he would have the need. He certainly lacked the inclination.
The room was of a comfortable size in that it held the bed, two chairs, a small table and some shelves that probably weren’t strong enough to support his weight, beneath the window. All that still left a respectable amount of floorspace. There was the fireplace, not large since the room was not large, and the mantle above it. The rugs were simple but of good workmanship. Terihm made a point of checking under them to see if he might find hidden doors. There were none at least under the rugs. The walls also seemed solid.
Someone knocked on the door. It opened from outside by one of the guards, who let in a serving girl who carried the pitcher of water Terihm had asked for. The guard stayed outside and closed the door once the girl was inside.
Terihm indicated the table and moved aside as she went to put the pitcher down. He paid her no attention as he continued to discreetly study the walls. But his inspection was interrupted by a small sound, which he realized was a throat being cleared. It sounded nothing at all like Kalesthenes.
The woman – no his first impression had been correct: she was a girl – stood next to the table where she had placed the water. She dropped her servants’ veil, breaking local custom, so Terihm thought.
He saw a small face with a pointed chin and a morsel of a nose between very large grave eyes. She had reddish brown hair pulled tight against her scalp; the fold of her veil wrapped around her neck concealed its length. Her small mouth was fixed in a line as stubborn as the set of her jaw.
“Well?” she demanded.
“Well, indeed.” Terihm rubbed his chin. “Uh, thank you for the water. You may go now.”
“What sort of wizard are you?” Her tone was imperious indeed for a serving girl. A strange country this, reflected Terihm. Suspecting things were about to take a complex turn, he went to the chair Kalesthenes had used and sat down. p>“I asked you,” the girl said again, “what sort of wizard are you? Can you not recognize a princess when you see one?”
“The ones I am used to don’t dress like you do. Or serve water to itinerant wizards. Especially itinerant wizards who are prisoners.”
“You’re being flippant. I am the Princess Susina, heir to King Arjhis and you a mere wizard must bestow on me the proper respect. How dare you be seated while I am in the room!”
“Please excuse me. The royal customs around here are somewhat confusing.”
He was starting to grow impatient. So far the girl had no more than glanced at her father. But she surprised him. She gave him a withering glare, then moved past him to her father’s bedside. “All you need to know of our local customs,” she said, “is that it is traditional that the rightful inheritor of the throne will do what must be done to overcome those who would usurp her.” There was a moment’s pause. “Did you examine him, wizard?”
”Yes,” he said. “I found a lump of great size in his abdomen. I don’t think there’s much can be done except make him as comfortable as possible.”
She glared at him. “You have been hired by the chamberlain to do some great evil – ”
He didn’t know whether to sigh or laugh. He said, “I haven’t been hired by anyone. I said I was itinerant and that’s true. I meant it when I used the word ‘prisoner’ also. They found me on the road and knew by the amulet hung from my neck that I’m a wizard. So they dragged me here. I’ve been given orders and threatened with death for myself and others if I fail. Considering the treatment, I’m not surprised there aren’t any local wizards around to drag in here.”
From the expression on her face, Terihm thought she might actually stamp her foot in angry frustration. He had never seen a princess do that; a tavern wench or two, but no princesses. But instead he uttered a word he never realized princesses knew found the other chair and pulled it near him. Her face was as suffused and red as Kalesthenes’ had been for a while.
“What can you do for him?”
“Nothing the surgeons Kalesthenes murdered couldn’t do better.”
“Can you save his life?”
“No. I can’t even prolong it. And if I could I doubt he would be grateful. It would be painful and uncomfortable living with that thing in him.”
“I will pay you all the gold and precious jewels you have ever imagined to kill Kalesthenes.”
“I may have a better imagination than you think,” he said.
“Will you hear me out?”
“You will learn a lot then. I am the Princess Susima and that man dying on the bed is my father King Arjhis. Our family has ruled this kingdom for five hundred years. It is our right. Chamberlain Kalesthenes is a mere peasant a common soldier who worked his way up through the ranks into my father’s personal service. Through cunning and guile he persuaded my father to give him a high office. And as my father’s health has failed Kalesthenes has conspired to wrest the throne from me for his own purpose.”
“Now he is faced with a grave problem. If my father dies I will ascend to the throne and he will find himself removed from office. From power itself. He cannot abide such things. So he has hired you to arrange that things be different.”
“He is not named in your father’s will as regent?”
“I am older than I seem, wizard. I will not need a regent.”
“How does he plan to stop you?”
Her blazing eyes narrowed but she said, “Did he not fill you in on the details? Once my father is dead he will have you bring him back to life. Is that what not what he asked you?”
“He never asked for anything he felt he could demand, this Kalesthenes of yours.”
“Of course not. But because you fear him, you will do what Kalesthenes asks.”
“And what will that accomplish?”
“You are toying with me, wizard. That is dangerous.”
“I apologize if it sounds like that,” Terihm said. “But I want to hear what you have to say. How you say it. Kalesthenes did not take me into his confidence but I formed an opinion. I want to see if you confirm it.”
Her scowl showed just a tinge of puzzlement. She said, “Dead and resurrected, my father will be but a puppet under the thrall of whatever villain exerts his will on him through sorcery. We know who that will be. Then my father will ‘live’ just long enough to change the law, something he would never do unless under the control of some magic. Is that not what Kalesthenes plans?”
“I am not in his confidence.”
“He puts little trust even in his henchmen,” she said. “Is such a man to be trusted himself? Therefore –”
“Therefore,” Terihm cut her off, “It would behoove you to listen to me.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“It’s my turn to talk and yours to listen,” the wizard said, not without amusement in his tone. “To begin with, I am not the hireling of Kalesthenes or anyone else. That includes you. Secondly I have only the most general idea of what is going on. I suspect much of it may be as you say. Kalesthenes does seem rather used to power and eager to wield it. But so do you. It is possible his motivation may simply be that he thinks he is better suited to rule than you are. And that also is possible.”
“How dare you –”
Terihm held up a finger to silence her. “Thirdly however, and in your favor, Kalesthenes seems a murderer. That is in your favor because you don’t seem to be a murderess as yet. Though you do seem to show promise that you could develop along those lines given the right nudging.”
“Do you not cherish your tongue, foreigner? How dare –”
“Number four, the people.”
“The more you speak the more you demonstrate your ignorance of the ways of the world, fool wizard. My people love me. Furthermore, everything I do is for them. For as my father often says, a monarch rules not at the head of the kingdom but in the hearts of the people.”
“Pretty words. What do they mean?”
Her lips drew back from gleaming white teeth. Her expression was so much that of a wolf that for a moment he thought she might bite him. “Oh most ignorant man –”
Terihm nodded. “Of course. I don’t deny it. I am, after all, a human being and therefore profoundly ignorant just like a chamberlain, for example. Or a soldier, or a doctor. Or a princess.”
“Do you forget who you’re speaking to?”
“I believe you’ve informed me fully. Tell me, how long can you take simply to deliver a pitcher of water? Not that I suppose the guards will seriously question my dallying with a young girl as attractive as you appeared, even in your disguise.”
“When I leave you will thank me for helping you wash the king’s limbs,” she said huffily.
“If you like. Now listen to me. You’ve never heard of me. My name is Terihm and yes, I am a wizard. My home, or former home, is far from here.”
“You should not have left it.”
“I won’t argue with that. I had reasons, though, many of them, one of which…” He paused a moment, considering his words, thinking about how to continue. “I left it for the reason that I seek my death.”
That caught her attention. For a moment her mouth hung open and her eyes were wide. But only for a moment. That expression quickly gave way to one of suspicion. “If you want to die, why couldn’t you arrange that at home?”
“I don’t want to die, Sweet Princess. I have no choice. It seems a very special death is waiting for me. But it has nothing to do with this.”
“Then why are you telling me about it?”
“So you might understand a few things more clearly. One of the things is that I can’t die except in one way.”
“And what is that way?” the princess asked.
“It is a geas upon me, a compulsion, an obligation –”
“I know what a geas is.”
“Of course. It works like this. I can tell no one what it is. When my death comes, I cannot resist it. Until then, I cannot die. I know only that it will come when the time is right.”
She said, “A remarkable spell. And a convenient one.”
“You really think that?”
“Of course I do. Who wouldn’t? You can face any threat with no fear of death, so long as it does not present the death you have been promised to meet.”
“And that’s convenient.”
“Yes.” Her voice grew softer, almost cordial. “If you are to be eaten by a dragon, you have no need to fear blade or fire.”
“I don’t think it would be comfortable to roast at a stake for a very long time.”
She looked at him blankly for a moment. “Well, no, I hadn’t thought about that. But you could still do a great many things with complete confidence.”
“I only do what I have to. That is another geas upon me.”
“Are you saying you will not help me?”
“Can you give me reason to?”
“I am the princess. The rightful heir.”
“And he the rightful monarch,” said Terihm, pointing toward the bed where the king lay. “If I do what Kalesthenes asks, he continues to rule.”
But knowing he was powerless to that that, he slumped back in his chair and said nothing. When he looked at the princess again, there were tears in her eyes.
Silently she continued to cry.
“Please. I don’t want him to die. He’s my father. He’s precious to me. Save him if you can. But I don’t want him to fall under the power, either by sorcery or influence of Kalesthenes. Don’t you understand that?”
“The older I grow, it seems the fewer things I understand.”
“You are not so old.” “And I won’t get much older. So if I’m to enjoy the wisdom of old age I must do it while I’m still young.” He sighed. “You’ve handed me an enigma, Susina. But then so has Kalesthenes. I can’t trust either of you. Do you understand that?”
She surprised him. She said, “Yes.”
“Then you understand my difficulty.”
“But do you understand mine?” Her tone was now one of sincere entreaty. “I must win out over those who would attack my birthright.”
Terihm decided it was hopeless. He got to his feet. “I can make only one promise. It is that I’ll do whatever I can to help your father. I don’t promise that it will be much, but I will do what I can. Will you accept that, my serving wench?”
“You won’t help me?”
“It’s not my battle.”
She grew angry, a seeming habit with her. “Then what is?”
“I wish I knew. I really wish I knew. But time grows long. Let’s pour the water out of that pitcher so you can take it back. Put your veil back –”
The door opened so silently Terihm did not notice. Kalesthenes said, “There is no need for that, wizard.” He advanced toward Susina. Two guards followed him. “So you found it necessary to resort to deceit to come here?”
“He’s my father. I have the right –”
“To what? The right to murder?” His voice rumbled with anger. “Guards seize her. Take her away and hold her until I can decide what to do with her.”
“You can’t do this,” she said.
“Oh, be quiet,” said Kalesthenes. He sounded tired. “You came here to interfere with the efforts to save your father. That is attempted murder. Get her out of my sight.”
He gave a broad gesture and the guards stepped forward and took her by the arms. “Let me go,” she said. “How dare you touch me.”
The guards ushered her out of the room.
Kalesthenes turned to Terihm and said, “What did she tell you?”
“She didn’t ask me to harm her father.”
“She’ll have a trial to decide that. I asked a question.”
“You’re very good at questions,” Terihm said. “Questions and demands.”
“And you are dangerously good at making me angry, foreigner. Can you save the king?”
“It is not in my power to prevent death.”
“Are you really so little a wizard as that?”
“I am as little and as limited as a wizard can be,” Terihm said. “A wizard can be quite small. And quite limited.”
“Especially if he works at it,” Kalesthenes said. “Well that leaves the other thing.”
“I’m no necromancer.”
Kalesthenes glared at him with eyes that were red rimmed with fury. “I’m not a murderer. Yet I am prepared to kill you and to kill an entire village of men, women and children unless you do what I tell you to.”
“There’s a saying – ‘as cold-blooded as a wizard.’ That’s you is it?” He looked at Terihm as if appraising the sort of man he was. At last he said “I bet if I put you to the torture wheel you’d take it calmly enough until you died of it wouldn’t you? But what if I put someone else on that wheel and made you watch? My guess is you’d come around.”
“That’s not very cold-blooded of me, chamberlain.”
Kalesthenes spoke slowly saying each word carefully. “I promised her a trial. But I can break that promise. Imagine the small and pale and very fragile body of Princess Susina stretched tightly on the rack and my most skillful torturer taking an iron mallet and shattering her bones, one by one.”
“Is that the sort of man you are, Kalesthenes?”
“It’s the sort of man I can become if I have to. I won’t enjoy it but I can force myself to do it if I have to.”
“I don’t understand something,” Terihm said. “If I should do what you ask of me what will you gain?”
“Didn’t you see her? Didn’t you hear her speak? She’s not ready to rule. The king should have made provisions while he was still healthy but he did not. But they have to be made even if it means reviving him for a time from death.”
Kings May Die