“You can leave,” Terihm told him. But the former embalmer said, “You will need someone to assist you. Who better than I?”
“I don’t need your help.”
“Ah, but surely –”
“When I fail – and I will fail – they intend to kill me. I suspect they will kill you as well.”
“When you put it that way,” said Gom, not bothering to finish the thought. But he added, “I will not be far away.”
And then it was just him. Terihm looked at the items Gom had gathered up for him setting aside those he thought he might actually find useful. Presently the door opened and Kalesthenes and his ever-present pair of guards came in.
Kalesthenes indicated the pile of items on the table in the room’s center. “Is that everything you’ll need?”
“Those things to the side there,” Terihm answered.
“You show some wisdom after all. But even so, I want you to know I don’t trust you,” Kalesthenes said.
“I’ve guessed as much.”
“It’s worth repeating. Come with me.”
Terihm did not like the terse sound of those two sentences. He decided argument was not only pointless just now, but might be dangerous. There was a grim, hard expression on the chamberlain’s face and there were shadows under his eyes. He was a troubled man and Terihm did not judge him to be a man who succumbed easily to such a state.
They passed through a narrow corridor illuminated with torchlight, then down winding steps that led much deeper into the catacombs beneath the palace. Kalesthenes led the way, followed by Terihm, the two guards bringing up the rear. The considerable extent of these underground warrens was beginning to impress itself upon Terihm.
He recalled Kalesthenes’ story about the doctors and the leeches and his reference to pits as if the dungeons held more than one.
At last the stairs came out into a great chamber that was like a natural cavern, though he thought the vaulted ceiling may have been carved by human hands. It was big enough that great bonfires were necessary to light it. They were set here and there in areas surrounded by circularly arranged stones placed at seemingly random intervals throughout the grotto. Above these areas there were shafts drilled into the ceiling to carry the smoke upward out of the ceiling. Other shafts provided air. Even so, Terihm, who was never comfortable beneath the ground could not help but notice that not even the pungent tang of trapped smoke quite concealed the air’s mustiness.
“This way,” Kalesthenes said and led them toward a place where a large screen stood.
On the other side of the screen the king’s remains lay on a pallet atop a dais of stone. His pleading eyes were shut. He was clad in yellow robes but there was no other mark of his rank visible. Even the rings he had worn before were gone. Kalesthenes gestured at him once and then turned away. The guards indicated with their swords that he was to follow.
They led him around another screen, taller than the first. There, watched by six guards, stood Susina.
Her small face was pale and drawn. Her eyes were as large and grave as before, the set of her jaw as stubborn. She no longer wore servant’s clothing, but a robe as royally yellow and as plain as her father’s burial garment. Her reddish-brown hair was pulled back tightly from her face in what appeared to be the same style as before. But with no cowl to cover it he now saw that it was long, hanging to her shoulders and a bit beyond.
Behind her was a pit.
“Forget about the village I promised you before,” Kalesthenes said. “We will substitute the Princess instead.” He turned and studied Terihm’s face closely. “After all, a princess is at least as valuable as a princess, wouldn’t you say?” His tone suggested no pleasure for the deed he was about to do, but Terihm judged him now to be the sort of man who deeply enjoyed self-sacrifice at the expense of others. Besides, he was just as stubborn as Susina.
Terihm said, “May the gods damn you.”
“Eventually they’ll damn all of us. But this girl’s immediate fate is in your hands. Take a look in the pit.”
Terihm moved past the princess to the pit’s edge and looked down. He was conscious of the princess, rigid, not turning to watch him or look into the pit. In the darkness below Terihm’s feet, something moved.
“I can’t tell what’s down there,” Terihm said. “It’s too large for leeches.”
“It’s something like them, even so. A pet of her father’s, one he found politically useful.”
Terihm turned away from the pit. “You have a sense of poetry.”
Kalesthenes, in sudden anger, pounded the air in front of him with his fist. “I don’t do this because I want to. I’d be as pleased with a simpler solution.”
Kalesthenes’ mouth opened but for a moment he said nothing. He seemed surprised. “Are you suggesting compromise, wizard?”
“Have you tried to find one?”
“No. No, I haven’t.” He turned to the girl. “Well, Princess Susina? Is there some sort of compromise we might arrive at?”
“Your agreement that I will rule until such time as I judge you fit to replace me.”
“And that will be when?”
“When it happens – if it ever does.”
Susina barely moved as she spoke to him. Something splashed in the shallow water at the bottom of the pit. She didn’t look at that, either.
There was silence for a long moment. Finally Kalesthenes said, “Well?”
“I will not agree.”
The chamberlain threw up his hands in exasperation and turned back to face Terihm. “Do you see now what I’m up against? She has no reason. She’s as stubborn as her father. I’m left no choice.”
“It seems to me you have several choices,” Terihm said.
"Perhaps, but you have none, wizard. Unless you want her to die. Guards! Put her in the basket.”
Near the edge of the pit there was a wicker basket large enough to hold a person. Terihm saw that it was fastened with a rope that led upward into the shadows near the ceiling. A moment’s search and he spotted the tackle fastened to the rock dome above the pit. There was a winch on the far side and two workmen stood by, ready to operate it at Kalesthenes’ command.
Two guards took Susina by the arms and forced her over to the basket. One of them lifted her into it. They held her there while the workmen used the winch to wind the rope until it began to pull the basket toward the edge. Only then did they let go of her.
“Hold the rope, Susina,” Kelesthenes called with what seemed like genuine concern. “Else you’ll fall in.”
“I am Princess Susina to you, you traitor!”
Then the basket lifted off the floor and swung out over the pit.
The rim of the basket came just above Susina’s knees. She cried out as the basket swung and grabbed for the rope, holding it tightly. She stared down once, clutched more desperately at the rope and looked up. Something splashed excitedly in the pool below. The basket swung like a pendulum.
“There’s no need for this,” Terihm said, anger in his voice at last. Kalesthenes said nothing, but turned around and walked toward the table on which lay the king’s remains. Terihm followed him.
At the table Kalesthenes turned, facing Terihm. Rubbing his hands hard against the rough material of his trousers, Kalesthenes said, “She has no concept of how a kingdom is run. Well, neither did her father. These past few years I ruled here. Me. Oh, I kowtowed and fawned over that dead fool of a father of hers, but it was my will and my hand that set the destiny of this kingdom. Her birthright means nothing. I’ve earned this kingdom, earned it with sweat and dreams. The king and princess between them have done nothing to keep this country going; not a thing.” The old man shouted an oath. “She should be grateful I’ve offered to let her stay on as a figurehead. She’s earned not even that. Do you hear me, foreigner? So you understand what I’m saying?”
Terihm pushed past him and glanced over the way his equipment was laid out on the table. “Better than you do, I suspect,” he said, his back to Kalesthenes.
Kalesthenes growled, “You’re no better than they are. You’d best get to work, wizard. That rope she hangs by is old. It might just break.”
“Then move away and leave me to my work.”
“I belong here,” Kalesthenes said. He pounded his own chest with his open hand. “I’m the ruler. The lawmaker. Your orders mean nothing.”
Terihm faced him and spoke in a calm tone. “I’m the wizard. You’re welcome to stand anywhere you wish, of course. But I will not be accountable for the consequences.”
Kalesthenes hesitated as if a little corner of reality were revealing itself to him. His eyes took on a puzzled look. “What are you doing?”
“Just as you asked, you fool. I’m going to wake up this sleeping tyrant.”
In hushed tones Kalesthenes said, “By the gods.”
“More likely by the devils,” Terihm said, his tone resigned. “Now get out of my way before some stray being I conjure up has you for breakfast.”
The chamberlain moved back to what he probably judged to be a safe distance. Terihm did not pause to advice or argue with him.
He had no books, no help but the amulet dangling from his neck and the geas upon him. And his mind. His memory was as filled as many libraries. He knew, as he had known all along, that he could do this thing.
He knew also that it would not be good.
Three guards, armed with spears and swords, stood only slightly farther away from him than Kalesthenes. Stubborn Kalesthenes, as stubborn as that princess he was so casually prepared to kill. Well, it was time Terihm displayed a little stubbornness of his own. He set his thoughts and began.
There were thirteen candles, each of black tallow. He arranged them around the pallet in a random-appearing pattern that was actually precisely and complexly calculated. With a piece of charcoal he drew a different design on the floor near each candle. He connected them with lines. At last, as the princess overhead whimpered in fresh fear he lit the candles.
And then began his chant.
Almost at once the candles began pouring off smoke. The streamers from each joined and intertwined with the rest, gathering into a thick cloud that hovered above the bed and rose upward almost to the ceiling. Terihm, for the space of thirteen heartbeats, stopped chanting. And then, loudly, he said a single word.
Lightning and thunder played suddenly in the cloud of smoke.
Terihm heard a clatter behind him and hoped it was nothing more than one of the guards dropping his spear. Something, a mass darker than the smoke, formed in the cloud.
“Damn you!” shouted Kalesthenes. “I asked you to raise the dead, not summon demons. If this is some trick, wizard, you’ll die first!”
Terihm glared back at him. “Silence!” he said so commandingly even Kalesthenes stopped yelling.
A dark mass writhed and moved in the smoke. Terihm, hoping he was strong enough to control the thing and certain he was not, watched its struggles. It seemed to be contained.
He had not choice but to assume it was so; the crucial moment was drawing close. He shoved aside his fears and pulled his attention from the cloud, directing it toward the corpse of the king.
The remains of King Arjhis lay on the pallet in the stiffness of rigor mortis and the stillness of finality. What would happen now depended on nothing more or less than Terihm’s will. He wondered if he had any left. But wondering was pointless; the answer would be plain within moments. Terhihm pronounced a second word of power and took the king’s right hand in both his own. He began to knead the flesh of the hand and the wrist above it, as if the cold that had invaded it was nothing more than wintry chill. The stiffness of the corpse did not permit movement of the hand or fingers, but the skin responded to his efforts without resilience.
Then he dropped the hand, spoke a third word of power and stepped away from the pallet.
Lightning flashed in the cloud, blanching the chamber with its glare. One of the guards gasped and it may have been that Susina did also. The deafening thunder that followed the lightning drowned out such things.
Wisps of smoke seeped from the cloud and brushed the lifeless form beneath it. A drop of sweat stung Terihm’s eyes; he had not been aware any sweat had formed on him. Again the lightning crackled.
And then the dead king moved.
Terihm heard the shouts of the guards behind them. Kalesthenes said nothing but Terihm heard a sharp intake of breath that was either the chamberlain’s or his own. The princess cried out.
Terihm backed three steps away from the cloud, as far as he could go and still exert control over the thing in it. The king sat up.
It did not move so much stiffly as uncertainly. It’s head moved and the eyes stared about the room with a fear-crazed look. The king swung his legs over the side of the pallet and struggled to stand. He cried out; birth, even second birth, is always an ordeal. He leaned back on the pallet and looked around once more, seeming to see things that he had not seen, or at least not noticed before. He stared a moment at Terihm, but not knowing the wizard, could only stare at him with consternation and befuddlement.
Then he saw Kalesthenes.
The chamberlain stepped forward. “King Arjhis,” he said in a hoarse voice so that the words were barely audible. He dropped to his knees.
“What is this?” the king said in a rasping, difficult voice. “O King, hear me --.”
The king’s eyes widened, his head jerked around and then he looked back at Kalesthenes. “What is this?” he said again and this time he had no difficulty speaking. His voice rose to an angry shout. “I’m alive! Why am I alive?”
“Sire,” Kalesthenes said, weakly.
“At whose request? Who is responsible for this? You, Kalesthenes. Was it you who did this? Was it you who dared disturb me?”
Kalesthenes, still on his knees, spoke in his most obsequious tone. “It is a necessary thing that we have done, my king. You are needed here. There is a matter you have left undone. It regards the governance of this kingdom -- ”
“The kingdom? What do I care about the kingdom now? I cared little enough for it when I was alive. The dreams! I was dreaming, you fool! So wonderful. Now --.” The king pushed himself erect and started toward Kalesthenes.
“Do you know what death is like, Kalesthenes? Do you know what you have brought me back to?”
“My lord, King Arjhis – ”
“You are subjecting me to pain, great pain, you fool.”
“Please, King Arjhis! Please!”
The king had moved to a point where his daughter could see him from where she still dangled precariously in the basket. She screamed. His head jerked around and his dead eyes saw her. “What is this?” he cried. “What is this?”
“Father, save me.”
“My daughter? Is this Susina?” the dead man moved toward the pit.
“Take care, King Arjhis,” Kalesthenes said, scrambling to his feet. “You could fall in.”
Arjhis stopped and looked down, as if noticing the edge of the pit for the first time. “I see.”
“Father, get me down from here,” the girl said. Her voice was quivering in fear.
“No! If I jump, I’ll be killed.”
“And be with me,” he said. “Yes, with me.” He reached out for her.
His reach was too short by a considerable margin, but the princess pulled back as far as she could, almost upsetting the basket in the process. She sobbed hysterically.
The king looked around and saw the winch and its two operators. “Ah,” he said, starting toward them.
Kalesthenes stepped in front of him and held up his hand as if to press it against the king’s chest. The king stopped as if uncertain how to react to that. Kalesthenes said, “Is that what you want? Companionship in death?” He had his self-control back now. “I can grant you that. I can provide you with her company, if that’s what you want. And all in return for your mark on a sheet of paper, that’s all. A law, a change of law, is all that it will take.”
The dead king pushed him aside as if he had the weight and substance of a feather. Kalesthenes sprawled to the floor. The king proceeded toward the winch. The two operators abandoned their posts with remarkable haste, leaving the winch secured by a single braking lever.
Susina cried out.
The thing in the cloud pushed and struggled to get out and only Terihm’s spell and force of will contained it.
Kalesthenes scrambled to his feet and grabbed at the corpse’s arm. A single backward blow sent the chamberlain sprawling to the floor again.
Up to now the guards had done nothing more risky than hold their positions. One of them moved his spear to port and moved toward Arjhis. He said, “Halt!” in such a weak voice he sounded like a child. The dead king paid him no attention and continued toward the winch.
The guard made a decision as to what the better part of valor was and retreated to his former position. Kalesthenes, blood trickling from the corner of his mouth, made the effort required to pick himself up again. He called, “I promise you, your daughter will join you if only you sign this paper.”
The king paid him no attention and reached out his dead hands for the winch.
Terihm darted toward him.
He pushed against the closest guard. The man fell, dropping his spear. Terihm snatched it up and rushed to the king. Misinterpreting Terihm’s intentions, Kalesthenes yelled, “No!” but didn’t move to stop him; perhaps he was paralyzed with surprise.
When he was close enough, Terihm shoved the shaft of the spear between the king’s legs and tripped him. Arjhis yelped with surprise and went down. Terihm thrust the spear into the winch, jamming the mechanism. Leaving it there, he rushed to the edge of the pit.
Susina was too far from the edge of the pit to jump. Terihm looked around for something, perhaps another spear with which he could pull the basket closer. The princess clutched the rope tightly, gibbering with panic. The thing at the bottom of the pit thrashed the water furiously.
The king laboriously struggled to his feet.
Then several things happened all at once.
The king turned toward Terihm. A new and, if possible, more furious array of lightning flashed from the cloud over the death pallet. Something dark and shadowy inside seemed to tear at the smoke itself. And the grotto became terribly cold.
Susina’s sobbing took on the quality of a scream.
Terihm turned. Something – it is not correct to call it an arm and hand, but it was not exactly a tentacle, either – reached out from the cloud. King Arjhis saw it and gave a screech. He tried to turn and run.
To the demon of the cloud the first priority lay in recovering that which he had spent in reanimating the corpse of the dead king. The hand or tentacle or whatever it really was, closed on the king and lifted him high in the air. Susina screamed again and rocked dangerously in the basket.
The king’s struggles seemed purposeless and futile as the creature dragged him back into the cloud. Terihm swore an oath and moved toward the pallet. While the demon was still in the cloud he could be locked away. But a new sound issued from the pit and Terihm realized the beast was trying to climb the wall. In its excitement it might be able to.
One demon at a time, thought Terihm, rushing toward the pallet. The one in the cloud was more dangerous than most.
To stop it he needed to do two things: utter a chant, and snuff out the flames of the thirteen candles. But before he could start, Kalesthenes was in front of him, arms spread out. “What are you going to do?” he demanded.
“Out of my way,” Terihm said.
“What are you trying to do?”
“Drive away a demon,” said Terihm. He tried to push past Kalesthenes but the man grappled with him.
“No. Make him give back the king! The king has not signed my law! The demon has to give him back.”
Terihm hit him in the stomach. Kalesthenes was much the stronger man but he was also older and slower. Terihm’s action caught him by surprise. The chamberlain doubled over in pain and fell to the floor. Terihm ran to the candles and, uttering the necessary chant, put each one out in turn.
The display of lightning in the demon’s smoke cloud became brilliant, the thunder deafening. Kalesthenes, writhing on the floor, threw up his arm to shield his face. Terihm covered his ears with his hands and looked around for a spear or something he could use in place of a spear. He was in luck. The spearmen had wisely abandoned the grotto minutes before. And in their panic, they had abandoned their weapons also. Terihm picked up a spear and headed for the pit.
A loud splash informed him that the thing that inhabited the pit was no longer trying to climb, but jump to the top. A glimpse of it as it tried again, convinced Terihm it could succeed.
Susina seemed convinced of that also. She was shaking badly and threatening to spill herself from the basket. Terihm shouted her name and held out the spear. The thunder was dying away gradually to a low rumble and would soon be silent altogether. The princess reached out for the spear and missed it just as the creature jumped again. Strong, clawed fingers on long arms, raked the bottom of the basket.
The second time, as if the claws had inspired her to accomplishment. Susina caught the spear Terihm handed out to her. She pulled herself as far toward Terihm as she could. “Jump,” he ordered her. She balked and he snapped the command again.
“I can’t,” she said, stricken. But even as she spoke, she put her foot on the edge of the basket and propelled herself toward him.
Somehow she made it. He caught her in both his arms and they fell sprawling into a heap on the floor. The impact almost knocked the wind out of him. The princess was bawling now, like a child. Terihm got to his feet and could see ample reason for her tears.
The thing in the pit had caught the lip of its domicile and was hanging precariously on the far side, twisting about to see where its prey had gone.
“You’ve ruined it all,” Kalesthenes said. Terihm turned just in time to see the chamberlain rushing toward him, a spear held aloft. “You’ve ruined everything,” he cried. “You’ve ruined me.”
Before Terihm could react, the spear was driven deep into his heart.
The pain rattled through his chest and suddenly he had no air to breathe. Something pounded in his ears. He fell to his knees. Kalesthenes yanked the spear out and fresh pain exploded in his chest as blood fountained from the wound. Kalesthenes drew back for another strike. Terihm saw the pit-beast’s hand catch the edge of the ground right behind Kalesthenes.
Instinctively he tried to warn him but found that talk was impossible for him. The beast’s other hand grabbed the chamberlain’s ankle. Kalesthenes looked shocked, then screamed and fell backwards. Terihm heard the splash that came moments later and the screams that followed as the water threshed and churned.
After a while the screaming stopped. But the splashes continued for several minutes more.
Then Terihm passed out.
When Terihm was well enough to travel, the princess called on him and demanded that he leave. “After all,” she said. “I owe you nothing.”
Remembering that Kalesthenes once had called him a pious cynic, Terihm said, “Royal gratitude is a long and honorable tradition.”
“As I said, I owe you nothing.” She seemed older now than when he had first seen her, though still as childish. “You were working for that traitor Kalesthenes, and don’t inform me of the threats he made against my own safety; you would have helped him anyway. That’s how you wizards are. Besides, you faced no risks. You have a geas upon you to seek your own death. No other death can touch you, can it? Oh, yes, you were perfectly safe the whole time. Safe from the demon, safe from the beast in the pit that almost killed me; safe from even the spear that was driven into your heart. I have been very generous to let you stay here long enough to heal. You must leave now.”
“I must, must I?”
“You have a geas to seek your death,” she said reasonably. “Go seek it in a country other than my own.”
So it was that a few hours later as he passed just beyond the borders of the country, he came upon a camp and recognized its solitary occupant as the man Gom, the embalmer who had been ordered to help him, all those days ago. Gom smiled sheepishly as Terihm approached.
“I wondered if you might take this road,” said Gom.
“Were you waiting for me?” “Me? No.” Gom shook his head and seemed for a moment on the verge of laughter. He let the moment pass and became his old, glum self again. “It seems I’m as little welcome back there as you are. I was in the employ of Kalesthenes, you know.”
“Susina is not a forgiving woman. Just a practical one.”
“Yes. Wizard, do you know there are rumors about you?”
“I suspect there are a good many.”
“The most interesting one says that you have a geas upon you.”
“Oh, quite. According to gossip you are seeking your own death, a very special one. Is that true?”
“Is gossip ever true?”
“In my experience, most of the time. Is that why the princess asked you to leave? Because she fears your geas?”
“Why should she fear it?”
“A man who knows how he will die, whatever the circumstances, is a man to be scared of.” Gom watched Terihm’s face very closely. “I think I lied to you a bit ago, wizard. Oh, it’s true I wait here to decide which direction to take in my wanderings. But I wanted to see which way you were headed first.” He sighed. “Answer me something. This geas upon you. Was I correct just now? Do you really know the way in which you will die?”
Terihm laughed lightly at the question and gave no answer. After a moment, Gom turned away and tended to the fire. He said, “Then tell me the direction you will be traveling.”
“So you can follow me?”
Gom placed new wood on the fire and said, “So I may go the other direction.”
“You are wiser than I thought,” said Terihm.
The embalmer shook his head. “No, I fear I am not. But I am learning.”
Kings May Die