by Eric Del Carlo
Eric Del Carlo’s short s-f, fantasy and horror have appeared in Futurismic, Necrotic Tissue, Talebones and many other publications over the years. His work was recently accepted at Strange Horizons. He is the coauthor, with Robert Asprin, of the Wartorn fantasy novels published by Ace Books.
Bring Back Your Dead was originally published by Silver Blade Magazine in August 2010.
This land of Ghremoin is sickened by magic, so declaimed Srahund of the Black Desert silently in his jail cell. His was not a dank subterranean hole, with pale fungus sliming the walls and cockroaches running amok. He had served brief sentences in such dungeons, for the petty crimes of his young adulthood. His present accommodations, however, were of a wholly different order. This cell was aired, roomy enough for nearly eight extensive strides along its length; he had charcoal and walls to draw on; the water was clean and the food tolerable. Perhaps most lavishly, he had a sweeping view through the barred window of the city of Lakya-ris, Ghremoin’s capital.
Such were the rewards for committing a notorious murder in so grandiose a metropolis, it seemed.
Srahund had spent the past three years occupying this cell, high atop Bone Hill. He had devised a clever assortment of ways to pass the time–exercise, meditation, the numerous and labyrinthine games of logic and mathematics he played out on his walls with his stick of charcoal, completing one puzzle, wiping the slate, starting another. He hadn’t atrophied and hadn’t lost his mind. But these three years could only be called a beginning. At his trial, a more elaborate affair than any he’d been subjected to before, his prosecutor had argued passionately but cunningly for an interminable sentence, since capital punishment was already falling out of favor. Srahund remembered the plump man, his thin hair, his precise manner. For some long while the image of this prosecutor, whether dreamed or summoned to his mind while conscious, threw Srahund into a rage. What a hateful toad of a man! But, no; eventually he’d come to regard him as a person performing a learned and complicated job. Surely Srahund meant nothing to him. It was Srahund’s crime–that infamous murder–that aroused such passion in the man.
It was with these first three years behind him that Srahund realized he would be broken by this jail sentence. His upbringing in the uncharitable Black Desert and subsequent seasoning as a petty criminal–and, later, a most professional one–notwithstanding, he had to finally acknowledge that he didn’t possess the inexhaustible will necessary to retain his humanity in this cell for the rest of his life. His mind would inevitably shatter. He would become a groveling, mewling, limp thing. He would live inside a waking nightmare. None of his imaginative distractions would stave off his fate indefinitely.
This realization, solidifying over the course of many weeks, terrified him.
So it was that on a day when he’d listlessly foregone his morning exercises, barely touched his first meal, left his charcoal untouched, and stood at his window with arms dangling through the stout iron bars and gaze roving the busy freedom of Lakya-ris spreading ever outward from the foot of foreboding Bone Hill–so on that day came his visitor in the dark green robe of a magicmaker.
The jailors knew Srahund’s sentiments about magic, and two accompanied the visitor into his cell. They warned him sternly, reminding him how much worse his stay here could be. Srahund’s blood was seething in his veins at the sight of the green-robed man, but he calmly reassured his keepers that he would behave appropriately. In the time after he’d left the Black Desert and before his early days of minor crime, he had been schooled; he retained that breeding, as well as his practiced intellect. It was a shame, truly, that his advantages hadn’t saved him from a disreputable life. But what else could he have done, considering the circumstances in which he had found himself? Nothing. He’d had no real options. So he often told himself.
“Shall we sit?” said his visitor in a tone both amiable and businesslike.
He had already taken the stool, another relative luxury for a jail cell. Srahund, every other impulse carefully checked, stepped away from his window and squatted on the floor.
“My name is Isquita. I see the Black Desert in your eyes.”
“That’s where it usually shows,” Srahund said, not a rude reply; natives of the Black Desert, at Ghremoin’s easternmost fringe, had eyes of a narrow–some said sinister–cast.
“Do you know how long you’ve been in here?” Isquita had fair hair, thick, flopping this way and that. His build was slim but healthy, evident even swathed in the dark green robe.
“I know,” said Srahund, whose body was much broader, hair an inky shade. The shock of having a magicmaker in his cell had burned off the awful lethargy he’d woken to. That listlessness, he feared, was the harbinger of worse apathies to come, the start of his true decline. He felt a conflicted gratitude toward his visitor, a man who obviously engaged in the repulsive practice of magic.
“You know, do you? Good. Your faculties are still functioning, then. Three years can be longer for other people.” Isquita’s hands were folded casually in his lap.
Srahund couldn’t fathom what the man was doing here. His sentence had been quite final. The prosecutor and judges had been in delighted agreement, even after a more than cursory defense was mounted by his advocate. Had this Isquita come to gloat or to belatedly castigate him for Festhrahal’s murder? That seemed farfetched.
“Your views on magic are known,” Isquita said, continuing the curious interview. “They came out at your trial. You—”
“I was asked questions, and I answered.” Srahund was squatting almost within reach of the robed man on the stool. But, no; he’d promised his jailors, who were quite correct about how much harsher his days in here could be.
“Yes. You answered the prosecutor’s questions. One of your answers gained a bit of notoriety, I wonder if you knew. People debated it on the streets, in the taverns. Government officials used it as a tool, turning it to whatever purpose they saw fit.” Some spark of emotion showed through Isquita’s affably bland demeanor. “Your words were these: Ghremoin is sickened by magic.”
Srahund remembered uttering the phrase in the gleaming brass and oiled wood confines of the court. There had been a dark splendor to the place, the air heavy with the grave mechanisms of justice. He had murdered Festhrahal, an important magicmaker, a personage among the race of practitioners from Ghremoin’s far westward marches.
“I think you might have earned a different sentence,” said Isquita, “if that statement hadn’t captured everyone so.”
He really had merely answered a question when he’d said it, Srahund reflected. “If it hadn’t–what? I’d be free? Hanged? I didn’t take Festhrahal’s life because he was a magicmaker. If you know of my trial, you know that. What are you getting at?” Impatience surged in him, which was somewhat ridiculous. If this man hadn’t visited, he’d still be doing nothing of more importance than staring lethargically out the window.
“You took the lives of three people. A woman and two men.”
“Three people. Yes.” Srahund snapped his reply now. He had been apprehended for Festhrahal’s killing, but the other two murders had been found out only after his arrest.
“Do you think your sentence just?”
“Just what?” A sarcastic snarl.
“You retain humor as well. That is excellent.”
He was here to gloat, then, Srahund decided in a growing fury, unsure how much longer he could stay squatted on the floor like this.
“Your opinion of magic,” Isquita went on, still perfectly composed, “did you come by it in the course of your life, or is it a bigotry learned in childhood? Those of the Black Desert aren’t known for their sophisticated views.”
“You reveal your own prejudice.” One of his hands was bunching into a white-knuckled fist.
“True. Again, excellent. What I need to know, Srahund of the Black Desert, is if you will participate in an exercise of magic. If you succeed in this undertaking, there will no longer be any need to incarcerate you. Can you overcome your aversion so to taste freedom again?”
Through thick iron bars in the night, he looked down upon Lakya-ris’ red and green and yellow roofs, its epic columns, the verdant gardens and corkscrewing streets. A prosperous city, brightened here and there with magiclight.
Magic is evolutionary, Isquita had said. It is a discipline, very ancient, and it is tirelessly studied. Always new ways are sought, techniques refined. What would have seemed utterly modern forty years ago, in the home territory of my people, now appears nothing more than trickery, a carnival stunt, a muttering of arcana to no tangible end. What I have proposed to you, Srahund of the Black Desert, is the newest mode, the current innovative peak of the art, developed during these past three years of your imprisonment.
Lakya-ris looked far grander than he remembered it, when he’d first arrived on those dizzying winding streets. Of course, he was gazing down from high atop Bone Hill, with the capital laid out below like some artistic display. He had heard whispers that the economy had improved dramatically, that the new popular government was providing services never before available to the citizenry. But Srahund wasn’t down there, with the scent of the streets in his nostrils, gauging the general affluence by the coins in his own pocket. No, he was far above it all.
Isquita wasn’t the only person to ever speak to him of magic. Growing up in the admittedly harsh Black Desert, Srahund’s father had weighed in on the subject.
Magic is a cheat, not just a trick. Understand that distinction. We are people, and this is the world we live in, and everything we could ever require or conceive of is available to us. Mind you, some things need to be enhanced. A stone is just a stone. Take it, split it, attach it to a sturdy branch, and you’ve an axe. But that’s the physical and natural process of invention. We have sciences for growing food, for making metal and books, and those things get improved generation to generation. But no one should be able to chant some imbecilic sounds, wave hands and have a miracle occur. Nothing is accomplished that way. It’s a cheat, a sickening cheat.
Srahund, alone at his window through the long night, his second meal untouched on the floor by his cell’s door, came to his decision as predawn blanched the sky and the bursts of magiclight indicating the casting of spells across the sprawl of the city faded into the coming day. He wasn’t pleased with what he had decided, but, then, neither decision available to him would have cheered him.
* * *
Being taken from his cell for the first time in three years didn’t provide the breathless heart-pounding thrill it should have, owing to the dark thoughts weighing in Srahund’s head. Before leaving, he had erased all the charcoal marks from his walls and tidied the pallet on which he slept. He was escorted by his jailors, counting off ten full uninterrupted strides, then twenty, then simply losing track and following the corridor to another room, this one an office, appropriately decorated. All its bric-a-brac seemed hopelessly luxurious and frivolous to him. Isquita was present, as were several grave-faced prison officials. Another magicmaker stepped out of the room’s soft shadows as Srahund was told to sit. The chair was upholstered, with arms and a back. He sank into it, felt wonderfully consumed by it.
But the tense atmosphere in the office wouldn’t allow him to relax; neither would the distaste and trepidation he felt.
“I have explained the process fully,” Isquita said, sharing in the tension, a hand fidgeting with his floppy hair.
The officials who administered this jail atop Bone Hill murmured acknowledgments.
The second magicmaker approached Srahund. She was aging, her tight skin the color of paper. Nonetheless, she had vitality in her face. Her dark green robe was trimmed with gold. She peered at Srahund in his chair. His hands tightened on the arms, and he nearly told her and everyone present to call this off, he reneged on his agreement, he would serve his sentence and have nothing to do with this magical abomination. But he didn’t speak.
The woman began the flamboyant gesticulations. Srahund shut his eyes but heard the incantations start as well. The sounds were gruesome tongue-tangles. Repugnance welled up within him.
I am sickened by magic, he tried to say aloud but couldn’t. The spell of vast power and complexity was already underway, and the room was being bathed in coruscating magiclight.
Sky. An unbelievably huge sky, unobstructed, loose, roofing all of reality as far as he could see in any direction. Its immensity was staggering, to say nothing of the crispness and clarity of its colors, its composition. Blue sky, daubed with plumes of pearly cloud. In school he had studied, among many other subjects, art; this sky above him now satisfied art’s requirements with its beauty, its balance.
It had been a long time since Srahund had stood outdoors.
He was doing so at this very moment, when only an instant or so ago he had been ensconced in a padded chair inside the jail crowning Bone Hill in the city of Lakya-ris. All those details of location were meaningless now, gone. He was elsewhere. He was outside. He was far from the capital. He was, in fact, elsewhen.
Or was he? Natural incredulity overtook him. He lowered his narrowish Black Desert eyes, shading them with a hand. This was indeed away from the sturdy walls of his prison. This landscape lay open all around him. It looked as tasteful as the sky.
The ground was a soft sandy shade. It rolled pleasantly, making mild slopes. Trees lined the ridges, slim and looming, alight with luminous yellow needles. Tiny snap-birds flitted individually and collectively from one tree to another. Their chirps were extremely high-pitched, almost beyond hearing, but the music was cheerful. A warm breeze washed the scenery, the scent it carried alive and moist—
Of course. The Blue Waters. He was standing at the foot of the green marble stairway. It led a long way up the gentle rise.
But these stairs should be gone, replaced with black slabs of some stone Srahund hadn’t recognized on the one journey he had made back to this place in his adulthood. He looked around more, seeing other changes. Or, rather, things unchanged, for this was the setting as he’d known it in his schooling days. His father had doggedly assembled the proper funds, saving every coin he could from his business’ profits, and had sent his precocious child out of the Black Desert, so to attend the Institute at Miinrolah. This place of the Blue Waters was a half hour’s walking from the campus.
And if these green marble stairs were here…
He lowered the hand shading his eyes. He looked at it, at both hands, spreading and flexing the fingers. They were strong, with more than a hint of callus, for like any Black Desert boy he had labored, but these hands weren’t so rugged as they would become. These hands hadn’t committed the deeds that would ultimately put him into jail. These were younger hands.
In a gasping rush Srahund touched his face, his limbs, his torso. His features felt smooth. His arms, though well-toned, were shockingly absent of most of his adult muscle. He started to search frantically for scars that weren’t there, wounds picked up on dubious escapades he hadn’t yet engaged in.
Before he could encroach on hysteria, he caught himself, forced his emotions to settle. Isquita, after Srahund had asked to see the magicmaker again, had explained the procedure and its effects in meticulous detail. Srahund had remained skeptical, but recognized this as a reflexive cynicism. Whatever else he thought about magic, he acknowledged that it was real.
Still, this was utterly fantastic! He was his seventeen-year-old self again, after fifteen months of joyous learning at the Institute. And all around him lay Miinrolah’s outskirts as they had been. He could turn southwestward from this spot right now and march to the campus, to see it as he’d experienced it as a youth, with the krakka bushes manicured into sculpture at the center of the main quad, with the venerable Temple still standing, though just barely. That Temple was the oldest structure, the founding block of the Institute, so to speak, where Ghremoinian priests had once hoarded their books of knowledge—
All that was gone in the present day. On his foolish revisit to the Institute as an adult, he’d learned the krakka bushes had died of a virulent strain of rot; the Temple, grown too unstable, had been razed; nothing but a plaque was there now. Srahund had only come to Miinrolah to transact some illicit business anyway, far different from the upstanding trade his father had worked in all his life.
A vertigo tried to seize him, but he fought this off too. Isquita had warned him, had cushioned him for all this. He wasn’t here on a jaunt. He had a mission, a critical purpose. The notion of freedom was very appealing. To leave behind Bone Hill forever, for that he would do just about anything.
He took several experimental steps with his young body. It was an achingly familiar form to him, so fresh with offhand vigor, with instantaneous excitements. He could even feel the whirl of emotions within himself, their intensity almost giddy, but he had control, the adult Srahund.
Somewhere in an office the shell of him sat in a chair, he knew. Isquita had been very clear about this aspect of the process. In a sense, his captors held him hostage. He could not just escape into this vividly real past. He had to accomplish his objective.
Toward that end he set a softly booted foot to the bottom step of green marble. He was dressed in a student’s semi-ornate raiment, with jewelry tinkling on his forearms. At his wide leather belt was a dagger carved from the vertebra of a primeval lichiwundu beast; harvesting these ancient fossilized remains for their mineral and aesthetic value was a prime occupation among the rugged inhabitants of the Black Desert. Srahund’s father had given him the knife as a fond farewell gift. It had an acoustical quality; tapped against a hard surface it chimed a single sweet clear note. What hopes for a finer life Srahund’s father had had for his son.
Feeling his unlined and barely shaven face settle into a deliberate cast, he started his way up the decorative stairway set into the delicate and artistic surroundings. The giddy sentiments leaping inside him with youthful energy weren’t all happy ones. Far from it. In his breast at this moment he felt the sting of real hurt. It was an awful piercing feeling, now that he was aware of it. It was composed of jealousy, betrayal, dismay and a childish stubbornness that was awesome in its magnitude. Had Srahund truly had feelings like these? They were so unwieldy, so exaggerated. How had he ever concentrated on his studies with this whirlwind within him?
But it hadn’t always been like this, he knew. Today was a special day. Besides, these weren’t his emotions anymore; he was unwittingly borrowing them, being subjected to their unpleasant zest. It was an effect of his displacement to this time and place.
He climbed with more determined strides. The wide green steps, showing their wear a century after their installation, were littered here and there with blossoms that visitors often brought with them. Had Cheunth left one of these white or ruby or coral blooms on the stairs as she’d gone ahead to the place of the Blue Waters? Srahund, the boy-man of seventeen, had asked her here at this hour, then had arrived after her.
The flower-strewn stairs led up through a break in the trees. Yellow needles glowed on either side as Srahund paused on the ridge. He gazed down on the site, ringed with alabaster, where the world’s deep heated waters came up. At this hour, on this traditionally busy day of the week, no one was visiting. He himself should be engrossed in his lessons this very minute; Cheunth too. But here she was, strolling before the Blue Waters, which filled and emptied from a crescent pool. At the moment the water was absent, but curls of steam were visible at the craggy maw from which the routine eruptions came.
His heart caught in his chest. His young lungs sucked air, but it was the adult embodying this spry form that felt the true shock. It was her. This was the last day on which he’d seen her. Since then, he’d lived nearly another seventeen years, while she had not.
He felt the yearning, the harsh and unremitting longing; he felt too the jealousy, the paranoia, and these feelings disgusted him. Where was the love? Where was the searing heat of passion he’d remembered all these years? It was present, yes; he felt it. But it was so distorted now, so blemished by these less worthy, though frighteningly potent, emotions.
She turned, her gaze rising from the dry crescent pool. She saw him. She went still.
It prompted him into motion. Had he hesitated like this before, here on this ridge, or had he stridden down into the shallow valley of the Blue Waters without a pause to study her? He didn’t know. This was that same occasion. But this was also a new event. So Isquita had explained.
Srahund descended the shorter flight of steps, down into the half-bowl of alabaster rock. More flower petals had been scattered here.
He approached Cheunth, consciously not racing toward her. She wore a filmy gown over a dark red suit. Her hair hung to her delicate jawline, an auburn which quietly sparkled in the sun. Her eyes were long-lashed, her lips slender. Her nose flared when she was distressed. Her body was supple, with high small breasts. Her earlobes were painted a becoming shade of orange. She was young and exquisite, and he loved her with every particle of himself.
“Thank you for meeting me,” he said, then blinked at the inanity of his statement. Here was Cheunth! The female who had imprinted herself on his soul. Take her in your arms, you fool!
No. No. He hadn’t come here for that.
Her well-molded face stayed neutral. “I’m here as a courtesy.”
“And I appreciate that.” He spoke this sincerely. But hadn’t he said these same words–sarcastically, caustically–on the original occasion?
She folded her arms, glancing away, her eyes a winsome brown. She was waiting.
It was time to question her about Dorbalo, to start the interrogation, the trial. Here was when he raised his voice; here was when the terrible fury started to truly coalesce, when plans that were mere vague impulses began to gain discernable shape. Dorbalo was a waif of a boy, in Srahund’s view, a gaunt weak lad overly attached to sentimentality. He played a reed instrument that no one at the Institute had ever seen before, something of myriad joints and unexpected pipings, an implement of his home. That home was far to the west.
Dorbalo had another talent, one even more dazzling, it seemed. It too belonged to his home and his people. Srahund had seen it demonstrated once, as social groups gathered in the evening on the quad beneath the sculpted krakka bushes. Cheunth had been with Srahund then, her head snugly in his lap amidst the general warm chatter, until the flash of peculiar light had come. She’d sat up sharply. Cheunth, who’d been Srahund’s lover for several glorious months, had gazed rapt at what scrawny Dorbalo had wrought.
It had taken another month, a very painful month, before their romance had ended. In the past week Srahund had wept and cursed and slept hardly an hour at a time, and had tried desperately to keep Cheunth from breaking off with him, even though it was obvious she wanted to, and finally, when she’d formally done so, he had turned to inventing ways to win her back. And nothing he did mattered; nothing could unite him again with this, his first, most cherished lover.
“Dorbalo is a Westerner,” Srahund said.
Cheunth closed her eyes, and softly and sadly shook her head.
He had said these same words too; but again he’d refined his tone, taking the accusatory sting out of them. He tried to infuse this younger version of himself with what blunt adult wisdom he had. “He’s a magicmaker, Cheunth. They’re coming out of the westward reaches now, for the first time. They are starting to travel Ghremoin. They’re mixing with the rest of its citizens.”
“No! It’s an inevitable thing, Cheunth. It can’t be resisted.” He was speaking from his future vantage, of course. The people of Ghremoin’s West, traditionally isolated in their heavily forested territory, had by some general accord initiated a program of relocation, of resettlement. Some stayed in the West, naturally. But now those people permitted themselves the same privilege as all other peoples of Ghremoin, the luxury of traveling this land wherever they fancied. Dorbalo had been the first to successfully enrol at the Institute.
“Srahund”–she had opened her eyes; they appeared weary–“why must you obsess? Dorbalo is a being just like yourself, just like me. You want to believe he’s…I don’t know…some evil trickster. You—”
He shook his head. No, he was being big-hearted; he was forgiving her, applying his adult years to this adolescent farce. Why couldn’t she see that? He still yearned for her. She caused his body to throb with need and pain.
Srahund’s hand was twitching at his side. He brushed the dagger at his belt repeatedly. It wasn’t unusual that he carried it, as a reminder of his father.
“Why have you asked me here?” Cheunth’s voice choked, and her nose flared. She was upset; she was tired of his infantile games. “Do you want to talk about Dorbalo? Why? What good will come of that for you?”
It was at this point, he realized with a dull cold shock, that he had asked her if she’d told anyone about this meeting of theirs. Near to tears, she had said no, no, not even Dorbalo, twisting the name with frustration, hurling it at him, summoning for him torrid awful images of the two of them together. She had drawn breath to say something else, but he had lifted the carved bone knife from his belt and rammed it to the hilt beneath her left breast. Jewelry jingled on his forearm. He had let her fall and then stood over her. Her eyes did not meet his, and a moment later they stared, immobile, at the sky. His mind had ticked steadily at this point. He remembered feeling very little. He had extracted the blade from her body, wiping it on her filmy gown and returning it to his belt. The steam curling from the geyser’s mouth had increased, and a minute after that the Blue Waters erupted. He watched them, the bright jets rising high, higher. The water was almost sapphire in color. The spurts grew more intense, and he was flecked by droplets. Normally visitors sat on the worn natural benches of alabaster. The crescent pool filled. Srahund, mind still working at a surprisingly useful speed, hit upon the finale of this event. He lifted Cheunth’s slack form and laid her in the pool of gleaming blue. The geyser’s cycle was ending. As he watched, the flow reversed. The gushes stopped, and a strong force sucked at the pool, drinking down the exotically hued subterranean water, draining the crescent. It took Cheunth with it.
He stayed for the next eruption, to see if she would go shooting up into the sky, all dead-limbed and grotesque, but she didn’t. He drew his dagger again and tapped it on the edge of the crescent pool. The note it sounded was numb, graceless. In stabbing Cheunth he’d ruined the knife’s acoustical integrity. He’d spoiled his father gift to him.
It didn’t matter. His father would be dead within a month, before he’d even gotten word that his son had quit the Institute and departed Miinrolah. Some at the school speculated whether he’d eloped with his former lover; or whether Cheunth herself had impulsively withdrawn from the Institute and he had pursued her. No one would ever know. Not until many, many years later, when a man in a dark green robe, interrogating Srahund for the murder of Festhrahal, would uncover the crime through a treacherous act of divination, literally taking the memory from his head.
“Dorbalo,” he said, finding his voice also choked with emotion, “is the future. I am the past. Be happy with him, Cheunth. That’s all I wanted to wish for you today. Be happy.”
She was wary. She eyed him carefully. Was this some sarcastic feint; was he about to turn on her with verbal assaults? No. He meant this. Srahund saw this thinking play out on her lovely features.
“Then I thank you for your wish,” she said, very formally. That formality was dreadful, but he probably deserved no better. He had made this past month most upsetting for her.
The steam was coiling faster and in greater volume from the geyser’s maw.
“I should go,” Cheunth said.
“I wish you happiness too.” Slightly less formal now.
Still not entirely certain this wasn’t some cruel ploy, she strode toward the steps. Srahund did the best thing he could do for her; he did not turn to watch her go, but merely gazed at the mouth of the Blue Waters until it reached its climax and burst forth.
After it attained its peak and started to taper off with less enthusiastic jets, he stepped up to the crescent pool’s stony brim and removed the knife from his belt. It was, truly, a beautifully crafted item. His father had never been a demonstrative man, as was the way of the Black Desert. But Srahund had always sensed the man’s quiet stubborn love.
He touched the bone blade to the rock as the sapphire water was being forcefully drained back into the deep reaches of the earth. A perfect intelligible note rang from the implement. He smiled softly. Then he struck it on the rim again, harder now, hammering it down. It jarred his arm, just as it had in another lifetime–another reality, apparently–when he jammed it into Cheunth’s body.
The dagger didn’t ring again. Srahund tossed it into the geyser’s mouth, just as the final waters were sucked down. Originally he had buried the murder weapon in the sandy plains, after he’d stolen a pedaled biwheel–his first theft–in the town proper of Miinrolah and raced frantically northward, jouncing on the contraption’s seat and barely keeping his balance.
His father would still die soon. But whether he knew it or not, his only offspring would not be the murderer of a young woman with sparkling auburn hair.
The spell was still on him, cast by that aged woman with the tight papery skin. Srahund, dazed, returned to vague awareness in his cell, on his pallet. Had he dreamed the experience? No. Isquita sat with him, spooning food into his mouth, holding a cup for him to drink. Srahund felt like an infant. He felt too a revulsion for the touch of this magicmaker, but he couldn’t resist; and he needed this sustenance.
“Cheunth is a widow, with four children, living in the hamlet of Trokadilv,” said the green-robed man gently. “Her oldest daughter is a composer. Her youngest, a boy, reads books about the Black Desert. He wants to be a fossil hunter.”
It broke loose some nub of happiness within Srahund. She had lived. Somehow Isquita had gotten this information to him, probably by magical means, he realized. But even that didn’t spoil it for him. Cheunth had married–who? Dorbalo? it didn’t matter–and made a family in Trokadilv. She hadn’t died at the hands of a jealous lover in her sixteenth year.
Yet what of Srahund’s own life? Undoubtedly it too had altered. He hadn’t stained himself so permanently with Cheunth’s killing. Had he remained at Miinrolah, embroiled in his studies? Had he made good on his early promise and become a truly learned man?
The spell was still on him. Of course. Isquita had explained already. In a sympathetic tone the fair-haired man explained again. Srahund was at the eye of the storm, the fixed point, the changer who could not himself be changed by the reconfigured event. There were immutable metaphysical principles involved. Isquita tried to elucidate these, but Srahund, weak and weary, stopped him. He rested; he ate; night came; he slept. The next day he was sent to meet Stattlehime, the gambler.
* * *
He tasted the stormy air, recognizing it. These were Ghremoin’s northward lands, which were whipped seven months out of the year by weather systems of varying ferocities that swept in from the North Deep. This region enjoyed a bounty of growing things, many of them edible, but Srahund, seasoned and embittered by several years of dissolute living, was blind to the territory’s lush splendor. It was mere sweaty jungle to him, a place to lose himself between bouts of cheap crime. He had skulked from city to village, always keeping to the fringe, to whatever tropical shadows were handy. He could never fully join in the rites of the living, the social ceremonies enacted on the streets, in the squares, even inside the taverns where he often sipped a miserly mug of wine. Normal life had long since gone on without him, not needing him or his contributions. He, after all, produced nothing; he merely took, poached, pilfered. What he lived on was always something that someone else had made.
Srahund found himself slipping into this old mind-set. All the bitter emotional mechanisms were right there, waiting. He had left school and become a criminal, and these were the years when he’d had little success at it. Already he’d served a brief term in a squalid jail and had another similar sentence soon ahead of him. This was a time of vast self-pity. His actions degraded himself, and he was fully aware of this unbearable fact.
This was some twisted form of self-punishment; so he had told himself and would believe for years to come. He had killed the love of his youth, though he’d had no choice in the matter. Cheunth couldn’t just say she loved him, then change her mind and shift her affections to a vile Westerner. No, no choice for him. Still, the murder had changed him, and he had fled north, to subsist on petty crime—
Yet, that hadn’t happened. He had spared Cheunth. He remembered distinctly. He hadn’t stabbed her at the place of the Blue Waters. She had married and given birth to four children. One was a composer now.
No. The thought flipped again in Srahund’s strained mind. He had the memory, yes. He hadn’t committed the murderous deed, and so should not have fled to the North. But here he was. Above was a sky striped with moonlit deep grays, with moving black, alive and electrical. This was the city of Nurm. He was trying his hand at gambling. The homicidal incident he had altered, the correction he’d made at Isquita’s behest, didn’t affect this moment, not for him. This event was imbued with a supreme inevitability.
He must face it. As he had faced Cheunth at the Blue Waters.
He stood on a shadowy side street in Nurm. The day had long since waned. There was mud underfoot. In the North one often found oneself standing in mud. Nurm’s structures were hut-like, made of native materials. Srahund wore rough anonymous clothing. He drew little attention. Bartenders ignored him; women rarely gave him a second glance. He used this lack of visibility to his advantage, of course, snatching up any loose unguarded thing of worth he chanced upon. But he always felt that exclusion, like a personal affront.
What a self-involved complainer he was! Srahund was stunned. Here he was, immersed in his own bygone emotional state, and he could scarcely stand it. How embarrassing that such puling pitying thoughts had ever sat so heavily on his soul. What a useless creature this man was. Here in Nurm he had just finished gambling away the better part of the lean sum of coin he’d accumulated over the past few months. He had imagined, for no reason he could fathom now, that luck might be with him at the dicing tables. Today he had thought fortune might be on his side at last. In one of Nurm’s gaming dens he had put together a respectable streak of decent throws. Coins had started to pile in front of him. He had been playing against both the house and the other gamblers gathered around the table. He was consistently beating them all.
The man running the game, with a face of acute angles and a hint of the Black Desert in his own eyes, had even favored Srahund with a shallow but courteous bow on a toss that earned him more than a scattering of coins. Pride had swelled Srahund’s broad chest. He’d taken up the dice again in his roughened hand; and thrown; and thrown.
And then the new player joined the table. A tallish figure, who moved with a calm fluidity, who bought into the game with a casual placement of coins on seemingly random betting squares. He was a handsome male, probably Srahund’s age, though he looked younger–or, really, Srahund appeared much more used by his own years. The new gambler flashed a dazzling smile. Drinks were brought to him.
His bets paid well. More, they were laid in such a way as to slowly undermine Srahund’s position. He was forced to extend himself so to keep control of the dice; but even this didn’t last long. The numbered cubes of amber went to a woman in a yellow frock with a stiff mouth, who lost her stake in two throws. Then it was the new player’s turn to toss. Toss he did. To great effect. And each throw was adroitly covered by his various bets. He gathered coins to himself. It happened quickly, though surely not so fast as Srahund had imagined. To him, there at the table’s edge, it seemed the handsome man simply reached over and scooped up everything Srahund had won that evening, as well as nearly all he’d brought with him into the den.
Soon he didn’t have enough to place another decent bet. Sulkily, tasting cold defeat in his gut, he vacated the premises.
But two hours later, in a tavern some distance from the den, he was surprised to see the suave gambler again. He entered with a woman on each arm, flaunting the same confident smile. Srahund, mumbling repeatedly for attention, was finally able to ask the bartender who the man was.
“Stattlehime,” he was told, and no more. Srahund had purchased only the one mug of inexpensive wine since he’d come in.
Watching Stattlehime from the dimmer recesses of the establishment, a structure of black bamboo and still-growing crimson vines, he decided to buy another drink, a stronger one, and another; and another.
Stattlehime was holding court, having drawn several of the other patrons into the extroverted warmth of his personality. He often paused to caress the arm of one or the other of his women, or to stroke silky hair. He paid for numerous rounds of drinks, until others started paying for him, until even the bartender was supplying free rounds of spirits.
Srahund was drunk, all on his own, when he saw the flash of magiclight.
It returned him to the campus at Miinrolah. He saw Cheunth sitting up suddenly from his lap, startled and instantly intrigued. He had seen other magicmakers since his school days, since gaunt Dorbalo. Westerners were fairly common by now. They dwelled in the North, just as they did elsewhere in Ghremoin, so he’d heard. Srahund wasn’t the only person to harbor apprehensions about the practitioners. Others shared his views, though this was never a source of bonding for him with anyone else. The magicmakers encountered their share of intolerance and difficulties. Served them right. They were bringing their deceitful practices to places that had never seen such skills before.
And just now Srahund had seen that telltale glare that meant a spell had been cast. And there sat Stattlehime with the last few hangers-on at his table as the tavern readied to close. Even his two women had slipped away at some point. Stattlehime had performed some trick for those who remained at his table, perhaps a feat of divination or the levitating an empty glass or drawing a symbol in green fire in the air. Srahund drained his mug and slipped unseen, always unseen, out of a door.
Into a side street, where he waited, with the moon lighting a turbulent sky. There would be a downpour before midnight, as there had been last night. He hated these jungly climes.
Wine buzzed in his head. He was aware of it; he was also aware of the somewhat less younger–as compared to his student self–man’s lack of awareness about his condition. This Srahund, whose shape he was inhabiting, had convinced himself that all of today’s events had been cunningly arranged in advance, from his burst of good luck at the dicing table, to Stattlehime’s taking over of the game–no doubt assisted by the croupier–and that same gambler’s appearance at this particular tavern. All a setup, all a cheat. And it had been chiefly perpetrated by a Westerner, a magicmaker.
Trick the dice to do your bidding, Srahund thought with growing drunken malevolence. Stattlehime would be stepping out at any moment. Srahund would run at him, knock him down, steal from him. He would commit the first violent crime of his life; the first, that was, if he didn’t count his murdering of Cheunth.
Except that he wouldn’t merely knock the man flat as planned a few minutes from now. He would tackle him, would blindside him with the full lumbering might of his large inebriated body. He would strike Stattlehime low, nearly at his hips, and he would damage the man’s spine badly. Stattlehime would live for several more minutes, gasping, unable to move his limbs, unable to keep his lungs functioning. Srahund wouldn’t even rob him. He would grow frightened and run off as the magicmaker/gambler sucked a final pitifully thin breath.
Two figures exited the tavern and went reeling off into the deserted night. Neither was Stattlehime.
Srahund wouldn’t flee the region after this accidental murder. He would only relocate to the other side of Nurm, and continue with his morose life of petty criminality. Stattlehime’s death wouldn’t immediately affect him, though it would plant the seeds of the next phase of his existence. He would eventually view the killing as a sloppy mishap, an amateur’s mistake. He would come to this conclusion after he’d improved as a thief, when he truly started to apply himself to his profession, drawing on the same instincts that had once propelled him through his studies at the Institute. He became competent, then proficient. When he finally left the North, it would be a rational move, made for professional reasons.
But Stattlehime’s murder did affect him, he amended as the critical moment drew closer and closer. When he had killed Cheunth at the place of the Blue Waters, it had been unpremeditated–so he told himself–yet was also an act he’d had no choice but to carry out. It was a crime steeped in great passion, inspired by a love young and terrible. Stattlehime deserved to be assaulted and robbed, since Srahund had suffered the same misfortunes, at least figuratively. But instead he would lose his life, an unbalanced exchange. This would change Srahund’s thinking on a subtle level: there were no even trades in the world; there was no “fairness”; justice was a manufactured concept. These new principles would serve him well in the professionally criminal life he would lead. They would harden him and permit him to function at peak efficiency. When he would eventually resettle in Lakya-ris, making a stopover at Miinrolah on the way, he would at last make a true success of himself. For a time, at least.
Still standing at the muddy mouth of the side street, he stiffened and focused his somewhat hazy vision. The magicmaker was stepping alone from the now dormant tavern. He moved with the overpronounced precision of one who is very drunk and determined that no one should know this fact. He stood at the bottom of the bamboo stairs, looking about, getting his bearings.
Srahund at last emerged from his shadows.
Stattlehime, tidying his clothes as if preparing to enter a palace, heard the squelchy footsteps and turned slowly. With vast inebriated dignity he surveyed Srahund as he approached. Originally Srahund had run at this figure, so already this situation had changed.
“A lovely night,” remarked the Westerner.
“It’ll rain before midnight,” Srahund said, halting, gazing intently at the man.
“A good reason to get off the streets. This place has shuttered. Come, my fellow. Let’s you and I find another, where the wine flows like—”
He was as expansive and convivial as he’d seemed holding forth at his table earlier. Fumes rose from him, but Srahund too was dizzy with drink. He had not come charging at this gambler, no, but he was dismayed to feel the anger of the moment still upon him, all that pent-up betrayal and sullen dissatisfaction. The ugly emotions remained centered on this individual, and Srahund found he couldn’t quite get an absolute hold on them.
“Not another drink, no.”
Stattlehime blinked in great dramatic surprise. “How unheard of. Who comes to Nurm but those bent on imbibing and wagering? I do think I’ve seen your face before.”
“I was in this tavern earlier.”
“Why didn’t you join me and my friends?”
“I don’t usually drink with other people.”
“Those words sadden me. Now another a cup is definitely in order. Come along. Or–don’t. You seem troubled. Perhaps you’re not the ideal drinking companion.” Something suspicious moved behind Stattlehime’s eyes, though he maintained his gregarious manner.
Srahund took another step, bringing him very close to the magicmaker. Old resentments were popping and crackling in his wine-soaked skull. Some persuasive voice within was telling him to take what was his, to rob this trickster of his coin, much of which rightfully belonged to Srahund. Beneath that voice, in grave bass tones, a second voice advised taking a more extreme revenge. Srahund was the larger man, with heavy shoulders and strong hands. He could take this individual from the West and thrash him, crush him, obliterate him—
“I also saw you at the dicing tables today,” Srahund said, enunciating carefully with a thickened tongue.
Again it set Stattlehime to blinking. Finally he said, less congenially, “Ah. Yes. I do remember. An unlucky man. What do you want of me?” This last was said briskly. The man’s stance had shifted subtly. He might be readying to draw a hidden blade, or to simply turn and run, though somehow Srahund doubted his dignity would allow him to flee, no matter how wise it might be to do so.
Srahund felt chords pulling in his throat as his teeth tried to grind into a sneer. He fought it off. Why had he accosted this person? Why hadn’t he just let him be, not staged this encounter at all? He was here not to murder him, so why put himself within striking distance at all?
It was a condition of the spell, some dark sober part of him supplied. He had to confront this terrible event squarely.
“What do you want of me?” Stattlehime asked again, a sharper edge in his voice.
Quite suddenly Srahund knew what he wanted. He asked, “Did you use magic to win at the gaming table?”
He didn’t blink now; his eyes went theatrically wide, and he drew his shoulders up and puffed out his chest. And then he deflated visibly, and made a tight little shrug. “No. Honestly, no. I am of the West, though I can’t see how you’d know that–ah, I enacted a spell for play, didn’t I? And I did make my journey to Nurm with secret thoughts of using my talents to improve my gaming. But these gambling halls have strict security, even the tawdriest ones. No spell can be cast inside one, since–you may or may not know, since magic is still somewhat new to these outer lands–every spell announces itself with the light of expended spiritual energy. It can’t be concealed. However, I have done well without this edge. Very well. It’s perhaps a shame that in order for me to gain, someone else’s fortunes must necessarily ebb. Or perhaps it is no shame at all. Rather, merely the hallowed rules of existence in this world.” With this last he had resumed his extroverted deportment. He even flashed that dazzling smile.
Srahund let his hands go limp. He cast away the voices echoing in his intoxicated head. Stattlehime had beat him at dice. The fact was just that simple and dumb. No conspiracy to fleece him of his coin had ever been afoot.
He bid goodnight to the Westerner and left him there on the muddy street. Walking off through Nurm’s humid jungle-scented night, he looked up at the moon and the malevolent sky and felt on his face the first drops of rain, arriving earlier than he’d remembered.
His disorientation felt more like delirium this time. He couldn’t even be sure he was back in his cell. His familiar pallet–if he was indeed lying on it–warped into a sumptuous bed of furs and silks, then became a gigantic bird’s nest, then he thrashed and moaned on the broad back of a living lichiwundu, which was utterly impossible. Around him colors swirled, and images cascaded out of dreams. He sweated profusely and experienced random peaks of intense fear.
Isquita appeared again and again, until Srahund decided he was actually present. The robed magicmaker was cradling him, rocking him, speaking soothing words. Srahund made little sense of them, something about Stattlehime’s accomplishments during the life he’d lived since that night in Nurm some nine years ago. Srahund was near to sobbing. This, he realized, was something of the degenerative condition he had feared, a whimpering madman, helpless and useless, driven beyond reason by too long an imprisonment.
But he needn’t stay in this jail. He had succeeded twice. He had undone two of the murders he had committed. Only one remained.
Isquita continued to coddle him, and Srahund found himself taking comfort in the green-robed man’s ministrations, despite the Westerner’s repugnant nature. Magic had done this to Srahund, after all, addling his mind and making his world whirl and splash with phantasmagoric colors. The old women, her dark green robe trimmed with gold, had sent him into this nightmare.
Yet, he had agreed to this, he managed to remind himself, drawing on his reserves of will. He would see it through, so to taste freedom again.
“You’ve done so well! So well!” Isquita was still holding him, now stroking his face like a lover; Srahund could do nothing to deflect his succoring touch. “The spell has worked, and you have performed magnificently. Srahund, Srahund of the Black Desert, you are succeeding! I’m so pleased, so pleased!” The magicmaker’s voice gagged with heavy emotion. “Just one more, the most important of all. You will succeed. Bring back your dead, Srahund. Bring back your dead!”
* * *
He sat quite composed at the small outdoor table, drinking the cafe’s charmingly bitter tea from a striped bowl. Even as he assumed occupation of his three-years-younger self, he didn’t ruffle his sedate demeanor. He had long since adopted a code of professionalism and perfectionism. By now, after some six years of successful thievery here in the capital city, he was virtually unflappable.
Srahund was dressed in mid class fashion, his clothes clean and well-kept. He looked very much like any of ten of thousands of Lakya-ris’ hard-working citizens, those who owned small enterprises or worked as an overseer for a large freight service or assisted some loftier personage in executive tasks.
When he had arrived for the first time in his life on the corkscrewing streets of Ghremoin’s grandest city, he had instantly recognized that such paltry and under-planned crimes as he’d committed in the North would do him little good here. This was a sophisticated metropolis, with a paid force of organized sentinels. Suspicious characters were watched, sometimes detained. Srahund had no wish to be jailed for infractions he hadn’t yet executed; yet, of course, was the proper word. He wasn’t about to take up a legitimate profession, having no marketable skills.
But he had already remade himself as a very capable criminal. He need only adapt his talents to this new and admittedly exciting environment. He wasn’t dazzled by Lakya-ris, with its higher costs for goods and its overabundant gardens and its exotic streets, some of which wound as tight as a spiral staircase; but he had a healthy respect for it. He saw the city as a challenge, one he felt confident of meeting.
That confidence hadn’t been misplaced or delusional. In careful tactical stages he had established his routines–burglaries, the moving of contraband, even some pickpocketing–then had branched out into a series of scams. The first were small, simple, one-two artifices, which succeeded or failed without the quarry being wiser either way. Later, as he learned the more lucrative frauds and even invented one or two of his own, he took in some better coin. But as the operations grew more complicated, so too did they require more diligent and shrewd planning. He took on partners, working often with the same people, though usually not all at once, rotating them, not letting anyone in on the full sweep of his affairs.
So it was that he gained, quietly, almost mutely, a reputation as a successful and reliable charlatan.
This was why he had at first balked at the notion of taking on a job of assassination, and why he’d thought the offer a joke, then a trap of some sort, then was purely mystified by it, when it was plain that those who wished to hire him were utterly earnest.
Srahund drew a long swallow of the tea, savoring its acrid flavor which came from scarlet bubble-top berries grown in western forests. The West had much influence in the capital, of course, as well as throughout Ghremoin as a whole. Over the past decade magic had been introduced to the land entire. The Westerners, whether by design or happenstance, had reshaped the general thinking about magicmakers. The old reflexive prejudice was gone; or at least it couldn’t be counted on as before. People had changed their minds. Magic wasn’t an obvious evil, a cheat of the natural order of things. No. Magic was beneficial. Magic eased the hardships of living. If one needed to dig a well now, one hired a magicmaker to divine the local water table. If one was injured or ill, one asked for a visitation by a magically trained revitalizer. Magic was used in farming, in building construction–those levitators were useful–in divination of every sort.
They had adopted dark green robes as a general uniform. They had infiltrated the ranks of the sentinels of Lakya-ris; they had taken serious roles in the government. They were, by all estimations, in position to assume Ghremoin’s most powerful offices.
But, in the meantime, crafty and methodical Srahund, late of the Black Desert and currently a denizen of Lakya-ris, had continued to successfully conduct business. One had to be ever more careful, of course. The pall of magic that had enveloped the capital was detrimental to the swindles he orchestrated. More than once these past few months he’d had to abandon some project just before fruition, having been tipped off by paid informants that the diviners were too close to discovering him. In truth, Srahund was at the height of his game…but that game was becoming impossible to play any longer.
He cast about the street, enjoying the soft sunlight on the white-washed walls. Lakya-ris had a nearly perfect climate, without any of the environmental inconveniences of the desert or the jungle. Today was a fine blue day, with just a few fish scales of cloud overhead. This slim minor street, not one of the city’s fancifully corkscrewing ones, sloped toward the civic plaza and its always bustling marketplace. During these six years in the city he had seen the economy rock unsteadily, one way and the other, merchants crowing about their fortunes and then braying over their losses. A stability was needed. Everyone knew that. Most thought that the magicmakers, who seemed to solve every difficulty they encountered, were the key and that they would presently assume full power.
However, that might not happen. Not if one of the most eminent and influential of the Westerners were assassinated–say, today, in a matter of moments, while coming down this small street after a mishap had obstructed the greater boulevard a short distance away.
It was an underground that had hired Srahund for this chore. They wanted him to murder, not knowing he had already killed twice before; they were counting on his expertise in deception, in criminality in general; they were fanatics and fools. But they were also rich. Srahund didn’t know how many members this so-called underground had absorbed. He doubted the number was great, though anti-magic sentiment in Lakya-ris was hardly an aberration. Judging by the three adherents to the cause who he had met, the organization was likely comprised of feverish radicals who saw the serious encroachment of the Westerners as a reason to concoct grandiose plans and rally their personal angers and frustrations to a common cause. So be it. At least one of those members apparently had access to significant wealth. The sum they had named and proven they could deliver would buy Srahund a villa in the capital’s Chrysanthemum Quarter, a place of his own of crystal spires and sprawling grounds and a staff of menials to keep him in luxury for all his days and more.
Srahund had been immediately tempted by that money, and after a reasonable portion of deliberation he had succumbed to the astounding sum. Then he had outlined his plan. The radicals had devised the distraction he required. By now it had already been effected; in the near distance, carried on a faint breeze, he could hear the commotion on the boulevard. An omnibus had been struck by a runaway dray. Horses and people were raising a great confused hullabaloo.
This self was not so long ago. Srahund almost liked himself as this man, sure, accomplished, respected among those few who knew what he did for a living. He felt an ease in this body that he certainly hadn’t experienced inhabiting his two younger incarnations. As before, he was subject to the innate currents of the moment. Though he sat collected at his small streetside table, he was coiled and readied, his hand poised to drop to the venomed spike tucked into a carefully lined pocket of the tailed coat he wore. Srahund, who lived at a time three years past this point, sought to exert control. But again, as before, he felt the resistance toward deviating in any way from the original undertaking. He hadn’t stabbed Cheunth, and he hadn’t broken Stattlehime’s spine; but plainly this Srahund was acting as though those events hadn’t been amended. He was at this very table on this same sloping street, waiting for the approach of Festhrahal, the powerful magicmaker he would assassinate.
Already he could see the disturbance, up the narrow street’s incline; not another staged accident, this, but the small entourage of the important political figure setting out on its detour. Festhrahal’s destination, the civic plaza, was a short distance from here. The boulevard would be a hopeless snarl of confusion by now. Festhrahal, on days when the traffic there thickened to a standstill, would abandon his caroche and use this same way to reach the nearby official buildings were he presided. Srahund had researched the man’s itinerary, movements and habits.
Those of the underground were gutless, he had decided some while ago. They had their zeal and their pronounced hatred of the Westerners and a deep-seated fear–not unfounded, Srahund thought–that the magicmakers would change the shape of Ghremoin forever. The radicals had hired him, he who wasn’t even a paid killer but merely a successful criminal. Of course, what with the tighter policing of this city, a professional murderer would have a very difficult time operating these days. Yes. It was a good time to give up all criminality in Lakya-ris, and by committing this final deed, Srahund would be set up for life.
He took a last sip of the bitter tea, then neatly set aside the striped porcelain bowl. Even he, a trenchant despiser of those of the West, drank their tea. The magicmakers’ influences were inescapable.
Now the green robes appeared. Srahund squinted already narrow Black Desert eyes at the approaching group. Festhrahal was among it, flanked by three attendants. He was being recognized by those who inhabited this minor street, the workers and idlers. Here someone gaped dumbfounded as the notable strode by; here someone else called out a gaudy hail; here a person glowered silently. Festhrahal waved cursorily, even as his subordinates fed him a tireless stream of official chatter.
Srahund’s heart was making a hard steady thumping. With unhurried movements he stood from the little table. He felt a cold-blooded purpose. He saw what he had to do. There was no choice. Festhrahal’s kind had made it impossible for him to thrive in the city. But beneath that stolid grim resolve there simmered an enmity that had been with him all his life. His father had spoken the truth, long ago: magic was a cheat; it was a fundamental iniquity.
And so this assassination would have an element of pleasure to it.
Would it? Would it? Had he enjoyed murdering Cheunth or Stattlehime? Hadn’t their killings, unavoidable though they were, stained him? Didn’t he forever bear the violence on his soul?
He could see Festhrahal’s features now, a graying beard on a round face, benevolent eyes, a man of late middle years, his stride confident. He had almost reached the cafe.
Srahund’s gaze flicked briefly away. He saw, a little further along the downslope, the barefoot boy of twelve or so hopping about in anticipation, excited about the appearance of so significant a person on this little street. His eyes were wide, his mouth hanging open. This was the boy who, having witnessed the plunge of the spike into Festhrahal’s chest, would unexpectedly heave himself at Srahund as he started to flee. The boy would be a thrashing maniac, punching, elbowing, biting, clawing. Srahund would get a hold of him, seizing him around his scrawny waist, and hurl him against a white-washed wall. But the delay would cost him. He would continue his escape as planned, but the alarm would already be raised, and sentinels would converge. He would not even reach the marketplace. The boy’s interference was an unfair complication, but Srahund had long since discarded the notion of fairness.
It would be for nothing, he told himself now as Festhrahal’s entourage swept toward him. Nothing! The magicmakers would still gain a majority in the government. They would control all of Ghremoin. They would make magic common and accepted.
He felt the poisonous spike weighing in his pocket. The impulse to act was still there, still potent, despite everything he knew. Srahund stepped out into the middle of the street, directly into the path of the dark green-robed figures. Festhrahal was at the forefront. His eyes flashed toward Srahund. Something registered there–wariness, an intuition of danger.
Srahund drew a breath. He declaimed in a loud, almost jubilant voice, “You sicken Ghremoin with magic!”
Then he laughed, just as loud, putting back his head.
The entourage paused briefly; then Festhrahal’s attendants scurried and hurried their superior around the lout, who continued to laugh for many minutes afterward.
Half a year after his release from Bone Hill, Srahund made up his mind to leave Lakya-ris. It was as obvious a decision as any he had ever had to make in his life, but he’d tarried over it nonetheless, putting it off for a day when he had the mental energy to be decisive. For many weeks now, that day of deciding had remained always ahead, belonging to a tomorrow that might never arrive. And yet, finally, it had come. He would go.
He was glad to be delivered from his incarceration. Though he had traveled beyond the jail’s confines three times under the auspices of that old magicmaking woman, there was nothing to compare with actually being outside again. Or so he told himself. Really, secretly, it seemed no more or less real to him than those journeys he had made into his past. Still, what a joy to free! To walk the capital’s streets, to take a meal when he wanted, to ogle women–these were great treats for him. He relished what he’d earned for himself.
But Lakya-ris wasn’t as it had been. It had changed since the time of his imprisonment, naturally; three years had gone by, and he had heard whispers and rumors of the improved economy and social conditions. More than that had transformed, however. Festhrahal had not been abruptly assassinated just as he was about to move into true power. Instead, the prominent magicmaker had advanced his political career. He was a dynamic figure, an effective leader. He had a talent for initiating civic programs that did the most good for the greatest number of people. The impoverished of the city–a small but significant class–suffered less. Crime dried up. Good jobs were available to honest workers. Festhrahal ascended and ascended, until a new governmental post had to be invented for him. He didn’t openly abuse his great power. He seemingly applied himself solely to the task of improving the lives of every person in Ghremoin, for very soon his benevolent influence was felt throughout the land.
Naturally he made use of his inherent magicmaking abilities, as did his court of fellow Westerners and his advisors, as did the police of Lakya-ris and the national army he was said to be raising to combat potential threats external and otherwise.
A time of prosperity for Ghremoin, like nothing the land had known before.
Srahund remembered still his original life, with all its homicidal incidents in place, though these events had been expunged for everyone else not involved in or aware of the intricate spell’s casting. That magic stayed upon him; it would never fade. He had, yet hadn’t, committed those mortal crimes. Occasionally he had nightmares filled with the same delirium as had come after his three temporal travelings, and woke to a sweat-wet bed; but Isquita, who he had never seen again after his release, had warned him of this.
In the capital city the diviners’ skills had much improved, Srahund found. He had coin in his pocket, clothes on his back and a few rooms to call his own; so he committed no wrongdoing. But some he had known during his peak days of criminality–although these individuals no longer knew him–had been snatched up for deeds they had scarcely thought about executing. Such was the way of things now. Of the three members of the so-called underground he had met, he saw no sign.
Srahund was weary of Lakya-ris’ corkscrew streets and rank gardens and mighty columns holding up red, green and yellow slab roofs. He determined to depart. No one would miss him. He had no old friends here, and had made no new acquaintances since being freed.
On the day he quietly made his way toward one of the city’s majestic imposing gates, he passed many, many figures clad in dark green robes, spread all throughout the streets of winding white-washed edifices, magicmakers about their daily business, a sea of green gradually blotting out every other shade. Srahund wouldn’t journey to Nurm, nor to Miinrolah, nor to obscure Trokadilv where a certain widow resided, nor to any other place he had seen during his adult travels. He would simply head eastward. The Black Desert lay the farthest distance from the forests of the West, and so it was Srahund’s home which would be the last place in Ghremoin to feel the seductive dominant touch of magic.