Kim Hunter's powerful and captivating epic fantasy continues in Wizard's Funeral, the second volume in the Red Pavilions trilogy.
Those who have not seen the dazzling towers, the obsidian turrets, the domes, the green-glass cupolas of Zamerkand, have surely missed the greater part of earth’s splendour. The morning sun is quick to find high, golden porches bright enough to blind a traveller many leagues from the city. Polished lapis lazuli tiles bordering lofty battlements shine with a penetrating blueness. Silver gutters glint with points of light that might come from the divine weaponry of a warrior-deity. The city is a great geometrical flower opening to the morning, the light running and leaping from spire to column to belfry to campanile to flèche, like sacred fire racing from one heavenly petal-point to the next.
On the battlements stand the Imperial Guardsmen, their helmets flashing, their spearpoints glinting. Around the walls of the city, almost completing the circle but for a man-made tunnel of stone, there to protect the canal all the way down to the sea, stand the red-ochre pavilions of the mercenary army of Carthagans. Their weapons gleam with a duller light. Unlike those of the Imperial guardsmen, which are taken out only to polish before parades and drills, the Carthagan weapons are frequently used in anger. They are tarnished with constant employment: their surfaces scratched; their edges sharp, but wavy with honing; the flaws in their blades stained with the blackened blood of enemies.
Five miles long and five miles wide, the city stands in the South of Guthrum, rich and powerful, and ripe with wealth.
On one of the green turrets which looked out over the surrounding countryside stood a man who had slept very little during the long and ponderous night. He called himself Soldier and he was married to the queen’s younger sister, Layana. Soldier saw the rider come from the West, from the Seven Peaks where the gods lived, and the wizards ruled. The rider looked exhausted, swaying in his saddle, his feet frequently slipping from the stirrups. Carthagans on their way to fetch early-morning water parted for him, allowing him a path, and the great wooden gates of the city, bold with brass and bronze, swung open as if this horseman had been expected for a very long time.
‘Drissila?’ called Soldier, not moving from the turret’s balcony, ‘is your mistress in the real world this morning?’
‘I fear she is unhappy,’ came the answer. ‘The demons visited her during the night and are now within her.’
Soldier sighed deeply. He loved his wife with a deepness that is found only by a man who has lost a former love to dark fingers of death. She was his future, past and present. He would kill for her, he would die for her.
‘Is Ofao tending to her needs?’
‘Ofao and myself.’
The rider, now in the market square, almost fell from his horse onto the cobbles. Captain Kaff, of the Imperial Guard, was hurrying onto the scene. Others were scurrying forth, gathering their robes about them – officials of the court – keeping their hemlines clear of horse and donkey shit: Chancellor Humbold; Quidquod, Lord of the Royal Purse; Maldrake, Lord of the Locks; Qintara, Lady of the Ladders; Marshal Crushkite, Warlord of Guthrum. Even the ruler of Guthrum, Queen Vanda, had quit her boudoir to appear on the balcony of her tower on the Palace of Birds.
A raven landed near to Soldier’s elbow as he surveyed this scene in the streets below.
‘I’ll wager a dozen the King Magus is dead,’ said the raven. ‘Pancakes, that is, fried in lovely hot corn oil.’
‘You won’t find a taker here,’ replied Soldier.
‘The King Magus is dead!’ cried the rider in a ragged voice. ‘Where is the wizard to take his place?’
‘There you are,’ said the raven. ‘Pancakes for breakfast.’
‘You didn’t get a taker,’ Soldier reminded him. ‘Anyway, how did you know?’
‘Oh, you know me. I fly here, I fly there. I talk with the wind.’
‘But you’ve been outside my window all night.’
‘Idiot, you’ve only got to look at the world this morning to see how it’s changed. See how the sun shines brightly? Look how blue the mountains seem now, where once they were gloomy and oppressive. Listen to the sparkle in the cock’s voice as he crows! The whole kingdom of the living and the dead has changed its aspect.’
And the bird was right. It had. Soldier had been too rapt in his own troubles to notice how much better this day appeared than yesterday, or the day before, or a thousand days before that.
The raven took to the air, settling some distance away on the pommel of a flagpole.
The rider in the square below was being questioned further now.
‘Who inherits?’ cried Humbold. ‘Who is the new King Magus?’
‘Why, I am instructed – instructed . . .’ the rider was visibly wilting, but Captain Kaff shook him to keep him awake. ‘Instructed to tell you that he is the son of a woman called Uthellen, of this city.’
‘Of this city?’ shouted the mob, now flowing from their shanties and hovels. Zamerkand might have had a shining coat, but it also had a rotten heart.
Humbold shouted, ‘Who knows this Uthellen?’
There was a buzz and a rumble from the crowd.
Marshal Crushkite yelled, ‘Someone must know her.’
Silence now fell upon the cobbled square.
‘Anyone?’ cried Captain Kaff.
The silence deepened.
Finally. ‘I know her.’
All eyes looked up to where the voice had come from.
Kaff nodded his head slowly and grimaced. Humbold sighed. A trader called Spagg, seller of hanged men’s hands, spat in the gutter.
It was Soldier who had spoken.
‘You?’ said Marshall Crushkite, who almost alone among the watchers was not an enemy of the man in the high tower. ‘Is she in Zamerkand, Soldier? Where is she?’
‘She used to reside in the sewers, along with her child, amongst the poor and destitute.’
There was a shuffling from the officials. The King Magus did not usually intervene in petty human affairs, being concerned with higher things, but he was invested with great power: enough to destroy any city, even whole countries. Only an innate sense of justness and rightness curbed the hand of the King Magus when it came to levelling those who had displeased him.
This, indeed, was a new King Magus. Would he have the same integrity as the last? Or would he settle a few scores, beginning his new reign with the slate wiped clean of any bitterness?
Queen Vanda spoke now, from the balcony of the Palace of Birds. ‘Soldier, you know the order of things. There must always be the poor, the rich and varying degrees between. That he was raised amongst the wretched people of this city is the fault of social order, not of our government.’
Soldier did not necessarily agree with this point of view, but he saw that there was nothing to be served by arguing.
‘The boy, when I last knew him, did not see himself as a victim of the state. There was no bitterness in his heart. But who knows the mind of a wizard?’
The queen sighed, her small, heart-shaped face pale with the effort of finding solutions. ‘Can you find him?’
‘I think so. He is outside the city, that I do know.’
‘Then here is your task. You see your work before you. Chancellor, give Soldier all that he needs to form an expedition to find the new King Magus, so that he may be informed of his predecessor’s death. He must take up his exalted post as quickly as possible.’
With that the queen left her balcony and swept into her chambers in a cloud of purple chiffons and silks.
Soldier was informed that he was to report to Captain Kaff within the hour.
He went to his wife’s chambers, to see if she recognised him.
‘You bastard,’ she spat. ‘Come to gloat over me in my madness, have you?’
She was hunched up in one corner of her great bed – a bed he seldom shared these days – the sheets knotted round her frail, diminutive form. His heart bled for her in her distress. Her face – normally animated and quite beautiful since the scars had gone – was screwed into a malevolent expression that filled him with disquiet. Soldier knew it was useless to argue with her. He simply bade her farewell.
‘I must go away on the queen’s business,’ he said. ‘I’ll return as soon as I can.’
Ofao, also in the room, had to restrain his mistress as she leapt towards Soldier with her hands like claws, her nails ready to rake his face.
‘Yes, go! You can’t wait to get away from me, can you? Are you bedding my sister? Does the queen demand your body between her sheets? You must be laughing at me, the pair of you. The foolish Princess Layana, whose husband fucks the queen.’
‘Your sister is as concerned for your welfare as I am,’ said Soldier. ‘There is nothing between us. In your heart you know that. I am going away to fetch the new King Magus and install him in his mountain palace. I will return as soon as possible.’
‘Why come back?’ she cried, savagely, struggling with Ofao’s firm grip. ‘Why bother to return?’ Her face was a vicious mask. ‘You know I hate you. Why would you want to come back to a wife who thinks you are dirt?’
He made the usual mistake of trying to reason with her, when rationality had already flown like escaping birds.
‘You say that now, but when – when you are normal, you tell me you love me.’
She smiled, nastily. ‘I only tell you that to unsettle you, to give you false confidence. This is my normal self. This is how I really feel. How could I love a man like you? You’re a freak, a creature with blue eyes. No other creature – man, beast, bird – has blue eyes. And who are you? You do not know your name, you have no memory of your past, and you arrived here with nothing but a few scraps of armour. You can’t possibly believe that I, a princess, could love a nobody . . .’
Soldier left the room quickly, before she could go on. Layana in her madness had the power to agitate him to the very roots of his soul. Seven times in the past year she had tried to murder him in the night. His scabbard, which sang out a warning when he was being attacked, was the only thing which had kept him alive. Sintra was the gold-thread name on his scabbard and it sheathed a sword named Kutrama, though he had arrived in this world with only the former, the latter having been lost somewhere on the way.
Soldier went now to his own chambers and dressed himself in light armour, not forgetting the warhammer he had wrested from an attacking Hannack. The last time he had seen Uthellen and her son they were hiding in a forest to the north. On his journey there Soldier might be attacked by Hannacks, or any other bands of brigands roaming the wastelands and countryside.
One thing he had discovered about himself was a deep-seated rage which erupted during moments of battle, so that he was known as one of the most savage fighters this world had ever encountered. He was appalled by his own barbarity at such times. The overwhelming feeling of vicious hatred which surged through him was as frightening to him as it was to his enemies and watchers. He wondered where it came from, what had happened to him for it to be there in the first place.
‘One of these days I shall find myself,’ he thought, ‘and I have no doubt I won’t like who lies within.’
Armed, he went forth to Captain Kaff’s quarters, where the Imperial Guardsman awaited him.
Kaff was one of Soldier’s greatest enemies. Soldier had cut off one of the captain’s hands in a duel. Now the captain fitted live creatures onto the stump that was his wrist. Today it was a sparrow-hawk. The effect was alarming. The raptor remained still on the silver-banded stump, with folded wings, unless Kaff reached forward, whereupon it spread its wings, flashed its talons, and raked the air with its hooked beak.
‘There is a horse waiting for you at the gates,’ Kaff explained. ‘I have arranged that myself and a company of men will ride with you. You will need protection in open country. There are Hannacks about.’
‘I’ll go alone,’ said Soldier.
Kaff stared at him, the hawk fluttering. ‘You are a fool – as usual.’
Soldier ignored the insult. ‘I’ll take Spagg with me.’
There was a snorting sound from Kaff. ‘A lot that idiot can do to help if you’re attacked by wolves, or worse.’
A shrug from the other. ‘Suit yourself.’
‘And stay away from my wife.’
It was well known that Kaff was in love with Layana – had been even before the arrival of Soldier – and visited her often as a friend and advisor. In the old days Kaff had done nothing about his feelings of devotion for the princess because he had deemed himself unworthy. Then this nobody, this riff-raff from some war in an unknown place, had arrived and married her within a few short weeks. Kaff had been more than incensed. He was almost prepared to sacrifice the life of the new King Magus – wars, pestilence and famine come if they had to – if it meant that Soldier would die too.
Kaff said, stiffly, ‘The Princess Layana has need of my services from time to time.’
‘If you try to seduce her, I’ll kill you. Captain of the Imperial Guard or not.’
Kaff smiled. ‘You are assuming that this is possible, of course.’
‘It’ll be a great deal easier now I’ve taken one of your hands,’ snapped Soldier.
The smile instantly evaporated and Kaff’s lips curled.
‘One of these days . . .’ he muttered, gripping his swordhilt.
‘Just keep to your own bedroom, Kaff, and respect the rights of a husband.’
With that, Soldier left the captain’s quarters and made his way to the market square.
A raven landed on Soldier’s shoulder as he strode along.
‘Well, well, still causing mayhem with the Guthrum army, are we?’ said the raven. ‘Still managing to volunteer for these suicidal missions? Got a death-wish, have we?’
‘You can shut up, too,’ muttered Soldier, worried that someone would hear him talking to a bird and think him mad.
‘Oh, I can shut up – or I can chatter to my heart’s content. I think that’s up to me, isn’t it? I’m entitled to my opinion of you, which is as low as it always has been. Soldier the hero? Soldier the moron. You could get killed out there, you know. Why didn’t you take up the offer of an escort?’
‘Where were you hiding?’ muttered Soldier. ‘Up the chimney?’
‘Just outside the window, actually.’
‘You want to be careful you don’t finish up on the end of Kaff’s wrist one of these days. And as to the escort – I’ve more to fear from them than I have from a bunch of rogue dragons. There’d be a danger of waking up every morning with my throat cut. I prefer to go with just Spagg. He has his faults but at least he’s scared stiff of me. Kaff has nothing but contempt for my skills as a warrior. He thinks he’s better. What are you going to do? Will you trail along?’
If the raven could have wrinkled his beak in distaste, he would have done. ‘With that stinking bag of dung, Spagg? Not on your life. Think I’ll stay here and pick a few locks with my beak. There’s no larders out in open country. I’ve got my stomach to think of, I have.’
The bird flew off.
At this time of day the market-place was thriving. In one corner of the square, vegetables. In another, meat. On the north-east corner, livestock – shuffling, snuffling, dropping today’s wet turds onto yesterday’s dried turds. The last corner was where frauds and gullible buyers met, along with eccentrics and those struck by lunar rays: fortune-tellers, physicians (as if anybody could cure anyone of anything!), gem-sellers, ivory-dealers, sellers of curios and carvings, and Spagg.
Spagg was a purveyor of dead men’s hands. Not just men either, but women kill mostly for love and men mostly for money, and there is more money than love in the world. Once the murderers were hanged Spagg had a licence to cut off their hands and sell them as hands-of-glory: hands with magical properties, such as the power of invisibility. There were many unsatisfied customers, but Spagg always told them magic required belief and it was their lack of faith that was the cause of the failure, not the hands-of-glory themselves. ‘What?’ cried the short, hairy man as Soldier approached. Spagg saw the look in Soldier’s eyes. ‘Oh no,’ he said. ‘No, no, no. I went with you once before, but I ain’t goin’ again. I was lucky to get back with my skin and good eye intact. I ain’t goin’ to risk it a second time.’
‘You haven’t got any choice,’ replied Soldier, firmly. ‘Unless you’d rather explain your reluctance to the Queen’s Torturer?’
Spagg picked up a rather blue hand with swollen knuckles and threw it down hard on the table.
‘It’s not fair,’ he whined. ‘I was just goin’ to the temple, for the winter.’
‘They won’t have you this year. I told them you laughed at the gods when we were on our journeys. I told them you cursed the priests and swore at the deities.’
‘That ain’t true!’
‘Yes, it is.’
‘Well – you shouldn’t be a tattle-tale, you snitch. I was under stress. Anyone would swear and curse with a bunch of bloodthirsty dwarves after ’em. I bet even the priests would let out a few oaths.’
Soldier shook his head sadly. ‘You see, it’s that kind of remark that gets you into trouble.’
Slowly and reluctantly, Spagg covered his stall and wheeled it from the market-place.
‘I don’t understand you,’ he said to Soldier. ‘You don’t like me at all. Why d’you want me with you, on these treks of yourn.’
‘I find your company stimulating.’
‘Well, let’s put it this way, there’s not many people in Zamerkand I would want with me, so there’s not much choice. I know you. I can judge your stamina, your courage – or lack of it – and every aspect of your character. Why would I take someone who is a mystery to me? I’d never know when to run and when to stand and fight.’
‘But with me, you always have to run.’
‘Exactly, I know where I stand – that is to say – run.’
‘Funny beggar, ain’t you,’ grumbled Spagg. ‘I’m splittin’ my sides, I am.’
The barrow was locked in a stable.
‘They’ll all be rotten by the time I get back,’ grumbled the hand-seller. ‘They’ll fall to bits.’
‘You could pickle them.’
‘Nah. There’s one or two of ’em got leprosy, and I can’t remember which. Puttin’ them in vinegar only hastens the rot’.
The pair collected their horses outside the gates. They rode through the Carthagan red tents, Soldier collecting one or two greetings on the way. He was well thought of by the mercenaries. Not just because he was one of them, and a captain at that, but because also he was not a Guthrumite. The Carthagans were loyal to the country they protected, but they thought its citizens weak and pathetic. The Carthagans were short, dark and stocky, like small bulls. The Guthrumites were taller, pale and tended towards the lean. The Carthagans were soldiers from the womb. The Guthrumites had to be moulded into fighters like Captain Kaff – they had to be taught skills which came to their mercenaries naturally.
Soldier stood somewhere between these two types. What he had that neither of them possessed was an intrinsic fighting skill, learned in some other place. His moves could not be anticipated, because he was unorthodox. Somewhere he had learned to kill men without compassion, in ways that were new to this world.
Watching Soldier and Spagg leave, from a high position on the battlements of Zamerkand, was Captain Kaff.
Once the two men were out of sight, Kaff wasted no time. He changed from his uniform into a silk shirt, breeches and a flamboyant hat. He fitted a dove to his wrist and put a sprig of myrtle in his buttonhole. Then he hurried off towards the Palace of Wildflowers – the home of Princess Layana and her absent husband.
Forcing his way past the servants, he demanded audience with the princess.
They told him she was not in a fit state.
‘She’ll see me,’ he said. ‘She always sees me.’
‘Not today. Not in her madness,’ replied Drissila, firmly. ‘In any case, my master will kill you when he returns.’
‘If he returns,’ muttered Kaff. ‘All right, I’ll be back tomorrow.’
‘She might not be well by tomorrow.’
‘Then the next day. I only want to talk with her. I want to make sure she’s happy . . .’
‘Of course she’s not happy,’ snapped Drissila. ‘She’s sick.’
‘I mean, happy with him.’
The raven was a silent and unnoticed witness to all this. He flew out, over the walls, and caught Soldier up, landing on the rump of his mount.
The bird chanted in rhyme:
‘Captain Kaff was there today,
Captain Kaff won’t go away,
Husbands all, lock up your wives,
Kaff is stalking through your hives.’
Soldier did not even look at the speaker.
‘Humans don’t live in hives, bees do.’
‘Couldn’t think of anything to rhyme with wives,’ replied the raven, pecking at the horse’s rump to make it trot rather than walk. The raven jogged up and down on the now bouncing rump. ‘I thought it was pretty g-good myself.’
‘So he is there?’
‘I told you.’
Soldier was quiet for a long while, during which all that could be heard was the clopping of the horses’ hooves.
‘When I get back,’ he said at last, ‘I’ll kill him.’
‘That’s what Drissila said. It didn’t seem to impress him.’
‘It will – I swear by the seven gods – it will.’