Photo courtesy of morgueFile.com
This is a small taste of my novel (one of three), The High King’s Embalmer. It’s a dystopian/speculative/fantasy with a bit of horror mashed inside. I’ve decided to offer a little snippet to the world. Still debating about self-publishing or the traditional publishing route.
The High King’s Embalmer
by S. Copperstone
— 1 —
The king posed a riddle for Podargos. A wrong answer meant death.
“A sip of your finest Cardia Proper water please, Sire, before I answer?”
“Fine, take your time. Have some wine,” the king’s irritation rose with his voice. He nodded to the hired servant who bowed and disappeared inside the palace.
A whitewashed stone wall enclosed the royal palace. I leaned my shoulder against it to blend in with the shadows cast by the weeping palms between myself and the veranda, I darkened the pigment of my skin while always keeping an eye on the guests. My ears cocked forward, intent on any sound out of the ordinary while I translated the man’s words into the complex nuances of the pictographic language of the distant planet of Kem—my telepathic language—searching for any hidden meanings in Podargos’ words.
Podargos sipped from his glass, but his gaze roved over the gardens, searching for his famed bodyguards from Kamusta amongst the king’s dinner guests. They had disappeared, vanished as people tended to do in Cardia Proper, even I didn’t know what became of them.
“Perhaps you need the question repeated? Maybe inspiration will come to you.”
“Out of the eater, something to eat;
out of the strong, something sweet.”
“Perhaps the children of the former high king would—” Podargos said, stalling for time.
The citrus farmer surprised me with that remark as he had everyone else. Their gasps said it all with such a blatant lack of respect for the king, Podargos had planted the seed amongst the other guests without my mental prodding—a reminder that the last high king still had living heirs.
Even I was losing my patience with the hunger stirring in my stomach. The king had promised me a heart this week. My fingers brushed against the black linen kilt that wrapped around my hips as my hand rested lightly on top of the carved, bone handle of my knife. Years had passed since I had carried out an execution order at a king’s request. Many decades passed since I had tasted a human heart. I’d gladly take the one belonging to the citrus farmer from Kamusta, but it was not the time.
“Enough! Answer the riddle.”
“Yes, Your Majesty.” Podargos inhaled a deep breath.
Podargos oversaw the majority of citrus groves on the fertile crescent island of Kamusta. A self-proclaimed overlord and tax collector of the peasant farmers, it was said he had developed a habit of creating the pretense that he was a cultured man worthy enough to obtain a coveted dinner invitation. It was said he had grown disgusted with King Triton, and found the current royal politics of Cardia offensive. I remained neutral, for the most part.
“From death comes sweetness; from the devourer a home is made; from bones and hide a civilization thrives. Come now, Podargos, you know the cycle of nature; the spring tides and autumn monsoons.
“You stated on this very eve that you knew of the ancient books of wisdom, and of the words spoken only amongst a few of his kind.” The king nodded in my direction.
The garden attendees eyed me with curiosity. Silence gorged itself on the formerly elated conversations. What followed the king’s revelation of my presence, came gasps from the guests and a change in the ambience of the soirée. Faces turned and gawked at me as I stepped away from the wall to walk amongst them but always apart from them. Hatred and fear, the two prevalent emotions surfaced from those who did not know me.
My presence had been hearsay to most of the king’s guests, I learned. They knew the king had acquired me, but few had seen me.
Choosing my native form heightened my senses and allowed me to read the feelings of those around me. It did nothing to remove the fear my native form invoked in humans. They knew me as an alien-creature who communicated with the dead, one of the rarer ouHor Kems who could sense an approaching death, and that knowledge frightened them.
It wasn’t magic, although humans had believed so in the past. My sensitivity was higher than the average ouHor Kem’s. It was a struggle to ignore the lingering aromas from the meal recently served, and the sulfuric odors from the war taking place beyond the palace walls. I welcomed the warmth of the sun’s fading light to erode the chilly anxiety that fell over the guests just then.
Podargos swallowed hard with sweat forming on his brow. Self-importance gave away to nervous fear. The scent of his fear nearly suffocated me though I was a dozen paces away.
“I did not know that jackal-thing was here.” He choked out the words so low, I doubted a human heard unless standing next to him.
A “thing” I was not. Despite my dislike for this simple man, and my abhorrence of being called a thing, I needed him. If I could plant a thought into his brain, an easy answer to the riddle…’
King Triton leaned forward in his blue wicker chair. He acted like the pharaohs of old. I recalled how they too, addressed themselves in such a manner.
“Come closer, Podargos of Kamusta. My Majesty may not be able to hear you correctly and I’m certain you would not want me to misunderstand your answer,” the king said.
Instead, the citrus farmer inched toward the gate as if prepared to make an escape.
A fruitless gesture. The king’s men blocked the exit. Their weapons would shatter his femurs before he ran three paces.
My elbow brushed against the citrus grower as I walked passed him on the way toward the veranda where the king sat—not unlike his dais inside the palace. From that touch, an electrical charge surged through my neurons.
Podargos glanced at me with a blank expression as I spoke telepathically into his head. Through his lips came the words:
“O wise and noble master. Your greatness shines from the deserts and rain forests of Cardia, to the rolling, verdant hills of Kamusta, and down to the plateaus and mountains of the southern lands. Your riddle is hard, and yet, familiar to those who know the greatness of such poetry. My hesitation was due to the choice offered to me. We are simpler people on Kamusta. Our language is not as poetic and lyrical.”
“Hmmph.” King Triton nodded for Podargos to continue, but raised an eyebrow in my direction.
I slowed my breathing to calm Podargos’ thoughts, revealing none of my intentions to the king.
“I was momentarily confused,” the citrus grower said, “for as you said during your fabulous dinner, I know few things.”
Nervous laughter erupted from the nearest guests.
“In our dialect of Kamusta, I say this: Out of the eater came forth meat, and out of the strong came forth sweet—”
The telepathic link was lost from a distraction on my part. An aura-less human entered the gardens without hinderance from the king’s men. I suspected he was the king’s war counselor. That energy of authority followed him.
“Most sorry, Sire. I lost my train of thought.”
To cover his sudden lack of infused knowledge, Podargos choked and coughed. He cleared his throat and finished his drink.
“Stalling again?” the king asked under his breath. “So far, you’ve told me nothing.”
“Please Sire if I may, I shall now continue.”
To assist Podargos in his recovery, I provided another clue.
“The answer is from the scriptures. Nothing is stronger than a lion, nor sweeter than honey,” Podargos said quickly.
The king was furious.
I smiled inwardly. King Triton had wanted the citrus grower dead, but his powerful, political guests would never allow that. He needed their support and money—promised no one would die at his dinner party.
With Podargos’ life spared, there was to be no assassination that evening. No one needed me that evening. I climbed the plank steps of the veranda, and bowed my head to the king with both wrists crossed over my bare chest. I kneeled on one knee before him, but never fully. Born into slavery on Ocana, it was something I had to do. Even a slave had hopes and desires whispered away where no one could find them.