CHRONICLES OF AN AGE OF DARKNESS fantasy fiction story by Hugh Cook featuring Lord Dreldragon fiction story CHRONICLES milieu
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The day before his arrest, Asquith North returned from the fish market to find a piece of parchment had been slid beneath his door while he was out. While he sat in his garret eating cold rice and sashimi, Asquith studied the missive. It was short and to the point.
The criminal was brought before the Iron Throne by Jazlin Hemanid, the emperor's anointed heir.
"This is the man," said Lord Hemanid.
Dust settled in silence while the Iron Emperor observed his captive.
"So, boy," said the Iron Emperor, at last, "you are my critic."
"I am not a boy," said the criminal. "I am twenty-four years of age."
Lord Dreldragon - the Iron Emperor, that is - laughed briefly. It was a dry laugh, rasping like skeletal leaves, and it ended in a cough, which sounded painful.
"A boy, then," murmered the Iron Emperor.
Though the combined artifices of magic and science had long sustained the emperor's life, he had grown increasingly frail over the last few years. He was now a hundred and ninety six years old, and was generally believed to be not far from death, though this belief was the kind of knowledge that one shared only with the shadows.
"Facts have no vintage," said Asquith, speaking into the emperor's silence. "A child may know its arithmetic as well as a philosopher of ninety."
"Yes," said Lord Dreldragon. "But only a child thinks the rest of the world as simple as its slate board. Well, Jazlin - read out the charges."
"Asquith North," said Jazlin Hemanid, "you stand accused of the crimes of insolence, impiety and high treason in that you have dared impune the genius, genesis, acts, speech and character of the Iron Emperor. How do you plead?"
"My defense is that what I have written is true," said Asquith.
"That," said Jazlin, "is no defense at all. My lord - he is plainly guilty, so why not move on to sentencing?"
"Jazlin has convicted you, it seems," said Lord Dreldragon. "Of your guilt there is no doubt. But your motive puzzles me. Why did you produce this ... this book? This ... tome."
The book in question, "The Secret History of Lord Dreldragon", was plainly in evidence, marked with a label which read "Article A".
"I felt," said Asquith, "that it was unfitting for a monster to rule the Empire."
"A monster?" said Lord Dreldragon. "That is rather, ah ... judgmental is the word I want, I believe."
"You were a pirate," said Asquith, bold and unabashed, the certainty of death convincing him he had nothing to lose.
"Oh?" said Lord Dreldragon. "How so?"
"There is ample documentary evidence," said Asquith. "You were a member of a bloodthirsty criminal conspiracy. Criminals who preyed upon honest merchants from their lairs in the Greater Teeth."
Lord Dreldragon sighed.
"Suppose you have a piece of land," he said.
"Yes," said Asquith, doubtfully, not sure whether it was safe to permit the Iron Emperor this hypothesis, yet unsure as to how to go about refusing him. "Suppose."
"He grants you permission, my lord," said Jazlin Hemanid, with a jesting edge to his voice which was less than pleasant.
"He does indeed," observed Lord Dreldragon mildly. "It is very kind of him. Well, young Asquith. Suppose you own a piece of land. May you not then charge for the use of that land?"
"Charge?" said Asquith.
"Tolls, crossing fees, that kind of thing," said Lord Dreldragon.
"It's not the same thing," said Asquith, seeing where this argument was going. "Not the same thing at all."
"If you really think so," said Lord Dreldragon, "then one must say that you have only the most rudimentary notions of international law. Personally, I have no regrets about performing my duty in the seaborne militia which served the Democratic Peoples Republic of the Greater Teeth as its coast guard."
"I suppose it was a step up from shoveling coal," said Asquith acerbically.
"And what do you mean by that?" said Jazlin Hemanid. "My lord, we should cut out his tongue."
"Peace, Jazlin," said Lord Dreldragon. "There will be time enough later. Well, young Asquith - are you referring to my time as a swordsmith's apprentice?"
"It is in the book," said Asquith, indicating his masterwork, "The Secret History of Lord Dreldragon".
"He alleges," said Jazlin Hemanid, "that in your youth you toiled at a sweaty furnace, shoveling coal and breathing the dust of it. Making swords."
"That much is not generally remembered now," said Drake Douay, the sometime coast guard who had made himself emperor. "It is not remembered because those who could remember have mostly grown too old." He paused. "And yet," he added, softly, "it has never been denied. Tell me, Asquith - do you feel that honest work lacks dignity?"
"It does," said Asquith.
"So very young," said the Iron Emperor. "So very much to learn. Tell me, Asquith, have you ever seen a sword?"
"Of course, my lord," said Asquith.
That "my lord" came out of Asquith's lips without thought, and he immediately regretted having honored the pirate by even so little. As he was doomed to die, and probably to die horribly, he had no need to stint defiance.
"So you have seen a sword," said the Iron Emperor. "Very well. Can you describe one?"
"It is a ... a lever, I guess. Kind of thin ... narrow ... you can chop up ... well ...."
"Watch," said the Iron Emperor.
And out of nowhere - from the sheer air, as it were - the Iron Emperor drew a blade of light. The light was made of metal, but it was a living thing. It was both solid and liquid at one and the same time. Glints of malevolent purple keened along its edge. The blade shone with sheens of red.
Jazlin Hemanid gasped, and stepped backwards, and his face lost all color, and cold sweat started out on his waxy skin. Asquith North held his ground, but with difficulty. He knew, immediately, that this was no ordinary sword. This was Elsang Trang, the Blade of Shadows which the Iron Emperor had retrieved from the Land of the Dead.
"I am Drake Douay," said the Iron Emperor, with a great ringing voice, a battle-heartening voice which shocked back from the echoing stone. "Who is it who defies me?"
"Nobody, my lord," breathed Asquith. "Nobody."
In Asquith's book, he had resolutely written that Elsang Trang was a myth, concocted out of nothing to serve the emperor's image. Plainly, Jazlin Hemanid had believed likewise, and had been equally shocked - more so, in fact - by the shock of the sword's reality.
"I was wrong," said Asquith, in flat admission.
Wrong indeed. And shaken to the core by the knowledge of his error.
"It seems he knows himself guilty," said Jazlin Hemanid, mopping his forehead with a silk handkerchief, still pale but rapidly recovering.
"Aye," said Lord Dreldragon. "We all make mistakes. Even I make them - sometimes. Isn't that so, Jazlin?"
"I have never known my lord to be in error," said Jazlin.
"No," said Lord Dreldragon. "You have not known it. I am quite aware of that. Very well. Asquith North. Do you wish to choose your punishment, or do you prefer that I choose it for you?"
"I would choose exile," said Asquith.
"I'm sure you would," said the Iron Emperor. "But let us here how Jazlin chooses. "Jazlin Hemanid - how do you choose?"
"I choose death," said Jazlin, without hesitation.
"The gods be my witness," said Lord Dreldragon. "Jazlin chooses death."
"If I were to go into exile," said Asquith, quickly, "then I would have a better chance of serving you. Some day."
Asquith hated himself for this. But, with his death closing in on him, he found it impossible not to struggle. He wanted to live. And, this close to death, he realized exactly how keenly he wanted to live.
"Well," said Lord Dreldragon. "You wish to serve me, do you?"
"It would be an honor to serve the bearer of Elsang Trang," said Asquith.
"A warrior's words," said the Iron Emperor. "But you do not strike me as the warrior type. Still. Let us see. Let us see what you are made of, young Asquith. You have heard of Morbrendorth?"
The question seemed to be asked purely as a matter of form, so Asquith did not bother to answer it directly. Instead, he took the next logical leap.
"You want me to fight him?" said Asquith.
"Fight?" said Lord Dreldragon, startled. "No. Not at all. The public chose their punishment in the last referendum. I wish you to be the instrument to inflict that punishment."
"Then I refuse," said Asquith, promptly.
"He defies you, my lord," said Jazlin Hemanid.
"Aye," growled Lord Dreldragon. "And so, on occasion, does my pastry chef, who is a temperamental idiot. Peace, Jazlin, and let me deal with this boy we have before us."
"As my lord wishes," said Jazlin.
Lord Dreldragon then bent his head in meditation, as if thinking through a difficult problem. Then, raising his head, he looked Asquith North very directly in the face. Asquith looked right back, trying not to flinch.
"How do we take the measure of a man?" said Lord Dreldragon, finally.
"I have no idea," said Asquith.
"Yet you judged me," said Lord Dreldragon. "In your book, you very confidently passed judgment on Drake Douay. A pirate, as you termed him. And other things. You forgot - or never knew, or nobody taught you, or you never bothered to ask - that he was loyal in battle. A good friend to his friends. That he endured the fall of his world and built another one. That he achieved a nation state, an Empire construed as a home for all its peoples."
Asquith was silent, lost as to how he should reply. Jazlin Hemanid stepped forward, as if to say something, but the Iron Emperor checked him with a gesture, and Jazlin fell back. Finally, Lord Dreldragon spoke.
"This is my judgment. Morbrendorth is a monster. We all know that. He has confessed to his crimes and the people have chosen his punishment. If you do not know the details of that punishment already, the details are posted on the wall outside his cell, so he may daily contemplate them through the bars.
"Now. You, Asquith North, will go to Morbrendorth tonight. The executioner will be given orders to admit you to his cell. You will inflict the public's chosen punishment upon him. If you do that, then you will be free to leave. This matter will be regarded as being closed.
"However. If you defy me in this, then you will hear, then, the fate that I see fit for you. Do you understand?"
"Perfectly, my lord," said Asquith. "And I will tell you this. I will not kill for you."
"But," said Lord Dreldragon, "Morbrendorth is a serial killer. A killer of babies, what's more."
"Even so," said Asquith, "you cannot so easily covert me into your pliable instrument. There are things I will not do, and killing is one of them."
"If that is so," said Lord Dreldragon, "then tomorrow you will meet with my wisdom. Very well. We are done. Boy - find your way to the guestrooms, and stay there until you are called for tomorrow. Or until you decide to give Morbrendorth his due. Well, boy - what are you waiting for? There are no guards here to take you away. Our business is done."
Once certain that Asquith North had quit his presence, the Iron Emperor signaled Jazlin Hemanid to step closer.
"My lord's will?" said Jazlin.
"I wish you to tempt the boy," said Lord Dreldragon. "Go to him tonight. Tell him that the Iron Emperor is old - which is true. That the emperor is sick - which is also true. That you desire him dead."
"That, my lord, is most certainly false," said Jazlin, fervently.
"Aye," said Lord Dreldragon. "The entire world is false. Anyway. Say to the boy that you wish me dead. That you will lead him to my chambers. That he will kill me. That you will then give him an alibi, and that he will render the same service to you. You may promise him whatever reward you see fit. Including, if that is what he seeks, the posthumous defilement of my public image."
"And if he accepts?" said Jazlin.
"Guards will intercept him outside my bed chamber," said Lord Dreldragon. "There is no danger."
"But if he refuses?" said Jazlin.
"Then tell him that I have promised you the pleasure of torturing him to death," said Lord Dreldragon.
"And do you so promise?" said Jazlin.
"Yes," said Lord Dreldragon. "May the gods bear witness. I will give you what you have asked for."
"Then I ask for his death," said Jazlin. "By torture."
"So," said Lord Dreldragon. "Assuming that he refuses to accomplish my murder, we will see him here tomorrow."
The next day, Asquith North was brought before Lord Dreldragon shortly before noon. As he was led through the halls and corridors of the Iron Emperor's stronghold, he was conscious of an uncommon bustle of people, and of a heightened tension which evidenced itself, for example, in the ferocious scrutiny to which the guards subjected him.
When Asquith was brought before Lord Dreldragon, he was startled to see, standing beside the imperial throne, a man with the head and horns of a bull. Asquith knew this legendary figure. This, of course, had to be Log Jaris, one of the heroes of the Saga of Drake Douay. Some said he was dead; others, simply that he had grown tired of being stared at by the vulgar. But Asquith had doubted that any such individual had ever existed.
"My lord," said Asquith, speaking to the Iron Emperor before the emperor spoke to him. "I confess error yet again. I have written that Log Jaris was an imaginary ... construct. But I see it is not true."
"Indeed," said Lord Dreldragon. "You have healthy streak of cynicism in you, Asquith. It will serve you well. But you should remember that the world is not as small as your mockeries. Rather, the truth is that there are strange and terrible things in the world, some both great and tragic at the same time."
"Our emperor has a weakness for melodrama," said Log Jaris, intervening then in his deep rumbling voice. "I advise you to cultivate your cynicism rather than emulate the emperor's histrionic streak."
"Histrionic?" said Lord Dreldragon. "Me? Log Jaris, old friend, I speak merely the truth. The fact is that the world - but enough of the world. The boy is the occasion. Well. What do you think of him?"
"He is man enough to have shaped himself," said Log Jaris, cautiously. "Not like the other one. I am not sure that you have made the right choice, yet find no grounds for calling this an error. I have read his writings, and find there a talent for analysis, at least. The complexity of affairs has ... well, my lord knows all that."
"So," said Lord Dreldragon. "To your fate."
"Jazlin Hemanid has already told me of my fate," said Asquith, confused by now as to exactly what was intended for him, but very clear about what Jazlin intended.
"Ah," said the Iron Emperor. "But the world has been modified in the night. A number of things have happened. Morbrendorth is dead, for one. He took poison supplied to him by a source as yet unknown. Jazlin Hemanid is also dead. An assassin came to my bed chamber last night,and it seems that my loyal and beloved Jazlin intercepted him in the antechamber. In the subsequent struggle, each killed the other. Jazlin died a hero's death."
Silence, then, until Asquith ventured a question.
"Is that how it really happened?"
"But of course," said the Iron Emperor, looking surprised. "What else could possibly have happened?"
"My lord ... the other night ... it happened ... well, Jazlin came to me, and he said ...."
"Enough!" said the Iron Emperor, cutting him off. "Jazlin Hemanid is dead. He is not here to defend himself. If you mean to profit from attacking his character, think again."
"But," said Asquith.
"Enough!" growled the Iron Emperor, a shocking strength and anger suddenly patent in his voice. "Do you not think I have reasoned through the logical architecture of this incident?"
"If you choose to believe so," said Asquith, finally deciding that it would not hurt to permit Jazlin to be remembered as the hero the Iron Emperor so plainly wanted him to be.
"That is very gracious of you," said Lord Dreldragon. "And now to the next step. Your marriage."
"Marriage?" said Asquith, astonished. "My lord, I have no plans to get married! Not until I am, say, thirty-six years of age, at least!"
"What you plan is neither here nor there," said Lord Dreldragon. "The plans are mine. Bring in the bride."
And at that a woman entered. A woman whom Asquith immediately recognised as the Princess Adoralona.
"Very well," said the Iron Emperor. "Come here, the pair of you, and Log Jaris will marry you."
"Now?" said Asquith, almost too dizzy to speak. "Why under the nine stars would the Princess Adoralona wish to marry a penniless dissident like myself?"
"Because," said the Princess, speaking in a voice as clear as crystal and as controlled as an autopsy, "she wishes to be the next Empress."
"That does not make any sense at all," said Asquith.
"It makes perfect sense, providing only that you use a little logic," said Log Jaris. "The Iron Emperor has chosen. Come here."
And so Asquith North was married to the Princess Adoralona, and was proclaimed the imperial heir. And Jazlin Hemanid was granted a hero's burial.
Nobody ever discovered who had poisoned the monster Morbrendorth, thus sparing him from the tortures which had been planned for him. And nobody ever discovered the identity of the anonymous assassin whose body had been discovered, along with Jazlin Hemanid in the antechamber to the Iron Emperor's bedroom.
But the fact that the noble Jazlin had fought to the death in defense of his liege lord supported the wisdom of Lord Dreldragon's choice. For it was Lord Dreldragon, after all, who had elevated Jazlin to the status of imperial heir.
"And your new choice is even better," said Log Jaris, toasting the success of Asquith North's first major public speech.
"One hopes so," said the emperor.
"All paths are dangerous," said Log Jaris, "but a man must walk."
"Aye," said Lord Dreldragon. "I'll drink to that."
This story, "The Secret History of Lord Dreldragon", made its first appearance when posted on Hugh Cook's website zenvirus.com on 2003 January 12 Sunday.
THE SECRET HISTORY OF LORD DRELDRAGON - fantasy story - Chronicles age of darkness milieu - read online fantasy story - The Secret History of Lord Dreldragon - complete story by Hugh Cook