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The Warden of Jestabel Zee

        "You should desire more," said Amalinda.
        She was the wife. Cyrus had inherited her from his brother, who was a warrior, and who was very tall, and very handsome, and very strong, and very dead.
        "Why?" said Cyrus.
        "It is foolish to be less than you can be," said Amalinda. "Your brother always said so."
        "Yes," said Cyrus. "I heard him. Many times."
        What Cyrus desired was for his wife to be happier. And why could she not? They had seven children, all variously apprenticed in the Standing City. And they had all the fish they could eat, courtesy of the Espereeding River. On top of that, they were neither of them dead. So what more could they wish for?
        Cyrus Aplin was the Warden. That is, he had the job of guarding the ruins of Jestabel Zee. He had not asked for it; rather, it was hereditary, so he had no choice. He had inherited the job from his father and the wife from his brother, and each day he praised the Living Sun for preserving his sister's life for yet another twenty-four hours. The day that Big Sister died, Cyrus would inevitably inherit the twenty-seven ghosts which haunted her, none of them particularly pleasant to know.
        Anyway -
        On a certain day in the month of Kestor Tabrentis, there was a scream. Who screamed? Why, Amalinda.
        Hearing the scream, Cyrus stood up slowly - when you have a bad back you never do anything quickly, regardless of the pressures of the situation. At the time, he was busy tending his broccoli plantation, which consisted of three rather spindly plants just downstream from the fishtrap. He looked in the direction of the scream, and saw his brother approaching.
        No, not his brother.
        His brother was still soundly dead.
        This was a different warrior - or, rather, Warrior.
        "Hello there," said the Warrior, looking down from the height of his horse.
        Amalinda sat behind the Warrior on the horse, looking shaken. She was bleeding from the scalp where a tuft of her hair had been torn out.
        "Well," said Cyrus, rubbing the back of his neck.
        He always did it unthinkingly, and his wife always chided him, because he got dirt on the collar of his work shirt, and he was not the one who had to wash it. But on this occasion she said nothing, nothing at all.
        Saying nothing more himself, Cyrus took stock of the Warrior, and of the Warrior's entourage, which consisted of two very large executioners mounted upon water buffalo, some armored guards mounted on massive shire horses, a gaggle of clerks traveling on foot, a three-legged dog with a big grin on its face, and a man on a donkey who wore a nameplate which proclaimed him to be one Treasurer Vine.
        "Well," said Cyrus, again, nobody else seeming disposed to speak. "What can I do for you?"
        "I," said the Warrior, still on his horse and still looking down, "am Lombreth Korengesh Nalay."
        "I see," said Cyrus, choosing not to mention the matter of his wife, who was in such a state of shock that she, plainly, had not yet realized that there was blood trickling down her face. "And I'm Cyrus Aplin. It's a nice day for fly fishing, isn't it?"
        "I," said Lombreth Korengesh, totally ignoring the fly fishing suggestion, "am the Warrior Lord of Uplan Esh, and I seek the Warden of Jestabel Zee."
        "Found," said Cyrus.
        "Pardon?" said Lombreth Korengesh.
        "I am the person you seek," said Cyrus. "I suppose you have come for the Bubble of Wish."
        "Exactly," said Lombreth Korengesh. "I seek to become the warrior of warriors, the sword of swords. Which torture do you prefer?"
        "None is necessary," said Cyrus. "The Bubble is in that bamboo shed over there."
        "You shouldn't just tell me that!" said Lombreth Korengesh, scandalized. "You should hold out, even in the face of torture. You should force me to do all kinds of hideous things to the naked flesh of this woman of yours before you even dream of disclosing the whereabouts of the treasure you guard."
        "I know I should," said Cyrus. "But I choose not to."
        "Then what kind of Warden are you?" said Lombreth Korengesh, frowning.
        "A cowardly one, my lord," said Cyrus.
        "Or perhaps a tricky one," said Treasurer Vine. "It may not be the real Bubble at all. We should torture him anyway. On principle."
        And the Treasurer licked his lips, which were thin and dry. He looked as if he was hungry.
        "Or, my lord," said Cyrus, doing his best to ignore the Treasurer, who was making him uneasy, "you could sleep here tonight. The bubble will begin to work your wishes overnight."
        "What I wish," said Lombreth Korengesh, "is to become the warrior of warriors."
        But Cyrus knew that already.
        His brother had ventured exactly the same wish.
        Only Cyrus's brother, to his credit, had not used the Bubble to fulfill his own ends. Rather, Brother Neebringer had achieved his own death through his own unaided efforts.
        "Well," said Cyrus, "the sun isn't getting any younger, is it? Let me fetch you the Bubble."

*


        Lombreth Korengesh held the Bubble in his hands. In outward appearance, it was very like a soap bubble - a soap bubble the size of your head, with iridescent patches of rainbow glinting on its surface. It was transparent. You could see right through it. But it was uncommonly heavy. Almost too heavy to hold.
        The Warrior held the Bubble and wished.
        The waters of the Espereeding River splintered briefly into rainbows. The abandoned cicada husks clinging to the autumn trees sang shrill and briefly for a breath and a half. The captured woman gasped, as if touched unexpectedly in an unexpected place.
        Apart from that, nothing seemed to happen, except that the three-legged dog, which had been tagging along behind Lombreth Korengesh for the last week and a half, growled and backed off, its tail between its legs.
        "There," said Cyrus. "You have your wish."

*


        "I am not satisfied that the wish has worked," said Lombreth Korengesh. "I wish to stay for a few days and see what happens."
        "My lord," said Cyrus, "you are welcome to take the Bubble with you."
        Cyrus Aplin knew it was irresponsible to let the Bubble out in the world, but, to tell the truth, he was really worried about Treasurer Vine. That was one nasty piece of work, and Cyrus wanted him out of the neighborhood as soon as possible.
        "I will stay," said Lombreth Korengesh, in tones of decision. "I will stay, and, if I am not satisfied, I will skin the woman alive. Do you oppose my will?"
        "With respect, my lord," said Cyrus, "the woman has had seven children."
        "I could have guessed as much," said the Warrior, with contempt. "I took her because she has skin and because I have a knife which is made for the removal of skin. For that purpose and no other. Surely you are not fool enough to think that you could possess anything which I might desire?"
        "I desire the life of my habits, my lord," said Cyrus, speaking the truth, and nothing but the truth. "But my lord speaks truly when he says that nothing of mine could be worthy of his desiring. Yet - if I can be of assistance to my lord ... the guest house is over there."
        "That?" said Lombreth Korengesh, looking at the rickety shed Cyrus was indicating. "No. I will sleep tonight in the Stone Palace. It is still in good repair, is it not?"
        "It is, my lord," said Cyrus, "but it is haunted by a ghost with no hands."
        "No worries," said Lombreth Korengesh. "That's why I have the three-legged dog. A three-legged dog is more than a match for a handless ghost."
        "My lord jests," said Cyrus, and did his best to laugh, though the laugh came out with difficulty. because he was most terribly worried about Amalinda, who, under threat, was no longer just the wife, but his wife. His. No longer his brother's, no, after seven children, no.
        Cyrus thought he knew what would happen next.
        But, if it did not, he would kill this Lombreth Korengesh himself. Or join Brother Neebringer. Die trying.
        "I am, after all," said Cyrus, throat dry, mouth dry, tongue stuck to his teeth, "my father's son."
        And the pain of speaking, the pain of existing, the pain of being himself in his own skin, was so much for the moment that, for the moment, he said nothing more.

*


        That night, Lombreth Korengesh slept badly.
        Blood.
        There was blood in his dreams. There were claws. There was a scream. He thrashed awake, the scream his own, and screamed again for the claws were at his throat. Jaws snarled, a rape-weight smothered him, and desperate he clutched and clawed, finding thick limbs cold and gigantic.
        Then armored guards smashed through the lightweight door. Wood splintering, lamplight gleaming on -
        Smoke bruising and boiling, and blood, blood, gouts and sheets of red blood red, blood spurting and thrashing, the bed awash, and Lombreth Korengesh -
        Alive?
        He was alive, and the thing which had attacked him was gone, boiled away to smoke. Gone. But the stench of it remained. And the blood? Everywhere. Clotting already, turning green, turning black, settling in lumps, filth, mire, stink, a nightmare of goo he could touch, prod, poke, palpate.
        "My lord?"
        This from one of the guards, a thing of metal, iron shins, iron knees, iron thighs, iron cuirass, iron skull, iron arms brandishing blood-blazing steel. But a man within the thing. Surely? Surely!
        Lombreth Korengesh wanted to weep, to cry, to give way to shock, to collapse to a quivering heap. To be held, to be comforted. But these were soldiers, and he was what he was, so hold tight for the moment, hold tight and -
        "Search!" said Lombreth Korengesh, managing that one word. Spitting it out. Fast, tight, fierce. Voice near breaking with the strain. Deep breath, deep breath now, and:
        "Some blood-sucking thing was here! Find it! Kill it! Men, lights, dogs, the lot. What was it? How did it get here? Where did it go? I have to know!"
        So the men searched, sought, looked, hunted. All to no avail. They found no footprints. The dogs picked up no scents. No doors or shutters had been tampered with. But the blood was still there, blood everywhere in Lombreth Korengesh's room, and he himself was unwounded so it couldn't be his.
        "Right," he said grimly, toward dawn. "Tear apart the walls. And the ceiling! I want it taken apart, the lot."
        By dawn this had been done. What was left of the Stone Palace had been reduced to rubble. Broken lathe and ruptured plaster. Dust layered on coagulated blood. But walls and ceiling, though fragile, had proved honest.
        "The floor, then," said Lombreth Korengesh. "Dig up the floor."
        And they did.
        Finding rock, rock, solid rock, unbroken granite, and when he had this rock itself wrenched up there was solid mortar beneath, a generation old if it was a day.
        By which time it was mid-morning, and Lombreth Korengesh was reeling with exhaustion, feeling nearly disembodied.
        "A succubus," he said, deciding. "That's what it was. A rape-spirit. A thing of meat-lust. Bleeding from its desire, no doubt, but appetite strong regardless."
        He sat up all that day and went to sleep that night with lanterns burning and armed guards posted round his bed.
        
        And in the night -

*


        Cyrus heard the screams in the night, the sounds of battle. Cautious, as ever, of his back, he hobbled out into the night.
        "Amalinda!"
        She came to his voice, weeping. Came into his arms. Collapsed in his arms - and the weight of her was too much for him, and over they went, the pair of them. For a moment - for more than a moment, in fact - Cyrus thought he had put his back out again.
        "My love."
        Which of them spoke?
        There was no saying.

*


        In the morning, Cyrus checked on the bodies. They were all dead. The Warrior as dead as the others. And Cyrus let the Espereeding River have the bodies.
        "I don't understand," said the ghost of Treasurer Vine, coming that night in search of an explanation, waking Cyrus from his bed of sacks and spiderwebs. "I really don't understand. What happened?"
        "Simple enough," said Cyrus. "Lombreth Korengesh wanted to become the ultimate warrior, so he became one. He killed everything. First, he murdered sleep, and the rest followed."
        "And you?" said Treasurer Vine. "What do you wish for?"
        "My only wish is to sleep well at nights," said Cyrus. "And to be untroubled by ghosts after midnight."
        There was more to it than that, of course, but the more was the property of Cyrus and the wife - the wife who had become his wife - and Cyrus had no thought of sharing it with Treasurer Vine, dead or alive.
        "I have just one more question," said Treasurer Vine.
        "Speak," said Cyrus.
        But it was then that the silence chimed midnight, soundlessly, and the ghost vanished, and Cyrus went back to sleep. Amalinda slept beside him, and so did the three-legged dog. Amalinda dreamt (dreams come as they may, with or without the consent of the volitional mind) of Brother Neebringer, who was very tall, and very handsome, and very strong, and had a smile as bright as sunlight on the waterfall, the waterfall of her desire.
        And the three-legged dog slept beside them, dreaming of brown sugar and of sirloin steak. And of really, really slow cats with bells and budgerigars tied to their tails.

The End

This violence versus pacifism story, "The Warden of Jestabel Zee," was first published in Legend issue 4, autumn/winter 2001 (ed. Trevor Denyer) (Aldershot, United Kingdom, ISSN 1471-7786) (pp 41-43; 2,310 words) (fantasy). This story was first posted on the internet by Hugh Cook on 2003 March 12. Copyright © 2001, 2003 Hugh Cook. All rights reserved.

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The Secret History of Lord Dreldragon

standing up and telling the truth story


        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.
         "What you call truth others call treason. Run if you value your life. You are only twenty-four years of age."
         But Asquith had no intention of running. Twenty-four? He counted it old enough to be a martyr. And, in his eyes, the hour required a martyr.

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