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Chris Northern

The Last King's Amulet

1

There are those who believe every day should be full of meaningful tasks, rising before dawn and only seeking their beds when exhaustion overtakes them. I am not one such. Left to my own devices I would spend the whole day in the comfort of my bed, so the gentle knock at my door was enough in itself to make me frown. My household slaves know better than to risk awakening me rudely, no matter the hour, as I often sleep late; for such inconsideration I have sold more than one slave with a bad reference and thought no more of their fate; they should have thought of the possibility of ending their days in a mine in the provinces before hammering at my bedroom door like deranged and desperate debt collectors.

“Enter.” It wasn't what I wanted to say. I was reading, and 'Tetrin's Study of the Barbarian Peoples' had me enthralled. There was food and drink to hand, all my comforts were met. I wanted instead to say nothing in the sure and certain knowledge that no second knock would sound should I choose silence. Yet the slaves, few as they are, are well trained and would not disturb me lightly.

Meran was possibly the ugliest human being I have ever encountered. His naturally misshapen features are enhanced by a patina of burn scars on one side and a long scar from a cavalry sword on the other; the blow from the sabre (one of ours) also took out an eye. Still, he'd been cheap and had made himself indispensable once he had had the language beaten into him. Not that I did the beating, mind you; that's not my style. Get a slave to beat a slave, that's what I say. My overseer of the household slaves (all three of them) had done his job on Meran and then vanished under mysterious circumstances, a fact which hadn't come to my attention for several days. Of course I suspected Meran; who wouldn't? But what to do? Sell him and then be two slaves down? No, I'd reported the disappearance to the Vigils and forgotten about it.

“Is it true that the Retreni are shapeshifters?”

Meran shrugged. “They are liars, also thieves and murderers but the pertinent point here is the first. They lie, so I doubt it. Yelian Shen to see you.”

“I'm ill and contagious. Did you ever meet one?”

“He said that if you said that he knows a mass grave for plague victims you might want to investigate, and the only Retreni I ever saw was a rapist about to be hanged; he didn't turn into anything.”

“Damn.”

“Yes, I was disappointed too.” He held up a robe for my approval.

I gave him a filthy look, slipped out of bed and pulled on the robe. “The floor's cold.”

“There is no coal. I'm working on it, master.”

I popped my freezing feet into the slippers he had put at my feet and headed for the door which he managed to open before I got there; not because he is slim and whippety and I a tad overweight but because that was his job and I let him do it.

“You will acquire sufficient combustible materials soon?”

“Before or just after nightfall,” he assured me as he once more nipped ahead to open the door to the atrium and announce me.

Assuming my most charming expression I strode boldly forward with arms akimbo and greeted Yelian Shen like a favorite relative long unseen and completely unexpected. He wasn't a relative but responded much the same way.

“Got some money for me, Sumto?” Yelian Shen looked like a weasel but taller. He was new nobility, not a social equal to one such as I, blessed with illustrious ancestors to the dawn of time, but unfortunately a man with money, which I sorely lacked, hence the current situation.

“My dear friend, do you feel how cold it is in here? Don't you think that if I had a penny to my name I would send my man directly to you with every coin?”

“No, I think you would drink it.”

Some of my creditors know me too well. I dropped the pretense of friendship. There really is no point in being polite to people who are willing to come to your home and pester you for money.

“I have prospects, Shen. Magisterial office awaits and with it wealth and power.”

“You haven't held even the first military office, Sumto, despite your age. I checked.”

Damn. The law of the city is clear; first military service, then magisterial office. No exceptions, not even for someone with ancestors as illustrious as mine. There is an opportunity to make money in the military but there is also the opportunity to get killed. As I am over twenty, most people just assume, unless they know better, that I have done my duty. But campaigning is uncomfortable and dangerous by all the accounts I have read, and reading them was enough to put the idea firmly on the back burner of things to be considered seriously. Military duty wouldn't pay me, unless you count the potential gain in booty, which necessitated conflict, which I always considered it best to avoid. In theory ten years had to be served before standing for civil office, but in practice it could be as little as one year. Still, I doubted the weasel would wait even that long.

“I'll have something for you by the end of the month.”

“Tomorrow it is, then. All of it?” His eyes gleamed, he'd scored good points and knew it.

Taken aback slightly by the proximity of month's end I glanced about for Meran, seeking confirmation, but he was nowhere in sight. Determining to chastise him later for abandoning me to the vultures I nodded speculatively as I turned back to Yelian. “Out of the question, I'm afraid. Still I'm sure we'll manage to make a dent in the sum; three hundred wasn't it?”

“Thousand, Sumto. Three thousand. Sell the house.”

“Would that I could oblige, but alas it isn't mine to sell. Family, you understand. In fact I'm sure we discussed it.”

“Then perhaps I should speak to your family? One of your prominent uncles perhaps? Or your father?”

“By all means! Speak to them, do. Ask them if they would mind dealing with the matter.”

“Don't you think they would be a little disappointed in you?” Now he was smiling openly.

“Don't you suspect they are already? Still, blood is thicker than water.”

“Ironic. A friend of mine heard your uncle Orlyan use that term just the other day. 'If he doesn't mend his ways I will damn well find out if his blood is thicker than water,' I think he said.”

Bastard. Orlyan was military through and through, old and grizzled and not the least bit accommodating. I'd spent a wretched summer at his villa as a child in the company of a half dozen cousins and the man himself. One of the few years he wasn't away campaigning. Awake before dawn, thin breakfast and then work. Then 'run them till they drop'. Then combat training. He treated us like common recruits. Not fun. Still, there was a pretty slave girl…

“Shall I speak to him? Or might that not be politic?”

“I'll see you tomorrow.”

He smiled like a shark. “Of course.”

As soon as I had let him out I collapsed on a sturdy chair and stared blankly at the wall.

Money. Needed some. The slaves were worth about a hundred each for a quick sale. The house had long since been denuded of valuable statuary, furniture and such. Two horses, but I owed for stabling, and they were worth only as much as the slaves. Good horses. That made about six hundred which isn't three thousand no matter which way you look at it, and besides, I didn't want to sell my slaves or my horses. There was one thing in my possession, as a noble, that I could sell. I turned the gold ring on my index finger and examined the black stone that rested in a simple setting. One carat, black stone, twenty candlepower of magic energy. Illegal to sell to anyone outside the nobility, which would be where I would get the best price, it was the single possession (apart from a few clothes) that marked me as a nobleman of the city. Selling it, legally or otherwise, was clearly out of the question. I needed another plan. Relatives, I decided. Time to visit. Best bet first.

“Meran!” I heard his voice call back from the kitchen but didn't see the point in waiting until he arrived before

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