servants. Of all the dead, you are the greatest.”

“Yes, but I keep telling you. I’m not… dead?”

“Of course, Your Majesty.”

Marius scowled. Bad enough to be amongst the dead, worse to be patronised by them.

“Look,” he said, rising from his seat before his tormentor could react. “I am not dead. I swear to you. I keep trying to tell you. You picked the wrong man. Hand on my…” He placed his hand against his heart, and paused, gaze slipping from the corpse’s face to stare at a point somewhere far beyond the walls. A smile spread across his face, and he looked back at the soldier in triumph.

“Let me feel your chest.”

“Your Majesty?”

“Your chest.” Marius reached forward and placed his hand flat against the left side of the soldier’s torso. “Ha! Give me your hand.”

The soldier complied. Marius laid it in the same spot. “There. You feel? Feel it? Nothing. No heartbeat. That’s because you’re dead!”

“Of course. We are the–”

“No, no, no. Here.” He placed the soldier’s hand above his own heart. “Feel that? Feel it?”

“Your heart…”

“Strong as a whale!”


“Like the pounding of a thrupenny whore!”

“That means you’re–”


“An imposter!” The soldier stepped back, and drew a battered sword. Marius became very aware of the bodies around him, all of whom were staring in his direction.

“That’s not strictly true,” he said, backing away. Half a step and he fetched up against the edge of the throne. He toppled backwards, landing in an undignified heap on the seat. His robe swept up and across his face, and the too-large crown slipped down. By the time he untangled himself he was hemmed in by the mass of corpses, and the blood-rusted tip of the sword was pressed hard against the joint between his throat and shoulder. Marius swallowed, and the sword pushed further into his flesh.

“Hang on,” he managed to croak. “I tried to tell you.”

The soldier leaned into his sword. A trickle of warmth ran down the outside of Marius’ throat.

“Told. You. Not dead,” he managed, before the pressure against his throat became too much, and he escaped into darkness.


He would not have expected to wake, or to still be alive. Or to find his hands unbound, and a hole in the ceiling above his head, with the glint of daylight shining bright blue at the far end. The crowd of corpses standing above his supine body; rusted axes, sickles and swords in their hands – that was closer to what he had expected. Being forcibly hauled to his feet and dragged to the nearest wall – that was definitely what he expected. Having the crown of the late King of Scorby thrust into his hands, well, he wouldn’t have expected that if he’d been given three guesses.

“Is there something going on?” he asked, trying his best to frame an innocent smile. For all the reaction he engendered, he may as well have kept his mouth closed. The corpses holding his arms simply pressed him harder against the coarse earth wall until he gasped with pain, ending any further attempt at conversation. Marius struggled, but soon gave up. The dead don’t tire as easily as an exhausted and beaten thief. Even if he could have freed himself, where would he have run? Up the chimney towards daylight? Marius tipped his head back. The hole taunted him from at least forty feet away. Maybe the dead need sunlight every now and again, he thought, then stifled a giggle. It was too close to hysteria.

From somewhere in front of him came the rustle of leather. He delayed lowering his gaze, straining to feel the breeze of the upper world on his skin. After long seconds he closed his eyes and sighed. No such luck. The real world was out of reach.

“It is very far away.”

“Yes.” Reluctantly, Marius’ eyes met the soldier’s one remaining orb.

“Farther for us than you.”

“What do you mean?”

“Once the dead travel below, we do not leave.”

“Oh.” Marius surveyed their mean surroundings. “Well, you know, a drape here or there…”

“Perhaps you will bring some back with you.”

“I’m sorry?”

But the soldier had turned away, and gestured to the corpses holding Marius. They extended their arms, and Marius slid further up the wall. When he was dangling at the height of their reach, two more bodies detached themselves from the crowd and grabbed at Marius' kicking ankles. Before he could voice his objections, he was hoisted onto his back, limbs spread wide, high above the heads of the crowd.

“What are you doing? Let me down.”

The arms lowered him slightly, until he was at eye level. Marius was just about to issue further orders when bone-strong fingers grasped his jaw and turned his head towards their owner.

“Don’t forget to hold on,” the soldier said, and let him go. Marius’ bearers heaved, and he flew up into the chimney. Reflexes did his thinking for him. His hands and feet dove for the chimney walls, finding sanctuary in the soft earth and clinging, leaving him wedged in the narrow space like a spider between the rough edges of a pub’s corner walls. For long seconds, the only sound was that of his panicked gasping. When he could trust himself to do so without fainting, he looked back down, and saw the soldier staring up at him. Marius had the overwhelming impression that his stiff, immobile face was smiling.

“Find us a king,” the corpse called out.

“What? Why?”

“You stole his place. You are in our debt.”

With the benefit of distance, Marius felt a small spark of courage return.

“And if I don’t?”

“We will come for you.”

“And if I never come back this way?”

The soldier shook his head, slowly, a movement of deliberate malice.

“You will come back.”

“What makes you so sure?”

“Feel your heart.”

The two men stared at each other for long seconds. The soldier placed his hand over his chest, and nodded to Marius to do the same. Marius inched around until he could wedge one shoulder into the crumbling wall, then slowly, carefully, did the same. He held it there for half a minute, eyes fixed upon the dead face below him.

“We have your heartbeat.”

Marius felt life draining away, leaking from his body and dissipating in the heavy air. The soldier waved a hand in dismissal.

“You cannot escape us. The entire world is home to the dead. Now climb.”



Marius risked a glance at the journey above him, closed his eyes in sudden dizziness, and glanced back down.

“How will I contact you? Do I call out, or sacrifice a cat or something? I don’t even know your name.”

Вы читаете The Corpse-Rat King
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