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TWENTY-ONE: The King Is Dead. Long Live the King

The lean, dark man came like a whirlwind from the north. Horses died beneath him. Men died if they tried to slow him. He was more merciless with himself than with anyone else. He was half dead when he reached his headquarters in the Kapenrungs.

Beloul let him sleep twelve hours before telling him about his wife.

He hardly seemed to think before replying, "Bring Megelin."

The boy was his father reflected in a mirror that took away decades. At nineteen he already had a reputation as a hard and brilliant warrior.

"Leave us, Beloul," Haroun said.

Father and son faced one another, the son waiting for the father to speak.

"I have made a long journey," Haroun said. His voice was surprisingly soft. "I couldn't find him."

"Balfour?"

"Him I found. He told me what he knew."

Which wasn't strictly true. Balfour had answered only the questions asked, and even in his agony had shaded his answers. The Colonel had been a strong man.

All during his ride Haroun had pondered what he had learned. And he had planned.

"I didn't find my friend."

"There is this that I cannot understand about you, my father. These two men. Mocker and Ragnarson. You let them shape your life. With victory at your fingertips you abandoned everything to aid Ragnarson in his war with Shinsan."

"There is this that you have to learn, my son. Into each life come people who become more important than any crown. Believe it. Look for it. And accept it. It cannot be explained."

They stared at one another till Haroun continued, "More-over, they have aided me more than I them, often when it flew in the face of their own interest. For this I owe them. Question. Have you ever heard Beloul-or any of my captains -complain?"

"No."

"Why? I'll tell you why. Because there would be no Peacock Throne for anyone, even El Murid-may the jackals gnaw his bones-if Shinsan occupied the west."

"This I understand. But I also understand that that was not your motive for turning north when you were upon the dogs at Al Rhemish."

"One day you will understand. I hope. Tell me about your mother." Pain marred his words. His long love with the daughter of his enemy made a tempestuous epic. Her defection seemed anticlimactic.

"That, too, I try to understand. It is difficult, my father. But I begin to see. Our people bring scraps of news. They draw outlines for a portrait."

Eyes downcast, Megelin continued, "Were she not my mother, I would not have had the patience to await the information."

"Tell me."

"She means to forge an armistice with the Beast. She went to your friend, Ragnarson. He sent her."

"Ah. She knows my anger. My other friend vanished. She knew I would swoop on the carrion at Al Rhemish. She knew I would destroy them. They have no strength now. They are old men with water for bones. I can sweep them away like the wind sweeps the dust from the Sahel."

"That too."

"She is his daughter."

"The head understands, my father. The heart protests."

"Listen to your head, then, and do not hate her. I say again, she is his daughter. Think of your father when you think to judge her."

"So my head tells me."

Haroun nodded. "You are wise for your years. It is good. Summon Beloul."

When the general returned, Haroun announced, "I am leaving my work to my son. Two duties war for me. I pass to him the one that may be passed. The one that came upon me in Al

Rhemish, so long ago, when Nassef and the Invincibles slew all others who had claim to the Peacock Throne."

"Lord!" Beloul cried. "Do I hear you right? Are you saying you abdicate?"

"You hear me, Beloul."

"But why, Lord? A generation, more, have we fought.... We have it in our grasp at last. They are waiting for us, shaking in their boots. They weep in the arms of their women, wondering when we will come. Ten thousand tribesmen have buried swords beneath their tents. They await our coming to dig them up and strike. Ten thousand wait in the camps, eager, knowing the tree of years is to bear fruit at last. Twenty thousand more stir restlessly in the heathen cities, awaiting your summons. Home! A home many have never seen, Lord!"

"Beseech me not, Beloul. Speak to your King. It is in his hands. I have chosen another destiny."

"Should you not consult with the others? Rahman? El Senoussi? Hanasi?..."

"Will they oppose me? Will they stop me?"

"Not if it is your will."

"Have I not said so? I am compelled in another direction. I must discharge old debts."

"Whither, my father? Why?"

"The Dread Empire. O Shing has my friend."

"Lord!" Beloul protested. "Sheer suicide."

"Perhaps. That is why I pass my crown before I go." He knelt before a low table. His hands went to his temples. Immense strain clouded his face. His neck bulged.

Beloul and Megelin thought it a stroke.

Haroun's hands rose suddenly. Something hit the table with a thud.

Lo! A crown materialized.

"The crown of the Golmune Emperors of Ilkazar," Haroun said. "The Crown of Empire. And of what survives. Our Desert of Death. It is incalculably heavy, my son. It possesses you. It drives you. You do things you would loath in any other man. It's the bloodiest crown ever wrought. It's a greater burden than prize. If you take it up your life will never be your own-till you find the strength to renounce it."

Megelin and Beloul stared. The crown seemed simple, almost fragile, yet it had scored the table.

"Take it up, my son. Become King."

Slowly, Megelin knelt.

"This is best for Hammad al Nakir," Haroun told Beloul. "It will ease the consciences of men of principle. He is not just my son, he is the grandson of the Disciple. Yasmid's story should be well-known by now."

"It is," Beloul admitted. The return of El Murid's daughter was the wonder of the desert.

Megelin strained harder than had Haroun. "My father, I cannot lift it."

"You can, have you but the will. I couldn't lift it my first try either."

His thoughts drifted to that faraway morning when he had crowned himself King Without a Throne.

He, at fifteen, with the man for whom Megelin had been named, and a handful of survivors, had been fleeing El Murid's attack on Al Rhemish.

His father and brothers were dead. Nassef, El Murid's diabolical general, called Scourge of God so terrible was he, was close behind. Haroun was the last pretender to the Peacock Throne.

Ahead, in the desert, the ruin of an Imperial watchtower appeared. Something drew him. Within he found a small, bent old man who claimed to be a survivor of the destruction of llkazar, who claimed to have been charged with protecting the symbols of Imperial power till a proper candidate arose among the descendants of the Emperors. He begged Haroun to free him from his centuries-long charge.

Haroun finally took the crown-after having as much difficulty as would Megelin later.

Though he was to encroach upon Haroun's life many times, bin Yousif never again encountered that old man. Even now he had no idea whom he had met then, and who had defined his destiny.

Nor did he suspect that the tamperer was the same "angel" who had found a twelve-year-old desert wanderer, sole survivor of a bandit raid on a caravan, had named him El Muridandhad given him his mission.

That old man meddled everywhere, more often than anyone suspected. He often added a twist on the spur of the moment. He remembered, kept his plot-lines straight, and got found out only in retrospects of a century or more.

Things didn't always go his way, though, because he worked with a cast of millions. The imponderables and unpredictables were always at work.

Haroun wouldn't give up his crown just to rescue a friend. Would he?

Beloul's feeling exactly. He became quite difficult while Megelin wrestled the crown.

"Enough!" Haroun declared. "If you won't accept it, and follow Megelin with the faith you've shown me, I'll find an officer who will." Haroun wasn't accustomed to having a decision debated.

"I'm just concerned for the movement...."

"Megelin will lead. He is my son. Megelin. If you feel the need, go to my friend in Vorgreberg. Explain. But tell no one else. Westerners have tongues like the tails of whipped dogs. They wag all the time, whether there is need or not."

With that a barrier broke. Though Megelin's strain remained herculean, he raised the crown, stood, hoisted it overhead, crowned himself.

He staggered, recovered. In a minute he seemed the Megelin of old. The Crown was no longer visible.

"The weight vanishes, my father."

"It's only a seeming, my son. You will feel it again when the crown demands some action the man loathes. Enough now. This is no longer my tent. I must rest. Tomorrow I travel."

"You cannot penetrate Shinsan," Beloul protested. "They will destroy you ere you depart the Pillars of Ivory."

"I will pass the mountains." When Haroun said it it sounded like accomplished fact. "I will find the man. I have mastered the Power."

He had indeed. He was the strongest adept his people had produced in generations. Yet that had little real meaning. The practice of magic, except in the wastes of Jebal al Alf Dhulquarneni, had been abandoned by the children of Hammad al Nakir. He had become the best for lack of competition.

Varthlokkur, O Shing, Chin, Visigodred, Zindahjira, Mist-they could have withered him at a glance. Excepting O Shing, they were ancient in their witchcraft. He would need a century to overtake the least and laziest.

Haroun still suffered from his ride, yet when he chose a place to rest, he sat and sharpened his sword instead of sleeping again.

Sometimes he considered Mocker, and sometimes wandered among his memories. Mostly, he longed for his wife. The peaceful years hadn't been bad.

He hadn't been much of a husband. If he came through this maybe he could make it up to her.

He left before next dawn, slipping away so quietly that only one sentry noticed. The man bid him a quiet farewell. There were tears in both their eyes.

That was why he had chosen to depart stealthily. Some of his men had been fighting for twenty years. He didn't want to feel their grief, to see the accusation in their eyes.

He knew he was betraying them. Most were here for him. They were his weapons. And he was yielding them to an unfamiliar hand....

He wept, this dark, grim man. The years had not dessicated that faculty.

He rode toward the rising sun, and, he believed, out of the pages of history, a free man at last, and less happy than ever.


TWENTY: The Dragon Emperor | All Darkness Met | TWENTY-TWO: Eye of the Storm



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