J. King: Conspiracy

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J. King Conspiracy
  • Название:
    Conspiracy
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    Фэнтези / на английском языке
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    Английский
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J. Robert King


Conspiracy

Prelude

Conceit

I'm mesmerized by you.

I lie upon this rough-hewn bed and watch you. My head is pillowed on big dry sponges, piled against a coral headboard. You're the only fine thing in this room.

Lord Garkim has said that this bedchamber, like all of the mage-king's lower palace, was once part of a sea cave. The stone walls here were carved out by generations of tides. Even the brown blankets I he upon come-from the ocean, woven from seaweed. The mattress is just a net of kelp. I feel like a netted fish.

But you, you make me feel like a king. You don't come from this barbarous place. You're not rough, reek ing of brine. You're smooth and fine, lithe and magical. You move from the bed to the limestone doorknob and then back with a round-hipped dance. Your golden strands tickle along my chest as I gather you in.

"Let's have another go," I whisper to you.

Listen to me, speaking as if you were Aleena Paladinstar. But how could I compare her to you? You're only a bit of rope. Golden, yes, but still, you're rope.

You seem eager to fly again.

I twirl your looped head once more before releasing you. Your smooth sinew snakes to my idle day pack, where the broken buckle protrudes. You snap down to grasp it. Your line goes taut.

You're so nimble, so precise, my golden lasso. You can lay hold of a fly's wing without brushing its leg. You can catch whatever I desire within fifty feet, no matter how large or small. You go out like a golden messenger. You leap from my hand and cross this room to grasp that clamshell coat peg or that nautilus lantern or that whalebone pitcher.

I send you coiling out again. You seize the doorknob. I flick you free, careful not to open the door; there are paladins out there. Real paladins. Once I was only too eager for their company. Now, I dread it.

I don't want to be like them-stiff, loud, indelicate. I want to be like you, my golden lariat. I want to be facile and silent, lithe and quick, strong but smooth and sleek and golden. I don't want to be like Miltiades or Kern, but like Piergeiron Paladinson. He doesn't pray for truth. He goes out and wrestles it. That's what I want. I want to be like you, golden lariat, going out to grasp whatever I seek.

I flip my wrist. You lightly grip the bed knob, carved from driftwood. I tug, but this time you are snagged, so tight is your hold. I sit up and pry you loose. You leap to coil into my open hand.

"Let's have another go."

Chapter 1

Convergence

We heard and saw it all.

Perhaps in our madness, we have forgotten some of the minutia, but we are like the sea. Only truth survives our ceaseless churning; we melt falsity into silt.

We remember truth. We remember how the catastrophes of Doegan were set into motion. And when. And by whom. We were there. We were everywhere. We heard and saw it all.

The catastrophes were triggered one fine morning within our own walls…

The Fountain of the Kraken sprayed tentacles of briny mist into the air. Ocean breezes caught the questing arms of fog and spread them low and flat over the Plaza of the Mage-King. From there, the mists sifted past slums before sliding through the teeth of the outer wall. The fog scintillated for a moment, transfixed on slaying wards, and then moved on, across a scoured plain of salted ground and into the arid forest beyond. What happened to the mist next, only trees and fiends could have told.

Trees, fiends, and a haggard crew of pirates. A short while ago, they had entered the city of Eldrinpar, capital of Doegan. The claw slashes carved across their arms, chests, and legs told that they had come by way of the fiend-filled forest. No one came through that death trap. And what were pirates doing so far away from ship and sea?

Their leader was short, dark-haired, and olive-skinned. He had muscles like silken cords and eyes keen as razors. He was no pirate. This one preferred dark caves to the bright sea. He was as comfortable on land as any wolf. Like a wolf, his chief weapons were concealed, small and deadly. He wore a sword, but not a swaggering cutlass like those of his companions. They knew him as Belmer, though he knew himself by another name-one he had buried deeply.

His companions were the real pirates. They were swarthy locals from Doegan, Edenvale, and Ulgarth. They stepped hard on their heels and lingered too long on tiptoes, their legs accustomed to rolling decks instead of dead ground. The cut of their jerkins showed tailoring. No mere seaman could afford this expense. A privateer might-especially if he had new gold in need of being hastily spent. Pirates, yes: their eyes were as cold and calm as ball lightning.

The woman was obviously an accomplished fighter. Pirate ships are not virgin vaults. To survive, free, with a face and body like hers, she was more than able to defend herself. Her tan visage was flawless, set with sapphire eyes and an even row of gleaming teeth, forming a comely smile.

Sharessa "the Shadow" Stagwood, or Shar.

What of the rest? There was a moon-faced sharper with deft hands. He could slay as surely with cards as with blades. He aided a staggering young man, blind and bloodied. Behind these two came a seaman whose red jags of hair and beard blended smoothly with the orange scars lining his face. Then a dwarf, whose ears and nose jingled with electrum rings. His eyes were fixed in a wary, haunted stare. Last in the company was a tired sea captain, his large frame compromised by a gut of rotten wood. He had the look of a plague ship. The bilge rats had risen up to take possession of him, and he smelled of death.

The olive-faced man led his tattered party to the long, curving edge of the great fountain. There, one by one, they knelt, scooped up water, and laved away mud, grit, blood, and exhaustion. The fountain flowed with salt water. In it, they washed. They knelt at the cool stone rim as if at an altar stone, and washed as if with holy water. Released from a long ordeal, they laughed and sported in the fountain's basin until called to order by their leader.

The fountain was, indeed, an altar. The statue of a god stood in its center: a man wrestling a great kraken. His anguished face, frozen in chiseled marble, had eyes bored deep into his skull. In one mighty hand, he gripped a constricting tentacle. In the other, he held a trident, thrust down among more octopus arms. The jetting sprays of water showed how the battle of these colossi churned the oceans of the world.

So grand was this tableaux that the mercenaries could not see their opponents.

The men approaching on the other side were in every way the pirates' opposites. In place of tattered rags, most wore polished armor that glared silver and gold in the sun. Instead of staggering, they marched. Instead of bowing to the statue, the warriors turned their backs. One even sat down on the fountain rail, as though it were a mere bench. Another produced a golden lasso and sent its silent loop whirring up to snag one of the marble tentacles.

Paladins. Their glamorous armor, ridiculous in this brutal heat, meant they were paladins, madmen, or both.

Their leader was larger than life, with thick black hair streaked with gray, a granite jaw, silver armor, and a cold, unyielding demeanor. His eyes narrowed, and his gaze swept the adobe buildings ringing the plaza. There was evil here, and he could sense it. His hand strayed to the warhammer at his side.

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