They called me the Coffin King.
I was the hero who slew the Lich and returned the Crown of Whispers to the Empire. The man of the people who rose to become emperor, only to fall again to a conspirator’s blade. The cursed one. The creature of darkness, doomed to wander these shadowed halls for years uncounted. I have feasted on the bones of warriors who came by the thousands to win glory to their names through my destruction, brave warriors – the bravest of the brave – much like yourself. The mere mention of my name sends children to bed at a reasonable hour and keeps them from playing outside after dark.
I am the monster the stories warned you about. I am the Lich.
But you already knew all this, didn’t you? If you hadn’t, you wouldn’t have ventured miles beneath the earth to my Castle-Under-The-Mountain to the foot of my Throne of Skulls with your silver sword in hand, ready to plunge it through my cold, un-beating heart. You wouldn’t have slaughtered my wights and left their dust piles littering my halls. You wouldn’t have waltzed past those treasure chests I left brimming for you in plain sight with booby traps a child could disarm, a last generous offer for you to turn back. You wouldn’t be wearing that same fragile smirk I’ve seen so many times before, which you assure yourself is an adequate mask for your fear.
You wouldn’t have come to slay the Lich if you didn’t know what I am. But there are some minor discrepancies in the version of my story you’ve heard. Inaccuracies. Falsehoods. Naked slander.
Yes, it’s true, that mountainous pile of silver swords, spears, axes, and glaives belonged to your fellow monster hunters.
And yes, I have been sitting here sharpening these long, black fingernails on the skulls of my throne for a very long time.
Yes, the Crown of Whispers, which you have come here to reclaim, does adorn my lolling head.
But any man who is willing to become an executioner should first be a good listener, should he not? To be a confidant for the last words of the one he has condemned?
Be honest with yourself. You didn’t just come to kill the Lich. You came for a confession; to hear it all, the trail of my crimes that led me here, straight from the corpse’s mouth. So a confession you shall have.
Now please, come a little closer. I don’t trust you, either, but we can’t get started with you standing all the way over there, can we? No. This old, dead voice is far too meek, and I must save at least some of my strength. It is a long and harrowing tale.
I began my life as a coffin maker’s son. I was never schooled, except in the art of felling cloud pines and fashioning them into six-foot-long boxes for the dead.
I spent my boyhood exploring the cloud forest where we cut our trees, pretending I was all manners of warrior or royal assassin, even going so far as to spy on the local lord, whose name is now lost to me, and his retainers when they went hawking in my woods. I quickly learned two ways of speaking, one for the people in our village, and one for myself when I was alone and pretending to be a nobleman.
My father had served as an archer in the king’s army before turning to the trade of making coffins. I practiced with his longbow as soon as I was old enough to draw it. I learned the differences between hunting for food and hunting in war, how to hold my arrows in my bow hand so I could quick-draw them without reaching for my quiver, how to shape my own bow from wood. He taught me which plants and roots could be eaten and which would kill, how to follow without being seen, how to kill with a single arrow.
But my father was a drunk and flew into an easy rage any time I made a mistake. If I misplaced a nail or dented the wood with my hammer, he would box my face and sides until he felt something break. If I overshot my target and lost my arrows in the woods, he would not let me eat or sleep under his roof until I found them.
Eventually, I left home, preferring to spend my nights sleeping on a bed of pine boughs in a cave high in the cloud forest overlooking our valley, next to the place where the river fell over jagged bluestone cliffs into a deep, crystalline pool.
It was there I met Justina, my first love.
I can still envision her, like a sliver of a dream. She had hair the color of volcanic glass, eyes that held the light like jade mirrors. Her face was a pale, heart-shaped jewel, her skin the blue-gold color of fresh milk. When she smiled, it filled my heart with the indescribable mixture of joy and sadness that only comes when we love someone more than we love ourselves.
I caught her bathing in my Crystal Pool one morning, and her mother caught me watching her. Her mother vengefully promised to turn me over to my father, but I begged and pled not to make me go back, the tears carving their own waterfalls from the encrusted dirt and grime of my cheeks. I must have looked an overwhelmingly pitiful creature, because the old bag relented and started crying, too, avowing to take me in.
I slept in the attic of the inn owned by Justina’s family. In exchange, I washed the guests’ dishes. When Justina’s mother would go to bed, I would steal a bottle of wine from the cellar and Justina would sneak out her window to meet me at the edge of town. Navigating by candlelight, we would sneak up the mountain path to the cloud forest, where we’d get drunk and swim in the Crystal Pool, then fondle each other until we both fell asleep. As long as we both awoke and were back before dawn, her mother was never the wiser.
Justina was the first girl I ever loved. But our happiness, like most, was not made to last.
I caught her screwing the nobleman’s son. I found him taking her from behind against a tree, not far from our Crystal Pool, where she’d promised she was mine, forever.
On my last night in the village, I recall imagining I was standing over her bed while she slept, dagger in hand. But in the end, I simply packed what few belongings I had in a potato sack, slung it over my shoulder and stole away upon a moonlit road, promising myself between peaks and troughs of rage and heartbreak that I would use my pain as fuel to see the world and make myself a better man.
Whatever you may think of me now, dear warrior, there was a time when I was good. Now please, come a little closer. I’m finding it hard to continue at this volume.
I arrived in the capital a month later, as lean and filthy as the road could make me. It was mid-summer, and the sun was ungodly hot, made worse by the fact there was no water to be found. The capital was experiencing the worst drought in recorded history. The wells and streambeds were dry. Bathing was an unspeakable luxury, and drinking water had to be purchased from merchants who charged prices so astronomical I wondered how the city’s poor were able to survive.
It was there I learned the truth of the stories I’d been hearing since I was a boy: that our once-great Empire of the Sun and Moon was dying.
The fields were barren and the trees black and brittle. The ancient palaces and grand promenades were filthy and overrun with beggars. Giant columns of unwashed, unpainted stone stained black with smoke towered over swarms of mucky children lying bored and starving in the shade.
“You’re from the provinces. They think you’re rich,” an impossibly tall, thin merchant said to me with a laugh as I passed his stall. He was selling locusts, the one food item the capital seemed to have in abundance. He wore a savagely curled black mustache that covered half his face, mirroring the shape of the dagger that hung from his belt.
“Why?” I said.
The merchant responded, “Because life is still good there. The fruits still ripen on the vine. The water is still clear enough to drink. People are healthy, and their bellies full. But it won’t be so for much longer. Soon the corruption destroying this place will spread to the provinces, too. He means it to spread across the world entire.”
Scratching my beard, I said, “Who?”
The merchant picked up one of his own locusts and let it hover by his mouth, not noticing the minute tremble of its legs. “The Lich.”
A confounded look must have seized my face, for he raised an eyebrow at me and said, “Have you not heard of him?”
“No. Who, or what, is a Lich?”
With a heaving sigh that trembled the locust’s tiny feelers, the merchant began. “He was High Wizard, the Emperor’s most valued advisor. He murdered the Emperor and stole the Crown of Whispers, which the Gods of Sun and Moon gave to this land in the Age before Time. Rumor has it he used black magic to seduce the Princess. Many believed the High Wizard meant to use her to usurp the throne.”
“So, what stopped him?” I said.
The merchant scraped one greasy, shining corner of his mustache with the locust’s tail and said, “His plot was discovered, and the Emperor arrested him. But on the morning of his execution, instead of going to his death with honor, the High Wizard murdered the Emperor, stole the Crown, and fled to the Castle-Under-The-Mountain.”
“Forgive me, but what is the Castle-Under-The-Mountain? I’m from the provinces and don’t know much about politics,” I said.
“It is an ancient, hidden fortress, a secret redoubt built to hide the royal family in times of crisis,” the Merchant said. “No one knows its exact location, though many now seek to find it. For the Lich remains there still, using the Crown of Whispers to blight this land with famine and plague. Did you do any research into our fine city before coming here?”
“News takes long to travel to the provinces,” I said.
The merchant shrugged and, at last, popped the unfortunate locust into his mouth.
To avoid an uncomfortable silence with my new friend, I pushed the subject. “So why do you call him a, what was it you said? A… lich? What makes him different than any other run-of-the-mill scoundrel, or brigand?”
The merchant said through a mouthful of insect parts, “The gods punished the High Wizard for his betrayal. They cursed him, sapping the life from his body, turned him into a living corpse, who must drain the souls of the living to survive.”
“But if that’s true, shouldn’t he already be vanquished?” I wondered aloud. “He secluded himself in a place that sounds very hard to get to, yet he can only survive by preying on others. Sounds to me like the problem should have solved itself.”
“Clever man.” The merchant grinned. He offered me a locust. I took it and chewed. “And if no one ever sought him out, you would be correct – the problem would easily sort itself out. Unfortunately, there seems to be no shortage of brave idiots with silver swords and maidens’ promises in hand eager to march off on a fool’s quest to slay the Lich and save the Empire. There is a widespread belief that whoever kills the Lich and takes the Crown from his head will become the new emperor. If you ask me, people simply can’t resist the temptation to pay mind to those who they despise, even when not doing so would cause their opponents to wither in obscurity.”
“So you’re saying the Lich has an infinite supply of food,” I said, swallowing.
The merchant offered me another locust. “I can see you’re thinking of going after him. I’ve tried to convince you otherwise, like all the others. Oh, well. Your life is yours to lose, my friend. I can’t help you win this moronic quest, but I can tell you where to start. The map showing the location of the Castle-Under-The-Mountain is hidden in the Great Library. And, who knows? Maybe the next time we meet, I’ll be calling you emperor.”
It wasn’t hard to figure out where the map was hidden. I suspected it would be built into some part of the library’s architecture, most certainly the floor, so I climbed the stacks until I reached the highest indoor vantage point the library offered, a hanging scaffold where an absent artist had been repairing one of the spires in the giant mosaic of the Crown of Whispers that adorned the inside of the dome.
No, the hard part was seeing through all the bodies. Sleeping, standing, leaning, begging, the library floor was teeming with refugees, orphans, and the homeless. The Great Library was the largest building in the capital, even larger than the royal palace, and it was open to the public. I had to wait until five minutes before closing, when the last tawny fingers of dusk were seeping through the highest skylight, before I could make out the image on the floor.
The map was hidden in the design of the floor tiles, as I’d expected. I instantly recognized the landmarks, as they weren’t far from the valley where I’d grown up. The river that gave life to my village was a tributary of the great river Ist, which flowed south from the Iga Mountains, the map’s starting point. I would have to cross them at the Izo Pass, the sacred high road where the Sisterhood of the Moon Singers lived in their ancient monasteries cut straight from the faces of the rock. Then, I would have to ascend the heights until I found the mountaintop crater holding the sacred lake known as the Eye of the Sea, where the entrance to the Castle-Under-The-Mountain was hidden.
I spent many more days in that library, learning everything I could about liches and how to defeat them. Since I could not read the books myself, I employed a young girl named Pia to read them to me. Pia had bright, translucent hair the color of whiskey, and barely looked old enough to be in school, yet was already studying alchemy at the university level. I paid her in locusts borrowed on good faith from my friend, the merchant San, who always gave them to me with a silver-capped smile and a wink.
With Pia’s aid, I learned that silver is toxic to the undead, but that they also hoard it. I didn’t understand this paradox until my young assistant found in an old black tome that the undead are drawn to silver by instinct, just as we are to food or drink. It cannot harm them unless it penetrates the heart or brain. Liches, though physically frail, were notoriously brutal sorcerers by their nature, so I decided the best way to kill this Lich would be with a silver arrow.
I made the perfect plan. I would sneak into the Castle-Under-The-Mountain and shoot the Lich through his cold, wicked heart, then take the Crown of Whispers and be back in the capital before the seasons changed.
I convinced Pia’s father, a metalworker named Gahri, to forge me twenty silver arrowheads. He was as strong and skilled with an axe, so I promised he would be my Royal Master-At-Arms when I came into power. I do not believe he would have given me a nickel if it wasn’t for Pia.
The next morning I set out to slay the Lich beneath a purpling sun.
As soon as I entered the Lich’s lair, it became grossly apparent how little I knew about magic. The old corpse had seen me coming before I had dipped my toes into the Eye of the Sea, even before I had left the lowlands for the grueling, week-long climb up the Izo Pass.
Fireballs shot at me from invisible ziggurats secreted in the walls from my first step into that old, dusty tomb. They singed the hair off my arms and neck as I flailed to escape their deadly communion. I sprinted and slid down serpentine halls of slick, time-smoothed stone, my elk-skin boots barely making a sound as I leapt nimbly over spike pits and impaling objects flung from murder holes in the ceiling and walls.
Yet despite my quickness, the Lich’s wights found me as if I wore a beacon. They’d been waiting for me, I knew as soon as I heard their eager howls echoing from the depths.
You of all people, brave warrior, should know how terrifying it is to be charged by a wight. I can see the sweat still creeping down your brow, the tremble still lingering in your fingertips.
I felt it too, then. My blood flowed like fire, and time, like sugared sludge. Their dead, contorted lips screeched octaves I didn’t know existed. I quick-drew my bow on every pale face, every set of flinty, unseeing eyes, and unleashing missile after missile into the disintegrating slag of their faces. I recovered as many spent arrows as I could, but by the time I reached his Throne of Skulls, I had only two arrows left.
I crept slowly into the hall, bearing down on every moving shadow and glimmering mote of dust, but the Lich wasn’t there. I stood where you now stand and with great confusion, lowered my bow.
Then I heard the scraping of rough cloth on smooth stone, shamble, scratch, shamble, scratch, scratch. He entered walking on the ceiling, cupping something in the pallid bowl of his hands.
The Lich uttered a word and I froze. He drifted down as paper falls through air, silently landing on his throne, and scattered the dust pile at my feet. When he spoke, his voice sounded ancient and exhausted.
“The gods did not make me a Lich,” the Lich said.
I tried to speak and found I could not.
I’m sure you’ll agree, brave warrior that it’s hard to describe the look a dead face makes when it emotes. I can only describe it as sadly unsurprised. The Lich descended his throne and took my face in his hands. His touch stung like ice, but was dry as ash. I tried to fight, but I couldn’t move.
I thought he would kill me then. Instead, he only sighed. “My heart stopped beating because it grew cold. Not the other way around. I pushed everyone who ever loved me away, for power, country, glamor, fame. When I realized how truly alone I was, I sought the purest love I could, that of a beautiful young girl with innocence in her eyes. Or did you think I stole the Princess, like everyone else? You may speak.”
“Traitor,” I spat. “Murderer. Demon.”
The Lich returned to his throne, where he tapped a long black fingernail on the bones of the armrest. He was toying with me, I realized, trying to squeeze every last bit of information he could about the outside world before he slew me.
But I had no trump card up my sleeve to play against his magic. I couldn’t move anything but my lips. My only chance to survive was to make him angry enough to stumble and release his grasp. “What would she tell me of your innocence, I wonder? What would the princess say?”
The Lich shrugged. “Those are her ashes before you. She was one of the wights you slaughtered on your way in.”
“She begged me to give her the Hymn of Death Undying. In the end, she won. As I said, I am in the end a selfish creature.”
“Then why not let me give you your mercy? Is that not want your heart truly wants?” I said.
I couldn’t tell if the flutter of his eyelid was some unholy spasm, or if he was actually winking at me. “Let me tell you something about this treasure you have come to claim. The Crown of Whispers is an instrument of tremendous power. You know the legend of how it washed ashore after a great orgy between the Gods of Sun and Moon, and Ithas, the patriarch of our land, found it and put it on. Whether all that’s true or not, it is above all things a weapon… the most powerful in existence. But here’s the secret, little man. I can’t control it. Nor can you. All we can do is listen to the things it whispers in our ear.”
“Is that what you tell yourself to justify the murder of an innocent girl?” I said.
The Lich saw red. Figuratively, of course; but in that instant, I felt his grip on me slide. The invisible pressure on my skin relented, my muscles freed from whatever intangible force had rendered them immobile.
The arrow left my string before he even knew it was drawn. I rolled out of the way as fireball burst where I’d been standing, a final desperate reflex to take me with him as my silver-headed arrow impaled the withered heart under his tattered purple robes. With an uncoiling hiss, the Lich released his last grip on this world.
Word of my deeds traveled faster than I did. You’d think, brave warrior, that anyone I met on the road would simply kill me and take the Crown of Whispers for themselves, but it was not so. As soon as anyone I met learned of what I’d done, they fell at my feet and groveled. A dozen battle-hardened warriors knelt to kiss my boots before I had left the first village. By the time I departed the mountains, my army was two thousand strong.
They called me the Coffin King. They told stories around their fires about me, the coffin maker’s son who’d outsmarted and slain the Lich. Men are quick to follow strength, but they are even quicker to follow stories.
Here I must pause, my noble, and oh-so-gallant warrior, to make a few observations about you.
One, your dress and posture show you come from humble origins, as I did. Not a coffin maker’s son; no, the strength of your upper back tells me you were a farmer’s boy.
Two, you fight for love, hoping your deeds will win her back. What was her name? Ah, Lina. Such a pretty name.
Three, you wonder how you’re going to get this crown off my head after you finish me off, if you will have cut the places where the flesh has grown over and entwined with the spires, if you will even have the strength left to carry it.
I assure you all your questions will be answered in time. Now, please. I must insist that you come closer. Just a few more steps. My voice fails me.
I arrived at the gates of our Empire’s capital with ten thousand warriors at my back. But the people greeted us as heroes, and a grander parade was thrown in my honor than the city had seen in the last hundred years combined. Thousands of people lined the streets under the shade of the old arches and columns, the stones all washed and freshly painted for my arrival. Confetti snowed on our heads and our ears were filled with the cries of ecstasy and the ringing of a thousand golden bells.
The city’s wells were already filling with fresh, clear water. Late summer blossoms bloomed on branches that had been bare weeks earlier. Grain was sprouting in the fields and fruit from the old vines. The true death of the Lich had given new life to the Empire.
I did not put on the Crown of Whispers until my coronation, fourteen days after I re-entered the capital. My coronation was hailed as the greatest party the Empire had ever seen. I swore an oath on the steps of the Great Library before Father Sun, Mother Moon, and all the people of our great city. I appointed my friend San, the locust merchant, as my High Wizard, my most important political advisor. I appointed Pia’s father, the brutish metalsmith Gahri as my Master-at-Arms. I appointed a dozen other members of my court whose names and qualifications came at the highest recommendation from the incumbents.
A grand feast was held for the commoners on Library Plaza, and a more private affair for the members of my court in the tea gardens within the palace walls. It was there that San, the former locust merchant, approached me and said, “The crown suits you. But I think it’s a bit of a farce for anyone to call me a High Wizard. I don’t know the first thing about magic.”
“We’ll study together. I’ve already ordered every book and scroll belonging to the former High Wizard to be delivered to my chambers,” I told him.
“I suppose you would, having killed the most powerful sorcerer in the Empire,” the Merchant San said. He took a long survey of the feast-goers sauntering about the flower ponds and moss-speckled bridges of the garden. The topic clearly made him uncomfortable. “You know they will expect you to take a wife before the harvest. Now that the Crown has been recovered, the Empire is even less secure than before it was lost. The Old Families consider you a threat, and won’t think twice about cutting your throat so one of their own can take your place. You need a powerful alliance made through marriage. Even then, I would not trust anyone who didn’t know you before, back when you had nothing but the patches in your pants.”
“So you, Gahri, and Pia, then?” I said.
San gave me a silver-capped grin and offered me a locust. “Try one yet? They’re dipped in chocolate. My favorite.”
I saw her dancing under the starlight during the band’s second-to-last waltz of the evening. She was Justina come again. She had the same crow-colored hair and burnished jade eyes, the same elegant spill of good hips and spider-slim legs. She was taller than Justina, older, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that the woman dancing in front of me was the very shade of my first true love.
The music died and the dance floor cleared. We looked at each other and she started laughing. I was shy, but a healthy swig of wine helped embolden me.
“Your highness did not ask me to dance,” the woman who was not Justina said.
I took her hand and kissed it. “An emperor doesn’t need to ask.”
She placed that same white-gloved hand on my arm and we began to walk. “But he needs wine to speak to his subjects?”
I stopped her. “What is your name?”
The woman who was not Justina smirked. “I’ll tell you, but only if you dance with me.”
“I could throw you in the dungeon for that.”
“Maybe I want you to.”
Reluctantly, I took her hands and led her to the dance floor. I was always a horrible dancer – girls in my village would laugh in my face when I asked them to dance at the Juvenalia – but the woman who was not Justina did not punish me for my missteps. She only smiled and introduced herself. “I am the Lady Ita, of the Water Lily House. I see you have taken a pine tree as your sigil. Does that mean you are sturdy and strong? Or only that you are prickly, and have a strong scent?”
“Neither. It means I came from the earth and will soon return to it. All that matters is what I leave behind.”
“Not many kings are also great poets,” the Lady Ita said.
I leaned in close. “I learned to speak this way when I was a child, so that I could fit in more easily around people like you.”
The Lady Ita chuckled.
“So, where is your lord husband, Lady Ita? Forgive me. I was only a coffin maker’s son before. I don’t know much about politics.”
The Lady Ita frowned. “Don’t worry. He’s three years dead and gone. Pox in his lungs, a terrible thing. But if I may be so bold, you don’t strike me as a coffin maker’s son.”
“And if I may be so bold, you don’t strike me as a lady in mourning.”
“Maybe my mourning is finished.”
A month later, we were wed.
The Empire entered a period of extended peace.
I left most of the actual ruling to my councilors, preferring to spend my time studying magic. I locked myself in my chambers through all hours of the day and night, breaking only to sign royal edicts, eat, sleep, and make love to my new queen. I consumed every book, scroll, and scribbled scrap that I could.
San’s advice that day in the garden was never far from my mind. I immediately saw plots developing among the Old Families. The cook was an agent of the Redwood House; the girl who changed my linens, a spy for the Roses; my Queen’s favorite handmaid, a skilled assassin of the Orchids in disguise.
Now that I had my Crown, I was determined to keep it.
One of the Crown’s attributes was that it could read aloud what I saw written on the page, so although I couldn’t read, much less make sense of ancient grimoires on the subject of magic, with the Crown I was able to decipher literal piles of manuscripts; which, for a boy who grew up making coffins, felt just as magical as shooting balls of lightning from my fists.
I learned that magic is often nothing more than a finely-crafted illusion. The ziggurats that had scorched me when I entered the Castle-Under-The-Mountain, for example, were nothing more than arrows tipped with high-combustion fuel rigged to fire when someone stepped on a carefully-hidden pressure plate. So, too, did the Crown teach me to use illusion to my advantage.
After two years, I had learned everything the old High Wizard had known and more. The Lich’s spells, which had so dazzled and terrified me when I first invaded his dank fortress, seemed nothing more to me now than the cheap tricks of a parlor flop.
The Crown of Whispers was true power.
Three years into my rule, an alliance of bandit tribes in the Iga Mountains declared independence from the Empire. My advisors had predicted as much, since that region had never truly accepted imperial rule.
They butchered my emissaries and sent their heads back on silver-tipped arrows.
You must make an example of them, or others will follow, the Crown whispered in my ear.
I led a raiding party to the Izo Pass, where we slaughtered the bandits in their camp while they slept. I put three silver-tipped arrows through their leader’s heart, then cast a flurry of flame and ice down upon their heads so cruel they threw down their weapons and surrendered at my feet.
But the Crown was not appeased. They defied you, it told me. Rebellion is in their blood. You must wipe it from the earth, every man, woman, and child.
I gave the order. We left none alive.
My cruelty to the Mountain People did not go unnoticed back home in the capital. A series of anonymous pamphlets began circulating bearing the words KILLER OF WOMEN AND CHILDREN! And NO HEIR!
I consulted my councilors, who agreed the Old Families had put out the libelous filth. San, my High Wizard, assured me: “People are quick to trash talk their leaders, and even quicker to believe the slander they hear. This is just politics as usual.”
My Master-At-Arms, Gahri was less optimistic. “Soon they will rise against you. They saw you as a hero for saving them from the Lich, but stories die. It’s unfortunate your legend faded so quickly, but that’s the way of it. There’s talk in the streets the queen cannot conceive. You need to give the people someone new to put their hope in. You must give them an heir.”
Yet try as we did, the queen’s belly would not grow.
By my fifth year, the Empire was the most prosperous it had ever been.
To bolster my public image I threw wild, lavish festivals, bacchanalias complete with dancers, fire conjurers, elephant riders, and gladiatorial games that lasted weeks at a time. I built monuments to myself on every city square, replacing statues of the gods with ones of myself slaying the Lich. I ordered a fleet of one thousand ships built, promising pioneering families free passage to the New Provinces. I sought to spread my dominion beyond the setting sun.
Yet I spent my nights cold and alone, getting drunk on the best wines ever fermented and enjoying the most beautiful whores the world had ever seen. They did nothing to sate the growing emptiness inside me.
And then there were the campaigns. I suppressed more bandit rebellions in the Iga Mountains; rebellions I fomented, of course, by staging false flag ambushes on my own troops. Thousands died. The army began its push to expand the imperial borders to the north and south, on the pretense of protecting the settlers there from the bloodthirsty natives. The body count climbed to the tens, then to the hundreds of thousands.
And now I know something else about you, my brave warrior. You cringe at the thought of actual violence. Trust me, that reflex will vanish in time. Now please, come a little closer.
I fell in love with my own story anew each morning when I rose, the day already late and the gulls weeping on my balcony. The Crown whispered its affirmations to me in the mirror. You are a good king, it told me. You have saved the Empire. You are a good king, but not a great one. Your queen is holding you back.
I had the queen’s quarters moved to the farthest tower of the palace, sending the message by courier. I never spoke to the Lady Ita again.
In the tenth year of my reign, I divorced the Lady Ita and banished her to the Sisterhood of the Moon Singers to marry Pia, my young former assistant. Gahri showed up at one of my garden parties with a stunningly pretty young woman on his arm who I didn’t recognize. It wasn’t until my Master-At-Arms grew visibly nervous that I realized the girl was Pia. Nearly a decade had passed since I’d last seen her.
Pia had grown into a woman of breathtaking beauty. She was slender and almond-eyed, with a radiant smile and hair so blonde it gleamed like silver in the sunlight. Sweating profusely, Gahri informed me she had gone away to study alchemy at the New University in the Southern Province. He introduced her as “The Lady Pia.” I thought the old goat would drown in his own shirt.
I tried to take her hand and kiss it, but Pia only swatted it away and gave me that same confident, goofy grin she’d always had. “I hope you still love books, your highness. I brought you a whole cartful. My favorites. Almost all of them are about magic. I heard you’re something of an aficionado.”
We wed in the Great Library at sunset on the Feast of the Sacred Crown, standing where we’d first met a decade earlier among the stacks beneath a dozen shades of sanguine light falling through stained-glass like a story fractured in the retelling. I promised Pia I would be hers forever, and she promised she would be mine.
And the Crown whispered: But we’ve heard that before, haven’t we?
Our happiness faded as quickly as it came.
The Empire entered a rapid decline. A decade of war and rampant expansionism had not only drained the gold from the vaults faster than the royal accountants could measure, but had sent many of the Empire’s best minds abroad, where they wouldn’t be persecuted.
I, in my infinite wisdom, had begun executing any academics or members of the Old Families who spoke out against me, burning them alive on the steps of the Great Library as traitors.
My councilors, too, grew distant. The tenuous friendships I’d formed with San and Gahri withered. I stopping heeding their counsel, and eventually they stopped giving it, choosing to spend our meetings staring blankly into their wine instead.
Vicious rumors surfaced that despite still not having a legitimate heir, I’d sired hundreds of deformed bastards upon countless whores across various regions of the Empire. The former, at least, was true. Pia and I tried to produce a child, but like the queen before her, Pia’s belly never grew.
Whatever sliver of control I’d had over my temper with the Lady Ita vanished completely when Pia and I quarreled. A disagreeing word would send me spiraling into a foul rage. I drank the palace dry. And Pia, for all her innocent patience, grew ever more hurt by my pitiless anger. She would lock herself in our bedchamber for hours, crying and begging me to be myself again.
But that was the problem. I was myself. I was a liar, and a whoremonger, and a loner, and a fraud. The only real power I ever had, had come from the Crown.
I can hear its whispers even now: We are as they made us, are we not?
Nothing I did could change my and Pia’s fate. The affection she had so selflessly showered upon me in the beginning evaporated with each successive tear. I emptied the royal coffers to take her on exotic trips to the farthest outskirts of the Empire. We spent our nights crying uncontrollably in each other’s arms on the sea of satin pillows that adorned the interior of our wheelhouse, until finally, she would place a tender hand on my cheek, and say, “I have loved you since I was a girl, and you were a pauper in rags. Nothing in the world could ever change that
To which the Crown would whisper in my ear: And you’re a fool if you believe her.
There was no spell or magic aid that could save us. Magic is mostly an illusion, and love is real. Pia’s love, which was as close to unconditional as the human heart is capable, could have saved me, if I had only let it; if I had not been enslaved to the Crown.
I started losing my mind. I began to suspect the Crown was evil, not a jewel-encrusted diadem at all, but an intelligent parasite that was manipulating all of us: me, Pia, our court, and through us, the Empire.
The Crown told me I was wrong. But I started having vivid, waking dreams. I ceased being able to tell what was real and what was an illusion.
I dreamt I was a very old man, older than time itself, sitting upon a throne made of skulls, where I slept and waited, sharpening my long, murderous fingernails to a razor’s edge.
I dreamt that my life wasn’t mine at all, but someone else’s, a story being whispered in my ear by the Crown, which had been sitting so long and heavy upon my head it had fused with my flesh and become part of me. Warriors would come to slay me, not knowing I was only the shell through which the Crown acted, that I could not control my own body, that I could only wait, and watch, and scream inside the silent prison of my mind with a thousand other nameless voices.
Inevitably, I would lure those brave warriors in until they came just close enough, then my fingernails would plunge through their breastplates, chain mail, flesh, bone, and all, driving straight into their still-beating hearts, and those who came to slay me would die. Then I – or rather, the Crown – would absorb their memories, and I would become someone else. I would assume the voice of the last warrior who had died.
When I awoke in my chambers, I was myself again. But this dream came to me so often that part of me started to believe it was reality, that I truly was a dead man sitting on that old chair, and my life in the royal palace in Ito was the dream, and always had been; that I’d never been a coffin maker’s son.
One night, she tried to take the Crown from me.
I stirred from my dream of being the Lich to find Pia’s fingers crawling along the pale edges of my scalp. I slapped her hands away, screaming, “What are you doing?”
“You n-n-never t-take it off,” Pia said, through stutter-stop sobs. “Look what it’s done to you. To us. Please. I want you to take it off, this once.”
My voice, magnified by the Crown, thundered so loud it shook the palace to its foundation. “Why should I take it off? I saved the Empire. It chose me! Why should you have it?”
Pia raised her hands to her face as though I would strike her. “I d-don’t want it, my love. It’s just that…” My queen hesitated. “I t-tried to take it off twice before, while you were s-sleeping, and couldn’t. I thought there might be a latch, but… how do you take it off? Your forehead has grown so white. It stinks. I tried to wash it, but… why do you never pray? You neglect the gods. You never let me read to you anymore. I’m worried sick about you.”
I do not know if it was I, or the Crown, who said, “If I take it off, we lose everything. Would you sacrifice our People to save this stinking, little marriage, you selfish whore?”
Pia fell to her knees, weeping and grasping my hand like it was her last shred of life. “My love, do you not see? It’s called the Crown of Whispers because it lies.”
She was a benevolent queen, an adoring wife, and of far greater intelligence than I ever was. Pia saw the writing on the wall before it was written.
I was at court when they came for me. Twenty men of my own household guard surrounded me at spear point, led by Gahri, my Master-At-Arms. Pia wasn’t there.
“You, the King, stand convicted of high treason, as well as blasphemy, fraud, adultery, and unholy sodomy. Father Sun, Mother Moon, their respective churches, and the patriarchs of all the Old Families support these charges. The queen, Lady Pia of the Papyrus House has testified in a secret tribunal that you are mad, and that you have willingly set the Empire of the Sun and Moon on a course toward poverty and destruction. Should you sign this confession and admit your crimes, you will be stripped of all wealth and titles, but allowed to spend your life in exile, in the New Provinces. Should you resist, or deny these charges, you will be executed by burning at dawn tomorrow, as your own laws have decreed to be the punishment for treason.”
Gahri offered me the parchment to sign. I took it in my hands, ready to tear it in two and then kill them all when I felt someone’s hot breath on my neck. A familiar voice whispered over my shoulder.
“Don’t be a fool,” my friend San, the merchant said. “Don’t throw your life away. Sign it.”
He felt me move and tried to imprison me with magic, but I was always the better sorcerer. I threw Ball Lightning at his Cage of Ice and impaled San’s heart with his own dagger as he fried in a pool of his own conjured water, then rained fire and ice down upon my would-be captors’ heads, magical traps I’d set ages before in case of such a betrayal.
They burned and froze and shattered and died, all but Gahri, who dodged my attacks nimbly and rushed me with his long axe. The silver-tipped polearm slashed toward me and I remembered the Lich’s black fingernails from my dreams, punching like spike traps to skewer the brave warriors who came to slay me. I slid to Gahri’s left and bashed his skull in with mine, using the Crown of Whispers to turn his head into crimson pulp.
Then, I ran.
And now, brave warrior, you know the story of my fall, of how the unlikely ruler of the greatest Empire known to history lost everything, betrayed by the people he trusted most. You know the rest of my story.
I fled into the mountains and became the Lich. I fled the royal palace to the river, then to the Iga Mountains, then across the Izo Pass and into the heights, to the Eye of the Sea, and the only place I knew I could be alone, the Castle-Under-The-Mountain. I set traps. I sent out spies, bugs and worms and crows, beasts I could easily control with the Crown’s magnetic thrum. I began to change. The Crown changed me. I called out to my bastard children in their dreams. They came to me and became my wights.
I find myself rather exhausted by all this glorious retelling, and do not have the strength to speak much longer. Please, just one more step. Ah, yes. That’s close enough.
See? I am old and weak as rotten paper. See my lolling head. I can barely hold the Crown aloft. My magic is naught but barest illusion, no match for your gods-given courage. You will take the Crown of Whispers for yourself, and return to your Empire, a hero. They will call you “The Farmer King,” the boy who killed the Lich, who rose from nothing to save an empire. You will succeed where I failed.
But before you do, a warning.
To be the hero, you must slay the Lich. But to slay the Lich is to slay yourself, for in every man a Lich lies waiting. All that must happen for the Lich to be born is the man must lose everything, and behold! The warrior becomes what he set out to so gallantly kill, as I once did, as you soon will.
So, what are you waiting for, my brave and valiant warrior? Take pity on my bitter, tortured soul. Put me out of my misery. Come nice and close, and strike me down.
Have at me.
They called me the Farmer King.
I was the hero who slew the Lich and returned the Crown of Whispers to the Empire. The man of the people who rose to become emperor, only to fall again to a conspirator’s blade. The cursed one. The creature of darkness, doomed to wander these shadowed halls for years uncounted. But you already know all this, don’t you?
Please, do come a bit closer.
(First published in the Ancient Enemies anthology from Bloodlines Press.)