Demon River was previously published as The Easy River to Success in Planet Magazine
Here’s an extract from the start of the story:
Before dinner that Tuesday, I sat back in my leather-bound chair and indulged in a few moments of feeling quietly safisfied. Recently I had even felt the beginnings of optimism. After years of cloud and storm, the sun had broken through and I could at last bask in the success that I deserved. After all, who else now stood between me and the ear of the King?
On Tuesdays I always dined with the Treasurer, Flacio Abs: friend, rival, and sometime co-conspirator. We commonly held our meetings informally after government work was over. Roast quail and plum wine topped with gossip were the usual agenda items. As a side order, we touched on issues related to our two departments – Flacio’s Treasury, and the Chancery that I ran, source of the King’s letters and proclamations of state.
The meal that day was adequate, the talk good, but not startling. I felt that Flacio was holding something back. As we ate our dessert and finished our second bottle of wine, I asked him if he had anything he wished to share with me.
Flacio grinned. “You know, Benetus,” he said, “I was wondering when you would ask. Now that our meal is over, the news is ripe for me to pluck.” Flacio stood up then, which surprised me as I was hoping he would now share his news.
“Where are you going; aren’t you going to tell me the news?” I was annoyed with his play-acting. He was a bean-counter, for Viest’s sake, not a paid entertainer.
Flacio nodded and smiled. “It might be best if I show you. A picture is worth a thousand words, they say.”
“Not a thousand of my words, Flacio.” Nevertheless I stood and followed him to the door. I was concerned by Flacio’s behaviour. He seemed to be enjoying the fact that he knew something I didn’t. If I was ignorant of something important, that could be a big problem. Life as a courtier could be very short, and I had lived as long as I had only by knowing absolutely everything of significance that happened within the walls of the palace.
The air was warm outside the tavern; the warm evenings of summer were just beginning. The gentle waters of the Gulf of Storms lapped at the harbour walls as we passed revellers in the sailors’ quarter. Walking north, I realised we were heading back to the Palace District.
“Something in your rooms you want to show me? Why couldn’t you have brought it to the tavern?” Flacio’s apartments were near his place of work, a stone’s throw from the administrative buildings of the Western Annex. This journey, however, took me farther from where I lived. I preferred a place in the city, hidden in the anonymity of the crowd.
“No, no, but you are right to think we are heading towards the palace.” After that I could not get another word from him on the subject.
We nodded to the guards as we entered the palace complex, fierce-looking Usure tribesmen from the north. We had both passed the same men a hundred times or more. Still they demanded to see the seals of office that proved our identities. But this was wise practice when enemies threaten from so many sides. Their discipline and loyalty to the King was a comfort to me.
We walked past more guards, knights of the King’s own familia, into the central atrium of the palace, through the exotic gardens designed personally by the King with help from a Nukushite natural scientist. This was the heart of the palace, where one might expect to pass princes of the realm, members of the royal family and even the King. From nearby, somewhere hidden by the foliage of the garden, came the soft rhythm of poetry being read. The fuzzy glow of dim lamps indicated a gathering on the far side of the atrium-garden. The smell of strong Abatian wine and rolled tirbic sticks met our nostrils. The gathering was of the King and his closest familiars. A group that on many occasions in the last year I had been proud to belong.
I brushed the sleeves of my silk coat and started towards the group, thinking of a witticism with which to greet my beloved king, but Flacio stopped me with a tug on my sleeve.
“No, wait. There is something here I wish to show you.” He ushered me towards some shrubs and low trees that screened the King’s gathering.
From the undergrowth we had a clear view of the King’s party, but were invisible from their view. I felt a lump in my throat – was spying on my king an act of treachery?
But once I saw who accompanied the King, that guilt turned to rising anger, made more acute by the lack of opportunity to vent it by shouting and cursing. Flacio could be a cruel friend. I had not recognized the voice of the reader at first, perhaps because I could not imagine that he had returned so soon. Fanis Poll, the man I had helped to send into exile and my bitterest rival at court, was standing in front of an admiring audience reciting a poem that he had no doubt composed himself. I could see the king smiling with pleasure at the clever verses. And when the king smiled, all the courtiers around him smiled too.
I did not need to see any more. Flacio and I left our hiding place and I walked purposefully away through the palace. Tomorrow was Council day and I needed to be prepared. Flacio wished me a goodnight, but the smile was now gone from his face. He could see the depth of my reaction. I thanked him for letting me know the news. It was not his fault, I realised, as I walked along the sea-wall towards the tumbledown slums which were my home. In fact, he was a better friend for being strong enough to bring me the bad news. As I unlocked the door to the ground floor flat of the tenement block, I mused on how to play the encounter tomorrow. To be surprised yet unfluttered, perhaps? Or maybe pretend full knowledge of his return. But why had I not seen the correspondence to the keep commander releasing his prisoner from exile? Why had it not come through Chancery?
I fastened the three bolts of the heavy inner door and waved my hand over the locks twice with a brief, muttered phrase. That would seal it from any night-walkers.
The order must have come from the King’s own chamber or perhaps his own hand. Why would the King do this? Had I done something to displease him?
I pulled up the carpet under the small kitchen table and drew open the trapdoor. The steps led down into the rock of the headland. I would travel the spirit-river tonight.
But first, maybe a glass of brandy. I realized that my hands were shaking. I did not like surprises.