The Tower of Living and Dying – Anna Smith Spark

In the tall house in Toreth Harbour, the High Priestess Thalia lay awake in the darkness, listening to her lover’s breath. Faint noises outside the window: a woman’s voice calling, drunken singing and a shriek and a crash. Laughter. The wind had risen again. She could hear the sea, the waves breaking on the shingle, the gulls. I have seen a dragon, she thought. I have seen a dragon dancing on the wind. I have seen the sea. The sky. The cold of frost. The beauty of the world. I have felt the sun on my face as it rose over the desert. I have felt clear water running beneath my feet. I have known sorrow and pain and happiness and love. She sat up and brought a candle to burning.

The man beside her stirred at it, clawing roughly at his face. She smoothed her hand over his forehead, and he sighed and relaxed back deeper into sleep. King Marith Altrersyr. Amrath returned to us. King Ruin. King of Shadows. King of Dust. King of Death. Dragonlord. Dragon killer.

Dragon kin. Demon born. Parricide. Murderer. Hatha addict. The most beautiful man in the world. She went over to the wall where his sword hung, took it up, walked back to the bed. For a moment her hands shook. A kindness, she thought. The gulls screamed at the window.

Shadows crawled on the walls. She raised the sword over his heart. Looked at him. A kindness. To her. To him. But he’s so beautiful, she thought. She put the sword down and curled back beside him. Slept. Chapter Two Full morning.

The green moors above the town of Toreth Harbour. Grass and wild flowers running down to the cliff top, dark rocks, weathered stone, the steep drop to the churning sea. Grey sky. Grey earth. Grey water. A rent in the world, a scar, a sore, where the tower of Malth Salene had stood proud above the town and the water, where a battle had been fought, where a young man had been crowned king. Marith Altrersyr stood on the cliff top, looking at the ruins. In the light of day the battleground was a desolation. Rock and earth and flesh and blood that had cooled and set like poured glass. A sheen on it, also like glass.

In places human faces stared up through the surface, drowned and entombed. A great fortress had stood here. Bedchambers, feasting halls, the chapel of Amrath the World Conqueror where Marith had knelt to receive his ancestor’s blessing as king. Treasures, beautiful objects, silks, tapestries, gold, gems. In a few hours, the army of the Ansikanderakesis Amrakane had destroyed it utterly. His soldiers’ horses snorted and shifted uneasily at the death stink. Even the gulls and the crows had flown. I did this, Marith thought. So strange, to know that. I did this, I made this.

This ruin, this triumph of ending: mine. The summation of my life, perhaps. I killed a man and razed a fortress to ashes and thus I must be a king. Or nothing at all. A ruined building. A bit of burned ground, where men will rebuild the walls and the grass will regrow. It was the most wonderful thing I have ever seen, he thought then. Seeing it fall. Destroying it. The most wondrous thing I have ever done.

The memory of it, burning: the walls had run with fire, liquid fire pouring over it; it had shone with fire like stones shine soaked in water, like rocks on the tideline washed with the incoming sea. Its walls had glowed, they had burned so brightly, the stone had been red hot and white hot. Banefire shot from trebuchets, hammering the walls to dust, eating the rocks and the dust and the ground beneath. The men fighting around it, over it, inside it: armed men of his father’s army, his own pitiful host from Malth Salene, unarmed servants, old men, kitchen girls. Struggling with each other, killing each other. Tearing down the walls of the fortress. Killing the animals in the courtyards. Cutting down the trees in the orchard beside the south wall. Such utter destruction. He remembered the trees burning, their branches red with fire; they had looked like a glorious forest of autumn beech trees.

Sparks rising. Filling the sky. Blotting out all the stars. The earth churned with mud, black in the firelight and the evening darkness. His men dancing and clashing their swords, shouting for him, singing out his name, their faces stained with blood and smoke. Glorious. Astonishing. Beautiful beyond all things. They did this at my bidding, he thought. For me.

I killed so many of them. They killed, they destroyed, they followed me. I killed them, he thought. And still they followed me. And the killing. The killing, the fighting, it had been … ah, gods, it had been sweet. He had left this place once with his best friend’s blood on his hands. Come back here bound and humiliated, a prisoner, contemplating his own death. And now here he was made king. I didn’t used to think I wanted to be king, he thought.

A strange thing to think. A voice called, loud in the still cold air. “We’ve found it.” Ah, gods. Marith turned, walked to where his soldiers were moving. He walked slowly. His heart beat very loud. “My Lord King, we’ve found it.” Marith rubbed at his eyes. Looked down.

Looked away. Looked down. His father’s body was stretched on the earth before him. Face down in the dust. Broken apart. Torn into shreds by his son’s blade, like hands devouring consuming him. I killed him, Marith thought again. I killed him. Ah, gods. Marith bent, knelt by the body, stared.

Dead eyes stared back at him. A look of astonishment on his father’s face. Had not believed that Marith would do it, even as the sword came down and down and down. “Talk to him,” Thalia had said to him, one night only a few days ago, standing on the walls of Malth Salene looking at his father’s besieging campfires. “Can you not talk to him?” He killed my mother. He told everyone that I was dead. He hated me. He was ashamed of me. What could I say to him? The air hissed and writhed around Marith. Darker, colder air.

The sound of waves crashing on the rocks of the shore beneath. His own heartbeat, like the beating of a bird’s wings or the thunder of horses’ hooves. “Bring the body down to Toreth,” he ordered the soldiers. “Preserve it in honey. We will return it to Malth Elelane. Bury it with honour there.” Malth Elelane, the Tower of Joy and Despair, the seat of the Altrersyr kings. Home. My father’s father’s grave, he thought, and his father’s before that … All the way back to Altrersys, and to Serelethe herself, the mother of Amrath. The mother of a god.

She who began it all. Who doomed me to this. Dragon born. Demon kin. The bloodline of the Altrersyr, whose very name is a whisper of pain and hate. The air hissed and writhed around him. His father’s dead face. Flies were crawling on its open lips. “Marith,” his father had cried out, as he killed him. He remembered that.

Bringing his sword down, again, again, again, his father breaking, falling, shattered into pieces, crying out his name as he died. “Marith. Please.” Can you not talk to him? Killing and killing. His sword so bright. The crash of bronze, his sword blade on his father’s armour; his father had tried to defend himself against him, tried to strike him back, the two of them hacking at each other, so close to each other, strike and strike and the ring of bronze. “Marith. Marith,” his father had cried to him. And he’d struck his father so hard, feeling his father’s body break beneath his sword blade, flesh and fat and bones and bloodshed, his father’s body opening up red and ruined beneath his sword strokes. Tear him into pieces.

Hurt him. Empty him. Blood and blood and blood. A king, Father! Look at me! I am a king! Marith thought: he must have hated me. Marith turned away from the body. The soldiers were lifting it awkwardly, in pieces, falling, flopping about, the head flopping back, black dried blood crusted on its throat. He thought: don’t run; in front of the soldiers, my soldiers, don’t run. And there in the burned earth before him a pile of tumbled stone, smudged with colour beneath the smoke, the mark of carving still clearly visible, the smooth curve of polished stone. The head of the statue of Amrath from the chapel, perfect and unharmed, cleanly severed at the neck. He thought: don’t run.

Not in front of the soldiers. My soldiers. Don’t run. He went back towards his horse, stopped, stared round him, walked across the ruined ground north towards the cliff edge and the sea. There on the headland the ground was undisturbed, grass still growing, purple heather, the last yellow flowers of gorse, all the petals ragged and browned from the recent snow. A man’s body, a dagger clutched in a raised hand. A child’s body, eyes open to the sky. A mound of dark earth, topped with a stone carved with the crude image of a horse. Carin’s grave. It had watched the battle, seen Carin’s murderer wade through blood triumphant and victorious, seen Carin’s family and Carin’s home destroyed.

“I’m sorry.” There was a flask of wine at his belt: Marith poured a libation over the gravestone. “You … perhaps you deserved this, Carin. That you did not have to see this. What I have done.” The stone gave no answer. But they had always avoided speaking of what he was. Marith rubbed his eyes. All done here. All that had held anything for him here was dead and gone.

He mounted his horse, rode down the golden paved road back to Toreth. The soldiers followed, carrying his father’s body on a bier, the eyes still staring up astonished into the grey sky. The air hissed and writhed. On the sea, the shadows of clouds ran. The sea was as cold as iron and the light did not dance on the waves. At the gates of the town the cheer rang out to greet him. “King Marith! Ansikanderakesis Amrakane! Death! Death! Death!” A single ray of sunlight broke through the clouds. Shone on Marith’s silver crown. Chapter Three A king? He wore a crown, men knelt at his feet, he was first-born heir to the White Isles and his father the last king was dead. But the house of the king was far away on another island, his younger brother sat there on the throne of Altrersys in his place, the men of the White Isles believed him dead.

King of a single town, a fishing port, his seat a fish merchant’s house with tall narrow rooms and worn floors. So glorious a place from which to reclaim his own. Perhaps, Marith thought for a moment, it had been possibly foolish to raze the one fortress he had possessed to the ground. Burn the world and piss on the ashes and end up sleeping in a lumpy old bed with mildew stains on the wall. A triumph indeed. There were sea-worn stones and bird feathers hanging on leather thongs beside the house’s doorway. They rattled as he went past. The owner of the house, the future Lord Fishmonger, the wealthiest herring merchant in Toreth Harbour, knelt like the rest as Marith entered. His hair was greasy, dandruff caught on his shoulders, beneath the perfume Marith was certain he smelled of fish. But he’d handed his house over so happily, so gladly, his face had been all bright with eagerness to let a blood-soaked boy throw him out of his lumpy old bed.

Surely the greatest honour a man could ever have, that. Lord Fishmonger looked nervous. “My Lord King,” Lord Fishmonger said nervously. Marith thought: I must find out his name, I suppose. “My Lord King …” Thalia came down the stairs. The sun came in through a window onto her face. She wore a white dress with pink and green flowers on it: in the golden light, with her brown skin and black hair, she looked like a may tree in bloom. Marith closed his eyes. Opened them. Too bright to look at.

The sunlight was bright on her, and her face was nothing but light. She was holding her cloak in her arms. She looked at him for a very long time. Seemed about to speak. He thought: she is leaving me. He thought: I have made it safe for her to leave me. And now she will go. The realization struck him: she did not choose to come here with me. I rescued her from a stranger’s violence; she came here with me as a prisoner; she was trapped with me in a fortress under siege. And now that I have broken the siege she will turn and walk away.

She’s too good for me, he thought. Parricide. Vile thing. King of Death. Lord Fishmonger, edging around beside him, said, “My Lord King …” A cloud passed over the sun. The light faded. Thalia’s blue eyes dark and cautious. She did not speak. In the shadow, she looked like the stone on Carin’s grave. Marith said, “Thalia?” She looked at him.

A very long time, she seemed to look at him. “Marith,” she said. She seemed uncertain. I don’t … I don’t understand, he thought. Look what I’ve done for you. All of this, Thalia, all of this I did for you. To give you all that you deserve. To make you queen. She was the High Priestess of the Lord of Living and Dying, Great Tanis Who Rules All Things, the One God of the Sekemleth Empire of the Asekemlene Emperor of the Eternal Golden City of Sorlost. She who brings death to the dying and life to those who wait to be born.

She knew that he was lying, if he thought he had done any of it for her sake. “Thalia,” he said again. “Don’t go. Please. I love you,” he said. Her eyes narrowed. She held out her hand. He said, “Please stay.” She smiled. “For now,” she said.

“As you ask me so well.” Hardly an answer. Yet his heart leapt. But things to do, the ragged soldiers of his army must be addressed, some plan must be made. Very well, Marith, you are king of one town on one island, you have an army of fishermen and servant girls, you have a borrowed horse and a borrowed sword. Your father left his ships at Escral a day’s march to the west of here, perhaps even now more of his men are coming for you. You can destroy a tower, yes, granted. Such a display of power, to break mortared stones and bring down a place of peace. But can you hold against warriors, in battle? Killer of babies, you are, Marith. Women.

Old men. What can you really do? The thoughts drumming in him. Horses’ hooves again, thundering. Beating wings. His eyes itched like fire. He stared at the walls, trying to see. Thalia sat opposite him in silence. A room that smelled of mildew, and a lumpy bed. All this, for you! I was going to take you to Ith, he thought. To my uncle’s court there, to make you a princess, dress you in gold and diamonds, we could have spent our days riding in the forests, reading side-by-side by a warm fire, talking and dancing and drinking and fucking and doing nothing at all every day.

That dream is over. And what have I got for it?

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