by Den Valdron
KING OF THE ANTS
He exploded in wrath. “You worthless little slut, you ignorant nobody, you untalented, unimaginative, unambitious little nonentity. ‘Who?’ you ask. ‘Who?’ I stand before you a living god, the absolute ruler of an Empire not seen since the beginnings of our nation, the last and finest product of the Orovar race, and you ask ‘Who?’ Even before my exile, my name was a household world. A hundred thousand throats in Az-Lium sang my praises. My fall was the stuff of legends. In ten thousand years, I was the only fresh voice that ancient nation had heard. And you say ‘Who?’ You.... You...”
“I didn't really pay a lot of attention to politics,” I said quickly. I thought fast, trying to pull things together. “I think I heard of you. You were with the Edgers, right?”
“With them? I founded the Edgers,” he said.
No, that wasn't quite right, I thought. That wasn't true. I tried to recollect from those days. I really hadn't paid attention to politics.
“The Edgers,” he told me, “were just an ignorant rabble. I made them a force, I made them great. Our voices swept the city.”
So he hadn't founded them? I didn't think it would be wise to point out the contradiction in his words.
“For the first time in ten thousand years, the people of Az-Lium were waking, they were wondering what lay beyond the dome, what was in the world beyond. It was coming alive, change and renewal swept through the streets. For the first time in ages, a worthy leader had emerged to throw off the dead hand of the past.”
I hadn't paid attention, but that wasn't the way I remembered it.
“I had enemies,” he said, “the so-called high nobility, my so called kin, they betrayed me. I should have lead them, they should have followed me, and placed me on the throne, and I would have taken Az-Lium to a glorious future. But they were jealous and afraid, they closed ranks against us, the worthless royal house stirred itself from decay.”
“They exiled you,” I said.
It was terrifying to watch. He seemed to rant aimlessly, forgetting even to heap abuse upon me. It was as if he railed against the world, against past enemies.
He shook his head.
“No! Not exiled. I and my followers chose to leave. I would not stay another day in the decayed corpse that was Az-Lium. I knew that there was a world out here to discover, to conquer, and guided by the hand of fate, I stepped forth.”
I was very sure that was not how the archivist had described it. I held my tongue.
“How can I describe what I felt, stepping beyond the dome. It was a liberation. Oh my followers whimpered, their hearts were filled with terror, they wept to turn their backs on all they had known. But I turned to them and exhorted them to courage. I knew that destiny was calling us. “
“It was not easy though. We had ancient maps, and supplies, but the Jagged lands are vast and barren. We travelled for days, walking in the shadows of vast canyons. Some of our party died of accidents and starvation along the way. But we pushed on. Their courage failed them. But I never doubted, never wavered.”
“Finally, at the end of our supplies, our numbers diminished, we found an abandoned city.”
“Mant,” I said.
“How do you know that?”
Then he seemed to dismiss me. “Yes, it was Mant. A barren city, abandoned from before the time of Az-Lium. And there, we could go no further, out of food, out of water, only my will sustaining us. The suffering we endured there, it was beyond the suffering any mortals had ever borne. We wept, we hungered, we fought among ourselves, they wanted to return, to go crawling back to Az-Lium, to repent and renounce me, to beg for admission. The fools.”
“One by one,” he said, “we died. Starving, desperate, I clung to life. My will, my faith in destiny would not let me die. Even as they lost heart, my will grew stronger. My suffering was greater than any others, I was the leader. Men died in my arms, giving their lives to sustain me. I wept for their loss. I am not ashamed to say I even went a little mad.”
Giving their lives to sustain you? You murdered your companions, I thought with a sudden flash of insight. Went a little mad? You murdered them, and...
“What did you eat?” I asked aloud.
He flinched away at that, ignoring the words.
“I explored the city, seeking out the tiniest morsels, the merest dew to sustain me and my companions even a little longer.
His voice dropped a little, he seemed to become conspiratorial.
“Then I found it. A great tower in the center of the city, and beneath it, a vast series of underground chambers filled with ancient treasure. An unparalleled fortune, a vast reservoir of incredible wealth. And then I knew, I knew I had been chosen for something more than starvation in barren ruins.
Treasure? It was him, I realized, he had looted the tombs of Mant. Breaking open sepulchers, dismembering the corpses, stealing mummified heads to pry jeweled eyes from their dry sockets. I visualized him, mad and cackling, looting tomb after tomb. How many bodies had he desecrated. Hundreds? Thousands?
“You desecrated tombs,” I said.
He hesitated, looking uncertain. Then, as if with force of will, he seemed to choose to ignore me.
“Abandoned treasures, the people who'd created them long since dust, waiting for anyone with courage and genius. The treasure was not unguarded,” he continued, “subhuman things lurked, strange creatures the world had never seen. Their flesh sustained me through my privations.”
Of course, I thought. He'd found and fed upon mollusks, preyed upon, murdered and ate mollusk farmers, the occasional denizens of Mant who found themselves near the upper levels. That was why they'd feared demons from the surface when we came upon them.
“My faith renewed, I set out alone, to discover the new world. My path took me to Diome.”
We had followed his path, I realized. But he hadn't found Mant, not the live city below. He hadn't ventured beneath the tombs.
“There I was a stranger, an alien, penniless and destitute.”
“Except for your fortune in gems,” I said.
He stopped. I bit my lip, got to clamp down on the sarcasm.
“I did not say gems.”
“But yes, they were gems, the most astonishing gems the world had ever seen. But I was no fool. To appear, a lone man in an alien city? Why, I would have been robbed and killed. So I hid the treasure, taking only enough to sustain me. I found a benefactor. A jeweler I learned to pass for these red men. I made a name for myself, I became wealthy.”
How much of that wealth, I thought, had come from his hidden cache of buried treasure, the gems of Mant, carefully eked out, used to buy properties, to sustain business interests, to buy loyalties.
All of it, I realized.
“My benefactor died tragically, and as his partner, I took over his holdings. My wealth grew and grew. I purchased trading interests, invested in caravans. I was the wealthiest man in Diome. My interests stretched across the world.”
He had to sell his gems, I realized. But not just in Diome, that would only flood the local market. That was why he joined the caravans. He'd sold them in other cities, established networks, trading jewels for money, for goods, for other forms of wealth, funneling back to Diome.
All done secretly, of course, because he'd guard his treasure, that had to be a secret. And so all anyone would know is that he seemed to have the golden touch, that his ventures could never fail, that everything he did prospered.
“But even as I rose, I looked about. Diome was a broken nation, crying out for leaderships. I had become the wealthiest man in Diome, my wisdom, my talent had proven its worth to all. Men came to me and begged me to lead, to take the reins of destiny. “
“But Diome's royalty, its nobility, they were as worthless as those of Az-Lium. This time, I knew better than to earn their enmity. Instead, there was a man, Japhrus Farl, not bright, not clever or gifted, a common man, but one with a talent for rousing the rabble. Under my guidance, Japhrus Farl rose, sweeping away the worthless ruling class. When he died tragically, there was no one but me to take his place.”
“Your followers often die tragically,” I observed.
Then I kicked myself. I had no business talking like that. It wasn't safe.
He stopped, and stared at me.
“You're clever aren't you,” he said cryptically.
“Rhys Bor Haus,” I said, the name had popped into my head finally.
“Rhys Bor Haus,” I said, “was the leader of the Edgers. The real leader. You were one of his followers.”
“Where is Rhys Bor Haus now?” he asked. “A nobody with a few ideas and some small gift of speech.”
“What happened to him?” I demanded.
“I killed him, the Edger Rhys Bor Haus,” he said. “I killed him and ate his brains.”
He leaped from his chair, and began to advance upon me, his eyes wild and fierce, his words coming quick and passionate.
“So what? What else was he good for in the end? All his fine words and ideals, lead us all to ruin. He was nothing without me, and look what he lead us to. He owed me! He ruined me in Az-Lium, seducing me with his wild notions. He deserved his fate.”
?Look at me: I came out of Az-Lium, a man disgraced, stripped of my titles, stripped of my wealth, with nothing but the clothes on my back. And I have risen, through nothing more than my own intelligence, my talent, my gifts, inevitably to rule this city, to rule an Empire, to rule Az-Lium itself and dominate it more completely than any in its history. What else is this but inevitable fate, that destiny itself works to my will?”
“This,” he said, “is the difference between me and you. Oh yes, your snide comments. You would paint me as a monster, a cannibal, a thief, a usurper, as if you were better, as if your own footsteps were not steeped in blood. I have done terrible things, yes, for a greater vision, for a greater purpose. What purpose your crimes, just as bloody, just as awful, for no greater service than the trivialities of the moment. Which of us is the more worthy!”
“You play act at life, girl, and let other people die for it. Do you want to know what's real, do you want to know what destiny is, what the future is?”
“I'll tell you:” His eyes burned into me, and he paused for a second, licking his lips.
“I'm going to win. Az-Lium will be destroyed, its treasures finally put to use, its people slaves in a hundred cities, in a generation, the Orovars will be extinct again. It is no more and no less than they deserve. The Orgus will be exterminated. The rebellions will be crushed. Shiaze will fall. Then Parth, and Dukor, and Toonol and so on. I win, I have won, I will win. Wherever I go, I shall triumph. Whatever I see, I will conquer. I cannot be stopped.”
“You speak of murdering your own people,” I cried out, horrified..
“The Orovars aren't my people! They had their chance. They failed me, they don't deserve me. For ten thousand years, they've hidden away as ghosts in their own refuge. They're shades, hollow reflections of what they once were, of what I am. You think this red and green scum would fill the world if the Orovars had been worthy.? To hell with them.”
“To hell with all of them. This whole world is nothing but cattle, waiting for me to slaughter them. I'm sure you've come to realize that, with your red friends and your Orgus friends, you've thrown enough of them in front of harm to save your skin. Cringing, whining, subhumans. Tedious nobodies. I'd strangle them all, if I could, vermin, maggots crawling over the ski n of a dying world.”
I'd backed up, unconsciously, as he advanced upon me.
“And so, we come to you. I'd had hopes in you,” he said, “someone worthy, someone equal, or at least intriguing. You're just another maggot, another mindless crawler.”
“But,” he said, “a little smarter than most, I'll grant that. A little more initiative, a little more cleverness, a bit of something. In your empty, vapid, mindless way, you have a certain... quality... I find mildly... interesting.”
I'd backed up against the wall. He was standing very close over me. His breath was hot on my neck. My heart was pounding.
“I will make you an offer. Spread your legs for me, serve me, kneel at my command. You've built quite a reputation, undeserved of course, but formidable nevertheless. Submit to me, put that reputation to my service, help me set your followers in the chains the deserve, the graves they've earned. I will make you my concubine, for all to see, if you serve and submit willingly. Pledge yourself to me, abandon your rabble, betray them, tame them, destroy them. What are they to you? You can rule as a Queen at my side, I can give you the world.”
He licked me. My legs felt weak, my stomach was full of butterflies. My mouth was dry, and I found it hard to focus my gaze, looking everywhere but at him.
“Or refuse,” he continued, “and I'll simply rape you, and then give you to the worst of my men to rape and torture and breed with beasts in the streets until you are dead.”
Panting, trying to control my breathing, to steady my pounding heart, I forced myself to look into his mad, staring eyes. I licked my lips.
“I'm sorry, is there a difference?” I asked.
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