Chapter 1: In which death awaits and a plot is hatched
The condemned cell stank of cats.
There were no rats and no cockroaches, for which Johannes Cabal—a necromancer of some little infamy—was grateful. But the cost of vermin control was an army of cats who crept in and out of his cell and wandered throughout the dungeons of the HarslausCastle with complete impunity. Even the cell doors had cat flaps cut into them. It was no secret that the warders had a much higher opinion of the animals than they did of the inmates. When Cabal was given his introductory tour—which took the form of beingthrown down the stairs and shouted at—he had been left in no doubt that any harm that he might cause the cats would be returned to him, plus interest.
So now he sat and waited for the authorities to find a window in their very busy schedules to execute him, and he did so covered in cat hair in a cell that countless generations of toms had proudly and extravagantly claimed as their own. Things could probablybe worse but, despite some careful thought, Cabal couldn't put his finger on how. So, instead, he considered how he had come to be in such a circumstance. Strictly, necromancy was the telling of the future by summoning up the spirits of the dead and askingthem searching questions. This, Cabal believed, was a singularly poor way of finding out anything. The dead were moderately strong on history, weak on current events, and entirely useless for discerning what was to come. They were, after all, dead. Still, thatwas the dictionary definition of necromancy.
Over the years, however, it became apparent that necromancy, necromancer, and necromantic were fine words wasted on useless definitions, and the lexicological group consciousness gently slid them over a few notches so that they now pertained to somethinginteresting—i.e., magic involving the dead. This was far more satisfying: summoning up the ghost of Aunt Matilda for an insight into next week's lottery numbers was dull; a maniac with a pointy beard unleashing an army of skeletal warriors, however, was fun.Thus, we see the evolution of a language—and a gratifying sight it is, to be sure. Johannes Cabal had no time for the Aunt Matildas of this world or the next. He fitted neatly into the newer definition of necromancer—he dealt with raising the dead (althoughskeletal warriors he left to those of a more theatrical bent). First and foremost, he considered himself a scientist embarked upon a search for a cure for a terrible disease. Death. This would seem laudable if it were not for his methods, his manner, and hisfailed experiments, the latter tending to hang around the countryside, dismaying the yokels. Even this might have been forgivable—pharmaceutical companies have done worse—if it were not for the bad reputation that the more melodramatic necromancers have giventhe profession. Skeletal warriors are all very well when they're chasing Jason and the Argonauts around on the silver screen, but when they're battering down your door . . . Well, that's a different matter altogether. So the necromancers were all besmirchedwith the same gory brush, and Cabal, who just wanted to be left to his research, found himself in a profession proscribed in the most capital terms. It was very galling. Especially when you got caught.
Cabal had been caught trying to check out a book from the library of the Krenz University. The book was in the Special Collection, and Cabal had intended the loan to be of an extended, open-ended sort of period. Anticipating resistance from the libraryauthorities, he had made the loan at half past one in the morning of a national holiday and might have got away with it, too, if it hadn't been for an enormous mastiff that patrolled the corridors and of which his contacts had unaccountably failed to warn him.When the library was reopened, they'd found Cabal pinned down by 180 pounds of overfriendly dog in the reading room, half drowned in slobber. Just out of reach was a well-travelled Gladstone bag that was found to contain an enormous handgun, a collection ofsurgical instruments, a closely written notebook, a padded case holding several sealed test tubes full of murky fluids, and the library's own demy-quarto copy of Principia Necromantica.
Nobody wanted a long, drawn-out trial. In fact, nobody who mattered wanted a trial at all, so Johannes Cabal didn't get one. He was just told that he was going to be executed and taken to Harslaus Castle. That had all been almost a month ago, and Cabalwas getting bored. He knew full well that his execution was unlikely to be any more formal than his sentencing and at any time, probably in the wee small hours, the door would thud open, he'd be manhandled off to some dark cellar, his throat would be cut, andhis twitching cadaver thrown down an oubliette. But there was nothing he could do about it, so why worry? Still, it hadn't happened yet; they were still feeding him with nearly edible food, and the more intelligent cats had long since learned to stay out ofhis cell. So why were they waiting? He had a vague and uncomfortable feeling that somebody somewhere had plans for him.
Then it happened just as he'd expected after all, in the wee small hours of the morning. He was awoken by the sound of the cell door being thrown open and, before he could recover his wits, a sack was pulled over his head and he was bundled off down thelabyrinthine corridors. He didn't try to fight; there were at least four of them, of whom even the slightest might be described as "burly." He could only stay calm, wait for any small opportunity to escape, should one arise, and hope that, if all failed, andhe was to die, the entry procedures for Hell had at least been rationalised since his last visit.
He was half dragged, half carried for a short time and then thrown into a chair. The sack was whipped off him and, as he blinked in the hard light, he caught a glimpse of a dour, portly man stropping a cutthroat razor on a leather strap. He had the presenceof mind to be impressed that such clandestine executions were so common that they seemed to have somebody employed to commit them. This sangfroid slipped slightly when brutal hands stripped him of his stinking clothes. Any complaints he might have wished tomake thus provoked were drowned when he was thrown into a tub of soapy water and belaboured with sponges. He was still coughing bubbles when he was dragged out again, held down in the chair, slapped in the face with a quantity of lather, and the portly man—gloweringfiercely—grabbed him by the throat and slashed at him with the razor.
Cabal stopped struggling immediately. The man slid his eyes sideways to look at the quantity of bristles and soap scum that hung from the blade. He twitched the razor and the scum flew in a discrete body off into the shadows, where it fell with an indistinctplap. His eyes swivelled back to regard Cabal.
"Warm for the time of year, isn't it, sir?" he grated. The razor swept in again.
Ten minutes later, Cabal—cleanly shaven, bathed, and dressed in freshly pressed clothes—regarded himself in the mirror. He stood a shade over six feet tall and, although he'd have preferred his blond hair cut back a little and the suit they'd given himwas a dark grey rather than his habitual black, he wasn't altogether displeased with his appearance. It was sober, and Cabal was a very sober man. "Not bad," he said, running his hand over his chin. "Not bad at all. You're the prison barber, then?"
"No, sir," said the man as he put his razor and strap away. "I'm the executioner. But it pays to have more than one feather in me cap. Good morning."
Cabal watched him leave with mixed feelings.
"Feeling more human, Herr Cabal?"
Cabal turned his head to look at the newcomer and instantly suspected that he'd been there the whole time, in the shadows. An educated voice. Cabal sighed inwardly—this was probably going to become political, and politics and politicians bored him immeasurably."No more than usual," he replied. "I gather I am to be released?"
"You gather incorrectly," said the newcomer, stepping into the light. He was in his late thirties, slim, moustachioed, and beautifully turned out in the uniform of a captain of the Imperial Hussars, the jacket over his shoulders, the busby tucked underhis arm. His bearing and the order hanging at his throat loudly proclaimed "landed aristocracy." He walked to the table upon which Cabal's old clothes lay, swept them to the floor, and perched on the corner. He produced a cigarette case, took one for himself,and then offered the case to Cabal. "Do you smoke, Herr Cabal?"
"Only to be antisocial," replied Cabal, making no move.
The hussar smiled, put the case away, and lit his own cigarette. "Do you know who I am?" Cabal shrugged noncommittally. "I am Count Marechal of the Emperor's own bodyguard. Yes?" Cabal had raised a finger of query.
"Perhaps it's just me being a stickler for nomenclature, but doesn't the title of 'emperor' presuppose some sort of empire? I wasn't aware that Mirkarvia has ever gained so much as an inch of land from its neighbours, excepting that business with the faultytheodolite a few years ago. And that you had to give back."
"I thought you an educated man, Herr Cabal. You've never heard of the Mirkarvian Empire and the Erzich Dynasty? You disappoint me."
"Of course I've heard of them, but that was all centuries ago. You can hardly harken back to some medieval golden age as if it happened yesterday." He looked at the count and reconsidered. "Or perhaps you can. My mistake."
The count twisted his head as if working a crick out of his neck. "Do you believe in history repeating itself? That what has passed will come again? I do. Names and faces will change, but their r_les will be the same. Wars will be fought with new weaponsand new tactics, but for the same goals and objectives."
Cabal thought it was nonsense but could see that it might be a very comforting theory to cling to for a third-rate backwater with dust on its laurels. Bearing in mind that if this interview didn't go just so he might well not live much longer, and bearingin mind, too, what a great nuisance that would be, he instead said, "I'm not a historian. I can make no comment."
"But you disagree. No matter." Something in the way he said it made Cabal think that it was a comment frequently on the count's lips, and that a lot of the people who didn't matter ended up floating out of town facedown. With an effort, he made a stabat diplomacy.
"You know my profession. I have to think in the long term. There may be something in what you say. In my own researches, I've noticed repetitive patterns developing down the centuries. But my interest is not history. I've never had the desire to analysethese patterns."
"Patterns? Patterns." The count mused for a moment. "Yes, I like that. Patterns forming through time. Destiny, as manifest as geometry. As irrefutable as pi. Yes!" His eyes gleamed oddly as he grinned and started pacing up and down, drawing fiercely onhis cigarette. "Yes!"
Cabal started to have a bad feeling about the count. In his experience, military aristocrats fell into two classes. The great majority were in the army because they liked the uniforms, were unpleasant to their batmen, spent fortunes on moustache wax, anddid it all to appeal to the sort of woman who is envious of a cavalryman's horse. A tiny minority, however, were in uniform because they had plans, military plans. And a minority of this minority actually had the wits to do something about it, too. Whateverelse Count Marechal was—mad, for instance—he was also intelligent. Thus, despite his characteristic impatience with the rest of humanity, he let Marechal pursue his train of thought to its conclusion, or at least until he ran out of cigarettes.
Marechal threw the fag end to the floor and crushed it out beneath the heel of his gleaming boot, taking its successor from the case even as he did so.
I'm at the mercy of a demented chain-smoker, thought Cabal. Oh, happy day. "Mirkarvia has plans, Herr Cabal. Great plans. The Mirkarvian Empire is not just a footnote of history. It is a blueprint for the future."
Cabal remembered what little he could about the excesses of the Mirkarvian Empire and thought this was a future only Mirkarvians could enjoy.
"In ten days' time the emperor, Antrobus II, will make an announcement to the people in Victory Square from the balcony of the palace. He will tell them that the time for living in the shadow of our neighbours is over, that foreign spies and agents willno longer be tolerated within our borders, that our climb back towards greatness starts now. At the same time, the secret police will move against known spies and their sympathisers. Their corruption of this country's spirit will cease immediately, and patriotshall work with patriot to ensure that— Am I boring you?"
Cabal finished yawning. "My apologies. My sleep was disturbed. So, you wish to turn your country into a police state and eliminate any dissent. You're not the first, and you certainly won't be the last."
"I don't care. People are cattle. Do as you will, it's your country. I'm just wondering where I fit into your plans."
"You're focussed. I like that. I respect clear thinkers. These dissident factions have poisoned the people's minds. We must act quickly or it will be too late."
"A rebellion. Civil war. Which is, of course, what our enemies want. I . . . we cannot permit that to happen. The emperor's announcement will nip these rebellious movements in the bud. The police actions will remove the possibility of their reoccurrence.Then we can get on with making destiny manifest. But there is a small problem."
Ah, thought Cabal. Now we come to the crux of it. Count Marechal looked at the ceiling for a moment, frowning slightly as he tried to couch his next words as best he could. Finally, he said, "The emperor is as dead as a doornail."
"For how long?" asked Cabal bluntly. There seemed little point in being coy, now it was plain what they wanted him to do.
"Three hours. He has been unwell for some time. We suspected the worst but hoped for the best. To no avail." His upper lip twitched savagely. "The stupid old bastard. He only had to last long enough to make the speech, and then he could have died rightthen. It would have become a crusade on the instant. 'We must fulfil the emperor's dying wish!' Yes, that would have been grand. And that"—he looked meaningfully at Cabal—"is the way it is going to be. The emperor will make his speech. Then he will die. Inthat order. Mirkarvia's future depends upon it. As does yours."