Masque of Death (Kormak Book Nine) (The Kormak Saga 9)

Masque of Death
William King
Typhon Press
Chapter One

S
keletons danced
in the night-darkened street. A dozen of them skipped through the torch-lit gloom, reeling and brandishing their scythes. Two played drums with human ribs. Two played flutes carved from men’s thighbones. One leapt into the air and performed a cartwheel, landed badly and fell. Mud spattered the black dye on his flesh and marred the white of the bones painted on his torso.

Masked women laughed and fluttered fans inscribed with tiny skulls in front of their faces. Little children screamed. Vendors offered trays of sweetmeats and coconut delicacies to the crowd of revellers. The smell of rot and wine and tropical flowers filled the air.

Puppeteers and costumed jongleurs mixed with the locals who had emerged at nightfall to celebrate the Masque of Death. The well-off wore elaborate funereal costumes; their faces whitened with arsenic and the hollows beneath their eyes darkened with soot. The poor showed their ribs through tattered tunics, but they laughed and sang and shouted just as lustily as their supposed betters.

Kormak took it all in with a wary gaze. He ran his hand through his grey-flecked black hair and studied the crowd for signs of any threat.

People had talked about nothing else but this festival during the final stages of the sea voyage to Terra Nova. Would they make it in time to witness the huge street party? Would the winds be favourable enough for them to get there in time to acquire a suitably spectacular costume?

In the first case, yes. In the second case, no. Despite the best efforts of the Imperial weather witch, the winds had brought the
Pride of Siderea
in on the first evening of the great bacchanal which meant there would be two days and two nights left, but no tailor would be found to stitch a costume.

Only the taverns and brothels were open, and they were doing a roaring trade. The streets around the harbour were filled with sailors fresh from the ocean-going galleons and fishermen who had spent two hard weeks hauling as much finned silver from the sea as they could, to give them the wherewithal to celebrate the feast properly. The smell of their catch mingled with the other pungent scents of the docks.

A drunk reeled from the crowd and almost blundered into Kormak. He looked up, blinked owlishly and then made to raise a hat that was no longer on his head. After an instant, he took in Kormak’s tall, grim figure and staggered away to offer the marching soldiers his wine flask.

Sergeant Terves, squat, dark-skinned and grizzled, waved him aside in a friendly manner. The man tottered to a safe distance, turned, stuck out his tongue and made an obscene movement with his hips before vanishing into the crowd.

The marines laughed. They were happy to be ashore. They knew that if things went well, these would be their final hours on duty for a day or two, and they would be free to join in the revels.

Bare-breasted, red-rouged women catcalled them and made inviting gestures. The soldiers responded with good-natured insults.

“It will get wilder as the days go on,” said Orson. The massive merchant prince beamed. White teeth glittered in his chubby face. His triple chins contracted with mirth.

Kormak suspected the fat man had been behind an attempt on his life, but no one would have guessed it to look at him. Despite the sweat beading his brow, he looked totally at ease.

Orson said, “It always starts good-natured but as the days drag, tempers fray and hangovers get worse. People start to notice that their wives and husbands and lovers have been sleeping with someone else.”

Admiral Zamara laughed good-naturedly and said, “Ah but then they have probably been doing the same themselves.” He fanned his face with his tricorn hat then ran a hand through his thick blonde hair.

“People find it easier to forgive themselves their sins than to forgive others, in my experience,” Orson said. “What do you think, Sir Kormak?”

“I think that it is going to take us longer to get to the Governor’s Palace than I expected.”

“The crowds are always thickest after midnight,” Orson said. “People starve themselves during the daylight and then gorge themselves during the night. The priests say there’s a certain symbolism in that.”

“People choose not to flaunt their sins in the light of the Holy Sun,” said Zamara.

“Aye, sin is always easier in the dark,” said Orson. “The natives say the Old Ones were more forgiving of human folly than the Holy Sun is.” He gave Kormak a sharp look to see how he was taking that particular piece of unorthodox theology.

“That would depend on the Old One,” Kormak said, “and what it considered a sin.”

“You have much more experience than such things than I,” said the merchant prince. “So I will take your word for it.”

“It might be best if you did,” said Rhiana. The merwoman glanced left and right. She was dressed like a man in tunic and trousers. A scimitar hung at her side. Her cropped ash blonde hair and her huge green eyes made her look as exotic as any of the costumed revellers. She smiled. She liked it here. Kormak supposed it reminded her of her home in the pirate city of Port Blood. There every night was like the Masque of Death albeit without the costumes.

“I, for one, am glad to see such revelry,” said Admiral Zamara. “We’ve been too much at sea and too long surrounded by death and disaster.”

That had been true almost since their first meeting. Zamara had been involved in endless strife and catastrophic adventures.

Still, he had not done so badly from it. He was still alive and their slaying of the pirate sorcerer known as the Kraken had been the making of his career. It had resulted in his promotion to Admiral and the fine new uniform he was wearing, resplendent with gold braid and the royal seal of two Sea Dragons flanking a five-pointed star.

“Terves! Clear a way for us to the Governor’s palace,” Zamara shouted. “I would get there tonight and present my credentials.”

He too was keen to join in the revelry. The women at the Governor’s court were famed for their beauty and the laxness of their morals.

“Aye, sir,” said Terves. He gave the order to march. The soldiers formed up in ranks and began to push their way inexorably through the crowd.

The streets were wide and the buildings solid. The lower floors rose well above ground level, and the stone verandahs suggested to Kormak that the road was expected to flood. The top two or three stories were of painted wood, with sloping shingled roofs. Intricately carved wooden shutters covered every window. It looked as if Siderean architecture had been adapted to local building materials. Kormak remembered the thick jungles they had seen as they approached the huge harbour of Maial.

A massive stone ziggurat loomed over the city like a volcano waiting to erupt. It had once been the temple of Xothak, an Old One, worshipped as a god by the local tribes before the Sidereans came. Now it lay abandoned, great gaping holes in its side witness to the fact that the Sunlander colonists had used it as a quarry.

A glance down an alley revealed two men humping a woman from front and back. The woman’s skirt was above her hips. The men’s breech clothes were around their ankles.

One soldier almost tripped as he watched wide-eyed. Terves bellowed at him to keep his eyes on the road.

* * *

A
s they marched
, the sounds of music and revelry became more decorous. The buildings became larger. Painted wooden walls enclosed their lawns. Ahead a mansion sprawled, built all of stone and bearing more of a resemblance to a fortress than a palace. It too was walled. The gates were thrown open to reveal a long gravel road leading up to the house. The gardens were filled with light. Lanterns hung from every tree. Musicians played atop a dais.

Here too skeletons danced, and everyone wore costumes. The clothing was fantastically elaborate. Intricately moulded masks showed the faces of demons, monsters, and angels.

All eyes turned to look as they entered. It must be unusual for someone to arrive on the night of this great feast surrounded by soldiers.

“Perhaps we should pretend this is a particularly elaborate masque, and the soldiers are our servants,” said Orson.

“It would make a good joke,” said Zamara. “But I am not sure anyone would fall for it.”

Gravel crunched beneath their feet. Kormak saw a tall woman whose face was angel-masked, gown pure white. Massive wings emerged from the shoulder of her costume. She stared at them as they entered and said something to the demon beside her. He turned and spoke to the goblin tugging at his cloak. The little fellow scampered off in search of someone.

“Our arrival has not gone unnoticed,” said Orson. He waved at the angel-woman who waved back instantly. Orson was a bear of a man instantly recognisable and clearly well known here. A score of voices hailed him and offered him drinks and asked him when he had got in.

He waited for the noise to subside then shouted, “Just this evening, on the
Pride of Siderea
. Give me ten minutes to present my compliments to His Excellency, the Governor, and I will join you before I head home to change.”

After that he fell silent, having said all he intended to say.

“They will be looking for all the latest news from home,” said Zamara.

“For most of them, this is home, Admiral,” Orson replied. “But you are right nonetheless. They will be seeking to learn what cargoes we carry and the fate of their ships that were bound for Trefal. Most of them will want to know how the markets are, and what goods will bring them the most profit on their next shipments.”

“Those are the merchants you are talking about,” said Zamara.

“I think you’ll find that everyone in Maial is a merchant, Admiral. Even our noble Governor. Ours is a very commercial society.”

Zamara’s smile was insincere. “Prince Taran himself says that the wealth of the Empire is built on commerce.”

“Prince Taran needs the taxes of the merchant class to pay for his army and his inquisitors.”

Orson’s words more than anything else convinced Kormak that they were not in Siderea anymore. No one would even have hinted at something so indelicate back in Trefal. Prince Taran’s spies were everywhere. It seemed that Terra Nova really was a new world.

Zamara missed that. Or out of diplomatic habit kept to the old respectful manner. “That is nothing less than the truth.”

“It would be nice if some of our older and more blue-blooded families acknowledged it.”

“They all will, eventually,” said Zamara. Kormak did not doubt that. He had seen the King and his formidable brother close up. If anyone could bring the noble families to heel, it was that pair.

“I feel somewhat overdressed,” said Rhiana, not failing to take notice of the tension in the air.

“No matter,” said Orson. “You look as lovely as any of the court beauties just as you are.”

She smiled sidelong at him as a tall, thin man garbed in a long black robe approached. His face was so desiccated that it resembled a skull. He acknowledged Orson with a bow and looked at the rest of them as if he expected them to produce written invitations. He paid no attention to their armed escort at all.

“May I ask as to your business here?” His voice was high-pitched and fussy. It had the accents of a scholar or a high-ranking clerk.

“I am Admiral Zamara,” said the Admiral relishing the sound of his words. “I am to report at once to the Governor. I bring papers of authorisation from the King-Emperor for Governor Aurin.”

The black-cloaked man’s manner changed immediately. “Of course, Admiral and who may I say your companions are? I recognise Goodman Waters, of course, but the others are unfamiliar to me.”

“This is the Guardian Kormak, also on the King-Emperor’s business. And this lovely lady is Rhiana, who has been shown favour by King Aemon.”

The clerk looked at Rhiana as if wondering exactly what sort of favour she had been shown. “A Guardian? On the King-Emperor’s business? I suppose it must be urgent. Come with me and I shall take you to His Excellency. You may send your soldiers to their barracks. We have quite enough here to protect ourselves.”

Zamara stared at him. “I am the Admiral of His Majesty’s fleet. I tell my troops to stand down when I choose to. Not when the Governor’s secretary tells me.”

His voice was calm but carried the lash of command. The secretary coughed and said, “Of course, sir. I meant no disrespect. I simply wished to inform you of the military situation here.”

“And you may consider me informed. Now, if you please, take me to the Governor.” Zamara turned to Terves and said, “Sergeant. Remain in attendance with our men until I return. Try to keep them from looting the Governor’s prize azaleas.”

“As you command, sir.”

The secretary led them into the house. Tapestries depicting angels and solar dragons covered the walls. Paintings of the Governor’s illustrious ancestors filled every nook and cranny. The air smelled of wine and food and incense. They passed through a large room walled with leather bound books and up a flight of stairs that led to an office. From inside the room came the sound of feminine laughter and a man’s cajoling voice.

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