New Lamps for Old
Alter S. Reiss
The beach at Foteris was the grandest resort in the kingdom of Avelar. There was a western-style arcade fifty feet from the water, fifteen restaurants, a promenade, and a wide stretch of sand, suitable for bathing. Twice every year, his majesty Othintet Athetial made a royal visit to the Foteris resort, and when he chose to take the waters, the beach was closed to less noble bathers.
That was the new rule. In the past, the guard had cleared a few square meters of beach around the royal towel and umbrella, and that had been sufficient. Now, the guard had decreed that it was simpler and safer for his majesty to have the beach to himself, and Othintet had decided not to argue the point.
Two years prior, a western tourist had broken into the palace, and had stolen some heirloom silverware, as well as the reginal portrait of Othintet’s grandfather. In Othintet’s opinion, that showed the sort of threat the royal house of Athetial faced, but in the opinion of the captain of the royal guard, it showed a grievous failure in their duties, and had caused the royal guard to become infested with the sort of eager young military men who talked about perimeters and deployments and all that.
In truth, Othintet had only given in because of the tourists. Not because he feared another tourist would steal more of his silverware, but because the tourists who came to enjoy the sights of Avelar and the beach at Foteris all seemed to have remarkably poor manners.
It was one thing for Othintet to see, and be seen by his subjects, particularly those subjects with pleasant dimples and a desire for royal attention. It was another to be gawped at beanpole Westerners, hands sticky with food or tanning lotion.
So onlookers were kept at a distance when Othintet disported himself in the waves. Swimming in the ocean was far less pleasant than in a swimming pool, and it was difficult to get the sand from the beach off of his feet without getting his feet so wet that more sand stuck to them. But his appearance was listed in the tourist guides, and the income from Foteris was worth considering.
Besides, he was fifty-eight, and only came to the beach twice a year; at most, he had to face three more visits of that sort. The Athetial kings of Avelar did not live past sixty.
The beach had been cleared of tourists, but had not been cleared of the detritus of tourists. There was a plastic flip-flop sandal embedded a few meters from his towel, not far from a pair of child-sized sunglasses, and a whiskey bottle glinted out just above the line of the surf.
The whiskey bottle annoyed him. Alcohol was legal in Avelar, which was probably a mistake. Nothing wrong with the occasional lemon cordial, but the masses would have more than that, and where he had given an inch, they’d taken a mile. Wine, yes, beer, perhaps, but stronger liquors than those were unnecessary and conducive to public disorder. He wrenched the bottle loose from the sand, looking for a wastebin.
His guards had taken the wastebin away. Anarchist youth and royal guards both seemed to have an inexplicable dislike of wastebins. And yes, it was true that his guard was now filled with military veterans, but they were veterans of Avelar’s military. Which was primarily there to parade, spend money, and occasionally help some even less solvent foreign principality that was suffering from an outbreak of typhoons or earthquakes. It seemed to Othintet that if they had closely inspected the wastebin, perhaps it might have been allowed to share the beach with him.
Royal dignity would not be particularly well-served either by wandering through the sands looking for a wastebin, or tossing the bottle he had just picked up back where he’d found it. And, honestly, it was a peculiar bottle. Square, like a whiskey bottle, but it was a heavy sort of glass, and stoppered with a cork.
He pulled the cork, and there was a man standing there in the surf. He was wearing a modern suit, no socks, no shoes, and had a pale bluish tint to his skin.
“Your majesty,” said the man, and Othintet looked over at his guards. They were a fair distance away, and watching the crowds warily. Eventually, they were bound to look at him, and there was going to be trouble.
“You are facing a difficulty, over the course of the next two years,” said the man. “I can help you with that, as well as with other things. If you—”
Othintet put the cork back in the bottle, and the man was gone.
Othintet Athetial, king of Avelar, stood on the beach on Forteris, and considered the bottle that he had picked up from the surf. If he threw it back into the surf, someone else would pick it up, and that was likely to cause trouble. Smashing the bottle… well, it was less clear what that would do. Could solve the problem, could cause worse trouble.
And the truth was, he was facing a difficulty over the course of the next two years. It was a difficulty sufficiently similar to what had just popped out of a glass bottle that he found in the surf that Othintet had no way to pretend that he was suffering from one two many lemon cordials, or sunstroke. What had happened had happened, and the bottle got wrapped in his beach-blanket, and zipped it into his bag.
One last look at the surf at Forteis, a regal nod to the customers at the arcade and restaurant, and he prepared for his return to the castle.
The ride back was eventful, as was to be expected this close to his sixtieth birthday. There was a problem with the brakes of the royal automobile, and a sinkhole near the highway. But he was only fifty-eight, and the motorcade took appropriate caution. It was not long before he was ensconced in the library, a fire in the grate and a cup of spiced lemon cordial beside him.
Rather than tackling the bottle directly, there were a few other problems that he had to deal with. One of them was a message from Casimet Athetial, eldest child of his third wife. There were seven other children ahead of Casimet in the succession, but they’d all stepped aside in his favor, preferring other pursuits, and the possibility of longer lives. Casimet had chosen the crown, and he was the heir designate, currently studying abroad.
His message was largely incomprehensible. The was a good deal concerning a young lady, as was to be expected, but there were also many muddled assurances that Othintet need not worry about all manner of things that he had not previously been aware might be concerns.
Othintet did his best to make sense of his son’s letter, and when he gave up on that, he wrote out a draft for sixty thousand crowns, and affixed is seal. The exchange rate was good, and sixty thousand crowns seemed likely to solve most of the problems Casimet was having. That, and orders to the embassy, to make certain that they had a good lawyer on retainer. It was the sort of thing one did, on behalf of a crown prince. Othintet’s father had done much the same for him, during his years of education abroad, and it had allowed him to study some extremely liberal arts.
With that concluded, he withdrew the bottle from his sand-flecked bag—the maids would doubtless complain of the treatment of the carpets—and removed the cork again. And the blue man was there again, seated in the chair opposite.
“—will but say the word,” said the man, as though he had not been interrupted, “Avelar will find itself rich in previously unsuspected resources. Or, if you prefer, a center for technological development.”
“I see,” said Othintet. “And the price?”
The blue-skinned man did not even have the grace to look embarrassed at not having mentioned that his gifts would come with a price. “One child of the royal blood from every generation,” he said. “Your current patron demands the right to kill the prince of your line, before his sixtieth birthday. I ask only for a child, in his first year of life; a much more reasonable price, I’m sure you’ll agree.”
Othintet considered. “And why make me this offer?” he said. “Why not someone else?”
The man shrugged. “You were the one who found the bottle, your majesty.”
Othintet didn’t reply. Instead, he gave the stranger the look that he would have given Casimet, had the crown prince been communicating in person, rather than through a medium that was not receptive to meaningful looks.
The man laughed. “Perhaps it wasn’t pure chance,” he said. “My predecessor—the one who has been trying to kill you, recently—has a certain authority here. It would be tricky to fight him, and it would be tricky to install a new monarch. This is simpler, for everyone. You can revoke his authority, and then I can brush him aside, like a rotten stick. If you will agree to this, you will live to a ripe old age; I guarantee it.”
Othintet put the cork back into the bottle with a single swift movement. It was necessary to consider things, and he didn’t need a dangerously smooth man in a suit to distract him from his consideration.
The bottle of spiced lemon cordial was finished, and the lamps in the library had burned down by the time he’d made his decision.
Taking the bottle with him, Othintet headed through the empty kitchens, down into the cellars. The Royal Guard had been pushing for guards within the palace, but Othintet had drawn the line there; if they could not keep hypothetical malefactors from getting into the palace, he did not trust them near him. One panicked bullet might well change the fortunes of the Athetial dynasty, and not for the better.
A staircase down from the kitchen led to the cellars, where there were wine casks and pantries and the hot-water boiler which was constantly failing. And the staircase that was hidden behind the boiler led down to a considerably darker, and dingier cellar. There was a single incandescent light bulb, and a switch, and a few discarded crates, some piles of newspaper, and a good deal of dust.
Othintet cleared one of those piles of newspapers to the side, and unlocked the safe it concealed. When his father had shown the lamp to him, it had simply been hidden beneath the newspapers. Othintet did not wish for a steward with a passion for organization to get rid of it, so he had made adjustments. The lamp was there.
There was no stopper in the lamp, and there was nothing keeping its denizen near it. But it was old, and seldom wandered far from its home.
The figure from the whiskey bottle had offered a good deal. But Othintet had been king for long enough not to be lead astray by good deals. He pulled the stopper from the bottle.
“What—” the man started, looked around him.
“You have sworn to protect the line of Athetial from all threats; here is a threat,” he said.
“I haven’t sworn anything—” the man looked around, realized what Othintet had meant, who he was talking to. “No! I would give you the world, man—I would give you your life, and—”
What Othintet had called was slow to respond to calls. But it was certain to respond, under the right circumstances.
It looked a hundred years older than the man from the bottle. Skeletal, with massive eyes, and lips receding away from gums and blackened teeth. It flew at the man, claws stretched out, and what followed was brief and bloody. On its home ground, with the authority granted and reinforced, it was stronger than any interloper could hope to be.
When it was finished, Othintet put the bottle from the beach in one of the crates, amidst some broken crockery. What had lived in it had offered him a good deal. But not a better deal than the one he had. Sixty was a good lifespan, all in all. Enough time to get things done, not so long as to dread senility and decay. And it was something he had chosen. He had chosen it, and his father had chosen it, and his son had chosen it. To give over a baby to the slaughter? No. Not a better deal, for all that it would have been better for him.
The Athetial kings of Avelar ruled cautiously, because they knew that their wellspring of power was both weak and malign. The empires of the west and the east, of the north and the south—they were all stronger than Avelar, and they had the arrogance of strength. The man in the bottle might have offered him more strength than any of those empires held. But sooner or later, everything strong met something stronger, or was torn to pieces the instant its strength failed.
Besides, riches of any sort, from gold mines or university graduates, would mean more tourists, and bigger hotels, and constant traffic in the streets. Wouldn’t suit Avelar at all. What they had was sufficient, and comfortable, and they did not need anything more. Othintet went up the stairs, confident that he had made the right choice. And testing every step before he put his full weight on it, which kept him from cracking his head open when the second step from the top gave way.
Alter S. Reiss is an archaeologist and writer who lives in Jerusalem with his wife Naomi and their son Uriel. He likes good books, bad movies, and old time radio shows.