The Red King seemed permanent. He had so many waterways, and his army was so vast, so motivated by fear and malice. Some skirmishes, it seemed like the sky obeyed him, raining down hill on his foes. He was even gifted a ring by the very Devil himself that granted immortality, an everlasting contract to walk the earth and do his damnations.
It took all the High Houses, all the fleets of the world, and quite a few bribes just to turn it into a fair fight. All those war machines, and all those regimens, and the biggest port city in the world in flames. It’s funny, devilishly funny, that it only took one man to cut off the Red King’s hand. Brave Hixon, the foot soldier who would become a commander and a prime minister, lopped it off with a bayonet. I watched it fall into the surf. It looked like a diving blackbird and the ring was its eye.
His hand plummeted between sailors treading water and sharks tasting men. It made a gory morsel, and was swallowed by a thirteen-foot great white. All the maelstrom had attracted all manner of predators, and a giant squid soon snagged the shark. She remained on the upper levels of sea for all the fresh hunting, and so the squid was harpooned and netted by the victors of the Red War. In the belly of a shark, in the belly of a squid, in the hold of a privateer vessel, the ring came back to land.
The squid’s guts were sold to the High Houses that now ruled. It was part of a buffet celebrating great commanders, and one bit found its way to the plate of the most notorious defector. Without his opening the westerly gates, the High Houses never would have had their second front. He was gloating when the ring passed through his colon. It managed to pass through him entirely before he realized his bowels were not merely straining from the feast, but bleeding.
The ring travelled through the sewers as he travelled to his family crypt. There were state honors. There were rumors, too, that the Red King had cursed his betrayers. Silly talk. His remains were rotting in a second-grade tomb in a tourist backwater.
You may not know it, but sewer runoff was one of the sources of water used to mix cement for all the new High House buildings. By high misfortune, the ring was sucked into the foundations of the first free court house in the region. In its annals law was handed over to the juries, and populist justice would overturn all the evils of the Red King’s reign. For twenty-two years lawyers and summoned free peoples debated our rights, and signed quite a few dubious concessions.
Then, in the twenty-second year, anarchists bombed the city. They hit the magistrate’s mansion, two postal offices, and the court house. The memory is acrid, for that was the day Brave Hixon spoke on the steps. He was very inspirational until everything exploded. It was only part of a civil war.
Rescue workers shuttled in from around the region. Brave men and women were coughing up the dust for months afterward. Bits of the rubble got everywhere, including in-between the treads of boots. The ring travelled halfway across the continent before its shine was spotted on the bottom of one such boot. The rescue worker was trying to pry it out when his shuttle derailed. Awful mess. Probably the anarchists again.
The boot was pulled from the wreckage ten hours before its owner. Brigands showed up before aid, and they pillaged the luggage and bodies. One particular brigand absconded with four sets of boots and a designer rucksack. He didn’t even notice the embedded jewelry; he actually wore that pair of boots when he went grave robbing that night.
Grave robbing was endemic back then. With the High Houses building up the world, old and superstitious things like crypts went untended. And with all these attacks around the continent, the High Houses couldn’t be asked to care. They might even have been happy to see the Red King’s hole desecrated.
They might have been happy to see this grave robber prying open the lid of the largest sarcophagus. It was stacked on top of three other boxes. They jostled as he worried the lid. They creaked, and slumped, and one of his feet slipped. The sarcophagus came down on top of him. Crushed his skull just as the ring popped loose from his boot. It rolled up the slate floor, wobbled around his knee, then down through the broken lid. It came to rest in the Red King’s palm, for he still had one hand.