Mother of Lies
By Dave Duncan, Liz Gorisky
Tom Doherty Associates Copyright © 2007 Dave Duncan
All rights reserved.
was better known as the Mutineer. Bloodlord Stralg, the Fist of Weru, had promised years ago that he would buy the Mutineer's corpse for its weight in gold or pay six times that much for the man alive and fit enough to be tortured. The offer still stood. Any hamlet or city that gave him refuge would be razed and all its inhabitants slain — this offer was still good, too. The Mutineer was coming home, to the city of his birth, which he had not seen since his childhood. It was entirely fitting that he travel under the shadow and protection of a storm.
The storm's approach had been visible for days, for it was one of the great sea storms, born above the steamy waters of the Florengian Ocean. From there it had spun out edgeward, over coastal jungles and swamps, to wreak havoc in the Fertile Circle that made up most of the Face. Like most of its kind, it came at Celebre from the east. Day by day it rose higher over the hazy wall of the world, white at noon and black at dawn; bloodred at sunset, ruling the sky and looming above the landscape. By the time it reached the city walls its greatest violence was spent, but it could still lash with gales and drench with killer rains. It could lift roofs and fell trees, flood low areas, wash out bridges. Amid so much evil a little more would not be noticed, so the storm closed its black wings around the traveler and hid him from those who looked for him to slay him.
He splashed along the muddy track beside a small wagon laden with amphorae of wine, drawn by an ancient guanaco named Misery, whose persistent humming showed that it was, indeed, unhappy — justifiably so, although Cavotti was careful to stay on the upwind side, where he could protect the animal from flying branches and other debris. Delayed by fallen trees and swollen streams, he worried that he would not arrive before the gates closed at sunset. The day had already faded to a twilight gloom when the walls and towers of Celebre emerged from the mist, but the rules said that the gates must stay open until the curfew bell sounded, and rules were rules.
Head down, Cavotti plodded under the great archway into the narrow barbican, where the strident creak and rattle of his wheels reverberated from the walls and wind howled along the canyon, driving rain before it. This was the moment of greatest peril, when he must satisfy the guards, when the inner and outer gates could be swung shut to trap him. Sure enough, a man shouted and ran out from the guard room.
He was a skinny black-haired Florengian, a boy sporting a bronze helmet and sword, both too large for him, but he wore a baldric in the doge's colors slung across his chain-mailed chest, and the bull's horn hanging on it gave him authority. Armed or not, a mere extrinsic was no threat — Cavotti could break his neck before he even drew. Even if he blew his horn and summoned another dozen like him, the intruder would be in little danger.
"Snotty scum, the Foul One take you, dragging honest men out in this fuck'n weather!" The boy squinted into the rain. Only the most junior member of the guard would be sent out on such a day.
Cavotti hauled on Misery's cheek strap; the wagon rattled to a halt. He bowed respectfully. "May it please your honor, I am Siero of Syiso, bondman of noble Master Scarpol of Treianne, bringing produce from his estate to his palace here in Celebre, on the Piazza Colonna. And more fuck'n rain has gone down my fuck'n neck than yours, may it please your honor." All the names he mentioned were genuine, except that they did not apply to him. He kept his eyes humbly lowered.
"Pig filth!" said the boy with the sword. "What sort of produce?"
Then two more men emerged from the guard room, and the odds shifted drastically, because they were pale-skinned Vigaelians, with flaxen hair and beards cropped to stubble. They wore only leather sandals and striped cotton loincloths tied with a colored sash, but their brass collars marked them as Heroes of Weru. They moved around the wagon and out of Cavotti's view.
Awareness of the peril lurking behind him was almost enough to make Cavotti's hair stand on end. If it literally did so, it would reveal his own brass collar, and then he would die. It was to hide that collar on occasions such as this that he had let his hair and beard grow in. The collar was the reason he had timed his visit for this howling storm, as it was the only time he could reasonably wear a cloth tied over his head and a leather cloak with a high neck, instead of just the loose-draped chlamys that was young men's normal garb on the Florengian Face. The garments that disguised him made him vulnerable, for a Werist who tried to battleform with clothes on ran the risk of being entangled in them, and would certainly be distracted and hampered by them. The two near-naked ice devils could rip off their rags in an instant.
"Wine, may it please your honor," he told the boy. "The chalk marks on the bottles say that they are bound for my master's palace, not for sale." Writing might impress the guard, although he would not be able to read it any more than Cavotti could.
"Open the stinking cover, you diseased, ditch-borne progeny of a toad."
Cavotti obeyed, rain-chilled fingers fumbling with waterlogged ropes, but as he pulled back a corner, he could turn enough to take surreptitious note of the ice devils. They were just standing there, staring at him, arms folded, backs to the wind. Wearing only those wet wisps of cotton, they ought to be freezing in this deluge, but Vigaelians felt the cold less. The warriors Stralg had brought over the Edge fifteen years ago had worn massive garments called palls. Florengia's climate had taught them to wear as little as possible.
Stralg maintained a small garrison in Celebre, but his men normally left routine guard duty to the doge's Florengians. Why were these two on the gate today, and why would they bother coming out in the year's worst weather to stare at a solitary peasant?
"All of it!" shouted the boy, adding some salacious imperatives.
Cavotti unlaced more rope and the wind threw the cover up in his face, revealing that the wagon held only sealed clay jugs. But he had to fight the cover with one hand and control the guanaco with the other as Misery stamped feet and flicked ears.
"Don't go away." The swordsman helped himself to an amphora and staggered back into the guard room with it.
The Vigaelians said nothing, did nothing, just studied the imposter carter with colorless eyes. Their brown sashes denoted mere front-fang warriors. Surely their flankleader would have come in person if he thought there was the faintest chance of apprehending the infamous Mutineer? But Celebre had other gates to watch.
Very large Florengian male, twenty-eight years old, dark-skinned and dangerous — his description must be too vague to be useful. His size might give him away, but his face would not. Holy Weru had been kind to him — in ten years of battle, Cavotti had taken no serious wounds and consequently showed none of the bestial "battle hardening" most older Werists did. If the ice devils had any doubts about him, they need only demand to see his neck.
The guard emerged with another man, older and not so wet. They grabbed two more amphorae. "All right, you can go," the second man said. They departed with their prizes.
"Wait!" said the larger Werist, in a harsh accent. Leaving his companion, he began wandering around the wagon, ghostly eyes inspecting the rig. His stripes were hard to read in the gloom, but they seemed to be black, brown, and green — which meant nothing, because the invaders' horde was being so badly mauled these days that half their units were makeshift collections of survivors. His fair skin was scarred and peeling from sunburn, meaning he had only recently come over the Edge.
Cavotti suppressed mad thoughts of making conversation, professional small talk: Pardon my curiosity, swine, but have you heard about Napora yet? Me and my men butchered three sixty of your buddies there not two thirties ago. We did to your wounded what you used to do to ours.
The big Vigaelian came close, still silent. He probably did not speak or understand much Florengian; few of them did, no matter how long they had been here. Carefully watching Cavotti, he reached out and hooked a finger through the handle of yet another amphora. He lifted the bottle out at arm's length, a feat few men would be inclined to try. Cavotti displayed humble admiration, as any sensible peasant would. He would give five teeth to know what the one at his back was doing.
The big Vigaelian smiled and deliberately threw the bottle to the paving. Cavotti jumped back with a cry, clothes soaked by wine. Black eyes met pale blue. The next step in this sort of harassment was for the Vigaelian overlord to order the subhuman Florengian serf down on his knees to start licking up the wine. That would not only put him at an impossible disadvantage, it would expose the back of his neck to view. There were limits; he would rather die on his feet.
The final, fatal challenge did not come. The other Werist laughed and said something in guttural Vigaelian. The big one shrugged, spat contemptuously at the Florengian, and then they went back into the guard room, slamming the door.
Cavotti's hands were shaking as he wrestled the cover back in place, but apparently he had merely been a victim of Vigaelian humor, two bored young thugs having some fun with the oversized native. Probably they were being punished for some minor offense, required to go outside and inspect every traveler in person. So the test had been good news in disguise. If the Vigaelians had the slightest suspicion that the army of liberation was starting to move in on Celebre, these two would have made sure they saw his neck.
* * *
He was home for the first time in fifteen years, and there was no one to see him. The inhabitants had fled the storm, leaving the streets to thrashing trees, leaping torrents, and a steady sleet of roof tiles, which exploded like thunderbolts as they landed. It would be a jest of holy Cienu if the war of liberation failed now because the partisan leader got brained by falling terra cotta.
Home at last! Incredible! In all the long years of war and struggle, he had clung bitterly to the hope that one day he would return, but only recently had he truly believed it would ever happen. His dream had been to return victorious, of course, to drive a chariot along this avenue waving to tumultuous crowds cheering Cavotti the Mutineer, Cavotti the Liberator. This skulking in dark corners was a poor substitute, but it was probably what he would have to settle for. If Stralg did not destroy Celebre before the end, the Freedom Fighters might have to.
Celebre deserved its fame; it truly was the finest of them all, the Admirable City. Cavotti had been everywhere on the Florengian Face in the last ten years. He had been hunted twice around the Fertile Circle, had swum in the warm waves of Ocean, and nearly frozen to death in the airless wastes of the Altiplano. He had visited cities so ancient that they had sunk beneath the waves, and others left high and dry when the sea withdrew or rivers changed course, but most of those he had seen had recently been sacked — usually by Stralg and his horde, but every once in a while by his own side. Neither group left much more in their wake than bones and stinking ashes.
Celebre, however, was still unscathed. Celebre was still wide avenues and stately facades, shapely towers and temples, spacious colonnades, piazzas, and gardens. It had weaknesses, yes. Some of the grandiose mercantile palaces were known to be barns inside. Conversely, the central piazza was an ugly, ill-shaped hole, and the Ducal Palace looked like a gigantic outhouse because Celebrians had never approved of ostentatious rulers. Its interior, though, Cavotti remembered as a feast of beauty, a treasury of resplendent art spanning a dozen generations.
It would be a nice place to die in if things went wrong tonight.
* * *
Marno was not a sentimental man. Any romantic tendencies he might have once possessed had been beaten out of him eons ago, yet he felt pangs of nostalgia as he headed inward from Meadow Gate up Goldbeater Street. The last time he had run down this same avenue in the company of his childhood gang had been on the day the city fell.
One of his friends had owned an uncle whose house overlooked the walls, and from there the pack had planned to view the arrival of the Vigaelian monsters. Refused admission to the house, they climbed on the roof instead and from that sunbaked vantage point had watched as Doge Piero drove out with his family. They had booed when he knelt to kiss the bloodlord's feet, but had been shocked into silence when he was sent home alone, in humiliation, while the dogaressa and her children had been taken away as hostages. Cavotti had known Dantio, the eldest, who was a couple of years younger than he was, but a bearable sort of brat in spite of being heir presumptive. The children had probably been sent over the Edge to Vigaelia, as had many other hostages. The dogaressa had later been returned to her husband, but not until long after Cavotti had gone from Celebre.
* * *
Bent into the storm, the Mutineer led Misery into Pantheon Way, which in turn reminded him of the day after the fall, the day his own fate had been sealed by a powerful hand grabbing his arm in this very street. He had struggled and screamed and been well thumped for it. Marched away to the Vigaelians' camp and informed that he was to be trained to be a Hero of Weru like the ice devils, he had retorted that his father was a councillor and councillors' sons could not be treated like this. For that insolence he had been beaten. Thereafter he had sulked in angry silence within the great weeping, suffering mass of boys who had been taken — a hundred and nineteen sons of artisans and weavers and shopkeepers. There he had waited for his father to discover where he had gone and come and claim him.
Two days later his father did appear, arriving with an imposing entourage while the young victims were being drilled in calisthenics. Young Marno was duly called forward and recognized. Instead of releasing him, the Vigaelian commander ordered him tied up and flogged until his father had run all the way back to the city gate. Councillor Cavotti had not been a fast runner. And so Marno Cavotti, who had dreamed of being a great patron of the arts, become a Werist probationer, then a cadet, and finally a sworn warrior in the cult.
* * *
He had seen his parents just once after that, when he was a new-collared Werist, posted to the garrison in Umsina. They had come to visit him, but his brothers had stayed away, shunning him as a monster. His mother had wept, his father had asked penetrating questions about loyalty.
Cavotti had dropped hints about his plans. His mother had screamed at him not to; his father had smiled proudly and told him to go ahead. For that encouragement — revealed to Stralg by his seers — the bloodlord had later put the councillor to death and fined House Cavotti an incredible weight of gold. Marno doubted that his brothers had forgiven him even yet. If they learned that he was in the city, they would likely betray him to the Fist.
Just for nostalgia's sake, he led Misery along River Way and let the guanaco see the Cavotti Palace. It was not one of the really big ones, although it was not exactly small either. It probably did not impress the llamoid much, but it did remind Cavotti that life could be anything except fair.
* * *
Any city, no matter how grand its public face, must have squalid corners somewhere. The Mutineer's destination was a small and stinking courtyard behind the abattoir, where rain hissed on an ankle-deep quag of blood and mire. Even in that downpour the stench was very bad, and no one ever lingered there after the morning slaughter. Anybody who now followed him in would not be an innocent passerby.
The partisans kept no regular agents in the city, because they could not be hidden from Stralg's seers, but Cavotti had stayed in touch with a few old friends over the years, exchanging innocent messages by roundabout means, and yesterday he had sent an urgent appeal for help to a man he judged trustworthy. If his messenger did not appear at this rendezvous, both of them were as good as dead. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Mother of Lies by Dave Duncan, Liz Gorisky. Copyright © 2007 Dave Duncan. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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