Read an Excerpt
A Man Of His Word: Book Three
By Dave Duncan
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1991 D.J. Duncan
All rights reserved.
Favor the deceit
In all the Impire, there was no more prosperous province than the island of Kith. Ever since its conquest in the expansive days of the Xth Dynasty, it had been the imps' main bastion in the Summer Seas.
It had rich mines, fertile farmland, and a substantial shipping industry. Once in a while a typhoon would do some damage, or dragons might lay waste along the northeast shore, but neither had troubled the western coast in centuries, and there the city of Finrain was the largest and richest on the island, as well as the greatest port.
Ports needed sailors. The best sailors were jotnar. Imps had good reason to be jumpy when there were jotnar around, and they firmly encouraged the sailors who manned Finrain's shipping to make their homes at Durthing, a couple of hours to the south—close enough to be handy, but distant enough that their violent impulses could do no damage to Finrain itself, nor its citizens.
Durthing was home also to a few trolls, most of them descendants of slaves imported from the Mosweeps, because the aboriginal population had pretty much died out after the Impire came. There were also some mixed bloods, and of course gnomes to handle the sanitary arrangements. There were even a few imps, but any imp who chose to live in a jotunnish settlement must have very good reasons, of the sort that were better not discussed.
Lately, a young sailor of mixed faun-jotunn ancestry had taken up residence. Although he had been a thrall purchased at enormous expense by Gathmor, the new master of Stormdancer, he had subsequently been given his freedom. Within limits. His shipmates did not exactly take turns at keeping an eye on him, but ... Well, he was a good kid and never lacked for company. He had shown no interest in departing, anyway, but he was much too valuable to be allowed the opportunity. Moreover, there was only one land road out of Durthing, and it ran by a post of the Imperial army. Imps were notoriously nosy.
Its fondest resident could not have called Durthing a town, and barely even a village, for its huts and hovels were scattered at random around the sides of a shallow, bowl-shaped hollow. The only break in the bowl's symmetry was a notch where the sea had broken through, back before the oldest Gods. With clear, calm water and smooth sand for beaching, the near-circular bay was one of the finest harbors in all of Pandemia. Three little streams watered the slopes, the sea teemed with fish, and the climate was perfect. Usually a dozen ships lay anchored there, or pulled up on the beach, and most often two or three more were under construction.
There was no formal land law in Durthing, for there was no formal law at all. The sea was a demanding mistress and whenever she stole a lover from his family, his home was soon abandoned to weeds and swallowed up by scrubby woodland.
A woman bereft must find herself another protector at once, and her children likely died soon anyway. Even among jotnar, few men would actually kill a child in cold blood, but even fewer would care overmuch for brats spawned by a predecessor. The work was done by neglect and indifference, or in mindless drunken rages. A widow who did not find another guardian was soon driven out by the other women and vanished into the nightmare slums of Finrain.
But in every evil there was some good, as the priests said, and housing was thus no problem for a newcomer. He might pick a pleasant spot not too far from one of the streams and build the home of his dreams, or he could just move into one of the empties. The selection was wide: impish wooden shacks, or low, dark sod hovels of the Nordland type favored by jotnar, or the rambling piles of masonry constructed by trolls. There were also some abandoned gnome burrows, but even the rats shunned those.
The faun had selected an ancient log cabin off by itself, and labored to make it shipshape while he settled down to life as a sailor. After every voyage he added more improvements. The months slipped by imperceptibly in that silken halcyon climate, and spring had become summer already.
Far to the east, under a harsher sun, the caravan road from the great port of Ullacarn ran eastward through the foothills of the Progistes before swinging north to branch and divide and become a seine of paths into the Central Desert. Squeezed between sand and mountains, the single way was known to the merchants as the Gauntlet. Their guards called it the Slaughterhouse. In some places the road was so constricted that drivers heading seaward could shout insults or greetings to those bound for the interior, while the bells on their respective camels rang in rondelet together. Many trader trains came through there, but not as many as tried, for banditry was the main source of employment in the district. The names of the passes told the tale: Bone Pass, Bodkin's Eye, One Out, Bloody Spring, High Death, Low Death, Buzzard's Gizzard, and Eight Men Dead.
Additional guards could be hired at either end of the Gauntlet, but they might not be of authentic royal blood. The genuine lionslayers distrusted them utterly, and with good reason.
After many weeks of trekking across the wastes of Zark, the caravan led by the venerable Sheik Elkarath had come at last to the Gauntlet. A few dangerous days ahead lay the fair city of Ullacarn, representing rest, profit, and well-earned comfort. The camels that had borne necessities to the humble folk of the interior—shovels and mattocks of tough dwarvish steel, cunning elvish dyestuffs, strong linen thread—were laden now with produce that the rest of Pandemia would greet as luxuries: wool of mountain goats and bright rugs woven from it, uncut emeralds, and durable garments of leather or camel hair, crafted by humble, hungry folk, whose only resource was unlimited time.
Many times in a long life, the sheik had traversed the Gauntlet. He had met violence there on occasion, yet he had never suffered loss of man or substance. If pressed to explain his remarkable good fortune, he would merely smile cryptically into his snowy beard and speak of vigilance and devotion to the precepts of holy writ. This time, he was confident, his passage would be similarly untroubled. This time his party was no larger nor richer than it had been in the past.
Portly and dignified, Sheik Elkarath rode high on his camel, serenely surveying the sun-blasted rocky landscape from under his snowbank brows as he led his long train down to the Oasis of Tall Cranes. Here he was in the very center of the Gauntlet, the most dangerous stretch of all. The barren crags around him concealed a dozen dark ravines that only the locals knew, any one of which might hold a band of armed brigands lying in wait. The jagged peaks of the Progistes pressed close along the northwestern skyline.
The tiny settlement in the valley below comprised a few dozen adobe houses, a welcome pond of clear water, and a hundred or so gangly palm trees. It owned no mines and grew no crops of any substance. Yet the people of Tall Cranes were well fed and prosperous. Their paddocks held many fine camels. Among other peoples, all djinns had a reputation for perfidy, but within Zark itself, the inhabitants of Tall Cranes were notorious.
From long experience, Sheik Elkarath anticipated a productive evening of trading. Always he brought gold to Tall Cranes, because the elders would accept nothing less for the jewels and crafts and livestock they offered. To inquire into the source of their wealth would have been grossly discourteous and insanely rash.
Behind the sheik, tall in the saddle, rode his chief guard. By the ancient tradition of the camel roads, he was referred to always as First Lionslayer. In his case the anonymity was especially valuable, because that spectacular young man was Sultan Azak of Arakkaran, literally worth a king's ransom. Much farther back in the caravan, the young woman professing to be his wife was Queen Inosolan of Krasnegar. She, however, would be worth nothing to the average kidnapper, except brief carnal satisfaction. To the wardens, the four occult guardians of the world, she was apparently worth considerably more.
But Sheik Elkarath would not be speaking of magic, or politics, during his visit to the Oasis of Tall Cranes.
Ogi called out, "Shipmate ahoy!" as he drew near to the faun's cabin. The sun had only just set and he was quite visible as he came through the low shrubs and spindly trees, but life in a jotunn settlement like Durthing made caution second nature to a man—startle a jotunn and he might kill first and apologize later. Some would not apologize even then.
The hammering ceased, and a moment later Rap's face appeared in the window, a homely face below a mop of brown hair like a tangle of dry ferns. He wiped his forehead with a bare arm.
"Got some carp," Ogi yelled, holding them up. "And wine!"
"Wine? What's the occasion?"
"Just thought a working man might like a break."
The faun smiled his usual diffident little smile. "Great!" he shouted, and disappeared.
Ogi headed over to the fire pit and was pleased to discover a few live embers remaining. He added some twigs and blew up a flame. Then he settled on a boulder and made certain that the wine had survived the journey unharmed.
A gray bird flew in to perch on a twig and eye him with deep suspicion. There were rocks enough to seat at least a dozen more people, so whoever had built it must have had a large family ... no, the shack was small, so he'd just enjoyed throwing big parties. It was a pleasant spot, though, set in a little dell and sheltered from the tropic sun by a couple of half-decent trees—in Durthing any worthwhile timber soon vanished into cooking fires—but too far from a spring to be a prime location; more private than most.
In a few minutes Rap came wandering out, pulling on a shirt. He was still comically modest about clothing, considering the complete absence of privacy in a sailor's working life, but a good lad, steady beyond his years. In appearance he was pretty much straight faun, except for his hair and his size, and he had a faun's disinclination to conform to social pressures. Like being cleanshaven, for instance. He was the only man on Stormdancer not trying to grow a floorbrush mustache like Gathmor's. He was also the only man in Durthing who wore long pants all the time. Ogi often wondered whether that was just another of his odd ideas about propriety, or if he was touchy about his faun legs.
There were a lot of things about him that puzzled Ogi.
Already the fire was crackling nicely. Ogi began peeling onions. Rap settled on the next boulder, wiping his forehead again.
"Working too hard! Meant to go for a swim." He hefted the wine jar and tilted his head for a long, hard swig—which was a pleasant surprise to the imp. Maybe getting him drunk tonight wouldn't be the swine of a job they'd expected.
Rap lowered the flask with a gasp. "I'll go later."
"Hey, swimming in the dark ... All right, smarty, you needn't smirk like that!" Ogi did not usually cluck like a mother hen, but young Rap was a newcomer to swimming. "So it's not dangerous for you—but don't go too soon after you've eaten, okay?" In any case, certain parties had plans for this sailor's evening, and swimming was not among them. He'd get to those later. "How's the builder doing?"
"Come and see?" Rap asked shyly. He jumped up and led the way over to the little hovel he now called home. It was a lot more homelike than it had been two months before, and he proudly displayed his latest achievement, a shutter for the window. It would keep rain out, if not wind. He had no furniture yet except a hammock and a chair, although Ogi had often offered to lend him some money to get settled in. At suitable interest rates, of course.
As always, Ogi wondered why a faun-jotunn hybrid had chosen an impish shack. In their homeland of Sysanasso, fauns lived in flimsy huts of wicker and thatch, and yet Rap had selected an ancient log cabin, built by some long-lost imp in this lonely dell. He had seemed surprised that his choice would surprise anyone, muttering something about his hometown being impish even if he wasn't. To have picked somewhere less isolated would have seemed more friendly.
He had fixed the roof and made the place quite astonishingly clean. Ogi viewed, admired, and complimented. Then they headed back to the fire pit and the wine.
Ogi proposed a few toasts, and got some more of the wine into the kid that way. Then he pulled out the day's catch and set to work cleaning them.
"Arrivals?" Rap muttered, peering over his head, apparently at the stringy trees.
"One of them's likely Petrel. She's due. Don't know the other."
Ships arriving were always of interest, but the juvenile forest around Rap's cabin blocked a clear view of the harbor. He, of course, could see through anything, but either the ships were still out of his range or he just didn't care much. He sat down again and stared at the flickering flames in silence.
The swift tropical dark was settling in all around, and the birdcalls were fading away. Bright smoke and sparks and crackling fire ... oversexed crickets racketing already ... It was a pleasant night.
As Ogi cut off the fish heads, he tossed them over his shoulder for dogs or gnomes to find. Likewise, when he slit the bellies, he scraped out the guts on the dirt behind him. Quite likely there would be a gnome child or two hovering nearby already, drawn by the fire.
"Something wrong?" Ogi asked.
Rap had been staring fixedly at the flames. He smiled faintly and shrugged. "Nothing you can help with."
"Please yourself. But if you want to talk it out to a friend, I'm available. And despite what you may have been told ever since you were weaned, some imps can keep secrets."
That brought the little smile again, briefly, and Ogi realized that the wide faun mouth almost never smiled more than that.
"It's just that I'm not finding it easy settling down here."
Yes, that was very odd.
"Durthing's not perfect," Ogi said loyally, "but there's nowhere much better. You've gotten yourself a pretty fair house there for just the cost of a few days' work, and there's a very wide selection of girls. I know of lots who'd be willing to help you fill it with babies."
"You get used to the little pests," Ogi said complacently. Uala had two now and another on the way already. Perhaps twins, the way she was bulging. "At times they're quite lovable.
Don't quote me."
Rap went back to staring at flames.
There was a mystery even about the way the kid had gotten to Faerie in the first place, and it probably involved magic. Ogi was enough of a sailor to dislike talking about that. Still, it was curious.
"A girl, was it?" he asked softly. "Or a dream?"
"A girl," Rap told the fire, "but not the way you mean."
"Son, I've tried every way there is," Ogi said nostalgically.
Rap wrinkled his wide faun nose. "A promise, then."
"What sort of promise?"
Rap shot him a brief, cryptic glance. "A crazy one." He took another swallow from the wine jar and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. "I don't really want to be a sailor. There's the nub."
He wasn't going to be very popular if Gathmor heard him talking like that. Or any jotunn, for that matter.
"Then you're fooling all of us, buddy. There was talk you might be made coxswain's mate when Larg got promoted."
Rap snorted disbelievingly and went back to leaning elbows on knees. He'd rowed to Faerie and back three times now. Men grew fast at his age, and he had a rower's shoulders already. He was going to need those tonight—for a moment Ogi felt a gloating touch of avarice. Lovely gold! Then he wet a finger and flipped a drop of spit at the griddle. It hissed and danced satisfactorily. He threw on the onions and began buttering the fish with his dagger.
"Gathmor said he paid forty-six imperials for me and the goblin," Rap murmured. "If I save all I can, how long would it take me to pay it off?"
"With interest, about thirty-nine hundred years."
"Oh—that soon, you think?"
"Be realistic, Rap! If you were Gathmor, would you let you go? Your farsight's beyond any price to him. He loves his ship, he's responsible for his crew—he isn't going to let you go."
Excerpted from Perilous Seas by Dave Duncan. Copyright © 1991 D.J. Duncan. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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