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TILE FOUNDRY, YARIM PAAR, PROVINCE OF YARIM
Just as rivers flowed inevitably to the sea, in Yarim Paar all knowledge, public and hidden, all secrets, made their way, sooner or later, to the ear of Esten.
And Slith knew it.
Whether the secret was uncovered in the bright, unyielding sun of Yarim Paar that baked the red-brown clay of the crumbling northern city to steaming in summer, or in the dark, cool alleyways of the Market of Thieves, the opulently decadent bazaar in which trade, both exotic and sinister, flourished at all hours of the night and day, Esten would eventually hear of it.
It was as unavoidable as death.
And since death could come from standing in the way of such information, it was usually better to be the bearer of the secret to Esten than the one who might be perceived as trying to hide it from her.
Though not always.
Slith glanced up nervously. The journeyman who was overseeing his work and that of the other apprentices was stretching out in the shadows of the large, open kilns, seeking relief from the blasting heat, paying the boys no mind. Bonnard was a corpulent man, a skilled ceramicist whose touch with tile nippers and mosaic tesserae was unrivaled, but he was not much of an overseer. Slith exhaled, and cautiously reached into the greenware jar on the lower shelf again.
What he had found was still there where he had seen it yesterday, wedged at an angle in the unfired clay at the bottom of the urn.
Another backward glance reassured him that Bonnard's attention was otherwise engaged. With a smooth movement, in the attempt to avoid the notice of the other lads stoking the dung fires and stirring the slip, Slith plucked the clay container from the shelf and tucked it quickly under his arm, then made his way out the back door of the tile foundry to the privies beyond.
Slith had long been accustomed to the stench of waste that stepped him each time he drew the rotten burlap curtain open; he ducked inside and pulled it closed carefully. Then, with moist hands that trembled slightly, he reached gingerly into the open mouth of the vessel again. With a firm tug he pulled out its contents and held it up to the light of the rising moon that leaked in through the gaps in the privy curtain.
A blue-black gleam stung his eyes in the dark.
With great care Slith turned the circular disk, thin as a butterfly's wing, to the side, catching the moonlight that ran in ripples off its pristinely balanced rim. The outer edge was razor sharp--Slith had shaved several layers of skin from the back of his hand the previous day when he reached, entirely by accident, into the greenware jar while moving the older urns waiting to be fired from the dusty storage room to the kiln area.
He would probably have limited his curiosity to the curse he had muttered under his breath and assumed that the odd metal disk was an unfamiliar scraping tool of some sort, except for the dark, tacky shadow that marred its surface. Slith's hand shook as he turned the disk over.
It was still there.
The shadow of blood, long dried.
A memory flooded Slith's mind. Three years before, he and the other first-year apprentices had been jostled awake in the dead of night by bells ringing frantically deep within the foundry. He and his fellow novices in the art of tile-making had crept out to see what the emergency was, only to be shoved roughly aside by the journeymen hurrying to respond to the alarm. What they all had found when they came into the kiln areas had kept him awake every night for months afterward.
The huge vats of boiling slip had been upended from their fires, spilling a sea of hot, molten earth in lumpy waves throughout the vast foundry. Three of the apprentices who had been working the late shift tending the slip and kiln fires had vanished, though one was later located, under a hill of cooling slip, drowned in the wet clay. The bodies of the other two, Omet, a bald-pated fifth-year apprentice whom Slith had liked, and Vincane, a brutish boy with a penchant for cruel pranks, were never found. A dozen or so journeymen were also missing.
But, worst by far, the alcove that led down to the tunnel where the slave boys were clandestinely digging had filled with boiling slip and somehow been fired, baking it to an impenetrable ceramic wall.
The night of the calamity was only the second time in his life that Slith had laid eyes on Esten, the foundry's owner and Mistress of the Raven's Guild, the trade association of ceramicists, tilemakers, glassblowers, and other artisans that was the cover for the most brutal and nefarious ring of thieves in the Market.
The first time had been the day he had been apprenticed to her in the tile foundry. Even though her face was darkly beautiful, her physical form slight, and her smile glittering, there was such menace, such inherent threat in her aspect, in the way she moved through the air, that Slith, then nine years of age, had begun quaking uncontrollably when he was brought into her presence. Esten had looked him up and down like a hog she was considering purchasing, then nodded and waved a dismissive hand. He was bound over, the papers signed, his life no longer his own, if it ever really had been. From that moment on, there had been no real abatement to the fear that was born in him that night.
But it was able to grow.
The night of the accident he had seen Esten for the second time. The cool, detached demeanor he had observed on the day he was bound over in her service was gone, replaced by an anger so complete that it seemed to call thunder from the sky above. Slith tried to put the image out of his mind of Esten stalking purposefully around the mounds of cooling slip, breaking suddenly into sharp, lunging movements, kicking the dim firecoals, slamming the open doors of the cold kilns shut, pulling over shelves of bisque pots and racks of fired tiles in explosions of black rage. The remaining journeymen winced at her cobra-like eruptions of fury, but grew even more agitated as that fury cooled to a seething, contemplative concentration.
Finally, after staring at the disaster for more than an hour, still as death, Esten turned around and leveled a chilling gaze at the assembled men and boys.
"This was not an accident," she said softly, with a deliberateness that froze Slith's spine. The faces of the journeymen, lit only by the dying embers of the slip fires, went paler at her words.
It was unnecessary for hereto add the thought that followed.
Yet three years later, as far as Slith knew, there had been no clues found, no answers to the riddle of that night.
Life in the tile foundry was even more restricted now than it had been before. Prior to the accident, everyone was on alert because of the highly sensitive nature of the operations taking place in the tunnels below the foundry. Now the pressure came from the unresolved question of who had been suicidal enough to dare to disrupt Esten's secretive digging, would be reckless enough to destroy something so important to her. Whether the answer would eventually point to a clever and powerful adversary, or an extremely lucky fool, mattered little.
Because, inevitably, like rivers to the sea, all secrets made their way, sooner or later, to the ear of Esten.
And Slith had just found one.
the cauldron, ylorc
The fire on the mammoth hearth in the council chamber behind the throne room crackled and blazed with smoldering anger, neatly matching the mood of the Firbolg king.
Achmed the Snake, the Glowering Eye, the Earth Swallower, the Merciless, and owner of a host of other fear-invoking titles bestowed upon him in both honor and fear by his Bolg subjects, leaned forward in his heavy wooden chair and tossed a handful of broken shards of glass into the fire's maw, muttering ugly Bolgish curses under his breath. The long fingers of his thin hands interlaced in a viselike lock, coming to rest against the lower half of his face, veiled, as always, in black cloth, as his mismatched eyes, one light, one dark, stared in savage silence into the fire.
Omet ran a hand absently over his beard and leaned back against the wall, but said nothing. He had always been given to judicious observation, rather man helpful interjection, and had learned almost from the moment he came to live in Ylorc three years ago that when the king had finished aligning the innumerable thoughts, images, plans, counterplans, and impressions that his vibrationally sensitive physiology was routinely bombarded with, he would speak.
Any disturbance to the sorting process was generally not appreciated.
Unlike his fellow artisans, many of them Bolg, Omet was comfortable with silence. After many long minutes of watching them shift uncomfortably from foot to foot, or sweat nervously in the presence of the Bolg king, he stretched, then leaned forward and picked up the last remaining shard from among the glass splinters on the floor, ran it in between his forefinger and thumb, then held it up to the firelight himself.
The king is right, he thought. Too thick.
When the king finally lowered his folded hands from where they rested against his upper lip to beneath his chin, Omet stood up noticeably. He had become quite good at recognizing the subtle signs that signaled changes in the Bolg monarch's mood, and he tried to pass them along discreetly to his fellows. He cleared his throat slightly.
"Too much feldspar," Omet said.
The Bolg king blinked but didn't say anything.
Shaene, a big, brawny ceramicist from Canderre, leaned forward, picking fretfully at his leather apron.
"Gold smalti?" he asked apprehensively.
The Bolg king's head did not move, but the mismatched eyes shifted to Omet. Omet shook his head.
Shaene snorted impatiently. "Vitreous glass then. What do you say, Sandy?"
Omet exhaled deeply. "Not strong enough."
"Peh!" Shaene growled, tossing his acid-stained leather glove down on the enormous table. The muscles of King Achmed's back tensed.
The room went suddenly still.
Rhur, a Firbolg mason, the only other man in the room besides Omet whose brow was still dry, met his glance. "What then?" he said, his voice marred by the harsh whistle that characterized the language of his people.
Omet's dark eyes went from Shaene to Rhur, then finally to the Firbolg king.
"We can no longer experiment like this," he said simply. "We need a stained-glass artisan. A sealed master."
King Achmed kept his back to the ceramicist long enough for Omet to count ten beats of his own heart. Then, without a word, he rose from his chair and left the room, making not even a whisper of sound, or disturbing a current of air in his passing.
When Omet guessed that the Firbolg king was well out of earshot, he turned to Shaene.
"Master Shaene, my family was originally from Canderre, so our mothers may have been friends in childhood," he said evenly, using the tone in which a lad of not-yet-eighteen summers could address an older man without requiring confrontation. "In honor of that possible friendship, perhaps you could refrain from striking the flint of the king's patience with the steel of your foolhardiness when I am the one standing closest to him."
* * *
As he traversed the dark hallways hollowed into the mountain, soon to be brightened by torchlight, Achmed suddenly felt the need for air.
Following the main causeway of the Cauldron, his seat of power within the mountains, past clusters of Bolg soldiers and workers who nodded deferentially as he passed, he stopped long enough to step into one of the viewing stands that looked out over the cavernous capital city of Canrif, now in its fourth year of renovation.
A warm updraft carrying a cacophony of noise and vibration from the rebuilding that was taking place below slapped against his hands and forehead, and swept over his eyes, the only places on his body not shielded by veiling. His skin-web, the network of sensitive veins and exposed nerve endings bequeathed to him by his mother's Dhracian blood, could feel the disturbance anyway, even swathed as it was in cloth, muted. It was an irritation, a constant stream of stimulation that the Bolg king had learned to live with a lifetime before.
When he had first come to this place, four years ago, the vast cavern below his feet and towering above his head was the sepulcher of a dead city, silently rotting in the stale air long trapped within the mountain. Within its broken hallways, along its desolate streets roved clans of Firbolg, demi-humans who had overrun Canrif at the end of the Cymrian War and now walked its crumbling tunnels, oblivious of the glory that had once been.
A thousand years before it had been a masterpiece of architecture and a paean to ingenuity, carved into the belly of the Teeth by the design and sheer will of Gwylliam the Visionary, the only other man ever to claim the title of king within this forbidding range of jagged mountains.
It was well on its way to becoming that masterpiece again.
Four years of focused attention from thousands of Firbolg workers, as well as the costly and limited guidance of expert artisans from outside Ylorc, as the Bolg called this land, had reclaimed almost half of the city, restoring it to the model of art and efficiency it once had been. The ancient culture that had built the place, naming it Canrif, might not have understood the priorities the Bolg king had employed in the restoration; though Gwylliam would have agreed with Achmed's emphasis on reinforcing the defenses and infrastructure, he might have found the king's penchant for adding tusks and other Firbolg features to ancient Cymrian statues more than a bit perplexing.
The tumult below him dimmed slightly; Achmed looked down to see a section of the massive city below the viewing stand motionless in the midst of all the movement. The workers who were hauling loads of stone, tiling roofs, laying bricks, and a thousand other tasks in the reconstruction of Canrif stood stock-still, staring up at him from below. The paralysis was spreading in waves as more and more of the Bolg saw him up in the reviewing stand, halting in their tracks.
Quickly he withdrew from the stand and hurried down the corridor, feeling the waves of motion resume a moment later, dissipating in long ripples of vibration.
A cleaner wind caught his nostrils as he neared the opening of the tunnel. As he stepped out onto the rocky ledge, the cool air of the open world whisked around him, tugging at the edges of his veils and robes, carrying with it different vibrational patterns, scents of campfires burning, sounds of distant troop movement in the canyon beyond.
Achmed walked to the end of the ledge and stared down. A thousand feet below in the dry river canyon the watch was changing, the troops doubling with the coming of night. Torchfires flickered in thin streams of light, twisting on the canyon floor like fiery serpents as the lines of soldiers ran their evening drills. He could hear snippets of the cadence being called when the wind favored it.
Satisfied, he turned his gaze skyward. The firmament holding the heavens in place had blackened patchily, with blue clouds smudging the panorama of stars that winked in the night wind.
He stared beyond the darkened rim where the canyon turned southeast; then he took down the veil and closed his eyes, letting the wind rush freely over his face and neck, bristling against the veins of his skin-web. He opened his mouth, and let the breeze fill it.
In his mind he sought a heartbeat, a distant rhythm on the wind. It was his blood-gift to be able to match his own to those ancient rhythms born in the same land as he had been born, the lost Island of Serendair, silent beneath the waves of the sea a thousand years again by half. A gift now shared only with a few thousand other living souls, all ancient beyond years, caught at whatever age they had been when they left the Island, frozen forever in time.
He quickly caught the heartbeat he was seeking, felt his pulse slow slightly and beat in the great, voluminous tympani of his oldest friend. Achmed exhaled; the nightly ritual brought him something akin to relief.
Grunthor lives, he thought, satisfied as always. Good.
He turned and sought another rhythm on the wind, a lighter, quicker one, more difficult to find, yet still unconsciously familiar. He knew it as well as his own; he was bound to its owner, bound by history, by friendship, by prophecy, by oath.
He caught this one quickly as well, far away, past the Teeth and the seemingly endless Krevensfield Plain that lay beyond, over the rolling hills of Roland, almost to the sea. It was there, flickering in the distance, like a comforting song, the ticking of a clock, the ripples in a stream.
Achmed exhaled again. Good night, Rhapsody, he thought.
He sensed Omet's presence even before his polite cough sounded, and waited until the tile artisan had come up to his side, continuing to stare down into the canyon.
Omet stared down into it as well.
"Quiet night," he observed.
Achmed nodded. "Are the last deliveries in yet?"
"Yes." Omet handed the king a leather pouch, then shook his head as the wind caught his hair, blowing it into his eyes. It had finally gained the length to do so again, after he had shaved it off while apprenticed to the tile ovens of Yarim, and their dark mistress. The thought made him shudder involuntarily. He stood quietly as the Bolg king leafed through the messages from the aviary. Achmed's system of messenger birds was as reliable as the rising and setting of the sun.
"Nothing from Canderre yet," the king said, turning the small slips of vellum over one by one, holding on to one in particular.
Omet nodded. "Francis Pratt, their ambassador, has been in ill health, I hear."
Omet chuckled. "Yes."
"Then Pratt's probably in a brothel bedding half of Canderre. Shaene is more consistently wrong than any form of life I have ever encountered." He kicked a pebble into the canyon, knowing he would never hear its impact. "Pratt's probably had trouble finding an artisan in the western provinces."
"Probably." The word came out lightly, but the night wind caught it and held on to it, adding weight, leaving it hanging in the air above the ledge.
The Bolg king turned the remaining piece of paper over in his hand. "If Pratt can't find us one in Canderre who can be trusted, perhaps there is one in Sorbold. Or we can send across the sea for one from Manosse."
Omet let his breath out as lightly as he could. "We could take our chances in Yarim. The best are there."
Finally the Bolg king turned, leveling his mismatched gaze at Omet, and smiled slightly.
"Well, it's interesting you should mention Yarim," he said, "because there is a message here from Rhapsody. She wants Grunthor, you, and me to meet her there two fortnights from today." He chuckled at the look of shock on the young man's face.
"I'll be happy to stay behind and look after the works while you and the Sergeant are gone," he said hastily when he recovered the use of his tongue.
"I thought you might see it that way," Achmed said. "So if you'd rather, you can stay here with Rhur and the Bolg artisans, and that idiot Shaene, listening to him call you Sandy."
Omet sighed. "I can endure that, I suppose. Better than the alternative."
Achmed nodded. "If you say so. Me, I would take any chance I could to spare myself from Shaene." He pulled the veiling back over his lower face, made one more check of the mountain walls, the canyon, and the Blasted Heath beyond, then turned and strode back down the causeway into the depths of the Cauldron again.
On his way to his bedchamber, he stopped in the smithy, where Gwylliam's ancient forges, refitted now with his own accoutrements, blazed through the night, turning out steel for weapons and tools, armor and architecture. Three thousand Bolg toiled through each shift in the blinding light and heat, adding to the strength of the mountain with every pull of the bellows, every clang of the hammer.
The Bolg Master of the Forge nodded to him, as he did every night at this time while Grunthor was away. The Fir-bolg king completed the Sergeant-Major's tasks quickly, checking to make certain the cull pile was not being pilfered, the smiths were not using excessive amounts of iron ore in the mix as they had a few seasons back, and that the balance of the svarda, the circular, triple-bladed throwing knives that the Bolg exported to Roland, was being attended to.
Finally, assured that the smithy was functioning properly, he bade the forgemaster good night and headed for his chambers, stopping to finger the newly minted supply of disks for his cwellan, the primary weapon he used. It was of his own design, similar to an asymmetrical crossbow, curved to employ greater recoil on the spring. Instead of firing bolts, however, it made use of thin metal disks as the ammunition, razor-sharp, three at a time, staggered, each disk forcing the previous one deeper into the wound made by the first.
He held one up for a moment to the blazing light of the forge fires burning below, smelting steel into fiery near-liquid to be beaten into an endless number of shapes. The fireshadows danced across the cwellan disk, sending waves of rippling light over the blue-black rysin-steel surface.
Suddenly weary, the Firbolg king hastened to bed.
Copyright © 2002 by Elizabeth Haydon