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Laura Anne Gilman’s critically acclaimed, Nebula Award–nominated Flesh and Fire introduced a brilliantly imagined world where the grapevine—cultivated by the Vinearts who know the secrets of wine magic—holds together disparate lands. Now, confusion, violence, and terror are sweeping ...
Laura Anne Gilman’s critically acclaimed, Nebula Award–nominated Flesh and Fire introduced a brilliantly imagined world where the grapevine—cultivated by the Vinearts who know the secrets of wine magic—holds together disparate lands. Now, confusion, violence, and terror are sweeping over the Lands Vin. And four people are at the center of a storm.
Jerzy, Vineart apprentice and former slave, was sent by his master to investigate strange happenings—and found himself the target of betrayal. Now he must set out on his own journey, to find the source of the foul taint that threatens to destroy everything he holds dear. By Jerzy’s side are Ao, who lives for commerce and the art of the deal; Mahault, stoic and wise, risking death in flight from her homeland; and Kaïnam, once Named-Heir of an island principality, whose father has fallen into a magic-tangled madness that endangers them all.
These four companions will travel far from the earth and the soul of the vine, sailing along coastlines aflame with fear, confronting sea creatures summoned by darkness, and following winds imbued with malice. Their journey will take them to the very limits of the Sin Washer’s reach . . . and into a battle for the soul of the Lands Vin. For two millennia the Sin Washer’s Commandment has kept these lands in order: Those of magic shall hold no power over men and those princes of power shall hold no magic. Now, that law has given way. And a hidden force seeks the havoc of revenge.
An adventure through an unforgettable realm conjured by breathtaking imagination, Laura Anne Gilman’s saga of the Vineart War is a "dramatic, authentic, and potent" (Publishers Weekly) literary delight.
Jerzy of the House of Malech, Vineart-student and currently accused apostate under the mark of death, heaved his guts over the side of the ship and wished, not for the first time, that a wave would simply sweep him over the side and be done with it.
“Beautiful day, isn’t it?”
Ao had come up behind him while Jerzy was losing what was left of his previous evening’s dinner, and was standing by the railing, glancing out over the calm blue waters. The trader was barefoot and shirtless, his straight black hair slicked away from his round face, emphasizing the narrow, heavy-lidded eyes that, even when things were going badly, held some inner amusement—often, as this morning, at Jerzy’s expense.
Above him, the wind snapped the canvas sails and rattled the main. The air was sweet and salty; large white birds sailed overhead, calling out in harsh, high voices as they searched for breakfast in the waters below; and the sun was only just rising, turning the briny blue-green depths into a brighter aquamarine.
Jerzy would have traded it all for a miserably rainy day in the dankest room anywhere on solid land.
“I hate you,” he said, leaning against the wooden railing and wishing that his limbs would stop shaking already.
Ao laughed, but there was real sympathy in his voice. “No, you don’t,” he said. “Here.” The trader handed him a towel to wipe his mouth. The cloth was scratchy linen, air-dried and smelling of mildew and sea spray, but Jerzy barely noticed at this point. They had been at sea for ten days now, and he had been sick every single morning.
Jerzy pushed a sweat-damp lock of hair off his forehead and mopped his skin with the towel, then looked up at the dun-colored sail snapping in the breeze above them. The creaking, slapping noise still sounded dangerous to him, but he freely admitted that he knew nothing about boats or sailing, leaving that to Ao and the third member of their party who was currently at the helm, steering them through the waters.
The thought of her made him look over his shoulder to where Mahault stood tall and proud at the wheel, her attention on the far horizon, where water seemed to merge into sky without a single obstacle to mar the view.
Her blond hair was no longer caught up in the formal, complicated knot she had worn as the daughter of the lord-maiar of Aleppan, but was instead braided into a thick plait, hanging halfway down her back. The time under the open skies had bleached it from deep gold to the color of straw, and darkened her smooth skin to a pale brown, almost exactly the color of tai, the bark brew popular back home. Her lady-mother would have been outraged to see her daughter looking so much like a common sailor.
The fact that Mahault seemed happier now, free and browned, than she had been the entire time he had known her in Aleppan, took away some of the regret Jerzy felt at his involvement in her exile.
The thought made him grimace. Mahault would have glared at him if she knew he was taking any responsibility at all for her actions—she had made the decision to leave on her own; in fact, she had used their rescue of him to make her own escape. An exile, yes, but a chosen one, against worse options.
And at that, she was faring better than he—not only was he a poor sailor, but his skin pinked under the sun, burning at the bend of his arms and back of his neck unless he kept them covered. Ao assured him that the skin would darken over time, adapting to the different weather, but Jerzy didn’t want to spend enough time here to discover the truth of that. He wanted to go home.
Unfortunately, that was the one place he could not go.
Eleven days ago they had fled the city of Aleppan, barely one step ahead of Washers who named Jerzy apostate, oath-breaker, saying that he had broken Sin Washer’s Commandment forbidding one Vineart from interfering with the vines of another.
It was a crime punishable by death.
Jerzy was not guilty of that crime, but he was not innocent, either.
Master Vineart Malech, Jerzy’s master and teacher, had sent him to Aleppan under the guise of studying with Vineart Giordan—itself an unheard-of breach in tradition—to listen, in that city of trade and gossip, for further news of recent, disturbing events: magic-crafted serpents attacking shoreline villages, strange disappearances of Vinearts, out-of-season vine infestations, and more they had not yet heard about.
Instead, Jerzy had discovered that the strange happenings went deeper than Master Malech could have dreamed, attacking not only Vinearts and villagers, but men of power as well. While trying to investigate, he had been caught up in lines of deceit and magic entangling the lord-maiar, Mahault’s father, and turning Aleppan into a deadly trap for both Jerzy and Vineart Giordan.
Ao and Mahault had risked everything to help Jerzy escape, fleeing the city on horseback with only what Mahault had had time to throw into packs, and no idea where they would go or what they could do.
Unable to contact his master, with not only his own survival but his companions’ to consider as well, Jerzy had decided to go to the one place where he could not be easily tracked: open water. As a member of the Eastern Wind trading clan, however junior, Ao had been able to barter their two horses and Mahault’s jewelry for this ship. It was seaworthy but small, and not meant to be taken out of sight of the shoreline.
Given a choice, Jerzy would never have willingly set foot on another boat, after his terrible sickness on the way from his home in The Berengia to Aleppan. The risk of illness was welcome, compared to the options: if they stayed on the shore, they would have been retaken, he would have been killed, and Ao and Mahault … he did not know what would happen to them, but it would not have been good.
The three of them had agreed that until they determined how far the search for them had spread, it was safer here on the empty waters, where they could see any pursuit coming. Their supplies were limited, though, and they needed to replenish their fresh water or they would die of thirst, surrounded by seemingly endless blue waves.
Jerzy felt the responsibility for their situation keenly; it was his fault, his failure that had brought them to this. He had promised to give his companions a chance to recoup the losses incurred when they linked their fates to his … but he had no idea how to do that. More, he could not allow that promise to become his foremost priority. He was Jerzy of the House Malech; his first and only obligation was to warn his master of what he had learned in Aleppan.
But Jerzy had no way to contact Master Malech; the enspelled mirror he was meant to use had been broken when he was arrested, and he had neither messenger birds for the sending nor knowledge of a decantation that would cast his voice into his master’s ear, even if he had access to the proper spellwine.
He had no spellwine at all.
“Mahl says we should be able to see the shores of the next island by midday,” Ao said. “The map shows a village there, large enough for us to find what we need, without standing out so obviously as strangers. We can bargain for supplies there, restock, and listen for news.”
Ao barely seemed to notice the sun’s intensity, the copper highlights of his skin merely darkening to bronze. More annoying to Jerzy, the trader’s natural enthusiasm, high already, increased dramatically at the thought of new people to bargain with.
Jerzy changed his mind. He didn’t want to go overboard; he wanted to throw Ao overboard.
Unaware of his friend’s emotions, or simply ignoring them, Ao clapped him on the shoulder. “And once we discover what is what, my friend, we will be able to solve our little dilemma, and return us all home, covered in glory.”
Home. The thought gave Jerzy an unexpected pain in his chest, like a hollow ache. Home to The Berengia. Sloping hills and low stone walls, the welcoming smell of warm earth and fruit ripening on the vine.
Home, now forbidden him, thanks to the tangled plots of Washer Darian and Sar Anton, who claimed to have caught him in the act of stealing Vineart Giordan’s vines, and the betrayal of Giordan himself.
Jerzy could not find it in himself to blame Giordan, who had thrown Jerzy to judgment in order to save himself. Holding anger at what served no purpose; that Harvest was done, and Giordan had suffered for it, was likely dead now, for his efforts. Jerzy had Ao and Mahault to concern himself with now, and the mission that his master had set him upon.
Even now, Jerzy did not know if Sar Anton, the man who had accused both Jerzy and Giordan of breaking Sin Washer’s Command, was part of the greater taint, or merely using the unsettled situation there to advance his own political purposes.
Jerzy’s mission was to bring what he knew to Master Malech. Simple enough—except that the moment he went home, the Washers would take him and possibly his master as well. If that were to happen, all hope of defending themselves against the true threat would be lost.
“As simple as that?” he asked Ao, returning to the matter at hand. “Sail in, ask a few questions, discover the answer?” Jerzy had tried that in Aleppan, and even with Ao’s help, it had not turned out well, leaving them with more questions and no answers. “Even if we did discover who set all this in motion, I can’t see the Washers admitting that they were wrong, can you?” Jerzy had learned some of politics, in Aleppan.
The trader didn’t hesitate, shaking his head ruefully. “No. Not without proof they could not ignore, and maybe not even then.” The brotherhood was secure in their mission: they were Sin Washer’s heirs and keepers of the Commands, the living barrier standing between power and abuse.
Once, Jerzy would have agreed with their role without thinking. Now … he found himself thinking, and mostly it gave him a headache. Thinking left them here, hiding on open water, unable to return, unsure of where to go.
It was, Jerzy had quickly discovered, easier to announce he would come up with a plan than it was actually to come up with one.
“Ha, Jerzy, Ao!” Mahault turned just then and waved, beckoning them to join her. Walking was easier now than during his first few days, the slide of the boat on the waves and wind barely noticeable, although he kept a constant hand on the rope lines Ao had strung along the length of the boat for him to use. Mahl and Ao might dash from one side to the other like birds flitting among their birth branches, but he trusted this boat, and the sea itself, not at all. Not even when one of the sleek gray spinners that followed in their wake in the evening leaped into the air and then slid back into the waters as clearly as a hoe cut soil, or when the sun passed out of sight in the evening, leaving sparkles of red and gold in the sky and reflecting off the water. It was beautiful, but it was not his.
Jerzy wanted his feet flat in the warm earth again. But for now, it was safer here, on the featureless surface of the sea, where, even if he could not reach his master, neither could spells and searchers find them.
Time. It was both their ally and their enemy, but in either case, it was running out.
“So, where is this island you promised us?” he asked Mahault, squinting at the horizon but not seeing anything save more seemingly endless waves and large-bodied birds soaring overhead.
Unlike Ao, Mahault had patience with him. “There, do you see?”
Jerzy looked again, but all he saw was a hazy smudge in the distance. “There?”
Mahl nodded, her hands working the wheel that controlled the ship without hesitation. Her father ruled an inland city, but she claimed that she had learned to handle a ship during one of her father’s state visits to the smaller towns along the Corguruth coast. Before he turned inward, seeing threat and plot behind every member of the Aleppan Court, and his own family. Before the magic-tainted aide had whispered in his ear and poisoned his thoughts, and shut his ears to reason.
Mahault had her own reasons to hate the source behind all this, and wish it destroyed.
“By dusk we’ll be there,” Mahault reassured him, seeing only the worried crease between his brows. “If the maps are correct, there’s a small village where we can take on more fresh water.”
“And check for news,” Ao said.
She nodded, her gaze returning to the horizon. Ao was a known harvest: he was there for the adventure, the chance to discover something new to reclaim his status within his clan. But Jerzy could not grasp Mahault’s reasoning; she was a maiar’s daughter, born to wealth, who had dreamed of joining the solitaires, the women soldiers, until her father forbade it. She had helped Jerzy for her own reasons, but in exile, she had neither name nor wealth to recommend her to the solitaires. He wondered what she thought when she woke each morning, and remembered. If she hated him for it, or resented their journey, she gave no sign. He did not know how long her loyalty would last, or how far she might go. He could not rely on her … and yet he had no choice.
“You’re steering too hard starboard,” Ao said suddenly.
Mahl frowned and glared at him. “No, I’m not.”
“Yes, you are, I can feel it.”
Jerzy took a step back, away from the argument. Ao claimed to have spent half his life on one sort of ship or another, and the two of them had been squabbling over who should be captain since first setting foot on the ship, neither admitting the other had any skill whatsoever.
The two had been like this since their first meeting, as often hissing and spitting like cats and then laughing as though there had never been a quarrel at all. Like politics and sailing, Jerzy did not understand it. This world beyond the walls of the vintnery, outside the reach of his master’s hand, was often too confusing, and he could feel the headache press within his skull once again.
Leaving them to their exchange of insults, Jerzy went forward to the very front of the ship, as far away from their voices as he could get, wrapping his fingers firmly around the knotted rope there. It was, Jerzy admitted as the sunlight caught on the polished wooden planks and the copper fittings, a pretty little ship. Originally made in Seicea for the meme-couriers, meant to carry a member of the Messenger Guild to his destination as swiftly as possible with a minimum of fuss, it could be managed—if barely—by a small crew. Acquiring this one thirdhand had been a stroke of luck on Ao’s part, although he would doubtless insist it merely good trading.
The problem was they couldn’t stay here forever, dodging from one tiny island to another, avoiding all other people for fear of being discovered and taken back to Aleppan, and the charges facing Jerzy.
The charges—and the danger.
His throat dry, Jerzy reached for the palm-sized waterskin hanging at his belt and swallowed a scarce mouthful of tepid water, aware of how little they had left; the flat, stale taste triggered a memory he would gladly have forgotten.
Soil. Stone. Pulp and juice … but something more. Something darker, more dire. Heavy and weightless, smooth and slick, and the very touch of it even in this no-space made Jerzy’s flesh crawl and his heart sorrow.
The taint he had discovered in Aleppan, in the halls and minds of men of power, corrupting their hearts with fear and distrust. The same taint he and Master Malech had discovered in the flesh of the sea serpents that harrowed the shores of The Berengia, and left a wasting melancholia in their wake.
They had no proof it had been in Aleppan, though, save Jerzy’s own magic-sense—and the accusation of apostasy ensured that no one would believe him save Master Malech. His master would know how to proceed, but if Jerzy returned home without proof to clear his name, the Washers would take them both.
And Jerzy’s muddled thoughts were back where he had started, trapped on this gods-forsaken sea.
It tangled him up inside, trying to determine what to do. Little over a year ago he had been a slave, doing as he was ordered, knowing nothing beyond the confines of the yard. All that had changed when Master Malech took him as student, and Jerzy could no longer imagine a life other than this, but recent events were beyond his ability to manage. He was lost, more confused than he had ever been, more troubled than he could remember. Even as a new-taken slave, he had known what was expected of him, how he was to behave, how to survive.
The waters that protected him from discovery likewise kept him from advice. Vineart Malech was not here to tell him what was best, what was wise. The Guardian, the stone dragon who protected the House of Malech, and had prompted him before, no longer whispered in his ear.
Jerzy alone had to decide—and where he decided, Ao and Mahault would follow. The weight of that was an additional burden Jerzy did not want.
Still. Nether Ao nor Mahault were slaves. They had seen the wrongness in Aleppan for themselves, believed enough to follow not for friendship, but survival, to root out the cause and bring it to light. That made the pressure of their company easier for Jerzy to bear. A slave did not have friends. A Vineart did not have companions. He did not know what to do with either. Easier, clearer, to look at them as having their own goals to achieve, that had nothing to do with him.
But they expected him to have a plan.
With that thought in mind, Jerzy stared up into the sky, at the wings of a seabird soaring far above them, and tried to reach the Guardian’s stone-heavy presence with his thoughts, once again.
And, as every time he had tried before, silence—failure—was his reward. The Guardian might be able to reach him, but it did not seem to work in reverse, and either the stone dragon was not looking for him, or whatever magic animated it could not stretch this far, over so much spell-diluting water.
Finally, Jerzy gave up, and heard, over the ever-present sound of the waves sliding against the sleek hull, and the creak of the sails, the sound of Ao and Mahault still arguing.
No, not arguing. Quieter, more determined.
“It’s my shift. Go.”
“Go.” Ao’s voice sounded amused, not annoyed. “You lost the toss, you get to tell him.”
Jerzy figured they were going to change the watch schedule around again. He wasn’t insulted; if they could spare him from having anything to do with the ship’s handling, they would, and he would have been grateful. But someone had to keep a hand on the wheel, and they were already stretched too thin, with only the three of them.
He could hear Mahault’s gentle steps coming up behind him, for all that she moved like a cat on grass. Back when they had first met, the maiar’s daughter had been clothed in simple but elegant dresses, her hair coiled neatly, her expression and voice quietly composed, as befitted her position in the world. Now he looked sideways and saw a tall, lean figure dressed in a man’s rough brown tunic, the sleeves cut away so her arms could move freely, and an equally drab brown skirt that failed to decently cover her bare ankles. She, like Jerzy, was barefoot, and her toes flexed and curled against the wooden planks as she walked.
They were an odd crew, the three of them—noblewoman, trader, and Vineart-student. Apostate, and fugitives by choice. Jerzy still did not understand the comfort he found in their presence, but he was thankful for it.
Mahault stood next to him, watching the prow cut through the waves. He waited for her to collect her thoughts, for this one moment at peace.
“Ao and I, we think …,” she said finally, in the tone of voice he was learning to recognize, the one that said she didn’t like what she was saying but had to say it anyway, because if she didn’t nobody else would. “We think that you should stay on the ship when we go in for supplies. If someone sees you …”
It made sense. He was hardly memorable—taller than Ao, shorter than Mahault, with a sturdy build more suited to a horseman than a farmer—but the shaggy red hair and pale skin would make him easy to identify among the darker-skinned folk Ao said were common in the southern islands. Mahl’s golden hair would stand out, but the Washers should not be looking for a woman, and Ao was of a trader clan, and so had reason to be in strange lands.
No, if word had made it here from Aleppan, they would be looking for a male his age, with dark red hair and brows not even a hat could hide. It was doubtful word had spread this way—that was why they had come south, not gone directly north toward The Berengia—but it was a risk they could not take.
“It’s all right. I’m fine. I’ll guard the ship.”
Mahl’s posture eased a little with his acceptance. “Truth, having a Vineart onboard should be a useful deterrent. No would-be shipwraith would be foolish enough to attack, once you announced yourself.”
Jerzy let her think that. The truth was that, although he had been able to start fire to warm them on their flight, and keep their ship lights lit, he was too young, too green to have much more magic than that. He had no spellwines to decant, and the quiet-magic in his veins was barely a whisper, fading faster the longer he was away from the touch of the vines.
He was near-useless.
As though hearing his thoughts, Mahault reached out to touch his arm. “How are you doing, in truth? I mean, I’ve never heard of a Vineart going to sea, and you’re always sick….”
Jerzy bent forward, away from her touch, resting his hands against the railing, and wished, again, for the waves to take him overboard. “Ao would have believed me when I said I was fine.”
Mahault made an indelicate noise that would have horrified her lady-mother. “Ao wants to believe you’re fine. He also doesn’t know a thing about Vinearts, or magic. I lived with Giordan in my father’s house long enough … and I pay attention.”
True enough. The trader folk didn’t use spellwines, and they drank the dark ale or the hot spirits of Caul rather than vin ordinaire to ease a long day. When Jerzy had created fire for them on the trail, when he eased their sore muscles, or illuminated their night shifts … Ao in his ignorance took it for granted that a Vineart could do these things, even without a spellwine at hand.
But it wasn’t that simple. Anyone could work a spellwine, if it was properly incanted. That was the basis of magic: the Vineart incanted the spell onto the vin magica, allowing anyone who knew the decantation to release the magic on command.
All that Jerzy had done since they fled the maiar’s palazzo, he had done without access to spellwine. It came from inside him, what his master called the quiet-magic. And the quiet-magic was the one thing that was never spoken of, outside master and student.
Sin Washer had broken the First Vine, and made Vinearts to be crafters, not masters … but in the process of crafting magic, of working so intently with it, the residue remained within them. Enough, over years, so that they themselves carried magic itself inside their blood and bones.
A Vineart, trained and experienced, could work a spell merely by calling on the quiet-magic within him. But it took time, and exposure, and Jerzy had only recently been an ignorant slave, only the past year accepted by the mustus; his quiet-magic was still weak.
Quiet-magic was never spoken of. And yet Mahault had seen him work magic without spellwines, and she used her mind, thought quickly and wisely. She must suspect something.
“I’ll be all right.” He hesitated. “But if you happen to find any spellwines, when you’re bargaining for water …?”
He knew that they didn’t have money for spellwines, not even a rough sort that a small village might have—and that without him, they could easily be sold a vin ordinare instead, and never know. Forged spellwines were not common—the penalty for any selling such, when caught, was death—but it happened. But if there was even a chance of a vin magica …
“If they have any, we’ll bring it back,” Mahl said, and her hand covered his on the railing, as though to seal the promise. Touching still made him uneasy, too many memories of nights when he was smaller, too appealing to the slavers, and then to the older slaves who had craved some kind of physical release—another thing he did not understand, was not comfortable with.
Jerzy could sense the movement of magic within the roots and fruit, but other people, their desires and fears, mystified him. He wanted to move away again, but at the same time was afraid of insulting Mahault, if his reluctance was obvious. So he let her hand rest there and didn’t say anything.
NEAR THE END of Ao’s shift, the trader called the sighting of shore. The other two, roused from their rope-tied hammocks, joined him to watch as the mass of gray on the horizon slowly turned into the clear silhouette of land: sloping beaches, thick trees, and craggy rocks reaching high into the air. If there were any settlements larger than a village, they were not visible from this edge.
“Sardegna,” Mahault confirmed, after glancing at the map and checking the position of the sun overhead. “Good. There should be a small cove to shelter, over there.”
While Jerzy stayed out of the way—past experience having taught them that he was more a hazard than a help—Ao and Mahault did a flurry of things required to lower the sails and slow their progress enough to drift carefully into a sheltered bay between a midsized rock outcropping and the island itself. The cove was barely large and deep enough for their own craft, but the outcrop would keep them hidden from any ships passing in the open water while still far enough from the shore to be safe from intrusions from that direction.
They dropped the weigh-anchor to keep the boat from drifting off, and Jerzy felt the boat bob and weave more distressingly than it had when they were moving, but managed to keep his stomach from rebelling. He took a long drink of warm water—almost the last of that barrel—and used the kerchief holding his hair back to wipe his forehead. Once again he was reminded that the sun was far more intense here than he had ever experienced in The Berengia, especially now that the breeze off the water had been stilled.
“You should be safe here,” Ao said, stripping down to his bare skin without the slightest hint of embarrassment, and stuffing his clothing and the small items he thought might be useful for trading into an oiled sack. Off to the side, Mahault, wearing a short shift for modesty, waited, her sack already filled and sealed tight with wax. Jerzy took Ao’s sack from him and wrapped the coil of wax around the closed mouth of the sack, then pressed his fingers around it, calling on the smallest flicker of quiet-magic, creating a seal stronger than ordinary flame could, to protect the contents from becoming water-soaked.
“Just … keep your voice down and your head low,” Ao said, accepting the sack back with a nod of thanks. “We’ll be back before nightfall.”
First Mahault, then Ao slipped over the side of the ship and into the water, swimming the distance to the cove’s shore. Jerzy watched them go, his forehead creasing in worry until he saw them reach the sandy beach, unmolested by any beast under the blue-green waves.
He had told them about the sea serpents, how they had ravaged the coastline of The Berengia, but not how close up to shore the beasts came—or how they looked as they swallowed men whole. That nightmare, he kept for himself.
Once they were gone from sight, Jerzy turned back to survey the ship. The three of them had not made much noise that it should feel so much quieter now, and yet within minutes Jerzy was acutely aware of the creaking of the wood, the slight sawing of the now-slack sail, and the watery sounds of the waves sliding against the hull of the boat, those noises far louder now than they had been before.
It struck him suddenly that this was the first time in his entire life he had ever been alone.
Jerzy had no true memories from before the slavers came. As a slave, he had slept with dozens of others in the sleep house; had worked in the fields every day, one of many nameless bodies. Once Master Malech found him, he had moved to the House, but even there, Malech and the House-keeper, Detta, and the kitchen children had surrounded him every day. In Aleppan, although he had a bedchamber to himself, he had shared the wing with Giordan, and the palazzo itself had housed hundreds of people going about their routines, from servants to courtiers to the visitors like Ao and his clan members. The fact of their presence always surrounded him, the hum of bees in their nests, constant and comforting.
Even when they fled Aleppan, the three of them had stayed close together—he had shared a horse with Mahl, hearing her heartbeat as closely as his own at times, and there was no way to avoid one another in these close quarters.
Now there was no sound save the ship’s creaking, the relentless waves, the occasional cry of a bird overhead, and his own breathing, too loud. His heart raced, and he could feel blood surging under his skin, the warm sweat of the sunshine battling with a cold sweat of fear.
The last time he had been so wracked, he had been waiting for the overseer to kill him, for failing in his responsibilities, allowing the precious mustus to spill to the ground. Then, Master Malech had saved him with a single word.
Master Malech was not here. The overseer was no longer a threat to him. There was no danger here in this cove, to make his piss loose or his skin prickle.
“Enough. This is … enough. I am a Vineart. I am not afraid of being alone!”
The echoing silence that greeted his announcement was like a scornful laugh, and Jerzy felt himself flush. The sun was directly overhead; he was hot and sweaty, and his head was beginning to ache again, despite the kerchief over his head and the seawater he kept splashing on his face. He needed to do something to cool off, but the thought of going belowdeck, to the close, dark sleeping area, did not appeal; the sway of the boat was even more noticeable there. He went down there only to sleep, after Ao insisted it was too dangerous to doze above deck.
Up here at least, there was fresh air, although with the weighted line keeping them moored, that terrible side-to-side movement made him feel even more ill than before.
Jerzy pulled off the kerchief again and walked over to the open barrel of seawater they had been using to clean themselves. The water left them feeling sticky and smelling of salt, but it was better than the sweat and stink that would have accumulated otherwise. Plus, the act of washing often made the dizziness fade away.
He paused as the cloth dipped into the water, reminded of the clean strokes of his companions as they swam to shore.
Jerzy could not swim—or rather, he could, but only enough to keep from drowning. He never had cause to learn more than that; the river Ivy that bordered Master Malech’s lands was wide but not deep, and if his childhood before the slavers involved bodies of water, those memories were lost forever. The first time he had ever seen the ocean was only a few months past, when Malech sent him with a spellwine to cure a bout of melancholia that had struck a town, in the aftermath of a sea serpent’s attack. He remembered again the sight of that monster, and yet … there had been no more serpents reported since that second one, and he had no reason to believe that any were to be found this far south.
All of his thoughts of being washed overboard had ended there; he had not allowed himself to consider what might happen after, be it from drowning, or being eaten, or anything else that could happen to a fool Vineart caught in the deep waters so far from his home. Now, left alone with only his thoughts and the hot sun for company, surrounded by water, he had time to think of it, and his fears were soon overpowered by how much better the fresh water might feel against his skin than water from a barrel, stagnant and stale.
Before he could stop himself, or think again of the sea serpent’s massive form rising up from the deep waters, villagers caught in its gaping maw—this water was too still, too shallow, he would have seen sign of it, and there was no reason to believe another was here anyway—Jerzy dropped his trou and pulled his tunic over his head, leaving them in a pile on the deck. Taking one of the coiled ropes in his hand, he tied it to the railing with a secure knot, jerking at it twice to make sure, and then he climbed over, carefully letting himself down the side of the ship and into the water.
The moment his toe touched the surprisingly cold water, Jerzy flinched and paused, the memory of his initiation from slave to student forever vivid in his memory.
Drown. Drown yourself. Breathe in and breathe out and let the liquid enter your lungs. And then the feel of the mustus around him, supporting him—filling him, until there was no difference between his flesh and the soft, ripe liquid …
His master had thrown him, unprepared, into the deep barrel of mustus, only his own instincts to guide him. After the initial panic, he had followed that instinct and let the liquid into his body, but not drowned.
This was salt water, not wine, but he would not drown here, either, with the rope to keep him safe. He would not be afraid.
Taking a deep breath of the salty air, Jerzy played out a little more of the rope, closed his eyes, and let his entire body drop the remaining distance into the water.
The comparison to mustus was fulfilled in another way: the moment he was immersed, his skin came alive, every bruise and scrape on his body reacting sharply to the water, tingling and aching as though brand new. At the same time, he felt invigorated through the pain, the exhaustion that had been on him since this entire mad race began suddenly falling away as though the sea had washed him clean.
His eyes opened once he was fully submerged, and the seawater stung them, but he stared, fascinated at how very different things looked through the glaze of water. A large pale blue fish swam by, incurious about this strange interloper, and a long wriggly creature passed below him, equally unconcerned.
His lungs started to burn, warning him of the need for air. The rope still wrapped around his left fist, Jerzy kicked experimentally with his legs, pushing himself toward the water’s surface. He popped out of the water much like a cork on a spoiled bottle of vina, gasping for breath even as the water streamed off him. He had moved farther out from the ship than he’d planned, but the rope was still his tether. He tugged at it gently, and then drew himself back, hand over hand along the length, until the side of the boat was within reach once again.
The fish below might have ignored him, but he wanted easy access to the relative safety of the deck, in case something larger and more hungry came along. The thought made his toes curl, and the water seemed colder suddenly.
Taking a deep breath, determined not to let fear win, Jerzy used his free hand to push against the ship, forcing himself back underwater again. His hair floated in his face, and he luxuriated in the strange feeling of being suspended, without any support. It was surprisingly soothing.
Then something touched the bottom of his foot, a gentle but unmistakable pressure, and he shot out of the sea, rising clear out of the water and into the air. Jerzy hung there, almost even with the ship’s railings, for a long shocked second, his mind too busy trying not to think about whatever had touched him to realize what he had done.
The moment he realized it, his body started to fall back down into the water. Only reflexes kept him from splashing back down into the gaping maw of whatever had nibbled at him, grabbing the rope up with both hands and swinging his body toward the boat. The hard slam against the hull was almost a relief, compared to falling back into the water, and he scrambled up the rope and threw himself onto the deck, panting with the effort.
Logic told him that it had probably been one of the small fish he had seen, or even one of the larger ones they had caught for dinner, or even maybe a curious spinner coming to play with this strange, two-legged swimming creature, as Ao claimed they were known to do. But he couldn’t banish the image of a great-toothed maw rising up from the depth, the milky-white eyes and tremendous muscled neck of a sea serpent coming up after him….
He braced himself, but nothing knocked against the boat, nothing rose from the water to attack and devour him, and slowly his heart stopped racing, and the roaring in his ears subsided.
Only then did he realize what he had done.
He had used quiet-magic to escape. More quiet-magic than he should have been able to summon, even as panicked as he was, in a way he had never before encountered. He had …
“I lifted into the air,” Jerzy told the sky, blinking at the sunlight. “And I didn’t mean to. I didn’t prepare, or try to decant a spell … I just did it.” That shouldn’t have been possible: magic required conscious thought, the drawing of moisture from within to mimic spellwine, the uttering of a decantation to force the magic into action.
Still. He had done it, and therefore in his panic he must have blanked out, the salt water masking the spittle in his mouth, the words uttered and forgotten in his fear. It was the only answer that made sense … and it terrified him even more than the idea of a sea monster below him. Not the fact that he had forgotten, but that he had been able to do it at all. Where had it come from?
Once his breathing calmed down a bit, Jerzy was able to look over his actions with the dispassionate evaluation a Vineart needed. With any taste washed away by seawater, he could only evaluate the spell by its results. A windspell. It had to have been a windspell, to lift him that way.
His body shuddered involuntarily as the realization hit him. A windspell should not have been part of his quiet-magic. The House of Malech did not grow weathervines; he had none of that legacy within him. Vineart Giordan grew those vines, but the time Jerzy spent in Aleppan could not have been enough, should not have been enough….
The shudder turned to a cold dread in his stomach. There was more quiet-magic within him than he recognized—a legacy he had not felt within his veins. Now, though, it had woken; he could taste it in his throat, feel the thrum of it in his blood. That pocket of magic, if he had taken that much from working with those vines, that wine … then the Washers were right, and he had broken Sin Washer’s Command, all unknowing.
He was, in truth, apostate.
KAÏNAM, ONCE NAMED-HEIR of the island Principality of Atakus, now a homeless, nameless sailor with only his honor to recommend him, stared at the maps spread out in front of him and felt a burning in his stomach that had nothing to do with the meal he had just finished. According to his charting, he should be nearing the coast of Tursin. The thought left him dizzy. A normal voyage would have taken three times as long, but a normal voyager would not have had access to the magics he could command.
It was those magics that left him feeling queasy, discomforted, and not sure if it were he rocking back and forth, or his ship. He, who had been born on a swiftship, who had spent his entire life as much in the water as on land … there could be no other cause of this illness. KaÏnam smoothed out a tiny wrinkle in the topmost map and brought the spell-lit lamp closer in, refusing to give in to the toss of his stomach, no matter how it complained.
KaÏnam plotted his position on the chart and frowned, then replotted it, getting the same result. He drew in a deep breath and then let it out. Incredible, and yet it was exactly as he had hoped.
It should have taken him months to cross this distance with a larger ship and a full crew of men. Alone, it would have been impossible.
Knowing that had driven him to desperate measures. The night before his departure he had taken aside Master Edon’s student, asking him what spellwines of Master Edon’s were best suited to speeding a vessel along. The student had unthinkingly, unhesitatingly pointed them out. Why should he not? KaÏnam was the son of Erebuh, the Principal of Atakus, and as such had every right to ask about the magics that kept his island home safe and wealthy.
Later that night, KaÏnam entered the cellar where those spellwines were stored and took what he thought he might need, then another two flagons more. In their place he left his marker, a silver coin with the icon of his rank engraved upon it. When they came to question him … he would already be gone.
It was not the action of a Named-Heir, but the disgrace that would follow his theft and disappearance was outweighed by what he needed to accomplish with this mad journey. In the past sixmonth, his sister had been murdered within the safety of their own lands, and ships under their Vineart’s protection had been destroyed. Those acts had driven his father—aided by the Vineart Edon—to a mad plan masking their island home with spells, hiding the once-welcoming harbor from all outsiders. Edon and his father thought it would protect them against further assault by enemies who brought magic and men against the island.
KaÏnam had warned them against such an act—warned, and been ignored. As he had feared, that protection had turned into a spear at their heart when Caulic ships attempted to find the now-invisible harbor. It would have been bad enough, had the Caulic ships gone away unscathed—but they were instead set upon by firespouts in the night and destroyed, down to the last.
Firespouts: a work of magic only a Master Vineart might accomplish. A Master like Vineart Edon, who had advised KaÏnam’s father, Erebuh, to close off Atakus from the rest of the world, and given him the means to do so.
KaÏnam did not suspect Edon; the man had been devoted to Atakus more years than KaÏnam had been alive, and if he said that he did not cast that spell, could not cast that spell, then KaÏnam believed him. But it had been done, and none would believe Atakus’s innocence, now.
His sister had been known as the Wise Lady for the quality of her advice. KaÏnam had learned much, listening to her—enough that when she had been killed, his father had named him, out of all his sons, the Heir on the strength of her regard. It had been the whisper of her voice in his ear that had told him not all was well, that the events were not coincidence, were not attacks, but rather prods designed to herd them like fish into a net, to cast them not as victims, but dangers. To destroy Atakus’s reputation as a safe haven, and make them a target instead of suspicion and fear.
His sister’s murder had been the bait, and Edon and his father had taken it. Circles closing in on circles, locking them inside, apart from the rest of the world, while Sin Washer alone knew what might happen next.
He could not convince his father to relent, and he could not remain and stay silent. Instead, KaÏnam took the spellwines and the sleek little Green Wave, and set out to find the villain who had set the trap, ordered ships under Atakus’s protection attacked, his sister foully murdered. Only by exposing him could Atakus’s honor be regained.
His sister’s whispers, and his own knowledge and training, told him what he must do.
The obvious place to begin was the far-distant island of Caul, origin of the ships that had had come searching. Normally, his little Green Wave would never be able to manage it, built more for races between islands than for any long journey. But Master Edon’s spellwine had conjured a wind that encased them and lifted them, carrying both ship and sailor distances impossible on their own.
All it had cost him was several days of utter exhaustion and gut-sickness, a sense that he had somehow overslept, or not slept enough, watching the white-capped waters as the Green Wave slipped through them on her way to their final destination. When the spellwine wore off, he would need to put a hand to the rudder again, but for now, he needed only sit and wait.
KaÏnam lifted one of the wine sacks and stared at it. The sigil of Master Edon was clear on the side: the stylized olive tree of Atakus against the outline of a wine leaf. Rare, for a Vineart and a land’s ruler to coexist so well, rarer even for them to cooperate the way those two had, for so many years.
Before all this, they had been equals but not partners, not a single combined force. Every child in the Lands Vin knew that, in the mists of time and legend, Sin Washer had broken the First Vine to prevent exactly that; had Commanded that never again should a leader of men work magic, and men of magic never lead men.
And yet, that was exactly what Edon and his father were doing; two men, yes, but combining their powers to a single goal. That they did it to protect Atakus was noble, but it would not save them when the Washers came to demand an answer for their actions. Spells, even a master like Edon’s spellwork, even with the aid of his students and lesser Vinearts who owed their loyalty to him, would not be enough to protect Atakus from Sin Washer’s judgment, then. And the Washers would come; KaÏnam had no doubt of that. The Brotherhood would not let such a thing pass unmarked.
Their only hope was to discover who had set them up in such a manner. And KaÏnam was the only one who was searching.
He considered the wine sack in front of him again. Master Edon crafted windspells, primarily. But he also had a small vineyard on the leeward edge of Atakus, where he grew grapes that were never shipped off island. Those grapes produced only small amounts of wine every year, and most of it became not spellwine but vin ordinaire, served at his father’s table when special guests came to visit. In rare Harvests, however, when the conditions were ideal, a spellwine was made from these delicate fruits. The decantation of that spell carried messages through the air, whispering from one ear to the next. Aetherspells: rare and valuable.
He had never seen such a spell used, did not know if they would carry the distance needed. He did not know, either, if this was a wise thing he was doing. But he needed to try.
Uncorking the skin, he took a careful sip, letting the wine rest on his tongue in proper decanting fashion. He had never learned to enjoy the taste of spellwines, finding them acrid and hard to swallow, but he did not need to understand how spellwines worked, only what he needed to do to make it happen.
Once he felt that the wine had soaked into the flesh of his tongue and mouth, the words of the decantation came to him, a long-ago, never utilized lesson:
“Thought to words. Words to ears. Go.”
The air itself seemed to pause around him, waiting. Not daring to breathe, KaÏnam let his lips form his most heartfelt message. “Wise Lady. ThaÏs. Can you hear me? Can you help me?”
He felt the words leave his mouth more than he heard them, and then an invisible gust of air flashed past his mouth, snatching the query up and disappearing with it.
He stoppered the wine sack and set it back into the especially constructed cabinet with the other skins normally stored there. His mouth felt puckered and tight inside, as though he had not drunk water in days. Did that mean the spell had worked?
His sister was dead. No spell could reach her now. And yet, after her death, he had been woken by her whispered warning, had felt her counsel one last time, setting him on this path. If she could reach him, might he not reach her as well? Or had he, in his grief, imagined her touch, her wisdom? Was this all a fool’s quest, and he the fool?
He had no sooner thought that than a hard wave slapped the side of the Green Wave, rocking it violently, even as she flew forward through the water. KaÏnam steadied himself with a hand on the table, keeping the maps from sliding to the floor despite the weights on them. He swallowed hard; no son of Atakus would disgrace himself by being ill, not when the sea was calm and the winds fair….
Another slam against the side of the ship, and this time KaÏnam realized it was no wave hitting so violently. He left the cabin, bare feet touching the polished wooden steps so lightly he might almost be flying in his speed. As he reached the deck, he, without thought, lifted a long spear off the hooks where it rested. It had enough range to fend off even the most determined toothfish or shark without endangering the thrower, and could be used to knock aside closer opponents as well. KaÏnam had been using fish spears since he was a youth, and the feel of the shaft in his hands renewed his confidence and settled his stomach.
The hatch to the lower deck was shielded by an alcove made of the same watertight wood as the stairs, meant to protect anyone using the steps from wind or rain. That meant that he did not see the creature until he was already on the deck itself, and within range.
The first and only warning he had was the sense of a shadow falling over the back of his neck. He turned, bringing the spear up instinctively. It crashed against something heavy and unyielding, even as the wind brought him the heavy scent of brine and dead flesh and the faint hint of overripe fruit.
He looked up, following the path of the spear, and staggered back in shock at the huge, scaled muzzle that was turned away from him, a jagged rip in the side above its gaping maw of a mouth from where he had struck it. The black flesh underneath did not bleed, the flesh showing no signs of injury beyond that surface tear. Above it, a handspan higher, a great white eye the size of his head glared down at him, and then the muzzle swung back, knocking the spear out of his hands. KaÏnam went down on the deck in a controlled collapse, even as the mouth opened and countless sharp teeth snapped at him, like a deep-sea snake grown impossibly huge. His hands reached out and he found the spear, rolling onto his back even as he grasped it, and as the great head darted down off an impossibly long neck, he jammed the spear point up, into the creature’s mouth. The point slammed home, and the shock went through KaÏnam’s entire body, the butt end of the spear pinning him to the deck with the force of the blow.
The beast screamed, rearing back, taking the spear with it as it went, and then slid back down into the water, length by length of that sinewy neck, until the head itself followed. The bright, wave-lapped waters closed over it; the Green Wave sailed on through magic-powered winds; and KaÏnam lay on the deck, on his back, his shoulder and spine aching and his hands cramped from the memory of that grip, and tried to remember how to breathe again.
“Sin Washer and Deep Proeden, what was that?”
Not even the calling of seabirds answered him, much less the silent god of the tides, the Wave moving too quickly still for the usual winged scavengers to be wheeling overhead. His memory, unbidden, showed him flashes of what he had seen: the great scaled head, the long narrow muzzle with the double rows of small, sharp teeth; the great white eye with its thin lid overhanging …
A serpent, risen from the depths of story and legend. Every child knew that Master Vineart Bradhai had destroyed the last of them generations ago, clearing the seas of their lethal presence. Since then, every few years a merchant ship would claim to have seen something that might perhaps have been a serpent’s head, or the slip of its tail in the distance, but there were no attacks, no bodies, no confirmed sightings. The great serpents were gone from the seas, turned into things you might frighten a child with, or tease an old sea hand about.
Had they been out here all this time, lurking? The one that attacked him … as his heart slowed slightly and his breath calmed, KaÏnam realized that it had been relatively small—not quite the length of his ship, only four or five fathoms long. A young one? Or had they gotten smaller since the days of legend?
Or, a practical part of his mind asked, had the reports of those larger beasts been exaggerated, in the days when superstition and fear traveled with sailors once they passed out of sight of land, and every encounter was greater the longer it took to reach safe harbor?
Either way, small as it had been, the beast could easily have knocked the Wave over, or swamped her with a determined wave, or snatched him right up off the deck, spear or no spear. Whatever it had been, it had come not out of hunger or fear, but … curiosity? Could you accuse such a beast of emotions? Of the intellect to have such an emotion? And if so, what had brought it …?
“The spell,” KaÏnam said, realizing, his gut clenching at the thought of how he might have put himself directly into such danger. “The aetherspell.”
Somehow his request had summoned that beast, roused it from the depths. How, he did not know—could a beast such as that intercept magic, or scent it on the air, the way a dog might a hare or lamb? Or was he overreacting? Had it merely sensed the ship slipping through the waters overhead, and risen to the surface to investigate?
Either way, it was gone, and he was still alive, if with one less weapon to his name. From what he had read of encounters with great serpents, he had done well indeed.
Still on his back, he placed his hands together over his belly and cupped them together, forming the ritual cup. “Sin Washer, we thank you for your mercy and loving forgiveness. We praise your wisdom and wash our lives in the blood of your bones, that we, too, may be clean of malice and fear.”
Malice, he had none. Fear … it still shivered on his skin and caused his stomach to tighten. Just the thought of the beast returning, or bringing more—or larger—of its kind was enough to make KaÏnam blanch.
“Enough.” He sat up, flexing his fingers to make sure they had not been injured when the serpent wrested the spear from his hands. “You are no bay swimmer, to fear the unknown. There are dangers behind and ahead; why did you think there might not be dangers alongside, as well?”
The speech sounded silly, spoken into the quiet air around him, but they settled his nerves and allowed him to step forward into the helm, checking the compass-piece set into the mast.
You must stop.
He did not question the familiar voice in his ear, but moved toward the wheel set at the crest of the mast house and placed both hands on the wheel, curling his fingers around the brass fixtures and feeling their cool smoothness under his flesh. For a dry second the words to end the windspell would not come back to him, and then they returned in a flood. “Wind, calm. Ship, slow. Go.”
He felt it through the soles of his feet first, the change in the rhythm of the ship. Still moving forward, but not as swiftly, not as surely; more subject now to the rocking of the natural waves, the push of the sun-warmed winds. His ears picked up the distant scream of a seabird, then the whisking of the wind against his sails, and the hundred tiny sounds that made up the normal music of shipboard life.
The haze around him cleared, and he could see rocky outcroppings to the starboard, large enough to be called an island, although he did not think anything lived there save seabirds and seals resting during their journeys. No sign of any creature of menace, slipping below the waves; he must have left it behind. Not far behind the first outcropping there was a larger island, this one with trees, and farther behind that the outline of a larger mass, fading into the distance. KaÏnam reached below the wheel and pulled an oilskin case from the cabinet, withdrawing a smaller, waterproofed version of the maps he had been studying belowdeck. The map was old, but the land had not changed since the day it was inked. He looked up to confirm his impressions, then back down at the map, letting one finger trace the path his Wave was taking. Yes, he had estimated correctly. Starboard was the distant mass of Corguruth, where he had no interest. To port side, the dry cliffs of Tursin. He had relatives there, a distant family connection. If he were to pull into port there, they would welcome him….
And he would be no further along on his quest. Tursin was not where his answers lay.
The whisper was a soft curl of air around his ear, subtle and warm. The fact that he could not possibly be hearing the voice of a woman now dead for months did not stop him from following it. She had warned him of danger before, had saved him, had set him on this journey … if this was madness or the answer to his whispered spell he did not care; he would follow her counsel until the end.
Ahead, she told him again. Your answers wait directly ahead.
Not Caul, then. He checked the compass rose, then looked at the sea. Iaja? The wind shifted slightly, sending the Wave off to the starboard as though in answer. No, not the Vin Land of Iaja. Sardegna.
© 2010 Laura Anne Gilman
Posted November 10, 2011
Posted August 30, 2010
In the Vin Lands, the powerful Sin Washers sect accuses Vineart wine mage apprentice and former slave Jerzy of heresy dealing with their ruling Commandment involving magic users and rulers. He knows their condemnation is an open invitation to kill him, so he flees. Joining him on the lam are former aristocratic Lady Mahault the warrior, Ao the trader, and Kainam the Prince of Atakus an island kingdom that has disappeared.
Jerzy and his friends continue their tracing of the taint of the vines. They begin to believe an incredulous conspiracy is behind the destruction. Following the clues by sea, Jerzy and company elude the Washers who demand he face trial and punishment and danger from under and on the water and on board their vessel.
The second Vineart War fantasy (see Flesh and Fire) continues the escapades of Jerzy in a fast-paced tale that also provides deeper focus and understanding of the complicated refreshing Gilman science of magic based on winemaking. Jerzy is a terrific protagonist though he and his three traveling companions seem to whine a lot over wine. Filled with tension throughout, readers will toast the quartet as they trek through the dangerous Vin Lands where the washers want to drink to their deaths.
Posted January 11, 2011
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