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A Secret Atlas, Page 2

Michael A. Stackpole

The merchantman’s wife sputtered indignantly. “She was going to kill us all. She should be punished. You should kill her.”

  Moraven slowly shook his head. “A life broken can be mended. A life taken cannot.”

  “Then break her.” The woman gestured imperiously, though not quite as confidently as before. “Have the farmers thrash the giant and the archer.”

  “They struck at me, not you. Their fate is in my hands.”

  “By what authority?”

  Moraven frowned, then looked past her to where Dunos had collected Macyl’s overshirt and neatly folded it. “Why can you not be like the child? As it is said, ‘One action accomplishes more than ten thousand words.’ ”

  “Her action was to slay us.”

  “No, her action was to show respect to a fallen foe. Her words, as yours, are nothing. Now, be silent, lest I be forced to act.” He turned from her scowl and eyed the archer. “How much have you stolen from the Festival pilgrims?”

  “Not a prince’s ransom. Not even his petty spending.”

  “It is still too much. You and your giant will take all you have stolen and go to the Festival. You will give alms to the beggars until you have nothing, then you will leave for the west.”

  “But there are Viruk and Soth there, and wildmen. The chances of our survival . . .”

  “. . . Are better there than here.” Moraven smiled. “Chances are excellent I shall never see you again if you go west.”

  The archer thought for a moment. “It is very crowded here. West, then.”

  Conoursai snorted with outrage, but said nothing. Moraven continued to ignore her and turned to Pavynti. “And now your fate must be decided.”

  “My lord’s will be done.”

  “You will go to the town of Derros, south, on the Virine coast. You will present yourself at the School of Istor. You will tell the Grandmaster I have sent you to join his school. He will see to your training. When he releases you, you will be xidantzu for nine years. You will wander and entertain bandits as you have been entertained.”

  “Yes, Master.” Again she put her belly to the dirt in a deep bow.

  “Care for your companions tonight, then go tomorrow. This is my will.”

  The farmers, between the two of them, lifted the mallet and broke the haft. The others in the group started forward again, following the farmers and allowing Conoursai to join them. All of them gave Moraven wide berth. Moraven moved past the bandits, but did so slowly, waiting for the old man and his kin, who were bringing up the rear.

  Moraven smiled at the boy. “When you get to Moriande, you will deliver that overshirt to Macyl’s family. They will honor you for it. Ward it well.”

  “I will.” Dunos nodded, then narrowed his eyes. “Are you really a Mystic?”

  “Dunos, hush.” Alait settled his hand on the back of the boy’s neck. “Don’t be offended, Master. He is just a boy.”

  “I’m not.” Moraven crouched again, looking the boy eye to eye. “I have studied many years and am blessed with skill. I am jaecaiserr, but you cannot believe all the stories.” He reached out and caressed the boy’s lifeless left arm. “If I could use my magic to heal you with a touch, I would have done so on the eve we met. My magic is not for healing, to my regret. Others have that skill, and you will find them in Moriande.”

  The boy nodded solemnly. “Thank you, Master.” He looked up at his father, and the two of them moved on.

  Matut reached out a hand and rested it on Moraven’s shoulder as he rose. “A moment more of your time, Master.”

  The swordsman nodded and let the two younger men get further down the road. “What is it, grandfather?”

  The old man kept his voice low. “In this place, when the bandits stopped us nines of nine years ago, a young man of our company challenged them. He told them to draw a circle, and they did.”

  “And what happened?”

  “He slew them all. An autumn breeze works harder stirring leaves than he did slaughtering them. He did not wear your name, but he did bear the crest of the black tiger hunting.”

  “That would be something hard to forget.”

  “I never have.” The old man sighed. “If my eyes were good, I could see that you are the same man, untouched by the years. Why didn’t you kill them this time?”

  “As you agreed, grandfather, that was something hard to forget.” Moraven’s blue eyes gazed again toward Moriande. “I haven’t forgotten, and I have learned.”

  Chapter Two

  36th day, Month of the Bat, Year of the Dog

  9th Year of Imperial Prince Cyron’s Court

  162nd Year of the Komyr Dynasty

  736th year since the Cataclysm

  Anturasikun, Moriande


  Keles Anturasi leaned against the marble balustrade in the elevated garden at Anturasikun. The stone felt cool beneath his hands and he knew, almost by touch, where it had been quarried and how long it had taken to reach the capital. Solaeth, shipped over the Dark Sea, then down the Gold River. He smiled to himself, his hazel eyes bright in a handsome face with sharply sculpted cheekbones and a nose that had been broken once when he was a child. He’d known many a happy day in the garden, and knew today would be happier still.

  He looked over the city, casting his gaze to the southeast and toward the Imperial Palace. Through his mind flashed half a dozen routes for getting from the Anturasi stronghold to the Prince’s demesne. He could travel through the wide streets that now thronged with Festival visitors, or wend his way through warrens, alleys, and places where, were he wearing his own Festival finery, he would have been prey. He had traveled them all since he was a child, learning the city fearlessly—or at least fearing it less than incurring his grandfather’s wrath if he did not.

  That was an Anturasi’s lot in life. His family had shown a talent for cartography, which was all but useless in the Time of Black Ice. It didn’t matter that you knew how to get from one valley to another when you had no idea what sort of horror you might find there. As the world emerged from the years of ice, snow, and wild magic, the Anturasi gift took on greater significance. Until the time of his grandfather, however, Nalenyr had neither the leadership nor the resources to exploit it.

  Fifty-six years ago—when his grandfather was only his age and the world was smaller—a tiger-sized wolf was ravaging herds in the northern mountains. The then–Naleni Prince—Prince Cyron’s father—was set to go hunting and had a dream that he would slay the beast. Try as he might, year after year, the Prince failed to fulfill his dream until Qiro Anturasi performed a minor miracle. Qiro had undertaken a survey of the area and presented the Prince with a map that took the Prince directly to his prey. The Prince slew the wolf and granted Qiro a private audience as a reward.

  The story had become part of family legend, along with other tales of Qiro’s subsequent travels west to reclaim the Spice Road. Though he failed in that latter mission, the Prince still showed great favor to the family. Qiro moved to its head, eclipsing his own father. He browbeat his brother, Ulan, into absolute obedience. Qiro’s iron-willed control of the family soon extended to all Ulan’s progeny and his own grandchildren. Keles and his siblings knew very well what Qiro expected of them and complied at one level or another.

  At my level, compliance; at Jorim’s, none. Nirati cannot, though she does what she can. Keles shivered. His sister did not have to worry about Qiro’s ire, and both the older siblings did what they could to shield Jorim. Without their efforts, Qiro would have broken him, chaining him to a drafting table beside his cousins, shutting away someone who lived to explore the world.

  Keles knew, someday, there would be no protecting Jorim and that even he would fall under his grandfather’s suspicions. Qiro had usurped his own father’s place. Ryn Anturasi, Keles’ father, had fought horribly with Qiro until his death. The old man clearly expected that Keles or Jorim would try to replace him and, if the family’s fortunes were to be maintained, one day one of them would.

  Not something to think about. Not today. Not before the Festival. Not before she gets here.

  Keles cleared his mind of dire musings and studied the city again. Bright pennants and brighter coats of paint made the city new again. It had been a good year, with a number of sailing vessels returning to the capital, their holds bulging. They carried exotic items from places as far as Tas al Aud and Aefret, including dyes for clothes, spices, artworks, and strange animals for the Prince’s preserve. Envoys from distant nations likewise took passage on the Prince’s Wolves, sailing to Moriande to celebrate the dynasty’s anniversary.

  The Imperial duties levied on those cargoes would easily pay for the Festival. More importantly for the Anturasi, since those ships used charts created by Qiro, a percentage of their profits came to him. While any one merchant might profit when a ship returned, Qiro profited when any ship returned. This fact was not lost on anyone, least of all the Prince.

  The crunch of footsteps on the gravel at the garden’s edge brought Keles around. A shaven-headed servant in brown bowed. “Pardon, Master Keles, but Lady Majiata Phoesel has come.”

  “Please, bring her here.” The invitation was but a formality, for he could see Majiata waiting in the shadows of the tower’s entrance. Formalities had to be observed, however, as she was nobility. Despite their being betrothed and of intimate acquaintance, familiarity would not do. He bowed low in her direction and waited until the hem of her blue gown came into view before he straightened, fighting to hide a smile.

  Taking tiny steps, she entered the garden, bypassing stone planters brimming with the finest examples of bhotri in the capital—outside the Imperial Palace, of course. Several of the plants had been grown by jaecaibhot, whose skill reached magical proportions. The miniature pine tree at her right elbow perched on a rock and trembled with a breeze that went unfelt. Other dwarf trees would produce bountiful harvests of pea-sized fruit as succulent as their normal-sized cousins regardless of the seasons, so skilled was the Mystic arborist in the Anturasi employ.

  Majiata, as always, surrendered little in comparison to the brilliant blooms in the garden. Gold silk trousers and sash complemented the deep blue of her robe. A sapphire set in gold rested at the hollow of her throat, and smaller examples of the same stone in gold settings shone from her earlobes. Her dark hair had been gathered and swept up, restrained by a gold chain around her brow, with a sapphire dangling at her forehead. While her features were not as delicate as those of most hereditary nobility, she had an undeniable beauty. Heavy eyelashes and lids blackened with kohl accentuated her cerulean eyes, and reminded him of how she looked in the dimness of the midnight hours.

  “Welcome, my lady Majiata.”

  She inclined her head only slightly in his direction, giving him the first inkling of trouble. “You are kind in your greeting, Keles.”

  “Mai, what is wrong?”

  He took a step forward, raising his hands toward hers, but she did not return the gesture. For a moment he thought it might be that she objected to his attire, for his bright yellow shirt did not match the gold of her robes, and his trousers and overshirt of green were far less rich in hue than her gown. He let his hands drift back to his sides and lifted his head, straightening his spine.

  No anger flashed in her eyes, but he fully expected it. Her reply came softly, but even whispered it was less a question than a statement. “You have not told him yet.”

  “No, darling, but don’t be angry.” Keles smiled broadly. “It is not easy to tell my grandfather anything. You know this.”

  “But you have not even tried.” Her left hand emerged from the opposite sleeve, letting the diamond ring he’d given her glint in the sunlight. “If you truly loved me, you would have told him what I asked you.”

  “Mai, you know I love you.” He clapped his hands together and wanted to leap with the joy in his heart. “I’ve thought of something much better, my dearest. It’s perfect.”

  “Perfect, my darling, is for us to be together, not separated as you go off on the Stormwolf. I know that your grandfather has reserved a great honor for you by sending you to sail around the Eastern Sea. I know there is much to see and explore. I know you dearly want to do that, but you will be gone for a year, two, five! What of us all that time?”

  “I know, I know, but that is what is perfect about my plan, Majiata.” He looked at her with hazel eyes full of enthusiasm. “You took my ring knowing what I would be doing, what my life would be like. And I want to be with you, so I have found the perfect solution. I’ve made the arrangements. You can come with me in the fleet, on the Stormwolf.”

  Her gaze flicked up as she whispered breathlessly and a tremor ran through her. “Come with you?”

  “Yes, darling, yes, it will be perfect.” He took her hands in his, squeezing them. “Istor Araset is the bhotcai who will be with us, and you can learn much from him. Think of the new plants you will see, the new places! We will walk where men have not been before. We will taste exotic fruits. We will see animals and vistas no man has ever laid eyes on. You will be a great help for me and to me. We will even have a cabin to ourselves. I won’t command the ship; Anaeda Gryst will do that, but she is a brilliant captain who has sailed to Aefret and back again faster than anyone else. She’s willing to take you with us . . . What’s wrong?”

  His voice petered out as she withdrew her hands from his.

  “With you?” She looked at him with shock and pain in her eyes. “Do you love me so little as to even suggest that?”

  Keles blinked in amazement. “W-what do you mean? I love you so much I want you with me.”

  “But you don’t think of me at all, do you? You think only of yourself.” She opened her arms wide. “You would take me from family and friends?”

  “I will be your family.”

  “And if you die on the trip?” She turned away from him. “You describe all the wonders, but you forget the horrors. The diseases. The lack of water. Stale food. Storms. Storms sufficient to snap a ship in half. You’ll sail south, maybe to find these fabled Mountains of Ice, but what if you do? You’ll spend months with your teeth chattering, losing fingers and toes to frostbite. Do you want me to lose fingers and toes, Keles?”

  “No, you don’t understand . . .”

  “And freezing is the least of our worries. Don’t you see that? Don’t you know why I want you here, in Moriande, learning from your grandfather?” Her voice became glacial. “Have you forgotten what happened to your father? What Qiro did to your father?”

  “M-Majiata, you know better than to believe old wives’ tales.”

  “And you denigrate the truth by labeling it fable.” Her eyes slitted. “You were all of seven when it happened and I was barely beyond suckling at my nurse’s breast. Your grandfather sent your father off on such a journey. Qiro was jealous of him and your father defiant, so your grandfather had him killed. Your father, the Wavewolf, everyone on it, dead!”

  “No, that is not true. Not true at all.” Keles scrubbed a hand over his face, then looked imploringly at her. “Don’t you see, Majiata? I have to go on the Stormwolf. It is my duty to my family, to ensure the future. Our future. Can’t you understand that?”

  “I understand completely, Keles. I understand how selfish your love is—that you put the Anturasi before your love of me. I want you here not only so he cannot kill you, but so I can help you.”

  She clasped her hands together, looked down, and spoke calmly in a small voice, a helpless voice. “You know that growing flowers is not my true talent. That lies at court, using my influence with my family to help shape the court’s thinking. I can do that for you. I want to be a help to you, but if you are going to abandon me, I am powerless to promote you. And perhaps you think ill of me, but I do think of the Anturasi fortunes. There are ships that go out without Anturasi charts. But with my help, laws can be passed so that will never happen again. Don’t you want that?”

  “Of course I do, Mai.”

  “But I think you
want adventure more. You want to be sent away from here. Away from me. Why is it you want to be sent away from me, Keles?”

  The sob that choked her last word raised a lump in his throat that prevented him from speaking. He lifted his hands and settled them on her shoulders, but she shrugged her way free, dipping her head as she began to weep. Keles froze, uncertain what to do. His guts knotted and his empty hands flexed.

  With all the time in the world I could not think of the right thing to say.

  “The answer to your question, Mai Phoesel, should be obvious.”

  Keles turned as his twin sister entered the garden. As tall as he was, with lighter brown hair and green eyes, she had sharp features that had earned her the nickname of Fox when they were children. Though she had since grown into a beauty, that vulpine nature still lingered, though more in the tightness of her eyes and the quickness of her mind than in anything else. Lest anyone forget it, however, her black robe did have running embroidery of foxes gamboling.

  Mai turned and snorted. “Spying again, Nirati?”

  “Hardly necessary, since you always read from the same script. I have said nothing to my brother before. I speak now because what you ask affects my whole family. It is not that I love you any less than the family, dear brother, but her meddling has gone too far.”

  Keles frowned. “Really, Nirati, I don’t think . . .”

  “You do think, brother, when given the chance, but you don’t see when you are being used.” His sister pointed at Mai, who seemed to have shrunk a little. “She wants to help you, of course. She mentions ships that sail without Anturasi charts. Well, her family’s trading company has long done without them. Her father came to our grandfather after you were betrothed and demanded access to charts since we were ‘practically family.’ Grandfather told him to come back when she was actually wedded to you and her belly swollen with a child we could prove was yours.”

  Mai gasped in horror and Keles moved to comfort her.

  “Don’t bother, brother, she’s not worth it. Her only failing in this matter has been because of her vanity.” Nirati’s eyes sharpened. “She was supposed to have conceived your child by now, but she failed. Was it that you dreaded morning sickness, Majiata, or feared becoming bloated and ugly—as ugly as you are inside?”