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A Secret Atlas, Page 3

Michael A. Stackpole

  “Neither.” Mai stroked a hand over her belly. “You’re a fool, Nirati. Two nights ago your brother and I lay together. Even now his child is growing in my belly.”

  “No, little Mai.” Nirati shook her head, her brown locks a shimmering curtain spilling over the shoulders of her gown. “For one who prides herself in a paltry talent at bhotri, you have long since neglected your studies. You must have noticed the tinge of bitterness in your night’s-cup of wine before you slept. It was tincture of clawfoot.”

  “You poisoned me!” Mai’s mouth gaped in horror, then looked at Keles. “Your sister tried to kill me.”

  Keles looked at his sister and the fury on her face burned through the outrage Mai’s plea had spawned in him. “You are exaggerating, Mai. She would have done you no harm.”

  “I did her no harm.” Nirati shrugged nonchalantly. “Technically it was a servant of yours, bought and paid for with Anturasi gold, who administered the drug, but it was prepared with consummate skill—skill far greater than you possess.”

  “At least I have a talent, Nirati,” Majiata snarled.

  Keles stepped between them, turning to face Majiata. “Stop. Go no further.”

  “Again you deny the truth, Keles. Everyone knows your sister is to be pitied. She’s talentless. No skill at mapmaking, no skill with plants and herbs. Others who have known such shame have had the good grace to destroy themselves.”

  Keles’ hands knotted. His words came precise and clipped. “I told you to go no further. There is more than one type of shame, Majiata. Remember, Empress Cyrsa was late come to her talent.”

  “Your sister is no Cyrsa.”

  “But she is my sister and I love her.” He lifted his chin. “If you love me, you will stop. Now.”

  Majiata hesitated, her blue eyes flicking as she measured her responses. Keles wanted her anger to break, for her to ask his forgiveness. With every heartbeat that she did not, he realized his desire was in vain, as his earlier happiness rotted within him.

  “Is that it, then? You choose your sister over me?”

  “I make no such choice. I love you, I love her, I love you both. I do not choose.” He frowned and his voice slackened. “And you should not make me choose.”

  “Oh, no, Keles, I could never make you choose. But clearly I never had a chance here at all, did I?” Majiata’s eyes welled with tears. “I offered you everything. I offered you a future of your own, Keles, and you will not permit yourself to grasp it.”

  Nirati came up on his side. “No, Majiata, you offered him an illusion. His future was to be your future, for the benefit of your family. To you he was no more than a stud who could draw maps.”

  Mai slapped Nirati, snapping her head around. She raised her hand again, but Keles caught her by the wrist. “Don’t.”

  Mai screeched in fury, wrenched her hand free, and clawed at his face. Keles fended her off and she retreated. Her fingers hooked spastically and anger knotted her face into ugliness. “I won’t have you, Keles Anturasi. You and your family will always be prisoners here. I will have no part of it. Our engagement is ended!”

  She stormed back toward the tower, but Nirati darted after her and caught her by her robe’s sash. “The ring.”


  “The ring. You broke the engagement, Majiata. The ring remains here.”

  Mai turned and looked at Keles, tears painting her cheeks with black. “Will you grant me nothing for my love?”

  Keles looked down, his guts twisting slowly around an icy core.

  Nirati laughed harshly. “You deserve nothing, Mai.”

  “Fine.” She tugged the ring free and hurled it against his chest. It bounced off. “I want nothing of the Anturasi. You are dead to me.”

  Mai waited for a moment to hear any reply he might have, but Keles remained silent. She shook her head, then stalked off in a rustle of silk and a flash of blue that seemed to take the rest of the color from the garden with it.

  Nirati bent to retrieve the ring. She stood slowly and held it out to her twin. “She was not worthy of you.”

  Keles started to speak, but his dry throat closed. He swallowed hard, then frowned at his sister. “What you did was cruel.”

  “To her? It was better than she deserved. For months she has bragged that she had you right where she wanted. She said you would be trapped here in our home, while she was free to enjoy the court and life in the capital. She would bear you children, but her family would help raise them, and she knew you would grant her that freedom. She had it all planned out.”

  He resisted the urge to cover his ears with his hands. “Couldn’t you have just told me?”

  “Could we?” Nirati laid a hand on his upper arm. “You saw in her the sort of woman she could have become, were she not grasping, greedy, and venial. You would not have listened. You did not. Mother cautioned you against sleeping with her, but you went ahead and did so anyway.”

  He slowly nodded. “I know it was foolish.” He sighed heavily. “It’s a good thing, I guess, that Mother prepared the tincture of clawfoot and bribed a servant to give it to Majiata.”

  Nirati laughed. “We didn’t bribe any servant and we certainly didn’t poison her. What I said was a trick. I told her a servant in the Phoesel household was giving her clawfoot. You know she will not rest until she determines who it was. And that will prove an impossible task.”

  “But . . .” He pointed off across the river toward the Phoesel compound. “Majiata and I have been sleeping together. If she wasn’t . . . if you weren’t . . . then she could be pregnant.”

  “Keles, my dear brother, we did not dose Majiata.” Nirati caressed his cheek. “Mother is very good. You never recognized the taste of snipeweed in your night’s-cup, did you?”

  “I just thought the wine was a bit off. This time of year, before the new vintages are out . . .” He stared down at his empty hands. “I’ve been a fool, haven’t I? I had convinced myself she would come with me, that she loved me.”

  “Maybe part of her did, Keles.” Nirati rubbed his arm. “Mother and I didn’t want to hurt you, but we knew she would hurt you more. She would hurt all of us. And it was better our acting than Grandfather. He never would have let her sail with you. You do know that.”

  “Well, I was thinking I might not actually tell him.”

  Nirati lifted his chin and looked him in the eyes. “Keles, you will be communicating with him, mind to mind, during your journey. I know I don’t have that talent—though we did work hard, didn’t we, to try and see if I did? What I know of it, though, is that while you don’t actually converse, Grandfather can rummage around in your mind. Do you think you could have hidden her presence from him?”

  Keles winced. “Once at sea he wouldn’t have recalled us.”

  “In one of his rages? You really think he wouldn’t have?”

  “No, you’re right, he would have. Or ordered her put ashore.” He exhaled slowly. “It wasn’t my best plan.”

  “Keles, you’re smart and disciplined and methodical, which is why someday you will replace Grandfather.” Nirati held up the ring and let sunlight flash in rainbow glints from it. “Majiata didn’t let you think. When you have time, you will see things the way the rest of us did.”

  “You’re right, I’m sure.” Keles swallowed hard, then sighed. “I just hope she will be well.”

  “Majiata?” Nirati shook her head. “No, I won’t say it. It’s good that you are still concerned, though you should not be. I think, brother dear, she will recover.”

  The look on his sister’s face told him what she refused to. She thinks Majiata will have a new suitor by the end of the Festival. Perhaps sooner.

  “I’ll have to tell Captain Gryst that Majiata won’t be coming on the trip.”

  Nirati raised an eyebrow. “Did she actually say she’d let Majiata on her ship?”

  “She said she’d find a way to get her on board.”

  “In a crate, no doubt. From what I hear of Captain Gry
st, she would not have put up with her nonsense for long.” His sister smiled. “Of course, load some ballast in the crate and dump it over the side . . .”


  “I’m sorry, Keles.” She gave him a warm smile. “I just didn’t like her and I am glad this is over—though, with her, I know there will be repercussions. Nothing we can’t live with, though.”

  “Repercussions.” Keles shivered. “What can I expect from Grandfather and Jorim?”

  “Nothing from Grandfather. He was insulated in the matter, save from the demands of her father. But it is not like he hasn’t dealt with angry merchants before.” Nirati shifted her shoulders. “Jorim didn’t approve of her, but said nothing. The last fight he was in, however, was with her cousin.”

  Keles winced. “Does Grandfather know about the fight?”

  “Not yet, but he will.”

  “Can’t we . . .” Keles read her expression. “What is it?”

  “The Prince is coming here, tonight, to speak with Grandfather. You and Jorim are to be there as well. There will be no disguising that Jorim has been in another fight.”

  Keles shook his head. “It’s Festival. Things should be going well, not poorly.”

  “Cheer up, brother. Not everything is bad.”


  “No, indeed.” Nirati gave him a broad smile. “Just think, your night’s-cup will now be sweet again. Perhaps it’s not much, but . . .”

  “I know, Nirati.” He kissed her on the forehead. “There are times when that will have to do.”

  Chapter Three

  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

  Inn of the Three Cranes, Moriande


  As the low tapping came at the door, Moraven Tolo felt his heart beating faster than it ever did in combat. “You are welcome.”

  The latch rose and the door swung open silently on freshly greased hinges. A young man with black hair and bright blue eyes stood on the threshold, snapping off a deep bow. Moraven bent to match it—not to honor the boy, but the man who shuffled into the doorway in his wake.

  Phoyn Jatan had never been a tall man, and age had stooped him so that he barely topped five feet. His hair, thinned to wisps, no longer benefited from being dyed. The grey threads did little to hide the liver-spotted scalp, nor did the grey robe hide how skeletally thin he had become. His shuffled step and the way he leaned heavily on a gnarled walking stick mocked the lithe and fluid warrior he had once been.

  Moraven sank to a knee. “Your visit honors me, Master, more than words can express.”

  Jatan’s voice suffered little from age. “That you would journey here at my request honors me, jaecaiserr.”

  Moraven straightened up, but remained half-kneeling and gestured to the room’s low cot. It had been pushed against the wall and he’d demanded every pillow in the inn in preparation for the visit. “Had I expected to receive you in my chambers, Master, I would have chosen a place more suitable.”

  The old man waved away his apology as he shuffled to the bed and seated himself. The young man closed the door, then took the walking stick and knelt at Jatan’s right hand. “I asked you to come to me during the Festival. It begins tomorrow, but I desired to see you sooner. Thank you for indulging me.”

  Moraven read the man’s grin and the playful light in his eyes. “How did you know I was here?”

  Jatan settled back against the mountain of pillows. “Must you ask, Moraven? I like that name, by the way. Very strong. It suits you better than the others.”

  “Thank you, Master.” He brought his other knee down and settled back on his ankles. “But that does not answer the question.”

  Jatan turned to the youth. “Study him, Geias, for this is the mien and focus of a Mystic. He is a better example than I.”

  Moraven looked at the boy. “But my Master is a better example of how to evade. If he has a scar for each prince beneath which he has lived, it would only be because he has carelessly let a cat scratch him in the last week.”

  The old man laughed. “I have missed you, Moraven. As my Master often said, ‘Better the sharp swordsman than the sharp blade.’ ”

  “Then, lest I become sharper, your answer to my question?”

  Jatan nodded slowly. “I would tell you that I felt you, four days ago, as you dealt with the bandits on the road, but you would tell me I was remembering a time before.”

  Moraven remained silent, but raised an eyebrow.

  “No, I know that you, of all my students, would not believe it, even if it were true.” The old man coughed dryly. “A boy with a withered arm came to the serrian two days ago, bearing Macyl’s overshirt. He’d brought it to the family, and they wished us to have it. The boy and his family thanked me profusely for my student—one whose name I did not know—and how he saved them.”

  “It was a simple matter, Master, but one that will grow in the telling, I fear.”

  “It already has, but not badly. They reported evidence of jaedun in how you disarmed the archer.” The old man smiled. “I am not certain they were wrong, though I discount reports of lightning flashing and thunder clapping. You have not become that powerful, have you?”

  “If lightning and thunder were possible, you would have long since displayed it, though perhaps not to as unworthy a student as myself.”

  “You were never unworthy, Moraven.” Jatan coughed again. “You were always clever.”

  “Not always, Master. Were that true, I would not have come to you as I did.” Moraven shifted on his knees and reached for his leather traveling bag. “I did manage to find some wyrlu in the west. It is of Virine manufacture, if you wish, Master.”

  “Geias, there is no reason you will mention this to your mother.”

  The youth nodded.

  The old man smiled and rubbed his hands together as Moraven produced a bottle, uncorked it, and poured an amber liquid into two small cups. “Eron’s wife takes good care of him and the other students, but she fusses over me.”

  “I seem to recall other Mistresses of House Jatan who fussed similarly.” Moraven handed him one of the cups. “I have no complaint, for without being fussed over, I would not have recovered.”

  Jatan sniffed at the liquor, then tossed it off in one gulp. His eyes screwed shut for a moment, then he swallowed hard. He coughed again, but only lightly, then spoke in a harsh whisper. “You underestimate your vitality.”

  “No, Master, I am aware of my mortality.”

  Moraven Tolo had first met Phoyn Jatan in Moriande, awakening on a sleeping mat in the Soshir Estate. He’d been lying there facedown, his chest swathed in bandages. He had no recollection of who he was or whence he had come. Things around him felt strangely familiar, but also quite alien, as if a hundred rice-paper paintings had been chopped into pieces and fitted together with no particular scheme.

  The only thing he knew about himself was that he had been horribly wounded with a sword. The slash had taken him on the left side, stopping a handwidth shy of his spine. An inch or two of the scar remained visible on his chest and a finger of it along the flank. The blow should have killed him; but he was left alive to wonder if he had been struck in the back because he was a coward running from battle, or if enemies he now could not recall had genuinely intended to kill him.

  Phoyn Jatan and his wife of the time, Chyrynal, had nursed him to health. Jatan built the sword school around him in his old Master’s estate—which Moriande’s growth had since overtaken. It became apparent that whoever he had been, he had been a swordsman of no mean skill. This spoke against the idea of cowardice, but Moraven worked hard to ensure this charge would never be leveled against him again. It was the reason the bandits had been slain on the road to Moriande eighty-one years previously, and countless others had died beneath his blade before then.

  “Mortality, Mo
raven, is a concern for all of us.” Jatan held the cup out for a refill. “Once I knew a man claiming to be a student of mine was here, I sent students out to seek a swordsman of skill. Do you know of a young man who calls himself Desheil Tolo, and claims to be your cousin? He wears the leopard hunting as a crest and speaks the southern dialect.”

  “No, but there was the business down in Erumvirine that might have caused him to choose that name.” Moraven poured more of the grain alcohol for his Master. “Did he take it in my honor, or shall I be required to strip him of it?”

  “Eron is making inquiries.” Jatan sipped at the liquor this time. “The boy you sent, tell me his story.”

  “I did not send him.”

  “Moraven, please.” The old man shook his head. “My Master told the tale of flying a hawk against forest doves. His hawk stooped and knocked one from the sky, which fell and hit a peasant’s cook pot, spilling thin broth on a fire. The peasant demanded payment for his supper, since it was Master Virisken’s hawk that began the loss. Your sending the boy to Macyl’s family began this chain.”

  Moraven frowned, then drank and let the liquid burn its way down his throat. “As I recall, Master, your Master paid the peasant, then demanded the money back from him in payment for the dove, which the peasant’s family were then roasting. When the peasant said the dove was from the gods and refused to pay, Master Virisken slew him for blasphemy.”

  “True, true, but the Empire had not been divided into the Nine at that time, so things were different. And your attempt to evade my question was bold but in vain.”

  “There is not much to tell. They come from the south, a day’s walk from Erumvirine, and are millers. The boy had ventured up the millstream and found a place where the bank had been eroded. It opened into a little hole and he crawled in. Something was shining there, glowing with a blue light. The boy reached for it with his left hand.” Moraven shrugged. “He remembers nothing else. His father found him floating down the stream and thought he was dead, but only his arm was withered.”