Authors: Lynn Flewelling
Tags: #Epic, #Thieves, #Fantasy Fiction, #Contemporary, #Fiction, #1, #Fantasy, #Wizards, #done, #General
he lean ship smashed through foaming crests, pounding southwest out of Keston toward Skala. By night she ran without lanterns; her crew, accomplished smugglers all, sailed with eyes lifted skyward to the stars. By day they kept constant watch, though there was little chance of meeting another ship. Only a Plenimaran captain would chance deep water sailing so late in the year and this winter there would be none so far north. Not with a war brewing.
Ice sheathed the rigging. The sailors pulled the halyards with bleeding hands, chipped frozen water from the drinking casks, and huddled together off watch, muttering among themselves about the two gentlemen passengers and the grim pack of cutthroats who’d come aboard.
The second day out, the captain came above slobbering drunk. Gold was no use to dead men, he howled over the wind; foul weather was coming, they were turning back. Smiling, the dark nobleman led him below and that was the last anyone heard of the matter. The captain fell overboard sometime that same night. That was the story, at least; the fact was that he was nowhere to be found the next morning and their course remained unchanged.
The mate took over, tying himself to the wheel as they wallowed along. Blown off course, they missed Gull Island and sailed on without respite through lashing sleet and exhaustion. On the fourth day two more men were swept away as waves nearly swamped the ship. A mast snapped, dragging its sail like a broken wing. Miraculously, the ship held true while the remaining crew fought to cut away the tangled ropes.
Clinging among the frozen shrouds that night, the men muttered again, but cautiously. Their finely dressed passengers had brought ill fortune with them; no one wanted to chance attracting their eye. The ship plunged on as if helpful demons guided her keel.
Two days out from Cirna the gale lifted. A pale sun burst through the shredding clouds to guide the battered vessel westward, but foul luck still dogged her. A sudden fever struck among the crew. One by one, they sickened, throats swelling shut as black sores blossomed in the warmth of groins and armpits. Those untouched by the illness watched in horror as the gentlemen’s men-at-arms laughingly tossed the bloated corpses overboard.
None of the passengers sickened, but by the time they sighted the towering cliffs of the Skalan Isthmus the last of the crew could feel the weakness overtaking them.
They reached the mouth of Cirna harbor in darkness, guided by the leaping signal fires that flanked the mouth of the Canal. Still sagging at the wheel, the dying mate watched the passengers’ men strike the sails, lower anchor, and heave the longboat over the side.
One of the gentlemen, the dark-haired one with a long scar under his eye, suddenly appeared at the mate’s elbow. He was smiling, always smiling, though it never seemed to reach his eyes. Half-delirious, the mate staggered back, fearful of being devoured by those soulless eyes.
“You did well,” the dark man said, reaching to tuck a heavy purse into the mate’s pocket. “We’ll see ourselves ashore.”
“There’s some of us still alive, sir!” croaked the mate, looking anxiously toward the signal fires, the warm lights of the town glimmering so close across the water. “We’ve got to get ashore for a healer!”
“A healer, you say?” The dark gentleman raised an eyebrow in concern. “Why, my companion here is a healer of sorts. You had only to ask.”
Looking past him, the mate saw the other man, the weedy one with the face like a rat’s, at work chalking something on the deck. As he straightened from his task the mate recognized the warning symbol for plague.
“Come, Vargul Ashnazai, isn’t there something you can do for this poor fellow?” the dark man called. The mate shuddered as the other man glided toward him.
Not once during the voyage had he heard this man speak. When he did now the words were unintelligible and seemed to collect in the mate’s throat like stones. Gagging, he slumped to the deck. The one called Ashnazai laid a cold hand against his cheek and the world collapsed in a blaze of black light.
Mardus stepped clear of the bile spreading out from the dead sailor’s mouth. “What about the others?”
The necromancer smiled, his fingers still tingling pleasantly from the mate’s death. “Dying as we speak, my lord.”
“Very good. Are the men ready?” “Yes, my lord.”
Mardus took a last satisfied look around the deck of the ravaged vessel, then climbed down to the waiting boat.
Cloaked in Ashnazai’s magic, they passed the quay and custom house without challenge. Climbing a steep, icy street, they found rooms ready for them at the Half Moon tavern.
Mardus and Ashnazai were just settling down over a hot supper in Mardus’ chamber when someone scratched softly at the door.
Captain Tildus entered with a grizzled man named Urvay, Mardus’ chief spy in Rhiminee for the past three years. The man was invaluable, both for his skill and his discretion. Tonight he was dressed as a gentleman merchant and looked distinguished in velvet and silver.
Urvay saluted him gravely. “I’m glad to see you safe, my lord. It’s nasty sailing this time of year.” Mardus dismissed Tildus, then waved the spy to a nearby chair. “What have you to report, my friend?” “Bad news and good, my lord. Lady Kassarie is dead.” “That Leran woman?” asked Ashnazai.
“Yes. The Queen’s spies attacked her keep about a week ago. She died in the battle. Vicegerent Barien committed suicide over the matter and there are rumors that the Princess Royal was implicated somehow, though the Queen’s taken no action against her. The rest of the faction has gone to ground or fled.”
“A pity. They might have proved useful. But what about our business?” “That’s the good news, my lord. I have new people in place with several influential nobles.” “Which ones?”
“Lord General Zymanis, for one-word is he’s about to be commissioned with overseeing the lower city fortifications. And one of my men just got himself betrothed to Lady Kora’s second daughter and has the run of the villa. But of particular interest, my lord—” Urvay paused, leaning forward a little.
“I’m in the process of establishing a contact inside the Oreska House.” Mardus raised an eyebrow. “Excellent! But how? We haven’t been able to get a spy in there for years.”
“Not a spy, my lord, but a turncoat. His name is Pelion i Eirsin. He’s an actor, and highly thought of at the moment.”
“What’s he got to do with the Oreska?” demanded Vargul Ashnazai.
“He’s got a lover there,” Urvay explained quickly, “a young sorceress said to be the mistress of one or two of the older wizards as well. Her name’s Ylinestra, and she’s got a bit of a reputation around the city; a fiery little catamount with an eye for handsome young men and powerful old ones. This man Pelion is evidently part of her collection. Through him we may be able to get to her and perhaps others. She’s not a member of the Oreska herself, but she lives there and has rooms of her own.”
“I hardly think we need the services of some slut to get into the place,” the necromancer scoffed. “Maybe not,” Urvay interrupted, “but this slut numbers the wizard Nysander among her lovers.”
“Nysander i Azusthra?” Mardus nodded approvingly. “Urvay, you’ve outdone yourself! But what have you told this actor of yours?”
“To him, I am Master Gorodin, a great admirer of his work. I also understand how important patronage is to a young actor on the rise, and to a certain playwright who’s willing to create roles especially for him. In return, my new friend Pelion passes on whatever bit of gossip he picks up around town. He likes the deal, and knows better than to ask too many questions. As long as the gold flows, he’s ours.”