Perilous Seas [A Man of His Word #3]
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by Dave Duncan
Description: A princess and a stableboy? It sounds like the worst sort of hackneyed formula romance. Think again, for "A Man of His Word" may well be the most original fantasy you ever read. The magic is unique and applied in unexpected ways, some of which the late Lester del Rey admitted he had not met in fifty years as writer and editor. The world itself is unique--there are no humans in Pandemia, only imps, elves, gnomes, jotnar, and many more, all of whom you will recognize as "human". Hunted now by the fearsome warlock wardens who rule the world, Inos is convinced that Rap is dead. But Rap is not, and the tide may be about to turn...
eBook Publisher: E-Reads, 2005
eBookwise Release Date: June 2005
86 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [563 KB]
Reading time: 355-497 min.
In all the Impire, there was no more prosperous province than the island of Kith. Ever since its conquest in the expansive days of the Xth Dynasty, it had been the imps' main bastion in the Summer Seas.
It had rich mines, fertile farmland, and a substantial shipping industry. Once in a while a typhoon would do some damage, or dragons might lay waste along the northeast shore, but neither had troubled the western coast in centuries, and there the city of Finrain was the largest and richest on the island, as well as the greatest port.
Ports needed sailors. The best sailors were jotnar. Imps had good reason to be jumpy when there were jotnar around, and they firmly encouraged the sailors who manned Finrain's shipping to make their homes at Durthing, a couple of hours to the south--close enough to be handy, but distant enough that their violent impulses could do no damage to Finrain itself, nor its citizens.
Durthing was home also to a few trolls, most of them descendants of slaves imported from the Mosweeps, because the aboriginal population had pretty much died out after the Impire came. There were also some mixed bloods, and of course gnomes to handle the sanitary arrangements. There were even a few imps, but any imp who chose to live in a jotunnish settlement must have very good reasons, of the sort that were better not discussed.
Lately, a young sailor of mixed faun-jotunn ancestry had taken up residence. Although he had been a thrall purchased at enormous expense by Gathmor, the new master of Stormdancer, he had subsequently been given his freedom. Within limits. His shipmates did not exactly take turns at keeping an eye on him, but . . . Well, he was a good kid and never lacked for company. He had shown no interest in departing, anyway, but he was much too valuable to be allowed the opportunity. Moreover, there was only one land road out of Durthing, and it ran by a post of the Imperial army. Imps were notoriously nosy.
Its fondest resident could not have called Durthing a town, and barely even a village, for its huts and hovels were scattered at random around the sides of a shallow, bowl-shaped hollow. The only break in the bowl's symmetry was a notch where the sea had broken through, back before the oldest Gods. With clear, calm water and smooth sand for beaching, the near-circular bay was one of the finest harbors in all of Pandemia. Three little streams watered the slopes, the sea teemed with fish, and the climate was perfect. Usually a dozen ships lay anchored there, or pulled up on the beach, and most often two or three more were under construction.
There was no formal land law in Durthing, for there was no formal law at all. The sea was a demanding mistress and whenever she stole a lover from his family, his home was soon abandoned to weeds and swallowed up by scrubby woodland.
A woman bereft must find herself another protector at once, and her children likely died soon anyway. Even among jotnar, few men would actually kill a child in cold blood, but even fewer would care overmuch for brats spawned by a predecessor. The work was done by neglect and indifference, or in mindless drunken rages. A widow who did not find another guardian was soon driven out by the other women and vanished into the nightmare slums of Finrain.
But in every evil there was some good, as the priests said, and housing was thus no problem for a newcomer. He might pick a pleasant spot not too far from one of the streams and build the home of his dreams, or he could just move into one of the empties. The selection was wide: impish wooden shacks, or low, dark sod hovels of the Nordland type favored by jotnar, or the rambling piles of masonry constructed by trolls. There were also some abandoned gnome burrows, but even the rats shunned those.
The faun had selected an ancient log cabin off by itself, and labored to make it shipshape while he settled down to life as a sailor. After every voyage he added more improvements. The months slipped by imperceptibly in that silken halcyon climate, and spring had become summer already.
* * * *
Far to the east, under a harsher sun, the caravan road from the great port of Ullacarn ran eastward through the foothills of the Progistes before swinging north to branch and divide and become a seine of paths into the Central Desert. Squeezed between sand and mountains, the single way was known to the merchants as the Gauntlet. Their guards called it the Slaughterhouse. In some places the road was so constricted that drivers heading seaward could shout insults or greetings to those bound for the interior, while the bells on their respective camels rang in rondelet together. Many trader trains came through there, but not as many as tried, for banditry was the main source of employment in the district. The names of the passes told the tale: Bone Pass, Bodkin's Eye, One Out, Bloody Spring, High Death, Low Death, Buzzard's Gizzard, and Eight Men Dead.
Additional guards could be hired at either end of the Gauntlet, but they might not be of authentic royal blood. The genuine lionslayers distrusted them utterly, and with good reason.
After many weeks of trekking across the wastes of Zark, the caravan led by the venerable Sheik Elkarath had come at last to the Gauntlet. A few dangerous days ahead lay the fair city of Ullacarn, representing rest, profit, and well-earned comfort. The camels that had borne necessities to the humble folk of the interior--shovels and mattocks of tough dwarvish steel, cunning elvish dyestuffs, strong linen thread--were laden now with produce that the rest of Pandemia would greet as luxuries: wool of mountain goats and bright rugs woven from it, uncut emeralds, and durable garments of leather or camel hair, crafted by humble, hungry folk, whose only resource was unlimited time.
Many times in a long life, the sheik had traversed the Gauntlet. He had met violence there on occasion, yet he had never suffered loss of man or substance. If pressed to explain his remarkable good fortune, he would merely smile cryptically into his snowy beard and speak of vigilance and devotion to the precepts of holy writ. This time, he was confident, his passage would be similarly untroubled. This time his party was no larger nor richer than it had been in the past.
Portly and dignified, Sheik Elkarath rode high on his camel, serenely surveying the sun-blasted rocky landscape from under his snowbank brows as he led his long train down to the Oasis of Tall Cranes. Here he was in the very center of the Gauntlet, the most dangerous stretch of all. The barren crags around him concealed a dozen dark ravines that only the locals knew, any one of which might hold a band of armed brigands lying in wait. The jagged peaks of the Progistes pressed close along the northwestern skyline.
The tiny settlement in the valley below comprised a few dozen adobe houses, a welcome pond of clear water, and a hundred or so gangly palm trees. It owned no mines and grew no crops of any substance. Yet the people of Tall Cranes were well fed and prosperous. Their paddocks held many fine camels. Among other peoples, all djinns had a reputation for perfidy, but within Zark itself, the inhabitants of Tall Cranes were notorious.
From long experience, Sheik Elkarath anticipated a productive evening of trading. Always he brought gold to Tall Cranes, because the elders would accept nothing less for the jewels and crafts and livestock they offered. To inquire into the source of their wealth would have been grossly discourteous and insanely rash.
Behind the sheik, tall in the saddle, rode his chief guard. By the ancient tradition of the camel roads, he was referred to always as First Lionslayer. In his case the anonymity was especially valuable, because that spectacular young man was Sultan Azak of Arakkaran, literally worth a king's ransom. Much farther back in the caravan, the young woman professing to be his wife was Queen Inosolan of Krasnegar. She, however, would be worth nothing to the average kidnapper, except brief carnal satisfaction. To the wardens, the four occult guardians of the world, she was apparently worth considerably more.
But Sheik Elkarath would not be speaking of magic, or politics, during his visit to the Oasis of Tall Cranes.