Authors: McKenna Juliet E.
It wasn’t her fault the dream smoke hadn’t helped him. Hosh tossed the box back into the corner, the contents scattering across the tile.
‘Is that not good to eat?’ A voice sounded behind him, intrigued.
Hosh whirled around but there was no one to be seen.
Pale light flared in the dimness. A pallid blue flame dancing on the palm of a man’s outstretched hand.
The mage chuckled. ‘Do you think that I will kill you?’
Hosh guessed his face must have given away his shock and dread. But he couldn’t guess what manner of accent that was, rasping deep in the stranger’s throat.
Though he spoke the Tormalin tongue. Hosh frowned, puzzled.
‘You are from the same land as him,’ the mage said confidently. ‘I see it in your hair and skin.’
‘Who do you mean?’ Hosh demanded.
‘Corrain.’ The mage stepped closer and the light brightened to fill the room with soft radiance.
Hosh recoiled. Not from the flame but from the stranger’s breath. The man’s mouth reeked worse than a hound’s that had been eating deer shit.
‘Why did he leave you here?’ The mage folded scrawny arms across his chest. He wore a sleeveless white silk tunic adorned at hem and neck with gold beading and stained down the front with reddish sauce. His blue cotton trews had been cut for a much taller man so he had rolled the cuffs up into ungainly bulges.
I could take him in a fight, Hosh though, incredulous. He had been so used to being the skinniest among the Halferan guards that it was a wonder to face a man half a head shorter than he was and surely a generation older, his face was so deeply lined.
Perhaps I could take him in a fight if he wasn’t a wizard, Hosh reminded himself.
‘Corrain didn’t leave me.’ He swallowed hard. ‘We were supposed to flee together, only there was a fight and then I had to run—’
Because his nerve had failed him so utterly amid the chaos engulfing the seaside market. So he’d fled back to the dubious sanctuary of the anchored
, and Nifai the overseer had stepped in to save his neck from the furious vengeance of the Khusro warlord’s swordsmen. Hosh had paid a heavy price for that boon. The Archipelagans might know nothing of coin but they knew the price of every traded service or bartered good.
‘He said nothing of you when he and I came here together,’ the mage said silkily.
‘Corrain came—?’ Hosh floundered.
‘Once we had killed all of these vermin we found in your homeland,’ the mage explained comfortably.
‘He must think that I’m dead,’ Hosh realised, desolate.
‘What is your name?’ The mage angled his head, dark eyes glinting in the eerie light.
‘You are from—’ the skinny mage paused before speaking carefully ‘—Hal-far-ain.’
‘I am Anskal.’ The mage struck his bony chest with an oddly flamboyant gesture. ‘Once I was of Mandarkin but I now rule this island!’
Hosh nodded warily. Mandarkin. He’d never heard tell of the place before Kusint the Soluran had arrived here to be chained with them as one of the
oar slaves. After he’d told them of his own distant homeland, the red-headed man had explained that the realm of Mandarkin lay still further north. A cruel and barren land ruled by still crueller men, their tyranny upheld by magic, sworn enemy to Solura and its kings.
By all that was sacred and profane, what had Corrain done?
‘But I do not rule this island’s people?’ Anskal looked at Hosh, clearly waiting for an answer.
‘No,’ Hosh ventured.
‘They fear me.’ Anskal nodded with evident satisfaction. ‘But you do not. Good.’ He reached for the jar of soused fish. ‘Let us eat and talk as friends.’
Politeness costs nothing, so the priests at the village shrine would say. Hosh’s mum always said that forgetting it could cost the common folk everything.
The skinny wizard plucked a long fillet from the pot and ate it from his fingers. He offered the jar to Hosh but he couldn’t bring himself to take anything which the Mandarkin had touched, not given the unwashed stink of him. It was hard to think of a greater contrast with Master Minelas, so elegant in his dress and so meticulously groomed.
But not eating might be an insult far away in the north. Hosh hastily scooped up a handful of pickled leaves. Then he all but choked on a sudden realisation.
If this wizard had killed whatever corsairs infested Halferan, then Master Minelas must be dead. Corrain would never have come here unless he’d left the treacherous wizard’s head on the spike of Halferan’s gibbet.
‘They have no chairs.’ Anskal the Mandarkin looked curiously around the kitchen.
‘What?’ Hosh hastily gathered his wits. ‘No, they sit on cushions.’
Anskal chewed another piece of fish, contemplating Hosh in a way that made him horribly uneasy.
‘You do not fear me,’ he repeated, thoughtful.
‘I do fear you,’ Hosh protested. ‘You could kill me as soon as look at me!’
‘True,’ Anskal allowed. He picked at some fragment stuck between his chipped and stained teeth. ‘Tell me, why do these dark-skinned men not bury their dead? I have seen them leaving corpses to be eaten by the vermin of this isle.’
Hosh wondered what else the wizard had seen, wandering around the island under whatever spell of invisibility he’d used to sneak up into this pavilion and surprise him. When he wasn’t foraging for food Hosh laired up in a fringe tree thicket, barely venturing out to piss behind a rock for fear of encountering some returning Aldabreshi. Some Archipelagan like Ducah who could have decided he’d mistaken whatever portent had persuaded him to leave Hosh alive.
‘Tell me!’ The Mandarkin demanded, peremptory.
‘They wish to become part of their home or at worst, the place where they died,’ Hosh said hurriedly. ‘Some domains favour burial, others are content to become one with the living creatures.’
Imais had explained all this, when Hosh had been repelled to find a dead corsair laid out for the land crabs and palm rats in a charnel grove on the far headland. She had tried to explain where practice varied among the domains but the endless litany of unfamiliar names had only left Hosh dizzy.
‘The Archipelagans believe that everything they have been in life will influence the omens that guide those who survive them.’
Hosh found the eerie notion a coldly comfortless alternative to the hope of rebirth in the Otherworld. Imais had been appalled to think of any body being burned on a pyre, reduced to ashes to be swept away on the wind or stowed amid a shrine’s funeral urns.
‘This is a strange place with very strange customs.’ Anskal sucked on a pickled leaf. ‘Tell me, why are all the men and women cowering on the far side of this rock?’ He gestured vaguely eastwards. ‘They are right to fear me but why have they not come to yield to my rule? They are starving,’ he continued, incredulous, ‘yet you are the only one to come here, though these cellars are full of food.’
‘They—’ Hosh desperately tried to find an answer that wouldn’t cause offence. ‘They couldn’t eat any food taken from a pavilion so close to your magical wave. They’d fear it has been touched by your sorcery.’
Anskal pursed his lips. ‘It is good that we met. You are born of Halferain so you know enough of magic to know that you cannot challenge me and live. Yet you also know of these islands and their customs. Do you know their tongue? Will you be of use to me?’
‘Yes.’ What else could Hosh say?
‘Then what is this?’ Anskal tossed something from his pocket at Hosh.
He fumbled the catch and the glittering thing went rolling across the floor. He dropped to his knees and went scrabbling after it.
Anskal growled what could only be an oath in his harsh tongue. A shimmer of sapphire magelight scooped the object from the floor and slammed it into Hosh’s cringing hands.
He grimaced as he opened his stinging fingers. It was one of the gaudy ornaments which the Aldabreshi coveted, men and women alike. This arm ring was a trifling piece by local standards, studded with rock crystal and with silver showing through the gilding rubbed away on the inner face.
Getting to his feet, Hosh unclasped it, ready to refasten the trinket above his elbow. ‘It’s worn—’
‘I see that.’ Anskal clicked his tongue, irritated. ‘Where is it from?’
‘I have no idea.’ Seeing Anskal’s expression darken, Hosh looked more closely at the shining piece. ‘I don’t think it’s islander made.’ It reminded him of some of the ornaments that Lady Zurenne or other fine visiting ladies in Halferan wore; heirlooms of their baronies.
‘It must be plunder from the mainland.’ He offered it back to the mage.
‘Keep it.’ Anskal waved his hand impatiently. ‘Is there more such loot? Men who can tell me where they stole such things?’
Hosh wondered which was more perilous; refusing a wizard’s gift or accepting it? He fastened the arm ring and slid it beneath his ragged sleeve. Maybe he could lose it later. If he lived so long.
‘They won’t talk to you.’ There was no point in lying.
Anskal shrugged. ‘But they will talk to you.’
‘Me?’ Hosh stared at the Mandarkin, horrified. ‘They’ll kill me as soon as look at me.’ He tried desperately to explain. ‘They will be afraid that some miasma will cling to me, after I’ve been so close to your magic.’
Now the Mandarkin was smiling, making Hosh more and more nervous. He braced himself for the mage’s next words.
So he wasn’t expecting Anskal to snatch up the knife from the table. He was utterly unprepared for the Mandarkin’s swift step around the table to drive the shining blade into his belly.
Hosh screamed. Then he felt something painfully hard fall onto his bare foot. It hurt. But his toes were all that hurt. Where was the agony of murderous steel ripping through his guts? He looked down to see the snapped-off knife blade on the floor.
Anskal tossed the broken hilt onto the table. ‘They cannot kill you.’
How? Hosh bit down hard on that most stupid of questions. Magic, obviously.
Smiling slyly, Anskal reached forward to push up Hosh’s tattered sleeve. ‘As long as you wear that. They cannot kill you.
‘Now you will go and find someone who commands these people’s obedience. You will tell them I wish to know the origin of that piece and of others like it.’
‘I can ask.’ Hosh chewed his lip. ‘But—’
‘If they oblige me,’ the mage gestured westwards, towards the impossible wave blocking the anchorage, ‘I will allow them and their ships to leave. They may take food from these cellars, if they dare brave my presence.’
Once again, Hosh saw how much the thought of the corsairs’ terror pleased the skinny wizard.
‘I can take that offer to them,’ he said hesitantly.
Would Nifai be willing to make a deal with the wizard? For the sake of escaping this island prison? If the
’s erstwhile overseer was even still alive.
‘I will go now.’ Hosh ducked his head obediently and stepped back from the table.
If Nifai was alive, could Hosh possibly find something in one of the deserted pavilions to trade for a seat back at his old oar on the galley? He would row until his hands bled to get away from here. So would every Aldabreshi, slave or corsair.
‘In the morning.’ Anskal raised a grimy hand. ‘Tonight you will tell me of your homeland.’
‘Of course. Please—’ Hosh’s palms were sweating ‘—Captain Corrain? Where is he? You said he came here with you—’
‘I sent him away when he displeased me.’ Anskal leaned forward, his dark eyes unblinking and menacing. ‘You will also tell me all that you know of the wizards in your southlands.’
‘I don’t know much,’ Hosh said, frightened.
If this Mandarkin mage had sent Corrain away, where had he sent him? Home to Halferan or somewhere else?