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Authors: Laura Anne Gilman

Flesh and Fire

FLESH AND FIRE

FLESH AND FIRE

BOOK ONE OF THE VINEART WAR

LAURA ANNE GILMAN

Pocket Books

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This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

Copyright © 2009 by Laura Anne Gilman

All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form whatsoever. For information address Pocket Books Subsidiary Rights Department, 1230 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10020.

First Pocket Books hardcover edition October 2009

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Designed by Renata Di Biase

Manufactured in the United States of America

10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Gilman, Laura Anne.

Flesh and fire / Laura Anne Gilman.—1st Pocket Books hardcover ed.

p. cm.—(The Vineart war ; bk. 1)

I. Title.

PS3557.I4545F54 2009

813’54—dc22

2009012786

ISBN 978-1-4391-0141-4

ISBN 978-1-4391-2687-5 (ebook)

This book absolutely has to be dedicated to my agent, Jennifer Jackson,whose casual suggestion “write me a food- or wine-based fantasy”was meant in jest but triggered the idea that became these books.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

CREATING THE LANDS Vin ate much of my life for a year and more; thankfully I had the help of many wonderful, talented, and knowledgeable people from the United States, France, Australia, and Germany. I sent e-mails and made phone calls and cornered innocent wine folk in their offices, peppering them with seemingly insane questions—all of which they answered cheerfully and at length, with the affection for the topic that shines through every person connected with the wine industry. Like writing, wine-making is a profession of passion and aggravation, often in the same moment, and I thank them for sharing a window into their lives.

Any details that don’t connect to the actual process were either changed intentionally, or I got wrong. Don’t blame them.

Special thanks go, in no particular order, to:

Hannelore Pepke-Durix (Burgundy)

Robert Kowal, assistant winemaker at City Winery (New York City)

Rosalind Berlow (New York City)

Karen Miller (Australia)

Stéphanie Bouhin at La P’tite Cave (Burgundy)

Henri Emmanuel at Cave du Cabet des Cordeliers (Burgundy)

François-Xavier Dufouleur at Maison Dufouleur Frères (Burgundy)

Robert Eymael at Mönchhof & Joh. Jos. Christoffel Erben (Germany)

the staff at Domaine Bouchard Aîné et Fils (Burgundy)

FLESH AND FIRE

When I preach,
I remind myself that the Collegium was created for one purpose: that the world not forget Sin Washer, and how—and why—He came to us. That is our duty, our reason for being.

The story is a simple one, in the telling. Ages past, prince-mages ruled these lands. Some were good men, and some were evil, but all were arrogant with their power, and the emperor in distant Ettion, busy with his own rebellious court, did not rein them in. Bored, they battled each other, staging magical conflicts merely to prove their skills. Year after year, the contests grew more brutal, the need to win more overwhelming.

In those days, all spellwine came from the First Growth, whose vines were straight and tall, the flesh fruit ripe with magic, and only the quality of a prince-mage’s harvest determined whose spell-crafting would prevail. Thus the people were taken from their other, necessary work, until entire regions felt the pinch of hunger and disease.

Distraught, the people cried out to their gods to save them. Of all the ten gods, only two heard and listened: Baphos, patron of the harvest, and Charif of the growing season. Taking the form of ordinary mortals, they came together to scold the emperor for failing in his duties. The emperor, troubled closer to home, told them to take their complaints to the prince-mages and discipline them directly. Baphos and Charif did so, gathering them together and warning them of the consequences of their actions. But the prince-mages, prideful and strong, did not listen.

Charif was annoyed at the reception they received, and Baphos soothed her, and together they created a child who grew to adulthood between the sowing and the reaping. He was named Zatim, and when he reached his full growth, he came before the prince-mages as well and spoke unto them with the words of his parents, warning them to cease or be destroyed.

The prince-mages refused to hear his words as well, and ordered him slain for daring to reprimand them, for such was their pride in their magic that they thought themselves equal to the child of gods. And so the killers came upon Zatim as he walked alone, and fell upon him with blades dipped in deadly spellwine. But as the knives pierced his flesh, it was not blood but wine that flowed from his veins, a more potent spell-wine than any mage could craft. The killers fell back in awe and fear, and he struck them down with a single word, for unlike his parents Zatim felt no affection for humans to soften his heart.

But his parents’ voices came to him, reminding him that he had been born not to destroy but to protect, and he heard them, and heeded their wisdom. Lowering his hands, the wine-blood flowed over his fingers and down into the soil, spreading through every land, and where it touched the grapes, they withered and changed, the vines twisting under his anger until where once there was a single spellgrape there now were many, their pale yellow skin tinged with the red of his blood, and the prince-mages did not know how to use them.

And the common people rushed to Zatim’s side, trying to staunch the flow and save his life, and in their concern his anger was tempered. He smiled and touched them as well with his wine-blood, and their sadness fled and they felt peace such as they had never known.

“See this,” he said unto them. “See this, how I cleft the magic of the land from the seats of power. Let nevermore the mighty craft magic and use it against those they are sworn to protect.”

And then he died, and those around him gathered the wine-blood from his flesh, and brought others before them and washed their hands with the blood as well, and so the peace was shared, and they praised the name of Zatim Sin Washer, who had stopped the prince-mages and saved the lands from destruction, and given them peace.

This is the story we tell, we Washer’s Kin. We travel from the Collegium school to pour the wine-blood for those who are in need of comfort, and tell Sin Washer’s story, over and over again, so that none will forget what we once were, and how we came to be as we are now.

THAT IS THE story as we tell it, and it ends there, but where legend ends, history begins, and no true story ends so cleanly.

In distant Ettion, in the year of Sin Washer’s birth and death, the emperor himself was slain in his own bed, and the lands fell into chaos. A few prince-mages still tended their strange new grapes, but Sin Washer had spoken truly: each vine was now limited in scope, not the mighty powers of before. And so the age of the prince-mages waned, their attentions turning to more immediate, practical sources of power and strength. But the vineyards remained, and in their place the Vinearts, the vine-mages, arose to master the grapes, and craft them into useful things.

And so were Sin Washer’s words proven true once again, for Vinearts must spend their entire lives learning their vines, and have no time to build armies or rule over men, and princes, busy with the ways of men, have no time to dedicate to the secret and subtle ways of vines.

For nearly fifteen hundred years, through surfeit and famine, prosperity and plague, we have abided by Sin Washer’s Commands. But time passes, memories fade, and the hunger for power is a terribly human thing, and so we—even we Washers—were caught unaware. . ..

Prelude

In the hills
of southern Iaja, thunder had rolled through the night before, but no rain accompanied it, and the slaves were at work in the vineyards soon after sunrise. The sun had progressed to the third-quarter mark when a lean figure came to stand at the edge of the yard. A freshly picked clutch of fruit rested in his work-roughened hand, and he was studying the flesh of the fruit, letting the magic deep within it speak to him and murmur of potential and promise.

A soft cough sounded, overriding the gentle morning hum of insects in the grass and attracting his attention, as intended. “Master?”

Vineart Sionio didn’t turn, but out of the corner of his eye he saw the slave, diffident but urgent, his hands fisting in the rough tunic that hung over his wiry body.

“Yes?” While he waited for a response, the Vineart placed a young green grape on his tongue and closed his mouth around it, crushing it and letting the juice coat his tongue. The taste was both delicate and sour, and it rose into his nasal passages. Not anywhere near ripe, still waiting for the heat of high summer and the cooler nights of Harvest, but showing distinct promise. His vineyards were still young, giving only limited yield. This Harvest might finally change that.

“Master,” the slave said again, “there is a . . .” The slave looked down at his feet, falling silent.

Sionio was a young man, barely thirty and still building his reputation; although granted a Master’s rank, he had not yet earned the right to name his House, his vines still known by the name of the nearest village. He was ambitious, though, and worked as hard as any slave when hands were needed in the yard. His slaves respected him and his magic to the point of caution, as was only proper, but he did not abuse them. There was no reason for them to fear speaking if there was something to be said.

“A what?” He turned then, and looked directly at the slave. “Speak. Stop wasting my time.”

The slave flinched. He was bald, and had either lost or forgotten to wear his hat that morning. Sionio made note to speak to the overseer about that. He could not afford a single slave to fall ill, not now. “I do not know what it is, Master. But it is in the fields. And it is wrong.”

Very few slaves could sense the magic that grew within spellgrapes’ flesh. But they worked the vineyards every day of the year, season after season, and it spoke to them in its own fashion. They knew what should be there . . . and what should not.

Sionio did not hesitate. “Show me.”

The soil was soft underfoot as they walked, the smell of the young fruit warm in the afternoon sun. If the weather held for another month, if no rot or infestation threatened, and Harvest went well. . .

Sionio halted his thoughts there. Weather was something even a Vineart could not always control, and so it could easily become obsession. Sionio was a more practical man; he worried over what he could affect, and left the rest to the silent gods and Nature’s whim. Skill and craft were what made spellwine, and he did not doubt his strength in either.

They came to the vines the slave had been weeding and stopped. “Here, Master.”

A quick mental calculation placed them in seventh square, second grouping. Sionio knew every square of the enclosure, its planting, history, and expectations. The vines here were only four years old, but they had a noble heritage, the rootstock coming from his own master’s enclosures, and in another few years their fruit would contribute to a noble, powerful spellwine that would carry Sionio’s name across the known lands.

“Where is this wrongness?”

“There, Master.” The slave pointed, his sun-browned finger shaking slightly. Six other slaves stood by, looking up and down the yard nervously, three males, two females, and one so old its gender was uncertain. Sionio frowned at them. They should be weeding and pruning, not fiddling with their thumbs like useless citizens.

“In the soil.” The slave who had brought him word pointed again, down at the base of a vine, but made no move to get closer.

Sionio looked at the other slaves again, more closely this time. Two of them had taken off their own straw-brimmed hats and were crunching them between restless fingers. They could not meet his gaze, not even the oldster who should have known better.

These slaves had been bought cheaply, all past puberty; the overlooked second string was all Sionio could afford at the time. Still, life here was better than on the slaver’s caravan. They were not afraid of him, but of what they felt. Or, more accurately, they were more afraid of whatever was there than him.

Sionio pushed passed the slaves and knelt by the vine in question. A grape vine needed support to grow on, the woody stem not strong enough to support itself and the weight of its fruit. During the bare winter season, the slaves wove tendrils around waxed fibers strung between wooden posts, giving the vines something to cling to as they grew. Now, in the warmth of early summer, the small green leaves were clustered thickly around those ropes, protecting the grapes underneath from too much sun, rain, or animal predation.

Sionio’s trousers, durable canvas styled after those worn by Iajan sailors, were quickly stained by the dirt as the Vineart dug his fingers into the soil. He reached toward the roots buried deep in the mineral-poor ground, until the soil reached the dark red mage-stain on the back of his hand. The senses that made him a Vineart, the ability that allowed him to craft the spellwines, rang an alarm. It was not magic that warned him, but some deep atavistic sense, an animal’s warning of a predator, of something not right lurking nearby.

The civilized maiar, or princeling, in his city or fine country house might scoff, but Sionio knew better. Instinct did not lie.

The slave was right. Something was wrong. Something deep, something new. Something that should not be there.

“Go fetch a firestone, and a smudge pot,” he told the nearest slave, the one who had fetched him originally. “And a vial of sweetwater.”

The slave took off at a run, and the others backed up a few steps more, not willing to leave but not wanting to be close to anything that called for sweetwater, also known for good reason as grape-purge.

“Now, what ails you, little ones?” he asked, returning his attention to the grapevines in front of him. To the uneducated eye they seemed perfectly healthy, the leaves shiny and unfurled, each bunch thick and heavy, the grapes small and deep green.

Whatever rot lurked in the soil, it did not seem to have affected the crop yet. With luck, they had caught it soon enough, and Sionio would reward the slave who had alerted him.

Then a tremor under his knee made him look down in time to see tiny red bugs skittering under his hand, digging their way out of the soil. They scrambled over his fingers, trying to climb the rough cloth of his clothing.

Bud mites were normal pests. They usually came out only in the early morning, feeding on the occasional grape that burst in the night. They should not be swarming like this, not now, not in such numbers.

Sionio unhooked a palm-sized wineskin from his leather belt with his free hand, uncorked it easily with two fingers, and tilted it so that a few drops fell onto his tongue. Unlike the grapes he had tasted earlier, the spellwine was rich and fruity, sweetly pungent: the instantly familiar taste of vine-heal. It faded into his mouth, the vapor rising into his sinuses, and as he breathed, the spell was released, allowing him to
feel
the soil,
feel
the movements under his hands and knees.

“Sin Washer!” he swore, jerking back even as the ground under him rumbled, the dirt and bugs flying upward as the force of his query summoned something, a something that erupted from the soil like a volcano, and threw him onto his backside.

The wrinkled, blind head of a grub rose a full length into the air, the shape of it familiar to anyone who had ever worked a vineyard, if a thousand times larger than such a thing should be. The slaves, shrieking, scattered and ran as though the grub would devour them. In the distance, from the kennel by the sleep house, dogs barked a now-useless alarm.

Sionio got to his feet, his gaze never leaving the giant grub’s form even as his mind identified the known facts. He might be young but he was not green. Faced with a threat to his vines, a Vineart did not react; a Vineart
acted.

The leaves near where the grub reared its dark gray form had already faded to an ugly yellow, dying by sheer proximity to the thing, as though its very presence were a poison. Sionio suspected that, were he to lift the leaves, the young grapes would be withered and dying as well. This thing had to be stopped, now, before the blight spread.

He didn’t need a vial of spellwine to deal with the threat: the grub might be huge but it was still a grub. Disgusting, and the size of the thing made it a creature of nightmares, yes, but any Vineart worthy of his vines knew how to deal with such a thing.

It would be easier with his tools, of course.

Even as the thought passed through his mind, there was a sound behind him. The grub turned as though it, too, had heard the sound, and a thin shriek rose into the air from its open maw. The slave had returned. Despite its obvious fear, the slave forced himself forward enough to push an object into his master’s waiting hands.

A firestone, warm and ready. And a small clay pot marked with the sigil for sweetwater.

The smudge pot would have been useful as well, but these were the two things that he needed most of all.

Clutching the firestone in his right hand, he felt the crystalline globe react to his own body heat, doubling and trebling the fire trapped inside glass until the colors swirled and danced, impatient to be let out. The clay pot he crushed with his other hand, feeling the thick, oily liquid drip over his fingers and down his palm, tingling slightly.

To work magic, most needed properly prepared spellwines. But here, in the middle of his own vineyard, all a Vineart needed was already in place. Let princes and lords buy spellwines; a Vineart had a more subtle magic at his command.

Sionio spit into his left palm and then clasped his hands together, letting the juice from his mouth mix with the sweetwater and coat the firestone. The spit carried the magic within him, tangled with the lingering traces of mustus and fermentation. Mage-blood was not as potent as spellwine, but it was always present and ready.

“Scour, scour! Root and leaf, be clean! Go!”

A basic decantation, useful to prevent infestations of bugs and rot. The heated sweetwater mixture turned it into a flaming torch, exploding from his hands at the grub.

Magic that would have cleansed a midsized field of the most tenacious rot washed over the grub, making it scream like a horse in agony. The full body of the thing pulled out of the soil until it reached a man’s height, almost as thick around and thrice as ugly as the most deformed freak.

And still it screamed, the ugly, bulbous head reaching through the flames to snap at the Vineart, the source of its agony. Blind, it still came dangerously close, aiming not for the Vineart’s head but his hands, where the flames came from.

“Scour!” he cried again. “Root and leaf, be
clean
. Go!”

The decantation was a basic one, but he was no apprentice to miscast it or underestimate the power needed. It should have been a matter of moments before this was finished. Still, the grub attacked, despite the spell, and Sionio found himself pushed back one step and then another, until his back was up against the row of vines behind him, and he could retreat no farther.

What
was
this thing, he wondered, even as he grasped for another burst of magic, suddenly unable to concentrate through his fear. The thought occurred: grubs, even bastard monster grubs, did not appear alone. Was this nightmare beast an aberration? Or were there more, lurking below the fields, waiting to consume his entire crop? If he faltered now, might he lose it all?

The firestone flared again, driven by his own fear and protective anger. The vineyard was more than the source of his power; it was his livelihood, his life. It was everything he had worked for, from the beginning of his training until now. The idea that something as ugly, as horrible, and as ordinarily defeatable as a
grub
might put that at risk drove him forward again, his hands flaming bright enough to match the sun overhead. His normally calm features twisted with anger and determination as he reached out with those burning hands, reaching through his disgust and natural aversion to
touch
the grub.

The moment he made contact, he wanted to recoil, to let go, to wipe his hands clean of the taint. The skin of the grub was hot and slimy and
wrong
. This was no garden mutant, no horror of nature. This thing was
magic
, although how or why Sionio could not fathom. Such magic was not possible, could not be possible. . ..

Even as Sionio thought those things, he was chanting a new decantation. Not an apprentice’s cantrip, but something far deeper, far stronger, and far more dangerous.

“Wither and
die,
” he ordered the grub. “Lack of moisture, lack of rain. Overheat, wither, and die. Go.”

It was less a spell than a curse, the sort that should never even be whispered in any vineyard, much less his own. Sionio poured everything he had into it, and poured that in turn into the body of the beast grub. The remaining rosewater on his hands slicked onto the grub’s skin like pig oil; mixed with his spit, it had the same effect as setting a torch to dry grain.

A huge, high shriek nearly shattered the Vineart’s eardrums at such close range, and the grub wavered, quivered under his grasp, and then collapsed, taking down an entire span of the vine-row with its fall.

Sionio fell back, the monster’s death throes knocking him away, and he landed again on his back. He watched as the grub thrashed and writhed, and, finally, fell still.

An eerie silence fell over the vineyard. Birds did not sing overhead, slaves did not chatter, and even the wind seemed hushed. Distantly, as though through water, he could hear the faint sounds of something rustling, and recognized it, barely, as the sound of human bodies. His slaves, who had run . . . but not so far away. If he called to them, they would come back.

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