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Authors: Dave Duncan

Perilous Seas

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Perilous Seas

Book 3 of A Man Of His Word

Dave Duncan

 

 

ONE

 

Favor The Deceit

 

1

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.

 

2

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 skein 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 Ullacam, 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.

 

3

Ogi
called out, “Shipmate ahoy!” as he drew near to the faun’s
cabin. The sun had only just set and he was quite visible as he came through
the low shrubs and spindly trees, but life in a jotunn settlement like Durthing
made caution second nature to a man-startle a jotunn and he might kill first
and apologize later. Some would not apologize even then.

The
hammering ceased, and a moment later Rap’s face appeared in the window, a
homely face below a mop of brown hair like a tangle of dry ferns. He wiped his
forehead with a bare arm.

“Got
some carp,” Ogi yelled, holding them up. “And wine!”

“Wine?
What’s the occasion?”

“Just
thought a working man might like a break. “

The
faun smiled his usual diffident little smile. “Great!” he shouted,
and disappeared.

Ogi
headed over to the fire pit and was pleased to discover a few live embers
remaining. He added some twigs and blew up a flame. Then he settled on a
boulder and made certain that the wine had survived the journey unharmed.

A
gray bird flew in to perch on a twig and eye him with deep suspicion. There
were rocks enough to seat at least a dozen more people, so whoever had built it
must have had a large family ... no, the shack was small, so he’d just
enjoyed throwing big parties. It was a pleasant spot, though, set in a little
dell and sheltered from the tropic sun by a couple of half-decent treesin Durthing
any worthwhile timber soon vanished into cooking fires-but too far from a
spring to be a prime location; more private than most.

In
a few minutes Rap came wandering out, pulling on a shirt. He was still
comically modest about clothing, considering the complete absence of privacy in
a sailor’s working life, but a good lad, steady beyond his years. In
appearance he was pretty much straight faun, except for his hair and his size,
and he had a faun’s disinclination to conform to social pressures. Like
being cleanshaven, for instance. He was the only man on Stormdancer not trying
to grow a floorbrush mustache like Gathmor’s. He was also the only man in
Durthing who wore long pants all the time.

“One
of them’s likely Petrel. She’s due. Don’t know the other.”

Ships
arriving were always of interest, but the juvenile forest around Rap’s
cabin blocked a clear view of the harbor. He, of course, could see through
anything, but either the ships were still out of his range or he just didn’t
care much. He sat down again and stared at the flickering flames in silence.

The
swift tropical dark was settling in all around, and the birdcalls were fading
away. Bright smoke and sparks and crackling fire ... oversexed crickets
racketing already ... It was a pleasant night.

As
Ogi cut off the fish heads, he tossed them over his shoulder for dogs or gnomes
to find. Likewise, when he slit the bellies, he scraped out the guts on the
dirt behind him. Quite likely there would be a gnome child or two hovering
nearby already, drawn by the fire.

“Something
wrong?” Ogi asked.

Rap
had been staring fixedly at the flames. He smiled faintly and shrugged. “Nothing
you can help with.”

“Please
yourself. But if you want to talk it out to a friend, I’m available. And
despite what you may have been told ever since you were weaned, some imps can
keep secrets.”

That
brought the little smile again, briefly, and Ogi realized that the wide faun
mouth almost never smiled more than that. “It’s just that I’m
not finding it easy settling down here.” Yes, that was very odd.

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