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Authors: Chris Bunch

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BOOK: The Empire Stone
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• • •

“One thing we know,” Baltit said one evening, “is a muscle you don’t use, don’t work.”

Cornovil and Ostyaks said nothing; Quipus nodded wisely and said, “With a light old-fashioned gun, such as a ribaudequin, always make sure the foundry provides two chambers, or refuse to make more than half payment.”

“That makes sense,” Peirol said. “What
you
said, Baltit, I meant.”

“And the brain isn’t any different. So we talk, and then we ask questions, like we were in school. Sooner or later, we might get a chance to … to go on about our own business,” he said, glancing about. “Best we be learning, be stretching our head-muscles.”

“Yes, yes,” Quipus said, excitedly. “And there’s someone new, someone intelligent, someone to
teach.

And so it was that Peirol learned about cannoneering, as Quipus gouted knowledge. If the others had already heard about artillery, they said nothing. Quipus quizzed the dwarf after every monologue, seeming to think he was a soldier under his command.

“Gunner,” Quipus would bark. “Load me this mortar.”

Obediently, Peirol would reply, often not sure what the terms he was using meant, “First I elevate the muzzle to what degree I would have to perfectly assail the target, swab the barrel with water, dry it, then, once the piece is made clean, I put the powder in the chamber, and upon the powder I ram down a wad of rope yarn, hay, or whatever, then a turf of earth, cut on purpose, wider than the bore of the piece, just moistened to avoid premature discharge or explosion, and then the granado. Once ready to fire, I set fire to the fuse of the granado, see it burn well, then touch fire to the touchhole …”

Or:

“Gunner! With a great gun, commanded to deliver overhead fire, what is your best positioning?”

“Uh … first, try to set up on high ground, firing over the foot soldiers’ heads, which is safest, giving you protection from a cavalry charge by the enemy, or in front of the infantry if so ordered, or if that is your only chance to strike your target true, or between their brigades.”

Or:

“Gunner! Name me the types of guns and the weights of their shot.”

“A syren, sixty-pound shot; basilisk, forty-eight pounds; a carthoun, also forty-eight pounds; bastard cannon, thirty-six pounds; half carthoun, twenty-four pounds; whole culverin, eighteen pounds; demi culverin, nine pounds; saker … uh … four pounds?”

“You were guessing! A saker fires an eight- or six-pound shot, depending on whether it is large or small. Begin again!”

Peirol sometimes found himself dreaming of cannon, of gunpowder, of being able to blow into smithereens various of his enemies, and that was a very satisfying dream for a slave.

• • •

The ten galleys were lying to, off a point, hoping to surprise some shipping when the sun came up. The seas were calm, the moon three-quarters. Quipus was the only one on the bench who appeared asleep.

“So where’re you from?” Baltit asked Peirol.

“Cenwalk,” Peirol said. “A long ways south. South and west. Beyond, even, the kingdom of Rokelle and its capital of Sennen.”

“What sorta land is it?” Cornovil wondered.

“Bleak,” Peirol said. “Dreary.”

And so it was, long leagues of endless, rolling wasteland or bare crags, dotted here and there with tiny villages or estates. Rain swept the land in sheets, and it seemed there was always a wind. The fortune of the lords who ruled Cenwalk was in sheep, black-faced, canny escape artists who roamed the marshlands and were rounded up twice a year for shearing by the shepherds following them as they wandered.

“Which your family was?”

“No. We were tin miners.”

“Down the hole, and like that?” Cornovil asked. “Slavin’ for the nobles?”

“No,” Peirol said. “We were free men.”

“Free?” Ostyaks snorted in disbelief.

“Didn’t think anybody but sailors was free, and we’re foolin’ ourselves mostly,” Baltit said.

A tinner could go and come as he wished, dig where and how he liked, according to an ancient charter with the far-distant ruler of Cenwalk. He’d find a promising piece of land, hire one of the roving magicians to cast a divination, and begin digging. Other miners might join him on shares. The landowner would get a share but could not interfere with the mining.

When a vein was worked out, the tinner and his family would move on. They had their own charter and courts, and the only tax they paid was on the metal.

Sometimes they would live in a village, more frequently next to the diggings, piling river stones for a rude hut or roofing a ruin with turf, laying heather down for bedding at night, the women and children cutting, drying peat while the men were underground. The tin would be taken to a nearby smelter, and then to a coinage town.

“Not a bad life,” Baltit allowed.

Not a bad life? Peirol remembered his father, a drunken bruiser, his eight brothers and sisters, all with normal bodies, his mother, who he remembered perpetually hunched against a blow. Tin men were known for violence and anger, and frequently crossed the line to become highwaymen, robbing and killing a traveler and tipping his corpse into an abandoned, water-filled quarry. Wary, brave men were the only travelers on the moors, moving in groups.

“How’d your family handle you bein’ what you are?” Ostyaks asked.

To Peirol’s older brothers and sisters, he was a bit of a pet, an oddity, especially since he was quicker in his mind than they were. But he found, as he grew, he’d as soon be by himself as not, wandering the mist-hung hills, feeling the wind’s sadness against his soul. In the purling creeks, he found pretty pebbles, gifts that pleased his mother and sisters. Later he kept some of the prettiest for himself, discovered he could rough-polish them to a luster with certain kinds of sand, then hang them in rapids and let the water finish the task. Sometimes he pretended he was seeking the Empire Stone.

His father would growl that Peirol wasn’t from his loins, but a changeling or fathered by an underworld spirit, a knacker. These were evil spirits, about three feet high, with squinting eyes and ear-to-ear mouths, who went about in groups, changing shape, vanishing or changing into black, scampering goats when a tinner came near.

His mother would protest the canard, and be struck.

His father seemed to hate Peirol, but for some reason talked to him more than to the other children, telling him tales of mining, underground sprites, the legends of the land, like the Empire Stone and the greatness of Thyone, before the black ships.

His mother favored him as the youngest and, she said, the prettiest, making sure he learned to read and write.

As Peirol got older, he began to fear his weird, going underground like his father, candle fixed to the brim of his hat, feeling the rock close about him, his mind being ground away by the drudgery with his pick, until he was no more than the others, a grunting, jostling animal.

Relief from the barren land and life were the assemblages in the coinage towns, four times a year, when the king’s officers would buy tin, mark it with the royal symbol, and take it away to be rolled and stamped into coins. The biggest of these was the Midsummer Festival, a time of frolic and drunkenness, hurling, cockfighting, wrestling. Merchants would peddle wares, necessities and luxuries.

Peirol remembered the festival when he was just twelve, having disconsolately realized he probably would grow no taller, when he met one of the Master Jeweler Rozan’s journeymen. The man — slender, young, a bit foppish — had rented a small shop for the festival and had a display of rings, necklaces, torques of gold, silver and precious and semiprecious stones for the staggering tinners to placate their wives and daughters into another dismal season in emptiness.

Peirol wanted to buy something for his mother but had of course only a few coppers, certainly no silver. He saw a discreet sign —
I BUY GEMS
— next to a necklace he knew his mother would love, a small diamond glittering at its center, set with other, red stones around it. He thought of his collection of beautiful rocks, knew none were really valuable, but ran back to his family’s tent, pitched just beyond the town walls, and came back with his treasures.

The youth, whose name was Ty Lanherne, sorted through them with quick fingers, pushing most away, keeping a few. “This green one, now, is a garnet. Not really that valuable, it’s quite soft, but it’s big, which helps, and it can be fashioned into a bauble for a trader’s daughter, far prettier, once it’s been cut and polished, than its price would reflect…. Ah, now this one’s worth a bit of silver, a cat’s-eye. Nice, reddish, which isn’t that common, the eye shows well … looks like you did a careful job of polishing … you can see how clear it is when you hold it up to the light…. It’ll make a nice gem for a man’s ring, or perhaps a pommel for a dress dagger.”

“I thought I saw something in there, in the heart of the stone, when I found it,” Peirol said proudly. “And I worked as carefully as I could, getting that color-slit, what you just said was a cat’s-eye, to show.”

“You have a bit of talent,” Lanherne murmured, continuing to finger the bits of rock. “These three are zoite, notice how blue they are, almost like a sapphire … this pink one’s beryl…. Hmm. I’ll give you five pieces of silver for the lot.”

It of course wasn’t enough to buy the necklace, but it was more money than Peirol had ever seen, as much as his father sometimes made at a coinage sale with his tin. He picked out a lesser necklace, gave back the coins.

He didn’t want to go back out into the drizzle and bluster, back to that crowded tent to wait for his drunken father to stumble in, so he lingered in the shop. Lanherne didn’t seem to mind, answered Peirol’s questions about the various gems.

“What about those,” Peirol finally asked, pointing to two small diamonds. “Where are those found?”

“Not around here,” Lanherne said. “But many places. Sometimes deep underground, in veins, they say, called pipes, which I’ve never seen. Some of the biggest pipes are in Osh, and some say to the east. Sometimes diamonds are found in creeks, in streambeds. But you’ll not see them like this, for it takes great skill and art to turn diamonds in their raw form into gems like these.”

Peirol suddenly blurted, “I could spend my life doing what you’re doing, traveling, handling jewels.”

“I studied for five years as an apprentice before my master, Rozan, let me accompany him on a selling expedition like this,” Lanherne said. “And it was three more before he trusted me to go on my own. In two, perhaps three more years, I’ll go before my guild, be tested, and maybe then be allowed to call myself a lapidarist.”

“How did you get into your master’s service?”

Lanherne grinned like a boy.

“I bothered a journeyman who was selling stones like I am now when he came to my village until he lost his temper, told me to go away. I followed him, when he left, until he reached Ferfer, which is Rozan’s home. Then I sat on the master’s doorstep for three days, getting kicked when he went in and out. Finally he took me in as an apprentice, sleeping on straw, eating but twice a day, having only ten feast days a year.”

Peirol thought it sounded far better than the life he had.

“Let me ask you this, boy. Who’s
your
master?”

“I have none,” Peirol said.

“What of your parents?”

“They care little what I do,” he said, a guilty thought of his mother coming, being pushed away.

“And your age?”

“Fifteen,” Peirol said.

Lanherne looked skeptical, then made a face. “As if I’m an expert at judging the age of the little people.” He thought a moment. “It’s hard work, requiring a careful eye and a love for detail, and you’ve got to develop a way with people, with the rich, being able to listen to their chatter and snootiness and not arguing back.”

Peirol said nothing.

“Take your purchase, my friend,” Lanherne said in a friendly manner. “And the best of luck be with you.”

Two days later the Midsummer Festival ended, and Peirol’s family went south, back to the moors and their mine. In his mother’s bedroll, unknown to her, was a silver necklace, with a worked gem in its center. Peirol hoped she mourned his running away, but not for long.

Ty Lanherne, pack on his back, silver in his pouch and a sword loose in its sheath, traveled north toward Ferfer. He glanced back, saw the small figure of a dwarf trudging about a quarter league behind, grinned, and broke into song.

Peirol was still there, half-starved, boot soles worn through, stumbling, when Lanherne reached Ferfer.

Peirol came back to the present, to the galleys, when Ostyaks muttered, “Like Baltit said. Not a bad life.”

Quipus said suddenly, “Because you were free.”

No one spoke again for the rest of the night, and eventually Peirol slept.

• • •

The next morning, Lord Kanen’s galley came alongside, and a long boarding gangplank was dropped between the two ships.

Kanen came across the narrow plank, surefooted. He was grim, lips pursed.

Callafo met him, trying to keep a worried expression from his face, and the two went into Callafo’s cabin in the poop. Slaves close to the stern said they heard Kanen’s voice, harsh in anger.

A turning of the glass later, and Kanen came out and returned to his ship. A young girl, very young, was led out of his cabin by two guards. She wore slippers and a heavy robe, and looked frightened. One guard slung her over his shoulder, trotted across the gangplank to the
Ocean Spell
, led her to the foredeck, and waited beside the gleaming brass cannon.

Callafo came out of his cabin, wearing traditional sorcerer’s robes, carrying a leather case and his wand. He ordered the foredeck cleared, and a small tent, blazoned with strange symbols, was pitched by the guards. He pushed the terrified girl inside, pulled the tent flap to after him. A few minutes later, he started chanting. Incense of different colors and scents drifted from the vent in the top of the tent. The chanting grew, and it was as if a chorus was inside the tent, for Peirol heard many voices, almost in a plainsong.

BOOK: The Empire Stone
8.12Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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