Read The War With The Mein Online

Authors: David Anthony Durham

Tags: #Fantasy, #Science Fiction, #Politics, #Military, #Epic

The War With The Mein

BOOK: The War With The Mein
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Acacia: The War With The Mein
Acacia: The War With The Mein

Acacia: The War With The Mein

Acacia: The War With The Mein
Book One

The King’s Idyll

 

Acacia: The War With The Mein
CHAPTER ONE

The assassin left the stronghold of Mein Tahalian by the great front gate, riding through a crack in the armored pine beams just wide enough to let him slip out. He departed at sunrise, dressed much as any soldier of the Mein. He wore a cloak of elk fur that wrapped his body completely. It even covered his legs and gave warmth to the large-hoofed mount beneath him. Over his torso he wore a breastplate of double thickness: two sheaves of iron pounded to the contours of his body, with a layer of otter fur pressed beneath them. He moved south through a snowy land frozen into gelid brilliance.

The winter was so bitterly cold that for the first few days the man’s breath crystallized as it escaped his lips. The vapor formed a strange protuberance around his mouth, making the passage into it a cavelike channel. Knots of ice dangled from his beard, brushing against each other like glass chimes. He met few people, even when he passed through settlements of low, domed shelters. He saw the prints of white foxes and hares in the snow but rarely the creatures themselves. Once a snow cat paused to watch his progress from atop a boulder, its gaze one of indecision, considering whether he ought to flee the rider or pursue him. In the end he did neither, and the man put the beast to his back.

On one occasion he crested a rise and looked out upon a plain teeming with reindeer. It was sight almost unseen since distant times. At first he thought he might have wandered upon a gathering from the spirit world. Then he smelled the musty stink of the animals. This broke the mood of mystery. He rode down into them, taking joy in the way the herd peeled away from him, the sound of their hooves a rumble he felt inside his chest.

If Mein lands had been their own, he might have hunted these creatures as his ancestors had. But his wish did not change the reality. The race of people called the Mein, the high northern plateau of the same name, the great fortress of Tahalian, the royal line of men who should rule the territory without interference, all had been servants to Acacia for the last five hundred years. They had been defeated, massacred in great numbers, and since overseen by foreign governors. They had been taxed unfairly and robbed of fighting men, many of whom were sent to serve in the Acacian military in distant lands far from home, out of the hearing of their ancestors. This, at least, was how the rider saw it—as an injustice that should not go on forever.

Twice in the first week he cut away from the main road to avoid Northern Guard checkpoints. His papers were in order. In all likelihood he would not have been delayed, but he had no trust in Acacians and abhorred the notion of even feigning acknowledgment of their authority. Each looping excursion brought him closer to the Black Mountains that paralleled his route. Their peaks jutted up out of the snow like enormous flakes of obsidian that had been chipped to razor sharpness. If old tales were to be believed, the summits were the points of spearheads slammed up through the roof of their world by the race of angry giants whose own land lay beneath the earth’s skin.

After ten days of riding, he reached the edge of the Methalian Rim, the southern boundary of the Mein. He paused a moment to look down at the fertile woodlands three thousand feet below, aware that he would never again breathe the high country air. He slipped the headgear from his mount and dropped it where he stood. He chose a looser rein arrangement that bore no trace of his origins. Though it was still chilly and the land dusted with frost, he unfastened his cloak and tossed it to the ground. He drew out a dagger and slit the leather band that secured his helmet. He hurled the dome into the bushes and shook out his hair. Loosed from the confines of pounded metal, it whipped out as if in joy at the newfound freedom, long and brown. His hair was one of the features that had prompted him to take this assignment on. It bore little resemblance to the brittle straw coloration of most of the Mein race and had always embarrassed him.

After putting on a cotton shirt to disguise his breastplate, the horseman and his mount descended from the heights. They rode a switchback trail that spilled out onto a terrain of an altogether different sort, a temperate forest of hardwood trees, dotted with the small woodland settlements that made up the northern extent of the lands administered directly from Alecia, the bureaucratic seat of the Acacian government.

As his mastery of the empire’s tongue was loathsome to him he rarely spoke to anybody, except on the occasions that he had no choice. When he sold his horse to a trader at the southern edge of the woodlands he growled into the back of his hand, mumbling and gruff. He accepted in payment coins of the realm, clothes that would not attract attention, and a sturdy pair of leather boots, as he would walk the rest of the way to the shore. Thus he was transformed again.

He followed the main road to the south, a large sack slung over his shoulder. It bulged here and there with the items he would yet need. He passed the nights huddled in depressions at the edge of farms or in patches of woodland. Though the people around him believed the land to be gripped by winter, to him it was more like a Tahalian summer, warm enough that he found himself sweating.

Not far from the port of Alecia he discarded his garb once more. He peeled off his breastplate, sunk it beneath stones in a riverbed, and took up a cloak that had been sewn in the cold chambers of the Mein, hoping that it would pass for authentic. With it draped across his shoulders he appeared to be one of the Vadayan. Though an ancient order, the Vadayan were no longer the functioning religious sect they had once been. They were scholars who studied and preserved the old lore under the ceremonial direction of the priestess of Vada. They were a closemouthed group, disdainful of the workings of the empire. As such, it would not appear odd that he had few words for those around him.

To complete his appearance, the man shaved the sides of his head and bound the long hair at the top of his skull up into one tight knot wrapped in thin strips of leather. The skin at either side of his head was as pale and pink as pig flesh. He rubbed a tanning agent used to stain wood into it. Once completed, none but the keenest of eyes would have taken him for anything other than the scholar he pretended to be.

Though he wore these various guises with composure, he was in truth none of the things he passed for. His name was Thasren Mein. He was born of noble blood, son of the late Heberen Mein. He was the younger brother of Hanish, the rightful chieftain of the tribes of the Mein Plateau, and of Maeander, head of the Punisari, the elite guard force and proud heart of his people’s martial tradition. It was a lineage to be proud of, but he’d set all else aside to become an assassin. For the first time his existence truly made sense to him. He had never been more focused than he was now, more complete in himself, charged with a mission he had sworn his life to. How many walking the earth know exactly why they breathe and understand exactly what they must do before passing into the afterdeath? How fortunate he was.

From aboard a transport boat, he watched the isle of Acacia push out of the pale green sea in a knotted jumble of rock. It was innocent enough at a distance. The island’s highest point was at the southern end. In the center, the hilly farmland and ridges dropped somewhat, but rose again into the series of plateaus that generations of settlement had carved into a land fit to house the palace. Acacia trees stood as dark as the black-skinned Talayans of the south, wearing great crests of plumage, dotted here and there with white blossoms. Despite the great twisting length of the island’s coastline relatively little of it was easily accessible; beaches and ports were few.

Sailing past the port’s protective towers Thasren saw a flag of the empire, hanging limp from lack of breeze. He knew from the colors what he would see if it had stood out: a yellow sun inside a red-bordered square, at the center a black silhouette of the tree that gave this island its name. Every child of the Known World recognized the emblem, no matter how far distant their place of birth. The assassin had to check his desire to clear the phlegm from his throat and spit in contempt.

He climbed from the boat to the main dock in a rush of other passengers, merchants and laborers, women and children, all leaping the gap above the crystal-clear water like herd animals. There were a few other Vadayan among them, but Thasren avoided eye contact with them. Standing on the solid stone of the dock as his fellow passengers moved around him, he understood that he was about to step into the mouth of the enemy. If any person around him now found out his name or could divine his thoughts, he would become the target of every dagger, sword, and spear on the island. He waited a moment longer than he intended, surprised that nobody condemned him. Nobody shouted warnings or even paused to study him.

He took in the great wall of a pinkish stone with cold eyes. Beyond it, spires and towers and domes jutted up into the air, many of these painted dark blue or a somber red or a brown with a rusty quality, some gilded and twinkling in the sunlight. The structures rose terraced level by level with the steepness of a sheer mountain. It was beautiful to behold; even he could acknowledge that much. It was nothing like the low, brooding presence of the assassin’s home. Tahalian was built with massive beams of fir wood, half dug into the ground as protection from the cold, undecorated because so much of the year it was drowned in winter darkness, with snow piled high on every flat surface. The difference between the two was hard to square, and so Thasren shook off thought of it.

He strolled toward the gates of the lower town. It might take some time, but he would find his way deep into the city, taking on whatever guises he needed until he gained entry to the palace itself. There he would answer the question put casually by his second brother just a month before. If they wished to kill a beast with many arms, Maeander had said, why not cut off the head to start with? Then they could deal with the limbs and body as the creature stumbled around sightless, without leadership. The assassin had only to get near enough to this head and to wait for the proper moment to strike it and to do it in public, so that word of the act would spread like a contagion from one mouth to another.

 

Acacia: The War With The Mein
CHAPTER TWO

To help her through the slow tedium of the morning tutorial Mena Akaran always sat in exactly the same spot, on a tuft of grass behind her siblings. She had just turned twelve and from this vantage point she could see through a missing tooth in the stone balustrade that hemmed in the courtyard. It framed a scene that began with the many-layered terraces of the palace. It dropped through a stretch of space beyond the town’s western wall, then gave way to the swelling ranks of the cultivated hills. The farthest rise of land was the highest: the far promontory known as Haven’s Rock. She had been there with her father and remembered the foul-smelling, cacophonous seabird life of the place, with head-dizzying views that dropped a craggy fifteen hundred feet straight into the foaming swells.

Sitting in the high, open-air classroom in which the king’s children met with their tutor, Mena’s thoughts would drift off. This morning she imagined herself a gull pushing free of the rock face. She hurtled down and shot out over the surface of the water. She darted between the sails of fishermen’s vessels and out over the trading barges that floated the sea on the circular currents that moved them from one place to another. She left these behind and the waves grew steeper. The turquoise water deepened to blue and then to seal-black. She flew past the shoals of sparkling anchovies and out over the backs of whales, seeking the unknown things that she knew would eventually emerge from the whitecapped edge of the horizon….

“Mena? Are you with us, Princess?” Jason, the royal tutor, and both her brothers and her sister were all staring at her. The children sat on the damp grass. Jason stood before them, poised with an old volume in one hand, his other one resting on his hip. “Did you hear the question?”

“Of course she did not hear the question,” Aliver said. At sixteen he was the eldest of the king’s children, the heir apparent to the throne. He had recently shot upward past his father’s height, and his voice had changed. His expression was one of interminable boredom, an illness that struck him about a year ago and had yet to release him. “She was thinking about fish again. Or about porpoises.”

“Neither fish nor porpoises have bearing on the topic we’re discussing,” Jason said. “So I’ll repeat: Whom did the founder of the Akaran dynasty unseat at Galaral?”

That was the question she missed? Anybody could answer that! Mena hated responding to simple questions. She found pleasure in knowledge only when she stood out from others. Dariel, her younger brother, knew who the first king was and what he had done, and he was only nine. She held out for as long as she could, but when Aliver opened his mouth with some jibe, she spoke quickly.

“Edifus was the founder. He was born into suffering and darkness in the Lakes, but he prevailed in a bloody war that engulfed the whole world. He met the Untrue King Tathe at Galaral and crushed his forces with the aid of Santoth Speakers. Edifus was the first in an unbroken line of twenty-one Akaran kings, of which my father is the most recent. Edifus’s sons, Thalaran, Tinhadin, and Praythos, set about securing and solidifying the empire through a series of campaigns called the Wars of Distribution—”

“All right,” Jason said. “More than I asked for…”

“A seagull.”

“What?”

“I was being a seagull, not a fish or a porpoise.” She scrunched up her face at Aliver and then turned to give Corinn the same.

Sometime later, after having tried unsuccessfully to resume her avian imaginings, Mena contented herself with following the conversation. The discussion had turned to geography. Corinn named the six provinces and managed to say something about their ruling families and forms of government: the Mainland to the near north, the satrapy of the Mein in the far north, the Candovian Confederacy to the northwest, Talay to their south, and the mountain tribes of Senival to the west. The linked islands collectively called the Vumu Archipelago made up the last province, though it did not have the centralized government of the others.

Jason rolled a map out on the grass and had the children tack the edges down with their knees. Dariel always took particular pleasure in maps. He leaned close to it and repeated anything the tutor said as if he were translating the information for another listener. Something about the slow way he did this spurred Mena to interrupt him.

“Why is Acacia always at the center of maps?” she asked. “If the world curves and has no end—as you taught us, Jason—how is one place the center and not another?”

Corinn found the question silly. She glanced at Jason with upraised eyebrows and a wrinkled pursing of her lips. At fifteen, she was attractive and knew it, with the olive complexion and rounded face that had come to epitomize Acacian beauty. Much of their dead mother, Aleera, lived on in her; at least, that was what everyone seemed to think. “It just is the center, Mena. Everyone knows that.”

“Succinctly put,” Jason said, “but Mena does make a point. All peoples think of themselves first. First, central, and foremost, yes? I should show you a map from Talay sometime. They draw the world quite differently. And why wouldn’t they think themselves the center of the world? They are a great nation also—”

Aliver guffawed. “Be serious! The men and women walk around half naked down there. They hunt with spears and worship gods that look like animals. They still use small tribal governments—chiefs and all that. They are no better than the squabbling Mein.”

“And it’s too hot there,” Corinn added. “They say the earth dries to powder for half the year. They have to drink from holes dug in the ground.”

Jason conceded that the Talayan climate was harsh, especially in the far south. And he knew they would always think of their ways as inferior to Acacian customs. There was a reason Acacia held sway over the entire Known World. He said, “We are a gifted people. But we are also a benevolent people. We should not disdain Talayans or any other—”

“I didn’t say I disdained them. They have their ways and when I am king I will try to respect them. Now, why is this map out? Do you have something to teach us or not?”

Jason, noting the flare of impatience in Aliver’s tone, nodded. He smiled his agreement and let the topic drop. He was a teacher, yes, but he never forgot that he was also a servant. Sometimes that seemed unfortunate to Mena. How were they to truly learn about the world if they could silence their tutors just by raising the pitch of their voices?

The lesson resumed, all of them listening to Jason without further interruption. But they were not at it long. A few minutes later their father, King Leodan, pushed through the doorway and breathed in the morning air. His face had the texture of tanned leather. A dusting of white hair spread around his temples, highlighting his otherwise dark hair, betraying both his age and his kingly burdens. He took in his children, nodded at the tutor, and then looked out across the panoramic view of his island. He said, “Jason, I am going to interrupt your teaching this morning. With the delegation from Aushenia arriving shortly I will not have all the time I would like for my children in the coming weeks. I awoke with a desire to run the horses. I’m inclined to indulge it. If my children wish to accompany me the matter would be decided….”

The children were so inclined, and within the hour they galloped out through one of the small side gates of the palace. All the children had ridden since their fourth or fifth year, and all were more than competent, even Dariel. A guard of ten horsemen followed them at a discreet distance. Nobody could imagine the king to be at risk while on Acacia, but as a monarch he was quite often made to bend to traditions from more perilous times.

They rode briskly out along the high road to the west. The narrow track at times traversed such thin ridges that one could look at a vista on either side that dropped down juniper-covered slopes, careening all the way to the sea. The thorny crowns of acacia trees occasionally broke through the thin-webbed canopy. It was these, of course, that gave the island its name and the Akaran dynasty its informal title. They were a distinguishing feature of the landscape, unique among the other islands of the Inner Sea, none of which had acacias.

Up close, the trees had frightened Mena when she was younger. They were gnarled and thorny, so still and yet always having about them the threat of latent life, an intelligence within that she suspected they chose to keep hidden for their own reasons. She had grown comfortable near them only lately. An aged, sanded, and tamed specimen had been transplanted to Dariel’s room as a frame to climb about on, a plaything. This had done much to ease her apprehensions. They could be cut and moved and shaped into toys for children; hardly things to fear.

The riders dropped down to the rugged beach of the southern coastline, a stretch of shore left in its natural state, with views across the bay at cliffs thriving with bird life. For a while they rode in a loose group, around and between great limbs of sun-bleached driftwood or out into the glass-green water, the horses kicking through the froth. Dismounted, Aliver tossed seashells out at the waves. Corinn stood on the decaying trunk of an enormous tree, her arms out to either side and her face pointed into the chilly breeze. Dariel chased fiddler crabs across the sand.

Mena chose to stand at her father’s right hand as he walked from one to the other of them, interested in all, laughing, for so many things seemed to amuse him when he was with his children. She held a twig of driftwood in her fingers, running her fingertips over the weathered grain of it. This was exactly the way life was supposed to be. She did not question whether such a thing—a king cavorting with his children—was unusual. It was simply the way it always had been. She could imagine no other possibility. She did wonder, though, if anyone but her saw the strain behind their father’s façade. His joy was sincere, but it was not without effort. It was painful in some measure because of the one who was absent.

That evening, back once more in the warm hive of the palace, Mena and Dariel curled up on her bed to hear their father tell a story. Like all rooms in the palace, Mena’s was large, wide, and tall, with floors of polished white marble. It was not a room on which Mena had exerted any of her own influence, unlike Corinn in her lacy, brightly colored and variously cushioned nest. The furniture was uniformly ancient, pieces made of gnarled hardwood, with upholstery that tickled the skin. Tapestries depicting figures from Acacian history hung on the walls. She could name the deeds of only a few of them, but she felt their presence in the room as a protective force. They were watching over her. They were, after all, her father’s people. Her own.

Leodan sat on a stool beside them. “So,” he said, “I think we have reached the point where I must tell you the story of the Two Brothers and how the great friction began between them. It’s a shame that Corinn and Aliver are too old for stories; they once liked this one, even though it’s sad.”

The king explained that there was once a time in the far past when the two brothers, Bashar and Cashen, were so close they could not be separated. A knife blade could not be slipped between them, such was their love for each other and joy at being in each other’s company. At least this was true until the day that a delegation from a nearby village came to them and said that since the two of them were such good and noble brothers they prayed that one of them would become something called a “king.” They had been told by a dreamer prophet that if they had a king, they would find prosperity. This they sorely needed, for they had suffered famine and discord for years. None of them could decide who among them should be king, so they implored one of the brothers to step into the role.

The two brothers asked if they could both be kings, but the villagers said that was not possible. Only one man can be the king of a place, they said. That was what the prophet had told them. But still the brothers liked the idea of being royal. They said that the villagers could choose between them and that the unchosen one would abide by the decision. In secret they made a pact that after a hundred years they would switch roles, and he who had not been king would then become it.

Cashen was chosen and made king. For a hundred years he ruled without incident. The people thrived. Bashar was always at his side. But on the first day of the hundred and first year Bashar asked that Cashen hand over the crown. Cashen looked at him coldly. He had grown used to being king, fond of the power he wielded. Bashar reminded him of their agreement, but Cashen claimed that no such words had ever passed between them. Hearing this, Bashar was filled with anger. He grappled with his brother. Cashen threw him off and, feeling a sudden fear and shame, ran from the village up into the hills. He drained himself of all loving thought for his brother and filled himself with bitterness instead. Bashar chased him through the hills and into the mountains. Storm clouds gathered and bolts of lightning illumed the sky and rain poured down on them.

Dariel tapped his father on the wrist with a finger. “Is this true?”

Leaning toward him, Leodan whispered, “Every word of it.”

“They should’ve taken turns,” Dariel said, his voice edged with fatigue.

“When Bashar reached his brother, he cracked him over the head with his staff. Cashen went weak-kneed for a moment, but then he shook off the blow and came at Bashar again. This time Bashar swung his staff around and caught his brother at the knees, spilling him onto his back. He tossed his staff away and grabbed his brother, hefted him up, and walked with him above his head toward the precipice. The wind battered and howled at him, but still he managed to reach the edge, where he tossed his brother over into the void.

“But Cashen did not perish. He bounced and rolled and tumbled down the slope. He regained his footing and began to run. He bounded across the valley floor and came up on the other side. As he rose to the crest of the far mountain, a lightning bolt ripped through the sky. The light was blinding and Bashar had to cover his eyes against it. When he could see again, Bashar realized that Cashen had been struck. But instead of dropping to the ground dead, his body quivered and tingled with energy. Blue light fanned out across his skin and over his charred flesh. He did not perish, though. He began to run once more, and now he was swifter than before. He took enormous steps and climbed to the peak of the far mountain and jumped over it without so much as a backward glance at his brother.”

BOOK: The War With The Mein
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