In the mottled sunlight of an unnamed Cedanthian forest, a thin black dart rose and fell, its tip glistening with toxic promise. Caught between mortal and immortal realms, Ducain risked illness and perhaps death by toying with such potent poison, whereas the mighty Actaeon could quaff a river of it and pass it as rainwater. The king of gods so enjoyed his power displays. They impressed most of the underlings … yet Ducain found them farcical. Where was the danger when no native substance of Marsii could harm a true god, least of all the king.
Alien material, however, presented a rare but valid threat.
Meteors, for instance. Actaeon shielded the planet from the shooting stars, thus reducing the peril to himself, first and foremost, as well as the others.
But reduction was not elimination.
Long ago a titan attempted to usurp the heavens and failed. Cursed to eternal purgatory, Losh the Damned knew the location of the Vaug Spike. Ducain meant to recover and wield it. He would succeed where the titan failed.
Actaeon, bane of Ducain’s existence, suspected nothing. Century after century the demigod languished beneath the king’s heel in the heaven known as Machpelah.
Ducain rejected an eternity of servitude as his fate. Should he guide ensuing events just so, immortality and the very throne of heaven were his for the taking.
And this sliver of tainted wood … the key to unlock a new cosmic order.
Such superb irony.
Effortlessly the dart flipped between Ducain’s fingers, then beneath his palm with a deft thumb movement to start over again. Without pause the dart traveled thus, as if the demigod performed sleight-of-hand with a harmless coin. Somehow the poison never contacted flesh.
The assassin standing two uneasy paces away bore witness to the casual daring. Nar Sik shifted his weight and resisted the urge to step further away. The trick would have been impressive enough were Ducain concentrating upon it; instead his attention centered on the massive wild boar that slipped into the adjoining glade, tasting the air with its flaring pig snout and grunting in delight as it located the bait. Still the dart traveled Ducain’s knuckles. Nar Sik had the impression the godling was amusing himself before revealing his intentions.
“Kill the girl and return with news of Rhone’s despair.”
With a sudden flick the dart flew, thin and too fast for even the assassin’s cunning eyes to track. The snuffling boar raised its massive head, cabbage slop dripping from its muzzle and staining its curved ivory tusks green. The sliver protruded from its massive shoulder. The muscle quivered as if irritated by some insect. Unperturbed, the boar returned to its feeding, grunting and snorting with pleasure at finding such a fine meal within the same sunny glade it had meandered through several times earlier today without such good fortune.
The assassin glanced at Ducain and swallowed. Nar Sik was into his thirteenth year as one of the black mask; a considerable span for an active participant of his chosen vocation. He had dealt with kings, queens, nobles, generals, filthy rich merchants – all of them wielded considerable power, none had made Nar Sik uneasy. They were powerful, but only human.
Not so the company he kept this hour.
Physically, the half-god did not appear especially daunting. Square-jawed, clean-shaven of face and head, slightly taller than the average man – but with musculature of such perfect proportion that a peace-loving sculptor would slit a rival’s throat for the opportunity to liberate the image from red Marsii marble. The garb of infantry commander struck a dramatic but not overbearing impression. A maroon cape hung from a black breastplate inlaid with gold leaf. Leather straps adorned with gold medallions hung from waist to mid thigh, and should have clattered when he walked but instead were silent. Intricately patterned greaves of bronze protected the shins from knee to sandal. A sword was sheathed at the demigod’s side, but Nar Sik thought the weapon less than necessary, as the very air was charged with power, so much so the hair stood straight on the assassin’s arms and back of his neck. Ducain stood as one contained; rare were his gestures, weight shifts, area glances. Nar Sik mused that it would likely be difficult to bring death to one such as this, at least by standard means.
The argument could be made that these were hardly definitive indicators of godhood, for even mortals can exude power and stand quite still. Indeed, there were no blatant indicators of ethereal qualities –
With one telling exception.
Marsii gods have no irises.
As half-god, Ducain gazed upon the world with two very different eyes. One was considerably larger, an angular noir that could have been mined from the coldest reaches of space; that seemed to force images into it rather than perform passive observation. The other was a narrow slit that glared at the world with an iris of fierce arctic blue. Both were impenetrable. Nar Sik found the opposition of the two particularly unnerving.
According to legend, gods normally conceal their identities when walking among mortals. Surely Ducain revealed his true self to strike a chord of awe in the assassin, and he had succeeded. Only now did Nar Sik glimpse some form of expression on Ducain’s features; a flash of excitement in anticipation of the boar’s death.
With a grunt of confusion the beast dropped to its forelegs. It trembled there for a moment as its hips swayed. For another heartbeat it struggled to raise itself. Coarse fur trembled along its humped back, then the massive head and torso plummeted to the forest floor and remained still. Seconds later the hide swelled and burst open. Legions of tiny bubbles crawled through raw meat and skin, popping and spattering blood and gore on the green underbrush. A gelatinous mass with protruding bones quivered and trembled and bore little resemblance to the boar it had been.
Nar Sik swore.
“That animal weighs more than Rhone’s daughter,” Ducain said, fixing his disturbing gaze upon the assassin.
Rare expression crossed Nar Sik’s stony features. “It weighs more than I.”
The demigod’s lip curled in disdain. “A slight assassin … doubtless good for the trade. Slithering from holes and tight spaces to murder your target and then retreat into a crowd of your fellow mortals.” He strode from the concealment of the trees toward the dead boar.
Nar Sik followed a respectful step behind. “It has its advantages, Holy Father.”
Ducain wheeled with inhuman speed. Nar Sik was caught up and held at arm’s length, a fist of iron around his throat, sandaled feet kicking air.
“Insect! Do you deem me weak and caring?”
“… m-meant only to praise!”
“You believe the god-maker Himself grips your twig-like neck? Not even Actaeon the Arrogant dares compare himself to The Creator! The only true Holy Father … long since distracted from this miserable fourth planet from the star he bound us to. Address me as such again and the maggots will find your corpse just as appealing as that of the pig.”
Nar Sik knew nothing of a maker of the gods, and even less on the relation of his own planet to the sun. Mankind as a whole has not made great strides on Pangea Marsii. Assumption and superstition hold sway over studied observation. The sun, moons, and stars areas are little more than shiny ornaments in the skies of a flat stationary world, and the only gods are those residing on high in Machpelah.
Nar Sik’s concerns were far more immediate as he clasped futilely at the iron beam that was the demigod’s arm. His professional sense told him the hand at his throat could have easily crushed his windpipe or wrung his neck like a rat’s by now. Only the thinnest passage of air kept suffocation at bay.
“… d-did not wish to offend!” the assassin gasped. “I swear to Actaeon –”
“Swear to me.”
“I swear to Ducain!”
Ducain released his grip.
The assassin crumpled like a man of straw and stared straight into the eye of the dead boar. Dislodged by vibration and untethered by vein and tendon, the orb abandoned the diminished socket and rolled down the side of the collapsed snout. Momentum carried it into a patch of blood-stained grass where it soon halted and deflated into a moist circle.
With a cry Nar Sik scrambled to his feet, rubbing his throat and coughing. “P-pardon a lowly ignorant assassin, but with such strength you could take the girl’s life with ease.”
“Of course. But even such an inconsequential act would leave a trace of my identity that could be detected by my … betters.” The last came steeped with venom. “They could pose questions, the answers for which must be revealed only with the passage of time. The first step was locating the mortal best suited for my task, this Rhone of Iylan.”
“What can a simple fisherman hope to accomplish for a god?” Nar Sik did not ordinarily think aloud, but for a man to converse with one who strides through the Halls of Actaeon – albeit in a role of subservience to the full gods – was a circumstance of mythical proportion that upstaged Nar Sik’s normal restraint.
“What can any mortal hope to accomplish for a god? Suffice it to say Rhone of Iylan has certain qualities he chooses not display, but which I find instrumental to my needs. And that returns us to your task, assassin.”
They regarded the obscure mass that was the dead boar.
Nar Sik wondered if even the ravens and vultures would find the boar fit to eat. Probably not, with a poison so potent. Perhaps they would find out too late. It would be interesting to watch them topple like stuffed play toys. “Where does such poison reside? In all my years in the death craft, I have seen nothing so potent.”
“Craft, eh?” Ducain’s chest and throat rumbled with laughter, far too deeply for a body of perfect proportion. “The fisherman could vouch for the potency of sea snake venom. I skim the surface on a winged lequu, sever them with its claws and gather them up. The fiercest of the serpents are drawn to a chain of islands in the warm climes, as yet undiscovered by simpleton mortals who fear they will sail off the edge of the world.”
Ducain indicated a wooden stand carved to resemble a stack of human skulls. Nar Sik wondered that he hadn’t noticed it before … and concluded it hadn’t been there. A shaft of weak sunlight fell upon the flat surface, illuminating a dark wooden case small enough to hide in a man’s palm. The assassin opened the case. Inside were three darts, duplicates of the one that felled the boar. The deadly tips were encased in glass that held tiny reservoirs of yellow-green fluid.
“When the time is at hand, a stone or coin pressed to the glass will free the dart,” Ducain informed him. “Have a care, assassin. A scratch upon your mortal flesh and death’s arrival is measured in heartbeats.”
“Perhaps an additional supply would be in order … should I miss on the initial attempt.”
Ducain exhibited two rows of perfect white teeth, and fangs Nar Sik failed to notice earlier. “Your greed is predictable. With your expertise, a single dart should suffice. I will allow you the other two for your own future endeavors.” He tossed a leather bag filled with gold coins in the air. “Half your payment. Succeed in your task and the other half will find its way to your rather lavish dwelling in Gilhorne.”
The assassin caught the bag but dare not risk insult by looking inside. He bowed, murmured his humble appreciation and slipped the case of darts inside an inner pocket of his shirt. Nar Sik should have asked himself why Ducain would divulge more than was necessary of his intentions to an assassin. Perhaps the demigod was too certain of himself. Perhaps he was assured of Nar Sik’s reputation for never speaking of his work. Or perhaps another method would ensure Nar Sik’s eternal silence.
“Some men find little reason to carry on after the death of a loved one,” Nar Sik ventured. “Especially that of a child. This Rhone sounds like a simple man. May I inquire of your Godliness as to why he would do your bidding after undergoing such a tragedy?”
For a long moment the demigod said nothing. Nar Sik grew uneasy until he understood Ducain’s gaze was fixed on sights well beyond the mortal realm. Rumbling laughter started. It came with the force of boulders crashing down a ravine, far too deep for the size chest the demigod had chosen for himself. Perhaps a giant could generate such bass tones … or a crazed demigod. The forest echoed with it. Even the nearby briar patch, with thorns the size of a man’s thumb, trembled as if in fright. Ducain’s immortal eye smouldered with black fire.
“Rhone is leagues beyond a normal man. Demon blood flows through his veins. He will perform my bidding, for I offer the impossible. Lured with the soul of his daughter, he will free the cursed titan from the nether world and deliver to me the Vaug Spike. With it this half-god will become the Ultima Thule of Marsii existence!”
* * *
Though the supremely well-endowed Shalaya stood poised before him, practicing her archery in little more than a hip skirt and golden breast cups joined by gold links, Actaeon felt his lust rise only when Annatipré glided unexpectedly through a break in the manicured hedge row. With the ease of a sultry summer breeze she entered the vast garden in a simple robe of lavender silk, her lithe waist banded by strands of silver that jangled softly against her athletic hips. Curvaceous but less than buxom, alluring though not a classic example of beauty, she carried herself with a inner sensuality that overpowered mere physical attributes. At first glance, Annatipré did not rival the goddess of beauty, but even Xeria displayed jealous mannerisms in the presence of this young goddess.
And Shalaya fell far short of Xeria’s restraint.
Fifty long-stemmed roses had been severed by Shalaya’s arrows without fail. The bow now turned in the younger goddess’ direction, but with a raised finger of warning from Actaeon, turned away again. Shalaya sneered at her husband, drew the bowstring to her ear and let fly. The missile blurred wide of the immense climbing rose and thwacked into the ungainly bole of a twisted, silver-leafed malgrave tree, the likes of which abound in in Machpelah, home of the gods. With a curse Shalaya fitted another arrow and set her sights on a flock of white doves that had coincided with the arrival of the lesser goddess. The arrow struck down the lead bird in a splash of red.
With haughty laugh she looked over her bare shoulder to her husband, who frowned and turned to his approaching visitor.
“What troubles you, Annatipré?”
“Highest, I am haunted by images. Steeped in horror, I … find no explanation for them.”
“Images of my demise once more?”
“I fear so, Highest.”
“Young one, mortal means cannot harm us. Not even arrows loosed by a vengeful goddesses.” He leveled a cool gaze at his wife.
“I am aware of such.” The young goddess’ eyes of compelling green shifted toward Actaeon’s spouse. Annatipré knew of Shalaya’s anger, of course, and though she did not provoke the queen, neither did she look demurely away.
“Do not allow such visions to trouble you, girl. You have done well by reporting such to me. I will see to them.”
Shalaya sneered. Actaeon’s massive arm made a small gesture and the queen vanished.
“Thank you, King Actaeon.”
“Give your parents my blessing, child.”
“They will be overjoyed.”
The goddess was a vision of neutrality as she inclined her head.
Actaeon favored her with a smile. “Do not neglect your mortal subjects.”
“I will not.” Annatipré bowed and made her departure.
Though Actaeon had not raised his voice, the demigod ran forth from the stable that held Actaeon’s favorite winged lequu.
“Yes, Great One?”
“Fetch my wife’s arrows from the wood beyond,” Actaeon said, rising from the silver-veined marble throne and watching the departure of the young goddess.
“Yes, Great One.”
“Do not soil the golden arrows with your dung-stained hands. Wash yourself in the stream before you retrieve them.”
Actaeon scarcely heard the words as he strode forth to seek the embrace of Shalaya, whether she be willing or not.
Intent upon his quest, Actaeon missed the rage blazing in his servant’s eyes.
According to mortal religion, Actaeon knows all. Were he truly omniscient, however, he would know of Ducain’s plot, already set in motion. One that would ultimately prove Actaeon less than omnipotent.
In fact, quite vulnerable.
The latter-day fisherman could no longer deny the sense of foreboding that had gathered around his boat. Even his young daughter knew healthy dolphins do not ignore an easy meal without reason.
Few men on Marsii escape misfortune and Rhone, most recently of the bayside town of Iylan, hardly stood as an exception. Even the most callous of the gods would grant that the ex-soldier had survived his share of ill-wrought destiny. Seeking to avert more of the same, Rhone sought logical reasons for the dolphin’s lack of interest. Perhaps they wanted him to dive in for another swim. But the group did not appear playful, and various flesh-eating dangers lurked within the emerald vastness of Filbor Bay. Perhaps the aquatic animals were satiated and had no taste for common chzrak. A quick scan of the bountiful hold of the skiff located a respectable pliccan, delicacy of both man and dolphin. Many were the occasions he’d witnessed dolphins gleefully tearing through schools of the elusive winged fish.
Rhone tossed the scaled offering to the sleek grey snout of the largest of the nearly motionless, upright beasts.
The fish struck the water and darted away, ignored.
Rhone frowned. Why did the pod cluster about, if not for a scrap or two? No dolphins had gotten caught in his nets, and in the rare occasion they did become encircled by the floats, he freed them. Yet these hovered about, watching him. And they had allowed two free meals to escape.
Finally, the beasts scattered.
All but the largest. It shook its head and chittered as if scolding him. It carried on for several seconds, then dove, soaking him with a tail thrash. Standing ankle-deep in fish, Rhone offered an obscene gesture, then grasped the narrow mast and watched the departing show of surface acrobatics.
Rhone nodded in admiration. With a sigh he glanced around the hold at the catch, then bent to haul in the rest of his net, but as he reached caught movement in the periphery. Thinking perhaps the dolphins were returning, he gazed in the new direction, a half-smile forming on his scarred lip.
His face went slack, even as the muscles of his back and shoulders tensed.
A legion of monstrous swells. Perhaps a hundred meters away and bearing straight for him.
Rhone swore, grabbed the net and heaved. Surface water frothed as the last fifteen feet of fish-laden net burst from the bay in a single motion more powerful than the casual eye would have suspected possible. Arms almost blurring, he ran up the faded blue sail as the winds of hell shrieked in. Just as he lunged for the rudder arm the skiff leaped forward, prow cutting the writhing surface, west toward Iylan. A glance over his shoulder told him the waves would catch him before he made it halfway to port.
Bracing the rudder, Rhone had little time to contemplate the origin of the fierce winds. Random retaining rings tore from the sail, pinged off the mast and boom to cut into heaving walls of water. Empty metal eye holes winked back and forth. The rough interwoven fibers of the sail were next to yield, revealing strips of crimson-hued sky. Normally Rhone would have time to brace the rudder with wooden blocks and trim the sail, but he could not risk it with these conditions. Cutting the line would drop the sail completely, but he’d lose navigation, and to remain out here was to invite certain disaster. Besides, the torn strips worked slightly in his favor by allowing the wind through and thereby lessening the strain on the mast, enough to fend off immediate capsizing.
Doused, Rhone spat water and swore. The skiff was getting battered like a toy. He fought the rudder up and down monstrous swells. Spray stung him like backhanded slaps from the sea goddess Maghera. He cleared his vision with a shake of his head and wished he hadn’t; these nightmarish waves were dangerous enough, but as the skiff crested another, Rhone caught glimpses of others that defied both the prevailing winds and logic. Newcomers barreled in from the adjoining sea and through the straits to toss anchored vessels like matchwood and scour gentle shorelines. No doubt the Meklar soldiers at the channel fort gestured in amazement while the stone parapets shook beneath their feet.
The incoming ocean waves clashed with the outermost waves of Filbor Bay. Rhone seemed destined to get smashed in the melee. The only option was to set his jaw and ply every bit of strength and latter-day seamanship he could muster.
Born in an inland Cedanthian village, Rhone had taken to the water with surprising ease – almost instinctively – after finally gaining his freedom from the conquering Meklar army. The furthest vocation from soldiering he could think of was fishing. Rhone had eight years on the water now. Experience told him that even sudden squalls announce their approach with a show of fierce clouds – and yet the sky was now clear.
He cut a diagonal up the side of a rising monster mere heartbeats from curling, slammed the rudder hard to cut the prow down along at its base where it was still rearing. Behind came the crashing but Rhone tore ahead of it, using the momentum to shoot through a gauntlet of others. Straining every sense and employing all stores of human and inhuman strength, he managed to keep just ahead of the deadliest curling and crashing, but always it pounded at his back. The thunderous roar was continuous and deafening. No sooner did the waves crash when they heaved up again. He pitched and dove and cut the vessel ever westward, toward the pale gashes of beach that doubled in size each time he risked a glance.
The waves from the ocean had torn through the channel and were closing in from south, heading for the boat’s exposed flank.
Rhone thought of Enna and fought a surge of panic.
The boat pitched with a fervor he’d encountered only on the open sea. Splash and spray shot across the bow from all sides, reviving the scores of silvery fish in the hold. They wriggled and smacked their tails and bumped against the wooden hull as if sensing a reprieve from death. Creaks and groans from the shuddering craft were overwhelmed by rush and roar as Rhone blitzed a trough of collapsing red walls veined with white foam. The waters rose beneath him at a fantastic rate, propelled the craft upward until the prow speared the sky. Rhone expected his craft to crest the wave and come down the backside but instead it flew. Were his teeth not already clenched he would have gaped.
A stomach-dropping moment and the keel struck what felt like cobblestones instead of water. Man and finned catch were nearly jettisoned. A cross-wave flung the skiff nearly broadside. Rhone steered with the wave, came face-to-face with the angry water before recovering. Now he raced across a vanishing russet plane to shoot another narrowing gap between another pair of rolling behemoths.
Veins formed a bulging network along Rhone’s wiry arms as he struggled with the rudder. Sweat was blasted away by sea spray as he pinned the long wooden handle against his side. The silk vest kept his ribs from getting scraped to a bloody mess but did little for the bruising. He half-considered packing his hauberk for the next trip and discarded the notion. Salt air and water would play havoc with the steel links, and there was no telling when a good coat of chain mail would become necessary once again.
If he survived.
For Enna’s sake, he had to.
Normally the winds blew southwest toward Iylan, allowing smooth entry into port. Not so today. As if to emphasize the point, one of the waves he’d been riding suddenly curled and broke at the base of another swell. A roaring mass of white-water erupted, high as his masthead, even as the first of the ocean-born channel waves struck.
Rhone had no alternative but to brace for impact.
The world rocked as if he’d opened his arms and greeted two charging bulls. He was thrown from the wooden crossbeam that served as his seat, legs splayed high before him as the skiff’s prow dove down the roiling wall of another swell. For a daunting moment his only connection to the boat was the rudder handle clamped in his hand and beneath his arm. His lower body slammed unceremoniously to the hull. His back met the edge of the beam he’d been perched upon, eliciting a grunt of pain. Still clutching the rudder, he kicked away several wide-eyed chzrak and scrambled back into place.
Rhone spat salt water, raised a fist and shouted defiance.
The roar around him easily drowned his cry … but Rhone heard it, and that was enough. Cross-waves shot across his bow, jerking the craft back and forth and dousing him anew. But the mutually flanking forces nullified one another. Rhone shook his head savagely and grinned, took the opportunity to cast about for bearings.
Clustered along the shore and up the hillsides were the stone and timber dwellings of the town of Iylan, where Rhone had lingered after his release from an army not of his choosing. Two miles south, at the mouth of the bay, rose the massive limestone battlements and turrets of Fort Iylan. It dominated the waterway, as well as the bleached dunes and clusters of leaning, wind-shorn trees around it. The fort demanded attention from all sailing vessels, those approaching from the sea as well as those upon the massive teardrop that was Filbor Bay, as Rhone was now. He had not journeyed out to sea today, hence flagging for permission to pass was unnecessary. Even at this distance he could discern the catapults atop the turrets, and upon the catapults whipped the black and red triangular flags with clenched gauntlet motif, the Meklar standard.
A bitter taste leeched into his exhilaration.
Freedom upon the waters came as a fleeting illusion, dispelled each time he returned to the shores of Cedanthe. Were it not for Enna he would have sailed off a long time ago; but unknown countries were risky with a five year-old daughter. At least here, should ill fate take him, Enna would be cared for by Mehri … the closest thing to a doting grandmother the child would ever know. She was with her now, learning the alphabet and numbers and playing with the other two children Mehri watched while their parents labored as day workers on the water or in the fields or in the handful of jobs in town such as bakery, dockworker, and blacksmith.
Rhone’s approach into port was akin to a controlled fall; the sail was trimmed, the stone block of an anchor dragged and bounced the bottom, but he was dead-on with the dock on the lee shore. The boat rose and fell on the passing swells like the kalic wood replica he’d made for Enna for her splash-filled baths. Despite his attempts to slow the vessel, the prow still cut curled shafts of red-hued water to the sides. Filbor himself would have found challenge in docking a light craft under such conditions … then again, the renegade admiral would have simply ordered the tall masted merchant ship now crowding the dock to shove off. The history texts Rhone had pored over as a boy cited several examples where Filbor had scrawled a profane order on parchment, lashed it to an arrow and shot it himself into a merchant captain’s helm.
A long time ago Rhone dreamed of joining the navy and commanding a ship or even a fleet, as Filbor had done. But four long years as a foot soldier and two in cavalry for an army not his own had cured him of such boyhood fancies.
The skiff bore down on the dock. At the last instant before collision Rhone cut the rudder hard. Creaking and groaning, the craft did his bidding and now the prow cut directly into the waves, nearly at a stand-still. In a blur of dull white breeches Rhone leaped from the uncertain bow, vest rising behind him like a pair of faded red wings. For a moment he was airborne, and the exposed skin of his chest and arms and clean-shaven face glowed bronze in the afternoon sun. In his scarred hands were two ropes, one for the bow, one for the stern. Bare feet landed cat-like on the dock. In quick, precise motions he tied off to the rusted cleats. The skiff was secure, but the waves shoved it back and forth against the cork buffers, kicking up spray and random jets of water. He’d better unload in a hurry or he’d have some serious bailing to do.
Damn good catch, though, he mused, appraising the crates of forearm-sized chzrak, grom and pollet he had packed. The fish were perfect size for fat fillets and pan frying and he had filled ten boxes with them. Between the boxes and the nets, every available inch of free space on the craft was occupied.
Almost too good, Rhone amended.
A sense of foreboding crept into his stomach. Good fortune was not to be trusted. Life goes well for a time and then the gods amuse themselves by sending misfortune your way.
Irony was an enemy.
And the gods revel in irony.
Rhone chastised himself; twenty-four summers and here he fretted like an old man. Truth was, the nets had been largely empty all week despite his best efforts and he was due a good day on the water. It wasn’t easy or pretty but he’d persevered and been rewarded.
He pulled the scarf from his head, revealing a dark patch of close-cropped hair. He laid flat at the edge of the dock near the skiff’s prow, plunged the scarf into the wavering reflection of the lean-faced man with scarred cheek. The water was notably warmer here in the shallows. Rhone did a one-arm push-up and wiped his face before retying the scarf. He shoved a plank out to the skiff for a walkway and crossed it to get back in the boat. The dockmaster had placed a handcart nearby upon spying Rhone’s red and white vessel and light blue sail. A strong wave hit, bounced the craft against the buffers just as he pulled at the nearest box. It tipped, spilling silver and white fish inside the hull. Without pause Rhone stacked the fish back inside.
Movement on the dock as his back was turned. The wind masked the approaching footsteps of three dour men that stood menacingly close. A brief lull allowed their stench to creep forward and rival that of the fish in Rhone’s boat.
“Looks like this fisherman had Mahgera’s blessing today.”
“No one else had much of a catch. Not enough for us to drink on, anyways.”
“Maybe Mahgera likes his pretty face. ’Cept for that scar, of course. See that bastard down the side of his face? Fillet knife must’ve slipped when he was gutting fish!”
Their laughter was carried off by the wind, but not before it reached other fisherman and dock workers at the tall masted ship. These were burly, hardened men, and even they glanced warily at the source and looked away again. Trouble with the Dock Authority, even those as crooked as the three confronting Rhone, could lead to the loss of a decent wage, or jail time. Even for minor offenses, Meklar jails have a low survival rate.
And there was always the Mek option of outright murder.
Despite the lack of a visual and audible warning, Rhone was not caught off-guard. He sensed them as they strode forth from behind the dockmaster’s shed while his back was turned. This extra sense was a little trick passed on by the old man. It did not shield him from attack, but it gave him a moment or two to prepare – most of the time. The aforementioned scar was the exception. During a skirmish with fierce Kengalese warriors, there had already been danger enough to hammer at his senses, and the knife throw had come silent and deadly. Only shifting his weight in the saddle had saved Rhone from a face full of steel. As it was, the blade laid open a diagonal from his lip and cheek backward, and while he never saw it himself, comrades at the scene later told him the white of his jaw bone was plainly visible. Blood flows profusely from a head wound. Tunnel vision closed in just moments later and he slid from the saddle before the skirmish was over. Fortunately his company was able to rout the attackers. His buddy Satho had found and stitched him as best he could with cat-gut. The feverish bout with infection nearly sent Rhone to eternity, but he pulled through. Eating was a pain for months. Still, he had lived and served two more years before gaining his freedom from Drossgurd’s army.
Rhone kept working in the skiff. These thugs disguised as Port Authority officers were a recent addition to the dock, the latest heavy-handed move by the Meklarian Empire that Rhone had hoped would content itself with inland matters. Perhaps these three had caused the sense of foreboding he’d had earlier.
But when had he ever been that fortunate?
“Hey, boy – we asked if Maghera took a liking to yer blighted pus.”
“What concern would the gods have for a simple fisherman?” Rhone said, without looking up.
“Modest, ain’t he? Plainly the Goddess of the Sea smiled on his ass today.”
“Aye, he has a lot to carry to market, fellas. Too much, I’d say.”
Rhone gazed evenly at the men.
One stood with his lips pursed, like he’d been bitten into an unripe eiclom. The other two grinned, various teeth missing from the display.
“Don’t you girls have some baking to do?” Rhone said. “I heard there’s a fresh batch of beggars you can harass somewhere … poor slobs used to build houses and barns before your empire came and ushered everyone into the death hives you call Community Dwellings.”
“Our empire. Listen to him. Almost sounds like he don’t like us Meklars.”
“It’s a Meklar world, fisherman.”
“Yeah, a Mek world,” orated the third. “It is what it is.”
Rhone cocked a brow. “Deep thinking, that.”
The three glared at Rhone. One spat in Rhone’s direction but the wind drove it back in his face. Rhone laughed.
“Yeah, who needs beggars when we got you?”
“And beggars got nothin’. It’s you workin’ folk that pay best.”
Rhone crossed the plank to the dock while the men laughed. He was glad for their retort, for there was a group of houses in ruins two blocks away that served as a gathering point for the downtrodden and he was afraid he’d actually given the thugs an idea for potential victims. If there was a beggar down here at the docks Rhone would often put him to work – if the man or woman wasn’t too drunk or stoned – in helping unload the skiff. He could not help the beggars beyond a fish or two, but he did not need to send more trouble their way, either.
The thug in the middle, the biggest, back-handed the other two in their chests and lumbered forward. He shouldered into Rhone and made like he was scrutinizing the catch. “Where’s our box, fisherman?”
Rhone half-smiled. The shoulder had been absorbed without so much as a side-step, and the flint in Rhone’s grey eyes sparked with anger for the first time. More than a hint of red flickered over the grey. “No box. Two fish each, no more.”
“Be a shame for us to tip your cart into the bay after you load it. Wouldn’t want that little girl o’ yours to go hungry …”
A dangerous pause as fire kindled in Rhone’s eyes. The air grew thick and still as he struggled to keep rage at bay. A fillet knife hung in its sheath at his hip. Demon blood flooded his muscles, ready to trigger a strike that could open the throats of two of them – the big lout and the next one over – before they skinned their swords free of the scabbards. The third would be able to free his weapon and most likely lunge with it, and then it wouldn’t go well … for the thug. Rhone’s human side resisted the urge to attack.
The biggest of the three tried to rip the box of fish from Rhone’s grip. Rhone held fast, legs braced and lean muscles taught against the pull of the bigger man, who could move neither the box nor the man holding it.
“One for each hand,” Rhone said. “Tion will give you enough for them to get drunk on, since you’ll reach his pub before I get there. Two fish each. No more.”
His tone gave warning.
A large man with a soldier’s bearing and a sword at his hip strode up the dock. He kept a distance but slowed and stopped at the far rail to watch with mounting interest. In his arm was a broad circular shield, and strapped to the grips was a conical war helmet. He leaned them against a post.
Rhone jerked the box from the thug, tossed it on the cart and drew the fillet knife. It glinted at his side as he waited for the men to move in a threatening fashion. The thugs joked that a box of twelve fish was too much of a strain to carry anyhow. They took their allotted fish by the tails and lumbered toward Tion’s pub.
The stranger cut them with his gaze as they sauntered by. Despite their bullying attitude, the thugs gave berth. Except for the helmet and shield, the man was in full battle gear of chain mail hauberk and greaves over his boots. The studded black leather gauntlet of his left hand gripped the scabbard of his long sword and other hovered at the nicked hilt. After the thugs moved on, the man hooked his thumbs in his belt and strode directly toward Rhone.
“First the port authority and now a soldier?” Rhone scoffed. “Grab your two and be off.”
“I’m not interested in your damned fish. Don’t you recognize an old comrade when you see one?”
“Where would I know you – wait.” Rhone peered closely at the man. “I know that voice. Your manner of stance … Satho?”
The man grinned. “A bit heavier now, I know. But what can I say? Body guarding is not like humping it for miles in the infantry, eh? A lot of standing or riding on horseback. You get three or four big meals a day, you know, and all the grog a man can quaff when the shift is over.”
They grasped forearms and clapped one another’s back.
“Four years fighting and trudging through Mard and Sermia together … two more getting our blisters on our asses while on horseback in the Kengalese grasslands. Six years, Rhone! Six years we fought in Drossgurd’s goddamn army.”
Rhone’s grin faded a notch. “Damn right we did.”
Satho frowned. “You can tell me to screw myself for it not bein’ my business, but the Rhone I knew would have flayed all three of those dock rats. By Actaeon’s bushy balls, what’s happened to you?”
Rhone’s eyes narrowed as he stared at the three. “Change in priorities.”
“My ass has a change in priorities. What’s the story, don’t want undue attention? You layin’ low or something?”
“Hell, these townies don’t even know you were in the army, do they?”
“I have yet to enlighten them.” Rhone crossed the plank into his skiff. “So what brings an old army buddy to the quiet port of Iylan?”
“Shippin’ out tomorrow.” He lowered his voice. “I’m quitting Cedanthe, Rhone. Gettin’ away from Drossgurd’s empire.”
“Sounds like a damn good idea. Where to?”
“Telleri? I’ve heard good things.”
“Hell man, if I’d have known you were here I’d have arrived a week earlier so we could get drunk good and proper!”
“My head still reels from the last time.”
“Ha! That’s what happens when a lightweight tries to go pint for pint with a real man. By the sacred scrotum of Calthus, we drank the taverns dry, didn’t we?”
Rhone laughed. The veins bulged over the lean hard muscles of his arms as he retrieved another box of fish from the skiff and laid it on the cart. “And here I had forgotten the gods actually sported genitalia …”
“You haven’t changed one damn bit! Still got a wit drier than a used-up whore.”
Rhone grinned. “I’ll thank you to keep your companions out of our discourse.” He made like he was shuddering in disgust. Satho laughed again as Rhone crossed back over the plank and reached for the next box.
“Shelaya’s tits, I won’t let you have all the fun!” Satho stomped over the plank and into the boat, where he promptly landed on his backside with a curse.
“Sure you want to hop on a ship tomorrow, landlegs?” Rhone laughed.
“Crapshits! Not only can I out-work you here, I can out-drink you in that pub down there.” Satho bent and grasped a box. No sooner had he started to rise when a cloud of white dust shot up into his face. He sputtered and wiped his eyes with his sleeve. “The hell …?”
“Don’t forget to salt ’em down, big boy.”
“I’ve a mind to toss your ass into the drink.”
“Sure you do. Probably should get the makeup off your face first. Everyone’ll think you’re my girlfriend.”
They laughed and had the boat cleared in minutes. From the dock Rhone tossed a bucket of water onto the wide seats. “That pub is my first customer. I’ll buy you a pint after Tion cheats me of the full price. If it weren’t for me, his customers would get a daily ration of potato soup.”
Satho reached into the bucket and splashed the sweat and salt from his face. “I thought the buzzards had made away with you … but here you are, in some armpit of a port town, working off whatever ass you have left! Rhone, the ship departs tomorrow for Telleri. The royals there would prize another man-at-arms to protect them. Throw your shit in a pack and come with me. It’ll be like the old days.”
Rhone wiped the sweat from his clean-shaven face. “Old days … four weeks training with wooden swords and shields and it was off to the Sermian campaign. Many of the boys from our home towns didn’t make it back.” He stared into the distance for a moment, his features suddenly grim. “You haven’t forgotten how we found ourselves in Drossgurd’s goddamn army in the first place?”
Right then Satho recognized the fighting man he once knew. He glanced at the dock workers unloading the merchant ships further down the massive dock.
“Drossgurd can kiss my ass goodbye! He forced us into his goddamn army, but he won’t keep me here in his empire. Hell, I only stayed in Cedanthe this long because it was the only thing I knew. You hang here on the outskirts, maybe it ain’t so bad – but there’s better out there!” He swung a beefy arm over the dull red horizon. “A fresh start, Rhone. Hell man, it’s got to be better than slinging fish for a living.”
Sweat traced pathways over Rhone’s temples. He swiped at them and smiled. “I have a daughter now, Satho. Enna is almost five. She believes the world is her own … and I’m going keep it that way as long as possible.”
Satho blinked. “Bring the family! Your daughter will have better prospects in Telleri. They are educated over there, Rhone. You were educated by your parents, but Telleri has schools for boys and girls. Schools paid for by the citizens of the territories. Your Enna could learn a trade. If she didn’t like one, she could choose another! Sure they have a powerful military – Drossgurd hasn’t dared try ’em yet – but they know how to make more than just war. You see the goods coming off that ship … the furniture, the crops, the crates of clothing material … all from Telleri! Your wife will have enough money for good clothes, perhaps some jewelry – ”
“But you have a daughter … the mother is dead?”
Rhone cleared his throat but the pain remained. “Might as well be. Eryiana warms some nobleman’s sheets in Gilhorne, and can’t be bothered to call upon her own flesh and blood. The pain in Enna’s eyes when she asks about her mother sends a dagger through my heart. To say I misjudged …” He trailed off with a bitter shake of his head.
“I see. Well, it’s no help, but you’re hardly the first man to misjudge the mind of a woman.”
“The role of a fool …” Rhone spat into the water.
“Aye. It’ll take the wind from a good man’s sail.”
Rhone looked away. A good man … was that what he was, given the blood that runs through his veins? Given the horrors of war he’d experienced? Now he only wanted to be there for his daughter, to give her a decent life. If that was a good man, he was not certain.
Sea fowl hovered and squawked in a cacophony on the naked mast of Rhone’s boat, along the rails, bobbing their heads, taking off and hovering and landing, all the time inching closer to his catch. Irritated, Rhone motioned, made a fist and suddenly splayed his fingers. The birds launched into the sky, squawking and flapping while a pillow’s worth of stray feathers spiraled down.
“Still got some of the old sorcerer in ya, then?”
“Just some minor stuff.”
“You don’t do that conjuring thing … those demons …”
“A lonely kid’s curiosity when there were no human friends to be had.”
“Imps that would slash the eyes from yer skull, man.”
Rhone shrugged. “What I do equates to little more than tavern tricks. Don’t need bird shit all over the catch. Brings the price down.”
“Proper seasoning for these Meklars, however.”
Satho watched him keenly for a moment. “Now there’s something you never did much of.”
“What are you babbling about, big boy?”
“I don’t think I’ve seen you laugh so easily.”
“Happens now and then. More so, since Enna. Though the girl can work you harder than a grizzled Sergeant at times.”
By the time they finished unloading the skiff, the winds had fallen off. Satho was about to push the fish-laden hand cart when Rhone shoved him away.
“I have it, man. You’ve got to lug all that steel. You can pretend to be my bodyguard.”
“Where’s your pack?”
“Under lock and key on the ship.”
“Good security, but suppose you soil your undershorts?”
“… forgot that about you.”
“Say, how much does our man Tion rent a room for?”
“Are you looking to wench?”
“Did it fall off or something?”
“Hardly. Truth is my ass is sore from the all-day horse ride, and as much I’m ashamed to admit it, the call of the pillow is stronger than parting with six coppers for the bored embrace of a working girl. A terrible thing, getting old.”
“Then we are both showing our age. I do little but wrestle fishing nets and retire home to Enna. Listen, these tavern keepers don’t want some bare-assed oaf in one of their beds. There’s a room at my hovel for you. It isn’t much, but the place is cool and dry, the terrace looks out over the bay, and the beds have mattresses of cotton laced with powdered Linstrum to discourage even the most determined six-legged intruder.”
Satho smiled and as he did the scar on his cheek, higher than Rhone’s but on the same side, tugged the corner of his eye downward. “Sounds like heaven. Besides, I’m anxious to meet the little girl who turned a steel-eyed slayer into a bowl of porridge.”
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