Vespera Extract

INTERLUDE I

LAMORRA

NINE MONTHS AGO

 

‘Four points to starboard!’ Odeinath called, lowering the sextant and blinking to clear the sun from his eyes. The incidental blindness was one of many problems with using an instrument this old, but he still brought it out to take the sightings every so often, to keep in practice.

‘Aye!’ The wheel creaked as the steersman brought it round a tiny bit, the only man on the deck of the Navigator with something sensible to hang onto as the ship dipped and rose through the swell. The seas were calm by the standards of northern spring; he’d been expecting more of the howling gales that had riven them northwards past two interesting island groups. Perhaps they’d be lucky this third time.

He leant against the rigging as the deck tilted downwards again, wiping the sextant with a cloth to remove the specks of spray and laying it in its case before he headed along the deck, down the companionway into the stern cabin where the chart was already spread out over the blanked aether table.

‘How are we?’ Cassini asked.

Odeinath blinked – he hadn’t noticed the slender botanist wedged into the seat below the aft windows, two books and a notepad balanced on his lap as he catalogued the specimens from their last landfall.

‘Should sight Lamorra any time now,’ Odeinath said, walking over to fit the sextant back into its cupboard. ‘Their capital is on the south-east side of the first island, so with luck we’ll be there well before nightfall. Providing whoever originally mapped it could navigate worth a damn.’

‘Capital?’ Cassini raised an eyebrow. ‘Lamorra has a capital?’

‘It’s a princedom, I think,’ Odeinath said, leaning over the chart. Of course, this was the northern ocean, and some of the early explorers must have been sailing with their eyes closed and navigating using the painted stars on their cabin ceiling. He’d discovered that on his first visit to the far north ten years ago, when only the helmsman’s instincts had prevented Navigator from running onto a shoal that would have ripped even her polyp-armoured bottom out. A shoal which, according to the charts, was a hundred and fifty miles to the west.

‘A princedom of three people and eighty thousand goats?’

‘Don’t be ridiculous!’ Odeinath said, glaring at Cassini. ‘Eighty thousand goats would have eaten the island by now. No, it’s a real princedom, apparently the capital has over ten thousand people.’

Cassini flinched. ‘That many? Protocol, royal palace?’

‘You may be coming too,’ Odeinath said, wondering if that would be wise, given Cassini’s particular failing, but then maybe Lamorra would be different. ‘Windsoar said it was fairly civilized for the north, they have stone houses and paved streets.’

‘Very grand,’ Cassini said, catching a dried seaweed specimen before it could fall onto the floor. ‘With a capital like that, I’m surprised it’s not an empire. What’s the prince’s name?’

‘Besach, I seem to remember.’

‘Emperor Besach, Prince of Lamorra, Lord of the World’s Four Corners, Overlord of the Mackerel, Ruler of Ten Thousand Goats . . .’

‘And ruins,’ Odeinath said. Windsoar’s captain had only mentioned those in passing, when he’d discovered during the dinner that Odeinath had been an architect. A good captain, but more of a buccaneer than an explorer. Windsoar had a certain reputation.

‘You’ll be happy then,’ said Cassini. ‘Tuonetar ruins? Wait, no-one else this far north has even got round to inventing fire on their own, so the ruins must be Tuonetar.’

‘Keep your mouth shut if you can’t be polite,’ Odeinath said, with an exaggerated scowl that even Cassini should be able to understand. ‘They can’t help living in the north.’

‘They can help thinking their little cluster of islands is the centre of the universe,’ Cassini said, and more bitterly: ‘And that the only sign of talent or nobility in a man is indicated by how good he is at slicing people open with a sword.’

‘But they do, and they also think southerners are arrogant and effeminate, an impression you won’t do anything to dispel.’

‘Effeminate?’ Cassini said, with a puzzled look. Odeinath rolled his eyes and marked their position on the chart.

‘You don’t look like a fine specimen of northern manhood,’ Odeinath said patiently. ‘That makes you effeminate as far as they’re concerned.’

Not that his crew usually had many problems, because northerners tended to judge a ship by its captain, and Odeinath’s own physique had made him an honorary northerner – the skin and the hair were overlooked. He knew Cassini hated the north – watchful, curious and highly intelligent didn’t count for much, and his skills as a botanist and gardener would only be laughed at and dismissed as women’s work. The older men ignored him, the younger men bullied him, the women laughed at him.

Odeinath had little time for the far north either. Thure and Ralentis contained the ruins of the civilization that had once flourished here, yes, but its descendants had fallen a long way. Not really a surprise, given that barely half of the inhabited islands had survived the Thetian legions and first few years of the storms.

‘I’m happy to be effeminate as far as they’re concerned,’ said Cassini, with a shudder, ‘as long as I don’t have to listen to them talking about their glorious deeds in battle.’

‘Better to hear them talk about it than to see it,’ Odeinath said, and in a part of his mind he saw again the Azrian marines marching down to their ships, proud under their copper-red banners, to fight for Ruthelo and their clan, and never come back.

‘We never had a warrior ethic, though,’ Cassini said.

‘No, we didn’t,’ Odeinath replied, not really seeing him. ‘Thanks be.’

‘Land ho!’ The shout drifted down from the crow’s nest. ‘Two points off the starboard bow.’

Someone had been awake when they charted this area. Good. He called up to the helmsman to adjust course another two points to starboard. No point going up on deck yet, he’d wait till they had something more definite.

‘Did you find out what the ruins were like?’ Cassini asked.

‘No, he said they were big, and impressive for ruins, and I’d have a whale of a time there.’

‘When you’re not being royally entertained by Prince and Emperor Besach, that is.’

‘That’s enough jokes about him,’ Odeinath said sharply. ‘He’ll be our host tonight, and princes aren’t renowned for their temper.’

 

Prince Besach of Lamorra was more than either of them had given him credit for, at least in the scale of northern rulers who elevated their tiny archipelagoes into princedoms inspired by the Thetian city-states of old.

Lamorra came into sight in late afternoon. It was an island, rather like the sites of many Thetian colonies, at the edge of a large bay, with fields on the landward side and then forest stretching up to mountains that were still snow-capped at this time of year. There seemed to be another town a few miles along the shoreline, and houses here and there.

‘Relatively civilized for a northern princedom,’ Odeinath said grudgingly, as Navigator beat her way into the bay. ‘At least it’s more than a few huts and an emaciated goat.’

‘Not all that civilized.’ Daena, his ship’s physician and also the ship’s intelligencer. Unusual – in most Xelestis ships it was one of the officers, but Daena had demonstrated many times over that physicians could get to places no-one else could.

It had been Daena who’d introduced Raphael to intelligencing, for which Odeinath had never quite forgiven her. But then, it had probably been inevitable that Raphael would leave eventually.

‘How not?’ Cassini asked.

‘Walls,’ Daena said. ‘No windows on the ground floor of any of those outside houses, and I think there are bars on the upper floors. Quite a good defence, there’s no way an enemy can just land if the houses fall straight into the water.’

Windsoar said it was safe,’ Odeinath said, wondering if that meant safe by the standards of a ship possessing twelve cannon ‘for self-defence’ and whose crew were armed to the teeth.

Not that Navigator couldn’t defend herself, because her strange construction meant she was a good deal more sturdy than Windsoar, but fighting was to be avoided. In any case, Xelestis ships were never attacked. The Clan had had to ram that point home occasionally in the early days, half a dozen ships gathering to exact revenge for an attack on one of their fellows, but two or three instances of that had been enough. Word spread out here, and Xelestis ships were the only outsiders many island groups ever saw.

‘Is that their harbour?’ Cassini said, peering through the telescope as they bore slightly to port to avoid a sandbar Windsoar had mentioned.

‘What?’ Odeinath took the telescope from him, pointed it to the northwest side of the town where he’d seen masts. It sprang into focus – a stone cothon, big enough to hold three or four ship’s Navigator’s size and a moderate-sized fishing fleet, with a breakwater to keep them safe in the event of storms.

            Windsoar had said there was a proper harbour, but something like this? No petty state like Lamorra should have been able to afford the engineers, the materials, the work to build something like that. And what was the point?  How many ships a year could a place like this have?

He turned the telescope on the one other large ship in port. Square-rigged, its rounded hull black, built slightly higher than it should perhaps have been. A little bigger than Navigator, perhaps, but almost certainly rough-built in the yard of one of the two northern states with enough people and trees to build such ships.

They’d be lucky to make a profit here, if she was a trader. But then, a ship built for arctic waters like that would be bringing goods from further north, furs and amber and metals from Thure. Not competition.

He handed the telescope to Daena and saw her eyes widen as she took the scene in. ‘Something’s changed up here.’

‘Be on your guard,’ Odeinath said. ‘Those numbskulls on Windsoar didn’t pick up that something was going on, we’ll have to do their work as well as ours. Just hope Prince Besach has an ulcer or a broken arm to heal.’

They were close enough to Lamorra now to see the people leaning out of windows to stare or wave, more gathering in the harbour to be the first to welcome a new ship. There were two Xelestis ships which regularly visited Lamorra, according to Windsoar, but it was a while since the last one would have been by.

‘Daena,’ Odeinath said, after a moment’s thought, ‘let’s not let on that we have aether capability. Bring out the disguise for the table and make sure the generator and the conduits are well-hidden. We don’t want to give our hosts any ideas.’

‘This will be an interesting visit,’ said Daena brightly, as she went astern.

By the time they stopped outside the mouth of the harbour, waiting for a boat to guide them in, all trace that Navigator had any unusual capabilities had been concealed. The Lamorrans could hardly fail to notice her odd construction, but it could be explained away as an experiment.

The boat came out, manned by eight oarsmen who from their technique were hardly experts at this, and after some argument between Navigator’s bosun and the men in the boat, a line was passed and Navigator was pulled into the cothon. The stonework looked new, perhaps only five or ten years at the outside, though the workmanship could have been better.

He studied the arctic trader as much as he dared, waved to the two or three men standing on deck, but didn’t discover anything more. The hull was pitched, hence the colour, but that was standard for operation in these waters, and she had quite a large cabin capacity from the look of the thick glass portholes at regular intervals. That was a little odd, but maybe travel between the northern states had picked up since his last visit.

By the time they’d moored, to metal bollards – metal! Did these people know what they were sitting on? – opposite the arctic trader, there was quite a crowd on the quay, and more people pouring out of the gate. The harbour had its own little walled district outside the main town, with a road running through it to the outer gate and what was either a causeway or a bridge linking it with the mainland. A defensible position, against rebellions or the pitiful fleet of a neighbouring princedom, and by the standards of the far north a prosperous town.

The people looked so drab, though! Their clothes were all browns, blacks, dirty grey, with here or there a russet or a dark green only distinguishable from brown in the sunlight. Even with cold-water clothes on, his crew looked every bit flamboyant enough to be Xelestis, their costumes an often jarring mix of bright red, orange, turquoise, blue. He ran through their cargo in his head – they had a couple of bales of cheap tropical cloth which might go down well here, but more than likely the wearing of bright colours was only for the aristocracy.

As Navigator’s sailors manoeuvred the gangplank into position, he caught sight of a flash of brighter colour as another man walked out of the gate, accompanied by two soldiers. The crowd parted to make way for him, so he would be the prince’s chamberlain or harbourmaster or some such, come to invite them to the palace.

‘Cassini, stay a safe distance behind me and assume that they’re all terribly polite. We’ll keep you with us,’ Odeinath said. ‘Daena, Granius, Tilao, with me.’

Tilao looked so miserable when they were in the north, but what Odeinath knew to be misery the Lamorrans would take as a threatening scowl. And a threatening scowl from a huge, muscular Southern Archipelagan islander would be useful to have at his back, to counterbalance Cassini and Granius, the diminutive trading master.

Odeinath reached the bottom of the gangplank just as the official stopped.

‘On behalf of Prince Besach, I welcome you to Lamorra,’ the man said, a trifle pompously. ‘I am Ambiorix son of Brennus, Chamberlain of the Palace and Tribune of the Royal Guard.’ He was a bit overblown for a warrior, but certainly had the size and the physique, and a strong face. Odeinath could see his eyes flickering over them, assessing their strength.

‘Captain Odeinath Sabal, of Clan Xelestis and the ship Navigator,’ Odeinath replied, then went on to introduce his officers. Cassini was officially the ship’s cartographer, although in the last two years much of his work had been done by one of the new recruits who was obsessive about maps, but had loathed the idea of joining the Oceanographic Guild with its politics and traditions.  Cassini had been quite happy to be left alone with his plants and specimens. ‘We bring trade goods from the south, and gifts for your prince, and ask permission to trade in your market.’

‘You may make your request of the Prince himself,’ Ambiorix said. ‘If you would accompany me up to the palace?’

His Archipelagan was very polished, unusually so. That he spoke Archipelagan at all was unusual, as was the invitation. Both would have been unexpected if he hadn’t already been warned by Windsoar’s captain, but the Xelestis practice of writing down everything one found out about each landfall and trading stop to exchange with other ships was worth its weight in gold.

‘I would be honoured,’ Odeinath said.

That was enough formality, evidently, and they headed off along the quayside, through the crowd of curious Lamorrans, and under the arched gate – again, unusual masonry work – into Lamorra itself.

The town was much as he’d expected, poky houses with no courtyards crowded together, slate roofs. The stone was an unusual reddish-brown colour which prevented the town from looking too bleak, as did the occasional tree white with blossom, but there was a foetid smell in the air from the open drain in the centre of the street. Thetian pretences – Tribune of the Royal Guard indeed – had obviously made it here, but not Thetian fastidiousness if the inhabitants’ appearance was anything to go by.

The street led up a low rise into the centre of the island, and then past a small stone temple to the palace beyond. Who was the temple dedicated to? It didn’t look like a temple to Thetis, and it was unlikely to be an Amadean shrine this far north, they hadn’t had time to spread much beyond Thetia and Qalathar from their holy city of Ilthys. Not that being a young religion had stopped them having a schism already, but then that was hardly surprising.

He asked Ambiorix, in the most diplomatic way possible, who the temple was dedicated to.

‘To the Astreai, of course,’ Ambiorix replied. ‘The true guardians of the north.’

Odeinath blinked, but recovering quickly. So the old star-worship was spreading again? He wasn’t really surprised, but he’d always thought of it as a dead religion. Would the priest be open-minded enough to tell him about it without demanding obedience? That had been the Domain’s forte, the Tuonetar had never particularly gone in for religious intolerance.

            Palace was perhaps the wrong word for Besach’s residence, fortress would have been better. It was set against the walls on the north-east side, its lower storey windowless and built of very large stones set together in a chaotic fashion, the upper storeys not much better. Plunder from the ruins, he guessed, and at the top of the steps he saw part of a pediment built into the wall, a fragment of a column.

The inside was more civilized than he’d expected, but there was something odd about it, something out of place. He still couldn’t work it out by the time they reached the second floor and the doors of the hall.

It wasn’t a formal audience, which was one good thing. Prince Besach was standing at the far end of the hall, below the dais with his carved throne, in conversation with two men, neither of whom was wearing armour or carrying a sword. Cassini would be pleased.

Odeinath’s inner architect couldn’t help noticing that the throne hall, though well-proportioned with a cleverly worked roof of carved wood, might have been much more impressive if it hadn’t been built facing northeast. With no sunlight and not enough windows to compensate, the reddish-brown stones were dark and cold.

Besach at first sight appeared everything Odeinath had feared he would be – a big man, blond and blue-eyed with a reaver’s beard. He turned as Ambiorix announced them, and Odeinath saw with a flash of amusement the taller of his companions’ hands go to his waist, to rest on the pommel of a non-existent sword. The second man, dressed entirely in black, was a different proposition.

Odeinath advanced until he was standing in front of the Prince, and bowed as if he were greeting a Thalassarch. Which was probably giving Lamorra more than its share of importance, because there were Thalassarchs who could have bought or sold Lamorra without really noticing it.

‘Welcome to Lamorra, Captain Odeinath,’ Besach said, in fairly good Thetian.

‘I am honoured,’ Odeinath said, returning to his native language without a second thought. He presented the gift he’d been advised to give, a dagger of Mons Ferratan make, fairly cheap in the Western Archipelago but almost unheard-of out here.

‘I’ve heard of the Mons Ferratan metalworkers, that they’re skilled beyond any others in the world,’ Besach said. ‘And that they are taller than your people, and their skins are so dark as to be black. I would like to invite one here, they seem a curious nation, but one my people could learn from.’

‘They like the cold but little, I’m afraid. There are normally two in my crew, but this time they asked to serve on another ship in the south until I return,’ said Odeinath, which was very much a diplomatic answer. An odd combination of ignorance and curiosity, the prince. And the thought of the Mons Ferratans being a strange and alien people, and that he’d never met any – this really was a different world.

‘Perhaps I shall be able to visit the south one day,’ Besach’s mouth twitched. ‘I’ve heard many things about your islands, and your cities, and I’d like to see if all of them are true. I heard stories from some of your kinsmen a few months ago, about how battles are fought, which seem remarkable.’

Not so unusual, then, if his principal interest in Thetia was its art of war. And he’d missed the point of Clan Xelestis entirely, though Windsoar’s crew and previous Xelestis captains must have explained it again and again.

‘Now, are these your officers?’

Odeinath introduced them, and Besach reciprocated by introducing his two companions. One was, as he’d suspected, the commander of Lamorra’s armies, with again, the Thetian title of Legate. At least, he thought, Besach wasn’t so overblown as to have called him Marshal. There had only ever been one Marshal, and he’d been one too many.

‘And this is my adviser, Massilio.’

Unlike the Legate, who’d put fist to heart, Massilio bowed, then met Odeinath’s gaze with the coldest pair of eyes he’d ever seen. Eyes that reminded Odeinath of the silent, haunted fifteen-year-old he’d virtually adopted in a little Thetian city strung out halfway to the Authin Reefs. Raphael had been almost dead inside when Odeinath found him, but there had been enough life left to revive his spirit. Massilio had had no such chance.

Massilio was also a Thetian, or at least part Thetian. The right features, but his skin was too pale. There was no way he’d been born on Lamorra or anywhere nearby, and his black clothes looked almost like a uniform.

There was a mystery here, and not one Odeinath was comfortable with. But this was a more interesting landfall than he’d expected, and if Besach was genuinely curious, the meal might be an occasion to look forward to rather than dread.

‘A pleasure,’ Massilio said. ‘Your ship is remarkable, Captain. I saw her as you approached, and I’ve never seen anything like her.’

‘She’s part organic,’ Odeinath said. ‘An experiment by one of the shipyards, to see if they could grow surface ships the way they grow mantas.’

‘An unsuccessful experiment?’

‘She took five years to grow. A wooden ship of the same size could be built in five days, if one had the resources.’

‘Shouldn’t she freeze to death in these waters?’ Besach asked. ‘Like your mantas?’

‘She’s not alive,’ Odeinath said. ‘It’s dead polyp, and the water doesn’t affect it.’

Besach thought for a moment. ‘But isn’t the skin of a manta also dead?’

Impressive knowledge, from a man who’d almost certainly never seen one. ‘The skin is dead, but only on top. The manta is still alive underneath, because otherwise the wings wouldn’t be able to move, and they’re the best way of propelling the manta.’

‘So in arctic waters, it’s the  . . . wing muscles . . . that freeze first?’ Besach had had to think about it, but he’d still been able to say it in what was probably his third language. He was wasted on Lamorra.

‘Yes. They die in the cold, but they can regrow if you return to warmer water fast enough.’

‘But if they’re dead, you can’t move as fast, and so you can’t get back to warmer waters in time?’

‘Indeed. Your knowledge is impressive, Majesty,’ said Odeinath, and meant it. Besach smiled, not the false smile of a monarch but the smile of a man genuinely pleased by the compliment.

‘My thanks. Would you and your officers care to join me for dinner tonight? I’ll have arrangements made for you to begin trading in the morning, it’s too dark now.’

‘We’d be delighted to,’ Odeinath said, just as he finally realised what had been bothering him. There were no torch brackets, no guttering pitch torches such as he’d expected to light such a place, and the only things that looked like lights of any kind were the glass cylinders mounted on metal brackets around the wall.

‘Pardon me for asking, Majesty, but what are those?’

Besach’s smile grew even wider. ‘I can surprise you too, it seems. You’ll see in a couple of hours.’

 

Clan Xelestis had no official formal wear, so when Ambiorix came to collect them to take them back to the Palace two hours later, they looked no less like peacocks. More so, if anything, because for formal occasions one could wear clothes that were simply too impractical aboard ship, with lace or fantastic headpieces. Cassini had pleaded to be excused, and Odeinath would never have forced him attend something like this, so he told Ambiorix a partial lie about a senior officer needing to stay with the ship. Which was true, but it was the master-at-arms he left in charge. Cassini was only nominal, he’d be so busy with his books and experiments he wouldn’t notice if someone seized the ship and sailed off to Thure.

It was a source of great pride to Odeinath that on his ship it didn’t matter. There would always be other misfits who could do what Cassini couldn’t.

They drew more than their fair share of stares from Lamorrans on the way up through the streets, children shouting to each other in accented Ralentic to come and watch the offcomers all dressed up.

Those cylinders were lights, Odeinath saw that as soon as they got inside the palace, to hear laughter echoing from the hall above. They gave off a white-yellow glow that flickered occasionally, but it couldn’t be aether, there was simply no way flamewood trees would grow up here. Unless there was an equivalent.

The hall was far brighter than it had been in daylight, cylinders around the edge and two huge iron chandeliers, a roaring fire on the landward side. It looked like something out of a bad romance of the north, but unfortunately it was very real. Not quite as barbaric as he’d thought – Besach had obviously decided to teach his soldiers table manners, as there were no rushes on the floor and no animals – but still, why did the northern lords feel the need to dine with their retainers every night?

Odeinath and Daena hadd been placed at the table of honour, on either side of Besach. The Princess, Ambiorix explained, was recovering from childbirth and thus unable to attend tonight. Daena refrained from offering her help, because they’d discovered on previous occasions that anything birth-related was an area to stay out of. Local midwives were very touchy, and Daena’s experience was probably considerably less than theirs, as Thetian physicians of either sex were only ever called in to births if something went badly wrong.

The food was brought in the moment Odeinath had sat down, between Besach and Massilio, and there was very little finesse to it: a great deal of meat and not much fish. Thankfully, Besach had decided to serve imported wine, for which all of them would be thankful except Tilao, whose people apparently drank a spirit so foul that after it all other alcohol tasted equally bland.

‘To Clan Xelestis,’ Besach said, raising his glass.

‘To Lamorra,’ replied Odeinath. It wasn’t bad, for imported wine. ‘Now, would you tell me what these lights are?’

It was hardly the way to address a prince in his own castle, but Besach didn’t seem to mind. It made sense. A man who ruled an entire island group, not insubstantial in sheer size even if it had no resources and a population who were little more than farmers, could never entirely relax with his subordinates, and given his tastes, Odeinath doubted the brotherhood of warriors would ever quite satisfy Besach. Anyone his equal – the lords of neighbouring states, for example – would be potential rivals, and so only outsiders who posed no threat could be considered companions. Massilio, wherever he came from, was one.

And while the crews of the regular Xelestis ships might have the status of mere traders who came regularly once a year, Odeinath was an explorer and Windsoar’s captain was, not to put too fine a point on it, a pirate.

‘Gas,’ Besach said. ‘There’s a marsh two, three miles down the coast, which gives off gas. You see it ignite, witch-light the local people call it. I don’t know quite how it works, but I’m hoping one day a Thetian chymist will visit and explain it for me. Anyway, it can be captured, so I had it piped to the palace. Maybe if Lamorra becomes richer, I’ll be able to extend it to some of the houses.

‘Your engineers did this?’ It was a brilliant idea. An endless supply of light without even needing flamewood. Of course, it only worked with a marsh nearby, but for a land without the advantages of glowater or flamewood and aether, it was ingenious.

‘No,’ Besach said, staring across the hall at his carousing warriors, two of whom were slapping Tilao on the back as he downed a prodigious quantity of alcohol with no apparent effect. He’d be able to drink them all under the table. ‘As you can probably guess, engineering is an unknown art here. No, Massilio’s compatriots did it, in return for the services of some of my men.’

Massilio’s compatriots? Who up in the north had the ability to do something like this? Had someone resurrected the skills of the Tuonetar? They’d been fantastic engineers, and too many of their ideas and inventions were lost in the Empire’s fury after their fall.

‘Your compatriots?’ Odeinath asked Massilio.

Massilio gave him a wintry smile. ‘The Perditiani, they’re called.’

            How appropriate, Odeinath thought. But why would anyone call themselves that?

‘Your people are called the Lost Souls?’

There was a sudden oasis of silence at the table, as Besach, Ambiorix and the legate stared at Odeinath and Massilio for a moment. Of course they had no idea what it meant, because they didn’t know High Thetian. In normal Thetian it could have meant lost, could have been simply a similar sounding name.

‘It means that?’ Besach asked, as the rest of the hall fell quiet. ‘But why?’

Massilio’s smile vanished. ‘We have all left family and home behind, sworn oaths of brotherhood to one another. As far as the world is concerned, we are lost souls.’

It was exactly the right answer to give in that hall, full of Lamorra’s warriors. Oaths of brotherhood they understood, and they roared their approval, banging flagons on the long tables.

It was also not the whole truth, but Odeinath wasn’t going to press it, not now. He and Daena would gather what other information they could, to collate and pass on to every other Xelestis ship heading north with instructions to delve further. This was a new development. Perhaps the north was finally pulling itself out of centuries of pointless warfare and barbarity – perhaps even, in forty or fifty years, these impoverished towns would have built themselves into city-states, and be building ships. A pity that it was only just beginning now – he would have loved to see what their architecture was like by then.

‘Are there any languages you don’t know, my friend?’ Massilio said softly, as the hall returned to its previous level of boisterousness.

‘None that you’d be able to speak,’ Odeinath replied.

‘Even the language of the Tuonetar? Could you say something?’

Odeinath obliged him, thankful for the ancient language primers he’d found and his time in Ralentis. Ralentic was close to Tuonetar, and the pronunciation Ralentians gave the old language was far better than that of Thetian scholars, working only from texts, inscriptions and an equally sketchy knowledge of Tehaman.

‘Your accent is good,’ Massilio said, intrigued. ‘You’ve been to Ralentis, then.’

‘To study the ruins, mostly.’

‘Not simply an educated man, a scholar,’ Besach said with obvious delight. He was very much not the northern warrior-prince he’d seemed when they first arrived.

‘Scholars are people who live in dusty libraries,’ Odeinath said dismissively. ‘I am an explorer, and an archaist, and have seen far more in my lifetime than any scholar.’ He had tried the scholarly life under Clan Polinskarn, but only for a few months. Like so many other things he’d dabbled with before he’d finally realised he was not, by temperament, ready to settle down anywhere. After the dismal failure of their two forays into politics, fomenting conspiracies against the Domain, Polinskarn had decided that ignoring the world entirely was the best course of action.

‘What did you think of the ruins?’ Massilio asked.

‘Impressive, of course,’ Odeinath said. ‘Those domes – the skill needed to create such vast structures is beyond anything we have now. Thetians are fond of domes, but there was only ever one on such a scale.’

‘The domes in the north were a matter of survival,’ Massilio said. ‘One finds architecture a pressing concern if the price of failure is freezing to death. Thetia never had such an incentive.’

‘You know we have ruins here?’ Besach said. ‘A whole city, though sadly much reduced by my late predecessors, who plundered it to build this castle and much of the city.’

Predecessors? So Besach hadn’t inherited Lamorra. Had the previous ruler been murdered, or had Besach been the one to unite the island group? He wouldn’t be surprised if that were the case. Besach had built himself a princedom and now intended to make something of it.

He couldn’t see the Lamorran warriors being particularly happy about that.

‘Would it be possible to visit it?’ Odeinath asked.

‘Of course,’ Besach said. ‘You’re most welcome. I have to sit in judgement tomorrow morning, but Massilio can take you, and I’ll join you after the assizes are over.’

Massilio was not the companion Odeinath would have chosen, but at least he’d get to see the ruins – if there were anything left of them after these northern peasants had dismantled them stone by stone. The cities on Ralentis had been left largely untouched, as the Thetians had settled their northern allies, dissidents who had helped defeat the Tuonetar, there after the obliteration of the rest of the north. Not what the allies had wanted, but at least they had survived.

The rest of the meal passed very enjoyably, Besach asking question after question and Odeinath explaining, occasionally managing to stem the tide of questions enough to ask Besach what he knew about the far north. Even the chilly Massilio proved a pleasant enough companion, though Odeinath would have exchanged him in a minute for someone with life.

All of them were quite merry, though still upright, by the time Besach, reluctantly, excused himself and detailed a servant to take them back to the ship, since Ambiorix had lapsed into unconsciousness. Rather like most of the warriors in the hall, particularly those who’d made the mistake of challenging Tilao to a drinking competition.

 

Odeinath’s head wasn’t too bad the next morning, though he was woken up far too early by clangs and shouts from the quayside, and Cassini knocking far too loudly on the door to ask if there was anything they wanted to add to the trade goods or take away, given that Lamorra wasn’t quite what they’d expected.

Odeinath cursed him, and splashed water from the basin onto his face, and staggered into the protected lee of the quarterdeck to hose himself down with cold water, blinking in the sunlight. It was painful, but he’d got used to it long ago, even if it was difficult to bring himself to do it when there were tribal drummers playing away in the back of his skull.

Granius was perfectly alert, but then he never drank much, and was supervising the rest of the crew as they carried goods over to the assembled stalls. Cloth, dried food, dried fish, combs and jewellery, spices, sugar – always popular up here in the north, those last two – and a dozen other things he couldn’t quite remember in the shivering cold of a Lamorran spring morning. There was a brisk wind from off the sea, enough to freeze any self-respecting Thetian’s bones, and he hurried back down to his cabin to pull out some warmer clothes. It would be a few hours before the sun warmed the place up, though even then it would never approach a civilized temperature, not at this time of year.

Massilio appeared as Odeinath handed Granius the revised list, and finished talking to Ambiorix’s servant about what the aristocracy would want first pick at. They would pay in coin, which could be melted down and recast in the south provided it was of good enough quality.

Massilio was riding one horse and leading another, and Odeinath groaned as he saw the man approach. Horses? Vile creatures. Sit on them for five minutes and he had blisters everywhere, and that was if he managed to get on their back in the first place, without being sent halfway across the quay by one of them deciding to kick him. He’d raced leviathans when he was younger, and if they were equally vicious, at least they were water creatures.

Still, he gritted his teeth and heaved himself up on top the horse as Massilio held it steady, letting Cassini pass up the bag with his pencils and paper and some food in it, and they picked their way through the crowd. Odeinath was almost jumped by a group of children playing pirates on Navigator’s bowsprit – clearly the crew of Windsoar had left an impression – but escaped through the outer gates, across the causeway.

‘Not a horseman?’ Massilio observed, with what was probably amusement for him. Damn the man, and damn these pounding hooves which were making the tribal drummers play ever louder. They didn’t have enough of the right provisions to make up one of those foul hangover cures the Thetian chymists swore were effective, though all their recipes were different.

‘No,’ Odeinath said. ‘Can we slow down a little?’

Massilio obliged, though it wasn’t much more comfortable. Why hadn’t he thought of this? But it had been good wine for the north, and a long time since he’d last drunk, and Besach was good company. Particularly for the north.

‘How did Besach come to power?’ he asked Massilio, as they turned southwest, a little more slowly, along what the Lamorrans would probably call a road, but more resembled a muddy riverbed that for some reason had no water to it. On their right brownish fields stretched away, with the occasional shivering peasant picking his way across them or trying to drive some miserable-looking harness animals that vaguely resembled water buffalo, only without the hump. ‘Don’t tell me he inherited this.’

‘He didn’t,’ Massilio said. ‘As you guessed.’

‘So what happened?’ Odeinath pressed, taking some gulps of good sea air, welcome after the close stench of Lamorra.

‘He was the lord of a village on the north coast, but had the rare gift of a mind as well as a sword. The islands and the lords were feuding all the time, and he took advantage of it to unify this island and then conquer the others. There are a few holdouts on a barren rock that claims to be the northernmost island, but they’re no trouble any more.’

‘How long ago was this?’

‘He finished five, six years ago.’

‘And how long have you been here?’

‘Three years,’ Massilio said, with a tone that clearly said Don’t ask more questions. But Odeinath had never been one to stifle his curiosity.

‘And how did you ned up here? What has one of your . . . brotherhood . . . to do with Lamorra?’

‘It has certain things we need,’ Massilio said. ‘People, for one thing. Lamorra is fertile, but without pointless wars to keep the population down, it would have problems. So we take some of the troublemakers, the ones interested in things other than warfare, and any of the women who show a desire to spend their lives doing more than having children.’

‘You rescue them from this barbarity?’ Odeinath said, slightly disbeliving.

‘They didn’t choose to be born up here,’ Massilio said, with more passion than Odeinath had seen from him so far. ‘No-one in their right mind would ever choose to be born up here. But they are, and they’re stuck with it for the rest of their lives. There is a world outside Thetia . . .’

‘A world I’m very much aware of,’ Odeinath retorted.

‘Then have some compassion for the people who weren’t lucky enough to born in Thetia’s summer. The temple may be dedicated to the old star-gods, but very few of the people believe in them, they’re only here because Besach and a few of his retainers are converts. The rest of the Lamorrans, like most of the rest of the north, follow the Atonement.’

Odeinath said nothing, waiting for Massilio to explain.

‘They believe they have been placed up here as punishment for the sins of their ancestors, that their lives are a service to wash away this stain, and that’s the best they can hope for. The only way to explain why people live here at all is to invoke the wrath of some being so great they can’t even understand it. For most of these people, the Empire was the hand of God, the retribution for their wrongs. And three hundred years later, they’re still paying for those wrongs.’

‘Even after the storms have gone?’

‘The storms were the Second Retribution. The Thetians were the First. Now we’re in the Time of False Hope, a time when the gods will allow people to believe they’re been forgiven, so that when they strike again with the Third Retribution, we will suffer all the more and truly realise the error of our ways.’

He said it so dispassionately, glancing out over the fields at the labouring peasants, at the stark, snow-capped mountains.

‘And do you believe this as well?’ Odeinath asked, after a moment when the only sounds were the drums in his head and the shriek of gulls over the sea.

‘That the Thetians were the hand of God? The hand of hell, perhaps. The north is a place of punishment, for who truly wants to be born in the poverty and the ice and the cold? But a place of just punishment? There is no justice in this place, no crime so great that it warrants sending an entire people to die in the frozen arctic, to condemn men and women and children to freeze by the thousands, while those who survive live short, broken lives in the ashes of a dead civilization. In a land where the snow never lifts and the sun never shines.’

His voice was raw, harsh, bitter, and his eyes could have been carved from marble for all the life in them. Odeinath wondered how old Massilio was. Forty? Fifty? And there was so much pain in those words, the kind of pain that no-one could experience at secondhand.

Perhaps if he’d been a little more awake he might have realised, then, what Massilio actually meant, could have seen the double meaning in what he said, but his head was still pounding, and it was morning on Lamorra in the arctic seas, a place no Thetian in his right mind would ever choose to come.

‘Nobody chooses the north,’ Massilio said, his voice once again flat and dead. ‘But we can help, make life a little more bearable for those who’ll never see a manta or write odes to the Iandusian spring.’

Enough of a Thetian to have read that most Thetian of poets, then.

‘Hence the gas, and the harbour? Do the Lamorrans take kindly to it?’

‘They grumble about change, because people always do. Particularly the warriors, those who’ve sworn themselves to the Atonement’s service. Better to die young in battle than grow old up here.’

‘And how did a Thetian end up in the north?’ Odeinath asked.

‘Punishment for a crime committed by my parents,’ Massilio said. ‘As the Atonement teaches. Look, there are the ruins, ahead and to your right.’

The fields ended at a line of hummocks covered in scraggly grass, stretching away in a great crescent along the side of the bay and inland. It took him a moment to follow the line of the hummocks, the gentle curve of the side of a dome, and then the pillars and broken walls beyond it. The beach, too, was broken by the lines of walls running down into the grey sea, great cyclopean blocks half-buried in sand.

Massilio led him off the road, cutting across a corner of the fields, and between two of the hummocks into the heart of the ruin field.

Tuonetar ruins were like nothing else on Aquasilva. There were few stones, because the Tuonetar hadn’t used stones in most of their buildings, and little that someone coming to the ruins for the first time would have recognised, or understood. Odeinath had had to work it out for himself when he stumbled on the ruined city at Iliath, only two hundred miles from the coast of Thure, from the ruins and the few books by Thetian travellers from before the Great War. The Tuonetar had been Thetia’s allies once, until the fall of the Republic, but even in those days few citizens of either state had ventured to visit the other, cut off by tens of thousands of miles of hostile ocean and the climatic barriers.

The cities on Ralentis had proved Odeinath right, mostly, which he’d been proud of, given how little he’d worked from.

‘You’re a strange man,’ Massilio said, slowing his horse to a walk. ‘These people tried to conquer Thetia, and yet here you are studying the ruins of their cities.’

‘They tried and failed,’ Odeinath said, pausing to look at a section of wall that had survived, its surfaced blanked and pitted by age. ‘And we obliterated them, wrote them out of history, and turned their continent into a desolate wasteland.  They were a great civilization, and they should be remembered, at least.’

‘Is a civilization great which destroys tens of thousands of its own people, and millions of its enemies?’

‘You could say the same of Thetia. We’ve made mistakes, terrible mistakes, just as the Tuonetar did in those last few decades. They didn’t deserve obliteration, and neither do we.’

‘Easy to be open-handed now that they’re gone.’

‘I wouldn’t want Thetia to suffer the same fate.’

‘But you left Thetia, you said you haven’t been back to your home city for, what, thirty years?’

‘Thirty-one years since I last set foot in Vespera. Yes, I’ve left, but only because I didn’t fit in. Would I have fitted in anywhere else? I doubt it. Where else could there be? I’m happy wandering the oceans with my fellow outcasts.’

‘So why do you care?’

‘Because I’m still a Thetian,’ Odeinath said, half-sliding and half-falling off his horse to examine a shard of wall that lay on the ground, with a length of black, corrded piping underneath it that might once have been copper. He tried to be as delicate as possible, but the pipe crumbled to dust as soon as he picked it up, and he looked ruefully at his oversized hands. ‘I don’t want to live in Thetia, but knowing it’s still there, all that brilliance and arrogance and argument . . . the world is so much richer for it. The world would be richer if the Tuonetar had never fallen.’

He looked out across the field of ruins, the sea now half-obscured by hummocks and jagged fragments of walls, bare ribs rising up in the ghosts of domes. He’d worked out why everything was a hemisphere eventually. It was the heat – hemispherical buildings had the smallest possible surface area, so lost less heat, though they’d adjusted a little by making the walls straight up to about the height of a man, giving the streets a slightly normal appearance. Not entirely normal, because they’d been covered by canopies of the same clear material the Tuonetar used for their windows and their greenhouses, there was a chunk of it on the floor down there.

It seemed to be ice, treated to make it stable and transparent, though heavens only knew how that was possible.

‘Even after what they did? Can you forgive that?’ Massilio asked, taking the bridle of Odeinath’s horse as it seemed about to move off.

‘I suppose it’s easy for me, after all this time,’ Odeinath said. It had been the Selerian Alastre of three centuries ago they sacked, not his beloved Vespera.

‘Easy to forgive a historical atrocity,’ Massilio said, ‘but more difficult for one that actually affects you. You didn’t know the people killed during the Tuonetar sack.’ Was the man needling him?

‘As you said, no crime is so terrible it merits sending people here. Or creating this wasteland in the first place.’ It took two tries, but Odeinath managed to pull himself back onto his horse, and they moved on.

‘But the storms have gone,’ Massilio said, ‘and the north begins to flourish again. Maybe in two, three hundred years someone will rediscover how the Tuonetar built these cities, and we’ll be able to live under domes again. Would you rather live in Lamorra than here?’

‘Of course not,’ Odeinath said, trying to imagine what the city would have been like in its heyday, to transform the wasteland of thin earth and parched brown grass into a cityscape of domes and canopies and domed greenhouses, tens of thousands of people and a vibrant civilization under the northern stars.

Why had they been here in the first place? Who had they been? Were they too exiles from the warmer south, or had they chosen to live in the arctic? That last thought was incomprehensible, but then he was a Thetian, and three voyages to the north in one lifetime was three too many as far as his health was concerned.

‘My people,’ Massilio said, ‘are trying to bring something of this back to the north. We have our own purposes, but it serves us to help those like Besach who look at the barbarity around them and dream of something more.’

‘And where are your people based?’ Odeinath asked, pulling his telescope out of the bag and scanning the field, wondering what there was to see. So much of it, and it wouldn’t be fair on the crew to spend too long here.

‘You would be wise to leave this line of inquiry,’ Massilio said. ‘We have enemies, and not the strength to stand up to them should they attack in full force. We are suspicious of those who ask too many questions.’

‘Then you’re closed-minded,’ Odeinath said.

‘We protect our secrecy.’

‘Secrecy has a way of creating more secrecy,’ Odeinath said, ‘until everything becomes a secret, and you live in perpetual fear of discovery. I’m no stranger to intelligence and its shadow-world, but I don’t like it.’

‘You speak from personal experience, I would guess.’

Personal experience? Five of his crew had left because of it, lured by the world of secrets and spies and games in the shadows. One had been Raphael, of all his protégés the one who’d been closest to a son, aside from perhaps Cassini. It had been hard, saving the young man from one darkness only to watch him drawn into another, until in the end his past had proved too strong.

At least the young man who had left the Navigator had had enough humanity, enough of his own spirit and his own strength, for Odeinath to be hopeful. He’d only discovered afterwards how dark Silvanos was.

‘Leave us to our ways, and we will leave you to yours,’ Massilio said, as they turned inland towards an area of ruins which had survived to above head-height, perhaps because they were sturdier and harder to destroy. ‘If you and your crew wished to join us, you would be well received,’ he said suddenly.

Odeinath looked at him with astonishment – what was the man suggesting? That Navigator and her people join his order, whatever it was?

‘We are all outcasts, in our own way,’ Massilio said, with even a trace of warmth in his voice now. ‘You seem to like the company of those who don’t fit elsewhere, and your crew are talented, from what I’ve heard and seen.’

‘Is that a uniform?’ Odeinath asked, pointing at Massilio’s black tunic with its odd cut, now half-concealed under a long split coat trimmed with grey fur.

‘Yes, it is. Of a sort.’

‘Many of my crew fled to avoid that,’ Odeinath said, and saw Massilio’s face close in again.

‘I understand.’

‘Thank you for your offer,’ said Odeinath. It was touching, in its way, and he sensed it was a genuine offer of whatever, in Massilio’s mind, passed for friendship.

‘It was only a thought,’ Massilio said, offhandedly. ‘I would advise you, however, not to linger too long in Lamorra.’

Odeinath pulled his horse to a stop, clumsily, and it whinnied in protest. ‘Whyever not?’

‘We have . . . allies passing through here soon, with no love for Thetians. Like many northerners. I wouldn’t like to see you and your crew captured by them. They are . . . not kind, even by the standards of the north. If I were you, I would head south again, southeast best of all. Since you wouldn’t take my offer, this warning is the best thing I can do for you.’

Odeinath stared at Massilio for a moment, searching for traces of deception or anything else in the other man’s face.

‘Your warning is taken,’ he said finally. ‘What is too long?’

‘Three, four days would leave you ample time. I’ll make sure Besach provisions you with whatever Lamorra can afford, as a gift. Now, if we take this next opening on our right, you’ll see something quite impressive.’

Unwilling to pursue this any further, Odeinath said nothing as they tied their horses outside the opening in what must once have been the largest dome in the city, and through the remnants of a passageway between two other hummocks, into the interior. They came out into a wide circle, overgrown here and there, with what might once have been a tribunal on the far side.

‘What was this?’

‘It was their place of assembly, when they still had citizenship and elections. It’s not much to see, there must have been a stunning one in Eridan once, but it’s the best-preserved one out here.’

Odeinath’s eyes widened. ‘Eridan? You’ve been to Eridan?’ Aran Cthun the Thetians had named it, transforming the relatively innocuous name of the Tuonetar capital into a place of fear, at least in the minds of those who heard the name. Perhaps it was only a matter of pronunciation.

‘There’s nothing left,’ Massilio said. ‘Only ice and ash and ghosts.’

He walked away, around the edge of the circle, and Odeinath stared after him for a moment before reaching for his sketchbook. So much to examine, so little time.

 

They spent three days in Lamorra, trading with people from across the island, dining with Besach and talking late into the night every evening. They didn’t get called decadent southerners too many times, not after Tilao had demonstrated that he could comfortably outdrink Lamorra’s best and still be up earlier the next morning. It was not somewhere Odeinath would ever have felt at home, and for all Besach’s reforming pretensions the hand of war, and the crushing greyness of the north, lay heavily on it. But he was doing his best, and on the second day accompanied Odeinath and Massilio round the ruins, asking questions about anything and everything.

Besach showed them his library, terribly proud of the fifty or so books he owned, more than the rest of the island put together, and Odeinath didn’t laugh as so many others might have done who’d seen the library of the Museion in Vespera, millions of volumes stretching back over the centuries, the largest collection of books and scrolls on Aquasilva. Besach had taught himself to read as a child, scorned by his family and only protected by his rank from the viciousness other children showed to anyone in the slightest bit different.

Massilio made no more mention of the threat, but they were resupplied by Besach with the food of Lamorra, fresh vegetables and water from glacial streams. Odeinath returned to the ruins, to sketch what he could while Cassini wandered around the fields and the beach collecting northern plants, much to the puzzlement and sometimes disdain of the farmers. Daena mended a few bones and treated people where she could, which was probably appreciated more than anything else they did. She was incomparably better than anyone the Lamorrans would have seen before, and some even thought her a miracle-worker. A label that could too easily turn sour, applied to a woman.

Besach himself came to see them off on their last day. He was accompanied by Ambiorix, Massilio and a crowd of warriors who clearly felt that if Navigator warranted a send-off by the Prince himself they should be there. Ambiorix kept them at a safe distance, thankfully.

Odeinath had decided on that first day that Besach deserved a better gift than simply a Mons Ferratan dagger, but it had taken him until now to decide what, exactly, to take from the Navigator’s treasured library that could be replaced. He had to ask the crew’s permission for that, as several of them were voracious readers.

One was an almanac based on Bostra’s Geography, updated not too cack-handedly only a decade or two ago by someone who could actually write, and another an encyclopedia of the kind the Museion scholars were obsessed with at the moment, though their ideas of cataloguing all knowledge were bound to come to nothing.

The third was the Thesserey, because Besach didn’t have a copy, and had never heard of Ethelos, first and greatest of poets in any language. It was a Thetian edition, because there were no translations of it into Ralentic, but Massilio should be able to help him.

‘Everyone should read it,’ Odeinath said, almost embarrassed by the warmth of Besach’s thanks. ‘No-one really knows who Ethelos was, though everyone claims him. But even if he was a Tehaman, he inspired so many Thetian authors that he’s just as much a Thetian.’

And because it was one of the most beautiful works of art ever produced by anyone, anywhere.

He also told both Massilio and Besach that if, for any reason, they ever left the north, they would be welcome to join the Navigator’s crew, and meant it. Perhaps there were enough embers of a soul inside Massilio for someone to fan into life, or maybe Odeinath and Massilio were both too old for that.

Then they said goodbye, leaving behind the strange ship he was sure had something to do with Massilio’s people, and sailed off to the south-east until Lamorra was below the horizon.

Then, taking advantage of an hour of sun and a relatively calm sea, he hove-to, told the ship’s crew what Massilio had said, and asked them a question.

Half a glass later, Navigator turned and began a long turn that would take her round Lamorra and onto a course heading north-west towards Thure.

 

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