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Red Tide

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Red Tide

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Author: Marc Turner
Publisher: Tor, 2016
Series: The Chronicles of Exile: Book 3
Book Type: Novel
Genre: Fantasy
Sub-Genre Tags: Heroic Fantasy
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The Rubyholt Isles is a shattered nation of pirate-infested islands and treacherous waterways shielding the seaboards of Erin Elal and the Sabian League. The Augerans approach the Warlord of the Isles, seeking passage for their invasion fleet through Rubyholt waters. When an Erin Elalese Guardian assassinates the Augeran commander in the Rubyholt capital, the Augerans raze the city, including its Temple of the White Lady. Avallon Delamar, the Emperor of Erin Elal, requests a meeting with the Storm Lords to discuss an alliance against the Augerans. When the Augerans get word of the gathering, strike, in the hope of eliminating the Erin Elalese and Storm Lord high commands. They have not counted on the Rubyholters, however, who come seeking revenge for the destruction of their capital. But the battle lines for the struggle are not as clearly drawn as it might at first appear.



STANDING ON the quarterdeck of the Whitecap, Guardian Amerel Duquy watched the headland fall away to reveal the city she had come to condemn. Bezzle, capital of the Rubyholt Isles. Judging by the smoke above the place, someone must have beaten her to the punch, damn them. But then the wind veered so it was in her face, and the sudden stink made it clear the haze was caused not by fires, but by the brine boileries and fish-glue factories clustered round the harbor.

If you were going to condemn a city, Bezzle was a good one to choose. Since Amerel had last been here, the place had bloated like a carcass in the sun. To the north was the Old Town with its crumbling buildings of pale blue-veined stone that shimmered in the midmorning sun. While to the south and west were districts of shanties that looked like they might slump into the bay with the next breath of wind. No more permanent than a castle of sand, but when you'd been invaded as often as the Rubyholters had, you didn't build things to last. At the ring of a bell the whole population would board their ships and melt away into the maze of waterways all about--as they had so many times before.

Even at this distance, Amerel could make out scores of ships bobbing at quayside. Among them was a Thaxian brigatina with its black-and-white-banded hull, an Androsian corrick with its high-rounded stern, along with a host of other vessels the Guardian had no name for. No two craft were of the same construction, but pirates couldn't be particular when it came to sourcing their fleet. Oh, the Bezzlians would chafe at the name "pirates," but if there was a better word to describe them--to describe all Rubyholters--it wasn't the sort you would use in polite company. What else did you call a people with no culture, no trade links, no industry worth mentioning? A people whose very existence relied on the bounty they stole from the ships of Erin Elal, Corinia, Mellikia, and the Sabian League?

As the Whitecap entered a strip of water between two islets, its Rubyholt guide shouted, "Rift to starboard!" It was a cry Amerel had heard a dozen times during their passage through the Isles. As she now scanned the sea off the starboard bow, she saw a telltale shadow in the water that marked a gateway where this world overlapped with another. There were countless such gateways scattered across the Isles. Legend had it they were created in some apocalyptic clash between gods and titans in the Eternal War--a clash that had shattered a once hale continent into the tangle of islands and waterways that it now comprised, and burned holes through the fabric of the world to create portals to other lands. In the waters through which the Whitecap now sailed, there was evidence aplenty to support that tale. Amerel could make out flooded buildings of the same blue-veined stone as in Bezzle's Old Town, statues and obelisks draped in strands of fireweed, forests of columns reaching so close to the surface it seemed the Whitecap's keel must scrape them as it passed.

The submerged ruins throughout the Isles had sunk more ships than even the rocks along Erin Elal's Bone Coast. But the underwater gateways posed a still greater threat to passing vessels, because beyond those gateways were otherworldly creatures waiting to ambush the unwary. Some were even large enough to take down a ship the size of the Whitecap. Earlier the vessel had passed the entrance to a channel called the Dragon's Boneyard, and Amerel hadn't needed their Rubyholt guide's gleeful commentary to guess how the waterway had earned its name. Now, as the Whitecap approached the rent, the wave of water-magic carrying it subsided. Doubtless the captain had slowed the vessel to avoid drawing the eye of any creature lurking below. Amerel, by contrast, would have raised the wave of water-magic as high as it would go, and fled for the safety of the harbor.

The combination of underwater gateways and submerged ruins made the Isles a perilous place for foreign ships--as Erin Elal's emperor, Avallon Delamar, had discovered to his cost a few years ago. Incensed at the killing of one of his Circle in a hijacking on the Ribbon Sea, Avallon had sent twenty ships to the Isles to hunt down the pirates responsible. A week later, that force had limped back to Arkarbour, half its original size. Ten ships had been sunk or taken by the enemy, and what had the Erin Elalese accomplished to warrant such losses? Nothing, save to raze a dozen empty Rubyholt towns. Before, Avallon had promised to teach the pirates a lesson, and they'd learned it well enough. The number of raids on Erin Elalese ships had doubled thereafter. And while there had been fewer raids of late, the Rubyholt Isles remained an embarrassing blot off the empire's eastern seaboard.

Now, though, that stood to change. Now the Isles held--perhaps--the promise of Erin Elal's salvation, for in extending from the Rent in the north to the Hook in the south, they shielded the whole of Erin Elal's eastern seaboard from attack. And an attack was surely coming now that news had filtered through of the Augerans' appearance on Dragon Day eleven days ago. Even as the great and the good of the Sabian League were being feasted on by dragons, a stone-skin emissary was presenting himself to Warlord Dresk Galair of the Isles and his son Galantas, requesting an audience for a delegation to follow. That delegation was expected in Bezzle at noon tomorrow. Amerel could well guess the reason for its coming. A pact between the Augerans and the Rubyholters.

The significance of such a pact could not be overstated. True, the Rubyholters were too divided to pose a threat to Erin Elal themselves. But if they allied with the Augerans, the stone-skins would get guides to lead them through the Isles, maybe even staging posts from which to attack the empire. An invasion could be days away, and it was an invasion for which Erin Elal was not ready. How did you prepare for an enemy as strong as the Augerans when you were given only weeks to plan?

You didn't.

That point had been made to Amerel with mind-numbing frequency during a meeting with Tyrin Lindin Tar three days ago. With Erin Elal a virtual island, there was no way to prevent the stone-skins from landing. But where they made that landing was critical. The empire's eastern seaboard was the most vulnerable, because the major cities were located there, along with the Bone Road that connected them. The fate of those cities now lay in Amerel's hands. If she could turn the Rubyholters against the Augerans, the stone-skins would be faced with an unenviable choice: try to pass through the Isles without the Rubyholters' agreement, and face the same resistance the emperor's fleet had met all those years ago; or sail south round the Hook to attack Erin Elal from the west, and in doing so risk a clash with both the Kalanese and the pirate lords of Taradh Fold. Either option would cost them dear in ships and time. And it was time that Erin Elal most needed if it was to arrange a suitable welcome for their invaders.

Amerel swung her gaze back to Bezzle. Just one more day until the Augerans docked here, and the future of Erin Elal was decided. One day for her to set the Rubyholters against the stone-skins--a people they had no argument with, and whom they had never even encountered before.

No pressure, then.

The sun reflected bright off the waves, and Amerel squinted against the glare. Her eyes were scratchy from lack of sleep. Over the last few days, her dreams of blood had grown stronger as the threat of conflict loomed. In Arkarbour she'd taken cinderflower in an effort to shelter her niece Lyssa from the effects of those dreams. But while the drug delivered oblivion during the deepest part of the night, by dawn the visions would return. Now they pressed on her thoughts even through her waking hours...

A footfall sounded behind, and she looked back to see the Breaker Noon approaching. She'd done her best to avoid him during the two-day crossing from Erin Elal, but there were only so many places you could hide on a ship. The man was tall and lean, and had a curl to his mouth that suggested he found cause for amusement in everything he looked at.

"Ugly bastard, isn't he?" he said, pointing to his left.

Amerel glanced in the direction indicated, and saw carved into a nearby cliff a huge representation of Warlord Dresk Galair. She'd seen many such carvings during the Whitecap's passage through the Isles. Most had been not of people, but of dragons or denkrakils or other monsters of the deep. It was a brave man who committed his likeness to stone when his dignity could so easily be stolen by an enterprising vandal. And such had apparently been Dresk's fate here, for one of his front teeth had been chipped away, and his eyes had been skillfully reworked to appear crossed.

Amerel said, "I think you'll find that image is quite flattering."

"You've met him, Princess?"

Princess? Did he know something she didn't? "No. But I saw him from a distance when I was last here--as I believe I mentioned in my briefing."

"There was a briefing?"

"Yes, there was. If you'd bothered to read it, you would know that a few years back our spy in Dresk's court managed to draw Galantas's suspicions. I was sent here by the Guardian Council to help."

Noon blew into his hands as if the sun had left him cold. "Help how?"

"By convincing Galantas that his misgivings were unfounded. Even at that time, Dresk and his son had their hands round each other's throats. I was able to... persuade Galantas--thanks to my Will--that his distrust was due solely to his dislike for his father's followers."

"As easy as that?"

"I never said it was easy. In truth, Galantas proved surprisingly strong-willed. But then he was only sixteen at the time."

"Age matters, does it?"

"Naturally. The young see things in such simple terms. They have none of the doubts that plague their elders. And doubts are what I feed on." Amerel leaned against the rail. "Using the Will to change someone's mind is like trying to change the path of an arrow in flight. Nudging it a fraction off course takes little effort. Turning it to face the other way is another matter entirely."

"But it can be done?"

"Given time, yes." The Will could be used as much to compel as it could to persuade. The problem was, people tended to notice when the mind of someone close to them was snuffed out like a candle flame.

Noon frowned. "It may yet come to that with Dresk. If he's meeting the stone-skins tomorrow, that doesn't give you much time to put him on a leash."

And that was assuming he granted Amerel an audience at all. The warlord had no idea she was on her way to Bezzle now. And she wouldn't be convincing him of anything from the wrong side of his fortress's walls.

The Whitecap had glided past the underwater gateway, and the wave of water-magic beneath the ship abruptly swelled again, lifting the ship into the air with a swiftness that made Amerel's stomach flip. Her gaze tracked the rent until it disappeared from view off the starboard quarter.

Noon studied her. "Aren't you worried the Rubyholters might recognize you, Princess? Your face isn't easily forgotten."

"I'll take that as a compliment."

It hadn't been meant that way, of course. Seven years ago she'd been in Arap, working to bring the city into the Confederacy, when an assassin in the pay of the sacristens had slipped nightspur into her wine. She'd been lucky to live. A month she had spent unconscious, another two in bed trying to coax her limbs to move. And even when she was back on her feet, the poison had left its mark, turning her hair as pale and fine as spider silk, and blackening the tiny blood vessels in her eyes so that the orbs appeared shattered. But that had all happened after her last visit to the Isles. There was little chance that anyone in Dresk's court would recognize her now.

Noon rubbed his hands together. "I must admit, I'm looking forward to seeing you lock horns with Dresk. As I heard it, the last Erin Elalese he met he left hanging upside down over a fire. This time tomorrow, that could be you."

Amerel didn't credit that with a response.

"Lot of bad blood between us and the Rubyholters," Noon went on. "Too much to be made right in twenty-four bells."

"I don't have to become Dresk's best friend. I just have to make sure he doesn't ally with the Augerans."

"If you say so. After what happened on Dragon Day, though, it wouldn't surprise me if he breaks out the bunting for the stone-skins. They sabotaged Dragon Day, right? Dresk has been trying to do that for years."

"A fact that Galantas will be quick to remind him of."


"Meaning even as I use my Will to steer Dresk to our cause, I will be using it to steer Galantas away from it. Persuade Galantas to speak in favor of the Augerans, and my task is halfway done. With luck, the chance for Dresk to spite his son will be reason enough for him to send the stone-skins packing."

Noon's expression was thoughtful. "What did you make of him? Galantas, I mean. The way our spy tells it, we're lucky Dresk is warlord and not his son."

"He tells it right." Even nine years ago there had been a steel to the youth that had left Amerel relishing their clash of wills. The latest reports from Bezzle suggested he'd lost none of his self-assurance in that time. Ambitious and charismatic, he was said to possess the ability to unite the Isles' fractured clans in a way his father never had. "Makes you wonder why the emperor has let him live this long," Amerel said with a pointed look at Noon.

"Is that why you think Avallon chose me to come with you? So I can put Galantas in the ground while you're charming his father?"

The thought had crossed her mind. "I've read your file," she said. "Lots of gaps in it." They'd been the most interesting parts by a distance. "Gaps that suggest you've been doing a few things your superiors don't want anyone knowing about."

The Breaker's expression gave nothing away. "I've read your file, too--"

"I didn't realize I had one."

"And I saw a few gaps in there as well. Like the time you disappeared in Kal for five months on a job that should've taken as many days. Five months on the run from the Kalanese, and you show up without even a scratch on you."

"I accounted for all my time in my report to the Guardian Council." A heartwarming tale of heroism and sacrifice, it had been--a tale Amerel had spent weeks dreaming up. She was thinking of reworking it for the stage.

"There were rumors that you'd gone over to the Kalanese. That you'd betrayed the empire."

And none as bad as the truth. "Yet here I am."

"Here you are," Noon agreed. "Betrayal's not something new to you, though, is it, Princess? I'm curious, why did you betray the Guardians and come over to the emperor's side?"

Amerel rolled her eyes. "Betrayal" was such an emotive word. And so ripe with hypocrisy. The First Guardian had flung it at her when she'd dropped by to tell him she was leaving the order. Like he thought it would make her feel guilty. Like he thought she owed him for all the murder and the blackmail she'd carried out in the Guardian Council's name. And perhaps he did think that, for along with the anger in his look, there had been a hint of hurt and indignation. It was for just such a look that she had gone to break the news to him in person, rather than slipping out the back door as Borkoth had done. In response to Noon's question, she said, "Maybe the emperor made me an offer I couldn't refuse."

"Yeah, that sounds about right. That's the problem with you people born with a silver spoon in your mouth: all you can think of is that it should have been gold."

"What makes you believe it was money that swayed me? Maybe I just didn't fancy being the next Guardian sent through the Merigan portals."

"Maybe," Noon said. "Still, can't have been easy walking out on the Guardians like you did. Big fish like you. Leading light on the Guardian Council. Architect of the Confederacy."

"Please, you're making me blush."

"Makes you wonder, though. If you can walk out on your friends like that, how quickly might you walk out on the emperor when the squeeze is on?"

Amerel sighed. There was no pleasing some people. If she'd remained a Guardian, Noon would have called her a traitor for opposing Avallon's will. Yet now that she'd joined the emperor, he was condemning her for doing so?

He was right about one thing, though: Avallon couldn't count on her loyalty any more now than he could have done when she was on the Guardian Council. Maybe she wasn't a Guardian anymore--not really--but she wasn't a Breaker either.

Bezzle was drawing close, and Amerel shifted her gaze back to the city. Overhead, starbeaks circled on the turgid air. Protecting the entrance to the harbor was a line of islets, still smoldering from the fires lit in the run up to Dragon Day to ward off approaching dragons. One of those islets was scarred by claw marks where some beast must have tried to get at the men tending the fires. Along with the smell of charred wood, Amerel caught the acrid tang of dragon blood.

She scanned the harbor beyond. A forest of masts bobbed and twitched like the upthrust spears of some peasant army. On the greasy water, fishing skiffs rubbed shoulders with warships three times their size. Towering over them all was the steel-hulled monstrosity Amerel knew to be Galantas's flagship, the Eternal--a ship the warlord's son had claimed after it drifted unmanned through one of the gateways close to this island. Hard to believe such a thing could even float, yet Amerel had heard it was as swift as it was striking to the eye.

Movement caught her attention--a shape emerging from the shadow of the metal-hulled warship. Amerel blinked as she saw a three-masted ship pulling up at one of the quays. Its sails were half-furled, but the Guardian could make out enough of the cloth to see the brightly colored patterns upon them, all intricate swirls and spirals like the weave of an Elescorian tapestry. She looked at Noon and saw he too understood the significance of what they were witnessing. Patterned sails. The ancient Erin Elalese texts were unequivocal on that detail.

That ship--it's Augeran.

Noon drew in air between his teeth. "Well, well," he said. "That certainly adds some spice to the pot."

The stone-skins had gotten there ahead of them.

* * *

Galantas Galair drew up as he entered the Great Hall. The air was heavy with blackweed smoke and the sour smell of unwashed bodies. His father's krels were already at the table to his right, while Dresk sat slouched in his throne at the end of the room, stroking his braided beard. Magdella was in the chair to his left, his chamberlain, Talet, behind. Of the stone-skins there was no sign. Still on their way up from the harbor, no doubt. But then it wasn't surprising that they should have taken longer to reach the fortress than a native like Galantas--particularly since he'd told Qinta and Barnick to intercept them, and delay them by whatever means necessary.

He leaned against the wall beside the door, his heart drumming from the briskness of his walk. Dresk was glowering at him through eyes made bloodshot from last night's drinking. For a heartbeat Galantas thought his father would order him to leave. Apparently Dresk knew better than to try, though, because he kept his silence. Hard to cling to the illusion of authority, after all, when even your own son defied you. Galantas met his glare with a smile, and it was Dresk who looked away first. He'd never been able to hold Galantas's gaze since that raid when Galantas had taken a sword strike meant for his father. And at the cost of his own left arm, too.

Galantas took in his father's tousled hair and swollen belly. His face twisted. This was the man who styled himself warlord of the clans? This was the man by whom the rest of the Isles would be judged? Nine years ago Dresk had put down a Raptor insurgency, and for the briefest of moments he'd had a chance to unite the clans under his rule. Instead he'd allowed the old rivalries to fester, while he wasted time chasing girls like the dew-eyed trophy sitting next to him now. And all so he could try to father on them another son to rob Galantas of his birthright--a birthright Dresk had already attempted to bestow on Galantas's younger brother, Kalim, before Kalim's untimely death on the Shark Run.

Galantas scanned the hall. The chamber was a mirror to its lord in its lost glory, with its stained rugs and its smoke-blackened tapestries. Mounted in one corner was the skull of a sea dragon, its mouth missing most of its teeth. The eyes of Dresk's krels gleamed in the gloom. Clamp was there, along with Worrin and Faloman and Karsten Berg. These were hard men, weathered by sun and sea and storm. Men who deserved a better leader than Dresk. Galantas had sailed with them all in his time; his blood had mixed with theirs on the decks of a dozen enemy ships taken. A few stared at him now with the reflected hatred of their lord, but most looked glad to have him here. And why not? The stone-skin messenger hadn't said why his masters wanted this audience. If their minds were on conquest, they weren't going to be dissuaded if they thought Dresk was the extent of the Isles' resistance.

It was more likely, of course, that their coming here was connected to Dragon Day. The Dianese governor, Piput Da Marka, had tried to hush up the events around the sabotage of the Dragon Gate. But a group of stone-skinned warriors running amok through your citadel wasn't the sort of thing you kept under wraps. Trouble was brewing between the Augerans and the Storm Lords. Perhaps the stone-skins had come here seeking allies for that fight, but if so they were going to leave disappointed. Galantas's people had more sense than to pick a scrap with an empire as powerful as the Sabian League. Besides, the Rubyholters weren't warriors, they were prospectors. And where was the profit in war? Where was the advantage in disturbing the flow of Sabian trade that was the lifeblood of the Rubyholt nation?

Footsteps sounded along the passage to Galantas's right. He looked across to see six stone-skins enter the hall. At the front was a huge warrior with swirling golden tattoos on his cheeks. Behind him came a man with spiked hair and a face crisscrossed with scars that made him look like he'd been sewn together from scraps of unwanted flesh. Both Augerans wore red cloaks, as did the four men who trailed after. The party halted a dozen paces in front of Dresk's throne. For a while no one spoke. Dresk frowned at the newcomers. The Augerans looked about them, taking in every detail of the hall. Finally one of their number--an older man with a receding hairline--stepped forward.

Galantas pushed himself away from the wall and circled to his left for a better view of the proceedings.

"Warlord," the balding stone-skin said to Dresk in heavily accented common tongue. "It is an honor to meet you. I am Commander Eremo al First of the Augeran empire."

Dresk rubbed his temples as if the man's words had given him a headache. "Never heard of it."

"Nor would I expect you to. My homeland lies beyond the Southern Wastes, hundreds of leagues from here."

"Then I'm guessing this ain't a social call."

Eremo inclined his head. "Allow me to introduce my companions. This"--he indicated the man with the scarred face--"is my mage, Hex, while beside him"--a man with eyes unnaturally far apart--"is my Keeper, Ilabari."

"Your Keeper?" Dresk said. "Tucks you in at night, does he?"

From the krels came a scattering of laughter and the pounding of fists on the table.

The Keeper stiffened, but Eremo merely smiled. "My people have strict rules when it comes to dealing with other cultures. My friend's job is to ensure I abide by them."

"Any of them rules say anything about turning up when you say you will?"

Galantas had heard enough. "Please forgive my father's ill manners," he said to Eremo. "Sender knows the rest of us have had to long enough." He advanced and offered his hand to the Augeran. "Galantas," he said.

Eremo gripped it. Galantas didn't squeeze--that would be immature. Plus the other man could probably squeeze harder. He'd expected the Augeran's skin to be as coarse as the granite it resembled, but it proved no more rough than Galantas's own.

Eremo took in Galantas's missing arm, his sharkskin cape, his necklace of shark teeth. Something in his look suggested he hadn't needed the introduction to know who Galantas was. "A pleasure," he said. His gaze shifted back to Dresk. "Apologies if my arrival has caught you unprepared. The crossing proved swifter than we expected. If you prefer, I can return--"

"What do you want?" Dresk growled.

The scarred man, Hex, was on the move, capering toward the krels' table. As he settled into an empty chair, those nearest to him edged back. He crossed his arms on the table, lowered his head onto them... and fell asleep. His snores reverberated around the hall.

Eremo didn't bat an eyelid. "You have heard, I take it, about the part we played in Dragon Day?" he said to Dresk.

"Nice bit of work," the warlord replied stiffly. Stiffly, because he'd tried to do something similar eight years ago, and failed.

"How did you pull it off?" Galantas asked.

"Anonymity helped," the commander said. "At first, the Dianese governor was wary of hosting our delegation on Dragon Day. But the opportunity to impress his guests with a few stone-skinned strangers proved impossible to pass up." He gave a half smile. "Somehow I doubt the trick will work a second time."

"Somehow I think you made your point the first. Assuming there was a point."

The commander regarded Galantas evenly. "You want to know why we targeted the Sabian League?"

The Keeper bristled. "We are not in the habit of explaining--"

Eremo raised a hand to cut him off. "Call it a preemptive strike, if you will. We had reason to believe our interests in the region would make conflict with the League inevitable."

Interests in the region? Galantas winced. "Sorry. I just felt a sudden pain in my pocket."

A lone krel banged his fist on the table in approval. Galantas would have to tip him later.

Eremo's tone remained affable, yet there was a tightness about his eyes that suggested his patience was already being tested. "Let's cut to the chase. We have unfinished business in these parts, and it is business that cannot easily be conducted across an ocean. We are looking to set up a base in the Isles from which to operate."

"A military base?"

Eremo nodded.

"You're going to war with the League?"

"Does it matter who our target is?" The commander looked about the hall. "Are you worried we might strike at one of your allies? Oh no, wait, you don't have any, do you?"

Galantas said, "There's a lot of water between not being allied with someone and being at war with them."

"We're not asking you to go to war. We're asking you to help us in ours."

"A fine distinction. I hope our neighbors appreciate it." From the bailey outside, the clang of a blacksmith's hammer struck up. Over it Galantas said, "You see the problem we face, Commander? What happens when you lose this war? What happens when you disappear back across the ocean, leaving us to pick up the tab?"

Some of the krels banged their fists on the table again. Eremo waited for the noise to die down, then said, "We will not lose."

Galantas pursed his lips, unimpressed. The words had been spoken with an unshakable assurance, but when did an invader ever embark on a campaign thinking it would fail?

Eremo swung his gaze to Dresk. "In addition to a base, we would need free passage through your waters, reliable charts--"

Dresk's snort interrupted him. "Charts?" He looked at his krels. "Hear that? The man wants charts!"

Laughter greeted his words.

Eremo's expression was wary. "I suspect your cartographers lack the skill of ours. We have collected more than a dozen different charts of the Isles, yet no two are alike in anything but the most cursory details."

More chuckling.

Galantas came to the stone-skin's rescue. "Those discrepancies are deliberate, Commander. Years ago, a neighbor used one of our charts to mount an invasion. Afterward the decision was taken to flood the market with false charts--so outsiders couldn't tell the real from the fake. Even if you did find an accurate chart, it would be covered in symbols you wouldn't understand, showing which waterways are passable and which are not."

Eremo's glance over his shoulder suggested whichever of his companions was responsible for intelligence would be enduring a testing half-bell when this was over. "Then you will have to explain them to us," he said to Galantas. "We will also need navigators to guide us through the waterways--until we know our way round."

"At which point we will cease to be of use to you."

Eremo ignored the comment. "Of course," he said to Dresk, "we don't expect you to give this help for free. Does the sum of fifteen thousand talents seem fair to you?"

Galantas's heart skipped a beat.

Dresk stared at the commander. The hall had gone still.

"Twenty thousand, then," Eremo said, a glint in his eye.

Galantas let his breath out slowly. Twenty thousand talents. More than a hundred million sovereigns. It was an outlandish sum. Absurd, even. With that money Dresk could buy all the ships in the Sabian League, and crews to man them besides. An awed muttering started up among the krels. Eremo was trying to dazzle Dresk with wealth, and Galantas was struggling to see past the glare himself.

Easy giving something away, though, when you intended to take it back straight after.

"This base you mentioned," he said to the commander. "Where would you put it?"

"That's something we'll need to reconsider, since you tell me the charts we've been working from are likely fakes."

"How long?"

"You mean how long would we need the base? Until we have established a presence on... the mainland."

That hesitation was telling. If he'd been about to say "the Sabian League," why not just say it? And why spend twenty thousand talents to sail through the Isles to the League when you could sail around them for free, with only a few bells lost? No, the more Galantas thought about it, the more he suspected the stone-skins' real target here was Erin Elal with its vulnerable eastern seaboard. "And then the base would be decommissioned?"

"Of course. It won't be much use to us afterward."

"Enough!" Dresk said to Galantas, but Galantas pressed on.

"How many of your ships would enter our waters?"

The commander cocked his head. "Surely you don't expect us to reveal the size of our fleet."

"Why not? You said you couldn't lose this war. Are we supposed to just take you at your word?"

"Enough!" Dresk said again to Galantas. "Your whining is making my head hurt." Then, to Eremo, "You said you ain't from round here. Where'd you get twenty thousand talents from?"

"We didn't get twenty thousand talents from anywhere. We got one, and produced copies."

"But still made from gold?"


"Show me."

Eremo took a huge coin from his pocket and tossed it to Dresk. The warlord missed with his snatch, but the talent landed in his lap. He inspected it by the dim light. "Where are the rest?"

"Somewhere safe. They will be available when you sign the treaty." The Keeper twittered in Eremo's ear, and the commander nodded and added, "My friend here has reminded me of something. In our agreement the twenty thousand talents will be expressed as a loan--"

Dresk scowled.

"But a loan repayable only after a thousand years."

The warlord stared at Eremo as if the stone-skin had started speaking in his native tongue.

"As I said," the commander explained, "my people have strange rules when it comes to dealing with other cultures."

"A thousand years?" Dresk said. "The treaty will have crumbled to dust by then. How will you prove the debt?"

"How indeed?"

"And the interest payable?"


Galantas struggled to marshal his thoughts. What game were the Augerans playing? Why call the money a loan if you had no intention of asking for it back? That particular question would have to wait until later, though, for a more prickly concern had occurred to him. "What about the other Rubyholt clans?" he asked Eremo.

It was Dresk who responded. "What about them?"

"I assume the commander isn't going to want to pay our kinsmen on top of what he's paying us."

Eremo said, "You assume correctly."

"But you expect the other clans to abide by this treaty, correct?"

"I expect you to control your subjects." The commander swung to Dresk. "Is that a problem?"

"No problem," Dresk said, with a look at Galantas that warned him to be silent. As if Eremo wouldn't already know of the fractured relations between the warlord and the other tribes. As if he wouldn't know the risk of dealing with Dresk alone. The stone-skins would want to pass through the waters not just of Dresk's Spears, but of the other clans as well. And the leaders of those tribes would want a cut of the gold in return for not harassing Augeran ships. Somehow Galantas couldn't see his father sharing, though. How typical of him to see his position as warlord not as responsibility but as opportunity--to expect loyalty from the other clans, yet offer nothing in return.

Galantas's gaze slid from his father to Eremo. Could that be the stone-skins' true purpose here? Widen the rifts between Dresk and the tribes before attacking? After all, when a man like Dresk was floundering, heaping gold on him just served to hasten his journey to the bottom. Hells, the clans had fought over a lot less in their time. Twenty thousand talents, they would say, meant there was plenty to go around, and who could argue with them? Not Galantas, certainly.

And yet would a conflict between Dresk and the other tribes be a bad thing? If Galantas played his hand right, might there be an opportunity to speed his father's fall from power?

"What if another tribe breaches the treaty?" he asked Eremo.

"Then we hold you accountable, of course."


Eremo waved the question away. "Details. We can discuss them later. First I need to know if we have an agreement."

Dresk tossed the commander's coin from hand to hand, making a show of considering the offer. "Twenty thousand talents," he said.

Eremo nodded.

"For one base and free passage through the Isles."


Dresk grimaced like his arm was being twisted. "Agreed."

"Excellent. I will bring the treaty with me when I return. Shall we say, at the seventh bell this evening?"

Bring the treaty with him? So it had already been drafted, then? So much for negotiating the details. Galantas did not voice the thought, however. Sometimes knowing when to shut up was as important as knowing when to speak.

Eremo turned away. As he did so his scarred mage, Hex, abruptly stirred and sprang from his chair as if he hadn't been sleeping at all.

Galantas watched them make for the door. Strange, Dresk had been promised twenty thousand talents, yet Galantas couldn't shake the feeling that the stone-skins had gotten the better of the exchange. How could Dresk lose from the deal, though? War between the stone-skins and Erin Elal--if indeed that was their target--would disrupt the trade on which the Spears preyed, but twenty thousand talents would more than make up for lost profits. And if Erin Elal should come seeking revenge when the Augerans were gone, well, they'd tried invading before. Why should the result this time be any different from the last?

Eremo stopped by the door. "Oh, one final thing," he said over his shoulder. "We were attacked by two ships on our way here this morning. They ambushed us near some underwater ruins a league or so to the south."

Galantas knew the spot. It was a favorite place to pick off outsiders as they exited the South Corridor. "These ships... what flag were they flying?"

"A red feather."

Ravin, then. The clan leader of the Falcons wasn't the sort to let a profit sail past unchallenged. "Two ships, you say. But they let you pass when you told them you were meeting us?"


Before Galantas could reply, Dresk said to his chamberlain, Talet, "Get the word out to the other clans. Make sure they don't bother our new friends again."

"Oh, I don't think that will be necessary," Eremo said, resuming his walk to the door. "We've sent out our own message loud and clear."

Copyright © 2016 by Marc Turner


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