Sferina traced her fingertip lightly down the taut stomach muscles of her lover. Her sable hair spilled down, cascading onto his shoulder. He turned his face toward her, blowing a few errant strands of her hair away from his face, and grinned a predatory grin.
“Surely you can’t be ready for more?”
Sferina shook her head, allowing her hair to caress his chest. “No, I’m quite satisfied, for the moment at least. You never told me what happened when my letter arrived. You just decided to have your way with me, instead.”
The man raised an eyebrow, and amusement crept into his smile. “*My* way? My dear, I have never known you not to get exactly what you desire.”
“True,” said Sferina as she stretched, arching her back, her hair falling down to cover her bare breasts. “I got you, didn’t I, Edril?”
“Yes, you did. But will you discard me after you’ve ruined my employer?”
She wondered what her chief rival, Tyrus Vage, would think to find his right-hand man quite literally in bed with the enemy. Sferina and Vage were both merchants of Dargon. Sferina was a relative newcomer who specialized in the sale of minor magical trinkets. Vage had become jealous of her success and tried to cut into her profits by stealing the mold for one of her best sellers and attempting to produce duplicates without enchantment, in order to flood the market and ruin her reputation. Two young men in her employ had recently returned the mold, along with a letter from Vage to the craftsman who was supposed to produce the fakes.
Sferina let her gaze travel down her lover’s body. Edril was a small man, a finger shorter than Sferina’s own height, but he had a lithe grace. His slender frame hid muscles with a surprising strength: a strength that he had demonstrated in their recent bout of lovemaking. Apart from his ability in bed, he was a skilled swordsman, and possessed the rare abilities to write and to work with numbers.
“No, Edril, I think I’ll keep you close even after your master’s finances are in ruins. So, how did dear Tyrus react when he received my letter?” Sferina’s note to Tyrus explained that she had learned of his plans to ruin her, and demanded reparations or she would expose his duplicity to the council.
Edril sat up and brushed back his dark locks with one hand. “Not well at all. In fact, he flew into a horrible rage. Most unbecoming for a man of his stature.” Edril grinned again. “Imagine his fury if he ever learns the truth of it.”
Sferina raised a finger in caution. “That he must never do, my darling man, not even in ruin.” The “truth” was that the theft of the mold and the ultimate incrimination of Vage had been planned by Sferina and Edril in this very bed. She knew that Vage might accept his current financial problems, but if he learned that he had been tricked and betrayed, he would find a way to exact vengeance.
“That ruin may be closer than you think, love.”
Sferina stared at Edril, whose grin was becoming ever wider. She punched him in the shoulder, playfully. “There’s something you’re not telling me. Out with it.” She hit him again.
“Do you know who Parris Dargon is?” When she shook her head, he continued. “He’s a cousin of Duke Clifton; he thinks he has a strong claim on the duchy. He’s also an old friend of Vage’s. He showed up a few months ago and talked Vage into funding some ridiculous plan to bring a cursed object into Dargon. He figured that Clifton would lose the support of the nobles when he couldn’t stop the disasters the curse brought. Then Parris could come lift the curse and everyone would rally around him and name him the duke.”
“Sounds like a pretty thin plan.”
Edril shrugged. “Well, Parris is an idiot. Still, Vage agreed to fund it. Tied up all of his funds, including some he didn’t have. Parris promised to let him know when the object was coming so that Vage could have a fleet of ships waiting to help save the city once the curse was lifted. Of course, Vage also made Parris sign letters promising to turn his lands over should he fail to repay the debt.”
“He couldn’t lose.”
“So he thought. That is, until the object, a statue as it turned out, arrived in Dargon a few days ago, but not under Parris’ control.”
“Wait!” Sferina put a hand on Edril’s arm. “You don’t mean …?”
Edril nodded. “That’s exactly what I mean. The causeway, the fires, everything.” Several days previously, a wave of bad luck had struck Dargon: a section of the causeway that spanned the Coldwell River had collapsed, fires had sprung up all over the city, roofs had fallen in, and all manner of minor misfortunes had plagued the populace. Sales of Sferina’s luck charm, a silver icon of the moon Nochturon one quarter full, had taken off.
Sferina scowled. “Edril, we have to do something about the curse. My fortunes are tied to this city!”
Edril leaned back in bed, interlacing his fingers behind his head, grinning again. She wanted to hit him. “Sferina, when was the last fire reported?”
“Yesterday. A scribe’s shop on Merchant –”
“Heard of any roofs collapsing today? Anyone falling off his horse?” When Sferina’s brows knitted together and she shook her head, Edril continued. “I watched the barge traffic on the river for a full bell this afternoon. None of them collided. Yesterday morning in a ha’bell, I saw six collisions and watched one barge sink to the bottom.”
“The cursed statue is gone, then.”
“So it would seem, and Parris Dargon with it. Vage sent me to find him yesterday afternoon. There was no one in the house he’d rented. I checked around the city and there was no sign of him. Someone did tell me that his man Rilk had been down at the docks looking for a sailboat. It seems that Parris has fled the city.”
“Leaving Vage to collect his lands.” Sferina punched a pillow. “He’ll be wealthier now than before! He’ll probably have enough to get the other council members to turn a blind eye when I go before them. Why didn’t you tell me this before I sent that letter?”
Edril grinned a little wider. “You have nothing to worry about. Vage will never collect on that debt. Yesterday morning the wind plucked Parris’ promissory note off Vage’s desk and dropped it right into the ocean. His bad luck, I suppose …”
Sferina leaned over him, pinning his arms back. “Oh, Edril, you shouldn’t tease me like that. Now I’m going to have to tease you.”
Parris Dargon sat at the rail of his stolen sloop and stared out at the Valenfaer Ocean. The water was choppy, with a strong wind blowing white spray from the tips of the waves. The mage Anarr, Parris’ ally for the moment, held the tiller. Parris had hired Anarr two months earlier to retrieve the item that had been the source of the curse on a town called Northern Hope, and to find a means to control the curse. These things Anarr had done, but the mage had left the item, a statue of the Beinisonian god Gow, in the care of a hired man during the journey to Dargon. The wards that held the curse in check had been removed. The barge carrying the statue had crashed into the causeway that span ned the Coldwell River, unleashing the curse on Dargon too soon and leaving Parris no means to control it. Then Anarr’s hireling had shown up on Parris’ doorstep with the statue. Parris had hoped to be quit of the mage then, but circumstance had dictated otherwise.
Anarr’s dark gaze was locked on the western horizon, where clouds had begun to gather. Parris’ bodyguard Rilk was below, preparing a meal in the boat’s tiny galley. Occasional snatches of some obscene sea-ditty drifted up in Rilk’s deep baritone. The sailor’s off-key singing did little to improve Parris’ mood.
Parris turned back to Anarr, hoping to strike up a conversation, but when he saw the mage’s single-minded stare the words died on his lips. Rilk’s singing became louder as he climbed up on deck bearing a tray piled with steaming food. Parris moved to the center of the boat where Rilk set the tray on top of a barrel and picked up a plate.
The burly sailor walked toward the stern, his massive frame loose and graceful. Parris envied the man’s rolling gait and wondered if he would ever get used to walking on the tossing deck of this boat.
“I’ll take the tiller if ye like, milord,” Rilk said to Anarr.
The mage scowled as if he were going to refuse, but appeared to think better of it. “Very well,” he said as he turned the tiller over to Rilk, “but hold this heading.”
“Straight, sir.” Rilk shrugged amiably as he settled in. Parris had taken a turn at the helm on the previous day, but hadn’t been able to figure out how to keep the boat on course and the sails full. Anarr had berated him as Rilk, fighting not to laugh, had tried to explain how to maintain a heading and how to prevent the sails from luffing. Parris still wasn’t quite sure what luffing was, but he didn’t want anything to do with it.
“What’s for lunch?” asked Anarr as he walked forward. His sea legs weren’t quite the equal of Rilk’s, but they were close.
“Eggs, milord!” Rilk called from behind him.
“Eggs! We had eggs for breakfast!” Anarr scowled. Parris wondered for a moment why this irritated the mage as much as it did, then remembered how Anarr had appeared on Parris’ doorstep in Dargon two days before, slick with raw eggs. Anarr had provided no explanation for his condition, and the expression on the mage’s face had been more than enough to dissuade Parris from asking.
“Sorry, milord,” Rilk explained. “Jalen kept a full larder, but not much variety. If we’re out here more’n a few days, it’ll be nothing but hardtack and salt beef, an’ we’ll all be wishin’ for eggs. This ‘ere boat isn’t stocked, or built, for a long voyage.”
The mage turned back and glared at Rilk. “Then why did you rent it?”
Parris put his hand on Anarr’s arm, hoping to cut the conversation short. He hadn’t had enough money left to rent any boat. Jalen, he of the well-stocked but unimaginative pantry, was dead by Rilk’s hand. Parris and Rilk had been trying to conceal that fact from Anarr, not knowing how the mage would react. “Anarr, if you will recall, we were in a bit of a hurry yesterday. If your friend hadn’t stolen the statue, we wouldn’t even be on this boat.”
Anarr’s head whipped around, and he stared hard at Parris. “And if this idiot hadn’t lost control of the statue, Simona could never have taken it. Now I will thank you to take your hand off me, Parris, and not to touch me again.”
“Of course, Anarr, my apologies.” Parris would normally have bridled at such treatment; mage or not, this man was not nobility. But Anarr’s irritation allowed him to avoid an unpleasant line of questioning: where Rilk had been transporting the statue to, and why the wards that held the curse in check had not been in place. Anarr did not know of Parris’ plans to unseat his cousin Clifton. Rilk had been taking the statue to Dargon Keep, to place the source of the curse as close as possible to the duke, when it had been stolen by the bard Simona and a man named Kal. Both had been traveling with Anarr from Northern Hope. Anarr had stated that he had not been involved in the theft and that he suspected Simona had stolen the statue to protect Dargon from the curse. Parris did not know whether to believe Anarr or not, but he needed the mage to find Simona.
Anarr scooped up a plateful of eggs and moved to the starboard side, where he leaned against the gunwale, and began eating voraciously.
“Are we getting any closer?” Parris asked, for the fifth time that day.
Anarr glared at Parris between forkfuls of egg, but made no reply. His dark eyes had lost some of their luster and his youthful face was pale and drawn. Parris wondered why the mage looked so suddenly and completely exhausted. Could the strain of magically seeking Simona be wearing him down? Perhaps it was concern for her that caused Anarr’s shoulders to slump so. Parris doubted the latter; he could not imagine the proud mage caring that much for anyone, except possibly himself.
Anarr was, in fact, exhausted. To expedite their voyage he had been exerting himself magically, and the effort was beginning to wear on him. Hoping to quickly catch up to Simona’s boat, he had initially resorted to brute force, pressing on their boat with his magic. That method quickly grew to be more than he could maintain, however. He had instead crafted spells to enhance his ability to direct the ship, so as to catch the best winds and take the best tack. That method lent them less speed, but was less tiring. Even so, Anarr was spent. The eggs were distasteful — Rilk’s cooking was plebian at best and Anarr still smarted from his nasty fall into a trader’s stall full of fresh eggs — but they were hot and they filled the void in his belly.
Anarr glanced at Rilk as he chewed. The man was a decent sailor, far better than the completely incompetent Parris. Anarr planned to take back the helm as soon as he finished eating. The spell he had woven worked only for him, and he was too tired to rework it. He could already discern their reduction in speed. Anarr looked ahead. In the distance, the grey sky had darkened even further. Anarr didn’t need a spell to tell him that was where the statue was.
In fact, a spell probably wouldn’t have worked to give that location away. Anarr had already learned the futility of directing magic, or almost any other effort, towards that cursed object. Instead, Anarr had directed his attention toward Simona, the bard they were pursuing. He had focused on each detail that he could recall about her: every nuance of her speech and personality, every aspect of her face, including her odd affectation of painting her lips blue to match her eyes. With Simona firmly framed within his mind, he had forged a magical link between them that allowed him to sense her location.
He frowned and paused in his eating as he recalled Simona’s part in this affair. She had met him in Northern Hope, and had begged his assistance in removing a family curse. What he hadn’t realized at the time was that he himself was the one who had planted that curse in the first place.
Simona’s ancestor, Zenia, had been beautiful, and Anarr had been smitten. Anarr’s was not the only head she had turned. When she’d spurned him for another man, he had flown into a blind rage. In his anger and frustration, he had declared death for her husband and all her daughters’ men at the time of their first child’s birth. He had forgotten about Zenia in time and had moved on. She probably never knew about the curse until the deaths started coming, by which time he had become a mere memory.
He also knew now why his efforts to lift the curse on Simona had failed. There could only be one reason: she must be pregnant. The father was likely that oaf who had accompanied her on their journey. She could do much better than such a fool. No doubt the two of them were in the approaching storm already, bailing for their lives. Anarr calmed his mind and focused again with that special part of his awareness that he had created. The curse would still foil efforts to locate the statue, but it shouldn’t foil his attempt to locate Simona. Sure enough, he knew that she lay directly ahead of them.
His lunch finished, Anarr got up and set the plate on the tray Rilk had brought. As he did, he passed his worthless employer, Parris Dargon. He glared at the man as they passed, satisfied that the nobleman’s gaze faltered. Anarr also noted frustration in Parris’ manner. It would not do to push this man too hard, for even a rat would bite when cornered. Anarr again shook his head. He had lusted for the noble’s gold, and had taken what had seemed an easy job. He had seen that the man was lying to him in the tavern when they’d first met, but that hadn’t bothered Anarr. Now he wished he had skipped this job for another, even one paying less. Not that payment was likely at this point. He began to suspect that perhaps Parris had been lying about that, too.
“I’ll take over now, Rilk,” Anarr said, reaching for the tiller. Rilk nodded and handed it over. Anarr immediately corrected their heading, and noted with satisfaction that their speed increased a bit. The dark blot on the horizon was now slightly to starboard of the ship’s prow, but Anarr knew that their extra speed would compensate for the slight difference in bearing.
Parris woke with a start as he was dumped to the deck in the sailboat’s bunkroom. He looked around in irritation, wondering who had woken him so rudely, but there was no one present. Then he noted the pitching of the deck and realized that it was the waves that had thrown him from his bed. Parris stood, rubbing his head, glad that he had chosen a lower bunk. He had left the sailing to Anarr and retired to one of the bunks late the previous night. He peered out from behind the shabby curtain that separated the tiny bunkroom from the main cabin. From the feeble sunlight spilling in through the open hatch, he could tell that he had slept through the night.
Pushing the curtain aside, Parris left the bunkroom, struggling to keep his feet under him on the pitching deck. He dipped a drink of water out of a half-full bucket, then set the dipper down, reached in for a double handful of water, and splashed his face to wake himself up. He briefly considered seeing what he could find for breakfast, but decided that it would not sit well in his stomach until the boat stopped rolling. Instead, he climbed the wooden steps that led topside, intending to ask Anarr and Rilk when they expected the ocean to calm down.
Salt spray stung Parris’ eyes as he emerged through the hatch. In the stern, Anarr clung doggedly to the tiller. The mage’s clothes were drenched and salt-caked. His face was a study in exhaustion, and his gaze was locked on the horizon. Parris, suspecting that Anarr would be in an even fouler mood than the previous evening, made his way forward in search of Rilk, clinging to the rail with every step.
He found the burly sailor near the front of the boat, inspecting some rigging. Beyond the bow, both sea and sky were gray, and Parris could barely discern the difference in shading that marked the horizon.
“It’s going to rain, isn’t it?” Parris asked as he stepped up beside Rilk.
Rilk turned to look at him, and Parris thought his underling was trying to suppress a grin. “‘Tis raining now, milord,” he explained. “Dead ahead. See how the grayness of the clouds extends all the way down to the ocean?” He pointed, and Parris looked to what he had thought was the horizon. “That’s the rain. There’s a great beast of a storm ahead of us.”
“Can this ship handle it?”
Rilk shrugged. “Cahleyna only knows, milord. I’ve survived bigger storms, but on larger craft. Boat this small, I’d think not. With a mage at the helm, though, who can say?”
Parris, appalled by Rilk’s lack of regard for his own life, opened his mouth to reply, but snapped it shut again. Anarr was controlling the sailboat, not Rilk, so it was Anarr he needed to talk to. The mage might be arrogant, but he was also intelligent. Surely, he would turn the boat aside once he learned that there was a storm ahead that might sink them.
Parris lurched and staggered his way to the stern, feeling that the pitching of the deck had gotten worse while he was talking to the sailor. The mage stared at him expectantly, and Parris fought to return his gaze without looking away.
“Rilk says we’re heading into a storm. We need to turn the ship.”
Anarr’s eyes narrowed, but his lips curled in amusement. “Of course we’re heading into a storm, Parris. It’s too late to turn, not that I had any intention of turning.”
Parris was taken aback by the mage’s statement. Did Anarr plan some treachery? Would he lead them to their deaths in this storm and escape himself through magic? Then a thought struck him. “Do we have to go through the storm? Is that where she’s taken the statue?”
“That storm *is* the statue,” Anarr answered back. “The curse is throwing up these winds to thwart us.”
Just then, a loud crash sounded from below. Anarr’s gaze snapped to Rilk, who had just stepped up beside them. Parris wondered at the guilty look that formed on the heavy man’s face.
“Didn’t you rig for sea?” the mage demanded. Parris glanced around, wondering if some of the sails had come loose.
“I did, some, but it’s not my boat.” Rilk insisted, but his voice held a defeated tone. “I wasn’t expecting no harsh weather, so I din’t check the hold. I knew your lordships were in a hurry, and –”
“No excuses,” snapped the mage. “Get below and get things properly stowed. Then get back up here as quick as you can. We’ll need to reef in these sails some more before the wind gets any worse.”
Parris was wondering when Anarr had started giving the orders, when Rilk’s heavy hand clapped onto his shoulder.
“Come on, milord, I’ll need a hand getting the gear stowed below. Some of that stuff’s too bulky for one man to handle.”
Parris’ jaw hung open. Rilk had not only touched him, he had actually asked him, the rightful duke of Dargon, to engage in manual labor! At a loss for words to express his outrage, he sputtered, “What does it matter if something is loose below? We’re up here on deck!”
Rilk, his hand still on Parris’ shoulder, spoke as if addressing a child. “I’d be willing to bet your lordship is going to want to go below once the rain hits. But we ain’t doin’ this to keep you dry. If a wave takes us on the beam, the boat’s going to roll.” Rilk held up his other hand and tilted it, pantomiming a rolling boat. “If something heavy down there shifts when that happens, she’ll keep rolling.” He tipped his hand completely over. “Then we’ll be under the deck instead of on it. Now come along, milord, if you want to live through this storm.”
Parris followed Rilk below, his face flushed with anger at the sailor’s manner. Once he was duke, he would have the man flogged for this outrage. The boat’s cabin was a shambles. Parris reluctantly helped Rilk upright and secure a rack that held tools and a few weapons, no doubt the source of the crash. The burly sailor then lashed down a water barrel that had overturned. Fortunately, it had been nearly empty or the floor of the cabin would have been flooded. Then a loud thump made the deck under their feet shake.
“Ol’s piss!” Rilk shouted. “Did we hit –?” He stopped short at the sound of something rolling beneath their feet. The burly sailor pushed past Parris, pulled open a hatch in the floor, and stuck his head in. “Nehru’s blood!” he swore again. “How on ‘diar did that Jalen stay alive as long as he did?” He looked back over his shoulder at Parris, said, “Going to need you down ‘ere, milord,” and disappeared through the open hatch.
Parris, too stunned by the mistreatment from his underling not to comply, looked down into the tiny hold of the sailboat. Rilk was crouched, ankle deep in water, trying to lash some barrels against one side of the sailboat’s sloping hull, while bracing himself against the other. Parris squeezed himself through the narrow hatch, wondering how Rilk had ever gotten his ponderous bulk past.
Rilk pointed. “Here, tie that off,” he said, then appeared to think better of it. “Nah, lean here, straight? Keep ‘em from shifting while I lash ‘em down.”
Parris put his shoulder against the barrel, straining to hold it in place as Rilk shifted his weight to get at the rope. He watched as Rilk deftly tied a complex knot. As he used all his strength, Parris wondered if this was what Clifton had felt like when he lost his arm: heroically fighting beside his men to protect the city. His anger at the man’s rough treatment momentarily forgotten, Parris looked at Rilk expectantly, wondering what he could do next to help the burly sailor save the boat.
“You can ease off, milord. It’ll hold. Give me a hand with these loose sails and we’re done down here.” Rilk made his way forward to where some bundles of sailcloth lay in disarray.
Parris followed, wondering at the amount of gear stowed in the tiny hold. “Why are there so many sails down here, Rilk? It looks like enough for three ships this size.”
Rilk glanced back at Parris as he began to work on stowing the sails. “Probably is. Have to put as much weight as you can as low as you can to keep ‘er from rolling too much.”
Parris nodded. He bent to pull a lumpy roll of sailcloth to one side, catching a whiff of something foul as he did so. When he pulled on a corner of the sailcloth, it unrolled partially. Parris yelped and jumped back in horror as the face of a dead man appeared, eyes gazing blankly at him.
Rilk turned at the sound, took in what had happened, and smiled in amusement. “That would be Jalen, milord.” He seemed almost pleased with himself.
The camaraderie that Parris had begun to feel for Rilk as they worked side-by-side instantly evaporated. “You put him down here? I thought you tossed him over the side!”
“What, at mid-day tied up at the pier? Even if the town guard din’t see me, a dozen sailors would have. I’ll not hang for you, milord, no matter how much gold you pay me.”
Parris held up his hand to calm Rilk, who, in fact, might one day need to hang for what he knew. There was no point in the big sailor pursuing that line of thought. “Straight. You did the best you could, I suppose. Anarr’s not likely to come down here. Still, he might begin to smell Jalen in another few days. Do you think we could get him into one of these barrels and seal it up?”
Rilk pursed his lips in thought, and then shook his head. “Not without draggin’ ‘em both up to the cabin, an’ Anarr might stick his head down an’ see what we was about.” He appeared to have a thought. “Anarr don’t strike me that he’d care one way or another about Jalen bein’ dead, though.” I’d rather not take that risk. Anarr cannot know we’re capable of killing …
Parris nodded. “You’re probably right, but I’d rather not take that risk. More importantly, Anarr can’t know we’re capable of killing. We might have to kill that bard and her friend for what they know. It would be one thing to have Anarr aware of the curse. Mages are notoriously tight-lipped. But a bard …” Parris should his head. “I don’t know how Anarr would react to that. He seems to care about this Simona, so we may have to kill him. We’ll just have to keep Jalen down here until we get a chance to toss him over the side. Anarr has to sleep sometime.”
Anarr watched as Rilk and Parris emerged on deck and approached him. The wind had continued to increase. The waves had begun to whitecap, and large drops were splattering on the deck. The sails needed to be reefed in immediately. “What took so long?” he demanded.
Rilk shrugged. “That Jalen, may Rise’er himself be dining on his eyes, didn’t have a single thing tied down.”
Anarr hid his grim amusement as Parris snapped his head toward Rilk, and then turned to Anarr to look for some reaction. The nobleman then quickly looked away to hide his own. That oath was rarely used against someone who was still alive, and then never in the present tense. Despite the sailor’s butchery of language, Anarr doubted that Rilk’s error had been grammatical. The boat’s former owner was dead, then, and these two sought to hide it.
Pretending not to have understood Rilk’s comment, Anarr snapped, “See to the sails before one tears loose.”
Rilk turned to work. Parris opened his mouth as if to speak, appeared to think better of it, and walked off toward the bow, supporting himself on the boat’s rail. Anarr watched the nobleman’s retreating back. He didn’t care that the boat’s former owner — Jaden, or whoever — had been killed. He wanted to catch Simona, get the statue back, extinguish her curse, and then have nothing further to do with any of these people and their petty lives. However, he was concerned that Parris thought to hide the deed. He was doing so for a reason, and if he knew Anarr was aware of his duplicity, he might become dangerous.
Anarr focused once again on the horizon. One area seemed blacker than the rest. From the tops of the waves, Anarr could see it come and go, and he realized he was looking at two rocks emerging from the water like the fingers of a giant’s hand, grasping for the surface. He remembered seeing a chart once that indicated shoals two days to the west of Dargon; this must be the top of one. His first impulse was to steer clear of it, but the mystical link he had created told him that Simona had not, and so he could not, if he was to follow her. He held his course, watching as the first of the large waves drew closer. Then, like a heavily laden ox cart cresting a hill, the ship slowly angled downward and slid into the trough.
Anarr shivered in the wind. His expensive cloak was wrapped about him, but the cloak was rent, and the wind was cold, and the energy he was expending left him drained. Blisters had begun to form on his hands from gripping the wet wood of the tiller so tightly. He watched as Rilk moved about the deck, tightening lines and adjusting the rigging.
Why did a magus such as himself have to waste so much time on these useless errands? His place was in the pursuit of knowledge. He was growing in power once more, and soon he would again be master of his own fate, as well as master of the fates of others. He chafed at his dependency on people like Parris for employment, and on people like Simona for validation. A shudder of cold racked his frame. What great improvements could he make in the world if he no longer needed to involve himself in these insignificant endeavors?
His thoughts focused on Simona. How much more useful could she be if she were not fixated on that man that accompanied her, Kal? She had talent and ambition; she could have far-reaching effects as a teacher or bard. Instead, she was spending time and effort trying to lift a curse that only affected a small and insignificant part of her life: the bearing of children. Anarr chided himself for this thought. He was attributing his own sensibilities to Simona, and that was a mistake. It would not do to neglect one of the most basic tenets of his long life, that of understanding the motivations of others. Ignoring that fact would blind him to how they thought and felt about other matters, with potentially disastrous results.
Anarr considered Simona’s curse, and frowned. He had cast it in a moment of frustration and rage, and then had forgotten it for decades. How often had he derided that sort of impulsiveness in others? It was humbling to be reminded of those tendencies in himself, and Anarr did not like to be humbled. He concentrated on steering the ship.
Water was rolling over the deck now as waves broke over the bow. The waves were not sweeping across the deck, but the spray had drenched the deck and everything on it. Anarr was soaked, and shivering. The blisters on his hands had torn open; saltwater stung them painfully. He considered whether this problem had gone beyond him, but decided to press on. He knew they were getting very close to Simona.
Anarr stared into the distance. The island was still just a smudge on the horizon, but there were other dots now visible, closer than the island. Anarr could see them when the boat crested the waves. Somehow, they didn’t look like rocks. He reached out along the magical connection for Simona, and knew she was close ahead. He couldn’t swerve. Wave after wave lifted the boat and dropped it. The creaking of the hull could be heard over the whistle of the wind in the rigging. Anarr held firm. As the boat was lifted again, he caught another glimpse of a dark shape, closer now. It was a ship, much larger than Simona’s sailboat, but it was foundering. Down again. Anarr could see that the waves were getting larger. Another crest, and Anarr could make out more ships. How many were there? How did they come to be out here?
Down fell the sloop again, and right at the bottom of the trough came the sound every sailor dreads without even knowing it: a thud. Something had struck the hull. Anarr’s heart jumped, but he immediately calmed himself. The sound was not loud enough, nor the jolt strong enough, for it to have been a rock. Anarr looked back. In the sailboat’s wake something rolled. It was a body. So fast was the progress of their sailing that the corpse fell swiftly behind. Anarr watched it disappear from sight, and then looked up again as the boat lifted. In the distance, Anarr could see a half-dozen ships, all foundering. Behind them, still small, the island brooded. Down again, and another body graced the wall of water as it slid by.
Someone had parked a small fleet out here, far away from Dargon’s curse, trying to protect their assets, Anarr reasoned. Fate and the curse had caught them unawares, as Simona sailed right past them, carrying her deadly cargo. The storm arose before they could weigh anchor, and the ships were lost. How many more lives did this add to the count of Parris’ failed venture? Anarr’s jaw gaped slowly open as the enormity of the disaster sank into his mind. The sloop lifted, and bodies dotted the watery landscape. Why had they anchored so far out? Dargon was two days away. And why the middle of the sea? Why not sail down the coast?
Parris retreated from the bow as the seas became rougher, then stared in amazement as they sailed past the wrecked ships. Even he could tell that they were merchant vessels. He spied a green and black pennant flapping from the end of a shattered mast. It confirmed his fear; these were Tyrus Vage’s ships. The merchant would be ruined and would no doubt do anything to destroy Parris as well. A wave crashed over the rail and drove him to his knees, reminding him that he had more urgent concerns at the moment.
Rilk appeared beside him and helped him to his feet. The big man bent and shouted to Parris, struggling to be heard over the rising wind. “I don’t think we can take more waves like that! We’re going to have to lighten the load!”
“I thought we needed that weight to keep us stable!” Parris shouted back.
“Less stable, but we’ll ride higher in the water! It’s the only way!”
Parris followed Rilk into the cabin, relieved to be out of the driving wind and rain. He wondered if he and Rilk could just ride out the storm here and let Anarr be washed overboard. Then he wondered if he could just stay at sea until Tyrus Vage’s creditors caught up with the merchant.
“We’ll pitch most of it over,” said Rilk, “But leave some weight down in the hold. Food an’ water, mostly.”
The hold! Parris grasped Rilk by the forearm. “Now is our chance to pitch Jalen overboard, with the rest of the extra weight!”
Rilk nodded. “Straight!”
The two men climbed down below.
The hatch opened suddenly, startling Anarr; Parris and Rilk emerged carrying a large bundle of sailcloth. Normally Anarr’s senses were acute, and he would not have been surprised, but now he was both weakened and preoccupied.
“What are you doing?” he yelled. “Close that hatch!”
“We are lightening the load!” Parris yelled back. He and Rilk dragged the bundle to the side of the ship.
“Close the hatch first! A wave could swamp us!” Anarr looked ahead. The ship was cresting the wave, and in moments water would again flood the deck. Abandoning the helm, Anarr dashed for the hatch. He slammed it shut and dogged it, securing it just as the ship reached the bottom of a trough. He headed back toward the tiller, but the water caught him, along with Rilk, Parris, and their burden. It carried them all back toward the stern and deposited them in a heap against the rear rail. Anarr found himself staring into the face of a dead man.
Shocked and disgusted, he scrambled to his feet. His initial thought was that one of the drowned sailors from the nearby wrecks had washed aboard, but then he realized that the face was protruding from the sailcloth that Parris and Rilk had dropped. It had to be the boat’s former owner, and there was no way to hide his knowledge of it. His only option was to feign surprise.
“What is this!?”
“You wanted a ship!” Parris snarled, startling Anarr a bit with his vehemence.
“So the rat is cornered now,” Anarr thought as he backed away from the two as they arose from their gory cargo. “Only they think I’m the rat.”
“What was the point of this, Dargon?” Anarr shouted back, feeling oddly confident again. He had been in many dangerous corners, and had trained his mind for such occasions. He was again in control. His glance took in all his surroundings. He knew in a moment that Rilk was three paces away, Parris two and a half. Rilk outweighed him, but Parris did not. Rilk always carried a knife on his hip; Parris was unarmed. The tiller was loose, but the boat was holding course for now. In three heartbeats, a wave would break over the bow with a jolt, flooding the deck. Parris would fall; Rilk would not. Five paces behind Anarr was the main mast, attached to which was a peg mallet. He had a plan. He was ready.
In a moment, fate again snatched his world away. A wave of heat swept over him, and his mind was stabbed by a bubbling scream. His vision filled with blinding white, and his entire body went suddenly numb. He cried out and clapped his hands to his ears, staggering back. He was blinded before his enemies, and he tried to flee. He took a step away, and the deck was ripped out from under him. He hit the deck hard, losing his breath. In an instant, he knew what it was. It was Simona. She was here.
Anarr threw himself upright in time to see Rilk coming at him. As he had expected, there was a straight steel blade in his hand, and behind him, Parris was just getting up. Anarr spun around, leaping over the leading edge of the oncoming wave. He landed knee deep but moving, while behind him Rilk was staggered by the rush of water. One more long stride and Anarr’s hand closed on the top of the peg mallet. He popped it up and out of its holder as he spun back to face the two men. Rilk was behind him, winding up for a slash. Anarr’s lips moved silently as he threw the mallet at Rilk’s midsection. Rilk’s free hand came down to block it, but he had not counted on the simple spell Anarr had added to the throw. The mallet bowled him over, and his knife skidded across the deck.
Parris was up, having somehow managed to catch Rilk’s weapon, but doubt was on his face. His hired help lay writhing on the wet deck, and he now faced an angry mage alone. Anarr could see the fear and calculation on the man’s face, and he played on it, taking a slow, deliberate, threatening move toward him. He slowly raised his arms, hands clawed. Again, the scream hit him, wiping away the world. Anarr knew nothing else for a long moment, until he felt his own knees hit the wooden deck. Suddenly he was seized from behind, with someone pinning his arms back behind his head.
“Now, milord! Do it!” Rilk’s voice was loud in Anarr’s ears. He was still blind and stunned, but his training was lifelong. Without even thinking he rolled to his right, kicking sideways and out, hard. His foot struck something yielding, and there was a yelp. In a moment, Anarr was back in control. He bent his elbows, seized Rilk by the bare back of the neck, and drank.
Anarr had learned early the art of pushing or drawing heat through his hands. He had made it one of his trademarks, using it to chill his ale or start fires with a finger. Now he focused all his attention on the skin under his hands. It wasn’t just heat he was drawing in, however. In his studies, Anarr had realized that life itself was energy. He had used this knowledge for decades to elongate his own lifespan. He now used it to shorten Rilk’s. He sucked the life from his assailant like a desert emir would suck beer through a reed. In an instant Anarr was warm again. He could see, and his mind was clear. Rilk released his weakening hold on Anarr and tried to break his opponent’s grip on the nape of his neck, but it was far too late for that. He flailed wildly, thrashing and squealing. Anarr calmly st ood and spun his assailant around from behind and held him up at arm’s length.
Parris watched from the deck, eyes wide, as Rilk dangled a handsbreadth above the deck. And then it was two handsbreadths, and three, for as Anarr ripped the life energy from Rilk his flesh eroded to dust. Rilk’s dissolution started at his feet and worked upwards, leaving a trail of ash to waft away in the wind.
The ship crested a wave and slammed into the water again. Parris was flung forward, but Anarr was as steady as if he were part of the ship. Rilk was only a head and torso now, and mindless terror contorted his face as his flesh inexorably disappeared. Anarr’s skin steamed and his veins bulged. Dire light shone from his eyes, and his teeth were set in an obscene rictus of ecstasy. What remained of Rilk began to shudder in deep shock. The skin on his face puckered and tightened, and then the last of him collapsed into a grey miasma that gusted away and was gone.
Parris found himself in the cabin, without remembering entering. In the dark, he wept and gibbered. He was trapped in a stolen ship in the middle of a deadly storm with a monster that had just made his bodyguard dissolve. How had this happened to him? This was all supposed to be so good. Anarr would bring the curse back, safely contained; Parris would set it on Clifton Dargon, bring him down in a whirl of public fury, save the day by bottling the curse, and claim his rightful place as duke. Where had he gone wrong?
It was that fool Rilk. He should have known better than try to hold the mage instead of striking him. Parris clenched his jaw in rage and indignation. Everyone knows you can’t give someone that powerful a chance. Parris clutched the doorjamb for stability as the ship pitched and rolled. What was he going to do? In moment, Anarr would come suck out his life. He had to hide! But where? Parris scrambled to the bunkroom. Under the bunks? Too open. In the hold? Too obvious. There was no place to hide.
Maybe he could make a deal with Anarr. After all, it had been Rilk who had come after Anarr with his knife, and Rilk who had grabbed the mage. Parris had picked up Rilk’s dagger, but he hadn’t attacked. Perhaps Anarr would accept more gold. Parris nodded to himself. The mage had already shown his desire for money; surely he would be willing to deal.
Parris glanced down at the dagger in his hand, wondering if he should take it. It was better to bargain from a position of strength, but the blade seemed so tiny compared to the awesome power Anarr had displayed on the deck above. He needed something that could keep the mage at arm’s length. Then he remembered the weapons that had been in the rack he and Rilk had secured earlier. Was there something there that could help? Sure enough, there was a short spear, held to the rack by two leather thongs. Parris pulled it loose, and hefted it. Feeling more confident with the weight of the spear in his hands, he opened the hatch and went up.
The whole world was a rainbow to Anarr now. The sky was no longer dark gray, but rather a bright shimmering field of rippling light. He could hear the screegulls crying over Dargon Keep, and could smell the odor of a great sea hag coming up from the depths to eat the flesh of the drowned sailors. Time itself blurred as his senses reached a moment into both the past and present. “Now I am ready for you, Simona,” his multifarious mind thought to itself. “Now I have become the curse!”
Anarr faced the storm. Time to end this. He would draw in Simona’s boat, ward the statue, and then push them all back to Dargon, where he would hand over Parris, and receive the gratitude of the duke and the adulation of the populace, and then return to his studies. He reached out with his enhanced senses and sought Simona. Sure enough, as he had discovered less than a mene earlier, she had been here, right here. But there was nothing here. He looked and he listened and he smelled and he felt and he tasted and he sensed, but the surface of the sea was still empty. Then, the instant he looked deeper, he saw her face, her eyes staring at him sightlessly and her lips now permanently blue in death. His world again crashed, and crashed in every spectrum of heaven.
Anarr howled his despair and anger, reached out with his new force, and dragged Simona upward. He leaned over the railing of the ship just as her lifeless body broke the surface. In a moment, his own arrogance choked him like a drunk dying in his own vomit. In his memory all his efforts blackened, all his intentions fouled and corroded. He saw the long years of his life as worthless, less than worthless, the pathetic aim of a selfish fool to gratify himself. In the body of the bard, he saw every life that had faded under his attentions. He teetered on the edge of despair, and then rage, frustration, and denial roared back up his gorge.
“No!” Anarr bellowed. “No! You may not! You! May! Not! Die!!”
Anarr could feel the power of the curse raging about him, coiling to strike. He could taste the lightning gathering in the clouds above, hear the waves as they crowded around. The vast power of creation surged all about him, and he wanted that power, all that power. He stretched his arms out, drawing in all the energy that he could take from the storm. Once sated, he threw all his intent at the body before him. It shook, and twitched, and convulsed. Water and froth blatted out of the bloated lips, and loud in Anarr’s ears a mutilated heartbeat thudded erratically. His will reached out and squeezed blood through flaccid veins. A wave of heat touched him. The curse was fighting him. He pushed back.
Parris crouched eight paces from the mage. The spear in his hands dripped spray and glinted in the lightning flashes. Anarr was fixated on something over the side. Parris took a silent step closer. There was no need to bargain after all. One more step and he would charge, ramming the weapon right through the farking whoreson. Six paces. Just a bit closer. One more step. Five paces. One more step.
The wooden shaft of Parris’ weapon began to smoke, and a glaze of ice simultaneously appeared on the blade. Anarr flung his head back and his arms wide, fingers curled as if straining against an unseen power. Parris cocked his arm back, the point of the spear aimed squarely at Anarr’s back, and rushed forward. He came up short as he was seized with a vision of the ebony statue of Gow silently howling, far below the waves. Then, in a crash of thunder, the sky released a bolt of lightning. Parris staggered back, blinded by the flash. His ears rang, and the spear fell from his numbed fingers. The deck pitched, and he was slammed against the rail. He reached out to steady himself. Blind and disoriented, he missed and fell overboard into the raging ocean.
After a time, the fierce storm abated and the wind blew itself out. The sea, calm once again, was dotted with bits of wreckage and the bodies of sailors. One unlikely vessel, a small sloop, survived. Far out at sea, leagues past the shoals where the fleet had foundered, the boat rocked slowly with the gentle motion of the waves. The mast was shattered, the deck festooned with rigging. The tiller flopped from one side to the other, unattended. Just aft of amidships the deck was scorched, and there was a hole burned in it about as wide as a man. From that hole, a hand emerged. It too was scorched. It groped about for a moment, and then took the edges of the hole with a tentative grip. A moment later Anarr lifted his head up and stared stupidly about. His hair was a hardened, burnt mass on his head. His skin was blistered, and several cuts were still oozing blood. He looked about for a moment, then closed his eyes again and lowered himself back down into the hold.
Two days northwest of Dargon, amidst shoal water where no sane captain would risk sailing without good reason, sat a tiny island. It was unnoted on most charts, and unnamed on all but a few. Those few called it Hagshand for the two tall rocks that resembled a hag’s grasping fingers, reaching to drag doomed sailors to the depths. A man sat between those two tall rocks and stared out into the calm ocean.
After falling off the sailboat, Parris had tossed in the ocean for what seemed like bells. At one point, he had come face to face with the bard, Simona. Her eyes had been open, but held no life in them. When the storm had finally ended, he had been washed ashore on this tiny island, no more than a collection of rocks.
Parris Dargon sat there and stared towards where he thought the mainland was. All about on the shore of the island were shattered timbers and knotted ropes. His clothes were ripped and wet, but his skin was whole. He alone had survived the curse. Rilk was dead. Simona was dead. He had witnessed Anarr struck by lightning before being washed off the boat himself. Tyrus Vage, his ships in ruins, was as good as dead.
Parris knew where his statue was, for all the good it did him. The image of Gow was at the bottom of the Valenfaer, where neither he nor anyone would ever reach it, doubtless crying its silent scream to the fish.
Parris considered his situation. It might be a while before he was rescued, but years of trying to reclaim his duchy had taught him patience. He could build a crude shelter from the broken timbers. He had plenty of fresh water, from rain that had accumulated in depressions in the rocks. A half-day passed before he realized that he had no food.
A day later, Parris was still hungry. Screegulls glided overhead, their cries like mocking laughing, but they never landed long enough for him to catch one. Fish swam among the rocks, but always managed to elude his grasping fingers. It was then that Parris realized that he had not been spared by Gow’s curse. He had been doomed to slow death by hunger for his arrogance in thinking to use a god to reclaim his duchy. No ships would come for him. If any did, the curse would drag them to the bottom. He suspected that it would not be long before this region of the Valenfaer Ocean was marked on every sea captain’s chart as a place from which ships did not return.
Parris walked to the edge of his tiny island, and threw himself on his knees, screaming his apologies and begging forgiveness for his audacity. If Gow heard, he gave no sign. Parris shouted until he was hoarse, then wept and beat his fists upon the rocks until they were bloody. Spent, he threw himself on the ground and rolled over on his back, staring skyward.
He watched as one of the laughing gulls veered suddenly, and crashed into the side of one of Hagshand’s reaching fingers. The gull fell to the rocks below and lay still. Parris scrambled to his feet and dashed to where the gull had fallen. He picked it up, snapped its neck, and started plucking feathers. Once the bird was cleaned, he realized that he had no way to make a fire. With a sigh of resignation, he began eating the bird raw.
It seemed Gow would provide, after a fashion.