Read Scream of Stone Online

Authors: Philip Athans

Scream of Stone (23 page)

“This is a strange idea,” Devorast asked Pristoleph after a while, “these ‘holidays’ of yours. How long do they last?”

48_

3Ches, the Yearof Lightning Storms (1374 DR) The Thayan Enclave, Innarlith

“YV^illem stopped in the doorway to the parlor and looked around. He’d been in that same room many times, but it had been a while, and it looked different. He had the feeling that all the objects, both mundane and exotic, were in the same places, that the furniture and the rugs were the same, that the walls were painted the same color, but still it looked different.

Smaller? he asked himself. It was smaller—darker, duller.

And Marek himself looked awful. Willem winced when the Thayan entered the room. He recoiled ever so slightly from the man’s smile. Marek’s teeth were brown in spots and yellow everywhere else. Dark circles under his eyes told of many sleepless nights, and he’d gotten fatter. The smell of some tropical flower Willem didn’t have a name for followed the wizard into the room, but it didn’t mask the old man smell that oozed from the Thayan’s very pores.

“Ah,” Marek said with a smile that turned Willem’s stomach, “there you are, my boy. Come. Sit. You’ve been too long away from the city.”

Willem forced a smile, found a chair, and sat as quickly as he could, deftly avoiding Marek’s embrace.

“So tell me,” said the wizard, “how progresses the canal?”

Willem replied, “Well, Master Rymiit.”

He wanted to leave it at that, but Marek made it plain

with his pursed lips and wide-open eyes that that wouldn’t be nearly sufficient.

“Construction is progressing according to Ivar’s plans,” Willem said. “It’s amazing, really, Master Rymiit.”

“What’s amazing?” the wizard asked, lifting one eyebrow in a look at once bored and quizzical.

“The whole thing,” Willem breathed, certain that answer would never satisfy the Thayan, but it was all Willem could think to say.

Marek chuckled, sat back in his chair, and stared up at the ceiling as though trying to frame his thoughts so that he could express himself in terms simple enough that even a dolt like Willem might understand him.

“Why did you ask me to come here?” Willem said. His voice barely squeaked out of him. His throat had become reluctant to speak, his mind afraid of the words, but his heart longing to know.

“You’re still a sitting member of the Senate of Innarlith,” Marek said. “You have responsibilities. This is beneath you, really, this digging around—rooting in the dirt out there with the snakes and the nagas.”

“I’ve never been—” Willem started to say, but stopped himself. He didn’t want to tell Marek Rymiit that he’d never been happier.

But the Thayan knew what he was going to say and his smile was even more mocking that usual.

“I understand,” said the wizard. “Really, I do.”

Willem’s teeth hurt and he rubbed his bottom lip as he said, “Do you need something from me?”

“Tell me about this man Devorast,” Marek said. “Have you brought anything of yourself to this canal? Or do you simply follow the instructions of your former countryman?”

Willem shook his head and said, “We all follow his instructions. To the letter.”

Marek shrugged—he’d heard exactly what he’d expected to hear—and he asked, “Is it true what I’ve heard about Devorast and the ransar?”

“The ransar?”

“Pristoleph has gone off on one of those excursions of his,” the wizard explained, “and this time he’s brought Ivar Devorast with him.”

“And?”

Willem couldn’t help but shrink at the look his one-word question elicited from the Thayan. Willem cleared his throat and looked away.

“Is it true?” asked the wizard.

Willem nodded then made himself shrug.

“Then surely he’s left you in charge,” Marek said.

Willem thought about that for a moment then shook his head. He thought he saw Marek’s lips move, and he did something with his hands as though reaching for something in front of him that wasn’t there. Willem blinked sweat from his eyes and his face tingled. He shuddered through a sudden chill and wrapped his hands around his arms.

“Are you all right, Willem?” the Thayan asked, and his voice sounded strange—different somehow.

Willem nodded, even though he didn’t feel well at all.

“Kurtsson?” Marek called over his shoulder. “Aikiko?”

Willem licked his lips and wondered why his teeth didn’t hurt anymore. He puzzled over that so long he didn’t notice that two people entered the room and sat together on a small sofa between he and Marek.

“You’ve been left alone up there,” Marek said. “You need help, don’t you?”

“Yes,” Willem answered without thinking—without being able to think.

“You know Kurtsson.”

Willem felt himself nodding and he looked up at Kurtsson. The Vaasan’s blue eyes were cold, his smile condescending.

“And this is Aikiko. Have you met Aikiko?”

Willem’s head got stuck between a nod and a shake. He didn’t remember the woman, but for a moment he was

distracted by the look of her thin, perpetually squinting eyes and the exotic cast to her skin. Her waist-length hair was as black as a drow’s flesh, and her smile was as condescending as the Vaasan’s.

“The two of them are going to go back with you,” Marek said with a grin.

“We’re to help you,” Kurtsson said.

“Don’t worry about a thing,” said Aikiko.

Willem shook his head, though the movement hurt his neck.

“Surely,” Marek said, his voice taking on a coldness that made Willem’s skin crawl, “you can use the help—with Devorast gone.”

“He-” Willem started.

“He may never come back,” Marek said and Willem couldn’t resist looking the Thayan in the eyes.

“But Ivar…” Willem started again. “Ivar will…”

“We’ll help you,” said the strange-looking woman who might have been a half-elf. “We’re only trying to help.”

“Agree to the arrangement, Willem,” Marek said.

Willem started to nod and tried to stop himself. He caught a glimpse of a self-satisfied grin from Kurtsson that made him say, “I don’t think I can…”

But by the time he got that far he was nodding.

“You’ll let us help you?” Aikiko said.

And Willem nodded.

“Help me,” he whispered.

5Q_

14 Tarsakh, the Year of Lightning Storms (1374 DR) The Canal Site

fristoleph looked at Devorast then at the—whatever it was—then back to Devorast. He didn’t know which sight he found more unsettling.

“What is it?” Devorast said.

Pristoleph had never heard that quality in his voice before—even more clipped, even colder. He looked down at the muddy ground. Bubbles sizzled and popped around the edges of his boots and little tendrils of steam rose into the warm air. The ransar flexed his right hand into a fist and covered it with his left. If he’d touched anyone at that moment the heat from his palm would have raised a blister.

“Answer him,” Pristoleph commanded no one in particular. “Someone speak.”

“Her name is Senator Aikiko,” the alchemist Surero answered. “But it was the Vaasan that’s been overseeing it—every part of it.”

Pristoleph didn’t look at the alchemist but at Devorast.

“Take it down,” Devorast said.

All eyes turned to the stone archway. It rose over the canal trench, which ended only a few yards beyond it.

“Take it down,” Devorast repeated, and the workers that had gathered to see his reaction to the arch began to break up and go on about the business of carrying out Devorast’s orders.

The alchemist and the dwarf glanced at each other, but otherwise didn’t move.

“Senator Aikiko?” Pristoleph asked the both of them. “She has no authority here.”

Surero and Hrothgar stared at him as though he were lying, but the fire in his eyes made them quickly look away.

“She’s a senator,” the alchemist said, addressing Devorast.

“What of it?” Pristoleph demanded.

He stepped forward, advancing on the alchemist, who took one step backward away from him and looked at Devorast to help him. Pristoleph grabbed Surero by the throat and felt the man’s skin crisp under his grip. The dwarf stepped back and squared his shoulders with defiance at the same time.

“What,” Pristoleph sneered into the terrified alchemist’s face, “of it?”

“Pristoleph,” Devorast said. He put a hand on his shoulder, but pulled it away quickly when the genasi’s heat burned him. “Let him go.”

“You heard ‘im,” Hrothgar said. “You let the man go. Ransar or no… you bloody well let ‘im go.”

Pristoleph heard the black firedrakes step up behind him when the dwarf moved closer. The alchemist gasped and Pristoleph released him. Surero fell to the ground in a heap, gingerly touching at the fiery red burn on his neck. The smell of it spiked the air around them.

“Speak,” the ransar ordered. “Speak, the both of you, or I’ll burn you where you stand.”

“It’s a portal,” Surero said, then he stopped to cough and wince in pain.

Pristoleph laughed even though he wasn’t the slightest bit amused. He turned back to the arch and looked up at it. Though it was impressive for its sheer size, there was something about it that felt alien, wrong. Runes had been chiseled into the stones and inlaid with precious metals. Rising above the simple elegance of the straight-cut canal walls it appeared garish.

“You were gone,” the dwarf said.

Pristoleph turned and the dwarf held his gaze, as stern and intractable as the stone he cut.

“I shouldn’t have been away so long,” Devorast said, but the disappointment in his eyes was plain.

The dwarf blushed and that stonelike visage slipped the slightest bit.

“We’ve been gone a few months,” Pristoleph said. “Does he have to be here every day? Does he have to hold your hands? Does he have to cut every stone, and dig every hole?”

Devorast shook his head and the anger came back to the dwarf’s face.

“A few months, eh?” Hrothgar grumbled. “A few months?”

“A few months!” the ransar shouted.

The dwarf stepped forward with clenched fists and so did the two black firedrakes at Pristoleph’s sides.

“You’ve had ‘im away for five an’ a half months,” Hrothgar said. “Five an’ a half months.”

“I will be away or I will be here for as long as I wish, dwarf,” the ransar said. “And in the meantime, my orders will be carried out, and they will be carried out without question.”

“And what were your orders, Ransar?” Surero asked. He looked up from where he sat on the wet, matted grass, and held a shaking hand a few inches from his neck.

“My orders?” Pristoleph replied. “My orders came to you through Ivar Devorast.”

Surero glanced at Devorast but obviously saw nothing there in which he could find solace. He looked back down at the ground and grimaced.

“These senators of yours,” Hrothgar said. “The moment you were gone, they started comin’ outta the stonework. I’m happy to tell them where to get off, but the crew, they see a senator and it gets ‘em all tense an’ twitchy.”

“But Aikiko?” Pristoleph shot back. “What in the name of Azuth’s flaming manhood could she possibly have to contribute to this?”

“Nothing,” said the dwarf. “She’s a mouth-breather if ever one walked under this godsbedamned sun o’ yers. But that Kurtsson—the wizard—I think he ensorcelled enough o’ the men that the others went along just to make it easy on ‘em.”

“We did our best, Ivar,” Surero almost sobbed from where he sat on the ground. “We couldn’t stop them.”

Something in the sound of the alchemist’s voice cooled Pristoleph. He took a deep breath and the ground under his feet no longer boiled.

“Kurtsson,” Pristoleph said. “I know him.”

“He works for the Thayan,” Surero said.

Pristoleph resisted the urge to look back at the black

firedrakes that still flanked him. He couldn’t explain why, but the guards made him uneasy just then. “Rymiit,” Pristoleph said.

The Thayan had always been opposed to the canal—he’d always argued against it. His enclave, which had taken complete control of the trade in magic in every corner of Innarlith, would have profited from the continued practice of moving ships and goods to the Vilhon Reach by magical means—even after the Everwind disaster. But Rymiit had been an ally of Pristoleph’s—had been instrumental in his seizing the mantle of ransar.

He turned to Devorast, who still stared at the arch, and said, “These two were loyal to you, at least.” He paused to sigh. “Loyal….”

“We were gone too long,” Devorast said. “Hrothgar and Surero are right.”

Pristoleph shook his head and wanted to argue, but he couldn’t.

“I still don’t understand…” the ransar said. “Aikiko? What did she do? Did she climb into a carriage, make the trip all the way up here, step out, and just seize control? That simpleton?”

Surero shook his head and looked at Devorast then the ground. It was obvious he was reluctant to speak.

“Hells,” the dwarf grumbled, “if she’d done that, I’d’ve knocked ‘er out myself.”

Pristoleph stared at he dwarf, waiting for more, but the stonecutter looked at Devorast as though waiting for permission to continue.

“Don’t tell me Rymiit himself—” the ransar started.

“No,” Devorast interrupted. “It wasn’t Marek Rymiit.”

Pristoleph turned and was confronted by Devorast’s back. Devorast stared at the gate, and the ransar waited while the man turned to look back down the length of the canal, which was so long it disappeared over the southern horizon. The blue sky hung dense and humid, quiet save for the distant sounds of work gangs.

Ivar Devorast took a deep breath and said, “It was Willem.”

51_^_

16 Tarsakh, the Year of Lightning Storms (1374 DR) The Canal Site

Willem hadn’t moved the tent, as had become customary, to the end of the great trench. He couldn’t see the portal arch from the tent, and the sound of the bursting smokepowder was subdued enough by the distance that he didn’t jump out of his skin every time one went off. And he was far away from the men who looked at him with accusatory glares and grumbled behind his back.

He sat at the drawing table and stared down at one of Ivar Devorast’s drawings, a plan for a section of the canal that would never be built. Overwhelmed by a draining melancholy, all he could do was stare at it. He was thirsty but couldn’t face the complex and draining task of pouring a glass of water from a pitcher that was just out of reach on another table. When the tent flap rustled and someone stepped in, Willem didn’t turn around.

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