“A man has only three reasons for being anywhere: to right a wrong, to earn a coin, or because he is lost.”
Cassius is not lost...
The mage Cassius has just arrived on the island of Scipio. Five miles of slum on the edge of fifty miles of jungle, Scipio is a lawless haven for criminals, pirates, and exiles. The city is split in two, each half ruled by a corrupt feudal lord. Both of them answer to a mysterious general who lives deep in the jungle with his army, but they still constantly battle for power. If a man knows how to turn their discord to his advantage, he might also turn a profit...
But trained on the Isle of Twelve, Cassius is no ordinary spellcaster, and his goal is not simply money. This is a treacherous island where the native gods are restless and anything can happen…
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.60(w) x 8.10(h) x 1.00(d)|
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"I don't want any trouble."
The barkeep had accepted the coin without thought, but he saw now its worth, saw too that it was caked in dried blood. He held it up in the dim light of the bar and squinted at it, then at the young man in the corner, as though appraising each by the other.
The young man suffered from the comparison. The coin was gold, and the embossed spear on its back marked it as the product of a mint in Curicum, a mining settlement on the mainland. A good, honest mint and known for making coins worth their weight. The barkeep had not seen one of their pieces in years, not a real one anyway.
The young man looked neither good nor honest. He did not weigh much, and his worth was suspect.
He sat with his back to the wall and his hands beneath the table. He was twenty or so, beardless and thin. The folds of his ash-gray cloak swallowed his small frame, a burial shroud draped over a skeleton. He had stooped shoulders and skin the color of whiskey, mud-brown eyes set deep in his head. His dark hair hung just past his ears. At a glance, he could pass for a girl.
"You think it's fake," the young man said.
The barkeep rubbed the coin between the pads of his thumb and forefinger. He chipped away the dried blood with his nail. He bit the coin, and his face grew slack, incredulous, as though he had tasted something unexpected.
"It's good all right. Better than any gold piece I've seen in a long while." The barkeep shuffled back to the table, walking with one hand on his lower back so that his belly seemed to lead him. He flipped the coin onto the table. It landed faceup, displaying the Antiochi eagle. "But I don't have change for it."
"I'll buy a meal, then. A meal for both of us. And drinks. What's left is yours to keep."
"You trying to make a friend, boy?" The barkeep was a heavy man, balding and with olive-hued skin. He had a fleshy face, not fat exactly, but full.
"Consider it a gift." The young man picked up the coin and again offered it to the barkeep. His hand was small and clean. It practically shone in the dim light of the bar. "No good deed goes unrewarded, right?"
"No good deed goes unpunished. That's the saying."
"You don't believe that." The young man held out the coin, insistent.
"We've got fish," the barkeep mumbled. He snatched the coin and tucked it into the pouch at his hip. "Bread from yesterday, too. It's probably stale."
The barkeep fetched a bottle of wine and a pitcher of water. He set out earthenware plates and cups and retired to the kitchen.
The main room of the bar was lit by candles set at each table and by a tall candelabrum near the entrance. A stone hearth was set in one wall, warm embers smoldering where there used to be a fire. A narrow staircase led to the second floor. Past the bar, a door opened into a room that served as pantry and kitchen. The wall behind the young man bore a mural of a wolf cub suckling at the breast of a sleeping woman.
The barkeep returned from the kitchen with a platter of bread and steaming fish. They began to eat.
"My name is Cassius," the young man said.
The barkeep grunted, his face low over his plate, eyes down.
"I don't make a habit of eating with strangers." Cassius sipped from his cup and watched the barkeep as he ate.
"Is that your coy way of asking my name?" the barkeep snapped, without raising his head.
"I didn't think it was so coy."
"A word of advice, boy." The barkeep gripped his fork as though prepared to defend himself with it. "Around here, you mind your fucking business, and others will do the same. That may seem strange to a mainlander like you, but it's our way."
"Is that language necessary?"
The barkeep smiled. "My apologies."
"Why do you assume I'm from the mainland?"
"Your delicate fucking sensibilities for a start. And your carelessness. No one from this island would walk into a bar and throw gold around the way you did. Not if he wanted to live long."
"I can take care of myself," Cassius said.
The barkeep laughed and began to choke from laughing. He sipped his wine.
"I've seen a hundred like you, boy. I know how your story ends."
"Here for a bit of adventure, aren't you? If you're lucky, this ends with you penniless, begging on the docks for passage off this stinking, rotting island. And if you're not lucky . . ." The barkeep waved his fork absently.
"I'm here to work," Cassius said.
"Here to work? Hands me a coin worth more than I make in a month, then tells me he's here to work. Ha! You are a strange one, boy."
"This island is five miles of slum dug into fifty miles of jungle. It's a refuge for people who can't live elsewhere in the Republic. Debtors and criminals and exiles. There's no work here. No work for you anyway."
"Why so eager to warn me off?" A wry smile played at the edges of Cassius's lips.
"What's your angle, boy?" The barkeep held his cup with both hands and stared over its rim. His eyes were small and gray. "Come in here, throw gold at me, then ask after work. I'd think you were a thief, but you're too goddamn soft. Are you a whore?"
Cassius glared at the barkeep. He set down his cup. The barkeep laughed.
"Is that it? I have no problem with your kind. It's not my way, but I know a good business opportunity when I see one. You can have the upstairs room for a cut of your take. We'll make a fortune."
Cassius lifted a pair of worn iron gauntlets from his lap and dropped them onto the table. The gauntlets were lined with supple leather and had thirty jewels dusted over each finger and the dorsum of each hand. The jewels were multicolored, big as pebbles, and when they caught the candlelight, they gleamed like sunrays on the edge of an eclipse.
"I've come for different work."
The barkeep sat back in his chair. He pulled himself up to his full height, as someone might who has come across a bear in the woods and wishes to appear formidable before the beast.
"So you're a killer?"
"That's an unfortunate term," Cassius said.
"Is it accurate?"
Cassius did not answer.
"At least tell me you're good," the barkeep said.
"Good enough to earn that coin in your purse."
The barkeep looked the young man over, then looked back to the gauntlets.
"My name is Lucian," he said, extending his hand.
The street was unpaved, the ground moist from an early-morning rain. CassiusÕs boots sank a half inch with each step, and below this loose mud, the earth was hard-packed and slick.
A sprawl of sagging houses loomed on either side of the street, squat shacks built of fleshy jungle wood. Roofs were a hodgepodge of thatch and tile and weaves of enormous leaves that dripped continuously. Everything wet and rotted. It seemed a stiff wind could flatten it all.
At each doorway they passed, Cassius caught sight of furtive eyes appraising him from the dark. He raised his hood, pulled his cloak tight to hide the gauntlets dangling from a thin chain hooked to his belt.
"We don't see many new faces in this part of town," Lucian said.
"Should I be worried?"
"In Scipio?" Lucian smiled. "Always."
Ahead in the road, two hogs had settled in the deep mud. They rolled and splashed one another, squealed at passersby and stray dogs.
"I'm a trueborn citizen of the Republic," Cassius said. "I won't be intimidated by savages."
"Don't call them savages."
"Because I don't like it." The barkeep spun on Cassius. "This is a province of Antioch. These people are citizens of the Republic, same as me or you. So you call them Natives or Scipians when you're around me. Or you learn their word and use that. All right?"
Cassius did not respond.
"What's their word?"
"The Natives call this place Kambuja or the Khimir Kingdom. They call themselves the Khimir." Lucian spat. "Why don't the young ever know their history?"
"Do you know every outland province and border town on the mainland?"
"I don't live on the mainland. I live here. And I respect my home enough to learn about it."
"I'm sure you'll be quite the teacher."
"Scipio has been part of the Republic for sixty years." Lucian stomped through a dirty puddle, splashing muck and rainwater with each heavy step. "Took the legion ten years to subdue the Natives here. When they finally got a proper city built, those tribes that escaped the early wars returned and burned it to ash. City has a history of that. Rising from ash."
"Are the Natives still a problem?"
"Those in the city are peaceful. Overindulged and complacent, like the rest of us good citizens. We haven't seen the jungle tribes in years. Town's mostly quiet now."
They rounded a corner and continued past the remnants of a burned hut, a charred husk supported by neighboring homes. In the entranceway sat a stiff body, its mouth a bleeding rictus stretched over a swollen tongue. Both its hands had been sawed off and the stumps cauterized. A block of wood hung draped from its neck and on the wood this warning: A THIEF'S DEATH.
"Is that written in blood?" Cassius asked.
"Mind your business."
"Quiet town, you say?"
They made their way down soot-stained alleys and cramped lanes, wading through refuse piles calf high, foul with the scent of piss and offal. Here and there, the barkeep called out the names of roadways or neighborhoods, but to Cassius, everything bled together into one unending slum.
They emerged onto a wide avenue that led to the Grand Market. Here the wild otherness of the native-built shacks and the crushing immensity of tenements gave way to a more structured plan. Common insulae, large buildings of apartment-style housing, familiar from any Antiochi city, fronted paved roads. Made of wood and mudbrick, with a few having poured-concrete facades, they rose four or five stories tall, regulation height for the Republic and much shorter than the rickety tenement buildings Cassius had seen earlier.
They were modest structures although some had flourishes. Arched entranceways, iron-gated gardens, covered terraces, murals of Antiochi gods in bright oils, whose painted eyes followed Cassius as he walked. Two-head Iaunus guarding doorways, the grandfather Taranus with his plow, beautiful Vinalia on her throne of roses.
The market square was a hundred yards across, paved with concrete, and littered with scores of merchant stalls and collapsible tents. Large storefronts bordered the periphery, bearing the names of famous mainland merchants or signs written in Native script. Some bore no signs at all, their goods known only to those who needed to know.
"Impressive, isn't it?" Lucian approached the fountain at the center of the square and seated himself on a low, stone bench. Stagnant rainwater filled the fountain, a drowned rat floating in the muck. Smoke hung thick in the air, a pungent cloud gathered from ovens and hissing grilles and candles burned to deter mosquitoes.
"It's bigger than I expected." Cassius had seen markets before, bigger markets in cities so large that all of Scipio would fit in a single neighborhood. But the bustle of this market, the number of shops and traders, the sheer magnitude of wealth changing hands stood in contrast to the squalor he had witnessed earlier. "Who are these people?"
Hundreds milled about the square. Most were Antiochi, like Lucian. Short, swarthy people, with dark hair, the men garbed mostly in tunics, the women in dresses that had been fashionable in mainland cities years ago.
The native Khimir were generally taller and had broader faces and straight black hair, their skin the tan of aged paper. Most affected Antiochi dress, but some still wore traditional garb, bleached shirts and long shorts for men, bright, simple dresses for women.
Traders from distant lands were common as well, bronze-skinned Fathalan merchants, their ships laden with jewels and spices, ruddy Jutlund sellswords, with great red beards and bottomless appetites for drink and violence, pale Murondian reavers, with waxed mustaches who spoke of chivalry and fancied themselves noble corsairs in service to their kingdom instead of the common pirates they truly were.
"Smugglers mostly," Lucian said. "And not just small operators. The huge mainland crime syndicates trade here, the unions and collegia of the Republic, Fathalan flesh merchants, the junk fleets of the Silk Sea. Anyone and everyone in pursuit of dishonest coin."
"Why here?" Cassius wiped his damp brow with a damp hand.
"Scipio is close to the mainland, so it's convenient for trade. And the people in charge here welcome the business. There's no threat of getting caught or punished. You can sell illegal goods in the open. Hashish, opium, goods without tariffs, magical texts. It's all fair game."
"With that sort of money changing hands, why is Scipio such . . ."
"A goddamned pit?" Lucian offered. "These people don't leave their money here unless they lose it at dice. Or to wine or whores. They take their money home. And Scipio is home to none of them."
Two main avenues fed the marketplace, one from the north and one from the south. At the south avenue entrance rose an open-air temple to the Antiochi god of commerce Mirqurios, set on a low podium atop a flight of steps. As Cassius watched, priests in ceremonial togas of deep orange dragged an ox into the portico. Supported by four stone columns coated in stucco, the portico would have seemed natural in any Antiochi city but stood out here. The creature, already bleeding from a neck wound, staggered drunkenly and lowed and stomped and snorted at its tormentors to no avail.
In the west end of the square, a large statue of a nude Khimir woman loomed over the marketplace, most likely a representation of some Native goddess that early Antiochi settlers had tried to appropriate into their own pantheon. Behind this rose the council hall, atop which perched a massive, gold-plated eagle. Twoscore legionnaires stood watch at the base of its steps under the eagle's gaze, geared in crimson tunics, burnished-steel cuirasses, and wide-brimmed helmets.
"Is that where the legion is stationed?" Cassius nodded toward the hall.
"Their fort is a mile outside the city walls," Lucian said. "But they guard the hall still."