Corambis, p.1Sarah Monette
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Ace Books by Sarah Monette
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Copyright © 2009 by Sarah Monette.
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
eISBN : 978-1-101-02896-4
1. Wizards—Fiction. I. Title.
Joan D. Vinge
One by one we walked the labyrinth beneath Summerdown, and one by one we came to the engine, dark and cold, at its heart.
We each carried a lantern, and when we reached the central chamber, we hung them on hooks, spreading light into the corners, so that by the time the last man entered—Dennis Rigby, seventeen, and as devoted to Gerrard as any soldier twice his age—the engine was pitilessly illuminated, all its claws and spurs and strange stained gears.
The light also showed Gerrard, looking better than he had for nearly two indictions, the lines of tension that marked him even in sleep finally eased, his eyes bright and clear and untroubled. He stood beneath one of the lanterns, consulting a sheaf of notes, and when the Margrave of Benallery asked him if he was sure he knew what he was doing, he laughed, as brilliant and warm as a summer’s day, and said, “I know I do the right thing, Walter. Will that hold thee?”
Benallery smiled back—my friend Benallery, who had not smiled since Beneth Castle fell to the Corambins—and Gerrard called across the chamber to Mark and Robert Easton to bring him the blessed knife and candles they had procured, with some difficulty, from the intended in Howrack.
I knelt beside Gerrard as he began copying a chalk diagram from his notes onto the floor and said, as quietly as I could, “Would be happier an the magician-practitioner had come with us.”
He graced me with a smile and said, “I know that, Kay. Didst not tell him so, and loudly?”
“Peace, Kay.” He touched my hand where I braced myself against the floor, and his warmth gathered behind my breastbone. “He hath the right to make his own choices. Thou knowst I have never disagreed with the Corambins about that.”
“I know,” said I. “And I do not begrudge him his—”
Gerrard laughed again, drawing everyone’s attention. “Thou liar,” he said fondly. “Of course thou begrudg’st him his choice. Wouldst force him to walk the labyrinth at swordspoint an I let thee.”
“But thou wilt not,” I said, daring the familiarity, and was rewarded by a moment of Gerrard’s full attention.
“No. I will not. Thou art a soldier, and I honor thee, but it is no victory to force all men to live by soldier’s rules. We must allow others to choose their own lives”—and the twinkle lit his eyes again—“even when we most disdain their impudent folly.”
I could not help laughing. “Yes, my prince,” I said and stood to direct the others into the places indicated by the magician-practitioner’s notes.
Gerrard had discussed his plan with me, with Benallery, with the other men about him whose judgment he trusted as much as their loyalty. Was a desperate undertaking, and so we all said, but Gerrard merely nodded and invited us to propose a better plan, one that would ensure Caloxa’s independence without further loss of life.
We could not, and all of us, whether soldiers or courtiers, had been strategists since the cradle. Caloxa was losing the war; Corambis had more men, better supplies, stronger magic. She was not weakened, as my own Rothmarlin was, by generations of fighting bandits and savages in the mountains. She was not contending with forty indictions of subservience, nor with those who had decided they preferred servitude to freedom. If we were to succeed now, it could not be in direct combat.
Thus, the engine.
How, exactly, Gerrard had learned of it, I knew not. His mother’s family held margravate over the area; perhaps he had been told nursery tales of the beast beneath the down which would waken and save Caloxa in her hour of greatest need. The labyrinth was common knowledge, though no one would walk it. The intended in Howrack told us that the labyrinth was verlain, a word he had most certainly not learned at the Theological College in Wildar. Was an old word, a country word, meaning “forbidden,” meaning “sacred” or sometimes “unclean,” meaning “that which we do not touch.”
Gerrard and I and a magician from Barthas Cross had walked the labyrinth. We had found the beast—the engine. The magician had squeaked and stammered, but in the end he had figured out how to wake it. He had given Gerrard notes, though he was too craven to walk the labyrinth a second time. He professed not to know what the engine would do when woken; Gerrard was not worried. I was, but Gerrard was right that we had no choices left, nothing but this engine between us and despair. Gerrard believed it to be worth the risk, worth the sacrifice that might be asked of him, and I could not doubt him.
We took our positions; Gerrard had allowed me the place at his left hand, to guard him. Dennis Rigby stood to his right, his loyalty and love shining out of him as brightly as any cand
It required blood, and Gerrard gave it blood, his brightness joining the other, darker stains. It required fire, and he gave it fire, dripping the wax from the blessed candles carefully in the places the magician had specified. It required breath, and he gave it breath, stepping fearlessly into the center of the engine’s splayed glory to breathe upon the small shining plate that alone of the rods, the gears, the wires and armatures, was untouched by the tarnishing force of passing indictions. The engine began to hum, a deep boneaching sound, and Gerrard turned his head to smile at me.
I saw his smile, and I wanted, with the sudden pitiless clarity of a lightning bolt, to drag him away—out of the engine’s maw, of the labyrinth’s heart, out of the cold and sleepless dark beneath Summerdown. But even as I opened my mouth to shout to him, it was too late. The engine was awake.
Gerrard was the first to die, impaled from five different directions at once on the engine’s taloned arms; he had no time to scream, not even time to realize the terrible magnitude of his mistake. I would have been the second, except that I was already moving, trying to reach him. A thing like a spider’s leg, jointed and clawed, bristling with thorns of metal and bone, lashed out at the place where I had been standing, but I was at that moment just far enough inside its reach to duck the blow that would have taken my head off as clean as a sword cuts a dandelion stem. I might have been screaming; an I was, I could not hear myself.
Dennis Rigby died instantly. So did Peter Varnham and the Easton brothers. Benallery survived the first cut, but he made the mistake of trying to fight the engine, and the arm disemboweled him on the backstroke.
I could not reach Gerrard. The small shining plate was burning brighter and brighter, and I could not look away from Gerrard’s body, draped around it like a solstice garland. Brighter and brighter, and the arms, dripping blood, were returning to their original positions. Brighter, and Gerrard’s dead eyes were staring at me, all beauty lost in death. Brighter, and I could not reach him.
The light exploded into my head, and the last thing I knew before the darkness was that we had failed.
I knew that river was going to be trouble the moment I laid eyes on it.
The one map we had said it was called the St. Grainne, and if there were any bridges or fords or anything, it didn’t mention ’em. Seeing as how there was only sort of a road, I hadn’t exactly been hopeful, and, well, maybe there had been a bridge once, but there sure as fuck wasn’t now.
I looked sideways at Felix before I could stop myself, but I got lucky and he didn’t notice. Most of the time these days, he didn’t notice nothing, but then sometimes he did, and didn’t matter what it was, I guarantee you I’d done it wrong. And powers and saints, he could skin a turtle with that tongue of his. Now, I mean, I didn’t like that other Felix none, the one that didn’t say nothing and didn’t notice nothing and didn’t care about nothing—he spooked me the fuck out, if you want the truth—but at least he wasn’t trying to make me mad enough to punch him. But it was all one or the other. I could have a statue or I could have a pissed off wolverine, and until Felix got his head out of his ass, those were all the choices I got.
Before you say anything, I’d tried to think of a third choice. I’d laid awake at night trying, going around and around like a grist-mill donkey, and as far as I could see, there just wasn’t one. Talking to him wasn’t no use, because either he was in that horrible dead place where he didn’t see me and didn’t hear me, even if he nodded in all the right places and did what he was told, or he was fucking evil and anything I said—anything—he’d just use to pick a fight. And I couldn’t leave him. Never mind the binding-by-forms, bailing on him would’ve been the same as killing him. He was tearing himself up inside, and I knew it, even if he’d’ve set himself on fire before he admitted it to me. But I couldn’t help with that, not without he let me, so all I could do was stay with him and try to keep him safe and try to help him get to where he thought he had to go.
Now personally, I was pretty sure Lord Stephen wasn’t going to be sending letters or nothing to find out if we’d done what he said and gone to the hocuses in Esmer, and I was furthermore pretty sure that if we just disappeared, he’d be so fucking grateful to be shut of Felix, he wouldn’t ever ask. But Felix didn’t see things that way. The first really big fight we’d had, in this putrid little armpit of a town called Erbeche, about three days north of Mélusine, had been because I’d been fed up with trying to find somebody who’d even heard of Corambis, much less had the first fucking clue about how to get there, and I’d said, why didn’t we just tell Lord Stephen to fuck himself and go to Vusantine or something.
Felix hit the fucking roof.
You would’ve thought—everybody in Erbeche probably did think—I’d said, why didn’t we go find a sheep and take turns fucking it. I can’t even list all the things he said I was accusing him of being, and I really think if he’d thought he could get me to go along with it, he would’ve challenged me to a duel. But I ain’t a gentleman, and duels are just fancy knife fights and just as fucking stupid. It was for sure the last time I made that suggestion, though, even as a joke. He thought he had to go to Esmer, fine. It wasn’t like I had anything better to do. It wasn’t even like I had some better place in mind.
Small favors: from what I could gather, which wasn’t very fucking much, Corambis had been settled, way back in the day, by the same sort of people that settled Vusantine and Mélusine and Castabella Myria, and we’d sound weird to them but not, you know, like we’d come up from the wrong side of the world. We’d probably be better off than we’d been in Skaar even, where they speak this crazy-ass dialect that sounds half Tibernian and half Norvenan, and no matter which half you pick, you’re wrong.
So we went north, and north some more, and you know, I hadn’t even known you could go this far north and not hit the end of the world, but we kept going, and there just kept being more world in front of us. And then there were the mountains. I remembered how back in Ardring, I’d got a mercenary to draw a map for me, along of how the Mirador’s maps weren’t worth the paper and ink they were made with once you got north of Fiddermark in Skaar, and we didn’t have money to get a better one, even if I could’ve found a mapmaker I trusted farther than a cat could sling a carthorse, which I couldn’t. So what I had for a map was what that mercenary with his long braided mustaches had drawn for me on the back of the least awful of the Mirador’s maps, and then additions and corrections from anybody else I met who seemed to have half a fucking clue. “Big fucking mountains,” he’d said about the Perblanches. “You can’t miss ’em.”
And, well, he was right about that.
It’d taken me a couple days even to understand how big they were. I mean, you got to understand, I’d never seen mountains before, although I knew stories about them, bunches of ’em. But I’d always just sort of thought, okay, big hills. And that was wrong. That was completely fucking wrong. The Perblanches were not big hills. They were big fucking mountains, and if I ever met that mercenary again, I was buying him a beer. So we’d got to ’em, and then we’d got over ’em, and now we were coming down the other side, and that was how we’d ended up here with this river and no way across it except the hard way. It wasn’t as wide as the Sim, but it was deep, and the rocks that stuck up and made it look like maybe we could get across were all uneven and not nearly big enough for comfort and even from here you could see they were slippery as fuck. Back in Maugery, the last decent-sized town before the mountains smacked you down on your ass and laughed at you, I’d traded both our horses for a mule. I’d been glad of it more than once, and I was glad of it now. She’d already shown as how she was part cat, and I figured I could trust her to get across without breaking a leg if there was any way in the world it could be done at all. Which was more than I was su
I glanced at Felix again, pushing my luck, but he was staring at the river like he’d never seen one before. He had a thing about deep water, most especially the Sim, and I couldn’t tell if the St. Grainne was flipping him out or if he was even seeing it.
Powers and saints, I hated the fuck out of this.
My heart was going too fast, and my mouth was dry. It took me two tries to get my voice working: “Felix?”
Wherever he was, it was a long ways off. I stood there and watched how much it hurt him to come back. “What is it now?” he said, kind of snarling, like this wasn’t the first time I’d said a word to him all fucking day.
And, you know, all at once I’d had enough. I mean, I was sorry Gideon was dead and I was sorry Felix had gotten exiled and his life had gone to shit, but none of it was my fault. I was doing my best here, even if it wasn’t good enough, and my life was also pretty lousy right at the moment, not that he cared or had even fucking noticed.
“Nothing,” I said, snarling back. “Absolutely fucking nothing. You go on and be as nasty as you like, but I ain’t putting up with it no more. Come on, Rosamund.” And me and the mule started across the river. I didn’t look at Felix because I didn’t want to know. I was done.
About like I’d figured, the mule didn’t have no trouble at all, aside from a couple of rocks that tilted and splashed her, which she didn’t care for. Me, I didn’t have it nearly so good. I’d been doing a lot better with my leg. I was using Jashuki, the cane Rinaldo’d given me, doing like he’d said and remembering I was lame. And okay, maybe I wasn’t going to win no races except against a bunch of other crips, but my leg was stronger. On the other hand, it wasn’t what you might call reliable, and this was exactly the sort of thing I shouldn’t be trying to do with it. There was a point about two-thirds of the way across where I thought I was going to stick fast and that was going to be it.
Corambis by Sarah Monette / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes