An island nation has vanished. Men of honor and magic have died unnatural deaths. Slaves flee in terror. . . . Are the silent gods beginning to speak? Or is another force at work in the Lands Vin?
Laura Anne Gilman’s critically acclaimed, Nebula Award–nominated Flesh and Fire introduced a brilliantly imagined world where the grapevine—cultivated by the Vinearts who know the secrets of wine magic—holds together disparate lands. Now, confusion, violence, and terror are sweeping over the Lands Vin. And four people are at the center of a storm.
Jerzy, Vineart apprentice and former slave, was sent by his master to investigate strange happenings—and found himself the target of betrayal. Now he must set out on his own journey, to find the source of the foul taint that threatens to destroy everything he holds dear. By Jerzy’s side are Ao, who lives for commerce and the art of the deal; Mahault, stoic and wise, risking death in flight from her homeland; and Kaïnam, once Named-Heir of an island principality, whose father has fallen into a magic-tangled madness that endangers them all.
These four companions will travel far from the earth and the soul of the vine, sailing along coastlines aflame with fear, confronting sea creatures summoned by darkness, and following winds imbued with malice. Their journey will take them to the very limits of the Sin Washer’s reach . . . and into a battle for the soul of the Lands Vin. For two millennia the Sin Washer’s Commandment has kept these lands in order: Those of magic shall hold no power over men and those princes of power shall hold no magic. Now, that law has given way. And a hidden force seeks the havoc of revenge.
An adventure through an unforgettable realm conjured by breathtaking imagination, Laura Anne Gilman’s saga of the Vineart War is a dramatic, authentic, and potent (Publishers Weekly) literary delight.
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September 30, 2010
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Excerpt from Weight of Stone by Laura Anne Gilman
THE WESTERN SEA
Jerzy of the House of Malech, Vineart-student and currently accused apostate under the mark of death, heaved his guts over the side of the ship and wished, not for the first time, that a wave would simply sweep him over the side and be done with it.
"Beautiful day, isn't it?"
Ao had come up behind him while Jerzy was losing what was left of his previous evening's dinner, and was standing by the railing, glancing out over the calm blue waters. The trader was barefoot and shirtless, his straight black hair slicked away from his round face, emphasizing the narrow, heavy-lidded eyes that, even when things were going badly, held some inner amusement--often, as this morning, at Jerzy's expense.
Above him, the wind snapped the canvas sails and rattled the main. The air was sweet and salty; large white birds sailed overhead, calling out in harsh, high voices as they searched for breakfast in the waters below; and the sun was only just rising, turning the briny blue-green depths into a brighter aquamarine.
Jerzy would have traded it all for a miserably rainy day in the dankest room anywhere on solid land.
"I hate you," he said, leaning against the wooden railing and wishing that his limbs would stop shaking already.
Ao laughed, but there was real sympathy in his voice. "No, you don't," he said. "Here." The trader handed him a towel to wipe his mouth. The cloth was scratchy linen, air-dried and smelling of mildew and sea spray, but Jerzy barely noticed at this point. They had been at sea for ten days now, and he had been sick every single morning.
Jerzy pushed a sweat-damp lock of hair off his forehead and mopped his skin with the towel, then looked up at the dun-colored sail snapping in the breeze above them. The creaking, slapping noise still sounded dangerous to him, but he freely admitted that he knew nothing about boats or sailing, leaving that to Ao and the third member of their party who was currently at the helm, steering them through the waters.
The thought of her made him look over his shoulder to where Mahault stood tall and proud at the wheel, her attention on the far horizon, where water seemed to merge into sky without a single obstacle to mar the view.
Her blond hair was no longer caught up in the formal, complicated knot she had worn as the daughter of the lord-maiar of Aleppan, but was instead braided into a thick plait, hanging halfway down her back. The time under the open skies had bleached it from deep gold to the color of straw, and darkened her smooth skin to a pale brown, almost exactly the color of tai, the bark brew popular back home. Her lady-mother would have been outraged to see her daughter looking so much like a common sailor.
The fact that Mahault seemed happier now, free and browned, than she had been the entire time he had known her in Aleppan, took away some of the regret Jerzy felt at his involvement in her exile.
The thought made him grimace. Mahault would have glared at him if she knew he was taking any responsibility at all for her actions--she had made the decision to leave on her own; in fact, she had used their rescue of him to make her own escape. An exile, yes, but a chosen one, against worse options.
And at that, she was faring better than he--not only was he a poor sailor, but his skin pinked under the sun, burning at the bend of his arms and back of his neck unless he kept them covered. Ao assured him that the skin would darken over time, adapting to the different weather, but Jerzy didn't want to spend enough time here to discover the truth of that. He wanted to go home.
Unfortunately, that was the one place he could not go.
Eleven days ago they had fled the city of Aleppan, barely one step ahead of Washers who named Jerzy apostate, oath-breaker, saying that he had broken Sin Washer's Commandment forbidding one Vineart from interfering with the vines of another.
It was a crime punishable by death.
Jerzy was not guilty of that crime, but he was not innocent, either.
Master Vineart Malech, Jerzy's master and teacher, had sent him to Aleppan under the guise of studying with Vineart Giordan--itself an unheard-of breach in tradition--to listen, in that city of trade and gossip, for further news of recent, disturbing events: magic-crafted serpents attacking shoreline villages, strange disappearances of Vinearts, out-of-season vine infestations, and more they had not yet heard about.
Instead, Jerzy had discovered that the strange happenings went deeper than Master Malech could have dreamed, attacking not only Vinearts and villagers, but men of power as well. While trying to investigate, he had been caught up in lines of deceit and magic entangling the lord-maiar, Mahault's father, and turning Aleppan into a deadly trap for both Jerzy and Vineart Giordan.
Ao and Mahault had risked everything to help Jerzy escape, fleeing the city on horseback with only what Mahault had had time to throw into packs, and no idea where they would go or what they could do.
Unable to contact his master, with not only his own survival but his companions' to consider as well, Jerzy had decided to go to the one place where he could not be easily tracked: open water. As a member of the Eastern Wind trading clan, however junior, Ao had been able to barter their two horses and Mahault's jewelry for this ship. It was seaworthy but small, and not meant to be taken out of sight of the shoreline.
Given a choice, Jerzy would never have willingly set foot on another boat, after his terrible sickness on the way from his home in The Berengia to Aleppan. The risk of illness was welcome, compared to the options: if they stayed on the shore, they would have been retaken, he would have been killed, and Ao and Mahault ... he did not know what would happen to them, but it would not have been good.
The three of them had agreed that until they determined how far the search for them had spread, it was safer here on the empty waters, where they could see any pursuit coming. Their supplies were limited, though, and they needed to replenish their fresh water or they would die of thirst, surrounded by seemingly endless blue waves.
Jerzy felt the responsibility for their situation keenly; it was his fault, his failure that had brought them to this. He had promised to give his companions a chance to recoup the losses incurred when they linked their fates to his ... but he had no idea how to do that. More, he could not allow that promise to become his foremost priority. He was Jerzy of the House Malech; his first and only obligation was to warn his master of what he had learned in Aleppan.
But Jerzy had no way to contact Master Malech; the enspelled mirror he was meant to use had been broken when he was arrested, and he had neither messenger birds for the sending nor knowledge of a decantation that would cast his voice into his master's ear, even if he had access to the proper spellwine.
He had no spellwine at all.
"Mahl says we should be able to see the shores of the next island by midday," Ao said. "The map shows a village there, large enough for us to find what we need, without standing out so obviously as strangers. We can bargain for supplies there, restock, and listen for news."
Ao barely seemed to notice the sun's intensity, the copper highlights of his skin merely darkening to bronze. More annoying to Jerzy, the trader's natural enthusiasm, high already, increased dramatically at the thought of new people to bargain with.
Jerzy changed his mind. He didn't want to go overboard; he wanted to throw Ao overboard.
Unaware of his friend's emotions, or simply ignoring them, Ao clapped him on the shoulder. "And once we discover what is what, my friend, we will be able to solve our little dilemma, and return us all home, covered in glory."
Home. The thought gave Jerzy an unexpected pain in his chest, like a hollow ache. Home to The Berengia. Sloping hills and low stone walls, the welcoming smell of warm earth and fruit ripening on the vine.
Home, now forbidden him, thanks to the tangled plots of Washer Darian and Sar Anton, who claimed to have caught him in the act of stealing Vineart Giordan's vines, and the betrayal of Giordan himself.
Jerzy could not find it in himself to blame Giordan, who had thrown Jerzy to judgment in order to save himself. Holding anger at what served no purpose; that Harvest was done, and Giordan had suffered for it, was likely dead now, for his efforts. Jerzy had Ao and Mahault to concern himself with now, and the mission that his master had set him upon.
Even now, Jerzy did not know if Sar Anton, the man who had accused both Jerzy and Giordan of breaking Sin Washer's Command, was part of the greater taint, or merely using the unsettled situation there to advance his own political purposes.
Jerzy's mission was to bring what he knew to Master Malech. Simple enough--except that the moment he went home, the Washers would take him and possibly his master as well. If that were to happen, all hope of defending themselves against the true threat would be lost.
"As simple as that?" he asked Ao, returning to the matter at hand. "Sail in, ask a few questions, discover the answer?" Jerzy had tried that in Aleppan, and even with Ao's help, it had not turned out well, leaving them with more questions and no answers. "Even if we did discover who set all this in motion, I can't see the Washers admitting that they were wrong, can you?" Jerzy had learned some of politics, in Aleppan.
The trader didn't hesitate, shaking his head ruefully. "No. Not without proof they could not ignore, and maybe not even then." The brotherhood was secure in their mission: they were Sin Washer's heirs and keepers of the Commands, the living barrier standing between power and abuse.
Once, Jerzy would have agreed with their role without thinking. Now ... he found himself thinking, and mostly it gave him a headache. Thinking left them here, hiding on open water, unable to return, unsure of where to go.
It was, Jerzy had quickly discovered, easier to announce he would come up with a plan than it was actually to come up with one.
"Ha, Jerzy, Ao!" Mahault turned just then and waved, beckoning them to join her. Walking was easier now than during his first few days, the slide of the boat on the waves and wind barely noticeable, although he kept a constant hand on the rope lines Ao had strung along the length of the boat for him to use. Mahl and Ao might dash from one side to the other like birds flitting among their birth branches, but he trusted this boat, and the sea itself, not at all. Not even when one of the sleek gray spinners that followed in their wake in the evening leaped into the air and then slid back into the waters as clearly as a hoe cut soil, or when the sun passed out of sight in the evening, leaving sparkles of red and gold in the sky and reflecting off the water. It was beautiful, but it was not his.
Jerzy wanted his feet flat in the warm earth again. But for now, it was safer here, on the featureless surface of the sea, where, even if he could not reach his master, neither could spells and searchers find them.
Time. It was both their ally and their enemy, but in either case, it was running out.
"So, where is this island you promised us?" he asked Mahault, squinting at the horizon but not seeing anything save more seemingly endless waves and large-bodied birds soaring overhead.
Unlike Ao, Mahault had patience with him. "There, do you see?"
Jerzy looked again, but all he saw was a hazy smudge in the distance. "There?"
Mahl nodded, her hands working the wheel that controlled the ship without hesitation. Her father ruled an inland city, but she claimed that she had learned to handle a ship during one of her father's state visits to the smaller towns along the Corguruth coast. Before he turned inward, seeing threat and plot behind every member of the Aleppan Court, and his own family. Before the magic-tainted aide had whispered in his ear and poisoned his thoughts, and shut his ears to reason.
Mahault had her own reasons to hate the source behind all this, and wish it destroyed.
"By dusk we'll be there," Mahault reassured him, seeing only the worried crease between his brows. "If the maps are correct, there's a small village where we can take on more fresh water."
"And check for news," Ao said.
She nodded, her gaze returning to the horizon. Ao was a known harvest: he was there for the adventure, the chance to discover something new to reclaim his status within his clan. But Jerzy could not grasp Mahault's reasoning; she was a maiar's daughter, born to wealth, who had dreamed of joining the solitaires, the women soldiers, until her father forbade it. She had helped Jerzy for her own reasons, but in exile, she had neither name nor wealth to recommend her to the solitaires. He wondered what she thought when she woke each morning, and remembered. If she hated him for it, or resented their journey, she gave no sign. He did not know how long her loyalty would last, or how far she might go. He could not rely on her ... and yet he had no choice.
"You're steering too hard starboard," Ao said suddenly.
Mahl frowned and glared at him. "No, I'm not."
"Yes, you are, I can feel it."
Jerzy took a step back, away from the argument. Ao claimed to have spent half his life on one sort of ship or another, and the two of them had been squabbling over who should be captain since first setting foot on the ship, neither admitting the other had any skill whatsoever.
The two had been like this since their first meeting, as often hissing and spitting like cats and then laughing as though there had never been a quarrel at all. Like politics and sailing, Jerzy did not understand it. This world beyond the walls of the vintnery, outside the reach of his master's hand, was often too confusing, and he could feel the headache press within his skull once again.
Leaving them to their exchange of insults, Jerzy went forward to the very front of the ship, as far away from their voices as he could get, wrapping his fingers firmly around the knotted rope there. It was, Jerzy admitted as the sunlight caught on the polished wooden planks and the copper fittings, a pretty little ship. Originally made in Seicea for the meme-couriers, meant to carry a member of the Messenger Guild to his destination as swiftly as possible with a minimum of fuss, it could be managed--if barely--by a small crew. Acquiring this one thirdhand had been a stroke of luck on Ao's part, although he would doubtless insist it merely good trading.
The problem was they couldn't stay here forever, dodging from one tiny island to another, avoiding all other people for fear of being discovered and taken back to Aleppan, and the charges facing Jerzy.
The charges--and the danger.
His throat dry, Jerzy reached for the palm-sized waterskin hanging at his belt and swallowed a scarce mouthful of tepid water, aware of how little they had left; the flat, stale taste triggered a memory he would gladly have forgotten.
Soil. Stone. Pulp and juice ... but something more. Something darker, more dire. Heavy and weightless, smooth and slick, and the very touch of it even in this no-space made Jerzy's flesh crawl and his heart sorrow.
The taint he had discovered in Aleppan, in the halls and minds of men of power, corrupting their hearts with fear and distrust. The same taint he and Master Malech had discovered in the flesh of the sea serpents that harrowed the shores of The Berengia, and left a wasting melancholia in their wake.
They had no proof it had been in Aleppan, though, save Jerzy's own magic-sense--and the accusation of apostasy ensured that no one would believe him save Master Malech. His master would know how to proceed, but if Jerzy returned home without proof to clear his name, the Washers would take them both.
And Jerzy's muddled thoughts were back where he had started, trapped on this gods-forsaken sea.
It tangled him up inside, trying to determine what to do. Little over a year ago he had been a slave, doing as he was ordered, knowing nothing beyond the confines of the yard. All that had changed when Master Malech took him as student, and Jerzy could no longer imagine a life other than this, but recent events were beyond his ability to manage. He was lost, more confused than he had ever been, more troubled than he could remember. Even as a new-taken slave, he had known what was expected of him, how he was to behave, how to survive.
The waters that protected him from discovery likewise kept him from advice. Vineart Malech was not here to tell him what was best, what was wise. The Guardian, the stone dragon who protected the House of Malech, and had prompted him before, no longer whispered in his ear.
Jerzy alone had to decide--and where he decided, Ao and Mahault would follow. The weight of that was an additional burden Jerzy did not want.
Still. Nether Ao nor Mahault were slaves. They had seen the wrongness in Aleppan for themselves, believed enough to follow not for friendship, but survival, to root out the cause and bring it to light. That made the pressure of their company easier for Jerzy to bear. A slave did not have friends. A Vineart did not have companions. He did not know what to do with either. Easier, clearer, to look at them as having their own goals to achieve, that had nothing to do with him.
But they expected him to have a plan.
With that thought in mind, Jerzy stared up into the sky, at the wings of a seabird soaring far above them, and tried to reach the Guardian's stone-heavy presence with his thoughts, once again.
And, as every time he had tried before, silence--failure--was his reward. The Guardian might be able to reach him, but it did not seem to work in reverse, and either the stone dragon was not looking for him, or whatever magic animated it could not stretch this far, over so much spell-diluting water.
Finally, Jerzy gave up, and heard, over the ever-present sound of the waves sliding against the sleek hull, and the creak of the sails, the sound of Ao and Mahault still arguing.
No, not arguing. Quieter, more determined.
"It's my shift. Go."
"Go." Ao's voice sounded amused, not annoyed. "You lost the toss, you get to tell him."
Jerzy figured they were going to change the watch schedule around again. He wasn't insulted; if they could spare him from having anything to do with the ship's handling, they would, and he would have been grateful. But someone had to keep a hand on the wheel, and they were already stretched too thin, with only the three of them.
He could hear Mahault's gentle steps coming up behind him, for all that she moved like a cat on grass. Back when they had first met, the maiar's daughter had been clothed in simple but elegant dresses, her hair coiled neatly, her expression and voice quietly composed, as befitted her position in the world. Now he looked sideways and saw a tall, lean figure dressed in a man's rough brown tunic, the sleeves cut away so her arms could move freely, and an equally drab brown skirt that failed to decently cover her bare ankles. She, like Jerzy, was barefoot, and her toes flexed and curled against the wooden planks as she walked.
They were an odd crew, the three of them--noblewoman, trader, and Vineart-student. Apostate, and fugitives by choice. Jerzy still did not understand the comfort he found in their presence, but he was thankful for it.
Mahault stood next to him, watching the prow cut through the waves. He waited for her to collect her thoughts, for this one moment at peace.
"Ao and I, we think ...," she said finally, in the tone of voice he was learning to recognize, the one that said she didn't like what she was saying but had to say it anyway, because if she didn't nobody else would. "We think that you should stay on the ship when we go in for supplies. If someone sees you ..."
It made sense. He was hardly memorable--taller than Ao, shorter than Mahault, with a sturdy build more suited to a horseman than a farmer--but the shaggy red hair and pale skin would make him easy to identify among the darker-skinned folk Ao said were common in the southern islands. Mahl's golden hair would stand out, but the Washers should not be looking for a woman, and Ao was of a trader clan, and so had reason to be in strange lands.
No, if word had made it here from Aleppan, they would be looking for a male his age, with dark red hair and brows not even a hat could hide. It was doubtful word had spread this way--that was why they had come south, not gone directly north toward The Berengia--but it was a risk they could not take.
"It's all right. I'm fine. I'll guard the ship."
Mahl's posture eased a little with his acceptance. "Truth, having a Vineart onboard should be a useful deterrent. No would-be shipwraith would be foolish enough to attack, once you announced yourself."
Jerzy let her think that. The truth was that, although he had been able to start fire to warm them on their flight, and keep their ship lights lit, he was too young, too green to have much more magic than that. He had no spellwines to decant, and the quiet-magic in his veins was barely a whisper, fading faster the longer he was away from the touch of the vines.
He was near-useless.
As though hearing his thoughts, Mahault reached out to touch his arm. "How are you doing, in truth? I mean, I've never heard of a Vineart going to sea, and you're always sick...."
Jerzy bent forward, away from her touch, resting his hands against the railing, and wished, again, for the waves to take him overboard. "Ao would have believed me when I said I was fine."
Mahault made an indelicate noise that would have horrified her lady-mother. "Ao wants to believe you're fine. He also doesn't know a thing about Vinearts, or magic. I lived with Giordan in my father's house long enough ... and I pay attention."
True enough. The trader folk didn't use spellwines, and they drank the dark ale or the hot spirits of Caul rather than vin ordinaire to ease a long day. When Jerzy had created fire for them on the trail, when he eased their sore muscles, or illuminated their night shifts ... Ao in his ignorance took it for granted that a Vineart could do these things, even without a spellwine at hand.
But it wasn't that simple. Anyone could work a spellwine, if it was properly incanted. That was the basis of magic: the Vineart incanted the spell onto the vin magica, allowing anyone who knew the decantation to release the magic on command.