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Chapter 56



Rordray's massive dinner fed them all during the next day. Morth didn't eat much. His strength was slow returning even though he had packed something in the second cold iron box. Talisman, he said. Don't look. He reached in from time to time.

That night he slept like a dead man.

The next day he was fizzing with energy. Lilac taught him something of how to guide a bison team, just to keep him occupied. Later he went off with Whitey to hunt. They came back with half a dozen rabbits.

They camped and set the rabbits broiling while there was still light. Morth lifted a clay-capped vessel of wine, the last of what Rordray had packed, and offered it.

Whandall said, "Not for me. Morth, we should know more about what's chasing us. Who hates you that much? Where did they get something that powerful?"

"Oh, that was easy. They just diverted the nearest water sprite and sent it to kill me. It was moving an iceberg-" Morth laughed at their bewilderment. "The wells in Atlantis ran dry a thousand years ago. We used to send elementals south to break off mountains of ice and bring them to Atlantis for fresh water. The southland is all ice and untouched manna, because wizards can't survive there. Elementals gain immense power.

"But that's the real question, isn't it? Why? They were in a rage. They'd been in a rage for nearly a year. We all were."

"Why?"

"The Gift of the King." Morth carefully cracked the clay stopper and drank before he went on.

"We were the lords of magic. Our wealth made us targets for every barbarian who might hear tales of us, and the very land beneath us was trying to return to the sea. Every twenty, thirty years we'd lose a day walk of beachfront. If Atlantis lost the skills of magic, it was all over.

"King Tranimel came to decide that the power of magic has no limit. It's as crazy as thinking a tribe of bandits can steal from each other forever-no offense, Whandall."

Whandall said, "After all, we don't see wealth being made. It just appears, always in somebody else's hands. We only need to gather it."

"You still say we?"

"We Lordkin. It's been a long time. So the King decided... ?"

"If wizards had held Atlantis above the waves for all these years, it must be that we can do anything. The King decided to make everything perfect."

Whandall could hear him grinding his teeth. Then, "Nothing is ever perfect, but Atlantis came closer than any nation on Earth. One day a King of Atlantis would achieve perfection. Tranimel would be that King.

"We wizards learn to use spells that do their work without showy side effects. Spells fail as time passes," Morth said. "A palace doesn't need to rise from the earth in a blaze of light. Better plows and crop rotation make fertility ceremonies more effective. You see? Less gets you more, if you do it right. But magic always looks too easy!

"The King, though willing to admit that water must run downhill, never seemed to understand that it must someday reach the sea. He passed laws that left us no clear avenue to refuse any act of magic that would improve the general well-being.

"Our first act was to give homes to the homeless folk of Atlantis. Thousands of architects, wizards, supervisors from the court, created housing across one whole mountain range: the Gift of the King. They needed everyone. For the first time in my life, I had enough money to live, money even for a few luxuries. I began seeing a girl. Ah."

"Ah?"

"I just realized. It's been thirty years and I just..." Morth blinked, sipped wine, started over.

"Whandall, what the King intended would use the same manna that was keeping us above the waves. To use too much was the doom of Atlantis. It's so simple. How could the best wizards in the land be unable to explain what was wrong with the Gift of the King? I only just realized that we weren't trying very hard. The Gift of the King was employment for everyone. Wizards would get rich, architects would get rich, every court-appointed supervisor had a nephew who needed work."

"You weren't actually one of the best wizards, were you, Morth?"

"What? No. I served the southeast coast fishing industry. The mers catch all the fish; they herd them into nets to be pulled aboard boats. The men bring the fish in and store them; other men distribute them. We're needed to make weather magic and command the elementals, and the spell that floats a ship above the water sometimes needs reworking. It's all spelled out in books a thousand years old. Doesn't pay much. The Kings-men didn't offer a choice, mind, but they offered twice what I was getting.

"Where was I? We built the Gift of the King. Along the north Atlantis loop a few farms drowned, some docks and warehouses slid beneath the water. But the homeless now had homes, more than they could ever use, we thought. And when a homeless person got in some citizen's way, or a thief, he or she was conveyed to the Estates.

"In the Estates a criminal class evolved within, it seemed, hours. Rape, armed theft, extortion, casual murder, all flourished in the shadows and corners. Bad enough, but the people of the Estates didn't stay there! Their hunting grounds expanded to all who lived nearby.

"The King couldn't have that! He ordained that there be light. Whandall, I would have lost my home without these magical projects. Glinda would have left me. I kept my mouth shut. I participated in the spell that caused every outside wall in the Estates to glow."

"Sometimes I have trouble thinking like a kinless," Whandall confessed. "Why did the King think that light would stop a gatherer?"

"Thieves, rapists, killers-Lordkin," said Morth, "don't commit their crimes in daylight if they think they'll be seen and punished. But the King stopped the punishments. He would cause no pain to his subjects. It was part of the Gift of the King.

"The Estates taught them that they did not need darkness to do whatever they wanted. This lesson they practiced the length and breadth of Atlantis, retreating to the Estates before anyone could hamper them.

"The King couldn't have that!"

"Calmly, Morth."

"Sometimes I miss my home." Morth fished the wine flask out of Whitey's hand and drank.

"It's under water, I take it."

"Taken for taxes. The King paid slowly. He couldn't collect taxes fast enough, and of course if we did get paid, some of it went for taxes; we never touched it. The mers used to pay in fish, but at least I got to eat the fish! The King's men who paid us also wanted to tell us how to do our

jobs! And write down everything we'd done in crazy detail! And wait for payment until each and all were satisfied!

"1 was ashamed to see Glinda. With all my heart I wished I'd never taken money from the King! It was too late. We were in thrall. And now the King had another idea.

"We were summoned for one massive, magnificent spell: a compulsion of novice's simplicity, but of huge effect.

"Every violent criminal-not every thief. One courageous wizard rightly pointed out to the King's advisor that no spell can make the subtle, vague distinction between a thief and a tax collector. On a good day, I honor him. On a bad day, I wish that the thieves and tax collectors had all been ensorcelled together."

"You're rambling."

"But that would have been fun." Morth handed the wine flask to Green Stone and drank from the water bucket. "We cast the spell, Whandall. On a morning nine days before the Lifting of Stone, every violent lawbreaker went to the City Guard to make his confession. And on that morning it was as if all Hell had let out for a holiday.

"Every guard station was surrounded. The criminals of the Estates outnumbered the guards forty to one. No natural inclination could have brought them together in any such cooperative venture, but they were here, and there was nothing to drink or eat or steal, but none who would dare interfere with them. The screaming of confessions alone drowned any cry for help. When they had satisfied their compulsion, they did what they felt like ... and their will was to tear down the doors and murder the guards.

"At dawn any pair of guards found themselves surrounded by a score of... of Lordkin who first shouted their crimes in gory, hideous detail, more bragging than confessing. A guard told me that. He escaped by being a better climber than any burglar. By afternoon there was not a living City Guardsman outside the Guard stations themselves.

"The King was very angry with the wizards." Morth picked up the flask of wine with exaggerated care and drank.

"Was that when you left?"

"How could we leave? We had to collect the money the King still owed us. But first we had to correct the ill we had done. The King's men didn't have but the vaguest idea how that might be done, but they'd know it was done when the King showed himself satisfied. Then again, the Lifting of Stone was only six days away, and the Achean navy was preparing an attack-"

"Any Lordkin would have left right then!"

"I did."

"You did?"

"Do I look stupid?"

"Ask me if you look drunk."

"I could see what was coming. We couldn't ever satisfy the King, but any wizard who wasn't seen trying would be axed. Seen trying had to mean something even a King's councilor could see, using manna we couldn't spare. The Lifting of Stone takes manna. The manna would be gone and the wizards would be exhausted. This year the Lifting of Stone just wasn't going to work.

"They'd taken my house and I didn't have anything to save except Glinda. I went to visit; I hinted at what I had in mind. Her brothers threw me out. She didn't stop them.

"I went down to the dock. Finding work was easy; all the other wizards were working for the King. The Water Palace had been sitting in dock for weeks-"

"A ship?"

"Right, one of the old ships that floats above the water. That style can cross land and ride above the big waves, but there are windows and cargo hatches on the underside, so it can't go anywhere at all without the occasional blessing. Over four days I convinced Captain Trumpeter to keep me aboard and get himself gone ahead of the Achean navy. I'd bless the ship at sea. We'd have been gone and free if the Acheans had been a little faster. I was half a world away before I knew what the priests had done to me."

Over many days they all exhausted their fund of stories. Communities were sparse and tiny and the tales they told were local gossip. A few memories stood out:

Farmers roasting a pit-killed mammoth and a harvest of spring vegetables. They were eager to share. By the smell of it, the meat had gone pretty high. Morth told them they were wizards cleansing themselves for a ritual. None could eat meat, except for (at his request) their driver. Watching Whitecap Mountain devour a mammoth kidney, Whandall thought that Puma must be part scavenger.

An elk challenged their wagon. They killed it, then wrestled it into the wagon bed. That afternoon they presented it to a loose cluster of a hundred farmers. By nightfall a meat and vegetable stew was ready to serve. A widow told of her late husband's yearlong duel with what was believed to be a werebear. Lilac traded children's stories with the old wives' clique. Whandall told the tale of Jack Rigenlord and the Port Waluu woman.

It was a long, lazy time for Whandall. Responsibilities were bounded. At one town Whandall was tempted by a woman's offer. Dream of Flying was lovely by firelight, but he pictured Green Stone wondering where his father was sleeping, and then going to ask Lilac ... and he told Dream that his wife was u powerful shaman and u mind reader too. She said that many husbands were sure of that; he agreed; the moment passed. The next morning he learned that offers had been made to each of them. A good place to come back to.

On another night Whitecap Mountain told how the town of Fair Chance came to be deserted... and he found that all of the locals wanted to help him tell it. The tale went to babbling, then became a kind of throw-and-catch game ...

They dug a pit to trap a mammoth.

They dug it well away from the town. No mammoth would come near dwellings, and if it did, there was no telling what damage it would cause.

They dug it big enough to hold such a beast and deep enough that the fall would kill it, and they covered the pit with redwood boughs and went home.

But before dawn they heard monstrous noise and felt the ground shake. When they spilled out to look, Behemoth itself had wedged its foot in the hole!

Houses were falling as the mountainous beast tried to tear loose. It saw the crowd arrayed to look, and it turned and bellowed at them. Its nose reached out and out, a day's walk long, and flung villagers left and right, windward and lee.

They ran in a tumble of falling houses, and they never came back, said Whitey. Two boys went back to look, another said. The company argued about what they found.

These farmers entertained guests rarely. Wizards were rarer still. They pulled Morth's story out of him, of how he had crossed the continent...

"We were safe at sea when the sea roared and sent a wave under the Water Palace's windows. When we reached land there was no shore where men still lived. Making landfall where that monstrous wave had killed so many would not be prudent.

"The Water Palace sailed inland. We traveled for many days and ultimately set down at the town of Neo Wraseln, along a southward-facing shore. We rested less than a day before I stole the Water Palace."

A murmur rose from the farmers. "Gathered," Whandall said.

"No, I saved them all! I saw a wave of mist coming out of the ocean, and perceived an iceberg within the mist, and the elemental within the ice. I ran for the ship. I didn't have time to stop for any of the crew. I took it west to lure the elemental away from the town, then north, inland.

"At least I had someplace to go. In a dream I'd seen a tremendous wave smash the old Attic to rubble and roll onto the land, left and right as far as I could see. I recognized the Attic from the mers' description-"

Whandall said, "You sent word. Rordray told me."

"You'll he thinking I should have guessed the rest? Hut I can't foresee my own paths. The sinking of Atlantis took me completely by surprise. But 1 dreamed where Rordray would settle at Great Hawk Bay, and I sailed there. Ultimately they guided me to the Burning City, where magic doesn't work and a water elemental can't survive."

"And a wizard can't either," Whandall said, but Morth only shrugged.










Chapter 55 | The Burning City | Chapter 57



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