by David Anthony Durham
The assassin left the stronghold of Mein Tahalian by the great front gate, riding through a crack in the armored pine beams just wide enough to let him slip out. He departed at sunrise, dressed much as any soldier of the Mein. He wore a cloak of elk fur that wrapped his body completely. It even covered his legs and gave warmth to the large-hoofed mount beneath him. Over his torso he wore a breastplate of double thickness: two sheaves of iron pounded to the contours of his body, with a layer of otter fur pressed beneath them. He moved south through a snowy land frozen into gelid brilliance.
The winter was so bitterly cold that for the first few days the man's breath crystallized as it escaped his lips. The vapor formed a strange protuberance around his mouth, making the passage into it a cavelike channel. Knots of ice dangled from his beard, brushing against each other like glass chimes. He met few people, even when he passed through settlements of low, domed shelters. He saw the prints of white foxes and hares in the snow but rarely the creatures themselves. Once a snow cat paused to watch his progress from atop a boulder, its gaze one of indecision, considering whether he ought to flee the rider or pursue him. In the end he did neither, and the man put the beast to his back.
On one occasion he crested a rise and looked out upon a plain teeming with reindeer. It was sight almost unseen since distant times. At first he thought he might have wandered upon a gathering from the spirit world. Then he smelled the musty stink of the animals. This broke the mood of mystery. He rode down into them, taking joy in the way the herd peeled away from him, the sound of their hooves a rumble he felt inside his chest.
If Mein lands had been their own, he might have hunted these creatures as his ancestors had. But his wish did not change the reality. The race of people called the Mein, the high northern plateau of the same name, the great fortress of Tahalian, the royal line of men who should rule the territory without interference, all had been servants to Acacia for the last five hundred years. They had been defeated, massacred in great numbers, and since overseen by foreign governors. They had been taxed unfairly and robbed of fighting men, many of whom were sent to serve in the Acacian military in distant lands far from home, out of the hearing of their ancestors. This, at least, was how the rider saw it—as an injustice that should not go on forever.
Twice in the first week he cut away from the main road to avoid Northern Guard checkpoints. His papers were in order. In all likelihood he would not have been delayed, but he had no trust in Acacians and abhorred the notion of even feigning acknowledgment of their authority. Each looping excursion brought him closer to the Black Mountains that paralleled his route. Their peaks jutted up out of the snow like enormous flakes of obsidian that had been chipped to razor sharpness. If old tales were to be believed, the summits were the points of spearheads slammed up through the roof of their world by the race of angry giants whose own land lay beneath the earth's skin.
After ten days of riding, he reached the edge of the Methalian Rim, the southern boundary of the Mein. He paused a moment to look down at the fertile woodlands three thousand feet below, aware that he would never again breathe the high country air. He slipped the headgear from his mount and dropped it where he stood. He chose a looser rein arrangement that bore no trace of his origins. Though it was still chilly and the land dusted with frost, he unfastened his cloak and tossed it to the ground. He drew out a dagger and slit the leather band that secured his helmet. He hurled the dome into the bushes and shook out his hair. Loosed from the confines of pounded metal, it whipped out as if in joy at the newfound freedom, long and brown. His hair was one of the features that had prompted him to take this assignment on. It bore little resemblance to the brittle straw coloration of most of the Mein race and had always embarrassed him.
After putting on a cotton shirt to disguise his breastplate, the horseman and his mount descended from the heights. They rode a switchback trail that spilled out onto a terrain of an altogether different sort, a temperate forest of hardwood trees, dotted with the small woodland settlements that made up the northern extent of the lands administered directly from Alecia, the bureaucratic seat of the Acacian government.
As his mastery of the empire's tongue was loathsome to him he rarely spoke to anybody, except on the occasions that he had no choice. When he sold his horse to a trader at the southern edge of the woodlands he growled into the back of his hand, mumbling and gruff. He accepted in payment coins of the realm, clothes that would not attract attention, and a sturdy pair of leather boots, as he would walk the rest of the way to the shore. Thus he was transformed again.
He followed the main road to the south, a large sack slung over his shoulder. It bulged here and there with the items he would yet need. He passed the nights huddled in depressions at the edge of farms or in patches of woodland. Though the people around him believed the land to be gripped by winter, to him it was more like a Tahalian summer, warm enough that he found himself sweating.
Not far from the port of Alecia he discarded his garb once more. He peeled off his breastplate, sunk it beneath stones in a riverbed, and took up a cloak that had been sewn in the cold chambers of the Mein, hoping that it would pass for authentic. With it draped across his shoulders he appeared to be one of the Vadayan. Though an ancient order, the Vadayan were no longer the functioning religious sect they had once been. They were scholars who studied and preserved the old lore under the ceremonial direction of the priestess of Vada. They were a closemouthed group, disdainful of the workings of the empire. As such, it would not appear odd that he had few words for those around him.
To complete his appearance, the man shaved the sides of his head and bound the long hair at the top of his skull up into one tight knot wrapped in thin strips of leather. The skin at either side of his head was as pale and pink as pig flesh. He rubbed a tanning agent used to stain wood into it. Once completed, none but the keenest of eyes would have taken him for anything other than the scholar he pretended to be.
Though he wore these various guises with composure, he was in truth none of the things he passed for. His name was Thasren Mein. He was born of noble blood, son of the late Heberen Mein. He was the younger brother of Hanish, the rightful chieftain of the tribes of the Mein Plateau, and of Maeander, head of the Punisari, the elite guard force and proud heart of his people's martial tradition. It was a lineage to be proud of, but he'd set all else aside to become an assassin. For the first time his existence truly made sense to him. He had never been more focused than he was now, more complete in himself, charged with a mission he had sworn his life to. How many walking the earth know exactly why they breathe and understand exactly what they must do before passing into the afterdeath? How fortunate he was.
From aboard a transport boat, he watched the isle of Acacia push out of the pale green sea in a knotted jumble of rock. It was innocent enough at a distance. The island's highest point was at the southern end. In the center, the hilly farmland and ridges dropped somewhat, but rose again into the series of plateaus that generations of settlement had carved into a land fit to house the palace. Acacia trees stood as dark as the black-skinned Talayans of the south, wearing great crests of plumage, dotted here and there with white blossoms. Despite the great twisting length of the island's coastline relatively little of it was easily accessible; beaches and ports were few.
Sailing past the port's protective towers Thasren saw a flag of the empire, hanging limp from lack of breeze. He knew from the colors what he would see if it had stood out: a yellow sun inside a red-bordered square, at the center a black silhouette of the tree that gave this island its name. Every child of the Known World recognized the emblem, no matter how far distant their place of birth. The assassin had to check his desire to clear the phlegm from his throat and spit in contempt.
He climbed from the boat to the main dock in a rush of other passengers, merchants and laborers, women and children, all leaping the gap above the crystal-clear water like herd animals. There were a few other Vadayan among them, but Thasren avoided eye contact with them. Standing on the solid stone of the dock as his fellow passengers moved around him, he understood that he was about to step into the mouth of the enemy. If any person around him now found out his name or could divine his thoughts, he would become the target of every dagger, sword, and spear on the island. He waited a moment longer than he intended, surprised that nobody condemned him. Nobody shouted warnings or even paused to study him.
He took in the great wall of a pinkish stone with cold eyes. Beyond it, spires and towers and domes jutted up into the air, many of these painted dark blue or a somber red or a brown with a rusty quality, some gilded and twinkling in the sunlight. The structures rose terraced level by level with the steepness of a sheer mountain. It was beautiful to behold; even he could acknowledge that much. It was nothing like the low, brooding presence of the assassin's home. Tahalian was built with massive beams of fir wood, half dug into the ground as protection from the cold, undecorated because so much of the year it was drowned in winter darkness, with snow piled high on every flat surface. The difference between the two was hard to square, and so Thasren shook off thought of it.
He strolled toward the gates of the lower town. It might take some time, but he would find his way deep into the city, taking on whatever guises he needed until he gained entry to the palace itself. There he would answer the question put casually by his second brother just a month before. If they wished to kill a beast with many arms, Maeander had said, why not cut off the head to start with? Then they could deal with the limbs and body as the creature stumbled around sightless, without leadership. The assassin had only to get near enough to this head and to wait for the proper moment to strike it and to do it in public, so that word of the act would spread like a contagion from one mouth to another.
To help her through the slow tedium of the morning tutorial Mena Akaran always sat in exactly the same spot, on a tuft of grass behind her siblings. She had just turned twelve and from this vantage point she could see through a missing tooth in the stone balustrade that hemmed in the courtyard. It framed a scene that began with the many-layered terraces of the palace. It dropped through a stretch of space beyond the town's western wall, then gave way to the swelling ranks of the cultivated hills. The farthest rise of land was the highest: the far promontory known as Haven's Rock. She had been there with her father and remembered the foul smelling, cacophonous seabird life of the place, with head-dizzying views that dropped a craggy, fifteen hundred feet straight into the foaming swells.
Sitting in the high, open-air classroom in which the king's children met with their tutor, Mena's thoughts would drift off. This morning she imagined herself a gull pushing free of the rock face. She hurtled down and shot out over the surface of the water. She darted between the sails of fishermen's vessels and out over the trading barges that floated the sea on the circular currents that moved them from one place to another. She left these behind and the waves grew steeper. The turquoise water deepened to blue and then to seal-black. She flew past the shoals of sparkling anchovies and out over the backs of whales, seeking the unknown things that she knew would eventually emerge from the whitecapped edge of the horizonÉ
"Mena? Are you with us, Princess?" Jason, the royal tutor, and both her brothers and her sister were all staring at her. The children sat on the damp grass. Jason stood before them, poised with an old volume in one hand, his other one resting on his hip. "Did you hear the question?"
"Of course she did not hear the question," Aliver said. At sixteen he was the eldest of the king's children, the heir apparent to the throne. He had recently shot upward past his father's height, and his voice had changed. His expression was one of interminable boredom, an illness that struck him about a year ago and had yet to release him. "She was thinking about fish again. Or about porpoises."
"Neither fish nor porpoises have bearing on the topic we're discussing," Jason said. "So I'll repeat: Whom did the founder of the Akaran dynasty unseat at Galaral?"
That was the question she missed? Anybody could answer that! Mena hated responding to simple questions. She found pleasure in knowledge only when she stood out from others. Dariel, her younger brother, knew who the first king was and what he had done, and he was only nine. She held out for as long as she could, but when Aliver opened his mouth with some jibe, she spoke quickly.
"Edifus was the founder. He was born into suffering and darkness in the Lakes, but he prevailed in a bloody war that engulfed the whole world. He met the Untrue King Tathe at Galaral and crushed his forces with the aid of Santoth Speakers. Edifus was the first in an unbroken line of twenty-one Akaran kings, of which my father is the most recent. Edifus's sons, Thalaran, Tinhadin, and Praythos, set about securing and solidifying the empire through a series of campaigns called the Wars of Distribution—"
"All right," Jason said. "More than I asked forÉ"
"I was being a seagull, not a fish or a porpoise." She scrunched up her face at Aliver and then turned to give Corinn the same.