The Innocent Mage
Kingmaker, Kingbreaker - Book 1
Nine hundred and ninety-seven . . . nine hundred and ninety-eight . . . nine hundred and ninety-nine . . . one thousand!
Asher opened his eyes. At last.
Time to go.
Holding his breath, he slid out of his old, creaking bed and put his bare feet on the floor as lightly as the rising sun kissed the mouth of Restharven Harbour.
In the other bed his brother Bede, mired in sleep, stirred and grunted beneath his blankets. Asher waited, suspended between heartbeats. Bede grunted again, then started snoring, and Asher sighed his silent relief. Thank Barl they didn’t still share this room with Niko. Bloody Niko woke cursing if a fly farted. There’d be no chance of creeping safely out of the house if Niko still slept here.
But after Wishus finally got hisself married to that shrew Pippa and moved out of his solitary chamber to his own stone cottage along Fishhook Lane, Niko had taken belligerent possession of the empty room. Claimed it as his own by right of being the oldest brother still living at home — and with his fists if nobody liked that reason.
As the youngest, Asher didn’t rate a room of his own. As the youngest he didn’t rate a lot of things. Even though he was twenty years old, and a man, and could be married his own damn self if he’d wanted to be. If there was a woman in Restharven or anywhere else on the coast who could make his heart beat fast for longer than a kiss and a fumble on the cliffs overlooking the ocean.
Pausing to scoop up his boots, left conveniently at the end of the bed, Asher tiptoed into the corridor and past Niko’s closed door. At Da’s room he hesitated. Looked in. Da wasn’t there. Shafting moonlight revealed the sagging double bed, empty. The blankets undisturbed. The single pillow undented. The room smelled musty. Abandoned, even though somebody still lived there. If he closed his eyes, he could almost catch the sweet suggestion of Ma’s perfume.
But only almost, and only if he imagined it. Ma was long since dead and buried, and all that remained of her perfume was a single cracked and used-up bottle Da kept on the dusty windowsill.
Asher moved on, a ghost in his own house.
He found his father in the living room, sprawled snoring in his armchair. An empty ale jug sat on the table by his right hand; his tankard was tumbled on the carpet at his slippered feet. Asher wrinkled his nose at the sourness of spilled beer and soaked wool.
The living room curtains were still open. Moonlight painted the floor, the armchair, Da. Asher stared down at him and felt a pang of conscience. He looked so tired. But then he had a right to. Sailing towards sixty, Da was. When you saw him on the ocean, bellowing orders and hauling nets over the side of whichever family smack he’d chosen to captain that day, or watched him gutting fish and bargaining the prices afterwards, it was hard to believe he had seven sons grown and was a grandpa eleven times over. There wasn’t a man in all the Kingdom of Lur, Olken or Doranen, who could beat back the waves like Da. Who could catch a leaping sawfish with just a hook and a rod, or snatch a bright-scaled volly from right over the side of the boat and kill it with his bare hands alone.
Looking at him now, though, all black and silver in the moonlight, his uncapped head sparse with greying hair, his weathered face sagging in sorrowed sleep, belief was all too easy.
Da was old. Old and wearing out fast, from work and worry.
Still holding his boots, Asher crouched beside the armchair. Gazed into his father’s slumbering features and felt a great wave of love crash over him. He was going to miss this face, with its crooked nose, broke in a drunken brawl over Ma when they were courting, and its scarred chin, split by slipping on a storm-heaved deck five seasons gone.
‘Past time somebody did the worryin’ for you, Da,’ he whispered. ‘Past time y’had things soft, ’stead of hard. I said I’d do this for you, one day, and I reckon that day’s come.’
Trouble was, it was easier said than done. To make good on his promise he needed more than dreams, though he had plenty of those. He needed money. Lots and lots of money. But he wasn’t going to find it in Restharven. Not just because it was Restharven, but because of his brothers. In a family business, money made was money shared … and the youngest got the smallest slice of the pie.
Well, sink that for a load of mackerel.
He was off to find his own pie, and he wasn’t going to share it with anybody. Not till the pie was big enough to buy him a boat of his own, so he and Da could leave Zeth and the rest of them to their own devices, sink or swim, who cared? He and Da wouldn’t. He and Da would have their own damn boat, and with all the money they’d make fishing it, just the two of them, they’d live as grand as the king hisself.
For two years now, he’d been scrimping and saving and going without, just so he’d have enough to get by. Enough to get him all the way to the grand City of Dorana. He had it all worked out.
“It’s just for a year, Da,” he whispered. “I’ll only be gone a year. It ain’t that long a time, really. And I’ll be back afore y’know it. You’ll see.”
The clock on the wall struck half-past ten, loud chiming in the silence. The Rusty Anchor would be closing soon, and Jed was waiting with his knapsack and purse. He had to go.
Asher leaned over the armchair, pressed a kiss to his father’s weathered cheek and slipped out of the small stone cottage he and all his brothers had lived in from birth.
When he was sure it was safe to make a noise he stamped into his boots then hurried from shadow to shadow until he reached the Rusty Anchor. The pub was full, as usual. Asher pressed his nose to the bobbled windowpane, trying not to be seen, and searched for Jed. Spying his friend at last amongst the crush of carousing fishermen he tapped and waved and hoped Jed would notice him. Just as he was despairing, Jed leapt away from an enthusiastically swung arm, stumbled, turned, and saw him.
“I were about to give up on you!” his friend grumbled as he came outside, a fresh tankard of ale in his hand. “You said ten o’clock, or soon after! It be nigh on closin’ time now!”
“Don’t look like y’missed me over much,” retorted Asher. He swiped the tankard from Jed’s clutches and took a deep swallow of cold, bitter ale. “Did y’bring ‘em?”
Jed snatched the tankard back. “Course I brung ‘em,” he said, rolling his eyes. “I’m your friend, ain’t I?”
“A friend would let me drink that tankard dry,” said Asher, grinning. “It’s a long ways between me and the next pub and from the looks of you, one tankard more’ll be one tankard too many.”
“Ain’t no such thing,” said Jed. Then he relented. “Here,” he added, and shoved the tankard at him. “Bloody bully. Now come on. I’ve stashed your things round the corner. If you stop fritterin’ my time and get along I’ll manage a last mouthful meself, afore the Anchor closes.”
Asher took the tankard. Good ole Jed. There wasn’t another soul he’d have trusted his precious purseful of trins and cuicks to, or his goatskin of water and knapsack stuffed with cheese and apples and bread and clothes. Nor his dreams, neither. They’d been friends their whole lives, him and Jed. He’d even offered to take Jed to the City with him, but there’d been no need. Jed wasn’t plagued with a school of brothers. He was all set to inherit his da’s fishing boat in a few more years.
“You take care now,” Jed said sternly, as Asher guzzled the rest of his ale. “Dorana City’s a long ways from here, and it be a powerful dry place. Not to mention swarmin’ with Doranen. So just you watch your step, Meister Asher. You ain’t the most respectful man I ever had the pleasure of knowin’. Fact is, I ain’t sure those magic folk Up Yonder be ready for the likes of you.”
Asher laughed and tossed him the empty tankard. “Reckon those magic folk Up Yonder can take care of ‘emselves, Jed. Just like me. Now you won’t forget to see my da first thing tomorrow, and let him know I be fine and I’ll be back a year from today, will you?”
“Course I won’t,” said Jed. “But I still reckon you ought to let me tell him where you’ll be. He’s bound to ask, y’know.”
“Aye, I know, but it ain’t to be helped,” said Asher, shrugging. “You got to keep that flappin’ tongue of yours behind your teeth, Jed, ‘cause two seconds after you tell him he’ll tell Zeth and the rest of ‘em and that’ll be the end of that. They’ll find me and drag me back here and I won’t ever get enough money saved to set Da and me up all grand and comfy. Be safest all round if you just act like you ain’t got the foggiest notion.”
“Lie, you mean?”
Asher pulled a face. “For ‘is own good, Jed. And mine.”
“All right,” said Jed, belching. “If you say so.”
Asher tied the water-filled goatskin to his belt and hitched his knapsack over his shoulders. “I say so.”
Jed sighed mournfully. “You’ll miss the Festival.”
“This year. We can drink twice as much next year to make up for it. My shout. Now get yourself into the Anchor, would you, afore somebody wonders where you’ve got to and comes lookin’.”
“Aye, sir,” said Jed, and bruised Asher’s ribs with a clumsy hug. “Have a grand time, eh? Bring yourself home safe and sound.”
“I aim to,” said Asher, stepping back. “Safe and mighty plump in the pocket to boot. And mayhap I’ll bring a tidy armful of City Olken lass home with me and my money!”
Jed snorted. “Mayhap you will, at that. Provided she’s half blind and all foolish. Now for the love of Barl, it be ten minutes till closing time. If you don’t get out of here now you’ll be leavin’ with an audience.”
Which was the last thing he needed. With a smile and a wave
Asher turned and hurried up the street, away from his friend and the pub and the only life he’d ever known. If he walked all night, fast, he’d reach the village of Schoomer in time to hitch a ride on one of the potato wagons heading for Colford. From Colford he could hitch to Jerring, from Jerring to Sapslo, and in Sapslo he could buy a seat on one of the wagons travelling to Dorana.
No way would his sinkin’ brothers ever work out that plan.
As he strode up the hill towards the Coast Road he looked out to the left, where Restharven Harbour shone like a newly minted trin beneath the full-bellied moon. The warm night was full of salt and sound. A rising breeze blew spray in his face and his ears echoed with the pounding boom of waves crashing against the cliffs on either side of the keyhole harbour.
He felt his heart knock against his ribs. A year in dry Dorana. A year without the ocean. No screaming gulls, no skin-scouring surf. No pitching deck beneath his feet, no snapping sails above his head. No racing the tide and his brothers back to port, or diving off Dolphin Head into surging blue water, or scoffing grease and vinegar fresh-fried fish for dinner with Jed and the other lads.
Could he stand it?
Ha. ‘Could’ didn’t come into it. He had to. There were dreams to fulfil and a promise to keep, and he couldn’t do either without leaving his heart and soul behind him. Without leaving home.
Head up, whistling and unafraid, Asher hurried towards his future.