Authors: Glenda Larke
The Isles of Glory: book one
Copyright © Glenda Larke 2003 and 2013
Maps © Perdita Phillips 2003 and 2013
First published in paperback in Australia in 2003 by Harper Voyager
Published by Ace in 2005
This edition © FableCroft Publishing 2013
by Tehani Wessely
by h.koppdelaney (Flickr user) licensed under Creative Commons CC BY-ND 2.0
Design and layout
by Tehani Wessely
The moral right of the author has been asserted.
All rights reserved. Without limiting the rights under copyright above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise), without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book.
A National Library of Australia Cataloguing-in-Publication entry is available for this book at
This book is dedicated to the most patient man I know—even though he never reads fantasy: my husband, with love
Imagine what it's like to be born citizenless in a world where citizenship is everything.
Imagine what it's like to be abandoned by the parents you can't remember before you are two years old, in a city that despises you for being a halfbreed.
Imagine what it is like to be able to see magic when others can't.
Imagine what it's like to live in the Glory Isles at a time when your archipelago is about to be discovered by another civilization from half a world away. Changes are in the wind
This is the world of
Isles of Glory trilog
by Glenda Larke
To Masterman M. iso Kipswon, President of the National Society for the Scientific, Anthropological and Ethnographical Study of non-Kellish peoples, from Researcher (Special Class) S. iso Fabold, National Department of Exploration, Federal Ministry of Trade, Kells.
Here is the first of the packets I promised you: my preliminary conversations with the woman Blaze Halfbreed. It is a transcript, translated of course, of interviews I conducted in the presence of a scribe—Nathan iso Vadim. You may remember him: I introduced you on the docks when RV Seadrift was about to leave for the Isles of Glory. But that was three years ago now, so maybe you don’t recall. Nathan and I became good friends on the tedious sea journey and he proved an invaluable asset to the research expedition because of his language skills. I was also ably assisted by Trekan iso Cothard, the expedition’s assistant botanist, who proved to be a gifted artist. All of the sketches accompanying this packet are his work.
The interviews have been partially edited, with all my questions removed. This was done to give the tale more continuity, but care has been taken not to change the substance or to tamper with the narrative style of the speaker.
I intend to use the material enclosed here as the basis for the first of the two papers you have asked me to present to the Society. I am calling it Social Conditions in the Isles of Glory Prior to the Change. The second paper I think I will entitle Power of Belief: Magic in the Isles of Glory, but I haven’t started that yet.
I am still confined to my bed with the fever, but am improving daily. Please thank Aunt Rosris for the items she sent over: I am drinking the possets and reading the books!
Your obedient nephew,
Shor iso Fabold
So you want to know what the Isles of Glory were like back then, eh? In the days before the Change, in the years before you people found us—and we found out that we weren’t the only islands in the ocean.
was a shock, I can tell you! But you know about that.
What you want to hear is quite different. You want to know about our lives. I’m not sure I’m the person to tell you, mind; I was always more one for thinking and acting rather than talking. Still, there wasn’t much I didn’t know about the Isles then, and most of it I remember better than what happened yesterday. I’d visited every islandom, except for the Dustels, before I was twenty-five, and the Dustels didn’t exist then anyway.
Yet it’s hard to know where I should start. The islandoms were more diverse then than they are now, you see: each had its own way of doing things, its own way of looking at life. The people differed from island group to island group. After the Change there was more uniformity; after you people happened along, the differences faded still more.
Perhaps the Keeper Isles would be the logical place to begin because they were at the centre of things. But no, I think I’ll start with a place that wasn’t even a proper islandom: Gorthan Spit. It wasn’t a proper island either, if it comes to that. True, it took a few days to sail the length of it, but you could have walked the width in less than a single day. There was one raised patch of rock on the north coast, but the sea cliffs there were hardly higher than the main mast of your sailing ship. The rest of the place was just white sand: think of a silver sand-eel, long and thin, with a bit of a scab on the middle of its back, and there you have Gorthan Spit. Not the sort of place where things of import would occur, or so you’d think; yet if I tell you what happened there it’ll not only show you what the Isles of Glory were like before the Change, but it’ll help to
the Change, because the seeds of that were sown on the Spit, although none of us who did the planting realised it then!
And if nothing else, the story will tell you what it was like to be a woman and a halfbreed back in those days. And that’s really the sort of thing you want to know, isn’t it? Don’t look so surprised! I may not be as schooled as you are, but I’ve lived long enough to hear what is not spoken. I know what you are interested in. You may give it a fancy name, and call it science, or what is it? Ethnography? But render it down, and it’s just people and places…people like me, and places like Gorthan Spit.
The Spit was one of the Souther Islands, a middenheap for unwanted human garbage and the dregs of humanity; a cesspit where the Isles of Glory threw their living sewerage: the diseased, the criminals, the mad, the halfbreeds, the citizenless. Without people, Gorthan Spit would have been just an inhospitable finger of sand under a harsh southern sun; with them it was a stinking island hell.
The first time I went there I swore I’d never go back. The time I’m going to tell you about was my third visit and I was still swearing the same thing, even while I cursed the sheer perversity of the events that had made a trip there necessary.
You had to be mad, or bad, or just plain greedy to go to Gorthan Spit voluntarily. In those days there were many who said I was the first, a few who swore, with reason, that I was the second, but I’d only admit to the third. Mind you, I had reason to be greedy. My purse might have been filled with fish scales for all the weight there ever was in it and that was reason enough. Money and I just didn’t seem to get along—no, that isn’t quite true. I could
money all right, I just didn’t seem able to
it. I’d made two fortunes before this particular trip to Gorthan Spit and lost them both. The first went down with a ship in a whirlstorm and very nearly took me with it; the second, over two thousand setus, was stolen when I was thrashing around in bed with the six-day fever. I almost died that time too.
Anyway, there I was, prompted by my search for wealth into returning to Gorthan Spit, and wondering if it was a good move. So far that third fortune seemed very elusive.
I rented a room in the main port of Gorthan Docks, in the best inn on the island:
The Drunken Plaice,
which meant that I actually had a room to myself, with a window, and it had a bed instead of just a pallet. I doubted that there was any difference in the vermin between Gorthan Spit’s best hostelry and its worst, but one could always hope. I’d even managed to get some hot water out of the drudge for a wash. The clam shell that acted as a basin was small and none too clean and the water was half salt, but I knew better than to complain. I washed and went downstairs to try the food in the taproom.
I took a seat in the corner where I could see the rest of the room—a wise precaution in a place like Gorthan Docks—slipped off my sword harness, and looked around. The room hadn’t changed much in the intervening years: a little more dirt ingrained into the driftwood floorboards and a few more knife gouges in the table tops, but otherwise it was as I remembered: bare necessities, no fripperies. With a first cursory glance, I saw pretty much the people I expected to see as well: a number of slavers; a few seamen-traders who were probably pirates on the side, and an assortment of unsavoury characters who had only one thing in common: they all looked as villainous as sharks on the prowl. In Gorthan Spit people came and went like the tide and it had been five years since my last trip, but there were one or two familiar faces.
I attracted a fair amount of attention myself. Any woman on her own in such a place would have, but one as tall as I was really swung the heads around. I heard the sniggers and the tired jokes I’d heard a hundred times before; I tended to have that effect on people. To be fair, even without my height I would perhaps have excited comment: I wore a Calmenter sword on my back and there weren’t too many women who did that, especially not ones with the colouring that made it clear they weren’t from Calment. Calmenters were invariably honey-eyed blondes; I was brown—brown-haired in those days, as well as brown-skinned, while my eyes were the kind of green you sometimes see in clear water along the Atis coast of Breth Island. And that was a combination which made it obvious I was a halfbreed. In those days, everyone knew that green eyes were the exclusive property of the Fen islanders, and the Fen islanders weren’t brown-skinned Souther people…
Of course, halfbreeds were a setu a score on a place like Gorthan Spit, but I was distinctive enough to be noticeable.
While waiting to be served, I took a second, more careful look around that room, and saw to my surprise that it contained no less than three tall men. It was second nature to me to notice a tall man; not that I had anything against shorter men, you understand, but I’d found over the years that a normal-sized male who could bring himself to bed a woman more than a head taller than he was, was rare indeed. The trouble was, there weren’t all that many men who were as tall as I was. To find three of them in one room was unexpected—and promising.
I should have known I was looking at trouble. That kind of luck can never be all good. Especially when all three of them were handsome.
The first, the tallest of the three, was seated with the slavers. He looked faintly familiar, but I couldn’t remember where I’d seen him before. He was close enough for me to see his earlobe tattoo: a ‘Q’ inlaid with gold. Which made him a Northman, a Quiller Islander. He was well dressed, too smart for a slaver, I would have thought, and he was long and lithe rather than big. Fair-skinned and dark-haired with a pleasing smile, he was about the finest-looking male I’d seen in a sea full of islands. Moreover he noticed me—and liked what he saw. The smile really was charming.
The second man, while not as tall, was a great deal larger. Broad hands, broad shoulders, broad chest, and not an ounce of excess flesh on him. He sat alone in the corner diagonally opposite from me: a handsome man with a humourless expression, tan-coloured skin, shrewd blue eyes and a complete lack of flamboyance in the way he was dressed (all in black); a man who took life seriously and yet didn’t wear a sword—a surprising omission. Perhaps he thought his large size was protection enough. He looked at me without any change in expression. And that piqued; men usually showed
The third was the youngest. Too young for me. He looked about twenty, but he might have been a little older; fair-skinned, fair-haired and a face that was so innocent of guile you wanted to ask him what the hell he was doing in a midden like Gorthan Spit. He had dimples, for godsake, and lashes that hit his cheeks like the curling foam of a wave hitting the beach. When he saw me his eyes registered his distaste. He didn’t like low-life halfbreeds.
My stomach knotted with anger. Nobody should have had the right to look at me with such contempt, especially not a man as young and as untried as this one. It was at moments like this that I would have done anything—almost anything at all—to have had a citizenship tattoo on my earlobe.
For all my inner anger, I returned his gaze calmly enough. I’d had plenty of practice at ignoring contempt.
I was about to switch my attention back to one of the other two when the waiter lurched over from a neighbouring table and asked what I wanted. I knew the answer to that one: fish. In that hostelry there was never anything else but fish. And I doubted that I had much choice about the way in which it was cooked, not unless the culinary standards had done an about-face since I’d last stayed at
The Drunken Plaice.
‘Grilled fish,’ I said, ‘and a mug of swillie.’ And then I had a whiff of dunmagic that prickled my spine in warning and made me take a very good look at that waiter.
He wasn’t an attractive sight. He was in his middle years, I supposed, but it was hard to tell because he was only half normal. The right half. The left half of him was a travesty of a human being, and I didn’t really need the stink of dunmagic to tell me he had been its victim. It was as if a giant had pinched his left-hand side between two fingers, squashing it out of shape to make that side of his face a twisted mess and that side of his torso a humped deformity. His left eye drooped down, the left side of his mouth jerked up. The cheek between, as rough as dead coral, was pitted with scars. The jaw below petered away without definition into his neck. His left foot was clubbed, his left hand a set of gnarled claws at the end of a foreshortened limb. The lobe of his left ear was missing, deliberately cut away, taking with it any proof of his citizenship—or lack of it. What made it all worse was that there was enough of him that was normal to indicate he had once been at least as handsome as the Quillerman sitting with the slavers. For one fleeting moment I glimpsed something disturbing deep in his eyes: tragedy. A tragedy of such epic proportions as to be beyond the understanding of most people: more than even I could begin to comprehend.
I was stirred to compassion, and that didn’t happen very often. ‘What’s your name?’ I asked and held out a coin to show that the inquiry was made with the best of intentions. On Gorthan Spit you had to be damned careful about asking personal questions.
He leered at me, and a dribble of spit ran out of his twisted mouth down onto his chin. ‘You can call me Janko. Any time you want, jewel-eyes.’ He managed to drawl out that last sentence into an obscene suggestion, then he grabbed the coin, laughed in a high-pitched giggle that seemed curiously at variance with his appearance, and stumped away.
I sighed. So much for compassion in a public house like
The Drunken Plaice.
I wondered if I was growing soft; there had been a time when I would never have wasted a moment’s pity on such an unprepossessing specimen. Perhaps I was mellowing with age, as pearls do… The thought brought me no joy. For a person with my disadvantages, the anger the fair youngster’s contempt had aroused in me was of more value than any feelings of compassion could be. I needed to be as hard and as rough as the shell of the oyster, not smooth like its pearl. To be soft was to jeopardise my dream of attaining wealth, of having enough money to buy the comfort and security I wanted. Bleeding hearts were rarely rich. Worse, in my line of business, they too often ended up dead.
The swillie came quickly enough, delivered by the tapboy who was probably more in need of my compassion than Janko, if the bruises on his cheek were anything to go by. I smiled at him but he ducked his head, dumped the mug down spilling some of its contents, and scuttled away as fast as he could. I didn’t usually scare people
much. I settled back to sip the brew and watch the room.
And found I hadn’t reached the end of the surprises the place had to offer, for just then the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen in my life came down the stairs into the room. She was a blue-eyed, yellow-haired, golden-skinned dream; a Cirkasian, of course. No other islands produced that kind of colouring. She wasn’t much older than twenty; she had legs long enough to set every man in the room drooling, and curves that were just obvious enough to hint at sexual pleasures without being too flagrant. Like me, she was wearing the drab standard travellers’ garb of trousers and a belted tunic, but it wouldn’t have made any difference what she wore; every head in the room swivelled her way—and stayed looking.
Including my own. I’d never wanted to bed another woman—still don’t, if it comes to that; it wasn’t her sexual attributes that interested me. Yet I edged the empty chair opposite me into a more inviting position with my foot and hoped, without much reason, that she’d settle for my table. A bird, a small nondescript blackish thing, flew in and perched on the back of the chair instead. Apparently fearless, it cocked its head at me, and eyed the crumbs on the floor. I tried to shoo it off, but it ignored me.