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Authors: Martha Wells

Wheel of the Infinite

BOOK: Wheel of the Infinite
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“A fascinating, lush fantasy world...a very rich stand-alone novel...that
marvelously blends character and place.”

Denver Post

Every year, the Wheel of the Infinite must be painstakingly remade to ensure
peace and harmony. And every hundred years, the Wheel and the world become one. But now a black storm ravages the beautiful mandala, and a woman with a shadowy past—an exile, murderer, and traitor—has been summoned back to put the world right. For if Maskelle and the swordsman Rian cannot stop the Wheel’s accelerating disintegration—then all that is, was, and will be... will end.

“Full of mysticism and unforgettable characters.... WHEEL OF THE INFINITE will only enhance [Wells’s] reputation.”

Dallas Morning News

Praise for
MARTHA WELLS and WHEEL OF THE INFINITE
 

“WHEEL OF THE INFINITE is a book readers will remember and Wells is an author who leaves us eager for more.”

Cleveland Plain Dealer

“Fast-paced, witty, and inventive . . . The vividly imagined Celestial Empire’s peril is made all the more dramatic by the characters’ sarcastic, reasonable conversations, and by their very human responses to inhuman dangers; there is real reading pleasure here.”

Publishers Weekly

“What Jack Vance is to science fiction, Martha Wells is rapidly becoming to fantasy . .. Wells creates a fantasy city so well-crafted and rich, it becomes almost a living character. Better even than her previous Nebula-nominated novel,
The Death of the Necromancer
, WHEEL OF THE INFINITE shines with sparkling prose and interesting characters ...Wells
is the brightest new light in the fantasy field in some years, and WHEEL OF THE
INFINITE is an excellent novel that aptly demonstrates her powerful wattage.”

Portland Oregonian

“Superior fantasy work from one of the best... In a field teeming with clones, retreads, and solipsistic doorstoppers, Wells dares—and gloriously succeeds—to be different. What more do you need?”

Kirkus Reviews
(* Starred Review *)

“Wells never fails to intrigue, amuse, and fascinate ... I highly recommend anything by Martha Wells—and I wish she wrote faster!”

Jennifer Roberson

Also by
Martha Wells

The Death of the Necromancer
City of Bones
The Element of Fire

MARTHA WELLS
WHEEL OF THE INFINITE

An Imprint of
HarperCollins
Publishers

Copyright notice

Contents

To Kimberley Rector, for being there

WHEEL OF THE INFINITE
 
Chapter 1

Maskelle had been asking the Ancestors to stop the rain three days running now and, as usual, they weren’t listening.

She stood on a little hill, surrounded by the heavy jungle that lined either side of the river of mud that had once been the road, and watched the wagons crawl painfully by. They were wooden and brightly painted, but the roofs hadn’t been tarred in too long and she knew it was hardly any drier inside them than out. One of the oxen, straining to keep the wheels moving forward against the tide of mud, moaned loudly.
I sympathize
, Maskelle thought.

Rastim, leader of the little troupe, stumbled up the hill toward her, his boots squelching and his clothes a sodden mess. He paused a short distance from her and said, “O Great Protectress, why is it we’re going to Duvalpore?”

Maskelle leaned on her staff. “Because I said so.”

“Oh.” Rastim contemplated the wagons thoughtfully, then looked down at his shirt where the downpour was making the cheap dyes of the embroidery run, and sighed heavily.

Maskelle would have promised him better, if she made promises.

He glanced at her, brows lifted. “So, there’s no chance
of
just stopping and drowning here, say?”

“No, I think we’ll keep moving for now and drown a little further up the road.”

“Ah.” He nodded. “Then can you come and take another look at Killia’s poppet? She thinks she’s worse.”

Maskelle rolled her eyes to the Ancestors. Rastim was an Ariaden, and they never believed in giving bad news without a lot of preamble, no matter how urgent it was. She started down the hill and plunged back into the mud river.

Killia’s wagon was painted with geometric designs in bright red and yellow, now splattered with dirt from the long journey. Maskelle caught the handhold at the back and stepped up onto the running board, which barely cleared the soupy mud. She knocked on the shutter and it was immediately cranked upward. Killia extended a hand to help her in, and Maskelle discovered she needed it; her light cotton robes were so drenched that they added an unexpected amount to her weight. She sat on the bench just inside the entrance so she could wring them out a bit and wait for her eyes to adjust to the dark interior.

Various wooden bowls caught the leaks from the roof, but there were still puddles on the lacquered floor. Overhead, cooking pots banged into empty cage lamps and the bags that held costumes and drapes for the scenery, bundled up to keep them out of the water. Killia’s daughter was huddled in one of the two narrow bunks under a mound of damp blankets. Maskelle leaned over and burrowed in the blankets until she touched warm skin. Too warm. She swore under her breath.

“Bad?” Killia asked. She was a tiny woman with the pale skin of the Ariaden and long dark hair caught back by a number of clips and ribbons. Her face had the perfection of a porcelain doll’s and to Maskelle she looked hardly more than a child herself, but her eyes were old.

Maskelle shook her head. The priesthood took oaths to the truth, but she had broken all her oaths long ago and Killia had enough to worry about. “I’ll have to go down to the river for some more ivibrae—the real river, not the one under the wagon.”

Killia smiled briefly at the feeble joke. “Ivibrae for lung rot?”

“Ivibrae is good for any fever, not just lung rot. The girl doesn’t have lung rot,” Maskelle told her, and thought,
Not yet, anyway
.

Killia didn’t look reassured. Maskelle gathered her sodden robes and jumped down off the wagonbed.

Rastim had been walking behind it and the spray of mud as she landed splattered both of them. They eyed each other in mutual understanding; it had been one of those days. She said, “Camp in the Sare if you can make it before dark. If you’re not there, I’ll look for you along the road.”

He swept her a theatrical bow. “Yes, O Great Protectress.”

“You’re welcome, Rastim,” Maskelle said, and splashed toward the heavy dark wall of the jungle.

Two hours later Maskelle wasn’t so sanguine herself. The thick clouds made the night fall faster under the jungle canopy, and though the broad-leaf palms protected her from heavy rain, the going was still laboriously slow. She reached the river while the jungle was still a deep green cave, dripping and quiet, and stood on the bank to watch the swollen waters. The river was running high and drunk on its own power, gray with mud and crested with foam. It was the source of wild magic, especially as bloated with rain and powerful as it was now; it would be a channel for any dark influence that cared to use it.

It was none of her business. Maskelle shook her head.
Keep telling yourself that
. The ivibrae proved annoyingly elusive; usually it grew at the very edge of the treeline above the river, but there were no patches to be found in the usual spots, and she found herself having to slide dangerously down the muddy bank. By the time she had picked a quantity and scrambled back up to more solid ground, the green cavern had become a pitch-black hole.

She decided to make her way along the river until she was at the right point to strike out for the road again. She stumbled along, barefoot because no pair of sandals would have lasted half a day in this mess, her patched robes tied up to keep her from tripping, a bundle of stinking ivibrae crammed under her belt, and covered with mud from feet to nose. Her braids kept falling into her eyes and some were fraying apart, revealing how much grey was mixed in with the dark strands. Smiling, she wondered what the court of Kushor-An at Duvalpore would have thought of her now.
Not much, not much
, she chuckled to herself. Rastim was right: their luck was so bad it was beginning to be funny. Perhaps it was the Ancestors, tired of her importunities at last, willing to drown the whole of the Great Road just to inconvenience her poor self. Maskelle smiled at the thought.
Add hubris to the list of crimes, if it wasn’t there already
.

The twilight had deepened into night now and the river was a menacing roar to her right; she saw a flicker of light ahead along the bank. Staggering toward it, sodden and chilled, she hoped that it was a river traders’ outpost and that there might be such a thing as a cup of warm tea before she had to walk back through the jungle to the road. Or maybe a half-bottle of rice wine.
I’m getting old
, she thought sourly. But that was nothing new. As she drew closer to the light she could hear raucous voices, a great many raucous voices.

She was close enough now for the lamps lit along the balconies to show her the outline of the place. It perched on the edge of the bank, wooden and ramshackle, half of it hanging out over the rushing river and supported by heavy log pilings. Several small boats were tied up under it, and splintered wood, rope, torn sail and the wreckage of fishtraps were caught among them and the pilings. The windows glowed with light and many people moved about inside.
It’s a traders’ outpost true enough
, she thought,
but it doesn’t belong to river traders, not any longer
. Raiders and river pirates must be using it for the night, though they couldn’t have been here long—Imperial patrols would periodically sweep the riverbanks to clear them out. She hadn’t seen any boat traffic on the river, but had put that down to the rain and rough water. She let out her breath in resignation.

Raiders were as vicious as the moray, the small lizards that hunted the river in packs. Not only drunken laughter came from the inhabitants of the outpost—there were shrieks, thumps, crashes, even roars, like a menagerie. Common sense told her to head into the jungle so she could get back to make the posset for Killia’s girl and retire to her own cold supper and damp bed. But this kind of thing had been her business, in one way or another, for many long years, and old habits died hard. There was a crash as a body came flying through the latticework of one of the windows over the dock. That decided her; this she had to see.

She walked up the rickety steps to the nearest doorway and elbowed her way inside. The place was full of river trash, as filthy and muddy as Maskelle herself, except river trash were usually filthy and muddy by choice. Their clothes were tattered rags or pillaged finery, like the torn silk trousers and vest of the one lying unconscious on the floor. They stunk of uncured leather, unwashed person, and rice liquor, and the bad light reflected off sweat-slickened skin and wild dirty hair. They packed the rickety wooden gallery that ran along this floor and even staggered around in drunken battle on the lower level, which was awash in dirty water as the rising river encroached on it. Every one of them was yelling like the mad.
The resemblance to the Court at Duvalpore is striking
, Maskelle thought, watching them ironically. She winced from the din and considered leaving; the place was so smoky from the badly tended lamps that she couldn’t see what was happening anyway.

Swearing under her breath, she looked toward the far end of the gallery where there was a raised platform for the upper level loading deck. The giant pulleys and tangled ropes of the old cargo crane hung heavily over it, the arm suspended out over the lower floor, designed to raise bales through the wide doors that opened over the river in the wall behind the deck, swing them inside the building and lower them down to the large area below. Several people seemed to be standing and talking there in almost a sane manner. She started toward them, trying to peer through the smoke and shadow. Frustration made her will it a little too hard, for her view abruptly cleared.
Ah, so they ‘ve caught someone
.

The prisoner’s arms were stretched up over his head, his wrists bound to one of the supports for the crane. One of the raiders came toward him and he jerked up his legs and kicked his captor in the stomach, sending him flying backward.
Not quite helpless
, she thought, amused. Two other rivermen dived at him, grabbing his legs and lashing him to the lower part of the frame.

He was probably a traveller trapped and caught somewhere along the river. That was why the Ancestors had guided her steps here.

So I’m not too disobedient to make use of
, she grumbled to herself, making her way down the crowded gallery and clearing a path with occasional sharp pokes from her staff. The raiders were beginning to point and nudge each other, her presence finally penetrating the haze of liquor and bloodlust. Because of the tattered state of her clothes and her staff, they would think her a travelling nun. Unless they could read the Koshan symbols in the silver embedded in the wood, and she doubted that was a possibility. Maskelle looked around thoughtfully. She didn’t think she could kill all of them, and she had taken an oath not to do that sort of thing anymore, but she thought she could manage a distraction.

One of the rivermen standing on the platform was holding a sword, a real one, not one of the long knives the other raiders were armed with. The greasy light reflected off the dark etching on the wavy blade and Maskelle frowned a little. That was a siri. The brightwork on the hilt wasn’t much tarnished yet so it must have come from the prisoner. It meant he wasn’t native to the river country; several of the southern provinces used the siri and it wasn’t common here in the heart of the lowlands.

The Kushorit, the main stock of the Celestial Empire, also tended to be small, dark and compactly built, and the prisoner was tall, rangy lean, and sharp-featured. Maskelle was an aberration herself, having outer reaches blood in her family and being tall and long-limbed because of it. He was about ten or fifteen years younger than Maskelle, which, she was uncomfortably aware, still made him a man grown. He wore a sleeveless shirt and leather leggings, torn and dirty from what had obviously been a hard battle, and the blue and red designs stamped into his leather swordbelt and buskins had faded from long exposure to the sun. His hair was shaggy brown with streaks of blond and one long tightly braided lock hung past his shoulder.

The river raiders wore assorted scraps of leather or lacquered armor and tattered silk finery. The woman who seemed to be the leader had a battered helmet with a crest shaped into the head of a killing bird, obviously taken off some wealthy victim. She was big and muscular, an old knife scar slashing across already harsh features. She strode to the edge of the platform and glared down at Maskelle. “What do you want here, Sister?”

Yes, you’re so terribly dangerous
, Maskelle thought, smiling indulgently.
I tremble, really I do
. Dangling over the platform, the ropes to control the crane were worn and tangled, and it looked like the counterweight, a leather sack of iron ingots, was the only thing that was keeping the massive wooden arm from collapsing.
That will do nicely
. She leaned on her staff. “I come to offer blessing, my child.”

The woman stared, then grinned back at her companions. “We’re unbelievers here, Sister; we’d curdle your blessing.”

“Not this blessing. It’s just what your sort deserve.” Maskelle felt a dark surge of power under her feet as she spoke. The river was restless with more than floodwater tonight; it called to her, sensing a kinship. “But I want something in exchange for it.”

“What’s that?”

“Release that man.” The prisoner was watching her warily, without any show of hope, almost as if he didn’t recognize her as a Koshan. He didn’t look badly hurt, however, just bruised and beaten.

“Oh, so you want him for yourself, Sister?” the leader said. The others laughed and grinned at each other.

If you don’t consider the source, it’s not a bad idea
, Maskelle thought. He was handsome, in an exotic way, which was probably why the raiders had saved him to amuse themselves with rather than killing him immediately. The Koshans only demanded abstinence from initiates during the first three years of instruction, but it was a common misconception that all members of the Order were celibate.

Before Maskelle could answer, the prisoner said, “She doesn’t need a club to get company. Some women don’t.” He spoke in Kushorit, the common language of the Empire, but lightly accented Maskelle frowned; she should be able to tell what province he was from by that accent, but she couldn’t place it. She had been too long from her native land, perhaps, too long among the soft voices of Ariad. The fact that he knew Kushorit was no real clue; it was a common language throughout the provinces too, spoken by traders, scholars, diplomats.

BOOK: Wheel of the Infinite
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