Authors: Richard Ford
Tags: #Fiction, #Fantasy
Steelhaven: Book 1
Copyright © 2013 Richard Ford
All rights reserved.
First published as an Ebook by Headline Publishing Group in 2013
All characters in this publication are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
Cataloguing in Publication Data is available from the British Library
HEADLINE PUBLISHING GROUP
An Hachette UK Company
338 Euston Road
London NW1 3BH
Table of Contents
Welcome to Steelhaven …
Under the reign of King Cael the Uniter, this vast cityport on the southern coast has for years been a symbol of strength, maintaining an uneasy peace throughout the Free States.
But now a long shadow hangs over the city, in the form of the dread Elharim warlord, Amon Tugha. When his herald infiltrates the city, looking to exploit its dangerous criminal underworld, and a terrible dark magick that has long been buried once again begins to rise, it could be the beginning of the end.
Richard Ford originally hails from Leeds in the heartland of Yorkshire, but now resides in the Wiltshire countryside, where he can be found frolicking in the Thames, drinking cider and singing songs about combine harvesters.
First and foremost I need to thank my agent, industry legend John Jarrold, who took me on after reading a part manuscript and showed a lot of faith where others might not.
Thanks to Gareth Hanrahan, Matt Keefe and Gav Thorpe for their various critiques and help with the manuscript, it’s all the better for your input.
I should also mention the team at Headline: Patrick Insole for making the cover look sexy, my copyeditor and proofreader for making the words sexy, and Caitlin Raynor and Ben Willis for telling everyone how sexy it is.
And last, but by no means least, my editor, John Wordsworth. Remember, if I go down, you’re going with me!
assoum Abbasi hated the sea. The sickly salt smell and the incessant noise bothered him more than he could ever express. He was a Dravhistan nomad, a man of the desert, used to the silence of sand, a parched and arid landscape, and endless blue sky. Roiling cloud, clashing wave and screeching gull were alien to his experience, but Massoum was willing to endure this, for the reward was great indeed.
The fastest route from the Dravhistan port of Aluk Vadir to the cityport of Steelhaven was by ship, and so reluctantly Massoum had paid for his passage and embarked on his voyage. A man could suffer much for riches, they said, and Massoum had believed them, right up until the first storm hit. The
was almost entirely crewed by brash westerners who could laugh in the face of the lashing winds and the rumbling skies. Though the caravel was picked up and tossed from wave to towering wave, its crew went about their duties unaffected, as though it were routine.
For Massoum it felt as if the world was ending.
He had clung to the rigging for grim death, his fingers white from the fearsomeness of his grip and the chill of the storm winds. The robes he wore to pass himself off as a merchant were covered in vomit and his headscarf had blown away in the gale, exposing his long hair to the elements, but he cared little. Survival was all that mattered. And, of course, despite the raging torrent that threatened to fling him from the deck at any moment, he had survived.
But then, Massoum Abbasi was a born survivor – a man used to taking risks and claiming the consequent rewards. In the past his skills had been much sought after, his benefactors generous with their payments.
Abbasi had been trained in the differing philosophies of war by the Shadir of Gul Rasa and been military adviser to three desert princes. He had brokered peace between the warring sultanates of Jal Nassan, acted as diplomat to Kali Ustman Al Talib in the court of the Han-Shar Sunlords and been herald for the Egrit of Rashamen. Over the years his reputation had grown so that the mere rumour of his arrival was enough to spur the richest sultan’s court to greet him with a flower-strewn path and a sumptuous banquet. Times had indeed been good, and Massoum had lived the noble’s life, lauded as the wisest of counsellors and surrounded by men of influence and opulence who called themselves his friends.
But all that had changed.
Such a trivial act had brought him low: the slightest of smiles towards the Kali’s twelfth wife – not even his favourite – but it had been enough to spark rumour in court, enough to have the viziers whispering and the eunuchs chortling in their high-pitched voices, and that was that. Banished. Cast out to the four winds. At least he had been spared the executioner’s blade; that was one thing he could thank the Kali for.
The last few years had been hard for Massoum. There was little use for his talents on the filthy streets of Dravhistan’s cities. Where before his honeyed words and impartial wisdom had been much sought after, now they were of little use. Hunger and fear were his constant companions and he had almost become desperate enough to consider manual labour; but just when it looked as if the light of Asta’Dovashu had abandoned him completely, the god of the Desert Wind had suddenly smiled down.
Massoum Abbasi thought back to that night – the night he had been offered riches beyond imagining for the simple loaning of his talents. Acceptance had brought him here, to this place, to this city far from his homeland, and he was suddenly wondering if even all the riches of the eastern kingdoms would have been worth the journey.
From the deck he could just see the city of Steelhaven in the distance, squatting on the coastline like a giant ants’ nest. Unpleasant though Massoum’s journey had been, he knew that worse was to come once he set foot in that foul metropolis. Its reputation was infamous, even in far-off Dravhistan – the danger of its narrow twisting streets, the lack of culture, the savage manners and foul breath of its inhabitants. Not to mention their tasteless food and their insistence on heaving ale down their necks until it made them vomit.
Massoum would have to adjust his usual stringent adherence to etiquette when dealing with these ignorant westerners. His name must be short and sweet – none of them would be able, or even care, to address him properly by his given title of Massoum Am Kalhed Las Fahir Am Jadar Abbasi.
As orders were barked across deck in the gruff Teutonian language, Massoum gripped the embroidered leather bag he carried across one shoulder more tightly, pulling it across the front of his body in a protective gesture. The bag was his lifeline, containing the tools of his trade, and he instinctively wanted to protect them. Though its contents might seem mundane, worthless even, the bag was of more value than anyone could have guessed. And that was the whole point. If stopped and questioned Massoum could easily pass himself off as a merchant here to broker trade. The city guard or inquisition would be hard pressed to prove him complicit in any crime, for should they suspect his intentions only one crime would fit the bill – treason. The last thing he wanted was his head spiked atop Steelhaven’s front gate, ready to greet Amon Tugha’s army as it arrived to raze the city to ash.
‘Almost there, my eastern friend.’
It was a deep voice that nudged him from his thoughts, the words spoken in a rare northern dialect of Teutonian, but Massoum recognised the language and inflection as though it were his own. His mastery of the many western tongues was second to none. That was, after all, one of the reasons he had been chosen for this task.
‘Indeed,’ he replied, turning with a smile to face the first mate, whose bald head gleamed in the afternoon sun. ‘As pleasant as this journey has been, it must unfortunately come to an end all too soon.’
The first mate gave him a knowing wink – it was clear to all the crew that Massoum had loathed the voyage from start to finish.
‘You have business in Steelhaven, easterner?’
Massoum felt the skin prickle at the nape of his neck, though he kept his warm smile firmly affixed to his face. Though most likely an innocent question, simple small talk, it would be foolish to take risks and reveal the truth, especially when he was so close to shore where he could become lost in the labyrinthine streets and leave anyone taking too much of an interest far behind.
‘Yes,’ he replied. ‘I am a merchant brokering trade. A seller of spices. I understand Steelhaven is a great market and its traders are willing to pay a fair price.’
This brought a wide grin to the first mate’s lips. ‘Fair price, eh? Well, just be careful where you tread, traveller. You might find yourself with something you didn’t bargain for. Steelhaven takes no prisoners, especially not the foreign sort. Watch your back and your purse at all times, y’hear?’
Massoum merely bowed his thanks for the needless advice, touching a finger to his brow then his lips in the traditional manner of the Dravhistan nomad. The first mate nodded before making himself busy elsewhere on deck.
Turning back towards the prow, Massoum watched the city looming ever larger. The ship became a hive of activity as burly seamen cut the sails, barking at one another above the cry of seagulls. Steelhaven, which before had appeared from the distant sea as a massive stone monolith, slowly revealed itself in all its glory. Towers rose from beyond the vast battlements of the curtain wall – not the domed spires he was so used to in his homeland, but square, robust affairs, looming and oppressive. If such was the architectural preference of the city’s tallest and most opulent minarets he could only imagine what kind of squat monstrosities had been built within their shadow. Above them all rose two great statues depicting warriors, a man and a woman; he carrying a vast hammer, she a spear and shield. Arlor and Vorena, the ancient heroes revered as gods by the Teutonians. Seeing these monoliths for the first time, peering across the city with ancient stone eyes, Massoum couldn’t help but be impressed.