Authors: Dave Duncan
Tags: #Fiction, #Fantasy, #Novel, #Series
First your brother you must chain. And from another wisdom gain. When the mighty has been spurned, An army earned, a circle turned, So the lesson may be learned. Finally return that sword And to its destiny accord.
The riddle of the demigod— his instructions to Lord Shonsu
A tryst had been called in Casr and the Goddess had blessed it. Now any boat or ship that carried a swordsman might find itself arriving at Casr.
The swordsmen would then disembarked and went in search of glory. The vessels would then be returned by Her Hand to their home waters, where the crews and passengers spread the word: A tryst had been called.
In the villages, the cities, and the palaces of the World, Her swordsmen heard the summons. They heard it in the steamy jungles of Aro and on the windy plains of Grin; among the orchards of Altia and the paddies of Az. They heard it in sandy Ib Man and under the glacier peaks of Zor.
Garrison swordsmen heard it in corridors or busy streets. Free swords heard it on hillsides or on shabby village jetties. They sharpened their blades, they oiled men, boots and harnesses—and they headed down to the River.
Garrisons were hi turmoil as excited juniors sought out their mentors, demanding to be led to Casr or released from their oaths. The seniors had then to decide—to stay with their comforts, their sinecures, and their families, or to heed the ball of honor and the entreaties of their proteges. Some chose honor and others contempt.
The wandering bands of free swords had no such problem, for they were on Her service at all times. In many cases they did not even discuss the matter—they merely rose to their feet and went.
Yet the Goddess could take but few of Her swordsmen, or She would have left Her world without law and without order. Many an eager company embarked, and sailed, and soon found the light changing, the weather altered, the scenery shifted, and Casr coming up ahead. Others no less eager, and apparently no less worthy, embarked and sailed and were disappointed—the River did not change for them. No true swordsman would believe that he was undeserving... There was argument. Argument led to recrimination, recrimination to quarrel, quarrel to insult, insult to challenge, and challenge to bloodshed. The wounded went to the healers, the dead to the River. The survivors disembarked, reformed in other groupings, and tried again in other ships.
Not only swordsmen heard the call. Behind them came their wives, their slaves, their concubines, and often their children. Came, too, the heralds and the armorers, the minstrels and the healers, and also moneylenders and cobblers and hostlers and cooks and whores. The youth of the World followed the swordsmen onto the ships and waited to see where the great River would bear them. Not for centuries had the Goddess summoned Her swordsmen to a tryst. Such confusion and disruption of the social order were unknown in the memory of the People.
On reaching Casr every swordsman asked the same question: Why had this tryst been called, who was the enemy?
And the answer to that was—sorcerers*.
For a swordsman of the seventh rank to hide—from anyone or anything—was unthinkable. Nevertheless, Wallie was being deliberately inconspicuous, to say the least.
He had spent the morning on deck, leaning on the gunwale and witnessing the tumult and bustle of the docks at Tau, but he had undipped his swordsman ponytail, letting his thick black hair fall free to his shoulders. He had removed his harness and sword and laid them on the deck at his feet. The side of the ship concealed his blue Seventh’s kilt and his swordsman boots. Passersby would therefore see only a very large young man with unusually long hair, unless they came close enough to note the seven swords on his brow. The dock was low hi Tau; it would take good eyes to do mat.
Two weeks of uninterrupted sailing from Ov had left Sapphire with stores depleted and much unfinished business. Mothers had herded children off to seek dentists. Old Lina had tottered down the plank to haggle with hawkers for meat and fruit and vegetables, and also flour and spices and salt. Nnanji had taken his brother to find a healer and have the cast on his arm replaced. Jja had gone shopping with Lae. Young Sinboro, having been judged to have reached manhood, had strutted off with his parents in search of a facemarker—there would be a party on board that evening.
Normally Brota sold the cargo and Tomiyano scouted for
another, but now the sailors were fretting about ballast and trim, so the roles were reversed. Big fat Brota strapped on her sword, took Mata along to wield it if necessary, and waddled away in search of profit. Tomiyano ordered two bronze ingots laid at the foot of the plank, stood young Matarro beside them, and headed back on board to attend to other business.
He was not left long in peace—traders arrived and Matarro fetched the captain. As a bargainer, Tomiyano was very nearly as shrewd as his mother. Wallie eavesdropped happily from his post on the rail while the discussion raged below him. Eventually the price range was narrowed, and the traders came on board to inspect the main cargo in the hold. Wallie turned his attention back to the dock life.
Tau was Wallie’s favorite among all the cities of the Regi,Vul loop, although to call Tau a city was to stretch the term to its limit. As in most towns and cities, the dock road was too narrow for its duties, cramped between the bollards, gangplanks, and piles of unloaded cargoes on one side and the traders* warehouses on the other. The sun was unusually warm for a day in fall and it shone on a scene of loud and colorful disorder. Wagons rumbled and clanked, pedestrians milled, slave gangs sweated, hawkers pulled carts and shouted their wares. There were no rules—traffic went wherever it could find a space. The clamor of wheels mingled with oaths and insults and abuse. Yet the People were a good,natured race, and in the main the tumult was without rancor. The air smelled of horses and dust and people.
Wallie enjoyed watching the horses of the World. They seemed so mythological—the head of a camel and body of a basset hound. They smelled Earthlike enough, though. During fee morning he had observed a herd of goats being unloaded. He had been amused to learn that goats had antlers, not horns. Goats smelled very earthy.
The backdrop for all this noisy confusion was a facade of two,story warehouses that fascinated him—dark oak woodwork and beige parqueting like a movie set of Merrie England; diamond,paned windows and beetling roofs of fuzzy thatch. Yet, however medieval or Tudor the architecture might seem to him, there were no farthingaled damsels or beruffed Elizabe,
than gallants strutting this stage. The dress of the People was simple and plain—kilts or loincloths on the men and wraps for the women, with the elders of both sexes decently concealed in robes. Youngsters ran naked. They were a brown,skinned, brown,haired folk, lithe and merry, and brown also was tine dominant shade of their garb, the color worn by Thirds, qualified artisans of the three hundred and forty,three crafts of the World. The yellow of Seconds and the white of Firsts brightened the texture, with the rarer orange and red and green of higher ranks scattered around in the surging, scurrying throng.
A skinny youth in a white loincloth ran past Wallie and dashed down the plank to go racing and dodging off through the crowd, narrowly avoiding death under the wheels of a two,horse wagon. He was one of the traders’ juniors, so he had undoubtedly been sent to fetch help. That meant that Tomiyano had made a sale. In a few minutes the captain emerged on deck and saw his visitors off. The smile that he then allowed himself told Wallie that the price had been more man satisfactory.
Tomiyano was an effective young man, aggressive and muscular, weathered to a dark chestnut, with hair approaching red, although not as red as Nnanji’s. He wore only a skimpy brown breechclout, plus a belt and dagger to show mat he was captain. Craftmarks of three ships were marked on his forehead, but he was a very competent sailor, who could have qualified for much higher rank had he wished. The scar on his face had been made by a sorcerer, and Wallie now knew that it was an acid bum.
Yet Tomiyano was a mere stripling alongside Wallie. Swordsmen were rarely big, but Shonsu had been an exception —very big. The sailor had to tilt his head back to meet Wallie’s eyes. He did that now, and his face was full of astonishment.
“Hiding?” he demanded.
Wallie shrugged and smiled. “Being cautious.”
The captain’s eyes narrowed. “Is that how swordsmen behaved in your dream world, Shonsu?”
It was only within the last couple of weeks that Wallie had taken the crew of Sapphire totally into his confidence, explaining
that he was not the original Shonsu, swordsman of the seventh rank; that his soul had been brought from another world and been given die body of Shonsu, his skill with a sword, and his unaccomplished mission for the gods, Tomiyano was a skeptical man. He had learned to trust Lord Shonsu—learned with difficulty, for the crew of Sapphire had little liking for swordsmen—but he still had trouble accepting so incredible a story. And tact was not the captain’s most conspicuous trait.
Wallie sighed, thinking of plainclothes detectives and unmarked patrol cars. “Yes,” he admitted. “They did this quite a lot.”
Tomiyano snorted in disgust. “And last time we came to Tau you were screaming because you couldn’t find a swordsman. Now the place is full of them.”
“Exactly,” Wallie said.
That was what he had been studying—swordsmen. Their ponytails and sword hilts made them conspicuous as they strode through the crowds, and sane civilians made way for swordsmen. They walked in twos or threes, sometimes fours or fives. Brown kilts were the most common, of course, but Wallie had seen several Fourths, two Fifths, and even—surprisingly—one Sixth. He had counted forty,two swordsmen in die last hour. Tau indeed was full of mem.
Tomiyano looked down at the busy street for a while and then said, “Why?”
Wallie leaned his elbows on the rail and attempted to put his concern into words. “Work it out, Captain. Suppose you’re a swordsman. The Goddess has brought you to Tau and you’re on your way to Casr. You have a protg or two with you. You’re a Third, or a Fourth, maybe. There must be hundreds of swordsmen in Casr now... What’s the first thing a swordsman will want when he gets there?”
Tomiyano spat over the side. “Women!”
Wallie chuckled. “Of course. Anything else?”
The sailor nodded, understanding. “A mentor?”
“Right! They’re going to start banding together. Every one of them will be looking out for a good senior to swear to.”
“And you don’t want an army?” Tomiyano asked.
Wallie grinned at him. “Have you room on board?” There
would be few Sevenths around, and some of those would be getting old, for only rarely could a swordsman reach seventh rank before he was thirty and already at his peak, although Shonsu had obviously done so—Wallie had frequently studied his face in a mirror and decided he must be somewhere in his middle twenties. He was young, therefore. He was big and steely,eyed. If he were to stand at the top of the gangplank with his blue kilt visible, he would be fighting off would,be recruits in no time.
“No!” the captain said firmly. The thought of a few dozen swordsmen on his beloved Sapphire would be enough to loosen his teeth. He smiled faintly and muttered, “Considerate of you!”
And that, Wallie thought, was almost another miracle in itself.
“Look there!” he said.