Read The Reluctant Swordsman Online

Authors: Dave Duncan

Tags: #Fiction, #Fantasy, #Novel, #Series

The Reluctant Swordsman

BOOK ONE:
HOW THE SWORDSMAN WAS SUMMONED

 


“Keep my heart true to Your laws,” Honakura warbled, laying a shaky left hand on the smooth brilliance of the tiled floor.

“Let me serve Your will with all my strength,” he wailed, cracking on the high note as usual, and placing his equally frail right hand beside the left.
 
“And show my eyes Your purposes.” This was the tricky part—the ritual called for him to touch his forehead to the mosaic, but he had not achieved that maneuver these last fifteen years. He curled forward as far as he could. If the Goddess chose to stiffen his ancient joints, then She would have to settle for the best he could manage . . . and of course She would.

He strained there for a moment, hearing the quiet chanting of other priests and priestesses nearby as they also made their way through the morning dedication.
 
Then, with a quiet and unscheduled “Ooof!” of relief he pushed himself back to sit on his heels, place his palms together, and look up adoringly at Her. Now he was permitted a silent and private prayer, a personal appeal. He had no doubt what it would be, this day as many before it. Most High Goddess, do something about the swordsmen of Your guard!

She did not reply. He did not expect Her to. This was not the Goddess Herself, but merely an image to assist humble mortals in visualizing Her greatness. Who should know that better than a priest of the seventh rank? But She would hear his prayer and one day She would answer.

“Amen!” he quavered.

Now he could start to plan his day, but he remained for a moment sitting on his heels, hands still together, reflecting, gazing up lovingly at the majesty of the Most High and the vast stone trelliswork above Her, the roof of Her temple, the holiest of all the holy places in the World.
 
He had many meetings planned—with the Keeper of the Coffers, with the Master of Discipline for Acolytes, with many others, almost all holders of offices that Honakura himself had held at one time or another. Now he was merely Third Deputy Chairman of the Council of Venerables. That innocent-sounding title concealed much more than it revealed. Power, he had long since discovered, is best exercised in secret.

Around him the morning dedications were ending. Already the first of the day’s many pilgrims were being led in to make their offerings and supplications. Money was clinking into the bowls; prayers being mumbled under the quiet prompting of priests. He would begin, Honakura decided, by guiding a few pilgrims himself. It was a worthy service to the Most Holy; it was a task he enjoyed; it was a good example for the juniors. He lowered his hands and glanced around in the hope that there might be someone handy to help him rise—not the easiest of movements for him now.

At once a brown robe was at his side and strong hands assisted him. With a quiet mutter of thanks, Honakura reached his feet. He was about to turn away when the man spoke.

“I am Jannarlu, priest of the third rank . . . ” He was making the salute to a superior, words and hand gestures and bowings. For a moment Honakura reacted with shock and disapproval. Surely this young man did not think that so trifling a service could justify him in forcing himself on a lord of the Seventh? This place, before the dais and the idol, was the holy of holies, and while there was no law against conversation or formal saluting here, custom forbade it. Then he recalled this Jannarlu. He was old Hangafau’s grandson, said to have promise. He must know better, and therefore must have good reason for the impropriety.
 
So Honakura waited until the salute was completed and then made the ritual response: “I am Honakura, priest of the seventh rank . . . ” One of Jannarlu’s facemarks was still slightly inflamed, so he was a very new Third. He was tall—much taller than the diminutive Honakura—with a bony, ungainly presence and a hook nose. He seemed absurdly young, but then they all did these days.
 
Close by, an ancient crone dropped a gold in the bowl and began entreating the Goddess to cure the agony in her bowels. Beyond her a young couple were praying that She not send them any more children, for a few years at least.
 
As soon as Honakura had finished, the words spurted from Jannarlu: “My lord, there is a swordsman . . . a Seventh!”

She had answered!

“You left him out there?” Honakura demanded furiously, keeping his voice down with difficulty, struggling not to show emotion to anyone who might be watching.
 
The Third flinched, but nodded. “He is a Nameless One, my lord.” Honakura hissed in astonishment. Incredible! With forehead covered and wearing only black, like a beggar, anyone could become a Nameless One. By law, such persons could bear no goods and must be on the service of the Goddess. Many regarded it as a special penance, so the practice was not uncommon among pilgrims coming to the temple. But for a lord of the Seventh to reduce his standing in such a way was highly unusual. For a swordsman of any rank it was almost unthinkable. For a swordsman of the seventh rank . . . incredible!
 
It did explain how he had arrived alive. Could he be kept alive?
 
“I told him to cover again, my lord,” Jannarlu said diffidently. “He . . . he seemed quite pleased to do so.”

There was a hint of levity there, and Honakura shot him a warning glance while he pondered. Jannarlu’s ugly brown face seemed slightly flushed.
 
“You did not hurry, I hope?”

The Third shook his head. “No, my lord. I followed . . . ” He gestured toward the sick old crone, who was now being helped up by her attendant priestess.
 
“Well done, priest!” said Honakura, mollified. “Let us go and see this wonder of yours. We shall walk slowly, conversing of holy matters . . . and not in quite the right direction, if you please.”

The young man blushed with pleasure at the praise and fell into step beside him.
 
The great temple of the Goddess at Hann was not only the richest and oldest building in the World, it was certainly the largest. As Honakura turned from the dais, he was faced with a seemingly endless expanse of gleaming, multicolored floor, stretching off to the seven great arches that formed the facade. Many people were walking there, coming or going—pilgrims and their guides of the priesthood—but so vast was the space that mere human beings seemed hardly larger than mouse droppings. Beyond the arches, out in the brilliant sunlight, lay a view of the canyon and the River and the Judgment, whose rumbling roar had filled the temple for all its many millennia. Along the sides of the wide nave stood the shrines of lesser gods and goddesses, and above them the fretted windows blazed in hues of ruby, emerald, amethyst, and gold.
 
Honakura’s prayer had been answered. No . . . the prayers of many. He was certainly not the only one of Her servants here to make that prayer each day, yet it was to him that the news had been brought. He must move with caution and courage and determination, but he felt warm satisfaction that he had been chosen.

It took a long time for him to reach the arches, with the young Third fidgeting at his side. They made an odd pair, Honakura knew, in their priestly gowns, Jannarlu in the brown of a Third and he in the blue of a Seventh. The younger man was tall, but Honakura had never been tall and now he was shrunken and stooped, toothless and hairless. The juniors referred to him behind his back as the Wise Monkey, and the term amused him. Old age had few amusements. In the unkind silent hours of night he would feel his bones rubbing against the sheets and quietly wish that She would soon rescue him from it and let him start anew.
 
Yet perhaps She was reserving him in this life for one last service, and if so, then this was surely it. A swordsman of the seventh rank! They were rare, as the priests had discovered—rare, and very precious when needed.
 
As he walked, he decided that young Jannarlu had shown great discretion in coming to him, and not to some blabbermouth middlerank. He should be rewarded.
 
And kept quiet.

“Who is your mentor now?” he asked. “Yes, I know him. A worthy and holy man. But the Honorable Londossinu is in need of another protégé to assist him in some new duties. They are sensitive matters, and he needs a man of reticence and discretion.”

He glanced sideways at the youngster beside him and saw a flush of pleasure and excitement. “I should be greatly honored, my lord.” So he should be, a Third being offered a Sixth as mentor, but he seemed to be hearing the message. “Then I shall speak to your mentor and the holy one, and see if a transfer can be arranged. It will have to wait until after this matter of the swordsman, of course . . . until after that has been successfully concluded.”

“Of course, my lord.” Young Jannarlu was staring straight ahead, but could not quite suppress a smile.

“And where are you in your inurement?”

“I am due to start the fifth silence in another week,” said the lad, adding helpfully, “I am eager to begin.”

“You will begin as soon as I have met this marvel of yours,” Honakura stated, with a silent chuckle. “I shall send word to your mentor.” An astute young man!
 
The fifth silence lasted two weeks—the matter would certainly be settled by then.

At last they had reached the arches. Beyond them the great steps fell away like a hillside to the temple court. The top was already cluttered with rows of pilgrims patiently kneeling in the shadow. Later in the day, when the tropic sun discovered them, they would find the waiting harder.
 
Out of habit the priest glanced over the faces of the closest. As his eyes met theirs they bowed their heads respectfully to him, but from long experience he had already read the rank and craft marks of their brows and made a preliminary diagnosis—a potter of the Third, probably a health problem; a spinster of the Second, perhaps a sterility case; a goldsmith of the Fifth, good for a fair offering.

Few of the heads were bound. Honakura could make an easy guess as to the swordsman. The man had chosen to approach one of the side arches, which was fortunate because the token guard stood only at the center arch, but it was a curious choice for one of his rank. Something must be seriously awry for him.
 
“The big one, I assume? Very well. And there, I believe, is the Honorable Londossinu himself. Let us speak to him right away.” That was convenient, for Honakura disliked overloading his memory these days, and it was surely the handiwork of the Holiest. The whole affair was then disposed of in a dozen words—plus a few meaningful glances, nuances, hints, and insinuations. The transfer of mentors would be arranged, and Londossinu would get the committee appointments he had been seeking for two other protégés, plus promotion for another. And young Jannarlu would be kept quiet. Honakura waited until he saw the young man head back into the temple to begin the ritual of silence, quite unaware of most of the dealings that had just been completed around him. There was no hurry; the Nameless could bring no offerings and hence were low priority for the attendants.

Yes, the handiwork of the Goddess! His prayers had been answered by a highrank swordsman, the man had come—incredibly!—incognito and hence safely, and he had even avoided the two bored swordsmen posturing by the center arch, who might just possibly have guessed from his long hair that he was a swordsman. Praise to the Goddess!

Honakura began to amble in the right direction, nodding his head to the bows he received. By law, a Nameless One could only be questioned by priests or searched by swordsmen, but it was not unknown for junior swordsmen to torment such for sport. The little priest wondered what the reaction would be if some were to try that and discover that they were dealing with a swordsman of the Seventh. It would be an entertaining incident to watch. Fortunately, in the present case, the man’s rank had not yet been revealed.

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