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THE DRAGON’S PATH

CAPTAIN MARCUS WESTER

Marcus rubbed his chin with a callused palm.

“Yardem?”

“Sir?” rumbled the Tralgu looming at his side.

“The day you throw me in a ditch and take command of the company?”

“Yes, sir.”

“It wouldn’t be today, would it?”

The Tralgu crossed his thick arms and flicked a jingling ear.

“No, sir,” he said at last.  “Not today.”

“Pity.”

The public gaol of Vanai had once been a menagerie.  In ancient days, the dragons themselves had stalked the wide square and bathed in the great fountain at its center.  At the perimeter, a deep pit, and then great cages rising three stories high.  The dragon’s jade facades were carved with figures of the beasts that had once paced behind the iron bars: lions, gryphons, great six-headed serpents, wolves, bears, great birds with breasts like women.

Between them, pillars in the shapes of the thirteen races of mankind: tall-eared Tralgu, chitinous Timzinae, tusked Yemmu and on and on.  The Dartinae even had small braziers hidden in its eyeholes to mimic the glow of their gaze, though no one lit them anymore. The figures were unworn by time and rain, marred only by the black, weeping streaks where the bars had rusted away – nothing eroded dragon’s jade and nothing broke it.  But the animals themselves were gone, and in their place, people.

Sullen or angry or bored, the guests of Vanai’s justice were displayed in their shame for ridicule and identification while they waited for the sentence of the appointed magistrate.  Good, upstanding citizens could parade through the square where few bronze pennies would buy offal from a stand, usually wrapped in a sling of rags.  Boys would make a show of showering loose shit, dead rats, and rotting vegetables over the prisoners.  A few tearful wives and husbands would bring cheese and butter to throw across the void, but even if the gift reached the intended hand, there was no peace in prison.  As they watched from the low wall at the pit’s edge, Marcus saw one such lucky man – a Kurtadam with clicking beads in his close, otter-smooth pelt – being beaten for his round of white bread while a pack of firstblood boys laughed and pointed at him and called out Clicker, clicker, ass-licker and other racial insults.

In the lowest row of cells, seven men sat.  Most had the build and scars of soldiers, but one kept himself apart, thin legs stuck between the bars, heels swinging over the pit.  The six soldiers had been Marcus’ men.  The other, the company cunning man.  They belonged to the prince now.

“We’re being watched,” the Tralgu said.

“I know.”

The cunning man raised an arm in a rueful wave.  Marcus responded with false smile and a less polite gesture.  His former cunning man looked away.

“Not him, sir.  The other one.”

Marcus shifted his attention away from the cages.  It only took a moment to see the man Yardem meant.  Not far from the wide space where the street spilled into the square, a young man in the gilt armor of the prince’s guard slouched at ease.  A tug at his memory brought Marcus the man’s name.

“Well, God smiles,” Marcus said sourly.

The guard, seeing himself noticed, gave a rough salute and walked toward them.  He was thick-faced and soft about the shoulders.  The smell of bathhouse cedar oil came off him like he’d been dipped in it.  Marcus shrugged the way he did before a fight.

“Captain Wester,” the guard said with a nod.  And then, “And Yardem Hane.  Still following the captain, are you?”

“Sergeant Dossen, isn’t it?” Marcus said.

“Tertian Dossen, now.  The prince keeps to the old titles.  Those your men?”

“Who those?” Marcus asked with feigned innocence.  “Worked with lots of men, one time and another.  Shouldn’t be surprised if I knew men in every gaol in the free cities.”

“That bunch there.  We herded them up last night for being drunk and causing trouble.”

“Men will do that.”

“You don’t know anything about it?”

“I wouldn’t want to say anything that might get back to the magistrate,” Marcus said. “He might not take it the way I meant.”

Dossen spat into the wide air of the ditch.

“I can respect you wanting to keep them out of trouble, Captain.  But it wouldn’t make a difference.  War’s coming, and the prince needs men. That lot has training.  Experience.  They’ll be impressed into the army.  Might even get ranks.”

Marcus felt the anger growing, the warmth in his chest and belly, the sense he had grown an inch taller.  Like all things that felt good, he distrusted it.

“You sound like there’s something you want to say.”

Dossen smiled like a river snake.

“You’ve still got a reputation.  Captain Wester, hero of Gradis and Wodford.  The prince would notice that.  You could take a fair commission.”

“Princes, barons, dukes.  They’re all just little kings,” Marcus said, a degree more hotly than he’d intended.  “I don’t work for kings.”

“You will for this one,” Dossen said.

Yardem scratched his belly and yawned.  It was a signal that reminded Marcus to keep his temper.  Marcus took his hand off the pommel of his blade.

“Dossen, old friend,” Marcus said, “a good half of this city’s defense is hired men.  I’ve seen Karol Dannian and his boys.  Merrisan Koke.  Your prince will lose all of them if the word gets out that he’s impressing professional soldiers who are under contract–”

Dossen’s jaw actually dropped in astonishment.

“You aren’t under contract,” he said.

“I am,” Marcus said.  “We’re guard on a caravan for Carse up in Northcoast.  Already paid”

The guard looked across the gap at the incarcerated men, the dejected cunning man, and the rust-streaked jade.  A pigeon landed on the carved foot of a gryphon, shook its pearl-grey tailfeathers, and shat on the cunning man’s knee.  An old man behind them brayed out a laugh.

“You don’t have any men,” Dossen said.  “Those are your caravan guards right there.  You and the dog-boy can’t guard a ‘van by yourselves.  The papers call for eight sword-and-bows and a company cunning man.”

“Didn’t know you’d read our contract,” Yardem said.  “And don’t call me dog-boy.”

Dossen pressed his lips together, eyes narrow and annoyed.  His armor clinked when he shrugged, too thin a sound for the metal to be much more than show.

“Yes, I saw it.”

“But I’m sure it had nothing to do with those particular men getting rounded up,” Marcus said.

“You’d best come along, Captain.  The city of Vanai needs you.”

“The caravan leaves in three days,” Marcus said.  “And I leave with it.  Under contract.”

Dossen didn’t move, but his face flushed red.  Marcus suspected that a member of the prince’s guard wasn’t used to being refused.

“You think you’re above men like me?” Dossen said.  “You think you can dictate terms and the world’s going to listen?  Wake up, Wester.  You’re a long way from the fields of Ellis.”

Yardem grunted like he’d taken a body blow and shook his massive head.

“I wouldn’t have mentioned Ellis,” he said, his voice a low rumble.

Dossen looked up at the Tralgu with contempt, then at Marcus, and then, nervously, away.

“Didn’t mean disrespect to your family, Captain,” he said.

“Walk away,” Marcus said.  “Do it now.”

Dossen stepped back.  Just out of thrusting range, he paused.

“Three days until the ‘van leaves,” Dossen said.

The rest was clear.  Fail to meet the terms of the contract, and answer to the prince.  Like it or no. Marcus didn’t answer.  Dossen turned and strode into the square.

“That’s a problem,” Yardem said.

“It is.”

“We need men, sir.”

“We do.”

“Any thoughts on where we find them?”

“No.”

Marcus took one more despairing look at the men who had once been his, shook his head, and left the menagerie behind.

The city of Vanai had once been a seaport at the mouth of the river Taneish, but centuries of silt had slowly pressed the river mouth away until now it lay a full morning’s ride to the south.  The canals and waterways laced the city, and the flatboats still came there on the way to and from the smaller, younger city of Newport carrying grain and wool, silver and timber from the countries to the north.

Like all the free cities, Vanai had a history of conflict.  It had been a republic led by a lottery-chosen council, the private holding of a monarch, the ally or enemy of Birancour or the Severed Throne depending on which way the wind blew.  It had been a center of religion, and of revolt against religion.  Every incarnation had left its mark upon the white stone buildings, the greasy canals, the narrow streets and open squares.

Here, ancient gates still hung at rest, prepared to protect the halls of the Common Council though the last councilmen were all generations dead.  There, a noble bronze statue showed the wise and solemn countenance of a robed and mitred bishop streaked with verdigris and pigeon shit.  The streets had signs in wood and stone from a thousand years of history, so that a single alley might be called by a dozen names.  Iron gates marked the twenty, tiny political districts, allowing the Prince to remake the pathways through the city at his whim, protection against riots and conspiracy.

But even more than the architecture, Vanai wore its past in the character of its people.

Timzinae and Firstblood were most common, but glow-eyed, hairless Dartinae, the reed-thin, snow-pale Cinnae, and bronze-scaled Jasuru all had districts within the city’s wide, white walls.  Time and experience had given them all a sophisticated, cynical edge.  Walking through the narrow streets beside rich green canals, Marcus could see all the small signs of it.  Firstblood merchants, loyalists to the prince, offered the soldiers discounts on goods that had been marked higher for the purpose.  The beer houses and physicians, tanners and cobblers and professionals of every sort prepared fresh signs in Imperial Antean script so that business could go on unabated after the war was lost.  Old Timzinae men, their dark scales greying and cracked, sat cross-legged at quayside tables talking about the last revolution when the prince’s father had taken power from the republic.  Their granddaughters walked in groups wearing thin white skirts of an almost imperial cut, black-scaled legs showing through the cloth like shadows.

Yes, some soldiers would die.  Yes, some buildings would burn.  Some women would be raped.  Some fortunes would be lost.  It was an evil that the city would weather, as it had before, and no one expected the disaster would come to them in particular.  The soul of the city could be summarized with a shrug.

In a green-grass common, a weathered theatrical cart had dropped its side, the shallow stage hanging with dirty yellow ribbons.  The small crowd standing before it looked curious and skeptical in equal measure.  As Marcus walked past, an old man stepped out from behind the ribbons.  His hair stood high on his head, and his beard jutted.

“Stop!” the man cried in a deep and resonant voice.  “Stop now, and come near!  Hear the tale of Aleren Mankiller and the Sword of the Dragons!  Or if you are faint of heart, move on.  For our tale is one of grand adventure.  Love, war, betrayal, and vengeance shall spill out now, upon these poor boards, and I warn you . . .”

The actor’s voice seemed to drop to a whisper, though it still carried as clearly as the shouting.

“. . . not all that are good end well.  Not all that are evil are punished.  Come close, my friends, and know that in our tale as in the world, anything may happen.”

Marcus didn’t realize he’d stopped walking until Yardem spoke.

“He’s good.”

“Is, isn’t he?”

“Watch for a bit, sir?”

Marcus didn’t answer, but like the rest of the small crowd, stepped closer.  The play was a standard enough tale.  An ancient prophecy, an evil rising from the depths of hell, and a relic of the Dragon Empire destined for the hand of the hero.  The woman who played the maiden fair was perhaps a bit too old, and the man who spoke the hero’s part a little too soft.  But the lines were well delivered, and the troupe was professionally rehearsed.  Marcus picked out a long-haired woman and a stick-thin youth in the crowd who laughed at all the right times and put down hecklers: spare players planted in the audience.  But each time the actor who had called the introduction came onstage, Marcus lost his train of thought.

The old man played Orcus the Demon King with such a sense of evil and pathos that it was easy to forget it was all for show.  When the Aleren Mankiller swung the Dragon Sword and blood gouted down the Demon King’s chest, Marcus had to stop himself from reaching for his blade.

In the end, and despite the actor’s warnings, the good triumphed, the evil were vanquished, and the players took their bows.  Marcus was startled by the applause; the crowd had doubled without his noticing.  Even Yardem was thumping his plate-wide palms together and grinning.  Marcus dug a silver coin out of the pouch hung under his shirt and tossed it onto the boards.  It landed with a hard tap, and a moment later Orcus the Demon King was smiling and bowing in a small rain shower of money.  He thanked them for their generosity and their kindness with such warmth that even walking away, Marcus found himself thinking of people as generous and kind.

The early autumn sun was lowering, the pale city glowing gold.  The audience unwound itself from around the stage, breaking off in groups of two and three to walk across the sward.  Marcus sat on a stone bench under a yellow-leafed oak and watched as the actors reassembled their cart.  A pack of Firstblood children descended upon the players, laughing, and were chased away with grins.  Marcus leaned back and considered the darkening sky through the tree’s boughs.

“You have a plan,” Yardem said.

“Do I?”

“Yes, sir.”

It had been a fine little play.  Not a huge cast.  Alaren Mankiller and his companion.  The maiden fair.  Orcus the Demon King.  The one man who’d taken all the small business as villager or demon or nobleman, depending on his hat.  Five people for a full play’s work.  And the two leading the crowd . . .

Seven people.

“Ah,” Marcus said.  “So I do.”


Seven people sat at the wide round table drinking beer and eating cheese and sausage paid from Marcus’ diminishing funds.  The two from the crowd were the thin boy Mikel and the long-haired woman Cary.  The youth who’d played the hero was Sandr, the elderly maiden fair was Opal, the hero’s companion was Hornet, and the jack-of-all-roles was Smit.  Yardem sat with them, a wide, gentle smile on his face, like a mother hound surrounded by puppies.

Marcus sat apart at a smaller table with Orcus the Demon King.

“And I,” Orcus said, “am called Kitap rol Keshmet, among other things.  Most often, Master Kit.”

“I’m not going to remember all those names,” Marcus said.

“We’ll remind you.  I don’t think anyone is likely to take offense,” Master Kit said, “especially if you keep buying the drinks.”

“Fair point.”

“Which brings us to the question, doesn’t it, Captain?  I can’t think you’ve brought us all here out of your overflowing love of the stage?”

“No.”

Master Kit raised his eyebrows in an unspoken question.  Off the stage and out of makeup, he was an interesting looking man.  He had a long face and steel-grey hair.  The deep olive tone of his skin reminded Marcus of the Firstblood men who lived in the deserts across the Inner Sea, and his eyes were so dark, Marcus suspected there might be Southling blood in his heritage somewhere not too far back.

“The prince wants to press me into his army,” Marcus said.

“I understand that,” Master Kit said.  “We lost two of our company that way.  Sandr’s our understudy.  He’s been getting up before the sun reciting lines.”

“I’d rather not work for the prince,” Marcus said.  “And as long as I have a legitimate contract, the issue won’t arise.”

“The issue?”

“Refusing a press gang ends you up on the field or in in a grave.  And I’m not going in the field for Vanai.”

Master Kit frowned, great brows curving in like caterpillars.

“I hope you’ll forgive me, Captain.  Did you just tell me this a matter of life and death for you?”

“Yes.”

“You seem very calm about that.”

“It’s not the first time.”

The actor leaned back in his chair, fingers laced over his flat belly.  He looked thoughtful and sober, but also interested.  Marcus took a swig of the beer.  It tasted of yeast and molasses.

“I don’t think I can hide both of you,” Master Kit said.  “You, perhaps.  We have ways of making a man not seem himself, but a Tralgu this far west?  If the prince knows to look for you, I’m afraid keeping with your friend is like hanging a flag on you.  We’d be caught.”

“I don’t want to join your troupe,” Marcus said.

“No?” Master Kit said.  “Then what are we talking about?”

At the other table, the long-haired woman stood on her chair, struck a noble pose and began declaiming the Rite of St. Ancian in a comic lisp.  The others all laughed, except Yardem who smiled amusedly and flicked his ears.  Cary.  Her name was Cary.

“I want your troupe to join me.  There’s a caravan to Carse.”

“We call ourselves a traveling company,” Master Kit said.  “I think Carse is a good venue, and we haven’t been there in years.  But I don’t see how putting us in your ‘van helps you.”

“The prince took my men.  I need you to replace them.  I want you to act as guards.”

“You’re serious.”

“I am.”

Master Kit laughed and shook his head.

“We aren’t fighters,” he said.  “All that on stage is dance and show.  Faced with a real soldier, I doubt we would acquit ourselves very well.”

“I don’t need you to be guards,” Marcus said.  “I need you to act as them.  Raiders aren’t stupid.  They calculate their chances just the way anyone would.  Caravans fall because they don’t have enough bodies in armor or they’re carrying something that makes it worth the risk.  If we put your people in leather and bows, no one is going know whether they can use them.  And the cargo we’re hauling isn’t worth a fight.”

“No?”

“Tin and iron.  Undyed wool.  Some leatherwork,” Marcus said.  “A man in the Old Quarter called Magister Will put together an association of merchants to send out their goods as near the battle as they can and hope the fighting’s over before payment comes.  It’s small and low risk.  If I were a raider, I wouldn’t look at it twice.”

“And the pay is good?”

“Very good,” Marcus said.

Master Kit crossed his arms, frowning.

“Well, it’s decent,” Marcus said.  “For what it is.  And it will get your people out of harm’s way.  Even soft little gentlemen’s wars like this spill some blood, and you have women in your troupe.”

“I think Cary and Opal can look after themselves,” Master Kit said.

“Not if the city’s sacked.  Princes and empires don’t care if a few actors get raped and killed.  People like you are beneath their notice, and the foot soldiers know that.”

The actor looked at the larger table.  Several conversations seemed to be going on simultaneously, some of the actors taking part in all of them.  The older man’s gaze softened.

“I believe you, Captain.”

They sat in silence for a moment, only the roar of the fire in the grate, other voices raised in conversation, and the chill evening wind rattling the doors and windows.  The chimney draw was poor, and belched occasional puffs of smoke into the rooms.  The actor shook his head.

“May I ask you something?” Master Kit said.

“Go ahead.”

“I know your reputation.  And I have the sense that you are a man with experience.  Well-bruised by the world.  Guarding small caravans in the Free Cities seems to me an odd place to find you.”

“That’s not a question,” Marcus said.

“Why are you doing this?”

Marcus shrugged.

“Too stubborn to die,” he said, trying to make it sound like a joke.  Master Kit’s smile would have been pitying if it hadn’t carried some hidden suffering of its own.

“I believe that too, Captain.  Well.  You need nine soldiers to protect the last caravan from free Vanai?”

“Eight,” Marcus said.  “Eight soldiers and a cunning man.”

Master Kit looked up at the soot-darkened ceiling.

“I have always wanted to play a cunning man,” he said.

(c) 2011, Daniel Abraham