32nd day, Month of the Bat, Year of the Dog 9th Year of Imperial Prince Cyron’s Court 162nd Year of the Komyr Dynasty 736th year since the Cataclysm Imperial Road South Nalenyr
Moraven Tolo reached the crest of the hill a few steps before his traveling companions. The half-blind old man who wheezed up behind him gasped involuntarily. He looked back as his grandson and great-grandson joined him, then gestured at the city in the distance. “There it is, Moriande, the grandest city in the world.”
The swordsman nodded slowly in agreement. The road ran down the forested hillside and glimpses of it could be seen twisting through the Gold River valley to the city. It had been years since he’d seen Nalenyr’s capital, and it had grown, but was still easily recognizable. Wentokikun, the tallest of the city’s nine towers, dominated its eastern quarter, and using that as a landmark made fixing the other places easier.
The old man, his wispy beard and hair dancing in the light breeze, nodded toward Moriande. “The biggest tower, there to the east, is the Imperial Palace. I may not see well now, but I see it clear. It makes me remember when I last saw it.”
Moraven remained silent, though the sight of the capital filled him with much the same awe as it did the rest of the pilgrims. Moriande’s growth reflected the change in the world. As wild magic decreased in civilized lands, and trade brought prosperity, Moriande became a symbol of hope. While people always feared a return of the Time of Black Ice and the magic that had spawned it, they dared believe it could be held at bay. Moriande had grown not because of magic and superstition, but because of a victory over it.
The pace of that growth had surprised Moraven, and it clearly had accelerated in recent decades beneath the Komyr Dynasty. Many times over the last week Moraven had heard about how the old man had come to Moriande eighty-one years earlier, for the first grand Festival celebrating the Komyr Dynasty. It had survived nine cycles of nine years then, and twice that now. With this being the ninth year of the current Prince’s Court, people knew that the Festival was a double blessing. The old man’s hope to capitalize on that blessing was the reason for leading his scions on the long journey north.
The city was so huge that it seemed far closer than a two-day walk from where they stood. The Gold River split the white sprawl down the middle, with a broad oxbow curving to the north. Six of the city’s nine towers stood in the northern half, and the other three—including the Prince’s Dragon Tower, Wentokikun—lay on the southern side. Equally magnificent, though harder to see at that distance, were the nine soaring bridges arching over the sparkling river. Their height allowed even the grandest ship to pass beneath them with ease, and their width made the Imperial Road look like a game path.
Matut, the old man, tousled his great-grandson’s hair with an arthritically twisted hand. “I was ten when I came to the Festival. You are but nine, as old as the court and a tenth my age. I’m sure the gods will make something of that. Your little problem will be dealt with easily, Dunos.”
The little boy nodded solemnly. His right hand rubbed at his withered left arm as he looked over at Moraven. “It will be as my grandfather says, won’t it, swordsman?”
Moraven crouched and gave the brown-haired boy a nod. “He is correct, but as my Master’s Master told him, ‘The gods grant the tools and talent, yet yours is the effort.’ The gods will heal you, I have no doubt, but you will have to work.”
“I’ll work. Then I can be a swordsman, too.”
“We might need more than a swordsman in the mill, son.” The boy’s father smiled and tapped a belt pouch that rang with the muffled sound of coins. “We will do this right, make our offerings to the gods, then enjoy the Festival.”
“Of course, Alait, of course.” The old man chuckled himself into a wheeze. “There will be pleasures a young man like yourself and our friend here can enjoy. I was too young last time, and am too old this time.”
Rising, Moraven smiled and smoothed his long black hair at the back of his neck. “You are of a blessed age, grandfather. There will be many who will seek your touch for fortune’s sake.”
“May they all be as comely and soft as the Lady of Jet and Jade.” The old man looked at him with rheumy brown eyes and flexed a stiff hand. “It might be I don’t see so well anymore, but I can feel.”
Alait laughed and Moraven joined him. Dunos looked puzzled, and a richly robed merchantman’s wife sniffed. She had often done so when conversations had revolved around Matut’s stories of the Festival and all the carnal pleasures he’d seen there. She, they had been informed, was going to the capital at the invitation of “people” who, they were also told, would get her husband an imperial appointment—though she had always remained vague on what it was and why he wasn’t with her.
The rest of the traveling company was a fair mix of people from within and without Nalenyr. Four were entertainers coming up from Erumvirine, while the rest were from Nalenyr itself. They’d all agreed that traveling in a company of eighteen was a very good omen, and numerous offerings had been made in the shrines scattered along the roadway to ensure the favor of the gods. Each made offerings according to his means, with the peasants clad in brown or grey homespun being a bit more quiet and circumspect in their devotions than the more extravagantly dressed. And many made extra offerings for Dunos in payment for little chores he performed on the road.
The merchantman’s wife had neither made offerings for Dunos nor employed him, running him off with waves and snorts. In his grandfather’s words, she had been “Loud in prayer, but in offerings spare.”
Moraven Tolo fell into the middle of the two groups, being neither rich nor poor. Black woolen trousers were tucked into leather boots and his shirt had been made of undyed linen. Only his quilted sleeveless overshirt of white silk, with the wide starched shoulders and the black tigers embroidered breast and back, hinted at any prosperity. It wrapped closed and was belted with a black sash.
He’d slipped his sword into the sash, only just having reclaimed it from the boy. Dunos had proudly carried it for him, and Moraven had made offerings to the gods in recompense. He alone in the company bore a sword, though he was not the only one armed. Two of the farmers had flails, which they carried over their shoulders.
Matut’s eyes half lidded and the old man shook. “It was here it happened on that first trip. I remember it now.”
Dunos clutched at his grandfather’s left hand. “The bandits?”
The merchantman’s wife hissed. “Be quiet, child. Don’t give the gods ideas.”
Moraven glanced further down the road as three figures—two male, one female—slipped from the woods to the center of the road. “The mind of gods was not the womb of this idea.”
The female bandit, wearing black beneath an overshirt of scarlet and gold, drew her sword and led her two companions lazily toward the pilgrims. To her left the smaller one, wearing a motley collection of greens and browns, fitted an arrow to his recurve bow. He hung back slightly and positioned himself for a clear shot.
The third figure wore a ragged brown robe that might have come to midshin on most men, but barely covered the tops of his thighs. A long tangle of unkempt hair matched the giant’s scraggly beard. Dirt caked every inch of his exposed flesh and drew black lines beneath his fingernails. As imposing as he was, however, the long-hafted mallet he carried made more of an impression. With a head as big around as a melon and an irregular darkness staining the face, it was clearly intended for crushing skulls.
The bandit woman tried to smile, but a scar on her left cheek curdled the expression. “We welcome you to the Imperial Road. We are your servants, who keep it open and free of banditry. Surely you will want to show your appreciation.”
Conoursai, the merchantman’s wife, waved them aside with a courtly gesture full of arrogance. “This is the Prince’s highway. His troops keep it clear.”
The highwaywoman shook her head. “Clearly, then, they are negligent in their duty, grandmother.” She offered the honorific to shock Conoursai, and was rewarded with an offended hiss. “But, as we are not the Prince’s troops, we must be highwaymen. Will you pay tribute and be honored or suffer as victims?”
Matut moaned. “This is how it began last time.”
Moraven patted him on the shoulder. “This has long been known as a place where people stop in awe to look at the city. Bandits sneak up unawares.”
The little boy stooped and picked up a rock. “I’ll fight them.”
“No need, brave one.” Moraven Tolo moved again to the fore, slipping effortlessly past Conoursai. He motioned to the two farmers to stay back. Taking a position in the center of the road, he bowed toward the bandits.
“I am xidantzu. I wish harm to come to none. These people are under my protection. It will cost you nothing to walk away.”
“Xidantzu.” The woman spat contemptuously and plucked at her overshirt. “The last wandering meddler coming through here gave me this and those he protected gave us their gold.”
Moraven’s eyes sharpened. The scarlet overshirt had bats on the wing woven into it. He knew the man to whom it belonged. “Did you steal it, or was Jayt Macyl slain?”
She gestured with her sword to the west, then swung the blade in a short arc. “There are pieces of him all along here. He was Sixth Rank only. I am Pavynti Syolsar, and I am ranked Superior.”
He considered for a moment. Jayt Macyl had indeed been a swordsman of the Sixth Rank. Her defeating him might well make her Seventh Rank, or just someone who had gotten lucky. He was tempted, given her relative youth, to believe it was the latter, but he also knew appearances could be deceiving.
“I am Moraven Tolo of the School of Jatan.”
The bandit woman snorted. “Macyl was of Serrian Jatan. This holds no fear for me.”
Moraven shook his head. “Macyl studied under Eron Jatan. My Master was his grandfather.”
Her face slackened slightly. “Phoyn Jatan?”
“Yes. I am somewhat older than I appear.” Moraven did his best to ignore the murmurs coming from his traveling companions. “If you still wish to fight, name your terms.”
“I am not afraid of you.” Pavynti’s brown eyes narrowed. “To the death, of course.”
He nodded. “Draw the circle.”
That stopped her for a moment. It also brought gasps from his traveling companions and a joyous shout from Dunos. His father cut that short by clapping a hand over the boy’s mouth as he dragged his son back. Most of the company likewise retreated, putting the crest of the hill between themselves and the combatants. Those who did not drew little circles around themselves or dug out previously hidden talismans against magic, and one farmer slid off a horsehair bracelet, which he held up to one eye so he would be safe as he watched the fight.
“The c-circle?” Pavynti’s expression tightened.
“You heard me correctly.” Moraven slid his sword, still in its wooden scabbard, from his belt. “It would be best.”
Shaken, she began to toe a line in the roadway’s dirt. Her companions, understanding the import of his request, acted. The archer loosed an arrow and the giant bellowed and began to charge. By the time the giant had passed Pavynti, the archer’s second and third missiles were also in the air.
Moraven Tolo twisted his right shoulder back, letting the first shaft pass harmlessly wide. The second tugged at his overshirt’s sleeve, passing through it, but missing flesh. He slid forward a half step, letting the third arrow pass behind him, then ran at the giant, clutching his sword midscabbard in his left hand.
The giant’s mallet rose above his head and his mouth gaped in a horrid display of misaligned, yellowed teeth. Black eyes shrank. Veins throbbed in his forehead and neck. His incoherent war cry took on the bass tones of a water buffalo’s challenge. The mallet, its haft bending beneath the incredible power of the stroke, arced up and smashed down at Moraven.
Ducking low, Moraven moved inside the mallet’s arc. He plunged the hilt of his sword into the giant’s middle. Planting his right hand on the lower part of the scabbard, he pivoted the sheathed blade into the man’s groin. As the bellow rose into a squeak, Moraven lifted and twisted, flipping the giant over his shoulder. The man smashed down on his back and bounced once. Another spin let Moraven crack the giant in the head with his scabbard as a fourth arrow flew past.From the Trade Paperback edition.
Excerpted from A Secret Atlas by Michael A. Stackpole. Copyright © 2005 by Michael A. Stackpole. Excerpted by permission of Spectra, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.