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Marcus' hero days are behind him. He knows too well that even the smallest war still means somebody's death. When his men are impressed into a doomed army, staying out of a battle he wants no part of requires some unorthodox steps.
Cithrin is an orphan, ward of a banking house. Her job is to smuggle a nation's wealth across a war zone, hiding the gold from both sides. She knows the ...
Marcus' hero days are behind him. He knows too well that even the smallest war still means somebody's death. When his men are impressed into a doomed army, staying out of a battle he wants no part of requires some unorthodox steps.
Cithrin is an orphan, ward of a banking house. Her job is to smuggle a nation's wealth across a war zone, hiding the gold from both sides. She knows the secret life of commerce like a second language, but the strategies of trade will not defend her from swords.
Geder, sole scion of a noble house, has more interest in philosophy than in swordplay. A poor excuse for a soldier, he is a pawn in these games. No one can predict what he will become.
Falling pebbles can start a landslide. A spat between the Free Cities and the Severed Throne is spiraling out of control. A new player rises from the depths of history, fanning the flames that will sweep the entire region onto The Dragon's Path-the path to war.
Finally, the bankers get a fantasy that doesn't involve our pension funds.
Inaugurating a new series, prolific fantasy novelist Abraham (A Shadow in Summer, 2006, etc.) draws deeply from the treasure vault of genre conventions and tosses some aside. Almost all fantasy, Abraham has observed, derives from J.R.R. Tolkien and the faux-medieval-European worlds he created. This effort is something different, even approaching science fiction in its imaginative geography, and with a strange sort of anthropology to boot—one of the first people we meet, for instance, is an exemplar of "the thirteen races of humanity"and she has fearsome tusks to match her gigantic fingers, a sort of Tolkienesque dwarf in reverse. This ain't your grandpa's Tolkien, either, to judge by some of the dialogue: "Who the fuck are you?" asks a sailor, to which Strider—beg pardon, Marcus, his figurative cousin—replies, "The man telling you that's enough."It's as if Clint Eastwood went to Narnia, which, come to think of it, isn't a bad Hollywood pitch. But the setup isn't quite as macho as all that, for in the gathering storm of Forces of Evil versus good guys, it's a young girl, Cithrin the half-Cinnae, who's entrusted with the secrets of the bank—and we're not talking just any old double-entry bookkeeping either. But even the fattest wallet doesn't stand up to a double-edged broadsword, and there things get interesting. All the makings of a standard fantasy are there: an improbable band battles seemingly insurmountable odds to save humankind and restore someone's birthright, evil comes close to triumphing, the darkness descends and then... But Abraham avoids the excesses of formula, and if the back-and-forth is sometimes a little flat ("My Lord Issandrian forgets that this is not the first violence that your disagreements with House Kalliam have spawned"), the story moves along at a nice clip.
Will truth and justice prevail? Stay tuned. A pleasure for Abraham's legion of fans.
From Paul Di Filippo's "THE SPECULATOR" column on The Barnes & Noble Review
Fans of Daniel Abraham's formidable opus, The Long Price Quartet series, will find much to admire in his newest, The Dragon's Path, which constitutes the opening salvo of The Dagger and the Coin. But the considerable charms of the new work lie at the opposite end of the spectrum from Long Price. That first series was, overall, an undeniable tragedy: somber, weighty, full of remorse, loss and realpolitik. This new venture is decidedly a comedy, albeit one with violent mortal corollaries always lurking at the edges of the pratfalls (and I do mean pratfalls: our introduction to one of the main characters involves him falling into a latrine).
The reader will note from the frontispiece map that Abraham's fantasy world mirrors almost exactly the geography of our Europe and the British Isles. A telling clue, that. We are in a transitionary scenario where the "mundane" world we experience is becoming dominant, a riff that might be best characterized by the title of a Larry Niven novel: The Magic Goes Away. With the uncanny standards dissipating, how does mankind learn to go about its new business?
In Abraham's vision, the titular dragons that once ruled an empire are long gone, leaving little more than crumbling statues and their superior roads, abandoning the stage to the squabbling of thirteen races of men (not counting hybrids such as our main heroine). The emphasis here is on swordplay, military campaigns, and politicking, and the main "cunning man" magician is literally an actor playing a role.
But when I say "mundane," it's all relative, for this is what students of mimetic literature call "High Romance," of the Sir Walter Scott/Alexander Dumas variety. (There we are again, in the early nineteenth-century pre-dawn of the Age of Storytellers!) We have a bold and weary mercenary, Captain Marcus Wester (think of any number of bad-ass Hollywood leading men, from Errol Flynn to Robert Mitchum); his dour sidekick, Yardem Hane (Willem Dafoe); a waifishly attractive orphan girl, Cithrin (Veronica Lake or Kirsten Dunst); and Sir Geder Palliako, a "strange little pudgy man with the enthusiasm for maps and comic rhyme" (Jack Black or Akim Tamiroff). Put them all on the road, mix well, and let the farce begin. "I think the world is often like that," our faux mage opines at one point. "Comic, but only at the right distance."
Abraham exhibits a fine talent for droll dialogue, one of the prime requisites for this type of tale. Here's Marcus and Yardem -- both unsentimental ex-military types -- when the men realize that Marcus is falling for Cithrin:
"This girl's not my daughter," Marcus said.
"She's not, sir."
"She doesn't deserve my protection more than any other man or woman in this 'van."
"She doesn't, sir."
Marcus squinted up into the clouds.
"I'm in trouble here," he said.
"Yes, sir," Yardem said. "You are."
The MacGuffin at the heart of the Marcus-Cithrin thread -- a cart full of misappropriated treasure -- develops quickly into something approaching a heist novel by Westlake. The subplot involving Geder is darker, and the occasion for the remaining traces of magic to surface, as we witness the innocuous scribbler transformed into a punitive avenger. By novel's end, we sense that Geder's revengeful schemes will eventually impact the private doings of the mercenary and his female client. And as for that "fake" cunning man, his secret past will undoubtedly come into play.
Abraham's superb balancing act between farce and disaster, folly and fear, has barely begun to unfold.
The apostate pressed himself into the shadows of the rock and prayed to nothing in particular that the things riding mules in the pass below him would not look up. His hands ached, the muscles of his legs and back shuddered with exhaustion. The thin cloth of his ceremonial robes fluttered against him in the cold, dust-scented wind. He took the risk of looking down toward the trail.
The five mules had stopped, but the priests hadn’t dismounted. Their robes were heavier, warmer. The ancient swords strapped across their backs caught the morning light and glittered a venomous green. Dragon-forged, those blades. They meant death to anyone whose skin they broke. In time, the poison would kill even the men who wielded them. All the more reason, the apostate thought, that his former brothers would kill him quickly and go home. No one wanted to carry those blades for long; they came out only in dire emergency or deadly anger.
Well. At least it was flattering to be taken seriously.
The priest leading the hunting party rose up in his saddle, squinting into the light. The apostate recognized the voice.
“Come out, my son,” the high priest shouted. “There is no escape.”
The apostate’s belly sank. He shifted his weight, preparing to walk down. He stopped himself.
Probably, he told himself. There is probably no escape. But perhaps there is.
On the trail, the dark-robed figures shifted, turned, consulted among themselves. He couldn’t hear their words. He waited, his body growing stiffer and colder. Like a corpse that hadn’t had the grace to die. Half a day seemed to pass while the hunters below him conferred, though the sun barely changed its angle in the bare blue sky. And then, between one breath and the next, the mules moved forward again.
He didn’t dare move for fear of setting a pebble rolling down the steep cliffs. He tried not to grin. Slowly, the things that had once been men rode their mules down the trail to the end of the valley, and then followed the wide bend to the south. When the last of them slipped out of sight, he stood, hands on his hips, and marveled. He still lived. They had not known where to find him after all.
Despite everything he’d been taught, everything he had until recently believed, the gifts of the spider goddess did not show the truth. It gave her servants something, yes, but not truth. More and more, it seemed his whole life had sprung from a webwork of plausible lies. He should have felt lost. Devastated. Instead, it was like he’d walked from a tomb into the free air. He found himself grinning.
The climb up the remaining western slope bruised him. His sandals slipped. He struggled for finger- and toeholds. But as the sun reached its height, he reached the ridge. To the west, mountain followed mountain, and great billowing clouds towered above them, thunderstorms a soft veil of grey. But in the farthest passes, he saw the land level. Flatten. Distance made the plains grey-blue, and the wind on the mountain’s peak cut at his skin like claws. Lightning flashed on the horizon. As if in answer, a hawk shrieked.
It would take weeks alone and on foot. He had no food, and worse, no water. He’d slept the last five nights in caves and under bushes. His former brothers and friends—the men he had known and loved his whole life—were combing the trails and villages, intent on his death. Mountain lions and dire wolves hunted in the heights.
He ran a hand through his thick, wiry hair, sighed, and began the downward climb. He would probably die before he reached the Keshet and a city large enough to lose himself in.
But only probably.
In the last light of the falling sun, he found a stony overhang near a thin, muddy stream. He sacrificed a length of the strap from his right sandal to fashion a crude fire bow, and as the cruel chill came down from the sky, he squatted next to the high ring of stones that hid his small fire. The dry scrub burned hot and with little smoke, but quickly. He fell into a rhythm of feeding small twig after small twig into the flame, never letting it grow large enough to illuminate his shelter to those hunting and never letting it die. The warmth didn’t seem to reach past his elbows.
Far off, something shrieked. He tried to ignore it. His body ached with exhaustion and spent effort, but his mind, freed now from the constant distraction of his journey, gained a dangerous speed. In the darkness, his memory sharpened. The sense of freedom and possibility gave way to loss, loneliness, and dislocation. Those, he believed, were more likely to kill him than a hunting cat.
He had been born in hills much like these. Passed his youth playing games of sword and whip using branches and woven bark. Had he ever felt the ambition to join the ranks of the monks in their great hidden temple? He must have, though from the biting cold of his poor stone shelter, it was hard to imagine it. He could remember looking up with awe at the high wall of stone. At the rock-carved sentries from all the thirteen races of humanity worn by wind and rain until all of them—Cinnae and Tralgu, Southling and Firstblood, Timzinae and Yemmu and Drowned—wore the same blank faces and clubbed fists. Indistinguishable. Only the wide wings and dagger teeth of the dragon arching above them all were still clear. And worked into the huge iron gate, black letters spelled out words in a language no one in the village knew.
When he became a novice, he learned what it said. BOUND IS NOT BROKEN. He had believed once that he knew what it meant.
The breeze shifted, raising the embers like fireflies. A bit of ash stung his eye, and he rubbed at it with the back of his hand. His blood shifted, currents in his body responding to something that was not him. The goddess, he’d thought. He had gone to the great gate with the other boys of his village. He had offered himself up—life and body—and in return…
In return the mysteries had been revealed. First, it had only been knowledge: letters enough to read the holy books, numbers enough to keep the temple’s records. He had read the stories of the Dragon Empire and its fall. Of the spider goddess coming to bring justice to the world.
Deception, they said, had no power over her.
He’d tested it, of course. He believed them, and still he had tested. He would lie to the priests, just to see whether it could be done. He’d chosen things that only he could know: his father’s clan name, his sister’s favorite meals, his own dreams. The priests had whipped him when he spoke false, they had spared him when he was truthful, and they were never, never wrong. His certainty had grown. His faith. When the high priest had chosen him to rise to novice, he’d been certain that great things awaited him, because the priests had told him that they did.
After the nightmare of his initiation was over, he’d felt the power of the spider goddess in his own blood. The first time he’d felt someone lie, it had been like discovering a new sense. The first time he had spoken with the voice of the goddess, he’d felt his words commanding belief as if they had been made from fire.
And now he had fallen from grace, and none of it might be true. There might be no such place as the Keshet. He believed there was, so much so that he had risked his life on flight to it. But he had never been there. The marks on the maps could be lies. For that matter, there might have been no dragons, no empire, no great war. He had never seen the ocean; there might be no such thing. He knew only what he himself had seen and heard and felt.
He knew nothing.
On violent impulse, he sank his teeth into the flesh of his palm. His blood welled up, and he cupped it. In the faint firelight, it looked nearly black. Black, with small, darker knots. One of the knots unfurled tiny legs. The spider crawled mindlessly around the cup of his hand. Another one joined it. He watched them: the agents of the goddess in whom he no longer believed. Carefully, slowly, he tipped his hand over the small flame. One of the spiders fell into it, hair-thin legs shriveling instantly.
“Well,” he said. “You can die. I know that.”
The mountains seemed to go on forever, each crest a new threat, each valley thick with danger. He skirted the small villages, venturing close only to steal a drink from the stone cisterns. He ate lizards and the tiny flesh-colored nuts of scrub pine. He avoided the places where wide, clawed paws marked paths in the dirt. One night, he found a circle of standing pillars with a small chamber beneath them that seemed to offer shelter and a place to recover his strength, but his sleep there had been troubled by dreams so violent and alien that he pushed on instead.
He lost weight, the woven leather of his belt hanging low around his waist. His sandals’ soles thinned, and his fire bow wore out quickly. Time lost its meaning. Day followed day followed day. Every morning he thought, This will probably be the last day of my life. Only probably.
The probably was always enough. And then, late one morning, he pulled himself to the top of a boulder-strewn hill, and there wasn’t another to follow it. The wide western plains spread out before him, a river shining in its cloak of green grass and trees. The view was deceptive. He guessed it would still be two days on foot before he reached it. Still, he sat on a wide, rough stone, looked out over the world, and let himself weep until almost midday.
As he came nearer to the river, he felt a new anxiety start to gnaw at his belly. On the day, weeks ago, when he had slipped over the temple’s wall and fled, the idea of disappearing into a city had been a distant concern. Now he saw the smoke of a hundred cookfires rising from the trees. The marks of wild animals were scarce. Twice, he saw men riding huge horses in the distance. The dusty rags of his robe, the ruins of his sandals, and the reek of his own unwashed skin reminded him that this was as difficult and as dangerous as anything he’d done to now. How would the men and women of the Keshet greet a wild man from the mountains? Would they cut him down out of hand?
He circled the city by the river, astounded at the sheer size of the place. He had never seen anything so large. The long wooden buildings with their thatched roofs could have held a thousand people. The roads were paved in stone. He kept to the underbrush like a thief, watching.
It was the sight of a Yemmu woman that gave him courage. That and his hunger. At the fringe of the city, where the last of the houses sat between road and river, she labored in her garden. She was half again as tall as he was, and broad as a bull across the shoulders. Her tusks rose from her jaw until she seemed in danger of piercing her own cheeks if she laughed. Her breasts hung high above a peasant girdle not so different from the ones his own mother and sister had worn, only with three times the cloth and leather.
She was the first person he had ever seen who wasn’t a Firstblood. The first real evidence that the thirteen races of humanity truly existed. Hiding behind the bushes, peeking at her as she leaned in the soft earth and plucked weeds between gigantic fingers, he felt something like wonder.
He stepped forward before he could talk himself back into cowardice. Her wide head rose sharply, her nostrils flaring. He raised a hand, almost in apology.
“Forgive me,” he said. “I’m… I’m in trouble. And I was hoping you might help me.”
The woman’s eyes narrowed to slits. She lowered her stance like a hunting cat preparing for battle. It occurred to him that it might have been wiser to discover if she spoke his language before he’d approached her.
“I’ve come from the mountains,” he said, hearing the desperation in his own voice. And hearing something else besides. The inaudible thrumming of his blood. The gift of the spider goddess commanding the woman to believe him.
“We don’t trade with Firstbloods,” the Yemmu woman growled. “Not from those twice-shat mountains anyway. Get away from here, and take your men with you.”
“I don’t have any men,” he said. The things in his blood roused themselves, excited to be used. The woman shifted her head as his stolen magic convinced her. “I’m alone. And unarmed. I’ve been walking for… weeks. I can work if you’d like. For a little food and a warm place to sleep. Just for the night.”
“Alone and unarmed. Through the mountains?”
She snorted, and he had the sense he was being evaluated. Judged.
“You’re an idiot,” she said.
“Yes,” he said. “I am. Friendly, though. Harmless.”
It was a very long moment before she laughed.
She set him to hauling river water to her cistern while she finished her gardening. The bucket was fashioned for Yemmu hands, and he could only fill it half full before it became too heavy to lift. But he struggled manfully from the little house to the rough wooden platform and then back again. He was careful not to scrape himself, or at least not so badly as to draw blood. His welcome was uncertain enough without the spiders to explain.
At sunset, she made a place for him at her table. The fire in the pit seemed extravagant, and he had to remind himself that the things that had been his brothers weren’t here, scanning for signs of him. She scooped a bowl of stew from the pot above the fire. It had the rich, deep, complex flavor of a constant pot; the stewpot never leaving the fire, and new hanks of meat and vegetables thrown in as they came to hand. Some of the bits of dark flesh swimming in the greasy broth might have been cooking since before he’d left the temple. It was the best meal he’d ever had.
“My man’s at the caravanserai,” she said. “One of the princes s’posed to be coming in, and they’ll be hungry. Took all the pigs with. Sell ’em all if we’re lucky. Get enough silver to see us through storm season.”
He listened to her voice and also the stirring in his blood. The last part had been a lie. She didn’t believe that the silver would last. He wondered if it worried her, and if there was some way he could see she had what she needed. He would try, at least. Before he left.
“What about you, you poor shit?” she asked, her voice soft and warm. “Whose sheep did you fuck that you’re begging work from me?”
The apostate chuckled. The warm food in his belly, the fire at his side, and the knowledge that a pallet of straw and a thin wool blanket were waiting for him outside conspired to relax his shoulders and his belly. The Yemmu woman’s huge gold-flecked eyes stayed on him. He shrugged.
“I discovered that believing something doesn’t make it true,” he said carefully. “There were things I’d accepted, that I believed to my bones, and I was… wrong.”
“Misled?” she asked.
“Misled,” he agreed, and then paused. “Or perhaps not. Not intentionally. No matter how wrong you are, it’s not a lie if you believe it.”
The Yemmu woman whistled—an impressive feat, considering her tusks—and flapped her hands in mock admiration.
“High philosophy from the water grunt,” she said. “Next you’ll be preaching and asking tithes.”
“Not me,” he said, laughing with her.
She took a long slurp from her own bowl. The fire crackled. Something—rats, perhaps, or insects—rattled in the thatch overhead.
“Fell out with a woman, did you?” she asked.
“A goddess,” he said.
“Yeah. Always seems like that, dunit?” she said, staring into the fire. “Some new love comes on like there’s something different about ’em. Like God himself talks whenever their lips flap. And then…”
She snorted again, part amusement, part bitterness.
“And what all went wrong with your goddess?” she asked.
The apostate lifted a scrap of something that might have been a potato to his mouth, chewed the soft flesh, the gritty skin. He struggled to put words to thoughts that had never been spoken aloud. His voice trembled.
“She is going to eat the world.”
Marcus rubbed his chin with a callused palm.
“Sir?” rumbled the Tralgu looming at his side.
“The day you throw me in a ditch and take command of the company?”
“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.”
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 façades 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’s men. The other, the company cunning man. They belonged to the prince now.
“We’re being watched,” the Tralgu said.
The cunning man raised an arm in a rueful wave. Marcus responded with a 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,” he 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.
“We need men, sir.”
“Any thoughts on where we find them?”
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. Canals and waterways laced the city, and 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 wood 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.
“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 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.
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…
“Ah,” Marcus said. “So I do.”
Seven people sat at the wide round table drinking beer and eating cheese and sausage paid from Marcus’s 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.”
“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?”
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.”
“Refusing a press gang ends you up on the field or 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 is a matter of life and death for you?”
“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.”
Master Kit laughed and shook his head.
“We aren’t fighters,” he said. “All that onstage 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.”
“Tin and iron. Undyed wool. Some leatherwork,” Marcus said. “A man in the Old Quarter called Master 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 it belched occasional puffs of smoke into the rooms. The actor shook his head.
“May I ask you something?” Master Kit said.
“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?”
“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.
Excerpted from The Dragon's Path by Abraham, Daniel Copyright © 2011 by Abraham, Daniel. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Posted April 15, 2011
The Dragon's Path is book one in The Dagger and The Coin series. Following the paths of four major characters through out a world-building realm of 13 races in a land once ruled by dragons. Captain Marcus Webster is a veteran captain who is haunted by his past and becomes the "father-figure" and protector of rag tag group of miscreants. Cithrin Bel Sarcour is an orphan raised by the Medean Bank and with the banks guidance and tutelage, she is enlisted to smuggle the banks holdings out of town while a war is raging outside it walls. Geder Palliako, the heir of the Viscount of Rivenhalm, is more interested in his books and studies then being a catalyst in the story however, his uncharacteristic actions help set the fates of all those involved. Master Kit is the head of the theatrical troupe who has the gift of truth and more secrets than anyone could imagine. With these four we, the reader, are plunged into a world of magic, tyranny and mayhem. For the first 100 pages or so of the book I found it very hard to stay involved with the story. The different races were confusing at first as were the introductions of each of the main characters. There appeared to be a lack of plot flow as each of these aspects were being introduced. I would have liked a bit more time spent on each of the races or perhaps a glossary included with more information that couldn't be used in the plot. After the initial confusion, the author found his flow and the characters became more substantial and believable in form and character. I love the mystery surrounding Master Kit and his ability to see the truth in all situations it is a skill I would LOVE to have. As the story picked up and you had a clearer picture of where everyone was being headed the book became quite enjoyable and I am looking forward to the next segment of the fate of these folks lives. I wish to learn more about the Spider Queen and her involvement with these people, the history of the dragons and how they lost their rule and whether the truth will unfold as they all walk The Dragon's Path.
11 out of 11 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted February 13, 2011
Though a millennium has passed since the Dragon Civil War left the predominant species extinct, the thirteen humanoid races that served them never learned the lesson that war kills. Captain Marcus Webster understands war kills foot soldiers but not the aristocrats who send others to die in battle. He knows how weather impacts fighting as summer is the time of war and battle is for the young. Marcus plans to lead a caravan before he is drafted as his combat days are over, but his crew is lost being sent to fight.-----------
While Marcus seeks swords, Cithrin dressed as a boy with his first moustache and a "swinging penis" prepares mentally to escort the Bank's wealth of a nation across the country before the invaders arrive. She struggles to understand caravans unlike the way she comprehends money.----------
No longer a naïve idealist but instead a jaded pessimist Dawson worries as war comes because his friend Simeon the ruler looks like he aged dramatically over the winter. He no longer appears to be the glorious future for the country; but instead seems like yesterday's failure.-------------
Aristocratic Geder the street philosopher detests swords. Though he is a terrible soldier who fears his reaction when bodies are sliced and diced, he will do his best to avoid dishonoring his aristocratic family.--------------
As with the Long Price Quartet, Daniel Abraham effortlessly rotates perspective between the key characters so that readers observe a wide panorama of humanoids following The Dragon's Path to war. Fans will marvel at how Marcus as winter and Dawson as autumn wither; while Cithrin as spring and Geder as summer mature. Thus the first excellent Dagger and Coin military fantasy is a coming of age thriller in which Geder and Cithrin remain frightened optimists unaware they will probably turn into Dawson and Marcus. This is a great thought provoking opening act.-----------
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Posted April 17, 2012
Take this one in slowly. Read it carefully and just let it all sink in. This is one of those kinds of novels where you have to pay attention to what you’re reading, and in the end you’re rewarded with a spectacular book.
World building is fantastic and well done. The politics involved is extremely well done and I loved that part the most. It is a little difficult to get into at first, but once characters are established, and plot (and sub plots) are understood, then the reading gets more smooth.
I found some readers weren’t that keen on the characters in this book. I’m the opposite. I loved the character development and the vast amount of detail put into their personalities and their own individual story arcs. I also liked how there’s a small group of characters. It’s not too many where the reader is overwhelmed, and has to go to an appendix at the back of the book to figure out again who is who and under what faction/house they’re under. It’s more centralized on a handful of characters so it’s not confusing and it’s easier to manage.
I’d have to say, Geder is the one I like to read about the most. You either feel sorry for him, or hate him for his actions. On the other hand, he has the potential to do a lot of good, but also what he might see as the greater good could make him the biggest jerk to have ever been written. I also particularly enjoyed reading about Cithrin’s character development. Although I might not agree with her actions and the outcome of her choices were well deserved, she turned mopey and whiny which didn’t make her any more likable. However, I still enjoyed her story nevertheless. Marcus would be my least favorite because not much really goes on with him except taking care of Cithrin. I wish there should have been more to his story but perhaps that will be revealed more in detail in future books of this series. Also, what I thought was really interesting was, these characters are different from what you see in the majority of fantasy novels (that I have come across) there’s no band of warriors, no group of characters out to banish evil, it’s a banker, a mercenary, and a soldier. Very different and not the norm, but I like it!
I only wish there was more information about the world, and the other different races. An appendix would have been nice for this kind of information - at least. It is a long book and some might find it a little difficult to get into at first but it’s a rich story, with lots of to take in, and it’s a great fantastic read for fantasy lovers who want something a little different. I’m definitely going to pick up the second book in this series!
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Posted April 11, 2012
Posted May 4, 2012
Daniel Abraham has kicked off a terrific new epic series with "The Dragon's Path". I've come to realize that I love "EPIC". The bigger, the more dramatic, the more flawed characters whose existences connect, orbit and intertwine in more surprising ways...the better.
The story revolves around a small handful of characters who live in an ancient world populated by a myriad of diverse human-like races. Abraham shifts focus between each of his key characters as he builds a world that's clearly different than our own, but very recognizable in it's sword-and-leather medieval-like inspiration.
One can't help but see the clear influences of George RR Martin in the story. Abraham has collaborated with "The Game of Thrones" author and pays enjoyable tribute to the modern epic master.
The flawed main characters are respectively an orphan, a widower, a social outsider, and an influential nobleman who's very focused on keeping the 'natural' social order of societal hierarchy. The characters are developed slowly, and drawn smartly and subtlety. While the action is limited in this first book, Abraham builds a magnificently rich world of intrigue and drama, all driven by the brilliantly realistic and complex core characters.
I also love the fact that the elements of supernatural fantasy are very limited. There's no real magic, though you get a sense of something "more" running through the threaded experiences of the story. Dragons play a key role in the history and mythology in "Dragon's Path". The dragon lorem, though, is just that: a heavy influence on the history of Abraham's world, but a thing of the past.
The story is epic in its scope and the magnitude of the plot lines. It's not quite as large and sprawling as "The Game of Thrones", but the themes and atmosphere are similar.
If you enjoy that kind of depth and heaviness, then I strongly recommend this book. I thoroughly enjoyed it and look forward to Abraham's second in the series.
1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted April 11, 2012
I finished this 8 months ago and was so dissapointed when I found out the second book in the series wasn't due out until May of 2012. I thought it was great and it left me wanting more. I've read all 5 of George RR Martin's "A Song of Ice & Fire" (wondering how long it will be for #6) and a few others as well to fill my time in anticipation. I periodically go over it in my mind to keep it fresh and ready for May. Very good reading.
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Posted January 21, 2014
I am a big fan of George RR Martin and also Joe Abercrombie. I picked up this book because it looked like something along those line. I was right. At first, I had a little trouble getting into the story but it didn't take long to become enthralled. The writing was great, the story stayed on topic and the characters really grew with the story.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted July 3, 2013
This series is much in the genre of the Belgariad Cycle, although that is a much more classic and engaging series.
This is pretty much just a run of the mill fantasy series.
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Posted September 8, 2012
Dragon's Path is a substantial mix of medieval banking with more traditional fantasy story. While it does not have the page-to-page fighting you might see in other titles, it ends up being consistently exciting and interesting to read. This also translated into characters that were developed to a greater extent than would occur in a combat heavy universe.
Because of the unique qualities of this book, it works as more of a fantasy genre standout instead of being only being a competent example (that many other books seem to fall into).
Posted August 4, 2012
I am a huge fan of A Song of Ica and Fire by George R.R. Martin and when I saw that he had revied this book with positive comments, I knew I had to give it a read. I can't wait to read the next part in the series. It is a big, big story, lots of character information...loved it.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted June 27, 2012
Read the book review in a bookstore from the book and it was great. Still waiting from May 2012 for the free delivery expected in July 2012. Anticipation song goes well with this.......
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Posted June 21, 2012
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Posted May 11, 2012
Daniel Abraham has a wonderful writing style that draws the reader into the text. Dragon's Path is an action packed fantasy that keeps your attention to the end.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.