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First, the Hound.
Francine Thompson was a Hound of the Ardry, and this was no small thing to be. Hounds enforce the law when the law has failed. They lead when leadership has failed. They rescue when hope has failed, and will assassinate when all else has failed. It was a fearsome thing to have a Hound on one’s tail, and many a desperado has surrendered on no more than the rumor of such pursuit.
Among their number, Francine Thompson was accounted not the least. Breezy, and confident to the point of arrogance, she carried herself as if she were the Queen of High Tara. It was in her stride and in her voice, which crashed like the bursting sea; and when she tossed her head, her hair was a breaking crimson wave. Her skin was a deep gold, and her eyes the green of flint. She operated under the office-name of Bridget ban; and she was at this point in her life the one thing that a Hound never is, and that is dreadfully afraid.
Afraid enough, in any event, that she had issued a Call to Hounds. It was not often, and never for matters trivial, that more than one Hound was needed on a quest; but Bridget ban had such a need and the Call had gone out over the Ourobouros Circuit. An even score of her colleagues heard the summons and a dozen were close enough to reach Dangchao Waypoint in time for the facemeet on her estate.
That estate, Clanthompson Hall, stood lonely sentinel on the endless prairie called the Out-in-back. The Hounds foregathered in the arboretum of the Old Keep, a high-ceilinged room whose dark wood half paneling and heavy roof beams bespoke a ruder age. Ancient banners hung from the joists—some torn, some faded, one whose bloodstain must never be laundered. Oh, the day was long past when the Thompson levies had marched forth under them. Recovered technologies had made of such banners little more than convenient markers for standoff weapons. But they would do for pomp, and they complemented the ancestral portraits on the corbels beneath them: grim and gay, wild visaged and thoughtful, and all bearing that Thompson cast of eye that was something more than confidence and a pennyweight shy of arrogance.
The arboretum flourished in the sunlight piercing the clerestory windows, and lent the indoors an outdoor ambience. Her staff had laid out a table of impressive variety, with cheeses imported from Gehpari and pondi-cherries and other fruits and melons from New Chennai. The other foods were from local estates: marble-case from Kurland, bright-mix milled at Dalport, fish-rolls from Honig’s Beach, and—this being Dangchao—thin-sliced haunch of Nolan Beast. The wine had aged in Clanthompson cellars, and the spirits had dripped from the coils of the family distillery in Glennamor.
Of the Hounds, some had come from affection for Bridget ban, some because they expected an intriguing quest, some perhaps to gloat over whatever matter had impelled her cry for help. The men and women of the Kennel were a varied lot, and rivaly for status was not unknown among them.
The ancient Hound na Fir Li had sent his regrets and his senior Pup, a thin, hawk-faced young man of olive complexion who bore the name Obligado. The Pup moved with an economy of motion, and gave the impression that he skimmed a half thumb above the floorboards. He spoke little, but listened much; and Bridget ban marked that a point in his favor.
Grimpen arrived, too. He had just completed a small matter involving the pirates of the Hadramoo, having toppled the government of New Constancy on Abyalon, captured an agent of the People of Foreganger, and assassinated both the Molnar and his chief of auguries over the old business of the Merry v Starinu.
“A man in his cups,” Grimpen rumbled while the gathered Hounds enjoyed drinks and stories, “should take care which crimes he confesses, and to whom, for his boon companion may prove not merely judge, but executioner as well.” Grimpen had a laugh like an earthquake just before the rocks shear.
His glass was nearly lost in his massive fist, while that of Graceful Bintsaif seemed almost too large for hers. Tall, and lean as a whippet, the junior Hound seemed constantly to strain against an unseen leash. “Do you know what sort of killing machine the People sent?” she asked.
Grimpen’s head tolled. “No. I know only that it never arrived, so the Molnar had the pleasure to deal with me instead of the People. One day, the Ardry will need to take a fleet into the Cynthia Cluster and root them out, tooth-and-toenail. And maybe deal with Foreganger, too.”
Graceful Bintsaif glanced toward Bridget ban, who held the other end of her metaphorical leash, and gave a slight nod. Grimpen’s story confirmed part of a tale they had already heard.
“So what is such mysterious mission you propose us?” asked Anubis. His facial hair was very dark brown and his nose and mouth thrust prominently forward. The gene-wrights of the long ago, when knowledge had passed for wisdom, had engineered his ancestors for cleverness; but a tangling of genes had carried with it a distinctive, foxlike countenance, so that all men noted that here was a clever one and so responded with heightened wariness. His parents had come to the Periphery as refugees and he spoke still with a Confederal accent.
Bridget ban swirled and patted him on the cheek. “Oh, a grand quest, darling, but we are not all here yet.” The numbing fear had turned her heart to ice and her stomach to knots, but she would not show her colleagues any but blithe assurance.
Black Shuck scanned the room. “Grand enough,” he said, “to call so many.” His words came out flour fine: a sweet voice for so rough visaged a man. He was not so large as Grimpen, nor so clever as Anubis. Neither could he match Bridget ban for seduction. He was second-best at everything. But he was second-best at everything and even his most jealous rivals admitted that he was Top Dog.
“Gideon’s band, darlin’,” Cwn Annwn told him. She was a robust thing, even standing before the broad-shouldered Shuck as she did. There was Jugurthan in her genes, so that while she appeared wide and dumpy, it was muscle-firm down to the bone. “Gideon’s band,” she said again, this time herself looking about the room. “Our hostess rounded up a passel in hope of brandin’ a few. She don’t ’spect everyone here to join her.” Her voice drawled in the lazy accents of Great Wally on Megranome.
“Perhaps she expects only me,” declared a silvered throat from the doorway. Conversation ceased abruptly across the room, and one or two of the gathered Hounds visibly shivered. It was a sweet voice that chilled the heart. Even Black Shuck shifted from foot to foot before facing the newcomer.
The woman wore black diaphanous robes girt at a high waist with a silver cincture. A silver-and-turquoise scapular hung from her neck. Her black hair was clipped short and lacquered so that it formed a sort of helmet for her otherwise-uncrowned head. Her lips blossomed scarlet; her fingers rang with drizzle-jewels. Altogether, a striking presence, and not merely because of her cobralike poise. It was a look to die for, and many had.
Matilda of the Night.
When she stepped into the room, her robes billowed in her wake, as if she dragged that night behind her. Other Hounds drew back as she passed, lest she pass too close and (as they told themselves) spoil the effect.
Bridget ban was not immune to the impact that Matilda so often had, but she was the first to shake it off. She herself often made a striking entrance, though she more usually turned heads toward her than away. She crossed the room with arms stretched in embrace. “Tilly!” she cried. “How delightful to see you!”
An abrazzo, two quick pecks on the cheeks, and the spell was broken. Tilly? That was not quite so daunting. Conversations resumed, laughter rose, though both were more subdued than before.
“Delight, my dear,” said Matilda to Bridget ban in a low, throaty voice, “is not in it. And…” Turning. “… This must be Graceful Bintsaif!” She extended a hand to the junior Hound, who barely hesitated before taking it. “Na Fir Li has told me so much about you. How can such a limited man raise such fine Pups?”
“Perhaps,” murmured Graceful Bintsaif, “because my old master is not so limited as some suppose.”
Matilda stiffened fractionally, but a server in household livery distracted her with a tray of drinks, and she fussed over them long enough that when she finally straightened with a colorfully layered beverage in a tall, thin glass the moment for taking offense had passed. Cleverly done, Bridget ban thought, and no one lost face. She did not very much care for Matilda of the Night, but Bridget ban counted such temperance a point in her favor.
“Are we all here, now?” Matilda asked. “Cafall, Yeth, Barghest … Kirkonväki? The Gytrash … My, my! A mixed bag, darling. Some top cuts, but also some ends. But … I suppose one takes what the net hauls in.”
“I expect one or two others,” Bridget ban said.
“Who? That young man sitting behind the juniper ferns?”
Bridget ban stepped back and peered through some of the foliage. “Ah. Come join us, Hugh,” she said.
Little Hugh O Carroll rose from his casual concealment with a pot of ale in his fist. He was solidly built, with a square jaw and dusty-red hair. His left cheek bore the memory of a scar, and he smiled in that half-shy, half-sly manner that had seen him safely through the guerilla on New Eireann, many years before. It was then that he had learned the art of concealment. If there was a cover, he was beneath it. If there was a hole, he was in it. If there was a corner, he was around it. He went now by the office-name of Rinty, but to Bridget ban he would always be Little Hugh, that hard young man with the soft affections who had heighed off hunting the Dancer with her.
Bridget ban introduced him to Matilda, and the Dark Hound took his hand. “A bit old for a Pup, aren’t you?” There was a subtext there not hard to read.
“Oh, I started late,” Hugh said cheerfully. “I’d been a planetary vice-manager and a guerilla leader before.”
Matilda acknowledged that with a bob of her head. “And who is your master?”
“I am,” said Greystroke, who stood at her side sipping a tall iced tea. “Greystroke,” he added. “And we have met. I was the baggage handler at Port Kitchener a few hours ago. You warned me away from your satchels.”
“I was the hackie,” Little Hugh volunteered helpfully, “who drove you to your hotel.”
“Well,” said Matilda of the Night, looking from one to the other, “aren’t you the dynamic duo.”
“Greystroke and I hung about Kitchener a few days,” Hugh said. “We wanted to see who was coming. Met most of the Hounds at Inbound Processing. ‘Och, aye, m’laird,’” he said in a broad Dangchao accent. “‘Mought I help ye wi’ yon wee baggie.’ Except Black Shuck, who would have recognized me from that business on Uobigon, and Cwn Annwn, who somehow eluded us. Oh, and the Gytrash, who arrived before we did.”
“It was just to keep in practice,” Greystroke added. “Rinty here has a talent for disguise—they used to call him the Ghost of Ardow—and I have a talent for going unnoticed. Who looks twice at a baggage handler or an unremarkable doughface in a crowd?”
They broke up and moved off to greet other colleagues. Greystroke lingered. “We’re with you, Frannie,” he murmured to Bridget ban.
“Greystroke, darling. Ye’ve not yet heard my proposal.”
“Does that matter?”
Graceful Bintsaif sidled up after he had gone. “I don’t like it,” she said. “The way they all try to get one up on one another. I don’t like it when I get drawn into it.”
“Oh, they may bicker and play games—and strut before the Little One if it means moving up the pyramid. But when what matters matters, you can depend on each and every one of them to the very limits of his skill.”
“Though first,” said Graceful Bintsaif, raising her drink to her lips, “you have to get to what matters.”
* * *
It was a hard winnowing that the Red Hound made of her guests. She must harvest the volunteers she wanted without insulting the others. In the end, she was successful enough, though she endured a disappointment or two.
“I need your help to find my daughter,” she told the assembled Hounds when once the buffet had been cleared and the musician dismissed and they had adjourned with sherry and port to the long table in the banquet hall.
“Ah,” Greystroke murmured to Hugh. “I had wondered why it was not Méarana who played for us.”
“I wonder what she’s gotten into now,” Hugh sighed.
“What is this, Red Hound?” cried Garm. “A Call to Hounds for a mere family contretemps?”
“And is she not of age?” added Barghest. “She may go and come as she wist.”
Black Shuck stood. “Hold your gobs!” he said; and, he being who he was, they held them. “Our colleague would not have summoned us for no better cause than a runaway daughter. Daughters have run away since the dawn of time, and for the same reasons. There is something darker yet to come.” He turned and bowed to his hostess and resumed his seat.
“Points off for Barghest and Garm,” Hugh whispered to Greystroke. “Too quick with the quip.”
“A case of days ago,” Bridget ban announced when silence had been restored, “my daughter was kidnapped by a Shadow of the Names.”
Would the Red Hound ever speak more than one sentence without a hubbub of interruption? This was just as well, for the memory of it closed her throat and filled her heart with ice.
“A Shadow!” “How?” they wanted to know. “Why?” “Where?” “We’ll scour the Periphery!” “Is she taken across the Rift?” A Shadow was not so easily laughed off as a runaway daughter. If there were aught in the Spiral Arm undaunted by pursuing Hounds—who might even welcome them for the sport—it was a Shadow of the Names, their opposite numbers in the Long Game between the League and the Confederation.
“Why did you not tell us so straight off?” demanded Garm, retrospectively embarrassed by his earlier jape.
Hugh spoke behind his hand. “Easily answered,” he told Greystroke. “She wanted to know who would go for the sake of the daughter, and only then who would go for the sake of the Shadow.”
“Where is the Fudir in all this?” Greystroke complained. “The harper is his daughter, too. Why is he not here?” That had always been a stumbling block between Greystroke and the scarred man: that the harper was the daughter of the one and not of the other.
“Syne twa metric weeks an’ more,” Bridget ban said, lapsing momentarily into the local dialect, “Ravn Shadow Olafsdottr plucked her from within these very halls.”
Black Shuck grew serious. “A grave breach of security.” The rebuke was sharper given the sweet, judicious tone in which it was couched.
“The de’il wi’ yer fashin’, all of ye,” she said. “We tracked her coming in. Not even a Shadow can cross yon heath and escape my eyes. And the Bintsaif and I held her fast the while as she spun her tale and laid out her petition. She desired that I cross the Rift with her on a quest of her own, and failing in that she—”
“—took your daughter,” guessed Black Shuck.
“Why snatch the daughter,” said Kirkonväki, “if the task wants the mother?”
“The Ravn did nae trade my skills for harp-speil,” the Red Hound told him. “My daughter’s the drag to lure the hound.”
“Drag success,” Anubis noted. “You go. Red Hound pride pricked. Shadow enter your very stronghold, you hold close watch, yet allow her slip away—with your daughter—as easily as eel slip through fingers.”
“Too much Schadenfreude,” Greystroke whispered to Hugh. “Cross Anubis off. What is it?”
“Sure, and I’m waiting to hear what the Ravn’s proposal was.”
“Even if all of us here were free to go with you,” said Garm, “we would be few enough to scour an empire.”
The Gytrash stood. “Your daughter’s fate sorrows me, Red Hound,” he said. “And my heart is yours to weep into, but there be no hope to this quest. The Confederation be big and broad, and a slip of a girl a hard finding in all those bright stars. ’Tis a just quest, a worthy quest, and a cause must be just before its undertaking is just; but it must also have a chance of success, and alas ’tis ill-starred to succeed. She is more vanished than a grain of sand on a beach. Meanwhile, a massacre pends on Harpaloon that I must see to.” He bowed, and after courteous farewells and expressions of good fortune he strode to the door. A few others stood with him, but only Garm, Barghest, and Anubis followed him out. The others lingered, and one—Black Shuck—sat back down and something of a smile crossed his face.
“First cut,” said Greystroke.
“You’ll notice who have held peace till now,” Hugh answered. “Grimpen, Matilda, Cwn … Mark young Bintsaif, how grim she looks. She is frightened sick, but she will go.”
Grimpen rumbled, and it took the others a moment to recognize the sound as laughter.
“What is it, Large Hound?” Cafall asked.
“Our departed colleagues do not grasp the meaning of ‘hopeless.’ If success is sure, what need is there for hope? A quest like this cannot be hopeless, for there is nothing to it but hope.”
“All right, Frannie,” Black Shuck said. “The pessimists have gone, and don’t hold it too hard against them. There is another war brewing between Ramage and Valency, which Garm and Barghest must attend to; and there is Harpaloon for the Gytrash to handle. Your daughter’s taking is a tragedy; but it’s a big Spiral Arm, and not the only tragedy in it. Now, where has Ravn taken your daughter?”
Matilda of the Night spoke up. “Don’t look so surprised, Kirkonväki. The Ravn wanted our Bridget ban to aid her in a quest, and took the daughter to lure her to it. What point the drag if the hound cannot follow?”
“Aye,” said Bridget ban. “And ’tis Terra.”
“Deep in the Triangles,” Cafall observed. “Hard by Dao Chetty.”
“I put out a Stop Traffic order as soon as I learned they were gone—and, aye, finding one needle among thousands of ships queuing up for the roads is a hard finding indeed. She slipped the net, and only later, reviewing the video records, did Graceful Bintsaif and I pluck her out—artfully disguised—in the queue for Megranome via Die Bold.”
Greystroke rubbed his chin. “She’s taking the Tightrope. The long way around … I wonder why?”
“Why, to give me time to catch up! Ravn does not want to arrive at Terra too far ahead of help.” There was a modest comfort in that. No harm would come to Méarana as long as Ravn needed Bridget ban. About the afterward she was less sanguine.
Kirkonväki said, “Then it is a matter only of heading her off.”
Black Shuck sighed and glanced at the door, then at the remaining Hounds. “A complication, Red Hound. There is a struggle in the Lion’s Mouth. Shadow wars on Shadow, some to uphold the Names, others to bring them down. Gwillgi is observing matters for us over there, and some of his dispatches have reached the Kennel. Shadows operating in the League have been going home one by one.”
“Aye,” said Bridget ban, “and among them was one that some of you know: Donovan buigh of Jehovah, who calls himself the Fudir.”
“And half a dozen other names beside,” murmured Hugh.
“Donovan is at the root of it all…”
“And why am I not surprised,” said Greystroke.
“Ravn drugged Donovan on Jehovah,” Bridget ban told them, “and took him across the Rift, where the leaders of the rebellion coaxed his allegiance. In the course of affairs, Ravn and Donovan became what they call gozhiinyaw—blood brothers. That displeased her patron, Gidula, who had her tortured and imprisoned. She escaped and besought my aid in an act of vengeance and rescue. From Gidula’s hands, she would pluck Donovan buigh; from Gidula life, she would pluck her vengeance.”
“Ah,” said Hugh, “that explains why the Fudir is not here for his daughter.”
“It may also explain,” guessed Greystroke, “why his daughter was so easily taken.”
“I knew Gidula in the long ago,” mused Black Shuck, “when he and I alike were young. A rebel, you say? Yet he was as staunch a Shadow as the Names could ask.”
“And perhaps even still. He was working inside the rebellion to subvert it. It was on this point that Ravn finally broke with him, for she was won over to the cause by Donovan.”
Yeth folded his arms. “So, to find your daughter, you must find the Ravn. And to find the Ravn, you must find Donovan. And to find Donovan, you must find Gidula. That is a great deal of finding.”
“But one may find the arrow by watching the bull’s-eye,” said Cafall. “On Terra, you say?”
“Aye. The rebels courted Donovan because in an earlier rebellion he had learned a way out of the Secret City. The rebels want to use this as a way in, for they have planned an attack on the city. But Donovan had forgotten the key when his mind was shuffled and dealt.”
Kirkonväki slumped back in his chair and drummed the table with his stylus. “It would be one thing to slip over there and winkle your daughter out if she were merely lost in the Confederation, but she is a prisoner of a Shadow. But even that might be done, save that the condition is to free Donovan buigh from Gidula’s stronghold. But even that might be done—Gidula is old, and Donovan himself might give aid from the inside—save that the Confederation is at war with itself and Terra is in the heart of the Confederation. And Donovan himself is in the very center of the maelstrom. The Shadows will be more alert to intrusions.”
“Say rather they would be more distracted,” Bridget ban said. “The maelstrom swirls below the surface. Outwardly—for merchants, tourists, officials, even their military—the waters stay glassy calm. For the most part, the war is waged by stealth. And while Shadows’ eyes are drawn to the Secret City, we might slip onto Terra and be done and be gone.”
Greystroke leaned over to Little Hugh as they broke for an intermission. “‘For the most part,’” he quoted.
Hugh shrugged. “She is still holding something back. But why?”
“Because,” Greystroke said, as he watched Cafall, Yeth, and Kirkonväki thank Bridget ban and take their leave, “she has a lagniappe for those of us who stayed.”
* * *
Bridget ban was disappointed at losing Yeth and the Gytrash and uneasy at keeping Cwn Annwn. A very good practitioner, but close observation would note her Jugurthan ancestry; and Jugurthans were as rare across the Rift as foxies were on this side. Nonetheless, she had kept Greystroke and Little Hugh, as she had known she would, and Grimpen, who was methodical but thorough. Matilda she did not care for, and would have traded her for the Gytrash, but her skill was undoubted. Graceful Bintsaif, Bridget ban’s aide, was proven, but of the Pup, Obligado, she was unsure.
Black Shuck stood by the door.
“Top Dog!” said Bridget ban. “Ochone! Will ye abandon me, too?”
He wagged a finger at her. “Your wily ways don’t work on me, Briddy. All that—what do you call it? Cozening and sweet talk. I’m too old for the flattery to work. I’m half out the door, but I’m not there yet. I have heard much that tugs at the heart. Your own daughter, ochone! The shame of a Shadow eluding you in your own stronghold. What is their term? Sidáo zhwì, ‘to escape stealthily from detention.’ Even that this former lover of yours has been kidnapped and may be tortured to reveal what he knows. Sorrow upon sorrow! But do you not see a pattern? For I surely do. They want you to cross over. They are waiting for you. The entire story may have been naught but a lure to draw you deep into the Confederation.”
“An’ that was why I refused Ravn’s plea to go with her. But, Top Dog, my bairn is stolen awa’, and that is an argument wi’out rebuttal.”
Black Shuck grunted and shoved his hands in the deep pockets of his coverall. “But there is yet one thing missing. This quest you propose will require the Kennel’s chop. Entering the Confederation, the very Triangles; infiltrating a Shadow’s stronghold; assisting in his assassination … Should you be discovered, the Shadow-factions may unite once more, to the League’s sorrow. So the Little One will approve your chasing after Méarana, for the excellent reason that he could by no means known to man stop you. But to take others with you…? Give me a reason why I should not walk out that door. Tell me what the League stands to gain, not what aches in Francine Thompson’s soul.”
“She’s ’bout to tell us, Top Hound,” said Cwn Annwn. “But first she had to thin the herd, like. Ain’t that so, darlin’.”
Bridget ban had seated herself at the head of the table, and leaned forward now with her fists balled together. “Let me tell you how Ravn Olafsdottr escaped.”
Copyright © 2013 by Michael Flynn