The Phoenix Guards (Khaavren Romances Series #1)by Steven Brust
Khaavren of the House of Tiassa arrives in the heart of the Draegaran Empire with only his good breeding and his "tolerable" swordsmanship to protect. But when he joins the rambunctious Phoenix Guards, he and his rowdy comrades must save the Empire from collapse . . . and invasion. See more details below
Khaavren of the House of Tiassa arrives in the heart of the Draegaran Empire with only his good breeding and his "tolerable" swordsmanship to protect. But when he joins the rambunctious Phoenix Guards, he and his rowdy comrades must save the Empire from collapse . . . and invasion.
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Chapter the First
In Which We Introduce Several Persons With Whom, In the Hopes of the Author, The Reader Will Wish to Become Better Acquainted
It happened that on the sixth day of spring, in the first year of the reign of His Imperial Majesty Tortaalik I of the House of the Phoenix, a young gentleman entered a small hostelry, in the village of Newmarket, some sixty leagues from Dragaera City. The inn was called The Three Forts, and its sign depicted three tall fortresses with doors flung wide open. The name was taken from those fortresses built during the War of the Barons, in which the district had been much involved, that could be seen from the west end of town.
The village (and, consequently, the inn) was located in the wide valley between the Yendi and the Shallow Rivers, a region renowned for its wheat and maize fields and for the unique odor of its kethna farms. If we go on to say that Newmarket was in that portion of this valley which was located within the County of Sorannah, and that within the Duchy of Luatha, we hope we shall have identified the place well enough to satisfy all but the most exacting of our readers.
As for the village itself, it should be said that there was little to distinguish it from other villages in the area. That is, it had its inn, it had its leather-worker, it had its mill and bins. It had no sorcerer, but did have an augur and a healer. It had no steelbender, but did have a smith and wheelwright. It had no packing-house, but did have a smokehouse. It had no mayor, but did have its Speaker, with a low Speaker's House that was the only building of stone in the town. It had one street, that for half the year was mud and for the rest was the good, black soil of the district. It was near enough to the Imperial Highway that a coach came by the inn every morning and evening, but far enough away that it was a good refuge for the few bandits and highwaymen who dared to brave the wizards of the Athyra Guard, just lately retired with the turning of the Cycle from the Athyra to the Phoenix and with the ascension of the Emperor Tortaalik.
This day was the thirteenth of Tortaalik's reign, and this reign the eighteenth of the House of the Phoenix. The inaugural festivities still had four days to run their course. So it was that the young gentleman found Newmarket in a state of quiet and serene celebration.
This gentleman, to whom we now have the honor of returning, was, we should say, dusty. In those days, before the Interregnum, a gentleman who had been traveling on foot was easily seen to be poor. And yet he was surely of gentle birth. He had long, curly black hair, parted at his noble's point; soft brown eyes; and a rather long, pleasant face, distinguished by the creases in the forehead that show high intellect and by the strong chin that indicates determination and will. To these features, add high cheekbones, a proud nose, and a fair complexion, and it will be seen at once that he was not only a gentleman, but clearly of the House of the Tiassawhich was proved by the color of his garments, where they could be discerned beneath the dust he wore as his outer, and, no doubt, inner, layer of clothing.
His tunic was of white cotton, with puffed sleeves, and was drawn tight around the waist. He had a light woolen overtunic of pale blue with wide lapels. The tunic ended in a short flared skirt without fringe or tassel. Beneath, he wore hose of the same shade of blue, and lyornskin boots, undyed, with low heels and rounded toes. A chain of flat links around his waist held a light sword of good length. The chain also held a thong which ran from scabbard to belt, preventing the sword from scraping the ground when he walked, as well as a sheathed dagger next to the sword, and a purse on the opposite hip. The purse, upon close inspection, looked rather anemic.
He was of medium height, but well built and athletic-looking. He wore neither jewelry nor hatthis last because it had been lost in a gust of wind two days before. To round off our description, with which we hope our readers have not lost patience, we will say that he had a clear, friendly eye, an open countenance, and a frank, pleasant smile. With these things and a sword of good length, much can be done, as we will, by and by, endeavor to show.
The Tiassa, whose name was Khaavren, entered the inn, and stood for a moment to let his eyes adjust to the darkness. On one side was a table where sat the host, waiting for travelers. On the other was a single large room, lit by kerosene lamps and containing four long tables. At first glance, every chair seemed to be occupied, but a closer look revealed a few empty places in the farthest corner. Khaavren made his way there, smiling his apologies to a Jhegaala and a Chreotha, into whom he could not help bumping. Since the inaugural festivities continued, and since the Tiassa's countenance was one of friendliness, neither one was inclined to take offense, so he soon found himself seated on a plain, hard-backed wooden chair.
At length, he identified a servant who seemed to be keeping the patrons supplied with cheer. This servant, however, was on the other side of the room, so Khaavren relaxed, making up his mind to wait patiently. To pass the time, he looked around, his gaze slipping by the numerous Teckla to dwell on persons of more interest. To his right a wizard of the House of the Athyra sat drinking alone, staring into his cup, and, we must assume, thinking deep and subtle thoughts. Next to this wizard was a Vallista with her head on the table, snoring loudly. To Khaavren's left was an attractive young lady of the House of the Dzur, who was engaged in a game of three-copper-mud with a Lyorn and two Hawks. As Khaavren's eye was about to pass over them, the Dzurlord suddenly stood, a hand on the greatsword she carried over her shoulder. Several pairs of eyes turned to her as she frowned at one of the Hawklords. The Hawk at whom she stared seemed suddenly pale.
"My lady," he said in a raspy voice. "What troubles you?"
The Dzur, as Dzur will when in the presence of someone showing fear, allowed a smile to play about her lips. "It is very simple, my lord," said she, in a strong voice. "I have an amulet, given me by my uncle, Lord Tuaral." She paused here, evidently to see if the name produced an effect. When it didn't, she continued. "This amulet emits a small sound, which only I can hear, whenever sorcery occurs near it."
"I fail to see," said the Hawk, "how I am concerned with an amulet given you by your uncle."
"Ah, but you soon will."
"Well, this way: four times now, you have made very difficult throws. Twice, you managed three Thrones over my split high; once, you achieved three Orbs over my three Thrones; and now, just lately, you threw three Orbs followed by a split high after my three Orbs."
"That it true," said the Hawk. "But how does this concern your amulet?"
Khaavren, who saw things faster than the Hawklord pretended to, drew in his breath and leaned forward.
"It concerns the amulet," replied the Dzur, "in that at each of the throws I have just had the honor to describe, I have heard that sound. Had it been only once, I should have thought nothing of it. Even hearing it twice, no action would have been called for. But four timescome now, my lord. Four times is excessive, I think."
The Hawklord seemed to understand at last. His brows came together. "I almost think you accuse me," he said.
"Well, yes," said she.
He glanced around, then said to the other Hawklord, "Will you stand for me, my lord?"
"Gladly," said the other. Then the latter turned to the Dzur and said, "Have you a second?"
"I have no need," she said, "If this gentleman"here she indicated the Lyorn next to her"will be so kind as to judge for us."
The second Hawklord turned to the Lyorn. "My lord?"
Now, all this time there had been more and more interest in the proceedings from those nearby, until nearly everyone in the room was watching the interplay. But the Lyorn, who had been one of the players, had shown no sign of interest save for a slight, sad smile which flitted across his face, rather like the small, red daythief across an afternoon sky. When spoken to, however, he shrugged. Then he said to the Dzurlord, in a quiet, melodious voice, "Do you accuse?"
"I do," she answered, with a toss of her head that sent her dark hair from one side of her neck to the other.
He turned to the second Hawklord while pointing to the first. "Do you deny?" he asked.
They looked at each other, and the principal nodded. "He does," said the second.
"Well, then," said the Lyorn, and drained his glass in one motion, his throat bobbing smoothly. He set the glass down gently and stood up. "Perhaps the street," he suggested. He looked around, his eye coming to rest on Khaavren. "Would you care to draw the circle?"
Now, we would not be faithful to our role of historian if we did not say that Khaavren was young, and, moreover, had come from a noble family, albeit one that had fallen on hard times. He had been as well-educated as his poverty would permit, but the Fallen Nobility, as they were beginning to be called in that day, usually had little experience with the ways of Court, or even the ways of the more prosperous of the aristocracy; yet they invariably craved such knowledge and experience. A young gentleman, such as Khaavren, could hardly be made such a request without being delighted. He nodded.
Remembering what was involved as best he could, he walked out into the street, which was, fortunately, rather wide. He noted the size of the Dzurlord's blade, estimated the distance between the hostel on the one side and the livery stables on the other, and decided that it would do. He took more pains with his task because, in addition to other factors, he had been living far out in the country, and, in his ninety-five years, he had never been this close to a duel. To be sure, he had once, as a child, peeking over the stone wall that surrounded his home, had occasion to see his father beat a neighbor with the flat of his sword over some insult, but that was hardly the same as a duel, with all of the formalities that, like war, make legal and proper injury or death inflicted on one's fellow man.
As he was making his observations, the Dzurlord emerged, speaking to the Hawklord's second, apparently deciding on the terms of the engagement. The Lyorn came after them. Khaavren looked at the latter briefly, noticing the short, straight brown hair brushed back off a high forehead, the thin face, the small chin, small mouth, and hooked nose. These, along with the dark complexion, identify the Lyorn even without his costume. This Lyorn, who was very tall for one of his House, seemed to be a warrior, as he was wearing soft leather boots, a plain red blouse, and a brown skirt that came to his ankles. He had no visible weapon, but wore a pair of copper or bronze vambraces.
The Tiassa turned back to his task then, and drew his sword. He found a spot to make the corner, and lowered his blade to begin drawing the line. He was interrupted, then, by a low, soft voice near him: "No, not your sword."
He looked up and saw the Lyorn standing near his elbow.
"No?" he inquired.
"Use your knife," said the Lyorn.
"Why?" asked Khaavren.
The Lyorn smiled sadly. "Name?"
"Khaavren of Castlerock."
"Aerich," said the other, accompanying the word with a gesture to indicate himself.
"But," said Khaavren, "about the sword"
Aerich gestured at the weapon's point. "This is your honor," he said. "It must never touch the ground. Use your knife."
Khaavren looked at Aerich for a moment, trying to decide if the Lyorn were jesting. But then, he thought, Aerich was the judge. He sheathed his sword, took out his dagger, and drew a line across the width of the street, then one along the side, twice seventeen paces in length, then crossed the street again, and back to where he had begun to complete the rectangle. He straightened his back with some relief and looked up at Aerich, who nodded solemnly.
Aerich turned and gestured to the combatants, indicating where they ought to stand. The Dzurlord removed her doublet and folded it carefully, setting it on the street outside of the circle. She drew her sword from behind her back. The weapon seemed close to her own height, yet she had no apparent trouble wielding it. The Hawk had a short broadsword, and a dagger in the other hand. Aerich looked at the Hawklord's second.
"Terms," he said.
The other Hawk frowned. "We have agreed"
"State them aloud, please," said Aerich.
The Hawk nodded. "Plain steel weapons, sword and dagger, to first blood, no healer present, but a healer may be summoned at once upon conclusion."
Aerich looked an inquiry at the Dzurlord, who seemed disgusted, but nodded. The Lyorn stood between them, so they were each separated from him by five paces, and from each other by ten. He raised his hand.
"As your chosen Imperial intermediary, in accordance with the laws of the Empire, I ask if you will not be reconciled." His tone of voice indicated a certain lack of interest in the answer.
"Very well," he said, and lowered his hand in a motion that was at once graceful and sudden.
Both Hawk and Dzur seemed to be startled but the Dzur recovered first. With a yell, she sprang at her enemy, her blade visible only as a blur. The Hawklord barely had time to assume a defensive posture, and at once there was the ringing sound of steel on steel, which sent a thrill through Khaavren's heart.
The Hawk stepped back, and swung his blade wildlyand from so far away that Khaavren could see it was a useless gesture. The Dzur smiled contemptuously and stepped in, and, to Khaavren's inexperienced but expert eye, she moved with a grace and fluidity that would have made her a worthy opponent of his own sword-master.
With her next step, she beat aside the Hawklord's sword and, with the same motion, gave him a good cut across his right shoulder and down to his chest. The sound that came from his throat was more squeak than moan as he fell over backward, the point of her sword still lodged in his chest, breaking two ribs and nearly cutting open his lungs.
The Hawklord's weapons fell from his hands as he lay on the ground, staring upward in horror as the Dzur pulled her sword free and raised it for the killing stroke.
"Lady!" called Aerich, in a tone that was far sharper than Khaavren would have suspected possible from the quiet gentleman. It was used to good effect, too, as the Dzurlord stopped, looked at him, then sighed and nodded.
"Ah, yes," she said, with a hint of contempt in her voice. "First blood."
Then, turning her back on the fallen Hawklord, she walked back into the inn, stopping only to clean her blade and retrieve her doublet. The Hawk's second approached his principal and dropped to his knee, looking at the wound.
"A healer!" he cried.
The village healer, such as he was, was sent for, and Khaavren returned to the inn, following Aerich back to the same corner he had occupied earlier. They sat down next to the Dzur, who had already resumed her place with an air which indicated that die battle in which she had just been victorious was not even worth the trouble to discuss. Aerich picked up the three copper pieces they had been playing with, threw them into the air, looked at the result, and carelessly set out two silver orbs.
"With only two players?" asked the Dzur, who was gathering the Hawklord's winnings over to her side of the table. Khaavren studied her for the first time. Her hair and eyes were quite black, the hair hanging straight down to well below her shoulders without evidence of a curl. Her cheekbones were high, and she had the upward tilting eyes of the House of the Dzur. She was fully as tall as he, with a dark complexion. Her nose was long and straight, her chin strong. She wore a black doublet of finely woven linen, which came to just below her waist. The collar was high, but she had no ruff. The sleeves were nearly as puffed as Khaavren's own, with a bit of white lace at the cuff. The buttons on the doublet seemed to be of gold, and had inlay work that looked to be Serioli in style. Her belt of black leather was wide with brass buttons. He couldn't see her legs, but his memory told him that her hose were of silk, and finely knit. She wore gleaming black boots with cuffs just below the knee. Around her neck was a pendant on a silver chain, with the face of a dzur pictured on it.
Aerich shrugged and looked an inquiry at Khaavren. The latter felt himself blushing. "Lord Aerich," he said, "I do not play."
Aerich studied him, then wordlessly drew several coins from in front of him and set them in front of Khaavren.
"My lord," said Khaavren, as he tried to decide if he ought to be offended that his lack of funds had been discovered. "I could not"
Aerich cut him off with a smile and a shake of his head. Then he pointed to the three copper coins. "Split high," he said. He pointed to the coins he had placed in the middle of the table. "Two," he added.
Khaavren swallowed, and pushed two silver orbs into the center of the table. The Dzur had already done so. Aerich passed him the coins, and Khaavren gathered them clumsily into his hand. He licked his lips, and tossed the coins half a meter into the air. They hit with the high, tinkling sound of light copper, two of them showing orbs and one showing the throne, the same as Aerich's.
The Dzurlord said, "Split high. You match."
"Hmmmm," said Khaavren, struggling to remember the little he knew of the game. "I'll hold."
The Dzurlord threw next, splitting low, leaving her out. Aerich threw and split low. He shrugged, and passed a hand over the table indicating that he would hold.
Khaavren threw and achieved three thrones. He looked at Aerich, who nodded. Khaavren collected the silver. The Dzur gave him a smile, then called in a loud voice, "Bring us wine, by the Orb! I'll not be penniless and dry at once, eh?" Then she turned to Khaavren. "What is your name, my friend?"
He told her. She said, "I am Tazendra." Aerich gave her, for only an instant, a singular glance, but said nothing. Khaavren noticed this look and wondered.
The tinkling of coins continued, and the pile of silver that Aerich had given Khaavren began to diminish. Khaavren, it should be noted, was hardly concerned, since the money had not been his to begin with. He had, in his purse, some ten silver orbs, which he had no intention of using in this manner. Thus he could only gain. And, he realized, should fortune smile on him, he'd be able to purchase a horse. This, if it wouldn't make his journey shorter, would at least make it more comfortable.
As they played, Khaavren addressed the Dzur, who was by far the more communicative of the two. "Lady Tazendra," he said, "how do you come to be here?"
"Eh?" she said. "But I live nearby. My" she paused, then continued. "My home is only a few leagues away."
Khaavren chewed his lip. It seemed to him that she had been about to say something else. "Ah, I see," he said to himself, remembering the strange look that had passed over Aerich's features. "You are doubtless the daughter of the lord of these lands, and our Lyorn friend knows it, but you wish to keep it a secret. Very well, we will see if we can discover the reason behind your reticence."
Now Khaavren, we should understand, had one of those searching, inquiring minds which, in a more serious or studious person, leads to work in some of the more strange and esoteric branches of magic, and perhaps the discovery of spells that had never been thought of before. But, Tiassa that he was, he had not the disposition for it. Still, he was intrigued, and he resolved to discover what he could about the lady who called herself Tazendra. None of this passed over his countenance, however, as he turned to Aerich and said, "And you, my lord? What brings you here?"
His sharp eyes noted that Tazendra seemed curious too, from which he deduced that, if Aerich knew about Tazendra, Tazendra didn't know about Aerich. But the Lyorn only shook his head and said, "Me? Why, I am herebecause I am here. It is your throw, my good Marquis."
"Yes andbut hold, I believe you have addressed me as 'Marquis'."
"Why, yes, I did," said Aerich.
"How did you know?"
Aerich shrugged, a gesture he seemed to be fond of. "You call yourself Khaavren," he said.
"Well, and if I do?"
"Khaavren is the largest district within the County of Shallowbanks."
"And if it is?"
"The Count of Shallowbanks always gives his eldest son one of his districts and the title of Marquis."
"But," exclaimed Khaavren, "County Shallowbanks was sold back to the Empire nearly a thousand years ago!"
"Yet," said Aerich, "it has not been given to fiefdom to another. You perceive, therefore, that you are entitled to the name."
Before Khaavren could argue further, Tazendra said, "And whither are you traveling?"
"Eh? To Dragaera, of course. With a Phoenix on the throne, there will be places in the Guard, and I think I could use such a place."
Aerich frowned. Tazendra said, "In the Guard? But why?"
"It surprises me to hear a Dzur ask," said Khaavren. "But still, I can hardly live off lands we no longer own, and I must do something. I think my sword is long enough, and I am tolerably well acquainted with its use."
"But the pay, I'm told"
"It's bad, I know. However, that is a beginning only. By the Orb! I don't intend to be a mere man-at-arms all my life."
"You will be competing with Dragons, however."
"So much the better," said Khaavren. "They will have many Dragons, but few Tiassa. Therefore, you perceive, I will stand out. Someone will notice me, and I will take the opportunity to distinguish myself, and my career will be made."
Tazendra's eyes grew wide. "Why, now," she said. "That is hardly a plan with which I can find fault."
Aerich nodded, "A career in arms is certainly worthy for one of gentle birth," he said.
"There was a young Guardsman here, just yesterday," said Tazendra. "Was there not, good Aerich?"
"Not a Tiassa," exclaimed Khaavren in alarm.
"I hardly know," said Tazendra.
"He was a Yendi," said Aerich.
"A Yendi!" said Tazendra.
"Indeed," said Aerich.
"Bah! How could you tell?"
"By the Phoenix, I think I could tell that he wasn't a Teckla; noble birth cannot be hidden. And he was not a Jhereg, or I should have smelled it. Every other House may be identified by face and clothing, save the Yendi."
"That is well," said Khaavren. "I have no fear of my place being taken by a Yendi."
"Yet," said Tazendra, "why should a Yendi wish to join the Imperial Guard?"
"Ah, perhaps I will see him and ask," said Khaavren, who, talking about his plans, became filled with the desire to reach the end of his journey.
"Yes," said Tazendra. "We will find him and ask him."
"We!" exclaimed Khaavren. "Excuse me, but I nearly think you said 'we'."
"Why, I did at that," said Tazendra.
"You join the Guard?"
"And by the Orb, why not? Your plan sounds to me to be a good one."
"Well, I think it is."
"Therefore, I shall subscribe to it. Come! I have money, if our friend the Lyorn doesn't win it all from me, and I can pay for a coach for both of us."
"Ah!" said Aerich. "You say 'both'."
"Well, and if I do?"
"Both means two, I think."
"So it seems to me, good Aerich."
"Well, I think we are three."
"You mean to join us, then?" cried Khaavren happily, for, in playing, he had begun to admire the Lyorn's coolness more and more.
"You have understood me exactly," said Aerich.
"Come then," said Tazendra. "Let us drink to this plan!"
"Rather," said Aerich, "let us drink to our friendship."
To this they agreed, and it was no sooner said than acted upon. But Khaavren said to himself, "Come, Aerich my friend, there is some mystery here. I will certainly find you out in time."
And yet, as they drank the dark, sweet wine of the district, Aerich seemed so pleasant, though he still spoke little, that, by the third bottle, any mistrust Khaavren may have had of him vanished, and never returned as long as they knew each other.
Copyright © 1991 by Steven Brust
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