Chapter One: A Night Run CHAPTER ONE A NIGHT RUN
TATEN, THE SEAT OF THE PÉKYU OF THE LYUCU IN UKYU-GONDÉ: THE FIFTH MONTH IN THE TWELFTH YEAR AFTER STRANGERS FROM AFAR ARRIVED IN THEIR CITY-SHIPS, CLAIMING TO SERVE SOMEONE NAMED “MAPIDÉRÉ” (BY DARA RECKONING, THIS IS THE FIFTH MONTH IN THE FIRST YEAR IN THE REIGN OF FOUR PLACID SEAS, WHEN KUNI GARU PROCLAIMED HIMSELF EMPEROR RAGIN AND ESTABLISHED HIS CAPITAL IN REBUILT PAN).
The stars pulsed in the firmament like glowing jellies in a dark sea. The eternal surf sighed in the distance as the almost-full moon’s pale light illuminated a field of tents as far as the eye could see, each as white as the belly of a corpse-plucker crab.
Goztan Ryoto staggered out of one of the larger tents, a thin pelt tunic draped over her shoulders and a skull helmet dangling from her hand. The tent’s garinafin-hide flap fell back heavily against the frame, muffling the angry curses and din of clashing bone clubs inside. She swayed on her feet as she tried to regain her balance.
“Steady, votan!” One of the two guards standing by the tent opening rushed up to support her lord. Casting a glance back at the tent flap, the guard asked, “Do you want us to—”
Goztan shoved her away. “No. Let ’em fight. I’ve had enough of them slinging insults at each other over dinner like children—can’t even have a drink in peace.” She struggled to pull the skull helmet over her clean-shaven head.
“I’m guessing you won’t summon any of them to your bed tonight?” asked the other guard. “It’s too bad. Kitan took a bath earlier today”—she lifted her eyebrows suggestively—“and he made sure we knew it.”
Both guards laughed.
Goztan glared at them through the eye sockets of the skull helmet. “I’d love to see either of you try maintaining a peaceful household with four husbands.”
Something crashed to the ground inside the tent; a furious howl of pain followed.
The guards looked at each other but remained where they were.
Goztan shook her head in exasperation. The cool breeze had cleared her head of kyoffir-haze, and after a moment, she said, “I’m taking a walk. The audience with the pékyu is first thing tomorrow, and I need to plan out what I want to say. Keep an eye on them; intervene only if Kitan’s head is about to be bashed in.”
“It is a very handsome head,” said one of the guards.
They lifted the tent flap and ducked in, eager to witness the domestic drama among the chief’s consorts.
Goztan strode aimlessly through the wide avenues between the tent-halls of Taten, her face flushed from rage and embarrassment. Despite the bright moonlight and the cool breeze, few of the thanes and warriors gathered in the Thanes’ Quarter were walking about, for evening was a time reserved for the fire pit and ancestral portraits, for family and kyoffir. For a tiger-thane like Goztan, the chief of the Five Tribes of the Antler, roaming alone through the tent-city at this hour instead of spending time with her spouses was a choice bound to rouse gossip. Although the skull helmet covered her face, it was still too distinctive to make her completely anonymous.
Goztan was beyond caring.
She began to run, her legs pumping faster as her breath deepened and steadied. The skull helmet isolated her from the world at large, and her breathing resonated in her ears like the crash of the distant surf. At twenty-nine, she was in prime fighting shape, stronger and deadlier than she had been during the years when she had fought most of her battles. The sensation of boundless strength coursing through her limbs and the rhythmic slapping of her bare, calloused feet against the ground calmed her until, gradually, she fell into a trancelike state. She imagined herself soaring freely through the air on the back of a garinafin—instead of being stuck here on the ground, plodding through a morass of competing obligations that threatened to trip her with every step.
She should be swooping through the sky and scattering her enemies with the flame tongue of her mount, getting drunk on their terrified shrieks, taking delight as cattle and sheep and hide tents and waybones and earthen storage pits turned to ash and roasted flesh.
She was meant to be a fighter, not a mediator for petty power struggles among her consorts: aloof Ofta; hotheaded Kyova; crafty Finva-Toruli; and sweet, sickly, paranoid Kitan. Ofta’s tribe had the most cattle; Kyova’s tribe laid claim to the most extensive grazing rights; Finva-Toruli’s tribe had the least amount of everything except an overabundance of ambition; and Kitan’s tribe resisted her in everything, yearning to return to the days before the Five Tribes were united, before she was in charge.
Each had his own agenda, pushed for by his tribe’s council of elders; each presented a different claim on her time and affections; each was trying, in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, to maneuver himself into the position of being the father of her firstborn. The Five Tribes might be united as one in name, but in reality they were more like five eels forced to share the same narrow cave in the coral reef.
The pékyu’s peace had brought many benefits, but it wasn’t suited to her temperament. She had journeyed almost a thousand miles to Taten for the first time in six years ostensibly to plead the Five Tribes of the Antler’s case for grazing rights by Aluro’s Basin, but the truth was that she wanted to get away from all the elders and chieftains and clan heads who hounded her to settle minor disputes in their favor, pestered her to make trivial decisions, nagged her about why she still refused to bear an heir, years after she had become the chief of the Five Tribes and had been elevated to the rank of tiger-thane.
If only I had also left my husbands behind.
Darkness. The flickering torches and flapping war banners, made from the tails of foxes, wolves, and tigers, faded like wisps of dreams. Without intending it, she had run beyond the limits of Taten, the pékyu’s roving tent-city. The pale beach spread before her, glistening in the moon’s silvery glow, inviting her to dive into this earthly reflection of the celestial river of stars. She ordered her imaginary mount to slow its beating wings as her heels sank into the yielding sand.
What had happened to those exhilarating first days of her marriage, when she had thought that five hearts could beat as one, that betrayals and plots were behind her, and that the Five Tribes of the Antler could finally take their rightful place as the model of a new Lyucu, a united people no longer terrorized by Agon raiders or invading strangers from beyond the sea, no longer riven by bloody internecine warfare, a proud race whose bloodlust would be channeled into war against winter storms and summer plagues, against starvation and flood and drought, against heaven, earth, and sea?
She had taken all her husbands in a single ceremony to show that they were all equal, despite their differences in age. To celebrate the act of union, she had ordered the tribes’ best bone-crafters to fashion a new weapon: a magnificent axe replete with symbolism. She was the blade of the axe, made from a tusked tiger’s fang, and her husbands were the handle, four yearling garinafin ribs tied together with twisted bundles of horrid-wolf sinew. She had given it the name Gaslira-sata, the Peace-Bite. Closing her eyes, she imagined the way the handle dug into her palms as she wrapped her fingers around it. A perfectly balanced weapon, equally suited to be thrown through the air to decapitate an Agon pilot’s head as to be swung on the ground to cleave in halves the torso of a Dara barbarian.
The Peace-Bite, long starved of blood, now lay dormant in her tent, wrapped in a sheath of sharkskin, while her jealous consorts raged and plotted and argued and jostled and fought to be invited to her bed.
What am I going to say to the pékyu tomorrow?
“For ten years, the Tribe of the Four Cacti have driven their herds to the land promised to us on the shores of Aluro’s Basin ahead of our arrival in spring, leaving us with nothing but roots and dung. Since we can no longer press our claim by force, the elders have been sitting in front of my tent day and night, wailing for me to do something. My first husband thinks I should offer you our store of Dara jewels to persuade you to rule for us. My second husband counsels against it because he thinks his tribe would have to sacrifice more treasure than the others. My third husband thinks I should imitate the elders and kneel before you to move you with my tears. And my fourth husband tells me at every opportunity that my other husbands are plotting to kill him. I want to lose myself in drink because it’s impossible to think with all four of them bickering and screaming without cease….”
In her mind, she could already see the pékyu’s eyes glaze over, and then he would dismiss her with a pitying but resolute wave of his arm. Her jaw clenched with the imaginary humiliation.
“Who goes there?” A man’s voice woke her from her fantasy. Two male guards stood in her way, bone clubs resting over their shoulders.
She saw that she had wandered so far from the edge of Taten that she was approaching Victory Cove, where the city-ships from Dara were anchored. The massive hulls, still breathtaking despite years of neglect, blotted out the stars and gently undulated in the sparkling sea, their silvery masts and spars reminding her of the conifer forests near her homeland in the foothills of the mountains at the edge of the world, or perhaps the bleached skeletons of sea monsters whose flesh had rotted away.
Cities of ghosts, she thought, and shuddered at the memories they brought.
On the other side of the beach, away from the water, were the pens for adolescent garinafins, separated from their families so that they could be drilled in the flight patterns necessary for warfare. The sleek bodies of the slumbering beasts glinted in the moon like a herd of cattle, albeit far larger.
Directly ahead of her, far in the distance, she could see a bonfire and dancing figures around it. The breeze brought occasional snatches of laughter.
“Answer!” the guard shouted again. “Come no closer.”
She didn’t remember the city-ships or garinafin pens being so heavily guarded the last time she was in Taten. The chances of an Agon raid or slave rebellion now were remote, more than twenty years since Pékyu Tenryo had united the Lyucu and conquered the Agon.
What are they guarding?
Half turning so that her face was in the moonlight, she lifted the skull helmet off her head and cradled it in the crook of her arm. The breeze cooled the sweat off her brow as she intoned imperiously, “Are you blind?”
Only a thane of her rank could wear a helmet made from the skull of a juvenile tusked tiger. She didn’t want to say her name—announcing her lineage and tribe seemed shameful when she had come to Taten to beg the pékyu to help her feed cattle, when she couldn’t even keep her husbands in line, when she had to find a moment of peace by running away from her own tent-hall.
“Votan.” The guards nodded their heads respectfully. But they made no move to get out of her way.
She took two steps forward. The guards remained where they were, blocking her.
Heat rose into Goztan’s face. The exertion of the night run had made her feel better, but now the frustration and sense of powerlessness had returned with a vengeance.
“Why do you keep me from the merriment beyond?” she asked. In truth, she had little interest in whatever revelry was going on by the bonfire—she far preferred to be alone at this moment—but she disliked the insolent attitude of the guards.
“Thanes and chiefs, great and small, come to Taten every day with their retinues,” said one of the guards in an even tone, “and most are strangers to us. We’re sworn to keep strangers away from the Road-to-the-City-Ships, so unless you have the pékyu’s talisman, please return to the safety of Taten.”
Goztan glared at the guards. They were so young, barely more than boys. She was certain they had never killed anyone except perhaps defenseless slaves. When Goztan was facing down Agon garinafins and Dara swords, these boys hadn’t even been old enough to be allowed out of the sight of their grandmothers.
Rage erupted from her throat in the form of an unnatural guffaw. “I wonder if you’d dare speak this way to the Thane of the Four Cacti, with his retinue of dozens always around him. I wonder if you’d bar the way of the Thane of the Sixteen Tribes of the Boneyard, borne everywhere on a cattle-litter. Just because my followers are few and my tribe remote, you dare to bark at me like ill-mannered curs. Sworn to protect the road to the ships, are you? I’m the one who captured those ships!”
The guards looked shaken but didn’t back down. “We don’t care who you are. We serve only the pékyu and will do whatever has been ordered by the hand that wields Langiaboto. You can’t pass without his talisman.”
Goztan let the helmet fall from her hand and dropped into a fighting stance, her fists up and ready. She regretted leaving in such a hurry that she was without her weapon, but she wasn’t going to let a couple of boys with unscarred faces turn her away from where she wanted to go.
The guards tensed their grips on their clubs and glanced at each other nervously. Goztan was taller than they were, and clearly a seasoned fighter, judging by the scars over her arms and face. But before they could decide on a coordinated response, Goztan lunged at the guard on the left, her right fist aimed at his nose.
Surprised, the guard tilted his head back and stumbled three steps rearward, looking rather foolish as he dragged his club through the sand. Goztan’s punch just missed.
Having seized the initiative, she pressed her advantage, striding forward quickly to punch with her left fist, not giving the guard a chance to raise his club for defense or counterattack. Once more, the guard dodged back clumsily, looking even more flustered.
Instead of coming to the aid of his partner, the other guard circled further to Goztan’s right, and her aggressive assault left him behind. Goztan stepped forward and punched again with her right fist at the first guard. But this time, instead of retreating, the guard dug his heels in and brought up his club in a long swing at the thane’s midsection, apparently willing to trade punch for blow.
The young man smiled even as Goztan’s fist closed in on his nose—his retreat hadn’t been the result of desperation, but a part of the two guards’ trained routine. Goztan’s punch would no doubt sting or even stun, but as she wasn’t wearing armor, a single, solid strike from the guard’s club would bring her down. In fact, Goztan was trapped. Even if she dodged back at this point instead of taking the bait to punch him, she would fall straight into the path of the swinging club of his partner, who was attacking from her blind spot.
But Goztan’s follow-up punch turned out to be only a feint. Her right fist opened to grab the tip of the swinging club and pushed it down as she easily stepped to the right, planted her right leg, and kicked her left leg behind her without looking. Her foot seemed to have eyes of its own as it connected solidly with the wrists of the guard behind her, and with an agonized shriek, he dropped the club.
Meanwhile, the guard in front of her had been thrown off balance by the missed swing as the tip of his club thwacked into the sand. Before he could recover, Goztan had leapt forward and landed a solid chop against the back of his left elbow as she seized the club and twisted it out of his hands.
She twirled the club as she surveyed her disarmed opponents, one nursing an elbow, the other two wrists. “Am I allowed to pass now or would you rather dance some more?”
To their credit, neither of the young guards showed any sign of fear. They moved close together, barring her way. “You’ll have to kill us if you want to get by,” one of them said. His hands hung limply—at least one of his wrists was probably broken—and he winced as he spoke. The other guard picked up a shell whistle dangling on a sinew cord around his neck and blew into it, letting forth a loud, shrill alarm.
Answering whistles sounded in the dark; Goztan could see on the beach beyond shadowy figures closing in as the whistling grew louder.
Now that her fighting instinct had cooled slightly, Goztan regretted her impulsive choice. There was no reason to lash out against these guards. Pékyu Tenryo was sure to look unfavorably upon a thane who injured his guards, even if they had insulted her first. How was she to plead her people’s case to an angry lord? But it was too late to back down. She lifted the club, preparing to take on dozens of guards if necessary.
Loud beating wings approached from behind her, and a young girl’s crisp voice called out. “Stop, all of you!”
Goztan whipped around just in time to see a juvenile garinafin, about twenty feet long from nose to tail, thump down into the sand. The garinafin was clearly untrained, as it staggered forward a few paces, knelt down, and folded its leathery wings against its heaving body, the turbulence filling Goztan’s nostrils with the familiar scent of garinafin musk. A ten-year-old girl sat on its back, the moonlight reflecting off the blond tresses haloing her pale, flawless face.
“Pékyu-taasa,” said the guard who had sounded the alarm as he lifted both arms and crossed his wrists in salute. “The pékyu said no one is allowed near the ships except those who have been purified. This stranger tried to—”
“I know my father’s orders,” said the young girl. She caressed the shoulders of her mount, and the garinafin curled its long neck around to place its head on the sand right next to its shoulder; the pilot climbed down, using the head as a stepping-stone. The beast was breathing very fast and loud, sounding like a muffled conch-shell trumpet.
The girl turned to Goztan and saw that the woman was staring at the garinafin and frowning. A look of worry flitted across the girl’s face.
“Reveal to them your name,” she said in a tone that brooked no disagreement.
From the guard’s address, Goztan gathered that the girl was a daughter of Pékyu Tenryo, and judging by her age, she must be Vadyu, said to be her father’s favorite. She had been barely more than a toddler the last time Goztan was in Taten.
There seemed little point in continuing to conceal her identity. “I am called Goztan Ryoto, daughter of Dayu Ryoto, son of Péfir Vagapé. I serve the pékyu as the Thane of the Five Tribes of the Antler.”
Vadyu turned to the guards. “Call off the alarm. The thane is my guest.”
“But we don’t know she is who she claims—”
“I know exactly who she is,” interrupted Vadyu.
“Even so, she has broken—”
“You can explain your injuries as the result of a training accident,” said Vadyu, “or tomorrow everyone will know that you were so ignorant that you dared to challenge one of the most renowned veterans of the Agon Wars, who was forced to teach you a lesson. It’s your choice, but I do think a lie is easier maintained if there are fewer witnesses.”
Goztan’s heart swelled with pride. The insults she had endured all evening seemed to melt away. One of the most renowned veterans of the Agon Wars. But then, as she continued to observe the girl and her mount, the frown returned to her brow.
The pair of guards looked at each other and seemed to come to a decision. The man with the whistle blew a series of quick toots. A few moments later, receding answering whistles told them that the reinforcements were returning to their stations.
“Go get your elbow and wrists taken care of,” said Vadyu. “I know you were trying to carry out my father’s orders faithfully, and your loyalty will not be forgotten.”
The dejected guards nodded at her gratefully and departed, leaving the thane and the pékyu-taasa alone.
Goztan turned to Vadyu. “You aren’t supposed to be out here, are you?”
The girl’s face froze in startlement. “How… how did you know?”
Goztan chuckled. “You were even more eager to get rid of those guards than I was.”
“I simply didn’t want them to bring shame to a great warrior I know and admire,” retorted the girl.
“Is that so? What did I accomplish in the Agon Wars? What was my proudest moment?”
The girl hemmed and hawed, and then sheepishly said, “I’ve heard of your name.”
“You almost had me fooled—clever of you to appeal to my vanity. But I haven’t been in Taten in six years, so you couldn’t have remembered me from my last visit to Taten. Why did you lie and claim to know me?”
The girl pressed her lips together and said nothing.
Goztan took a menacing step closer. “Helmets can be stolen. I could be an Agon slave in disguise plotting sabotage.”
Vadyu refused to back away, but Goztan could see that her right hand had darted to the bone dagger she wore on her belt. But then, deliberately, she moved her hand away from the dagger. “Then you wouldn’t have only disarmed the guards instead of killing them, which you were clearly capable of.”
Goztan was impressed by the girl’s cool and quick wit. She could see why the pékyu favored the young pékyu-taasa. She continued to stride toward the girl, and Vadyu’s whole body tensed. But at the last moment, Goztan veered away, dropped the club she had seized from the guard, and knelt down next to the young garinafin. Gently, she lifted the garinafin’s head and cradled it in her lap. The garinafin, a young female who had probably just learned to fly, was foaming at the mouth, her body trembling violently.
“What’s wrong with Korva?” Vadyu asked anxiously.
“Quick, give me all the tolyusa on you.”
A frightened Vadyu reached into her waist pouch and brought out handfuls of the fiery berries, dumping them in Goztan’s cupped hands. The kneeling woman fed them to Korva a few at a time. After a while, the garinafin calmed down and closed her eyes. But even in sleep, her eyes seemed to move rapidly under the lids.
“Will she be all right?” asked Vadyu, agitated.
“She’s just dreaming,” said Goztan. “The tolyusa makes garinafins see visions, the same as us. She’s overheating, and the tolyusa slows down her heart, dilates her arteries, and relaxes her muscles so she can rest.”
“I knew you could help her,” said Vadyu. “I was so scared because we were sinking in the air, and I had to land. Then I saw how you looked at her like you knew what was wrong, so I decided—”
“Garinafins this young shouldn’t be ridden at all!” Goztan raised her voice, and her words came in a rapid torrent. “They don’t have the endurance for sustained flight, and their families may even have to carry them on long journeys. It takes time for them to learn how to conserve lift gas and to master their own bodies. You were pushing her too hard.”
“I didn’t know—”
“I know you didn’t know! The way you raise these war garinafins in massive corrals—” Goztan took a deep breath and forced herself to calm down. Voicing her criticisms of the pékyu’s methods for raising large garinafin armies to his daughter was not going to gain her any favors. “I’m an old-style garinafin pilot, probably one of the best in your father’s army, even though he hasn’t needed my services for years now. I can’t stand seeing these fine beasts mishandled.”
“Korva’s not from the corrals,” objected Vadyu. “I’m trying to bond with her the old-fashioned way.”
Goztan’s eyes narrowed as she caressed the garinafin’s smooth antlers. “She has no marks of bonding…. Did you steal her? You were told you shouldn’t ride her, and you decided to disobey, didn’t you?”
Vadyu bit her bottom lip, her chin jutting forward defiantly. “She’s a gift to Father from the Thane of Windless Mesa. Her dam was supposed to be the fastest garinafin who ever fought for the thane—”
Goztan’s voice softened just a hint. “And so you wanted to see if she inherited her dam’s speed? She’s not going to be fully developed—”
“I know she’s too young to reach her full speed! You don’t even listen! Do you take me for an ignorant child?” Vadyu sputtered, her eyes wide with the rage of being misunderstood.
Goztan knew better than to answer that. “All right, Pékyu-taasa, please go on. I promise not to interrupt.”
Vadyu took a deep breath. “Even though I saw her first and begged Father to give her to me, he wants to offer her to my brother instead. ‘I need a war mount,’ I told him. ‘But this little beast has quite a temper,’ he said. ‘So do I!’ I said. ‘Cudyu has more experience,’ he said. ‘From riding cattle? I bet I can outlast Cudyu on any bucking bull,’ I said. ‘Cudyu is older and will need a war mount sooner,’ he said, and that was the end of the discussion. Well, that’s not fair! I never get what I want just because I’m younger. So I decided to take her on a long ride first so she would be bonded to me.”
Goztan laughed. “So I was right. You are a thief.”
“I am not! Until a garinafin bonds to a pilot, she doesn’t belong to anyone.”
“How can you call yourself a pilot when you don’t even know how to take care of your mount properly?”
Tears threatened to spill from Vadyu’s eyes. “I… I should have learned more, but don’t tell me you always did exactly as you were told when you were my age.”
Goztan sighed. Her voice softened when she spoke again. “You do have me there. My mother, who was thane before me, was bonded to a big bull garinafin, incredibly bad-tempered. He was supposed to be impossible to ride. Of course I decided that I had to try, even though his saddle was so wide that when I finally climbed up, my legs were horizontal, like I was doing a split….”
As Goztan reminisced, she gently caressed Korva’s head, gazing affectionately at the young garinafin’s fluttering eyelids.
Thus, she didn’t notice the sudden change in Vadyu’s expression as she listened to Goztan’s story, nor did she see the young girl slowly reach for the club lying at her feet, and she certainly was not prepared when the girl reared back and slammed the club into the back of her head.