Talion: Revenant Chapter Four

The goal of the 10,000 copy sequel challenge is to sell copies of Talion: Revenant so I can afford to take the time to write Talion: Nemesis. To build up momentum for the effort, I’ve decided to serialize the novel to the web. In this way I can let readers who’ve not had a chance to read the book to get a taste of it and decide if they want to buy a copy to support my writing the sequel. Thanks to everyone who has blogged about this effort—share the book with your friends, then we can all share in the sequel.

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Talion: Revenant is ©1997 Michael A. Stackpole

Chapter Four

Novice: Festival

Sweaty and bleeding, I stood there and looked over at the rising disk of the sun. The man who had spoken no longer stood on the hilltop. He’d vanished, and along with him went the last remnants of my fear. Relief flooded through me, a chuckle—that I smothered immediately—started in the pit of my stomach, and I suddenly felt exhausted.

The two Talions before me lifted the Warrior and carried him out of the dust-bowl. Lord Hansur waved a hand to indicate I should follow them, so I did. We walked a narrow, twisting trail up a hill and I discovered another small dust flat where a tent and some chairs had been set out. The white-blond novice who guided me before led me to one of the chairs.

“I am Lothar ra Jania. Like you, I am a Thirteen.”

I smiled and gladly took the goblet of watered wine offered by a Services Talion. I gulped it greedily and some of it poured down my chin and chest. It stung when it hit my scrapes, but the wine’s coolness was worth the pain.

I nodded to the server. “Thank you.” I offered Lothar my hand and he shook it firmly. “I am Nolan ra Sinjaria. But are we supposed to call each other by name? I thought all Talions were known by title?”

Lothar smiled and revealed even, white teeth. “That is for those outside. The lords are known by their names, and Talions serving in a foreign court are often known by rank, but it is not forbidden for us to give our names to others. Here, among Talions, we use our names. It would be rather confusing otherwise.”

I smiled, visualizing the chaos if Talions only answered to that title in a city full of Talions. “Where in Jania are you from, Lothar?”

The novice Justice turned and barked a command to the azure-robed Wizard examining the Warrior I’d kicked. The Wizard turned enough for me to see the pentagram on the left breast of his robe and replied in the same tongue to Lothar. Lothar nodded and turned back to me. “He’ll be over here in a moment to fix you up. Your question, where am I from, ah, I’m from Trisus, the capital, but I’ve been in Talianna since I was six months old.”

“Oh.” I rubbed my left arm and checked the splinter wound. The bleeding had stopped, but the injury still stung. “What did you say to him?” I asked, jerking my head toward the Wizard.

Lothar shrugged. “I told him you needed his services more than that laggard Warrior. A Justice would not have fallen for either one of your tricks.”

I frowned. Lothar’s voice carried contempt for the Warrior, and with it I felt some judgment of me implied in his comment. “What language did you use, and what did the man say to Lord Hansur when he was counting my flags?”

Lothar signaled the Services Talion to pour me more wine, which I gratefully accepted. “I spoke in the Tal dialect. It’s said the language has not changed since the Talions were formed. You’ll have to learn it.” He paused and refused to meet my eyes. “I do not know what was said to Lord Hansur.”

If he was lying I couldn’t tell. I still felt uneasy, and if I was now the same rank as Lothar, as we were both Thirteens, I didn’t want him feeling I’d not earned my place. “I take it from your remark about the Warrior you do not feel I should be a Justice, that I failed my test?”

Lothar’s face brightened and he laughed. “No, no, don’t take it as that. Making it to Talianna from Sinjaria by yourself is enough proof for me that you belong. And seeing you here, exhausted and torn up, I know you earned your flags. No, my anger is with him.” He stabbed a finger at the Warrior seated across the campsite. “You would have beaten him in any event, but you would not have humiliated him if he had not underestimated your abilities.”

I drank more wine and felt relieved that Lothar did not judge me harshly. The Wizard left off the Warrior and crossed to me. He quickly examined my arm, poking it none too gently, then smiled. “No need for me to spell you back to health. Just wash the grime off and bind it with a clean bandage. It will bother you for a few days, but you will heal.”

Lothar stood and led me out of the clearing. We crossed over two more hills and I discovered we were very close to Talianna. My course had taken me in a long loop. We quickly marched down a trail back toward Talianna, but paused just long enough for me to dive into a stream and clean myself off.

The trail took us on the north side of Talianna, between the siege wall and the Mews, where we passed through the gate on the eastern side of Northpoint. Two Warriors stood guard duty there but neither one challenged us. Through the gate we headed south and east toward the Eastgate in the second pentagram.

Between the siege wall and the Citadel itself, the street looked like it might in many a large city, with one major difference. “Lothar, the streets are incredibly clean here.” I looked around in total disbelief. I could see no piles of garbage, dead animals, or broken cobblestone anywhere.

The novice smiled. “This is Taltown. It is home to the families of Talions, the Tal farmers, and all the businesses needed to support them. The Master allows people to live here only if Taltown is kept as clean and orderly as the Citadel itself is maintained.”

“Hmmm. And anyone can live here?”

Lothar thought for a moment. “Yes, just about anyone. There are no beggars—they get put to work on the farms. Once a criminal the Justices were hunting came here and hid out. It’s said he tried to become a Talion, a Justice in fact, when the next Festival came around.”

My eyes flew wide at that. “What happened?”

“Where you found a Warrior he met the Lord of Justices. He did not get the required number of flags.”

We walked around and through crowds of people buying and selling various wares. I’d been to a market before, once, in Sinjaria, so not much was new to me. Still there was an overwhelming number of Talions in the crowd, and that took getting used to.

Twenty-foot-tall, massive oak-and-iron doors closed off Eastgate. A smaller, man-sized door stood open at the base of the left door. Lothar explained, “Normally these doors are open, but when Lancers pass their tests they have the annoying habit of riding through the hallway and into the mess hall to celebrate.”

I smiled and followed Lothar through the door. We stood in a long, dark tunnel that formed the base of the Star. Early-morning light streamed through the door, and it cut enough of the gloom to let me see the murderholes above us. Anyone mad enough to lay siege to Talianna, and lucky enough to get this far, could be shot with arrows or flooded out with burning oil from above. I’d heard of such things in my grandmother’s stories, but actually seeing them sent a chill through me. For the first time in my life I connected the horror of death with the reality behind tales I used to enjoy listening to.

Lothar led me on through the corridor and stopped at the door in the southern wall. “We’ll get you some supplies in here.”

I followed him through the door and stopped instantly. The room was considerably larger than the house I’d grown up in. Shelves lined the walls, filled the interior, and reached all the way up to the twelve-foot-high ceiling. Neatly folded clothing packed every shelf and displayed a rainbow of colors. My mouth dropped open and I drifted toward the nearest shelf, ignoring Lothar and the Services clerk he was speaking to.

“Stand still, boy!” The clerk’s command froze me in place, and jerked my extended hand back from the velvet robes on the shelf before me. “How can I size you if you keep moving? Lothar, shelf thirteen, middle pile, for pants and shelf fourteen left for shirt.” The clerk, an older man shorter than me, with brown eyes and white hair ringing his head, squinted at my feet and held a pair of boots out toward me. “Well, here, take these. And get some stockings and underclothes there on shelf three. Shelf three. You can read, can’t you?”

I took the boots and turned a full circle before I saw the shelf I wanted. “Yes, I can read.” I took a pair of stockings and some underclothes. “Should I try these on?”

The clerk’s eyes widened until they were almost all white. He snapped something at me in the Tal dialect. Lothar stifled a laugh, jammed my shirt and pants into my stomach, and steered me out into the hallway quickly.

“What did he say?”

Lothar laughed. “Don’t worry about it, you don’t look like you’ve got any goat blood in you to me.” He opened a door in the south wall and we stepped out into a grassy courtyard. “This is where we’ll do some of our training. We live over there, and the Thirteens have rooms on the upper floor this year!”

We walked through an arched doorway in the east Citadel wall and ran up two flights of stairs to the third floor. The hallway was ten feet wide and tiled for its entire length. Every fifteen feet along each wall, staggered so they did not open onto each other, doors dotted the length of the corridor. There was a doorway at the far end of the corridor, and there was one directly behind us.

A clerk with a slate stood at the far end of the corridor. He spotted us and stalked down the hallway toward us. He said something to Lothar that I could not understand, but the scolding tone was easy to recognize.

Lothar frowned at him. “Say it in the common dialect; Nolan cannot understand us.” Lothar added an edge to his voice and the clerk hesitated.

“Finally, Lothar, you appear.” The clerk sniffed and checked something off on his slate. “The others have had their choices. You’ll have to room with this one, this Nolan.” The clerk’s grin was meant to be cruel, as if pairing Lothar with me was a heinous punishment for his tardiness.

Lothar stiffened, then took one step forward. He towered over the clerk, and he cowed a man easily thirty years his senior. “It clearly did not occur to you that I might have planned this. If Nolan failed I would have a room to myself. With his success I am now roomed with an interesting addition to our company.”

The clerk recoiled, then narrowed his eyes and spat something back at Lothar in Tal. Lothar answered quickly and sharply. I caught “Hansur” in Lothar’s riposte, and whatever else he said combined with that name to batter the clerk. He pointed to a doorway and left. Lothar stalked down the hallway, and I followed in docile silence.

Our boxy room was fifteen feet wide and ten feet deep. The window looked out onto the grassy field we’d crossed coming into the building. A bed sat against each of the side walls, along with a big clothes chest and a wardrobe for hanging cloaks and storing boots. An oak table sat beneath the window, with chairs on three sides of it, and a fourth chair beside the door.

Lothar threw himself onto the bed in the far corner, with the head against the window wall, leaving me the bed in the opposite corner of the room. “The clerks will bring up more clothes for you, and put them away later. Cloaks and ceremonial clothing get hung in the wardrobe. Boots and sandals go in the bottom of it. Anything else gets stored in the chest. They’ll also bring your stuff from Devon’s tent. Anything you don’t want will be given to children in Taltown.”

I nodded and sat on my bed. When I started unlacing my sandals Lothar got up, left the room, and closed the door behind him. I changed my clothing quickly. Everything fit well, especially the boots, but had some room to let me grow before I’d need new clothes. The clothes were black and made of a material lighter than wool but just as durable. I knew enough to know it was not silk, and I found it very comfortable. I tucked my pants into the tops of my boots and studied myself in the mirror behind our door.

I’d certainly changed in my journey. Leaner and bonier, I looked something like the scarecrow I’d stolen my last tunic from. I knew, from what Grandmother had said of Father, and the way Hal and Malcolm had filled out when they looked as gaunt as I did, I’d be a big man. My face had the same, strong features as my father’s, but my green eyes, from my mother’s side of the family, burned away the weary look I always remembered my father having.

Not just a vastly different Nolan stared out at me from the glass, but a totally new Nolan stood there. I smiled at the white death’s-head ensign on my left breast. In the Talion uniform I felt taller, stronger, and no longer a child. The smile dulled a bit with my realization that becoming a Talion novice was but the first step in my plan, and the knowledge that I’d have to work hard to stay a Talion to accomplish my ultimate goal.

Before I could lose myself in a morass of painful memories and heaven-blown plans, the door opened. I stepped back and Lothar smiled. “You look good. Definitely grist for the mill.”

“He must have insulted Allen after he got his clothes.” Lothar stepped aside as a girl walked into the room. She was smaller than either of us but could not be described as delicate or fragile. She moved like a cat and took in everything in the room with a single glance. Then she looked me over.

She narrowed her brown eyes so they were reduced to dark spots edged with white. Her hair was very black, and because of its length, lost definition in some of the darker places. She was pretty, but the predatory look on her face chilled me just a little bit. Finally she pursed her lips, nodded quickly, and turned to Lothar. “I believe he made the journey.”

Any comment I was about to make died as Lothar crossed to his bed and another novice walked into the room. He was huge, taller even than Lord Hansur, and had the bulk to match his height. And if that was not enough to shock me—the boy who thought himself a world traveler—the novice was not even human. His gray-green skin showed off the white fangs protruding a half-inch or more over his lower lip. His hair was black and as long as mine, but failed to hide the slightly pointed tips of his ears.

All deep and rumbling, his voice boomed like thunder. “Of course he made the journey, Marana. The tale’s too fantastic to be a lie.” He growled the last word and smiled. He flashed a set of teeth I’d only imagined seeing in a nightmare.

My jaw dropped open and the only reason I didn’t run from the room was because the giant demon blocked the door. Lothar caught the abject terror in my slackened face and started laughing. The girl joined Lothar’s laughter and, after a puzzled look flitted across his face, the demon joined in.

His warm, hearty laughter brought me back to reality. I cannot fear anyone who can laugh that openly. I recovered myself and started laughing with the others.

Lothar, holding his stomach, rolled up into a sitting position on the bed and nodded toward the girl. “Nolan, this is Marana. Marana, this is Nolan ra Sinjaria.” We bowed at each other and Lothar continued the introductions. “Nolan ra Sinjaria, I present Jevin the Fealareen.”

The word Fealareen exploded like a dropped clay jug and explained the depth of my fear at seeing Jevin for the first time. Like any child in the Sea States I knew that across the Runt Sea lay the Borrowed Lands and the Fealareen Haunts. Fierce mountain giants who lived in and on the mountains, the Fealareen tended flocks of demonsheep and did a host of other things the storytellers only hinted at darkly. Every twenty-five years the leader of the humans in the Borrowed Lands and the Fealareen leader would meet in a contest—a ritual contest created, maintained, and adjudged by Talions—to see who would control the Borrowed Lands until the next contest. The stories of what the Fealareen did to the human inhabitants of the Borrowed Lands when the humans lost the contest were quite horrible, and seeing a Fealareen firsthand lent more credence to those tales than I’d ever given them before.

Still, unless the Fealareen controlled the Borrowed Lands, none of their kind could leave the mountains. As near as I knew, Queen Briana still reigned over the Borrowed Lands, and easily had another ten years before a Ritual would be held. According to all tradition and legends, Jevin could not be standing before me.

Jevin’s smile remained on his face and he bowed toward me. I returned the bow, making mine just a bit deeper than his; then I extended my hand to him. He hesitated and looked into my eyes to search them for tear or mockery. His black irises produced a penetrating gaze but he found no fear in me. We were the same—both far away from where we should have been. We had no need for fear or animosity.

He grasped my hand firmly and I returned the grip. In that moment we forged a lifelong bond between us. I broke the grip and smiled at everyone. For the first time in months I felt like I might actually have found another home.

“Now what is this about me insulting Allen? All I said was ‘Should I try these on?’ ”

The three of them fairly exploded with laughter. Marana shook her head. “You couldn’t have said that!”

Jevin stared out at me from between his fingers. “No, you couldn’t have said that. You are still living.”

That started all of them cackling again. I frowned and spoke over their chuckles. “I don’t understand.”

Jevin gained control of himself first. It took a great effort and was the first evidence I had of the great self-restraint governing the Fealareen. “Allen has been fitting people for clothing for thirty or more years. He can tell, at a glance, what will fit you. He takes great pride in his skill, and even suggesting he might be wrong is a grave insult indeed.”

“Oh.” I grinned sheepishly. “I will have to apologize to him.”

Lothar agreed. “Best do it soon or your clothing will be a random selection of things Allen has collected over the years.”

A sharp peal rang through the corridor outside the room. I turned and saw the others stand at attention and straighten their clothing. I dropped back into a line with them and stared stern-faced at the doorway.

Lord Hansur appeared in the doorway. He spoke in the Tal dialect to the others. They bowed and filed past him into the hallway. Then he looked at me. “May I come in?”

“Yes, my lord.”

He walked in and closed the door. He surveyed the room and frowned a bit at the rumpled condition of Lothar’s bed. “I see Lothar has gotten you some clothing and secured you as his roommate.”

I nodded. His voice was not flat and emotionless, nor was it commanding, yet I felt compelled to answer or acknowledge everything he said. It was my first experience with the Call.

“Very well, Nolan, come with me. You are to see the Master.” He opened the door and the bell rang again. Lord Hansur waved me out into the corridor first then shut the door behind us. Novice Justices stood frozen at attention up and down the corridor while we passed to the stairway. Once we started down the stairs the bell rang twice and the normal sounds of living returned to the hallway.

“I believe, Nolan, you are aware I am the Lord of Justices.” Lord Hansur paused and returned the bows of two novice Warriors who had stopped on the stairs to let us pass. “That means I control all the Justices in Talion service. Justices answer to me or the Master. Justices are special, and you have been accepted as one of them. Do you understand?”

I nodded.

Lord Hansur studied my face a moment before continuing. “A Justice is trained and able to do everything any other Talion can do, with the exception of High Magicks and some strictly clerical duties. A Justice must fly a Hawk as well as an Elite, be more at home in a saddle than a Lancer and a better fighter than an Archer or Warrior. Mastering all these skills is difficult even when a Justice is trained from birth for his job. For you the task will be almost impossible.”

We reached the bottom of the stairs and turned into the corridor that led past the storeroom. We headed into the Star.

“Your training will not be easy. In addition to exercising with Lothar and the other Thirteens, you will be trained with some of the younger Talions. You will learn the Tal dialect and become fluent in it. You will study Talion history. You will make up the twelve years of training you have missed.”

Lord Hansur’s words should have terrified me, and probably would have if he had given me any room to doubt. His sentences were statements of fact. He gave me no choice but to succeed. I felt as if, because I had passed my trial by however a thin thread of chance, I was capable of all he said. That gave me confidence and made me determined not to fail Lord Hansur.

The corridors we wandered through looked all the same. Yellow ovals glowed high upon the walls with a magical luminescence to light our path. The doors were all made of iron-bound oak planking and had no marks on them. I had no way of telling where we were, or how far we’d come. I soon learned an enchantment on the Star made finding certain rooms impossible unless the traveler had a legitimate need or was desired at his destination.

Lord Hansur glided through the maze without making a sound. Thrown back over his left shoulder, his black cloak did not hide the death’s-head ensign on his left breast, but I could not imagine that anyone who saw him could mistake him for another. His bearing and aura of power were unique. Even blind and half dead I would know him.

Lord Hansur stopped before a bronze set of double doors. They looked heavy, but he merely brushed the center with his left hand and the doors opened on well-oiled hinges. Lord Hansur bowed toward the center of the room, then stood aside and let me see something so grand that nothing I had ever seen before could even begin to compare with it.

A huge cavern of a room, the Master’s Chamber was dark, unnaturally so, and the lamps hanging down from the ceiling were dimmed, as if they hung further away than they truly did hang. A thick strip of carpeting ran from the doorway to the throne. It was elaborately woven with a gold dragon pattern yet, in the half light, the red, greens, and golds of the carpet could barely be seen. Other works of art, like tapestries and statuary of various sizes, mediums, and subjects, stood arranged around the room to create an impressive display, but the darkness shrouded their intended beauty.

The Master’s throne dominated the room. It stood on a black basalt dais six feet tall and looked as if it had been sculpted from a single block of ivory. I knew, instantly, that was impossible, because no source of ivory in the world could produce a block that large. It was carved in the shape of an animal’s skull with its mouth open; two enormous fangs as thick as my thighs jutted down from the tapered, fleshless snout and propped the throne’s roof up. A dark purple jewel glimmered between the vacant eye sockets, set deep into the skull as if it had grown there. The carving was otherwise unadorned and might have been dismissed as an incomplete effort because of its stark simplicity and clean lines, but its sheer size and the menacing authenticity of the teeth were impressive enough to rank the throne as a masterwork.

Then, after I’d completed my appraisal of the throne, I realized the truth, and it took my breath away. No artisan had labored to create the throne—nor could human hands have created something that exquisite. The throne, in fact, was a dragon’s skull!

Lord Hansur strode into the room. Thick ropes of incense smoke broke and swirled around him. The air was heavy with it and I recognized the acrid scent in an instant. I’d smelled it once before—I was very young at the time—when a magician performed a ritual to save my grandfather’s life. I associated the scent with death, and a shiver rippled down my spine.

Suddenly my awareness of the room faded. I looked up and focused beyond the trappings of the Master’s throne. I saw, seated on a simple wooden chair beneath the jewel, the man who was the Master of all Talions.

From the stories told me as a child, and from my brief association with Talianna and the Talions, I expected the Master to be a mountain of a man. I was prepared for a hero, a man bigger than Jevin and quite capable of killing the creature in whose skull he now sat. Yet even as those thoughts entered my mind I caught myself, because the converse was also true. I would have easily been satisfied with a small man. Someone tiny, quick, and deadly like a mongoose would have been perfect to guide the Talions. Either of those images would have made overwhelming sense.

The man who sat in the throne was neither a giant nor a compact assassin. He was just a man. He sat in the wooden chair within the dragon’s jaws as if he was uneasy with the image they projected, or as if he thought, just possibly, the jaws might close and swallow him up. His face was one I’d seen a thousand times and places before. It was completely ordinary and quite unmemorable. He could have been anyone, or no one.

I bowed to the Master. He stood, returned my bow, and seated himself again. He stood shorter than me, and his hair appeared dark brown except where the lamplight burned red highlights into it. His eyes were dark and he was slender, but the blockiness of his build and his height did not emphasize that fact. On the street, out of a Talion uniform, he would be unremarkable and impossible to remember. It dawned on me then that almost as valuable as being known as a Talion might be the time when a Talion is not believed to be anything but an ordinary man.

“Come forward, Nolan.” The Master’s voice, warm and friendly, sounded like that of an uncle or a friend’s father. I recognized it instantly but I could not bring myself to ask the question I needed to have answered. I entered the room and the doors swung shut behind me.

“I understand that you have no living kin. Is this true?”

“Yes, Master.”

“You know the families of all Talions are paid for their kin’s services. Had you come to us as a child your parents would be paid for the work you will do for us. In your case there is no family to give the money to.” The Master leaned forward in his throne and clasped his hands together. “Under normal circumstances, with an orphan, we would send the money to your sovereign, but I have heard you do not acknowledge King Tirrell of Hamis as your ruler. Is there someone else you would prefer to have the money sent to?”

I nodded carefully to conceal the anger and hurt burning through me at Tirrell’s mention. “Sir, there is an innkeeper in Tashar, a man named Orjan. He took me in when I was sick. I would like the money to go to him. His inn, the Red Fox, is on the Cold River near Patria.”

The Master smiled gently. “As you wish. Aside from clearing that matter up the only other thing I have to do is congratulate you on succeeding in your trial. You performed admirably for an outsider being tested as though he were a year older than he is.”

I bowed deeply out of true respect.

The Master inclined his head to return my bow. “If there is nothing else you may go.”

I hesitated. Inside I wanted to burst. He had the answer I needed, but I did not have the right to ask the question. His praise had been sincere, but was he testing me? I opened my mouth, the words on the tip of my tongue, then shut it again.

“Nolan ra Sinjaria, is there something you wish to ask me?”

I nodded and swallowed hard. “You spoke to Lord Hansur and gave me my fifth flag.” A thin curtain of smoke drifted between us and I could not read his face as I spoke. “Why? I had failed.”

He watched me as he considered his answer. I stood there and felt very alone. I had tried my best, but I had failed. An exception had been made in my case, and I needed to know it was because of more than pity for a child who made a fool’s trek halfway across a continent or a boy who stood up to an enemy and refused to admit defeat in a war long finished. That type of person could be found anywhere in the Shattered Empire. I needed to believe there was a good reason for the Master’s action, and I wanted to know what it was.

The Master stood and walked down the half-dozen steps to the carpet. “Understand this, Nolan. I am not often called upon to explain my choices, and certainly never by a novice.”

I bowed my head. “Forgive me. I meant no disrespect.”

He smiled and snorted a half chuckle. “I know that, and because that answer is so important to you I will explain at least part of my motivation.” He seated himself on the steps rather unceremoniously. “When you reached the end of the trial you had gathered all the flags you could have gotten, save the one from the first obstacle. You were injured in that first challenge, yet the test did not trap you. If it had you would have fallen in the pit and never gotten out without help. You realized your error and saved yourself. You learned something in that test, and you’ll not be caught by that sort of thing again.”

The Master licked his lips and leaned back. “Even in the last test, torn and tired as you were, you did not give up. You remembered what your goal was, and your opponent did not. You beat him, though he was a better fighter, because he beat himself.

“If you wanted to be a Lancer or a Warrior I never would have spoken for you and accepted that bloody rag as your fifth flag. The qualities you have are not needed in soldiers. They must just fight and follow orders, and while our soldiers are the best in the world, they have no use for your talents. A Justice, on the other hand, constantly needs to learn. He must be able to recognize when he makes a mistake and has to act decisively to correct that mistake. You can do that, and that is why I spoke for you.”

I smiled. The pressure inside me drained away and I finally felt I’d honestly earned my place as a Justice novice. “Thank you, sir.”

The Master nodded, then leaned forward. “Bear something in mind, Nolan, and remember it always. The rumor will fly, from the Warriors down at the site, that you did not pass the test but were let in anyway. Whatever Lord Hansur may have suggested as the difficulties you will face, you can double them. Any novice who has been held back for continued training because he failed a test will hate you.” The Master smiled and shot a glance at Lord Hansur. “Justices are often disliked by other novices because you are all special, but they will focus on you. You are different, you are from the outside. They will see no way you can truly be one of them.

“Because you are from outside you know more of the world than they do. Remember what you learned before, and temper what you learn here with that knowledge. Some people think the world is centered around Talianna, but you know better than that. Use what you know, and share what you know, so you can make yourself and the Talions better.”

I stood still as the Master rose and walked to me. He placed his hands on my shoulders. “Remember, Nolan, that unlike them, unlike those who feel Talianna is their birthright, you chose to join us. Never doubt you made the right choice.”

A Services clerk led me from the Master’s Chamber and pointed me in the correct direction back toward my room. I passed down the hallway leading to the storeroom and I stopped in to apologize to Allen. He grumbled when he saw me, but smiled when I finished and handed me a black jacket with a stiff, high-necked collar, buttons at the right shoulder and down the right flank, and a death’s-head over the left breast. Then he shooed me out of there, complaining he had real work to do.

I returned to my room without getting lost and found Jevin and Lothar talking. Both wore jackets like the one I’d been given. Jevin had buttoned his all the way up but Lothar’s hung half open. Lothar smiled. “Good, you’re here. Now we only need Marana.”

I shot Lothar a quizzical glance.

“Get into that jacket.” Lothar reached up and started buttoning his jacket the rest of the way up. “Tonight Jania is holding a celebration and my uncle Rudolf is the host. Marana, Jevin, and you will accompany me this evening.”

I shrugged the jacket on and looked over at Jevin as Lothar finished. “Jevin, do we go as his friends, or his entourage?”

The Fealareen snorted and grinned wolfishly. “His friends, or so it has been represented to me.” Jevin turned and looked at Lothar with the cruel smile still on his face.

Lothar opened his mouth to reply, but Marana spoke from the doorway and cut him off. “You must forgive him, Nolan. During the Festival Lothar’s kin come and visit. This reminds Lothar he is a noble and from time to time he even tries to act like it.” Lothar reddened and she continued. “During the rest of the year we disabuse him of that notion.”

Marana wore a jacket similar in cut to mine, but a knee length riding skirt completed her uniform. She’d braided her long hair with a royal blue ribbon and it looked quite attractive. She smiled and curtsied before Lothar. “Are we presentable, m’lord?”

Lothar winced. “I’m sorry. My family is still not used to the idea that I’m a Justice. They expected me to be a Warrior or Lancer so I could return to Jania and command the troops stationed in the capital, Trisus.” He studied our faces to see what effect his plea had. I was sympathetic, but the other two were granite-faced.

“You say that every year, Lothar.” Jevin’s tone was very disapproving.

Marana nodded in agreement. “And he’ll probably say it in the years to come.” She shook her head slowly, then looked up. “So why should it spoil our fun?” Jevin joined her laughter and we all headed out to the Janian celebration.

The monthlong Festival started back when the Emperor formed the Talions. He invited the Imperial nobles to Talianna so they could see for themselves the skills of the Talions. At that time all Talions were Justices, Wizards, Elites, or Services—the other three divisions were not created until after the Empire crumbled—so the nobles got a good look at the troops who would oppose them if they revolted.

As the tradition developed, the Festival became a time when delegations from various countries could meet in decidedly neutral territory and talk about alliances, trade agreements, and other diplomatic matters. Each nation that could afford it took to hosting a celebration once during the Festival, and each country made it a display of copious wealth and national pride. Full Talions could attend as many of the celebrations as they wanted while novices were restricted to that celebration hosted by their home nation, and one or two others after they passed their trials.

Lothar proudly led us toward the Janian pavilion. It was really a large grouping of tents; a huge central one surrounded by rings of smaller and smaller tents all colored yellow. People streamed in and out, and while I saw no one being actively discouraged from entering, the celebration seemed restricted to important people and nobles from other nations.

“Each year one or more of Lothar’s relatives hosts the Janian delegation.” Jevin pointed to a huge blond man with a thick blond beard in the middle of a crowd. “That’s his uncle Rudolf.”

I nodded to acknowledge Jevin’s words, but I was a bit beyond understanding what he said. We’d just entered the central pavilion and I was stunned. I’d never seen so much food in my whole entire life.

The first ring of smaller tents held tables and mountains of food. Every fourth tent was home to casks of wines, ales, and liquors from Jania and the finest vineyards elsewhere in the Shattered Empire. Other tents held nothing but fruit. I recognized some of it by description but some shapes and colors and fragrances were so alien I could have easily believed the Fealareen or the Xne’kal were hosting the feast. Not as exotic, but equally astounding for quantity and variety were the tents filled with breads, cheeses, and pastries. There were more sweets gathered there in one place than any child could dream of. Lastly, being roasted on spits over open fires and paraded about by straining servants, were sides of beef and pork, and a whole flock of fowls. The wind carried the aroma of cooking meat to us, and Jevin smiled broadly.

I shook my head at the wonder of it all, and a shiver ran up my spine. There, in one place, for one evening’s revel, was gathered more food than my father had produced in all the years on the farm.

“Lothar!” The bass voice boomed over the murmured din and silenced all speakers. I saw tall men back away as a wave of motion rippled through the crowd and Lothar’s uncle waded into view. He darted free of the crowd and swept Lothar up in a bear hug as if his nephew were an infant.

Lothar reddened as he dangled helplessly. He shouted out a curse in the Tal dialect and twisted to get free. Rudolf laughed and held him all the tighter. “They’ve taught you to swear in an improper tongue. That archaic speech is meant for lawmakers, not gutterkin cursing!”

“Uncle Rudolf, put me down!” Lothar tried to put command into his voice, but in his position, and with the help of a well-timed squeeze, he squawked the sentence out. Rudolf abruptly released him and, unable to get his feet under him to remain standing, Lothar fell to the ground.

Lothar caught himself on his hands and feet before his back could hit. Scuttling forward two feet, he swept his right leg out and around through his uncle’s legs. Anticipating the move, Rudolf easily kicked his feet forward, above the scything leg, and leaped over his nephew’s attack. A smile spread across his face, but only for a second as Lothar reached up with his right hand and caught his uncle’s right heel. The novice Justice pushed off with left arm and leg and unceremoniously dumped his uncle over on his back with a thump.

Stunned to silence, the crowd just stared. All conversation had lapsed as the mock combat started, but now no one even dared draw a breath. Jevin got a bit grayer than before, and others in the crowd were bright red from embarrassment, or absolutely ashen-faced with dread. My heart pounded wildly and I stared at the two Janians: the youth with fists balled and planted on his hips, the elder flat on his back and defenseless.

“Damn, Lothar, that was quick!” Rudolf slapped the carpet and sat up. “I’ll have to remember you’ve learned to feint for next year.”

He started laughing, a deep echoing laugh that spread through the crowd faster than nasty court gossip. Lothar extended a hand and helped his uncle up; then they hugged each other. There was genuine pride and pleasure on Rudolf’s face. Rudolf then released Lothar, straightened and brushed off his dark blue velvet and satin jacket and trousers, and approached Marana, Jevin, and me.

Lothar attended his uncle. “You remember, Uncle, Marana and Jevin.” Lothar nodded his head toward me. “This is Nolan ra Sinjaria. Nolan, my uncle, Count Rudolf ra Blackwood ra Jania.”

The Count bowed to Marana, took her right hand, and kissed it. “You are even more beautiful this year than you were two years ago, my dear.”

Marana smiled and curtsied. “Your Lordship is most kind.”

The Count moved to Jevin and clapped him on both shoulders. “You are even bigger than I remember. If you ever stop growing, and they send you from here, come see me. The Steel Typhoon will find a place for you among us.”

Jevin smiled politely and bowed. “I would be most honored to serve in the Steel Typhoon.”

As the Count turned to me pieces of a puzzle started dropping into place. The Steel Typhoon was famed throughout the Shattered Empire as a heavy cavalry unit without equal, though many Imperianan groups disputed that claim. And it was lead by a Janian count, often called Blackwood because there are so many nobles in Jania one could only reliably identify one by naming his demense. But Blackwood was also the Janian king’s only sibling, which made Lothar a prince!

The Count bracketed my shoulders in massive hands. “I have heard of you, Nolan, and I am pleased at least one Sinjarian refuses to acknowledge Hamisian rule.”

I bowed. “Thank you, my lord.” Silence hung in the air for a moment, as I knew I should answer his comment in some other way, but the thousand responses that crowded my brain all seemed cynical or bravely stupid. Finally one thought, one safe thought, presented itself and I offered it. “I believe, Count Rudolf, more Sinjarians would deny Hamisian rule, but they do not have the luxury of being out from under King Tirrell’s thumb. This far from Hamis I am safe in my denial.”

The Count stepped back and narrowed his eyes. His smile became more cautious and he unconsciously stroked his beard with his right hand. “Well said, Nolan. If you ever wish to be closer to Hamis to restate your denial, you will always be welcome in Jania to do so.”

I bowed again. “I thank you very much, my lord.”

Count Rudolf’s grin spread openly across his face again and he draped his right arm over Lothar’s shoulders. “Enough politics! You’re hungry and Lothar has to see his aunt Tedra, or she’ll thrash me more solidly than he did.” He waved his left hand to take in the whole tent. “Enjoy, please, you are honored guests.”

He turned and led Lothar off through the crowd toward a dais. Uncertain as to what to try first, the three of us drew together in a small circle and studied the tents like mules set between two equal piles of hay.

My stomach growled and protested any delay in eating something. “Eat or drink first?”

Marana reached out, took my right arm and Jevin’s left, and steered us toward one of the bread tents. “First we eat some bread so the wine doesn’t go straight to our heads.” Jevin groaned, remembering a painful past experience. “Then we’ll sample something of everything before Jevin runs off to eat a cow.”

Jevin frowned. “We tried that last year.” He leered over the crowd in the direction of the cooking pits. “I barely got a taste of meat last year.”

“That’s because you guzzled a tankard of Janian brandy, said grain and fruit were for rodents, then passed out before you reached the pits.” Marana stabbed a finger into Jevin’s stomach. “If Lothar and I had not gotten you back to your room, Lord Hansur would have had your head.”

Jevin sighed. “Perhaps prudence is a wise course. Lead on, my lady.”

Marana led Jevin and me through the tents and picked out things for us to try with the same sharp eye my mother had employed when buying things at a market. There were over twenty different types of apple, and I tried slices from all of them except two varieties with blue-green flesh. Marana introduced me to chado, a tear-shaped fruit with a rough green skin, soft green flesh, and a central seed twice the size of a plum. It tasted rather bland plain, but there was a spicy paste made of it that a servant spread over a piece of bread for me, and that tasted very good.

The wine tents were an adventure. We tried a little of everything, though Jevin abstained from Janian brandy, and I discovered I liked the sweet or dry wines. Jevin and Marana both preferred the heartier reds, but I didn’t like the aftertastes they left in my mouth. There were also a whole legion of fruit wines and nectars to try, and the others agreed with me that syeca, a fiery orange-flavored liquor, was the best of an excellent lot. It was not until later that evening I learned that both syeca and the wine I liked the best were the product of the Sinjarian province Yotan. That made me very happy.

We reentered the main tent just as a troupe of Janian dancers began performing in an open space before the dais. Lothar, Count Rudolf, and Countess Tedra were seated in the tall chairs on the dais. Servants with their arms full of pillows scurried through the crowd passing out cushions so everyone could be seated for the performance. Beyond the dancers, back in a small tent, other entertainers awaited their turn center stage.

Marana left us and wandered through the crowd toward an open area near the dais. Jevin and I skirted the crowd and headed over toward the open cooking pits. Jevin clearly thought more of food than he did dancing. While I was interested in seeing everything, the meat smelled good to me and I noticed I could watch the dancers from outside with no trouble now that the crowd was seated.

Jevin coaxed a steaming haunch of half-raw meat from a cook while I settled for a well-cooked half chicken. We wandered a short ways and seated ourselves on empty wine casks. We watched the show while eating. Jevin tore into his meat with an unholy vigor. His white teeth flashed in the torchlight as he gobbled down great chunks of flesh. For my part I was a bit more conservative in my attack on the chicken, and I hunched awkwardly over so anything I dropped would hit the wooden platter lying across my thighs instead of staining my new clothes.

Lothar and his family had their backs to us. I could see little more of Tedra than her long blond hair. Still, as she turned to comment to her husband, I caught a glimpse of a classically beautiful profile, from straight nose to strong chin and high forehead.

The dancers were excellent. They wore red and gold satins and swirled about in a riot of color in time to the music of three musicians behind them. Then the four men formed a line and went through a series of solo dances, each one different and characterized by an accompanying violin-and-pipe piece. Then the four women swung into a lively country dance that combined speed, precision, and complexity into an intoxicating display of their skill. Finally the eight dancers all whirled through a series of steps that had the partners constantly changing in a seemingly random pattern, but whenever the music stopped for a beat or two—again at irregular intervals—the dancers were somehow still paired with their beginning partner.

Jevin nibbled the last thread of meat from a bone and tossed it over onto a garbage pile with careless abandon and an artful flourish. At the same moment the dance stopped within and the eruption of applause seemed as much for his skill as the dancers. We both laughed at the idea.

When the applause died, and a pair of fencers took the floor, Jevin turned to me. “I’m glad I don’t have to sit out here all alone this year.”

I frowned. “Why would you sit alone? There’s plenty of room inside.”

Jevin shook his head. “I’m afraid I make some people uneasy.”

“I can understand that.” I started to talk about my brother Arik, but the words stuck in my throat. I coughed and switched away from painful memories. “I’d think Lothar would make sure that didn’t happen.”

Jevin patted my left shoulder. “Don’t blame Lothar, there’s nothing he could do. I make them uneasy, and they do the same to me. And Lothar’s not being insensitive. Every year someone from his family comes to Festival, and he really enjoys seeing them. Last year Countess Tedra and some cousin whose name I cannot remember hosted the celebration. This year Count Rudolf was able to attend.” Jevin smiled. “Lothar was disappointed last year when the Count could not be here, so this year he was very excited when he saw the Blackwood banner flying over the Janian pavilion.”

“Why didn’t Count Blackwood attend last year?”

Jevin shook his head. “He couldn’t. He was with the Steel Typhoon patrolling the Eallian border in case King Tirrell was not satisfied with Sinjaria.” Jevin saw me stiffen and looked down. “I’m sorry.”

I smiled weakly. “Don’t be. I only wish the Steel Typhoon could have swept Tirrell’s forces out of Sinjaria.”

Jevin shrugged. “That would have been impossible. You have to remember that Ealla was formed when the eastern lords of Jania revolted and broke with Jania during the Shattering. Even after a thousand years they fear Jania and would fight to the death to avoid being reconquered. They’d never consider granting a Janian force safe passage.”

Words stuck in my throat. I felt angry because no one had saved my country and my family. I was angry with Hamis for conquering us, and I was mad at Ealla for barring any aid Jania might have given us. Most of all I felt angry at myself. “It’s so frustrating, Jevin. And so silly. I’m angry at myself because I survived.”

The Fealareen sighed and a milky white membrane nictated over his eyes as he squeezed my shoulder. “You are not alone in that, my friend. At least you know why you are no longer in your homeland, and you exercised some choice in that matter. I was sent here as an infant, exiled from a place seen fit for only my kind.” Jevin looked away, toward the east, and I shared his longing to head back home.

Then he turned back and smiled. “Let us not dwell on the morose during a celebration. Tell me of your family, of the good times. Tell me what life is like outside Talianna.”


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