"So, Vaijon. Are you ready?"
The question came in a gently sardonic voice, and the golden-haired young man standing before the mirror in the chapter house's entry vestibule turned quickly. A faint flush touched his cheeks as he recognized the voice's teasing edge, but he bent his head in a small bow.
"I am, Sir Charrow."
His reply was proper enough, but irritation lingered in his expression. Not overtly; it was more subtle than any scowl, little more than an extra bit of tension in his jaw, more sensed than seen, perhaps, with just the tiniest edge of challenge under his courteous words. Sir Charrow Malakhai, Knight-Captain of the Order of Tomanak and master of its Belhadan chapter, hid a sigh as he wondered if the youngster even realized that edge was there. Sir Charrow had seen other arrogant young sprouts-more of them, in fact, than he had any desire to contemplate-during his years with the Order. Fortunately, Tomanak's Order, as a rule, had a way of knocking that sort of attitude out of its brethren; unfortunately, the process seemed to have gone awry this time.
"Good, my son." The knight-captain made his words a gentle reprimand and was rewarded by seeing the younger man's flush darken. Whatever else he might be, Vaijon wasn't stupid. He recognized a rebuke even when he truly failed to grasp the reason for it. "This is a very important day for our chapter, Vaijon," Charrow went on in a more normal voice. "It is up to you to represent us-and Tomanak -properly."
"Of course, Sir Charrow. I understand. And I'm honored by the trust which led you to select me for this duty."
Vaijon went down on one knee and bent his head once more, and Charrow gazed down at him for a moment. Then he laid one scarred hand, blunt fingers still strong and calloused from regular practice with sword, bow, and lance, upon the gleaming gold hair.
"Go then with my blessing," he said, "and with that of the God. May his Shield go before you."
"Thank you, Sir Charrow," Vaijon murmured. Charrow's mouth quirked in a small smile, for there was a trace of impatience in the younger man's voice now to mingle with his lingering irritation. Clearly, if he had to do this, he wanted to get it over with as soon as possible.
The master of the chapter considered pointing out that this was not precisely the correct attitude for one being sent forth on the War God's business, but then he thought better of it. Vaijon's attitude, after all, was one reason he'd selected the young knight-probationer for this particular task, and so he settled for patting him on the shoulder and left.
When he looked back from the doorway, Vaijon was back on his feet and gazing once more into the mirror. The knight-captain shook his head with another smile. It was a wry smile, and if the young man before the mirror had been even a little less involved with his reflection, he might have felt a twinge of alarm at the sparkle of amusement in his superior's eyes.
At twenty-five, Sir Vaijon of Almerhas, Baron Halla, fourth son of Earl Truehelm of Almerhas and cousin to Duke Saicha, Royal and Imperial Governor of Fradonia, was a handsome young man. He was also a very large one (he stood six inches over six feet, with broad shoulders), and as the son of a great noble and heir to a barony in his own right on his mother's side, he had begun his weapons training early. He moved with the trained grace of a warrior, his muscles had much the same solidity as well-seasoned oak, long hours on the training field had gilded his complexion with a bronze which lingered even in midwinter, and the deep green surcoat of the Order of Tomanak set off his hair and flashing blue eyes admirably.
Sir Vaijon was well aware of all those facts. Indeed, although it would have been unbecoming to admit it, he knew he took a certain pride in them. As his father was fond of pointing out, after all, one had a duty to one's blood-and, of course, to the Order-and presenting the proper appearance was part of discharging that duty. When one looked the part of a knight of the Order and spoke with the confidence of a gentleman, one's words carried additional weight even with one's peers and impressed lesser folk into obeying one without bothersome argument.
In moments of honesty, Sir Vaijon was prepared to admit that his pride in his birth and appearance stemmed from more than a simple awareness of how they served him in the performance of his duties. To be sure, the administration of justice was the primary purpose of the Order, and it was clear to Vaijon that an imposing presence and the judicious use of his aristocratic titles would… encourage others to defer to him when he stepped in to settle disputes. He couldn't change who he was, anyway, so why shouldn't he embrace his identity and use it to the Order's benefit?
Yet as he listened to the door close behind him and used the mirror to check his grooming one last time, Vaijon knew Sir Charrow disagreed with him. The knight-captain considered his firm sense of who he had been born to be a flaw, though Vaijon had never been able to see why. Or, at least, to see that it detracted in any way from the performance of his duties. Not even Sir Charrow could fault his passion for truth and justice; indeed, the master was more likely to suggest in his gentle way that Vaijon might want to temper his quest for justice with a bit more compassion. Nor could he fault Vaijon as a warrior, for it was a simple fact that no one had ever bested him-in training or actual battle-since his seventeenth birthday. Which was only to be expected in an Almerhas of Almerhas, of course. And in one who had known almost from the day he learned to walk that he was destined to be a knight of the war god.
Yet the master seemed to have reservations even there, as if he thought Vaijon's confidence in his abilities constituted some sort of overweening pride, even arrogance. But how could simply admitting the truth of one's own capability be arrogance? And it wasn't as if Vaijon thought that he alone deserved all the credit for his prowess. He knew how much he owed his instructors for his superlative training, and he was well aware of how fortunate he was in terms of the size and native strength with which Tomanak had blessed him. Indeed, that awareness of the favor the Sword of Light had shown him was one of the reasons he longed to administer justice among the little people of Orfressa, which was why he was often baffled by the master's concern when all he sought was to be worthy of the trust Tomanak had chosen to repose in him.
When Sir Charrow spoke, Vaijon always listened, of course. It was his duty as a knight-probationer, and no Almerhas of Almerhas ever failed in his duty. Yet closely as he listened and hard as he pondered the master's words, he could not convince himself Sir Charrow was right. Justice was justice, truth was truth, and skill at arms was skill at arms. To deny or compromise any of them was to undercut all the Order stood for.
And as far as his birth was concerned, Vaijon had never claimed precedence over any other member of the Order, however low born those others might be. Indeed, he took a certain pride in the fact that he never had. Unlike many other chivalric orders, the Order of Tomanak stood open to all, and fitness for membership was judged solely on the applicant's merits. It was, perhaps, regrettable that such a policy allowed the occasional lowborn embarrassment entry, but it also meant that only the most qualified warriors from the ranks of the gently born were admitted, as well. And however common some of his brother knights might be, Vaijon knew their hearts were in the right place, else they had never been admitted in the first place, which made up for a great deal. Besides, the better born and more sophisticated members of the Order-like, for example, Sir Vaijon of Almerhas-could normally cover their occasional public gaffes, and Vaijon defied anyone to name one time when he had treated any of them with less than true courtesy.
And so far as those who were not one's brothers were concerned, neither Tomanak's Code nor any law or rule of the Order specifically required one to actually socialize with inferiors so long as one saw to it that they received justice. Still, he couldn't escape the notion that Sir Charrow felt he should be more… more-
Vaijon couldn't lay his mental grip on the exact word to describe what Sir Charrow wanted of him, but he knew it was there. The knight-captain didn't lecture him-that wasn't the way of the Order-but there had been enough elliptical references to the character traits of a true knight to leave Vaijon with no doubt that Sir Charrow was unconvinced he possessed them all in proper proportion. More, Vaijon remained only a knight-probationer after almost three full years. He knew his failure to advance beyond that status had nothing to do with his prowess, which could only mean Sir Charrow had delayed his promotion for other reasons, and Vaijon had noted (though no proper knight could admit he had) that the master had a tendency to single him out for particularly onerous duties from time to time. Not dangerous ones, and certainly not ones to which a knight of the Order could object, yet subtly… demeaning? No, that wasn't the word either. It was as if… as if Sir Charrow hoped that by burdening him with tasks better fitted to the more humbly born he could force Vaijon into some sort of insight.
If that was, indeed, the master's purpose, Vaijon had no intention of objecting, for Sir Charrow was his superior in the Order. He was also one of the noblest, and certainly one of the holiest, men Vaijon had ever met, and the younger knight did not even blame the knight-captain for his own lack of promotion. He might not agree with it, but decisions on advancement were properly made by the master of a chapter, and it was the mark of a true gentleman to accept the decisions of those placed in authority over him whether he agreed with those decisions or not. And if Sir Charrow wished Vaijon to learn some lesson or attain some insight which had so far eluded him, then the younger knight was earnestly willing to be instructed by him. That, too, was one of the traits of a man of noble birth, and hence, by definition, of an Almerhas of Almerhas.
Unfortunately, he had yet to obtain so much as a glimpse of whatever Sir Charrow intended him to learn, and there were times when he found the knight-captain's notion of his proper duties more objectionable than others. Like now. Not that there was anything ignoble about this task, but the morning was little more than an hour old, and six inches of fresh snow had fallen overnight. A knight must be hardy and inured to discomfort, yet there were very few places Sir Vaijon of Almerhas would rather be on a morning like this than buried in a nice, warm nest of blankets. Certainly the last place he wanted to be was down at dockside, and in the full regalia of the Order to boot.
He gave the set of his surcoat one last, finicky twitch of adjustment and grimaced as he listened to winter wind moan just beyond the stout front door. His silvered chain hauberk (a gift from his father when he earned his probationary knighthood) glittered brightly, and the gems studding his white sword belt (a gift from his mother on the same occasion) sparkled, yet he suspected he was fiddling with his appearance at least in part to delay the moment he had to step outdoors. The deep green surcoat, woven of the finest silk, emphasized the splendor of his accouterments… but it wasn't very thick. Just this once, Vaijon thought longingly of the plainer, cheaper surcoats the Order provided for those knights who lacked his own family's private resources. They were far more plebeian-rather drab, in fact, with minimal embroidery in barely adequate colors-but there was no denying that they were warmer.
Perhaps so, he told himself, but a nobleman must hold to a higher standard, especially on important occasions. And if his surcoat was thinner than he might have wished, at least he had the arming doublet under his hauberk and the otter-trimmed cloak his mother's ladies had sewn for him. Of course, once the wind moaning outside the chapter house had a chance to sink its teeth into the steel links of his mail they would nip right through his arming doublet, but-
He shook his head and scolded himself for thinking about such things at a time like this. However much the weaknesses of the flesh might make him long to avoid exposing himself to the chill-and this early, to boot!-the task he had been assigned was a great honor for a knight-probationer, and Vaijon drew another deep breath, swept his cloak over his shoulders, picked up his gloves, and headed for the door.
Evark Pitchallow laid his schooner alongside the pier with a master's touch. Wind Dancer ghosted in under a single jib, then kissed the fenders guarding her hull from the pilings like a lover, and a dozen longshoremen caught the lines her crew threw ashore. Thicker hawsers followed, and it took no more than a handful of minutes to wrap them around the mooring bollards and lower a plank from the pier. It angled steeply downward, for the schooner's deck was much lower than the edge of the wharf, but heavy cross battens promised plenty of traction for those who had to use it.
Evark spent a few more minutes making certain Wind Dancer was properly snugged down, then tucked his thumbs in his belt and marched over to where his passengers stood in the waist of the ship with their meager belongings at their feet. He paused in front of them, rocking back on his heels to regard them properly, and Bahzell smiled down at him.
"Well, I've seldom seen a scruffier pair," the halfling allowed after a moment, and Bahzell's smile grew broader. "Aye, all very well to stand there with a witless grin, fishbait! But this is the big city, not some ratty little town in the back of beyond, and the Belhadan Guard's not exactly known for viewing vagrants with affection. If you want my advice, you'll lie up somewhere out of sight and see about at least getting yourselves some clothes that pass muster."
" 'Vagrants' is it, now?" Bahzell laid a hand on his massive chest, and his foxlike ears flattened in dejection. "You're not after being one to smother a man with flattery, are you now?"
"Ha! Calling you two that probably insults real vagrants!" Evark snorted, and there was more than a little truth to his words.
Bahzell's gear had been passable enough when he fled the Bloody Sword city of Navahk, but since then he'd covered the full length of Norfressa, north to south, on foot, through a particularly rainy autumn and the onset of winter. Having the Assassins Guild and the adherents of at least two Dark Gods competing to kill him had added a bit more wear and tear to his equipment. The rents various swords, daggers, and demon claws had left in his cloak had been mended competently enough, but the repairs would never win any prizes for neatness, and his boots had been beyond salvation weeks ago. His armor had seen better days, as well. There were gaps in his scale shirt's overlapping steel plates, and despite his best efforts, the survivors wore a faint patina of rust.
Yet grubby as Bahzell was, Brandark was almost worse. For one thing, he lacked the towering inches which lent his companion a certain imposing presence regardless of what he wore. Indeed, having Bahzell for a friend actually made Brandark look even scruffier. The Bloody Sword was taller than most humans, with far broader shoulders, yet no one really realized that when he stood next to Bahzell, for his head didn't even top the Horse Stealer's shoulder.
But shorter stature was only a part of what made him look so tattered. He'd lost a bigger share of his personal gear during the last wild, scrambling stage of their journey than Bahzell had, and what he had left had once been more splendid than anything his friend would ever have worn. Which meant, of course, that the damage it had suffered was even more apparent. And the right ear tip and the two fingers of his left hand which he'd lost along the way only made him look even more battered and bedamned.
In short, Evark Pitchallow could scarcely imagine a pair who looked less like prosperous, gainfully employed souls, and that didn't even consider the fact that they were hradani-a detail which was hardly likely to escape the observation of the first guardsman they encountered.
"I mean it, lads," he said in a quieter, far more serious tone, and jerked his head at the longshoremen already peering curiously at them from the safety of the dock. "There's those in Belhadan of the opinion that the only good hradani's one who's had a foot or so of steel shoved through his throat, and there's no reason in looking any more like their notion of brigands than you have to. You'd be wiser to bide aboard while I have a word with a tailor I know." He paused, regarding them shrewdly, then went on slowly. "If it's that you're short of money, I could-"
"Listen to the man," Bahzell said, shaking his head with yet another smile, and looked at Brandark. "Were you ever hearing a kinder offer? And here he's been to such lengths to make folk think he's a ball of old pitch where others keep a heart! It's enough to make a man come all over teary-eyed."
Evark glowered up at him, and the Horse Stealer laughed softly in a cloud of vapor and reached down to rest a hand on his shoulder.
"Jesting aside, it's grateful I am for the offer, Evark," he said, "and I'm thinking you've probably a point or three, as well. But we've no lack of funds-" he gave the fat belt purse which had once belonged to a Purple Lord landlord a jingling shake "-and we'll not be wandering about Belhadan all unescorted."
"You won't?" Evark sounded surprised.
"We won't?" Brandark echoed, and raised an eyebrow at his towering friend. "That's nice to know. Ah, just when were you planning to tell me we wouldn't be? And while I'm thinking about it, how in Fiendark's name d'you know we won't?"
"I wasn't after telling you sooner because himself only got around to telling me on the way into the harbor," Bahzell said reasonably, and Brandark and Evark closed their mouths with perfectly synchronized snaps. He gave a deep, rumbling chuckle at their reaction, and Brandark shook himself.
"I don't recall seeing any deities standing around the deck," he remarked mildly, and Bahzell shrugged.
"If he'd been minded to show himself he'd have been bringing along a chorus of trumpets and appearing in a flash of light, I'm sure," he explained kindly. "Given as he didn't do either, why, the only thing I can think of is that he wasn't all that wishful to be seen."
"Oh, thank you for explaining!" Brandark replied, and this time Evark joined Bahzell's laughter. Brandark let them chuckle for several seconds, then poked his friend in the chest.
"All right, Longshanks," he said firmly. "Now stop laughing and explain just what you mean about not wandering around on our own."
"There's no mystery in it, little man," Bahzell replied. "We're after being met, and unless I'm much mistaken-" he raised his hand to point "-that's the lad looking for us now."
Brandark followed the direction of Bahzell's index finger, and both eyebrows rose as he took in the apparition striding down the dock.
Others were turning to look, as well. Actually, gawk was a better word, for seldom did such splendor grace the warehouse district of the Belhadan waterfront with its presence. The handsome, golden-haired newcomer was taller than Brandark, which made him very tall indeed for a human, but despite broad, well-muscled shoulders (once again, for a human) he was almost slender compared to the powerfully built Bloody Sword. His silver-washed mail glistened, the white sword belt that marked a knight of one of the chivalric orders was studded with faceted gems that flashed with eye-watering brilliance, as did those adorning the scabbard of his sword, and his high, soft boots had been dyed the same forest green as his fur-trimmed cloak and surcoat.
A surcoat which bore the crossed sword and mace of Tomanak in gold and silver thread.
"Korthrala!" Evark muttered, pulling at his magnificent handlebar mustache while he stared at the glittering vision. "I could buy a whole new suit of sails out of what he's wearing on his back!"
"Aye, he is after being a mite… spectacular, isn't he just?" Bahzell agreed with a wicked smile.
"Did you know what was coming?" the halfling asked, unable to tear his eyes away.
"No, I'm thinking himself was after deciding I'd enjoy the surprise," Bahzell replied, and Brandark sighed.
"Wonderful. I wish someone had thought to warn me about gods and their senses of humor."
"How's that?" Evark asked.
"I know all the legends and lays," the Bloody Sword said plaintively. "I've learned just about all the songs, read most of the chronicles, and studied everything I could get my hands on about the Fall."
"And?" Evark prompted when he paused.
"And not one of them warned me," Brandark complained. The halfling looked at him, and he shrugged. "Oh, there's plenty of warning that Hirahim Lightfoot enjoys bad jokes, but that's his job. According to the lore masters, Tomanak is supposed to be a serious, high-minded sort of god… not the kind of person who'd send that-" he waved at the oncoming martial fashion plate "-to meet us."
"Aye? Well according to the tales, he's not one to be having hradani champions, either, now is he?" Bahzell demanded. Brandark shook his head wryly, and Bahzell smacked him on the shoulder. "Then I'm thinking that either your precious lore masters weren't quite the 'masters' they thought, or else there's changes being made. Either road, I've more than a feeling there's a reason himself was after sending 'that' to be meeting us."
"Oh, I'm sure of that," Brandark muttered. "What I'm not sure of is that it's a reason I'll like."