Apr 12 2011 5:13pm
Please enjoy this excerpt from The Unremembered by Peter Orullian, the beginning of the Vault of Heaven series, out today from Tor Books. If you would like more from this expansive new world, check out the original stories “Sacrifice of the First Sheason,” “The Great Defense of Layosah,” and “The Battle of the Round,” here on Tor.com.
The sun shone bright upon the teeming roads of the city. A thick smell rose from the mixture of mud and wet straw. Small shops lined the byway, men and women hawking all manner of roots and elixirs. Others called to passersby to survey their fine coats or breeches, most fashioned of wool. A few carts displayed garish hats and scarves and belts. Most infrequent were the stores selling any kind of weapon. Rather, men selling dangerous wares stood in the recessed doorways of buildings that appeared otherwise abandoned. Knives or knuckle spikes lay on brown cloth near their feet, the proprietor standing back in a recess smoking from a pipe or a rolled bit of sweetleaf and watching the street cautiously.
“Which way?” Sutter asked.
“All gumption and no sense, Nails,” Tahn said, and slapped his back. “Where else? The palace.”
Sutter grinned. “You’ll make a fine advisor when I become king.”
Tahn laughed. “If you’re ever king, root-digger, I’ll wear the hat of bells and dance a heel-toe jig for your amusement.” They started east toward the city center.
At each cross street they stopped and marveled at the throngs of people milling on the road. Tahn looked on in amazement as the palace slowly rose before them. Soon the straw gave way to cobblestones. Men and women walked more slowly here, their shoes low cut, and the women without stockings. Wagons were replaced by carriages drawn by a single horse.
“Look at that,” Sutter said in a hushed, awed voice.
To their right walked two men in long amethyst cloaks, carry ing spears. Each spear bore a short violet pennon emblazoned with a yellow hawk holding a set of scales in its talons.
“City guard,” Sutter said with glee. “They’ve got to be.” Sun glinted off their helmets and the studs in their armor. Not ten strides behind them came another pair of guards similarly dressed but bearing maces hung at their waist.
“Come on.” Tahn pulled at Sutter’s cloak. “Let’s not look so conspicuous.”
The two approached a crowd gathered tightly together. Their attention seemed focused toward a fountain.
“What’s that?” Sutter asked.
Tahn led them through a maze of onlookers and soon saw the object of their attention. At the center of the large plaza, several men and women stood upon a broad, fl at wagon declaiming to one another in strident, clipped speech. It struck Tahn as familiar, and he quickly knew why. These people were performing, just like the scops in the Stone the night before. Only these players wore no masks, and they did not seem to intend to provoke laughter. Several hundred passersby had gathered to watch; and the wagon platform sat high enough that the performers could be heard and seen by all.
“Come on, let’s go.” Sutter’s face showed a twist of displeasure. “We can find something better in such a big city.”
Tahn resisted. “Just a moment.” He wanted to see more.
Sutter groaned. Tahn thought he saw more than simple impatience in his friend’s face; Nails seemed to bear a real distaste for these pageant troupers. Sutter fixed accusatory eyes on the wagon and watched. Tahn thought he heard Sutter mumble something bitter about “awful parents,” before the players’ voices drowned him out.
“They must be driven from the land,” one player said.
A woman sang a phrase in a tongue Tahn did not know, her voice carrying easily above the crowd.
“Take hands, all, and this stand make,” a second woman declared.
Sutter appeared disinterested, and began searching in the direction of the guards they had seen. But the crowd around them did not move. Many nodded knowingly, others shook their heads as if wanting to disbelieve, but unable to do so.
“The sky grows black,” a young boy said. “Hurry, the sun flees this unhappy choice.” The lad looked into the distance, his eyes seeing something Tahn’s did not. Then the boy took hold of the hands of the players to each side of him; ten men and women and children formed a line upon the broad wagon and together looked over the heads of their audience at a distant event none could see. The boy was the shortest among them— at least two heads shorter than Tahn. But he looked wiry strong, at least in part due to a face set beneath a shock of flaxen hair that didn’t seem to know compromise.
Just then a commotion began at the edge of the crowd. Angry voices cried, “Disband, you! Enough of this!”
This brought Sutter’s attention back to the stage. “Guards?” His friend shifted position, trying to see what was happening.
Tahn looked back the way they had come. The crowd had closed in tight behind them, and the warmth of close bodies suddenly caused panic to rise in his throat.
“This is sedition!” one of the voices cried bitterly. “Don’t you know the law?”
Tahn stood on his toes and saw a small band of men and women parting the crowd and heading directly for the platform. Muttered talk erupted among those gathered to watch. The players released their hands and backed away from the edge of their wagon stage. The crowd grew larger, the sounds of strained voices rising from the edges of the gathering. People pressed forward, pinning Tahn and Sutter together.
The assembly parted to make way for the newcomers, who found the stage and turned to look back at those still watching.
“Have done with you, lest you find yourselves party to these here.” The man speaking pointed an accusing finger in a broad arc over the assemblage. A few of those gathered grumbled low, emboldened by the anonymity of being so deep in the crowd. Despite the warning, the throng made no move to break up. The official pulled himself onto the stage and cast vicious glances at them all. He wore a long, rich, russet-colored cloak trimmed in white, with a round seal embroidered in white thread upon his breast. The insignia depicted four arms, each gripping the next at the wrist in a squared circle. Tahn hadn’t seen the crest before, nor the rich, colorful cloaks, but he knew it belonged to the league. Near the leader, his comrades took defensive postures around the base of the wagon. Tahn thought it unnecessary; no one looked prepared to challenge them. The man’s broad face radiated disdain. He whirled on the players.
“This rhea-fol is treason!” he yelled. “It is seditious to recount lies and fables that give false hope.” His hand fell upon the hilt of his sword. “Who is responsible for this troop?”
The crowd hushed, those inclined to leave now riveted by this new scene being played out on the wagon. Sutter’s hot, panting breath hit Tahn’s neck.
Without a moment’s hesitation, the boy who’d last spoken stepped forward, away from his companions. “I am. What ever you have to do, do it to me.” The lad’s chest puff ed out and his chin assumed a defiant attitude. He clenched his fists and stared openly at the man in league uniform.
A collective gasp issued from the crowd, like the awe expressed at Gollerntime in the Hollows when all gathered to watch the stars race across the sky in long, bright streaks. The league captain looked out of the corner of his eye at the throng, then focused his rage on the impudent boy.
“In your diapers you can scarcely know the harm you do, boy,” he began. “I admire your loyalty to the troop leader, but don’t let it make you foolish. Loyalty is admirable only when well placed.”
Tahn watched the man’s lips curl as he spoke, leaving him with the impression that in a less public place, he might respond differently to the boy’s defiance.
“How mighty you are,” the boy replied, “to stop the performance of a simple rhea-fol, and our only means of bread and cups.”
“Stay your tongue, boy,” the man said, throwing his cloak over his shoulder to expose his blade. “The law holds no exceptions for age where sedition is charged. Find your mother’s teat, and stop bringing shame upon whoever owns this company!”
The boy swallowed and began again in a soft , measured voice. “It is a story, sir. A story. True or not, it is no threat to you. It is played for them.” The lad motioned with an upturned palm toward the growing crowd.
The man sniffed. “I’m done speaking with you, boy. What can you know of liberty, who have never put your life at risk in its defense?” He waved a dismissive hand. “Now, you will all be taken for the cowardice of he who lets a child stand in his place.”
“No!” the boy yelled and rushed the man. In an instant, the leagueman’s cloak whipped as though caught in a breeze, and the glint of steel rose in the air.
Tahn saw the moment unfold and began shaking his head, a sound erupting from his mouth unbidden: “Stop!”
The report of the command echoed off the stone of the courtyard beyond, filling the day with bright, hot contention. The boy skidded to a stop just a pace from the league captain, whose sword slowly dropped to his side as he searched the crowd. Men and women around Tahn and Sutter backed away.
“Will and Sky, Tahn, do you know how to travel,” Sutter whispered, stepping from behind Tahn to stand beside him.
“Who calls?” the captain demanded.
Tahn studied the other’s face as a wide path cleared between the wagon stage and him and Sutter. The league members standing around the wagon all drew their weapons. Tahn struggled with what to say; even the tales of the league in the Hollows were enough to teach him that you did not contradict one who wore its vestments. But as unsure as he was about what would happen next, he knew the lad should not be harmed.
“Leave the boy alone,” Tahn said, his voice more defiant than he had thought possible.
“By what authority do you make such a demand?” the leagueman asked, squaring around toward Tahn.
Beside him Sutter’s teeth ground. “By moral authority,” Sutter said. Tahn looked at his friend, whose voice projected conviction that Tahn had never heard. “He is a child. Who do you represent that would strike down one not yet old enough to Stand?”
The captain smiled, his teeth menacing in a wide, clean- shaven jaw. “Your accent, more to the south I think, or perhaps the west.” He put a hand on the lad’s chest and pushed him back. Then he jumped to the ground and the crowd receded further still. “How far west, boys? Beyond the Aela River I think. Perhaps you make your home as far as Mal’Tara. It is no secret what manner of men come out of that place.” He took deliberate steps toward them.
The leagueman’s expression confused Tahn. It carried a mixture of confidence and belief in his calling, and a dark, seething hatred that belied that call. Tahn unconsciously shifted his stance, placing his right foot forward and slightly bending his knees.
“We are from—”
Tahn lifted his hand to stay Sutter’s words.
When the captain came within three strides of him, Tahn looked closely at the crest on his breast, then to the ranks of leagueman that had fallen in behind him. He would say it once more. “He is a child, your honor, a melura. Impudent, perhaps, but not seditious.”
“I’ve no immediate concern for the troupe now,” the captain said, grinning. Again he threw his cloak over his shoulder, freeing his arm for movement. He spun his sword in his hand. “Do you know what accusation you have made, friend?” His words hissed like a sputtering candle.
“It is I, you Exigent hog!” The insult came from the stage. Over the leagueman’s shoulder Tahn saw Mira atop the wagon. She held the boy by the hand. “He is my seed, and you and your league are a privy rag for his melura ass!”
The captain whirled to see Mira’s fiery eyes inciting him. The league footmen rushed to the wagon. Mira took the boy and jumped from the far side, sprinting toward the alleys across the plaza. Though difficult to see, Tahn caught glimpses of the Far as she hoisted the boy up and slipped into the shadows with the speed of a prairie cat.
“Diversion,” Sutter whispered.
Sutter pulled Tahn’s cloak to get him moving, and together they turned back toward the Granite Stone. As they tried to find safety, Tahn’s mind raced. What did I just do?
Preoccupied with Mira, the league gave delayed chase. Sutter broke into a run first, but Tahn soon overtook his friend, leading them into tight byways. Straw kicked up beneath their heels, and a few pedestrians shouted insults at them as they raced past. Tahn wove a circuitous route to the inn, bringing them to its doors an hour later.
They’d arrived safe. Mira had gotten back to the Granite Stone ahead of them with the boy. But Vendanj and Braethen were no were to be found. Tahn and Sutter took the boy and locked themselves in their room.
The Unremembered © 2011 by Peter Orullian