We’ve got an excerpt from Michael Flynn’s On the Razor’s Edge, out on July 2:
The secret war among the Shadows of the Name is escalating, and there are hints that it is not so secret as the Shadows had thought. The scarred man, Donovan buigh, half honored guest and half prisoner, is carried deeper into the Confederation, all the way to Holy Terra herself, to help plan the rebel assault on the Secret City. If he does not soon remember the key information locked inside his fractured mind, his rebel friends may resort to torture to pull it from his subconscious.
Meanwhile, Bridget ban has organized a posse—a pack of Hounds—to go in pursuit of her kidnapped daughter, despite knowing that Ravn Olafsdottr kidnapped the harper precisely to lure Bridget ban in her wake. The Hound, the harper, and the scarred man wind deeper into a web of deceit and treachery certain of only one thing: nothing, absolutely nothing, is what it seems to be.
In the beginning, there were three, because in these matters there are always three. One was a harper and one was a Hound and one was nine.
There were others, because in these matters there are always others. There were other Hounds. There was a Shadow, and other Shadows. There was a Name, and other Names. And had any of them done other than they had, matters would not have tumbled quite as they did.
But a man is the master of his acts, provided he acts with virtue; and the chief of these virtues is courage. Children lack courage because they see all fears as things to be removed by their parents. But a man may regard fearsome evil and see the outcome as dependent upon his own actions, and so he may become master of them. This is true even if he ultimately fails, perhaps especially if he fails.
There was a treasure, because in these matters there is always a treasure. And there was a far quest, and an ancient tyranny; and longing and greed and ambition and treachery. There was courage and cowardice, as one often finds when something very small stands against something very large. One man had let his fears become the master of his acts, and so men died and cities burned.
But at the heart of it there was a shining kernel, something hard and bright and unbreakable that had been hidden away and all but forgotten by its hiders. At the heart of every treasure, as always in these matters, there was another treasure beyond all price.
And so in the beginning there were three; but in the end, there was only one.
First, the Hound.
Francine Thompson was a Hound of the Ardry, and this was no small thing to be. Hounds enforce the law when the law has failed. They lead when leadership has failed. They rescue when hope has failed, and will assassinate when all else has failed. It was a fearsome thing to have a Hound on one’s tail, and many a desperado has surrendered on no more than the rumor of such pursuit.
Among their number, Francine Thompson was accounted not the least. Breezy, and confident to the point of arrogance, she carried herself as if she were the Queen of High Tara. It was in her stride and in her voice, which crashed like the bursting sea; and when she tossed her head, her hair was a breaking crimson wave. Her skin was a deep gold, and her eyes the green of flint. She operated under the office-name of Bridget ban; and she was at this point in her life the one thing that a Hound never is, and that is dreadfully afraid.
Afraid enough, in any event, that she had issued a Call to Hounds. It was not often, and never for matters trivial, that more than one Hound was needed on a quest; but Bridget ban had such a need and the Call had gone out over the Ourobouros Circuit. An even score of her colleagues heard the summons and a dozen were close enough to reach Dangchao Waypoint in time for the facemeet on her estate.
That estate, Clanthompson Hall, stood lonely sentinel on the endless prairie called the Out-in-back. The Hounds foregathered in the arboretum of the Old Keep, a high-ceilinged room whose dark wood half paneling and heavy roof beams bespoke a ruder age. Ancient banners hung from the joists—some torn, some faded, one whose bloodstain must never be laundered. Oh, the day was long past when the Thompson levies had marched forth under them. Recovered technologies had made of such banners little more than convenient markers for standoff weapons. But they would do for pomp, and they complemented the ancestral portraits on the corbels beneath them: grim and gay, wild visaged and thoughtful, and all bearing that Thompson cast of eye that was something more than confidence and a pennyweight shy of arrogance.
The arboretum flourished in the sunlight piercing the clerestory windows, and lent the indoors an outdoor ambience. Her staff had laid out a table of impressive variety, with cheeses imported from Gehpari and pondi-cherries and other fruits and melons from New Chennai. The other foods were from local estates: marble-case from Kurland, bright-mix milled at Dalport, fish-rolls from Honig’s Beach, and—this being Dangchao—thin-sliced haunch of Nolan Beast. The wine had aged in Clanthompson cellars, and the spirits had dripped from the coils of the family distillery in Glennamor.
Of the Hounds, some had come from affection for Bridget ban, some because they expected an intriguing quest, some perhaps to gloat over whatever matter had impelled her cry for help. The men and women of the Kennel were a varied lot, and rivaly for status was not unknown among them.
The ancient Hound na Fir Li had sent his regrets and his senior Pup, a thin, hawk-faced young man of olive complexion who bore the name Obligado. The Pup moved with an economy of motion, and gave the impression that he skimmed a half thumb above the floorboards. He spoke little, but listened much; and Bridget ban marked that a point in his favor.
Grimpen arrived, too. He had just completed a small matter involving the pirates of the Hadramoo, having toppled the government of New Constancy on Abyalon, captured an agent of the People of Foreganger, and assassinated both the Molnar and his chief of auguries over the old business of the Merry v Starinu.
“A man in his cups,” Grimpen rumbled while the gathered Hounds enjoyed drinks and stories, “should take care which crimes he confesses, and to whom, for his boon companion may prove not merely judge, but executioner as well.” Grimpen had a laugh like an earthquake just before the rocks shear.
His glass was nearly lost in his massive fist, while that of Graceful Bintsaif seemed almost too large for hers. Tall, and lean as a whippet, the junior Hound seemed constantly to strain against an unseen leash. “Do you know what sort of killing machine the People sent?” she asked.
Grimpen’s head tolled. “No. I know only that it never arrived, so the Molnar had the pleasure to deal with me instead of the People. One day, the Ardry will need to take a fleet into the Cynthia Cluster and root them out, tooth-and-toenail. And maybe deal with Foreganger, too.”
Graceful Bintsaif glanced toward Bridget ban, who held the other end of her metaphorical leash, and gave a slight nod. Grimpen’s story confirmed part of a tale they had already heard.
“So what is such mysterious mission you propose us?” asked Anubis. His facial hair was very dark brown and his nose and mouth thrust prominently forward. The gene-wrights of the long ago, when knowledge had passed for wisdom, had engineered his ancestors for cleverness; but a tangling of genes had carried with it a distinctive, foxlike countenance, so that all men noted that here was a clever one and so responded with heightened wariness. His parents had come to the Periphery as refugees and he spoke still with a Confederal accent.
Bridget ban swirled and patted him on the cheek. “Oh, a grand quest, darling, but we are not all here yet.” The numbing fear had turned her heart to ice and her stomach to knots, but she would not show her colleagues any but blithe assurance.
Black Shuck scanned the room. “Grand enough,” he said, “to call so many.” His words came out flour fine: a sweet voice for so rough visaged a man. He was not so large as Grimpen, nor so clever as Anubis. Neither could he match Bridget ban for seduction. He was second-best at everything. But he was second-best at everything and even his most jealous rivals admitted that he was Top Dog.
“Gideon’s band, darlin’,” Cwn Annwn told him. She was a robust thing, even standing before the broad-shouldered Shuck as she did. There was Jugurthan in her genes, so that while she appeared wide and dumpy, it was muscle-firm down to the bone. “Gideon’s band,” she said again, this time herself looking about the room. “Our hostess rounded up a passel in hope of brandin’ a few. She don’t ’spect everyone here to join her.” Her voice drawled in the lazy accents of Great Wally on Megranome.
“Perhaps she expects only me,” declared a silvered throat from the doorway. Conversation ceased abruptly across the room, and one or two of the gathered Hounds visibly shivered. It was a sweet voice that chilled the heart. Even Black Shuck shifted from foot to foot before facing the newcomer.
The woman wore black diaphanous robes girt at a high waist with a silver cincture. A silver-and-turquoise scapular hung from her neck. Her black hair was clipped short and lacquered so that it formed a sort of helmet for her otherwise-uncrowned head. Her lips blossomed scarlet; her fingers rang with drizzle-jewels. Altogether, a striking presence, and not merely because of her cobralike poise. It was a look to die for, and many had.
Matilda of the Night.
When she stepped into the room, her robes billowed in her wake, as if she dragged that night behind her. Other Hounds drew back as she passed, lest she pass too close and (as they told themselves) spoil the effect.
Bridget ban was not immune to the impact that Matilda so often had, but she was the first to shake it off. She herself often made a striking entrance, though she more usually turned heads toward her than away. She crossed the room with arms stretched in embrace. “Tilly!” she cried. “How delightful to see you!”
An abrazzo, two quick pecks on the cheeks, and the spell was broken. Tilly? That was not quite so daunting. Conversations resumed, laughter rose, though both were more subdued than before.
“Delight, my dear,” said Matilda to Bridget ban in a low, throaty voice, “is not in it. And . . .” Turning. “. . . This must be Graceful Bintsaif!” She extended a hand to the junior Hound, who barely hesitated before taking it. “Na Fir Li has told me so much about you. How can such a limited man raise such fine Pups?”
“Perhaps,” murmured Graceful Bintsaif, “because my old master is not so limited as some suppose.”
Matilda stiffened fractionally, but a server in household livery distracted her with a tray of drinks, and she fussed over them long enough that when she finally straightened with a colorfully layered beverage in a tall, thin glass the moment for taking offense had passed. Cleverly done, Bridget ban thought, and no one lost face. She did not very much care for Matilda of the Night, but Bridget ban counted such temperance a point in her favor.
“Are we all here, now?” Matilda asked. “Cafall, Yeth, Barghest . . . Kirkonväki? The Gytrash . . . My, my! A mixed bag, darling. Some top cuts, but also some ends. But . . . I suppose one takes what the net hauls in.”
“I expect one or two others,” Bridget ban said.
“Who? That young man sitting behind the juniper ferns?”
Bridget ban stepped back and peered through some of the foliage. “Ah. Come join us, Hugh,” she said.
Little Hugh O Carroll rose from his casual concealment with a pot of ale in his fist. He was solidly built, with a square jaw and dusty-red hair. His left cheek bore the memory of a scar, and he smiled in that half-shy, half-sly manner that had seen him safely through the guerilla on New Eireann, many years before. It was then that he had learned the art of concealment. If there was a cover, he was beneath it. If there was a hole, he was in it. If there was a corner, he was around it. He went now by the office-name of Rinty, but to Bridget ban he would always be Little Hugh, that hard young man with the soft affections who had heighed off hunting the Dancer with her.
Bridget ban introduced him to Matilda, and the Dark Hound took his hand. “A bit old for a Pup, aren’t you?” There was a subtext there not hard to read.
“Oh, I started late,” Hugh said cheerfully. “I’d been a planetary vice-manager and a guerilla leader before.”
Matilda acknowledged that with a bob of her head. “And who is your master?”
“I am,” said Greystroke, who stood at her side sipping a tall iced tea. “Greystroke,” he added. “And we have met. I was the baggage handler at Port Kitchener a few hours ago. You warned me away from your satchels.”
“I was the hackie,” Little Hugh volunteered helpfully, “who drove you to your hotel.”
“Well,” said Matilda of the Night, looking from one to the other, “aren’t you the dynamic duo.”
“Greystroke and I hung about Kitchener a few days,” Hugh said. “We wanted to see who was coming. Met most of the Hounds at Inbound Processing. ‘Och, aye, m’laird,’” he said in a broad Dangchao accent. “‘Mought I help ye wi’ yon wee baggie.’ Except Black Shuck, who would have recognized me from that business on Uobigon, and Cwn Annwn, who somehow eluded us. Oh, and the Gytrash, who arrived before we did.”
“It was just to keep in practice,” Greystroke added. “Rinty here has a talent for disguise—they used to call him the Ghost of Ardow—and I have a talent for going unnoticed. Who looks twice at a baggage handler or an unremarkable doughface in a crowd?”
They broke up and moved off to greet other colleagues. Greystroke lingered. “We’re with you, Frannie,” he murmured to Bridget ban.
“Greystroke, darling. Ye’ve not yet heard my proposal.”
“Does that matter?”
Graceful Bintsaif sidled up after he had gone. “I don’t like it,” she said. “The way they all try to get one up on one another. I don’t like it when I get drawn into it.”
“Oh, they may bicker and play games—and strut before the Little One if it means moving up the pyramid. But when what matters matters, you can depend on each and every one of them to the very limits of his skill.”
“Though first,” said Graceful Bintsaif, raising her drink to her lips, “you have to get to what matters.”
It was a hard winnowing that the Red Hound made of her guests. She must harvest the volunteers she wanted without insulting the others. In the end, she was successful enough, though she endured a disappointment or two.
“I need your help to find my daughter,” she told the assembled Hounds when once the buffet had been cleared and the musician dismissed and they had adjourned with sherry and port to the long table in the banquet hall.
“Ah,” Greystroke murmured to Hugh. “I had wondered why it was not Méarana who played for us.”
“I wonder what she’s gotten into now,” Hugh sighed.
“What is this, Red Hound?” cried Garm. “A Call to Hounds for a mere family contretemps?”
“And is she not of age?” added Barghest. “She may go and come as she wist.”
Black Shuck stood. “Hold your gobs!” he said; and, he being who he was, they held them. “Our colleague would not have summoned us for no better cause than a runaway daughter. Daughters have run away since the dawn of time, and for the same reasons. There is something darker yet to come.” He turned and bowed to his hostess and resumed his seat.
“Points off for Barghest and Garm,” Hugh whispered to Greystroke. “Too quick with the quip.”
“A case of days ago,” Bridget ban announced when silence had been restored, “my daughter was kidnapped by a Shadow of the Names.”
Would the Red Hound ever speak more than one sentence without a hubbub of interruption? This was just as well, for the memory of it closed her throat and filled her heart with ice.
“A Shadow!” “How?” they wanted to know. “Why?” “Where?” “We’ll scour the Periphery!” “Is she taken across the Rift?” A Shadow was not so easily laughed off as a runaway daughter. If there were aught in the Spiral Arm undaunted by pursuing Hounds—who might even welcome them for the sport—it was a Shadow of the Names, their opposite numbers in the Long Game between the League and the Confederation.
“Why did you not tell us so straight off?” demanded Garm, retrospectively embarrassed by his earlier jape.
Hugh spoke behind his hand. “Easily answered,” he told Greystroke. “She wanted to know who would go for the sake of the daughter, and only then who would go for the sake of the Shadow.”
“Where is the Fudir in all this?” Greystroke complained. “The harper is his daughter, too. Why is he not here?” That had always been a stumbling block between Greystroke and the scarred man: that the harper was the daughter of the one and not of the other.
“Syne twa metric weeks an’ more,” Bridget ban said, lapsing momentarily into the local dialect, “Ravn Shadow Olafsdottr plucked her from within these very halls.”
Black Shuck grew serious. “A grave breach of security.” The rebuke was sharper given the sweet, judicious tone in which it was couched.
“The de’il wi’ yer fashin’, all of ye,” she said. “We tracked her coming in. Not even a Shadow can cross yon heath and escape my eyes. And the Bintsaif and I held her fast the while as she spun her tale and laid out her petition. She desired that I cross the Rift with her on a quest of her own, and failing in that she—”
“—took your daughter,” guessed Black Shuck.
“Why snatch the daughter,” said Kirkonväki, “if the task wants the mother?”
“The Ravn did nae trade my skills for harp-speil,” the Red Hound told him. “My daughter’s the drag to lure the hound.”
“Drag success,” Anubis noted. “You go. Red Hound pride pricked. Shadow enter your very stronghold, you hold close watch, yet allow her slip away—with your daughter—as easily as eel slip through fingers.”
“Too much Schadenfreude,” Greystroke whispered to Hugh. “Cross Anubis off. What is it?”
“Sure, and I’m waiting to hear what the Ravn’s proposal was.”
“Even if all of us here were free to go with you,” said Garm, “we would be few enough to scour an empire.”
The Gytrash stood. “Your daughter’s fate sorrows me, Red Hound,” he said. “And my heart is yours to weep into, but there be no hope to this quest. The Confederation be big and broad, and a slip of a girl a hard finding in all those bright stars. ’Tis a just quest, a worthy quest, and a cause must be just before its undertaking is just; but it must also have a chance of success, and alas ’tis ill-starred to succeed. She is more vanished than a grain of sand on a beach. Meanwhile, a massacre pends on Harpaloon that I must see to.” He bowed, and after courteous farewells and expressions of good fortune he strode to the door. A few others stood with him, but only Garm, Barghest, and Anubis followed him out. The others lingered, and one— Black Shuck—sat back down and something of a smile crossed his face.
“First cut,” said Greystroke.
“You’ll notice who have held peace till now,” Hugh answered. “Grimpen, Matilda, Cwn . . . Mark young Bintsaif, how grim she looks. She is frightened sick, but she will go.”
Grimpen rumbled, and it took the others a moment to recognize the sound as laughter.
“What is it, Large Hound?” Cafall asked.
“Our departed colleagues do not grasp the meaning of ‘hopeless.’ If success is sure, what need is there for hope? A quest like this cannot be hopeless, for there is nothing to it but hope.”
“All right, Frannie,” Black Shuck said. “The pessimists have gone, and don’t hold it too hard against them. There is another war brewing between Ramage and Valency, which Garm and Barghest must attend to; and there is Harpaloon for the Gytrash to handle. Your daughter’s taking is a tragedy; but it’s a big Spiral Arm, and not the only tragedy in it. Now, where has Ravn taken your daughter?”
Matilda of the Night spoke up. “Don’t look so surprised, Kirkonväki. The Ravn wanted our Bridget ban to aid her in a quest, and took the daughter to lure her to it. What point the drag if the hound cannot follow?”
“Aye,” said Bridget ban. “And ’tis Terra.”
“Deep in the Triangles,” Cafall observed. “Hard by Dao Chetty.”
“I put out a Stop Traffic order as soon as I learned they were gone—and, aye, finding one needle among thousands of ships queuing up for the roads is a hard finding indeed. She slipped the net, and only later, reviewing the video records, did Graceful Bintsaif and I pluck her out—artfully disguised—in the queue for Megranome via Die Bold.”
Greystroke rubbed his chin. “She’s taking the Tightrope. The long way around . . . I wonder why?”
“Why, to give me time to catch up! Ravn does not want to arrive at Terra too far ahead of help.” There was a modest comfort in that. No harm would come to Méarana as long as Ravn needed Bridget ban. About the afterward she was less sanguine.
Kirkonväki said, “Then it is a matter only of heading her off.”
Black Shuck sighed and glanced at the door, then at the remaining Hounds. “A complication, Red Hound. There is a struggle in the Lion’s Mouth. Shadow wars on Shadow, some to uphold the Names, others to bring them down. Gwillgi is observing matters for us over there, and some of his dispatches have reached the Kennel. Shadows operating in the League have been going home one by one.”
“Aye,” said Bridget ban, “and among them was one that some of you know: Donovan buigh of Jehovah, who calls himself the Fudir.”
“And half a dozen other names beside,” murmured Hugh.
“Donovan is at the root of it all . . .”
“And why am I not surprised,” said Greystroke.
“Ravn drugged Donovan on Jehovah,” Bridget ban told them, “and took him across the Rift, where the leaders of the rebellion coaxed his allegiance. In the course of affairs, Ravn and Donovan became what they call gozhiinyaw—blood brothers. That displeased her patron, Gidula, who had her tortured and imprisoned. She escaped and besought my aid in an act of vengeance and rescue. From Gidula’s hands, she would pluck Donovan buigh; from Gidula life, she would pluck her vengeance.”
“Ah,” said Hugh, “that explains why the Fudir is not here for his daughter.”
“It may also explain,” guessed Greystroke, “why his daughter was so easily taken.”
“I knew Gidula in the long ago,” mused Black Shuck, “when he and I alike were young. A rebel, you say? Yet he was as staunch a Shadow as the Names could ask.”
“And perhaps even still. He was working inside the rebellion to subvert it. It was on this point that Ravn finally broke with him, for she was won over to the cause by Donovan.”
Yeth folded his arms. “So, to find your daughter, you must find the Ravn. And to find the Ravn, you must find Donovan. And to find Donovan, you must find Gidula. That is a great deal of finding.”
“But one may find the arrow by watching the bull’s-eye,” said Cafall. “On Terra, you say?”
“Aye. The rebels courted Donovan because in an earlier rebellion he had learned a way out of the Secret City. The rebels want to use this as a way in, for they have planned an attack on the city. But Donovan had forgotten the key when his mind was shuffled and dealt.”
Kirkonväki slumped back in his chair and drummed the table with his stylus. “It would be one thing to slip over there and winkle your daughter out if she were merely lost in the Confederation, but she is a prisoner of a Shadow. But even that might be done, save that the condition is to free Donovan buigh from Gidula’s stronghold. But even that might be done—Gidula is old, and Donovan himself might give aid from the inside— save that the Confederation is at war with itself and Terra is in the heart of the Confederation. And Donovan himself is in the very center of the maelstrom. The Shadows will be more alert to intrusions.”
“Say rather they would be more distracted,” Bridget ban said. “The maelstrom swirls below the surface. Outwardly— for merchants, tourists, officials, even their military—the waters stay glassy calm. For the most part, the war is waged by stealth. And while Shadows’ eyes are drawn to the Secret City, we might slip onto Terra and be done and be gone.”
Greystroke leaned over to Little Hugh as they broke for an intermission. “‘For the most part,’” he quoted.
Hugh shrugged. “She is still holding something back. But why?”
“Because,” Greystroke said, as he watched Cafall, Yeth, and Kirkonväki thank Bridget ban and take their leave, “she has a lagniappe for those of us who stayed.”
Bridget ban was disappointed at losing Yeth and the Gytrash and uneasy at keeping Cwn Annwn. A very good practitioner, but close observation would note her Jugurthan ancestry; and Jugurthans were as rare across the Rift as foxies were on this side. Nonetheless, she had kept Greystroke and Little Hugh, as she had known she would, and Grimpen, who was methodical but thorough. Matilda she did not care for, and would have traded her for the Gytrash, but her skill was undoubted. Graceful Bintsaif, Bridget ban’s aide, was proven, but of the Pup, Obligado, she was unsure.
Black Shuck stood by the door.
“Top Dog!” said Bridget ban. “Ochone! Will ye abandon me, too?”
He wagged a finger at her. “Your wily ways don’t work on me, Briddy. All that—what do you call it? Cozening and sweet talk. I’m too old for the flattery to work. I’m half out the door, but I’m not there yet. I have heard much that tugs at the heart. Your own daughter, ochone! The shame of a Shadow eluding you in your own stronghold. What is their term? Sidáo zhwì, ‘to escape stealthily from detention.’ Even that this former lover of yours has been kidnapped and may be tortured to reveal what he knows. Sorrow upon sorrow! But do you not see a pattern? For I surely do. They want you to cross over. They are waiting for you. The entire story may have been naught but a lure to draw you deep into the Confederation.”
“An’ that was why I refused Ravn’s plea to go with her. But, Top Dog, my bairn is stolen awa’, and that is an argument wi’out rebuttal.”
Black Shuck grunted and shoved his hands in the deep pockets of his coverall. “But there is yet one thing missing. This quest you propose will require the Kennel’s chop. Entering the Confederation, the very Triangles; infiltrating a Shadow’s stronghold; assisting in his assassination . . . Should you be discovered, the Shadow-factions may unite once more, to the League’s sorrow. So the Little One will approve your chasing after Méarana, for the excellent reason that he could by no means known to man stop you. But to take others with you…? Give me a reason why I should not walk out that door. Tell me what the League stands to gain, not what aches in Francine Thompson’s soul.”
“She’s ’bout to tell us, Top Hound,” said Cwn Annwn. “But first she had to thin the herd, like. Ain’t that so, darlin’.”
Bridget ban had seated herself at the head of the table, and leaned forward now with her fists balled together. “Let me tell you how Ravn Olafsdottr escaped.”
II. AND DID SHE TEACH YOU THREE THINGS?
O Harper, know what treachery abides
In hearts of those who once you thought as friend.
How like a fang, a serpent’s tooth, they wound!
O Shadow! Think on what you say,
For how can enemies betray?
O Harper! Think you that it is but pride
Affronted by Gidula’s dire deed,
To find myself by my own trust impugned?
O Shadow! Think howe’er you must.
Who ever in a foe did trust?
O Harper! Know that foes do constant bide.
And on their constancy one may depend.
Oh heart and mind to whom I was attuned!
O Shadow! Think you any would
Inflict the pain a comrade could?
O Harper! Do not seek to shift the point
Of my arrow from the heart that it intends,
Or stay my shears from that which it must prune.
O Shadow! Prune as you decide,
For in our joint affairs we are allied.
Second, the harper.
When resolution follows shortly on resolve, doubt has little time to gnaw at purpose and success is either gratified—or moot. But when the clock drags on, imagination conjures possibilities from the vasty deep, not all of them cheerful. And so a warrior leaping upon a chance-met foe does not pause to consider the possibility of failure, while one advancing at the double quick across an open field might halfway there long for the cozy comforts of his trench.
So, to Méarana Harper, as Ravn bore her into the Confederation, what seemed a good idea on the spur of the moment appeared less grand during the canter the spur induced. She had thought that by going with the Shadow she would draw her mother in her wake, and so secure her father. A clever scheme, she had thought; but perhaps less clever in fact than in thought.
In appearance, Méarana was much as her mother limned at an earlier age, though with sharper corners. There was a hardness to her, but not her mother’s hardness. The latter was annealed from the abuse of her affections, the former from receipt of too few of them. It was fairly said that Bridget ban had used love; while Méarana was unused to it. She knew it only as sentiments left in the wake of her mother’s hasty notes.
There were certain corners of Méarana’s face—her chin was one—that bespoke her father. And if anyone in life had been more absent than her mother, it was Donovan buigh. She was a master harper—an ollamh of the clairseach: a lap harp of the old style, strung with metal cords. Sometimes when she played, they drew blood.
The cloak of invisibility, a wonder of unknown provenance, had slipped them past her mother and her aide, past Mr. Wladislaw and the household staff, past Hang Tenbottles and the security detail on the perimeter. In some fashion no longer known to men, the “metafabric” bent light in all its forms and created “blind spots” in space and time, masking those events enshrouded by it. Secret even in the Confederation, used only by the Names, the cloak and other wonders, collectively styled “the Seven Vestiges,” were closely guarded by an oath-bound college in the Gayshot Bo. But enamored of his charms, the Technical Name herself had given cloaks to Domino Tight, who had in turn given them to Ravn Olafsdottr. Thus does love—or perhaps lust—erode like acid even the oldest of tabus.
But it had not escaped Méarana’s attention that Ravn had brought two cloaks to Clanthompson Hall. So while it had been the harper’s idea to go with the Shadow, it appeared to have been the Shadow’s idea that it should be the harper’s idea.
They had departed Dangchao Waypoint in a monoship that the Shadow had weeks earlier leased on Peacock Junction under the name of Jin-ho Kisanaluva. She had stopped on Die Bold, done the usual touristy things, and managed to get her picture in the En Courant: cowering in the background while two business travelers in a Port Èlfiuji lounge broke each other’s noses in her dubious honor. In the stereograph, “Kisanaluva” did not much resemble Olafsdottr. The skin tone was lighter than its wonted coal-black. The build appeared thicker than her serpentine slenderness. The nose seemed broader, the hair, dark and shoulder length rather than the usual yellow stubble.
“It seems a lot of trouble to go through,” Méarana suggested when she had learned all this, “simply to prepare a false identity.”
“When diligently sought,” the Shadow advised her, “it is best to be someone else.”
A Stop Traffic order was out by the time they had reached Dangchao Roads, but after 2,452 outbound vessels the customs officials no longer checked documentation with the same sprightly verve and enthusiasm as they had the first few hundred. A cursory visual examination confirmed that “Jin-ho” did not match the description of the sought-for Confederal; and a database search unearthed the account in the En Courant and receipts from Port Kitchener and a “dude ranch” near Casa Dio, nowhere near Clanthompson Hall. If the official ever considered that a Shadow would find little difficulty embedding false records into a system, he was not so impolitic as to say so. He may even have considered that the greatest risk in searching for Shadows lay in finding one.
In any case, “Jin-ho Kisanaluva” got the wave-on to continue acceleration behind a departing Hadley liner, maintaining such-and-so separation and, “Have fun on Megranome.”
Méarana was determined to pry her father from Gidula’s stronghold, and if Ravn thought she needed help the harper was disinclined to argue the point. That Bridget ban had been equally disinclined to provide that help distressed Méarana beyond measure, and she had hit on this idea—of sneaking off with Ravn—as a way to force the issue. “The idea,” she told Ravn one day as they crawled through the high coopers of Abyalon, “is that Mother will come after me.”
She said this not because she supposed Ravn had forgotten but because she had grown ever more conscious of the Shadow qua Shadow, and thought the gentle reminder of a vengeful Hound in hot pursuit would calibrate Ravn’s behavior. Not that the Shadow had evidenced any threat—although the mere presence of a Shadow was quite enough threat—but their common goal was to free Donovan buigh from the hands of Gidula. Ravn, however, had a second goal: to murder the man who had tortured her; and the harper could not help but wonder, should it come down to the one or the other, which goal Ravn would score.
A woman betrayed, tortured, and abused by her erstwhile benefactor might be expected to harbor some degree of resentment, but Ravn Olafsdottr was remarkably cheerful as they wound their way through the streams of space. Méarana did not know whether this was fugue, masochism, or simply putting up a face. She had thought hate a prerequisite for murder, and was surprised to learn that her companion rather liked Gidula.
“He dreams the old dreams,” she told Méarana one afternoon in the monoship’s small lounge, “and what dream can endure the daylight? It shrivels at the first touch of sun. Gidula feels the cold kiss of morning.”
“‘The old passes away,’” Méarana quoted, “‘the new is always born.’”
Ravn switched to Confederal Manjrin. “Most profound. Wise thinker, or fool.”
“It was Raisha Lu, a novelist on Friesing’s World about three lifetimes ago. She wrote—”
“Wrote nonsense. What can new ever be but newborn? A heartbeat later—no more new. What your Lu say be said long time, ten thousand lips, ten thousand ages. Sentiment old—but not yet pass away.” She turned and seemed for a time to listen to the music she had chosen for that evening: a composer and a style from some bygone era of the Confederation’s history. The harper did not find it pleasing, and wondered if the nature of the Confederals could be found in their preferences for such stringent measures.
“Detestable to gods and men,” sang a mournful voice,
“Are lies and treason dark.
Yet across the broad millennia
Is Jason ever sung,
Who to take the Golden Fleece
Betrayed with perjury.”
The music resumed the strange a-harmonic plonking and Ravn faced the harper once more. “It was Gidula and his likeminded friends—men who met on old estates, who bore names ancient and bold—who alone stood firm against the Names, when the likes of Dawshoo and Oschous dipped their heads and tugged their locks and did as they were told. Against his treatment of me, throw that in the other balance pan.”
“Is it an account, then? A toting of assets and liabilities? I don’t believe it. A man’s character is seamless. What he does for good or for ill springs from the same soil. If Gidula is a traditionalist . . . Oh.”
“Yayss. When Power o’ersteps His bounds, He violates traditions first of all. It is those who seek change who excuse power’s extension, and they swear they will put it by when once they have succeeded. But whene’er did a man seize power and walk away after?”
“There are stories,” Méarana said. “Cincinnatus. Washington. Venagar. Apaloram.”
“Four!” exclaimed the Shadow. “Faith in humanity restored!”
“Mock if you like. There were certainly others. Less famous precisely because they let go of power.”
“Oh, be not so truculent, sweet.” Ravn patted her on the cheek. “At least there were four.”
“But if Gidula is on the right side . . .”
Ravn laughed. “Too many sides. Maybe none of them right.”
Ravn brought the monoship across the bar from the superluminal tube called the Tightrope and arrived once more in Henrietta Roads, broadcasting her fu, her authorization. (The fu was faux, but that was a small matter for a Shadow.) She opened negotiations immediately for the return of Sèan Beta, the smuggler’s ship that she had donated to the Fleet the year before.
“These be ticklish talk,” she warned Méarana in the Alabaster accent she sometimes affected, “boot noo tickle during dicker.”
Discussion escalated slowly, corkscrewing up a level at a time through the hierarchy, while Ravn descended toward the impound orbit, where such vessels were kept. Rather than repeat herself with each new flunky, Ravn played a recording in which she gave the required information and pleaded her case, ready to flip to real time if she achieved breakthrough. They started with interface clerks, worked up to the Gamzöngzhy, the Superintendent of Prize Vessels, who deferred to the Shivegun Vayshun Madlow Gunly, or Commander, Fleet Logistics. Ravn maintained a degree of patience during this peeling of the bureaucratic onion that would have reduced the harper to tears.
“Behoold, fate of peacetime navy,” Ravn announced during one interlude while the comm. unit played insipid music. “With noo enemy to fight, they create oobstacle courses to clamber through.” She sat before an oval screen on which colors flowed and blended in synch with the music. Méarana stood nearby but outside the ambit of the Eye. No point advertising her presence.
“Then perhaps ’tis just as well they have no one to fight,” she suggested.
“Be not deceived, sweet harper,” Ravn answered. “All this miigimoos stop when enemy appear. Well, perhaps not all miigimoos.”
“Do we need this smuggler’s ship that badly?”
“Ooh, yayss. When we rescue your father, we need bigger ship. Accoommodate Doonovan’s egoo. And . . . ,” slipping into the Manjrin, “. . . he appreciate art.”
“Full circle. Kidnap him in that ship, so rescue him in same. Also: sentimental value. Doonovan and I fight Frog Prince in Sèan Beta. Reminder bring tear to his aged eye.”
“What will you do if the Fleet won’t give permission?”
Ravn flashed a broad smile. “Silly harper. I take it.”
“Take it. From the Fleet.”
Ravn snatched at her own shadow, cast by the running lamps, and made as if to peel it off the wall of the comm. station. “Shadows slip through such thumb-fingers as they.”
“Then why dicker at all?”
A shrug. “So they not shoot at us as we scamper off. Hush now, sweet.” A nod to the screen. “Next act of Kabuki.”
By the time they were connected with the office of Swoswai Mashdasan himself, Ravn and Méarana were deep in the sun’s gravity well, approaching co-orbit with the impound vessels, and the time lag between message and response was minimal.
The garrison commander sat behind a broad desk flanked by the starry black banner of the Confederation and that of the 423rd Fleet (Qien-tuq Borderers, “Ever Vigilant”). He wore undress grays with his badge of office on a chain around his neck and a string of decorations on his breast. Méarana wondered how a military that had not fought an actual war in more than a generation could award so many medals. But she supposed the Fleet no different from other professional organizations, which existed largely to bestow awards upon their members. Perhaps the medals represented rebellions crushed, or exceptionally good table manners.
The swoswai greeted Ravn with no great joy. He appeared ill at ease and his eyes wandered. At times, he fingered his medallion as if to assure himself that it was still there.
Here was a man, Méarana marveled, who commanded ships sufficient to reduce a planet to rubble and troops enough to subdue a continental rebellion—and a solitary Shadow in an unarmed monoship could bring an ooze of sweat to his brow.
“And why should I return the ship to the Lion’s Mouth?” said the swoswai after Ravn had explained her request. “Especially when that mouth now roars with two tongues.”
Ravn blinked, then smiled, and her eyes became razor thin. “Ooh!” she said. “You have learned mooch, swooswai! But is this soomething you ought to have learned?”
The garrison commander scowled and his eyes danced. “We’re not stupid, you know. MILINT received dispatches from Yuts’ga. You Shadows burned down half a city there.”
“It was not soo beeg a city.”
“Yes? Well, I swore an oath to uphold the Confederation. What did you swear?”
Ravn looked on him with pity. “To kill her enemies.” The smile with which she delivered this chilled even Méarana. But then Ravn added with unusual gentleness: “Do not choose sides in the Shadow War, oh master-of-ships-and-men, for all your ships and all your men would not avail you, whichever side you took. In these degenerate times, it is dangerous to have an opinion, any opinion.”
Mashdasan ran a hand across his cheek and chin. “Don’t be too certain, Deadly One. My loyalty is to the Confederation and to the Names.”
“Good. So be mine. Hooray for Confederation! Huzzah for Names! We do secret handshake later. Will you give me back my ship?”
“So you can use it for this illegal rebellion of yours?”
“When is rebellion legal? Love doos not mean you nayver spank the little rascal. No, let us say, swooswai my sweet, that I be on sabbatical from Shadow War and my poorpose for now be harmless, moore or layss.”
Mashdasan shook his head, as if brushing off flies. “I’m a blunt man, a simple soldier, and I grow impatient with the antique wordplay your kind enjoys. Speak plainly.”
Ravn sighed and leaned forward into the comm. screen. “I greatly fear, sweet, I can say nothing that will improve your situation. Life is color of your uniform; but rebels and loyalists not see matters so, and those caught between may find themselves ground to powder. What is monoship Sèan Beta to mighty Four-twenty-third Fleet? A mosquito among eagles. We swap. You give me Sèan Beta and I give you this ship. Very fast; good for courier work. Smaller, true, but what you lose in cubic you gain in delta-V. I give you word of honor our Confederation not suffer.”
“Your word of honor . . . And what is honor worth?”
“A great deal, for is very rare coommodity these days.”
The swoswai’s lips curled. “And hence that much harder to recognize.” He looked to the side and something flashed briefly in his eye. “Very well,” he said. “I’ll notify Fleet Logistics. They will send you the necessary orbital parameters.” He reached out and blanked the screen.
Ravn sat back in the comm. chair. “The fool!” she said, yanking off the headset.
Méarana arched her brows. “Why do you say that? He gave you what you wanted.”
“But too quickly,” the Shadow answered. “Boots like pack rats. Never give up bauble unless forced.”
“So . . .”
“So who force him?” Ravn tilted her head back and to the side. “How did he learn of the Shadow War? And why tell me he knew? And why tell us how loyal he be, if he think us rebels?”
“Who was he telling?” Ravn tapped a finger on the console . . . Then she leaned suddenly forward and called up a recording of the conversation. She stepped it forward to the moment near the end when the swoswai had glanced to the side. “Eyes may not be window to soul,” she murmured, “but sometime make splendid mirror.” She boxed in on Mashdasan’s eyes, expanded, boxed again, enhanced. Then she grunted. “So.”
Méarana leaned across her shoulder to see what the enhancement had revealed: a sleeve of dark but indeterminate color was reflected in the cornea.
“Shenmat,” said Ravn in a flat voice. “Rest follow by deduction. Who, in all the worlds of all the suns, wears the body stocking? Shadows and their magpies. And loyalist, or he not so shy of Ravn’s eye.”
“But you’re a loyalist, too,” the harper pointed out.
The Shadow put a finger to her lips. “Shh. Is secret. Always problem with undercover. Better job you do, more your friends shoot at you.” She stood from the console.
“What now?” said Méarana. “Surely the Shadow in Mashdasan’s office wasn’t there waiting on the chance you might show up!”
“No. Shadow come to Henrietta to question swoswai. Word of last year’s facemeet is leaked. You and I . . . ? Phrase is ‘target of opportunity.’ Problem with tiptoe through minefield is sometime you step on mine.”
They received the orbital parameters from SVMG. There were six, relative to Henrietta’s sun and the plane of her planetary family. “Longitude of ascending node . . . ,” Ravn sang as she worked from the pilot’s saddle. “Argument of perihelion . . . Inclination to planetary plane . . . Where are you, my sweet? Ah! Stationary Station, I see you. Mark! Two more now . . . Hah! Mark, and . . . mark! Triangulating and locking on.”
“What if the Shadow told him to send phony parameters and put us into the wrong orbit?” Méarana asked when the Shadow emerged.
“Oh, sweet Mashdasan nayver do that to darling Ravn! Boots nayver take orders from Lion’s Mouth. Late swoswai correct. Boots not stupid. Maybe not broad-minded like Shadows, but inside box?—think very deep. Mashdasan knows he is dead man. Cannot be less dead by fooling Ravn, but fine vengeance on his killer to help his killer’s enemy. No, we may rely on parameters. We may also rely on Shadow.”
“He too know our destination but no time to climb up, catch us. So he use smartie or wave cannon . . . Subvert instructions no very large matter. Imitate swoswai voice; manipulate swoswai ymago in tank. A piffle.” She sanpped fingers. “Give orders destroy us. Boots nayver obey Shadow—likely much vexed when learn he kill commander—but boots obey words on comm. link, no questions; and a little kaowèn harvests all access codes.”
Destroy us . . . Méarana’s heart went cold, and she wondered what she had gotten herself into. “So this unknown Shadow could pot us at any time?”
Ravn sat at the astrogation tank and began tapping commands. “Likely not any time. Mooch traffic in these orbit, and we be small rental ship. Better if wait until we match with target. Then . . .” She made frying sounds with her tongue and Méarana flinched.
“Why not wait until we board Sèan Beta? That is more certain still.”
“That is also Fleet property. Fry intruder one thing, but even wave cannonier scratch butt and wonder what the xing jiao is going on if asked to fry impound ship, maybe ask for confirmation back up corkscrew of command. So . . .” She touched the tank in several places, reaching into the hologram to toggle certain commands. The tank turned gray and dots of various colors blinked their way through it.
Méarana said, “Ravn?”
“Hoosh, sweet. Thinking very hard . . . Ah. We blend in with traffic here . . . to . . . here. Then . . . Is asteroid going our way. We ride with it to . . . here. Natural object in free trajectory. STC brain subtract those, so make us invisible. Bad time, here to Sèan Beta. Must leave friendly asteroid and make matching transfer to rendezvous. Curse upon Holy Newton’s hemorrhoids! Longer trip time, but . . .” She engaged the alfvens and the little rental grabbed the corduroy of space and yanked. Somewhere aft there was a loud and unpleasant sound, and Méarana smelled an electrical odor.
“Second reason we want smooggler ship. Survey class alfvens. Grab strings of space deep in gravity well but not burn out like these poor ship.” She patted the control board fondly.
“Ravn? Why do you think the Shadow will kill the general?”
“Do not think—know. Fool try to warn us. That was very nice, and I kiss his lips, but not very wise. He knows Shadow War, stresses his loyalty for benefit of interrogator, but looks sidewise to warn us. Wink-wink, nudge-nudge. ‘Someone in room with me.’ But sooch body language and sly allusion subtle oonly to man of ‘bloont’ character. Shadow not fooled. So Mashdasan suffer fate of all who place generative organ between hammer and anvil.”
“So the Shadow did not go there intending to assassinate him.”
Ravn swung her seat around. “Likely noot. Oonly to torture him and learn what he could of the facemeet Dawshoo held there last year. Why do you ask this?”
“Mother taught me a thing or two. The Lion’s Mouth sends you out in pairs, don’t they?”
Ravn nodded. “Usually. Second kills first if first falters. Nice system. Encourages job commitment.”
“How sweet. But that suggests that while the first does not know how to contact the second, the second keeps tabs on the first.”
“Yayss . . . ?”
“Then the Shadow in the swoswai’s office . . .”
Ravn grinned broadly and smacked the console desk with the flat of her hand. “. . . exceeded his instructions!”
“But the second would not know why. So if ‘Dawshoo’ sent a congratulatory message to the first in care of the swoswai’s office, the second . . .”
“. . . would intercept it, find it but moodestly difficult to decrypt, and perhaps woonder if his first is playing a traitor’s game. Young harper, I like the way you think.”
Méarana touched her forefinger to the tip of her nose. “Confusion to the enemy.”
“And perplexity upon our foes.”
“I wonder,” said Méarana, “why Mashdasan tried to warn you. It’s not as though he was on your side.”
“Perhaps he had something to prove to himself. Dawshoo humiliate him last year. Two such affronts he would not accept. Fool. But sometimes fools do brave things.”
“Are we going to make it?” The harper tried to ask with an air of nonchalance.
“All in hands of Fate. Tell me this, harper. Your mother taught you a thing or two. But did she teach you three?”
Space Traffic Control watched the monoship emerge from the detection-shadow of Asteroid Laatmui 27 and make a dash for the ships in the impound orbit. Grabbing space, she moved in quantum jerks, building velocity. STC noted, too, from the shell design that the ship was Peripheral built. This information spread across the surveillance web, downloaded into cognizant systems, was picked up picoseconds later by Midsystem Sector Defense. The field control officer noted the orbit and checked against the fire order sent from Siling Bo Henrietta. Burn the vessel matching orbit with the designated reference. Obvious now, the reason: an attempt by Peripheral agents to hijack a Fleet vessel. An earlier search had flagged the reference vessel as one promised to the Lion’s Mouth, and the officer shuddered to contemplate the consequence if he allowed it to be stolen. After verifying that no other ships were matching orbits with the reference vessel, he sent the release-to-fire message to the wave cannon Stout Defender, which was best positioned to take it out.
The range officer of Stout Defender pinged the target, obtained range and velocity, and computed azimuth and bearings and fed this to the gunner.
“Charging,” the gunner’s mate called from the bowels of the capacitor banks. “Flux nominal.” Then, “Charged ninety-five percent.”
“Locked on,” said the gunner. He studied the data on the monoship, decided it was unarmored, and computed the kill burst. Then he doubled that just for luck, what gunners called the “200% Kill” level. “One-bar-nine,” he ordered.
“One-bar-nine,” the gunner’s mate concurred, having carried out an alternative computation.
There was, of course, no bright streak of light of the sort entertainments liked to pretend. Nor was there anything so dramatic as a fireball when the target absorbed the gravity wave. But the monoship began to break up.
“Debris field confirmed,” the range officer announced. “Spreading. Talker, alert Range Safety Office at STC. Parameters follow. The pings show multiple large fragments following the original orbit, a few others tumbling off to the sides on daughter orbits.” Some were approaching the craft promised to the Deadly Ones. She hoped they wouldn’t hole the vessel. Shadows could be quite prickly when it came to their rides.
“Scratch one,” said the gunner.
The range officer continued to monitor the debris field while the gunner’s mate wound down systems and toggled them to safety mode. “I hope,” said the gunner, “this wasn’t just another drill.”
On the Razor’s Edge © Michael Flynn 2013