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Authors: Lynn Abbey

The brazen gambit

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The Brazen GambitLynn AbbeyLynn AbbeyThe Brazen Gambit

Dark Sun, Chronicles Of Athas, Book One

 

To Carolyn and Jane for a safe haven when I really needed it and Beverly for making Persian carpets.

Chapter One

Nothing changed in Athas: What was would always be. The will of man or woman could leave no lasting markupon the world. These were the laws seared into the understanding of each child born beneath the blood-red sun.

Yet Athas had changed, and recently. The dreaded Dragon, ancient beyond mortal reckoning, was gone. Nomore need a city-dwelling man or woman fear the Dragon's levy: the annual assessment of life, drawn without remorsefrom the legions of misfortune within each of the city-states.

Change had come in other ways as well. A citizen's council had replaced King Kalak in Tyr; that had happenedbefore the Dragon died. It governed that mighty city-state and controlled its precious iron mines. The sorcerer-kings ofBalic, Raam, and Draj had died with the Dragon. Anarchy ruled in their former domains. Mighty rulers still reigned inUrik, Gulg, and Nibenay, each keeping a suspicious eye on living neighbors and a covetous one on empty thrones.

And somewhere on the Tablelands during this cold crystal night the heavens raged and the bitter tears ofTithian I, fallen tyrant of Tyr and would-be successor to the Dragon himself, fell from black storm clouds,unintentionally nurturing the withered land.

But in all the Tablelands, change intruded least in the northeastern city-state of Urik.

The Sorcerer-King, Hamanu, had survived the Dragon's demise and the misfortunes that befell his fellow tyrants.In undimmed panoply, he had returned to his square city that lay within sight of the restless Smoking Crown volcano.Striding out of the shimmering wastelands, his massive body shrouded in an illusion half-human and half-lion, the kinghad mounted the highest tower in his domain and had addressed his subjects. His words, enhanced by themind-bending power of the Unseen Way, had penetrated every mind, every shadowed corner of his city.

Borys the Dragon is dead.

Most of those who heard the resonant, echoing voice, had not known the Dragon had a name.

The sorcerer Rajaat is dead.

Fewer still recognized the name of that ancient human wizard, nor knew if Rajaat had been friend or foe before hisdeath.

I, Lord Hamanu-King of the World, King of the Mountains and the Plains, Lion of Urik, the Great King, theMighty King, the Bringer of Death and Peace-I, your king, have returned safe and whole to rule my city. You neednot fear the emptiness that replaces Borys and Rajaat. Though change has thrust itself upon Athas, you need not fearit. Change will not disturb fair Urik. You need fear only me, only when you disobey me. Worship me, your sacredeternal king. Obey me and live without fear.

From the highest templars in their gilt-trimmed, yellow silk robes and the proud nobles sweating beneath theirjewels to the least dung-seller and mangy street urchin, the Urikites responded with an almost spontaneous hymn ofpraise. Their ten thousand and more voices joined together were not so resonant as Hamanu's uncanny voice. Deep intheir hearts, the Urikites knew the truth of their king's words: while the Lion of Urik held his domain in his talonedgrasp, the city had nothing to fear but its own king.

In that regard, life went on in Urik exactly as it had for a millennium. It was true that fearsome storms had ragedtwice above the city walls in the two years since King Hamanu's return that dusty afternoon. The storms wereseething, screaming monsters, with many-colored lightning that left brave citizens cowering in the corners of theirhomes. But the storms did not breach the towering yellow walls, and neither did anything else.

King Hamanu's word was as brutally honest as it had always been. Change in many forms might have come tothe Tablelands, but it did not disturb his domain.

* * *

A cool night breeze flowed from the dark desert and across Urik's open rooftops. Folk who, before sunset, hadlanguished in whatever scrap of shade the city afforded, pulled cloaks high around their necks and hastened alongcobblestone streets toward their beds. Here and there, throughout the mile-square city, a snarl or growl erupted assomeone wandered too close to someone else's guarded property.

Silhouetted sentries from the templarate's civil bureau, their spears against one shoulder and shields hung on theoff-weapon arm, patrolled the broad outer rampart walls. The damage wrought seven years earlier when Rikus of Tyrhad led his ragtag gladiator army in doomed assault on Urik's heart had been long since repaired and blendedseamlessly now with the older fortifications.

Better-equipped guards from the templarate war bureau stood watch along the narrower inner walls that dividedUrik into segregated quarters, reserved for the nobles and the templars themselves, and common quarters for therabble. Merchants, who held themselves apart from the entanglements and protection of citizenship, set aside theirsunlight rivalries to mount a common watch in their own quarter. In the elven market, near the western gate, wheretrade never came to a complete stop, pungent fires crackled all night between translucent tents and shanties.

When the curfew gongs rang at midnight, law-abiding folk latched and double-latched their doors, if they haddoors. Despite the loud claims of the civil bureaus that the streets of Urik were always safe, regardless of the hour,wise folk knew that after midnight Urik belonged to the street scum who were always responsible for their own safety,and to the templars who, in the opinion of many of those behind latched doors, were the worst of scum themselves.

A single grease-lamp above the door shone faintly on a cracked and peeling piece of leather that, in the brightsunlight, displayed the faded portrait of a gap-toothed dwarf brandishing a tankard: Joat himself in his younger days,when he'd been trying to attract customers.

The customers Joat got, then and now, were off-duty templars. And since the yellow-robes provided a steady, ifundistinguished, trade in which there was little threat of competition or hope of expansion, Joat let his sign fade. Fordecades the dwarf had concentrated his entrepreneurial efforts on procuring the strongest inebriants at the lowestpossible price.

Tonight he was serving broy, a liquor produced when kank nectar was left to ferment in the sun for a few days,then sealed in resin-smeared leather sacks. Broy was a pungent, slightly rancid drink with a cloying sweetness thatcoated the drinker's tongue for hours afterward. It was, to say the least, an acquired taste.

Unlike the liquors fermented from fruits or grains, broy produced quiet, melancholy drunks who stared at thestars, lost in introspection. As such, it was not the drink of choice at Joat's Den, where templars came to forget whothey were, what they did. But the templars who frequented Joat's Den acquired taste and tolerance for whatever theold dwarf could scrounge, as long as it could kick like a broody erdlu.

Joat, himself, however, preferred the nights when broy was all he had behind the mekillot rib bar. Business wasgood, of course; it always was: when templars drank, they drank until they achieved oblivion. But when they drankbroy, the furniture didn't break and the place stayed quiet as a boneyard.

Usually.

Through some quirk of fate, from a stool beside the hearth that Joat had deliberately refused to kindle, acustomer had taken it upon himself to entertain everyone. The dwarf stood ready to toss the human youth into theback alley the moment anyone complained, but the mournful tunes the boy played on a set of pipes whittled from thefragile wing-bones of unhatched erdlus suited the overall mood.

The youth was halfway handsome and dressed in plain, drab-colored clothes rather than a sulphurous yellowrobe. He could have been anyone, but he was a templar. Joat was sure of that. He hadn't hired any entertainment andthough nontemplars occasionally came through his doors-his place had a certain reputation for discretion, if one didn'tmind the regular clientele-no nontemplar would be foolish enough to sit here, surrounded by the most reviled denizensof the city, lost in his thoughts and his music.

The young templar's fingers arched delicately over his instrument. His eyes were closed and his body swayedgently in rhythm with the music that was as beautiful as it was unexpected.

Strange, Joat mused silently in a lull between refills, listening to the pipes. Where had he learned to play likethat? And why?

Joat knew the templars as well as anyone who did not wear a yellow robe knew them. More specifically, he knewthe under-rank templars from the civil bureau, who had only a few threads of orange or crimson, never gold, woveninto the hems of their sleeves. Such folk came to his place to celebrate their infrequent promotions, gripe about theirvaried failures in the ruthless bureaucracy, and to eulogize their dead. There were, of course, other kinds of templars:aristocratic High Templars who inherited their positions and seldom ventured outside their private, guarded quarter,ambitious templars who'd betray, sell, or murder not just ordinary citizens like him, but other templars, too....

And then there were Hamanu's pets: men and women to whom the ancient, jaded king gave free rein. Those petnames were whispered here, in Joat's Den, and feared above all others, even the king's.

The dwarf didn't particularly like his customers, but he knew them well enough to know that beneath the robesthey were very much the same as other people. They made the compromises everyone made to survive in a worldindifferent to life. He certainly didn't envy them. In his eyes their privileges couldn't outweigh the risks they took everyday, clinging tightly to their little niche in Urik s grand bureaucracy.

King Hamanu decreed that nothing changed. In the larger sense, the king spoke the truth. But change was aconstant in Joat's small world. He'd raised his family here, behind the customhouse. His wife still cooked all the food.His children helped in more ways than he could count. Five grandchildren slept in cozy beds beneath the pantry.

It hadn't been easy; he'd endured more hard years than he cared to recall. The templars were reliable customers,except when crop failures tightened supplies or one of Hamanu's chronic military campaigns put the whole city on warrations. Joat's Den had been burnt out twice, most recently when Tyrian hooligans had sacked the city, trying, withoutsuccess, to free the slaves.

King Hamanu always got Urik set to rights, easing off on fines and taxes until trade was back on its feet again.The sorcerer-king didn't claim to have founded Urik, but he, and the templarate he had founded, nurtured the city withferocious care. Urik survived; Urik's citizens survived. In the end, survival mattered more than the king's notoriouscruelty or any individual templar's brutality.

Standing in the twilight of his life-his eyes a bit dimmer than they'd been in his youth, his hand a shade lesssteady when he poured from a full jug-Joat was proud of himself, of his Den, of their survival.

Or maybe it wasn't pride, just that forsaken, melancholy music.

The youth had entranced himself and everyone with his playing. He showed no sign of fatigue. Like as not, he'dpipe away until sunrise, unless someone stopped him. Melancholy music that produced melancholy customers who, inturn, produced no sales. Joat wiped his hands on the leather apron that covered him from neck to knees-and covered avariety of weapons as well. He selected a supple sand-filled sap from the apron's armory. The small weapondisappeared in a thick-fingered dwarven fist.

A quick exchange of glances around the Den said it all: Murder. No spoken words were needed, nor anythingelse. Even if a templar had been interested in rescuing the woman, the odds against finding her were as long as theodds against saving her were short.

Templars were cautious gamblers, especially when their own skins might be on the line.

A blond templar-handsome except for his broken teeth-hoisted his tankard upside-down. A war-hardened elf (onthe other side of the room, naturally) made the same gesture; and a third templar pitched a ceramic coin into themusician's half-filled cup. She called for a happier song.

An unanticipated chorus of slurred dissent erupted. To Joat's astonishment, a fair number of his rock-headedhalf-drunk customers were enjoying the unpaid performance. Who knew what they might have done if he'd sapped theyouth into silence? Maybe he should put the word out that he was looking for a musician with a taste for melancholy.

Sighing through his unanswered questions, Joat returned the sap to its hiding place beneath his apron. Heretrieved the ripe broy-sack from its hook behind the bar and started around the room, topping off any out-heldtankard. He paused a moment at a table where the solitary templar's tankard stood empty.

"You ready?" he asked the top of one man's head.

The templar straightened, covering a wax-tablet with brawny arms, but not before Joat got a glance at it. Not thatJoat needed to spy. This templar-he made it a point of honor not to know his customers' names-didn't come everynight, but his routine, when he did come, never varied. He'd study the marks on a scrap of parchment, then attempt toreproduce them from memory on the tablet. He'd repeated the process as many times as necessary, rarely more thantwice per scrap.

Joat recognized city-writing when he saw it: most people did. But script was forbidden to anyone not noble bornor templar trained and he was careful to conceal those script-secrets he'd deciphered over the years.

Still, an intelligent man made assumptions.

The brawny, intense scribbler had a very mashed nose and lips that were scar-twisted into a permanent scowl.He didn't seem the sort to be collecting love-notes from a noble lady (though Joat had seen stranger things happen inhis Den), so his assumption was that the templar was studying magic.

Great Hamanu knew why a templar would commit magic scribbling into his memory. On second thought, though,if Great Hamanu knew of this would-be scholar's hobby, then this templar would likely have been converted intoparchment himself. The king granted a priestly sort of spellcraft to his templars, through what means an ordinary mandid not care to guess. High Bureau scholars performed the esoteric research that enabled Urik to defend itself againstthe other city-states and the war bureau knew how to wield what the High Bureau and the king concocted.