Authors: James R. Sanford
THE HIDDEN FIRE
James R. Sanford
book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are
the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any
resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely
Copyright © 2014
by James R. Sanford
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Knights-Commander of the Order of the Dragon’s Blood paused at the door to his
library and willed the veil of power to enclose his spirit. It was easier to
speak to the Master that way, not feeling that he read the signs of every
intention, not feeling that he judged each link in the armor of one’s essence.
Most of the others broke into a sweat, or began to stammer in
presence. Even Andemin ducked around a corner when he saw the Master coming.
Love is one matter, to stand before a godling quite another. He pushed through
the double doors of fine mahogany and closed them behind him.
Master turned away from the window and looked at him. “Keldring. You have
word from Aeva?”
in the Essian tongue. He was proud of that name. He had
certainly earned it. He had once been Liopol, but a score of years had passed
since he suffered the frailties with which Liopol had been born.
Master was wearing his eye patch, but Keldring could see the light of the
Pyxidium leaking from the outer edge. He never wanted to look into that eye again.
It had been like looking beyond the stars, into a forbidden place in the soul
of the universe.
The courier arrived in the middle of the night. I have only now decoded the
Watcher’s message. He reports complete failure.”
already know that
have been killed — I
saw them die by the flaming blade. What else does he report?”
squires-in-training were killed as well. One of them was nearly ready. We had
planned for him to kiss your hand at the end of summer. Senator Lekon has now
retired from public life, and the charts of the Spice Islands have disappeared.
Taken to Esaiya no doubt. As I said, utter failure.”
Cauldin’s mouth twisted into what Keldring had come to recognize as an ironic
smile. “You do not see the subtlety of my stratagem. It is like the toss of a
coin which bears a head on each side. My designs are such that even in failure
my will is done. When my hand reaches into the mundane world it is only a
matter of time. A mere idea can easily become insidious. The
the lost Spice Islands can be found has already been planted. Did
not show the rudders to certain Senators?”
would be enough. They now know the region of the ocean where the islands lay.
Secrets have a way of getting out. The great houses of Sevdin and Kandin will
soon know. Brave explorers will be sent, and some will return with news that
the Baskillians already control Mokkala and reap the wealth of the spice. Then
the Avic lands will make war across the line, which is no less than we intended
by controlling the Aevan Senate.”
eye roved the library, his gaze falling on the ornate tapestries, the inlays of
rare wood, the priceless artwork, as if seeing his surroundings for the first
time since his arrival. “You allow yourself too much finery, Keldring. Take
care it does not draw your attention from the realm of power. A Knight of the
Flaming Blade would live the winter in an icy hole for the sole purpose of leaping
upon you as you pass in the springtime thaw.”
you have said, Grandmaster. None of us can match your own austerity, but I
have not forgotten the year you left me stranded on Ismbar, moss and driftwood
for my bed, the bones of Aumgradmal my only companions.”
year made you what you are, made you worthy to sit at my right hand.”
bowed to his master. “You taught us that the acquisition of wealth, and
participation in the game of houses were only tools to smooth the way, and that
we must not step too far forward lest it draw the suspicion of our enemy. I
have not forgotten that as well. But these estates we have established make
such excellent recruiting grounds. There is an excess of young men eager to
join a rising captain of business and politics. All this finery is the promise
of wealth and influence made flesh. They cannot resist it. It helps us
manipulate their beliefs, and draws them into your plans in much the same way
that the city-states of the West are drawn by the wealth of spice.”
acknowledged the truth of his words with a slight nod. “And that is why it is
impossible for us to fail.”
Kyric turned away from Esaiya and retraced his steps back to Aeva, and all went
well at first. He got a job as the day cook at a run-down hotel in the old
city called The Copper Squid. It was more like a bar with rooms for rent, and
his pay included a closet with a cot near the door to the back alley. He sold his
silver arrow and used that money for lessons with a sword master. Sleep became
a cool dark place. He didn’t dream.
wanted to look up Sercey and Jela’s other friends, but every time he made to do
so floodwaters of loss rose up to drown him, and he couldn’t go through with
it. He became friendly, if not friends, with most of the hotel staff. One of
the waiters introduced him to a young lady named Tathee. He spent most of what
remained of his arrow money on some decent clothing and an evening with her at
the Hotel Lions. He enjoyed Tathee’s company well enough, but his conversation
was awkward, and as they danced after dinner he realized that he really wanted
to be alone. He sent her home in a cab and went to a Commedia house by
himself, making sure that Captain Bombasto was featured in the piece they were
the summer wore on, he felt like a spiritless shadow had followed him back from
the narrows. It rained little, and in the heat of the afternoon the stench of
the old city nearly made him sick. The gossip of the hotel staff began to bore
him. His cooking became sloppy. The waiters’ petulant demands such as, “Why
isn’t my order ready?” or “This is overcooked, make another!” stretched his
nerves and he returned their complaints with a glare and told them to shut up.
He started drinking a bottle of wine every evening, then it became a bottle
Narel, the night cook, had a fit over a dirty cutting board left at the end of
the day shift and threated to have him fired, Kyric bounced a soup ladle off
his forehead, so that his dismissal would come from his own merit. When Narel
took a swing at him, Kyric shocked himself by pummeling the man to the floor
and leaving him there with a broken nose. It was the first fistfight he had
been in since the age of ten.
he walked away in a fury, one of the maids, a curly-haired girl name Devra,
caught up with him saying that she had quit the hotel too. They went to a bar,
then back to the room she rented. Kyric had to climb in the window so the
landlady wouldn’t see him. The bed creaked louder than a broken windmill, so
they did it standing against the wall. That was how he lost his virginity.
turned out that day cooks at cheap hotels constantly came and went, and he had
little trouble finding the same job at the Hotel Renlaria near the new harbor.
Living in the new city made him feel better. Not having to walk streets made
familiar in the days of the games seemed to lift his spirits a little and Kyric
began to think that he would be alright. So he was surprised one night to find
himself walking a dark waterfront street for no reason, his wheel-lock loaded
and ready in his sash.
somehow he wasn’t surprised when he stepped into the lobby a few mornings later
to find Aiyan sitting there reading a newspaper.
went and stood in front of him without a word. Aiyan didn’t look up from his
paper, saying casually, as if they had seen one another the night before, “Do
you speak Baskillian?”
fumbled for an answer. “Well, er, I can read and write it. But I’ve never
spoken to a real Baskillian. I never saw a Baskillian before the games.”
enough,” said Aiyan. “Go pack your things. We sail on the evening tide.”
Where are we going?”
“To find the lost Spice Islands.”
was a company ship, and it made a regular run of passengers and cargo to the
cities of Rhyjusa, Isskiv, Ularra, and back. Aiyan explained that they would
take her all the way to the straits of Terrula and engage an intrepid trader
who fully owned his ship.
it?” said Kyric. “That’s the plan, just go there and find a ship captain
willing to sail into the unknown?”
like that. If one can be found, Ularra would be the place.”
you have the rudders with you?”
much smaller copy.”
gave a low whistle. “You are going to make some independent trader very rich.”
returned a grim smile. “Or very dead.”
why are you bringing me? Wouldn’t you be better off with Teodor or one of the
only going for a look around,”
Aiyan said. “To see what’s there.”
had a tiny cabin with an overhead of less than five feet, no porthole, and
three narrow bunks stacked against the long wall. Aiyan gave Kyric choice of
bed and pulled a hammock out of his duffle. Later when they were at sea, Aiyan
would swing in peaceful sleep while Kyric was tossed in his bunk.
removed two long objects from a case and unwrapped them. They were wooden
captain gave me permission to practice on deck when all is quiet,” he said.
stood up in his eagerness, bumping his head sharply against a beam. “Ow.
Mustn’t do that.” He felt for the lump. “Did I tell you I’ve been taking
sword lessons on my own?”
Aiyan said blankly. “Perhaps you won’t have much to unlearn.”
this is it,” Kyric said. “I
your squire now. You’re going to teach
me. You’re not going run off without me anymore, or leave me stuck somewhere
for months at a time. If this is not so, tell me now before we put to sea.”
let out a long breath. “All I can say is that I will do my best for you. But
I cannot promise what the future may force me to do. Like everything else in
life, you take a chance with me despite my honorable intentions, and please
remember that I take the same chance with you.”
held up one hand. “But know first, Kyric, that you cannot go very far on this
path before you reach the point where you can’t turn back, not without harm.
When you step into this circle, you’re in, for better or worse and for the rest
of your life. Consider this before you ask me to be your master.”
couple of days passed at sea before the ship cleared the southern tip of Aessia
and settled on a reach to the northeast. Aiyan tried to pass the time teaching
Kyric the Cor’el Patois, the trade language of the East, a combination word and
sign language with guttural words no longer than two syllables, and gestures
that could get more complicated than drawing pictures in the air. Kyric had
always taken to languages, but he got seasick and spent the first day in bed
with a bucket on the floor next to him.
he finally got hungry he found that Aiyan had brought a sea chest full of
cheese, pickles, dried fruit, hardbread, and jerked beef for quick meals in the
cabin. Aiyan had also paid extra for one hot meal a day, supplying the cook
with a sack of rice and a crate of chickens. After his first dinner from the
ship’s cook Kyric said, “If it’s alright, I’ll do our cooking from now on.”
his first day of sword practice with Aiyan the wind was up and the ship heaved
in the choppy seas. Aiyan produced two light leather helmets before they went
on deck and handed one to Kyric.
is all the practice armor I have,” he said. “We’ll have to go easy.”
on the main deck, Aiyan stood beyond sword reach and faced him saying, “Watch
carefully and do what I do. Follow me as if you were looking into a mirror.”
stepped forward. He stepped back. He slid to one side, then the other. He
pivoted on the balls of his feet. He pivoted on one foot, sliding his other
leg behind him. He showed Kyric a few more sliding movements then began showing
him cuts and slashes, several from high to low, a few from low to high, then a
thrust, then a lunge. Kyric imitated him as precisely as he could, but some of
the moves felt awkward.
stopped, lowering his practice sword. “I have now shown you every fighting
move of the Way of the Flame.”
didn’t smile. “That’s all there is.”
raised his sword as if to strike. “This is the parry for a high attack.” He
slashed down. “This is the parry for a low attack.”
about the art of deflecting the blow?”
sounds like you already know about that.”
saw your fight against Morae,” Kyric said. “It was much more complex than
it wasn’t.” Aiyan raised his wooden sword and began to move. “I only did
this, and this, and this and this and this.”
stood with his mouth open. The complicated and deceptive flow of attack was
merely clever combinations of the steps, slides, and strikes he had shown.
Kyric felt like a light had been struck inside him.
like a child’s building blocks,” he said in his excitement. “There must be
hundreds of possible combinations.”
eyes sparkled. “They are infinite. There is no beginning and there is no
practiced three hours each morning and two more in the afternoons. Aiyan would
begin by repeating the basic movements and some simple combinations while Kyric
mirrored him. Then he would show Kyric an attack, then have him execute it.
Aiyan would invariably respond in a way that ended with Kyric cut on the head
or chest, or else lying on the deck with Aiyan’s sword at his throat. Then
they would switch roles and Kyric would attempt to defend himself using the
same techniques. With any given attack, such as a straight cut to the
forehead, there seemed to be endless responses. Aiyan might ignore the attack,
making a lightning strike to Kyric’s head before he was hit himself. Or he
might slide to the side and parry as he entered a circular motion that included
counter-cuts to Kyric’s sword arm and finished with Aiyan behind him stabbing
him in the back.
had thought himself to be strong and fit, but five hours of sword work was
brutal. He felt broken as he dragged himself to his bunk, his muscles
screaming. After an hour of rest he could sit up and eat a light meal before
falling back for ten or twelve hours of uncomfortable sleep.
seldom said a word as they practiced, but he always wore a subtle smile, like
this was all very amusing. When Kyric asked him a question about a technique,
he would say nothing and simply show him again, very slowly. After a few days
it began to dawn on Kyric that Aiyan wasn’t really teaching him in the
conventional sense. He was simply allowing him to observe and — Kyric groaned
as it suddenly became clear — learn. His progress had nothing to do with Aiyan
teaching him. Learning was fully incumbent upon himself. In a way, he was on
approached a rocky shoreline the next evening, and anchored as the moon set and
the sky turned black. Kyric walked the deck alone to get away from Aiyan’s
relentless lessons in Cor’el. He stared into the darkness beyond the rail but
could see nothing of the land.
made himself still and found emptiness. He invited the eternal moment to come
upon him, but it refused.
had been going down back in Aeva. Going under. He could see that now. He had
been angry before, but his anger at Jela’s murder had driven him to purpose.
When it was over, and all had been done what could be done, he acquired another
anger, one that had been driving him to destruction.
this why he followed Aiyan, why he wanted a flaming blade, so that he could die
a clean death, venting his anger on the men of the dragon’s blood? He thought
about all the wounds that Aiyan bore. When Kyric had suffered as many hurts,
would it pay the debt he owed to his humanity?
It was good to live and see the next
day, even not knowing what it would bring. It was good to travel and be far
away from everything he knew about life and himself. Was it possible to begin
anew in a new world? He was traveling to the fabled Straits of Terrula, where
the West and the East met in a clash with a dozen native cultures. And beyond
that, what could anyone know?
awoke early the next morning and went out on deck as the sun first peeked over
the horizon. No one was there — not one sailor. The sheets and sails hung
loose in the motionless air. And the ship rested in a desert of sand and
stone, as if the sea had simply boiled away.
silhouette appeared at the crest of a long wave of dunes, a lithe feminine
figure with wings like an angel’s spreading behind her. She ran and leapt,
gliding silently down the slope of the dune, leveling, running a few steps and
gliding again. Kyric watched her speed toward him. Step, step, step, glide.
pulled up and skid to a halt near the ship. “We must hurry,” she said,
motioning for him to come down. “A firebird lives in this desert and he
permits no trespassers. Quickly now.”
vaulted the rail and landed lightly next to her. Very lightly.
was beautiful, and naked save for a loincloth of woven grasses. Sweat
glistened gold against her brown skin, and her breasts heaved as she fought to
catch her breath. She didn’t have wings. She was harnessed into a frame of
thin bamboo covered with a blanket of feathers. It didn’t look like anything
that could glide. She handed him a bundle of cloth and straps and feathers,
and helped him unfold it. She pushed the pieces of bamboo into one another and
suddenly it came together, forming a wing like hers. She held it so he could
slip into the harness.