Tracato: a trial of blood and steel book three

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Published 2010 by Pyr®, an imprint of Prometheus Books

 

Tracato: A Trial of Blood and Steel. Copyright © 2010 by Joel Shepherd. Map copyright © Kinart. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, digital, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, or conveyed via the Internet or a Web site without prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.

 

Cover illustration © David Palumbo.

 

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14 13 12 11 10   5 4 3 2 1

 

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

 

Shepherd, Joel, 1974–

Tracato / by Joel Shepherd.

     p. cm.—(A trial of blood and steel ; bk. 3)

Originally published: Sydney : Orbit, 2009.

ISBN 978–1–61614–244–5 (pbk. : alk. paper)

ISBN 978–1–61614–294–0 (e-book)

I. Title.

 

PR9619.4.S54T73 2010

823'.92—dc22

2010024686

 

Printed in the United States on acid-free paper

 

“IDON’T LIKE THE LOOK OF THIS,” said Sasha, leaning on theMaiden’s railing. Behind them, she could see three ships, triangular foresails billowing, masts rolling in the swell. “How far away, do you think?”

“Five leagues,” said Errollyn. “They’re no faster than us, I doubt they’ll catch us.”

Sasha turned to look across the deck, the wind whipping at her short hair, tossing the tri-braid across her cheek. Huge canvas sheets thudded and strained against their ropes as sailors ran on the deck, or crouched, and kept a wary eye to their knots and loops lest something abruptly break. Waves rolled across their path. TheMaidensurged as the swell lifted behind, white foam spraying as her bow rushed through the water. Then slowed, riding high atop the wave, mast tilting back to the left as she slid down the rear side, losing half her speed.

Port side, Sasha reminded herself. Port was left, starboard right. It was her seventh day at sea, and she’d not been as sick as she’d feared, despite the weather. Half a year in Petrodor and much experience fishing, rowing and sailing on small boats had granted her enough sea legs that she wasn’t green and hanging over the side, like some others she could name.

“I’m not real keen on learning naval warfare right now,” she said, scanning the horizon for other sails. She saw none besides the three, but the haze and rolling seas could conspire to hide things even from eyes as sharp as Errollyn’s. The three pursuers were almost certainly Algrassien, though it was too far to see the colours. They were past Algrasse now, and it was the Larosa coast that occasionally showed its dim shadow through the distant mist to starboard.

Soon, the captain hoped, they would meet a Rhodaani or a Saalshen patrol, and the pursuers would flee. They were little more than pirates, in the face of serrin naval power. Blockade they had threatened, should Elisse be attacked, and now, blockade they attempted…three vessels at a time, preying on freighters alone or in small groups, never daring to face warships bow to bow. There was too much traffic in the Elissian Sea for all freightersto be guarded all the time, and a few had been lost. Sasha only hoped that this particular Rhodaani freighter was as fleet on the downwind run as her captain claimed.

She wondered if they shouldn’t be hugging closer to the Elissian coast. Elisse was no more friendly to her cause than Larosa or Algrasse, but it had been under attack for weeks. If the latest tales were true, the Rhodaani Steel had bypassed the port city of Algen and were laying siege to Vethenel further north. Given what Sasha had heard of the Rhodaani Steel, she had little doubt that, if true, Vethenel would have fallen by now.

But the Elissian coastline was rugged in parts, its waters treacherous, and its navy had not been entirely smashed, or so theMaiden’s captain feared. More likely its surviving remnants were in hiding, he claimed, in hidden bays known only to local sailors. He chose for his ships a more westerly course, down the centre of the Elissian Sea. The great Rhodaani port city of Tracato lay barely a day and a half ahead, so long as the wind held to this direction.

Off to starboard,Windspriteheaved and foamed, keeping pace measure for measure. To port,Radianceappeared to be struggling a little. Sasha saw men about her foresail ropes, adjusting tensions, with much gesticulating and pointing. Three against three.

“You’re the master tactician,” Errollyn told her. His bow was unstrung in his hand as he leaned on the rail. “What would you do?”

“Hope they don’t have artillery,” said Sasha.

“Doesn’t seem likely. There’s no room to fire past those foresails.”

“They won’t be carrying cargo either,” Sasha countered. “We’re heavier.”

“But better built.”

“Enough to make a difference when we’re so much lower in the water? They’re bound to be a bit faster, at least, and they probably will have artillery somewhere amidships, though they’d have to draw alongside to use it.”

“We might have to start throwing things overboard,” Errollyn suggested. He stood up from the rail, took a firing stance, and practised drawing an imaginary bowstring. Testing his balance, as the ship slowly heaved back and across to port.

“Fine,” said Sasha. “I’ll start with Alythia.”

Errollyn just looked at her, half amused, half wary. The wind blew ragged, dark-grey hair about his face, framing brilliant, deep-green eyes. “Maybe you’re getting enough practice at naval warfare already,” he suggested.

Sasha snorted. She turned and made her way past the captain’s wheel, down a short flight of steps to midships. Her balance was fine now, even withthe ship rolling so heavily…but then, balance was always her strong point. She’d been sick the second day after leaving Petrodor, but pretty good since then. Cool wind, sea spray and a view of the horizon all helped—she was much better above decks than below. Also, it was a relief to be finally free of Petrodor. Half a year in the primary port city of Torovan was her absolute limit, and while the ocean was nothing like the Lenay mountains and forests that she craved, its far, open horizons calmed her nerves and unknotted a winter’s worth of accumulated tension from her muscles.

Kessligh sat with Dhael upon the raised decking about the main mast, talking. Sasha sat beside Kessligh, and gazed up at the pair of heaving, triangular foresails. Their conversation was about sails, boats and winds. Sasha found more interest in Kessligh’s left leg as he sat with his it stretched out before him, the knee nearly straight. He seemed to find it more comfortable that way. The crossbow bolt had gone straight through the meat of his thigh five months before. The wound had healed well and the stiffening had not affected his movement as much as Kessligh had feared. But it was bad enough, and the limp was now permanent. A long, smooth staff rested at Kessligh’s side, his constant companion.

Dhael was Rhodaani, of an age with Kessligh, but considerably taller. He had long, greying hair, but a handsome, lean face, as little weathered by middle age as was Kessligh’s. He wore a black cloak against the spring chill, and seemed unbothered by the ship’s motion—unsurprising, for a merchant. Dhael Maran, however, was far more than just a Rhodaani merchant—he was a Tracato councilman, an elected leader of Rhodaan. Strange conceptthatwas. Such concepts the serrin had introduced to the three Bacosh provinces of Rhodaan, Enora and Ilduur, after the fall of Leyvaan the Fool two hundred years ago. Normally the serrin had not the force of arms to invade their neighbours, but following the demise of Leyvaan’s armies, those three provinces in particular had been left with little to defend themselves. The armies of Saalshen had invaded, and met with many friendly peasants only too happy to be free of their feudal overlords.

Rhodaan, Enora and Ilduur now made a wall of serrin/human civilisation, protecting Saalshen from the savagery of those arrayed against her. Sasha had often wondered why the serrin had stopped where they had. Elisse, too, would have been largely undefended, following Leyvaan’s fall, but the serrin had opted not to invade. Meraine also, and perhaps even parts of eastern Larosa. But many in Saalshen seemed discomforted even at their present, limited conquest, and neither Saalshen nor their Bacosh allies (known most everywhere as the Saalshen Bacosh) had invaded any foreign territory in two centuries since. Until now.

“Algen should come up soon to port,” Sasha remarked. “There should be some ships in the vicinity.”

“Perhaps a blockade,” Kessligh agreed.

“I don’t think anyone will be stupid enough to try to assist Algen by sea,” said Dhael. They spoke Torovan, and Dhael’s accent was lovely—all soft Larosan vowels and lilting consonants. Rhodaan retained its own native tongue, but Larosan was the tongue of nobility and civility in most Bacosh cities. Of all the Bacosh kings, Larosa had supplied approximately half, over the endless, bloody centuries. Most Bacosh nobility traced their lineage back to Larosa at some point. So much conquest had its rewards.

Now, a new Larosan ruler had proclaimed himself regent of the Bacosh. He would no doubt have claimed himself king, had Verenthane nobility not declared that title forbidden…until the one who would claim it had retaken the Saalshen Bacosh from the serrin, and reestablished human dominion there. Regent Arrosh was massing an army in Larosa, by far the largest yet assembled for such an assault. Kessligh and Sasha had hoped to stymie such a development from Petrodor, but Petrodor’s conflicts had only seen the emergence of a new king of Torovan, as there had never been a king of Torovan in seven hundred years. Torovan was marching. The united Bacosh was marching. The Army of Lenayin was marching. And the Rhodaani, unwilling to be threatened on two fronts simultaneously, had struck first—into Elisse.

“Might some of the Elissian nobility try to escape across the sea?” Sasha wondered. “They’ve allies in Algrasse.”

“Perhaps, from further along the coast,” Dhael conceded. “But they’ll not risk Saalshen’s navy nearer the ports. I hear many of the Elissian nobility fled in advance of the Steel, even as they were exhorting their armies to stand fast and fight. They heard talk from across the border, Rhodaanis muttering that they should not repeat in Elisse the same mistake the serrin made in Rhodaan.”

“Leaving the nobility alive?” Sasha guessed his meaning.

Dhael nodded. “They say Saalshen was too kindhearted two hundred years ago. If they’d put all Rhodaani nobility to the sword then, as was done in Enora, Rhodaan would be much more stable now.”

“It wasn’t kindheartedness,” Kessligh replied. “They just didn’t see the point. The serrin consider no conflict resolved until the opponent has been convinced of his own wrongness. To kill a person to win an argument is not only abhorrent to them, most serrin believe it only loses you the argument, or postpones it to a later date.”

“That didn’t seem to bother them in Enora,” Sasha remarked.

“Serrin killed very few in Enora,” said Kessligh, “and mostly only those who would not put down their arms. The killing there was done by the peasants and townsfolk. Lord Gilis of Enora was a brutal man, and the Enoran peasantry had long been the most friendly to Saalshen. They were closest to the Ipshaal, and many knew friends or family who had slipped across the river, and could testify to the kindness of the serrinim.

“When Saalshen’s warriors came to Enora instead of the returning armies of Leyvaan, the peasants were thrilled. They rose up in a force too powerful for Saalshen to control, and Saalshen did not wish to offend their new friends and rob them of their new-found liberty. But the mobs killed every noble they could find, man, woman and child.”

“And a good thing too,” Dhael sighed. “They erased every claimant to the Enoran throne. Now, Enora is at peace. Rhodaan, however, is always crazy.”

Sasha had heard as much. Enora was the site of the Enoran Grand Temple, holiest of the Verenthane holy sites, and the greatest single cause of the current troubles. But Enora itself was peaceful and secure, with villagers and townsfolk volunteering to form the impassable barrier of the Enoran Steel—one-third of the greatest fighting army ever known to humanity.

Rhodaan, however, was even more powerful. It had ports, ships and trade. Thus, Rhodaan had gold, and lots of it. The Rhodaani also had competing factions, powerful old families clinging to old loyalties from before the coming of the serrin, and a tendency to solve such disputes through force that continued to exasperate their more peaceful serrin friends.

“This was a smart move, though,” said Sasha. “If they’d waited until the regent had mustered all forces on Rhodaan’s doorstep, they’d never have had the strength to defend the Elissian flank. Best to deal with Elisse first, and get it out of the way.”

“No,” said Dhael, shaking his head. “It’s a terrible decision.”

“Terrible?”

“When the serrin came to Rhodaan,” said Dhael, “my ancestors hoped that it was a new dawn. The serrin do not like war, and never engage in it by choice. Many of us have striven to make Rhodaan a place that will never resort to war. Least of all a war of aggression like this one.”

“Aggression?” Sasha stared at him. “Regent Arrosh gathers the largest army ever seen in the Bacosh to assault you and your allies and Lord Arshenen of Elisse declares his support for them, and yet you claim thisdefensiveaction is a war of aggression?”

Dhael shrugged. “We attacked them. We crossed their border and invaded their lands, attacked their armies….”

“Semantics,” Sasha snorted.

“You are Lenay, and Lenays like war,” Dhael sighed. “Alas, even the grace of Saalshen has not swayed enough of my people from their love of bloodshed.”

“Nor their will to defend themselves,” Sasha retorted. “What you describe is suicide. How can you claim to love your people if you will not fight to defend them?”

“I love my people and I serve their interests,” Dhael said shortly. “I was elected to the Council by my peers. It is not for you to question whether or not I love my people.”

He got up, steadying himself as he found his balance, and departed. Kessligh shook his head. “I can’t believe I broughtyouon a mission of diplomacy.”

“He’s supposed to be schooled in the learned tradition of serrin debate,” said Sasha. “That means he’s not supposed to walk off in a huff when I make a strong point.”

“I’m quite sure you could walk into a Council of the most gentle and wise serrin thinkers,” Kessligh said drily, “and have them all baying for your blood within the hour.”

Sasha grinned. “You say the sweetest things.” She rested her head briefly against his shoulder. Kessligh snorted. She was enjoying being more affectionate to Kessligh these days. In so many ways, he’d been her truest father, much more so than her blood father, King Torvaal of Lenayin. Their relationship had been turbulent, as the master swordsman had attempted to whip the wild brat tomboy into a passable swordsman and Nasi-Keth uma. He’d been the one man whose approval she’d truly craved, while at the same time resenting the power that gave him.

Lately, though, the resentment had faded. Much of the wisdom she’d questioned at the time had turned out to be wise after all, and while she continued to disagree with his outlook on many things, she had gained a new-found respect for the reasoning behind his views. He no longer intimidated her like he once had, which was partly because she had grown, and partly because they had reached a deeper understanding. She was a woman now, and a blooded warrior, a person to be feared by her enemies. And she knew now for certain that Kessligh loved her, however gruffly he might express it. He might have difficulty showing his feelings, but that did not meansheshould.

“Dhael is an idealist,” said Kessligh. “He knows serrin teachings well. He believes that if followed, humanity can become a peaceful race, like the serrin.”

“I doubt it. Serrin are just different, they don’t think as we do. If humanity is to find peace, we must find our own path to do so.”

Kessligh shrugged. “Even so, it is important to understand his position. There are many like him, in the Saalshen Bacosh. The Bacosh has had so much war, and people look for solutions.”

“Utopias,” Sasha corrected.

“Some might say Saalshen itself is a utopia,” Kessligh replied.

“But the serrin don’t understand the concept,” Sasha argued. “The serrin were always astonished that any human should think them so perfect. But serrin don’t even understand a concept like ‘perfection’ either…or rather they understand the idea, but they just can’t accept it. It’s always humans who come up with these stupid, simplistic notions, whether it’s Verenthane fanatics who think serrin are evil, or pacifist fanatics like Dhael who think that somehow by imitating serrin ways they can make humans more serrin. I mean, he’s crazy…it’simitation. Any fool can decide to be pacifist, but if he doesn’t understandwhy, like the serrin know why, what’s he actually achieved?”

Kessligh smiled. “They’re only human,” he said. “One could argue that it’s better to be a peaceful idealist like Dhael than a ruthless pragmatist like Regent Arrosh.”

“No, it’snot!” Sasha exclaimed. “Because if the peaceful idealists won’t defend themselves, then the ruthless pragmatists will kill them all! And if the peaceful idealists are all dead, what can they possibly offer the next generation? The first imperative is survival; the dead offer nothing to anyone.”

“A moral example?”

“Of what not to do,” Sasha snorted. “And besides, Dhael hasn’t abandoned pragmatism entirely. Did you hear what he said about Enora? It being a good thing they’d killed all the nobility? Some pacifist.”

“You noticed. Good. That’s a rationalisation, Sasha. Those are the most dangerous of all.”

“Break a few eggs to make an omelette?”

“Exactly. Or in this case, ‘We must kill a lot of people now in order to ensure we don’t have to kill even more people later.’”

“I don’t know,” Sasha said glumly. “Enora is more stable now than Rhodaan, and it needs to be, considering its enemies. Maybe killing all the nobility was the right thing to do. It’s made their politics so much less destructive.”

“Quite possibly. Even flawed logic can arrive at the correct conclusion by accident. But that doesn’t make the logic any less dangerous. Because if that becomes the way Enora deals with all future problems, it could easily become a nightmare.”

Sasha used to find such philosophical ponderings exasperating. Kessligh seemed to make every discussion needlessly complicated. Since then, however, she’d seen the horrors of simple thinking. The northern Verenthanes ofLenayin, who had decided that the last remaining pagans in their midst, the Udalyn, should be exterminated. Lord Krayliss of the Lenay province of Taneryn, who had been prepared to see all Lenayin burn in civil war in order to see the return of the ancient ways to dominance. The power-hungry Patachis of Petrodor, who knew only wealth and swords, and respected no other currency.

This was the world that Kessligh had sought to escape. These were the simple thoughts and ideals he had striven to find answers to.

He glanced over his shoulder. “Are we being caught?”

“Errollyn doesn’t think so.”

“And Errollyn knows much about boats?”

Sasha shrugged. “Rhillian did. Rhillian’s uma was a boat builder, amongst other things. Rhillian told Errollyn quite a lot.” She gazed up at the flapping, heaving foresails, her mood suddenly dark.

Kessligh put a hand on her shoulder. “Rhillian chose her own path,” he told her.

“I know,” Sasha muttered. “She’s a bloody fool.”

 

Meals on theMaidenwere not as bad as Sasha had initially feared. The beef in the stew was salted and tough, but there were good vegetables too, and fruit, and even some half-fresh bread and cheese. The run from Petrodor to Tracato rarely took more than twelve days, but with this roaring tailwind the captain was confident they could do it in nine. Food kept well enough over such periods, and Nasi-Keth warriors like Sasha and Kessligh, andtalmaadwarriors like Errollyn, were somewhat particular about what they ate.

They weren’t the only ones. Also aboard theMaidenwas a lieutenant of the Rhodaani Steel, and twodharmi—footsoldiers of the Steel. Sasha had sparred against all three, and had been impressed. They used shorter swords than the Lenay warriors she was accustomed to, and she’d been expecting them to show less competence when fighting alone. Instead she’d found them a comfortable match to most Lenay warriors she’d known, untroubled by the shifting deck beneath their feet, and probably more practised at contesting her own style, too.

Sasha had taken the opportunity to speak with all three men at length, and had learned a great deal. The Steel were serrin metalworking, weapons and armour, combined with serrin philosophies of motion and tactics, and the human knack for logistics, pragmatism and ruthlessness. One of thedharmiwas half serrin by parentage, a common enough thing anywhere in the Saalshen Bacosh.

The lieutenant’s name was Geran, and he had travelled to Petrodor to speak with the Nasi-Keth, and assess lessons from the great battles that hadwracked the city. The Steel, Sasha learned, were like that—always learning, always trying new things. Councilman Dhael had travelled on similar business, and to meet with the new king of Torovan’s representatives (those who would deign to see a councilman from a nation Torovan was busily preparing to make war against). Being a merchant as well, he was also conducting trade. Nothing stopped the trade, it seemed. Not even war.

In addition to Dhael’s three travelling retainers, there were five other passengers aboard, all Rhodaani. And, of course, there was Sasha’s sister Alythia.

Alythia was now busily charming Councilman Dhael at one end of the passengers’ table. She laughed and smiled between mouthfuls, dabbing daintily at the corner of her lips with a napkin, in such a way as to draw attention to their fullness. She wore a red gown of flowing folds that fanned from the waist, with white, lacy trim. It enfolded her in a tight corset about the torso—a current fashion of the Bacosh. Alythia’s assets, Sasha noted drily, were just about spilling out, and the men at the table were staring. Dhael was married with four children, yet Alythia’s eyes, and breasts, seemed positively fixated on the man. Sasha knew only too well what that meant.