Drawn Blades: Once one of the world’s greatest assassins, Aral Kingslayer has finally reclaimed his swords and his soul. But the forces that destroyed his patron Namara twelve years ago are still there, waiting, and his past as a Blade is never more than a shadow’s breadth away.
In the days before the fall of his goddess, only one other rivaled Aral’s skills, Siri the Mythkiller—a woman who ruthlessly earned the title First Blade. As a friend, Aral owes her his loyalty. As a former lover, he owes her part of his heart. As a Blade, he owes her anything she asks, including his life.
When Siri seeks Aral’s aid, he knows he must go. But as they journey towards the ancient Sylvani Empire, only time will reveal whether Aral can save the former First Blade, or if he will simply fall with her…
Smoke without fire.
That’s how it began. With swirling darkness on a cold stone hearth. Or, in a bar, with a beautiful woman, who had a problem. It all depends on how you look at it.
I had come back to Tien after months away. Not for me, but for Faran, my apprentice. She needed help I couldn’t give her—delicate and difficult magical healing—so I had brought her to a friend. Treatment was slow and painful for Faran, but it seemed to be working. Her sight had fully returned and the headaches were much better. So, I’d decided I could leave her alone for an evening and visit old haunts.
Mistake? It all depends on how you feel about powerful magical sendings and other people’s problems.
The Gryphon’s Head was a dive bar of the worst sort, full of criminals and other shady types. It was also coming home. I had spent six years living in a tiny room over the stables there. I’d made my money as a shadow jack in those days—the underworld’s all purpose freelancer. It was a very long fall from the days when they’d first called me Aral Kingslayer and the mighty had feared the coming of my shadow. Well, and lately, they had begun to call me that again, but that’s another story entirely.
You see, I’m an assassin, or was once—one of the best in the world—and my shadow lives. His name is Triss. He is my familiar, a thing of elemental darkness and magic. …which brings me back to the smoke.
Triss saw it first, and whispered into my mind, Aral, ware the hearth!
I turned in my chair, and saw the first twisting coils of smoke begin to rise from the bare stones. I wasn’t the only one. A pair of Cobble-siders—one of the local gangs—who were sitting closer, noticed it about then too. They leaped out of their chairs and backed away from the hearth, shooting the occasional glance my way as the smoke built slowly.
They were only the first. Within a few moments the whole bar was shifting attention between whatever was building on the hearth and me. The bar’s owner, Jerik, came over as the ball reached the size of kneeling human.
“Aral?” he called. “What have you brought into my bar this time?”
I wanted to tell him I hadn’t brought anything, but honesty forbade me. I didn’t know what the thing on the hearth was, or where it had come from, but the chances were good that it was there for me. My life has taught me to doubt coincidence, and the odds that a piece of magic like nothing I’d ever seen before would appear in the Gryphon’s hearth by chance on the same day that I finally returned after so long away… Well, lets just say that I wouldn’t take that bet, and leave it there.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I…” I trailed off as the thing stood up.
I say “thing” where I should call it a woman, because that’s what it had become. A woman of smoke. Tall and slender and very familiar. She wore the loose pants and shirt of the order I had once belonged to, and the swirling loops of smoke perfectly mirrored the dyed patterns of my own grays.
The hood of her cowl was drawn up to hide her face, and the smoke blurred what features I could see within, but the shape of her body and the way that she moved were instantly recognizable, even in smoky avatar—which form made her slow and deliberate as though she were underwater or might come apart at any moment.
Siri, the Mythkiller, First Blade of Namara. I recognized her at a level below thinking and beyond question. This was Siri, my sister in the service of Justice, my better in the arts of magic and the assassin, and perhaps the only person in the world who could ask for my life and expect me to give it into her care without thought or question. Both duty and honor demanded no less. I met her halfway to the hearth.
The smoke swirled under her cowl, and a twist of white might have been a smile, but the figure spoke no words. After a long moment, she nodded. It was a slow movement—as they all had been—and it feathered the edges of her cowl.
“What do you need?” I asked.
Triss whispered into my mind. Careful, Aral, you can’t be sure it’s really her.
But I was. No. This is her. I’m certain of it.
The figure extended its left hand, palm up. With the other it gestured me to touch the extended hand with my own. When flesh met smoke I felt a faint electrical tingle, like distant magelightning, but no other sensation of contact.
Her right hand came forward and began a slow but intricate dance of gesture over our joined palms. I almost jerked away then, as I recognized the motions a priest would make at a handfasting, but forced myself to stillness. No matter how strange the manifestation, this was something of Siri. I could feel it in my soul, and I owed her whatever she asked of me.
When she was done, that white swirl of a smile flashed within her cowl once more. Then she fell apart, splitting into a hundred wisps on the breeze.
“What was that all about?” asked Jerik.
“I don’t know,” I answered. “But I think I’d better find out.”
Aral, Triss spoke into my mind, she left you a ring.
Looking down, I saw that he was right. There, wrapped around my wedding finger was a ring of smoke. It was only as I examined the ring that I realized none of what I had just seen bore any light of magic, and the only enchantments that I knew of that acted that way were god-magic…
“It’s marvelous, I’ve never encountered anything like it.” Harad moved careful fingers this way and that as though he were trying to twist my new ring. “It doesn’t feel like god-magic, but it certainly wasn’t made by any normal mortal sort of spell. I have no idea what it is.”
I gave the ancient librarian a hard look. “You don’t have to sound so happy about it.”
“I’m six hundred years old, Aral, and a master sorcerer for five hundred and fifty of those years. I have been the chancellor of one of the great Magelands Universities and studied more varieties of magic than most spellwrights are even aware of. Finding something wholly new is a treasure beyond price.” He paused and rubbed his chin. “Though, I will be very sorry if it devours your soul before I have time to get it sorted out…”
My shadow twisted itself into the silhouette of a small and rather worried looking dragon. Triss rose up off the floor so that he could sniff at the smoke ring. “Don’t worry,” the Shade told me. “If it tries anything like that I’ll bite your finger off before it gets the chance.”
“Um…thanks, Triss.” I turned back Harad. “Is that really likely?”
“It was a small joke on my part, nothing more.” Harad frowned. “Though it seems to have gone wide of the mark. You didn’t look nearly as alarmed by that prospect as I had hoped you might, but then, it’s hard to read you. You do grim and blank as well as any man I know.”
I shrugged. “It’s not something I’m going to dance about, but my soul’s pretty badly mortgaged already. Between my failures since the death of my goddess and the need for efik chewing a hole in the back of my mind, there’s not much room for anything else to carve off a piece.”
Triss winced—because he worried—but he didn’t say anything.
“The cravings haven’t eased in the months since the Kitsune first forced you to eat those few beans, then?” It was the question of a healer who considered me one of his patients. “I had hoped it would pass, but with the death of Namara you seem to have lost your immunity to the darker side of the drug.”
That immunity wasn’t all I’d lost when the goddess of Justice was murdered. The list was long and brutal. Most of my magical protections. My home. My family. My friends. My reason for living. No, my efik problem didn’t even make the top five, however much harder it might make my life.
Again, I shrugged. “I have good days and bad, just like with the booze, though efik hunger is sharper, and the hooks in my soul are deeper. But what can you expect? I tried it first shortly after I entered the temple, though I didn’t really acquire the habit till my teens. But I never touched so much as a drop of alcohol until after my goddess was murdered.”
“Horrible stuff, whiskey.” A girl’s voice—drifting down from the shadows atop a nearby set of book shelves.
“Ah, Faran,” I said to my apprentice. “I was wondering when you were going to let us know you were there.”
She released the shadow that enshrouded her as she dropped silently to the floor. She landed a few yards beyond Harad, and I revised my earlier “girl” to “young woman” when I met her gaze. At eighteen or thereabouts, I had to admit that she’d grown up a lot in the last year. The cloud of living darkness that had concealed her from view on the shelves now flowed down to the floor, becoming the shadow of a phoenix.
My eyes immediately went to the scar that ran down from her forehead across her left eyelid and onto her cheek. It looked better than it had before her sessions with Harad, but I still winced whenever I saw it. She’d picked it up guarding my back, which made it my fault.
“You knew I was there?” She flicked her dark hair angrily back over her shoulder. “How? My form was perfect, and I know you didn’t cross my shadow trail. What gave me away?”
“Your nature,” I replied. “I know you, and I know you wouldn’t have missed me coming in to consult with Harad. You didn’t greet us when we entered. That means you decided to make a game of stalking us.” I gestured around the large open reading area at the end of the narrow stacks. “There’s only one place in this entire room where you could both listen and be sure Triss wouldn’t sniff out Ssithra. That’s atop the shelves. Therefore…”
“Fair point.” Faran smiled and bowed to acknowledge the hit. “Now, let me see what the fuss is about.” She reached out to touch the smoke ring on my wedding finger, then abruptly snatched her hand back. “Hey, it bit me!”
Ssithra flapped shadow wings and lifted off the floor, putting herself between Faran and my ring.
“It bit you?” Harad asked brightly. “Let me see.”
Now it was Faran’s turn to give the librarian a hard look as he pulled her hand toward him. “The thing bites me, and you act like someone gave you a damned Winter-Round present?”
“Hush child, I’m working. Hmm, no blood…” Harad reached through a hole in the air with his free hand and pulled an emerald quizzing glass from the pocket dimension where he kept most of his more delicate tools. He held the lens above Faran’s injured finger. “Very interesting.”
I looked over his shoulder. The crystalline lens showed four tiny black marks on Faran’s fingertip—marks invisible both to magesight and my mortal eyes. But only for a few heartbeats. Then the spots wisped up like smoke and blew away.
“What was that?” asked Triss.
“It really did bite her.” Harad dropped the emerald back through the hole in the air and it vanished. “Though, what it drew wasn’t blood.”
“I told you so,” said Faran.
“Why would it do that?” I asked. “And, how?”
A huge grin spread across Harad’s face. “I have no idea.” Then he paused and looked thoughtful. “I take that back. I have no idea about the how, but I think I can make an educated guess about the why.”
“Which is?” Faran demanded.
“Smoke or no, it’s a wedding ring. That’s a very specific and ancient sort of magic. My assumption would be that it saw you as a potential rival for Aral’s affections.”
“I…wait, it what?” Faran blinked several times, blushed, then shook her head. “That’s idiotic!”
Harad grinned. “It quietly likely is, but I don’t think the ring thinks so.”
“Stupid ring,” grumbled Faran. Then her expression shifted suddenly from annoyance to something like shock. “Hold it. If it’s a wedding ring, does that mean that Aral and Siri are married now, for real and legally?”
“I don’t know about legally,” said Harad. “But magically and symbolically yes. That’s a sort of marriage that’s deeper and more profound than mere laws, and far less disseverable.”
Faran rounded on me now. “Aral, did you know that was going to happen when the smoke figure offered you that ring?”
I shrugged. “Maybe not marriage precisely, but Siri did make it pretty clear she wanted my participation in something like a formal handfasting. Given that we had consummated our relationship in the traditional way long ago, I probably should have realized the implications.”
“And you’re all right with that?” She demanded.
“Of course. If Siri asked me for my life, I would give it to her. Why would I refuse to marry her if that’s what she needs of me?”
“You haven’t seen or heard from Siri in eight years!” Faran’s voice started angry and got angrier. “Then, a smoke figure that may or may not even be her shows up, asks you to get hitched, and you just say ‘yes’ like it’s nothing? You don’t even know what sort of person she is now, Aral. That’s insane!” She glanced at Harad as though seeking his support, but the old librarian had an even better blank expression than I do.
“Perhaps it is,” I replied. “Perhaps Siri has become a monster in the years since I last saw her. I can’t imagine it, but I couldn’t imagine Master Kelos betraying the order and our goddess either. None of that changes what Siri once was and the duty I owe her.”
“How can it not?” demanded Faran.
“Because what I owe Siri isn’t about her. It’s about me, and my duty here is perfectly clear.” I paused for a long moment trying to think of how best to explain the thing properly. Faran was my apprentice and if that was going to mean anything I had to let her see my thinking. “I don’t have much of my old soul left, but what there is, is bound to the service of Namara, whether that takes the shape of the goddess herself, her ideal of justice, or simply the word of her First Blade. I can’t turn Siri down if I want to remain true to what little remains of Aral the Blade.”
Faran glared at my shadow now. “Triss, don’t you have anything to say about this?”
The little dragon flipped his wings back and forth noncommittally. “I am concerned about the manner of the thing. But what we have heard from those who did betray the goddess suggests that even Kelos believed Siri was incorruptible. It’s one of the chief reasons why he sent both Aral and Siri away when the temple was about to fall.”
Ah Kelos, my mentor and master—two hundred year old lord of assassins, and the father I never had. The Deathwalker. He was perhaps the greatest Blade who ever lived, and, without any doubt, the greatest traitor to our order. His actions had materially contributed to the death of our goddess. I knew that he deeply regretted her murder, but I also knew that he would do the same again in the same circumstances if he believed it would achieve his goals. He was brutal and ruthless, and yet he had spared both Siri and I as much because he loved us as because he wanted to preserve our talents. I could not hate him as I did, did I not love him too.
Ssithra spoke for the first time, breaking my reverie. “Siri is the Mythkiller, and one of the greats of our order. I would marry her if she asked me. Or Kyrissa, her Shade, for that matter. I think that if you had completed your training you would do the same.”
Faran scowled. “I…you…I can’t even… Aral, this is one of the stupider things I’ve seen you do. And I’ve seen you pull some really dumb moves. You married someone you haven’t seen in years simply because she asked you to. No. Because a…a fucking smoke effigy of her asked you to. Do you have any idea of the magical implications of this?”
I shook my head. “No.”
Faran threw her hands into the air and snarled.
“Faran,” I said, trying one last time, “Siri is my sister in the order, my master in the arts of the Blade, my friend, and my lover. My honor is her honor, and what she asks it is my duty to give.”
“Augh!” Ssithra suddenly puffed into a black cloud, rolling forward to envelop Faran in impenetrable darkness.
It was always a startling transformation, even for one who had performed it as often as eating. One moment, Faran was there with Ssithra at her side, the next she became a sort of hole in the center of my vision. A simple blot of shadow would have been easy to pick out against the lights and sights of the library, but some magic of the Shades made the task infinitely harder, more a place you couldn’t see than a patch of darkness.
Even trained eyes had trouble focusing on an enshrouded Blade. You had to learn to look for what you couldn’t see, and it was surprisingly difficult. That shroud of shadow was the most powerful tool possessed by those of us who had once been Justice’s hidden weapons—Namara’s Blades. I lost track of Faran and Ssithra within moments as they moved rapidly away, slipping into one of the aisles between shelves.
“She seems angrier than she ought.” I said. “Any idea why?”
Triss looked over his shoulder at me and contracted briefly in the loose Shade equivalent of an embarrassed shrug. “No idea. Harad?”
“I wouldn’t care to venture a guess,” he replied.
That wasn’t a ‘no,’ but years of association had taught me better than to call him on it. Harad would share what he wanted when he wanted, and nothing anyone could do would change that. Instead, I raised my beringed hand between us. “Any further thoughts on what to do about this thing?”
He nodded. “Shang informs me that he would like to have a look at it through his own eyes since it’s new to him as well.”
I blinked at that. Triss assumes the form of a dragon. Shanglun is a dragon, and not a petty dragon either. Shang is a river dragon, one of the greatest of the noble breeds, a power of the world, and Harad’s familiar—though I didn’t learn that last until after I’d known the librarian for more than a decade.
While such bondings aren’t completely unheard of, they’re so rare that you had a better chance of winning ten straight rounds of lin-hua against Ping-slick-fingers than of actually meeting such a pair. He was also the reason for Harad’s great age, as the lifespan of any familiar-bonded pair will always conform to the longer of the two partners, and dragons live as long as they wish.
Normally, Shang prefers to slumber in his tank below the library and, dreaming, look out through Harad’s eyes. That he was interested in seeing Siri’s smoke ring through his own was both an honor and more than a little alarming. It drove home the unique nature of my new trinket in a way that Harad’s childlike delight simply couldn’t. This was a dragon and he wanted to see my ring because he’d never seen anything like it before.
I gestured toward Harad’s apartments and the secret stair that led down to the library’s equally secret underwater entrance. “By all means, let’s go show it to him.”
The reservoirlike tank that Shang used as a bed lay in a deep, barrel-vaulted chamber under the river side of the building. The Ismere Library held the city of Tien’s largest private collection of books, including many volumes that had been officially banned by the government at one time or another. Protecting that collection from forces both official and un was one of the chief reasons the library had such a powerful sorcerer as its chief. It had been founded four hundred years earlier by a Kadeshi merchant-adventurer—see also smuggler and pirate—and the underwater tunnel that connected the tank to the river was probably a legacy of the founder’s original line of work.
When we entered the vault, Harad waved his hands. In response, the blue and green magelights that picked out Zhani glyphs on various surfaces slowly brightened. In combination with the flickering reflections from the pool and the deep green moss that covered many of the stones, the magelight produced an illusion that the whole room lay deep under tropical waters.
As we crossed to the reservoir, a column of water lifted up out of the tank. It rose and twisted, extruding bumps and whiskers that slowly formed themselves into the features of a large dragon. As the face took on shape and character it darkened in whorls and swirls, like a fine tea when you first stir it. It’s scales shaded from the lightest hint of jade at the center to an oversteeped seaweed green along the edges.
The change rolled back from a head longer than my own five feet and eleven, coloring in his thick, ropy neck and the many looping coils of his snakelike body. Shang was big, perhaps a hundred feet from nose to tail, though he was dwarfed by Tien Lun, the guardian of the city’s bay. He smiled at Harad when he bent down to touch his nose to the old man’s forehead—a disconcerting expression that exposed teeth longer than my forearm.
Once he had greeted his partner, he turned my way. Dark green eyes the size of an extended hand fixed on me and he spoke in a deep, watery, mind-voice, Hello, Aral, what trouble have you found for yourself this time?
I responded in kind, sending my thoughts along the same channel I used to communicate with Triss, I don’t find trouble. It finds me. I held up my beringed hand. This came to me, I didn’t seek it out. Besides, who’s to say that it’s trouble.
Shang laughed into my mind. It’s a wedding ring. They exist for trouble. I have watched your people for two thousand years, and yet this magic is a new thing for me. When such takes up residence on your hand, you can bet that trouble will follow. Beyond that, I would have thought your experiences with the Kothmerk and the signet of Heaven would have taught you to avoid such pretty baubles.
He’s got a point, Triss noted, his mind-voice wry. Rings have not been good luck for us.
I couldn’t argue that, but there was something about Shang’s tone that made me think he was teasing me as much as advising me. It’s hard to tell the difference with dragons.
I bow to your wisdom, venerable one. Which I did, giving him the full formal court version. But I’m afraid that the lady made me an offer I simply couldn’t refuse.
Such is the way of women, said the dragon. Now, let me examine this fancy of yours. He bent lower still and twisted his head to the side so that he could bring one great eye within inches of the smoke ring.
Hmm. He pivoted and looked at it with his other eye. Then he touched it with one of his long whiskers.
Very interesting. Hold it out and let me smell it. My entire hand slid into a nostril big enough to engulf my head, though I could still see it through his translucent flesh. One last test.
He opened his mouth and a tongue that was bigger around than my waist and long enough for two of me to lie end to end on shot forward. Before I could think to protest, Shang licked me from toes to top—the two forks of his tongue wrapping around me like a lover’s arms. It was a profoundly weird sensation, as the dragon’s substance split the difference between animate-water and mortal flesh.
I would like to see this Siri of yours now, said the dragon.
That’s a lovely idea, I agreed, somewhat sarcastically. Any thoughts on how to manage it?
He nodded. First, you will need to make a fire…
“Faran,” I said aloud. “Would you be so kind as to fetch some wood from Harad’s apartments? I believe there’s a basket of it beside the fireplace.”
A snort issued from an unusually dark shadow at the base of the vault by the door. “Why me?”
“Because fetching and carrying is the reason they invented apprentices.” I smiled. “Aren’t you going to ask how I knew you were there this time?”
“No. You know the same way you did earlier, by knowing me. I may not always like the lessons you give me, but I do learn. And, yes, I’m off to fetch that wood now.”
Twenty minutes later we had a nice little fire going beside the pool. “Now what?” I asked.
We wait for it to burn away to nothing. Fire devours its prey entire. Smoke is the ghost of the consumed—shadow and flame. The sacrifice must wholly burn away before the true element can arise.
“That’s going to take hours,” grumbled Faran, who had dropped her shroud once again—though her mood seemed only marginally improved.
“It needn’t.” Harad stepped forward, put his hands out over the fire as though he were warming them, and spoke a single word in the language of ancient Kadesh.
A thread of spell-light—invisible to the normal eye—jumped from Harad’s hands to a point between Shang’s eyes. The dragon opened his mouth, and a great flood of spell-light burst forth, engulfing Harad in an aura of green and blue. As the light flowed down Harad’s body to his hands it changed color, becoming a scarlet torrent that shot from his fingers to the flames below.
It all happened in the pause between two heartbeats, and the very next instant the fire roared and flared like a burning building collapsing. There was a brief burst of heat almost too intense to bear. Then, the fire was gone, leaving behind ashes and a thick curl of smoke.
Shang leaned forward, touching the smoke with the tip of his long tongue. “Come!” he said, speaking aloud in a voice like the Grand Rapids below Kao Li.
The smoke curl twisted back on itself, forming the rough outline of a human figure. It looped back and back again, until the whirls and swirls of smoke took on the character of the woman I had so recently married.
“Siri?” I said.
The figure nodded, but made no further answer.
Shang touched the figure with his tongue again. “I lend you my voice, that you might speak.”
The smoke woman bowed to the dragon, and spoke in the rippling tones of a lively brook, “Thank you, great heart, you have saved me hours of pantomime.” Then she turned to me. “Hello, Aral. I need you to come to the Sylvani Empire. It’s a matter of souls and buried gods and unfinished business.”