brazen gambit, The - Lynn Abbey

Chapter One

It was the 102nd day of the Descending Sun in the seasonless year on the Tablelands of the world men called Athas. Ral and Guthay, the sibling moons, had already slipped below the horizon. Through the clear, dry air, the midnight sky was as black as the Dragon’s heart. The parched Tablelands were lit by the pinpoint brilliance of a thousand unchanging stars. The brutal heat of day yielded to the bone-numbing cold of night, as it had every other day in both living memory and enduring legend. Days, years, and mortal lives churned relentlessly from birth to death. The cycles were endless and invariable.

Nothing changed in Athas: What was would always be. The will of man or woman could leave no lasting mark upon 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. No more need a city-dwelling man or woman fear the Dragon’s levy: the annual assessment of life, drawn without remorse from 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 happened before the Dragon died. It governed that mighty city-state and controlled its precious iron mines. The sorcerer-kings of Balic, Raam, and Draj had died with the Dragon. Anarchy ruled in their former domains. Mighty rulers still reigned in Urik, 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 of Tithian 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 king had mounted the highest tower in his domain and had addressed his subjects. His words, enhanced by the mind-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 his death.

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

From the highest templars in their gilt-trimmed, yellow silk robes and the proud nobles sweating beneath their jewels to the least dung-seller and mangy street urchin, the Urikites responded with an almost spontaneous hymn of praise. Their ten thousand and more voices joined together were not so resonant as Hamanu’s uncanny voice. Deep in their hearts, the Urikites knew the truth of their king’s words: while the Lion of Urik held his domain in his taloned grasp, 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 raged twice above the city walls in the two years since King Hamanu’s return that dusty afternoon. The storms were seething, screaming monsters, with many-colored lightning that left brave citizens cowering in the corners of their homes. 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 to the 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, had languished in whatever scrap of shade