The Great Game of Gods is afoot in a world on the brink of madness . . .
In the summer of 1914, a young man of reputation beyond reproach awakens under police guard—grievously injured and accused of heinous, impossible murder. And in a strange, distant place, the youngest member of a penniless acting troupe has been taken prisoner by the loyal minions of a corrupt, vengeful goddess. For an ancient prophecy has divided the realm’s ruling deities into warring factions—a prophecy that mentions the crippled captive child and a youth recovering from inexplicable wounds in a British hospital bed. The game weaves through worlds and dimensions as it has since time immemorial—a deadly contest of skill and manipulations that ruthlessly creates wizards, destroys human pawns, and transforms ordinary men, women, and children into something more.
About the Author
Dave Duncan (1933–2018) was born in Scotland, and received his diploma from Dundee High School and got his college education at the University of Saint Andrews. He moved to Canada in 1955, where he lived with his wife. Duncan spent thirty years as a petroleum geologist. He has had dozens of fantasy and science fiction novels published, among them A Rose-Red City , Magic Casement , and The Reaver Road , as well as a highly praised historical novel, Daughter of Troy , published, for commercial reasons, under the pseudonym Sarah B. Franklin. He also published the Longdirk series of novels, Demon Sword , Demon Knight , and Demon Rider , under the name Ken Hood. In the fall of 2007, Duncan’s 2006 novel, Children of Chaos , published by Tor Books, was nominated for both the Prix Aurora Award and the Endeavour Award. In May 2013, Duncan, a 1989 founding member of SFCanada, was honored by election as a lifetime member by his fellow writers, editors, and academics. He passed away in 2018. Visit https://www.daveduncanauthor.com/ for more information on the author.
Read an Excerpt
Round One of the Great Game
By Dave Duncan
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1995 Dave Duncan
All rights reserved.
THE SUMMER OF 1914 WAS THE FINEST IN LIVING MEMORY. All over Europe the sun shone, day after day, from a sky without a cloud. Holidaymakers traveled as they wished across a continent at peace, reveling in green woods and clean, warm seas. They crossed national borders unimpeded. Almost no one noticed the storm building on the political horizon; even newspapers mostly ignored it. The war struck with the suddenness of an avalanche and carried everything away.
There was never to be another summer like it.
Toward the end of June in that year the Greek steamship Hermes, preparing to depart from Port Said and having a vacant stateroom, embarked at short notice a gentleman whose name was entered in the log as Colonel Julius Creighton. He was polite and aloof and inscrutable. During the crossing of the Mediterranean, he remained extremely reticent about both himself and his business. He was without question an English milord, but beyond that obvious deduction, neither the officers nor the other passengers were able to progress. Everyone was intrigued when he chose to disembark at Cattaro, in Montenegro, which was not on the road to anywhere. The English, they agreed, were crazy. They would all have been considerably more surprised had they been able to follow his subsequent travels.
He set foot on European soil on the twenty-eighth of June, which by coincidence was the day Archduke Francis Ferdinand's death in Sarajevo opened the first crack of the collapse that was to bring down the whole world. The Montenegro border was less than fifty miles from Sarajevo. The reader is therefore cautioned that Colonel Creighton had absolutely nothing to do with the assassination.
He progressed rapidly north and east, traveling mainly on horseback through wild country, until he reached the vicinity of Belgrade. In a wagon in a wood, he was granted audience by a gypsy voivode, whose authority transcended national borders.
Creighton continued eastward and spent a night as guest of a certain count of ancient lineage, lord of a picturesque castle in Transylvania. In Vienna he met with several people, including a woman reputed to be the most skilled courtesan in Austria, with the fairest body in Europe, but the substance of their meeting was unrelated to such matters.
By the fifteenth of July he had reached St. Petersburg. Although the Russian capital was racked by workers' strikes, he succeeded in spending several hours talking with a monk celebrated for both his holiness and his political connections.
On the twenty-third, when Austria issued its ultimatum to Serbia, Colonel Creighton arrived in Paris, having wasted a couple of days in a cave in the Black Forest. Paris was in the throes of the Caillaux scandal, but he ignored that, conferring with two artists and a newspaper editor. He also took an overnight train south to Marseilles to visit Fort St. Jean, European Headquarters of the Foreign Legion. He spent most of his time there in the chapel, then returned to the capital.
On July 28, when Austria declared war on Serbia, he obtained a berth on the next boat train to London—a surprising feat, considering the near-panic in the Gare du Nord.
On reaching England, he completely disappeared.CHAPTER 2
EDWARD ARRIVED IN GREYFRIARS ON THE 4.15 FROM London. It was the Saturday of August Bank Holiday weekend, and the little station was almost deserted. Paris had been in panic. London was a riot of trippers fighting their way out of town, heading for the seaside. Greyfriars was its usual sleepy country self.
He emerged from the station, bag in hand, to find the Bodgley Rolls at the curb, with Bagpipe himself at the wheel.
Edward said, "Damned good of you to put me up, Bodgley," and climbed in.
Bagpipe said, "Good to see you, old man. Care to go for a spin?" He was trying not to swallow his ears at being allowed to drive the Rolls.
So Timothy Bodgley drove Edward Exeter home to Greyfriars Grange by a somewhat roundabout route, but took care that they arrived in decent time to get ready for dinner. Edward thanked Mrs. Bodgley for taking him in at such short notice—and at his own request, of course, but that part of it was too painful to mention. She insisted he was always welcome.
Then there was a gap. This is a common result of head injuries.
He retained no record at all of the next hour. After that came a few scattered images of dinner itself, random pages saved from a lost book. His most vivid recollection was to be of his own intense embarrassment at being in blazer and flannels, like a stray dog that had wandered into the thoroughbred kennel. One of his cases had been stolen in Paris, and he had had no time to hire evening clothes on his dash through London. He had had no English money, either, and the banks were closed on Saturdays.
The nine or ten faces around the table remained only a blur. The Bodgleys themselves, of course, he knew well: Bagpipe and his parents—the large and booming Mrs. Bodgley, and the peppery general with his very red face and white mustache. There was a Major Someone, an ex-India type. There was a Dowager Lady Somebody and the vicar. And others. The scraps of conversation he did remember were all about the imminence of war. The major explained at length how easily the French and the Russians between them would roll up the Boche. Everyone agreed it would all be over by Christmas.
Later, when the ladies had withdrawn and left the men to the port and cigars, the talk was of the need to teach the Germans a damned good lesson, and which regiment Edward Exeter and Timothy Bodgley should join, and how lucky they were to be young enough to serve.
The evening concluded with patriotic songs around the piano, and everyone turned in early because the general was scheduled to read the lesson in church the next morning.
Later still, Edward sprawled on the window seat in his room while Bagpipe in pajamas and dressing gown sat on the chair, and the two of them nattered away like old times in the junior dorm. Bagpipe raved about the book he was reading, The Lost World, and promised to lend it to Edward as soon as he had finished. They reminisced about their schooldays, amused to discover that a mere week away had already wreathed Fallow in a haze of nostalgia. They returned to the subject of the war, and Bagpipe waxed bitter.
"Me enlist? It's not meant, old man. Won't pass the medical. Not Pygmalion likely!" Even as he said it, his lungs sounded like a dying cat. He had asthma; he had never been able to run even the length of cricket pitch without turning blue, but he was a straight enough chap in spite of it. He would miss the war, and Edward was at a loss to know how to comfort him, although he babbled nonsense about valuable alternatives, like intelligence work.
Then Bagpipe shrugged it off and tried to hide his chagrin. "What say we go down and raid the larder, like old times?"
Edward must have agreed, although he retained no recollection of doing so. A trivial boyish prank like that should have been beneath their dignity, but perhaps it suited the mood of unreality that had so suddenly descended upon their lives. They had emerged from the ordered, cloistered discipline of school into a world poised on the brink of madness.
The kitchen was in the oldest part of the Grange, a vast stone barn of echoes and monumental furniture and unsettling, unexplained shadows. There, for Edward Exeter, reality ended altogether.
After that there were just a few confused frozen images, like blurred photographs in newspapers, or line drawings in the Illustrated London News. There was a girl screaming, her screams reverberating in that cavernous stone scullery. She had wild eyes and hair that hung down in long ringlets. There was a knife. There was blood—a porcelain sink with blood pouring into it. He retained a very foggy memory of people beating on the door, trying to get in, and of himself fending off the knife-wielding maniac with the aid of a wooden chair. There was a terrible pain in his leg.
Then darkness and nightmare.CHAPTER 3
IT WAS THE HOUR BEFORE DAWN. A GALE LEFT OVER FROM winter rolled clouds through the sky, continually veiling or unveiling the moons, so that sometimes the narrow streets were inky as coal cellars, and at others a man could read the storekeepers' signs creaking to and fro in the wind. Over the slate rooftops, far behind the chimneys, the ice-capped peaks of Narshwall glimmered like teeth with black tongues of cloudshadow lolling over them.
Dragon claws scratching on cobblestones betrayed the progress of a watchman, riding slowly along Straight Way, making his rounds. It was a living, if not a very lucrative one, nor especially prestigious. It was a cursed cold living on a night like this, and his thoughts were mainly of the snug, wife-warmed bed awaiting him at sunrise. He wore a metal-and-leather helmet and a steel breastplate over a layer of fur and two of wool. He switched his lantern from one hand to the other, feeling its warmth even through his gloves. He was in more danger of freezing his fingers than of meeting with trouble at night in Narsh.
Narsh was a peaceable place, but long ago the city fathers had decreed a curfew, so someone must uphold it. Illicit love affairs were the main cause of curfew-breaking, but most nights the watchman met not a single soul. Any evildoers that might be skulking around heard his dragon approach or saw his light and took cover until he had gone. The ban applied only to persons on foot, of course. It excluded dragon riders and coaches, and thus it did not restrict the city fathers or their friends.
Scritch, Scritch, went the dragon's claws. The wind rattled shutters and moaned in high eaves. Total blackness enveloped Straight Way, except where the watchman's lantern cast an uncertain beam on doors and the gaping mouths of alleys. Through a momentary gap in the clouds he caught a glimpse of the fourth moon, Eltiana, a gory red star in the east. He thought a silent prayer—his usual prayer to the Lady, emphasizing the undesirability of her sending further progeny to swell the household he must feed on his meager pay.
Then great green Trumb soared into view, as if springing out from ambush, his mighty half disk illuminating the town, highlighting the spires of the Lady's temple ... and revealing a double line of people shuffling along the street just ahead of the watchman. For a moment he was struck speechless. Then he barked a command to speed his mount: "Varch!"
The dragon was perhaps also surprised, for it was accustomed to amble the night streets at a comfortable Zaib and had probably not been required to go faster in many years. After a brief pause, as if it were trying to recall the training of its youth, it increased its pace obediently, and the night watch of Narsh bore down upon the lawbreakers.
There were about a dozen of them, arranged roughly by height, from a tall couple up front to a child trailing at the rear. They all bore bulky packs. The watchman rode past them, shining his lantern on them, heading for the leaders. They were not residents, he concluded, for few of them were clad in the all-enveloping Narshian furs. Most of them were hunched and shivering. Strangers! Curfew breakers!
He drew ahead, spoke orders to his dragon, and came to a halt, barring their way. They stopped. Many of them lowered their burdens to the ground with evident relief. They peered up at him. He peered back down at them with all the majesty of the law.
The law's majesty was not as awe-inspiring as he would have liked. The dragon was not much of a dragon. Its scales were so worn and scuffed where the stirrups had rubbed at them over the years that it had been double-docked—the pommel plate removed so that the saddle could be placed farther forward than was normal, or truly comfortable. Its rider was thus seated on a slight slope and could not lean back in comfort against the baggage plate.
The dragon studied the malefactors with as much interest as the watchman, while puffing pearly clouds for the wind to disperse. Its eyes glowed pale green. Ferocious as dragons seemed, they were the gentlest of beasts, and most people knew that. The watchman was not quite certain what he was supposed to do when faced with a dozen lawbreakers at once, and half of them women.
He said, "Ho!" Then he added, "Identify yourselves!"
The leader was a tall man in a flowing robe that swirled continuously in the wind. So did his white patriarchal beard. When he doffed his hat and bowed, he revealed a bald pate surrounded by a mane of long white locks, and the wind began playing with them also. Nonetheless, he was a striking figure under the green moonlight, and his voice rang out with the sonority of a peal of bells.
"I am Trong Impresario and these are my associates in the troupe that bears my name—singers, musicians, actors, wandering players, seeking only to serve the Lord of Art."
Wandering beggars, more like, but the watchman recalled that he had seen a playbill outside the Shearing Shed a couple of days ago.
"You are abroad before first light, and such is forbidden!"
The Trong man swung around to regard the east. With dramatic suddenness, he threw out a long arm. "Behold, sir! Already the dewy dawn blushes to look upon the deeds of night!" He spoke with a Joalian accent, but that did not mean he could see the horizon through a two-story building.
"Forgive us if we have offended!" proclaimed his companion. She was almost as tall as he, and her voice seemed even more resonant, carrying a hint of clashing steel. It was not as readily identifiable, but certainly not homely Narshian. "'First light' is not a precise term. We are strangers and may have misconstrued your local usage."
The watchman could not imagine why anyone would waste good money going to hear this rabble of outlanders recite poetry or even sing, if that was what they did. It seemed very un-Narshian behavior, but if anyone attended those performances, they would be the wealthier citizens—and their wives, of course. To make trouble for this band of tattered beggars might possibly land him in disfavor with important persons.
"State your business!" he demanded, to give himself time to think.
"We proceed," Trong declaimed, "to the temple to make sacrifice. Our wandering feet lead us onward to the Festival of Holy Tion in Suss, and we would seek the favor of Ois before hazarding fearsome Rilepass."
Ah! In his youth, the watchman had attended the Festival of Tion a few times. He had competed in the boxing contests until his face became so battered that he had been refused admittance. Of course a troupe of actors would be heading that way at this time of year, and no one in his right mind would venture a mammoth ride over Rilepass without making an offering at the temple. As goddess of passes, Ois was liable to drop avalanches on travelers who displeased her.
He cast another quick look at the sky and again saw the red moon peering through a narrow gap in the clouds. Ois was an avatar of the Lady, Eltiana, who was not only one of the Five, but also specifically identified with the red moon. She was watching him to see what he was going to do. She might disapprove of him harassing pilgrims on their way to worship one of her manifestations. He had best let these vagabonds proceed about their business.
"You should have waited until daybreak!"
The woman spoke up quickly. "But our need to reach Suss is urgent. You must know that this is the seven hundredth festival, and very special. There are many like us, seeking passage, and the lines are long this year. Our impatience was inspired by our piety, Watchman."
It was true that Narsh had seen an unusual number of festival-goers passing through in the last fortnight, although the watchman's wife had told him that the normal contingent of artists, athletes, and cripples was much the same. Surplus priests and priestesses were to blame.
"Go in peace," he proclaimed, moving his dragon out of the way. "But next time observe the law more strictly."
They heaved their packs higher on their shoulders and tramped off in unhappy silence.
Trumb dipped into cloud again and the street darkened. The last the watchman saw of the actors as they faded out was the child at the rear. Stooped under her bulky pack, she walked with a marked limp. He could guess why that one was going to the Tion Festival.
Excerpted from Past Imperative by Dave Duncan. Copyright © 1995 Dave Duncan. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I enjoyed it, and the rest of the series.