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At first Wayfarer Inspector Danolarian thought the huge oval thing that had fallen from the sky was a dragon's egg. When it opened, however, he knew that it was much, much worse. His world was being invaded by pitiless sorcerers from Lupan, who could sweep whole armies aside, and even defeat the invulnerable glass dragons. Surrender or flight were the only options ... but not for Inspector Danolarian, his Wayfarer Constables, and his sweetheart, the sorceress Lavenci.
Although Danolarian is no sorcerer, he's no ordinary Wayfarer either. Faced with civilization crumbling around him, and organized resistance shattered by the invincible magic of the Lupanians, he chances upon an unlikely ally and begins to fight back. It won't be easy, for he has to rally the demoralized sorcerers of Alberin, organize its terrified citizens, stay one step ahead of his own past, and, most importantly, survive a dinner party with Lavenci's mother.
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SEAN MCMULLEN is one Australia's leading SF and fantasy authors, and lives in Melbourne. He has had a dozen books published, and is the winner of thirteen awards for SF and fantasy.
Chapter OneEVE OF THE WARNo one in Scalticar would have believed that in the last months of the year 3143 they were being watched keenly by intelligences from another world. "If they are so very intelligent, why are they bothering to look at us?" would have been the reaction of Empress Wensomer. "Would have been" were the three critical words, however. Empress Wensomer had gone missing, and Scalticar was experiencing what historians annoyingly refer to as interesting times. Times were about to become considerably more interesting, however, because in the first month of 3144, the Lupanians were ready to do a lot more than merely study us from a distance.
My name is Inspector Danolarian Scryverin of the Wayfarer Constables, West Quadrant. Danolarian Scryverin is not the name that I was given at birth, but my birthname has the very angry survivors of a rather unfortunate accident in search of anyone bearing it. Thus I go by Danol Scryverin's name, and although he is dead, nobody needs to know that. The truly annoying irony is that I had never done anything other than be born to the wrong parents. Even though I am eighteen, I give my age as twenty-three, and I carry the papers of a sailor named Danol Scryverin who would be about twenty-three were he not dead. The date of my actual birth is the seventeenth day of the first month. I celebrate it every year, but that is the only link I keep with my past.On the day that the Lupanian invasion was launched, I was leading my command through the Drakenridge Mountains. The upper trails of the highlands have the most enchanting vistas that you could ever hope to see. At fourteen thousandfeet there were alternating layers of dusky sandstone, creamy marble, green granite, and speckled schist, all capped by snow and embroidered by racing meltwater streams and spectacular waterfalls. At that time of year the skies tended to be clear, and even the great Torean Storms had abated somewhat. The air was as clear as a crystal lens, and very, very cold. Little more than tough, dry lichen was growing at this altitude, and there were certainly no villages or inns to be found. Thus we slept in the open, and staying warm was always a problem. Even when we boiled water, it remained tepid even though it bubbled furiously.All these discomforts were as nothing compared with what I had to endure from the trio who comprised the little squad that I commanded, however. As commands go, it left a lot to be desired, consisting of Constable Riellen, a former radical student of sorcery, Constable Roval, who had a serious drinking problem, and Constable Wallas. Wallas had once been a courtier of great consequence, until he had assassinated an emperor, then managed to offend some important magical personage. I have never heard the full details of what happened, but Wallas had been transformed into a rather overweight black cat.We had stopped for lunch at a quite breathtaking vista looking north across the mountain peaks, but while I gazed at the achingly beautiful view, Riellen read a book of political theory, Roval muttered curses at a char-stick sketch of a woman in a locket, and Wallas scoffed down a handful of dried fish pieces. I unfolded a sketch of a beautiful albino girl. Very gently, I caressed the cheeks of Lavenci's image, as I had each day for the ten weeks since I had left Alberin. Presently I took out my almanac to memorize a few matters that someone pretending to be an amateur astronomer would be expected to know. I noticed that it was the seventeenth day of the first month, and after a few moments' thought I decided to have a little celebration for my birthday."Why have you put a candle on that gingernut biscuit?" asked Wallas as he sat up and began to wash his whiskers."I felt like being a little formal today," I replied stiffly. "It's an improvised cake.""Oh. So when you shook up two dried grapes, some meltedsnow, and a half gill of rum in that beer bottle, was that meant to be improvised wine?""If you don't want any--""No, no, I didn't say that! It's probably your birthday, is it not?""It might be. Riellen, wine for you too?""Wine is a poison sapping the strength of the downtrodden commoners, and I drink only ale because it is the drink of the oppressed," she declared automatically; then she looked up and added "Sir!""Even as a gesture of solidarity between downtrodden Wayfarer Constables?" I asked.The words "gesture," "solidarity," and "downtrodden" did their usual work in her mind."Er, oh, in that case, yes.""Afraid I can't offer any to you," I said to Roval. "Orders, and all that.""Brought low by a woman," muttered Roval, whom I had forced to confine his drinking to the occasional tavern as we traveled.Thus it was that I toasted my birthday with two of my companions, Wallas lapping from his tin bowl, Riellen pretending to sip daintily from the beer bottle with a reedpaper straw--but actually drinking nothing, out of solidarity with the downtrodden, ale-drinking masses--and myself drinking from my half-gill measure. I lit the candle from a tinderbox with some difficulty, then hurriedly blew it out before the wind beat me to it. Finally I broke up the gingernut biscuit and shared it around before starting to pack up."Not as good as Fralland-Style Kitty Krunchies," muttered Wallas as I picked him up and put him on the rump of my horse."Next time I'll have your share," I said as I set off, leading the way.By now we had been leading our horses for nine days, for they were not coping well with the altitude, and had to carry their own fodder as well as our packs. The trail was wide, well made, and in good repair, but even on a good day we would be lucky to cover a dozen miles. Generally it was less."I was once great, I was once a courtier," Wallas's voice droned from behind me."Brought low by a woman," mumbled Roval, his thoughts far away."Actually it was not a woman, it was two women who brought me low," said Wallas. "Low, as in reduced to a cat situation, that is. One was a glass dragon, the other was a sorceress. I was used as a pawn. Can you imagine that? Me, a great courtier. Once I lived in a palace. Now look at me.""Hard to miss you," I pointed out wearily."You should not be sad, Brother Wallas," said Riellen, who was leading her own horse behind mine. "Fate has saved you from becoming an establishment exploiter of the downtrodden people.""I never asked to be saved.""But you were saved, when you were transformed into your present, er, circumstances. Now you can go on to a great destiny.""How can a cat have a great destiny? I don't even like cats! I'm a dog person.""But as a cat you are liberated, Brother Wallas. You were freed from your aristocratic chains when you were transformed.""I paid a lot of money for those chains! Once I was rich. Now I get a mere ten florins a week from the Wayfarers because I'm just a cat. Blatant discrimination."And so it continued for the next hour. I too was rich, I thought as I walked, but I did not miss any of that. My parents had educated me well, and had me taught fencing, archery, and riding by the finest masters. I had never wanted for anything until, at the age of fourteen, I was left with just the clothes I stood in. My education and skills had proved to be worth more than a wagonload of gold, however, and now I was eighteen, wise beyond my years, and feigning to be twenty-three.We reached a milestone with thirty-seven chiseled into it, and it was at this point that my patience with those whom I commanded finally ran out."Constables Riellen, Roval, and Wallas, stay here with the horses while I go on ahead," I said as I handed the reins of my horse to Riellen. "I'll make sure the way is clear.""Yes sir!" said the thin, intense girl as she saluted."Is there danger?" called Wallas anxiously from atop a saddlebag."If I thought there might be, I would send you," I responded."Brother Wallas, have I ever told you my theory of inner liberation?" asked Riellen."Aye, and I've told you what you can do with it!" snarled Wallas.Roval took out his locket, flicked it open, and began to abuse the image therein.
I left them to their bickering and curses, because the milestone we had just passed meant that we were nearly at the end of our journey. The narrow road was wrapped hard against the slope of a mountain, but to the right was clear air, straight down, for a very, very long way. The voices of Riellen, Wallas, and Roval faded as the bend hid them, then Alpindrak was before me.It was as if colossal white crystals capped with silver domes encrusted the summit of the mountain, which was the highest on the continent of Scalticar. The building had once been the summer palace of a very rich king, Senderial IX, who had the rather unusual vice of merely loving to gaze up at the night sky. That was simple and harmless enough, but it turned out to be the most expensive individual vice in the history of the continent. There was no place in Scalticar where the air was more clear than on Alpindrak, so he had had a palace built there at a cost that half emptied his treasury. After he died, the place was stripped bare by his son. The buildings could not be moved, however, and none of the king's comfort-loving descendants wanted to live in a cold, remote place which was so high that even breathing was difficult and water boiled when it was only lukewarm. The place was assigned a small garrison of soldiers who were sent there as punishment, but otherwise abandoned.Alpindrak Palace had experienced sixty years of neglect when some scholar had realized that the newly invented farsights could be used a lot more effectively in the study of other worlds if they were sited very high, where the air wasmore clear. The monarch of the time bequeathed the otherwise unusable palace to the Skeptical Academy, and ten years later it had become one of the greatest research centers for the cold sciences in the known world.The place was truly beautiful. I had seen glorious paintings done from the place where I now stood, I had read exquisite poetry inspired by this view, and I even knew hauntingly evocative songs that tried to encompass it. I had indeed been expecting beauty that no art could possibly describe, and the idea of my first glimpse of Alpindrak taking place while Riellen and Wallas bickered about politics and class distinction beside me had been too depressing to contemplate. Thus I was alone when I first caught sight of the palace. I was not disappointed; in fact I was quite overwhelmed. For many minutes I just stood there, letting the mountain, the palace, the deep blue sky, the sound of the wind, and even the chill on the air etch themselves into my memories. After unfolding Lavenci's sketch and showing the scene to my girl's image, I walked back and signaled Riellen and Roval to bring the horses on."Obscene excesses of the ruling establishment," declared Riellen as she caught sight of Alpindrak Palace."And now a fantastic observatory and cathedral of scholarship for the cold sciences," I responded.This put Riellen on the moral back foot. Although she had once been a student of sorcery, she felt solidarity with all scholars--except those who wrote histories and chronicles glorifying monarchies, of course."Not a patch on the emperor's palace in Palion," said Wallas, poking his head out of a saddlebag. "Did I ever tell you I was once the seneschal there, before I was transformed?""As I heard it, the appointment lasted only ten minutes," I replied, hoping to silence him as well."Er, well, were it not for the unfortunate death of the emperor it would have been longer.""Brother Danol told me that you assassinated him," said Riellen in a very approving tone."That is not true!" cried Wallas. "I was an unsuspecting pawn in some royal intrigue.""Oh yes, you were exploited by the ruling establishment," said Riellen, admiration dripping from her words."Stop it, both of you!" I snapped irritably. "We are about to enter Alpindrak Palace, and I want no mention of magic, dead emperors, or liberating the riffraff from the yoke of imperial rule. Riellen, you and I are to be Wayfarer Constables.""But we are Wayfarer Constables, sir. My badge number is two-oh-three, and my guild number is--""I mean I want us to be three unremarkable, ordinary, male Wayfarer Constables, who will not cause comment. Tie back your hair, and pull your cloak over your breasts.""It is a sad statement on the state of society that I must take the guise of a youth in order to experience enough freedom to--""Assume the guise of a youth, Riellen, and that is an order.""Yes sir.""And Wallas, remember that you are a cat.""I would have thought that depressingly obvious--sir.""I mean you are to act like a real cat, because the person we are stalking knows about you. While we are within the walls of Alpindrak you are to say nothing but 'meow' to anyone else but me, or I shall perform a simple but highly distressing operation upon you.""No need to be crude, sir. I may look like a cat, but I can and do follow orders.""Roval, there is a final climb of five thousand stone steps to the palace," I said, pointing ahead and upward. "Get drunk in the palace tonight, and you will wake up with the shakes tomorrow. Five thousand steps with the shakes, Constable Roval, think about it. If you can't walk down, you will have to roll.""If she could have explained that I would be just one of many, I would have understood," sighed Roval. "But she said there was no other but me. I gave her my hearts."
We trudged on. The road ended about three thousand feet below the summit, but there was a gate station there. Separating the road from the gate station was a chasm about two hundred feet wide and roughly a mile deep. At the bottom of this was a raging meltwater river. We stopped at a small stone landing,directly opposite the gate station. Beside the landing was a stone arch of green and red granite, and within this was suspended a large brass bell. I untied the clapper and rang it five times, paused, rang twice more, then waited. After a short time there were three peals from a bell on the other side. I replied by ringing twice more.The doors of the gate station opened outward, and then a large dragon's head emerged. It was a red, square-sided head, about eight feet high. The jaws were open as it slid out over the chasm. It belched a streamer of burning hellfire oil. Riellen gasped and skipped back, and Wallas gave a yowl of fright before ducking back into the saddlebag."An enclosed bridge," I said to reassure Riellen, who was so astonished that she had not even made a sneering remark about establishment extravagance. "It's in my brief. The covering is lacquered hides over a wicker frame. Only the flooring is wood.""But it breathed fire," said Riellen."A simple flamethrower," I explained. "It's designed to frighten superstitious peasant outlaws looking for easy plunder.""Well I'm no superstitious peasant, and I got such a fright that I wet the blanket in my saddlebag," said Wallas. "What...
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