On the Razor's Edge Online - Michael Flynn

AN RÉAMHRÁ

In the beginning, there were three, because in these matters there are always three. One was a harper and one was a Hound and one was nine.

There were others, because in these matters there are always others. There were other Hounds. There was a Shadow, and other Shadows. There was a Name, and other Names. And had any of them done other than they had, matters would not have tumbled quite as they did.

But a man is the master of his acts, provided he acts with virtue; and the chief of these virtues is courage. Children lack courage because they see all fears as things to be removed by their parents. But a man may regard fearsome evil and see the outcome as dependent upon his own actions, and so he may become master of them. This is true even if he ultimately fails, perhaps especially if he fails.

There was a treasure, because in these matters there is always a treasure. And there was a far quest, and an ancient tyranny; and longing and greed and ambition and treachery. There was courage and cowardice, as one often finds when something very small stands against something very large. One man had let his fears become the master of his acts, and so men died and cities burned.

But at the heart of it there was a shining kernel, something hard and bright and unbreakable that had been hidden away and all but forgotten by its hiders. At the heart of every treasure, as always in these matters, there was another treasure beyond all price.

And so in the beginning there were three; but in the end, there was only one.

I. DOGGEDNESS

First, the Hound.

Francine Thompson was a Hound of the Ardry, and this was no small thing to be. Hounds enforce the law when the law has failed. They lead when leadership has failed. They rescue when hope has failed, and will assassinate when all else has failed. It was a fearsome thing to have a Hound on one’s tail, and many a desperado has surrendered on no more than the rumor of such pursuit.

Among their number, Francine Thompson was accounted not the least. Breezy, and confident to the point of arrogance, she carried herself as if she were the Queen of High Tara. It was in her stride and in her voice, which crashed like the bursting sea; and when she tossed her head, her hair was a breaking crimson wave. Her skin was a deep gold, and her eyes the green of flint. She operated under the office-name of Bridget ban; and she was at this point in her life the one thing that a Hound never is, and that is dreadfully afraid.

Afraid enough, in any event, that she had issued a Call to Hounds. It was not often, and never for matters trivial, that more than one Hound was needed on a quest; but Bridget ban had such a need and the Call had gone out over the Ourobouros Circuit. An even score of her colleagues heard the summons and a dozen were close enough to reach Dangchao Waypoint in time for the facemeet on her estate.

That estate, Clanthompson Hall, stood lonely sentinel on the endless prairie called the Out-in-back. The Hounds foregathered in the arboretum of the Old Keep, a high-ceilinged room whose dark wood half paneling and heavy roof beams bespoke a ruder age. Ancient banners hung from the joists—some torn, some faded, one whose bloodstain must never be laundered. Oh, the day was long past when the Thompson levies had marched forth under them. Recovered technologies had made of such banners little more than convenient markers for standoff weapons. But they would do for pomp, and they complemented the ancestral portraits on the corbels beneath them: grim and gay, wild visaged and thoughtful, and all bearing that Thompson cast of eye that was something more than confidence and a pennyweight shy of arrogance.

The arboretum flourished in the sunlight piercing the clerestory windows, and lent the indoors an outdoor ambience. Her staff had laid out a table of impressive variety, with cheeses imported from Gehpari and pondi-cherries and other fruits and melons from New Chennai. The other foods were from local estates: marble-case from Kurland, bright-mix milled at Dalport, fish-rolls from Honig’s Beach, and—this being Dangchao—thin-sliced haunch of Nolan Beast. The wine had aged in Clanthompson cellars, and the spirits had dripped from the coils of the family distillery in Glennamor.

Of the Hounds, some had come from affection for