On the Razor's Edge Online - Michael Flynn

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 Bridget ban, some because they expected an intriguing quest, some perhaps to gloat over whatever matter had impelled her cry for help. The men and women of the Kennel were a varied lot, and rivaly for status was not unknown among them.

The ancient Hound na Fir Li had sent his regrets and his senior Pup, a thin, hawk-faced young man of olive complexion who bore the name Obligado. The Pup moved with an economy of motion, and gave the impression that he skimmed a half thumb above the floorboards. He spoke little, but listened much; and Bridget ban marked that a point in his favor.

Grimpen arrived, too. He had just completed a small matter involving the pirates of the Hadramoo, having toppled the government of New Constancy on Abyalon, captured an agent of the People of Foreganger, and assassinated both the Molnar and his chief of auguries over the old business of the Merry v Starinu.

“A man in his cups,” Grimpen rumbled while the gathered Hounds enjoyed drinks and stories, “should take care which crimes he confesses, and to whom, for his boon companion may prove not merely judge, but executioner as well.” Grimpen had a laugh like an earthquake just before the rocks shear.

His glass was nearly lost in his massive fist, while that of Graceful Bintsaif seemed almost too large for hers. Tall, and lean as a whippet, the junior Hound seemed constantly to strain against an unseen leash. “Do you know what sort of killing machine the People sent?” she asked.

Grimpen’s head tolled. “No. I know only that it never arrived, so the Molnar had the pleasure to deal with me instead of the