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On The Razor's Edge
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On The Razor's Edge

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Author: Michael Flynn
Publisher: Tor, 2013
Series: Spiral Arm: Book 4

1. The January Dancer
2. Up Jim River
3. In The Lion's Mouth
4. On The Razor's Edge

Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction
Sub-Genre Tags: Galactic Empire
Space Opera
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Synopsis

The secret war among the Shadows of the Name is escalating, and there are hints that it is not so secret as the Shadows had thought. The scarred man, Donovan buigh, half honored guest and half prisoner, is carried deeper into the Confederation, all the way to Holy Terra herself, to help plan the rebel assault on the Secret City. If he does not soon remember the key information locked inside his fractured mind, his rebel friends may resort to torture to pull it from his subconscious.

Meanwhile, Bridget ban has organized a posse--a pack of Hounds--to go in pursuit of her kidnapped daughter, despite knowing that Ravn Olafsdottr kidnapped the harper precisely to lure Bridget ban in her wake. The Hound, the harper, and the scarred man wind deeper into a web of deceit and treachery certain of only one thing: nothing, absolutely nothing, is what it seems to be.


Excerpt

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 People. One day, the Ardry will need to take a fleet into the Cynthia Cluster and root them out, tooth-and-toenail. And maybe deal with Foreganger, too."

Graceful Bintsaif glanced toward Bridget ban, who held the other end of her metaphorical leash, and gave a slight nod. Grimpen's story confirmed part of a tale they had already heard.

"So what is such mysterious mission you propose us?" asked Anubis. His facial hair was very dark brown and his nose and mouth thrust prominently forward. The gene-wrights of the long ago, when knowledge had passed for wisdom, had engineered his ancestors for cleverness; but a tangling of genes had carried with it a distinctive, foxlike countenance, so that all men noted that here was a clever one and so responded with heightened wariness. His parents had come to the Periphery as refugees and he spoke still with a Confederal accent.

Bridget ban swirled and patted him on the cheek. "Oh, a grand quest, darling, but we are not all here yet." The numbing fear had turned her heart to ice and her stomach to knots, but she would not show her colleagues any but blithe assurance.

Black Shuck scanned the room. "Grand enough," he said, "to call so many." His words came out flour fine: a sweet voice for so rough visaged a man. He was not so large as Grimpen, nor so clever as Anubis. Neither could he match Bridget ban for seduction. He was second-best at everything. But he was second-best at everything and even his most jealous rivals admitted that he was Top Dog.

"Gideon's band, darlin'," Cwn Annwn told him. She was a robust thing, even standing before the broad-shouldered Shuck as she did. There was Jugurthan in her genes, so that while she appeared wide and dumpy, it was muscle-firm down to the bone. "Gideon's band," she said again, this time herself looking about the room. "Our hostess rounded up a passel in hope of brandin' a few. She don't 'spect everyone here to join her." Her voice drawled in the lazy accents of Great Wally on Megranome.

"Perhaps she expects only me," declared a silvered throat from the doorway. Conversation ceased abruptly across the room, and one or two of the gathered Hounds visibly shivered. It was a sweet voice that chilled the heart. Even Black Shuck shifted from foot to foot before facing the newcomer.

The woman wore black diaphanous robes girt at a high waist with a silver cincture. A silver-and-turquoise scapular hung from her neck. Her black hair was clipped short and lacquered so that it formed a sort of helmet for her otherwise-uncrowned head. Her lips blossomed scarlet; her fingers rang with drizzle-jewels. Altogether, a striking presence, and not merely because of her cobralike poise. It was a look to die for, and many had.

Matilda of the Night.

When she stepped into the room, her robes billowed in her wake, as if she dragged that night behind her. Other Hounds drew back as she passed, lest she pass too close and (as they told themselves) spoil the effect.

Bridget ban was not immune to the impact that Matilda so often had, but she was the first to shake it off. She herself often made a striking entrance, though she more usually turned heads toward her than away. She crossed the room with arms stretched in embrace. "Tilly!" she cried. "How delightful to see you!"

An abrazzo, two quick pecks on the cheeks, and the spell was broken. Tilly? That was not quite so daunting. Conversations resumed, laughter rose, though both were more subdued than before.

"Delight, my dear," said Matilda to Bridget ban in a low, throaty voice, "is not in it. And..." Turning. "...This must be Graceful Bintsaif!" She extended a hand to the junior Hound, who barely hesitated before taking it. "Na Fir Li has told me so much about you. How can such a limited man raise such fine Pups?"

"Perhaps," murmured Graceful Bintsaif, "because my old master is not so limited as some suppose."

Matilda stiffened fractionally, but a server in household livery distracted her with a tray of drinks, and she fussed over them long enough that when she finally straightened with a colorfully layered beverage in a tall, thin glass the moment for taking offense had passed. Cleverly done, Bridget ban thought, and no one lost face. She did not very much care for Matilda of the Night, but Bridget ban counted such temperance a point in her favor.

"Are we all here, now?" Matilda asked. "Cafall, Yeth, Barghest... Kirkonväki? The Gytrash... My, my! A mixed bag, darling. Some top cuts, but also some ends. But... I suppose one takes what the net hauls in."

"I expect one or two others," Bridget ban said.

"Who? That young man sitting behind the juniper ferns?"

Bridget ban stepped back and peered through some of the foliage. "Ah. Come join us, Hugh," she said.

Little Hugh O Carroll rose from his casual concealment with a pot of ale in his fist. He was solidly built, with a square jaw and dusty-red hair. His left cheek bore the memory of a scar, and he smiled in that half-shy, half-sly manner that had seen him safely through the guerilla on New Eireann, many years before. It was then that he had learned the art of concealment. If there was a cover, he was beneath it. If there was a hole, he was in it. If there was a corner, he was around it. He went now by the offi...

Copyright © 2013 by Michael Flynn


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