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Authors: Paul Kidd

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Council of Blades

BOOK: Council of Blades
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Council of Blades
The Nobles [5]
Paul Kidd
TSR (1997)
Rating:
**
Tags:
Fantasy fiction, Fiction, Fantasy, General, Science Fiction, Epic, American fiction
Product Description

War cares little for the troubles of the aristocracy. As a terrible new weapon obliterates the age of courtly battle, an intelligent but plain princess and her companions--an addled young inventor and a kleptomaniac firebird--find themselves forced into a battle for survival in a suddenly very deadly world.

Paul Kidd
The Nobles 05 - The Council

of Blades

A Forgotten Realms novel by Paul Kidd A ProofPack release Proofed and formatted by BW-SciFi Ebook version 1.0 Release Date: March, 8 th , 2005 "It takes a soldier to command soldiers, boy." Svarezi once again drew his savage blade.

Veltro raised his voice and screamed, cramming himself into the dust in fear.

"You're finished, Svarezi! Colletro's court is finished with you! No Mannicci bride-no council seats! No Blade Council will suffer you again!"

The blade reversed to hover like an ice pick in Svarezi's hand.

"If the council is finished with me…then let us finish with the council!"

Svarezi stabbed the cowering young Blade Captain through the roof of his mouth, twisting the blade down into the sand like a slaughterer. The body beneath him arched, then jerked into deathly stillness.

Svarezi freed his sword and flicked the filth from the blade onto the alley walls.

Behind him, the crossbow sergeant scarcely spared a glance at his master's corpse.

"Did he speak the truth, sire? Will there be no Sumbrian bride?"

"What matter? Where a maid's door shuts, a master's opens."

Svarezi wrenched at the feathered mane of his hippogriff, dragging her beak up from a feast of carrion.

THE COUNCIL OF BLADES
©1996 TSR, Inc.

All Rights Reserved.

All characters in this book are fictitious. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

This book is protected under the copyright laws of the United States of America. Any reproduction or other unauthorized use of the material or art-work contained herein is prohibited without the express written permission of TSR, Inc.

Random. House and its affiliate companies have worldwide distribution rights in the book trade for English language products of TSR, Inc.

Distributed to the book and hobby trade in the United Kingdom by TSR Ltd.

Distributed to the toy and hobby trade by regional distributors.

Cover art by Walter Velez.

FORGOTTEN REALMS and the TSR logo are registered trademarks owned by TSR, Inc.

All TSR characters, character names, and the distinctive likenesses thereof are trademarks owned by TSR, Inc.

First Printing: December 1996 Printed in the United States of America.

Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 95-62261

98765432 1
ISBN: 0-7869-0531-X
8564XXX1501
TSR, Inc.

TSR Ltd. 201 Sheridan Springs Road 120 Church End, Cherry Hinton Lake Geneva, WI 53147 Cambridge CB1 3LB

U.S.A.
United Kingdom Dedicated, with much love and laughter, to all the folk of "Furry Fandom" who helped us through our darkest hours.
1
Seen from high up in the pure, sharp nighttime sky, the cool lake surface sparkled with the light of stars.

A flawless, glittering carpet spread out to the horizons and beyond; the black arch of the sky blended perfectly with the waters of the Akanamere far below. The whole world seemed to be suspended in a spell of silence as the count-less movements of heaven, earth and sea all blended into a timeless, frozen hush.

Suspended in a crystal ball, a flier could ride the cold night winds and dream unruffled dreams.

Hanging high above the waves, a single lonely figure rode the winds with stubby wings. Brilliant in plumes of orange, red and gold, the great bird whirred onward through a cool mountain breeze; a fantastic, addled crea-ture fashioned from ten parts tail and two parts beak, to one part brain.

The great bird streamed like a fistful of silken ribbons through the sky, drawn by a point of light which glittered oh so brightly just above the open sea. He swirled across the inky sky, saw what lay ahead, and suddenly felt his spirits soar.

Cradled in its tiny harbor, the city-state of Sumbria shone against the darkness like a cup of fallen stars.

The clean white walls shot upward from the shoreline like rearing foam, while the towers and streets seemed strung with iridescent pearls. The great, giddy bird stared down at the sight in awe, his beak hanging open as the lights dazzled his eyes. He hovered clumsily, tail dangling and great yellow feet pumping at the empty air, flicking his head this way and that as he tried to make sense out of an astonishing new world.

Suddenly the bird folded up his wings and dove. He shot low across the rooftops-across the battlements and walls. Past ranks of guards in barbute helmets of white steel and crossbowmen dressed in brigantines. Past the catapults mounted on the battlements and the silken banners streaming in the breeze.

The bird rolled happily in the swirling currents of city air, his long tail swishing like noisy streamers in his wake. He turned a giddy loop-the-loop, and let out a raucous peal of joy.

All across the city, dogs began to howl. Fresh milk curdled, the chickens mislaid, and something rather unpleasant happened to all the cheese. … And still the firebird sang! He caroled out a love that wrapped itself about him like a phoenix flame; he sang with a delight as pure and fresh as morning dew. He clucked, he shrieked and yodelled at frequencies far above mere mortal hearing bands, crumbling mortar on high rooftops and sending gargoyles sliding off on sud-den one-way journeys to the streets below.

Great, expressive eyes suddenly fell upon a blaze of color far below; with a cry of joy, the bird dove off between two marble towers, frightened a nest of stirges half to death, and swooped to a halt outside a magnifi-cent banquet hall.

Cracked glass panes opened out into an empty ball-room all set out for a marvelous feast. The firebird pressed himself against the windows, peering avidly within, beating at the glass like a great brain-damaged moth. Hanging there before his eyes was an immense, sparkling chandelier, its crystals ablaze with dancing points of light.

The shine of pretty baubles made the firebird's head whirl. He stared, hypnotized, at the crystal beads, each one glimmering with magic spells. His beak opened and silently mouthed a hiss of awe.

Sparklies!

Frantic with greed, the bird clawed his way high up into the skies. In a high tower beside the hall, a window stood open to the summer breeze. Like a great raffia-work comet, the bird swooped downward in a graceful arc, lofted superbly up toward the ivory window frame, and smacked himself straight into the wall.

The addle-witted bird slid like a jellyfish down the tower wall, dropped onto a balcony and sat giddily watching a cascade of stars. Lurching to his feet, the creature shook off his hurt, fluffed out his plumage and quickly scuttled in through the balcony door.

Moonlight struck brilliant sparks into the great bird's eyes and the crystal chandelier instantly fled his mind.

A mirror and dressing table stood beside the far wall. On a rosewood bust, a necklace of emeralds sat upon display; a collar of golden chain, encrusted with green gems that hurtled the light like confetti to the skies. The huge bird gaped at the thing in shock and let pure childish delight shine in his gaze.

Alone of all his race, only he had been clever enough to brave the empty skies! The most courageous, the most clever, the most handsome bird of all! Now a fan-tasy land of sparkling pretties would be his. He would line a nest with glittery baubles, and a thousand females would worship him with their sighs.

The bird danced; he stuck his head down low and his tail up high, giving a waggle to the left and a waggle to the right. He kicked his feet and trilled a busy tune, los-ing himself in the display of his brilliant orange tail. The firebird strutted about in celebration of his own amazing cleverness, closing his eyes and becoming quite lost to the world.

"Sofia? Sofia! The bath was still filled with yesterday's ass's milk! The stench was quite atrocious. Pray do not allow it to happen again!"

"Yes, milady."

Voices! The bird ceased its dance, flapped around in a mad circle, and nearly tripped over his own tail as he snatched the emerald necklace in his beak. With a great thrash of wings, he lumbered out onto the balcony and launched into the air. An instant later, the bird's stream-ing tail feathers had whipped across the city roofs leaving nothing but a sparkle of magic in their wake.

"Sofia! Lay out the spider-silk gown, then help me…"

A great, fat woman big enough to batter down a castle gate came sweeping through into the palace tower. She froze midspeech, spied the open window, then turned shocked eyes toward the empty dressing table.

"Sofia! My emeralds! My emeralds!"

"Madam?" A scrawny maid scuttled through the door like a half-drowned spider washed out of a knothole. "Perhaps they are still at the cleaners?"

"The cleaners?" Swelling herself dangerously with out-raged pride, the massive noblewoman surged out onto the balcony. "You idiot girl-we've been robbed!"

A single orange feather had been left as the villain's calling card. The noblewoman snatched it up inside one great fist, then flowed forward like a juggernaut toward the quailing maid.

"Call the guard! Call the prince! Have the entire thieves' guild dragged out and flogged!"

A mighty mass of double chins surged like a tidal wave as a final shriek of outrage blasted up into the skies.

"My emeralds! Bring me back my emeralds!"

The woman shook her fists across a wilderness of empty roofs; mortar started from the tower walls as she slammed a punch against the brickwork, and soldiers scattered in panic from the courtyard far below.

High overhead, unseen against the stars, a giddy feath-ered figure pranced beneath the flawless moon, dancing a dance above his fabulous new home.

*****
When the snows cleared from the winter passes, and summer sun gleamed down upon the Hills of Apion, it was the custom of the Blade Kingdoms to devote them-selves to war.

The six kingdoms-neat, tiny little city-states sur-rounded by their vineyards, villages and olive groves-still showed the proud vigor of newcomers. Their gleam-ing new city walls had been built atop Chessentian ruins a dozen centuries old; in the valleys, there ran the aque-ducts and moldering villas left from days long gone. The ruins still yielded a strange harvest of old cogs and bro-ken statues; curiosities avoided by sensible, superstitious souls.

Two hundred years before, the grand mercenary com-panies of the Vilhon Reach had turned their backs on their honorless Chondathian employers and a worthless war. The huge divisions, with their traveling hospitals, mobile sanctuaries and courts, had moved slowly east into an empty land of yellow hills and fallen stone on the shores of the Akanamere.

All the sciences of the north were brought to bear upon the fallow lands; ancient aqueducts were repaired by skilled military engineers, while soldiers cleared the bro-ken harbor mouths and roads. As years of building passed, the soldiers' tent cities became true towns, and mercenary companies changed into tiny nations. The great captains married camp followers, captives, and whores, breeding heirs to take over their commands in the years yet to come.

For two busy centuries the kingdoms had prospered-locked into the traditions of their freebooting past.

Military discipline readily tucked itself under the covers of democracy. The free-voting mercenary councils became senates of nobility, each captain still having status according to the number of his men.

The free companies soon vanished, and in their place the Blade Kingdoms had been born.

The Blade Councils that ruled the kingdoms were descended from educated men; soldiers who had risen above mere passion, and who had brought the art of war-fare to its greatest heights. As they grew, the kingdoms prided themselves on the triumphs of the rational mind; of law and order, sciences and art.

Men being men, disputes still arose; the Blade Kingdoms came of martial roots, and soldiers were their political heart and soul. Yet even in war, the scientific mind could rise above brute emotion; war could be confined to pure military contest, leaving the daily lives of simple subjects quite alone. And so each summer, the great armies marched across the hills in dazzling, intricate campaigns, making move and countermove like ploys played in an all-consuming game.

Thus, in the drowsy days of a golden summer, it came to pass that Sumbria and her neighbor Colletro were once again at war. The contention-as it had been in many campaign seasons past-was the ownership of the Valley of Umbricci, its salt mines, its olive presses and its prosperous cattle farms.

Burned farms and slaughtered cattle profited no man. The armies, therefore, moved through the passes and down into the valley without offering the inhabitants the slightest bit of harm. Provisions were bought and sold, and local womenfolk made the firesides of both armies merry through the nights.

The campaign progressed with intricate, energetic subtlety. By day, the hippogriffs circled overhead, their riders endlessly skirmishing and spying on the maneu-vers far below; by night, cunning countermarches and surprise attacks were launched. Casualties mounted, though thanks to the laws of war, they remained blessedly light. For in "white war," wounded opponents offered ran-som for their lives, and an enemy recovering with his feet tucked up in bed was worth more gold to his captor than a corpse moldering in the ground…

Move and countermove, feint and strike-until finally the Prince of Sumbria and the ruler of Colletro saw fit to venture themselves upon a final throw…

Now, in the height of an afternoon that sparkled like warm, clear wine, the two armies spread across the val-ley floor in all their martial splendor. Dense pike forma-tions stalked like many-legged insects in shells of bur-nished steel; the crossbowmen and pavisiers swarmed along the flanks like butterflies, covering the grass with the mad motley of their particolored clothes. Engineers scuttled back from their gigantic catapults, sheltering behind wicker shields as the machines prepared to fire. The massive engines pinned the battle lines; pikes and bill-hooks sank and locked as the soldiers rigidly dressed their formations. The valley grew still and strangely silent, quiet but for the restless stir of banners and the rustling of arms.

Beneath gay umbrellas of whirring hippogriffs, cavalry began to move: Lanze Spezzate -mercenary horsemen in half-armors made of burnished steel. To the rear, there rode the Elmeti -the noble horse, decked out in a pon-derous grandeur of golden armor and nodding plumes. The horses paraded solemnly past the waiting ranks of infantry, hooves stepping high and horse-necks arching like haughty cobras in the sun. The formal parade of power passed back and forth across the fields, carefully scrutinized by the commanders of their foes.

Before the warwagon which bore the standard of Sumbria, twelve horsemen silently surveyed the enemy battle array. Big men on giant horses, they dominated the hillside with their air of magnificent scorn.

From ground to crown, the riders were sheer shining magnificence. Their horses' hides all gleamed pure silver, gold or bronze, the metallic hairs glittering to each shift and turn of summer sun. Smothered beneath armored bardings, the beasts seemed like statues animated out of burnished metal-a glory only matched by the outra-geous martial splendor of their riders up above.

Each man wore an uncovered shell of pristine, perfect plate. Their helms were topped with tall cones of parch-ment, tubes of feathers or startling ostrich plumes; their faces were hidden beneath flawless visors of enchanted steel. Each simply sat and posed in arrogant disdain as the enemy flourished itself across the distant valley floor.

A silver god turned to the golden being at its right; the faceless head breathed cool words into the breeze.

"Their cavalry is badly mounted."

"We have the weight of them in horseflesh; they are still using southern breeds." A rider in sickly arsenic green hissed like a mantis inside his shell. "Worthless stock; mere meat before our blades!"

The golden rider's hand rose up and stemmed the flood of speech. Below them, the armies stilled themselves and locked tight into their ranks.

The rider's mount-one of the Gens D'Or, the golden horses of the gods-shifted sideways with prancing, stab-bing motions of its metallic hooves.

"Heralds."

A single word of command sent a pair of figures strut-ting forward across the grass; haughty youths mounted upon pure white hippogriffs. The hippogriffs-half horse and half griffon, equipped with both equine hooves and an eagle's beak, wings and claws-made a savage, mag-nificent display. Ripping at the grass with razor talons, shaking feathers and arching necks like prized fighting cocks, the lithe monsters trotted out into the open ground between the waiting armies.

Coming forward to meet the Sumbrian messengers, Colletro's heralds were mounted on matched palomino beasts of their own; a most noble display. Behind the Sumbrian battle lines, the twelve horsemen watched the heralds primp and pose, viewing the whole process with professional disdain as each team cried out the pedigrees of its armies' commanders and their lists of victories. Finally the competing heralds struck their staves, signaling that parley had begun. From the Colletran lines there came a ripple of relief, with many glances toward the impressive Sumbrian cavalry. Both teams of heralds turned about and drifted back to their own battle lines, content that the peace negotiations were well and truly begun.

Sumbria's golden rider slowly levered up the visor of his helm. Within the shadows gleamed a stern, pale face framed by a close-trimmed beard. Forever calculating odds and possibilities, Cappa Mannicci, the prince of Sumbria, swiveled to gaze at his Blade Council.

"They will deal."

"My lord?" A rider in silver steel turned his helm toward the prince.

"We hold the high ground; our cavalry are better mounted. Colletro will deal." Prince Mannicci signaled with his mace, and servants drew forward bearing maps of the contested valley lands. "We can press for a minor gain-three villages and the southern mines."

"And the Sun Gem, Lord?"

"Yes indeed." The pride of the Blade Kingdoms would at last come to a fitting home! Prince Mannicci settled his battle-mace upon his thigh. "The Sun Gem shall finally pass into Sumbrian care."

The Blade Kingdoms were a military society; it was their strength, and also their strangest quirk. Each Blade Captain gained votes within the council according to the strength of his own regiments. The loss of military per-sonnel was therefore frowned upon, since it changed the internal balance of power. Far better for men of education to fight through maneuver and deceit. Colletro had been manipulated into a poor position; rather than risk a lost battle, her generals would of necessity offer a concession and withdraw.

Peaceful war; once again, intellect would triumph over passion.

An argument in the Colletran lines drew Prince Man-nicci's attention. The Colletran counsellors had gathered in anger about a single squat, gnarled figure-a man dressed in jet black armor and mounted on a black hip-pogriff that hacked and gouged angrily at the turf. Rather than send their negotiators forward, the Colletrans had frozen in confusion while their generals battled like a pack of snarling wolves.

Colletro's prince slashed out with a hand, ordering silence, and rode on. In reply, the black warrior spurred for-ward to block his leader's way. Their anger rose in volume until it could be heard clear over in the Sumbrian lines.

Sitting poised upon the edges of the battlefield, Mannicci scowled as he viewed the antics of his foes.

"Why must he forever act the buffoon?"

"My lord?"

"The imbecile in black! Ugo Svarezi." Sumbria's prince let his horse stamp down hard and slash its tail knifelike through the air. "Does he think our battle host will wait upon his pleasure through the day?"

Blade Captain Gilberto Ilego spurred slowly toward his prince. The man wore armor of venomous green; his horse bore a matching harness, and had a hide of an eerie copper hue. Ilego's visor glittered like a vulture's beak as it turned to meet the prince's eyes.

"General Svarezi urges the Colletran prince to fight us… my lord."

"Does he indeed?" Grown cool and crisp with sheer dis-like, Mannicci ignored his new companion and turned toward his army's signal corps. "Svarezi has interfered in the affairs of state once too often. Sound trumpets! They have ten minutes to parley, or else we shall, regretfully, attack!"

Heralds curbed rebellious mounts, then sent a trumpet fanfare pealing through the skies. In the Colletran army, heads jerked up at the sudden noise. Colletro's prince dis-engaged himself from his furious counsellor, signed angrily for his heralds, and shouldered his horse forward through a sea of his own crossbowmen.

Prince Mannicci curtly signaled for his own heralds once again. His sharp eyes flicked a glance at the green-armored figure at his side.

"You may return to the ranks, Blade Captain Ilego. I shall bring Colletro's offer to the council anon."

Ilego swept up his visor with a smooth wave of his hand. Beneath the green metal mask, a narrow face gazed at his prince with a jackal's hungry eyes.

"Then we may declare the season's campaign at an end, my lord! Another brilliant victory for Sumbrian arms-and for your own generalship, of course." Ilego's words, like his armor, were pure polished venom.

The cop-per-green horse edged slightly forward as he spoke. "A reputation I am sure you will see fit to build upon."

"That the entire state may build upon." Prince Mannicci locked his helmet into a chill gaze at Ilego's face. "A uni-fied state, Ilego, as I am sure your votes will continue to reflect."

"Certainly, my lord. Unlike many, I lack private family affairs that might distract me from the business of the state." The serpent gave a smile. "But then a daughter's wedding can be such a time-consuming thing …"

By way of reply, Prince Mannicci merely jerked his clamshell gauntlets tight. A Prince of the Blade Kingdoms-the master of three thousand swords-had nothing if he lacked his dignity.

Gilberto Ilego, Blade Captain of Sumbria and lord of a mere two thousand swords, coolly ignored the dismissal and turned to gaze upon the narrow pass back through the mountains.

"If you wish, my lord, I can prepare the orders for our withdrawal? Perhaps my own contingent should remain as rear guard?" Ilego's dark eyes framed themselves into a mask of genteel concern. "Surely it would facilitate your swift return to the city?"

Mannicci closed his visor with a crash of steel and cold-ly jerked a faceless glare at his counsellor.

"A prince is first to enter the battlefield, and last to leave it." A mace reached out to prod against Ilego's armored breast. "Your own troops may lead the with-drawal, Ilego; at the fore, where they belong."

Trumpets signaled the parley's opening. Prince Mannicci raked back with his spurs and sent his mount hammering across the field, sparks flying from its burnished hooves as it threw its mass of flesh and metal through the air.

Left to his own devices, Ilego deliberately brushed his visor down until the steel locked tight. Turning his back upon prince and enemy alike, he drifted back into a for-est of pikes and slowly disappeared from view.

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