Excerpt: The Talons of Quantam (opening of Book II)

A giant hairless man, dressed in exquisitely tanned buckskin, woven through with cunning designs, led him to a vestibule at the north side of the great hall.
“I shall be just outside. When you are cleared, I shall take you to Master Shin,” he said.
His tone was genuinely friendly, but his eyes were lifeless. He had recited this many times for many visitors.
“How long might this take?” asked Riffhawk.
“Are you in a rush?”
Riffhawk laughed. “No. I have the curious gene.”
The man looked down at him and smiled a smile he believed to be inscrutable, but it spoke volumes to the slender, gray-haired Riffhawk, whose eyes showed an age and a depth that could only be guessed at. The folds of his brown travel-stained robe, however, belied a spry center. He carried a rough rod that was no thicker than a spindly branch from an Aldan tree and was the length of the support staffs used by fishermen in the swift mountain rivers. His grip on it was not tight, as if his hand knew it would never be far away.
He looks as if he is made of whipcord, thought the giant, and there is an undeniable peace upon him. He is not the usual traveler, stopped and brought to Master Shin. His eyes look everywhere without being obvious. Yes. This one is different. The audience would be interesting.
As soon as the broad hardwood door shut with a heavy click, a man and a woman entered the small room through a heavy curtain opposite the door. They wore yellow robes and held their arms crossed. They looked remarkably similar, their differences showing in their faces and not in the way the robes hung on their frames. Amusement danced in the eyes of the old man in the brown robe.
The man spoke. “What is your purpose here?”
With his eyes on the woman’s face, Riffhawk let out a quick sigh. “I was passing through the border country in the north when I was detained by a group of priests, who suggested that I detour through the city, here, to report my mission. Sadly, I have no mission to report and would like to be on my way as soon as possible. But,” he continued, “as long as I’m here, it is probably a splendid idea to meet Master Shin and learn what I can about this realm.”
The woman did not meet his gaze.
She is staring at my feet, thought the traveler, just as I would do to see the truth in what I say about where I have been.
His estimation of her grew, but not without a grave caution, as he began to take her intelligence into account. Riffhawk suspected that she would recognize very quickly if he omitted information when she asked him a question.
Suddenly, he had another thought. It made him smile.
“Do we amuse you?” asked the man with an edge in his voice.
“Generally,” Riffhawk said, “the entire world amuses me. But to answer your question, no, I do not find you very amusing.”
“Are you armed?” asked the woman directly.
He felt the sharpness of her eyes. He decided to gamble.
“Yes, Master Shin, I am armed, but I assure you that you have nothing to fear from me. From the rest of the world? I cannot say. But you have nothing to fear from me.”
The man in the yellow robe drew in his breath and was about to speak when the woman interrupted.
“Leave us, Kindor,” she said. “I will continue this conversation myself.”
“Leave us!”
There was no room for argument. The man shot an angry look at Riffhawk and left the small room, his arms still folded in front of him, and his neck arched.
Wounded pride is a harbinger of revenge, thought the old man. This Kindor would bear watching.
Master Shin waited until the curtains stopped dancing from Kindor’s swift exit before speaking.
“What should I call you?” she asked.
“My birth name was Cesár Julius,” he said, gambling again, “but I am known to a few as Riffhawk. I try to stay as unknown as I can. In times like these, I have found it best to fly under the radar.”
Her look sharpened. He hadn’t been certain that was possible, but there it was.
“What is radar?”
He stared back at her and kept the smile out of his voice. “It was an ancient defense field, used to detect the position of enemy craft and to follow weather patterns.”
It was her turn to look amused. “How do you know of this radar?”
He regarded her closely. Curiosity cast her features with anticipation and a light shone from her eyes. The bored ritualistic demeanor she’d shown when he’d first seen her had vanished. She looked ten years younger. Her arms had uncrossed and were open, her hands resting lightly at her waist. There was a shape beneath her robe and Riffhawk had to admit it was pleasing. Still, he proceeded carefully.
“I am a traveler, both by nature and profession. I have seen and heard many things from many places. The story of radar comes from the other side of the great ocean. If you like, I will tell you what I know.”
She smiled brightly at him, which seemed far more dangerous than her stony grimness.
“I would like that very much,” she said, “and forgive my lack of manners. You must be exhausted from your travels.”
Master Shin clapped her hands sharply, exactly twice, and the heavy door behind him opened to reveal the giant, who was now carrying a staff of his own.
“Bordor! Tell the kitchen to prepare a light supper for two and show our guest where he can freshen up.”
She looked at Riffhawk. “An hour?”
He nodded and bowed. “An hour.”
“Good,” she nodded. “I am looking forward to learning more about you.”
“And I, you,” he said.
Their eyes met and held for a moment. This game was far from over.
She left him in the company of Bordor, who looked at Riffhawk with open curiosity.
“How did you know?” he asked.
Riffhawk studied the giant. He was well over seven feet tall and well-muscled, but there was an incongruous softness to his smooth face.
“I didn’t know,” he said. “I guessed. She was obviously the brains of the outfit and there was an armed contingent of women, bristling with bows and arrows, at the other end of the hall from the door we came in. In my travels, armed women are rare, especially in a palace. When I saw her intelligence, I just put two and two together. If I’d been a fool, I would now have several arrows in my chest and you’d be dragging me out of here by my heels.” He paused.
“Kindor is her brother?”
The giant nodded. His face soured briefly, but his smile returned quickly.
In the hallway, the women with weapons were nowhere to be seen. Riffhawk bent to pick up his small backpack and noticed that it had been opened. He was not surprised. He was sure Bordor had puzzled at a few of the items he traveled with.
He opened the pack and checked the contents. He reached inside and briefly fondled the short stick that was always with him. He made sure the flap on the pack was loose.
“It is all there,” said Bordor. “I apologize for the rudeness, but it is my given duty to examine everything.”
“I understand. I have nothing to hide,” he smiled at his lie, “and there is no offence taken.”
Seemingly satisfied, the giant led him through several hallways to a large open courtyard. Riffhawk guessed it was the center of the modest palace. They encountered no other people, which seemed odd. But Riffhawk felt eyes. He was certain that they were being watched. He was reassured when the rod he carried vibrated ever so slightly. There were eyes upon him, probably many.
The courtyard was grand. The walls were draped with rich tapestries and the floor was made from smooth stones the like of which he had never before seen. The walls, made from another kind of stone, rose two stories on all sides, but were cunningly shaped to allow maximum sun. A walkway with a low parapet ran around the top of the broad patio they were crossing. It was an open and airy place.
“Where is everybody?” Riffhawk asked.
Bordor’s broad back shrugged. “They are at prayer. When the sun leaves the courtyard, it is time to pray. All of the people go to the cathedral down that way,” he pointed, “and pray for the continued safety of the realm.”
“They don’t pray for their souls and their own well-being?”
Bordor’s massive shoulders shrugged again. “I don’t know.”
“You don’t pray?”
Bordor looked over his shoulder at the much smaller man. “No,” he grinned, “I am exempt.” He paused a moment. “And I offer my gratitude in other ways.”
Riffhawk nodded. He was sure of that.
Bordor showed him up a flight of stairs, down a short hallway, and into a suite of rooms that were simple, but elegantly appointed. There was a sitting room with a desk, a washroom with running water, and a sleeping chamber with a bed large enough for even Bordor. The color scheme ran from rich tans to warm orange and peach. Blue accents pulled the rooms together. Trim at the ceiling and floor was golden.
Riffhawk put his pack on the bed and leaned his staff by the window.
“Make yourself comfortable,” the giant said as he left. “I will be back in less than an hour.”


About Jim Stewart

Writer at Butt in Chair
This entry was posted in Excerpt, Speculative Fantasy, story excerpt and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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