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Показать все книги автора/авторов: Drake David
 

«Dagger», David Drake

Sanctuary

 

CHAPTER 1

 

"You NEED A dagger, caravan master," said the stranger to Samlor hil Samt as he began to bring a weapon slowly out from under his cloak.

The man hadn't spoken loudly, but there were key words which rang in the air of the Vulgar Unicorn. Weapon words were almost as sure a way to get attention in this bar as the mention of money. Conversation stopped or dropped into a lower key; eyes shifted over beer mugs and dice cups.

Samlor was already in the state of tension which gripped any sane man when he walked into this bar in the heart of Sanctuary's Maze district. More than the word «dagger» shocked him now, so that his right hand slipped to the brass pommel and hilt-of nondescript hardwood, plain and serviceable like the man who carried it-of the long fighting knife in his belt sheath.

At the same time, Samlor's left arm swept behind him to locate and hold his seven-year-old niece Star. She was with him in this place because there was no place safer for her than beside her mother's brother. . which was almost another way of saying that there is no safety at all in this life.

Almost: because for forty-three years, Samlor hil Samt had managed to do what he thought he had to do, be damned to the price he paid or the cost to whatever stood between him and duty.

The stranger shouldn't have called him "caravan master. " That's what he was, what he had been ever since he had determined to lift his family from poverty, despite the scorn all his kin heaped on him for dishonoring Cirdonian nobility by going into trade. But no one in Sanctuary should have recognized Samlor; and if they did, he and Star were in trouble much deeper than the general miasma of danger permeating this place.

There were people in Sanctuary who actively wished Samlor dead. That was unusual; not because he'd lived a life free from deadly enemies, but because fate or the Cirdonian caravan master himself had carried off most of those direct threats already.

When he bedded his camels at night on the trail, Samlor walked the circuit of the laager prodding crevices and holes with a cornel-wood staff flexible enough to reach an arm's length down a circuitous burrow.

If there were a hiss or an angry jarring of fangs on the staff, he either blocked the hole or, as the mood struck him, teased the snake into the open to be finished with a whip-swift flick of the staff. That was the only way to prevent beasts and men from being bitten when they rolled in their sleep onto vipers sheltering against mammalian warmth.

The caravan routes were a hard school, but applying the lessons he learned to human enemies had kept Samlor alive longer than would otherwise have been the case.

Sanctuary, though, was a problem better avoided than solved-and insoluble besides. Samlor had no intention of seeing and smelling the foulness of this place ever again, until the messenger arrived with the letter from Samlane.

It could have been a forgery, though the Cirdonian script on the strip of bark-pulp paper was illegible until it had been wound onto a message staff of the precise length and diameter of the ones Samlor's family had adopted when they were ennobled seventeen generations before. But the hand was right; the message had the right aurai of terse presumption that Samlor would do his sister's will in this matter-

And the paper was browned enough with age, despite having been locked in a banker's strong room. The document might well have been written before Samlane died with her brother's knife through her belly and through the thing she carried in her womb.

Samlor couldn't imagine what inheritance could be worth the risk of bringing Star back to Sanctuary, but his sister had been foolishly destructive only of herself. If the legacy which would come to Star at age seven were that important, then it was Samlor's duty as the child's uncle to see that she received it.

It was his duty as the father as well, but that was something he thought about only when he awakened in the bleak darkness.

So he was in Sanctuary again, where no one was safe; and a man he didn't know had just identified him.

Star put a hand on her uncle's elbow, to reassure Samlor of her presence and the fact that she understood the tension.


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