Blade of Tyshalle by Matthew Woodring Stover
Copyright ® 2001
Cover design by David Stevenson
Cover art by Dave McKean
First Edition: April 2001
This book is dedicated to the memories of some of the best friends any man could ask for. I only wish you could have lived to read it.
For Evangeline, Aleister, and Friedrich; for Lev, John, Clive, and Terence; for Roger and Fritz and both Bobs (Robert A. and Robert E.).
Even today, some still listen.
But we have soothed ourselves into imagining sudden change as some-thing that happens outside the normal order of things. An accident, like a car crash. Or beyond our control, like a fatal illness. We do not conceive of sudden, irrational change as built into the very fabric of existence. Yet it is. And chaos theory teaches us ... that straight linearity, which we have come to take for granted in everything from physics to fiction, simply does not exist... .
Life is actually a series of encounters in which one event may change those that follow in a wholly unpredictable, even devastating way... .
That's a deep truth about the structure of our universe. But, for some reason, we insist on behaving as if it were not true.
Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.
The Book of the Law
A tale is told of twin boys born to different mothers.
One is dark by nature, the other light. One is rich, the other poor. One is harsh, the other gentle. One is forever youthful, the other old before his time.
One is mortal.
They share no bond of blood or sympathy, but they are twins nonetheless.
They each live without ever knowing that they are brothers. They each die fighting the blind god.
The only way I can explain why you'll never see me again is to tell you about Hari.
This is how I visualize the conversation that ended up pushing me into Hari Michaelson's life. I wasn't there—I don't know the details-but the images in my head are vivid as a slap on the mouth; to be a good thaumaturge, your imagination must be powerful and detailed—and I'm the best the Conservatory has ever produced.
This is how I see it:
"It's all here in the telemetry;" says Administrator Wilson Chandra, Chairman of the Studio Conservatory. He wipes the sweat from his palms on the hem of his Costanti chlamys and blinks through a stinging cloud of cigar smoke. He licks his lips—they're thick, and always dry—as he looks down at the rows of trainee magicians who meditate with furious concentration below. I'm not in that class, by the way; these are beginners.
Chandra goes on: "He's doing very well on the academics, you know, he has a fine grasp of Westerling and is coming along very well in First Continent cultural mores, but as you can see, he can barely maintain alpha, let alone moving to the beta consciousness required for effective spellcasting, and we, we're working only with Distraction Level Two, approximately what he will find in, say, a private room in a metropolitan inn, and under these circumstances I simply don't believe—"
"Shut up, will you?" says the other man on the techdeck. "Christ, you make me tired."
"I, ahm ..." Administrator Chandra runs a hand through his thinning hair, sweat-slick despite the climate control. "Yes, Businessman."
Businessman Marc Vilo, the Patron of the student in question, rolls the thick stinking cigar around his mouth as he stumps forward to get a better view through the glass panel.
Businessman Vilo is, a short, skinny, bowlegged man with the manners of a dockhand and the jittery energy of a fighting cock. I've seen him in the netfeatures plenty of times; he's an unimpressive figure in his conservative jumpsuit and cloak, until you remember that he'd been born into a Tradesman family; he'd taken over the family business, a three-truck transport firm, and had built it into the Business powerhouse Vilo Intercontinental. Still only in his mid-forties, he had purchased his family's contract from their Business Patron, bought his way into the Business caste, and was now one of the wealthiest men—outside the Leisure Families—in the Western Hemisphere. Netfeatures call him the Happy Billionaire.
This is why Administrator Chandra is here right now; normally the Administrator has much more important duties than entertaining visiting Patrons. But Vilo's protégé-the very first he has ever sponsored into the Conservatory—is failing miserably and is about to wash out, and the Administrator wants to soothe the sting, and perhaps retain a certain degree of goodwill, in hopes that Vilo will sponsor further students in the future. This is a business he's running here, after all. Sponsoring an Actor can be extremely lucrative, if the Actor becomes successful just ask my father. The Administrator wants to make Vilo see that this is only a single failed investment, and is no reason to believe that further investments of this nature will also fail. "There is also, ehm, a, well, a certain history of disciplinary problems—"
"Thought I told you to shut up:' Vilo continues to stare down at his protégé, a slightly built boy named Hari Michaelson, nineteen years old, a Laborer from San Francisco.
The boy kneels on his meter-square mat of scuffed plastic, hands curled in Three Finger technique. Of the thirty students in the room, only he has his eyes closed. The monitors on his temples that feed data into the Conservatory computer tell the whole story: Despite the slow three-per-minute rhythm of his breath, his heart rate has surged over eighty, his adrenal production is 78 percent over optimal, and his EEG spikes like broken glass.
Vilo pulls the butt from his mouth. "Why in-hell did you put him in the magick program anyway?"
"Businessman, we went over this when he was admitted. His memory and spatial-visualization test out in the low genius range. There is no question that he has the intellectual equipment to be a fine adept. However, he is emotionally unstable, prone to irrational rages, and is, ah, uncontrollably aggressive. There is a history of mental illness in his family, you know; his father was downcasted from Professional due to a succession of breakdowns?'
"Yeah?" Vilo said. "So what? I know this kid; he worked for me two years. Sure, he's got a temper. Who doesn't? He's smart, and he's tough as my goddamn boot heel." He smiles, showing his teeth, predatory. "Kind of like me at his age."
"You understand, Businessman, that we take these steps only to protect you from the expense of sponsoring a boy who will almost certainly perish on his first transfer."
"So? That's his problem, not mine. The money is—" He spits a shred of tobacco onto the carpet. "—not an issue:'
"He will simply never become an effective spellcaster. I'm sorry, but there are certain restrictions imposed by the Studio. The examinations administered by the Graduation Board are very stringent."
Chandra makes a gesture as though to take the Businessman's arm and lead him away. "Perhaps I can show you our newest pilot program, the priesthood school. This particular spellcasting variant has the advantage that the practitioner need enter the casting trance only under very controlled conditions—that is, under the guise of religious ritual—"
"Cut the crap:' Vilo stuffs his cigar back into his mouth. "I got a shitload of money in that kid out there. A shitload. I don't give a rat's ass about the Studio's restrictions, or the goddamn examinations. That kid is going to graduate from this toilet, and then he's going to Overworld."
"I'm afraid that's simply impossible—"
"You gonna make a liar out of me?" Vilo's eyes seem to retreat into his face, becoming small and dangerous. He hammers the next word. "Administrator?"
"Please, Businessman, you, you must understand, he's been in the magick program fourteen months; we must either, either, ah, graduat
Vilo goes back to the window; he's more interested in the cherry on the end of his cigar than in Chandra's stammer. "Your parents live in, what, Chicago, right? That nice old frame house on Fullerton, west of Clark."
Chandra stands very still. Ice water trickles down his spine. "Yes, Businessman ..."
"You gotta understand that I don't make bad investments. You follow? Hari gets his shot."
"Businessman, I—" Chandra says desperately, then with a massive exercise of will steadies his voice. "There are other options that can be explored .. "
"Please, Businessman, perhaps I was too hasty in suggesting that Michaelson cannot succeed. He is, after all, in Battle Magick, which is the most difficult school, but it is the one place where his, erm, aggressive na ture may work to his advantage. My idea—with your permission—is to provide him with a tutor:'
"He doesn't have tutors? What the hell am I paying for?"
"Tutors, yes, of course, staff tutors. Michaelson doesn't respond well to directed instruction. He, ah—" Chandra decides not to tell him of the brutal beating Michaelson had inflicted on Instructor Pullman. I knew about it, so did most of the students at the Conservatory; it was the best gossip we'd had all year. Chandra believes that issue is settled; and, really, the man had gotten no worse than he deserved. In Chandra's mind, to make advances on a boy with Michaelson's psychosexual dysfunctions had been irresponsible to the point of criminality. Speaking for the students—well, Pullman's a nasty little groper; a lot of us wished we'd done what Michaelson did.
"I'm thinking more in terms of another student, someone who'd have no authority over him, who could, well—he doesn't respond well to authority figures, as you might know—someone who could, well, be his friend."
"What, he doesn't have friends enough already?"
"Businessman," Chandra says with a nervous laugh, "he doesn't have any friends at all."
And that's when he decided to send for me.
When the Winston Transfer first opened the gate from Earth to Overworld, the Studio had been lurking in the background, waiting to step through. Overworld is a land of dragons and demons, of hippogryphs and mermaids, of hedge wizards and thieves, master enchanters and noble knights.
It is a billion dreams come true.
I burn for it. I lust for Overworld the way a martyr dreams of the arms of God.
My father took me to first-hand one of Raymond Story's early Adventures when I was seven years old, and when Story spoke a Word of Power and the Hammer of Dal'kannith smote an evil ogre and splashed the brains from its leering ten-gallon head, I felt the soaring echo of his joy of battle and the surge of puffing magick and well, you know: there really aren't any words.
For my tenth birthday, my father bought me the cube of Story's epic three-day battle with the mad dragon Sha-Rikldntaer. The very first of the thousand or so times I played it, I knew.
I had to do it. I had to be there.
Ten years intervening have only sharpened my lust.
Everything in my life was perfect. I was at the top of my class, had the highest psych rating the Conservatory had ever measured, my elving surgeries were going perfectly, and I was absolutely on top of the world until Chandra called me into his office and took it all away.
When I went in there and took his offered seat, I had no idea of the preceding imaginary conversation. I expected another stroke-up over my spectacular progress, and so it came as a rude shock to be told that I was to be this antisocial, ill-tempered Laborer's new tutor.
I played it off, though; we of Business are trained to take bad news coolly. "Sorry, Administrator," I told him, tapping my face guard. "I don't think I'll have time. I graduate in four months, and I have six more surgeries."
Chandra had flinched visibly when I called him Administrator, he hates to be reminded that I'm upcaste of him. I slip the word in from time to time, when he needs to be reminded of his manners.
But now he shook his head. "You don't understand, Kris. This is not a request. This boy needs a tutor. He needs the best tutor, and you are the top magick student. You will take him in hand, and you will teach him what he needs to know to pass the Battle Magick exams. Period?'
"I'm not interested, Administrator." What does it take to get through to this lump of meat? "Ask someone else."
He rose, and came around the corner of his big rosewood desk. He leaned on it and clasped his hands together. "The independence of the Graduation Board is sacrosanct I cannot influence them to pass an unqualified student, but I can certainly prevent any student from ever coming before them, if I choose. Without my signature, they'll never see you."
He stared at me as though trying to see the inside of my skull—and there was something in his eyes, something dark and frightening: an eerily impersonal hunger that made my stomach knot.
It looked familiar, somehow; but I couldn't guess where I'd seen it before.
"Do you understand, now?" he said. "If Michaelson doesn't graduate, neither do you?'
The universe tilted beneath me, and I clutched at the arms of my chair to keep from falling off the Earth and tumbling into interstellar space.
Not graduate? Never go to Overworld? Far more than a sentence of death—this was the whisper of the headsman's axe. The room darkened around me; when I could speak again, my first instinct was to bluster. "You can't do that! If you even think about washing me out, my father—" "Would thank me, and you know it."
That stopped me short; I did know it. "But me? Come on, Ad—Chairman. I mean—Jesus, I was supposed to graduate last term, but I stuck it out for my elving—if you wash me out, I'll be stuck with this face for the rest of my life! It's one thing, if I'm an Actor, but—"
Chandra's head wobbled on his scrawny neck; he looked very old and weak, but still capable of a dangerous vindictiveness, like a senile king. "This Michaelson boy," he said. "His Patron is Marc Vilo."
"The gangster?" I asked, startled. My father talked about him once in a while, about how he disgraces our entire caste.
"He was, erm, here today. He's—he's very interested to see Michaelson go on. Very interested. He, ah, he—" Chandra looked away, and coughed to cover the crack in his voice. "—he asked about my family."
"Uh." I understood now. He'd decided to handle his problem by making it my problem. Foolish—my father would have laughed at him and made some rude comment about the whole of the Administration caste, with its penchant for asscovering and buckpassing.
I couldn't laugh. I remembered overhearing a couple of my father's Laborers once, when one of them supported the other as he staggered out from a correction box: "I guess the best you can hope for is not to be noticed?'
I'd been noticed; and the simple fact that he was downcaste from me meant nothing at all. This weak buckpassing bitshuffler held the entire rest of my life in his palsied hands, and all I could do was grin and take it like a Businessman.
"All right, Chairman," I said with as much of a front of confidence as I could muster. "Let me look at his file."
I leaned against the fluted door-column at the arch that separated the weight room from the main hall of the gym, looking in. I rubbed at the flexible white face guard that protected my most recent surgery; enough sensation leaked through the neural blocks that I had a permanent bone-deep itch. Someday, on Overworld, this surgery would enable me to impersonate one of the First Folk, the elflike aborigines of the northwest continent. They were the greatest magicians of Overworld; I might never match them—but I have a couple talents of my own.
Behind me, the hall was filled with Sorbathane-armored Combat students thwacking each other with swords of weighted rattan.
Michaelson stood out in the crowded weight room. Magick students avoid the weights until the late afternoon, when the Combat neanderthals would be in class or outside on the tourney fields. Mic
One of the neanderthals elbowed another in the ribs as I threaded my way across the room. "Lookie." The neanderthal got up and blocked my path, rippling his hypertrophied pectorals. He topped my height by maybe a third of a meter. "What's doing, magick girl? Aren't you supposed to be on your knees somewhere?"
I grinned behind my mask as I sidestepped him. "Nah, you just wish I was a- girl. Give you a choice of three holes, 'stead of the two your pal's stuck with." I moved on past while the frowning Combat student tried to figure out what kind of an insult that worked out to be.
Michaelson stared blindly at the ceiling while he labored under the bar, veins standing out on his forehead. I was kind of curious about him, I admit; reading his file, I'd discovered that his father was Duncan Michaelson the anthropologist, the same Duncan Michaelson whose book on Westerling was the Conservatory's standard text on the language.
Duncan Michaelson had already been a big part of my life; I'd read his Tales of the First Folk—an oral history of the northwest primals—dozens of times. Tales of the First Folk had been what drew me toward the elves in the first place.
I couldn't mention that to Hari, though; I'd also read in his file that he never spoke about his father.
Hari was almost a decimeter taller than I am, but wouldn't outweigh me by much. Dark eyes and swarthy skin, black hair, muscles like knotted rope. He grunted as he powered the bench press bar up through another stroke; his lips twisted into a snarl fringed by a ragged growth of black beard.
I glanced at the bench press readout 80 keys. I grunted out loud, impressed in spite of myself; I knew from his file that Michaelson weighed in around sixty-five. Then I looked at the repcounter. As Michaelson slowly straightened his arms, the counter clicked over to 15.
Chandra had said Michaelson spent a lot of time in the gym; I wondered if even the Chairman knew just how much.