Alta (The Dragon Jousters, Book 2)

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9780756402570: Alta (The Dragon Jousters, Book 2)

National best-selling fantasy legend Mercedes Lackey created a vivid, dynamic fusion of the Upper and Lower Kingdoms of ancient Egypt with the most exciting, authentic and believable portrayal of dragons ever imagined. In the second novel in Mercedes Lackey's richly-conceived Dragon Jousters series, the dragonrider Vetch escapes to Alta, the subjugated land of his birth. There, he hopes to teach his people to raise and train dragons—and build an army that will liberate his homeland.

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About the Author:

Mercedes Lackey is a full-time writer and has published numerous novels and works of short fiction, including the best-selling Heralds Of Valdemar series. She is also a professional lyricist and a licensed wild bird rehabilitator. She lives in Oklahoma with her husband, artist Larry Dixon, and their flock of parrots. She can be found at mercedeslackey.com.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

CHAPTER ONE

OVERHEAD, the stars that filled the night sky, the ornaments upon the robe of the Goddess of the Night, seemed close enough to touch. The kamiseen wind whined in the tops of the trees of the oasis beside him; even at night, it never completely ceased. It smelled of baked stone, with a hint of desiccated plants.

He had come to learn that the desert was not all one sort of landscape; he had escaped over stony hills into the pure sand of the desert dune country; now he was in yet another sort of desert, a place of marginal life. The sand beneath Vetch was not as comfortable to sit in as one might suppose; since this wasn't dune country, the ground was hard beneath a surface mix of dust, sand, and pebbles. He was glad of his bedroll now since it provided a layer of softness between himself and the ground. Strange. When he had been Khefti-the-Fat's serf, he wouldn't have noticed how hard it was; in so short a time he had gotten used to certain comforts.

Yes, it was the time of the kamiseen, and the ever-present wind whined over the desert, carrying with it a film of dust and sucking away moisture. But this was an oasis, with carefully tended date palms, and Vetch's camp was downwind of the palm grove. The Bedu camped within the oasis, permitting Vetch the downwind side for his own camp, so the kamiseen would not trouble him much tonight.

Vetch's scarlet dragon Avatre slumbered at his back, her body warm inside the pit he had dug in the sand and lined with stones heated in his fire. Fuel was as precious out here as water, but tonight no one begrudged the effort of collecting it for him. Firstly, this clan of Veiled Ones boasted many camels and could afford the dried dung for the fire. And secondly, Avatre had earned the right to her fuel and more.

She had eaten well today, taking down four of the desert gazelles. The first time had been this afternoon, twice in rapid succession, enough to feed her well at midday. The second time had been with the help of Vetch's sling, and enabled the two of them to provide an evening meal not only for Avatre herself but for Vetch and the clan of Veiled Ones who were hosting him on this last evening in the desert. There was a faint scent of roasting meat on the kamiseen tonight, the last remains of the evening feast.

He was within striking distance of the goal he had sought for so long. Soon he would cross the border that divided Tian lands from Altan. Soon he would be among his own people, and although he probably looked outwardly calm, inside he was afire with excitement—and at the same time, afraid. This moment was one he had dreamed about for so long, but dreams were one thing—reality another.

Once, he had dreamed of having a dragon, too. Now he had one, and Avatre was so much more than he had been able to imagine. She gave him freedom—and tied him to her with bonds of responsibility and love. He had never envisaged how much she would mean to him. It was a glorious burden he would never have given up for the world, but it meant that he was no longer beholden only to himself. In fact, when given a choice between his own welfare and hers—and there had been many such choices on this journey—he would always choose hers. He could not help himself. She was his beloved, after all.

Now, faced with the prospect of crossing into the land he had once thought of as his goal, he knew that no matter what his dreams had been, they could not possibly replicate what he would encounter.

Those dreams might be better than what he actually found, or they might be worse. But they would probably be different, and that alone was a reason for fear.

But this was as far as the talismans that the Veiled Ones had provided as a series of guides would take him. Tomorrow, one of them would personally take him to within sight of the Altan border, the lands where the desert ended and the swampy delta began, and leave him there.

Tonight, unlike previous evenings, he was not alone at his fire. He shared it with one of the Mouths of the Bedu nomads, an enigmatic and apparently sexless creature covered from head to toe in one of their characteristic, belted blue robes and over-vest, dyed with indigo. As all of the others, the Mouth was veiled by a drape of cloth that showed only the eyes. Both sexes wore the veils; a practical consideration when one lived in a land where the wind never stopped, and neither did the dust. He had never heard of any of the Bedu going without their veils, but then, he had never heard of the Bedu going outside the desert. That the costume made the Veiled Ones even more enigmatic to outsiders was, he was sure at this point, a source of endless amusement to them.

He still could not tell whether these Mouths were male or female. Perhaps they were neither; it was altogether possible that they were a kind of eunuch. He didn't find that idea as discomfiting as he might have once; if the Mouths were a sort of eunuch, it was not something that had happened against their will. And certainly there were priests of certain obscure gods even among his own people who volunteered for such a sacrifice. Some believed that those who had done so obtained the special favor of their god; others that to remove sex from one's life opened one to visions, or granted great magical power. For some, such a sacrifice was worth the gain.

This particular Mouth was regarding Vetch from the other side of a smaller fire than the one that had heated Avatre's rocks, watching with a direct and clear-eyed gaze over the veil. The Mouth had asked Vetch to tell his tale in full, and now had been simply regarding him quietly for some time now, but Vetch hadn't made any effort to ask why. The Mouth would tell him—or not—in good time. Vetch still wasn't entirely certain what role the Mouths played in the lives of the Veiled Ones; they didn't seem to be priests, quite. They weren't exactly magicians, either, although they did work magic, the magic that created the talismans that guided him from clan to clan, for instance. They certainly were the only ones who spoke to outsiders, but they weren't precisely interpreters, nor were they ambassadors. All bargaining with outsiders was conducted by them, yet they were not traders. And they weren't leaders of their people either.

In fact, if he could have guessed anything at this point, it would have been that they were, literally, the voices of their clans, that somehow they knew what everyone in the clan thought, or wanted, with regard to an outsider, and they were the tool through which these wants, thoughts, and needs were expressed.

But they certainly had their own personalities, for every single one he had encountered so far was as different from the last as any two individuals could be. Some had barely spoken at all and held themselves coldly aloof from him; others had been positively garrulous, interested to hear whatever of his own story he cared to impart, and forthcoming with news of the world outside the desert, if not of details of their own lives and customs. Some had been terrified of Avatre, others treated her like a kind of giant falcon—with the respect that talons and teeth deserved, but no fear at all.

This one was somewhere in between, but operating on the "helpful" side of the accounting. The Mouth had been wary of Avatre and inclined to keep Vetch and his charge far away from the Bedu camp, but otherwise friendly enough. The Mouth had asked careful questions about Vetch's life as a serf as well as his treatment by the Tian Jousters—Ari in particular—and about the journey that had brought them here. Perhaps Avatre's gift of meat had paved the way for that. And this Mouth sat at Vetch's fire now as if wishing to be there, and not as if mounting guard over the "outsider."

"You call yourself Kiron, son of Kiron," the Mouth said abruptly, although the voice did not break the silence so much as insinuate itself into the silence and part it. "So you have asked us to address you. And yet, you do not think of yourself as that person."

How does the Mouth know that? It was something that Vetch himself had not realized until the moment it was pointed out.

Vetch considered that statement in silence without retorting immediately, giving himself time to analyze the thought. He had, over the course of these travels, also learned to keep his mouth shut and think about what a Mouth said before he responded to it, having shoved his foot rather neatly into his own mouth a time or two in the early part of his journey. "I have been Vetch, the serf, far longer than I have been Kiron, the keeper of Avatre and dragon rider," he said at last.

"And yet, if you enter into your native land thinking of yourself as Vetch, your own people will treat you thuswise," said the Mouth, with a touch of warning in the tone. "Vetch the serf is a person of no worth and no account, deserving of no consideration or special treatment."

He felt a kind of stillness settle into his gut. This was important. He wasn't certain why it was important, but it felt important. Once again, Vetch considered the words. Carefully. What was the Mouth trying to say to him? "And?" he ventured.

"And, perhaps, they will try to take the dragon from you."

"She won't go," Vetch replied, with some heat, and yet sure of himself. She wouldn't, of course, and this was absolutely the one thing he had no fear of. Unlike the dragons that were captured as fledglings and tamed, he had raised Avatre from the egg. She was as bonded to him as any creature could be—as no other dragon, save one, had ever been bonded to another human.

That one, and that other human, were perhaps the most important part of his past that there was. Kashet, and his former Master, the Jouster Ari. They flew in the service of the Great King of Tia. Both of them were his enemies in name, now, and yet were his friends in fact. It was Ari who had engineered his escape when Avatre had made her First Flight with him clinging to her back, all hope of concealing her existence anymore gone off on the kamiseen winds.

Ari and Kashet lay behind him somewhere, in the lands claimed by the High King of Tia. He could not think of them without gratitude, and yet it was a gratitude tinged with pain. If he could have, he would have never left them. And yet—

And yet they were Tians, and he was Altan, and if they ever met again, they would probably have to fight each other, and possibly to the death.

Still, Kashet would permit no other to ride him but Ari—and Avatre would be the same with Vetch. He had absolutely no doubt of that, for Avatre had actually tried to face down Kashet—who was many times her size—when she thought the great blue was threatening Vetch.

"Nevertheless," persisted the Mouth, "they will try. They may starve her until she eats tala-treated meat, and is drugged into submission. Unless you make yourself into Kiron, son of Kiron, Altan Jouster. Unless you come to believe that you are that person. Then, no one will presume to doubt that you are entitled to ride her."

Vetch closed his eyes for a moment. A Mouth never, ever said something as an idle observation. And along with all of the passage-rights that Ari had purchased for him with his Gold of Honor, had come another—the right to be instructed in whatever any Mouth thought might be useful. Some of the Mouths had honored this more in the breach than the observance, but this one seemed to be offering sound advice. "Can you teach me to believe?" he asked finally, opening his eyes.

The Mouth regarded him with solemn dark eyes above the veil. "Perhaps. I can, at least, give you a guide to teach yourself. First—among our people we have a saying. `Assume the attitude of prayer, and in time, the attitude will become the prayer.' I put this to you. Already you are aware of how you hold yourself, for this tells your dragon much, and instructs her on what she should be thinking about what is around her."

Vetch nodded; that was plain enough. Dragons were supremely sensitive to the language of body and posture.

"So—mind, now, Kiron, son of Kiron. Put yourself in the attitude of a freeborn man, or even one of wealth or noble birth. Recall how the masters of your master held themselves, and hold yourself in like manner. Behave in all ways as the Jouster-in-training of Tia would, and within Alta you will be taken as one who has authority by right. Behave in all ways in that manner, and as this becomes second nature, your spirit will come to believe what your body tells it." A pause, as those dark, enigmatic eyes gazed at him. "To begin with, you might raise your head that you may look down your nose at those who are inferior to you. Such a posture conveys a great deal."

He blinked at that, and self-consciously straightened. No more hunched shoulders; no more deference. He must look people in the eye as if they were at least his equals, and possibly his inferiors. And, yes—down his nose.

"Good," said the Mouth approvingly. "Another thing. The Jousters of Alta, like those of Tia, are permitted to take what they need within reason. If you offer to pay for anything, once you cross that border, there will be suspicion. If your dragon hungers then, find a great estate, land, and take what she needs. Do not permit anyone to question you. Say you are a Jouster in training if need be, but no more."

"But—am I properly garbed for such a thing?" he asked doubtfully. Doubt; it still ate at him, made him think, Sooner or later, they're going to find out I'm an imposter, a thief. Sooner or later— After all, he had no armor, no helm, nothing but a selection of common kilts. He did not look the part—

Although he could not see anything but the eyes, there was a softening there that suggested the Mouth was smiling. "The chances are, the larger the estate, the less likely there will be anyone of rank about who might even consider questioning you or your rights. Go in, demand food and water, and even clothing if you will, and leave. Jousters of Alta are ranked as lesser nobles; there are fewer of them, and they are valued higher." The Mouth's eyes closed for a moment, as if listening to a voice only the Mouth could hear. "I believe," the Mouth added, "Although I do not know, that this is the only way, save through the priesthood, that a man of the common folk may become ennobled."

Vetch nodded; this was more good advice, and not something he would have thought of.

"If I were in your position—" A pause. "This is speculation. But if I were in your position, I would feign to be offended if anyone were to question my rights."

Vetch sighed. That was going to be hard; what were the odds he'd be able to continue this charade for very long? He wasn't ready for this. He had been so long the lowest of the low—

Yet, for Avatre's sake, he would try.

No, he would not try. He would succeed. He must succeed; he had nowhere else to go right now. She was barely half grown, and they could not continue to live in the wilderness. She was doing all right, but she wasn't prospering, and the bigger she got, the more food she would need. To raise her properly, he either needed to turn her loose among others of her kind, or take her to a Jouster's Compound. There was no other choice.

"Do not hunt unless there are no large estate...

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