The Website of Tim Stretton
::More Dragonchaser Facts
The second draft of the novel changes many of the names. The Paladrians now often have names taken from or reminiscent of Lithuanian.
Watch this space for more excerpts from the novel.
The First Race
The penultimate galley on the quay was Serendipity,
making an exceptionally favourable draw. The Hanspar was in no sense a
tactical race; the galleys pulled out against a strong current for ten
minutes or so until they reached the Hanspar Rock; rounding the rock,
they then pulled for the finish line, largely with the current. A boat
with a good draw, such as Serendipity or Fanar’s Glory,
was in a strong position, since the other boats had to pass the leader
against the current. Mirko’s tactics were simple; he intended to run
flat out into the current from the base of his favourable draw;
Dragonchaser and Excelsior had a lot of ground to make up,
and if he could get to the Rock ahead of them, they might never close
Mirko surveyed his own crew. Liudas was pale and sweating; this was real racing. Orstas’s jaw was clenched, determination oozing from every pore. Jenx, the slave-drummer, chewed on what Mirko suspected was a narcotic weed; he needed to have an absolute sense of rhythm, and if it took falcx to achieve sufficient detachment, Mirko wasn’t going to complain.
A great gong sounded and the crowd redoubled their cheers. Serendipity started to move away, Jenx beating the rhythm ‘Seven’.
“Orstas!” called down Mirko from the observation platform, “beat Nine!”
Orstas nodded and mouthed an order to Jenx, who increased his rhythm. Serendipity perceptibly gained speed. Liudas pulled the helm around to starboard to bring her dangerously close to Fanar’s Glory, who had had the most favourable draw. The manoeuvre appeared to unsettle Fanar’s Glory, who attempted to pick up her rhythm. The result was a clash of oars which cost momentum, and Serendipity streaked past. The race was thirty seconds old, and Serendipity was in the lead!
Fanar’s Glory had been badly affected by her fouling, and slewed round to the port side, blocking the boats in third and fourth. Mirko could not believe their luck; Serendipity was in the lead and all the pursuing boats would have to move around the now virtually stationary Fanar’s Glory.
“Orstas! Keep Nine!” he called. The greater the lead Serendipity could open up now, the more disheartened the pursuit would become.
The crew, he noted, seemed comfortable enough with Nine — not a rate to maintain for a long race, but for a well-trained crew with good morale, sustainable in the short term. Orstas shouted out periodic curses but no more; Liudas was required to do nothing more than steer in a straight line; and Mirko was able to draw breath, and enjoy the steady pull-pull-pull from the crew.
Soon Mirko sensed from the crew that Nine was unsustainable and pulled the rhythm back down to Eight. There was no point in overstretching the crew at this stage. He looked back over his shoulder, and to his dismay saw that Dragonchaser was the second-placed galley, with Excelsior in third. These skilful and well-trained crews had found it easiest to get around Fanar’s Glory, now way back down the field.
Mirko counted Dragonchaser’s strokes; it looked as though she was sustaining Nine. This was hardly surprising; Dragonchaser was the best for very good reasons, her crew strong, fit and well-nourished. At this rate, though, Serendipity would reach the Rock first.
Liudas and Orstas had noticed Dragonchaser making ground. Orstas looked up, expecting the call for Nine, but Mirko simply shook his head. He called down to Liudas: “Prepare to turn!” and Liudas nodded grimly.
The crew of Dragonchaser had set up a great howl, a plangent tone which raised the hackles on Mirko’s neck. If it was meant to unsettle, it was certainly effective.
“Liudas, careful now! Steady turn, you have time!”
Liudas had not judged the approach well. Serendipity was moving towards the Rock on too flat a trajectory, making a shorter line, but requiring a tighter, more technical turn. The crew, their backs to the direction of the galley, maintained their rhythm. Liudas realised that his approach was too close, but rather than pulling wider and losing a little time, gambled on being able to make the turn smartly enough to whip around.
It was a manoeuvre that would have taxed an experienced helm, and it was too much for Liudas. Grrrch! The lead starboard oar caught the rock, snapped clean in half; the hull followed with an alarming thud.
“Starboard oars! Push off! Push off!” cried Mirko. “Liudas — hard to port, hard to port!”
Liudas waved the helm ineffectually while the crew did what they could to push Serendipity back away from the rock. Orstas liberally applied the snib, despite Mirko’s instructions to the contrary.
Eventually Serendipity was back in the main stream, albeit virtually stationary. Dragonchaser, who had executed the turn perfectly, slid past at Nine, and while Serendipity was realigning herself Excelsior moved past too, Raidis giving a cheery wave.
Serendipity, with one starboard oar broken and another badly cracked, and the hull leaking, was in no position to make up the ground, even if Orstas had applied himself to encouragement rather than brutality. Fortunately the current was now in her favour, and while Dragonchaser and Excelsior streaked away, only Morvellos Devil made serious inroads into the remainder of the gap.
Orstas affected not to hear Mirko’s calls from the observation platform, and instructed Jenx to set a ludicrous Nine rhythm. Given the speed at which she had rowed the first leg, and the damage she had sustained, this was the height of optimism. Inevitably several of the crew fell short of the rhythm, leading to fouling and erratic course. Liudas, a dejected figure in his Azure livery, was unable to correct such veering. Orstas became steadily more enraged, roaming the deck beating any rower who dropped below the Nine.
Morvellos Devil, rowing Eight but with a full complement of oars and a more sustainable rhythm, passed Serendipity with a great cheer just before the finish line. Zigzagging wildly, Serendipity crossed the line in fourth place to a good ovation. Mirko would have settled for the result beforehand, but the race should have been won. Both Liudas and Orstas had revealed significant defects.
Orstas appeared to place the blame elsewhere. He dragged Skaidrys, the unlucky oarsman who had been snapped on the Rock, from his seat as Serendipity moved alongside the jetty.
“You cost us the race! You cost us the race! If we’d gone round the Rock first we’d have won!”
“How could I tell? I was facing backwards!” replied Skaidrys with some spirit.
“Bastard slave-son of a pox-whore!” yelled Orstas. “No slave talks back to me!”
He struck Skaidrys full in the face with the snib, opening a wound from cheek to jaw. Skaidrys fell senseless to the deck, which was insufficient to check Orstas’s rage. Again and again he beat the prone figure.
Mirko leaped from the platform. “Orstas!” he said, voice quiet but eyes blazing. “Stop that — now!”
Orstas simply looked up and spat, then raised his arm for another strike at Skaidrys. At the top of his stroke, Mirko held his wrist and took the snib, which he then brought down on Orstas’s shoulders. Orstas toppled over in sheer astonishment. Mirko hauled him up by his Azure blouse, which he then ripped off. He then administered three smart blows to Orstas’s bare back. Orstas, too stunned to respond, simply stared. Mirko grasped Orstas’s waistband firmly.
“Orstas,” he said loudly enough for the whole galley to hear. “You are a disgrace, not just to the position of overseer, but to the condition of man. Consider yourself discharged — on the instant!”
With this Mirko pitched Orstas over the side of Serendipity and into the dock in front of the watching masses. After some ineffectual splashing, a dockhand held out a long pole and Orstas was hauled to safety.
The crowd, at first stunned into silent, set up a great chant. “Sapphire! Sapphire! Sapphire!” If part of Mirko’s job was to boost Bartazan’s popularity with the masses, it seemed he had earned his money today.
For the first time in their acquaintance, Bartazan was speechless. While
he attempted to formulate a suitable reply, a figure crashed through the
undergrowth: Orstas, if possible even drunker than Liudas.
“I hear you, Ascalon!” he cried. “ ‘Discharged!’ I was employed by my lord Bartazan, and only he can discharge me!”
“Orstas!” said Liudas placatingly. “Perhaps we can discuss this under less fraught circumstances.”
In a single movement Orstas turned and landed a flawless punch on Liudas’s nose, with a consequent eruption of blood. Liudas lay on his back in the flower-bed, looking stupidly up at his assailant.
Orstas stood over him, veins standing out from his forehead, alcoholic fumes reeking from his person. “If it wasn’t for you, pansy-boy, none of this would have happened! If you’d only managed to get round the Rock, I’d not have had to push the slaves so hard. And then that whoreson Ascalon would —”
“That’s enough, Orstas,” said Mirko, guiding him away from Liudas, whose efforts to rise were proving ineffectual.
Orstas shook off Mirko’s arm and squared up to him. “You caught me off guard today, pimp. Perhaps now we’ll see who’s the better man — if you dare.”
Mirko laughed in open contempt. Orstas was taller and broader, but while the drink might dull his pain, it would also have destroyed his reflexes. And he doubted strongly that Orstas was used to fighting anyone who might hit back.
Goaded, Orstas launched a long right hand at Mirko’s chin. Mirko swayed out of the way, feinted with his right hand, and tripped Orstas into the flower-bed, where he sprawled alongside Liudas, with no greater dignity.
Crawling to his feet, he rose to face Bartazan, who had been watching the proceedings in stunned silence, a lark halfway to his mouth.
“My lord,” said Orstas. “I am your loyal overseer. I do not take orders from Ascalon, and most certainly he does not discharge me.”
Mirko said: “For once Orstas and I agree. He does not take orders from me — in fact he disobeyed my order to go to Tempo Eight this afternoon. And, regrettably, neither do I discharge him. You have a choice to make, my lord.”
Bartazan’s pale blue eyes were cold. Mirko did not think he was a sentimental man.
“Constables!” he called, and two Peremptor’s men appeared with amazing facility. “Escort the Gentle Orstas from the premises if you please. He no longer carries the status of overseer, and as such represents a gatecrasher.”
Orstas gave an incoherent bellow as the two guards frog-marched him from the scene. Looking back over his shoulder, he called: “I won’t forget this — either of you!”
Mirko had already turned away. He gave his hand to Liudas and pulled him upright from his botanical bed. “Go home, Liudas,” he said. “We’ll talk tomorrow.”
Dabbing at his nose, Liudas left with what dignity he could manage. At least, thought Mirko, he was leaving without an involuntary escort.
Dinner at Formello
Bartazan had outdone himself for hospitality tonight. No fewer than
seven courses, each with carefully selected wines, were put before the
discerning palates. The vegetables were crisp and succulent, the meats
rare and flavoursome. Delicately-spiced pastes and sauces added savour
to every dish.
Larien was in a curious humour; her mood best summarised as ‘distrait’.
“Have I done anything to offend you, my lady?” Mirko asked quietly while their neighbours were distracted in conversation.
“Why should you think that?”
“Your conduct was more — open — yesterday,” he said. “I thought we had moved towards a certain intimacy …”
“You forget yourself, Captain. I enjoyed your company yesterday very much in an informal setting; but here I am the niece of the Elector, and must set frivolity aside.”
“I thought that perhaps you regretted the degree of intimacy you permitted me yesterday.”
Larien sighed. “Yesterday was yesterday; today is today. I imagined you to possess more sangfroid than to repine over imagined slights like some mooncalf.”
“So yesterday didn’t mean anything?”
Larien picked up a napkin and daintily dabbed at her mouth. “Really, Mirko, this is absurd. You expect life to be a dull homogeneity. Yesterday I was in the humour for a diversion, which was undoubtedly pleasant. Tonight I am tired and vexed; and your importunities do not help. A man of breeding would not pursue the subject.”
Mirko pursed his lips; Liudas leaned towards him. “Did I not advise you to attempt no flirtation with the ladies of Formello?”