" The estimable Duncan manages, somehow, to be in tremendous form every time out; his fans certainly won't be disappointed with this one. " - Kirkus Reviews
" Duncan is deft at integrating his large cast and complex narrative and at setting them in a thoroughly realized world that reflects both knowledge of, and a satirical bent toward, religion and the pre-WWI British Empire. " - Publishers Weekly
" I enjoyed The Great Game immensely. Each book is slightly different in style (matching the title of each -- nice touch) which lends itself very nicely to the "dual" nature of the story. Duncan liberally sprinkles the plot with several great characters, lots of detail, and a fabulous "secret society," the Service, modelled after the Victorian British Colonial Service. A great feature of the series is that each novel is stronger than the last." - SF Site
" That supreme trickster Dave Duncan . . . is an expert at producing page-turning adventure, and Future Indefinite fully lives up to the suspense promised in its title. It's all throughly entertaining, while it leaves us wondering, right down to the final pages, whether the end will fall into the classical category of comedy or tragedy. Quite a performance, Mr. Duncan!" - Locus
" . . . tightly written, intelligent, and original . . . The Great Game may prove to be his most durable work. This volume provides a decisive and satisfactory end to it. " - Booklist
" Duncan writes with unusual flair, drawing upon folklore, myth, and his gift for creating ingenious plots." - Year's Best Fantasy and Horror
Prat‘han Potter was growing tired of waiting to die. He had been standing in chains in the courtroom since dawn, and pretending to be brave for so long had turned out to be much more wearing than he had expected. Seventeen of his age brothers had already been tried, convicted, and taken out to be whipped. But he had been the ringleader and this was his third offense, so he had been assured he would be found guilty and put to death. He was starting to think it would be a welcome release, the sooner the better, and if the Joalian crotchworms had not gagged him, he would be telling them to get on with it. He hoped his martyrdom would be the spark to light the revolution that Nagvale so badly needed.
"Granted that death is the only possible sentence in this case," the advocate for the defense said in a bored voice, "impalement is an exceptionally painful, lingering form of execution, and I would ask the court to stipulate more merciful means for this defendant, if My Lord Judges will permit me a brief word on the subject."
"Briefly, then," the president conceded with poor grace. All three judges were Joalians, as were all the other court officials. Most of them were sweltering in formal robes and floppy hats, for the courtroom was as hot as a kiln. Indeed, Prat‘han‘s only consolation was that he was clad in nothing but his usual leather apron. And chains, of course, lots of chains.
The courthouse was the largest and most splendid building in Sonalby, recently erected by the Joalian overlords as a symbol of the enlightenment they brought to their colonies. It contained at least four rooms, all with shiny plank walls and windows of stained glass. This room was the largest, but even with only one defendant remaining, it still contained far too many people for its size--the judges up on their bench, two advocates, four clerks, half a dozen sword-bearing guards. Although the door in the tiny area railed off as a public gallery stood open in a vain attempt to let in some air, it admitted nothing but a view of the village huts of wattle and thatch. The street was deserted. There was not even a mongrel cur left in Sonalby today to hear the victims howl at the whipping post or watch Prat‘han die. The inhabitants had vanished before dawn, to show what they thought of Joalian justice. It was not much of a rebellion, but it was the best the poor sheep could manage.
"My Lords are gracious," said the advocate. He had not spoken ten words to his supposed client, and all they had in common was that they were both bored. "First, I respectfully point out that the only crime the defendant committed was to paint his face. My Lords will forgive me if I concede that I might be tempted to do the same if I had such a face."
The judges smiled thinly. There was absolutely nothing wrong with Prat‘han‘s face except that he was not allowed to paint it the way his forefathers had done for a thousand years. Women told him he was handsome even when his face paint had been smudged to a blur. He tried again to lick the roof of his mouth and was again balked by the foul-tasting wooden bit. His jaw ached from being held open so long.
"Objection!" said the prosecutor, half rising from his seat. "The paint is itself not the issue. The issue is that the governor has prohibited a specified list of barbaric tribal customs such as ritual self-mutilation. Face painting is one of the forbidden procedures."
The left-hand judge smothered a yawn. "And the law specifies impalement. Have you anything else to say?"
"Yes, My Lords," the advocate for the defense said hastily. "Briefly, the accused, Prat‘han Potter, had a distinguished military career in the recent war against Thargia. He was troopleader for Sonalby during the campaign in Lemodvale and the subsequent glorious and historic invasion of Thargvale, fighting alongside our noble Joalian warriors. When the victorious joint army returned to Nagland three years ago and was forced to suppress the usurper Tarion, the accused strangled the usurper with his own hands during the assault on the palace. He acquitted himself throughout with great distinction, receiving a commendation for personal bravery from our own noble Kalmak Chairman."
The judges exchanged annoyed glances. They were all political appointees, and Kalmak was currently top dog in the Clique and hence effective ruler of both Joalia itself and its colonies.
Prat‘han made loud protesting noises around his gag and rattled his chains. If the court decided to refer the appeal for mercy all the way to Joal, then he might have to wait two or three fortnights for an answer, and he could not see that strangulation would be enough of an improvement to justify the delay.
"Silence that man!" said the left-hand judge.
A guard punched Prat‘han in the kidneys. Taken by surprise, he screamed and fell to his knees in a rattle of chains, choking for breath, fighting nausea. The courtroom floor swam before his eyes. Long before he was ready to be brave again, he was hauled to his feet to hear the sentence. He could barely straighten up properly or control his breathing.
"...previous convictions," the judge president droned, "have used up any goodwill earned in the war. You have been found guilty of treason against the Nagian People‘s Democratic Republic. The sentence of the court is--"
"Wait a moment!" said a new voice.
It was not a loud voice, but all heads turned. The speaker was a tall youth standing in the hitherto deserted public enclosure. Lean as sinew, tanned to walnut, black haired, empty-handed, naked except for sandals and a leather loincloth--just a typical Nagian peasant in from minding the herds? But Prat‘han recognized him instantly and forgot the sickening throb of pain.
"You have a very short memory, T‘logan," said the newcomer. "So have you, Dogurk. I remember when you were T‘logan Scribe and Dogurk Scholar. Have you forgotten so soon, My Lord Justices?"
He swung a long leg over the railing, revealing a glimpse of very pale thigh under the leather. As he brought the other leg over, one of the guards lurched forward, drawing his sword. D‘ward just looked at him, and he stopped as if he had hit a wall.
D‘ward resumed his approach to the bench. Two of the judges had lost color, even in that steaming sweat house. Where had he come from? All this time and never a word--yet he walks in at this very instant...
"Three years ago, My Lords, you were under my command, remember? Not quite four years ago, you were about to die outside Lemod, trapped by a guerrilla army and the onset of winter. The only thing that saved you--and all the rest of your great Joalian army--was that the Nagians took the city in the nick of time and found you safe haven. That is correct, isn‘t it?"
He was in the center of the courtroom now. He folded his arms and scowled up at the bench. Judges T‘logan and Dogurk nodded in horrified silence.
D‘ward, D‘ward! Where had he come from? He had vanished in Thargvale three years ago, and no one had heard anything of him since. He had not changed at all. Prat‘han knew how his own once-taut belly had begun to thicken and how the hair had crept back from his temples, but D‘ward was still that same wiry youth he had been then--a boy with a black-stubble beard.
The third judge began, "What is the meaning of this--"
"Shut up!" said D‘ward. "I respectfully remind the court that Prat‘han Potter was the third man up the rope in that assault. He saved your lives, you miserable slugs! And you, T‘logan--I remember him jumping into the freezing torrent and lifting you out bodily when we were making our escape from Lemod in the spring. I saw it with my own eyes! He saved you again."
The judge president made incoherent choking noises.
"And now?" D‘ward added enough scorn to turn the oven into an icehouse. "And now Joal has enslaved the entire population of Nagvale. Oh, I know! I know you think you‘re raising them from barbarism to civilization, but they don‘t see it that way, and the complete suppression of a culture seems like enslavement to me. Civilization, you call it? Because Prat‘han Potter is a proud man as well as a brave one and chooses to decorate his face with what he regards as sacred symbols of his manhood, you plan to put him to death in the foulest way you can think of?"
An agony of silence filled the courtroom.
Then Judge T‘logan spoke the forbidden name: "The Liberator! What are you doing here?" He glanced uneasily around the courtroom, as if expecting to see reapers assembling.
D‘ward Roofer, D‘ward Troopleader, D‘ward Hordeleader, D‘ward Battlemaster ... D‘ward Liberator! He had never accepted that title before, but this time he did not refuse it.
"Just passing through. But if you harm my age brother Prat‘han, then I may decide to stay here and organize the Nagian Freedom Fighters. And if I do choose that option, My Lord Justices, I will throw every last Joalian out of the vale inside two fortnights. I will trample you as I humbled the might of Thargia. I am the Liberator foretold! Do you doubt my word?"
The three judges shook their heads in unison, although they probably did not know they were doing so.
"So, My Lords, you will now issue the prisoner a severe reprimand and release him."
Judge T‘logan spluttered and drew himself up. "That is not--"
The judge subsided again. He glanced at his associates. Dogurk nodded. Trillib nodded, more reluctantly.
"Release the prisoner!"
Two minutes later, Prat‘han staggered out into the blinding sunlight, leaning on the Liberator‘s shoulder.
Five minutes later, the two of them arrived at his shop and he could drink his fill of tepid water, cleanse his mouth, slump onto his work stool and gape at D‘ward. The stabbing pain in his back had faded to a dull ache.
No one had seen them, of course. No one had screamed out D‘ward‘s name, or even Prat‘han‘s own, for he would be something of a hero himself now, being so unexpectedly alive. The people would not return until after dark, and the rest of the senior warriors must be off tending one another‘s stripes.
Under its thick reed-thatched roof, the shed was cooler than the sun-drenched street outside, but not by much. The heavy smell of clay that always hung in the air had faded in the last fortnight, while the potter languished in the village jail. Sunlight blazed in through the open door, glowing on the warm pinks of the wares that cluttered the floor--dozens of jars, bowls, jugs, plates, all waiting for buyers. Flies droned around or walked on the wicker walls. Prat‘han was both surprised and delighted to see his spear and shield still leaning against the wall. He would feel castrated without those old friends, although it was illegal to take them outdoors now, and rumors persisted that the Joalians would soon confiscate every weapon in the vale.
D‘ward inverted a ewer and sat on it. He sighed deeply and wiped his forehead, then grinned at Prat‘han as calmly as if he were one of the regulars who dropped in to chat every day. There was no need to ask how he had worked that miracle in the courtroom. He was D‘ward Liberator. The shockingly blue eyes and unforgettable white-toothed smile could spur a man to do anything.
"The years have been good to you, old friend?"
"You ... you haven‘t changed!"
D‘ward‘s smile narrowed a little, but it was still a smile. "Not on the outside, I suppose. You‘re not much different yourself, you big rascal! Married now?"
Prat‘han nodded, while his gaze wandered over D‘ward. His beard was trimmed close in Joalian style. His ribs...
D‘ward looked down where he was looking. "Oh. I seem to have lost my merit marks, don‘t I? Well, you know they were there once. I can‘t help it if I‘m good at healing, can I?"
The potter pulled himself together. "I owe you my life again, Liberator, and ... Oh! I must not call you that, must I?"
"Yes, you can!" Blue eyes twinkled. "My time has come! As of today, you may call me the Liberator. From now on, I bear the title proudly and will teach the world to respect it. I am happy to start by liberating you. It was pure chance; I came by four days ago and heard what was bubbling."
He stared thoughtfully at Prat‘han, who felt a thrill twist his gut. Why had the Liberator come? Was there blood on the wind again? He said, "You have been away too long! We are your family."
"Always! But I have many sad things to do in the world. I came to see my old comrades in arms and discovered that most of them were in jail. I had hoped that the old Sonalby Warband might be willing to help me in a dangerous venture, but..."
There was blood on the wind! Prat‘han crossed the shack in three long strides to snatch up his shield and spear. "Lead, Liberator! I will follow."
D‘ward rotated on the ewer to face him. "I‘m afraid not. Not you. And none of the others either. You see, brother, now I march against the gods themselves. I can‘t lead followers who sport the symbols of the Five--green hammer, blue stars, the skull of--"
"Faugh! Face marks do not matter. If you want me like this, then you get me like this."
"Oh?" D‘ward seemed to be having trouble keeping his lips in line. "But do I want a helper so fickle? Ten minutes ago you were prepared to die horribly for the right to paint your face. Now it doesn‘t matter?"
Of course it didn‘t! But Prat‘han was not accustomed to thinking why, and he had to rummage frantically in unfrequented corners of his mind before he could say, "You offer me a choice. Joalians tell me. Quite different."
D‘ward laughed. "I see! But the next problem is that you and the brothers seem to have a revolution of your own under way. What I‘m planning has nothing whatsoever to do with throwing the Joalians out of Nagvale."
Prat‘han shrugged to hide his chagrin. "I only fight Joalians from boredom. Whatever your cause, I will support it. Your gods are mine."
"It will involve long travel and grave danger."
"But you said you were married. As I recall, married warriors are reserved for defense."
Why had Prat‘han been such a fool as to admit to Uuluu? "I am only very slightly married--a matter of a couple of fortnights." Or thereabouts. "No children! My wife can go back to her father unchanged."
D‘ward raised his eyebrows in disbelief. "That she may go back I will believe, but unchanged? This I doubt, you big male animal, you!"
"Not much changed." Feeling as if he had been counting every hour in three long years for this moment, Prat‘han fell to his knees. "Liberator, I would kneel to no other man. I would not plead with any other, either, but I swear that if you leave me behind, then I shall die of shame and despair. Take me, Liberator! I am yours to command, as I always was. I will follow you wherever you lead."
"Don‘t you even want to know what I‘m planning?"
"You are going to bring death to Death, as is foretold in the Filoby Testament?"
"Well, yes. If I can."
"I wish to help. And all the others will, too! Gopaenum Butcher, Tielan Trader, Doggan..."
D‘ward grimaced. "I let them all get flogged today. I dared not intercede for them, Prat‘han, because I wasn‘t sure I had enough ... had enough power to rescue you. It was a damned close thing, there, you know! A couple of times I really thought you and I would be gracing adjoining fence posts. How long until they‘ll be well enough to travel?"
"They are well now! I‘ve had those beatings. Nagians shrug them off. We have thick skins."
"You have thick heads, certainly." D‘ward ran his fingers through his hair--curly, bushy, shiny black. He pulled a face. "What is your wife going to say? I warn you, this will be bloody. Many who go with me will not return. Perhaps none of us will."
Prat‘han rose. He put his heels together and laid his spear against his shoulder, as D‘ward himself had taught him, long ago. Staring fixedly at the far wall, he said, "Lead and I follow."
D‘ward rose also. They were of a height, the two of them, both tall men, although Prat‘han was thicker.
"I can‘t dissuade you, can I? Never thought I would, actually." He took Prat‘han‘s shoulder in the grip that brother gave to brother in the group. "You have been a shaper of clay, Prat‘han Potter. Follow me, and I will make you a shaper of men."