This book will please fantasy readers who love a good scheme.
Irona 700 is ideal for readers who enjoy political thrillers and family conflict. Irona struggles between her loyalty to her son and her fears for her country... It is also worth noting that this is a standalone fantasy that resolves everything enough to not need a sequel.
While I’ve been reviewing Dave Duncan since the 1980s and have dealt with at least a dozen of his books in the new millennium, Irona 700 still managed to surprise me... Played out over the decades of a life that’s not an epic quest – however much it may resemble one at times – fantasy need not follow the typical scenario, and Irona 700 isn’t a standard heroine.
As the third trek along the courtyard brought Irona level with the platform and close to the action, she was able to make out details of the ritual. First, the pilgrims were lined in a groups of ten by the priests. When their bugle sounded, they would file over to a huge marble box, elaborately carved and big enough to be a whale’s coffin; each pilgrim in turn would reach in through a hole in the top to obtain a token that flashed gold in the sunlight. When they had reached the middle of the spindly bridge and bowed, they tossed the token into the goddess’s jade bowl. Because of the tilt of the bowl, the token slid to the front edge and shot down the golden cataract between her knees, which acted as a chute. At the bottom it vanished into a hole, no doubt into some temple crypt for storage until next year. The newly recognized citizen was then free to run the rest of the way across the bridge and head for the stairs.
Every ten groups of ten the drummers at the back of the platform would drum. That was all. Irona Matrinko was being baked alive just so the priests could watch her play this silly game?
“How many?” she muttered. Her mouth was so dry she could barely speak. The sun was almost setting. It would be long after dark before she found Father and they got home to Brackish.
“Five hundred forty since I entered the temple,” said Nis Puol Dvure. “This choosing is lasting longer than any in centuries. Maybe ever.”
“I wish she. . . .” Wish Caprice would make her holy mind up, but Irona decided not to finish the sentence.
“We must be patient. Obviously the goddess knows exactly who she wants and is waiting for him to arrive.”
Nis Puol Dvure had no doubts who that man was.
Eventually the ordeal ended. Irona was at the end of the ramp, at a gate manned by more gray-robed, shaven-scalped priests.
She could hardly find enough spit to make the words. “Irona Matrinko.”
He blinked. “That is not an Benesh name. Where were you born?”
“In Brackish.” If he was going to try and send her away after she had come all this way and stood all these hours in this heat, then she was going hammer his shiny skull up and down on the marble a few times. Just watch her!
“Brackish?” He looked to another priest and received a shrug. Perhaps neither of them had ever heard of Brackish. “Oh, very well. You were born in 684? Do you swear to obey the laws? Stand there. Next.”
She advanced onto the wide platform to stand behind the long bony back of Nis Puol Dvure. He was too skinny to make a good shade tree. The trial was nearly over. Her head throbbed with the worst headache she had ever known. She could not swallow. She was fourth in her group. There were two more groups lined up ahead of hers. The group going through was almost done.
The trumpet sounded. The next line surged forward.
Why groups of ten? Why drums, why trumpets? Just so that the priests could know how many sixteen-year-olds there were in Benign? Who cared?
The boy in the lead arrived at the coffer and reached in through the hole in the top, having to insert his entire arm to the shoulder. If there were so few tokens left now, Irona wondered, would she be able to reach them at all? He brought out what she now saw was a shiny brass disk about the size of a man’s palm. He hurried onto the bridge, bowed, dropped the token, and kept going, not even watching where it went. It clattered into the bowl and slid away. By the time it disappeared into the hole at the bottom, the boy had reached the far end of the bridge, practically skipping in his joy at being released. His friends must have a party planned for him. The girl behind him was already throwing her token into the goddess’s bowl.
One more line followed, and then it was her group’s turn to head to the big coffer. As their leader reached in, the girl behind him, the one who had begged Nis Puol Dvure for a mouthful of water, slid to the paving in a faint, almost cracking her head on the corner of the box. The crowd made no sound.
Without waiting for the priests to come and remove her, Nis Puol Dvure stepped over her. In spite of his height, he, too, had to insert his arm all the way to his shoulder. Then he straightened up, clutching his brass disc. Smiling, he walked onward to the bridge.
Irona reached into the big stone box as far as her arm would go. Her fingers fumbled around in vain for something to grip. A hand grabbed her wrist. Something cold and metallic was thrust into her hand. She squeaked in fear and let go. The grip on her wrist tightened. The token was offered again.
She took it and her wrist was released. She brought up her hand, clutching the brass disk, and ran onto the bridge, eager to get this over with and unwilling to look down, because the railings seemed flimsy and the ground was a long way below. She saw Nis Puol Dvure toss his token into the bowl and watch confidently as it fell.
And fell. Just like the others, it slid down the golden chute and vanished. He stood there as if stunned, gaping in disbelief. Irona shoved him impatiently until he moved away. She threw her disk in turn and hurried after him. She had not taken two steps before the temple erupted in a thunder of drums and trumpets, cheers from thousands of voices. Bewildered, she turned to look back.
Her token had not fallen. It had remained in the goddess’s bowl, miraculously stuck to the jade. Holy Caprice had granted a miracle to indicate that this was her choice. Irona looked at the priests on the far side, and thought that they seemed as surprised as she felt. She did not know why the token had not fallen, but she was much more inclined to believe in priestly trickery than divine providence. Why would the goddess ever choose an ignorant, illiterate, impoverished girl from a remote outport, barely even part of the city? No, Nis Puol Dvure had been the intended Chosen and something had gone wrong. That girl in front of him had not been supposed to faint.
A youth in a pleated sea-green tunic strode out from behind the goddess and came to the end of the bridge, waiting there for Irona, grinning widely and beckoning. She couldn’t spend the rest of her life where she was, so she walked forward, and now the bridge seemed to sway far more than it had before.
He wore a collar of jade plates around his neck and held another like it in his hands. He also had a gold bracelet on his right wrist, a silver anklet on his left ankle, a ruby in one ear, and a sapphire in the other. He had bulgy eyes that made him look like an owl trying not to laugh.
“I’m Zard 699.”
That number was written in silver characters on his collar.
“Then, welcome, Irona 700.” He put the collar he held around her neck and closed with a click. “Too loose, of course,” he said. “They always make them big, just in case, but tomorrow they’ll adjust it to fit you properly.”
The edges of the plates were smooth, not sharp, but the collar itself was cold, heavy, and alien.
The crowd was still roaring and cheering.
“Let them take a look at you, 700. Wave. And smile! All your worries are over. You’re rich. You’re made for life.”
No, her life was finished. Father, Mother, brothers, sisters. . . and, worst of all, Sklom! All taken from her. Would she ever see any of them again? Even if she found a chance to run away, how could she get the awful collar off her neck?
“Come,” Zard said. “Water and shade. You are allowed some time to compose yourself.”
The offer was irresistible. She nodded, and let him take her by the hand and lead her around the great statue, into the cool darkness of the temple.
“That’s enough for now,” Zard said, still smiling.
He had brought her to a small room, whose windows were masked by slatted shutters, making the interior cool and dim. Walls and floor were decorated with gaudy tiles, in complex patterns she could not make out and did not care about. She slumped down in a huge padded chair, almost a bed, and Zard had handed her a beaker of water, which she had downed like a scupper.
Holding out the beaker for a refill, she noticed that it was faceted like the broken ice she had chipped off South Wind’s cables in the northern seas. She had never seen colorless glass before. Zard poured water from a large jug, also glass. This time the drink was flavored with lime juice.
When she tried for a third, he refused. “Not wise to drink too much too soon. I know from experience.”
“I liked the plain water better,” she said hopefully.
“You should. That was from the Koupind Source. It’ll have you turning standing back somersaults in no time.”
Source water was sold in Brackish by the mouthful for enormous prices, and even then was usually fake or well diluted. She could not believe that she had just drunk a whole beaker of it, or imagine what that might cost. She leaned back in the heavenly chair and felt the healing magic seep through her like a rising tide.
“Your tutor will be here shortly,” Zard said, with his perpetual grin, “she’ll take you home and let you bathe in Source water. No, I mean it! Or at least wash your face and arms to heal the sunburn.”
After a moment she held out the beaker again and this time he refilled it.
“You were surprised to be chosen.” He had a friendly face, the sort of face that was hard to imagine looking serious. The number on his collar marked him forever as one year older than she, but he seemed younger, still more child than man.
“The goddess does choose women sometimes, though. We have six in the Seventy at the moment, so you make seven. And fifty-five men.”
“That wasn’t what surprised me,” she whispered. “They cheated.”
The smile instantly became a look of horror. “Never say that! The goddess stopped the disk from falling. That was a miracle, so Caprice chose you.” He frowned at her silence, or perhaps her expression.
“The man ahead of me was Nis Puol Dvure. He was certain he was going to be chosen. He seemed to be very rich.” The priests had been bribed.
Zard’s eyes widened even more, pale in the shadow. “They don’t come any richer! The Dvures own half the Source of Chiala and about a third of everything else. Perhaps he did expect to be chosen, but goddesses don’t make mistakes. Caprice wanted you, Irona Whatever-Your-Name-Was.”
“There was a man in the box,” she insisted. “A man who gave me that particular token. The priests asked our names as they lined us up, and somehow they passed a signal to the man in the box. He was told to give the special token to the third hand in our group. But the girl ahead of Dvure fainted and there was no time to change the instructions.”
The carvings on the sides of the box were images of fish and shells, easily deep enough to conceal air holes or spyholes, or both.
Now the boy looked seriously alarmed. “You’re wrong, 700! Only the goddess could make one token refuse to fall like that.”
She suspected otherwise. “How about you, last year? Did you just pick a disk out of a pile, or did somebody give it to you?”
Zard squirmed, seeming younger than ever. “I took the first one I found.”
“Had you been told you were to be chosen?”
“Of course not!”
That was a lie, too.
“You swear that nobody gave you a particular token?”
He tried to seem indignant. “If you think my family bribed somebody to have me chosen, you’re crazy. They’re well off, but not like that. The goddess chose me because the Seventy need me. I spoke five languages even then. I’m up to eight now.” When Irona didn’t comment, he added smugly, “I’m already making myself useful to the Seven, translating at meetings with Allied envoys. Several Sevens have told me so.”
She did not comment.
He tried again to seem cheerful. “But you know that this is the happiest day of your life, don’t you? From now on you can have everything you’ve ever dreamed of!”
“Like the man I was going to marry?”
Zard 699 lost his grin yet again. “Chosen can’t marry. But you could send for him! If your tutor doesn’t mind. Ask her.”
A tiny flicker of hope in the ashes of her dream. . . . “Send for him? To do what, to be what?”
“He means gigolo,” announced a new voice, a stern, haughty voice. Its owner was a tall, angular woman in a shimmering sea-green tunic. She went to a window and adjusted the slats, flooding the room with light.
Zard sprang to his feet. Irona followed his lead more slowly—not because of weakness, but because the padded chair was hard to get out of. Already the Source water was bringing her back to life.
“Irona 700, ma’am,” Zard said. “Trodelat 680.”
Majestic as an iceberg, Trodelat advanced. She held out both hands. “Congratulations on being chosen, Irona. The goddess never makes mistakes. I’m sure she has very good reasons for wanting you among the Seventy. Yesterday they elected two potential tutors for today’s newcomer, one male, one female. I won, obviously.”
She turned to regard Zard with high disdain, aided by the fact that she was taller than he. “And you, 699, should return to your own tutor and ask him to explain to you the difficulties of moving and storing thousands of brass disks. You have completed your obligations to 700 and are free to go.” Evidently Trodelat 680 had been eavesdropping for some minutes.
Zard flushed angrily and stalked out of the room.
Still holding Irona’s hands, Trodelat looked down at them and frowned. “Poor child! Tell me about yourself.”
“My father is a sea hunter, part owner of South Wind. We live in Brackish. I have five brothers and five sisters.” And one almost-betrothed harpooner.
“Can you read and write?”
“I know my numbers. I help my mother with the shopping.”
“We’ll teach you all the rest. How are your teeth?”
Teeth? Irona automatically bared them, starting to feel like a slave on the auction block.
“Remember to rinse your mouth every day with Source water. And your hands, too. That will soon get them in shape.” Trodelat released her and went to uncover another window. “Source water doesn’t let people live forever, but it does keep us healthy. The tide ebbs for all of us eventually, but those who drink Source water every day stay healthy until they drop dead.”
Trodelat herself, more visible now, was revealed as feminine perfection. Her skin was smooth as ivory, her eyes clear as gems, and not one hair was out of place or curled the wrong way. It seemed that curly hair worn short was the mode among the rich; Zard had it, and so had the Dvure boy. 680's collar and sea-green tunic were obviously the uniform of a Chosen, but she expressed her individuality by wearing even more jewelry than Zard: rings, bracelets, a jeweled belt. Although her collar proclaimed her as being twenty years older than Irona, which would make her older than Mother, she certainly did not look it.
She was trying to seem motherly. “I know just how you feel, we all do. We all went through it, even the First himself. Being a Chosen is a very great honor, a very great responsibility, and very well rewarded. You will live like a queen all the rest of your days. The city gives you freely anything you want, so you are never tempted to accept bribes or play favorites.
“And don’t worry that you don’t know what’s expected of you. Of course you don’t! You receive a two-year education. I will be your tutor. That means I’ll see you are housed and fed and dressed and taught all the things you will need to know to help run our great empire. Or almost all the things. We keep on learning all our lives. We work hard, but we are well paid. Now, we have years ahead of us, but have you any immediate questions?”
“What did you mean about thousands of brass disks?”
Trodelat made a scoffing noise. “That silly boy! You think that box could hold enough disks for every sixteen-year-old in Benign? After an hour or two, they would need arms like anchor chains to reach to the bottom! I imagine the temple has four or five hundred disks. It will certainly have teams of slaves to carry them back up. Of course there must be a way into the box from underneath, and when the basket under the hole is almost empty, it has to be refilled. You got your disk as they were making the change, that’s all.”
What she said did make sense. But Nis Puol Dvure had looked very surprised. However full of his own importance he might be, surely he could not have been so sure of being chosen unless he had been promised?
Trodelat was frowning. “Your token did not fall like the others, my dear. You were granted the miracle. I don’t deny that priests sometimes take bribes, but they can’t work miracles. Only the goddess. . . . Mm? You think you know how it could have been done?”
Irona nodded timorously. Who was she to argue with one of the Seventy, or blaspheme against the city’s patron goddess?
“Interesting,” her tutor murmured, considering Irona with narrowed eyes. “Ignorance is not stupidity, and the goddess does not choose idiots. But I strongly suggest you do not voice your suspicions to anyone else. No one at all! Meanwhile, are you recovered enough to travel? Any more really urgent questions?”
They were going to make Irona Matrinko into Irona 700, who would be a different person all together, and she did not want to be another person. “Who pays for all this teaching and feeding?”
Her tutor chuckled. “Very smart question! You do.”
“I don’t have any money.”
“But you have something else of value. Tomorrow I will take you to a meeting of the Seventy. The First himself will be there, and most of the Seven, and the rest of us. I will present you, and you will take your seat among us. And thereafter, starting immediately, whenever we vote—to appoint a magistrate, pass a law, raise a tax, even to declare war—your vote will count as much as anyone’s.”
“And I vote the way you do?”
Trodelat laughed. For the first time her mood seemed sincere. “Well, done! Very well done! Yes, that is my reward. During our tutelage we follow the lead of our tutors. Your vote gives me a very slight advantage in the bargaining that precedes important votes. It’s a sort of game, really. After our two years’ tuition we choose seniors to follow, but then we call them patrons. Mine is a very fine lady, Obnosa 658. I almost always follow her lead in voting, although we all support our friends, too, and she understands when I ask for leave to differ on a vote. You will meet her tomorrow. Come, let us go home, to my home.”
“Wait! What about my family?”
“I can write them a letter if you wish. If your father can’t read, he can take it to someone who can. The law forbids you to see your family during your two-year tutelage. I know that is hard, and I wept when it happened to me, but it is for the best, believe me.” Again she studied Irona’s reaction. “They would have to kneel to you now, child.”
Irona imagined them all kneeling to her, even Sklom. And Father? She shuddered.
Again Trodelat made an effort to seem motherly. “But think how proud they will be when they hear the wonderful news! How the neighbors will rush to congratulate them!”
Irona nodded, but it was much more likely that Brackish would throw rocks and insults, and perhaps even drive her family out of the village. They would consider that Irona had gone over to the enemy, the Benign bloodsuckers...