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A stark, violent, and heart-breaking look into the bitter and senseless conflict between the townfolk and the clanborn of Athera in the “Wars of Light and Shadow” series, Janny Wurts’ short story “The Decoy” put us in the middle of a bloody uprising, where rulers will fall, but others will take their place, and will – no matter the terrible cost – fulfill their duty, and their destiny.

The plot revolves around Falion sen Ardhai. Falion is a young man who has experienced a complicated, sometimes harrowing, and in many ways sad life. Torn between two worlds, Falion’s father (whose last name is sen Ardhai) is a glass forger – a townborn guild tradesmen.

Falion’s mother is a distant relative of the royal family of s’Ilessid (yes, THOSE s’Ilessids, whose lineage bears the High Kings of Tysan, of which Lysaer in Wurts’ main “Wars of Light and Shadow” series is the current heir.) Falion’s father wants Falion to follow in his footsteps as a guild artisan, but fate has other plans for the young man.

The portentous dichotomy that Falion is both townborn and clanborn manifests in an incident that takes place when Falion is very young. In a prank born of the immaturity of youth, Falion’s childhood friends Torrien (of noble heritage whose family are members of the royal court), Jaegan, and Leylie leave Falion with a sack bound over his head, in the royal dungeons in Avenor, traditional capital of the High Kings of Tysan.

This incident traumatizes Falion, and also rouses his latent royal heritage but neuters the adroitness required to be a guild artist, thus destroying any chance for Falion to follow his father into that line of work.

Most mortals, save some of the clanborn, cannot normally withstand the intensity of exposure to the Paravians (the ancient semi-mortal races who once dominated the world of Athera). However, as a clanborn, exposure is still attempted as a rite of passage, to see if the one exposed can emerge without being driven mad, or dying in the exposure, proving the strength of one’s clanborn inheritance.

Still, at age 12, Falion passes the trail, and would nominally receive an indelible clanborn tattoo, to mark their attunement with the Paravians and proud clan endowments. But there is a growing hatred between the clanborn and townborn. Falion’s father does not want the derision of his family, potential loss of business from townborn customers, or even danger that could be brought down on him from Falion being clearly marked as clanborn.

So, Falion’s father does not permit his son to receive the ritual tattoo.

Yet this absence of the tattoo comes very much in handy later in life, when Falion, unable to be a tradesmen, becomes one of a quartet of “unmarked” clan messengers. These messengers can walk with more ease among the townfolk, and thus have a better chance to deliver surreptitious dispatches of urgency when needed.

Fatefully, one day, such a message arrives, and it’s the most imperative message yet. And it’s on Falion’s shoulders to get that message to the queen-regent in Avenor, or all may be lost. Fortunately, Torrien, Jaegan, and Leylie are not just fair weather friends, and only good for practical jokes. They are loyal comrades, who will risk their lives to assist Falion, in his desperate attempt to help save a kingdom, and the world beyond it.

A lack of page count never limits the author from providing brilliant characterization, and that holds true for this approximately 30-page story. Falion is a very interesting and well-drawn protagonist, who in many ways is not the true hero of the story. I’d give that honour to, ultimately, Cindein. Or, even Falion’s friends Torrien, Jaegan, and Leylie.

Falion is described as a clumsy youth, no warrior, and one can’t help but feeling empathy for him. He’s never truly fit in with either society, it seems, clanborn or townfolk. At first – and later for different reasons – one can’t help feeling sorry for him. His life has seemed rather lacklustre, with a lot of frustrations and unfulfilled promise.

Rather than being some grand mover and shaper of his own destiny, much less others, Falion seems to be a victim of happenstance, or one saved by the bravery of others, to carry his mission forward.

But he uses his anonymity, his lack of standing out, to his advantage, and there is no question he is clever, brave, and talented at his core, endowed with the s’Ilesid traits of justice, courage, and fortitude, and the ability to channel the gifts bestowed to him.

It’s the secondary characters, little as we see of them, that truly stand out, and will make you weep, for all they do to preserve the s’Ilesid royal line.

Which brings me to what I found to be the main theme of this short story: sacrifice. It runs throughout, and the sense of pathos Wurts delivers here, in terms of what others must give up for the greater good, hits like a hammer. The altruism of some of these characters, the cruel and clear pragmatism in the face of death, shows us the best of what humans can be.

We also see the worst of humanity as well. The utter idiocy, the absurdity of the clanfolk versus townfolk conflict, the horrible danger it poses to all mortals, the complete savagery of the uprising, and delight in barbarism and depravity that can potentially explode when people are stirred to self-righteousness behind a cause, was wholly frustrating, hideous, and depressing.

Thus once more, Wurts gives us the darkness and the light, side by side, bare for all to see. Yet in the end, she does give us hope.

In terms of worldbuilding, I have truly enjoyed the glimpses Wurts’ shorts have provided, for they are all set in very dark times – either extremely or infinitely far before the main series. “The Decoy” takes place approximately two decades following the initial invasion of the dreaded Mistwraith, whose gaes blots out sunlight in Athera, now a place of shriveling crops, an increasingly despondent populace, and constant war.

By this time, the situation surrounding the Mistwraith has become dire indeed. Fighting this curse has snatched the lives of many noble lords and soldiers, and only the Fellowship of Sorcerers and what High Kings remain can rally humans against the darkness. But the petty dispute between clanborn and townfolk puts all this in jeopardy, as revolt against the rule of the High Kings, and mistrust of the Fellowship and all things related to sorcery, mount.

And, of course, we are gifted once more with the delight of Wurts’ stellar, unique, lush, and mesmerizing prose, in this short story.

“He breasted the wisped gleam where the flux currents draped the ancient haunts in cold phosphor, and flinched from the ghost-fingered cling of the cobwebs streamered in the drafts. His step gritted on the detritus of centuries, and he breathed the fust of mouldering wood, where disuse had sealed the high vaulted doorways the far sides refashioned into recessed bookshelves or cabinets or cushioned lover’s nooks.” 

A dark, emotive, sorrowful tale of courage, honour, sacrifice, and destiny, and an amazing story in its own right, “The Decoy” can only serve to enhance the reader’s journey into the seminal works that are Wurts’ “Wars of Light and Shadow”.

I highly recommend reading as many of Wurts’ short stories related to Athera that don’t spoil you for reading the main series.

Please peruse the author’s website for suggested reading order of the novellas, in relation to the different arcs in the “Wars of Light and Shadow”.

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