The White Road: The Nightrunner Series, Book 5 by Lynn Flewelling

  “You don’t know ships,” said Micum. “You’d be lucky not to get washed overboard if a storm comes up. You take the cabin. I’ll stay with the crew.”

  Alec couldn’t tell if Rieser was more surprised by Micum or himself as he nodded slightly and muttered, “Thank you.”

  Morthage had a been a crew member on the Lady for over a year now, and liked his captain and the work. So he felt a bit guilty as he slipped below to his billet and took out one of the bespelled message sticks his other employer supplied him with. Breaking it, he whispered, “Lord Seregil and Alec have returned to the ship—”

  When he was done, a little ball of magic light sped away through the thick planking of the hull.


  Return to a Dead Man’s house

  THE SHIP’S lantern swung on its hook as Ilar clung to the heavy bench fixed to the floor beside the little table in Ulan’s cabin. The White Seal was a large merchant ship, broad in the beam and built to cross stormy seas, but the rolling of the floor under his feet was still alarming. The rains had come their second day out from Virésse—and the swells that had kept Ilar bent over the rail for most of that day, until he grew accustomed to the rocking of the ship. But even that did not match the torture of being trapped on this vessel with so many strangers—men who seemed to look right through him to the shame and weakness he carried in his heart. Without the khirnari to protect him, he wouldn’t have dared venture out of the cabin they shared. Ulan was coughing more, too.

  They were already under way when word had come from Ulan’s spy that Lord Seregil’s privateering vessel, the Green Lady, had docked at Beggar’s Bridge, and that Seregil was aboard, together with Alec—who’d shorn his hair and dyed it brown—a Tír named Cavish, and a ’faie with the odd name of Rieser. There was no mention of the rhekaro, or the Tír wizard who’d been with them in Gedre.

  “That is troubling, yet fortune has smiled on us all the same, Ilar,” Ulan had told him. “If they have gone all the way to Beggar’s Bridge, then they may well be going back to Riga on the same errand as ours. Do you think Alec knows about the books?”

  “He could have seen them, as I did.”

  “Assuming that he does, then we’ve still stolen a march on them. We’ll have the books, and perhaps Alec, as well. And if so, we shall learn what has become of the rhekaro.”

  “What if they aren’t going there?” asked Ilar.

  “One step at a time, dear fellow,” Ulan had said with a smile.

  Ilar gripped the bench until his fingers ached, trying to rein in the hope and excitement that overwhelmed him again. Please, Aura, let them come to us in Plenimar!

  “Come now, dear boy, and pay attention,” Ulan chided gently, tapping the drawing spread between them on the table.

  “What? Oh, yes.”

  At the khirnari’s request, Ilar had drawn the outline of each floor of his former master’s workshop, and marked out the contents of each room as well as he could remember.

  “You are certain this is where the book your master showed me is kept?” Ulan asked, tapping a finger on the X Ilar had labeled for him.

  “Yes, in the little painted tent.”

  “And if it is not there?”

  Panic tightened Ilar’s chest. “There are other books. Shelves of them, Khirnari. He might have hidden the books I saw among them. I’m sure I can find them!”

  Ilar didn’t dare ask what would happen if he failed, knowing how close they would be to the slave markets of Riga. Why would this great man keep him if Ilar proved himself worthless? He had nightmares every night: the horrors of the slave markets, the cruel masters he’d survived before Ilban Yhakobin had taken pity on him, and always the terrible night that Ilban had him whipped and said he was going back to the markets …

  Those dreams had not gone away, but now he also dreamed of those days abandoned in the wilderness after the slave takers had caught up with them. He didn’t know how long he’d spent lost in the cold rain with no shelter, no food, and no water but what he could suck from a depression in a stone or a muddy rill. He didn’t know how many days he’d wandered, shaking with hunger and certain every moment that the slave takers would find him. How could they not, with their dogs?

  Instead, Ulan’s men had found him dying in a ditch. He still carried that coldness, that fear, deep in the core of his soul, and nothing could ever take it away. Except, perhaps, to find Seregil and beg for … He still could not decide what it was he wanted, but the hunger was eating away at his mind. The thought of being alone in the world again froze him with terror.

  The White Seal made port at Riga in fair weather, but Ilar felt sick. Hiding in the cabin, he peered out the porthole as the cargo was unloaded at one of the many quays. A land breeze brought him the scent of the city—the smoke and reek of it—and he thought he could even smell the sweat and despair of the slave markets. It was something he knew all too well. Only when Ulan came looking for him was he able to leave the cabin. Ilar was dressed in Aurënfaie style, and a Virésse sen’gai covered his cropped hair, but he also wore a lace-edged slave veil tied securely to hide all of his face below his eyes.

  Emerging into the sunlight, trying to ignore the stares of the crew and other passengers, he took the old man’s arm as if to steady him, but in truth it was the only way he could walk down the gangplank without his own legs giving way under him. He had no brand, no collar! What if someone discovered that?

  Ulan gave him an understanding smile and patted his hand. “Steady now, dear fellow, there’s nothing to fear. No one will dare touch me in this city, or trouble anyone wearing the sen’gai of my clan—at least not in daylight. You are a freedman under my protection here.”

  His words were little comfort as they set off into the city in a hired carriage. An armed escort rode behind them, led by a hard-eyed captain named Urien. Even wearing the colors of Virésse, Ulan practiced caution, not trusting the Plenimarans, despite the trade agreement that allowed him and his ships to come into Plenimaran harbors.

  “I have a small but very secure house down that way,” Ulan told him, pointing down a street that ran along the harbor’s edge. “I daresay we shall end up there shortly. I doubt the good lady will tolerate our presence for long.”

  At the slave market, an auction was in progress on the very platform where Ilar had once been sold, and it was being overseen by the same lean, hatchet-faced dealer who’d sold him. Everywhere he looked, he saw misery and the dealers in flesh.

  Ulan took his hand again and murmured, “Never again, my friend.”

  Ilar had some respite from fear when they left the city, but terror began anew as they finally neared the outskirts of Yhakobin’s estate. By the time they drove down the tree-lined lane and through the gates, he was trembling uncontrollably and blinking back tears. If Ilbana recognized him, even Ulan would not be able to save him.

  “Calm yourself,” Ulan said sternly.

  When the carriage came to a halt, it took all his tattered will to get out. He’d never imagined being here again, walking up these white marble steps between the tall red pillars that flanked the ornate double doors of the entrance.

  Servants Ilar recognized met them and escorted them into the black-and-white paved courtyard. One of them was Ahmol, who had been Ilban’s assistant. Ilar nearly fainted when the man gave him a sharp look, but Ahmol showed no sign that he recognized him.

  The front courtyard looked just the same—the long fountain pool surrounded with statues, the shaded portico, and, at the far end, the archway through which lay his dead master’s workshop. Ilbana Meran and her two young children—little master Osri and his younger sister, Amela—met them there, and Ilar was introduced as a newly ransomed slave. To Ilar’s relief, she hardly spared him a glance. Master Osri stared at him for a moment, though, and Ilar’s heart turned over in his breast; the child was spoiled and spiteful, and had always treated Ilar with contempt. If he discovered who Ilar really was, he would surely tell.

Ilbana did not offer the khirnari her hand, and greeted him with a somewhat questioning look. As Ulan had told him, relations had not been warm between them. “Ulan í Sathil, welcome back to my home, though I fear you will find it empty without my husband to entertain you.” Her tone was not as welcoming as her words.

  “That’s quite all right,” Ulan assured her. “I am grateful for your hospitality.”

  “Of course. I’ve had rooms prepared in the east wing for you and your people.”

  The one with the windows overlooking the workshop yard, Ilar thought with a shudder, wondering if the whipping post was still there.

  Suddenly Ilbana turned and looked straight at him. “And this one? It’s not safe to let him walk around without you, even if he is a freedman. We had several slaves escape this past winter. You remember Khenir, I’m sure. He was one of them. The other two were new. I never knew their names, but I believe they are the ones who murdered my husband. My guards are very protective of the children and me. It wouldn’t do for this veiled one to wander about unescorted, especially at night.”

  “I understand. I prefer to keep him by me in any event. He is quite invaluable as a servant, no doubt due to his training as a slave. He was only a boy when he was brought here from Virésse.” The khirnari spoke lightly, though the kidnapping and enslavement of his clan members would have been a blood feud offense on Aurënen soil.

  “Why does he still wear the veil, if he’s free?” the boy demanded rudely.

  “He is too frightened not to, in this land,” Ulan replied calmly, smiling as if Osri had addressed him with proper respect.

  “What is your name?” little Amela lisped, staring up at him now with wide brown eyes.

  Ilar’s mouth went dry and he nearly blurted it before Ulan spoke for him.

  “He is called Nira, and he is a mute,” he told the girl, then, to her mother, “Another reason to keep him by me. He’s quite timid.”

  “Ah, I see. Just as well, I suppose. At least he has attractive eyes.”

  Much to Ilar’s relief, she then appeared to dismiss him from her mind altogether. Like any slave, he might as well be empty air unless she had some use for him.

  Ulan waited several days before broaching the subject of Ilban’s workshop. He really did have business to attend to, including a shipment of ransomed slaves Yhakobin had assembled for him. Some were still at the barns—Ulan had kindly left Ilar under guard in the carriage when they went there—while others had been sold, and so had to be tracked down all over again.

  The khirnari also dined with the family, and seemed intent on becoming their friend. He played with the children in the garden beyond the workshop, watching them play ball and helping to feed the precious fish in the fountain basin. Ulan had brought them clever Aurënfaie toys, too, and soon even Osri began to warm to him, even though the khirnari was “only a ’faie.”

  Ilar felt lightheaded the first time they walked through the archway to the courtyard that had been Ilban’s. The workshop loomed at the back of it, by the tinkling wall fountain and the herb beds. It had been one of Ilar’s tasks to gather and dry the herbs. A few green sprouts were pushing up through the compost—mints, chives, mugwort, and the nightshades and dragon tongue vines he’d worn gloves to handle. The whipping post was still there, too, with a hank of frayed rope dangling from the iron ring at the top.

  Finally, over breakfast on the fourth day, Ulan said to Ilbana, “I do miss your husband. Would you mind if I visited his workshop?”

  She looked up in surprise. “I wasn’t aware he had ever taken you there.”

  “But he spoke of it often. I’ve always been curious, and since there are no experiments to interrupt—”

  “Well, I suppose so.” She dabbed sudden tears from her eyes with her napkin. “I’ve kept everything just as it was.”

  “Most admirable. I’m sure he would want it so, my dear.”

  She gestured to Ahmol, who was in attendance that morning. “Unlock the workshop for the khirnari and show him whatever he wants to see.”

  Ilar glanced nervously at his protector, but Ulan merely smiled, apparently unconcerned that they would have a witness.

  When the meal was done, they followed the servant through the fountain court and down the stairs to the workshop. Ahmol took out the big iron key and opened the door, then stood back to allow Ulan to enter. Ilar followed on his heels, keeping his face down and hoping Ahmol didn’t look too closely at him.

  Ahmol pulled on the ropes that operated the skylights and bright morning sunshine filled the large room. The cold air was dusty and stale with the mingled scents of the dead coals on the forge, and the herbs and roots filling the simples chest and hanging from the rafters in their faded cloth bags among the dried carcasses of frogs and lizards and dragonlings.

  To Ilar’s considerable relief, the little painted pavilion still stood at the far end of the room. The flap was tied down with black ribbon, as always. If Ahmol hadn’t been there watching them, he’d have gone to it immediately. Instead, he looked around the workshop, feeling empty and sad inside. Until that last terrible night, Ilban had treated him kindly, and made him feel valued and useful as Ilar crushed bits of ore for him, or tended the cylindrical brick furnace that dominated the center of the room. The small windows near the top that had looked like glowing golden eyes when it was stoked were just black circles now.

  The tall bookcases and cabinets looked just the same, too, orderly and carefully arranged. Calipers and tongs lay forgotten on the forge; the worktables were littered with instruments, stacks of precious metals, and books left open next to stained crucibles, as if Ilban had only just stepped out for a turn in the garden. The glass distillation vessels sat gathering dust on their iron stands, the largest coated inside with the dregs of the rhekaro blood concoction Ilban had been working on when he died. The thin copper tubes sticking out of the pear-shaped retort were already going green with tarnish.

  Chains that had once bound Alec to the large anvil near the forge lay where they had last fallen, still attached to the big iron ring on its base. The leather funnel they had used to force the purifying tinctures down Alec’s throat had rolled into a corner to gather dust. Ilar wondered if Ahmol or Ilbana knew of the secret tunnel hidden under the trapdoor to which the anvil was bolted. He hadn’t even told Ulan about that. Now he wondered why.

  Ahmol led Ulan downstairs, past the holding room at the landing, and on to the small, dirt-floored cellar under the far end of the workshop where the rhekaros had been made. The flat metal cage hung from the ceiling joists, and the hole in the earth that the last rhekaro had been birthed from had not been filled in. It was damp here, and smelled faintly of blood and metal.

  Under the watchful eye of the servant, Ulan looked his fill, then thanked the man and left.

  That night at supper he spoke enthusiastically of what he’d seen, in particular praising Ilban’s library.

  “If it would not be asking too much, dear lady, might I go there and read tonight? There are so many fascinating titles, and I must soon leave you.”

  She hesitated, then nodded graciously. “I ask only that you put them back exactly as they were when you are done.”

  “But of course!”

  After that it was a simple enough matter to request the key and a pot of tea. Ahmol escorted them, as before, but took his leave when he was finished lighting the lamps. They’d worn cloaks against the chill, since Ilbana had asked that they not build a fire.

  As soon as the door closed behind him, Ulan went to the pavilion. “Come, now. You must open it for me. My knees are too painful to bend that much today.”

  Poor Ulan, thought Ilar as he pulled the black ribbons loose and threw back the flap. The villa did not have the elaborate bathing chamber that Ulan enjoyed at home, and the old man had missed his daily soaks.

  Inside he found a few leather pouches, a golden cup he’d seen Ilban use a few times for special concoctions, and a large brass-bound casket.

bsp; “This must hold the books,” he said, dragging it out. He tried the lid, but it was locked.

  Ulan bent and touched a fingertip to the brass faceplate of the large lock, and Ilar heard the click of the tumblers falling. Ulan smiled as he opened the lid and had Ilar lift out the three large tomes it held.

  “Now, are these the one you saw?”

  “Yes. This one with the red leather cover is the one he used most often.” Ilar opened it and they saw that it was indeed written with normal letters, but arranged in such as fashion as to be total gibberish without the key to the code.

  Ilar carried the books over to the chair under the lamp, and Ulan sat and paged through the red one to the picture of the rhekaro. In fact, there were several in what appeared to be a chapter devoted to their making. Other sections were illustrated with other creatures and objects, and intricate designs that Ilar could make no sense of.

  “Well done, my dear fellow,” Ulan exclaimed softly. “And now, for the others.” He opened the slimmest of the three and nodded. “Ah yes. This is the one he showed me, when I last was here. It must be the least important, as it is written in plain Plenimaran. It speaks of the powers of the elixirs to be made from the rhekaro’s essences, but no doubt it does not say how they are made. All the same, it should be most useful.”

  The last book appeared to be a journal. It, too, was written in code, but the script was haphazard and strayed across the pages at odd angles in places, interspersed with drawings of equipment and more of the incomprehensible designs.

  “Now what?” Ilar looked nervously toward the door. What if Ahmol returned? Or Ilbana herself?

  “We shall spend some hours here, enjoying the library while we wait for the house to settle,” Ulan explained. “Then we shall hide these books beneath our cloaks and hope the guards do not decide to search us. Tomorrow we will take our leave and retire for a few days in my house by the sea.”

  “But what about Seregil?”

  Ulan smiled. “I’m sure he can find me there.” He patted the books. “And these shall be the bait for our trap.”

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