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

  “And then?”

  “He was your prize once before. He will be again. Now, why don’t you pour us some tea before it gets cold?”

  Heart ablaze with hope, Ilar did not notice the old man regarding him with a mix of pity and disgust.


  Mixed Emotions

  THE SUMPTUOUSLY DECORATED ship’s cabin was the best accommodation Alec had seen since they’d left Bôkthersa. Seregil, who had a taste for luxuries of any sort, sprawled across the bed at all hours like a big contented cat, and for the first time in a very long time it was just the two of them at night. No Sebrahn. No Rieser, who looked vaguely uncomfortable whenever they so much as clasped hands. Seregil was like a man dying of thirst, and Alec was the spring. After the tension of the past weeks, lovemaking was as much relief as pleasure for both of them.

  On their second morning at sea, Rhal took one look at them over breakfast and burst out laughing, as did Nettles, who was eating with them in the captain’s cabin. Alec had been amused to see that this one was decorated even more garishly than their own, but he wasn’t amused now, sensing that the laughter was at his expense.

  Seregil looked up from the runny grey porridge Tarmin had served up. “What’s funny?”

  “Look in the mirror, both of you,” Rhal told him. “You’ve got matching love bruises on your necks.”

  “And you’ve been so quiet, too,” said Micum. “We could hardly hear you in the forecastle.”

  Alec’s face went hot to the roots of his hair as he pulled up the collar of his coat. That just made the others laugh harder, of course, all of them except Rieser, who kept his attention on his breakfast, expression carefully neutral. Seregil was clearly controlling himself with an effort; he couldn’t care less what anyone thought, but he also knew how Alec hated it when things like this happened. Not that Alec was ashamed of their relationship—far from it—but his father had been a modest man, and their lonely wandering life had left Alec ill at ease in personal matters around other people. He kept hoping he’d at least grow out of blushing, but so far he hadn’t been that lucky.

  As much as he valued having Seregil to himself again, though, Alec missed Sebrahn badly. He’d grown used to the little rhekaro’s constant presence, even if Seregil hadn’t, and felt bereft without him. More than once he caught himself looking around for him, purely out of habit. Sebrahn crept into his dreams, always being carried out of reach by the Ebrados and their tall rhekaro. But he kept all that to himself, and busied himself helping Seregil prepare for the task ahead.

  Seregil and the other “slaves” were leaving most of their gear behind, but he and Alec kept their tool rolls, in spite of the danger of being caught with them. For now they were stored at the bottom of their small traveling packs, but Seregil and Alec both had a medium-sized lock pick sewn into a seam of their tunics. Weapons presented another challenge, and they had a heated discussion about that with Rieser behind closed doors in their cabin.

  “Even if you’re only presenting yourself as a horse trader, wouldn’t you have armed men to protect the string?” Rieser demanded.

  “You have to play every role to the last detail,” Seregil explained. “Slaves caught carrying weapons will get their master into some serious trouble, not to mention what would happen to them. If we get backed into a corner, we’ll either steal some or use whatever comes to hand.”

  “Or run very fast,” added Alec.

  “It’s usually better to avoid a fight altogether,” said Micum.

  Rieser raised an eyebrow at that. “You’re afraid to fight?”

  “No,” said Seregil, “but fighting attracts attention, and that’s something we want to avoid at all costs. Still, we won’t go in without any protection. Micum has his sword, and no one will question him carrying Alec’s bow. If he can’t get it to Alec in time, Micum’s a very good archer. Does that satisfy you? Or are you afraid?”

  “I fear nothing, but dying won’t accomplish our purpose.”

  “None of us plans to die. Just follow our lead when the time comes. This is what we’re good at.”

  “I caught you easily enough,” Rieser reminded them.

  “And we escaped just as easily.”

  “The first time.”

  “That’s enough!” said Micum. “It’s settled: no swords or knives. We each play our role. That should be protection enough.”

  For clothing, the ship’s sailmaker was able to alter some of their clothing and some loose trousers traded from the crew into outfits befitting a well-to-do northlander’s slaves. They would wear shirts under the usual sleeveless tunic, but with sleeves loose enough to readily display the slave brands. Seregil sewed plain veils for each of them out of some of the ribbon and fine lady’s handkerchiefs Rhal had plundered from a Plenimaran ship.

  When it was all fixed, Alec modeled it for them.

  Seregil frowned. “It’s not perfect.”

  “It’s good enough for a foreigner’s slaves,” said Micum. “The brands and collars should be enough to convince anyone.”

  That night Seregil and Alec sat down to map out all that they recalled of the alchemist’s villa. Alec had seen only a bit of the cellar under the house where his cell had been, and the way from there to the workshop with its two gardens. Seregil had been kept in an upper room overlooking the inner garden, and then in the same cell that Alec had been in, but he had been unconscious for the transitions. The night he’d escaped with the Khatme nurse, it had been dark and she’d been in the lead, but he had some sense of the direction she’d taken, leading him down through the dining room into the central courtyard. The workshop garden lay just beyond. He’d also spent a night in an attic overlooking that same garden.

  Alec knew the workshop best, and sketched it, marking the forge and athanor, tables and other structures, including a small ornate tent at the far end. “And here’s where the tunnel begins, under the anvil nearest the door,” Alec said, showing Rieser.

  “And you can’t just go in that way?”

  “I considered that, but I don’t think we could lift the trapdoor with that anvil bolted on top of it,” Seregil explained. “I almost killed myself getting it closed last time.”

  “Perhaps with my help—” Rieser began.

  “You won’t be there.”

  “You are not going to get the book without me.”

  “Oh, yes, we are. We know what we’re doing and don’t need you there, bumping around and knocking things over in the dark. If you want the book, then you damn well better leave it to us.”

  “He’s right,” Micum told Rieser. “You and I will have our own task.”

  “And I’ll find out what that is later, I suppose?”

  “The night I got out and hid in that attic, I overheard the guards talking about a gully behind the workshop’s garden wall,” Seregil told them. “That might be a good route in, if the workshop backs up to it.”

  “What about the tunnel?”

  “Repeating ourselves would be dangerous. Unless something better presents itself, I think a straightforward burglary by way of the gully is the best plan for now. If all else fails, then we can use the tunnel, but I’d rather not.”

  “You seem to be leaving a lot to chance,” Rieser noted.

  Seregil grinned. “We don’t know how else to operate.”

  They reached a small wooded island on the afternoon of the third day out. Alec and the others went ashore while the sails were changed for the black-and-white-striped ones and the figurehead was removed and stowed away. The sails were a bit of a risk, since meeting a Skalan ship was a very real possibility in these waters.

  “I’ve done this before,” Rhal had assured them. “And I haven’t encountered the warship, Skalan or Plenimaran, that my Lady can’t outrun.”

  It was peaceful here. No one lived on the island. There was only the sound of the waves, the wind, and the cries of gulls and ospreys. Alec drank it all in, knowing this was likely to be their last respite for a long time.

  Seregil picked up a flat stone from the beach and sent it skipping across the surface of the cove toward the Lady with a practiced snap of his wrist.

  “How much longer until we reach Plenimar?” asked Rieser, watching the progress with the sails.

  “Three or four more days, according to Captain Rhal.” Micum sent a stone skimming after Seregil’s. It went a few skips farther.

  Alec watched the two of them compete, but his thoughts were elsewhere. The Skalan coast had dropped below the horizon yesterday. He was feeling very far from home—and from that waterfall where Rieser’s Ebrados were supposedly waiting for them. “Sebrahn could be halfway to Cirna by now.”

  “I gave you my word,” Rieser replied calmly. “My riders will not disobey my orders, if that’s what you’re thinking.”

  And to Alec’s surprise, the man picked up a flat stone half the size of his palm and sent it skipping farther than any of the others.

  The striped sails went up quickly, and they were under way again before sundown.

  Alec stood by himself at the rail as the coast of Plenimar came into view on the horizon, distracted by old memories. Gazing north, he pulled absently at the collar he now wore and wondered how far they were from that distant stretch of ledges where they’d battled Duke Mardus for possession of the Helm. His eyes stung a little as he said a silent prayer for Nysander.

  Micum joined him and must have read his thoughts on his face, for he rested a hand on Alec’s shoulder and said, “Seems like it wasn’t that long ago, doesn’t it?”

  “Sometimes. I haven’t dreamed about it for a while, but Seregil still does.”

  “I doubt he’ll ever quite get over it. How could he?”

  Alec sighed and went back to studying the distant shore. It was open country here, similar to what they had trekked through after their escape from Yhakobin. At least it wasn’t raining this time.

  Rhal put in at a deserted inlet south of Riga, and Alec and the others readied to disembark.

  “I figure it will take us at least four days to find the book and get back here, if all goes well,” Seregil estimated.

  “I’ll sail back in then. But what if you’re not there?”

  Seregil thought a moment. “Come back again in two days, and then again until we either show up or a few weeks go by.”

  They changed into their slave clothing and stout sandals, and let the carpenter fix the collars around their necks with lead rivets that could be cut with a knife if necessary. Rieser’s collar was made of bronze; the slaves Rhal had liberated had belonged to wealthier men than Micum.

  Rhal chuckled as he looked the four of them over. “Well, you certainly look the part, from what I’ve seen of such things. And you’ve got all you need?”

  “I think so,” said Seregil, ticking items off on his fingers. “Rope, grappling hook, lightstones, our tools, veils, food … Yes, I think that’s everything.”

  “What about the documents?”

  “What documents?”

  “The warrants of ownership,” Rhal explained, surprised. “One of the Plenimaran merchants we captured tried to sell me his slaves and showed me the documents for them. I figured you knew about that.”

  “No, damn it! I never had any occasion to. Alec, did you see anything like that change hands when Yhakobin bought us?”

  “No, I was busy looking for you.”

  “Shit! Rhal, can you describe them?”

  Rhal gave him a wink. “I can do better than that. I saved them as a curiosity. I’d say it’s all the more important for Micum to have something like them, being a foreigner, wouldn’t you?”

  “It’s a good thing you mentioned it,” said Micum. “It might have been a short adventure if you hadn’t.”

  They followed Rhal below to his cabin and waited impatiently while he rummaged through several cabinets. At last he pulled out a leather packet containing several sheets of parchment folded in thirds. “Here they are.”

  Seregil opened one and studied it for a moment. “Let’s see. This translates as ‘To all who meet this man Rhasha Ishandi of Vostir, know by this letter of ownership that this slave, Arengil by name, is his rightful property, as shown …’ Hmm. Yes … yes …” He tapped his lower lip with one long forefinger. “And here’s a description of the poor wretch, right down to a birthmark on his chest, whip scars, and a missing front tooth. Very detailed, but easily copied. I suspect forgers are well employed in Plenimar, if this is all it takes to claim a slave. Look here, Alec. This design at the bottom must be the owner’s mark. I’ll need you to draw that out when I’m done.”

  It took several hours to complete the three letters of ownership, and they ended up spending the night aboard the ship. Although he and Seregil took advantage of what might be their last night of privacy for some time, Alec had trouble sleeping afterward, and he drifted in and out of nightmares that he couldn’t remember, except that they had to do with getting captured again. A few hours before dawn he gave up and went above.

  A cold fog hung over the water, masking the shore. He heard a loud splash, followed by the harsh croak of a heron.

  He wasn’t scared—risk and danger were as much a part of his life as eating—but the stakes were very high. There might well be another alchemist who could use him as a magical winepress. His hand stole to the center of his chest, where the scar of the blood tap would have been if not for Sebrahn’s healing.

  He didn’t hear Seregil until he was right beside him.

  “Are you well, talí?” Seregil looked a little hollow-eyed himself.

  “I’m fine. I just didn’t sleep very well.”

  “Me, either.” He gave Alec that crooked grin of his and rubbed his hands together happily. “It’s going to be very nice, going back in there like this, instead of bound. And not half killed with their stinking slaver magic, either.”

  Alec grinned back, dreams discarded and the old spark of excitement in his belly. “Yes, it will.”

  They lingered there as the crew began to appear, and it wasn’t long before the smell of porridge and salt fish drifted out from the galley. Micum and Rieser came up to join them and they ate on the deck, watching the mist swirl away with the morning breeze.

  At last there was nothing left to do but say farewell.

  Rhal clasped hands with all of them, even a startled Rieser, as they stood at the head of the ladder and the sailors lowered their gear to the longboat below. “Good luck to you. The striped sails should keep us safe enough if anyone happens by.”

  “Just show them the guest cabin,” Seregil said with a grin. “Only a Plenimaran would decorate like that.”

  “Micum, are you sure you can walk all the way to Riga?” Seregil asked as they were being rowed ashore, noticing how Micum was absently rubbing his thigh.

  “I may have to rest a bit now and then, but I’ll make it. Sebrahn did a pretty good job on my leg.”

  “We’ll buy horses as soon as we find some.”

  “Buy?” Micum raised an eyebrow at that. “You?”

  Seregil grinned. “We have plenty of money, and it will attract less attention. I didn’t come all this way to be hanged for a horse thief.”

  Rhal’s coffers had provided them with as much gold and silver as a successful trader was likely to get caught with, all in Plenimaran coin. Each of them had a money purse hidden away in his pack.

  They reached shore safely and pulled the boat up onto the rocky shingle to unload their meager belongings, then shook hands with the boatman and waved him off.

  “Well, it’s time to complete our disguise.” Seregil took the linen veils from his pocket and showed Rieser how to tie his over his face, just under his eyes.

  “I feel ridiculous,” the Hâzad muttered. “And what about him?” he asked, looking at Alec. “Even with his hair dark, it’s obvious to anyone with eyes that he’s a ya’shel.”

  “Slavers aren’t that particular,” Alec said. “Ya’shel are common, though they’re not as valuable. Yhakob
in didn’t own any, except for me, and that was just for my blood.”

  “If anyone asks about you, I’ll just tell them I got you cheap,” said Micum with a wink.

  Seregil chuckled. “See, Alec? I told you he was going to enjoy this. Come on, let’s go.”

  “Wait.” Alec dug in his pack for a moment, at last producing the little pouch with his flint and steel, and a handful of striped owl feathers. “I brought them from the mountains. I think we can use all the luck we can get.”

  Turning his back to the breeze, he kindled a little fire with twigs and dry bits of driftwood. When the flames licked up strongly enough, he carefully laid the feathers on. Smoke rose at once, and each of them quickly bathed his hands and face in it.

  “Aura Elustri málreil,” Rieser said, solemnly invoking the Lightbringer’s protection for them all.

  “Even me, Hâzad?” Micum asked dryly, recognizing the prayer.

  “I assume you have some Immortal of your own to look after you,” Rieser replied, and walked away.

  Micum laughed, refusing to be insulted. “Come on, you lazy lot. We’re wasting daylight.”

  They shouldered packs and started up the rocky beach.

  Rieser scanned the empty countryside ahead. “I still think it was a mistake to come unarmed.”

  “All we have to do is play our parts and stay out of trouble,” said Seregil.

  “That’s right,” said Micum, carrying Alec’s bow in his free hand. “So behave while we find some horses. I got my fill of being chased by your lot, Rieser. I say we try for a nice, easy journey this time.”

  They walked to the head of the beach and headed inland until they struck a forked road: the left fork was a rutted dirt track that led down to the water; the right, a proper highroad heading north toward Riga. One lonely cottage stood on the seaward side, but it looked deserted.

  With nothing to hide, they took the highroad. Spring was more advanced here and the day soon grew too warm for cloaks, but they kept them ready in case they met anyone on the road.

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