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


  All was dark and quiet, except for the sound of snoring coming from a stall near the door. They couldn’t count on the stable boy being drunk, but at least he was asleep. Seregil levered himself out of the shaft, heedless of the fresh horseshit covering the floor. At least it deadened sounds well.

  There was no time to find saddles. As soon as Alec was up, they closed the trap, kicked some shit over it, then each took a horse and led it out by the bridle. The useless stable boy never stirred as they passed. Once outside, they hurried away on foot, away from the farm and away from the road. They’d just reached the apple orchard behind the barn when they caught the sound of horses in the distance, coming on at a gallop.

  There was no time for subtlety. Springing onto their horses’ backs, they gathered the reins and kicked their mounts into a gallop, heading north and hoping the riders wouldn’t hear them over the sound of their own horses.

  After several miles, they reined in and listened. There was no sound of pursuit.

  “I think we got away,” Alec said, still scanning the starlit landscape behind them.

  “Only just.”

  They circled back and reached the copse just before dawn. Micum and Rieser were both awake and waiting for them in the cold campsite.

  “There you are!” Micum exclaimed, clearly relieved. “I was just about ready to go looking for you.”

  “Did you find it?” asked Rieser.

  “No,” Seregil told him, sliding off his lathered horse. “Someone’s taken it. We saw plenty of footprints in the dust, so someone’s been in there since Yhakobin’s death.”

  “Or maybe the wife knew about it and moved it—or sold it,” said Alec as he dismounted. “Or it was Ulan. I say we start there.”

  “Rather than go back and search the house?” Rieser asked.

  “It’s going to be a bit tougher to get back in there now,” Alec told him.

  “You raised the house, did you?” asked Micum. “Did anyone get a good look at you?”

  “No,” said Seregil. “At least I don’t think so. I saw one man, but it was dark enough that I couldn’t make him out, so hopefully he couldn’t see me any better. And it was only for an instant.”

  “What does this khirnari have to do with the book?” asked Rieser.

  “The alchemist told me himself that he did business of some sort with Ulan,” Alec explained.

  “And our wizard friend Thero and I tracked down a slaver in a Virésse port who claimed Ulan ransoms slaves back from Plenimar, presumably with Yhakobin’s help,” Micum explained.

  “Not to mention the fact that Ulan knows of Alec’s mixed blood,” Seregil added. “Since he’s involved with the slavers that Micum and Thero spoke with, it’s not a great stretch to think that he knows something of the rhekaro—perhaps was even having Yhakobin make one for him. Add that to the fact that he’s here himself, and as far as I’m concerned that’s a pretty strong set of coincidences pointing to the possibility that he knows about the book, too.”

  “Then we must go back to the city?” asked Rieser.

  “Looks that way. But at least we have a few new horses to trade.”

  “The two you stole aren’t on the bill of sale, though,” Micum pointed out.

  “We’ll have to lead them away a bit and let them go,” Alec said, stroking his stolen mare’s sweaty neck. “That should throw off any trackers, if we can get into the city before anyone catches up with us.”

  Micum tapped the heel of his boot against the ground. “Still frozen hard. You couldn’t have left much of a trail, and not one easy to follow in the dark. We’d better go now, though, just in case.”

  “We’ll use the north gate this time, I think,” Seregil said.

  “You don’t want anyone who saw us today wondering why we’re back so soon,” Rieser observed.

  Seregil gave him a crooked grin. “You’re catching on.”

  “So what are we going to do now?”

  “Find Ulan and see if he has the book,” Seregil told him. “That’s most likely going to involve the sort of work we did tonight.”

  “How do you break into a ship?”

  “The same way you do a house, only wetter.”

  CHAPTER 28

  Taking in the Sights

  NO ONE seemed to take undue notice of Alec and his companions when they entered the city again with their string of horses. From there they made their way through a busy merchants’ quarter toward the waterfront. Micum’s “slaves” were veiled and hooded; if they inadvertently ran into Ulan, he would not recognize them, and he didn’t know Micum.

  They were nearly there when something startled Seregil’s horse and she jerked around in the opposite direction. Seregil quickly controlled her and took a moment to stroke her neck and murmur some reassurance before turning her back to follow Micum.

  “Please, Master,” Seregil said as they reached a market square at the edge of the waterfront. “Can we buy some food? I’m very hungry.”

  “So am I,” said Alec. It had been hours since their cold breakfast.

  “Very well,” Micum snapped, still playing the role.

  There were food vendors along the northern side of the square. Micum chose one selling hot grilled sausages.

  “Go buy for us,” Micum ordered Alec, reaching for his purse.

  “Please, Master, let me,” Seregil said.

  Micum raised an eyebrow, then gave him a few coins. “You—” He turned is attention to Alec. “There’s a woman selling cider down there. Fetch us some.”

  Something’s going on, Alec thought as he headed for the cider booth. Seregil was up to something.

  They ate standing by the public well. The sausages were full of hot spices, and Alec was glad of the cider.

  “I think we’re being followed,” Seregil said quietly around a mouthful. “There’s a young beggar behind me, over there by the ribbon seller. He’s wearing a white kerchief around his neck. I’m sure I saw him by the gate.”

  “I see him,” Micum said, glancing past Seregil. “Plenimaran?”

  “Looks like it.”

  Alec turned his head slightly until he could see the ribbon merchant from the corner of his eye. The ragged fellow Seregil was talking about was leaning at ease against the side of the booth, laughing with another wastrel. “You think the men who chased us last night have followed us here?”

  “Maybe,” Seregil replied, but he sounded doubtful.

  “If they did track us, why wait until now to come after us? It would have been easier out on the road,” Rieser murmured.

  “Exactly,” Seregil replied.

  They finished their food and made their way down to the harbor.

  Some of the Virésse vessels they’d seen yesterday had sailed, and two others had come in.

  “Is he still with us?” asked Micum.

  Seregil’s unruly horse turned again, tossing her head and snorting.

  “He is,” Seregil whispered as he brought the mare under control again.

  Ulan’s ship was still riding at anchor, but the pennant was gone.

  “What does that mean?” asked Rieser.

  “That the khirnari isn’t aboard,” Seregil replied.

  A group of idle sailors had gathered at the end of a nearby quay, sitting on crates and passing a flask. Dismounting, Micum strolled over to them and was soon laughing and talking between pulls from the bottle.

  “He seems so at ease,” murmured Rieser, sounding impressed in spite of himself. “Just like with the horse dealer.”

  “Micum can talk to just about anyone,” Alec told him.

  Soon Micum was pointing, apparently asking about some of the ships. The sailors appeared to be happy to answer. When Micum finally parted from them and walked back to the others, he was grinning.

  “What—” Rieser began.

  “Hold your tongue, slave,” Micum ordered curtly, and loudly enough to be overheard. Mounting again, he led the way along the waterfront toward the far side of the city. Along t
he way they came to a smaller horse market, and Micum stopped to sell off their string and be free of it.

  While he and the others waited, Alec managed to position himself so he could look back the way they’d come. Sure enough, the beggar was there, sitting against a wall with several others of his kind, hand out, imploring the passing crowd for alms. What he lacked in subtlety he made up for in persistence.

  “I made a tidy profit, enough to afford a decent inn for the night,” Micum said when he returned.

  Alec knew he was speaking for the benefit of anyone listening to them; they all had money in their packs, more than enough for the best inn in the city. “The trader tells me there’s a good one in the next street—the Two Hens Inn,” Micum went on. “And they have a decent slave pen, too.”

  They made their way to a large, prosperous-looking inn with a friendly innkeeper who obliged Micum with a back room, away from the noise of the street. The room’s single window overlooked a cheerless yard with sheets drying on a line stretched between the back of the inn and the sturdy shed that served as a slave pen. Beyond that, a low wall blocked what appeared to be an alleyway.

  “What about these?” the man asked, jerking a thumb at Alec and the others. “I can take them out to the pen for you, if you like, and see that they get a decent meal.”

  “In a bit,” Micum replied. “I need them for a few things first.”

  “Ulan has a house near the waterfront,” Micum told them as soon as the man was gone.

  “Then it’s time to get rid of our unwelcome follower,” Seregil said. He leaned out the window for a moment, then turned back to the rest of them. “There’s no one around right now.”

  Slinging on their packs, the four of them went out the window and over the wall. Micum grunted as Alec gave him a leg up.

  “I miss the days when I didn’t need the help,” he muttered. Fortunately the wall was low enough for him to drop down on the other side without assistance.

  The alley was littered with rotting fruits and vegetables that stuck to their shoes and sent up a sour stink. At the far end was a marketplace full of farmers’ carts and booths. They scuffed their shoes clean against the cobbles, then doubled back to the waterfront and the street Micum’s idlers had pointed him to. There was no sign of the man who’d followed them.

  “Who do you suppose set him on us?” Micum wondered, still keeping his voice low and a sharp eye out. “No one knows we’re here. Even if that man at the alchemist’s house got a good look at you, there’s no way he’d know you in that getup.”

  Seregil’s grey eyes were serious above the veil. “I don’t know, and I don’t like it.”

  “If he did, he’d probably have set the slave takers on us, rather than following us,” said Alec. “How are we going to get the horses back?”

  “They’re safe for now,” Micum replied. “Once it’s dark, we’ll go back and claim them.”

  With Micum in the lead, they strolled down the quays to a street that ran along the harbor’s edge. The houses here were like the walled villas of Wheel Street, except that the dressed stone walls were much higher, hiding the houses inside completely. Two guards wearing the sen’gai of Virésse flanked the gate of a house midway down, on the water side. Ulan’s pennant fluttered on a short pole set into the stonework.

  “So there you are, you old fox,” muttered Seregil.

  “He must be held in high esteem, to be safe staying here so close to the slave markets,” Rieser whispered back.

  “Virésse trades with Plenimar. Always has. I didn’t expect him to have a house here, though.”

  Ulan was in the library, recovering from a particularly bad coughing fit, when Ilar came in without knocking and closed the door behind him. Ulan quickly balled up his bloodied handkerchief and kept it hidden in one hand.

  A hectic flush colored Ilar’s cheeks as he stood shaking with barely contained excitement. Closing the door, he hugged himself and whispered, “They are here, Khirnari! Your man at the north gate saw them come in this afternoon.”

  “Do they have the rhekaro with them?” Not even the pain still lingering in his chest could spoil this heartening news. It was the first news he’d had of them since his spy aboard the Lady had gone silent.

  “No, but Alec is there, with Seregil and the red-haired Tír. The other ’faie is still with them, too. The spy is certain it’s them.”

  “What did he say?”

  “There’s no mistaking them. Alec’s hair is brown now, but the eyes are the same—a most distinct dark shade of blue. The spy got a good look at him and the red-haired Tír when the guards searched them. The Tír is playing the master.”

  “Clever boys. How long ago did they arrive?”

  “No more than two hours. Your man followed them to the waterfront and heard them asking about you. Some men told the Tír about this house. They didn’t come this way, though. He followed them to an inn in a street called Irsan. He waited to see if they came out again, but they didn’t, so he came back.”

  “No matter. We know that they’re coming,” Ulan said with a smile of satisfaction. “Ilar, I must ask you to be my watchman. There is no one else whom I can trust with the task. No one else must know of the books.”

  “I understand, Khirnari, but what if they see me?” Ilar replied, eyes widening with fear.

  “You shall be perfectly safe, keeping watch from there.” A curtained alcove at the back of the room between two bookcases was the best he could do for a hiding place for Ilar.

  Several large volumes lay on the table at the back of the room, books the same size and color as the ones they’d taken from Yhakobin’s house. “There is our bait. When our mice come into our trap, you’re to wait until they’ve gone, then come to me. I shall raise an outcry and we’ll have them as escaped slaves and common thieves.”

  “As you wish, Khirnari.” Ilar was pale now, and trembling.

  Ulan nearly changed his mind; one of his escort could just as well be stationed here under some pretext, but his secret was too valuable to risk. It would not do for his people to learn that their khirnari had played the thief himself, or the nature of what he was trying to protect. The making of a rhekaro stank of necromancy, no matter what Yhakobin had said about his so-called art. There was no question of taking Alec and the books to Virésse city, of course; he already had made preparations at a mountain hunting lodge far from there. He would keep Alec there. The boy would not be mistreated, either. Perhaps in time, he could even be made to understand his own importance.

  This is for the good of the clan, he reminded himself, steeling his resolve. It was the duty of the khirnari to sacrifice for his people, even his life.

  But my honor?

  That was even more precious, but he had no choice but to press on with his plan. He was too close to success to lose his nerve now.

  That night Ulan waited until the household servants had gone to bed, then had Ilar blow out the lamps in the library, leaving only the fire on the hearth for light.

  “At last,” he murmured, smoothing his hand over the cover of the topmost book. The real ones were safely hidden away. He held out his own silver-handled dagger. “Take this, dear boy, just in case.”

  Ilar looked at the knife as if it were a serpent. “I could never win against them!”

  “So long as you keep quiet, there’ll be no need. I shall feel better if you’re armed. You must be careful and silent, Ilar.”

  “Like they are,” the younger man whispered, taking the knife with shaking hands.

  Ulan gathered the trembling man in a fatherly embrace. “How many times have you wished to repay my kindness? Do this for me, Ilar, for the love you bear me. Just be quiet, and things should go as planned.”

  Ilar nodded, though he still looked terrified. “I won’t fail you.”

  CHAPTER 29

  Paths Cross

  SEREGIL and the others spent that day and the next exploring the seaside district, taking note of potential hiding places in abandon
ed buildings and accessible cellars, and the layout of the streets. The new inn where Micum had taken a room was just two streets way from Ulan’s villa, and had a spacious slave pen in the back, the door held by nothing but a stout bar; Micum was no hand at picking locks. For the time being, Seregil, Alec, and Rieser were the only ones there. There was no heat, but the straw was deep and clean and Micum saw to it that they had blankets and passable food.

  Leaving his slaves behind, Micum went out to taverns each night, seeking information about Ulan’s habits. He’d done this sort of nightrunning innumerable times over the years. He enjoyed the challenge of finding the right tosspot to coax information from. Most folks he talked to here didn’t pay the Virésse any mind, though some allowed that Ulan was a fine man to trade with, except for being Aurënfaie. There was one well-dressed fellow, a cloth merchant, who confirmed what Micum had learned at Virésse: that Ulan í Sathil bought back slaves taken from the Virésse and the Goliníl fai’thasts, and that he had bought the majority of them from Charis Yhakobin before the alchemist’s murder. A few more men gathered around them when they overheard the name.

  “That was the first slave killing in years,” one of the old ones told him. “It’s made a lot of masters take sterner measures with their own slaves, especially the males. And in the markets there’s more call now for little ones that you can train up right. The slavers can hardly keep up with the demand.”

  Micum also learned that the Virésse ’faie kept carefully to themselves here in Riga, never ventured out unless in an armed group, and even then seldom at night and never to anywhere like a tavern. Not everyone respected the treaty between Plenimar and Virésse. As several of Micum’s drinking companions were glad to tell him, once you got their head rags off and got a brand and collar on, who could tell one ’faie from another? And who was going to take the word of a slave if they tried to tell? A mile or two inland no one gave a damn about Virésse; a slave was a slave and they all lied.

 
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