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


  He returned the second night to find Seregil and Alec in the midst of an argument made up of hand signs and whispers.

  “What’s going on?” Micum asked.

  “He says I’m not going in!” Alec whispered, and it was clear it was an effort to keep his voice down.

  “Why?”

  “We were nearly caught last time,” Seregil told him. “If he gets you and the book?” He gave Alec a meaningful look that was half order, half plea. “It’s too risky.”

  In the end Alec gave in, but he wasn’t happy about it.

  One more day and Rhal should be there to meet them. That night, Micum waited until the house was asleep, then took up a pack and stole out to the slave pen. He lifted the bar as quietly as he could and let the other three out. Behind them, Micum could just make out two bodies prone on the thick straw that covered the floor. Another man with slaves had come to the inn that afternoon.

  “Quick, the rope!” Seregil hissed. Micum pulled it from the pack and Seregil cut four short lengths of it. He and Alec quickly tied up the unconscious slaves. That done, they gagged them both with rags.

  “I hate to do that to them,” Alec murmured as they stole away from the inn. “They have a hard enough life as it is.”

  “There’s no help for it,” Seregil said.

  The groom in the stable woke while they were saddling their horses, but a quiet word from Micum and a coin or two was enough to make him think they were getting an early start on a long ride.

  They made their way to a small side street behind Ulan’s villa. There they tethered their horses in front of an abandoned house just up the street and moved silently back to the wall. All was dark up and down the street. There were no trees to climb, or sturdy vines, and the stonework didn’t offer much purchase, either. They’d have to chance the muffled grapple again.

  Seregil scanned the top of the wall for torches and sentries, but saw neither. “That’s odd.”

  “The man must feel safe behind his high walls,” whispered Rieser.

  “Just because there isn’t light doesn’t mean there aren’t any guards,” whispered Alec.

  “I hope this isn’t a fool’s errand,” muttered Micum.

  “So do I.”

  Seregil spun the grapple on the rope and sent it flying up to the top of the wall. It missed and nearly brained Rieser when it fell. The second try was successful, but the hooks of the grapple grated against stone as they found purchase. They pressed up against the wall, waiting for an outcry, but nothing happened. Micum would almost have been happier if there had been. At least they’d know where the guards were.

  Seregil checked that his tool roll and Micum’s knife were tucked securely in his belt under his shirt, then slung the loose cotton bag over one shoulder. With a kiss for luck from Alec tingling on his lips, Seregil quickly scaled the wall, his bare feet making hardly a whisper against the rough stone.

  Pausing just under the top of the wall, he listened carefully, but heard nothing except the faint tinkling of bells. He chanced a look over, and found there was no parapet. A formal garden filled the space between the wall and the back of the house, a white crushed-shell path bright between the dark clipped hedges and flower beds. The sound of bells must be wind chimes hung somewhere in the garden.

  Dark windows like accusing eyes lined both the lower and upper stories, and torches burned on either side of a central door framed with two imposing pillars that seemed too big for the plain façade. It wasn’t Aurënfaie architecture, and he couldn’t be certain it was similar to a Skalan villa, either, which meant he’d have to be doubly careful, and probably take more time finding what he wanted. At least in Skala the houses usually followed a somewhat similar plan.

  From here he could also see that the sides of the house stood apart from the surrounding wall—just the sort of place to find a side door.

  There were no watchmen or dogs in sight. Pulling the rope up, he reset the grapple and slowly paid the rope down into the shadows below. Seating the grapple more firmly on top of the wall, he climbed down into the garden. He debated taking the rope with him, but that meant carrying the heavy grapple, too, and he suspected the night’s job was going to need more finesse than that would allow. It was dark here; perhaps no one would see the rope, even if they happened by.

  Clipped turf gave softly under his feet as he moved silently toward the right side of the house. The torchlight reached nearly to that corner, and he had to make a dash to the safety of the shadows beyond.

  The lack of watchmen, not to mention dogs, was making him nervous.

  There was no door on this side of the house, or windows, since there was no view, he supposed. Skirting back the way he’d come, he approached the left side of the house. A low wall separated the main gardens from a smaller courtyard, with a well, kitchen garden, and wood stack. This at least was familiar ground; where there was a kitchen garden, the kitchen was usually not far away.

  Sure enough, there was a promising door near the back of the house. It was flanked on either side with rain butts fed by sturdy wooden downspouts that offered a way upstairs if he needed it. As it turned out, he did. The kitchen door was barred from the inside, so there was no lock to pick.

  Seregil pressed his ear to the door, but either there was no one stirring or the door was too thick for him to hear anything. He stepped back and scanned the upper story of the house. There was a window close enough to the downspout; he hoped Ulan didn’t lock up his windows as tightly as he did his kitchen.

  Gripping the drainpipe in both hands, he gave it a shake. It held solid and felt sturdy enough. He took several small picks and a wooden shim from his tool roll and stuck them in the corner of his mouth.

  The wooden pipe held. Holding tight to it with one hand, he leaned over as far as he could and slipped the shim between the two leaded glass panels of the window, then slowly moved it up and down until he found the latch and unhooked it.

  Swinging the far panel open, he stretched over and got his footing on the bottom of the deep casement. He crouched there for a moment, letting his eyes adjust to the deeper darkness of the room. Gradually he could make out enough to know that this was a sitting room or ladies’ day room. He lowered himself to the floor, which was partially covered by a round rug.

  This is as good a place to start as any, he thought, although it was unlikely that Ulan would leave the book lying around in plain sight.

  There were a few books on a side table near the hearth, but they were much smaller than the one Alec had described. Chancing the lightstone, he quickly paged through them anyway, but they were common romances, nothing more. He crossed to the door and inched it open. Beyond it lay a short hallway. Two small night lamps in sconces lit it well enough to see several doors on each side of the corridor and where it took a turn at the far end. A pair of expensive shoes sat next to one of the doors near the corner, set out for some servant to clean. Just as he was about to head down the hall to begin his search, he heard footsteps from the far end. A man wearing a Virésse sen’gai and a short sword at his hip came around the corner and started in Seregil’s direction.

  Seregil quickly dropped the lightstone down the neck of his shirt and waited, weighing his options and keeping watch through the crack of the door. He could knife the man as he passed, but once again the thought of spilling ’faie blood kept his hand from his knife. No, he’d much rather knock him out or choke him unconscious and leave him here alive.

  But the man seemed satisfied with his search halfway down the corridor. Turning back, he disappeared the way he’d come.

  Seregil waited until he was certain he was gone, then inched the door open and listened. Yes, there were more men beyond that corner.

  He crept silently down the hallway and chanced a quick peek around the corner. A short stairway led down to an open door, and from here he could make out enough of the murmured conversation to know that they were expecting a burglary.

  But why are they down there? Why only one
man making a cursory search up here?

  Because it’s a trap, of course.

  Keeping a sharp ear out, he quickly began his search, inching each door open a little and listening intently for breathing before chancing the lightstone. The first two were unoccupied bedchambers; there was no sign of books of any size. He even lifted the rugs and felt under the beds for some secret hiding place under the floorboards, but there was nothing to be found.

  Moving on, he opened the door across from the occupied bedchamber, well aware, as he slipped inside, that any sound he made here was likely to be heard.

  This room overlooked the garden. The torches below cast enough light for him to see that it was a library, with a few half-filled bookcases against the walls, several armchairs, and a long table with unlit lamps on either end and several orderly stacks of books between them. Large books.

  Too easy, he thought again, expecting any moment for armed guards to burst in. Going to the window, he unlatched it and peered down. Fancy carved stonework looked like it offered enough purchase to climb down low enough to jump if he had to. With that settled, he turned his attention to the books.

  Ilar bit his knuckle to keep silent as he left the low divan and cautiously peered out between the heavy velvet curtains. It was Seregil. It must be. Certainty came when the shadowy figure drew a lightstone on a stick and held it between his teeth as he looked around the room. The sight of that illuminated face made the breath catch in Ilar’s throat and his heart pound. Seregil was dressed only in loose trousers and a shirt, with a slave collar around his neck. Had he been caught and enslaved again by some other master? And if so, what was he doing here like this? Ilar couldn’t think straight in his excitement. None of that mattered, anyway. Seregil was here!

  Seregil was examining the books Ulan had set out, quickly paging through each one and setting it aside. There was no sound but the soft ruffle of the paper. Apparently not satisfied with what he found, he began searching the bookshelves, taking down only the larger books. This brought him closer and closer to the alcove, and Ilar began to feel lightheaded. All the old yearning came over him in full force and before he knew what he was doing, he parted the curtains and stepped out, revealing himself when Seregil was hardly more than arm’s length away. Seregil quickly backed away, shoving the lightstone under his shirt and drawing a knife in its place. Ilar knew he should raise the alarm, even at the risk of his life, but they both stood frozen, staring at each other in the faint light from outside. Then, before he gathered anything like coherent thought, Ilar sank to his knees, shaking with excitement and guilt, unable to make a sound.

  Seregil stared down at him, face lost in shadow now, though the knife blade still caught the light from the window. “What are you doing here?” he hissed.

  “I—” Ilar struggled to find his voice. “I am under the khirnari’s protection now. This—” he gestured weakly around the library. “It’s a trap. For you. And Alec.”

  Seregil looked around quickly again, but Ilar reached out a hand to him. “No, not unless I call out. And I won’t, I swear! Ulan has the books about the rhekaros and he needs—”

  “I know what he needs. Wait, did you say ‘books’? You mean there’s more than one?”

  “Yes. Three. And he was certain you would come looking for them, once he knew that you’d come back to Riga.”

  “He—? Never mind. Where are they?”

  “Take me with you!”

  “You said Ulan has offered you his protection.”

  “Please!” Ilar didn’t even know what he was pleading for, except that he wanted to be near this man, to somehow …

  “If only you’d forgive me!” he whispered, voice quavering as the tears came.

  Seregil’s manner softened a little. “Tell me where the books are, Ilar, and I’ll consider it. You already helped us once, and I haven’t forgotten that. But I need those books. They’re not here, are they?”

  “I’ll tell you, but only if you take me with you!”

  “How am I supposed to do that? You could no more get out the way I got in than fly!”

  “I know a way,” Ilar told him, desperate.

  “Another tunnel?”

  “No, a postern door with only one guard.”

  “And that’s where the trap really springs, is it?”

  “No! I swear by Aura,” Ilar exclaimed, forgetting himself.

  Seregil clapped a hand over Ilar’s mouth, then dragged him bodily back into the dark alcove, leaving just enough space between the curtains to see the door. An instant later Ulan’s man Tariel burst noisily in with sword drawn.

  Seregil still had an arm around him, and put his lips so close to Ilar’s ear that it sent a shiver through him. “Get rid of him!” The arm fell away and a hand pressed firmly between Ilar’s shoulder blades.

  Quaking with fear, Ilar emerged from the alcove, careful not to leave any gap in the curtains.

  “What are you doing in here?” Tariel asked in surprise.

  “I—I was just—” He took a shaky breath. “I fell asleep while I was reading. I must have cried out in a dream.”

  The man raised an eyebrow. “Reading with no lamp?”

  “I was sleepy, so I lay down in the alcove … It must have gone out.”

  Tariel shook his head. “You should go back to your room before you take a chill.”

  “I’m not tired, and I want to read some more,” Ilar told him, gathering a little courage now that his ruse had worked.

  “Suit yourself, then,” the man said, sheathing his sword. “But see you don’t rouse the house with your dreams.”

  As soon as he was gone, Seregil pulled him back into the alcove and put his lips to Ilar’s ear again. “You did well. How did you know that I was coming?”

  Ilar nearly blurted out the truth, but suddenly he didn’t want to confirm what Seregil had no doubt already discerned for himself. Torn between his loyalty to the khirnari who’d saved him and the man he dreamed of every night, he couldn’t get any words out at all.

  But Seregil read his silence. “That was Ulan’s footpad the other day, wasn’t it? So the khirnari guessed I was coming at some point, and put you here to watch for me. But why you?”

  “No one else knows about them,” Ilar told him. “The books.”

  “So he’s protecting his dirty little secret. It wouldn’t do for his people to learn of things like rhekaros, and how they’re made, would it?”

  Ilar shook his head.

  Seregil suddenly reached out in the dark and cupped Ilar’s cheek with one hand—as close to a tender gesture as Ilar had had from him since they’d met again in Yhakobin’s house. “But you saved me instead—again,” he said gently. “Tell me where the books are, and we’ll go.”

  Ilar’s heart leapt. “They’re in the khirnari’s room.”

  “Bilairy’s Balls!” Seregil muttered, taking his hand away. “Of course they are.”

  Ilar caught it and pressed it back to his cheek. “I won’t run away this time. I won’t be any trouble!”

  “All right, but you have to tell me where in his room.”

  Ilar’s heart swelled with hope. “Locked behind a hidden panel in the casework at the head of the bed. I can show you!”

  Seregil was glad the darkness hid his pitying smile as he placed his left hand on Ilar’s shoulder. “Thank you. I won’t forget this. And I’m sorry.”

  “Sorry? For—”

  Seregil struck him a controlled blow to the chin, then caught him as Ilar went limp and held him a moment, shocked at how thin the man was, and how pathetic; nothing like the vindictive creature who’d tormented Seregil in the alchemist’s house. He felt nothing for Ilar now except pity, and perhaps a touch of guilt for playing him so dirty this time—especially after he’d kept Seregil secret from the guard just now.

  The second time you’ve risked yourself to help me, damn it! What in Bilairy’s name do you want from me?

  Forgive me! Ilar’s voice whispered in his mind.<
br />
  Standing there in the darkness, Seregil weighed all the help Ilar had been—tonight and when they’d escaped from Yhakobin’s house—against the sight of Alec hanging facedown in the alchemist’s cage. By Ilar’s own admission, he’d put Alec there.

  “Forgive?” Seregil whispered. “No.”

  Placing the unconscious man on the divan at the back of the alcove, he quickly bound him with the drapery cords and gagged him with a clean handkerchief he found in Ilar’s sleeve. Seregil left him there with the heavy draperies drawn shut and moved silently across to the door. The guard had obligingly left it slightly ajar and he was able to open it just enough to see that the corridor was once again empty. The sounds of a dice game came up the stairway.

  The street wasn’t as deserted as Alec had hoped. A few drunken revelers happened by, but they were too blind with liquor to notice them. Not so with the night watchman who came by a few minutes later. He said something to Micum, sounding suspicious, but Micum reassured him somehow.

  “Come on, you lazy lot,” he growled at Alec and Rieser. “It’s time we found our inn.”

  They went up the street a little way, giving the watchman time to move on, then led the horses into an alley and left Rieser there to guard them while he and Micum kept watch for Seregil. It was cloudy tonight; Alec couldn’t see the stars to judge how long Seregil had been gone, but it felt too long now.

  Seregil paused in the hallway just long enough to snuff out the nearest night lamp. Then, bracing himself for a sudden dash, he carefully opened Ulan’s chamber door and slipped inside.

  There was no night lamp, a fact Seregil was instantly grateful for when he heard the rustle of bedclothes and an old man’s whispered, “Who’s there? Urien?”

  “No, Khirnari, just Ilar,” Seregil whispered back, trying to match Ilar’s slightly tremulous timbre.

  “What is it, dear fellow? Why aren’t you on watch?”

  Seregil took a cautious step forward, following the sound of the man’s voice. “I thought I heard something.”

 
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