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

  There was more rustling and the creak of the bed ropes as Ulan sat up. “Why didn’t you alert Captain Urien?”

  “I thought the sound came from your room, Khirnari. I just wanted to see if you were safe.” Seregil could tell he was nearly within arm’s reach of the man. There was an unhealthy smell in the room; Ulan was sick.

  And needs a rhekaro to heal him. It must be something serious for him to take such risks.

  “Ah, well then, I’m fine. Go back to the library, Ilar.”

  Seregil reached out and grasped the old man’s thin hair. Placing the edge of his knife to Ulan’s throat, he brought their faces close together and hissed, “I have other plans, Khirnari.”

  “Seregil?” Ulan sounded less surprised than Seregil would have liked. “So I suppose you’ve killed Ilar and now you mean to kill me?”

  At this distance, the sickly sweet smell of his illness was strong—something in the lungs, perhaps.

  “I’d rather not,” Seregil replied. “All I want are the books.”

  “What do you need with them? You have the rhekaro.”

  “You know why, Khirnari.”

  “It would be comforting to think you meant to use them as I do, but that isn’t so, is it? You want to destroy them, and all the knowledge they contain.”

  Seregil wrinkled his nose at the sickly smell on the man’s breath. “You’re dying.”

  “By inches. I don’t have long. Not without the rhekaro’s elixir.”

  Elixir? thought Seregil. Does he really know so little about them, even with the books? “I know the books are in here, and I know where. I’m going to ask you to keep very quiet while I take them, otherwise I will slit your throat.”

  “It seems I underestimate you, even now,” Ulan whispered.

  “Let’s just say I’m here to collect a debt on behalf of my talímenios. One it would not do for your people to hear about, eh?”

  “Or yours.”

  Seregil wished he could see the man’s face now, not liking his tone.

  “You know what would happen if your sister learned of my actions toward you and Alec,” Ulan went on.

  “You’re actually willing to risk a war to save your own life?”

  “Not my life, my clan! Give me the rhekaro and you can have the books. I swear by Aura, I will never trouble you or your talímenios again.”

  “I don’t know what your word is worth these days, old man. Not that it matters. We don’t have the rhekaro anymore.”

  For the first time Ulan’s voice betrayed a hint of alarm. “Where is it?”

  “Far from your grasp. I swear by Aura, too, so give up any hope of that. How long do you have? A handful of months?”

  “Less than that. Weeks perhaps.”

  “Do you really think that’s long enough to find someone else to work that filthy magic for you?”

  “With the books, I can work it myself. Alchemy isn’t our sort of magic; it’s simply joining the right elements in the right manner.”

  “The most important of those elements being Alec’s blood. No, Ulan. Give it up.”

  A cold hand closed around Seregil’s wrist. “You may keep the brown and the blue books, and Alec; I’m willing to accept the rhekaro and the red book.”

  “No. The rhekaro is a living creature. He feels pain, and Alec told me what Yhakobin did to him. But it’s a moot point anyway. I told you, we don’t have him.”

  “You’re lying.”

  “I’m assuming you’ve had us watched. Did any of your spies see a child with us?”

  “You’ve hidden him!” Just then a violent coughing fit seized the old man, and he dug his fingers into Seregil’s wrist until it passed. It was brief, but when he wiped his lips on the edge of the white linen sheet, the cloth came away spotted dark. “I am dying,” Ulan told him, wheezing a little. “And I cannot let that happen. Not while Gedre fai’thast remains an open port, draining away our trade. That was never meant to be part of the bargain. The Skalan queen regularly sends emissaries there, and I have reason to believe that she and the Gedre khirnari mean to renege on the pact and keep the port open to Tír trade even when her war is finished.”

  “Surely there’s enough trade for both of you?”

  “Now, perhaps, but when the war and their need for Aurënfaie horses and steel is past, what then? No! We were betrayed and I will not die before my clan is made secure and prosperous again. Charis Yhakobin made that rhekaro for me, and I mean to have it, or another in its place. Or you can kill me now to stop me. The choice is yours.”

  “I may be an outcast, teth’brimash, but I will not spill a khirnari’s blood,” Seregil told him between clenched teeth. “Not even yours. And do you even know what a rhekaro really is? A distillation of the blood of the Great Dragon that made us, carried in the veins of a chosen few, the ones who call themselves the Hâzadriëlfaie. That is what you sold into the hands of someone like Yhakobin.”

  “One does what one must for the clan.”

  Resisting the urge to shake the old man, Seregil took out the lightstone and tossed it on the bed, then cut the cords of the bed curtains. Ulan’s bones felt brittle as wheat straw as he bound him.

  Ulan’s sharp old gaze never left Seregil’s face as he worked. It was a little unnerving. “You’re a fool, Seregil í Korit. With the rhekaro that is already made, I would have all I need to save my people. No one would have to suffer.”

  “Except the rhekaro.” Who knew what was in those books, what it took to make these elixirs? Seregil suppressed a shudder, thinking of all Alec had told him of what had been done to Sebrahn and his predecessor. He thought of Sebrahn playing with the dragons, fidgeting off his shoes, climbing into his lap like a real child …

  “A small price to pay!” hissed Ulan.

  “You have it backwards, old man. You should be spending these last days grooming your successor, not torturing those weaker than yourself. Everyone dies.”

  And Alec? Seregil pushed that thought away. That had been Sebrahn’s doing, not his.

  “You will never leave these shores, Seregil. Not alive.”

  Seregil gave him a crooked grin as he gagged him with a blood-spotted handkerchief. “I’m not a man you want to gamble against, Khirnari.” Once Ulan was secured, Seregil went to work finding the books, aware every moment of Ulan’s hate-filled gaze upon him, and his ineffectual pulling at his bonds.

  The bed was built of polished casework, and there were three panels in the headboard. It took only a moment to find the secret latch in the narrow space between two of them and lift it with the point of the knife. The center panel came loose, revealing three books stacked neatly in the dusty space behind. They were large and heavy, and strained the sides of the bag Seregil had brought with him; he had been expecting only one.

  Taking up his lightstone again, he looked down at Ulan for a moment, almost reveling in the fury of the glare directed back at him. “I don’t expect this to be the end of things between us, Khirnari. But I won’t be so merciful next time, if you come after us.”

  Tucking the lightstone back in his tool roll, he went to the door and listened for a moment. “Good-bye, Ulan í Sathil. Pray to Aura our paths never cross again.”

  Alec heaved an inward sign of relief when he saw a dark form slide down the rope. Leaving Micum in the shadows, he stole out to meet Seregil.

  Found it? he signed, noting the heavy bag swinging against Seregil’s side.

  Seregil nodded and held up three fingers, then signed back, Go, hurry!

  He followed them up the street to the alley where Rieser waited for them with the horses.

  “Success?” asked Micum, also noting the bag.

  “Yes. Ulan saw me and it probably won’t be long before we have company.”

  “We should leave the horses and steal more when we can,” said Rieser. “That is what I would do. Horses will be too loud and noticeable this time of the night.”

  “So they will,” said Seregil, heading for the narrow passage
way at the far end of the alley.

  When the door opened again so soon Ulan thought perhaps the young Bôkthersan had come back to kill him after all. But it was Ilar, holding a night lamp from the hallway. His face was ashen, and a sizable bruise was darkening along his jaw.

  “Oh Aura! Khirnari! Forgive me!” Hurrying to the bed, he removed the gag and began to pull at the cords that bound Ulan’s hands.

  “He overpowered you, too?”

  “Yes.” Ilar was concentrating on the rope binding Ulan’s ankles.

  Captain Urien burst in with several of his men. “Khirnari! By the Light, I’ve failed you!”

  “Indeed you have, Captain,” Ulan said with a sigh as Ilar helped him sit up. “Thieves have broken in and stolen three of my rarest and most valuable books. Large ones—you won’t mistake them. Rouse our Plenimaran hounds and send four of them to the harbor and the gates with word that they are looking for the same red-haired northerner and his three slaves. It seems they’ve followed me to the city. As soon as you have word back, go after them as quickly as you can. Take all your men. I must have those books back, and the blue-eyed slave. I want that one alive!”

  Urien hurried out with his men, already shouting orders.

  Ilar stayed behind, fidgeting with the hem of one sleeve as he hesitated by the door. He was trembling.

  Ulan fixed him with his sharp gaze. “Tell me, Ilar. How did Seregil know where the books were?”

  The younger man fell to his knees, covering his face with his hands, and remained like that in damning silence.

  “I see. Very well, then. You will go with Urien to make certain of the books. I wouldn’t put it past Seregil to substitute false ones and hide the others.”

  Ilar looked up with mingled anguish and gratitude. “I will, Khirnari. Can you ever forgive my weakness?”

  Ulan regarded him a moment longer, until the man began to wilt again. “Come back with the books, Ilar, or don’t come back at all.”

  Their days of reconnoitering had not been in vain. Seregil led the way through the dark streets, moving steadily in the direction of the waterfront.

  But it was well guarded at night, and there were no small boats moored in close enough to steal. Guards of one sort or another were posted on every quay.

  Seregil, Alec, and Rieser tied on their veils and put up their hoods in the shadow of a chandler’s shop.

  “We could book honest passage,” Rieser suggested.

  “Always a last resort, but I suppose we could try,” Seregil said.

  “You three stay here,” said Micum. “I’ll go see what I can find.”

  The others watched from their hiding spot as Micum spoke to the guard on one jetty, and then another. He was heading for the third when a mounted man suddenly clattered into view, holding up a lantern.

  “Oy, you lot!” he cried out, voice echoing down the waterfront. “I’m looking for four fugitives—a big northerner and three slaves. They’re thieves and there’s a good bounty on their heads.” He wasn’t ’faie, but the spy who’d followed them that first day in Riga hadn’t been, either. Ulan’s money had bought him a few Plenimarans, it seemed.

  “Shit!” Seregil muttered. “Well, that’s the end of that.”

  “And now Micum’s been seen!” whispered Alec.

  If Micum had run for it then, or even turned from his task, it would probably have raised suspicions, but he coolly continued on his way, and Seregil saw money change hands on the fifth jetty. Micum waved to the guards and walked calmly back into the maze of streets at the head of the harbor.

  Seregil saw Rieser shake his head and guessed he was more impressed than he’d willingly let on. What they’d just witnessed took a level head and steady nerves that few possessed—traits that made Micum a fine Watcher.

  Seregil and the others remained where they were, and Micum soon appeared from the shadows behind them.

  “What did you tell them?” asked Alec.

  “That I would be back at dawn with my wife and children. The fare wasn’t cheap but it’s bought us some time.”

  Ghosting away, they made for the south gate, hoping word of them hadn’t spread that far.

  It hadn’t. Micum showed their documents, and the other three submitted to the inspection of their collars and brands.

  It wasn’t until one of the guards turned to him that Seregil registered the weight of the tool roll and dagger against his belly under his shirt. Making a show of fumbling with the strings of his bundle and the bag holding the books, he got the knife free and hid it under the bags as he set them down beside Micum. The bored guard glanced at the marks on his arm and leg, matching them against those on the document, then waved them on. Seregil gathered the bags, using his cloak to mask his movements as he tried to kick the knife out of sight between two nearby barrels stacked against a wall, but it had landed point-out and he nearly skewered his foot. One of the curved guards caught between the barrels, leaving most of the thing in plain sight.

  “Come on, you!” Micum ordered roughly, cuffing Seregil on the ear. Seregil scuttled quickly under his arm to join the others on the far side of the gate. They were out, free and—

  “Hold on there!” one of the guards called after them. “You, trader.”

  Micum shot Seregil a tense look, then settled his features into a look of mild impatience as he turned back. “Yes, what is it?”

  The guard waved them back, and Seregil’s heart sank as the man held out the knife. “Is this yours?”

  “It is!” Micum exclaimed without missing a beat as he felt at his belt in surprise. “Sakor’s Flame!”

  The guard glanced back at his companions. “Told you the slave was up to something.” Then, to Micum, “You were too hasty with your dog, there. He was trying to fetch it for you.”

  Micum looked at Seregil. “Is that so?”

  Seregil bowed his head and nodded mutely.

  Micum patted his head roughly, as if he were a dog, then pushed him off toward the others again. “Thank you, Sergeant. That was a gift from my late wife. I’d have been sorry to lose it.”

  “Glad to help, trader. Good journey to you! Take care on the road. Say, where are you headed at this early hour?”

  Can’t you just let us go? Seregil thought furiously.

  “Oh, I’ve got a friend up the road with a warm bed waiting. I meant to be off earlier, but luck was with me at a gaming table,” Micum told him with a chuckle. He threw back his cloak, showing off his sword and Alec’s bow. “And I fear no man on the road, or off it.”

  The guard grinned and waved him on. “Good luck to you then.”

  The four of them walked on in silence for some time, until Rieser finally broke the silence. “You are an accomplished liar, Micum Cavish.”

  Micum grinned. “Many thanks.”

  There was no time for complacency, though, knowing that word of them was likely to spread fast, given the bounty. They walked on, passing by houses and hamlets, and then farmsteads. It was dangerously close to dawn now; the houses were dark, but farm householders were notoriously early risers. Coming across one at last with horses in a corral, Seregil went in first to deal with the dogs; then they helped themselves. As they were leading them away, however, a man suddenly shouted behind them and they heard the sound of several people running in their direction. As one they sprang onto their horses’ backs, grabbed them by the manes, and kicked them into a gallop down the road, followed by cries of “Thief!” And, before too much longer, the sound of more horses galloping after them.

  “It’s going to be a damn poor end to this journey if we end up hanged for horse thieves,” Micum shouted to the others.

  “Rhal should be back,” Alec noted. “If we can just get there—”

  If. Seregil tried not to think about what that turnip farmer had told them.

  Suddenly he heard a horse scream and looked back over his shoulder just in time to see Rieser’s horse throw him and stagger off on a broken leg.

  Alec happened
to be the hindmost and saw Rieser’s horse step in the rabbit hole and founder. Rieser was on his feet already. Reining in, Alec gave the man a hand up. Rieser took it and sprang up behind him, then grasped the back of Alec’s shirt as he galloped off after the others. Not a word of thanks, of course.

  Micum was in the lead now, and Alec leaned over his mount’s neck, urging it on to catch up. Seregil was looking back, gesturing for him to hurry. Alec checked back over his shoulder and saw the farmer and his men gaining on his more heavily laden horse.

  “Oh, Illior, give this horse wings,” he muttered, then started as he saw the foremost rider fall, then another. Micum had stopped and was shooting, his eye as sharp and his hand steady as Alec’s. One by one, he picked off the lead riders until the rest turned tail and rode back the way they’d come.

  Alec let out a triumphant whoop and urged his horse on to reach the others as Rieser clung on behind. “It’s about time someone used that bow!” he called out with a laugh.

  Micum slung it over his shoulder and took stock of the arrows left in the quiver as he rode. “Less than a score now.”

  “Well lost, though,” said Alec. “I didn’t much fancy getting hung from the nearest tree, or having my guts torn out back in the city.”

  “But there’s some more people who’ve had sight of us,” Seregil pointed out, not happy about that. As escapes went, this one was a mess. “We’ve got to get off the highroad. We might as well wear signs on our backs, otherwise.”

  They left the road and continued cross-country toward the sea, riding more carefully for the horses’ sakes and eating the cheese and dry sausage Micum had thought to bring with him last night, knowing the rest might not have a chance to go back for their packs.

  The sun was well up when they struck a track that ran close along the shoreline.

  “This must be the other end of the fork we saw when we came in,” said Micum.

  “A way less traveled by the look of it,” said Seregil. “What do you say?”

  They took it, and found themselves on a winding track that followed the crenellated coastline. They passed one small fishing hamlet and a few lonely houses, but soon the dry, open countryside was deserted, sloping ever down to the rugged sea ledges where the glass-green waves came crashing in with great gouts of white spume. Gulls cried overhead and ospreys soared above, while sea ducks bobbed out beyond the breakers. Tiny yellow and white flowers blossomed along the ledges, and clumps of sea lavender, clinging to what soil there was. The air was sweet with their perfume yet left the taste of salt on Alec’s lips. But for the lack of forests, it was hauntingly similar to the stretch of Plenimaran coastline where Duke Mardus had brought Alec.

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