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


  Seregil sat down and put an arm around him. “It’s time, Alec,” he said gently. “Do you want me to do it? Rieser’s just outside.”

  Alec wiped the tears from his cheeks. “No. I will.” Rising, he carried Sebrahn across the room, committing the feel of those cool little arms around his neck to memory.

  Hâzadriën and Rieser sat on the stairs outside, but rose when he came out.

  “You’re ready?” asked Rieser.

  “Yes.” It took all of Alec’s will to place Sebrahn in the tall rhekaro’s arms. “Take—take care of him for me. He trusts you.”

  “I’ll see that they remain together,” Rieser promised.

  And then there was nothing left to say. Unable to watch them climb the stairs, Alec turned and walked back into the cabin. Head down, he mumbled, “I need to be alone.”

  “Are you sure?”

  “Yes. Just for a while.”

  “All right then.” Seregil paused and embraced him, and Alec knew how important it was for him not to pull away. Instead he hugged him back gratefully, then found he couldn’t let go.

  Seregil stroked his hair. “I know, talí. I know. It’s all right.”

  “No, it’s not!” He already felt the burning ache of loss in his chest. His “child of no mother” could not be his. Not if he wanted the life he had. Seregil’s arms tightened around him; he knew loss, too. Somehow, that helped.

  From Nanta, Rhal set sail for the Cirna Canal, and the little port of Ardenlee nearby. Seregil spent the first day in the cabin with Alec, and Micum let them be. When Alec appeared at supper the following night, his eyes were red and he was very quiet. Micum looked over at Seregil, but his friend shook his head. There was nothing anyone could say to Alec right now that would ease his pain.

  Alec was a little better the next day, and by the time they reached Cirna, he seemed nearly himself again, though there’d been no singing or gaming this crossing. Seregil spent a great deal of time poring over the pieces of the stolen books, trying to pierce the code, but with little success. Micum suspected his heart wasn’t really in the task just now. Sebrahn’s absence was palpable between them.

  They arrived at midmorning, guided in by twin columns of smoke from the beacon fires above the Astellus and Sakor columns. It had been a few years since Micum had sailed through the great Canal, which connected the Inner and Osiat seas. As they sat at anchor, waiting for the harbormaster to signal their turn, he stood on the deck with Alec and Seregil, taking in the sight of it.

  “I’ll never forget the first time I saw this, aboard the Grampus,” murmured Alec.

  “While I was busy dying in the hold,” Seregil said with a chuckle.

  The ships ahead of them disappeared one by one into the dark maw of the channel, each signaled in by a mirror flash from near the top of the Astellus pillar.

  “That’s our signal!” the lookout cried.

  It was too dangerous to sail though the narrow channel, so ships like the Lady that were not fitted out with oars were towed through by large longboats.

  It was just short of noon now, and they could clearly see the glassy places on the rough, towering walls, signs of the ancient magic used to make this wonder. Freshets of water flowed here and there, their tinkling splash sounding loud in the narrow space.

  As they reached the halfway point, Micum saluted the statue of Tamír. “Thanks for the use of your road, Majesty.”

  Reaching the far end at last, the longboat cast off and they hoisted canvas and sailed down the rocky coast to Ardenlee.

  They’d decided to put in here, rather than Rhíminee, and enter the city as quietly as possible, which for Seregil and Alec meant evading any of the queen’s spies who might recognize them. There were still the pieces of the books to be dealt with before they made their presence generally known.

  The sailors swam their horses ashore, and they followed in a longboat with their gear. Rhal came along to bid them farewell.

  When they were ashore at last, he clasped hands with each of them and held Alec’s the longest. “Take care, my lords, and see if you can keep out of trouble for a while.”

  “Good hunting,” said Seregil.

  “And a full hold,” added Micum.

  They stayed the night in a small inn, and set off the next day for the Bell and Bridle once again. “It’s good not to be pursued this time,” Micum remarked.

  Seregil chuckled but Alec just looked away and said nothing. He’d been carrying Sebrahn the last time they came this way.

  They spent the night at the Bell, and Seregil used one of the message sticks to let Thero know of their return. The following morning it was time to finally say another farewell.

  “I could ride to Rhíminee with you,” Micum offered as they stood together in the stable yard.

  “You’ve made Kari wait far too long already,” Seregil told him. “Give her our apologies, and tell Illia and the boys that we’ll bring presents to make up for your absence.”

  “They’ll hold you to that. And see that you come out to Watermead soon.” He wagged a finger at them both. “I expect to see you before the spring foaling’s done.”

  “You will,” Alec promised. “I’ll make sure of it.”

  Micum embraced them each in turn. “I’ll miss you. I always do.”

  Mounting his horse, he turned and headed for home.

  Alec and Seregil watched him out of sight, then headed for the stable to get their horses.

  “What do you say, Cynril, my girl?” Seregil asked, rubbing the tall black’s nose. “Ready to turn your head for home?”

  Home, thought Alec. “The villa or the inn?” he asked, hoping for the latter.

  “The inn, of course. I think we deserve a few days’ peace before we plunge back into society.”

  “Good.” After all the horrors and hardships of these past months, Alec wanted to hide away in their secret rooms for about a year before he even considered parties and intrigues.

  CHAPTER 36

  Rhíminee in the Dark

  THEY ARRIVED at the north gate of the city just before midnight and rode through into the Harvest Market. The labyrinth of stalls was dark, and the great square was deserted except for a few sleeping beggars and a stray tomcat howling its lust somewhere in the shadows. From here they followed Silvermoon Street into the Noble Quarter, past the Palace grounds, and on to the walled grounds of the Orëska House. The soaring white palace towered above its walls, gleaming like pearl in the moonlight. The huge glass dome that topped it, and three of the four towers that stood at the corners, were dark, but light still showed through the dome of the east tower.

  “Looks like we won’t be waking Thero,” said Alec.

  “Perhaps he waited up for us.” Seregil patted his saddlebag and the two oo’lus strapped behind his saddle. “This time we brought presents for him, too.”

  Guards in the red livery of the House stepped out to challenge them, but their names were password enough. They rode on through the dark, ever-fragrant gardens and left their horses with an attendant. Climbing the broad steps, they entered the huge, echoing atrium and strode across the great dragon mosaic floor to the stairway. Five stories of elaborately carved balconies and walkways were lost in shadow, except for lanterns hung at intervals along each.

  Thero was uncommonly disheveled when he answered their knock. His blue robe looked slept in, and there were purple ink stains on his fingers and right cheek. “There you are! I didn’t expect you until tomorrow.” He looked them over, taking in their mud-spattered boots and trousers, and the saddlebag and oo’lus Seregil carried over one shoulder. “Where is Sebrahn?” he asked as they came into the workshop. The smell of a brazier hung on the air, and the stink of some spell.

  “He’s safe. I’ll tell you the tale in a while,” Seregil said quietly with a meaningful look in Alec’s direction. “When we’ve had some wine.”

  “Very well. I’ve had some news of my own, today. Ulan í Sathil died in Riga.”

  “Wh
en?”

  “Not long after you left, I’d say. He was carried back to Virésse in state with a boatload of ransomed slaves, a hero to his people.”

  “A hero?” Alec exclaimed.

  “It’s all right,” Seregil told him. “He’s more use to everyone that way. No good could come of the truth.”

  “But, still, it’s sort of ironic, isn’t? Us keeping his secret for him?”

  Seregil gave him a wry smile. “Life does tend to work out that way sometimes.”

  “Did you find the book?” asked Thero.

  “Books, as it turned out,” Seregil told him.

  Seregil set the saddlebag down on one of the workbenches and took out the three halved volumes.

  Thero looked at them in dismay. “What happened?”

  “I split them with a Hâzadriëlfaie captain we got to know, with the idea that it was safer with no one having all of any of them. I did try to salvage the best bits, though.”

  Thero gaped at them. “Hâzadriëlfaie? Really?”

  “That’s who was chasing us when we met you at the Bell and Bridle,” Alec told him. “It’s a long, long story after that.”

  “Another one. Then you’d better come downstairs and tell them.”

  “Is Magyana still awake?” asked Seregil. “She’ll want to hear it, too.”

  “She went down to Rhina to visit Hermeus. I’ll send word to her tomorrow.”

  “Oh, and before we go any farther?” Seregil pointed to Alec’s hair; Thero’s magic had not worn off and it was still brown. “Will you please put this right?”

  “Of course.” Thero stood behind Alec and ran his hands over his head. When he was through Alec’s hair was back to its normal honey blond.

  “Ah, that’s much better!”

  “And these,” said Alec, pushing his sleeve back to show him the slave brand.

  Thero removed those as well, and led them down the back stair to his tidy sitting room.

  The room hadn’t changed since Nysander’s day. There was still the band of mural around the room, magical as well as decorative, and the old comfortable furnishings. A dining table stood at the center of the room, with armchairs by the hearth beyond. The walls were filled with bookcases, scroll racks, and dusty objects of uncertain origin.

  Thero wove a quick spell on the air with one finger and a burlap-wrapped wine jar appeared on the table, still crusted with snow from Mount Apos. He poured them goblets of the chilled Mycenian apple wine and they sat down at the table with the books.

  Seregil took a long sip of the cold wine and sat back in his chair. “Oh, I have missed that!”

  “The books?” Thero asked impatiently.

  “I think you’ll find this one of the most interest.” Seregil said, showing him the one with the most drawings of rhekaros. “I don’t know if the whole thing is about the making of them, but I tried to get as much of it for you as I could.”

  “Excellent!” Thero looked as happy as Micum’s daughter Illia with a new necklace. “This is wonderful! Given Yhakobin’s skills, this could prove very useful, even if it is incomplete. I’ll need your expertise in figuring out the code, I’m sure.”

  “Once we get settled in again,” Seregil promised, then presented Thero with the oo’lus. “I thought you’d like these, too.”

  “Also part of the long story,” Alec told him.

  Thero refilled the cups. “I’m ready to hear it.”

  It did take quite a while, even with two of them telling it. When they were done, Thero shook his head. “I’m sorry about Sebrahn, Alec.”

  “It was the best thing we could do,” Alec told him, but there was still a raw edge of sadness in his voice.

  “The things you two survive! It never fails to amaze me.”

  Seregil saluted him with his empty cup, then set it aside.

  “Where are you going tonight? You’re welcome to stay here.”

  “Thanks, but we’re headed for the Stag,” Alec told him.

  “Shall I send word to Runcer?”

  “No, thanks.” As much as Seregil trusted the man who oversaw the running of the Wheel Street villa, he didn’t want to chance word getting out of their return.

  “When will you see the queen? She’s not very happy with me for coming back without you, or about your extended absence.”

  “What did you tell her?”

  “That you were still in Bôkthersa, recuperating and visiting your family.”

  “Thank you. We’ll send word to the Palace tomorrow after we’ve had a bit of a rest. And that’s what I need right now. Come on, Alec.”

  Thero walked upstairs with them and saw them to the door.

  “I know you’ll guard those books carefully,” said Seregil. “It’s a relief to be rid of them.”

  “I’ll take good care of them.”

  With that duty discharged, they backtracked through the Noble Quarter to Golden Helm Street and on past the round colonnade of the Astellus fountain and the arched entrance to the Street of Lights. The colored lanterns in front of the elaborate brothels were lit and there were still quite a number of people on the street, heading for the favors of a favorite courtesan, or the gambling houses at the far end. A good many were soldiers.

  From here they entered a twisting maze of narrow streets toward Blue Fish Street.

  They were nearly there when they heard the telltale scuffle of feet behind them. The lanterns were few and far between in this part of the city, but there was enough light from the nearest for Seregil to count five men. They were young and dressed like ruffians. He didn’t see any swords, just clubs and staffs and a few long knives.

  “And where might you be going?” asked one with a northern accent.

  “Those are pretty horses you have there,” said another with a head of wild curly hair.

  Two of them were advancing, probably meaning to cut the lead reins of Windrunner and Star. Smelling the brandy on them, Seregil let out a heavy sigh. “You don’t want to do this.”

  “I don’t see the bluecoats anywhere,” the leader said with a confident leer.

  “He’s trying to do you a favor,” Alec warned.

  The man laughed. “I think you two better come down off those horses. Now.”

  “Why would we do that?” asked Seregil.

  The man swung his club in a vicious arc in front of him. “We mean to lighten your load, that’s why! So you can stop acting so high and mighty, my lordlings. We’ll take those bags, and your purses. And that’s a nice bow you’re carrying, too, Yellow Hair.”

  Moving as one, Seregil and Alec swung down from the saddle and drew their swords. The polished Aurënen steel caught the faint light.

  Two of the men in front of them stepped back a little, but the three others rushed them, swinging their clubs. Alec ducked a blow from the fare most and slashed the man across the chest, striking to wound rather than kill. It had the desired effect; the man dropped his club and staggered back. Seregil struck the other one—the erstwhile leader—across the face with the flat of his blade, opening up his cheek and stunning him. The rest turned tail and ran.

  Satisfied, Seregil went to the man who lay doubled up on the ground and gave him a hard nudge with his foot, pushing him over onto his back.

  “Please, sir, don’t kill me!” the man pleaded, craven now.

  “I did warn you.” Holding him down with a foot on his chest, Seregil put the tip of his sword under the man’s chin and helped himself to the thief’s purse. “You really should be more careful about choosing your marks.”

  The man gaped up at him in terror. “Please sir! I’m sorry! Maker’s Mercy, please don’t—”

  Seregil looked over at Alec, who was still standing over the other man. “What do you say?”

  “Not worth getting our blades dirty.”

  “I suppose not. On your feet, you pathetic bastard. Take your friend here and run away before we change our minds.”

  “He’s no friend of mine!” the coward exclaimed and stag
gered away behind the horses.

  “No honor among some thieves,” said Alec.

  Seregil sighed. “That was hardly any fun at all.”

  Mounting again, they continued on, alert for reprisals.

  The Stag and Otter was dark. Bypassing the front door, they led their horses to the back courtyard and left them with the sleepy stable lad, then went in by the kitchen door.

  Seregil went to the mantelpiece above the broad hearth and took down the large painted pitcher that stood at the center of it.

  “Well, well.” He felt inside and held up three folded vellum packets and a small scroll tube, no doubt delivered by Magyana or Thero. “We’ve been missed.”

  Alec lit a candle from the banked coals and they made their way up to the second floor, where Seregil unlocked the door of an empty storeroom and locked it again carefully behind them. Crossing to the opposite wall, he spoke the ward that opened the hidden panel there.

  “Do you remember the passwords?” he asked Alec with a grin. “It has been a while.”

  “I certainly hope so. It would be a shame to be killed on our own doorstep.” Alec took the lead, whispering the current passwords—Aurathra. Morinth. Selethrir. Tilentha, the Aurënfaie words for the four moon phases—for each of the four wards Magyana had placed here to deal with unwanted visitors, should anyone stumble onto their secret.

  Seregil’s cat, who had her own way in, stood up and stretched as they reached the door at the top of the stairs.

  “There’s my girl!” Seregil exclaimed, reaching down to scratch her behind the ears as Alec spoke the final password. Ruetha broke into a loud purr and rubbed around Seregil’s ankles as he opened the sitting room door.

  The room was dark and cold and smelled of dust, but they’d left a good supply of wood by the hearth. Seregil tossed his saddlebag into a corner and kicked off his muddy boots by the door. Alec did the same, then used a fire chip from the dish on the marble mantelpiece to light the fire. Seregil went around the room, lighting candles and lamps, then—sweeping the dust cover off the couch—he stretched out there and inspected the seals on the letters.

 
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