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


  “Go down and ask Moriea for some water and broth.” Ulan gave the trembling man a kindly look. Ilar’s hood had fallen back a little, revealing a chapped red nose and chin, and the way Ilar was biting his lower lip. “You’ll feel better once you’re settled here. I assure you, you are quite safe, my dear fellow.”

  One thin, shaking hand emerged from the cloak, and Ilar pushed his hood back enough for Ulan to see his eyes and the dark circles under them. The neck of the cloak wasn’t tied. Ulan could make out the white ring of skin on his throat where a metal collar had rubbed for so many years.

  Ulan remembered him well from that summer gathering years ago, and had seen him often in recent years, while visiting Yhakobin. The change in him was shocking. There was most certainly the glaze of madness in those shadowed eyes, and some recent hardship had taken its toll. Yet in spite of that, some of his beauty survived.

  Ulan went to the sideboard and half filled a cup with water from the ewer, then mixed a little brandy into it. When he tried to give it to him, however, Ilar eyed it with obvious fear, and asked in a quavering voice, “Don’t I get two?”

  “Two? Why?”

  “Dwai sholo. It’s always two! It’s not fair!” Under Aurënfaie law, the ultimate punishment was to be imprisoned in a small room and given two bowls of food or drink a day, one poisoned and one not. If the prisoner chose well and survived a year and a day, he was set free. Not many lasted that long.

  “This isn’t poisoned, my dear fellow. You have nothing to fear here. You never did any wrong to Virésse and you are welcome, as I told you. Please, try to drink a little. It will calm you.”

  Ilar’s hood fell back as he clasped the cup in both hands. His dark hair was full of dust and sticks and lay lank against his scalp. He took a cautious sip, then a long gulp. Water ran from the corner of his mouth to darken the filthy tunic he had on under the cloak. That appeared to be his only garment, aside from a pair of shoes that were coming apart at the seams. When he was done he gave Ulan the cup and curled more deeply into the armchair.

  “I never expected to see you on these shores again,” Ulan told him as they waited for the broth.

  “I had nowhere to go,” Ilar replied dully, rubbing at his throat where the collar had been. “They left me. I think … Ilar who ran away all those years ago is dead.”

  “Life changes us all, dear boy. And yours has been very difficult.”

  Elisir came in with the broth on a tray and set it down on a small table by Ilar’s chair. “She sent this up tepid, Uncle, so he wouldn’t burn himself.”

  “Give her my thanks, Nephew. You should go see to your crew. I’ll take care of him now. You did well.”

  The brandy water was doing its work; Ilar’s hands were a bit steadier as he lifted the bowl to his lips and drank.

  “Slowly now,” Ulan told him with a smile. “I don’t want you spoiling my fine carpet.”

  He watched Ilar finish the broth, and when it appeared that he wasn’t going to be sick, he poured him a little more diluted brandy and put the cup in his hands. “Are you warm enough? You’re still shivering.”

  “Warm … no, I’ll never be warm. The stars were so cold …” A tear spilled down one dirty cheek, leaving behind a trail. “I was lost … alone. All alone …” He grew more agitated. “They’d see the mark! And the collar … And my brand! The slave takers …”

  “You’re safe from them here, my poor friend. We will take care of you from now on. No one else needs to know you’re here.” He leaned forward and took Ilar’s hand. “I think you’ve suffered quite enough for your crimes.”

  The empty cup tumbled to the carpet as Ilar covered his face, sobbing hoarsely. It was a calculated risk to take the man in, but Ulan doubted anyone would recognize this wretched creature as the dashing young man who’d disappeared so long ago.

  “I was alone,” Ilar whimpered. His mind was badly unhinged, but this was different from the fear and despair shown by most rescued slaves.

  Ulan leaned forward to squeeze the weeping man’s shoulder. “You just need rest and good food. And a bath, of course. Shall we go now?”

  Ilar recoiled in terror, as if Ulan’s touch had burned him. “No! I can’t. No one can see … Please, don’t let anyone see!”

  “Very well. I’ll have a tub brought to your room, and some proper clothing. You can wash yourself and dress without anyone seeing you. Come now, there’s a guest chamber just down the hall, and quite near my own room, should you need me.”

  Ulan rose and took Ilar’s hand to help him up. Cloak and sleeve fell back from the thin arm, and Ulan saw four long, scabbed scratches on the underside of the forearm, but no brand. Ulan had seen Yhakobin’s mark on his arm many times. There would be another on the back of Ilar’s left calf, as well. Or should be. But the skin of his forearm was unblemished above the scratches.

  Ilar managed to stay on his feet as Ulan helped him to the guest chamber, and waited with him until the tub was prepared. The servants brought soap and healing oils and scented the water properly when the bath was ready.

  “There now,” Ulan told him, motioning the others out. “One servant will wait outside, should you have any difficulty, but no one will come in unless you call. Just let him know through the door when you’re ready to see me again.”

  Trembling in his rags, Ilar mumbled, “You are very kind.”

  “You are an Aurënfaie in need, Ilar. I won’t turn my back on you.”

  “But you left me there.” He sounded more like a lost child than a man betrayed. “You ransomed so many others, but you left me in slavery.”

  Ulan sighed. “Your master treated you well, and held you in high regard. Look at yourself, Ilar. I don’t mean to be cruel, but where can you turn, so scarred and broken that you can’t even bathe properly for fear of someone seeing the marks of slavery on your body? I’ve seen too many returned slaves kill themselves. Truly, I trusted your master to take better care of you.”

  Ilar shivered and mumbled something Ulan didn’t quite catch.

  “Bathe and rest, Ilar. You are safe here.” Ulan could feel the sudden tightening in his chest again. “Go on. I’ll come see you in a little while.”

  Ulan controlled his breathing by will alone until he was safely behind the closed door of the next room. Then, collapsing into a chair, he pressed his handkerchief to his lips as he began to cough. It was no ordinary cough, this one. When the fit came upon him, it felt like an eagle tearing at his lungs. No one knew the severity of his condition except his personal healer, and she was sworn to silence. No one must know. As the coughing eased at last, he tasted blood. He spat into the linen handkerchief and saw with dread but no surprise that it was stained faintly pink.

  He rested his head against the back of the chair and tried to relax as the pain slowly subsided. When he could stand again, he went to the wall adjoining Ilar’s chamber and moved a small tapestry aside to uncover the peephole there.

  Ilar paced for a while, shivering and muttering to himself too softly for Ulan to hear. Finally he stopped with his back to Ulan and let the cloak fall, then pulled the tunic over his head.

  The reason for Ilar’s plea for privacy was immediately apparent; the scars of severe floggings covered the back of his emaciated body from neck to knees, and quite a number of them were recent enough to still be scabbed over in places. Ulan had never known Charis to treat his slaves cruelly, and certainly not Ilar, whom he’d valued above all the others, and even spoke of freeing someday. No, something had happened—something to do with Ilar’s escape, no doubt.

  The brand on Ilar’s calf was missing, too, just like the one on his forearm. While that would make keeping him a bit easier, it begged the question of how the marks had disappeared.

  Perhaps some sort of obscuration spell? he wondered, though he’d heard nothing of Seregil or the other one having any particular skill of that nature.

  If he could only find them, he’d have an answer to that.

  Ilar turned
around by the tub, reaching for a sponge on the bath tray.

  Aura’s Light! Ulan stared, deeply shocked. Charis had never mentioned that Ilar had been castrated; Ulan had always had the impression that he was a kind master. Then again, the scars that remained were old ones, and Ilar’s manner toward his master had been respectful, not fearful. No, one of Ilar’s previous, less gentle masters had done this to him some time ago.

  Ilar lowered himself unsteadily into the tub and began to cry again. Satisfied for now, Ulan let the tapestry fall back and returned to his study. His evening dose from the healer had been left for him there. The herbal potion still helped to ease the pain, but she’d had to make it much stronger of late.

  At last, the boy came with word that Ilar wanted to see him. Ulan found him in the large bed, propped up against the bolsters with the comforter pulled up under his chin, his long wet hair soaking the silk of both.

  “There now, that’s better isn’t it?” Ulan said, sitting down in the chair beside the bed. “Can you tell me how you came to be in such a state? Did Seregil í Korit do this to you?”

  Ilar shook his head vehemently. “No … he would never …” But his gaze was vague now, and his attention clearly wandered.

  “Do you bring news of the rhekaro, and the others?” Ulan knew he should let the poor man sleep, but he was too anxious for answers.

  “Rhekaro?”

  “Is it—” Ulan covered his mouth quickly with the stained handkerchief as another fit of coughing overtook him. This was as bad as the previous one. “Please go on,” he wheezed when it passed. “Tell me of the rhekaro,” he urged gently, trying to recapture Ilar’s attention.

  “His child …”

  Child? That was an odd way to look at it. “Did your master discover the elixir he promised me?”

  Ilar gave him a blank look. “It can heal.”

  Ah, yes! This was what Charis Yhakobin had promised in return for so much Virésse gold.

  Ilar let out an hysterical little laugh. “They aren’t supposed to speak!”

  A speaking elixir? The man was mad.

  Ilar’s eyes went vaguer still. “Ilban would have—But there was a terrible sound! It hurt … stinking in the sun … but not Seregil and Alec … so beautiful under the sky!” Ilar’s twisted smile sent a chill up Ulan’s spine. “But the bodies! Oh, the bodies and the birds!”

  “Whose bodies?”

  “Ilban … all of them … Seregil … So beautiful!”

  The way Ilar spoke of the Bôkthersan told Ulan that this wreck of a man still had strong feelings for Seregil, even after all these years. He’d guessed as much when Charis had sent word, asking that Seregil be delivered to him, as well as the boy.

  “Seregil is not dead,” Ulan told him. “He is in Gedre.”

  “Alive? Seregil is alive?” Something like joy momentarily lit that gaunt face. “Alive. But …” He reached out from under the comforter and pulled back the sleeve of his linen nightshirt to show Ulan the scratches, even as his eyes began to drift shut. “Beautiful.”

  That word again, so incongruous with his actions. The man’s mind was obviously as fragile as his ruined body, skipping between thoughts and memories. Ulan took his hand and felt the delicate bones through the chapped skin. “Rest now, my friend. Sleep well, and we will talk more tomorrow.”

  Ilar was asleep before Ulan reached the door.

  The khirnari made his way slowly down to his private bath chamber. Hot needles of pain shot through his arthritic knees and feet. He was an old man, with the afflictions of age as well as sickness, but he couldn’t let that stop him from carrying out his duties. He’d been khirnari of Virésse for two hundred and seventy years—longer than any person in any clan had ever served. He’d never given his people any reason to feel worry or doubt about his leadership, and he had but one regret. The reopening of the port at Gedre had cut into the business of his fai’thast far more deeply than he’d anticipated when he’d struck the bargain at Sarikali, and this was largely the doing of Korit í Solun’s brat, Seregil, the exile. If the council that had judged Seregil all those years ago had been held anywhere but in that sacred haunted city, Ulan would have seen to it—quietly and skillfully, of course—that Seregil was given the proper sentence of dwai sholo. As it was, he’d discovered at Sarikali the sort of man he’d grown into—a spy and sneak thief of the highest order, and therefore a potential threat and one to be watched. For that reason Ulan had men in Rhíminee, and even one on the privateering ship Seregil owned, the Green Lady. Little happened on the water that Ulan í Sathil did not know about. He’d thought himself well rid of Seregil when he’d given him into the hands of the slavers.

  He reined in his wandering thoughts. Another affliction of age.

  The bath servants were waiting for him, and helped him disrobe and climb into the sunken black marble tub. He sank gratefully into the soothing hot salt water. It felt silky against his skin, and was redolent with the aromas of sage and lugwort. Pink autumn crocus petals floated thick on the surface. It was a twice-daily ritual now, and one that offered him ease, but only temporarily. He looked down at his body—the withered arms and legs, hollow belly, and swollen joints. And how long had it been since he’d needed a woman in his bed? None of that mattered to him, really, only the subtle changes in his mind and the not-so-subtle ones in his lungs. The rest was discomfort and dwindling time. If he did not find the rhekaro, then time would have its way with him.

  Yhakobin had promised him a healing elixir, one that would take the eagle’s talons from his chest, the hot sand from his joints, and the fog from his mind. And, he’d claimed, it might prolong life, as well. Ulan would not give up.

  He tried to piece together Ilar’s ramblings as he soaked. His spies in Plenimar had already sent word that Charis Yhakobin had disappeared and there were rumors from Benshâl that one of the Overlord’s favorites, a friend of Charis’s, was missing as well. If Ilar was sane enough to speak the truth, then the alchemist was dead, probably at Seregil’s hands—though what the “sound” had been he could not guess. The clash of battle, perhaps? But Ilar had said that it hurt him. Whatever the case, this was a major calamity. As far as Ulan knew, only Charis Yhakobin had possessed the skill to create a rhekaro. And unless he’d had an apprentice Ulan didn’t know about, the knowledge had died with him. Perhaps another alchemist could complete the process. It would take some delicate intelligence gathering to find one, though, as the Plenimaran Overlord must be searching the land just as thoroughly. After all, it had been made for him.

  Ulan stirred the sinking petals with one finger. Men like this didn’t simply go missing. And Yhakobin had no reason to run away, so Ilar’s account probably contained some element of fact.

  At least Ilar í Sontir had been properly dealt with all those years ago. Suspicions had run rampant in the wake of the young man’s disappearance; most did not connect his amorous pursuit of the khirnari’s son to the murder Seregil had committed. Most assumed that Ilar had run away out of shame over his young lover. Members of Ilar’s own clan, the Chyptaulos, were relieved—though the dishonor he’d brought upon them had left an indelible blot, since they could not punish him for the seduction to satisfy the honor of Bôkthersa. In order to avoid a blood feud, the old khirnari of the Chyptaulos had stepped down and Dendra ä Arali, who had no strong blood tie to Ilar, stepped into his place. As Ulan had hoped, with Ilar out of the way, speculation had quickly died down.

  It was very fortunate that young Seregil had known nothing of Ulan’s hand in those events—and when he’d come to Ulan as a grown man in Sarikali and put the question to him, Ulan had happily lied, resisting the urge to tell him that his betrayer was still alive. He’d had no particular plan for either Seregil or Ilar at the time, but he was not a man to give up a secret.

  Ilar had known about Seregil and his talímenios; Ulan took a certain degree of pleasure in keeping the miserable slave informed now and then, once he was broken and in the possession of Charis Yhako
bin, a man Ulan knew well. He didn’t particularly like the man, but he’d been a trustworthy business partner and ransomed many slaves over the years.

  But now Ulan would care for Ilar like a son. It was thanks to the poor creature that the alchemist had learned of young Alec’s bloodline in the first place. Ulan been rather surprised when Charis had contacted him so eagerly, asking after the young half-breed. Once the man made known something of the reason, however, Ulan began to plot. All attempts to set up a kidnapping from Skala had failed; there was no one there except his own spies he could count on, and that would have been too obvious. And there was, of course, simply no way for a Plenimaran to gain access to them.

  So he’d waited, and seen his chance when word had come that the exile and his talímenios were returning to Aurënen on business for Queen Phoria. For the sake of his clan, Ulan had risked the collective honor of Virésse by facilitating the raid and capture of Alec of Kerry and, according to the alchemist’s request, Seregil as well. It was capture or kill him outright, anyway, given Seregil’s devotion to his talímenios. Under different circumstances, Ulan would have admired him for that.

  And just when the whole gamble was about to fall his way, this disaster.

  “Khirnari?”

  Ulan started slightly, not having heard Elisir come in; it wasn’t the first time he’d gotten caught up in memories when he should be concentrating on the present. The body was not the only thing that lost strength with age. “What is it?”

  “They told me downstairs you’ve made a guest of that wretch.”

  Ulan smiled. “I offered him kindness, but no formal pledge of hospitality. That can wait until I find some use for him.”

  “I see. Well, what do you want me to do now?”

  “Keep watching. Use every resource. They’ve left Gedre. I want to know where they go and if they have a child with them. If they’re dead, I want proof.”

  “Yes. But, Uncle, if I may? Why is this child so important?”

 
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