Boruin woke with a hot coal of fire in his hand. His eyes snapped open as he released the spell from his burning fist. He saw Toaaho turned away from him in sleep, but it was too late to stop the magic. The power rushed from the runes, breaking against his companion’s wounded back. Boruin’s breath seized up in his chest as if the strength of the spell had slammed the wind out of his lungs. It was a long moment before he could stop grimacing in pain and confusion and force himself to breathe.
In that moment the spell coated the Mana’Olai, a thick running amber that sunk into his wounds like water into cracked desert earth.
The man spun to his feet, turning to face Boruin. “You have no right to work your spells on me without permission.” Boruin flinched from his friend’s rare display of emotion. The boy walked past him and smacked Toaaho on the back. The Mana’Olai began to shoo him away before realizing no pain came from the hard slap.
“Did you do this?” Boruin asked, grabbing the boy’s arm. The child smiled at him and reached up to flip the runes across his forearm.
“Yuin’s sake, boy! These are not toys! Not for you to play with! Do you hear me? Do you understand what’s coming out of my mouth?” he shouted. The boy just smiled at everything he said.
Pile dropped his axe back into the dirt, his eyes still droopy after being startled from sleep. “The boy can work your runes?” Pile muttered as he collapsed on his bedroll. “Boy, I must be the streetcard’s mark. I can’t even see them.”
“You and everyone else. That’s how I like it,” Boruin answered. He caught Wraethe’s eyes fading back beneath her cowl. She had nearly come out from her sleep, but had left the boy to play with his magic. For Yuin’s sake, what if it had been the toothy plant instead? The fear of it drove him to his feet.
Boruin stormed off into the woods, leaving the boy and Pile to remove Toaaho’s bandages. He knew the deep scores in Toaaho’s flesh would be healed. He had felt that in the spell even before he had fully woke. There were six or seven runes in that combination, he was almost sure of it. The power had been immense, and it had happened without him. Boruin stood on the ridge overlooking the distant capital. He counted the towers standing like guards over the garden parks, traced the lines of its boulevards and watched the Oriune River flow through Priyati until his blood cooled. Then he went back to the camp and waited on sundown.
They joined Priyati one by one, slipping in between houses, appearing out of the forest on the edges of avenues. Boruin walked with the boy on his shoulders, like a father out with his son. They strode into the capital as if enjoying Diuntyne after dinner. If Belok was around he was watching the highway. Boruin saw no man note his appearance as he approached the market, but Priyati was a big place.
The Diuntyne market was full. The merchants had brought out their perishables, the moon’s gaze less harsh on the meats, fruit, and fish than the sun’s. Now that the heat of the day had lifted, Priyati’s folk moved through the stalls, picking out greens and meats for the evening meal and collecting eggs and milk for the morning. Food wasn’t the only fare, though.
In a brewer’s stand, Pile had found his own method of shaking the day’s heat. He set a mug to his lips and winked over the brim at the boy as they passed. Boruin could hear Wraethe bickering in a nearby stall as she tried to trade their furs for finer apparel. He bought the boy a sweetstick and found Toaaho sidling up to buy his own.
“No troubles?” Boruin asked. The Mana’Olai shook his head. “We need to find a place to stay.”
“Done,” Wraethe answered. “My young friend knows a fine apartment overlooking the Oriune River.” They turned to find Wraethe had replaced her furs with a light cloak and leathers that seemed to trace her curves rather than cover them. The young man carrying her purchases stood flushed and open-mouthed.
Boruin eyed the dressings with a frown. “I hope you paid for that by the yard,” he said. The woman smiled, but her eyes were cold toward him. She was not in a teasing mood. Pile wandered up from behind, smiling.
“Not bad, if you are going to whore it up toni—” Wraethe’s quick slap snapped across Pile’s cheek. His face burned red at the rebuke. “More right than I thought,” he said, turning back to the casks of ale. Wraethe headed farther into the market without a word. Diun’s pale light set her skin to burn lustfully as she passed each watching man. Her young man followed fast behind.
“At least we don’t attract much attention,” Toaaho said. They waited for Wraethe’s admirers to turn back to their wares before heading after her.
Boruin stood on the balcony three stories above the Oriune where it raced through the southern end of the city. The river roared out of the mountains so quickly that the cautious Easlinders had set high railings along its banks. If you fell into the frigid Oriune, they might find your pieces once the river slowed at the Mana’Olai border.
The wide balcony aside, the three-room suite was large enough to fit them comfortably. White-washed clay walls had darkened to a hazy brown, but at least the dust in the corners betrayed no mice prints. The boy settled right into a linen closet near the back. He lay in musty sheets on a deep shelf and watched out a small window as men moved stone into boats with tall wooden cranes and lumbering habback. The old building seemed the border where the city’s sprawling gardens differed to its shipping interests. The building loomed beside the river in the last of the ancient groves. The stone and ore yards shored up its back.
Though timber and mining had built Easlinder, the capital was kept as a showpiece of the country’s wilderness. They’d followed Wraethe’s man through prairie glades, primal groves, and strange flats where gardens of stone and water blended like twin elements. The trees were old men with sprawling, muscular branches. Homes and shops nestled under the knotted boughs. Some larger buildings rose around the trunks and into the crown, like a heavy winter coat sprouting branches out of buttonholes, pockets and sleeves. Seeing these unique forms, it was obvious how the Easlinders built the city into the land rather than across it.
The Rilk, those rock creatures still new to the Duine of the surface lands, had apprenticed them in that task. They laid stone buildings to interlace the ancient woods. Their rock hands and graveled voices had shaped the rock gardens that rose in flowing forms to mirror the running water. The city’s stone buildings were all shaped by the rilk’s influence, built by their guidance. Tall towers and squat buildings alike were fluid, as if rock was a creature of motion somehow caught naked by one’s eye and scared to move. If one was to look away and back, it seemed likely that the soft lines had shifted, growing fuller curves or longer cascades.
The people moving along the boulevards, and the rilk through the tunnels below, were another claim to harmony. Northern Yuinites walked with the Mana’Olai, their rejection Pileaus, the self-proclaimed God Emperor, acceptable to the southerners, who had many gods already. The small peace achieved in the high mountains of Easlinder was a welcome change from bickering Nefazo.
Down on the street, Wraethe kissed the young man on the cheek. He almost tripped over his feet as he raced back to the market to find Pile and supply their address. Wraethe loped slowly along the cobblestones, giving a somber-robed Yuinite priest a wink and a long look as she passed. His fellow held him tight around his waist to keep him from following. Priyati was a prowling ground tonight; more than a few young men would fall into lust unimagined.
Boruin hoped they would tide her over until they could get out of town. Takata Shin was just caressing the edge of Diun and would not be visible much longer. It would be nice to have turned over the boy to the right people by then. Paid, gone, and Wraethe free to lay waste to an empty jungle would be best. But Boruin rarely achieved what was best, and he mulled over what he might have to do otherwise.
Wraethe’s errand boy returned, hanging around the corner to watch for her. He stayed until Pile arrived and ran him off. Wraethe would be in no mood for the youth when Diun set and she returned. Boruin wondered if that was Pile’s intention or if he simply disliked Wraethe’s affections for anyone, feigned or not.
Boruin moved within grabbing distance as Pile stumbled onto the balcony and leaned back on the railing. “That contract house is east of the river near the rilk colony,” he said.
“What’s their business?”
“No news of that. It’s a small place, a front for a company further north called Undurlund, I guess. Nobody knew nothin’ else,” Pile said.
Boruin snapped his fingers, and Pile’s face came down from the sky to land on his eye. “Easy around Wraethe for a bit. She’s a little on edge.”
Pile kicked off the rail. “Over, I’d say. Plummeting to rutting madness, I’d say,” he slurred as he rambled back toward his room, dropping clothes as he went. The drunk collapsed onto his bed, asleep before he could get his other boot off. Boruin settled into a chair. He watched the moon drop slowly and fell asleep listening for the sound of Wraethe’s long stride on the cobblestones.
Dawn found Boruin in his chair. He awoke with a start, shaking half forgotten dreams into pieces. He spat the taste of stale wine from his mouth and took the cup of dark tea Pile offered him. The short man kept one hand over his squinting eyes as if the light were a liquid pain seeping into his head. He sat on the floor and leaned against the wall, sipping from his own cup. The boy and Toaaho played a game of sliding stones, though the boy kept getting up to watch the workers by the river as Toaaho considered his move.
Pile’s hand switched eyes. “Raced in with the first light like it would catch her on fire,” he said.
“How’d she look?”
“Fine, I guess. What do you mean?”
Boruin didn’t answer, and Pile’s head was too thick to remember, or care, that he’d asked a question.
When he was ready, Boruin went to her room and checked Wraethe’s hands himself. Her eyes rose as he looked for blood under her fingernails. He watched her watching him and waited to see if she would come further out, waited to see if her anger would stretch into the daylight. Instead her eyes dulled back into distant sleep. There was no blood. Must have found enough fun to tide her over, he thought.
“You be good tonight. Try to behave,” he said, though he was sure she wouldn’t hear. He wondered what tonight would be like. Takata Shin would be gone either this evening or the next. Nurom Misuer would rule her house, and she would rage like the Emperor burning across the north. He wanted to rush to the contract house and deliver the boy, but he knew that was the wrong move. There had been no sign of Belok, but he had to be in town.
Boruin left Wraethe to her daysleep and returned to the main suite. “Toaaho, I want you to find the Undurlund trade house and a discrete way to get there and back. Camp out and see if it’s being watched.”
“Why not rush it? Get in the door and we’re done, right?” Pile asked.
“No telling what Belok might have put together. I’d rather wait until Wraethe can join us.”
“So she can seduce them to death?” Pile added.
Boruin smiled despite himself. “Whatever it takes.”
Toaaho came back as the sun was setting and found the rest ready to go.
“Anything special?” Boruin asked. Toaaho had little to say. There had been two visitors to the contract house, but neither hung around. Patrons of the scant shops and bazaars nearby shopped quickly and moved on. The contract house abutted a cliff near the rilk colony. The stone face made for few places to watch from. It seemed safe.
Boruin slipped an extra knife underneath the back of his vest. “Doesn’t mean Belok isn’t there. He might know we wouldn’t come without Wraethe awake this time. We’ll just have to chance it,” he said.
“I hope he’s there. I could use something to get my blood up,” Wraethe said. Pile snorted but did not say more and ignored her hard look.
They crossed the Oriune in a loose gathering. As he climbed the Iron Bridge, Boruin watched the shops that lined both sides of the wide stone arch. At the high peak, the top flattened where four Easlinder commodity houses ruled the ore market that named the bridge. Far-traveled merchants traded wares, coins, and promissory bills for more ore than just iron—a relationship with the subterranean rilk had benefited Easlinder through more than just architectural aesthetics.
The Nefazo merchants yelling their bids above the Oriune paid no attention to any that wasn’t a trader of the four main houses. So when the boy pestered Boruin, pulling on his fingers, he gave in and lifted him up on his shoulders, hoping it wouldn’t become habit.
Toaaho kept them away from the main avenues, leading them through small residential parks and thin streets just busy enough that they couldn’t be attacked without witness. Boruin would have preferred empty back alleys.
Diun was fully borne over the eastern horizon, and Boruin saw that damn Trickster moon just barely peeking out from behind its bigger cousin. This was the last day it would give that moon-spun woman satisfaction.
Wraethe attracted every man that crossed her path. Those that didn’t see her at first found her sauntering close so they would. She flirted as she had for the last few weeks, but now it was desperate. Her natural grace had devolved, her walk now a slink too wide in the hips. A few men responded to her advances with disgust, easily mistaking her for a wayward woman. Those she chided and chased with her cussing tongue down the street. One she slapped for being too embarrassed to look her in the eye. When Boruin approached her, she calmed, feigning a playful tease. Somehow they reached the stone cliffs at the north edge of the city.
They watched for men in the shadows, for streets too quiet, and for silhouettes on rooftops. Instead they found people hurrying home for the evening meal. Boruin looked up to see Pile standing on a merchant’s step, “Undurlund” painted in faded blue letters on the sign hanging over the doorway.
“How’s the evening, father?” asked a meandering man of Mana’Olai blood. He looked too young in the face to be a lawman, but the constable’s crest on his breast said otherwise.
Boruin smiled, but kept on toward the door. “Fine, isn’t it?” he answered.
“Out with your son?” a second voice asked. Boruin turned to face the speaker. His deputy crest shined in the moonlight. Another man with a crest strode out of a shop across the street. Pile stepped back down from the doorstep.
“Thought we’d stretch our legs before dinner,” Boruin replied. “Turns out mine got all the stretching, though he’s got the energy.” He reached up to the boy on his shoulders and tugged a bit on the dangling feet.
The deputy smiled with a nod of understanding. “You from around here?”
“Huh,” said the constable. “Word is a small company came down out of the mountains.”
The deputy jumped back in, still smiling. “You’d cross the pass in winter just for a visit?”
“I told you, we came from the south. No snow there.”
Boruin wondered if he was in a juggling show as the constable took the lead again. “Pretty sure I heard you came from the west. That lady there traded a lot of furs in the market.” He pointed to Wraethe. “These the others that came with you?” he asked as Pile and Toaaho started walking toward the group.
“We four have been traveling together. Does that concern you three?” Boruin asked. The constable shrugged and went to brush his hair out of his eyes. Boruin recognized the movement, knew it would be a truth ward, but it was too late. The man quickly sketched the Skuwari on his brow and the sigil caught Boruin’s gaze. It spun on the man’s forehead, pulled his eyes to the constable’s and held them there. More men appeared out of the shops. Wraethe, Pile, and Toaaho stepped closer together.
“Why are you in Priyati?” asked the young constable. He, like his deputies, had tossed aside the smile. He stood rigid, his body tight with the strength it took to hold Boruin in the Skuwari. His face, though, was calm, his eyes cold like a deep well. The old fighter now did not think the Mana’Olai lawman was as young, or as green, as he’d hoped.
“I’m contracted to escort this boy here,” Boruin answered, his lips moving even though his mind clamped down to try and hold his words.
“The Undurlund Trade Company”
“Not with a Nefazo merchant?”
“Initially, but originating through Undurlund.” Rutting Belok. Here’s the man’s play, Boruin thought.
“So you renegotiated your contract with the merchant?”
“For Yuin’s sake, Boruin,” Pile muttered behind him.
Boruin tried to bite his tongue, but he still answered. “No, we fled town.”
“Do you know the penalty for breaking a contract and fleeing across borders?”
“Hanging,” Boruin said, though he knew no trade court would support Belok’s attempt to hijack the contract.
Fury twisted the constable’s face. “And for slavery?” asked the constable. Rutting son of Yuin’s whore! Boruin thought as the constable pulled Belok’s trump. There was no worse crime among the Mana’Olai. Their civilization had escaped from ages of servitude not long ago.
“Flogging, hanging, burning alive.”
“Yes, at our discretion,” the constable said, his voice thin and hard. He pulled a rolled parchment from his vest. Boruin did not have to see the writing to know it was a copy of Toaaho’s writ. Belok must have stored a copy away for good measure.
“Toaaho. That man there?” the constable asked.
“And he’s from Priyati, as the merchant says?”
“He could be one of our brothers, you worthless rat! What’s his whole name?” Boruin tightened his chest, willing his lungs to cramp and hold in the air. The veins in his neck throbbed as the words escaped.
“Toaaho Köpeka,” he managed to whisper.
“What?” the constable asked. His eyes tightened, and Boruin could feel the Skuwari reaching down into his gut to drag the word out louder.
“Köpeka!” he shouted. The constable’s eyes widened. The man at his side blanched, his face a ghostly white under Diun’s shine. He stumbled back into another deputy, and they both began to run. Boruin heard the men’s fleeing boot heels fade down the distant street, and his heart sank. The constable did not notice. The name had stunned him like a child’s nightmare climbing out of the shadows.
Köpeka was a curse word to him–worse than the thought of a slaver. They were the deceivers, the betrayers of the Mana’Olai. His eyes broke contact for a moment as this feared name shook him. Boruin took advantage of the lapse.
No longer bound to the Skuwari by the man’s eyes, Boruin slapped the constable across his face, smearing the ward. He dropped the boy from his shoulders and drew his sword in one motion. His troupe was at his back in the same second. They faced outward at the constable and his men, a small circle of steel surrounded by an outnumbering wheel of opposing blades.
End chapter 08 part 01.