2018 Colorado Book Award finalist for Science Fiction
Draius is no trained spy. Despite that, her king sends her on a mission to secretly retrieve a stolen Kaskea shard. There she attracts the attention of a power-hungry Lord, who plans an invasion of Tyrra. Trapped in enemy territory and on the run, she faces imprisonment and torture as she flees north to a strange country, hoping for asylum.
Around the corner marched Bordas, sandwiched between two men and followed by another man and an old woman. None of the Groygans appeared to have weapons but she knew Bordas was under duress. She stepped backward, her hands touching the rough wood of the stable wall behind her.
“If you’re going to—” Bordas stopped as one of the men beside him made a slight movement with the arm that appeared to go behind Bordas’s back.
“I will speak with her.” The old woman came to face Draius. She made a motion to the man standing behind Bordas. “Mattogre, do we have enough eyes on House Endigala?”
“Yes, Mayoress Chiune, but it’d be better if I could monitor the road directly.” Mattogre’s tone was pleasant and he was neatly dressed with clean hands, showing no sign of heavy labor. He may have been at the mid-life point in Groygan age; it was hard to tell since Groygans didn’t live as long as Tyrrans.
The woman gestured with her hand and Mattogre left. He spoke better Tyrran than anyone else, so Draius didn’t want him to go. On the other hand, their captors now numbered two men holding Bordas, plus the old mayoress, the smith, and his son. The last two closed the barn doors and positioned themselves behind the mayoress facing Draius and at right angles to Bordas and his two captors.
How would the smith and his son react if she and Bordas tried to flee? It probably all came down to the mayoress. She gazed down into the woman’s face and noted a bit of humor showing in those lines and glinting in the eyes. Humor was always good, often mitigating aggression. Fragrant tobacco smoke wafted between them as the mayoress drew in on the pipe at one corner of her mouth, then let smoke out of the other. She searched Draius’s face with the same attention to detail.
Finally, she casually took the pipe out of her mouth. “Why does House Endigala search for a Tyrran woman of royal blood?” She motioned, with her pipe, toward the men holding Bordas. One man shifted, showing the knife held near Bordas’s waist.
“Why would a great house be looking for me? I’m not royal,” Draius exclaimed with an artificial squeak. She didn’t deny being Tyrran; the fact that Bordas had a knife to his gut meant the Kitarran merchant disguise had failed.
The old woman nodded as if she expected that answer. She took a last draw out of her tobacco, then knocked the ashes out by tapping the pipe against the sole of her shoe. Then, very thoroughly, she ground the ash into the clay and gravel beneath her feet. “Have to be careful of fire this late in the summer,” she remarked as she looked up and down the very neat strip of plant-free dirt that separated the buildings from the fields of drying hay and mature crops.
If she wanted to put Draius on edge, it worked: her every nerve vibrated. There was a long pause of silence as they tried to wait each other out.
The old woman lost her patience first. “My lady, don’t assume that just because we’re rural, we’re simple. And, lest you consider our manners rough, let me introduce myself. My name is Chiune and I am the elected mayoress of Agrottre.” She bowed her head. “Do I have the honor of addressing Lady Meran-Viisi Draius?”
“We only address matriarchs as Lady and I’m no matriarch.” She dropped the attempt to appear flustered. How did Endigala connect her to the Meran-Viisi lineage? Taalo, of course. Unfortunately, slapping the Meran-Viisi name on her probably raised her value. While these villagers weren’t part of a lord’s household, which lord were they aligned with? Lords of House Glotta, House Ergrugia, House Porgnone, House Brugio and House Laglana sat on the council, but were too weak to oppose Lord Endigala. Only one lord was strong enough to contend with Endigala, but they shouldn’t be encountering his vassals this far south—at least that’s what Bordas said.
She went with her instinct. “My lineal name is not Meran-Viisi, it’s Serasa-Kolme. I’m Serasa-Kolme Draius and I don’t know why Endigala claims differently. What does House Chintegrata hope to learn by detaining me?”
Glancing at Bordas, she noted his frown. He’s worried I’ll compromise the mission. However, these people had helped her and perhaps they could find aid within this little village. She shifted her gaze back to Chiune, who cocked her head.
“The reward flyer says that you’re responsible for the death of a silk weaver in Chikirmo.” Chiune’s voice held caution as well as query.
With her mind’s perfect memory, Draius viewed the woman in Chikirmo flying backward as blood bloomed on her chest. She felt anxiety coming from Dahni and gritted her teeth, willing away any oncoming rapport. “Endigala’s men tried to stop us by firing guns into a crowd. They hit a woman who walked in the opposite direction I traveled. I’m not to blame for that.”
“Did they order you to stop before they shot?”
“Yes, ma’am, they did.” She sighed, understanding Chiune’s point. “I’m sorry. I didn’t think they would take such a chance with their own citizens. Our City Guard wouldn’t.”
“Endigala’s guards also claim you’re royalty, cousin to the King of Tyrra. Is that true?” Chiune cocked her head.
Being originally Meran-Viisi might increase her potential as leverage against Perinon and hostages had to stay alive to be worth the gold. The knife moved at Bordas’s side, reminding Draius she had no time to consider the consequences of the truth. The answer rushed out of her mouth. “Yes, I was born into the king’s lineage, the Meran-Viisi, but I married and no longer carry that name.” She doubted these villagers understood the political games matriarchs played with all their lives.
“So your husband has no chance for the throne.” Chiune nodded at Bordas.
“No, he doesn’t.” She had to strangle her inappropriate urge to laugh.
“And this claim that you work magic?” Chiune asked.
“What?” She exchanged a shocked glance with the smith. He had no time to tell anyone about the pony, so this must have come from Endigala’s guards. Here, the truth would be acceptable. “No man or woman can work true magic. Our sorcerers have been gone for almost two eras.”
“Ah, then you’re a witch.” Chiune made a deprecating motion with her hand. Here in Groyga, witches were the equivalent of uneducated herbalists and people who claimed to bend the rules of nature by using herbal remedies abounded. In Chiune’s mind, Draius wasn’t unique.
“Ugettore, get their horses.” Chiune addressed the smith and Draius heard his name for the first time.
“We can be on our way?”
“Where would you go? Endigala has stations up and down this road until the northern fishing flats.” The old woman snorted, dashing her hopes. “No, I think you’ll be of value to Lord Chintegrata, one way or another.”
One way or another? As a bargaining piece against Endigala or as leverage against King Perinon? Draius didn’t want to be either. She and Bordas locked gazes as Ugettore struggled to get their horses out the double doors. Chisel was balking. The big horse might allow Ugettore to shoe him, but dragging him by his lead was another matter. Chisel’s fuss affected Delfi, who became agitated also. There was no better time for escape. Bordas gave her an imperceptible nod.
“We’ll keep you down South Illugio Way for a while—“ Chiune was making plans, apparently assuming they’d cooperate.
Draius whistled sharply and Chisel reared backward, pulling his lead from the surprised Ugettore. Scrambling away from the big horse’s forelegs, Ugettore tried to keep hold of Delfi. Chiune yelled something as Draius grabbed her thin shoulders and tried to take her gently to the ground. Chiune responded by jabbing the pipe into Draius’s side, which hurt more than she expected. She stopped worrying about the old woman’s frailty and took her down to the ground, pinning hips with her knee and shoulders with her arms.
Having Chiune immobile, she looked up. One of Bordas’s captors lay on the ground, looking dazed. Bordas moved with the other captor like they were glued together and his left hand gripped the man’s knife hand at the wrist. Their elbows were locked and their arms extended away from their bodies as they struggled for control. He and the villager whirled again, knife extended. Blood spurted from the smith’s son, who hadn’t stepped back as he should.
“No!” she screamed, as the geyser of blood sprayed. The crimson eruption from the youth’s neck showered Bordas and his assailant. Sprinkles of blood hit her and Chiune. Her vision shrunk to a boy not even old enough to have a changed voice, who looked surprised as his life pumped out of his body. She saw the light fade from his eyes as she moved.
Ugettore shouted something, but she got to the boy first and caught him as he crumpled. A deep slash went from his ear and downward over his throat.
“Heal him.” Ugettore’s hand gripped her shoulder as she knelt, keeping the boy’s body across her knees. “Make him be again.”
The pain of his grip was nothing compared to the agony in her chest. She knew the cardinal rule: no magical healing can bring back the dead. The boy’s chest moved, just a little. She murmured, “Dahni, help me,” as she moved her hand to his throat. Green light shot from her palm and wrapped about the boy’s neck. He was only a couple years older than Peri. She tried to see the cut arteries and veins, to knit their walls together, and will the boy’s blood to flow and his heart to beat. The green light flared so bright she shut her eyes and immediately dropped into rapport, but this time she did not see through the Dahni’s eyes. Instead, wondrous pictures of how blood should pump from the heart through the neck to the head filled her mind. Dahni’s will flowed through her arm and into the boy. The rapport faded, but she remembered everything.
Ugettore’s grip slackened. Bordas held a bloody knife to Ugettore’s throat, but the smith hardly seemed to notice. He watched only his son. His expanding pupils overwhelmed his eye color.
“I’m not sure—” she started to say, but Bordas cut her off.
“Get mounted.” His voice was cold and clipped.
“Nothing can be done. We have to go.” Bordas motioned toward the horses, unaware that all the villagers were standing behind him and looking down at the Ugettore’s son.
“I can save him.” She continued to pump her will into the boy’s body.
“You can’t. He bled out.” Bordas tried to pull her up by her arm, but she fought him. “Draius, he’s gone.”
“No, he’s not.” Ugettore’s guttural voice called his son. “Sattore, wake up.”
Everyone was quiet as the tears ran down Ugettore’s face. He pleaded with his son once more while Bordas looked about and realized he could rest the knife. All eyes were on Sattore’s face and bloody chest, where Draius’s slightly glowing hand rested. She felt the boy gather his breath but all he could get out was a short, quiet moan. It was enough, though, that even Bordas heard it and started. Everyone’s eyes were wide.
“He’s going to need time and rest to heal.” She tried to arrange him more comfortably on the ground. The green glow faded from her hand as her vision grayed and she took deep breaths. Somebody’s hands steadied her by the shoulders. “I need to rest as well.”
“You need to mount up, Draius.” There was a pleading note in Bordas’s voice and she opened her eyes to see him standing in front of her, holding Delfi’s reins. She bent her head back to see that Ugettore was steadying her.
“She will stay here for a few days to care for my son,” Ugettore said. “We will protect her.”
“I’ll follow as soon as I can,” she whispered. She couldn’t leave the boy yet. He was barely hanging on to his life-light.
“I can’t leave you, Draius. I’m sworn to protect you.”
“You’re also sworn to follow the orders of your superiors. And right now, I’m your superior officer.” She fished out the Kaskea shards, which no longer glowed. Searching her pockets, she found her last kerchief—she’d have to learn to live without one. She surreptitiously unwrapped the wires holding the spare shard, tied it in her kerchief, and handed it to Bordas. “I’m ordering you to complete my mission, Lieutenant.”
“Now? Just the one?”
After cavalierly talking about giving him both shards, she was surprised she didn’t want to part with hers. She gave him a bright smile. “I don’t intend to die any time soon.”
Bordas’s gaze flickered over the silent villagers. “This is crazy,” he whispered as he crouched down, face to face with her. “You can’t believe these people will protect you after what—what’s happened. I’m responsible for—” His eyes blinked rapidly. “I’m responsible, but they’re going to take it out on you. They may torture you, trade you to Endigala, or ransom you.”
Ugettore was the only one close enough to hear Bordas and he gave her shoulder a supportive squeeze. She had at least someone loyal to her here, as long as she managed to save his son. For a moment she had doubt, then calm strength rose through her chest—this is the right thing to do.
“I’m giving you a direct order, Lieutenant. Carry that shard to the king for me. Leave now.” Her voice was soft, but unyielding.
His gray eyes, usually so calm, glared at her out of his blood-spattered face. “May our ancestors protect you, Draius.” He strode to Delfi and mounted, using jerky motions. She sensed his emotions roiling as he trotted the horse toward the road. He contained so much anger, guilt, shame, sorrow, worry, and even shock: emotions that caused tears to blur her vision. She hoped he would be all right traveling alone, with only himself as a constant, nagging judge of his actions.
As Bordas rode out of sight, she realized he wasn’t the only person who would be alone, bereft of comrades and fellow countrymen.
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