Traitors' Gate (Crossroads Series #3)by Kate Elliott
"The Guardians of the Hundred, men and women who have died and been born again into power and immortality, were once pledged to protect the people and keep order. But for more than twenty years, a sinister influence has been corrupting them, and for the past two years, Lord Radas, one of the corrupt Guardians, has led a vast horde in pillaging the land, brutally… See more details below
"The Guardians of the Hundred, men and women who have died and been born again into power and immortality, were once pledged to protect the people and keep order. But for more than twenty years, a sinister influence has been corrupting them, and for the past two years, Lord Radas, one of the corrupt Guardians, has led a vast horde in pillaging the land, brutally slaughtering all who stand in its way. Those Guardians still loyal to their purpose are too few in number to overrule the will of their malevolent peers." "The hopes of the Hundred rest with the eagle reeves, who have long patrolled the land, and with the militia commanded by Captain Anji, an outlander mercenary whose force has already saved one city from destruction." "Massacres have decimated the eagle reeves' numbers, leaving them disorganized and scattered across the land. Joss, a reeve with a haunted past, can't deny the reeve council when they ask him to become their commander. In order for the reeves - and the Hundred - to survive, Joss must unite the surviving eagle reeves into a fighting force capable of defending their land." "Captain Anji, a powerful leader with his own secrets, is nearly killed when Hari, a Guardian allied with the corrupt Guardians, catches him unarmed. But Mai, Anji's wife and Hari's niece, dissuades Hari from his plot, raising hope that the balance of power among the godlike Guardians may yet shift enough to break the control of their murderous power-hungry cabal." As all the resources of the Hundred are thrown into their fight for survival against the corrupted Guardians and their ravaging horde, a new threat is rising, one that no one saw coming.
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PART ONE: FOREIGNERS
LATE AT NIGHT a fight broke out beyond the compound’s high walls.
Keshad sat up in darkness. At first he thought himself in the Hundred, in the city of Olossi, still bound as a debt slave to Master Feden. Then he smelled the rancid aroma of the harsh local oil used for cooking. He heard shouts, jabbering words he could not understand.
He wasn’t in the Hundred. He was in the Sirniakan Empire.
He groped for the short sword he had stashed under the cot.
"Eh? Keshad?" A bleary voice murmured on the other side of the curtain.
"Quiet. There’s trouble."
The cloth rippled as Eliar wrestled with clothing, or his turban, or whatever the hells the Silvers were so cursed prudish about. Bracelets jangled. There came a curse, a rattle, and a thump as the cot tipped over.
"Where’s the lamp?"
"Hush." Kesh wrapped his kilt around his waist, approached the door, and, leaning against it, pressed an ear to the crack. All quiet.
"Nothing to do with us," he whispered. "Yet."
The cot scraped, being righted. "The Sirniakan officials have locked us in the compound, won’t let us trade, and hand over a scant portion of rice and millet once a day so we don’t starve. One of their priests told you the emperor is dead, killed in battle by his cousin. They’ve locked down Sardia and are restricting all movement. These troubles have everything to do with us. We have to get out of here, return to Olossi, and report these developments to Captain Anji."
"Say it a bit louder, perhaps. That will help us, neh? If everyone figures out we’re spies?"
"No need to constantly criticize me—"
Aui! No matter how much he disliked Eliar, he had to make this expedition work or he’d never get what he wanted. And to get what he wanted, he had to stay on Eliar’s good side.
"I beg your pardon. It’s hateful to be stuck in this cursed compound day and night."
Eliar grunted in acknowledgment of the apology, which Kesh knew was grace-lessly delivered. "We’ve got to do something."
Kesh jiggered the latch and cracked the door. It was strange to deal with hinges instead of proper doors that slid, but in the empire things were done one way or not at all, and if you didn’t like it, the priests would condemn you to the fire. In the courtyard, a lamp hanging from a bracket illuminated the storehouse gates, but the far walls with their set-back doors into other storerooms and sleeping cells remained hidden in shadows. Trumpets, shouting, and clash of weapons swelled in the distance, well away from the restricted market district where foreign merchants were required to reside and carry out all their trade. A whiff of burning oil stung his nose as a flame flared behind him.
"Pinch that down, you fool!" he whispered. "We don’t want anyone to know we’re awake." Nothing stirred in the courtyard. If anyone had seen that flare of light, they weren’t acting on it. "Listen, Eliar, you stay here. Make sure no one goes after our trade goods. I’m going to the gate to see what the guards will tell me."
"The guards never tell us a cursed thing."
"They talk to me because I worship at the Beltak temple."
That shut Eliar up.
Keshad sheathed his sword and slung the sword belt over his back. He eased into the courtyard and padded cautiously past the open inner gate to the forecourt. The double gates had been barred for eight days, since the night when trumpets and horns had disturbed the peace and all the markets had been closed. Several figures huddled by the ranks of handcarts. One raised a lamp.
"Master Keshad? Maybe you can get these cursed guards to talk to you, since they favor you so much."
The other Hundred merchants didn’t like him any better than he liked them. They thought him a traitor for abandoning the gods of his birth for the empire’s god, but what did it matter to them what god he chose to worship or what benefit that worship brought him? There were a pair of outlanders as well, a man out of the Mariha princedoms and one from the western desert whose slaves, languishing in the slave pens, he hadn’t seen for days. For that matter, the drivers and guardsmen he and Eliar had hired in Olossi were confined in different quarters altogether, and he’d had no contact with them since the citywide curfew was imposed.
He rang the bell at the guardhouse. A guard in one of the watch platforms above turned to look down into the forecourt. Bars scraped and locks rattled. The guardhouse door opened and the sergeant pushed into the forecourt, a pair of armed guards at his back and another guard holding high a lamp.
His angry words drove the merchants back into the main courtyard.
Keshad held his ground. "Honored one, may I ask if we are in danger here?"
The sergeant’s expression softened. "I know nothing. Men have broken curfew. Best you get inside until the storm passes."
The storm roared closer. A clatter of running feet in a nearby street was followed by a chorus of shouts so loud the sergeant flinched. Kesh took a step back from the double gates. The distinctive clamor of clashing swords and spears hammered the night, the skirmish racing as though one group was chasing another. The guards drew their swords; a fifth man popped out of the guardhouse.
"All ranks at the ready," snarled the sergeant, and the man vanished back into the tower. "They may try to break in."
The skirmish flowed along the street outside as Kesh gripped his sword so tightly he was shaking. The noise reached a pitch and abruptly subsided.
The sergeant exhaled. He spoke to his guards in the local language, but Kesh was too rattled to catch more than a word here and there. Foreigners. Market. Fire. Traitors to the emperor.
Kesh glanced through the open door into the guardhouse, which snaked through the compound wall; there was a small gate for the guard unit on the street side because the guards watched both ways, keeping locals out and foreigners in.
As though slapped by a giant hand, the gates shuddered. The sergeant swore, signaled to his men, and bolted inside, swinging the door shut. A struggle erupted outside. Several merchants came running from the main courtyard, but Kesh shoved past them and ran to his cell, where Eliar waited by the door.
"These gods-rotted empire laws have us caged like beasts," Kesh snapped, "not a chance to get in or out nor anywhere to hide or escape to. Curse them."
"Maybe we can get out over the roofs. I’ve had plenty of practice getting in and out of tight places in Olossi. My friends and I, we smuggled goods over the river."
In the forecourt, merchants shouted, "Block the gate!" "Block the guardhouse door!"
Kesh began to laugh, because there wasn’t anything else to find funny in their situation. "The hells! Were you part of that gang the Greater Houses were constantly chasing?"
He felt the sting of Eliar’s smile as though he could touch it. "I was."
"Aui! You didn’t really get up on the roof, did you?"
"I did. One night when you were sleeping. I used rope tied around the lamp brackets. But there’s a walkway around the entire roof. They patrol it all night."
"Keeping us in, or others out. Grab rope. And whatever you can carry that’s too valuable to leave behind."
"Climbing out of the compound is easy. But how can we get out of the city without being killed?"
"The hells!" Kesh collected the pouches of local spices, best-quality braid, and polished gems he’d brought south from the Hundred; he slung them over his back, buckling tight the straps so the pouches wouldn’t shift as he moved. Then he grabbed rope coiled against the door that led into a small storeroom accessible only from this chamber. None of the goods he and Eliar had stored in there were worth his life.
"I’m ready," said the Ri Amarah from the door.
Eliar’s bulging packs brushed Kesh’s arm. "What in the hells are you carrying?"
"All the oil of naya."
"Aui! Don’t drop it by a flame."
Kesh shouldered past and led Eliar to the archway of the inner gate. A few merchants were frantically shoving carts and benches in front of the closed double gates, but the rest were hiding in the storerooms. A struggle raged within the gatehouse, and outside the gates a crowd screamed words Kesh was pretty sure meant something like "Kill the foreigners! Kill the traitors!"
"They haven’t given us up," said Kesh suddenly.
"What do you mean?"
"The sergeant and his guards could let that mob in. But they’re defending us. Eiya! We’ll need oil of naya."
He expected Eliar to protest, but the other man swung down his bulky packs. Ke-shad ran to the cistern in the middle of the courtyard and climbed up.
"Heya! Heya! Get your weapons! Move! Our guards are defending us against a mob that wants to kill us. If we don’t help them, we’re all dead. I need rags. Anything that will burn easily. Hurry, you cursed fools!"
He ran to the forecourt. The guards had abandoned the watch platforms that flanked the gates. Access to the platforms and the wall walk was from inside the guardhouse, now being fought over.
Merchants came running with weapons, with rags, one dragging a thin pallet. Two carried lamps. Eliar brought three leather bottles. Muffled crashes and shouts came from the guardhouse. Someone was taking a beating.
Keshad indicated the platforms above. "We’ll splash oil of naya over the crowd, light rags, and throw them down on top. That should drive them away."
"Heh. Just like the battle over Olossi," said one man.
"I’ll go up," said Eliar immediately.
As Kesh slung a bottle over his shoulder he called the other merchants closer. "Those who can fight, brace yourselves. Form up around the inner gate. Tip carts over, under the arch, to make a bottleneck. One of you roust out the cowards. We need everyone. Now, hoist me up."
Kesh and another man climbed up on a cart. The man laced his fingers together and, when Kesh set a foot into the makeshift stirrup, raised him up so he could throw rope around one of the poles making the scaffolding of the platform. He clambered up and crouched on the platform as Eliar was helped up on the other side. The mob below hadn’t yet spotted them. Men surged past the guardhouse door, pushing inside only to be cut down by the armed guardsmen. But the mob was growing, howling and barking like animals, or so it seemed to his ears. Workingmen who had, Kesh supposed, filled up with fear and now had to take it out on someone else, they were armed with torches, sticks, tools, and other such humble implements. None seemed to have bows. He licked his lips, tasted smoke. Elsewhere in the market district, compounds were burning.
The top of the twinned gates was broad enough to walk across if you didn’t mind the height. Eliar hauled up a basket and crouched beside it, lifting out a burning lantern. Below, within the mob, a face looked up. Down along the street about ten men came running carrying ladders.
Keshad unsealed the first bottle. This was the dangerous part! He shook the vessel, oil spraying on the men crowded up below. Eliar set fire to a rag and flung it outward, but it fell to the ground and was stamped out. Men threw sticks and debris up at them. The first ladder was pushed up against the gate. Keshad emptied the first vessel on top of the men at the base of the ladder. He unsealed the second and ran out along the top of the gate, flinging oil out as far away as he could. Men cursed at him, wiping away the oil that splashed on their faces. Spreading it. A second flaming rag fluttered down, and a third—
Fire touched oil on skin.
Shrieking, the man staggered, slamming into the men around him, half of whom had been splashed by oil of naya. The conflagration spread. The mob disintegrated as men fled in terror. The stench was horrible, and the screams were worse. But the street was clearing fast.
Keshad ran back to the platform, swung his legs over, and paid out the rope to let himself down to the forecourt. When he touched earth, his legs gave out. He pitched forward as the merchants babbled and cried.
Eliar bent over him. "Keshad? Are you hurt?"
"Neh." His speech was gone. His limbs were weak. He still heard screams.
"That saved us," added Eliar.
"Clever of you to think of it. Just like at Olossi."
The door to the guardhouse scraped open and the sergeant stumbled out, blood splashed all over him. Seen past the sergeant, a whitewashed room looked like a slaughterhouse, with tumbled corpses, the hazy smoke of torches, and a guardsman kneeling beside a fallen comrade.
"What do you? What do you?" The sergeant loomed over him, swiping smears of blood from his beard with his left hand while he extended the right. "Good, good."
Hesitantly, Keshad reached out, and the man clasped elbows in the grasp of kinship seen in the market among believers but never extended to foreigners.
SOON AFTER DAWN, a squad of mounted soldiers resplendent in green sashes and helmets trimmed with gold ribbons clattered up to the closed gates. Smoke drifted over the rooftops. The merchants who had sat the rest of the night on watch on the roofs hastily clambered down as the gates were opened.
The sergeant genuflected before the squad’s captain. As the sergeant kept his head bowed, they exchanged a running jabber in their own language. An older merchant murmured a translation.
"There was trouble all across the market district last night. There is to be an inquiry anywhere local men were killed."
"Against the mob, or against us?" Kesh muttered.
Worry creased the sergeant’s face as he surveyed the merchants. The captain snapped a command that made the sergeant wince. With an apologetic grimace he pointed—quite rudely, as outlanders always did, using the fingers—at Keshad.
"Bring him." The captain’s gaze paused on Eliar, with his butter-yellow turban. "You come, also."
Eliar took an obedient step toward the squad, but Keshad held his ground.
"What about our trade goods? What surety do we have they’ll not be stolen while we’re not here to guard them ourselves?"
The captain raised a hand, and soldiers drew their swords. "You come. Or I kill you."
Keshad wiped sweat from his eyes as his throat closed over a pointless protest. He shrugged, pretending calm. Eliar looked as if he’d been struck.
They walked under the market district gate and into the main city, a place no foreign merchant was ever allowed to enter. The empty streets were broad and clean-swept, walled on both sides, with gates opening at intervals into compounds. The hooves of the horses echoed in an eerie silence. Once Kesh saw a face peeping over a wall, dropping out of sight when their gazes met. Their procession wound inward and upward as the sun rose, and just when it was beginning to get really hot they arrived at a vast gate that opened into a grand courtyard lined with pillared colonnades carved of finest white marble.
The captain indicated a bench in the shade. "Sit there."
They sat. Four soldiers settled into guard positions while the captain rode into a farther courtyard glimpsed through a magnificently carved archway.
"Look at the figures carved on the arch," whispered Eliar. "There is the sun in splendor, the moon veiled, and the stars assembled in ranks to acknowledge the suzerainty of the god they worship here."
" ‘The god they worship here’? That kind of talk will get you burned."
Eliar shrugged. "I’m saying it to you. Not to them. What would they do? Force me to worship at their god’s temple?"
"How naïve are you? Don’t you know anything about the empire? They could tell you to say the prayers to Beltak, or suffer the punishment meted out to those who don’t believe. Who in the Hundred could do a cursed thing if they killed you, eh?"
Eliar’s smug smile infuriated Kesh. "I am a faithful son of the Hidden One. That is all that matters. Look there!"
Kesh looked up and their guards came alert, then relaxed, tossing remarks to each other as he sank back on the bench. Eliar had just been pointing to a different section of the arch.
"There, the different officers of the court pay homage before the emperor’s throne."
"There’s no one sitting in the throne."
"He is holy, like the god, not to be pictured."
"How do you know?"
"I read it! I know most of you in the Hundred don’t read—"
"‘You in the Hundred’! I thought you Silvers keep claiming you are simply humble Hundred folk just like the rest of us."
"That’s not what I meant—"
"If the emperor’s not to be pictured, then why is there a statue of the emperor in the marketplace?"
"That’s not the emperor. It’s a statue of a male figure representing Commerce, richly clad and adorned with gilt paint to remind all those in the marketplace that through trade the empire becomes wealthy."
Kesh puzzled over the vacant throne. Sure enough, there were the officers of the court attended by an array of half-sized men, meant perhaps to represent their underlings, and certain animals that evidently had some significance to each officer’s mandate. At the height of the arch, above sun and moon and stars, was carved an elaborate crown ornamented by wavy lines most likely representing fire.
Mounted soldiers clattered in and passed through the open gates. Their garments were splashed with blood, and they looked grim.
"Did you really learn all this from books?" Kesh asked finally. "How can you know it’s true?"
Deep in Eliar’s answering smile rose a glimpse of the sister, seen once and never ever to be forgotten: a reckless, bold spirit, unquenchable. "Of course I can’t know it’s true. Someone thought it was, but that doesn’t mean the one who wrote it was correct, does it? The person might have been wrong. Or might be right."
"How do you Silvers—" As Eliar’s mouth twisted in disapproval, Kesh caught himself and changed course. "How comes it that you Ri Amarah possess books with so much detail about the empire?"
"Many of our houses—our clans—lived here for six generations, as it says in the prophecy, until they were driven out by the Beltak priests for not worshiping the empire’s god. It’s said in our histories that some among us renounced the Hidden One and stayed in the empire, because they prospered here, but I don’t believe that."
"You don’t believe they prospered here? That any foreigner could?"
"I don’t believe they renounced the Hidden One. How is it possible to renounce the truth?"
Keshad laughed. The guards turned, and he clamped his mouth shut.
Eliar fulminated. "Are you laughing at me?"
"You’ve never been a slave. People renounce the truth all the time if it will give them an advantage. Then they convince themselves that what they wish to be true is the truth. Think of Master Feden, who once owned my debt. How could he have allied himself with that cruel army out of the north? He told himself he was doing the right thing even when everything he saw must have told him otherwise. Olossi is fortunate he’s dead and that the army was driven away. Otherwise, where would you and I be?"
As soon as the words left Kesh’s mouth, he was sorry he had spoken them, and yet not for Eliar’s sake. Where would he be now? He and his sister Zubaidit would be somewhere in the north, starting over as free people unencumbered by debt slavery or obligation to the temple. If the defenders of Olossi had lost the battle, then they would not have been able to track down him and Bai and haul them back to stand before the Hieros of Ushara’s temple in Olossi. There, Kesh had been condemned for a theft he had committed without knowing what he was doing was a crime.
Folk claimed a man could expect to be rewarded for good deeds and punished for bad ones if he made the proper offerings. The temples said so, and the Beltak priests said so, and no doubt the Hidden One said so. The only god he’d run into who didn’t seem to say so was Mai’s god, the Merciful One, who offered shelter in times of trouble, of which there were plenty. Yet had the gods cared for him and Zubaidit after their parents had died?
And yet. And yet. If it all had not fallen out as it did, he would never have seen Miravia.
A man dressed in a red jacket hurried toward them. The four guards kneeled. There was an extended consultation in the local jabber so quick Kesh could not pick out words. The red-jacket guard gave an order and gestured at Kesh and Eliar in trade sign: Rise.
They followed him into a courtyard bustling with movement as soldiers assembled in ranks while others, dismounting, handed their horses over to grooms. The red-jacket guard led them through a second pair of gates into a dusty square where several hundred riders loitered beside saddled mounts, with a train of laden pack-horses and a herd of spare mounts besides.
"You go." The red-jacket guard indicated two sturdy geldings before moving away to exchange words with a young captain resplendent in green jacket, helmet adorned with gold plumes.
"Where are we going?" Eliar whispered, but Kesh shrugged. What use to speculate?
And yet he could not stop wondering, thinking, sorting. They rode out through the city on a wide avenue empty of traffic and thence out a handsome stone gate into the patternwork countryside, everything tidy, nothing out of order.
Only the empire was not truly in order. The emperor had been killed in battle by his own cousin as they fought over the throne. Which faction had taken them prisoner? What did they mean to do with them? Because there was another thing blaz-ingly obvious about the soldiers who escorted them. Half wore green jackets to mark them as underlings of the gold-plumed captain, a man who did not over the course of that first day speak a single word to Kesh or Eliar. But the rest were Qin, with their phlegmatic expressions, unadorned armor, and scruffy little horses that were nothing much to look at but as tough as any creatures Kesh had ever encountered. And that raised a cursed uncomfortable question, didn’t it? Where had these Qin soldiers come from, and why were they riding in company with Sirniakan troops?
"HEYA, KESH!" ELIAR called to him from a nearby campfire where he sat with a gaggle of junior officers, all quaffing from brass cups. "This poocha’s so strong it’ll make your eyes water. Come try some?"
The junior officers looked nervously toward Kesh, and then, politely, back at their cups. How like Eliar not to notice their discomfort, although it pranced right in front of his face. Keshad glared, but the cursed Silver could not see him well enough in the dusk to be properly stung and instead went back to his drinking and chatting and laughing, although how he could understand half of what the locals jawed on about Kesh could not imagine.
"You do not approve of your companion."
Kesh jumped to his feet. "Captain Jushahosh."
A slave opened a camp stool, and the captain sat.
"I have no wine or poocha to offer you, Captain." Kesh sat likewise.
Slaves approached bearing trays laden with cups, pitchers, eating utensils, and platters that they placed on a camp table. The captain murmured a blessing over food and drink before continuing. "As you are my prisoner, I cannot expect you to offer hospitality. I see, Master Keshad, that you have remained aloof these ten days from the junior officers, who are merely warrior-born. Your companion seems easy with them. He is one of the heretics, is he not?"
"I’m not sure what you mean."
"There is a story taught to educated men of a tribe of men who came by sea out of the east to settle in the empire. In our own tongue they were given the name, the men with silver arms. They lived with proper comportment for six generations, as it says in the holy books, but then their error was revealed and the priests were shown the truth of their hidden ways, that they spat upon the commands of the Shining One inside the walls of their own compounds. Out of respect for a kindness shown to the emperor by one of their number—or, as I consider more likely, because of a massive bribe paid to the temple—they were allowed to depart the empire without molestation, leaving behind all they could not carry. This they did. Some went north over the mountains and some west into the desert and some south into the forest of choking vines, but none sailed back east over the ocean to the place they had came from. You are a believer. You pray with us morning and night. Do you trust this man Eliar, with his silver arms?"
The captain stabbed a slice of spiced meat and popped it into his mouth. Keshad copied him, gaining a respite while he chewed and swallowed. The meat was moist and peppery.
"Have you some reason not to trust him that I should know of?"
The captain was sleek in all aspects; dressed and shod well, he carried a fine sword and rode a string of beautiful horses with roan coats like enough in texture and color that Kesh supposed them bred out of the same stable. "He might be a spy."
"So might I, then, as we are business partners."
"One partner may not always know what the other plots in the shadows."
"True enough. Eliar is decent enough, for a Silver."
"That’s what we call them in the Hundred, Captain. For the silver bracelets they wear on their arms. It seems your chroniclers called them the same."
"He’s like a creature out of a story walking into your father’s palace. Does he have horns?"
The captain looked very young, and Kesh realized they were of an age but separated not by their lives as men of different countries but rather by the circumstances of their birth. Kesh was born to a humble clan whose kin had seen fit to sell him and his sister into slavery when their parents died; Jushahosh was born into a palace, son of a noble lord with many wives and slave women and therefore many such lesser sons.
"I don’t know," Kesh said confidingly, leaning closer, "for he clings to his privacy, as his people do. I’ve never seen him without the turban covering his head."
They shared a complicit smile.
A prisoner who is a foreigner pretending to be a legitimate merchant only while being in truth secretly a spy and who fears he is being taken south to be burned as a spy must yet attempt to gather information, in case he gets out of his current situation alive.
"Strange to see the Qin soldiers here," he added, nodding toward the circle of fires where the Qin had set up their own encampment. "Are they under your command? Do they take your orders? Don’t they speak a different language?"
"Their chief can talk the trade language, just as I can. What they jabber about otherwise I don’t know, but I suppose they mostly talk about sheep and horses." He flashed a grin, and Kesh laughed. "You’re familiar with the Qin, eh? Seen them up in the Hundred?"
Sheh! Caught at his own game.
"I’ve heard of them, all right. Did I tell you the story of the journey I made into the Mariha princedoms? Two years ago, it was. I never saw so many strange creatures as out on the desert’s borderlands. Didn’t think I’d make it home. The Qin were the least of it!"
"What did you see?"
Kesh could embellish a story as well as anyone, for tales were the breath of the Hundred, exhaled with the beat of the heart and a lift of the hand. "Demons, for one thing. Maybe you call them something else here."
"No." His gaze flicked, side to side, as he twisted his cup in his hands. "What did they look like?"
"Ah. One was a woman—"
"Her skin was as pale as that of a ghost. And her hair was the color of straw."
"Truly a demon, then!"
"Her eyes were blue."
The captain had just taken a mouthful of poocha. He spat it out, coughing and choking, as Kesh sat rigid. But the man waved away his slaves and laughed through his coughing. "Horrible to look upon! Go on."
Kesh dropped his voice to a murmur as the captain bent closer yet. "She was enveloped in an enchanted cloak of demon weave, like cloth woven out of spider’s silk. And beneath that cloak . . . she was unclothed. That was the other way I knew she was a demon."
The captain’s eyes flared with shame and heat; a flush stained his cheeks. "What did she looked like, underneath?"
"Exalted Captain!" A junior officer, wearing his watch duty sash over his green jacket, came running up, his face slicked with a sheen of sweat although the evening was only moderately humid and warm. "There’s a company of men upon the road. Imperial guards."
A blast from a horn brought the captain to his feet. He strode off toward the lines, where lamps bobbed along the length of the road. In his wake, slaves gathered up tray and stool with the same swift grace they’d shown in setting it up. Kesh speared meat off the platter before they could whisk it out of his reach, and a slave waited impassively until he’d gulped down the strips before taking the eating knife away from him and following the others to the captain’s tent. The junior officers set down their cups and charged off, chattering excitedly. Kesh hurried over to the fire and plopped down beside Eliar.
"Is there anything left to eat or drink here?"
Eliar rose, stepping away from him as if he bore a stench. He stared toward the lights half seen along the distant road. "Do you think there might be a skirmish? How can you possibly think of eating when—?"
"You eat when there’s food. No telling when you’ll get more." He hooked a triangle of flat bread off the common platter and crammed it in his mouth. He managed to down more bread and a crispy slice of a white vegetable, still moist and a little peppery, before servants descended to collect the trays and cups. Eliar was bouncing on his toes as if movement would help him see over the ranks of soldiers gathering amid the tents. Out by the road, men shouted, so much tension in their tone that Kesh rose likewise to stand beside Eliar.
"If they start fighting, make for our tent. We might have to run for it . . ."
Eliar grabbed Kesh’s forearm, the touch so unexpected that Kesh flinched. "I know you don’t like me, but promise me this. If we die here, you’ll tell the truth of it to my family." He released him.
"If I’m dead, I can’t tell anyone the truth, can I?"
"You seem like the kind of person who can get out of anything," said Eliar, his voice as hoarse as if he’d been running. "Even if it means abandoning others to do so."
Excerpted from Traitors’ Gate by Kate Elliott.
Copyright © 2009 by Katrina Elliott.
Published in August 2009 by Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.
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