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That night he was alone on the roof of the southeast tower, looking into the long darkness toward Cesin, nursing the ache he didn't dare give time of day.
He sat hunching his shoulders and hugging his knees against the cold. It was the Decimes, the tenth month, and he could see his breath in the light from the brazier on the walkway below. At home, the barley would be in and the rye just sown. But Vareni didn't sow rye, and the spelt fields below the fort walls were gray and bare and picked over like old bones. There would be frost on the ground by morning.
Today — the seventeenth day of the Decimes, his one hundred and ninety-seventh day at Vione — was his birthday.
Or it had been, anyway. It was past midnight now.
He'd spent all morning working up the nerve to ask Commander Fiere for leave to go into the city on his free hour, and even then he hadn't been brave enough to give Fiere the real reason. He'd stammered something about new sealing wax when Fiere asked. It was a stupid excuse, and he was sure Fiere knew it, but Lieutenant Vische had come in just then with a miserable, manacled recruit who'd been outed as a runaway slave, and Fiere had sealed a permission and shunted him out of the office before he could come up with a better one.
He'd gone to a chapel of the Scholars because it was the only chapel he knew in the city. He'd seen it on his way to the laundry. It was much bigger than the chapel back home in Vessy, and he'd very nearly lost the rest of his nerve in the yard. But after all, it was a chapel and only a chapel, and God was the same everywhere. So he'd gone in and knelt at the altar and explained to the priest that today was his birthday and he'd come to make his annuity, and the priest had told him that was Cesino superstition, born of an old heathen ritual having something to do with harvest cycles, or maybe it was the turning of the planets — anyway, the true church didn't deal in such things.
He'd been too stunned to argue, at first, then too ashamed, then too bitter, and now in darkness and silence on the watchtower roof there was nothing in him but the ache.
(He had bought five sticks of sealing wax on his way back to the fort, out of guilt for his lie to Fiere.)
It was a good place to be alone, the watchtower roof. You were hidden from the walkway and the gate street below by the pitch of the roof and by the overhanging eaves. Of course, you had to be careful not to make any noise climbing up or moving over the tiles, and it was a long drop if you lost your holds — twenty feet to the base of the wall. If you landed the right way, spreading the fall through your body, you were liable to keep on rolling right down the long slope to the parade ground. But he was practiced at it now, and he knew how to brace himself with just his feet and to do it without thinking. The real worry was that some night he would fall asleep up here and sleep right through till dawn, and then somebody would see him from the parade ground or the northern tower.
He was very nearly asleep now, his chin on his knees and his eyes squeezed shut. A north wind was pushing the tramp of booted feet up to him from the walkway. That wasn't unusual in itself — when the wind was right, he could hear the guards' voices and the rattle of dice all the way up from the gatehouse — but he didn't think it had been three hours since the shifts changed at midnight. In fact, he knew it hadn't been three hours, because otherwise the officers' kitchen slaves would be up to fetch wood and water.
He lifted his head from his knees, listening. Then he unfolded his legs and leaned carefully on his elbow to look over the roof edge.
Two soldiers hurried along the walkway below, hauling a third man between them — he in nothing but his tunic, barefoot despite the cold, his head hooded and his hands bound. He was struggling savagely but noiselessly in the soldiers' grip. He must be gagged under the hood.
From the doorway of the watch room, somebody said, "Why in Hell didn't you use the drug?"
"Ask him," one of the soldiers said. He kicked the hooded man's ankles.
"Never mind. Get him in here, quickly."
They disappeared into the watch room. Somebody shut the door. Torien leaned over the roof edge. He couldn't see down into the room, but he could hear their voices through the embrasures.
"Get that hood off," the first man said. "Let's have a look."
There was an interval of busy silence. Then: "Listen to me very carefully, Lord Briego. If you want to last the night all of a piece, you'll do as we say, and you'll do it quietly."
Briego. Torien knew the name, of course — Aurel Briego, the Emperor's nephew. He knew the face from a distance. Briego, too, was in his first year at Vione. Torien had seen him sometimes at the musters, or on the training field, or in the mess. He'd never once seen Aurel Briego alone, which begged intriguing questions about how he could have come to be bound and gagged and stolen away in the middle of the night. Betrayed by one of his own circle? By his slaves?
The why was easier to answer. He would command a very pretty ransom.
Torien pushed up on his hands and swung silently over the roof edge, searching with his toes for the merlon. He dropped to the walkway just as the door opened.
For a moment, they just blinked at each other, he and the soldier in the doorway. Then Torien stumbled back, catching his heel on a lip of stone. The soldier lunged, and they went down together onto the paving stones.
The soldier was taller and heavier, and he had Torien's arms spread wide across the paving stones and a knee like a battering ram in Torien's stomach before Torien could do anything but grunt. The soldier slid his knee off. He turned Torien over onto his face against the paving stones and jerked him up by the arms.
A voice from the doorway: "What in Hell?"
"Caught a fish — a Cesino fish, by the look of him."
Hands pushed and pulled Torien into the watch room. The door slammed shut. Lamplight flooded his eyes. Somebody jabbed thick fingers under his chin and forced his head up. He looked into a leather-brown, bullish face.
"Half-breed, aren't you?" said Bull-Face thoughtfully, holding Torien's chin between his fingers and turning Torien's head this way and that in the lamplight.
Torien tried to jerk away. Bull-Face's fingers slid over his throat.
"None of that, little one," Bull-Face said. He held Torien's throat in his hand and said, over Torien's head, "Take the fish down to the river and gut him."
There was a moment's silence and an exchange of uncertain glances.
"You said no killing," one of the soldiers said sharply. "I wouldn't have gone along with any of —"
"Shut up." Bull-Face was a corporal, apparently the leader by virtue of his rank and age, or perhaps by virtue of his sheer bulk. The others — four of them, including the one who had Torien's elbows tight in his hands — were regulars not many years older than Torien himself. "Use your heads, all of you. He's seen your faces."
"We could offer him a cut," somebody suggested.
"I'm not going to hang for murder." The first soldier squared his shoulders. "I won't betray you, any of you, but I'm not going to hang for murder. I'm done."
"You'll hang for putting your hands on a Briego, murder or no."
"I said I'm done."
"You're done when and how I say," Bull-Face said. "Anyway, who says it's murder? It isn't murder. He's Cesino. It's payback for Dyrenid."
"Look at this," said the soldier holding Torien's elbows. He held Torien's arm toward Bull-Face. "Look, Corporal — seal ring."
Bull-Face let go Torien's throat. He took Torien's wrist in his hand, twisted the ring from Torien's finger, and held the ring up in the lamplight, studying the intaglio. He rolled the ring between his fingers and looked at Torien with newfound shrewdness.
"What's your name, little one?"
Aurel Briego was looking at him across the room. He was on his knees against the wall, his bound hands clenched, his cheek and shoulder braced on the stone. His right eye was swollen nearly shut and bruised the color of squashed beets, but his good eye hung intently on Torien's face.
Torien blinked. He knew Aurel Briego's face well enough to know that Briego had the eyes of his royal kin, almond-shaped and as dark as currants — but this eye was the color of sunlit copper.
He was obviously high-born, whoever he was. He had the straight, narrow nose, the smooth, dark olive skin, the face that was all clean lines and sharp angles. Understandably, he could be mistaken for Aurel Briego, especially by a commoner.
The fact remained — Torien was sure of it now — he wasn't Aurel Briego.
Bull-Face's closed fist connected squarely with Torien's jaw.
"You give me your name," Bull-Face said, "or you swim the Breche. Your choice, little one."
"I'll s-swim," Torien said, through shut teeth. The room was spinning.
Bull-Face smiled a satisfied smile.
"Very good," he said. "Very brave. The truth of it is we don't need you alive." He bounced Torien's ring on his palm. "Say we send this to your lord father — oh, we'll find him out, little one, easily enough. Do you really think he's going to demand living proof before he pays up? Only if you mean less to him than his coin." He put the ring in his wallet. He glanced up over Torien's shoulder. "Tie his hands."
Briego-who-was-not-Briego made a series of incoherent noises through his gag.
"I wish to God you'd used the drug," Bull-Face said.
The soldier who was looping a rope around Torien's wrists said, "I wish to God you'd told me he carried steel. I almost lost a hand."
Bull-Face crouched beside Not-Briego. "The quieter you are, Lord Briego, the less I make you hurt. Do you understand?"
Not-Briego growled through his gag. He jerked his chin furiously at Torien.
Bull-Face slipped his belt knife from its sheath and dug the tip of the blade into the hollow of Not-Briego's collarbone. He loosened the gag from Not-Briego's mouth with two fingers.
"Nice and quiet," he said, "or you'll lose the tongue."
Not-Briego opened and closed his mouth, exercising the muscles. His lips were split. He ran his tongue over the bloody cracks. He grinned at Bull-Face wolfishly, baring teeth as perfectly white and straight as a string of pearls.
"I'd have second thoughts about gutting the fish, if I were you."
"Would you?" said Bull-Face.
"Well — assuming you had first thoughts, I mean."
"Clever, aren't you?"
"And good-looking. Are you jealous?"
Bull-Face smiled sourly. "No. I know how this ends for you."
"Still better than it ends for you. I'm not the one who's going to end up on the Traitors' Wall."
"Tell me about it in the morning," Bull-Face said.
Not-Briego was unfazed.
"Listen — I don't know who bought you, or why, but I'd venture to guess he doesn't want the son of the governor of Cesin floating for fish bait down the Breche. It's poor business strategy."
Bull-Face was silent for a moment, looking at Not-Briego as though taking a measure of him. He took the knife away from Not-Briego's throat.
"You talk like a nobleman, Lord Briego," he said, putting the knife away in its sheath, "which is to say you've got no idea what you're talking about."
He patted Not-Briego's cheek. Then he pushed the gag back between Not-Briego's teeth and tied it tightly. He directed a booted foot into Not-Briego's stomach as he stood.
"Take them both," he said.CHAPTER 2
Torien came up out of darkness into blinding white pain, and he couldn't breathe to scream.
"Easy" — a voice at his ear, low and calm. He recognized the voice but couldn't place it. "Easy, Torien — that's your name, isn't it? I'm going to take the gag off, but you've got to be quiet. Understand? They've got guards at the door. Nod if you understand. I know it hurts."
Torien nodded mutely. Fingers tugged here and there at the gag in his mouth.
"Don't bite," the voice said dryly. And then, as the gag slithered out between Torien's teeth: "Hold still. I'm going to untie your hands."
Torien sucked a long, shivering breath. There was pain like a white-hot spike through his temples. He shut his eyes.
"Hands," he said. His tongue wouldn't cooperate. "How —"
"Had a friend once who showed me how to slip a rope." The fingers worked deftly at the ropes around his wrists. "Hold still."
"What's that n-noise?"
"Noise?" The fingers paused.
"Sloshing noise" — tightly, swallowing the urge to sob.
"Oh." The fingers resumed. "I think we're in a boathouse — Lord Numare's boathouse, if I've got any sense of direction at all. About ten miles south of the city. Place called Apulano. Not much of a place. Good for kidnappings, apparently."
Torien's hands were free. He lifted a hand to his throbbing head. His fingers found sticky blood.
"Did I — what —"
The owner of the voice — he still couldn't join voice to name or face — pulled his hand back down gently.
"They knocked you with a spear butt back at the fort — well, knocked both of us, but I've got the harder head." There was a flash of white teeth in the darkness. Torien suddenly remembered Not-Briego. "You went out like a candle. I was beginning to worry."
Torien lifted his head, clenching his teeth against the pain. They were in a long, narrow, windowless room. There was a low doorway across the room and two tall boat doors on the far wall. There was watery moonlight running over the stone walls and ceiling, and it took him a stupidly long moment to realize that was because the river was coming right into the room under the boat doors, lapping over the sloped floor.
"What do they want with us?"
Not-Briego had moved on to the ropes at Torien's ankles. He spoke softly as he worked.
"With you? Just the ransom, unless Numare's more of an idiot than he gets credit for." He glanced up. "Thank you, by the way."
"For holding your tongue. I imagine I live only as long as they think I'm Aurel Briego. I'm not much good for a ransom."
"But you're kin."
Another pause, just long enough for Torien to feel the sudden tension in Not-Briego's fingers.
"You look like him."
Not-Briego untied the last of the knots and cleared the tangle of ropes away. "Unluckily for me — or luckily, I suppose, depending on which way you look at it." The teeth flashed again. "Anyway, I thank you."
"What's your name?"
Not-Briego held Torien's ankles in his hands and kneaded the skin with his fingers. This time, he didn't look up.
"Alluin," he said.
"I mean your family name."
"You knew my name," Torien said doggedly.
"Luckily for you, fish. Can you stand?"
Belatedly, it occurred to Torien that Not-Briego — Alluin — might be a high-born bastard.
His face flamed. He retreated hastily.
"I thought you said there were guards."
"Two of them, outside the door. No matter. We'll go out by the water."
It was Torien's turn to pause, his hand on the wall, his head pounding, his mouth suddenly very dry. "I can't swim."
"Some fish." Alluin let out a soft breath that might have been a laugh. "Can't you at all?"
"I — no. I never learned."
"Too cold in Cesin, is it?"
Torien didn't answer. He was too ashamed to explain his fear. He looked at the water. It was very dark, slapping coldly on the stone floor, stinking of silt. It wouldn't be so bad if he could keep his head up the whole time, but the boat doors were chained shut, and he'd have to go under to get past them.
He shut his eyes. He could feel Alluin studying him in the darkness.
"I'll be with you," Alluin said quietly. "The water's not even that deep, this time of year. Cold, but not deep. It's just like going in the baths."
"You can. I'll be with you the whole way."
"You go. I can't."
"Don't be an idiot. Look — it's not deep."
Torien opened his eyes. Alluin followed the sloping floor down into the water. He turned around so that he was facing Torien, backing slowly into the water until he was standing against the boat doors, the water at his armpits.
"See? Not deep at all — and no sharks, either. They go south for the winter. Come on."
Torien went down to the water's edge. He stood at the edge, watching the black water slosh up to his toes and dribble away again. It was such a stupid thing, the fear — such a selfish, babyish thing. He slid one foot slowly into the water, then the other, until the water was swirling over the tops of his boots, up to his ankles. He let out a long, low breath. Not so bad. Not so bad, as long as he didn't let himself think.
"Come on," Alluin said. "It's damn cold."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Blood Oath"
Copyright © 2018 Amanda McCrina.
Excerpted by permission of Month9Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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