Someone inside the provincial government is kidnapping Imperial citizens and selling them across the desert to the salt mines, silencing anyone who tries to intervene. The girl’s brother is one of those who has been taken. Rejected by the corrupt courts, she’s waging a personal war against the Empire.
Determined to save her life, Torien sets out in search of answers on the Salt Road, the ancient trade route running deep into the heart of a desert—territory claimed by the hostile Mayaso tribe.
Now, Torien is no longer sure where his own loyalty lies, or how far he will go to break the cycle of tyranny, political bullying, and social injustice in an empire that seals its borders in blood.
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By Amanda McCrina
Month9BooksCopyright © 2017 Amanda McCrina
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He could see the sky in pieces between the tenements, bruised purple now with dusk.
At first he was glad for the darkness, because it meant they would be firing the beacon in the lighthouse at the point. He leaned on his saddle-horns, craning his neck to look down the narrow cross streets, trying to catch a glimpse of the great light burning in the distance. By means of the lighthouse he could reorient himself. But the cross streets twisted away into deep shadow between the tenement blocks, and there was the irksome thought at the back of his mind that if they had wandered so far into the city as not see the lighthouse, then they had wandered so far as to be where Imperial control was more a matter of theory than practice — at least at night.
Earlier, when the young summer sun was glaring white in a blue-glaze sky and the air under the awnings still and close and hot enough one could feel one's skin baking in it — the tenements shut out the harbor breeze — the streets had seethed with people: sellers of figs and dates and pomegranates and honeyed almonds and goats' milk and flavored ices and sour wine; and potters and silversmiths and leather-workers and basket-weavers at their shopfronts; and housewives browsing the market stalls; and slave girls with water in sloshing panniers over their shoulders; and naked children playing sticks-and-hoops along the foot-stones; and now and then a mounted official in white linen, shouting and swearing until the crowd shuffled aside to let him pass. Now in darkness they were alone in the street. It was as though the rest of the city had died with the sun. The air was dry and rapidly cooling, heavy with silence like a bated breath. He would not mind the darkness if not for the silence. In a city such silence was unnatural.
"Do you suppose they'll look for us?" Alluin said. "Or just wait until our bodies turn up in an alley in a week or so?"
"I imagine they'll expend the effort for me, if they wouldn't otherwise trouble about you."
"So there is some benefit to your acquaintance, after all."
"If not for my acquaintance, you'd be just finishing the first course at the officers' dinner."
It had been his idea to explore the city. Alluin was city-born and indifferent — all cities were the same when you got down to it; there came a point when unwashed bodies and stray dogs and bad wine in dirty shops ceased to be as interesting as bed. But he, Torien, still had a provincial awe of big cities — an itching, impatient need to see and hear and know. He had been determined not to idle away his time in Modigne behind the fort walls. True that he and Alluin had no more than a smattering of bastardized Modigno between them, and that Modigne was a rabbit's warren of nameless, ancient streets, built and overbuilt in incongruous layers — in daylight that had seemed far less important than it did now. In daylight it had been enough to know he was an officer of the Imperial army, and a Vareno nobleman, with sufficient coin on his person for any foreseeable difficulty and a sword at his hip in the event his coin should fail. It was remarkable how in darkness one saw things more clearly.
Certain things, anyway — other things than the way back to the fort or the direction of the harbor light.
The street, so narrow now that Alluin had to rein in his horse and fall in behind, plunged into a honeycomb of tight-packed adobe huts, each no wider than the span of Torien's arms, joined to its neighbors by rickety wooden ladders running an uneven line from flat rooftop to flat rooftop. He took the downward slant for a good sign: he knew, from studying the maps on the wall of the headquarters at the fort, that Modigne, built as it was along a volcanic crater, went down to the ocean like the insides of a bowl, and so for the street to be sloping downward meant it must be working its way however haphazardly to the harbor.
He leaned on the saddle-horns, lifting himself a little to see if he could pick out the lighthouse below.
There was a rustle on the rooftop above. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a darker shadow take shape against the darkness. He recognized the glint of metal in time to jerk around in his saddle, hauling on the reins as he turned. He took the blade in the back of his left shoulder rather than in his throat.
He had braced for it and did not slip from the saddle, though for a moment he thought he might: his knees, pressed against the horse's ribs, went as weak as water. He lost the reins from his left hand. Above him, he heard very clearly the patter of footsteps as the knifeman fled across the rooftop for the nearest ladder. Just as clearly, he heard the thin cry and the muffled thump as the knifeman lost his footing on the ladder and fell back to the roof.
Torien brushed away Alluin's hand and propped his right shoulder against the wall. He nodded to the hut. "Bring him," he said — calmly, though his heart was pounding. "That fall won't have killed him."
He saw Alluin's face as a pale blur in the darkness. "Tor —"
"It's nothing. It'll wait. Our friend won't."
In truth, his knees were still trembling, and he was speaking through clenched teeth because he knew if he unclenched them they would chatter. There was blood seeping through his tunic and jerkin, and he was conscious, as he hadn't been at first, of the knife blade sunk to its hilt just beyond the cuff of his shoulder. His body was revolting against the thought, sickness threatening in the pit of his stomach.
Lamplight blossomed inside the hut. Low voices filtered out through the reed curtain in the doorway. Torien dipped his chin again, with effort. Alluin swore and swung from his saddle and drew his sword. He pushed into the hut through the curtain, and Torien heard him issuing orders in a clumsy hybrid of Modigno and Vareno — heard the crash of pottery breaking, the scrape of wood dragging across stone, a child's whimper. A moment later, Alluin's head and shoulders and sword hand emerged above him from inside the hut. Alluin pushed himself up on his hands from the opening, landing lightly on his feet on the roof. Picking up his sword, he vanished beyond the roof edge.
Torien leaned carefully back against the wall. He glanced down the street. There were no other doorways lit, no other sound than the clatter of Alluin's hobnailed boots on the rooftop above. In Choiro, there would have been a crowd by now. Modigne lay as still and silent as a plague city.
Alluin reappeared at the roof edge. He had sheathed his sword. He was handling the knifeman along by the shoulders — no, not a man, Torien thought, certainly a boy: he came barely to Alluin's chest. His arms and legs, silhouetted black against the sky, were thin, stick-like things around which his tunic fluttered shapelessly.
Torien pushed up from the wall and gathered himself together and dismounted. The ground was springy under his feet. He wavered for a moment as his heels touched, swallowing back the sickness. There was a ringing in his ears. He blinked in the sudden brightness of lamplight as Alluin flung aside the curtain in the doorway and shoved the boy before him out into the street. Behind him the hut's occupants — a man and a woman and an assortment of half-dressed children — gathered silently in the doorway to watch.
The boy had stumbled and fallen in a heap of skinny limbs and wool rags. He caught himself on his palms. He adjusted the cap on his head and sat back awkwardly, keeping his knobby legs to the side. In the dim light, Torien could see enough to know the left ankle was broken. There was blood dribbling from the boy's nose, and he was sucking breath low and softly through his teeth. His eyes darted over Torien's face, lingering for a moment at Torien's shoulder. He looked quickly to the ground. He was, Torien judged, eleven or perhaps twelve — not yet old enough to face execution for an assault upon an Imperial soldier. He would go to a slaver's block instead. There would be an examination to determine the guilt of his family.
He caught Alluin's eye and jerked his chin to the sullen family in the doorway. "Wine if they have it. Water otherwise — and something passable for bandage cloth." The pain had started, and he was leaning into his horse's shoulder for balance.
The woman in the doorway said something in Modigno. He recognized the word for wine. He said, "What did she say?" Alluin's Modigno was bad, but better than his own.
"They have wine, but it's for a wedding," Alluin said, "for her sister's wedding — I think."
He was irritated and impatient now. "Water, then. Tell them I'd have paid for wine."
Alluin stood at his shoulder and unbuckled his cuirass while the woman went into the hut. "Do you want to do this inside?" he said. His voice was quiet.
"Not until I know he acted alone." Torien nodded to the boy, who had sat motionless all this while, studying the ground as though he were reading something written there. "You. You speak Vareno?" The boy looked up incuriously into Torien's face. He had determined not to speak: Torien could see as much from the set of his mouth, the hollowness of his eyes. His thin brown hands were clenched to fists on his lap.
From the doorway, the man spoke up in rapid Modigno.
"He's reconsidered about the wine?" Torien said. The shoulder was hurting fiercely.
"He says he knows her family," Alluin said.
There was a moment's silence in which he suddenly understood.
"A girl," he said, stupidly.
"He says he knows her family and will tell us where she lives," Alluin said. "Also, he would appreciate very much his lord's kindness if his lord would consider a pittance in return for the service."
The girl flung up her head suddenly to spit at the man's feet. The man seemed embarrassed. He hunched his shoulders and looked at his hands. The woman came out from the hut with a water jug and a cloth. She held them out to Alluin at arm's length, making a quick, nervous gesture with her hands. Alluin shook his head. "Hold them. Quedas — hold them, you understand?"
"Give them to me," Torien said.
"Don't give them to him," Alluin said. "He'll drop them when I do this."
He jerked the knife from Torien's shoulder. Torien folded to his knees. The street swam around him. He heard Alluin's voice as though it were carrying to him underwater. He shook his head. Alluin was prying the cuirass from his shoulder and tugging the jerkin down his arm. The night air through his blood-soaked tunic was sharp and cold; he shivered. The girl's eyes were on him. She was watching with the same flat-eyed incuriosity. There was blood trickling over her lips from her nose, but she made no move to wipe it away.
"Her ankle," Torien said. For some reason, her silence shamed him.
Far above him Alluin said, patiently, "What?"
"Tie up her ankle. And tell the Modigno he can show us where she lives, because I don't trust the word of a coward."
* * *
The Modigno walked ahead, self-consciously, shoulders still hunched in embarrassment. Alluin followed on foot, leading his horse by the reins. The girl huddled in his saddle with her hands outstretched to the horns, her face buried in the horse's mane, her bare legs dangling limp against the horse's belly. Torien rode at the rear. The street, which turned this way and that through the honeycombed huts, ran steadily downhill all the while, and he knew they must be close to the water because there was a stiff salt breeze rising to his face. It cut through his soaked tunic like a knife. His fingers were numb on the reins. He had knotted them in the horse's mane to keep himself upright in the saddle.
He could have ordered the Modigno to show them instead to the harbor light, of course, or to the fort itself, and they could have delivered the girl into the prison on the hill, and very soon now he might have been enjoying the comfort of his own quarters and a skin of wine to ease the pain in his shoulder — but it might easily be a month before the girl's case went to the governor, and he was due to report at Tasso in a week, and he had too many questions of his own to let it go like that.
Only after they had gone on for near half an hour, the adobe huts having given way to ramshackle wooden shanties and the street sunk in soft, rank mud, the air heavy with the smell of brine and rotten fish, did it occur to him that most likely the Modigno had no idea about the girl's family and no idea where she lived — had grasped for the chance to make a quick coin and come away with more than he had bargained for, and was looking for the opportunity to dart down an alley and vanish into the night.
He had opened his mouth to say this to Alluin when the Modigno swung about suddenly and said something in his own tongue, gesturing with his hands. The shanty at his back was three-sided, sheltered from the street by a tattered sailcloth curtain, unlit.
"He says it's here," Alluin said.
The girl shifted in Alluin's saddle. A shudder ran through her shoulders, but she did not raise her head.
"Tell him to lift the curtain," Torien said. He was cold and aching and the Modigno was a fool, but that was no reason to abandon caution.
The Modigno lifted the curtain. The shanty was empty. There was a fire pit dug in the bare-dirt floor, but the coals were dead.
The Modigno spoke very quickly in his own tongue, his eyes going from Alluin to Torien and back again.
"He seems to think we think he's lied," Alluin said. "He wants us to ask the girl."
"Tell him the girl's our concern." Torien dismounted, cradling his left arm against his stomach. He was too tired for anger. Anyway, it was pointless to threaten reprisals: they would not find him again if they tried. He fumbled at his belt and withdrew a bronze from his wallet. He flicked the coin in the Modigno's direction. "Bayas — go."
The Modigno dropped to his heels to dig out the coin from the mud. He made a mockery of a bow as he straightened: it had occurred to him that they had been essentially at his mercy. His shoulders were straight as he walked away back up the street.
Alluin pulled the girl down from his saddle by the waist and held her before him, as easily as though she were made of straw. "I'll have a look around. The harbor can't be far."
"No. We can spend the night here."
"That shoulder needs more than water, Tor, and sooner is better. Though I appreciate your faith in my medical ability."
"I don't like the idea of splitting up. It won't do my shoulder any good if you end up in the harbor with your throat cut. And I couldn't drag myself back into a saddle right now if I wanted to."
Alluin was silent, studying him. He had the girl's shoulder in one hand, his reins in the other. He let go the girl's shoulder, reluctantly. "Adienta — inside," he said. And to Torien: "I'll see to the horses."
Weak moonlight filtered through the roof of the shanty, which was nothing more than a reed lattice tied down with leather strips. The girl sat down against the left-hand wall, stretching her bad leg straight before her. She watched silently and unmoving while Torien crouched on his heels at the fire pit and searched one-handed through the ashes for salvageable tinder. By the time he had built up a decent pile, and had found flint and iron to strike a light, Alluin had ducked in from the street with a saddle on each arm.
"I'd have done it if you'd waited," he said. He deposited Torien's saddle against the right-hand wall and sat down with his own against the rear wall.
Torien unbuckled his helmet and leaned his head back against the wall. He sat with the helmet on his lap, his eyes closed. Beyond the crackling of the fire and the rattling of the lattice in the salt breeze, the silence stretched vast and hostile. "If you speak," he said, "it goes better for you." He opened his eyes and looked at the girl across the fire pit. In the firelight, he could see the details of her bony bronze face. She was older than he had thought at first — older than he'd thought when he'd thought her a boy. It was possible she was fifteen. The smallness of her limbs and the sunkenness of her cheeks made it hard to tell. She was looking into the flame in silence, her eyes half-closed, her face magnificently blank, but he knew she had heard and had taken his general meaning by the way her shoulders tightened against the wall. "Tell me if there were others," he said. "Tell me how many."
When she said nothing, he said to Alluin, "In Modigno. Tell her if she doesn't answer to us now, she'll answer to the governor in court — she and her family."
The girl jerked her chin, suddenly. "No others," she said. "I understand what you say." Her eyes came up to his. Her voice was low but hard. "I do it alone. No family. The cobarte he lies when he brings you. No family. He says it because he wants your coin."
Excerpted from Blood Road by Amanda McCrina. Copyright © 2017 Amanda McCrina. Excerpted by permission of Month9Books.
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