Once the trusted aide to powerful military commander Kyros, freeborn Lauria hunted down his escaped slaves. But during a mission to infiltrate the bandit tribe known as the Alashi, Lauria’s loyalties shifted. When her identity was discovered, she was cast out by both sides. Now Lauria is determined to regain the trust of the Alashi, and, with the help of her blood-sister Tamar, liberate those she once returned to captivity. But they cannot accomplish the daunting task alone. Desperate for a spell-chain to free a mine slave, Lauria turns to her enemies–the Sisterhood of Weavers–and apprentices herself to a sorceress. But learning to harness magic will come at a greater price than she ever imagined.
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
There was a crumbled spot in the wall around Elpisia. Kyros sent slaves to fix it every year or two, but for some reasonunstable ground, a vulnerability to windit was always crumbling there again within a few months. When I was a child and wanted to get in or out of town without being hassled by the guards at the gate, I scrambled over at that spot. Half a year earlier, I had examined that point in the wall while tracking an escaped slave.
Now, I was back, on the other side. I was climbing into Elpisia under cover of night to free one of the slaves that I had once taken back to slavery.
I found handholds easily enough, and scrambled over. Some gravel had made its way into my boot, so I pulled it off and shook it out. Then I wound a scarf around my face and pulled up the hood of my coat. It wasn't cold enough for snow yet, but there was a damp wind tonight. I put my mittens back on.
Nika's owner lived quite close to Kyros, not far from the city gate. I took a roundabout route, trying to stay as far from Kyros's house as I could. The streets were dark and quiet, but a few people were still out. I walked briskly rather than keeping to the shadows; acting like I was trying to hide would only attract attention. The wind gave me a good excuse to keep my head down and my eyes on the hard dirt under my feet. Being a fugitive in my home city was the strangest, most foreign experience I'd had in my lifeeven more foreign than my first days with the Alashi. If someone had blindfolded me and spun me around, I still could have found my way to anywhere in the city. It's so strange to be back. To be back like this.
I turned a corner; there, a stone's throw ahead of me, was the household where Nika had been sold. It was built in the Greek style, like Kyros's house, with a courtyard in the center. The front door would be guarded at night. Well, I assumed that it was guarded; I couldn't see much evidence either way from the street.
The first step was to get inside. The front door, obviously, was out of the question. There were a few low windows that opened onto the street, but they were tightly shuttered and barred from within; besides, the rooms on the other side of those windows might have people in them at odd hours. I circled the house once, keeping to the shadows now, though I couldn't see anyone watching. The street was quiet.
Right. The first step is to get inside. You were Kyros's most resourceful servantcan't you figure out a way to do that? Tamar had wanted to come along tonight and I refused. If I couldn't even think of a way to get into the house, Tamar would doubtless offer a dozen different suggestions of ways I could have done it if I'd had her with me. I'd insisted that Tamar wait with the horses because I thought that I would have at least a faint chance of talking my way out of trouble if I were caught by myself. If I had Tamar with me . . . When I looked at Tamar, I still saw a hint of the beaten-down slave girl that she'd been when we met. I didn't think I could talk both of us out of custody.
The first-floor windows had a sill; maybe I could climb onto the roof from there, and then go over that and into the courtyard. I took off my coat and mittens and stuffed them into my bag; the wind chose that moment to send a gust whipping through the street that left me numb and aching. Before I could change my mind, I climbed onto the windowsill. It was awkward, and when I shifted I knocked up against the shutter. Anyone inside would have heard that, and I froze for a moment, ready to leap off and run if I heard movement inside. But all stayed quiet. If anyone had heard me, they must have thought it was the wind.
Now that I was close enough to make a try for the roof, I realized that it was a good arm's length out of my reach. If I'd brought Tamar, I could have boosted her up onto the roofbut she didn't have the strength or weight to pull me up after her, so I'd have needed both Tamar and a rope, anyway. With freezing fingers, I felt for handholds in the stone and mortar of the house. And found one. Maybe I could swing myself up and launch myself onto the roof . . .
I came nowhere near my goal, but managed to make a wonderful crashing sound as I kicked loose a few tiles that shattered on the street below. I landed on the tiles and managed to bite back a stream of oaths as the shutters banged open.
"a bird or something."
"I just wanted to check."
"Well, you're letting in a lot of cold air, thank you very much."
I held my breath, making myself as small as possible. I was right in the open. If they poked their heads out to look for what had made the noise, they'd see me.
"It didn't sound like a bird."
"Send one of the men if you're that worried, but close the window before I freeze to the floor."
The shutter closed, but I didn't hear the bar put back into place. The guards would be coming, but it would take a little timewho was in the room?
With the tip of my finger, I eased the window open a crack and peered in. It was the kitchen, and there were two women still there, both Danibeki, and thus presumably slaves. If I offered to free them in exchange for their help, would they leap at the opportunity, or scream to alarm the whole house? Tamar would love to shepherd an entire household's worth of slaves up to the reluctant Alashi, but the practicalities of that were more than a little daunting to me. Besides, even if Tamar were right that there were no slaves who liked being slaves, that didn't mean they'd all be willing to flee to the Alashi. Many believed that the Alashi practiced human sacrifice and other such atrocities.
I hesitated too long; if I'd wanted to speak with them, I'd lost my chance. I sprinted around a corner and hid just a few moments before I heard the crunch of the guard's boots on the street. "bunch of jumpy girls," a male voice said. "Wanting to hide under the bed from the winter wind."
"Something did knock down a few tiles," another voice said. They had a lantern; I could see the light flickering. "It's not blowing that hard."
"Nika's probably right, it was a bird or something."
Nika! Had I looked right at her and not recognized her? Or had she been the one who went for the guards? Probably the latter. So she was probably there, in the kitchen, right now.
Muttering about girls and the cold wind, the guards did a quick search, found a feather that had doubtless been dropped by a bird sometime in the last week, and went back inside. I went back over to the window just in time to hear the bar drop again.
Well, at least now I knew where Nika was. I pressed my ear against the shutter and listened to the conversation. They were up early, not late, baking bread for the morning; the conversation was household gossip, nothing useful or interesting. There were three women working, all slaves. Listening to the chatter and knowing that one of them was Nika, I was able to pick her out of the conversation, and figure out which voice was hers.
I could just knock on the window . . .
Instead, I put my coat and mittens back on, rewrapped the scarf that shielded my face, and waited. There's no hurry, I told myself. I can go back to Tamar, talk about what to do, and try again tomorrow. That's probably the best plan right now, take this slowly.
Still, it seemed like it would be worth waiting. Maybe the other two women would step out for a few minutes and I'd have the opportunity to talk to Nika. So I waited, and just as I was thinking that I'd have to leave to be well away by dawn, one of the women said she was going to use the privy, and another had to go get something out of the pantry; Nika was alone.
I knocked urgently on the shutter. "Nika. Nika!" I hissed.
The shutter opened so abruptly that it almost knocked me off the windowsill. Nika stared at me, white-faced and startled. "Who are you? What do you want?" Her wide eyes searched mine, peering over the scarf. Did she recognize me? Just from my eyes? I saw no anger, so probably not.
"Do you still want your freedom enough to take it? I have a horse and I'll take you to the Alashi."
"Who are you?"
"I'm here to free you. What does it matter who I am?"
There was a long moment of struggle on Nika's face, and then she said, "I can't. Not without Melaina."
"My daughter. I can't leave her here. She doesn't have anyone but me."
The other women could return at any moment. I spoke rapidly. "Fine. I'll be back tomorrow night. Figure out a way to get yourself and Melaina out this window, and I'll take both of you." I jumped down to let her swing the shutter closed, and ran back for the city wall.
The sun was rising when I reached our hiding place in the track of the old river. Tamar was letting the horses drink water from a muddy puddle. She saw me approaching and shaded her eyes, looking to see if I'd brought Nika. "Lauria. What happened?" she asked when I reached her.
"She wants to bring her kid. We'll try again tonight. This time I think I want you to wait by the wall with the horses; it'll be slow going with a young child otherwise."
"You're going to leave me behind again?"
"Like I said before, if I get caught, I think I can talk my way out. As long as I'm alone."
"Oh yeah? What are you going to say: 'Look at me, I'm Kyros's servant, and this is all part of his plan, just ask him'? What are you going to say when they take you to Kyros?"
"I'll tell him what happened with Alibek, and say that freeing slaves is a ruse to win back the trust of the Alashi. Because I know how important this mission is, Nika's freedom is a pretty trivial cost."
"And when he asks why you didn't come straight to him?"
"The Alashi shamans have strange powers and are friendly with the rogue aerika. I was afraid they might be watching me."
"I guess that might work."
"Maybe. But not if you're a prisoner, too."
Tamar thought this over and reluctantly said, "I want to come along next time."
"Once we're not trying to get someone out of Elpisia," I agreed.
"I didn't join you just to sit around outside and watch horses. I feel so useless."
"Tamar, there's no way I could do this without you."
"You're just saying that to make me feel better."
"No, I'm just saying that because I'm afraid you'll leave me and go back to the Alashi. You could go back . . ."
Tamar took my hand and squeezed it. "You're my blood-sister. We belong together. I'm not going back. Not without you."
Six months earlier, Kyros's slave Alibek had climbed that same bit of wall; I had tracked him down and brought him back. Kyros had praised my efficient work, and then had sent me out on a new mission: to infiltrate the bandit tribes that called themselves the Alashi and lived on the steppes to the north. He thought I would be uniquely suited to this task because I was part Danibeki myself and could pose as an escaped slave. First, though, he suggested that I be a slave, so that I truly could escapeeven if it would be arranged in advanceand make my way to the Alashi just as a real slave would.
I agreed, and was "sold" to Kyros's friend Sophos, supposedly as a concubine for his harem. Sophos swore that he wouldn't forget that I was a free woman; no one would lay a hand on me. He lied. The memory of what happened still made my gorge rise.
The night that I escaped, Tamar followed me; she threatened to spoil my escape if I didn't bring her along. I told myself that I couldn't risk the delay of my plans, but in all honesty, I already liked Tamar and knew that helping her to escape would be a slap in the face to Sophos. We struggled together across the desert. Although the younger girl had initially forced me to bring her along, by the time we reached the Alashi, we were blood-sisters and friends for life.
We spent the summer with one of the Alashi sword sisterhoods, trying to prove our worth so that we could be fully accepted. I secretly reported back to Kyros through the aeriko he sent as a messenger, but as the summer wore on, my loyalties began to shift. I was angry at Kyros for taking no action to retaliate against Sophos. And I became close friends with some of the Alashi: Zhanna, the shaman, who tried to train Tamar and me to speak with the djinni as she did; Janiya, the leader, who told me I reminded her of her own lost daughter; Saken, who had been kind from our first day with the Alashi. Thinking of Saken, beneath her cairn of stones, still hurt.
At the end of the summer, I decided to defect to the Alashi and never return to Kyros. But I hadn't confessed my true identity to JaniyaI had meant to, but I hadn't done it soon enough. When we rejoined the rest of the Alashi for the fall gathering, I had come face-to- face with Alibek. He had escaped again, and this time reached the Alashi. He unmasked me, and after that, it was too late to confess what I had been. I was cast out. I could have been killed, and if I ever returned, I was under sentence of death.
It still amazed me that Tamar had come with me. She truly had been a slave. Among the Alashi, she had passed the tests with far more grace than I had, and had discovered a natural talent for the bow. Yet she had thrown her vest down with mine, and followed me. I didn't understand, but I wasn't inclined to question her too closely. The last thing I wanted to do was convince her to leave me. I had already lost both my home with Kyros and my home with the Alashi; losing Tamar would be even worse.