Read an excerpt
The pass through which Ree came back into Solaike barely deserved the name. There was no road, though the valley below started off well enough, with level, easy terrain alongside a cool stream perfect for resting one’s feet in—if her feet had needed rest. But the upper end mocked that flatness, the ground rising precipitously into a tangle of boulders and thick undergrowth. Only two things kept Ree going then: an instinctual belief that the deer track she was following could be traversed by someone on two legs, and a perverse determination to do exactly that.
Determination won out over terrain. She hauled herself to the top, panting and triumphant. And for her pains, she was rewarded with a splendid view across the Heliin mountains of Solaike, laid out under a brilliant, cloudless sky.
They weren’t a large range, in either height or extent. But they were carpeted in a dense growth of trees, an emerald mask over a labyrinthine assortment of caves, outcroppings, and valleys you could only find by falling into them. Here and there a rock face broke through the mask, defying goats to attempt its heights. In this landscape, a band of rebels against the usurper Valtaja had held out for a generation, despite repeated attempts to dig them out. Looking at the place, it wasn’t hard to see why.
Ree mostly knew the mountains from a lower vantage point, hiding out with those rebels, helping them with their war. She’d never seen the place from so high up. After a bit of searching, though, she found the notched peak of Ahvelu, and then she had a sense of where she was. Southwest of the main pass into Solaike—well, she’d known that much already, when she decided not to take the easy road—but not as far southwest as Veiss, where the rebels had overwhelmed the garrison three years ago and achieved the first major victory of their revolution.
If she’d had the sense the higher powers gave a chipmunk, she would have come via the main pass. But she’d spent the last few months in a city, and now she craved a bit of peace and quiet, away from people. And entering Solaike this way meant Aadet wouldn’t know she was coming. She had a reputation for turning up when he least expected it; it would be a shame to break that streak now. She was masked, of course, but that didn’t hide everything, and there were enough people who would remember and recognize her from the days of the revolution.
Besides, she liked the novelty of it. A path she’d never followed before, a view she’d never seen from quite this angle.
Now she had the challenge of figuring out how to get from here to Taraspai. By her reckoning, if she headed over a nearby ridge, she had good odds of striking one of the old quarry tracks that laced this area. During the days of the revolution, she never would have used any of those roads; a traveler on a known path made for an easy target. Something Valtaja’s soldiers had learned all too well—but they feared the forest, hugging the roads and leaving them only with reluctance. There were leopards out there, and stories of worse things. If some of those worse things were just rebels in frightening disguises . . . did it make much of a difference? Dead was dead.
But the rebels were gone now, occupying the capital in triumph, and Ree didn’t always have to take the hardest route. The novelty of descending slopes by falling down them ass-first wore off after a while. And by her estimate, she had at least two days’ travel ahead of her before she got back to anything resembling civilization, even with a road to help—longer to reach the capital itself. She paused long enough to scrape her dark hair off her face and back into a fresh braid, then set out again.
Getting up and over that excuse for a pass had taken up half the day, and finding a path down the other side took most of the rest. Ree didn’t have to sleep, but in these mountains, going on in the dark would have been asking for trouble. She was as capable of breaking her neck as any human. Or, for that matter, being eaten by some noctural predator. She spent a wary night perched high in a tree, sabre unsheathed in her hand, listening to the forest converse with itself in whispers and growls and brief, dying screams.
She came upon one of the tracks sooner than she expected the next morning. It ran in a general east-west direction, its rocky surface stitched together with thick weeds. Ree put her boots on it with a sense of relief and headed east. The road definitely made for easier going, but also hotter, with the sun beating down on her head. Right. There’s a reason why I don’t usually come back to Solaike during the summer.
She kept a sharp eye out as she walked. The revolution might be over, and the track showed no signs of recent traffic in any large numbers, but wariness was a habit carved into her bones. And even in this isolated region, she couldn’t expect to be the only one around.
It wasn’t even midday yet when Ree saw a telltale curl of smoke in the air ahead.
She got off the road immediately—not because she expected danger, but because she wanted to think about what to do next, and leaving herself anywhere she might be spotted might well take the choice out of her hands. The smoke was far enough away that unless the people behind it were posting a very thorough cordon of guards, they wouldn’t have spotted her yet. But that would change pretty fast if she continued on the way she had been.
Strike out overland again, or keep to the road? She chewed on her lower lip, considering. The first option was the sensible one. The second was more interesting.
“Probably just some charcoal burner,” she muttered to herself. “Or a hunter.” Leopard hides fetched a good price in the lowlands.
Or it could be something Aadet would want to know about.
Ree grinned. Sure, blame Aadet’s curiosity. It isn’t your own talking, not at all.
She took a moment to make sure she was as masked as she could get, dulling her clothing down to a drab green and brown that would blend in well with the surrounding forest, and tucking the loose ends of her sash into the band so she could at least minimize the flash of red. Then she struck out through the trees, trying to find a vantage point that would let her spy on the fire from above.
It turned out to be coming from the edge of the road—not a place anybody would choose if they wanted secrecy. She couldn’t get close enough to see without crossing to the other side, though, where the ground rose into a small ridge. Ree was contemplating whether to risk the open air when a voice from behind her said, “Ra stavit kaz.”
She cursed under her breath, but made no attempt to draw her sabre. Anybody who wanted her dead wouldn’t have bothered to announce himself before striking. Instead she held her hands up, showing they were empty, and rose from her crouch to see who had caught her.
Embarrassingly, it was a pair of striplings, not more than sixteen, armed with flintlock pistols they didn’t look ready to use. “You’re good,” Ree said in Solaine, testing. They weren’t local; that much was obvious. Their skin was too light a brown, a shade lighter than her own, and they wore wide belts over shirts with rolled-up sleeves that hadn’t been designed with this climate in mind. But they might still have spoken the local tongue.
They might have—but they didn’t. The shorter of the two snapped a few questions at her, all in that same unfamiliar language. Ree could guess at their meaning well enough: Who are you? What are you doing here? “I mean you no harm,” she said, this time in Japil, the most common trade tongue in the region. That got a flicker of recognition. The taller youth, who despite his height looked younger than his companion, said haltingly, “Others are where?”
“No others,” Ree said. “I’m alone. Just a traveler.”
A hurried conference between the two boys in their own language. Conferring about what to do with her, no doubt. Then the taller one said, “Me you give your sword.”
“Like hell,” Ree muttered under her breath. Anybody who tried to take that blade from her was going to lose a hand in the attempt.
But she didn’t want to start bloodshed if she could avoid it. Moving slowly, she reached behind her head and brought her braid forward. They frowned. She untied the leather thong from its tail, then used that to tie her sabre’s hilt to its sheath. The thong was pretty worn out; she could snap it with one good yank if she needed to. And depending on what these boys had in mind, she might need to.
A memory flickered up from the depths. Once upon a time, she’d known how to tie a knot that would look good to most people, but would unravel at a single tug. But she didn’t remember it now, and couldn’t exactly experiment in front of these two. Something to work on later.
For now, this satisfied the boys, at least enough to be going on with. “With us you come,” the taller one said. The other gestured with his flintlock, indicating she should go first.
Together they climbed to the road, Ree contemplating her options. The boys were good at stealth, but not at escorting prisoners. She could certainly take out one. The other might shoot her in the process, but the flintlocks were single-shot; unless he hit something vital, she’d still be on her feet. But the sound might bring others, and then she’d be running, probably wounded, with an unknown number of people on her tail. Over rough terrain, where there were leopards. Would that be better or worse than walking blind into whatever lay ahead?
She reminded herself that the fire was at the edge of the road. This wasn’t a military camp. Civilians might be just as hostile, but she should at least give them a chance to prove otherwise before she killed anyone.
Civilians or not, they were keeping a good watch. Before she and her escorts got within sight of the fire, they were challenged from cover by another voice. The shorter boy responded, presumably recounting how they’d found her. Ree’s skin crawled until she spotted the lookout, who had the good sense to perch himself in a tree. He had a long gun, but he wasn’t aiming it at her. Good.
They went onward, around a curve in the track, and she found herself on the edge of a small caravan.
The carts and wagons hadn’t stopped haphazardly, but they hadn’t made an encampment either. Instead they were drawn up in a defensive huddle, except for one off to the side. That turned out to be the reason for the fire. The wagon had rolled too close to the edge of the road and ground up against a stone, damaging its wheel. A blacksmith had set up in the open air, well away from anything he didn’t want to burn, and was preparing to hammer the rim back into alignment. Until that was done, these people weren’t going anywhere.
And they weren’t happy about it. Travelers delayed by a broken wheel usually took the opportunity to relax, stretching their legs if they’d been riding or getting off their feet if they’d been walking. They took naps or busied themselves with useful tasks. The people here just waited, watching in all directions, and the youths carrying babes in arms tried to hush them the moment they cried—as if the blacksmith’s hammer wouldn’t make as much noise as any infant.
Ree’s arrival was like kicking an anthill. Those with small children recoiled to safety in the wagons or under the awnings spread alongside them, while the adults stepped forward to shield their young. Ree put her hands up again, empty and spread, making herself as nonthreatening as she could. They didn’t look reassured; Probably because I’ve got a sword on my hip. Well, too bad—she still wasn’t giving it up, not even for their peace of mind. Especially not when she didn’t know who they were, or what they were doing there.
Her escorts called out an explanation, in the stifled voices of boys who didn’t quite dare shout. A teenaged girl took off, presumably to find the leader of this traveling band. She didn’t have to go far. Before Ree could do more than wonder if she’d seen people like these before, two more approached: a man and a woman in their forties or fifties, with large silver spools stretching their earlobes, like marks of rank. Their knee-length coats were profoundly unsuited to this heat, but made them look more official than shirtsleeves would have, and people stepped back to let them through.
The woman spoke first, in accented Japil. “Who are you?”
“My name is Ree. I mean your people no harm.”
The woman’s gaze flicked up and down, noting the sabre still on Ree’s hip. Her lips tightened fractionally: no doubt the boys would be getting a lecture about that later. Then, not taking her eyes off Ree, she bent toward the man at her side and murmured in his ear. Translator, Ree assumed. And his wife? I think so. Ree wished she could risk working on their language, but that would give away far more than she dared right now.
The woman didn’t wait for the man to say anything. Her next question, like the first, was her own. “Why are you on this road?”
“I’m on my way to Taraspai.”
It was the wrong answer. Ree had been gambling on these people being foreigners; they weren’t Solaine or Uyel, the people to the north, and she’d assumed they didn’t know the local geography very well. But the woman frowned and snapped, “This isn’t the road to Taraspai.”
“I know,” Ree said, suppressing the urge to curse. “I came through the mountains, from the north.” What could she say that wouldn’t sound insane? “I . . . wanted to avoid notice.”
They would assume she had a pack somewhere, or maybe a donkey to carry things for her. The only reason to avoid notice on her way through the mountains was if she were a smuggler—or at least, that would be the only reason they would think of. Ree hoped.
Did that make these people smugglers? There was no bloody reason for them to be on this road. They couldn’t have cut through the mountains like she had, not with those wagons in tow. They weren’t miners, headed off to reopen one of the old quarries. But what kind of smugglers would bring along so many kids?
At least the delay imposed by translation gave her time to think, and to be ready for the next question. “Why were you following us?”
“I wasn’t. I saw smoke, and I wanted to make sure it wasn’t coming from anything I needed to be worried about. Then your boys caught me and brought me here. If they’d left me alone, I would be well past you by now. I’m happy to get back to doing that, just as soon as you let me go.”
The woman spat on the ground. “And then you will go and tell the others about us. So they can finish what they started!”
“Zhutore.” The voice came from behind Ree, off to the left. She twisted in time to see a man standing in the shade of a nearby tree.
Had she seen him in the light, she would have missed it; the effect was fading as he came forward. But in the shade, she caught glimmers of red along his neck and bare arms, following the tracery of his veins.
Lightning sparked through Ree’s own veins, but she kept her expression neutral. Just because she’d identified him didn’t mean he’d done the same to her. Apart from the sash and the sabre, and a pendant of cool ember hidden under her shirt, there was nothing to identify her as an archon—not so long as she kept herself masked. And until she had some idea of his nature, she wasn’t about to reveal herself.
His appearance didn’t give much away. Once the red light had faded, he looked almost ordinary. He wasn’t exceptionally tall or short, and his coloration wasn’t much different from the people around him—a bit darker of skin and hair, but that was it. No claws or wings or extra arms. His build was compact, strong without being impressive. The densely embroidered strip of fabric that formed a diamond-shaped drape across his chest and back was a work of art, and Ree suspected it was one of his icons. Otherwise he wouldn’t be wearing it while traveling along a dusty road, any more than she would be wearing a blood-red sash while sneaking through the forest.
He stopped a short distance away and addressed Zhutore in their own tongue. Ree itched to know what they were saying—but even if she unmasked, learning would take too long to be any use to her right now. The sound of it was nigglingly familiar, though. She listened as Zhutore’s husband responded, and tried to remember when she’d heard the language before. Their clothing was vaguely familiar, too. And the carts and wagons they traveled in . . . a whole population, not just adults but a host of children, like an entire village on the move. Refugees?
No, not exactly. “You’re Korenat, aren’t you.”
It stopped the conversation dead. Even those who didn’t understand the trade tongue would have been able to pick out the name of their own people, and Zhutore glared pure murder as if Ree had uncovered some vital secret. The archon only looked interested. “Yes, we are. Of the Nevati Korenat. Well, Zhutore and the others are. Have you met our kind before?”
“I’ve heard stories.” And probably met them in previous lives, though none of those memories had come back to her yet. There were Korenat all over the world—anywhere they hadn’t been run out of with fire and blades. Wanderers, but not by choice; the stories gave a half-dozen reasons for their nomadic existence, ranging from a homeland sunk into the sea to an ancient curse that forbade them to go home. Mostly, though, they moved around because the lands they traveled through didn’t want them to stay. Even when local laws permitted them to settle down, they made good scapegoats any time there was a plague or other disaster.
And disaster might explain why they were in the middle of nowhere. Ree took another look around, more carefully this time. She found scars on the sides of wagons, as if they’d been struck with blades, and bandages on a number of the Korenat. Fresh ones—not more than a day or two old. Whatever trouble they ran afoul of, it had found them here in the mountains.
Ree said, “I didn’t realize there was a Korenat settlement in Solaike.” She’d been gone for nearly a year; that wasn’t much time for them to establish themselves here. Didn’t mean they hadn’t, though.
But the archon said, “There isn’t. At least, not yet. We heard that the situation had changed here, and we hoped the new king would permit us to settle.”
He still sounded optimistic, which meant their injuries weren’t the result of any official attempt to drive them out. “So who attacked you?”
Zhutore had subsided, translating the conversation for her husband, but letting the unnamed archon do the talking. He said, “I don’t know. We came by the main road, and the guards at the border permitted us to pass—but then we were ambushed.”
Ambushed? Ree swore inwardly. Nearly a year: it was more than enough time for the political situation here to take a turn for the worse. Had the king been overthrown? No, she would have heard about that, in Uytan if nowhere else.
“Can you describe the ambushers?” she asked. “Were they Solaine? Did they wear armor?”
The man she thought was Zhutore’s husband answered her questions, through his wife. “We believe they were Solaine, yes, but not soldiers. Their armor was good, but it did not match.”
Neither did the armor of the king’s people, last time Ree had seen them. Outfitting everyone properly took a while, after a generation of guerrilla warfare in the mountains. “Were they wearing leopard pelts, or did they have leopard patterns painted on their gear?”
The word “leopard” defeated Zhutore’s ability to translate. “Spots,” Ree said. She spat on her finger and knelt, using the wet tip to mark rosettes on one of the stones of the road. “Fur or paint.”
“Paint, yes. In red.”
“In red?” That wasn’t any insignia Ree knew. Had the king created a new unit? But no, they’d said the border guards let them pass. Unless the left hand was seriously failing to talk to the right, that shouldn’t have happened. “The soldiers at the border—were they the same?”
“No, their armor was painted in yellow and black.”
She started to ask why the Korenat hadn’t gone back to the border after the attack, but swallowed the question. Assaulted by strangers, in a land they didn’t know . . . they had no reason to think the guards would help them. “You know you’re headed away from the trade road, right?”
The archon shrugged helplessly. “The trade road was not safe. We lost six when they attacked us. We hoped this would lead us to a village, away from the ambushers.”
“It’s leading you from nowhere to nowhere.” Ree stood up and wiped her fingertip on her breeches. “You’ve got to get back east, or you’ll be stuck up here forever.” But they couldn’t risk the main road—not when they had no guarantee they wouldn’t just be slaughtered. She closed her eyes, calling on the familiarity built up over two years of hiding with the revolutionaries. We intercepted Saalik’s strike force not far from here, didn’t we?
“Look,” she said, glancing up and down the track. “Continue on the way you have been for a while longer—once you’ve got that wheel repaired. You’ll come to a fork in the road, one bit leading onward and up, the other down. Follow the downward path. It isn’t in good shape, and it’ll look like it’s taking you the wrong way, but it’ll loop around and bring you to a farm village eventually. From there you can get back to the main road, but in more settled territory. It should be safe.” She tried to sound confident, and mostly succeeded.
“Why should we trust you?” Zhutore demanded.
The archon said something to her in their own tongue. Zhutore looked less than entirely convinced, her jaw setting hard. Ree said, “Look, I don’t care whether you follow my advice or not. But I promise you this much; I’ll carry word down to the lowlands for you. The king will want to know there’s somebody ambushing travelers on the trade road.”
“Or you’ll tell the attackers where we are. You wear their color.” She pointed at Ree’s sash.
And if I could have hidden it, I would have. “If I really wanted to do that, I would have killed your boys out in the forest and vanished, rather than letting them drag me back here.”
“Zhutore.” The archon spoke quietly, but it carried weight. The woman fell silent, and he said to Ree, “Please, join me. We cannot go anywhere until the wheel is repaired, so Zhutore will be satisfied, because you will not be able to tell anyone where we are until we are no longer there. And I will be satisfied, because I will have a chance to offer you hospitality, after this unfriendly welcome.”
She eyed him warily. Was he seimer or gemer? Every archon had two aspects, one more or less creative, one destructive, but they manifested in different ways for different archai. Seimer wasn’t always nice, and gemer wasn’t always bad. Without knowing anything about this archon’s story, she had no way of guessing what he might do.
“I don’t even know your name,” Ree said, stalling.
“Mevreš,” he said. “Will you join me?”
That wasn’t his true name, of course. He would never offer that up to a stranger—assuming he even knew it. “Ree” was just a piece of her true name, the only piece she remembered, and too small to be of use to anybody else. She ground her teeth, but his question was more in the nature of a command. Ree sighed and followed, keeping her hand from her blade.
Mevreš took her around the edge of the caravan, skirting the fire where the blacksmith was still working, and arrived at a wagon with an awning propped up along its side. He pulled out a small, padded bench, then began searching in the back of the wagon for something. Ree perched on the bench and tried to think of small talk.
She failed to come up with anything that didn’t sound inane before Mevreš rejoined her, carrying a small bag the size of his two fists together. A girl-child of about nine ran up at the same time, carrying a leather-wrapped flask that turned out to contain boiling water. Mevreš poured this into two cups and began to whisk in a powder from the bag. The scent was rich and bitter, and Ree closed her eyes to hide the echoes it called up in her mind. She’d had that drink before, in another life. She could almost taste it on her tongue, but the memory kept slipping through her fingers.
“You don’t have to mask yourself.”
The words hit like a shock of cold water. Ree opened her eyes to find him offering one of the cups. She took it by reflex, eyeing him warily. He smiled, all friendliness. “I’ve been around for long enough to recognize my own kind. Even masked.”
So much for hoping he hadn’t identified her. Ree felt like she’d walked into some kind of trap, even though there was no reason to panic. If he wanted to gain an advantage over her, he would have been better off not saying anything, letting her think he didn’t know.
Well, no point hiding now.