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Without stopping to shed my dripping cape, I threw open the door to Yamurik’s office. I’d have stomped in, but my hip and leg were hurting, worsening my mood, fanning my embarrassment. Out from under her eyes, I felt a fool. I shouldn’t have let her intimidate me. But the unease I’d felt in front of the strange woman at the gates did not flee entirely.
Yamurik looked up. He was pacing in front of a pair of caravaneers who sat on floor cushions, their coffee cold and forgotten on the trays in front of them. The old opium planter’s glare was a welcome, warm greeting compared to the monsoon threat I’d just left behind. And she was coming in. Soon.
“Am I to be followed at the heels like a nursing ox? What could you -”
“Out.” I jerked my thumb at the two caravaneers. My cape spattered water down onto the rugs as Yamurik continued to swear and spit while the two left the room. “Shut up,” I told the old man.
“Shut up, he says. This is my house. I built this place. You Lonireilans, you dog-milkers, you’ve got no respect for the proper ways of things. You, for example. Look, you’re dripping everywhere. A child, but they give you a spear and a name and you think your ass puffs gold dust.” He pointed his finger into my face and was about to go on, but I shoved his hand aside.
“There’s a woman outside. An old Narsalan.”
He waved as is shooing away a fly. “Tell her the poorhouses are in town, or they were till you lot cleared them out.”
“She says her name is Mire Storm.”
He stopped. His eyes went so big I thought they’d roll out of his head and bounce across the floor. So, he knew the name. Then, he grinned at me, a stain that spread across his face like grease. “Indeed?”
The tone, the expression; my stomach rolled over. I jerked my sword half from its scabbard and he drew back. Goaded by my power over him, I pressed in, but that disgusting grin didn’t leave his face even as he backed away.
“Going to cut me up? If the end of that steel leaves its scabbard, I suspect you’ll lose the arm before I lose a drop of blood.”
I looked behind me, sure she’d come in, but she wasn’t there. He was talking nonsense, taunting me. I snarled as I faced him again. “Who is she?”
He stopped at the back wall, a bookshelf filled with identical ledgers, a chart above it mapping seasons and auspicious moon-signs for planting, scoring, harvesting. His smirking grin washed around me like filth at my ankles, but my arm was stayed. Beneath my soaked wool, I sweated. He leaned closer to me. “Did she tell you what she is?”
His breath stank in my face. I felt I’d be sick. “She said ‘warrior of the Crade.’”
Yamurik’s smile slipped, but he studied my face, my eyes, as if scouring a text for some hidden phrase, some coded line. I grew impatient as the searching went on and spun, stepped away, let my sword fall back into its sheathe. My hand shook, so I balled it up inside the sodden cloak.
“Warrior of the Crade,” Yamurik repeated. “You don’t know what that means. Or do you?”
“No.” When I looked back at him, the same searching, curious expression was on his face. He almost looked as if he’d been talking to someone behind me, but there was no one there. “What does it mean?”
He was about to answer, but a sharp rap came at the door. I spun about and there she was, the old Narsalan. She grinned past me. “Greetings, Yamurik. Your fortunes have changed, but not your business, I see.”
“Business goes on apace. It cares not for who draws the taxes, just that they are drawn.” He brushed past me and took Mire Storm’s hand in an oddly gentle, pacific manner. He glanced over his shoulder at me. “You’ve already met my friends.”
“So I have.” The woman stared, like Yamurik, as if through me. “Some company you keep.”
“You can see it, then?”
Before she could answer his question, the clang of the evening bell outside tolled to signal the end of work. Yamurik’s laborers would be leaving off their scraping and fire-tending, their stirring and straining, forming of bricks of resinous opium and wrapping them with leaves. It would continue tomorrow, but my night was only beginning.
“I have to go.” I moved to the door and the pair moved to either side to let me pass. “Estevo will take over.”
“Have a lovely evening,” Yamurik called after me.
The rain had slowed. I went out again, through the garden and through the gates after issuing my to the night watchers. Ecena and some of rest joined me as we trouped up, into Onappa-ka and through.
Work was done, and the rain, though slacking, had driven everyone indoors. As we passed the main square where once I’d stormed Yamurik’s fine house, a taut buzz of conversation, low voices and dire words, issued from within the tabernas and the coffee houses where people spent their evenings after a day’s labor. Usually one could catch the whine of a fiddle or the stretched song of a traveling singer, but not tonight. As we marched past, a few furtive glances came from within the half-shuttered windows, and conversations lessened till we passed, subsiding like the rain.
We met others making their way to the fort. Inside, we took our habitual places in the damp courtyard, and soon the judicator from Avandeil appeared. He was fat, short, with a high white hat that gleamed below the too-bright alchemical lamps. He took a seat high on the dais that de Trastorces used for musters and speeches. Attendants stood at his hands, two recorders knelt at his feet with scrolls and pens. A slave with hair shorn to a fuzz, wearing fine clothes, held his wine; another, in matching garb, his staff of office. A personal guard contingent of Avandeilan soldiers in bright paper armor surrounded the platform.
It was near the end of the trial, which had gone on for three days since the judicator arrived. One by one, the last of the traitors were brought out. Some were Lonireilan, but most were Serehvani conscripts, like me. They were allowed to speak their piece, although most of them knew very little Lonireilan. A translator, a local magistrate reduced to the function, stood by, clutching his soft cap, his gray beard bobbing as he spoke. I strained to follow; it was most instructive, to have one man speaking Serehvani and another the same words, in Lonireilan. I was improving. Their words made my blood boil, but only because I hovered over them, let them pass beneath me. They made too much sense. They’d had the gall to do what I could not, to seize opportunity and fight against the ones who’d taken us. I cursed them, even as my lips moved along with theirs.
Beside me, the Tash stood, as she always did, staring, listless. She was something of a comfort. Not especially tall, nor strong, nor pretty, but she was steady. A silent presence, something to be depended on, if for little else than the presence itself. But, while I mouthed the words and tried to conjugate the verbs and assign one set of sounds to an image, an idea, an action that I had always known by another, she stirred. She touched my arm and I glanced at her.
Her face was browner than mine; she was from Opac province, west of where I was from, and the people there are hardy and live in a rainless land, herding sheep. Her hair was chopped short, since otherwise she wouldn’t cut it at all, and tucked beneath a tight head-wrapping of blue cloth, similar to mine. Her sunken eyes never met mine, but as I glanced into her face they flicked and blinked and I turned to follow her gaze.
The judicator was pronouncing judgement. Death. Beheadings, traitor’s deaths, with their heads to be taken far and dumped in a remote place for the carrion birds, their bodies to be thrown in a pit outside the walls and left to rot, as a lesson. It would be on the next night.
What the Tash was looking at though, where her gaze eventually led mine, was the gate of the fort. There, a single figure had entered. Mire Storm, head high, walked into the den of Lonireilan power in Serehvan, and her eyes sparked like flint and steel.
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