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There wouldn’t be another escape for a week or more. They left in waves, knowing the patrols would double for a few nights after a successful flight.
It didn’t take too long to discover which residents had run away. The next morning the rain came, turning the ice slick and deadly, the snow to mush. I’d been up all night. My head pounded and a white heat glowed just behind my eyes, flashing and pulsing. However, something had come over me. On seeing the evidence of Estevo’s new stripes, on watching the drowned night patroller die, I felt a strange desperation. My breath seemed high in my chest. My mind raced. I had to make something more of myself, or risk what Estevo had suffered, what the night watcher had. Fear sunk its hooks deeper, the barbs catching inside my skin and inside my head.
First, I saw to the Tash. She wasn’t at the house, but the residents said that medicos had come for her.
I stood on their threshold in my sodden, muddy uniform. A young man–a boy, really–stood inside the door, with his foot blocking it should I try to push my way in. The house was one of the low clay affairs that made up most of Onappa-ka. Inside was smoky and dim, and I glimpsed a younger boy staring back at me before someone in a thick shawl herded him back into the recesses.
“Last night,” I said, using my best Lonireilan accent, “a man was thrown in the river, just there.” I indicated the ruts of mud a short distance away that marked where we’d dragged him out. The boy leaned to look, but just a little. I doubted he could see from where he stood. His knuckles were white on the doorframe. “Did you hear anything before my companion came to you?”
He shook his head. He was dark haired and still a farmer’s deep sunbaked brown, despite the winter. His eyes were pale, like many Serehvani.
“I need you to tell me, boy.”
He shook his head again, hair flopping into his face. His silence told another story.
I made as if to enter the house. He moved to block me. My head shuddered inside from waves of pain and the move he made enraged me. I seized the front of his smock.
I would have dragged him into my face, bared my teeth, shouted. But, in that second, he took hold of my wrist and squeezed. He resisted me. It was then I realized we were about the same age, and though I was bigger than him, he was no weakling. A laborer’s muscles flexed in his forearm and the tendons rippled in his wrist. He was wiry, tough as an old bridle despite his years after long hours in the fields or the packing barn. For the first time, he met my gaze and I saw defiance. He wasn’t going to let me in. He wasn’t going to be intimidated.
My rage, my exhaustion and the gnawing terror that dogged my every step, came out.
In an instant, I bashed his head against the doorframe. I brought up a knee and he doubled over. Blood streamed. I barrelled into him, shoved my way into the house, and fell down atop him.
Someone inside screamed. The boy fought but it was too late. I hammered on him with my fists and then finally someone threw herself between us and I sat back, gasping, tears on my face.
A woman lay across him. She was older, perhaps his mother. One hand was up, warding me. The other arm ended in a stump with the sleeve tied closed with a bit of twine. She prayed and wept in Serehvani for me not to hurt him.
“Who,” I said, my voice a rasp, “killed that guard? Who crossed the river last night?”
The boy tried to rise, but she held him down. His mouth and nose were bloody. She wailed and answered “Ulak il-Rouk. Good Salat, please, leave him alone. It was Ulak and his family.”
I staggered up. My fists hurt, for I hadn’t put my gauntlets back on. I’d cut my knuckles on his teeth and the blood dripped from my fingers. It would get a rot if I didn’t see to it.
“And that is all? One family?”
“Please, sir,” she wailed.
“Just them. But they have help. We don’t know who, please believe me. There are those in Onappa-ka who take money to help others run away. ”
The boy wrapped her in his arm to shield her. “It’s true,” he said. “She doesn’t know. We don’t know. Leave us alone.”
“Good Salat, leave us alone, please lord,” she said. I don’t know if that last was directed at the god, or me. I believed them.
Back outside in the gray morning and the rain, Ecena and Ahdan waited where I’d left them with a few others from the troupe. Ecena raised her brows beneath her hood.
With a jerk of my head, I indicated the house. “Take them.”
Failure to report folk leaving Onappa-ka was a crime. Ecena and Ahdan and the others flooded through the front door, and I heard cries of terror from within as I left.
It didn’t take long to find the house. The door was unbarred. Many valuables were gone, and also food and clothing. They had left in a hurry.
Who helped them, I wondered? Who would dare?
For the next few nights, I planned. I mapped and examined patrol routes. I inspected buildings and vantage points. I rearranged schedules, traded duties, bargained for equipment. All this I did without telling Uruverres or anyone more than I had to. I constructed a snare, one that might take weeks to catch the game I hunted, but I was prepared. I would wait. A patient hunter always succeeds in the end. I changed my own duty to night watch and put Estevo’s squad on day-duty. He’d like that anyway.
And, this way, the credit would be all mine.
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