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It would be that night. I was certain.
I made my usual inspection before evening shift, then took a few trusted ones aside. The Tash, Hamed, Urnan, and Fahil. These were all Nabani or Opaci, ones like me who had been taken from the southern provinces when the Lonireilans invaded Serehvan. Hamed had started shaving his head after he got a wound on his scalp. Urnan was very pale and had a soft look that the army had not been able to destroy. He was a rich man’s son, and it was said he had joined readily. It was said he killed his own family when they fought back against a Lonireilan tribute-collector who came to their village.
Fahil was Opaci, like the Tash, and seemed to know the Tash from home. He looked like her, with course hair and a deep brown face. He was fearful and obedient, and I had beaten him once for cowardice during training. Since then he always fought hard, delivering the beatings rather than taking them. He was big, almost as big as me, strong and tough but inclined to gentleness that did not suit our company, The Hand of the Knife.
I took them to the storage shed on the outskirts of Yamurik’s compound, and made them wait outside while I retrieved my supplies. The bows went to Hamed and Urnan. I wanted the Tash and Fahil with me, in case things got rough. Urnan asked where I got the new equipment while I distributed the manacles and belt pouches.
“None of your concern. And I need it back.”
He tested the weight of the draw. “Tell me I get to shoot something.”
“Maybe.” Now that we were equipped, I sent the Tash ahead to make sure we wouldn’t be observed on our way out of the compound, back toward the river. She already knew the plan, but the others didn’t, so I explained as we closed up the shed and set off, following her footprints.
The snow fell in small, hard flecks. The wind gusted. It would be a good night for refugees, with poor visibility and distracted, uncomfortable night watchers. Many patrols would shirk their duties and hide out in the eaves of houses or woodpiles. More chances for our glory.
I almost fell in the river as the bank suddenly dropped away at my feet. I stumbled and caught myself. The river was white as the ground, the ice covered over with a thin sheet of snow. How thick was it, and where would they try to cross? I guessed I should have tried to find out before, but I knew where we had found the man in the river, and that seemed good enough to me. I motioned to my followers for quiet and turned along the river. We met the Tash not far from the house where she had sheltered. She gave a sign that the way was clear.
Blinking against the snow, I pointed to two vantage points where the hovels encroached on the river for Urnan and Hamed. “You’re to shoot at my signal. Not early. The goal is to capture the one smuggling people, not kill everyone.”
“I’ll aim for their legs,” Urnan said. “We can take them easily if they can’t run.” In my youth and inexperience, I thought it a reasonable compromise. And what would be the use of bows if we didn’t use them? He went to a ruined shack upriver of our position. Hamed went atop the lower roof of a house that had a second story. There, he could hide against the dark of the upper floor and keep a good eye out over much of the river. He and I worked out a sound, a whistle, that was to mean someone was coming.
It was my task to patrol the riverfront. A single, young guard would be as much bait as the patroller from before, except I would be ready. The Tash shadowed me at a distance. Fahil hid in the back of a house, within sprinting distance.
My error became clear very soon. With my teeth chattering, the wind gusting, flakes tapping against my hat and high leather collar, I could scarcely hear. Even with my eyes accustomed to dark, the clouds blocked even the silver moon’s light, and I had not brought a lamp or lantern, knowing it would only blind me. Now, I wished I had it. At least then the others might be able to see if the lamp went out.
I stalked up and down the riverbank. My tracks disappeared in the blowing snow, leaving only a long, narrow rut. Sometimes, I strayed from even that. I lost my path and ended up beside a house or stumbling on the riverbank again. The cold bit my face, chilled my nose and my gloved fingertips on the haft of my spear. The only sound was the tap-tapping of the snowflakes and the rustle of my long coat, shifting in the wind.
A shape appeared ahead of me, a dark figure in the snows. I slowed. My breath caught. My heart, hammering, rose higher in my chest, pushed against my throat. I readied my spear and approached, then raised my voice. “Who goes? Name yourself.”
I cursed and lowered my weapon. “Lick of shit, Urnan.”
He tromped closer, his pale face gone pink with the cold, hunkered low in his collar. “It’s freezing out here.”
“You’re on patrol. I shitlicking know it’s freezing. You’re supposed to be watching.”
“This is pointless. No one’s going to run from town on a night like this.” I shoved him with a push to the center of his chest. He slipped in the snow and fell, then arose in a rush, snarling. “Hey!”
“Hey?” I shoved him again, and again he fell. “I’m in charge, Urnan. Get back to your post.” So much for being trustworthy.
“We’re not even supposed to be out here.” He glared from where he sat on his backside on the ground. “Are we?”
This I couldn’t answer. Before I could make up some bluster, he went on.
“I’ll tell Uruverres. Then what?”
“Get back to the barracks.” My mind raced. If he squealed it would be an end to my plan. “Dry off. You’re relieved for the rest of the shift.”
His snarl twisted into a sly grin. “Thank you, sir.” He overemphasized the title.
I watched while he disappeared into the snow and dark, then stomped and lashed out with my spear at the snow. The gash I made in the powdery surface vanished as soon as I’d made it. I spun and tromped back along my path.
I’d have to deal with him. Until something happened, my plan would be in danger of his telling someone. If he told Ecena, she would surely look for a way to challenge my position. Uruverres might even give it to her. The thought crossed my mind that I should have killed Urnan, rather than send him back.
As I neared his old post by the ruined shack, Urnan returned. I saw his shape appear, just as it had before, in the blowing snow. I cursed and moved toward him, then slowed as he drew near.
He was much too large to be Urnan.
“Evening, soldier.” It was a man, with a clean-shaved face and bushy black brows. He wore heavy clothes and, in the wind and snow and dark, I saw a knife in his hand, his body turned to try to hide it from me. “Bad night to be out alone. Cold and snow. Should have kept your friend near.”
My stomach fell. Urnan had gone. His post stood unguarded, and we were surely too far for Fahil or Hamed to see.
Behind the man a family huddled. They watched nervously, holding packs high on their backs. Another man pointed them toward the river, then approached me along with the first.
“Bad night,” the smuggler said again. He took a step toward me. “Really bad.”
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