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Excerpt for Rivers of the Sky: An Epic Fantasy Misadventure by , available in its entirety at Smashwords















RIVERS OF THE SKY

An Epic Fantasy Misadventure

by M.A. Liguori















To those who dream, and to those whose dreams see more














a river to carry, cleanse, create

a mushroom, like a shield against the slash

maybe some mush

a dog, three-legged, clairvoyant to the receiver

so claims the boy with the aged face














CHAPTER 1



Adrian Renn stared down at his gloved hand. Beneath the worn doeskin lay a charred, crippling, and career-ending wound. He tried not to focus on it. Not now, at least.

It was another balmy day after the spring thaw, just before noontide and while the third-quarter moon still lingered in the soft blue sky. A field of low grasses fluttered lazily in the breeze, empty save the row of archery butts positioned at the northernmost end. Spectators lined the outskirts of the field, courtiers and ministers and noblemen all chattering and gossiping as they awaited the capital city’s annual contest of marksmanship.

Well, all except Adrian.

His eyes rose to the high marble terrace of the imperial tower, where the overweight prime minister and his slew of imperial toadies sat. Yes, there it was—the luxurious robe of rare firemouth silk hanging cheerfully from a gilded display stand, its fancy filigree lining and sleeves of studded garnets glittering under the blaze of the rising sun. It was a magnificent prize, a lord’s guerdon, but one that was meant solely for the victor of the contest. Adrian, however, intended to have it in his grasp long before that.

His gaze shifted from the robe to the prime minister, Lord Talrin Haroden, who sat on a wide throne-like chair and sipped overpriced wine from an overpriced goblet. He was draped in his usual formal attire: a horned ceremonial headdress, pearl-studded sash and shoes, and a heavy fall of gray robes that resembled a pachyderm’s hide. The people called him the Rhinoceros Lord because they loved him, and they loved him because he had protected and guided the people since the emperor’s untimely death left a successor too young to rule. Lord Haroden was, in truth, a benevolent and evenhanded leader, and that meant Adrian didn’t like having to steal from him. But the decision had already been made, and Adrian couldn’t back out now. Niall would never forgive him.

Where the hell is that little steward anyway?

Adrian studied the host of hangers-on that surrounded the prime minister. Now Niall was a difficult man to keep sight of—since he stood no taller than a woman and no wider than a boy—but Adrian’s eyes were still keen in his thirty-four years, and soon he spotted the little steward mingling with the other courtiers nearby. So affable and trustworthy the man appeared, and yet Niall, like most men of ambition, was nothing more than a weasel with an insatiable appetite for personal gain.

Now why would Adrian think that? Well, for one, the steward wanted more than half of the profit from the robe. That was simply outrageous. Sure, Niall may have secured their southern buyer and organized all the details of this little ploy, but it was Adrian who had to smuggle the garment out of the city and travel hundreds of miles to the south to sell the damn thing. It’s my neck on the block here, Adrian thought, and for that I deserve more.

He lowered his eyes from the tower and placed them back on the field. A company of mounted military officers cantered in from the south, hardened men strapped in thick plates of dark steel armor that protected every point and crevice from shin to hip to shoulder. They bowed their helmeted heads and waved to the crowd while perched in the saddles of their caparisoned chargers, powerful beasts arrayed in hues of warm chestnut to deep roan.

High Commander Krall Vyren was the last officer to appear. Even from a distance you could tell he was a massive man, a mountain of old muscle and grizzled hair, with bone-hard eyes and a crooked nose that had been broken more times than a lesser soldier might ever see battle. He sat astride a coal-black charger whose spiked barding matched the spikes of his own armor. Krall the Conqueror he was styled, but many called him Krall the Ashen or Cinereous Krall, or a handful of other names he’d acquired during his many years of military service. Point was, no other man inspired such reverence from the crowd—although in Adrian, he only inspired consternation.

A pair of robed courtiers bickered as they strolled in front of Adrian. “You can’t compete with these men, you clod,” the shorter one said. “Do you know how difficult it is to fire an arrow while moving at a full gallop? It’s not about sight or timing, no, a master marksman simply feels the precise moment to loose. It may look easy, but such skill requires a lifetime of—”

The men were gone then, and Adrian’s attention returned to the terrace. His head was beginning to throb. Maybe it was the heat, maybe it was the nerves, or maybe it was the odor of unwashed bodies mixed with all these cloying perfumes. He took a deep breath, thumbed the sweat from his brow, and adjusted the fit of his fancy satin outer jacket. Niall had given it to him so he could blend in with the other courtiers, but in truth, Adrian hated the garment. He hated it because it was an ugly and uncomfortable thing with oversized sleeves and garishly embroidered roundels, but more than that, he hated it because he could never afford it himself. No, these days he was nothing more than a penniless wretch who had to scrape miserably by.

But not for long.

Chargers galloped down the line, arrows twanged and thudded, tallymen made announcements, and the crowd erupted in cheers. This happened again and again until the afternoon sun finally began its descent over the western mountain line. It was then Adrian spotted a tendril of smoke drifting skyward near the base of the tower. It was a dark smoke, the kind produced by the dung of the whitest wolves of the farthest north, and yet, none of the spectators seemed to notice, not at first, not until the smoke thickened and thickened and nearly wafted into their faces. Even then, most onlookers simply nudged each other and murmured at what they saw. A few even cheered, thinking it was part of the event. But then more smoke appeared in different locations, more and more until the spectators were nearly surrounded by it. A woman screamed, and next Adrian knew panic had exploded through the crowd.

Frightened courtiers fled in all directions, shouting and shrieking and shoving their way forward. The guardsmen didn’t even try to restore order. No, they focused only on clearing a path for the water carriers, but the two-man teams who carried the massive wooden containers never stood a chance against the crowd. Bodies collided and wood splintered and water drenched the earth, and passing courtiers in sandals slipped and fell into the mud and called out for aid. It was a terrible commotion but also a rather exceptional ruse—and that was exactly what Adrian and Niall had intended. No fire, no harm, just smoke.

Adrian stepped back and stared up at the terrace. Lord Haroden made his escape through a raised door curtain. His councilmen and ministers all followed without any notion of etiquette. Hurry, Niall, Adrian thought. Hurry, goddamn it. At last the little steward appeared. He snatched the robe from the display stand, crept to the far side of the terrace, extended his arms over the marble balustrade, paused, and then opened his hands.

Adrian was running now, running toward the luxurious firemouth silk robe that was drifting down the western face of the tower. He did his best to keep an eye on it, but the mob of sweaty men and shrieking women did better to distract him. Move, move, get out of the way, goddamn it. A sudden gust carried the robe behind the walls of the imperial orchard. Adrian broke from the crowd and dashed along the tower. Faster and faster he went, faster and faster as he stormed inside the unguarded entranceway . . . and came to a sudden halt before a sea of blazing red blossoms.

No, no—what the hell is this? Apricot trees, rows of them, each pruned and trimmed and brushed with painstaking precision. The robe was lost among them. Damn it, I don’t have time to search every goddamn tree. But that was exactly what Adrian began to do. He went from one to the next, searching the base and boughs and blossoms, until he’d been through a dozen, then a score, then so many that he lost count. Where are you, where are you. Only after backtracking down several hedgerows and circling the same square three times did he finally spot the damn thing.

There it was, dangling from the canopy of a twenty-footer whose branches were gnarled and twisted and covered in toothy, ovate leaves. Easy climbing for a child, sure, but what about a man with only one usable hand? Adrian frowned. Is this some god’s cruel jest? Making a disabled man climb a goddamn tree.

No time for self-pity. The robe was nearly his.

Adrian grasped a bough with his good hand and planted his feet on any knot and latent bud he could find. Up and up and up he went, a slow and difficult ascent, which only grew worse when a honey bee began buzzing in his ear. Like a fool Adrian swatted at it, and like a fool his balance faltered and he slid down a painful four or five feet. Idiot, what is wrong with you? He remained there for a moment, catching his breath and taking in the sweet-smelling blossoms that flourished all around him.

He cursed the apricots for being early bloomers, then up and up and up he went. It was another slow and difficult ascent, but with care and patience he reached the upper limbs, seized the robe by its trimming, and gave a gentle pull. The damn thing wouldn’t budge. He tried again, harder. No use. He found another foothold and climbed a bit higher. Another bee zipped past him, or maybe it was the same one, who the hell knew, but Adrian ignored it this time. He leaned onto a branch that groaned under his weight, and with gentle fingers he unhooked the robe and brought it down to his chest.

Got you.

It was just as beautiful up close, but it was also divinely soft and flawlessly stitched. Any sericulturist worth his salt would tell you just how extraordinarily rare a single firemouth silkworm was, never mind how many were needed to create a garment of this size. That thought alone made Adrian smile as he unslung the haversack from his shoulder, stuffed the robe inside, and slid down the tree until the ground rose up with a thud. He made his way out of the orchard and back into the crowd. The exit from the palace district lay ahead. Don’t stop, Adrian told himself. Beyond the gates is the city itself, and after that is—

“Where are you going with that?”

The voice was cold and deep and dangerously calm. Adrian’s heart shot up his throat. He refused to turn; he simply ignored what he heard and kept moving, doing his best to blend in with the other stragglers from the mob. The question came again. Louder this time, more forceful. Adrian ignored it a second time. Don’t stop, Adrian, don’t stop.

An arrow screamed past his ear, striking a wooden arbor no more than an arm’s length away.

Adrian froze. For a long moment he simply stared at the arrow. This wasn’t a poorly crafted thing; no, it was an expert’s missile, as evidenced by the sleek birch shaft and decorative motifs and expensive eagle-feather fletching. Never had Adrian come so close to being struck, not once in his three years of military conscription. And yet, he knew the arrow was intended only as a warning. He also knew that if he took another step, the next one would not be.

Slowly, ever so slowly, Adrian turned.

High Commander Krall Vyren rose from the saddle of his charger, arms outstretched, crimson horn bow drawn, black-tipped arrow nocked and pointed.

Adrian lowered his eyes. His life was over. Done. The end. Lord Haroden may have been an evenhanded ruler, but such blatant theft would undoubtedly come at a hefty cost . . . and that cost would be a swift sentence followed by an even swifter punishment.

But no, a careless runner in oversized gray robes slammed into the crupper of Krall’s charger. The horse bucked and whinnied, the high commander lurched forward, and the arrow snapped beneath the weight of his armor. Krall fought to regain control of the beast, and while doing that he growled, “Don’t you dare move, thief.”

“I won’t,” Adrian said, then turned and bolted.

He ran and ran and didn’t stop running, and every passing moment he feared an arrow would pierce him in the back. But it never did, and somehow, by some ridiculous measure of good fortune, the next avenue he turned down brought him directly before the gatehouse of the palace district. The exit was so close—but the giant double-leafed doors were already groaning to a close. Adrian’s legs pumped harder. No, no, no, no, no. The groaning deepened as the gap between the doors narrowed. I’m not going to make it, I’m not going to make it.

BOOM. The doors slammed shut—not a moment after Adrian had flung himself through. By the gods that was close. Too damn close.

Adrian’s doeskin boots pounded down the main avenue’s uneven cobblestones. He glanced back and saw sentries on the parapet shouting at him to halt. Moments later a sally port opened and a company of mounted soldiers came roaring out. High Commander Krall Vyren was in the vanguard, shouting orders and waving a quirt and looking rather furious.

Goddamn it, the bastard’s not giving up.

Adrian cut through an alleyway and burst into the busy market district, and suddenly he was dodging hawkers and rug peddlers and acrobats and entertainers of all kind. Men gasped and grunted at his rudeness, while women started in surprise. Dogs loped and barked all around him, which caused pigeons to squawk and take to feather. From inside butcher stalls, burly men grunted and mallets pounded. Street urchins dashed this way and that. Adrian dodged a handful of them and also a barefoot pregnant woman, but the portly fellow with the shoulder pole he never saw coming. He slammed into the man with a heavy thud, then stumbled headlong into a stallholder. Wood cracked and rattan snapped and figs and fruits of all sizes and smells and textures flew into the air. Adrian sprang back to his feet and continued running, ignoring the curses from the angry merchants behind him.

The crowds eventually thinned as Adrian exited the market district. He continued to run even though his calves burned with cramp and his lungs begged for relief. Don’t stop, you’re almost out. The North Gate rose above him, the city’s central exit, its massive jutting towers clad in stone and perched on a solid foundation of loess and tamped earth. The gates were still open. Listless sentries barely spared a glance as Adrian dashed under an enormous archway. Darkness gobbled him up only to spit him back into the light, and suddenly the grand city of Scarlet Sun was behind him.

I did it. I’m out of the city. By the gods, I’m out.

Without stopping Adrian stripped off his fancy outer jacket in favor of his homespun and inconspicuous tunic and trousers. Around him the urban sprawl soon faded into a more idyllic view of suburban developments—taverns and hostelries and outbuildings and workshops that clung to the city’s massive outer wall. Porters and draymen clogged the main roadway, the axles of their carts groaning under the weight of their loads. Adrian maneuvered around the yokes of oxen and teams of draft horses and fled through an open stand of gray pines. Behind him, high above in the city’s watchtowers, clappers clacked and conch horns wailed as sentries raised the hue and cry.

The robe was his, but Adrian was now a wanted man.















CHAPTER 2



The Dusty Daisy was a tired old brothel that stood on a tired old hill two miles from Scarlet Sun’s outer wall. It certainly wasn’t the most inviting of places—not with its broken roof tiles and weathered façade and partly rotted mortise and tenon joints—but to Adrian it had served as a welcome respite after his wife’s death some years ago.

He lowered his head and sneaked past the tired old gatekeeper, careful to avoid familiar eyes. Inside, the common room was crowded with patrons who were laughing and shouting and downing huge gulps of flavorful wine from earthenware cups. Adrian hopped over a sozzled fool who lay curled up on the floor, then weaved around a serving girl who nearly spilled a tray of jellied meats on him. He paused to ogle a half-dressed bawd emerging from the private screens beyond the common area, only to be distracted by the cheers of the rowdy gamblers in the rear dens.

The proprietor was a short fellow with a short temper, and right now he was shouting at his bruisers and his servers and whoever else set him off. Adrian usually found the man terribly obnoxious, but today he was glad for the distraction. It allowed him to reach the stairs unnoticed, though his ascent was a bit clumsy since his legs still ached from his frantic escape from the city. Sure, Adrian was exhausted, but he couldn’t stop to rest. Not yet. Bands of mercenaries and companies of soldiers were surely being organized to hunt down the fugitive. The very thought unnerved him. He wasn’t supposed to be seen—he’d assured Niall that he wouldn’t be seen—but he was seen, so now Adrian was alone and without supplies and standing at the doorstep of a four-month journey. He needed help, and he could think of only one person who could help. Jessamine.

He rounded the corridor and approached the first private chamber on the left. Vacant. Maybe she was still downstairs? Adrian moved to the balustrade to overlook the rowdy common room below, his eyes focusing on the bawds. Some were comely, others were curvy, and a few were both, but not one was Jessamine. Where are you, goddamn it.

“You look in need of company.”

Adrian turned. A woman approached, dark of hair and clad in little more than a red chemise. When she joined him near the balustrade, he couldn’t help but notice how tall she was—even barefoot she still managed to stand eye to eye with Adrian. Not that Adrian was ever the tallest man in a room, but he usually stood above most women.

“Is Jessamine here?” Adrian asked. “She’s not in her room.”

She frowned playfully at that, pretending to be insulted. Her face wasn’t unattractive by any means, though she would’ve been prettier with a smaller nose and without those dark circles around her eyes. “She’s with a client. Some wealthy robe from the imperial palace, a secretary to a high minister or some other.” Her bangles clinked as she motioned to a private room on her right.

Adrian bowed his head and headed for the room. The bawd called after him. “I said she’s with someone.”

Adrian ignored that. He raised the door curtain and went inside.

Jessamine stood in the center of the room before a large wood-framed featherbed. At the sound of his footfalls she turned. Tresses of brown hair flowed past her shoulders like a shimmering cascade, framing a narrow face and eyes as warm as autumn leaf litter. Though she was a pleasing enough sight from the neck up, Adrian couldn’t help but stare lower, at the lovely curves accentuated by the tight floral slip she wore.

A man sat up from the featherbed, bare-chested and potbellied but still wearing his trousers, thank the gods. He frowned at the visitor, but made no move other than to scratch his hairy chest with a pair of hairy fingers. His rheumy, drunken eyes followed Jessamine as she stepped away to cover herself with a silk robe. He seemed disappointed to see her fully clothed again, but Adrian couldn’t fault him for that.

Jessamine turned to Adrian and puckered her lips. “You’ll have to come back, handsome.”

Adrian motioned her closer. His voice was low and grave. “I need to talk to you now. I’m leaving the city, I’m leaving the north.”

She stared at him for a long moment, so long he wondered if she was just going to outright deny his request. But then she turned and padded back to her client. She placed his silk outer robe and scarf and pearl-studded shoes by the bedrail and bent down to pick up his sash and tunic. “Dress yourself. We’re done.”

Adrian had seen pomegranates that were less red than this man’s face. “We’re done? No, no, no, you don’t tell me when we’re done, I tell you when we’re done. Do I need to remind you of just who I am? I’m the assistant secretary to the Minister of—”

The tunic landed on his face, silencing him. “I know who you are,” Jessamine said. “You still have to leave.”

Adrian couldn’t help but smile at her. Such a spirited little lady.

The man huffed and puffed for a while, but in the end he pulled on his robe and shoes and fastened his scarf. He looked a bit more distinguished in his attire, certainly an improvement over the paunchy old frog he was without. He stomped to the door like a spoiled child, glaring at Adrian the whole way. Adrian replied with a smirk that surely did nothing but infuriate him more. Wasn’t the shrewdest move but Adrian wasn’t about to let some imperial lickspittle throw his weight around.

The nobleman gone, Jessamine was left shaking her head. “I shouldn’t have done that. That wasn’t some no-name fool, Adrian, that was—”

He cut her off. “I need coin, and I need a horse—and not some sorry nag, I need a courser capable of riding all the way to the southern coast. Please, Jessa, I need your help.”

Jessamine threw her arms around Adrian and kissed him. Her lips tasted of citrus and cinnamon, and so comforting was her embrace that he couldn’t find the strength to pull away. Adrian could feel his baser urges overbearing the practicality of reason. Jessamine was well trained in the art of lovemaking, which meant she knew just how to touch him, just how to move her body against his. When their lips parted she purred in his ear, her hands moving from his shoulders to his chest and stomach, then lower to his—

Adrian pushed her away.

Her face sank into a childlike pout, but at last she seemed to grasp the urgency of the situation. “You really are leaving.”

“I have to. I’m sorry.”

She stared at him for a long moment, then without a word she went over to open a trunk beside her bed, pulling out a leather purse and tossing it to him. Adrian untied the thongs and looked inside. Strings of coin, two hundred shimmering ounces at least. She also fastened him in a lightweight traveling cloak, and handed him a sheathed knife. By the gods she was good to him, and he told her that.

“You’ve always been my favorite,” she replied.

Adrian believed her. Why shouldn’t he? He wasn’t considered an uncomely man; no, he had a look that was both rugged and playful, along with a head of thick russet hair that complemented perfectly the richness of his eyes. And though he could stand to be a little taller and perhaps hold a little more muscle, he generally had little to dislike about himself—well, except for his burned hand of course.

“The stable master recently took in a charger,” she told him. “Needs to be groomed and re-shod, but it was once a soldier’s horse, well trained in single-handed commands and subtle aids.”

“What about the stable master? He won’t be happy.”

“Don’t fret over that oaf, I’ll handle him.” Her dark eyes blinked, and a frown slowly found her face. “Adrian, what’s happened to you, what’s wrong?”

He sighed. “Listen to me, Jessa, tell no one I was here. Do you understand?”

“Were you not seen coming in?”

“Just that client of yours and some bawd, but neither knows who I am.”

Jessamine nodded. Her fingers moved down to raise the sleeve of his tunic and touch his single gloved hand. She never teased him about it, nor did she ever ask him to remove it, not even during the warmest summer nights. Few had ever shown him such consideration. That must’ve been why he favored her. He favored her and now he wished he didn’t have to leave, but soon enough imperial guards would be crawling all over this brothel, questioning the patrons and panders and of course the proprietor. Adrian had to get out of here, and he had to do it quickly. “The horse,” he said. “Please, Jessa.”

Without a word she led him down the stairs and into the stable yard. A young groom worked quickly to have the horse curried and saddled and ready to ride. It was a long-bodied beast with a slight swayback, dun in color save the black of its fetlocks and dorsal stripe. The grooms helped Adrian into the saddle since he was tired and weak and long out of practice. The horse adjusted immediately to his weight, as if Adrian had been its master for years. “I think I’m meant for this horse,” Adrian said. He patted the beast’s flank with his good hand, then reached up to take the reins. “Yes, I can feel it. We’re going to be together for a long time.”















CHAPTER 3



In a week the horse was dead.

It was so sudden, the way those nasty boils broke out all over its body. The worst was that Adrian knew how to treat the poor thing, but being a fugitive and all, he couldn’t just head into town and visit the local druggist’s shop. What then could he do? Nothing. And as he did nothing, the boils continued to spread and the horse grew weaker and weaker until one afternoon it simply collapsed. Adrian ended the beast’s suffering by opening its throat with the knife Jessamine had given him. Well, he meant to end its suffering, but sadly, it took a long goddamn time for the beast to die, and all Adrian could do was sit there and listen to the poor thing wheeze and wheeze before death finally decided to take it away.

The next morning Adrian did his best to skin the carcass. It was large and heavy and unwieldy, and when he began his cuts, blood and gore spilled all over the place, and when cutting out the liver, he accidentally cut into the bile duct which further made a mess of things. Still, he managed to salvage a few good portions, and using a bit of tinder fungus he prepared a fire and cooked the meat, then ate a hearty meal and smoked the rest for later. And although the following days of travel left him tired and footsore, he never once went hungry. Still, it was difficult to ignore the lure of a roadside inn, difficult even though good sense told him that imperial riders and mercenaries and informants were surely swarming these places. Lord Haroden must’ve promised quite a sum for the foolish thief who stole the imperial robe.

And so Adrian had no choice but to sleep in the wild, under the protection of the pines and broadleaves and surrounding foothills. His days were filled with sunshine and birdsong, his nights alive with wolf howls and katydid calls and the occasional high-pitched wail of a puma. Three years of military service had taught him how to survive well enough, but the weight of solitude was difficult to bear, and even the lush springtime landscape wasn’t enough to lift that weight. Still, there was one small bit of solace to hold onto. Out here, Adrian was neither an impoverished wretch nor a wanted criminal. Out here, he was just a man. Well, a man with a burned and deformed hand. But a man nonetheless.

He traveled along the outskirts of the main road, avoiding imperial checkpoints and post stations and all the settlements that appeared every dozen or so miles. Sometimes this required him to traverse difficult terrain: dark forests filled with tortuous paths, upland slopes fraught with poisonous flora, and stony ledges with steep drop-offs. He mildly sprained an ankle after slipping on a patch of uneven gravel, and he was nearly bitten by an adder whose nest was unintentionally disturbed. Once he awoke with strange rash marks on his chest, so he slept off the ground on a suspended bed constructed out of branches and grasses that were tied together using the gut salvaged from that poor dead horse.

His thoughts often drifted to the stolen imperial robe in his haversack. Funny how all that fine silk and fancy filigree and rows of studded garnets meant nothing out here. The natural world cared not for material possessions. Sadly, Adrian once had all the coin and property and purpose a man could ever want in life, but that was before the accident with his hand. Something good taken away was much worse than never having it at all.

Supplies dwindled as the days passed, and hunger soon took precedence over other concerns. He paused from his travels to forage for grasses and greens to supplement what little horsemeat he had left. He dug for dandelion roots, plucked blades of goosegrass, picked fresh knotweed by the riverside, netted small red crabs that scuttled along the banks, and collected limpets that clung to the underside of rocks. It was the very bloom of spring, and Adrian was thankful for that.

The waterway inevitably led him to a quaint lakeside village. Steeply pitched thatch-roofed houses rose out of the surface of the water, their back ends supported by hardwood stilts. Nearby, flat-bottomed boats drifted lazily across shallow waters, manned by sun-beaten fishermen equipped with fish gaffs and barbed hooks and sinkers and nets. From the sides of their boats dark-feathered cormorants plunged into the water to snap up fish, although their necks were tied with a cord to prevent the seabirds from swallowing their catch.

The simplicity of a fisherman’s life warmed Adrian’s heart. Sure, they were poor and overworked and overtaxed and occasionally they went hungry, but they were generally unfettered by the daily pressures of urban life. It certainly seemed a respectable way to spend one’s days, and certainly one in which most men found comfort. But Adrian wasn’t like these common folk. He couldn’t bear the thought of never returning to his former life of prosperity and privilege. He wanted more for himself. He deserved more. And this robe was the key to obtaining it all.

Farther along was a private property of ramshackle longhouses rising over rows and rows of rectangular garden plots. Vegetables. So many vegetables. Adrian’s eyes widened at all the colors and textures. Don’t be a fool, he told himself. You’ve already stolen enough, haven’t you?

But Adrian couldn’t help himself; his horsemeat had run out, and he was tired of eating grass and tiny crabs. He moved a little closer. So many delicious choices. Spinach, beetroot, coriander, sweet potatoes, cabbages, artemesia, broad beans, and more. He just wanted a little taste. Why not? Dawn had not yet broken, and no one was around. Besides, it wasn’t like stealing a goddamn lamb. He just needed a few handfuls—enough to keep himself nourished for a day or two. He saw purple-tinged rutabagas and colorful aubergines and tender sorrel. Red amaranth and purple mustard plant and tomatoes so ripe their glossy flesh looked about to burst. He saw gourds, sugar cane, taro corms, barberry, onions and garlic and sword beans and—

The ground vanished. Adrian pitched forward, and darkness rose to swallow him whole.

Thud. He landed on his hands and knees, hard, so hard he was sure he’d twisted or fractured something. But no, as the pain began to ebb, he realized the dirt wasn’t as solid as he thought. It wasn’t packed earth—it was mud, thick and wet and . . . no, wait a moment. Adrian cringed from the stench. It wasn’t mud at all. What the hell is this?

An ordure pit, he realized, then bent over and vomited.















CHAPTER 4



He was covered in it. Excrement. On his hands, his face, his clothes—even in his mouth. Maggots clung to his hair. Flies buzzed all around him. The smell was like a hot acrid gas burning his nostrils. I have to get out of here. Now. Adrian staggered to his feet. Earthen walls rose above his head, jutting and uneven but just low enough for the average man to climb out of. But Adrian was not your average man. No, his burned and blackened hand was too crippled by pain and weakness to use, and his good hand wasn’t strong enough to pull himself out alone. Desperation seized his heart. Oh no, oh no, oh no. I have to get out of here. He wanted to shout for help but he was a felon and a fugitive—what if the wrong ears heard him?

He tried again and again to climb out, but the more he tried the more difficult it became. Self-control swiftly vanished. He called for help. No one came. Adrian began to shout, louder and louder until his voice became a painful rasp, and when that happened he kicked the wall so hard the pain made him wince, and then he punched and clawed at it until every ounce of strength oozed from his body. Then he fell back on his rump, splashing onto the floor of excrement.

The haversack slipped from his shoulder and landed beside him. The leather thong loosened; the studded sleeves of the firemouth silk robe spilled out. Adrian didn’t care. He despised the stupid thing right now. Here I am . . . the most wanted criminal in the north, trapped like an animal in a pit of waste.

He raised his head to gaze at the sky. Clouds, fat and white and billowy, drifted lazily overhead, as if to remind him just how carefree and joyful the world was. This was a cruelty of divine proportions. Yes, only the heavenly deities could’ve arranged something so heinous. Surely they were laughing at him, laughing and laughing and laughing, and so Adrian cursed at them, cursed all the goddamn deities he could think to name—but they didn’t stop laughing. “I hear you, goddamn it. I hear you laughing at me. DAMN YOU ALL, STOP—”

“No one’s laughing.”

Adrian froze. He didn’t see until now—a man standing above, peering over the edge of the pit. No wait, two men. The first was enormously tall and enormously thick, a bearded beast of a man who looked like he could strangle a hound with a single hand. Brown locks of shaggy hair poured messily down his head, partially concealing a pair of cheekbones that were rigid as fists. The second man was beardless and more compact, with a half-lidded, expressionless face and only a few wisps of dark hair clinging to his head. When Adrian spoke he directed himself to that one. “I’m trapped,” he said. “Can you help a good fellow out of a scrape?”

Neither man responded.

Looking closer now, Adrian saw the resemblance in the faces of these two. Both shared the same deep-set and downturned eyes, the same frowning mouths, and the same wide and bulbous noses. Obviously they were brothers. “Please help me.”

Again, no response. What is wrong with these two? Adrian contemplated a more diplomatic approach. He offered up a fake name, introducing himself as a minor emissary on an imperial mission for an administrator of Scarlet Sun. “I left my entourage to enjoy a jaunt through these lovely gardens when I stumbled into this pit,” he explained. “A careless move, I know, but I injured my wrist in the fall, and I can’t seem to climb out. Would you be kind enough to help? Your assistance will not go unrewarded, I promise you that.”

The larger of the two gave a low growl. He lifted an arm to rest something against his shoulder. At first Adrian thought it was a crude farmer’s tool, like a handheld hoe or harrow, but no, it wasn’t any of those at all . . . it was a cleaver.

The hackles rose on the back of Adrian’s neck. He was neither a coward nor untrained with a weapon, but something about the shaggy-haired man unnerved him. The bastard was huge for one, his bare chest and shoulders corded with muscle and covered in hair, like a bear standing on two legs. Also, his weapon wasn’t just some dull and dinted thing. It was a massive two-handed cleaver, likely used on the largest of animals, and probably so heavy that Adrian couldn’t wield it properly with just his one good hand.

“Your boots, your belt, and your traveling cloak,” the shaggy-haired man demanded.

Adrian swallowed a throat lump. “You’re robbing me?” Still, as awful as that sounded, it also came as a bit of relief. Common brigands—yes, that was all these men were. They don’t know who I am. That meant the robe was safe, so long as he kept it hidden—wait, where was the robe? Oh, there, half buried in excrement. Can they see it? No, it’s too dark down—

“Your bag there, too,” the other brigand said. Unlike the sonorous growl of the shaggy one, the second man’s voice was softer and calmer, but by no means was it any less threatening.

Adrian didn’t move. “Not this. There’s nothing of value inside it.”

“Open it.”

Adrian bent down and untied the already loosened thong. He paused. “It’s just a robe, an old and tattered robe. Please, it has no value beyond my own sentiment.”

“Show me.”

Adrian pulled the robe from the sack. He held it up. By some stroke of luck, the deep reddish light of dusk managed to mask the color of the garment. Even Adrian had a hard time seeing its true magnificence, and he was holding the damn thing.

The shaggy-haired man dismissed it with a wave. The other brigand wasn’t so quick. He stared at the robe quietly for a time, then the faintest hint of a smile touched his otherwise emotionless face. “This is no emissary. I believe we’re looking at a wanted man.”

The shaggy one turned. “Who is he?”

“The imperial notice I read to you, do you not remember?” He spoke to the shaggy-haired man in a voice that seemed tired of explaining things. “They’re hung at every city gate and every roadside inn from here to the southern border. The roads are swarming with soldiers, and travelers are being checked at every city gate.” His dark eyes refocused on Adrian. “There’s quite a reward for your capture.”

“Oh, how much?” Adrian was genuinely curious.

“Three thousand strings of coin and two bolts of silk from the prime minister’s own private wardrobe. The whole northern realm is looking for the thief who ran off with the imperial robe.”

Adrian nodded. “Well, too bad a meager pair of brigands won’t be able to claim such a reward.”

The two men didn’t respond to that; they simply glared at him. Adrian wasn’t sure who unnerved him more. The shaggy-haired one certainly had a look of danger about him, especially with that giant frame. But the other one—while more husky than tall—seemed to carry an air of authority about him, as though he was the one who made the decisions here. Clearly he was a man of intellect, clever and patient and difficult to read.

“We’ll take the robe and sell it elsewhere then,” the shaggy-haired one said.

“You’ll get nothing if you do that,” Adrian countered. “Do you think you can just stroll into any city and sell Lord Haroden’s most luxurious treasure? No, you’d be arrested for collusion. Only I know where to sell it, and only I know whom to sell it to. The robe is worthless without me.”

The husky brigand’s face darkened at that. It was so subtle that even Adrian, who considered himself quite adept at reading others, barely saw it. “Allow me to offer another way,” Adrian said. “A better way. Serve as my escort to the south and I’ll reward you with a share of the profit. What do you have to lose? You’re both outlaws, am I right? Both forced to live the life of hardship because of some unjust regulation. If we work together, only the imperial government stands to lose.”

The husky one didn’t speak for quite some time. At last he said, “You have a buyer waiting?”

Adrian hesitated.

“Tell me or you stay in this wretched hole.”

“In Swallowtail, yes. A privateer with a crooked eye and horseshoe mustache who answers to the name of Broden.”

“How much is promised from this buyer of yours?”

“Five thousand ounces of gold. Enough to buy fifty households, one hundred plots of land, two hundred servants, and the best guard dogs around.”

“We want half, or we kill you and take our chances with the robe.”

A terrible deal, but Adrian was in no position to bargain. “Fine. Agreed.”

The husky man nodded curtly. “My surname is Zerei, my given name is Eldred. My brother here is Olan. Olan’s going to help you out of there. Go on, you heard me.”

The shaggy-haired Olan gave a snort of disgust. “He’s covered in dung.” Nevertheless, he came over and knelt at the edge of the pit, then lowered a hand that was as large as a vinegar keg. Adrian grabbed it and was hauled onto solid ground. He spent a few moments uselessly wiping the filth from his clothes. “I’m going to the river, I need to wash up.”

Neither man let him pass. Both simply stared down at him as if planning to bash his head in. Adrian froze. Stupid, stupid, stupid! What kind of an idiot trusts a pair of outlaws?

“First you must come with us,” Eldred said.

The two men led Adrian into a woodland copse that was thick with broadleaves and yellow poplars and bristly bushes. A group of white-necked jackdaws cawed from the limbs of a gnarled deadwood, but at the approach of the three men they spread their glossy black wings and took flight. Nightfall was quickly descending, and the faces of the outlaws had all but vanished in the darkness. Fear twisted Adrian’s gut and stole the moisture in his mouth. He tried to hide it, but it must’ve been so plainly written on his face.

They set him down on a flat bank of earth surrounded by a wall of thicket as twisted as a serpent’s body. The shaggy man began rustling through small pouches and packs, likely his little cache of stolen items. Adrian turned his head and looked up. Stars shimmered softly overhead, framing the waxing crescent moon and a thin veil of wispy clouds. A breeze careened through the nearby trees, while a loon’s distant call complemented the soft tranquility of cricket song. It was a beautiful night that could only have followed a beautiful day, and certainly it didn’t seem like a day in which Adrian might die. He wished he knew what these two were planning, but Eldred had gone off somewhere, and Olan was gathering stones and digging a shallow pit. Before long a small cook fire flashed to life.

No one spoke. Olan brought out a haunch of salted mutton and placed it over the flames. The smell was heavenly, but the twisting ache in Adrian’s stomach was hell. When had he last eaten? He’d lick the excrement from his hair just for one bite of that mutton.

“Are you going to kill me?”

Olan downed a huge swig from his gourd-bottle, then corked the top and belched. He had the soaked stare of a man who enjoyed his wine, and something told him that Olan could outdrink a thirsty bear. “No.”

“Then what is your brother doing?”

Olan took a bite of the meat. Grease dripped into the dark curls of his beard. “Preparing the serum.”

“What sort of serum?”

“To see if you’re telling the truth.”

Adrian frowned. The last thing he wanted to do was be the subject of some strange man’s concoction. It sounded like a heap of rubbish, yet Adrian wasn’t foolish enough to admit that aloud, so instead he asked, “Are you two some sort of occultists?”

“Not me.”

“Then what is it you do?”

His mouth was full. “Rob people.”

“Well, no, I mean what did you do before . . .?”

“Ox butcher.”

“That explains the cleaver,” Adrian said. “Can I have a taste of that meat?”

Turning, the shaggy man glared with red-rimmed eyes. “You talk too much.” The eyes moved up and down, examining Adrian slowly and pointedly. “Where’s your other glove?”

“I only have one.”

Eldred returned and crouched beside Adrian. In his hand was an old mortar and pestle, which he used to crush and mix several different herbs and reagents together. Then he dumped the trituration into an earthenware bowl that was filled with a strangely glutinous liquid.

“What is that—blood?” Adrian asked.

“Snakelion blood. Do you know what a Snakelion is?”

“Do you need to ask? Snakelion. A lion’s body with a snake’s head, am I correct?”

“Sarcasm is the sanctuary of the weak,” Eldred replied. “A Snakelion has many forms and many features, but always it possesses a leonine body covered in imbricated scales. They’re found only in the far southern wastelands, where they sift through the black dunes and strike unwary travelers. Not uncommon to find men propped in the sand with their limbs torn from their sockets.”

“How gruesome,” Adrian said dryly. “What are you doing with its blood? Are you an herbalist?”

Eldred paused from his work to gaze flatly at him, as if offended by the amateur remark. “I’m a pyromantic examiner who specializes in the arcane principles of mendacity. You see, a Snakelion’s blood is the very crux of my procedures. To yield this powerful concoction it must be mixed with the ancillary herbs of star anise and milfoil and wormwood, along with the hind legs of nineteen male grasshoppers.”

“Nineteen male grasshoppers? Must be a pain to scrounge the woods searching for those things. How do you even know which are males?”

“Males lack the rod that the females use to deposit eggs into the soil. It’s called an ovipositor. Also, only the males make that distinctive chirrup sound—they do so by rubbing their hind legs against their wings. Fascinating, I know. Any other senseless questions or observations before we begin?”

“Nineteen’s a strange number. Why not make it twenty? Seems a much more fitting figure. Have you ever found a male grasshopper with only one hind leg? I can imagine how difficult it must be to make that chirrup sound, don’t you think?”

“Are you finished?”

“Yes. No, wait. What exactly are you doing?”

“The veracity of every man’s intentions is revealed by the Celestial Deity of Skyfire. If you are telling the truth, the ingestion of this concoction will reveal warmth and tranquility to the eye. Do you understand?”

“Yeah, you want me to consume a bunch of bloody grasshopper legs.”

Eldred’s face softened just a touch. “Look, it’s plain that you are a skeptical man. Most intelligent minds are. But the revelation of truth is achieved regardless of the recipient’s beliefs. Now take off that glove and put your hands together.”

When Adrian didn’t obey, Eldred motioned once again. “The glove, I said take it off.”

“No.”

Olan leaned close and pressed something sharp under Adrian’s chin. The ox cleaver. “I would love to hear you say ‘no’ again.” His deep-set eyes were colder than murder.

“Better remove it,” Eldred insisted.

“You don’t understand. It’s not—”

Eldred grabbed Adrian’s wrist, hiked up the sleeve of his tunic, and yanked off the glove. His eyes widened. “What in the . . .?”

It was a charred hunk of necrotic flesh, black and withered and sloughing eschar from the tips of the fingers to the middle of the forearm. The old and torn bandages wrapped around it offered little in the way of concealment. Adrian withdrew his hand at once, hiding the disfigurement beneath the folds of his traveling cloak.

“Did you see that,” Olan blurted. “It’s blacker than the devil’s bunghole.”

“What the hell happened to you?” Eldred asked.

Adrian clenched his jaw. “What difference does it make? You wanted to see my hand, and now you have. Don’t touch it. I’m warning you, you will not like what happens if you do.”

“It’s diseased,” Olan said. “Tell him to put the goddamn glove back on.”

Eldred handed the glove back to Adrian. “Fine, no matter, we’ll continue with you wearing it. Here, sit up. Straighter. Now bring your hands together. Like this, yes, that’s it.” He poured the foul liquid into Adrian’s cupped palms, made him repeat a string of mumbo jumbo, and told him to drink but not to swallow.

Adrian grimaced at the vile taste. He wanted to spit it out, but he knew Eldred would just make him drink it again, so he kept his mouth shut and breathed through his nose and tried not to taste anything. A foulness rose in his stomach, one that didn’t hesitate to inch up his throat. How disgusting. How absolutely disgusting. He pushed down the urge to vomit, and waited and waited and waited . . . and just when he couldn’t wait any longer, Eldred told him to spit it into the fire. “Do it quickly.”

The liquid sizzled when it touched the flames, producing a blast of heat that punched Adrian’s face like an open furnace. He shut his eyes and leaned over, retching and spitting and spitting and retching, yet he couldn’t get rid of the taste. Nothing satisfying about blood and dirt and grasshopper legs, no matter how hungry you were.

When his eyes reopened, Adrian saw the flames licking and lapping the air. It was hard to discern at first, but beneath the flickering oranges and reds and yellows . . . he glimpsed another color, an undertone of blue—not bright and soft like the sky, but a deep blue—like the waters of a midsummer lagoon. Adrian couldn’t believe it. Blue flames! In moments, the warm and tranquil tones faded back to the radiant oranges and reds, and the fire returned to its former self.

“I saw it,” Adrian blurted. “I saw blue flames—that means I’m telling the truth, yes?”

Eldred nodded. “The celestial deity has revealed the truth behind your words.”

“Thank the gods,” Adrian said. He hawked and spat a few more times to rid himself of the foul taste. “Anything else you need me to do? Perhaps lick a poisonous toad or shove a spider up my nose?”

Eldred shook his head. “There’s that sarcasm again.” He turned to regard Olan. “The truth has been revealed, Brother. We will escort this man to the southern lands.”

Olan nodded but the cleaver remained clenched in his oversized fist. “Fine, but he’d better keep that dead hand away from me . . . or by the gods I will cut it off.”















CHAPTER 5



The three men journeyed without incident for the next fortnight.

Adrian’s new companions proved to be quite the adept travelers, Eldred especially. The man seemed to recognize every rustle and peep from every creature, and could identify the inherent properties of every tree and shrub and creeper they came across. But he moved swiftly and spoke only when speaking was necessary, so that meant silence ruled for most of the day. Adrian tried to engage the brothers in conversation, but his efforts were squashed like a beetle under a boot. The outlaws were entirely devoid of cordiality. Adrian wasn’t like them. He would never be like them.

The roads they traveled were narrow and difficult. Most twisted and snaked along the outskirts of the various mountain hamlets. Foot travelers were rare, and the lack of wagon ruts in the road meant porters were even rarer. They did spot the occasional grog shop or roadside inn, but these places were wisely avoided. Olan huffed and grumbled when his gourd-bottle ran empty of wine, but Eldred ignored the complaints.

The brothers seemed to examine every passerby they saw. Adrian knew what they were thinking—he was no fool. For the life of an outlaw, survival meant always looking for the next victim, always looking at the next possible advantage. Robbing travelers and ransacking merchant wagons was a basic necessity, so naturally the brothers spent time gauging and analyzing their possible targets. They did this with a frightening degree of professionalism, one that was surely honed by years of experience. Adrian sorely lacked such experience. He felt like a child tagging along with a pair of elder siblings, and the more the two brothers began to murmur and whisper secretly to each other, the more Adrian grew irritated and resentful. He couldn’t let this happen. He wouldn’t.

The next morning, just after they broke their fast and prepared to set out, Adrian squared his shoulders and stood his tallest before the brothers. “Before we go any farther, I have something to say.”

Both men frowned.

“If you two are to accompany me all the way to the southern city of Swallowtail, then I must make something clear. There will be no robbing, no looting, and no murdering. None. That is all I ask.”

Olan’s bulbous nose twitched. “Do you want to make it to your destination or not? We’ve got little food and even less coin.”

“I know,” Adrian said. “But you both know how to survive in the wilds. I’m certain we can get by without causing any grief.”

Olan let out a throaty laugh. “Do you think your hands are not as soiled as ours? Err, hand.”

“I know I’ve committed a capital offense, but I didn’t cause any pain or suffering. The only wound was to the pride and dignity of a powerful and beloved ruler. Now, I want to be clear. No robbing, no looting, and no murdering. That is my rule, and it must be obeyed, or our little partnership disbands right here.”

Adrian was sure they’d see through his bold words and laugh at the scared man beneath. Worse, he feared Olan might cut him down with that giant cleaver of his. Thankfully, Eldred replied before any of that could happen. “Fine. We agree to your terms.”

Olan spun on his brother, nostrils flaring.

“Relax, Brother.” He looked back at Adrian. “You have my word. Though it may not seem as much, I assure you that your precepts will be honored.”

Adrian nodded, but by no means did he trust him. How sincere was an outlaw’s word, after all?

They traveled in silence for a while. Just before high sun the company wended their way around a branching gorge and found themselves surrounded by tall beetling crags, mountain brooks bristling with wisteria, and stands of black pine and cypress. Such a beautiful panorama—even disgruntled Olan seemed alleviated by the sight.

Eldred pointed at something in the distant ranges. A secluded cluster of outbuildings and temples and cottages, enwreathed with clouds and neatly tucked neatly away from the hooks of civilization. “A monastery,” he said. “We’ll find sanctuary there. Simple fare, heated water to wash ourselves, a few nights’ rest on cushions of chaff.”

“Is it safe?” Adrian asked.

“All monks have forsaken concerns of the material world. They’ll not ask questions.”

“Any chance they’ll have wine?” Olan chimed in.

“No,” Eldred said.

Adrian gave a nod. “Fine, but we must remember what I said earlier. No robbing, no looting, and no—”

Olan grunted. “It’s hallowed grounds. What sort of man do you take me for?”

A cruel and violent one, Adrian thought.

The path narrowed as it climbed a bare and winding ascension, then narrowed even more before halting at a steep drop-off. A rickety wooden bridge built against the mountainside was their only crossing—it was not so much a bridge as a frail ledge of uneven planks that were held in place by hempen rope and rusty nails and jutting lower support beams.

Adrian went to the edge and foolishly looked down. The black maw of a rocky ravine gazed up at him, a long and ceaseless gaze that buckled his knees and dizzied his thoughts. Don’t be a coward, he told himself. He watched as the brothers moved across, their heavy tread causing the thin horizontal planks to wobble and groan. They made it look so easy, but then again, they made everything look easy.

Adrian used his good hand to grip the mountainside since there were no railings. He took a single step forward, then another, and another. The brothers were growing impatient, but Adrian didn’t care. The bridge wasn’t solid in the least, the wood old and dilapidated and the ropes frayed and gray. Don’t think about them, don’t think about falling, just think about taking one step at a time . . . one small, simple step. Adrian exhaled and took another step. One more and then another. He was doing fine. He was going to make it. Already halfway across and he was doing fine.

The sun decided that now was the best time to appear between the jagged mountain crags. Blinding light spread in all directions. Adrian had to let go of the mountainside in order to shade his eyes. He squinted and lowered his gaze and did his best to keep moving. Another step. Another and another. You’re doing fine. You’re going to make it. You’re definitely going to—

Wood cracked and the bridge moaned, ready to give way. Adrian’s legs burst into motion. Planks rattled underfoot, each one louder than the last. His heart pushed up his throat. I’m going to make it, I’m going to make it. Solid ground was just ahead. He used his good hand to push off the jagged rock wall. Pieces of stone broke free, plummeting silently into that terrifying maw of darkness. Almost there . . . almost there . . .

Adrian flung himself onto solid ground—but he overcommitted to the jump, careened out of control, and crashed into Olan. It might as well have been a wall of mortared granite, because the big man didn’t budge. Adrian stumbled back a few steps before landing on his rump with a pronounced thud.

The two brothers looked at him, blinked, and broke out in uproarious laughter. It was the first time Adrian heard such sounds from either of them. Eldred’s was a raspy, subdued laugh, while Olan had more of a hearty, thunderous guffaw. Adrian didn’t care that the laughter was at his expense. He was just happy to see them laughing, and he was even happier to be alive. Yes, that was all that mattered.


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