Authors: D.K. Holmberg
opyright © 2016 by D.K
Cover by Rebecca Frank
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of the street made it hard for Carth to follow the sounds of her mother’s footsteps. Normally they made a sharp snap with each step of her heels along the cobbles, but today the sound was muted. Carth scurried forward, trying to catch up to her mother but only managed to grab onto the hem of her mother’s dark green dress that blended in with the others around them.
Her mother looked down at her with her wide brown eyes and smiled. “Follow only, Carthenne.” The words were an admonishment, one that Carth deserved. The game was to follow her mother until she could no longer track her, not tag along and hold on to her clothing, but something bothered Carth today, though she couldn’t quite put a finger on what it might be.
She released her grip and stood still as her mother continued down the street. People passed around her, but Carth ignored them, keeping her gaze fixed on her mother’s dress and the raven hair hanging in waves beyond her shoulders, hair that was not unlike her own, and listened.
The steady thudding with each step began to grow more distant but didn’t disappear even after the sight of her mother faded completely. Only then did she start forward again, keeping her focus on what she could hear of her mother.
That was the trick of the game. Follow, but not so closely that her mother
that she followed. If she could manage that, if she could trail her mother without her mother knowing she was there, Carth would win—at least that part of the game. The other part involved her father.
Where was he?
His part in the game was to follow Carth, but to do so unseen. This was a game they played often, one that her parents had started when she first managed to walk, and continued with each stop on their travels. Now twelve, she played the game well, but still not as well as her parents.
Focusing on the sound of her mother’s footsteps, she continued after her, straining to hear them. The sound had grown faint, almost to the point where she couldn’t be completely certain what she heard, but still she detected the rhythm she recognized as her mother’s, one that even the noise on the street around her couldn’t overwhelm.
Someone shoved her from behind and she spun, dancing back toward the wall behind her as her father had taught in another game. There were dozens of different games played, often at the same time. Over the years, her father had added new games, all while keeping her playing the older ones as well. Each game built on skills he taught her in the last, his way of passing time and helping her learn each city they stopped in, getting her comfortable regardless of where they ended up.
Nyaesh was no different. Perhaps more dangerous—the attacks she’d overheard her parents speak about outside the city made it seem different than what she had experienced in the last city—but the games continued.
Don’t let me touch you.
She could almost hear his voice as he instructed her. She wasn’t nearly as good at that game as she was with the following game. Carth looked for her father but didn’t see him, only a man in a tattered black cloak who glared at her when she stared too long. He carried something under his arm, and as she watched, he stepped around a corner into an alley and disappeared.
Her father would still be following her, but where was he?
She backed against the wall, shifting her braided black hair over her shoulder while watching the street for signs of movement that were out of place. Her parents had taught her that trick, instructing her to pay attention at all times and concentrate on what seemed unusual. In the streets of Nyaesh, a place with a river running along one shore and the trade road passing by the other border, peoples from all over traveled, making it more difficult to pick out what seemed out of place. There were certain patterns that she’d learned to pay attention to, and types of clothing that she knew to be concerned by. Her parents always wore clothing that blended in rather than standing out, making it that much more difficult to find them.
Another man with a tattered cloak passed and Carth watched him from the shadows. Was that the same man who’d bumped into her? No… the height was wrong and this man had more sloped shoulders. He turned the same corner, though, and disappeared down the same alley.
Two men with heavy tattoos along their arms, colorful marks that ran from their wrists all the way to their exposed shoulders, passed her. One of them flicked his gaze to her and she shrunk even deeper into the shadows. These weren’t streets for someone her age. That was why her parents played the game, and why her father watched from the shadows. They wanted her to learn safety and find a way to protect herself.
You don’t have to be the largest if you’re the smartest.
That was another of her father’s lessons. There were countless of them, and they stuck—mostly because he said them often enough that they would.
Another group passed. The men wore headscarves and long, shimmery robes and made no effort to hide the curved swords at their sides. Most in Nyaesh hid their weapons, but the A’ras wore them openly. A sash of maroon so deep that it looked like dried blood was wrapped around one’s upper arm, and another wore the sash looped through his robe. The maroon, much like the unseen tattoos on their hands, marked them as the royal protectors and servants of the faith, men with power that came not only from their mastery of the sword, but also from the magics they were able to use. Carth had never seen them use their power, but her parents had her watch them often enough to know to steer clear. Most in Nyaesh did the same, moving out of the way so that the A’ras didn’t come too close.
A man with arms bound in coils of rope struggled between them. Blood streamed from cuts on his neck, seeping beneath the black hood covering his face. Carth hurriedly looked away, already knowing his fate. Paying too close attention to the A’ras could prove dangerous to her anyway. As they passed, a shiver worked down her spine.
She felt the scuff of boots behind her and turned quickly, thinking that her father might have signaled his approach, but she saw only a haggard-looking beggar. Carth’s nose turned up at the stench coming off him, and she backed away.
Where was her father?
Waiting here, she should have found him. That was the signal, a way of telling him that she struggled. He should have come to her by now. That he had not… either he thought the A’ras distracted her too much, or he didn’t know that she wanted to end the game.
Carth glanced at the rooftops, but they were empty. The sharp slope would have been difficult to climb anyway, but it wouldn’t have been the first time her father had traveled that way to hide from her. She stared at the shadows from intersecting alleys until they disappeared but saw nothing that indicated that he was there. Carth took a second glance at the people milling about in the street, thinking that he might have put on a different robe or wrap to hide his presence, but masking his height and muscular build would have been difficult.
She didn’t see him.
This was the part of the game where she always struggled. She could track her mother by listening to the sound of her feet, or watching for the flash of color in her cloak, or the way she walked, or even the scent from the spices and herbs she’d been mixing, but she rarely managed to find her father when he trailed her. Her mother was good at the game, but her father was a master.
Carth realized that she’d spent too much time standing still, and that her father was not coming to her rescue. Maybe this was a new rule. She needed to follow her mother; only, where had her mother gone?
She scurried forward in the direction she’d last seen her, but she suspected her mother had turned a corner and disappeared down the street, fading into the people all around her. Carth wasn’t tall enough to see over the crowd, and climbing would only draw attention to herself—another thing that her parents wanted her to avoid. Instead, she had to find another way to track. That was the reason that she’d grown so skilled at listening to the sound of her mother’s feet, and watching for any sign of movement that would help her find her mother.
As she focused through the noise on the street, listening for her mother, other sounds drifted to her. Most were typical sounds of Nyaesh, those of hundreds of feet clomping on stones, or the soft and steady murmur of dozens of voices, even the occasional caw of a hawk soaring high overhead. Through those sounds, Carth heard an urgent murmuring, one that was unusual for this part of Nyaesh.
Moving more carefully, she searched for signs of her father, wishing that he would find her again. Usually they didn’t let the game go on this long. What was different today? Unless they wanted to teach her something. Sometimes her father let her wander longer when he thought to demonstrate an aspect of the game that she hadn’t mastered. Had grabbing onto her mother’s dress too soon been a problem?
Near a small square, she paused at the low wall around its perimeter. The wall was only about four feet high, about the same as her, but smaller than the massive wall around the city. The market was held in the square in the mornings, but at this time of the day, the carts would be gone and the square empty.
Two people crouched over an unmoving figure sprawled along the street. They wore the long, shimmery robes and curved swords of the A’ras. One had a neatly trimmed beard, pointed at the chin and woven with gold. Carth knew that was a sign of rank, but not what it meant. The other was clean-shaven—a new member of the A’ras. Both wore a maroon sash.
A tall and slender third man wearing a long, dark cloak that was out of place even in Nyaesh stood off to the side, as if to avoid notice. His dress didn’t mark him as A’ras and he didn’t wear the maroon sash, either. A shiny scar ran along the edge of his face, behind his ear, working along the hairline. Something about this man made her uncomfortable.
Carth backed away. Gaining the attention of the A’ras was a sure way to get hurt. That was one of the earliest lessons her father had taught her when they came to Nyaesh, and one that she had taken to heart. She didn’t need her father to remind her to avoid those men and their wicked swords.
The slender man looked her way and she shrunk even farther back into the shadows.
She bumped into someone and spun quickly, wondering if her father had finally found her, but saw only another of the A’ras. He threw her away from him, sending her tumbling to the cold stone as he pushed his way past her, making his way toward the others.
“Did you find her?” Carth heard him ask as he approached.
Carth noted the slender man had deep green eyes that scanned the street. “We found her. Your men were too aggressive with her capture, Al-shad.”
Carth had never heard one of the A’ras rebuked in such a way. They were feared, and for good reason. Even the Lasenguard, soldiers tasked with keeping peace in the countryside outside of the city, steered clear of the A’ras. That was partly because of their role with the royal family and partly because of their arcane skills. Yet this man spoke freely around them, and seemingly without fear of the deadly magicked blade of the swordmasters.
“My instructions were clear, Felyn.” Al-shad stepped through the narrow opening into the clearing, moving away from the other man. He crouched and briefly stretched his hand toward the fallen figure before withdrawing it. Al-shad wiped his hand on his robe, a distasteful expression on his bearded face. “Fools,” he snapped at the others. “She was to be taken alive. That was the agreement we made.” He glanced at Felyn. “We needed answers.”
Carth started forward and caught sight of the edge of green fabric.
Her heart raced and she took an unintentional step forward.
Her mother couldn’t be here, could she? She had known well enough to avoid the A’ras; she wouldn’t have allowed herself to get so close that they harmed her, would she?
Where was her father?
Carth wanted nothing more than for the game to be over so she could return home. Her mother could continue teaching her about the herbs and spices of her homeland, and Carth would promise to listen better the next time, always more interested in learning from her father and the sly smile that he wore as he described ways to avoid detection.
A hand grabbed her wrist and she spun, hoping to see her father. Instead, an older man with pale blue eyes and a sharp nose looked past her. A heavy gray robe hung from his shoulders and he used this to wrap around her, backing them both deeper into the shadows.
He clamped a hand over her mouth, squeezing so tightly that her eyes watered. “Quiet, girl.”
She struggled to get free, fervently wishing for her father to come to her rescue, but no one came. Men were known to abduct children in Nyaesh in spite of the A’ras patrols, such as they were, but the man seemed disinterested in her, ignoring her as he backed deeper into the shadows, looking beyond Carth toward the fallen woman.
Not her mother. Carth wouldn’t believe that.
“She didn’t say anything anyway,” the bearded A’ras said.
“You gave her no chance,” Felyn said.
The bearded A’ras glanced up the street. “You can obtain answers from him.” He nodded to Al-shad. “That is, if you managed to capture him.”
“Captured, yes, but he says nothing. We could have used them against each other. How long have they been here?”
“Long enough for me to notice,” Felyn said. “Almost too long. If they were to succeed…”
Al-shad nodded. “We would have been discovered. A good thing you detected them.”
Felyn sneered at him.
Carth attempted to free herself, but the man kept a tight grip over her mouth. Space had formed around the A’ras and the fallen person. She needed to get closer; she needed to know that it wasn’t her mother lying on the cobbles.
“Unfortunately, with her gone we have no leverage,” Al-shad said.
Felyn’s gaze slipped up the street. The man holding Carth wrapped his cloak more tightly around her, shrinking back into the shadows. She struggled a moment, but as the slender man’s gaze drifted over her, she actually prayed that she would remain hidden.