A frequent collaborator with George R.R. Martin, Daniel Abraham has turned his sights on epic fantasy in his latest series, which is hitting store shelves today with its first installment, The Dragon’s Path. The novel has been receiving good reviews on the web for those who’ve had access to the review copies. After his brilliant Long Price Quartet (a series we’ve often recommended and consider to be among the best fantasies of the last decade; it begins with A Shadow in Summer), he’s written quite a bit else, from urban fantasy to contributions to the GRRM-led Wild Cards shared-world series, with a science fiction collaboration with new writer (and GRRM’s assistant) Ty Franck forthcoming as well as his scripting of the A Song of Ice and Fire comic book series for Dynamite Entertainment and Bantam Books.
What else can we say? It’s Daniel Abraham. It’s his take on epic fantasy, a subject he discusses at length over at Orbit’s website. He knows what he’s doing. Read it!
Cithrin’s only vivid memory of her parents was being told of their deaths. Before that, there were only wisps, less than ghosts, of the people themselves. Her father was a warm embrace in the rain and the smell of tobacco. Her mother was the taste of honey on bread and the thin, graceful hand of a Cinnae woman stroking Cithrin’s leg. She didn’t know their faces or the sounds of their voices, but she remembered losing them.
She had been four years old. Her nursery had been painted in white and plum. She’d been sitting by the window, drinking tea with a stuffed Tralgu made of brown sacking and stuffed with dried beans. She’d been straightening its ears when her Nanné came in, face even paler than usual, and announced that the plague had taken master and mistress, and Cithrin was to prepare herself to leave. She would be living somewhere else now.
She hadn’t understood. Death was something negotiable to her then, like whether or not to wear a particular ribbon in her hair, or how much sweet oats to eat in the morning. Cithrin hadn’t cried so much as felt annoyance with the change of plan.
It was only later, in her new, darker rooms above the banking house, that she realized it didn’t matter how loud she screamed or how violently she wept. Her parents would never come to her because, being dead, they didn’t care anymore.
“You worry too much,” Besel said.
He reclined, splayed out, looking utterly comfortable on the worn wooden steps. He looked comfortable anywhere. His twenty-one summers made him four years older than Cithrin, and he had dark, curly hair and a broad face that seemed designed for smiling. His shoulders were as thick as a laborer’s, but his hands were soft. His tunic, like her own dress, was dyed the red and brown of the bank. It looked better on him. Cithrin knew he had half a dozen lovers, and she was secretly jealous of every one of them.
They were sitting on a wooden bench above the Arched Square, looking down at the bustle and clutter of the weekly fresh market, hundreds of tightly packed stalls of bright cloth and thin sticks growing out from the buildings at the square’s edge like new growth on an old tree. The grand canal of Vanai lapped at the quay on their right, the green water busy with narrow boats and pole barges. The market buzzed with the voices of the fishmongers and butchers, farmers and herbmen, all hawking their late summer harvest.
Most were Firstblood and black-chitined Timzinae, but here and there, Cithrin caught sight of the pale, slight body of a full-blooded Cinnae, the wide head and mobile, hound-like ears of a Tralgu, the thick, waddling gate of a Yemnu. Growing up in Vanai, Cithrin had seen at least one example of nearly every race of mankind. Once, she had even seen one of the Drowned in the canal, staring up at her with sorrowful, black eyes.
“I don’t understand how the bank can side with Imperial Antea,” she said.
“We’re not siding with them,” Besel said.
“We’re not siding with the prince. This is a war.”
Besel laughed. He had a good laugh. Cithrin felt a moment’s anger, and then immediately forgave him when he touched her hand.
“This is a theater piece,” he said. “A bunch of men are going to meet on a field outside the city, wave sticks and swords at each other, tumble about enough to satisfy honor, and then we’ll open the gates to the Antean army and let them run things for a few years.”
“But the prince—”
“Exiled. Or imprisoned, but probably exiled. This goes on all the time. A baroness in Gilea marries a prince in Asterilhold, and King Simeon decides Antea needs a counter-balance in the free cities. So he finds a reason to declare war on Vanai.”
Cithrin frowned. Besel seemed so amused, so unconcerned. By his light, her fear seemed naïve. Foolish. She dug in her heels.
“I’ve read about wars. The history tutor doesn’t make it sound like that at all.”
“Maybe real wars are different,” Besel said with a shrug. “If Antea ever marches on Birancour or the Keshet, I’ll pull all wagers. But this? It’s less than a spring storm, little bird.”
A woman’s voice called Besel’s name. A merchant’s daughter wearing a deep brown bodice and full skirts of undyed linen. Besel rose from Cithrin’s side.
“My work’s before me,” he said with a glimmer in his eye. “You should get back to the house before old Cam starts getting anxious. But seriously, trust Master Imaniel. He’s been doing this longer than any of us, and he knows what he’s about.”
Cithrin nodded, then watched as Besel took the steps two at a time, down to the dark-haired girl. He bowed before her, and she curtseyed, but it all looked false to Cithrin. Formality used as foreplay. Likely Besel didn’t think Cithrin knew what foreplay was. She watched sourly as he took the woman by the elbow and led her away into the pale streets and bridges of the city. Cithrin plucked at her sleeves, wishing—not for the first time—that the Medean bank had adopted colors that flattered her more. Something green, for instance.
If her parents had both been Firstblood or Cinnae, she might have had family to take her in. Instead, her father’s titles in Birancour had been reclaimed by the queen and awarded to someone else. Her mother’s clan in Princip C’Annaldé had politely declined to take a half-blood child.
If not for the bank, she would have been turned into the streets and alleys of Vanai. But her father had placed a part of his gold with Master Imaniel, and as inheritor, Cithrin became the bank’s ward until she was old enough to press her bloodied thumb to contracts of her own. Two more summers, it would be. She would see her nineteenth solstice, become a woman of property, and move, she supposed, out of the little apartments near the Grand Square where the Vanai branch of the Medean bank did its business.
Assuming, of course, that the invading army left the city standing.
Walking through the fresh market, she saw no other particular signs of fear on the faces around her. So perhaps Besel was right. God knew the man seemed sure of himself. But then, he always did.
She let herself wonder whether Besel would see her differently when she wasn’t the bank’s little girl any longer. She paused at a stall where a Firstblood woman sold perfumes, oils, and colored hair-cloths. A mirror hung on a rough wood post, inviting the customers to admire themselves. Cithrin considered herself for a moment, lifting her chin the way women with real families might.
“Oh, you poor thing,” the woman said. “You’ve been sick, haven’t you? Need something for your lips?”
Cithrin shook her head, stepping back. The woman snatched her by the sleeve.
“Don’t run off. I’m not afraid. Half my clients are here because they’ve been unwell. We can wash that pale right off you, dear.”
“I haven’t,” Cithrin said, finding her voice.
“Haven’t?” the woman said, steering her toward a stool at the stall’s inner corner. The scent of roses and turned earth made the air almost too thick to breathe.
“I’m not sick,” she said. “My mother’s Cinnae. It’s . . . it’s normal.”
The woman cast a pitying look at her. It was true. Cithrin had neither the delicate, spun-glass beauty of her mother’s people or the solid, warm, earthy charms of a Firstblood girl. She was in between. The white mule, the other children had called her. Neither one thing nor the other.
“Well, all the more, then,” the woman said, consolingly. “Just sit you down, and we’ll see what we can do.”
In the end, Cithrin bought a jar of lip rouge just so she could leave the stall.
“You could just let him have a bit,” Cam said. “He is the prince. It isn’t as if you won’t know where to find him.”
Magister Imaniel looked up from his plate, his expression pleasant and unreadable. The candlelight reflected in his eyes. He was a small man with leathery skin and thin hair that could seem meek as a kitten when he wished, or become a demon of cold and rage. In all her years, Cithrin had never decided which was the mask. His voice now was mild as his eyes.
“Cithrin?” he said. “Why won’t I lend money to the Prince?”
“Because if he doesn’t want to pay you back, you can’t make him.”
Magister Imaniel shrugged at Cam.
“You see? The girl knows. It’s bank policy never to lend to people who consider it beneath their dignity to repay. Besides which, who’s to say we have the coin to spare?”
Cam shook her head in feigned despair and reached across the table for the salt cellar. Master Imaniel took another bite of his lamb.
“Why doesn’t he go to his barons and dukes, borrow from them?” Magister Imaniel asked.
“He can’t,” Cithrin said.
“Oh, leave the poor girl alone for once,” Cam said. “Can’t we have a single conversation without it turning into a test?”
“We have all their gold,” Cithrin said. “It’s all here.”
“Oh dear,” Master Imaniel said, his eyes widening in false shock. “Is that so?”
“They’ve been coming for months. We’ve sold letters of exchange to half the high families in the city. For gold at first, but jewels or silk or tobacco . . . anything worth the trade.”
“You’re sure of that?”
Cithrin rolled her eyes.
“Everyone’s sure of that,” she said. “It’s all anyone talks about at the yard. The nobles are all swimming away like rats off a burning barge, and the banks are robbing them blind while they do it. When the letters of credit get to Carse or Kiaria or Stollbourne, they aren’t going to get back half of what they paid for them.”
“It is a buyer’s market, that’s true,” Master Imaniel said with an air of satisfaction. “But inventory becomes an issue.”
After dinner, Cithrin went up to her room and opened her windows to watch the mist rise from the canals. The air stank of the autumn linseed oil painted onto the wood buildings and bridges against the coming snow and rain. And beneath that, the rich, green bloom of algae in the canals. She imagined sometimes that all the great houses were ships floating down a great river, the canals all connected in a single vast flow too deep for her to see.
At the end of the street, one of the iron gates had come loose from its stays, creaking backand forth in the breeze. Cithrin shivered, closed the shutters, changed for bed, and blew out her candle.
Shouts woke her. And then a lead-tipped club banging on the door.
She threw open the shutters and leaned out. The mist had cleared enough that the street was plain before her. A dozen men in the livery of the prince, five of them holding pitch-reeking torches, crowded the door. Their voices were loud and merry and cruel. One looked up, his dark eyes catching hers. The soldier broke into a grin. Cithrin, not knowing what was happening, smiled back uneasily and retreated. Her blood felt cold even before she heard the voices—Master Imaniel sounding wary, the guard captain laughing, and then Cam’s heartbroken cry.
Cithrin ran down the stairway, the dim light of a distant lantern making the corridors a paler shade of black. Part of her knew that running toward the front door was lunacy, that she should be running the other direction. But she’d heard Cam’s voice, and she had to know.
The guards were already gone when she reached the door. Master Imaniel stood perfectly still, a lantern of tin and glass glowing in his hand. His face was expressionless. Cam knelt beside him, her wide fist pressed against her mouth. And Besel—perfect Besel, beautiful Besel—lay on the stone floor, bloody but no longer bleeding. Cithrin felt a shriek growing in the back of her throat, but she couldn’t make a sound.
“Get me a cunning man,” Master Imaniel said.
“It’s too late,” Cam said, her throat thick with tears.
“I didn’t ask. Get me a cunning man. Cithrin, come here. Help me carry him in.”
There was no hope, but they did as they were told. Cam pulled on a wool cloak and hurried off into the gloom. Cithrin took Besel’s heels, Master Imaniel his shoulders. Together, they hauled the body into the dining room and laid him on the wide wooden table. There were cuts on Besel’s face and hands. A deep gouge ran from his wrist almost to his elbow, the sleeve torn by the blade’s passage. He didn’t breathe. He didn’t bleed. He looked as peaceful as a man asleep.
The cunning man came, rubbed powders into Besel’s empty eyes, pressed palms to Besel’s silent chest, called the spirits and the angels. Besel took one long, ragged breath, but the magic wasn’t enough. Master Imaniel paid the cunning man three thick silver coins and sent him on his way. Cam lit a fire in the grate, the flames giving Besel the eerie illusion of motion.
Master Imaniel stood at the head of the table, looking down. Cithrin stepped forward and took Besel’s cold and stiffening hand. She wanted badly to cry, but she couldn’t. Fear and pain and terrible disbelief raged in her and found no escape. When she looked up, Master Imaniel’s gaze was on her.
“We should have given it over. Let the prince take what he wants. It’s only money.”
“Bring me his clothes,” Master Imaniel said. “A clean shirt. And that red jacket he disliked.”
His eyes were moving now, darting as if reading words written in the air. Cam and Cithrin exchanged a glance. Cithrin’s first, mad thought was that he wanted to wash and dress the body for burial.
“Cam?” Master Imaniel said. “Did you hear me? Go!”
The old woman heaved herself up from the hearth and trundled quickly into the depths of house. Master Imaniel turned to Cithrin. His cheeks were flushed, but she couldn’t say if it was rage or shame or something deeper.
“Can you steer a cart?” he asked. “Drive a small team. Two mules.”
“I don’t know,” Cithrin said. “Maybe.”
“Strip,” he said.
“Strip,” he said. “Your night clothes. Take them off. I need to see what were working with.”
Uncertainly, Cithrin lifted her hands to the stays at her shoulders, undid the knots, and let the cloth fall to the floor. The cold air raised gooseflesh on her skin. Master Imaniel made small noises in the back of his throat as he walked around her, making some evaluation she couldn’t fathom. The corpse of Besel made no move. She felt the echo of shame. It occurred to her that she had never been naked in front of a man before.
Cam’s eyes went wide when she returned, her mouth making a little ‘o’ of surprise. And then, less than a heartbeat later, her expression went hard as stone.
“No,” Cam said.
“Give me the shirt,” Master Imaniel said.
Cam did nothing. He walked over and lifted Besel’s shirt and jacket from her. She didn’t stop him. Without speaking, he dropped the shirt over Cithrin’s head. The cloth was soft and warm, and smelled of the dead man’s skin. The hem dropped down low enough to restore some measure of modesty. Master Imaniel stood back, and a bleak pleasure appeared at the corners of his eyes. He tossed Cithrin the jacket and nodded that she should put it on.
“We’ll need some needlework done,” he said, “but it’s possible.”
“You mustn’t do this, sir,” Cam said. “She’s just a girl.”
Master Imaniel ignored her, stepping close again to pull Cithrin’s hair back from her face. He tapped his fingers together as if trying to remember something, bent to the fire grate, and rubbed his thumb through the soot. He smudged Cithrin’s cheeks and chin. She smelled old smoke.
“We’ll need something better, but . . .” he said, clearly speaking only to himself. “Now . . . what is your name?”
“Cithrin?” she said.
Master Imaniel barked out a laugh.
“What kind of name is that for a fine strapping boy like yourself? Tag. Your name is Tag. Say that.”
“My name is Tag,” she said.
Master Imaniel’s face twisted in scorn.
“You talk like a girl, Tag.”
“My name is Tag,” Cithrin said, roughening her voice and mumbling.
“Fair,” he said. “Only fair. But we’ll work on it.”
“You can’t do this,” Cam said.
Master Imaniel smiled. It didn’t reach his eyes.
“The prince has crossed a line,” he said. “The policy of the bank is clear. He gets nothing.”
“You are the policy of the bank,” Cam said.
“And I am clear. Tag, my boy? A week from now, you are going to go to Magister Will, down in the Old Quarter. He’s going to hire you to drive a cart in a caravan bound for Northcoast. Undyed wool cloth he’s moving to keep from losing it in the war.”
Cithrin didn’t nod or shake her head. The world was spinning a little, and everything had the sense of being part of a terrible dream.
“When you reach Carse,” Master Imaniel continued, “you take the cart to the holding company. I’ll give you a map and directions. And a letter that will explain everything.”
“It’s weeks on the road!” Cam shouted. “Months, if there’s snow in the pass.”
Master Imaniel turned, rage lighting his eyes. His voice was low and cold.
“What would you have me do? Keep her here? She’s no safer in our beds than passing for a carter in a caravan. And I will not simply accept the loss.”
“I don’t understand,” Cithrin said. Her voice sounded distant in her ears, as if she were shouting over surf.
“The prince’s men are watching us,” Master Imaniel said. “I must assume they’re watching anyone in the bank’s employ. And, I expect, the bank’s ward, Cithrin the Half-Cinnae. Tag the Carter, on the other hand . . .”
“The carter?” Cithrin said, echoing him more than thinking thoughts of her own.
“The cart’s false,” Cam said, her voice thick with despair. “Besel was set to take it. Smuggle out all the money we can.”
“The gold?” Cithrin said. “You want me to take the gold to Carse?”
“Some, yes,” Master Imaniel said. “But gold’s heavy. We’re better sending gems and jewelry. They’re worth more. Spices. Tobacco leaf. Silk. Things light enough they’ll pack tight and won’t break the axles. And the account books. The real ones. As for the coins and ingots . . . well, I’ll think of something.”
He smiled like the mask of a smile. Besel’s corpse seemed to shift its shoulders in the flickering light. A draught of cold air rubbed against her bare thighs, and the knot in her belly tightened until she tasted vomit in the back of her mouth.
“You can do this thing, my dear,” Master Imaniel said. “I have faith in you.”
“Thank you,” she said, swallowing.
Cithrin walked through the streets of Vanai, her stomach in knots. The false mustache was the sort of thin, weedy thing a callow boy might cultivate and be proud of. Her clothes were a mix of Besel’s shirts and jackets resewn in the privacy of the bank and whatever cheap, mended rags could be scrounged. They hadn’t dared to buy anything new. Her hair was tea-stained to an almost colorless brown and combed forward to obscure her face. She walked with the wider gait Master Imaniel had taught her, a knot of uncomfortable cloth held tight against her sex to remind her that she was supposed to have a cock.
She felt worse than foolish. She felt like a mummer in clown face and comic shoes. She felt like the most obvious fraud in the city, or the world. And every time she closed her eyes, Besel’s corpse waited for her. Every voice that called out started her heart skipping faster. She waited for the knife, the arrow, the lead-tipped cudgel. But the streets of Vanai didn’t notice her.
Everywhere, the final preparations for the war were being made. Merchants nailed their windows closed. Wagons clogged the streets as families who had chosen not to flee to the countryside changed their minds and left and others that had gone changed their minds and returned. Criers in the service of the prince announced the improbable thousand men on the march now from their new allies, and the old Timzinae men by the quayside laughed and said they’d all be better off Antean than married to Maccia. Press gangs scattered people before them like wolves snapping at hens. And in the Old Quarter, the tall, dark, richly carved doors of Magister Will’s shop were flung wide. The street was jammed with carts and wagons, mules and horses and oxen. The caravan was forming in the square, and Cithrin made her way through the press of the crowd toward the wide, leather-capped form of Magister Will.
“Sir,” she said in a soft, low voice. Magister Will didn’t answer, and so uncertainly, she tugged at his sleeve.
“What?” the old man said.
“My name’s Tag, sir. I’ve come to drive Master Imaniel’s cart.”
Magister Will’s eyes went wide for a moment and he glanced around to see if they’d been heard. Cithrin cursed silently. Not Master Imaniel’s cart. The bank didn’t have a cart. She was driving the wool cart. It was her first mistake. Magister Will coughed and took her by the shoulder.
“You’re late, boy. I thought you might not come.”
“For God’s sake, child, try not to talk.”
He led her quickly through the press to a deep, narrow cart. The weathered wood planks looked sturdy enough, and a canvas tarp over the top would keep the rain off the bolts of tight-packed grey cloth. The axles were thick iron, and the wheels bound with steel. It looked to Cithrin like obviously more of a wagon than mere cloth would need. The two mules in harness hardly seemed enough to pull a thing that big. Surely, surely they could all see through the sham. The prince’s guards hardly needed to glance at her to understand everything. Her gut tightened harder, and she thanked the angels she hadn’t been able to eat that morning. She didn’t know how well her false whiskers would survive vomiting. Magister Will leaned close to her, his lips brushing against her ear.
“The first two layers are wool,” he said. “Everything beneath that’s in sealed boxes and casks. If the tarp fails and things get wet, just let them stew.”
“The books—” she muttered.
“The books are in enough sheepskin and wax you could drive this bastard into the sea. Don’t worry about them. Don’t think about what you’re hauling. And do not under any circumstances dig down and have a look.”
She felt a passing annoyance. Did he think she was stupid?
“You can sleep on top,” Magister Will continued. “No one will think it odd. Do what the caravan master says, keep the mules healthy and fed, and keep to yourself as much as you can.”
“Yes, sir,” she said.
“Right, then,” the old man said. He stood back and clapped her on the shoulder. His smile was forced and mirthless. “Good luck.”
He turned and walked back toward his shop. Cithrin had the powerful urge to call after him. This couldn’t be all there was. There must be something else she was supposed to do, some preparation or advice she should have. She swallowed, hunched forward, then walked around the cart. The mules met her eyes incuriously. They, at least, weren’t frightened.
“I’m Tag,” she said into their long, soft ears. And then, whispering, “I’m really Cithrin.” She wished she knew their names.
She didn’t catch sight of the soldiers until she’d climbed up to the driver’s bench. Men and women in hard leather, swords at their sides. They were Firstblood, apart from one Tralgu with rings in his ears and a huge bow slung on his shoulder. The captain of the troop, the Tralgu, and an older man in long robes and tightly-knotted hair were talking animatedly with the Timzinae caravan master. Cithrin gripped the reins, her knuckles aching and bloodless. The captain nodded toward her, and the caravan master shrugged. She watched in horror as the three soldiers came toward her. She had to run. She was going to be killed.
“Boy!” the captain said, his pale eyes on her. He was a hard-faced man younger than Master Imaniel and older than Besel. He wore his sandy hair too short for Antean style, too long for the free cities. He leaned forward, his eyebrows rising. “Boy? You hear me?”
“You aren’t dim, are you? I didn’t sign on to guard boys who are like to wander off on their own.”
“No,” Cithrin croaked. She coughed, and careful to keep her voice husky and low, “No, sir.”
“Right, then,” the captain said. “You’re driving this cart?”
“Well. Good. You’re the last to come, so you missed the introductions before. I’ll keep it brief. I’m Captain Wester. This is Yardem. He’s my second. And that’s our cunning man, Master Kit. We’re guard on this ‘van, and I’d be obliged if you did whatever we said, whenever we said it. We’ll get you through safe to Carse.”
Cithrin nodded again. The captain mirrored her, clearly not yet convinced she wasn’t dim.
“Right,” he said, turning away. “Let’s get going.”
“Anything you say, sir,” the Tralgu said in a deep, gravel voice.
The captain and the Tralgu turned and walked back toward the caravan master, their voices quickly lost in the cacophony of the street. The cunning man, Master Kit, stepped closer. He was older, his hair more grey than black. His face was long and olive-complected. His smile was surprisingly warm.
“Are you all right, son?” he asked.
“Nervous,” Cithrin said.
“First time driving on a ‘van?”
Cithrin nodded. She felt like an idiot, nodding all the time like a mute in the streets. The cunning man’s smile was reassuring and gentle as a priest’s.
“I suspect you’ll find the boredom’s the worst thing. After the third day seeing just the cart in front of you, the view may get a bit dull.”
Cithrin smiled and almost meant it.
“What’s your name?” the cunning man asked.
“Tag,” she said.
He blinked, and she thought his smile lost a degree of warmth. She bent her head forward, her hair almost covering her eyes, and her heart began to race. Master Kit only sneezed and shook his head. When he spoke, his voice was still comforting as soft flannel.
“Welcome to the ‘van, Tag.”
She nodded again, and the cunning man walked away. Her heart slowed to a more human pace. She swallowed, shut her eyes, and willed her shoulders and neck to relax. She hadn’t been found out. It would be fine.
The wagons started out within the hour, a great, wide feed wagon lumbering along at the head, then a covered wagon that clanked loud enough Cithrin could hear it from her perch three back. The Timzinae caravan master rode back and forth on a huge white mare, tapping wagons and drivers and beasts with a long, flexible rod, half stick and half whip. When he came to her, she shook the reins and called out to the mules the way Besel had taught her back when he’d been alive and smiling and flirting with the poor ward of the bank. The mules started forward, and the caravan master shouted at her angrily.
“Not so fast, boy! You’re not in a damned race here!”
“Sorry,” Cithrin said, pulling back. One of the mules snorted and looked back at it. She had a hard time not imagining annoyance in the slant of its ears. She moved them forward again more slowly. The caravan master shook his head and cantered back to the next wagon. Cithrin held the reins in a fierce grip, but there was nothing she had to do. The mules knew their work, following the cart before them. Slowly, with many shouts and imprecations, the caravan took form. They moved from the wide streets of the Old Quarter, past the canals that led down to the river, across the Patron’s Bridge, the prince’s palace high above them.
Vanai, the city of her childhood, slipped past her. There was the road that led to the market where Cam had bought her honey bread for her birthday. Here, the stall where an apprentice cobbler had stolen a kiss from her and been whipped by Master Imaniel for his trouble. She’d forgotten that until now. They passed the tutor’s house where she’d gone to study numbers and letters when she was just a girl. Somewhere in the city were the graves of her mother and father. She had never visited the corpses, and she regretted it now.
When she came back, she told herself. When the war was over and the world safe, she’d come back and see where her family was buried.
Too soon, the city wall loomed up before them, pale stone as high as two men standing. The gate was open, but the traffic on the road slowed them. The mules seemed to expect it and stood patiently as the caravan master rode to the front to clear the way, whipping at whatever was in the ‘van’s path. High on the tower gate, a man stood in the bright armor of the prince’s guard. For a sickening moment, Cithrin thought it was the same grinning face that had looked up at her the night Besel died. When the guard called out, it was to the captain.
“You’re a coward, Wester!”
Cithrin caught her breath, shocked by the casual insult.
“Die of the pox, Dossen,” the captain sang back, grinning, so perhaps the two were friends. The idea made her like Captain Wester less. The prince’s guard didn’t stop them, at least. The carts rolled and bumped and creaked their way out of the city and onto to the road where they left the stone cobbles for the wide green of dragon’s jade. Carse lay far to the north and west, but the road here tracked south, echoing the distant curve of the sea. A few other carts passed, traveling in toward the city. The low hills were covered with trees in the glory of their autumn leaves; red and yellow and gold. When the sun struck them at the proper angle, it looked like fire. Cithrin hunched on her bench, her legs growing colder, her hands stiff.
Over the long, slow miles her anxiety faded, lulled by the rumble and rocking of the cart. She could almost forget who she was, what was behind her, and what was in the cart with her. As long as the world was her, the mules, the cart before and the trees beside, it was almost like being alone. The sun tracked lower, shining into her eyes until she was as good as blind. The caravan master’s call slowed the carts, then stopped them. The Timzinae rode down the line of carts as he had in Vanai, pointing each of them to a place in a low, open field. The camp. Cithrin’s place, thankfully, was near the road where she didn’t need to do anything fancy. She turned the mules, brought the cart where she’d been told, and then climbed down to the earth. She unhitched the mules and led them to a creek where they stuck their heads down to the water and kept them there so long she started to grow nervous. Would a mule drink enough to make itself sick? Should she try to stop them? But the other animals were doing the same. She watched what the other carters did and tried not to stand out.
Night came quickly and cold. By the time she’d fed her animals, scrubbed them, and set them in the ‘van’s makeshift corral, a mist had risen. The caravan master had set up a fire, and the smell of smoke and grilling fish brought Cithrin’s stomach suddenly and painfully to life. She joined the carters laughing and talking in the line for food. She kept her head bowed, her eyes downcast. When anyone tried to bring her into the conversation, she grunted or spoke in monosyllables. The ‘van’s cook was a short Timzinae woman so fat the chitin of her scales seemed ready to pop free of her sausage-shaped arms. When Cithrin reached the front of the line, the cook handed her a tin plate with a thin strip of pale trout-flesh, a heaping spoonful of beans, and a crust of brown bread. Cithrin nodded in a mime of gratitude and went to sit at the fire. The damp soaked her leggings and jacket, but she didn’t dare move in nearer to the warmth. Better to keep to the back.
As they ate, the caravan master pulled a low stool out from his own cart and stood on it, reading from a holy book by the light of the fire. Cithrin listened with only half her attention. Master Imaniel was a religious too, or else thought it wise to appear so. Cithrin had heard the scriptures many times without ever finding God and angels particularly moving.
Quietly, she put down plate and knife and went out to the creek. How to visit the latrine without giving herself away had been a haunting fear, and Master Imaniel’s dismissive answers—“all men squat to shit”—hadn’t reassured her. Alone in the mist and darkness, leggings around her ankles and codpiece stuffing in hand, she felt relief not only in her flesh. Once. She’d gotten away with it once. Now if she could only keep the charade up for the weeks to Carse.
Coming back to the fire, she saw a man sitting beside her plate. One of the guards, but thankfully not the captain or his Tralgu second. Cithrin took her seat again and the guard nodded to her and smiled. She hoped he wouldn’t talk.
“Quite the talker, our ‘van master,” the guard said. “He projects well. Would have made a good actor, except there aren’t many good Timzinae roles. Orman in the Fire Cycle, but that’s about it.”
Cithrin nodded and took a bite of cold beans.
“Sandr,” the guard said. “That’s me. My name’s Sandr.”
“Tag,” Cithrin said, hoping that between mumbling and her full mouth, she’d sound enough like a man.
“Good meetin’ you, Tag,” Sandr said. He shifted in the darkness, hauling out a leather skin. “Drink?”
Cithrin shrugged the way she imagined a carter might, and Sandr grinned and popped the stopper free. Cithrin had drunk wine in temple and during festival meals, but always with water, and never very much. The liquid that poured into her mouth now was a different thing. It bit at the softest parts of her lips and tongue, slid down her throat, and left her feeling as if she’d been cleaned. The warmth that spread through her chest was like a blush.
“Good, isn’t it?” Sandr said. “I borrowed it from Master Kit. He won’t mind.”
Cithrin took another drink then reluctantly handed it back. Sandr drank as the caravan master reached the end of his reading, and half a dozen voices rose up in the closing rite. The moon seemed soft, the mist scattering its light. To her surprise, the wine was untying the knot in her stomach. Not much, but enough that she could feel it. The warmth in her chest was in her belly now too. She wondered how much of the skin she’d have to down to bring the feeling to her shoulders and neck.
She couldn’t be stupid, though. She couldn’t get herself drunk. Someone shouted out Sandr’s name and the guard leaped to his feet. He didn’t pick up the skin.
“Over here, sir,” Sandr said, walking in toward the fire. Wester and his Tralgu were gathering up their soldiers. Cithrin looked out into the grey and shifting darkness, in toward the fire, and then carefully, casually, scooped up the wineskin, tucking it into her jacket.
She walked back to her cart, avoiding the others as she went. Someone was singing, and another voice lifted to join the song. A night bird called out. Cithrin clambered up. Dew was forming on the wool cloth, tiny droplets catching the glow of the moon. She wondered whether she ought to lower the tarp, but it was dark, and she didn’t particularly want to. Instead, she snuggled into among the bolts, snuck the wineskin out of her jacket, and had just one more drink. A small one and only one.
She had to be careful.