The Forgotten, sample chapters

The Forgotten, sample chapters

Warning, warning, warning. Spoilers! Like with the first two books, you get two sample chapters of the third and penultimate installment in The Lost Words series, The Forgotten. The book picks up the action right where The Broken ended, so if you have not read that one, please, stop right now, or you might spoil it for yourself. And most importantly, keep the children away. The first chapter, in particular, is very brutal. Now, commence.


Chapter 1

Sonya was lying on her bed, thinking. Well, it was not her bed. Not really. It was a bed in one of the guest rooms in Leopold’s palace. Not the lavish room she had stayed in just before the ill-fated alliance with the nomads. Neither was it Leopold’s anymore. The idiot was dead, and now, the rooms, all of them, belonged to General Pacmad.

Her master now.

An ordinary woman would spend her time in captivity as a concubine to a wild, savage, ruthless tribesman wallowing in pain and regret, cursing her bad luck, the beatings, the rapes. An ordinary woman would think how she might end her misery, if only they let her grab a knife or some poison. A lesser lady would choose to accept her pitiful destiny as a meat mattress for some primitive.

Countess Sonya was not an ordinary woman.

But to say she wasn’t afraid would have been a lie.

Upon reflection, Sonya valued her insistence on the alliance with the nomads to be a poor choice, one that disregarded history and past wars. But you could not ascend in a society of vultures by nipping daintily at the leftovers; you stuck your head deep into the innards and gorged.

She wondered what her useless husband would do if faced with the same predicament. Would he cry and beg? Would he try to weasel his way out? Where was he, anyway, she wondered. Still only a count, in a realm that no longer had a monarch, no longer had its aristocratic ladder. That made her plans to become a margravine that much harder. But she would find a way.

Sonya didn’t have much to do. General Pacmad kept her locked in the room and only came around when he felt like fucking. Some old, bent woman that served him brought her food and water twice a day and would sometimes give her new clothes or change the blood-spattered linen. Not much to do. Well, she could at least open the windows and enjoy some fresh air.

In the first days, it had smelled like soot and ash and fire. Then, for weeks, the stench of rotten meat was all she could breathe. Sonya did not much appreciate the reek of decomposing bodies of her fellow countrymen and the small folk, no more than she had sympathy for their fate. To invest in pity and sorrow for other people would be to undermine her own survival.

She remembered all too well the coup. That ax spinning, Leopold sagging where he sat on his throne, big, meaty hands with chewed, earth-lined fingernails gripping her, tearing her expensive dress and her jewelry, pressing their goat-stinking bodies against hers. The cold pain of dull punches in her stomach and legs, the smothering clench on her mouth and throat as they tried to silence her screams of indignation at the feverish humiliation of their acts.

After Pacmad’s warriors had claimed her, the chieftain himself had appropriated all of the noble ladies and had them locked up in various rooms around the palace. Sonya did not quite know who else might have lived through that first night, but she knew that Queen Diana was dead. And they had burned that cretin of a prince. The Kataji had no use for the mad or crippled.

Her windows looked into the city, toward the zigzagging lines of narrow streets and tall buildings, away from the luxury and opulence of the palace grounds and nearby villas. She had watched the riots simmer for almost a week, first the resistance of the standing army, then the pillage. The tribesmen had almost broken into a war among themselves as they set about looting the city, trying to cope with the enormity of their plunder, the entire city of Somar.

With eyes closed almost shut from the initial beating, she had stood by that window and watched the nomads drag women and small children through the alleys, taking them away. Then, the bodies of men. Killed to the last, every one of them, soldiers, craftsmen, old people, anyone with a penis between his legs.

Sonya had stood, a chill spring rain cleansing the filth of the Kataji from her bruised limbs, a cold wind trying to cool down her rage. She had stood and watched the nomads turn Somar into a charred skeleton. They burned the parks, tore down anything they couldn’t steal or use.

And closer, much closer, they had given stage to eleven generations of postponed vengeance.

Countess Sonya had a clear view of the cobbled courtyard in front of the palace, a huge triangular space with cream-colored buildings on the far two sides. There was an ancient temple turned into a theater, a four-story villa turned into a tax house, the administrative offices of the Eracian army, a shameful institution of nostalgia and the more recent failures, the elegant marketplace that served those who ate off porcelain platters with real gold forks.

The cobbles were pale red now, the blood soaked into the stone.

After securing the city’s outer perimeter, the nomads had retreated toward the palace and its defensible higher ground, barricading streets, setting up in buildings as temporary shelter. For people used to rutting in hide tents, they had very quickly taken to enjoying the best of Somar’s architecture and the dozens of rooms that each building offered. But then, savages were savages, so they took their horses and goats and dogs inside and used the exquisite furniture for cook fire.

And then, most leisurely, but in a very planned manner, the nomads had started the executions of Somar’s elite. Sonya had watched them march shackled men into that courtyard and kill them in all kinds of ways. Pacmad presided the grisly ceremonies, in the rain and under the hot sun, which came as the spring aged. There seemed to be some kind of justice scale to his judgment, because he seemed to allot different shares of killings to different tribes. Some got to exact their vengeance against only a few noble Eracians, others against dozens.

So she got to watch how they killed Konrad, Master of Coin Quade, Master of Trade Ital, Count Markus. Then, they executed Commander Raymond of the Northern Army, but she dismissed him as a commoner, unimportant in her scheme. With each death, Sonya sketched the map of the Eracian aristocracy afresh, trying to find her place in the narrowing pyramid of names and titles. Each death brought her that much closer to the top. Unfortunately, too many members of Leopold’s Privy Council, senior consultants and highest-ranking nobility had been detained by that Athesian whore, escaping their executions. She could only hope they had died in the war against the Parusites.

They had beheaded Philip, simple and quick. But then, they had set Ludwig on fire and watched him run around the yard screaming, laughing and dodging his tiny burning frame. A small bear had been brought out, and it danced to the beat of their drums and claps.

Sonya had imagined she would vomit seeing these horrors. But she hadn’t.

Then, she had also realized that her new master had placed the captured noble ladies in rooms facing toward the city, higher up, so they could glimpse beyond the cascade of sloping tiles of the armory and the low, fat palace walls and enjoy the view of the destruction of the Eracian society. A statement, a message. Probably saved him hours of intimidation and clubbing them to oblivion with his meaty fists, not that they did not deserve it, most of them, spoiled bitches.

At that moment, Countess Sonya had decided she had to be very careful around Pacmad.

He might be an animal, but he was a clever one.

Still, she could not just give up and let him feel like he had defeated her. She allowed neither the beatings, nor the rapes, nor the vivid atrocities to break her spirit, and she had showed her resolve at every given opportunity. Pacmad never despaired or got angry at her; he just punished her more, in his simple, brutal ways. Very soon, Sonya had learned that in a contest of physical strength, she would quickly lose the battle. And no matter how tough she was, she hated the abuse and the pain, hated being helpless and weak.

She needed to bring Pacmad down by wit.

She was far from being defeated, but she had to adjust her strategy.

Quickly, she had adapted her behavior to suit her new master and deferred to him as little as she could while plotting her revenge. Not that she would stoop to trying to get back at him for the humiliation and pain he had caused her, or for ruining years of careful planning of becoming a margravine and later a duchess. No, she intended to use him, make him into her tool. So maybe one ruler was dead; there was another ruler, another opportunity. Perhaps Pacmad could give her what Leopold hadn’t, or even couldn’t.

So she no longer teased him about his smell and looks, no longer laughed at the small size of his cock. She did not laugh at his dialect, even though for a savage, he spoke a very decent Continental. And she would not argue or delay against his commands. It also spared her the kicks and punches. Not because Pacmad hated her, but because domesticated animals, beast and captive women alike, were meant to be treated that way, he reasoned. And maybe, maybe because his great-great-grandmother had been raped by Vergil. That gave her some small satisfaction. She knew she was above that, but still, she could not feel just a tad joyful about the fact so many of the tribesmen had paler eyes and russet hair three centuries after the conquest.

Even so, the general was never a gentle man, even when he was not bent on punishment and submission. He was also somewhat unpredictable, which worried her, but the worst part was, she was not really sure what kind of a man he was.

Did he like his concubines willing or fearful?

That was one thing she still had not checked and didn’t dare just yet. The plan she had set for herself was extremely dangerous and delicate. She could not let her eagerness, her lust for power destroy it. And that meant she had to be careful around Pacmad, make sure she was timid and frightened and confused in the right doses. Then, slowly, when his guard dropped, she would own his soul.

Sonya got off the bed, stretching. Her ribs were still sore from that kick a week back. She wished she had a mirror so she could check her face. She didn’t fear getting fat, not on the meager diet he fed her, but the lack of exercise did make her muscles sag, made the fat crinkle under the skin on her thighs. She could not shower, so she stank like a beast, and her eyebrows had grown back to their original thickness.

She looked at her fingers; a tiniest flake of red polish still lingered on some of her nails, almost half an inch longer than they had been several weeks ago, when Pacmad had taken over Somar.

Slowly, she hobbled over to the small desk and drank from a pitcher. The broken toe had not healed well, and it sent a needle of pain up the arch of her foot every time she stepped on it. Grimacing, she drank, thinking. She had to exercise somehow, she had to keep her mind sharp even though she had no books, and she had to gather information about who still lived and try to ally with them or use them to her advantage. She had to get better food and maybe clothes and jewelry, and try to convince Pacmad to give her access to a bath once a week. She had to find a way to insinuate her ideas and suggestions into his brain. She had to—

The door latch clicked, on the outside, and the lacquered wooden panels slammed inside, hard. Pacmad stepped into her room, glowering, breathing hard. Sonya felt a stab of fear in her gut, and she hated it. This man was not supposed to frighten her. So why did he?

General Pacmad, the chieftain of the Kataji, the Father of the Bear and undefeated warrior of his clan, stood watching her with a mix of hatred and lust. In the bright midmorning light, his oiled skin glowed, and he looked every bit the brainless primitive that the Eracian literature had made him into. But she could see in his eyes, Eracian blue, that he was not a fool. They glinted with intelligence and soaked in every little detail around him, quickly. A dangerous man.

What did he like, a willing pet or a terrified slave?

Sonya swallowed, thinking what she should do next. But she just hovered there, holding the pitcher, and licked her lips.

“Woman,” he said, “get undressed.”

She obeyed. She put the jug down and slipped the filthy nightgown off, the one rag she had been given after her expensive silk-and-gold dress had been torn off her body. It irked her, this poverty, this humiliation, this filth, more than the fact she faced a violent, armed man naked and could see his chest falling and rising with unbridled emotion.

Pacmad pointed toward the bed. Sonya climbed into it and rested on her back. She lifted her head a little, trying to see what he would do next, but her ribs ached.

“Turn over,” he growled.

And then, there was pain, deep black pain. She promised she would not cry, but she did; she promised she would not utter a sound, but a small whimper escaped her clenched teeth. Worse of all, she could hear someone’s snigger farther down the corridor. The chieftain had not bothered to close the door.

“Stop babbling. You’re distracting me,” he panted above her, big and heavy and smelly.

“Sorry,” she heard herself say, and it sounded thin and shrill.

Sonya let the world slip away and imagined herself strolling through the city dressed in samite, with a cloak made of pure white silk and lined in pearls. She imagined herself stamping her seal onto letters of credit. Margravine Sonya of Barrin, she would sign.

Pacmad flopped off her, grunting, and in that moment, she recalled how small his member was and how he never lasted more than a minute. But the humiliation felt like an eternity.

This was her moment. Men were least violent after they had spent their seed. Ignoring the pain between her legs, she spun about, facing him. He was trying to don his trousers, but he had left his boots on, and they made him flop about, making small jumps on the carpet.

“General Pacmad,” she called.

The Father of the Bear slipped one leg on, tried to slip on the second. He paused.

Sonya rose on her knees, facing him. The tears on her cheeks itched, but she dared not wipe them off. Only silly women acknowledged their tears.

“Let me help you, Master.”

That got him by surprise, she knew. After several weeks of fighting him and then several more obeying him quietly, this was the first time she had spoken to him without being addressed first. A grave gamble, but Sonya was not going to play the victim forever.

The undefeated warrior looked reluctant, but she didn’t dare call the spasm of muscles flashing across his face fear or even confusion. He didn’t seem to like the fact one of his concubines would try to help him. Was that it? She wasn’t sure. She wished she knew more about their barbaric customs. Was she supposed to hate him? Or accept him and look up to him for shelter and food? Or something else entirely?

Pacmad grunted and let his arms slip to the side. Sonya slid off the bed, knelt before him, and gently tugged on the trouser leg until it slipped above the boot sole. She pulled the rough hide up, higher, toward his crotch…

He slapped her arms off and laced himself up, his Eracian blue eyes staring at her from above. Did she dare smile? Did she dare—

He hit her. She reeled, fell, felt the musty rug lick her face like a dog’s tongue.

“Don’t presume too much, woman.” He gathered his vest, tinkling with little chains holding baby bear paws. Such a hideous outfit, Sonya thought. There were lice in that old fur.

And he walked out before she had another opportunity to charm him.

Sonya remained kneeling, the room slowly spinning. Pacmad didn’t trust her. Not yet. And she still did not know if she could win him over by being the most obedient, most willing concubine or if he desired them with dread in their heart. The second would be much harder, but she would bring herself to do it, if needed.

For now, General Pacmad and his clan were her world. It was almost like a court, in every essence except the filth and smell. She had to fight her way to the top, edge out the other concubines, eliminate her competition, make Pacmad trust her, get him to share his plans and thoughts with her, make him like her and want her. And then, she would have her revenge.

This bloody coup was a setback, nothing more. She just had to adjust her game. The rules had changed somewhat, but the principle remained. She had to fuck affluent men in dominant positions to get what she wanted. And when it came to raw appeal, General Pacmad was not ugly. He sure was more handsome than Leopold under that rugged, primitive mien. And his eyes were beautiful. Shame about his cock.

Sonya allowed herself a moment of weakness and wiped the itching tears away, then went back to planning what she would do once she had the power of the Kataji tribe in her hands.

Chapter 2

Jarman Wan’der Markssin watched the big city grow in his vision with a mix of wonder, apprehension, and vague memories from back when he was six, a child in a huge, smelly city. This was the place where his third mother had been killed.

And now, he was coming back. With an agenda.

He stood in the prow of the Sleek Maid, a cutter used for quick voyages with small but important cargo, in this case, passengers—two men. The ship rode the dark waves with speed and elegance, rising in a hiss of spray before it sliced down into the water like a huge ax. The land rose and fell rhythmically, and each undulation revealed more details.

Jarman watched as the nearby hills, brown and blue at a distance, coalesced into terraced farms and vineyards and rows of olive trees. He saw the shiny colors of buildings transmute into filthy shades of gray as his gaze went from the high, rich parts toward the vast, sprawling harbor. This place was the heart of Caytor. Eybalen.

They still had more than an hour before they reached that stench. Strange, how his nostrils remembered the flavor of the city with alarming accuracy when he had all but forgotten the sights and sounds. He just recalled streets strewn with rubbish—narrow, hot, dense—and tall buildings that leaned onto each other and blocked the sun away. So much different from the lovely Tuba Tuba. So much different from the Temple of Justice, where he had spent the last ten years of his life. It should have been one year, but he had stayed.

“How do you feel?” Lucas said, standing at his side.

Jarman turned toward his friend, the true nature of his age hidden beneath a veil of blue tattoos. He had never considered asking Lucas about his age; the man had never considered giving it. Anada wizards had their way with information and knowledge. For them, both were extremely precious.

For them, he thought. For me. I’m one of them.

He had been elected to wizard status only this last winter. It meant decades more of hard learning and training before he could become a master at his craft, like Lucas. But he could only look forward to that journey with excitement and wonder. Ten years at the temple, and he still felt like a baby making its first hesitant steps into the world. Not timid or shy or clumsy. Exhilarated.

“I am fine,” Jarman answered.

Lucas nodded once. The man was probably his father’s age, but it was really hard to tell. With no hair and almost completely blue skin, Lucas did not merit ordinary human measures. Jarman would get his first ink only the next year. Probably.

“This is an evil city,” Lucas offered, a rare emotional moment for him.

Jarman did not remember the night his third mother, Inessa, had died. Sometimes, he felt ashamed for having been so young when it’d happened, for not being able to understand the tragedy. He wanted to have that memory etched in his mind, but all he had was a recollection of stories, which he had twisted into a tale of his own, complete with its false images and words and feelings.

His father, Armin, had taken Inessa’s death badly. He had never returned to Eybalen since, even though the High Council of Trade would invite him often. Lucas had gone there to avenge her, but he had failed to find the killer. Oh, he had gotten to the assassins, but not the mind behind the plot. When he had finally learned the identity of the man responsible, it was already too late. He had already been killed by someone else. The death should have satisfied most people, but not the wizard. Lucas had failed to exact the punishment, had failed to deliver the promised revenge.

Now, Lucas was a life slave to Jarman, because that’s what his honor and code of justice dictated. Just as Jarman had been sent as an apprentice to the Anada. It should have been a single year, but it had turned into a decade.

Eybalen was an evil city. Luckily, Jarman was not going to Eybalen.

They would land in its port, then make their way out of the capital as soon as they could. The goal of their journey rested to the north and west. The last report placed their goal some three hundred miles away, in the center of the realm.

The ship was coming toward the harbor now, and the wind direction was turning more erratic, buffeted by the crease of hills to the north of the city. He could see fishing boats struggling to make it out of the cove into the high sea, where they could finally pull their rigging taut and begin trawling.

So many ships, Jarman noted. Sails didn’t tell him much, but he knew there would be people from all corners of the world converging here: Sirtai, Parusites, Oth Danesh—those who did not practice piracy and preferred peaceful trade instead—Badanese. They came to sell their spices and souls. The High Council never turned down money.

Jarman did not relish the encounter with foreign civilization. Well, if you could call it civilization. He had read all he could on the continental customs, but reading and experiencing them were two different things. He knew about cutpurses and cripples begging in the tiny alleys, and sick whores trying to sell off their flesh. He didn’t want to meet them. He didn’t want anything to do with this ugly place.

But it was the first stop on his journey.

Strange, he thought, how such a barbaric, outright nation when it came to violence and lies could be so timid when it came to celebration of life. These mainland people treated love as a hidden thing, something to be practiced with shame and secrecy. They married single partners only. As a wizard, he was not allowed to wed, but he didn’t see anything wrong about having several wives. Why couldn’t these Caytoreans understand that?

A first stop.

Oh, he could smell the city now, brine and urine and stale water mixed together. The harbor was not deep, but he could not see the bottom. The sea stared back at him, murky and deep green, almost blue. The Sleek Maid slacked her sails and glided to a bobbing halt maybe five hundred paces from the shore, waiting for the tugboats to guide her in. As a quick cutter, it did not have its own oarsmen.

The next hour turned into two as Jarman stood and watched helplessly as the locals manhandled the ship, tossing large ropes to the crew, then drawing them taut, and finally rowing slowly toward one of the piers. They looked like fingers of some twisted giant, long, thin, and there were too many of them. Most had some kind of vessel moored, mostly big, fat cargo ships. Mainly those that had valuable cargo to unload. Others were forced to anchor in the shallows and use tiny boats to get to the city’s filthy streets.

Sirtai were always welcome here, he knew. The Caytoreans appreciated the accuracy and wealth of his countrymen and maybe even feared the mysticism and magic that veiled them, almost as thick as the rumors and stories. But there was no denying the influence of Sirtai on the realms. The small island had brought most of the technology and culture to these land peoples.

It all went back to the war between the gods.

It was a war that had not yet ended.

Jarman lost his footing as the cutter jarred into the pier. Lucas grabbed his upper arm, steadying him. Men cursed, ropes lashed like whips, and then the Sleek Maid settled. Jarman looked about. No one seemed flustered. There was no damage, it seemed.

“We have reached our destination, sir. Safe and dry,” Shipmaster Arimo said, grinning.

Jarman knew what was expected of him; his father had told him about the unhygienic continental habits. Somewhat hesitantly, he extended his smooth, scholarly hand and rubbed the skin of his palm against the rough, callused hide of the ship’s officer. The man’s fingers twitched, tried to make that contact stay, but Jarman slipped his hand back.

The shipmaster did not attempt the same thing with Lucas, Jarman noticed. He realized it would take time before he gained the same intimidating presence as the master wizard. Having your skin pricked a hundred thousand times with ink needles also helped.

“Thank you,” the young man said and headed for the gangplank. It seemed narrow, and he wobbled on carefully, the lack of the seesawing motion, after days at sea, playing silly with his inner ear. Lucas followed, his strides steady. A knot of sailors trailed after them, carrying their luggage.

Solid ground, Jarman thought. Well, almost. Rotten wooden planks, bleached white with salt and the sun, slick with spray. He looked around: kegs, piles of nets with their white buoys, boxes stacked neatly, cages with birds inside, flapping, making noise. Then, he saw the crowd of dockworkers, waiting their turn to approach the maid and ravish her. They looked coarse, with skin full of wrinkles and grime outlining every one of them, faces that never really got shaved, only trimmed, meaty bodies with extra fat they had to have to be able to lug the cargo all day long, eyes squinting, suspicious, and hostile.

And that was only their own ship.

The same scene unfolded to the left and right, stretching without end. Quickly, the majestic glory of Eybalen truly assailed him. He waded through the mass of sweaty, stinking men with his arms half raised, trying to avoid touching them. One of Shipmaster Arimo’s men walked ahead, never quite bothering to check if they kept pace. The fish market almost made Jarman gag. He tried to block the almost physical punch of offal from his eyes and nostrils, but it did not really work.

Twenty or thirty paces was all it took to clear the dock front and get into the calmer harbor area, with squat warehouses and whorehouses blocking the view of the city. Jarman breathed deeply, as much as he dared. Behind him, the piers seethed. It was madness there. So unlike home.

He stared at the narrow streets worming toward inner Eybalen. He did not like the look of those streets; they were too dark, too filthy. Refuse ran down the sides in rivers of brown. It spilled into the harbor, just beneath their feet, slopping through cracks in stones and slits in the rotten planks. No wonder the cove was so murky.

How can people live like this, Jarman wondered.

“We will not be staying here long,” Lucas tried to reassure him.

“That’d be all, gents,” the sailor said, saluted casually, and walked back toward the stench.

Jarman did not like this place. He didn’t like it at all. But then, he had spent his entire adult life in a place where order ruled—order of things, order of thought. You might not like everything at the temple or agree with some of the customs, but you could appreciate the certainty of them. You knew that you would not be randomly punished; you knew that luck and chance had nothing to do with how well you did in your tests and how quickly you progressed in the temple’s cadre. This…was chaos.

“What now?” he asked, feeling lost. The train of sailors was stacking their things, wooden cases and hide bags, too many for two people to carry.

Lucas watched the ship’s crew carefully, as if seeing things that the plain eye could not detect. “We must get transportation. A carriage.”

Jarman pointed dramatically. A brothel, some sort of an inn, the customs office, another brothel, another, a warehouse, a brothel, a building with its windows boarded. “Here?” A steady trickle of men was going about its business, in and out of various doors. This was chaos, it seemed, but it worked somehow.

“I will take care of it,” Lucas said. “Wait for me there.” The wizard pointed at one of the inns.

Armin’s son sighed. Well, he had known the price of his journey before setting foot on the Sleek Maid. There was no point delaying the inevitable or commiserating about his own choices.

“What about our things?”

“No one will touch them,” Lucas promised.

Jarman headed for the tavern. He looked behind him. The luggage heap stood out like a lighthouse, begging to be picked by the street vermin the moment the owners left it without guard. But as Jarman walked farther and farther away, casting quick glances back, the heap remained untouched. A swarm of dock rats came and went about; grubby children, sly characters, ordinary workers, they all saw the prize and casually walked around it, not one pausing to reconsider his good fortune.

Jarman smiled weakly. Magic. They didn’t like it here in the realms.

That was about to change, he knew.

Jarman walked into the establishment without bothering to check the name on the swinging plate. And then he realized—shutters smeared in oil paint, all of the same color, all intact, faded but monotone facades, strips of solid cobbles, city watchmen patrolling the crowded waterfront. This was the more prosperous part of the city’s harbor, he noted sadly. He could hardly imagine what went on in the poorer districts.

“One?” someone asked him.

Jarman frowned, getting his tongue to flick in Continental. “One what?”

A man stood in front of him, bearded, thickset. “Are you alone, sir?”

“Oh, I see.” Would Lucas join him? “One.”

“After me, sir,” the man said and led him to a tiny table fixed to the side wall of the large common room.

Jarman sat down. He noticed the man had asked him something else. “Pardon me?”

“Drinks? Food, sir? We have fresh squid.”

The young wizard rubbed his chin. Did he dare eat here? These people were filthy; there was no knowing what they would do to their food. But then, he would be spending the next few months, maybe a whole year, maybe a decade, in Caytor, so he had better get used to their cuisine. The sooner, the better, it seemed.

“Something deep fried, crisp, almost black. And wine.”

The man wrinkled his nose. “We have more than a hundred dishes on our menu, sir.”

Jarman shrugged. “Anything really, sir.”

As the proprietor walked away—or maybe he was just a waiter—Jarman looked about the common room, exploring, recalling hours after hours of study on the culture and customs of the continental people. He looked for the telltale clues of class and wealth and found them easily enough. This seemed to be a place for the rich. Men wore thick rings with jewels on their fingers; others weighed their necks with heavy gold chains. Some had polished boot buckles, or silver filigree on the hilts of their swords.

They sat usually in pairs or threes, discussing business, it seemed. A violent affair, with a lot of gesturing and shouting, but Jarman saw through these displays of bravado easily enough. The Caytoreans were trying to hide their worry and anxiety behind big words and jerky motions.

Not all were locals. He spotted another Sirtai in the crowd. He almost waved, but then refrained. That would be foolish. A pair of Parusites entered, their shirts embroidered with the royal coat of arms. There were no women present.

Just as that thought dissipated, one came and flopped a wooden platter full of sea things in front of him. She was a large girl, with freckles across the bridge of her nose and plump cheeks. The waitress curtsied, the tiniest motion—you might mistake it for a misstep—and smiled. Jarman was inclined to smile back, but then he saw her teeth, almost the same color as his plate, and his enthusiasm withered. She lingered for a moment more, as if expecting something from him, but he just stared at her. In an instant, her smile vanished, and she sauntered away.

Jarman looked down at his food—mussels, scallops, a coil of squid. None of it looked deep fried. He realized he should have ordered meat or vegetables.

He tried a few of the clams and found them slippery and tasteless. He gave up after a while. There was no sign of Lucas. He wasn’t worried, but he was definitely bored.

An hour ticked away, and Jarman decided he could not stand this place anymore. He was irritated from staring at people doing business and reading their lips or trying to guess what they were dealing in. He rose and headed for the door. Someone called, a vague yell, and he turned to see who might be making that noise. Then he realized the stocky man was waving at him.

“You haven’t paid, sir,” the man explained patiently, but his tone was sharp.

Jarman slapped his forehead. Of course. He had forgotten. “Yes, my apologies.” And he remembered that he carried no money on his body. Lucas and he had agreed that the life slave would carry all the gold, because Jarman might lose it to cutpurses too easily.

Now what?

“I don’t have any money with me, sir. But my slave will be about any moment.”

The innkeeper did not seem sympathetic. “We don’t charge money up front like some shitholes out there, true, as this is a respectable place here; we got honest customers coming in.” He gestured around him, left and right. “But you still gotta pay before you leave. One silver, sir.”

The freckled waitress joined the man’s side, her lips sealed shut. Jarman might have liked her if he hadn’t seen her teeth, and he was painfully aware of the fact he had lived for a whole decade without any female company whatsoever. At the moment, though, fear and embarrassment and the horrid image of her mouth made him forget about his sexual deficit.

“We must wait for my slave,” Jarman explained.

“We will not wait for long,” the innkeeper said.

Some of the clientele were staring at him now, frowning, wondering what some Sirtai might have done to invoke the owner’s wrath. They could see his silk clothes and couldn’t quite grasp the fact he was penniless.

The door banged open, and Lucas walked in. No drama, no fuss, just perfect timing and an ominous presence that made everyone in the room become suddenly busy with the contents of their bowls, plates, and pipes. The innkeeper deflated almost instantly.

Lucas approached. “How much, kind sir?” he said patiently.

“Eh…one silver, my lord,” the local stammered.

The Anada wizard flicked his fingers and offered two coins. “For your trouble.”

Jarman was glad to leave the inn as quickly as he could. He didn’t stop walking until he reached the luggage heap. There was a large carriage waiting. It was impressive, painted black, with eight horses in the front, shitting on the cobbles. A bored man sat behind the reins, and two men were getting ready to load the chests and bags onto the back and roof of the carriage.

“Our transport,” Lucas explained. “Sorry about that. I should have reminded you about the services and payments. And here.” He gave Jarman a small purse. “Just in case. Keep it safe.”

Jarman considered slipping the coins into his back pocket, then reconsidered and placed them in a front one. The bulge chafed when he walked, but he would not allow himself to be embarrassed again, not so easily anyway.

“It will get better once we leave Eybalen,” Lucas promised.

Armin’s son nodded almost automatically. Better? Maybe. Their task was perilous, fatal. “All right. Let’s leave as soon as we can.”

They would be heading north and west, toward Pain Daye, where they expected to find and meet with Emperor James of Athesia and convince him to help them save the world.