Book One: The Silerian Trilogy
The Outlookers arrested him less than an hour after his boat docked in Cavasar, the westernmost port of Sileria. It was a poor welcome home after nine years in exile, but Tansen supposed he should have counted on it. Despite his Moorlander clothes and his Kintish swords, he still bore the unmistakable signs of a shallah—and bore them proudly: the long mane of dark hair, the cross-cut scars on his palms, and a jashar, the intricately woven and knotted belt which declared his name and history.
Under Valdani law, which had ruled Sileria for more than two centuries, shallaheen were forbidden to bear weapons. And so the two slender Kintish swords Tansen wore aroused considerable interest; indeed, judging by the speed with which the Outlookers had singled him out, alarm would not be too strong a word. Realizing the Outlookers were after him, Tansen ruthlessly suppressed the fear that pricked him at the sight of those fair-skinned Valdani in their anonymous gray tunics following him through the crowded, narrow streets of Cavasar. He was no longer a helpless, ignorant boy, and he would not act like one by racing through back alleys and over rooftops with a pack of clumsy Outlookers in hot pursuit, destroying the fragile peace and abusing innocent city-dwellers.
Perhaps he should have hidden his swords, but he couldn’t afford to have them out of reach. There was no telling when the attack he expected would occur; he must be prepared for his enemies at all times now that he was on Silerian soil. When a Society assassin came for him, he wouldn’t have time to fumble through concealing folds of cloth for his swords. He needed to be as ready as he had ever been in his life.
Now, however, he’d have to do something about these Outlookers. The long years of his exile, the skills he had acquired, and the battles he had won now stiffened his spine and gave weight to his voice as he halted on the rough cobblestones and turned to confront one of the men he’d spotted out of the corner of his eye.
“Did you want something?” he asked. Valdan, the official language of Sileria for over two hundred years, rolled smoothly off his tongue.
Momentarily caught off guard, the Outlooker now swaggered forward. “Hand over your weapons,” he ordered.
Tansen arched one brow. “No,” he said simply.
The Valdan glanced at another Outlooker who came forward to flank him, then said with a snap in his voice, “By order of the Emperor, no native dogs may carry swords.”
Tansen gazed impassively at the two uniformed Outlookers for a moment, then looked around casually, estimating how many more were with them.
“I am no dog,” he replied. It had been a long time since anyone had dared to speak to him so; but he was in Sileria now.
The Outlooker studied him for a moment, doubt weakening his expression. “You are Silerian, aren’t you?”
He didn’t bother to answer. He’d spotted two other Outlookers; that made four in all. He could take them. But did he want to? Killing these Valdani would undoubtedly complicate his plans.
“I’ll say it once more,” the Outlooker snapped.
“Must you?” Tansen asked in a bored voice.
The Outlooker’s face screwed up with hatred. Mistaking the odds as being in his favor, he leaped forward and grabbed Tansen’s embroidered tunic.
Tan clapped his left hand over the man’s fist, trapping it, and then sharply rolled the edge of his right forearm down into the Valdan’s wrist, as he had once been taught by a man whose name he had not spoken aloud since his boyhood. With a gasp of mingled pain and surprise, the Outlooker sank to his knees. Deciding not to break his wrist, Tan seized the man’s short hair and, before anyone had even seen him pull his sword from its sheathe, pressed the blade against the Outlooker’s throat.
“These fine Moorlander clothes cost me dearly,” Tansen said, “and I would not like them soiled by your hands, roshah.”
The word roshah—”outsider”—bore a wealth of possible nuances in shallah dialect, but Tansen’s tone made his meaning clear; outsiders were generally loathed and distrusted by the shallaheen.
The citizens crowding the street lost no time in reacting to this sudden development. The fascinated crowd made a wide circle around the scene almost as quickly as Tansen had made his move.
“Don’t do it!” Tan warned the Outlooker directly before him as the man reached for his sword. “Move over there by the fountain.” He nodded toward the other two Outlookers. “All of you!”
A dozen women quickly hoisted up their clay water jars and moved away from the fountain. Water gushed forth from the mouth of a ferocious dragonfish carved in marble; the people of Cavasar obviously paid their tribute to the Society waterlords in a timely and generous fashion.
Seeing the Outlookers’ hesitation, Tansen added, “Now.” He twisted his blade just enough to make his sweating captive squeal a little.
Turning red with fury and humiliation, the Outlookers slowly moved toward the fountain, where Tansen ordered them to drop their sword belts. The Outlookers in Sileria, Tansen had learned in his travels, were among the worst-equipped soldiers in the entire Valdani Empire. The Silerians, a long-ago conquered people, stripped of their weapons and too busy quarreling among themselves to rebel against the Valdani, were considered the least of the Emperor’s worries. So the oldest weapons and greenest troops were sent to keep the “peace” in Sileria.
Tansen watched the Outlookers’ short, heavy swords fall to the ground and recalled the gleaming, seemingly invincible weaponry he had seen the Valdani use to crush an army in the Moorlands only last year. When they sought to seize the misty green hills of those blue-eyed giants, they brought all their might to bear. But to hold the jagged, golden mountains of Sileria and the ancient ports along her coasts, the Emperor sent corrupt commanders, inexperienced troops, and weapons that any Kintish mercenary would be embarrassed to be seen carrying. And the great shame of it was that, for two centuries, the Valdani had needed no more than this to rule Sileria.
With the three Outlookers now disarmed and kneeling as ordered, Tansen was considering his escape when a gnarled old fisherman, his arms bearing the intricate indigo tattoos of the sea-born folk, pointed at Tan’s hostage and cried, “Kill him!”
“Hmmm, what is the penalty for killing an Outlooker these days?” Tansen asked, dragging his captive away from the fountain and toward a dark alley.
“Death by slow torture,” the Valdan warned him in strangled tones. “You will have your parts cut off one by one for this, you motherless c—” His threat ended on a gasp as the sharp Kintish blade drew blood.
“I’m only motherless,” Tansen growled into his ear, “because Outlooker pigs murdered her, you puss-eating bastard.”
“Kill him!” the old fisherman urged, following them.
“Go away, old man,” Tansen warned. “This isn’t your—”
“Your mother, my wife…” The old man pointed to people around them. “Her son, their father… Who has not suffered because of these dung-kissing swine?”
“Yes, kill him!” a woman cried.
The crowd took up the chant, some in common Silerian, some in dialect: “Kill him, kill him, kill him!”
“What a homecoming,” Tansen muttered, amazed at how fast things had gotten out of hand. Since when had people in Cavasar done more than simply turn their backs on a stranger’s business?
“My father did nothing!” a boy screamed, running headlong into the Outlookers by the fountain. “And you killed him, you killed him!”
One of the men hit the boy. Between one breath and the next, the crowd descended on them in a fury. A woman raised her water jar high, then brought it crashing down on an Outlooker’s skull. Fists and elbows made dull, thudding sounds as they hit flesh. Breathless grunts and outraged screams filled the air. Tansen smelled bloodlust and was so astonished by the suddenness of the riot that he nearly forgot his hostage, who made a clumsy attempt to escape.
“If you won’t kill him,” the fisherman shouted above the noise, “then let me!”
“Wait, old man! There’s—”
Tansen’s words were cut off as a group of flailing bodies tumbled straight into him. He crashed backwards into stacks of dried fish, then slipped on spilled oil as he surged back to his feet. The Outlooker he’d used as a hostage was already crawling away, pursued by the old man, who was brandishing a small fish-gutting knife. Tansen heard the horn being blown in one of the city’s watchtowers and realized the alarm had been sounded. This sudden brawl was about to be raided by more Outlookers, who would imprison everyone present, if not execute them on the spot. He had to stop the fighting while everyone still had time to get away; he had caused it, after all.
Keeping one sword unsheathed, he seized a dull copper bell from the tumble of what had been a market stall only moments ago, then climbed atop a peddler’s cart and starting ringing it.
A donkey was the first living thing to take the slightest notice of him. Slapping its rump with his sword as it clattered past, he shouted to the crowd, “Go! The Valdani are coming! Run!“
A few people realized what was happening and fled the scene. Most still seemed more intent on killing the Outlookers than on saving their own skins. Exasperated, Tan rang the bell again, wondering when everyone in Cavasar had gone insane. Above the noise of the rioting crowd, he could already hear the hoofbeats of the approaching Outlookers; it sounded like there were a lot of them.
“Run, damn you!”
He threw the bell aside and unsheathed his second sword. These bloodthirsty fools obviously wouldn’t leave until all four Outlookers were dead, and they were making slow and messy work of it. He’d have to kill the remaining ones himself if he wanted the crowd to disperse. He just hoped he could get past these raving Silerians fast enough to do it before all of them were set upon by—
An agonizing shock of pain pierced his back, ripping a harsh grunt from his throat. He was pushing himself off the hard cobblestones before he even realized he had fallen. An arrow, he thought, drawing harsh breaths as additional waves of pain started washing over him. As he had been taught long ago, he had not let go of either sword, but his left arm was already growing numb. The Valdani, he knew, often coated their arrow tips with strange poisons. Some mixtures could kill a man if the dosage was strong enough; others merely put him to sleep for a few hours.
More arrows flew into the fray, and then Valdani horsemen were clattering across the stones, sweeping their short, heavy swords through the crowd. Screams assaulted Tansen’s ears as his left hand relaxed against his will, letting his sword fall to the ground. Someone ran straight into him, jarring the arrow which stuck out of his back; the pain made his vision go black. Dizzy from the poison seeping into his blood, he whirled toward the clatter of hooves, but his remaining sword encountered nothing. Light flashed before his eyes and figures danced in and out of focus. He held off attacking, unable to distinguish between Outlookers and Silerians. The rasp of his own breath and the desperate thumping of his heart grew so loud that, in the end, he never even heard the rider who rode up and seized his long, single braid to drag him along the hard stones while he clumsily tried to keep away from the horse’s prancing feet.
The last thing he was aware of was someone prying the sword out of his useless right hand before he lost consciousness.