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Authors: Kelley Armstrong

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FOURTEEN

T
he bandits had lied. Shocking, truly. They apparently hadn't “stumbled upon” Moria and Gavril the night before. They'd already been on the trail of Gavril's mother when the source they'd paid handsomely for that tip had brought them another—the traitor and his supposed lover had been spotted together nearby.

When the bandits left them in the wagon again, Gavril sank into the corner, his expression one she'd seen before. At Edgewood. When he'd discovered that she had not lied about the massacre.

Moria had spent the last fortnight telling herself she'd imagined that haunted horror in his eyes. But now, seeing it again, she knew it was not a reaction he was capable of manufacturing.

He hadn't truly believed her when she'd first said Edge
wood had been destroyed. She'd thought then that he believed her a foolish child with an active imagination. But while he'd suspected his father had raised the shadow stalkers they'd fought in the forest, he still had not believed him capable of massacring a village. Then he'd seen it for himself.

She remembered him staring at the corpse of the baker's wife.

“It's all . . . I don't understand. This isn't . . . Something's gone wrong.”

He'd known his father had planned some sorcery. Likely the raising of the shadow stalkers in the forest. But letting them massacre a village? Never.

Moria crouched in front of him now. “These men will not harm your mother.”

“He said her corpse was sufficient—”

“He lies. You know the emperor has no bounty on your mother. Toman only
hopes
one will be paid. He said he wouldn't take a chance delivering my corpse. He will not with hers either.”

Gavril looked up. “I wouldn't have let him—”

“—kill me? You wouldn't have had a choice, Gavril. I did not suspect you were serious when you said you'd be happy to see me dead. Not yet anyway. Perhaps after another day in this wagon together.”

She smiled, but he didn't seem to notice, too lost in his thoughts.

“Tell me about your mother,” she said.

He shook his head. “It is not important.”

“When we stop at her hiding place, there may be a chance
of escape. For all three of us. So allow me to distract you and clear your head. Tell me about her.”

He was quiet for a moment. Then he said, “Have you met Maiko? Tyrus's mother?”

“No. She was out of the city when I arrived and had not returned before we left.”

“Ah, then that's why the emperor was also away.” He caught her look. “Yes, I'm well aware of Maiko's fondness for pilgrimages and the emperor's habit of vanishing when she's gone. I remember, growing up, I used to listen to bards' tales . . .” He paused at her raised brows. “Yes, I listened. Wild stories are not to my taste, but if others were singing them at parties and such, I had little choice.”

“Of course.”

“As I was saying . . . I recall those tales often ending with the warrior marrying the lady, which I always found a very unsatisfying resolution. If they were truly in love, they would not marry. One married for duty. Love was something altogether different.”

“Your parents were not in love.”

“My father married to produce heirs, as is common for a man of his stature. Unfortunately, as you well know, it did not work well. After three successive wives, he has only me. As you've rightly pointed out before, the problem almost certainly does not reside in the women. I'm quite certain he has not produced any children even through . . . ah . . .”

“Mistresses?”

Moria had chosen the most delicate way of putting it, but from Gavril's expression, she might as well have said something far more vulgar.

“Yes,” he said. “There were no children despite . . . outside dalliances. Which clearly would have affected his relationship with Emperor Tatsu, given
his
seemingly endless offspring.”

“The ability to father children is a mark of virility.”

As Gavril squirmed, Moria resisted the urge to sigh with impatience. Truly, sexual relations were a fact of life, and this conversation only skirted the edges of the subject.

She continued. “It added salt to the wound of his friend becoming emperor. But this does not concern your mother.”

“It does. In many ways. He married her because she was very beautiful. And very young. She was your age when they wed.”

“What? That hasn't been legal for—”

“It has always been legal if the girl's parents consent. My mother was very young and . . .” Gavril pushed back his braids. “You may have heard my father say my mother lacks intelligence.”

“He made an unkind jab. I put no stock in it.”

“My mother is not a stupid woman. But she is very sheltered and she is not . . . I asked if you'd met Maiko. I think you would get on well. She does not have your sharp tongue or your impetuousness, but she is a strong woman, an independent thinker who does not bow to convention. My mother is not Maiko. She is not you or Ashyn. She grew up in a world where she was expected to be a powerful man's wife. No other options were presented to her before or after she married my father.”

“That can be the way of things,” Moria said slowly. “At least she had you.”

“No, she did not. That, too, can be the way of things in
the warrior world, and my father adhered to the old customs. I was raised by a succession of caretakers, none permitted to stay long enough for me to form any maternal attachments, which are not fitting for a young warrior.”

“Not even if they are to your actual
mother
?”

“Particularly then. When Tyrus would chatter about life with his mother, my father would mock him behind his back, saying that letting Tyrus stay with his mother meant the emperor must want more daughters, not sons, and that Tyrus would never become a proper warrior. I wish he'd been there yesterday, to see Tyrus fight, and—” Gavril sucked a breath. “No, I ought not to say it.”

“Your father
was
wrong.”

A weak smile. “On many counts. I mean only that I ought not to say that because it makes me . . . It makes me things I do not wish to be.”

“Angry?”

He seemed ready to answer, then shook his head. “As I said, when I was a child, I had little contact with my mother. That changed when my father was exiled. Ours was still . . . not the usual relationship between parent and child. My mother did not know how to be a mother, but she was sorely in need of a friend.”

“I can imagine she was.”

“She is a good woman. She's kind and she's caring, but she . . . She needs to be cared for more than she is capable of caring for others. My father has hidden her someplace and I've tried to find out where, because I'm concerned for her well-being.”

“And what Toman said only ignited those fears.”

“Yes.”

The bandit train wasn't moving fast—it could not, given that it took roads that were little more than paths. But it moved steadily, all through that day and into the night, making only brief stops to rest the horses. Too brief, in Moria's opinion, but she suspected if the poor beasts wore out, the men would simply liberate more from the nearest homestead.

Each time they stopped, the captives were allowed out of the wagon. Moria got food and water, precious little of both but still more than Gavril. At the end of the first day, they'd given him water, yet only a few mouthfuls, enough to ensure he didn't die on them. Toman delighted in mocking Gavril and reminding him that he could have more, if only Moria deigned to share. The truth, Moria realized, was that Toman hoped she wouldn't share, and the lack of rations would keep Gavril weak. In other words, the bandit leader had no desire to tangle with a true warrior, even if he was young and unarmed. A coward, then. Unsurprisingly.

The next morning, they'd barely woken when Moria heard a commotion outside. The scout had returned, riding hard, and was warning Toman that a troop of soldiers was coming their way.

“On
this
road?” Toman's voice carried in the quiet morning. “Blast it. They must be Alvar's men, sniveling cowards who don't dare take the main route. Get the horses and wagons to that forest there. Quickly!”

That took some effort. The road was rough enough—
leaving it meant the wagon tipped and veered wildly until Toman finally stopped it and ordered Moria and Gavril out.

“You're weighing it down,” he grumbled, though Moria was sure he just wanted to get his prizes to safety before the soldiers appeared.

He bustled them off, making them run on foot ahead of his horse. That was not easy, given how little she'd eaten. For Gavril, it must have required every bit of strength he had left, but he pushed himself to keep up, needing not a single prod from Toman. When they reached the woods, though, he looked ready to collapse, and she caught his arm, only to have him shake her off with a whispered, “Mind yourself, Keeper.” She nodded and motioned for him to lean against a tree instead. When he hesitated, she said, “Accept the support of that oak or collapse at Toman's feet. Your choice, Kitsune.”

He leaned against the tree. Toman finished dismounting and tying his horse, and came over to where they watched the soldiers, who'd just rounded a bend.

The men were not warriors. Not even militia, but farmers pressed into service—ordinary men who'd grabbed whatever weapons they could find, and walked in something akin to military formation behind a man who, on closer inspection, did bear the dual swords of a warrior.

“Recruits,” Gavril whispered.

“But not your father's,” Moria said. “Look at the warrior's helmet. It is imperial. These are the emperor's men.”

“You are correct,” Gavril said. “Your man misjudged, Toman. There's no need to hide. Perhaps you ought to speak to the warrior there, see if he bears any news.”

“You think you're clever, don't you, boy?”

“Not particularly. I'm merely suggesting—”

“They're recruits for Alvar,” Toman said to Moria. “See the band around the warrior's arm? In order to pass through the empire unharmed, they dress as imperials, but wear some sign to show they are not, so they are not cut down by other recruits spoiling for their first skirmish. The sign changes as quickly as the emperor can get out word to his men. Or, I should say,
almost
as quickly.”

Moria watched the men. There were twenty-two of them, all but the leader armed with only cudgels and scythes.

“Your men could defeat them,” she said. “That's what the emperor would want.”

“I'll leave that to the emperor's troops.”

“But those men have supplies. You could defeat them and take what they have.”

He snorted. “Dry rice balls and rotting cabbage? We do not need supplies that badly.”

And so they let Alvar's recruits pass unharmed, and all Moria could do was fervently wish the emperor's side attracted a better class of bandits.

FIFTEEN

T
he wagon stopped again at dusk. There was no announcement. No escort either. Moria and Gavril waited for someone to open the wagon flaps. Then the bandits' voices faded, replaced by an odd keening sound that made the hairs on Moria's neck rise.

“Do you hear that?” she whispered.

He nodded, which meant it was not spirits. Moria opened the flap, and a blast of whistling wind nearly knocked her back. She looked out across a windswept plain. It was not a term she'd ever used before, having only read it in books, but seeing the landscape before her, it was the first one that came to mind. A windswept plain.

Brown. That's what she saw. A sea of yellow-brown grass, bent even when the wind died down. There were scrubby trees, also bent, as if from a constant northern wind.

“What is this place?” she whispered as Gavril moved up beside her.

“I don't know.”

“Is it the steppes?”

“I don't know.”

His tone suggested annoyance, but when she glanced over, his gaze scanned the vista, assessing and wondering as much as she was.

“Perhaps the steppes,” he said. “I've never seen them.”

“I don't like it.”

He looked over, frowning, and Moria rubbed a hand over her face. “Ignore me, Kitsune. I'm tired.”

He studied her then. “It's difficult for you. Without Daigo.”

She started, surprised that he'd struck so close to the truth. Then she nodded. “I feel . . . unbalanced.”

“You seem it. Off-kilter. Not yourself. More . . . vulnerable.”

She straightened quickly, injecting some bite into her tone. “Having my dagger would help as well.”

“I know. Your wildcat, your dagger, and a change in companions would settle the ground under your feet.”

“None of which I'm likely to get soon, so I should shake this off, and get on with it. Your point is taken, Kitsune.”

“It was not a point, Keeper. Merely an observation, one meant to say that you do not need to explain yourself to me. But is it the lack of balance that disturbs you now? Or . . .” His green eyes turned to look over the plain. “This?”

This
.

The thought came unbidden as she looked out at the emptiness. She shivered.

“Spirits?” he asked.

She shook her head. “I'm simply unsettled, as may be
evidenced by the fact that I'm chatting when we appear to have been left alone, without guards, able to escape.”

He motioned to two bandits on a ridge. The mounted men watched them.

“Oh,” she said.

“Hmm.”

She stepped out. The bandits didn't move, and she flashed back to entering Fairview with Tyrus, the dead bodies in the guardhouse. She faltered, but only for a moment before calling, “May we come out?”

One bandit waved his hand in an indeterminable gesture. Moria walked a few steps and looked around. The wind whipped up again, shrieking past and blowing a fine layer of soil into her face, making her sputter. The bandits laughed, but Moria had experience with sandstorms in the Wastes, so she only pulled up her tunic over her nose and mouth and put her back to the wind.

When she turned, she saw the house. It was mud-daubed, the same color as the soil, with a flat roof and no distinguishing features. One could ride right past and never realize it was there.

Despite the falling sun, she saw no sign of light from within. After a few more steps, she realized there weren't any windows, but simply a door, shut tight. The bandits clustered at the front, as if waiting. The wind whistled again, and this time, in it, Moria thought she detected . . .

“Keeper?” Gavril's fingers closed on her elbow, as if to steady her. “Do you hear spirits?”

No, I hear memories. My memories. With the wind and the
emptiness and the desolation, all I can think of is Edgewood, after the massacre, when I found my—

“Do not heed me,” she said.

“I'm only—”

“And I'm only reminding you that we are being watched. Do not heed me, Kitsune.”

He nodded. “Do you want to go back inside the wagon?”

Yes, I wish very much to go back inside the wagon.

“No, I believe they are waiting,” she said, jerking her chin toward the bandits.

She strode forward, struggling to throw off her unease. It was merely the isolation of this place, preying on her imagination and—

She stopped short.

“Why does no one come out?” she asked.

“Hmm?”

“If we are here because your mother is within, should she not be guarded?”

“Well guarded, yes, if only to save my father from the humiliation of having his wife taken by his enemy.”

“Then why have they allowed us to get so close? There's nothing out here.
Nothing
. There ought to be a scout perched on that ridge. Does your father have no decent archers?”

“He does.” Gavril turned in a full circle, shading his eyes.

“Come along, boy!” Toman shouted. “I wish to leave before sundown.”

“It's a trap,” Moria murmured.

“By the bandits?” Gavril said. “Or someone waiting within?”

“Does it matter? Either way is equally dangerous to us.”

“Come on, boy!” Toman said. “Bring out your mother!”

Gavril looked at Moria. Then he called back, “You do it.”

“If you insist . . . and you don't mind me bringing out her head.”

Gavril shot forward. He stopped himself but rocked there, glancing between Moria and the house.

“Why do you look to the girl, boy?” Toman called. “Does your enemy give you counsel now?”

“No,” Moria called back. “He fears turning his back on me, lest I have only been cordial to him in preparation for attack. Come on then, Kitsune. Let's get this over with.” They started for the house. When they drew up alongside it, she turned to Toman. “You stand out here because you fear walking into a trap. Do you trust that Lady Kitsune's guards will not mistakenly cut down Gavril and spoil your chance for his bounty?”

“True. You'd best go with him, then, to be sure they do not.”

Moria snorted. “I hardly care—”

“Start caring.” Toman strode forward and slapped her dagger into her hand. “He is the one Emperor Tatsu truly wants. If he dies in an ambush, I'll not take you back to the city alive, for fear you'll tell the emperor what happened and he'll have my head for it.”

“Arm him as well,” Moria said.

“Listen to you, little girl. Talking as if you're a warlord—”

“I am the Keeper. I outrank every warlord in this land. If you wish the traitor to survive this trap, provide him with a weapon.”

Toman motioned for someone to bring Gavril a sword.

“I'll take a sword, too,” Moria said. “I have been training and—”

“Do not push your luck.”

“Luck is meant to be pushed.”

“And
you
are lucky that I admire your mettle, little girl, or I'd not appreciate your tongue.” His grin turned wolfish as he stepped toward her. “Perhaps I can come to appreciate it more on the remainder of this journey.”

“I'm sure you will, though not in the way you hope.”

He only laughed. “We'll see.” He winked. “There's a reason I have three very happy wives. Now take your dagger and bring me a true traitor's whore.”

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