Our first stop would be Muena Palaiya, Estrada’s erstwhile home and seat of mayoral power. In theory, it was three days’ easy ride away. In practise, things were likely to prove a little more complicated.
The Sabre and the highway beyond it offered by far the fastest passage northward. Of the many advantages Mounteban possessed in holding Altapasaeda, that might prove most telling in the long term. With the bridge unavailable and the docks closed to traffic, the rest of southern Castoval would soon grind to a halt. Already the river was almost empty of boats, just as the road was clear of wagons.
Our only alternative was to head north-west on this bank and ford the Casto Mara where we could, then travel on through the forest of Paen Acha. Even that would have been simple enough until recently, but the ferry at Casta Canto had fallen victim to our dramatic flight south, and I couldn’t imagine they’d returned it to working order in a mere few days.
I had a feeling no one had pointed this out to Alvantes. I was looking forward to the look on his face when he found out. Even if anything that thwarted his plans thwarted mine as well, it would still be entertaining.
However, I soon discovered he had more pressing issues on his mind than our travel plans. We were barely an hour out of Altapasaeda when Alvantes drew his horse alongside mine. “You remember the giant stronghold?” he asked.
I tried to hide my surprise at so unexpected a question. “I’m not sure I’d call it a stronghold.”
“I was barely conscious. You saw far more of it than I did.”
“It’s a nice place. Are you considering a holiday?”
He ignored me. “You met other giants there.”
“Plenty of them.”
Alvantes nodded towards Saltlick, who was lumbering a few paces ahead, his relaxed gait more than sufficient to keep pace with our horses. “Tell me. Are they all like him?”
“Not all. Most of the ones I met were female.”
Alvantes frowned. “I mean, are they all so… passive? So submissive?”
“I didn’t have to break up any fights while I was there, if that’s what you mean. What are you driving at?” But I didn’t really need to ask. Alvantes had been thinking about the giants waiting ahead. He’d been tormenting himself over his mistress Altapasaeda, currently trolloping herself with another man. Then he’d brought those thoughts together and realised he had the start of an idea.
It wasn’t an idea I much liked. The giants had already been abducted once, already forced into violence by Moaradrid. You didn’t need to be an expert in giantish culture to realise it ran against everything in their nature. “Yes,” I said, “they were all like Saltlick. More so, if anything. The place was a haven of tranquillity. You’d have hated it.”
Alvantes eyed me coldly, as though trying to weigh the truth of what I’d said. “Maybe they’ve just never found the right cause,” he observed finally.
Before I could point out that liberating a bunch of spoilt Altapasaedans was probably the least right cause imaginable for giantkind, he spurred his horse forward in a clatter of hooves.
I glared after him, my already doubtful mood entirely soured by the exchange. Casting about for something that might cheer me up, I remembered the pain medicine I’d bought in the Suburbs. I drew it from my pocket, made a brief attempt to read the spidery writing on the label, then gave up and downed the lot in one sharp gulp.
Its taste brought back vivid memories of my time in the sewers. However, if its flavour was beyond repellent, its effects soon began to make up for it. It slowly dawned on me that the countless agonies that filled me from head to toe were being replaced by a mild but pleasant tingling. Everything around me had acquired a golden tinge, which shimmered whenever I moved my eyes. It was interesting enough that I began to rock my head from side to side, curious as to what speeds and angles would produce the most vivid results.
“You should take your medicine,” I called to Alvantes. “It’s good stuff.”
He didn’t even bother to look back. “Some of us need to be alert.”
“There’s nothing to be alert to. If you can’t be alert to something, you might as well enjoy not being alert to nothing.” This made perfect sense in my head. Another side effect of the pain medicine was an instinctive feeling that, whatever the evidence to the contrary, all was basically right in the world.
As for Alvantes, he merely shook his head and went on riding.
Though I suspected I might be missing the intricacies of the question, my basic point was sound. The region north of Altapasaeda was scenic, dull, and utterly devoid of danger. At first, we’d passed by the great farm estates that serviced and mostly belonged to the Altapasaedan wealthy. Amidst the scattered workshops of stonemasons and carpenters were aviaries and apiaries, orchards and great, vivid plantations of flowers, all laid out in intricate tapestries that spread between the mountains on one side and the river on the other.
As the morning wore on, the farmlands grew more prosaic. Here was the belt of land where everyday produce was grown, both for Altapasaeda and for much of the land further north. Presently we passed between expanses of sunflowers on the one hand and rye grass on the other. According to my current perceptions, every flower and head wore an aureole of gold that shimmered whenever it shifted in the breeze.
The effect was beginning to grow a little nauseating. By the time we stopped for a brief roadside lunch, I was starting to wonder if the pain had really been so bad after all. When I turned down the share of bread and salt fish Estrada proffered, she looked at me with grave concern.
“Easie… you never say no to food.”
“Not feeling so good,” I mumbled. “Not sure ’bout that medicine.”
“Can I see it?”
I handed her the small bottle.
Estrada plucked out the bung and sniffed it. “You didn’t really drink all of this, did you?”
I nodded delicately, conscious of how every small movement made my stomach swirl.
“Oh, Easie. That quantity should have lasted you a week.”
“Doesn’t hurt,” I managed.
“I’m amazed you can feel anything. Can you still ride?”
I could, so long as I kept my head still and my eyes more or less closed. That suited me just fine. It was a lot like being asleep, though I was vaguely conscious of the fields sliding by to either side, of Saltlick clumping just ahead, of mingled farmland smells and the mellow warmth of the midday sun.
Only when we drew within the verge of the western forest did I start to grow aware again. I felt better in the shade, and even dared turn my head to examine the way we’d come. Only Estrada was behind me. She seemed to have stationed herself as far from Alvantes as possible, though I hadn’t noticed any falling out between them. Had she finally realised what an obnoxious lunk he was? More likely, it was some expression of womanly emotion that I stood no hope of fathoming.
When she caught my eye, she gave a brittle smile. I did my best to return it.
Beyond Estrada, the highway stretched as far as I could see. It ran in gentle curves all the way back to Altapasaeda, now no more than a haze on the very edge of vision. Its dusty surface was unspoiled by any hint of life.
Except — was that a figure in the very far distance? For an instant, I was sure a speck of darkness stood out on the road’s pale surface. I blinked, just as my horse stepped into a patch of shadow. Suddenly, I couldn’t be certain.
Anyway… so what if someone was behind us? Even with Altapasaeda shut off from the wider Castoval, there must still be the occasional traveller. I tried to remember my determination not to let paranoia get the better of me.
The day wore on, and steadily I found I was feeling better. My head cleared, returning the world by degrees to its usual range of brightnesses and colours. My stomach began to grumble with hunger rather than the urge to empty itself. Most cheeringly, the pain medicine had actually done its work; I was astonished to find that my bruises had even started to fade.
By mid-afternoon, we’d joined the road that would take us the last distance back towards the Casto Mara. The main highway ran on towards the small town of Muena Delorca. Our course, meanwhile, angled sharply aside and into denser forest. It was still there, very quiet, the greenery broken only by the occasional small hamlet or charcoal burner’s hut, their rooftops licking the sky with tongues of smoke.
I felt calmer than I had since this nonsense with Altapasaeda began. Had the company been less dull, the travelling might even have been pleasant. Alvantes was his usual brooding self, and even Estrada, who could normally be relied on for misguided optimism, was unusually subdued. I had no doubt it was Alvantes she was worrying about, not herself — and my suspicion was confirmed when she suggested we stop for a break.
“If we hurry, we can be across the river before sunset,” noted Alvantes.
“A few minutes won’t make much difference,” replied Estrada.
“Why waste time we can’t spare?”
“Because… Lunto, your arm…”
My gaze followed hers, as did Alvantes’s own. He was quick to dip his injured limb out of view — but not so quick that we didn’t all see how bright splotches of red stood out on the bandaged stump.
“Look,” she said, “there’s a glade. The horses would like a rest even if you wouldn’t.”
Alvantes’s mount, an excitable stallion I’d once nicknamed Killer, whinnied vigorously. It sounded like agreement, but might just as well have been the expression of his latest murderous impulse.
“All right,” Alvantes said. “For a short while.”
I couldn’t but smile. How typical of Alvantes to take the word of his horse over the woman who anyone else could see still held feelings for him!
The clearing was a good choice on Estrada’s part, an hourglass of open ground hemmed in by close-packed trees, its sward puddled with patches of foxglove and nettle. It was evidently a popular spot with travellers, for rectangles of blanched grass showed where tents had recently been pitched, and the detritus of many a fire littered a shallow pit towards the centre.
Once we’d dismounted, Estrada insisted on ministering to Alvantes. His initial resistance was met with sharp words, and after that, he bore with it stoically. Saltlick, meanwhile, settled on his haunches at the edge of the woodland and began harvesting leaves for an early supper. Not for the first time, I envied his ability to eat seemingly anything.
Despite what Alvantes had said, it was clear we’d be stopping for a while. Hunting in my pockets for something to amuse myself with, I happened upon the lock picks, needle, and thread I’d bought from Franco.
I remembered immediately what my intention had been. It wasn’t something I felt like doing in sight of Alvantes and Estrada, so I wandered to the far end of the glade, where I’d be sheltered from view by the encroaching forest. A tree on the perimeter had been sheared by storms, and the shattered trunk made a convenient seat. I shrugged my cloak off, peeled my shirt over my head, climbed up and perched crosslegged.
I might not be thieving as much as I was accustomed to, but some things I couldn’t bear to be without. I’d been given my first lock picks when I was thirteen, and had rarely lacked for a set since. They always came in handy sooner or later, and often when I least expected it.
Buying three sets might seem excessive, but I had my reasons. I started with the shirt, taking the utmost care. Then I drew it back on and moved onto the cloak. It was a shame to unpick so excellently sewed a lining, but I knew my clumsy repairs would make the subterfuge all the more effective.
I was almost done when four things happened, in such close succession that I could hardly separate them. I heard Alvantes call my name. Alarmed, I rocked backwards, lost my balance. As the world began to spin away, I thought I saw a flash of motion in the far tree line. A sound, as of a large insect, whirred past my ear.
The next I knew I was tumbling back, my head barely missing a tree trunk. The grass wasn’t as soft as it looked; my drug-benumbed bruises woke with a jolt.
Stumbling to my feet, I snarled, “What’s wrong with you? Sneaking up like that.”
“What’s this, Damasco?”
Alvantes was looking at my cloak. I’d dropped it when I fell, and the carefully secreted picks had tumbled from the half-sewn seam.
Well, there was no law against carrying lock picks, even if Alvantes were in a position to enforce it. “I thought they might come in handy,” I said.
“Already planning your return to a life of petty crime?”
I was in no mood for jibes. My bruises ached and my right ear stung furiously. “It isn’t twenty-four hours since you were begging me to break into Altapasaeda. Why don’t you stick to your misguided heroics and I’ll help in my own way?”
He looked ready to argue. Instead, with an obvious effort of self-control, he said, “Any decent search would turn them up.”
“A decent search would turn up the set in the right pocket. A determined search would find the second set hidden in the lining. That still leaves the third set I’ve sewn into the collar of my shirt.”
He considered. Then, to my surprise, he asked, “What about something bigger? Could you apply the same principle?”
“I don’t see why not. Most people are basically lazy. The trick with misdirection is to give them something they expect. If they expect to find something and do, nine times in ten they’ll stop looking.”
Alvantes nodded thoughtfully. His next words were even more unexpected. “Can I borrow that needle and thread when you’re done?”
“Thank you. Oh, and Damasco,” he said, touching fingers to the side of his own neck, “you’re bleeding.”
I mirrored the gesture. Sure enough, my fingers came back slick with red.
“You should be more careful falling off logs,” said Alvantes, and turned back towards the wider clearing.
But I hadn’t cut myself when I fell.
I felt suddenly cold, despite the late afternoon warmth. My gaze darted to the far trees, where I’d thought just for an instant that I’d seen movement. There was nothing now. I turned, drawing a mental line across the clearing. The chill deepened, settled in my spine. Buried finger-deep in a tree trunk, directly behind where I’d sat, a thin-bladed knife jutted.
I stared at it in horror. Though I was certain death hovered invisibly nearby, I couldn’t help but reach to yank it free. It was light as a feather, delicately balanced — the weapon of a master.
The spell broke. Panic took over. I vaulted the tree trunk, caught my cloak and picks and dashed after Alvantes.
Estrada looked up. “Are you all right?”
“We need to go,” I said. “Right now.”
I strove to steady my voice. “Alvantes is right. If we hurry, we’ve a chance of a decent night’s rest. One more night sleeping rough will be the death of me.”
“We were about to set out anyway,” said Alvantes.
I grasped my horse’s bridle and swung into the saddle. Common sense told me that if Synza was willing to kill me in sight of the others he’d have done it already — but common sense was a whisper in the back of my mind compared to the fear screeching through the rest of it. It was excruciating to wait for Alvantes, Estrada and Saltlick to fall in. I set a quick pace for the first ten minutes, until their curious glances and the undeniable absence of killers leaping from the forest began to calm me a little.
Only then did the realisation truly sink in… Synza had waited to get me alone. So long as I had company, I was safe.
I dropped back to ride between Alvantes and Estrada, ignoring the looks they gave me. My mind was still awhirl. Now, however, it was less fear, more the simple question of self-preservation that set my thoughts spinning.
It wasn’t one I had any easy answers to. Only when we came in sight of the Casto Mara did the inkling of an idea present itself. As I’d suspected, the ferry had yet to be repaired. In its place, though, a crude and presumably temporary replica had been constructed. Ropes were strung taut across the river, a rough platform had been constructed from cut logs with mounted metal wheels at either end, and two burly men were hauling it by hand from bank to bank. It was less than half the size of the old ferry and looked distinctly rickety, but it was a way across.
Ever so slowly, the two ferrymen heaved their makeshift transport over from the far bank. When they arrived, they passed another five minutes in whispered conversation, sparing us only the occasional glance.
Estrada was first to lose her patience. “May I ask what the problem is?”
The nearest ferryman looked at her uneasily. “Thing is,” he said, “we’ve rates for people and rates for horses. We don’t have rates for…” He pointed at Saltlick. “For anything like that.”
“Saltlick is a giant,” she said tartly, “but I don’t think he’d been offended if you chose to consider him a horse for the duration of our trip.”
Saltlick nodded sagaciously. “Horse good.”
The ferryman’s expression brightened. “Horse it is then. All aboard!”
As it turned out, the craft was sturdier than it appeared. Casta Canto was a logging town after all, and if the folk knew little else they knew wood. After a few minutes, I let myself ignore our creeping, creaking progress in favour of thinking over my next move.
When, what seemed at least an hour later, we brushed against the rough harbour of Casta Canto, my scheme was ready. As Estrada went to pay the two ferrymen I said, “I’ll get this. Why don’t you go ahead and find us somewhere for the night?”
“Where can we rent rooms?” Estrada asked the ferrymen.
One pointed to a two-storey building a little way up the main street. “Try the Bear Trap first,” he said. “Lindi’s been cooking up a batch of her famous boar stew.”
Estrada nodded and set off, with Alvantes and Saltlick close behind.
“So,” I said, “What do we owe?”
The man attempted to calculate on his fingers. “A twelfth-onyx for each of you,” he said, “two each for the horses… another two for the man-horse…”
“Let’s call it an onyx,” I said. “Now, how much more would it take for you to close the ferry for the rest of the day? In fact, to close it and make sure it stays closed until noon tomorrow?”
He squinted in concentration. “We’d have shut up soon enough anyway.”
“It has to be now. No more passengers today.”
“It’ll mean a whole night’s drinking,” he said, as though this were the only conceivable outcome.
“And the morning too,” inserted his companion.
“Ah, right. That’s… well, three bottles each, at a pinch…”
I held out two more onyxes. “Will that cover it?”
His eyes widened. “It might.”
“No more passengers. I’ll be checking.”
“No need for that.” He sounded faintly offended. “With what this’ll pay for, that ferry might be down for a week.”
By the time I reached the Bear Trap, the others were just leaving. “What’s the problem?” I asked.
“They only have two rooms available,” Estrada told me.
That sounded like excellent news to me. “Let’s not be needlessly extravagant. Why can’t Alvantes and I share?”
Estrada eyed me with astonishment bordering on horror. “Weren’t you the one who swore another night without a bed would be the death of you?”
It might. But not as quickly as having a room to myself would if Synza found a way across the Casto Mara. The little bastard had managed to keep up so far. He was nothing if not resourceful. “Our money won’t last forever,” I pointed out. “Who knows what surprises might be waiting? Let’s be practical.”
Estrada looked at Alvantes. “He has a point.”
“I am not sharing a bed with Damasco.”
“I’ll take the floor,” I said. “I’m sure they can rustle up a few spare blankets.”
Alvantes shook his head wearily. “I can’t but wonder what goes on in your mind, Damasco. Very well then, if coin is so much more important to you than comfort.”
“Coin,” I said, “is more important to me than anything. You should know that by now.”
Once we’d settled in, my first step was to find a quiet corner of the taproom in which to finish sewing the lock picks into my cloak. This time no one paid me any heed, and I was done in minutes. I sought out Alvantes, where he was tending the horses in the stables to the rear. I nodded to Saltlick, comfortably installed in a double stall no doubt intended for carriages rather than giants, and handed Alvantes my needle and thread. “I suppose there’s no point asking what it is you want to hide?”
Alvantes opened his cloak, revealing a rip in the lining. “Who said I want to hide anything?”
He had, of course. Not explicitly, maybe, but Alvantes wasn’t one to ask idle questions — or for that matter, to concern himself with a torn lining. Still, if this was how he wanted to play it, I was confident I could find other ways to satisfy my curiosity. I left him to it and, having stepped outside to confirm that the ferry operators had indeed quit their work, returned to the taproom and settled to a cup of wine.
The next I saw of Alvantes was well over an hour later, just as dinner was called, when he handed back my needle and a much-diminished spool of thread.
“May I admire your handiwork?” I asked.
He drew back his cloak, revealing a neat line of stitches. Well, neat it might be, but there was no way it had consumed such quantity of thread as was missing. What was the man up to?
It was a mystery that would have to wait. I was worn out — from the long day’s journeying, from my healing injuries, from the lingering effects of the pain medicine and the shock of my most recent brush with death. Dinner, the promised and surprisingly delicious boar stew, was the straw that broke me. Never mind that my bed was a heap of blankets on the floor; never mind my fears that Synza might have made it across the river. I barely had time to close my eyes before sleep hauled me down into its depths.
I woke feeling almost refreshed.
After a breakfast of stewed plums, Estrada insisted on redressing Alvantes’s arm, and I ventured out to check the ferry. It was tied off to the harbour, just as I’d left it. I considered hacking through one of the overhanging ropes, but I doubted Synza would have waited on the far bank, or that the two ferrymen would be in any state to renege on our bargain. No, my best hope now lay in widening whatever start I’d gained.
With that in mind, I insisted on taking the lead when we set out again, and on maintaining the fastest pace I could without drawing comment from Alvantes and Estrada. When we’d passed this way in the opposite direction, Estrada, Saltlick and I had been forced to travel cross-country, led by that despicable shark Mounteban. This time we followed the winding main road out of Casta Canto, which led east and a little north. If it was quicker, the going was still frustratingly slow and dull.
Evening found us out of Paen Acha proper, in the eastern region where the forest broke into scattered woodland and wild meadows. We stopped at a small village I was barely familiar with and paid for lodgings in its dingy, weather-beaten inn. The fact that I’d seen no sign of Synza had done nothing to alleviate my worries, so I was glad to find that in place of rooms the inn had two large dormitories, one for men and women each.
Somehow, despite the fact that most of the beds were occupied by raucously snoring loggers, I managed another sound night’s sleep. As we set out the next day, my mood was almost upbeat. We made good speed in the morning, and by lunch we’d joined the north-south highway, the last vestiges of woodland behind us. Far ahead, high above, Muena Palaiya was visible as a spatter of white in the weak sunlight, where its southernmost edge showed above the plateau called the Hunch.
Only then did I start to realise how misjudged my good humour was.
It crept upon me slowly — a subtle sense of wrongness. The few people we passed were sullen and uncommunicative, just as the inn’s small staff had been the night before. They looked furtive, on edge, expressions that summoned all-too-ready memories of our time in the Suburbs. One or two I could ignore, but each downturned face, each averted eye, reinforced my doubts. As much as I told myself it didn’t mean anything, I couldn’t believe it.
We spent the afternoon crawling towards the broadening line of white that was Muena Palaiya. Once we’d passed the crossroads, where the road down from the mountains met the highway, our route began to climb — steadily at first and then more steeply. I found myself watching Estrada. She’d been absent for days. Would it be unreasonable to expect her to look pleased at the sight of her home? Yet as the afternoon wore on, all I could see was tension that set like mortar, drawing her face into harder and harder lines.
When we crested the edge of the plateau late in the afternoon, I realised the gates were closed. Well, there was nothing so strange in that. They were often kept shut. I couldn’t even say why the sight unsettled me.
I glanced again at Estrada. Her countenance was rigid.
I knew Muena Palaiya as well as I did anywhere. I couldn’t see anything out of place. Had she noticed some detail I was missing? It struck me that there were no guards on the walls either, nor anywhere in sight. Yet even that wasn’t entirely unexpected. After all, hadn’t most of the local guardsmen died in the fight against Moaradrid?
We were almost at the gates when Estrada called a halt — and said aloud what I was trying so hard not to think.
“Can you feel it?” Her voice was stiff with forced calm. “It’s not just Altapasaeda. Something’s wrong here too.”