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.
The Silerian Trilogy: Book II
Excerpt © Laura Resnick 2011
Tansen crept through the damp foliage, moving carefully in the dark so as to make no sound. Up ahead, he could see the faint glow of torches lighting the perimeter of Wyldon's stronghold. As he drew closer, he could hear the sounds of running water.
Emperor Jarell of Valdania had sworn to destroy the Society during his lifetime, and the Empire's Outlookers had worked toward this goal for some forty years. Consequently, the waterlords had lived in hiding and on the run since well before Tansen was born, though they had never relinquished their power over Sileria's water or her people. In a wealthier, easier era, the Society might well have felt that joining Josarian's cause was too risky to be worth the effort. Fortunately for Sileria, though, the Valdani had ensured that the waterlords had little to lose and were willing to follow destiny and join the rebellion. Tansen was the Society's enemy now, but he knew—as he told Josarian long ago—the rebels had needed them to defeat the Valdani. Unity had been essential, just as enmity was now inescapable.
Although Valdania had lost its grip on all of Sileria except for the city of Shaljir, the waterlords hadn't yet adjusted to their new situation, so most of them still lived in the secret, hidden places to which they and their forebears had retreated years ago. Kiloran inhabited an inaccessible palace of water beneath the surface of Lake Kandahar, Baran squatted in Harlon's ancient abandoned ruins at Belitar surrounded by an ensorcelled lake, and Wyldon... Wyldon's stronghold was a cave, deep in the forest, whose entrance was hidden by a waterfall.
However, in the absence of the Valdani, Wyldon had abandoned caution and now boldly announced his presence here with a stunning display of waterworks. Tansen hid in the lush, wet foliage that grew in thick abundance all around Wyldon's dwelling and looked for assassins patrolling in the torchlight. Most would be asleep now, but there were bound to be sentries posted. He'd have to rely strictly on sight to find them, because Wyldon's residence was so damn noisy.
The waterfall itself filled the night air with a steady rushing sound that might have been soothing under different circumstances. It split into dozens of shimmering strands halfway down the stone wall along which it flowed. The sparkling strands twisted to become coils that formed an elegant barrier of gleaming bars over the entrance to Wyldon's cave before weaving together again and flowing into a pool which lay in the center of the small torch-lit clearing.
With his clothes now soaking, Tansen sincerely hoped that Wyldon's cave was so damp it gave him rheumatism and made his worldly possessions rust and rot.
The pool of water, in turn, spewed an enormous fountain that arched high upward to feed the waterfall, completing the enchanted cycle. A billion dancing droplets of water, glittering even at night, flew away from the fountain's sky-reaching curve. Wyldon, not content with this display, also indulged in water sculpture. Men, women, and beasts inspired by Silerian history and myth, as well as by Wyldon's own fancy, populated the clearing around the pool, all of them fashioned from water.
Just a trifle ostentatious, Tansen thought.
Rumor had it that Wyldon was touchy about his artistic talents and had once killed an assassin who'd said the wrong thing about one of his sculptures. People also claimed that several local toreni not only praised his art, but actually paid him for it, just to appease him. Looking at some of Wyldon's efforts now, Tansen suspected those toreni had put the sculptures in the darkest, most forgotten corners of their residences.
Hiding amidst soaking foliage and with nothing to occupy him as he waited, Tansen was chilly and bored by the time an assassin finally wandered into view.
It's about time.
An attack which met with no opposition was normally the ideal situation, but since the goal tonight was to be seen and noticed, he'd had to wait until now.
Uttering a piercing, high-pitched battle cry that he hoped would carry above the noise of the water and alert any assassin within earshot, as well as inform his own men to commence the attack, Tansen leaped out of the foliage with a shir in each hand, launched himself at the assassin—and slipped in the mud created by Wyldon's copious waterworks.
The soles of his wet boots slid out from under him, and his arms flailed as he went careening into the stunned assassin.
"What th—Oof!" The assassin went down, winded by the violent collision.
Tansen reached out to stab him—and missed completely as he went sliding past his opponent and straight toward the geysering pool of water.
He scrabbled wildly at the slick mud as he slid downhill.
A slope? This didn't look like a slope!
He crashed into the low—previously unnoticed—barrier surrounding the pool. Winded and smarting in a dozen places, he hauled himself to his feet and turned to face the assassin—who'd already risen and now came at him in a flying tackle.
They went tumbling backwards together into the water pool—which was not, Dar be thanked, ensorcelled against enemies. Wet and cold, yes, but it didn't freeze Tansen's parts off.
He rose to his feet again, glad that the pool wasn't deep—he'd sunk only to his waist—and peered through the heavy shower of water raining down on him from Wyldon's magical fountain. The assassin was on the other side of its dense core.
They both started to circle it at the same time. Unfortunately, in the same direction. Tansen stopped and switched direction—again, at the same moment the assassin did. They stopped again and stared at each other in consternation.
Resisting the urge to roll his eyes, Tansen shouted, "I'll wait here."
He didn't know if the assassin—now looking very annoyed—had heard him, but the man came tromping laboriously through the waist-high water while Tansen awaited him. Meanwhile, a few shrill sounds coming faintly from around them suggested that others were fighting now. Squinting against the water pouring down on him, Tansen glanced over his shoulder and saw frantic movements beyond the edge of the pond. The battle was on.
The pond, he realized suddenly.
Yes, he could leave a shir sticking out of the assassin's body, but what if it got dislodged somehow, after his escape, and sank to the bottom of the pool?
That would be just my luck.
Realizing he needed to kill the man on solid ground to be sure that someone would discover the shir, Tansen found himself obliged to run away from his approaching opponent. He glimpsed the assassin's incredulous expression as he started retreating, making his way to the edge of pond.
This is embarrassing.
They were close enough together now that he could hear clearly when the assassin bellowed, "Come here, you coward!"
"Come catch me!" he replied.
I sound like a coy virgin.
Tansen placed his hands on the solid barrier surrounding the pool and, pausing just long enough to make sure he wasn't leaping into another assassin's arms, heaved himself up out of the water. The still-healing shir wound on his hand burned in protest, but he ignored it. He stalled his opponent's oncoming attack with a quick backward kick in the face, then rolled onto the ground. Well, the mud.
The assassin tried to follow, but he slipped and fell back into the water—hitting his head on the solid barrier. He floated face down in the pool, unconscious and drowning in peace.
I don't believe this.
Tansen looked around for another opponent. Someone he could actually kill with the damned shir this time. There were a number of men struggling together all around him now, mostly rolling around on the slippery ground. It was dark, the men were all dressed in black, and they were all covered in mud. He couldn't tell Wyldon's assassins from his own men.
Maybe I should just wait around for someone to attack me, he reflected sourly.
However, the combatants were all so occupied with each other than no one seemed to notice him. The steady rumble of the water ensured that he couldn't hear anyone's voice well enough to distinguish friend from foe. He supposed he could just drop a shir on the ground, but that seemed so obvious that even Wyldon might suspect it had been left behind on purpose.
"Wouldn't anyone like to fight me?" he invited.
He took a few quick steps backward as two mud-coated tumbling bodies came hurtling toward him across the ground. When he backed into something solid and icy cold, he stopped abruptly and spun around—or tried to. Two chilly arms encircled him from behind with astonishing speed and held him fast.
He saw water enfolding him. Felt water against his body. Sensed the cold evil of water magic engulfing him.
Wyldon's sculptures! They weren't just there for decoration, he realized, they were sentries. Less effective than Wyldon perhaps supposed, since all Tansen's men had slipped past them and were wreaking havoc now. But the statues were not without their uses, he acknowledged as he struggled against this one.
The shir, he thought suddenly. His own Kintish blades had always proved ineffective against water magic, but a shir was different. Its watery origin was the same as this ensorcelled statue's. And the shir was harder than this creature, in the way that a steel blade was harder than flesh. The arms the held him now possessed magical strength, but they were nonetheless soft, fluid, full of give.
He gave up his struggle and, lowering one hand, reached back and plunged the shir into what passed for a leg on Wyldon's water-born sculpture, then ripped sideways, destroying the limb.
The thing lost balance and started to wobble. The creature's grip on him loosened, and Tansen twisted in its cold embrace. Aiming at what could best be described as its torso, he plunged the shir into it and pulled it downward, gutting the creature like a fish. It released him and collapsed, the shir still stuck in its ruined body. Only one shir in hand now, he stared as the statue started to disintegrate, melting into mere water again, a puddle growing around the shir he had left sticking out of it.
Now killing that thing, Tansen figured, was a believable reason for an assassin to forget his shir.
Time to go.
He stumbled way from the corpse—so to speak—and started yelling, "Retreat! Fall back!" The men didn't seem to hear him, so he entered the fray, still shouting for retreat.
Someone barreled toward him, and Tansen nearly killed the man in sheer reflex before a familiar voice howled, "No! Don't! It's me!"
"Galian?" He blurted at the moving mountain of mud. "Go! Go! Now!"
"That's an order!"
Wyldon's waterfall roared angrily, a very different sound from its rumbling rush. The coiling bars over his cave's entrance began hissing like angry snakes as they parted like curtains.
"Retreat!" Tansen shouted again, worried now.
"I'm trying!" Radyan shouted back.
Tansen whirled in the direction of that familiar voice. He recognized Radyan just in time to see him slip and fall, locked in deadly struggle with an assassin.
The angry roar of the waterfall had attracted another of the men's attention, and he was already making for the forest.
Taking care not to lose his footing, Tansen made his way to where Radyan was struggling in the mud. He meant to deliver a fatal blow to Wyldon's assassin with his shir, but the two men were rolling around so much that he only got the shoulder. No matter, it was enough to stop the struggle and let Radyan escape, which was what counted right now.
The violent roaring and hissing of the water all around them was enough to alert his remaining men to make their escape, though one was pinned down by one the water sculptures—which were actively stalking the intruders now.
That does it. I am never coming back here.
The shallah struggled violently, grunting in pain beneath the watery claws of some huge, fantastic, catlike creature. Tansen leaped on it and used the shir to cut off its head. Then he grabbed the muddy, bleeding, dumbfounded man by the arm and dragged him into the thick foliage, where they made a wet and undignified retreat, with all due haste, from the scene of their battle.