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Litera Scripta Manet (The Written Word Endures)

Excerpt from THE FINAL SACRIFICE by Patricia Bray

Available July 2008 from Bantam Spectra

It took a moment for Lady Ysobel to recognize that the scruffy sailor leaning carelessly against the dock railing was indeed Captain Burrell. She was glad that she'd paused to change into leggings and an unbleached canvas smock before hastening down to the harbor in response to Burrell's message. Lady Ysobel the envoy would have stood out, but dressed as she was, Ysobel could pass for a federation sailor idling away her hours in a foreign port.

"Recognize the ship? That's Green Dragon, commanded by Captain Chenzira, the emperor's favorite," Burrell said. "The emperor and his entourage boarded two hours ago."

"Are you certain?" There was no reason for the emperor to be here, not when he was supposed to be preparing to journey to Sarna, located in the foothills west of the city.

"I would not have sent for you otherwise," he said.

"So it is not Sarna after all," she murmured.

"Eluktiri, I would wager," Burrell said. "There's no signs of his ministers, yet…."

"But they can follow without being remarked upon," she finished for him.

She noticed one of the deck officers staring at them, so she laughed, and then poked Burrell in his side, as if inviting him to share the joke. There was nothing that an idling sailor enjoyed more than seeing his unfortunate fellows hard at their labors.

Burrell grinned, but only she was close enough to see the serious expression in his eyes.

Ysobel thought furiously. It was possible that the emperor was traveling in secret because of fears for his safety, choosing the anonymity of a naval ship over the comfort of the imperial yacht. But after a public announcement that he was retiring to Sarna, it seemed odd that he would secretly sail to his summer palace on Eluktiri.

"Did you hear their destination?" The federation could not afford to be the first to break the truce, but neither could they risk being caught unprepared. If Lucius sailed to war, her people must be warned.

"The sailors were grumbling about having to load a month's worth of supplies for an overnight voyage," Burrell said. "Eluktiri seems a reasonable bet."

"But orders can change at sea," she pointed out. The extra supplies could be prudence on the part of a captain carrying an emperor, or a sign that the ship had another destination in mind.

"Do we have a ship that can follow him?"

"None of ours are in harbor. Sprite sailed this morning."

The tide would turn in less than an hour, and when it did Green Dragon would sail. She could have commandeered a federation vessel in that time, but it was not time enough to hire any other craft for her purposes.

Ysobel cursed under her breath. With one hand the Sea Witch gave and with the other she took away. Discovering the emperor secretly leaving Karystos was an advantage, but it was an advantage that she would waste if she could not confirm his destination.

She stared at the ship, willing it to reveal its secrets. As she watched, a monk scrambled awkwardly down the gangplank. He wore the cowl of his robe over his head, despite the summer heat.

She watched as the monk reached the end of the pier. If he turned west, toward the city, his path would take him by where she stood. But instead he turned toward the east.

Abruptly she straightened. "That's him," she said, and began to follow.

Burrell grabbed his sack and hastened after her.

"Who?" he asked.

Ysobel nodded toward the monk. "Our friend who is not going to Sarna," she said, conscious of the crowds that surrounded them.

Burrell raised one eyebrow, but did not protest. She could not say how she had recognized the emperor--there was something about his gait, and how he held himself. That, and the fact that he kept tugging the cowl so that it shielded his face, despite the melting heat.

Curious that there was not a single guard following him. She began to doubt her instincts as the monk stopped one laborer, and then another, apparently asking for directions. Surely an emperor would not expose himself to danger in this way? Perhaps she was mistaken?

Her steps slowed as the apparent monk reached his destination--a small, aged cargo ship. The figurehead was unrecognizable, but fading letters proclaimed it as Tylenda. The monk stood with the others, waiting his turn to be acknowledged by the purser.

She shook her head, realizing that she must have been mistaken. She opened her mouth to say as much, but then the monk turned for one last look at the harbor. A gust of wind slid the cowl from his face, and there was no mistaking those features.

Lucius, emperor of Ikaria. Standing on the deck of a common freighter, wearing the robes of a monk instead of imperial silks.

It was impossible. And yet there it was before her eyes. She wondered that no one else could see what she did, but there were no cries of amazement, no protestations of loyalty. Instead the so-called monk simply disappeared into the mass of humanity that crowded the deck.

"It looks like him," Burrell said. "But what's he up to?"

"I don't know," she said. "But I'm going to find out."

 

Copyright 2008 by Patricia Bray. All rights reserved.

© 2008 Patricia Bray. All rights reserved.