RHAN emerged from the forest and shielded his eyes against noon’s glare. White stones jumbled on the ancient battlefield like ice floating in a green sea. In the distant foothills, red and black pennants fluttered above clouds of dust. He was relieved to see they were on time for their meeting with the imperial convoy. The empire of Tyume would have exacted a price if they had been tardy answering the summons.
A slice of shade behind a tumbled wall offered relief from the heat. Rhan sat, wrapped his arms around his knees, and sniffed the dry air. He was eager to smell this new place before it filled with his kinsmen’s familiar scents.
The approaching Tyumens were upwind, and rivers of scent revealed what dust obscured. Many horses, as he had expected. Oxen, probably pulling supply wagons, as well as dogs and llamas. Sweaty men and women who smelled of the cheese and smoked meat favored by soldiers of Tyume. Beneath it all were undercurrents of grass and the arid smell of sun-baked stone.
“Rhan! This is no time for napping.”
He jumped to his feet. The village tetrarch had emerged from the forest downwind and caught him unawares. Her weathered face glowered as if she’d caught him stealing apples from the storehouse.
“Help Catrin collect wood for the fires. They’ll expect us to feed them and they won’t want to wait.” She didn’t conceal her displeasure at the prospect.
“Yes, Marenka,” he said, head bowed. He looked behind the elder and saw others leaving the forest. “There’s Catrin. I’ll go see where she wants to set the fires.” Marenka waved him off and turned her scowl to the approaching Tyumen delegation.
He loped away, glad to escape before attracting more ire. Marenka was always stern, but fear had turned her mood foul. Three generations had passed since a Voice of Tyume last traveled this far west. Everyone knew the Voice’s summons, with orders to bring the village’s elders and finders, meant bad news. The empire’s burden was sure to grow heavier.
The rest of Balmorel’s representatives entered the meadow and began slipping packs from their shoulders. Though their burdens were lighter than a fortnight ago when they had left home, the relentless pace had been exhausting. Rhan ran over to a young woman with lustrous red hair and lifted her canvas pack while she pulled her arms from its padded straps.
“I see why you like to scout the trail,” Catrin said as she rubbed where straps had pressed against her flesh. “You get to rabbit ahead and look at the scenery while the rest of us work like mules.” Her smile signaled that she didn’t hold a grudge.
Rhan lowered the pack to the ground and then offered his water skin. She accepted it and took a long drink. Even covered with sweat and dirt, she maintained a dignity that he never seemed to manage.
“Marenka told me to gather firewood and help you get ready.” He took the water skin back and slung it over his shoulder. “Just as well. I don’t think I want to get between her and the Tyumens.”
“You’re smarter than you look,” Catrin said, eyeing his dusty leathers and unruly blond curls. “Besides, there’s reason for her worry. There might be an Examiner with them. Best not to be noticed.”
Rhan frowned. “It doesn’t matter if I’m examined. I don’t have marks or anything else wrong with me.”
“Of course not.” She held him with a steady gaze, commanding his attention like an elder even though they were the same age. “Just be careful. You know how they are. They’ll cull you for anything, even if it’s harmless. Remember Kev.”
A clenched jaw was his only response. Kev had been his closest friend. They’d been seventeen when an Examiner passed through Balmorel and summoned them to be inspected. The official said Kev’s gold-flecked eyes were likely a daemon mark and took him to Hoya for final judgment. Three years had now passed in ominous silence, and Rhan no longer held hope for his friend’s return. His angry words about the Tyumens had alarmed Balmorel’s elders and earned him increasingly severe warnings.
“I’ll start on the fires,” Rhan said, his expression tightly controlled. He pointed to the ruins where shattered walls spoke of ancient cataclysms. “Over there, all right?” He started for the forest before Catrin could answer. His argument wasn’t with her, he could smell her sympathy, but he didn’t want to hear another admonition. It didn’t matter what the rest of the village said. He would never accept what had happened to Kev.
He plunged through underbrush, collecting dead branches, avoiding Catrin while his temper cooled. Knowing that she was only trying to help didn’t soothe his pain. Kev had been abandoned by the village when his mark was noticed. Rhan still felt the ache of it like a dagger through his heart. Some marks showed on the outside and others didn’t. But it made no difference. He would get no help if his uncanny sense of smell was discovered. It was a far deeper mark than gold-flecked eyes.
HORNS sounded in rich harmony as the legate and his escort neared. Rhan was awed despite his best effort to despise them. They were garbed in black leathers and wore silver chains with medallions proclaiming their rank. They seemed like giants as they gazed down at villagers waiting on bent knees. There were at least fifty, and they were only a fraction of the convoy that still flowed from the foothills and across the plain. The legate himself, a Voice of Tyume, rode at the procession’s head. A shiver tingled Rhan’s spine, and he averted his eyes. Being in the presence of such power was like teetering on the edge of a precipice. This man spoke for the empire and would be obeyed without question.
Marenka, still standing, thumped her staff on a rock before giving final instructions. “Remember not to speak unless spoken to. Don’t show an interest in their finery or horses. Such things are not for us. We live by their leave.” She turned to Catrin, who was kneeling near Rhan, and lowered her voice. “Keep a close watch, especially on the legate Jerolin. His face might reveal what his words hide.”
Horns sounded again, a bright noise of imperial majesty unlike anything Rhan had ever heard. Even Marenka sank to one knee despite her stiff joints. She clenched her staff with a white-knuckled grip and bowed her head as the delegation reached them.
Rhan stared at the ground, curiosity fighting with dread as the riders came to a halt. New scents permeated the dust stirred by milling horses. Peppermint soap, oiled leather, strong perfumes mixed with the sweat of men and women, dried meat and biscuits stored in saddlebags, tobacco and other fragrant smoking herbs. The smells were fascinating. He breathed deeply, wishing he could share this pleasure with someone. But as far as he knew, only dogs and other lowly creatures shared his keen perceptions. If there were others, they wouldn’t be foolish enough to reveal themselves. Hidden marks were feared even more than fleshly deformities.
Sounds of riders dismounting pulled his attention away from the tapestry of scents. Fear among the kneeling villagers grew to a stench.
“Arise, tetrarch.” The man’s voice was commanding. “I am Jerolin, who summoned you. Attend to my words. Tyume has a task for you and your people.”
Rhan looked up. The legate standing before Marenka held a silver scepter that gleamed in the sun. The medallion on his breast sparkled with emeralds and rubies. His cloak was made of richer fabric than anything Rhan had seen at home in Balmorel.
Marenka slowly got to her feet, using her staff for support. The villagers followed her lead. Most kept their eyes downcast, but Rhan couldn’t resist examining the legate and his entourage.
The Tyumen militia made no distinctions between genders, and the women looked as hardened as the men. Rank was another matter. Everyone was deployed in rigid formation and most wore insignia marking their function. Archers with crossbows flanked the party, soldiers with swords and spears occupied the center, and musicians with horns and drums stood at the back. Eight soldiers, grouped in pairs, stood immediately behind the legate and his orderly. Their clothing bore no military insignia. Curiously, each pair had an extra horse, saddled and laden with packs, in addition to their own mounts.
Jerolin handed his scepter to the orderly. His splendor beside Marenka’s brown trekking clothes was like a flowering rose next to a withered weed. Resentment knotted Rhan’s gut. The empire already had so much. Why did it have to demand more?
“From time out of mind, Tyume has brought you peace.” Jerolin’s voice rang with authority and conviction. “We have kept the daemons bound and the bloodline pure. Were it not for us, the daemon wars would have consumed the world.”
“We thank you.” Marenka’s tight voice belied her words, but the legate didn’t seem to notice. “We are honored to serve. Our elders and finders are here, answering your summons. What do you command?” Fidgeting among the villagers stopped as they waited to hear their fate.
Jerolin drew himself up. “First, the empire’s needs have grown. Beginning with this harvest, you will pay tribute in proportion to the benefits we provide. Bring your elders forward so they may hear and remember.”
Marenka turned. Tight-lipped, she gestured for the other nine elders to join her. They stood before Jerolin like a miserable herd of sheep while he began reciting the bushels of grain and other goods they would be required to send to Chakragil.
Rhan stopped listening, knowing the elders would remember every word. The assembled militia still beguiled his nose, and he was curious about the Tyumens. Despite their mastery of the world, he had only seen a few in his lifetime.
The archers looked tired but vigilant as they watched Rhan’s kinsmen and the nearby forest. The musicians were hard to see at the back of the assembly, a disappointment as Rhan had never seen metal music-makers.
When he turned his attention to the eight soldiers behind Jerolin, he was startled to see one of them watching him as closely as he had been examining the warriors. Their eyes met, and the young man flashed a grin.
Rhan was too surprised at first to react. He stared at the young man like a deer transfixed by a hunter’s poised spear. The Tyumens, at least this one, suddenly seemed less strange. It might even be possible to talk with them, a notion he had never considered.
The soldier who held Rhan’s gaze stood last in the line of eight and was a head shorter than his companion. He looked to be close to Rhan’s age and had short black hair. Dark blue eyes, alert and penetrating, enlivened a face of striking masculine beauty. His relaxed acknowledgment of Rhan’s gaze made him seem very self-possessed.
Realizing he was being studied in return, Rhan blushed and continued his survey of the delegation. The man beside the friendly Tyumen was little older but unlike him in every other way. He was a bit taller than most, hulking rather than lithe, bored instead of curious, disfigured by a crooked nose and cruel mouth rather than pleasing to the eye. His expression was set in a sullen frown and lank brown hair hung in clumps over his forehead.
The next pair consisted of two middle-aged women, dark-haired and sturdy. One of them looked the way Marenka might have appeared thirty years ago. Rhan judged the second pair in line to be man and wife, since they wore matching wedding bracelets. At the front of the line stood a young woman and an older man who turned away from each other as if wishing the other was absent. It seemed the remote and powerful Tyumens weren’t that different from his own kin in some ways.
Rhan glanced back at the short soldier. He was craning his neck to see as much as possible, as animated as the others were lethargic. Like a dog sniffing a new meadow, Rhan thought, idly wondering if this stranger might have abilities like his own. It made a pleasant daydream, though it seemed impossible any Tyumen could survive with a mark, even an unseen one.
A pause in the droning recital of new tributes drew his attention back to Jerolin. The legate dismissed the elders and turned to Marenka.
“Our other need concerns finders. How many did you bring?”
“Six,” Marenka said. “That’s all we have now. Two were killed in a cave flood last spring. Not many, but they have great skill.” She held her head higher, justifiably proud of the relics Balmorel collected. Trading and working relics bought most of the village’s luxuries. Just last summer they had even enjoyed searing spices from the east, after Rhan found a cache of metal relics their blacksmith could turn into plows.
“Show me the best four.”
Marenka beckoned to Rhan and three others, leaving the two youngest finders with their parents. They came forward and stood in a row behind her.
From the corner of his eye, Rhan saw the short soldier looking at him intently. His features were remarkably expressive. When he saw that Rhan had noticed him, he smiled and gave a small nod. Rhan was embarrassed but entranced. The friendly gesture reminded him of Kev.
Jerolin frowned as he examined the finders arrayed before him. His contempt for their upcountry coarseness was plain, though Rhan knew that wouldn’t spare them whatever task the empire demanded.
“Keeping the land safe is a struggle,” Jerolin said. “Tyume is vigilant and heresy is never suffered to take root. Our task is never done. Rumors have reached Chakragil, telling of a pestilence growing in the west. We have come to rip it out.” He fixed each finder in turn with a stare. “They say a heretic is using a relic to spread lies, perhaps even trying to release a daemon on the world. The heretic and relic must be delivered to an Examiner. Finders from the sea to Mount Tochal are set upon this task. Whoever succeeds will win the favor of Tyume. The victor’s town will be forgiven its tribute for a full year.”
He pointed at the eight soldiers behind him. “Each finder will be escorted. You will ride, to speed your search, and will depart without delay.” He touched the jewel-encrusted symbol of Tyume on his medallion. “Half the world is poisoned and the bloodline is polluted. You dig in the ruins, you know why the daemon horde must remain bound. Do not forget the urgency of this quest.”
He signaled the first pair of soldiers, the young woman and older man, to move forward with their three horses. Then he pointed at the first finder in the row behind Marenka. Lajos, a middle-aged man with a newborn child, looked at Marenka mournfully. She nodded with a stony face. He left the line and went to stand beside the first Tyumen detail, looking miserable.
Jerolin brought forward his second team, the man and wife. Second in line among the finders was Jana, wife of Balmorel’s healer. She turned and waved to her husband, who ran forward to give her a farewell embrace.
Rhan was next in line and had no doubt Jerolin would follow his established order. The militia was known for its regimentation. Impulsively, he turned to the last finder in line. Keara was a small woman who had been a finder for only a year. She had always been timid. He leaned close, not allowing himself to wonder if Marenka would notice. “Maybe we should trade places,” he whispered. He tilted his head toward the sullen man who comprised half the final team. “I don’t like the looks of that one. You might be better off with the two women.”
Keara nodded fervently. “He scares me. Thanks, Rhan.” They exchanged places while the healer and his wife made their farewells. Jerolin scowled but didn’t hurry the couple. If he cared about Rhan and Keara trading places, or even noticed, he gave no sign of it.
Still dazed by his rash decision, Rhan looked to see if any Tyumens had taken note of the switch. Half the soldiers were watching the forest and most of the rest seemed bored by the proceedings, which they had undoubtedly witnessed many times. But the short member of the fourth squad was watching him with wide eyes. He burst into a dazzling smile that Rhan couldn’t help returning. A surge of optimism made him think the task ahead might not be so bad.
As expected, Keara was summoned next. She had nobody special to part with and promptly joined the two women on the third team. When Rhan was summoned to join the final pair, he waved to Catrin and then crossed to the Tyumen side. It felt like crossing an invisible divide, stepping from one world into another, but a welcoming nod from the black-haired soldier made it seem more exciting than daunting.
As soon as the last team was assembled, Jerolin retrieved his scepter from the orderly and held it aloft like a torch. Polished silver reflected the brilliant sun. “Tyume smiles on the faithful. Depart now and fulfill your duties.”
Suddenly the orderly at Jerolin’s side jerked and teetered, an arrow protruding from his chest, then fell against the legate. Another arrow flashed where Jerolin had stood a moment before and hit a horse among the newly assembled squads. The horse brayed its outrage and bolted.
Soldiers scattered to take shelter behind stones and crumbling walls. Two more arrows hit the ground near Jerolin before the Tyumen archers began sending bolts into the forest. Rhan and his companions moved behind their horses and tried to calm the panicked animals.
Whoever had attacked Jerolin seemed wary of a direct fight. No more arrows flew from the forest. The militia quickly regrouped, half protecting the legate and the remainder charging into the forest to give pursuit.
Rhan kept close to the horses as order returned. He had never seen combat and was shaken by the abruptness of it. “What do we do now?” he asked.
The surly half of the squad looked at him like he was a simpleton, but the other extended his hand. “I’m Aerik Rodan. I’m glad you’ll be our finder.” His voice was surprisingly deep for someone of his short stature. They clasped forearms in the Tyumen manner. The young soldier’s smile held a hint of mischief. “I thank the gods of Tyume for our good fortune in meeting. They work in mysterious ways, yes?”
The other man made a sour face. “Try not to be an ass, Rodan. Keep him from wandering off while I get our orders.” He stalked away without giving them a second look.
“You can call him Maiko, though he’ll probably ignore you anyway. And call me Aerik. Um, what should we call you?”
“Oh. Rhan Menkaure. I mean, you can call me Rhan.” He realized he was still clasping the soldier’s forearm and released it. Aerik’s nonchalance about the turmoil around them was oddly reassuring. “Does this happen often? Who would do such a thing?” He was shocked that anyone would dare attack a high Tyumen official.
Aerik thumped him on the shoulder. “Later, my friend. We’ve just met. It’s too soon for politics.”
Rhan heard no evasiveness in the answer, though he didn’t need to rely on intuition. Deceit had an astringent tang that sprang directly from the skin. A deep breath revealed only the healthy scent of an energetic male. Aerik’s main distinction was that he smelled cleaner and fresher than most. “How soon do you think we’ll leave?” he asked.
Aerik raised both hands to chest height, making a graceful gesture as if releasing a dove to take flight. “Who knows? It depends on Jerolin’s quarry. He’s in a hurry but can’t ignore his enemies. They might try again if they escape, especially if they’re from Chakragil. But if they slip away during the night, it will probably end the chase.”
Rhan pondered the words, struck by the unexpected dangers and the sophistication of his new acquaintance. He was starting to suspect that Balmorel was even more of a sheltered backwater than he had imagined.
“Don’t worry,” Aerik said. “You’re a finder with valuable skills. Jerolin won’t be sending you to catch assassins. And I’m an Eye of Tyume, so he’ll try to keep my hide in one piece.” He grinned, a playful gleam in his eyes. “Now, Maiko, he’s just a Hand. Catching arrows might be a good use for him, yes?”
Rhan stared. “You’re an Eye? Aren’t you a bit… I mean, I thought an Eye of Tyume would be a lot older.” His growing sense of ease had vanished. An Eye of Tyume was higher than an Examiner. He had never seen one until now.
“I’m sorry,” Aerik said, shrugging. “That probably sounds more imposing out here than it does in Chakragil. But you’re right, an Eye is usually older. My case is… complicated.” He sighed. “Well, you might as well hear it from me. Maiko will start mocking me as soon as he gets back anyway. My father gave me the title.”
“Your father….” Rhan gaped, wondering just how foolish he had been to maneuver himself onto this team. He cleared his throat nervously. “Is there anything else I should know?”
Aerik shook his head, smiling faintly. “No, that’s about it.” He paused. “Oh, there’s the bathing ritual. My attendant has to wash me every night, to maintain my symbolic purity. Maiko hates doing it, so that’ll be your job now.”
Rhan turned red and decided it would be unwise to say anything at all.
A radiant grin swept away Aerik’s matter-of-fact expression. “I’m kidding, Rhan! I couldn’t help it, you looked so worried.” He suppressed his merriment, though it obviously required an effort. “I’m sorry. It’s true my father is a Voice of Tyume and he made me an Eye, but it doesn’t mean anything. Rank isn’t always an achievement, you know. A Voice can do pretty much as he desires.”
Rhan was still wary. “Doesn’t it make you a high official of the empire?”
Aerik nodded. “In theory. But if I was really important, I wouldn’t be in the provinces hunting heretics. My father just thought the title would help keep me safe while I’m doing my service in the militia.”
Rhan was surprised by Aerik’s honesty. And his smile was beguiling. Happiness magnified his beauty like a gemstone being held to the sun. It could be blinding.
Aerik looked past Rhan and sighed. “Here comes Maiko. I should warn you, he has no sense of humor. It’s best not to provoke him. He’ll complain to our subaltern if we give him any cause.”
By the time Rhan turned, Maiko had reached them. If anything, his expression had become even more belligerent. “We stay here tonight,” he said as he dug into a saddlebag. “The peasants stay too, so Jerolin can question them.” He looked up and glared at Rhan. “They’ll hang if they had anything to do with the attack. You’ll camp with your own people tonight. And don’t try to run away, either now or after we leave the convoy. Your village will pay if you do.”
“Until tomorrow, then,” Rhan said. Maiko had already turned away, ignoring him, but Aerik rolled his eyes and made a crazy-man gesture behind Maiko’s back.
Rhan almost laughed with relief, comforted that he would have a friend in the days ahead. He nodded to Aerik before departing for the Balmorel encampment taking shape in the ruins.
TENTS and campfires were set among tumbled stones. The conscripted finders were spending a few minutes of their brief reprieve sitting around a fire, their shadows weaving across nearby rocks like dancing ghosts, trading impressions of the Tyumens. Keara liked her assigned team and had thanked Rhan effusively for trading places. All were sympathetic when he described Maiko’s hostility, though it seemed many Tyumens had equal scorn for upcountry farmers. Rhan decided not to say anything about Aerik, reluctant to make a possible friend a topic of gossip. Besides, revealing that he was going to travel with an Eye of Tyume would draw attention, and that usually meant getting in trouble.
The fire had died to embers and Rhan was starting to feel sleepy when he smelled Catrin approaching from behind. He turned around and waved. She had been attending the elders all evening and looked grim.
“Marenka wants to see you,” she said. “All of you. Be careful, she’s not in a good mood.” She looked directly at Rhan when she said it.
Rhan groaned. “What did I do now?” Resentment blossomed at the prospect of another lecture. The elders had probably noticed when he traded places with Keara and wanted to berate him. He was convinced it was their favorite pastime.
“You’ll have to hear it from her,” Catrin said. “Let’s not keep her waiting.”
A pavilion for the elders had been pitched inside a courtyard. Golden light seeping through its hemp walls made it glow like a lantern. The finders filed inside with Catrin following.
Marenka was alone in the pavilion, resting in a folding chair beside a lantern. Remains of the elders’ evening meal still lay before empty chairs, wooden bowls containing scraps of stewed vegetables and bits of roast venison. The scents were thick enough for Rhan to taste.
As Marenka stood, the dim light made her seem wizened. She met the gaze of each finder without saying a word. Rhan started sweating. At last Marenka sank back to her chair.
“The Tyumens haven’t caught the archers,” she said. “Jerolin’s not pleased and has a mind to hold us responsible for the loss of his aide. He says we should have made sure this place was safe before he arrived.”
Rhan tensed, wondering if he was going to be blamed since he had scouted the trail. But Marenka was gazing at the lantern and no longer watching the finders.
“He demands compensation. Ten extra casks of hard cider in the fall. And four more conscripts to help with his quest.” Her head hung as if she lacked the strength to lift it. “We answered the summons with thirty kinsmen. We’ll leave with twenty-two, and the harvest starts in six weeks. Tyume demands too much.”
“We’ll be back soon,” Keara said. “Maybe in time to help with the harvest. How long can it take to find a heretic?”
Marenka’s frown deepened. “That’s why I wanted to talk with you. The legate also mentioned a need for labor in Chakragil’s brickyards and vineyards. I think that’s the real reason he doubled the number of conscripts.” She looked up from the lantern. “Be careful, all of you. One offense and I wager you’ll still be serving the empire long after I’m dead and gone.”
Her glare turned on Rhan. “You, especially. It’s one thing to sass the elders. We’re used to your ways and know you’re just too damned full of questions. But the empire will do more than box your ears if you speak out of place.” Her frown softened. “You’re not suited for a life tending kilns. You’re our best finder, and we can’t afford to lose you. So promise me you’ll behave yourself.”
“I will.” Rhan was embarrassed at the rare praise. “Have you decided who to send with us?”
Marenka nodded. “It wasn’t an easy task.” She smiled, which seemed to require a great effort. “You weren’t a problem on that score, at least. Catrin offered to go with you. I tried to talk her out of it, but she insisted. For the others, the elders chose. Tomas will go with Keara, Elisa with Lajos, and Emil with Jana. They’ve already been told. They’ll meet you in the morning.”
Rhan felt numb. Jerolin’s demands were bad enough, and Catrin joining the quest changed everything. She was a friend but was also Marenka’s trusted aide. The prospect of someone from home watching over him chafed.
“That’s all,” Marenka said. “Rest well. You’ll leave at dawn, and your first day riding will be hard.” She sighed deeply. “For once they’ll be sorry they levy such a high tax on horses. Learning to ride will slow you down. Take care, kinsmen. Come back to us when you can.”
They left the pavilion in silence, feeling the night’s chill. Rhan walked with Catrin to the meadow where they had pitched their tents. Once they were away from the others, he pulled her to a stop.
“Why did you do it?” He wanted to shake her, tell her she was stupid for leaving the village’s safety, but knew it would serve no purpose. She was stubborn once she made a decision.
“Someone had to,” she said. “Why not me?” She seemed small, as if trying to disappear into the darkness. “I know how you feel about Balmorel. I guess I’m a bit like you. I’d like to see what lies beyond our fields and orchards.”
He knew she wasn’t telling him everything, but her scent made him stop. He didn’t want to hear the rest. What she wanted, he wasn’t prepared to offer.
“Well… I guess I should thank you.” He released her arm and stepped back, eyes downcast. “I’ll see you in the morning.”
He slipped away before she could say more and spent a long time walking before going to his tent. When sleep finally came, it was not Catrin who filled his dreams.