A contingent of horse warriors escorted Roshad back to the city, following at a respectful distance but doing nothing to disguise their presence. At the Gate of Winds, they finally closed and encircled him, not moving until he dismounted and handed back the reins of the horse he'd stolen in his flight. Then they turned and rode back north without saying a word.
Which was just fine with Roshad. He had the feeling that if they'd said anything, he would have burned them all where they sat, and promises to Bors be damned.
But then, did a promise to Bors mean anything anymore? It certainly didn't seem that the horse prince had much regard for the words they'd whispered in beds and barrooms, on rooftops under the moon.
And should I be surprised? After all, who was Roshad to lay claim to the heir to the Horse Throne?
Roshad passed through the city gates without incident, though without Bors at his side the gray wrappings and loose chain around his waist drew stares. After a moment he removed the chain from his collar and coiled it over his shoulder.
Before him, Ular Kel, greatest city of Karazh, rolled out its majesty. The slope from north to south lent him a god's-eye view of the sea of rooftops. From here, he could see the grand crossroads that gave the Caravan City its life, each of the four great gates birthing roads that would take him places he knew only from stories: Avistan. Garund. The great Castrovin Sea. All his life, he had longed to set foot on those roads, to follow them to the mysteries at their ends. Yet the knowledge of what he was—a citified street-rat with an inconveniently sharp tongue and only half a knack for magic—had always kept him here.
Until Bors. Bors, who hadn't laughed at his dreams but shared them. Who had followed him into his filthy haunts and hidey-holes, stolen with him, learned the language of the streets. And who had told him all about life on the steppe, the sunsets over fields of grass stretching on without end, where a man could ride for days and never see another soul. Bors, who had dreamed them a life beyond Ular Kel.
And now he was gone.
Roshad screamed, startling a procession of shaven-headed priests. He ignored them and sprinted flat-out at a cart filled with dawn melons. One foot caught the wheel, the other the cart's side, and then he was airborne and pulling himself up onto a stone-carver's awning. He made a short jump to a window, startling the woman cooking flatbread inside, then swung up onto the roof.
He ran, not caring where he went, just needing to move. He hurtled over gaps that would normally have given him pause, sometimes dropping half a story to lower roofs, tucking into a roll to distribute the impact. He didn't bother with magic, free climbing up the mud-brick walls with only his hands and feet.
He was nearing the center of the city, the grand market where the caravan routes met. Above him rose the city's great landmarks, guiding him in. There were the Water Houses, the fortress-cisterns of the Water Lords who owned the city, their life-giving aqueducts stretching out like spiderwebs. And there was the Spire of Azi, a thin needle of gold stabbing into the sky, where mystics blinded themselves staring at the sun in an effort to understand Sarenrae's divine will.
And then he saw where his path had led him. Roshad didn't fight it, just let the momentum carry him across the ledge and down through the window.
Into stillness. Silence. Sunbeams caught motes of dust, yet nothing else moved in the little apartment.
Apartment, hell—it was nothing but a squat, and Roshad knew he shouldn't kid himself. A pallet on the floor. A lantern. A few buckets and a screen for privacy. Most importantly, a door that had been boarded up by its landlord after the Ghost Plague and never unsealed.
And just like that, the frantic energy left him. Roshad ripped the veil from his face—what was the point, now?—and collapsed onto the pallet. He pulled the ragged blanket into a puddle and buried his face in it, shutting out the light.
No relief there. The cloth was heady with the smell of Bors, the sweet stink of man and horse. It invaded Roshad's silence, until finally he cast it away and rolled onto his back, staring at the cracked ceiling.
Why? How, after all this time—after so many stolen afternoons, the constant game of excuses and evasions—how could Bors look at him and say it was over?
Roshad understood, of course. It was to protect Roshad. Bors wasn't one for idle threats, and Roshad doubted very much that the hakan of the horse tribes was any better. No, Bors knew that if he didn't accede to his father's demands, the hakan would simply have Roshad killed.
If that was it, they could have worked with that—played along until the hakan let his guard down, then made one last escape. But that wasn't what Roshad had seen in Bors's eyes. In that canvas-topped throne room, Bors had understood that they had never really fooled his father, and that any attempt at subterfuge would just result in Roshad's death. If he wanted to save Roshad's life, he had to say goodbye.
And he had to mean it.
Roshad reached up to wipe the tears from his eyes, and the coiled chain dug painfully into his shoulder. He pulled it off and let it run through his fingers, clicking off links like prayer beads.
Tomorrow at dawn, Bors would be married. Roshad could close his eyes and picture it: The open tent, the slit palms mingling blood. The tying of the cloth. And as soon as it was done, Bors's father would push him into the challenge, making him draw the wooden Succession Sword and fight for leadership of the tribe. The older man was eager to pass his burden and secure the tribe's future, and that meant Bors.
The future. Did Roshad even have a future, without Bors? He could ride out with the next caravan, but what was the point? In his heart, he'd still be here. Chain links bit into his palm as his fists clenched.
Be the chain. That's what they'd sworn, watching the Iridian Fold men in the darkness. To be one mind, one spirit. Without Bors, Roshad might as well be dead.
Slowly, damp cheeks twisted into a smile.
If he was already dead, then what did he have to lose?
∗ ∗ ∗
The sun was still below the horizon, but already the grasses of the steppe were lightening, waving in the breeze. Ahead, the nomad camp was just beginning to stir, the silence of sleep broken by the snort of horses, the flap of canvas, and the small sounds of cookfires being kindled.
There was little cover out here, save for the long grass. Roshad crouched low and moved as quickly as he could. Once in the shadows of the first few tents, he straightened and began walking normally. A half-repaired saddle sitting unattended near one of the tents caught his eye, and he hoisted it onto his shoulder. Better and better.
He felt naked, walking with his face exposed like this, but the veil and grays would have been an instant giveaway. Instead, he wore one of the long caftans the nomads called deels, a patchy fur jacket, and a small satchel—all dull, threadbare, and purchased for three times their value from an ex-nomad back in the city. Roshad's blue eyes might still give him away if anyone looked closely—such things were rare among the horse tribes—but he hoped the predawn shadows would hide them for now.
Long before Roshad had begun to discover sorcery, life on the streets had taught him an even more fundamental magic trick: walk with purpose—preferably with a uniform or artisan's tools—and you can go anywhere. A tradesman at work is invisible, beneath the notice of all but children.
So he walked, carrying his broken saddle, past old women boiling water and the tent-muffled sounds of waking. In moments, he was standing before the curtain wall ringing the Trade Palace.
Here the easy part ended. At the break in the wall stood an armed guard. Beyond him, the grounds were busier than the rest of the camp, with workers passing to and fro. On the right side of the palace, Roshad could see people constructing a large tent over a raised platform and altar.
The wedding pavilion. Roshad ground his teeth, but there was no time to think about that now. He could haul himself up and over the wall in an eyeblink—no doubt the horse tribes considered any wall tall enough to stop cavalry sufficient defense—but that would attract too much attention. Instead, he approached the guard. "You! Can you return this saddle for me?"
The guard eyed him suspiciously. "What?"
"This saddle." Roshad tossed the thing on the ground at the man's feet. As the guard's gaze followed it, Roshad quickly twisted his hand into the correct gesture and coughed to cover the final words of the incantation.
The man's face changed. Suspicion drained away like water, replaced by a round-cheeked smile. "I know you, don't I?"
Roshad smiled back. "Of course you do. We rode down those horse thieves two years back." He took in the bags under the man's eyes, the flushed skin. "Don't tell me you drank so much at the celebration that you forgot me?"
"Me? Drink too much? You sound like my wife!" The man laughed, then looked down at the saddle. His smile turned to a look of genuine apology. "I'm sorry, though—I can't leave my post."
"Still as lazy as ever, I see. Fair enough—just let me past, then, hey?"
The guard looked uncertain. "I don't know if—"
"Damn it, man!" Roshad jabbed a finger at the saddle. "If I don't return this to the prince before the wedding, who knows when he'll find time to pay me? I'll be eating grass with the horses."
"Besides, we're all going to be in here once the sun rises anyway. The only difference is that other people will have had time to dress properly, while I'll look like a half-plucked chicken."
The guard made up his mind. "Fine, but be quick about it. And you owe me a drink."
"Done." Roshad picked up the saddle and slapped the man on the back. "Where are the prince's quarters?"
The guard pointed to the side of the palace opposite the wedding construction. "Around the back there. Second story, I think."
Roshad grunted appreciatively and took up the saddle again, then walked quickly through the bustle.
No point trying for the main doors—inside the fortress there'd be too many people for a simple charm spell to be effective, and the servants in charge of the wedding preparations would be too likely to know who was supposed to be where. That left the direct approach.
Roshad reached the indicated spot. Here on the western side of the palace, the shadows were still long.
Perfect. Roshad dropped the saddle, glanced around to make sure no one was watching, then cast the spell. There was no outward effect, but as he touched the stone he felt the effortless security of his hold. Reaching up, he began to climb.
This part of the palace was fully stone, with no canvas anywhere. At the first set of windows, arched and glassless, Roshad paused and peeked through, moving his head slowly so as not to attract attention. Below him, men and women bustled about kneading dough and using paddles to move pastries in and out of a great stone oven. Roshad's spirits rose—royal quarters would of course be near the kitchen chimneys for easy heating on cold nights.
He kept climbing. The second set of windows was almost at the top of the wall. Once more, he peeked through.
Bors stood in an opulent bedchamber, its stone hung with tapestries depicting herds of horses and branching royal lineages. He was dressed in his usual armor, but it had been polished to a mirror shine and augmented with a bright red sash. A brilliant yellow armband embroidered with a horse sigil wrapped around his right bicep, and his huge two-handed sword stood scabbarded against the wall, a smaller but intricately carved wooden practice sword thrust through his sash instead. His helmet was off, and he was leaning on a table with both hands, staring into a large oval mirror.
Roshad slipped silently through the window, then stopped, uncertain. Up until this moment, he'd been filled with purpose, but now, seeing Bors...
Bors turned slowly, casually, and gave Roshad a sad smile.
"What took you so long?"
Want more Bors and Roshad?
Coming Next Week: A wedding in blood in Chapter Four of James L. Sutter's "Boar and Rabbit"!
James L. Sutter is the Managing Editor for Paizo Publishing and a co-creator of the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game. He is the author of the Pathfinder Tales novels Death's Heretic and The Redemption Engine, the former of which was #3 on Barnes & Noble's list of the Best Fantasy Releases of 2011 and a finalist for the Compton Crook Award for Best First Novel. He's written short stories for such publications as Escape Pod, Apex Magazine, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and the #1 Amazon best-seller Machine of Death. His anthology Before They Were Giants pairs the first published short stories of science fiction luminaries with new interviews and writing advice from the authors themselves. In addition, he's published a wealth of gaming material for both Dungeons & Dragons and the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, including such fan-favorite Pathfinder Campaign Setting books as Distant Worlds and City of Strangers. For more information, check out jameslsutter.com or follow him on Twitter at @jameslsutter.
Illustration by Eric Belisle