An excerpt from
The Soldier King, by Violette Malan

Chapter One
Parno Lionsmane looked over the battlefield that was the valley of Limona with his nose wrinkled. Every soldier became used to the smell of the dead and dying, but not even Mercenary Brothers ever got so that they liked it. From his fidgeting, it seemed to Parno that even his big grey gelding, Warhammer, battle-trained as he was, would just as soon be elsewhere.
"What happened here?" Parno said.
"Exactly what was supposed to happen. Exactly what I Saw in my Vision." His Partner, Dhulyn Wolfshead, shrugged, making the red cloak she'd won off Cavalry Squad Leader Jedrick last week, swing around her knees. "Against odds the Tegrians lost, and the Nisveans won. Which is why, I remind you, we signed on with the Nisveans."
"So what happened? Has the Blue Mage lost his power?"
Still looking out over the field sloping away from them toward the banks of the river Limona, Dhulyn shook her head, her lip curling back in her wolf's smile. "Don't be naive."
There was movement to be seen, between them and the river, the living going through the pockets of the dead.
"Well I'm not going to rob corpses, no matter what you Saw."
"There's nothing in the Common Rule against it," Dhulyn said. "I once got a very nice thumb knife off a dead man."
"Outlander."
"Town man." She gave him the smile she saved only for him.
As Mercenary Brothers, they were not obliged to pursue those who fled from the field of battle, and Dhulyn-who was after all Senior Brother-had decided to look through the fallen instead.
"Do you think it very likely that we will find any of your kin here?" Parno said.
"No more likely that anywhere else," she said. "But it's easy enough to check."
That was true. Dhulyn's distinctive colouring, pale eyes, pale skin, her hair the colour of old blood, would make a person easy to find among the fallen of a battlefield. If, that is, there were in fact any other survivors of the catastrophe which had wiped out the tribes when she was a child.
"But you didn't See any Red Horsemen here?" Parno looked sideways at his Partner. Her lips were pressed together, her eyes scanning the far edges of the valley.
"Come now, my heart," he said. "We haven't been looking, truly looking that is, for very long, a few moons, no more. Don't lose heart so soon. Your Sight is getting better," he told her. "Since you started using the vera tiles, it's not so erratic." He scratched at the stubble on his chin.
Dhulyn's head moved in short arcs from side to side. "My Mark could be more useful if I could control it completely."
Parno drummed his fingers on his thigh. Let her tell him something he didn't already know. "Let's look on the sunny side," he said. "If we meet any more Red Horsemen, and they are anything like you, it might be more than I could tolerate."
Dhulyn looked at him without moving her head. She gestured at the corpse-strewn valley before them. "My people couldn't possibly cause as much trouble as yours." She brought her heels in sharply, and her mare, Bloodbone, leapt away.
"In Battle," Parno called out to her back.
"In Death," answered the sign from her lifted hand.

Parno let Warhammer set his own pace as they picked their way slowly out to the eastern edge of the valley. Not much of a battle, he thought, looking at the preponderance of Tegriani on the ground. Slaughter's more the word. The Tegriani invaders must have been shocked indeed when they began to take heavy wounds, but many were veterans of the days before the Blue Mage began to work his magics on their armies, and they had been holding their own until the Nisvean reserve, which included Parno and Dhulyn, had fallen on their left flank. Then the Tegriani had broken and run, and far more of them were cut down as they fled than would have been killed had they only stood their ground.
But then, they hadn't expected to be killed. Even now, their dead faces showed surprise.
Parno reined in as Warhammer shied to the left. From the look of the corpse at the horse's feet, this section had been picked over already, though a short cloak had been left behind, evidently too torn and bloody to be worth taking. The body looked to have been a man in his early twenties, his only wound the bleeding shoulder.
Parno leaned out of his saddle, narrowing his eyes. The bleeding shoulder? He swung his leg over Warhammer's withers and let himself slide to the ground. Squatting, he gave the body a long hard look, and pulled a corner of the cloak over the wound-and over the corpse's face while he was at it.
"Keep that shoulder covered," he said, his voice a low murmur that wouldn't travel far. "You're still bleeding, and dead men don't bleed. Wait until the moon's set, if you can, and then go south a good few spans before you turn west." He grunted in satisfaction when the man made no reaction whatsoever and, turning away, climbed back into the saddle.
Doing his best to appear just as relaxed as he had been before, Parno began to angle the horse toward the river's edge, away from the 'corpse', toward a bright splotch of red that was Dhulyn. She was leaning so far out of the saddle that anyone other than the Red Horseman she was would have fallen off. When she straightened, and then slid off Bloodbone's back, Parno clucked his tongue, and touched his heels to Warhammer's sides.
Dhulyn Wolfshead pursed her lips and blew out her breath in a silent whistle as she scanned the ground. They said all battlefields looked the same, but any real soldier, let alone a Mercenary Brother, could tell you that it depended which side you were on, victors or defeated. That young man right there, for example, with his leather jerkin slipping off his shoulder, holding a bloody cloth to the arrow through his thigh-she'd wager her second best sword he and she saw the dead and the dying around them entirely differently.
And he'd be watching her approach with an entirely different look on his face if she were an ally.
He looked away when she reined Bloodbone in and, still trying to hold the bloody rag to his leg, twisted around, stretching his hand for the sword that lay just out of reach to his left. Dhulyn dropped to the ground in time to kick the weapon just a little further away.
"From the angle and distance," she said, as if they were sitting across a tavern table from one another talking about the weather. "You came off this dead horse as it fell, and dropped that Teliscan blade you can't quite reach as you hit the ground yourself." She twisted her lips to one side, propped one fist on her hip and measured the distances again by eye before nodding and squatting down on her heels.
"Furthermore, that jerkin is too large for you, and no soldier wearing such a thing would be riding this horse, carrying that blade, or-" she poked him in the region of his collar bone where a hard corner clearly showed through the leather. "Or, be carrying a book under it." She shook her head. "There's others on this field not so experienced as I, who might actually believe you were just the common soldier you're pretending to be. And they'd cut your throat for you as not worth tending. So right off, my little lordling, I'd remove that leather jerkin you've borrowed and get back into this nice tooled breastplate you've tried to hide under your horse's carcass." Dhulyn straightened and nudged the item in question a hand span closer to him with her toe. "Sorry about your horse, by the way, he looks like a fine animal."
"And you won't cut my throat?" Blood and dirt were ground into the creases of his fingers. His hair was black and curly, his eyes dark, and he looked to be naturally olive-skinned, under his present dirt and pallor.
Dhulyn raised her left eyebrow, wondering if she should be offended . . . and then smiled. Of course. She pushed back the hood of the cloak she'd forgotten she was wearing. She'd braided some feathers into her hair, and hadn't wanted to get them wet. Now the lordling could see her green and blue Mercenary Badge tattooed into the skin where the hair had been removed on her temples and above her ears.
"I am Dhulyn Wolfshead, called the Scholar. Schooled by Dorian the Black," she said formally.
The young man relaxed so completely Dhulyn was almost sure a tear or two leaked from his eyes. "I give you my surrender," he said, in a voice that trembled.
"And I accept it. What were you thinking?" She crouched down on her heels and took hold of the bloodied rag, pressing firm as the young lord stripped off the leather jerkin and struggled back into the inlaid and crested breastplate. She clucked and reached out one-handed to help him with the side ties, pushing the small bound book back into its place against his breastbone. Of course such armour was never meant to be put on by oneself, let alone while lying down in your own blood.
Not that much of this blood was his.
"I didn't want to be held for ransom," he said. "I thought I could get away."
The young man's head was turned away, so Dhulyn smiled her wolf's smile. "This your first campaign is it? Thought they'd let you walk away, did you? Well let me School you a little, young lord. If you're not already dead, there's only three ways to leave a battlefield in this part of the world." She held up her left thumb. "Held for ransom if you're important enough," she held up a finger, "held for the slavers if you're not, and," a final finger, "throat cut if you're not whole enough to ransom or sell."
"There's a fourth way," he said, pulling his lips back in what was meant for a smile. Dhulyn softened her own grin. For all that his hands trembled, the boy had nerve, which was more than she could say for many a noble lord she'd met before.
"What have I forgotten, young lord?"
"Taken by Mercenary Brothers, who don't hold for ransom."
Dhulyn gave a short bark of laughter. "Why, how could we do that? This time next month we might be looking for work from you."
"We're not looking for work already, are we?"
It was a good thing she was holding on to the boy's leg, otherwise the start that he gave at hearing Parno's question would have caused him to do more than hiss as his wound moved.
"Come hold his leg while I pull the arrow out," Dhulyn said to her Partner. "It won't hurt much, young lord," she added, turning back to the boy in time to catch his grimace.
"Just one moment, my soul."
Dhulyn looked up at the hint of warning in Parno's voice. She frowned; he was lowering himself from the saddle far too stiffly for her taste. Anyone would think he was an old man.
"This isn't just some lordling you've got here," he said. "This is someone far more important."
Dhulyn looked into the boy's face and raised her eyebrows. He licked his lips, but said nothing. She turned back to Parno.
"Another of your High Noble Houses is it?"
But her Partner was shaking his head. "Better. Or worse, depending on your view of it. Look at the crest on the saddle cloth," he said, "and right there on his breast plate for that matter. This is Lord Prince Edmir himself."
Dhulyn examined the boy again, with more interest. "Is he now? Then perhaps you can explain what happened here, Lord Prince Edmir? Where was the power of the Blue Mage that has kept you Tegriani undefeated these last two seasons?"
If possible, the boy became even paler under the blood and dirt. His lips moved, but his eyes rolled up before he could make a sound.
"He's fainted," Parno said.
Dhulyn shrugged. "Good. Easier to take out the arrow."
"You noticed the fletching?"
Dhulyn nodded. "A Tegrian Prince, shot by a Tegrian arrow."
Parno squatted down beside her. "Never let it be said that the Mercenary life isn't interesting."
Dhulyn breathed in deeply through her nose, counted to ten in the old language of the Caids and released the breath slowly, glancing around at the faces assembled in War Commander Kispeko's tent the next day. Parno, standing to her left, raised his right eyebrow and she raised her own in acknowledgment. Losing her temper would gain nothing. When she was sure her voice would be measured and even, she hooked her thumbs in her sword belt and spoke.
"By contracting with Mercenary Brothers you accepted our Common Rule. Prisoners taken by us go free, unmolested and unransomed. These are the conditions of your contract with us, you cannot go back on it now."
"Come now, Wolfshead, surely you realize the situation has changed." The lines around War Commander Kispeko's eyes showed how little sleep he'd had the night before.
"No situation changes sufficiently for you to lose your honour by breaking your word." No point dancing around it, she thought.
"I wish I had the leisure to think in those terms, Mercenary." Kispeko's voice was colder than it had been a moment before, and his left hand-his sword hand-had tightened into a fist where it lay on maps covering the top of his campaign table. The other people in the command tent, Nisveans for the most part-a few, like the War Commander himself, from noble Houses-all reacted to her words in their own way. Many of the soldiers, even the higher ranks, grimaced, carefully avoiding anyone's eye; but there were a few, among them Squad Leader Jedrick, the one whose cloak she was wearing, whose expressions bordered on smiles of triumph.
"This is no ordinary soldier," Kispeko continued. "Not even a member of a noble House, such as we might ransom out of hand. This is the heir to the throne of Tegrian."
Dhulyn closed her lips on all the things she might have said. She knew that tone, and there was no argument the man would find convincing. "I ask you one final time, Lord Kispeko, to abide by the terms of our contract."
"Wolfshead, I cannot. You must see that I cannot." Kispeko's hand relaxed, but his face was still set firmly. "This is Tegrian we are talking about, and we all know that behind any Tegrian force stands the Blue Mage."
Dhulyn nodded, conscious of the chill that passed through the tent at the War Commander's words. "Not behind yesterday's force, surely?" she said. "You cannot claim that there were any magics protecting the Prince's troops."
Kispeko shrugged. "Possibly the Lord Prince was acting without the knowledge of his mother the Queen, or of the Blue Mage. In any case, In Prince Edmir I have a bargaining chip that will keep Nisvea safe from invasion-at the very least, a way to turn the Blue Mage's ambitions in another direction."
"No one has succeeded in bargaining with the Blue Mage," Dhulyn pointed out. "He has no interest in treaties and allies."
"But our circumstances are different from any who have tried to treat with the Mage before. Your very presence, for which we thank the Caids, has contributed to this." Kispeko leaned toward her, his eyes fixed intently on hers. "We re-organized our troops as you suggested, holding half our cavalry in reserve, and through this good advice and counsel we have won a battle against the Tegriani-the first such victory since the Blue Mage married their Queen." As if he had heard the rising pitch of his voice, Kispeko fell silent and straightened.
"And now," he continued in a milder tone, "not only have we bested his troops, but we have Queen Kedneara's own son and heir."
"Perhaps if Dhulyn Wolfshead had a country of her own, she would not speak so lightly." The voice was quiet, but taut as a bow string. Dhulyn did not turn her head; she knew who had spoken. She wore his cloak.
"Mercenary Brothers have fought, and killed, to defend the countries of others. As my Brother the Lionsmane and I did yesterday."
"And we were glad to have you," the War Commander's sharp tone brought Dhulyn's eyes back to his face. "And we will recompense you in the manner agreed upon. But I will have the Prince. With him I can stop the Blue Mage, and that, let me tell you Mercenary, supersedes your Common Rule, or my own honour, for that matter."
Dhulyn nodded. There had only been the slimmest of chances that this could have gone any other way. "As Cavalry Leader Jedrick has pointed out, we Mercenaries have only our Common Rule, and our honour." Dhulyn drew her sword and held it, point straight up, and directed her words to the patterned blade. "I am Dhulyn Wolfshead, called the Scholar. I was Schooled by Dorian of the River, the Black Traveller. I have fought at the sea battle of Sadron, at Arcosa in Imrion, and at Bhexyllia in the West. I withdraw my service, and that of my Partner Parno Lionsmane, from the Nisvean force following the battle of Limona."
She sheathed her sword. "You are Oathbreakers, War Commander. No Mercenary Brother will ever fight again at Nisvea's call."
Kispeko lips thinned until they almost disappeared before he spoke. "So be it."
Dhulyn turned without salute or reverence and left the command tent.
Parno fell into step behind her as they made their way across the camp to where their own much smaller and much plainer tent was set up on the southern verge. He watched the muscle jump next to her mouth and judged it was safe to speak.
"Do you think, one of these days, we might actually get paid for a job?"
"We were paid in Berdana." Dhulyn's voice was quiet, but tight, as if she spoke through her teeth.
"Very well then, would being paid for two jobs in a row be too much to ask?"
She stopped and faced him, the small scar on her upper lip turning her expression into a snarl. "Blooded, inglera spawning House lordling-spit on our contract will he? Blooded amateurs."
Parno knew the final remark wasn't aimed at him, but he grimaced just the same.
"What about the Tegriani? What if what Kispeko says about saving his country is true?"
Dhulyn's face was stiff. "Do you believe it?"
It took Parno only a moment to consider everything they knew of the Blue Mage. "No, my soul. No. And we would have sold our own honour for nothing."
"Not just our own, but the honour of our whole Brotherhood. 'Trust one, trust all'. If we do not hold to our oaths, if we cannot be trusted, we are not Mercenary Brothers, we are just killers."
Parno nodded. A few of the soldiers nearby had stopped in the middle of afternoon tasks and were looking in their direction.
"Calm down," he said. "You're attracting attention."
She stepped in until her nose was almost touching his.
"Am I not acting naturally, given the circumstances which will, as you well know, be all over the camp in twenty more heartbeats?" Though the corner of her mouth twitched, Parno could see the cold light of rage was still in Dhulyn's eye.
He took his Partner by the elbow, and started them back toward their tent.
"You have a plan?" He used the night-watch whisper, hardly louder than breathing.
"You think I'll let him get away with this?"
"And the Tegrian invasion?"
"What invasion?"
Parno found himself standing still as the full meaning of Dhulyn's question struck him.
"Your Vision said the Nisveans would win. Against all odds they would win," he said, his voice still night-watch quiet.
"Was that the Tegriani force the world has been led to expect? The troops that never tire? Whom weapons do not touch? Against that force we should not have won. Regardless of any advice or help we gave, against the army of the Blue Mage, the Nisveans should have lost-" Dhulyn broke off her whisper to nod at the cavalry's head stableman as he passed without stopping. Evidently news of the events in the War Commander's tent hadn't travelled far enough in the camp to reach the old man's ears. "As Balnia lost last season."
"And Demnion and Monara the season before last," Parno agreed, taking Dhulyn once more by the arm. When they were again on their way he continued. "The Nisveans are being used. The Prince was meant to lose, maybe even to be captured or-"
"Or worse," Dhulyn said. "Remember that Tegrian arrow."
Parno gave a silent whistle. "And the Commander either knows, or doesn't want to know."
Dhulyn was nodding like a Schooler pleased with her student. "Which tells us what?"
Parno grimaced, tasting acid in the back of his throat. "Nothing is as it appears."
"Except our oaths, and our honour."
They reached their tent, a gift from their grateful employer in Berdana, and Dhulyn stepped ahead to lift the flap and duck inside. It was larger than they needed, but they'd put it up nonetheless. As the only Mercenary Brothers with this portion of the Nisvean soldiery, they had reputations to maintain, and that could be done as much with a show of wealth as a show of skills.
Once they were inside, the flap down and tied, Parno acknowledged Dhulyn's signal and sat down cross-legged facing her, close enough for their knees to touch. Dhulyn was frowning, her eyes focused on the heavy silk-lined bag that held Parno's pipes. He laid the tips of his fingers on her knee and waited for her to speak.
"Turned your heart a bit, did it, when Kispeko spoke of saving his homeland?" she said, without turning her head. "Took thought for your own House and Imrion there a moment, didn't you?"
Parno smiled, shaking his head. "It was only the once I wanted to visit my home and family. But if you're truly asking me whether I'd put the safety of Nisvea before our Brotherhood . . ." He shrugged. "I'll be honest and say I'm glad that breaking our Common Rule and letting them keep Prince Edmir would change nothing for the Nisveans. It makes what we have to do easier for me." He caught her chin and turned her head until they were eye to eye. "But I would do it, easy or not. Set your mind at rest."
"I believe you." Dhulyn sighed. "But consider this. Kispeko is no fool, when all is said and done. He knows the truth of things as well or better than we do-he's had the Blue Mage on his doorstep all this time, while you and I have been to the east. So he must know that returning the boy will do nothing. And yet he insists on doing so."
"As you say," Parno said. "There is more here than meets the eye."
"Which changes nothing for us." She pressed her lips tight, fingers tapping on her knee. "This is going to take us even further out of our way."
Parno studied her face, unable to decide whether she was annoyed or merely stating a fact. They had been on their way to Delmara, where a traveller they'd met in Berdana had told them there was a Seer, perhaps even more than one. Seers were the rarest of the Marked, far rarer than Healers, Menders or Finders. Everyone thought the Mercenaries were going to Delmara to consult the Seer-and they let everyone think so. What they told no one was that Dhulyn was a Seer herself. Since she had lost her clan before her Mark had shown, however, she'd had no one to train her, and her Visions were erratic and unreliable. Even with the ancient set of vera tiles she'd acquired in Imrion-Seer's tiles used like a Finder's bowl to focus the Mark-she still needed training. They'd been working their way west to Delmara when they'd run into War Commander Kispeko's recruiters.
Dhulyn had turned her eyes away again, and Parno saw that she hadn't been looking at his pipes after all, but at the olive wood box lying in the centre of her bedding. The box that held the vera tiles. She had a way of blaming him for it whenever he suggested she use them. Still . . .
"This might be a good time to try the tiles."
*
A warm breeze blows from the east, making the banners and pennants flutter, the stiffened cloth rattling softly with a sound like a flock of birds taking flight. There's a mixed crowd of people before her, some wearing the longer gowns of nobility, many in shorter, more workmanlike dress. most stand, though there are a scattering on horseback, looking over the heads of the rest. Prince Edmir sits on a throne-like chair on a raised platform, the focus of the crowd's attention. He is wearing robes the brilliant blue of the sky in winter, there is a circle of leaves shining gold against his dark hair, and he holds a long two-handed sword across his lap. A fair-haired woman, expensively dressed in a cloth of silver gown with a smaller, jewelled circlet around her head stands to Edmir's left, and an armsman in chained mail to his right. Edmir begins to speak and the crowd hushes.
. . .
Hands that are her own push back the lid of a plain wood chest small enough to stand on a table top. Inside, resting in a bed of pale silk, is a blue crystal as long as her forearm, and perhaps as thick around. it shines blue like the deep ice that has trapped the glow of the stars. dhulyn reaches down. . . .
At first Dhulyn cannot see what it is that disturbs the forest. Small animals scatter away. A crashing noise to her left and she turns her head, expecting to see perhaps a deer, perhaps even a small bear. There is too much noise for a forest cat, who even in desperate flight make no more sound than the wind in the branches. Instead a young boy-younger than the Prince, yet taller, thinner, with long hair the colour of old blood escaping from his braids-comes stumbling onto the narrow path, almost falling when his feet find the leveled ground. Dhulyn puts her hand up to her own blood-red hair, and her lips part, but she does not speak. The boy, clearly an espadryni like herself, would not be able to hear her. He looks up then at a noise that only he can hear, whites clearly showing around the sharp blue of his eyes. There is the mark of an old bruise on the left side of his face. He tries to slow his breathing, taking a deep breath, but his diaphragm spasms, and he cannot manage a second one.
His left hand at his side, the boy sketches a complicated sign in the air with his right hand. There is a tug at Dhulyn's memory and she knows that she is frowning now, knowing that something should follow, but cannot think what it might be. Nothing happens, and the boy turns and runs toward her on the path, chest heaving just as Dhulyn catches the sounds of the men hunting him as they too crash through the forest . . .
*
"You sure it was Edmir crowned and on his throne? It wasn't some naming day ceremony?"
Dhulyn stopped rubbing her temples and took the cup of warm water Parno handed her. "He was older than he is now, that I'm sure of. And he'd have had his naming day already, surely?"
Parno nodded, his eyebrows drawn together as he concentrated. "What about the other boy? Do you think he made it? Some other of your kindred must have escaped-you can't be the only one."
Dhulyn shrugged and drained her water cup. "That event might be years old, there's no way for me to be sure. Fashions don't change much among Horsemen."
Parno studied her face, but she seemed at peace. "And what he was doing-" Parno mimed the movement Dhulyn had described. "You don't know what that was?"
"It seemed familiar," she said. "Something should have happened, but I don't know what." She looked up, her blood red brows drawn down in a vee. "And I don't know why." She raised her hands to her forehead.
"The Prince on his throne, though, that seems pretty clear."
Dhulyn stopped rubbing her temples and looked up at him. "That's what you always say. It never seems so clear afterwards."
Parno grinned. She already found a way to blame him. "So the only question is, do we make a great show of leaving and then sneak back into the camp? Or do we decide to leave in the morning and make off in the middle of the night?"
"That is not the only question, my heart, but it will do to begin with."
Parno returned to the tent some hours later carrying a freshly filled wine-skin over his shoulder, bought from their friend the old stableman. As he pushed aside the flap, Dhulyn was setting the bright red cavalry cloak down on the battered, leather-covered chest they used as a table, next to his unwrapped pipes, a bright metal flask and two Allitan blue-glass cups.
Parno pursed his lips and looked from one side of the tent to the other. Everything his Partner considered essential-except his pipes-had been packed into two sets of saddle bags, and two largish packs that would ride on their horses' cruppers. That still left a considerable pile of bedding, extra clothing and weapons, to say nothing of the tent itself.
"I hadn't realized we'd accumulated so much," he said, frowning.
Dhulyn began rolling up a piece of thick canvas sewn with little pockets that held a set of knives. "Lucky for us, as it turns out; it explains the need for the extra horse." Dhulyn eyed both saddle bags before choosing one and stuffing the roll of canvas down one side of it. She hefted it and nodded, satisfied that the weight was balanced.
"Which I've bought." The twist to her mouth told Parno how unhappy she'd been with the bargain she'd made, but an extra horse they had to have. "And I've moved all four of them over to Randle's tether."
"I've gone around telling people we're off in the morning," he said, putting the wine skin down on one of the two large packs. "Anyone asked, I told them we'd be heading down to the Mercenary House in Lesonika to lodge a complaint."
"And they believed it?"
"Why shouldn't they? It's on our way to Delmara, more or less. Most of them think we're complaining of losing our chance at Prince Edmir's ransom. Even those who know the real reason agree with the Commander. It seems when the subject of the Blue Mage enters the discussion, all minds except ours run along the same paths."
"As Jedrick said, it's not our country. There was a time you would have felt the same about the Mage and ridden against him for your House and for Imrion."
"I admit, even now, I wouldn't like my House to fall, nor Imrion either for that matter. But there's little chance of that."
"I'm sure that's what Balnia thought two years ago. How goes their thinking now?"
Parno moved closer to his Partner and dropped his voice to the night-watch whisper. "They've got him in a tent close to Kispeko's, small enough that there's only the one guard, walking around it."
"Blooded amateurs." Any other time Dhulyn's look of disgust would have made him smile.
Parno shrugged. "They don't expect anyone here to let him out, and they don't expect any of his own people to come and rescue him."
"They are right about the second, that's certain."
"Making it all the easier for us, so we won't complain."
She shot him a glance out of the corner of her eye even as she agreed. "Getting out of camp with the Prince was never the hard part. It's keeping out of the Nisvean's hands after that will be the trick."
"Then we'll just have to make sure they've no reason to come after us."
"Moon rises at the end of the second watch, sets at the beginning of the fourth. We'll have to be back in our places by then."
Parno jerked his thumb at pipes and wineskin. "I'm ready when you are."
"Then I shall go and find Cavalry Squad Leader Jedrick." She picked up the red cloak and frowned at her hands, lifting them to her nose. "Do I smell of blood?"
Parno reached out and brought her right hand to his lips. Her skin was roughened and cold. "You washed last night, and you smell wonderfully. Are you sure you can manage it with Jedrick . . . ?" The words suddenly dried in his throat and he gestured at the red cloak in Dhulyn's long fingered hands.
"You think I can't?"
"The man makes no attempt to disguise his dislike of you."
She smiled her wolf's smile and Parno found himself smiling back. "You think that means he actually dislikes me? What he can't disguise is his annoyance that I bested him at the knife throw. There's not many see only the woman and not the Mercenary Brother, but he's one of them. And it's for that reason he'll not forego what he'll see as a kind of triumph," she said. "His ego will play him right into my hands."
"I still think we should switch places. You do the horse trick, and I go for the Prince," he said. "An alibi's all very well, but there's no one more recognizable in the whole blooded camp than you."
And there was no arguing with that, he thought. Even if you set aside her Mercenary's Badge, there was still her height, her slimness, to say nothing of her blood-red hair, woven and tied into tiny braids, and her distinctive dress, loose trousers tucked into the knee high boots of the Western Horsemen, her vest quilted from scraps of leather, bright velvets, silks and ribbons, leaving her arms bare.
"You have it exactly backward," she said to him. "No one will make a wager against me that involves horses-you they're not so sure of. And it's my very distinctiveness will help me vanish in the shadows." She glanced around until her eye fell on the small pile of clothing left unpacked. "Watch." She picked up what he recognized as an old, dull green tunic of his own and slipped it over her vest. She pulled a brown felted hood over her hair and turned back to face him.
"I'll change my trousers, and put on a pair of low half-boots instead of these Semlorians everyone has seen me in. It will be dusk by the time I try it," she pointed out. "And no one will know me from any other soldier walking through the camp at dusk."
"By the Caids," Parno whispered. He wanted to tell her she was wrong, but the truth was . . . even without the boots and trousers, the bulky tunic alone, the covering of her hair-"I think I'd walk past you myself, without a second look."
"Then it's in Battle?"
"Or in Death," he agreed.



Violette Malan 2008