Snapshot Excerpts from The Novels of the Jaran series
By Kate Elliott
Snapshot excerpt from Jaran:
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She dusted herself off, flicked a stem of grass away from her mouth, and walked back to the charred sight of the shuttle's landing. Such a faint scar, to mark its having been here. The breeze cooled her cheeks as she strode along the trail of beaten-down grass left by the horses. Snow patched the shadows, but her clothes adjusted their temperature accordingly. She did not bother to pull on her gloves. After all, she would catch up with the Chapalii soon enough. The island on which Charles's engineer had disguised his spaceport was tiny; every hill overlooked the sea. Off-world women and men in Charles's employ lived in the island's only village. There, Tess could find a galley sailing the rest of the way across the vast bay, to the harbor at Jeds. There was no other way off the island.
By the sun, she guessed that her trail led east. Climbing, she felt invigorated, enjoying the sweet pungency of the air, the untainted crispness of the wind. She came to the crest of the nearest hill quickly, her cheeks warm with the effort.
There was no ocean. There was nothing except grass and snow and broken forest straggling along the march of hills. As she stared out at the unvarying expanse, dwarfed by the huge bowl of the sky and the wide stretch of hills, she knew that she had never seen this place before. This was not an island.
Snapshot excerpt from An Earthly Crown:
The rider left the great sprawl of tents that marked the nomad army just as the sun set. Dusk washed his scarlet shirt gray, and with only the gibbous moon to light him, he soon faded into the dark of night, the susurration of his horse's passage through the high grass marking his progress. Near midnight, he came to another, smaller camp, and here he changed horses and went on. By dawn, he was within sight of the low range of hills where lay the farthest outposts of the khaja, the settled people.
One hand's span after sunrise, he rode through a village. Fields spread out around the huts. Green shoots wet with dew sparkled in the soft light of morning. The khaja stopped in their tasks and stared at him, a lone jaran warrior armed with a saber and a lance, passing through their midst as if their presence was beneath his notice. None spoke, or moved against him.
Snapshot excerpt from His Conquering Sword:
Aleksi could no longer look at the sky without wondering. On clear nights the vast expanse of Mother Sun's encampment could bee seen, countless campfires and torches and lanterns lit against the broad black flank of Brother Sky. Uncle Moon rose and set, following his herds, and Aunt Cloud and Cousin Rain came and went on their own erratic schedule.
But what if these were only stories? What if Tess's home, Erthe, lay not across the seas but up there, in the heavens? How could land lie there at all? Who held it up? Yet who held up the very land he stood on now? It was not a question that had ever bothered him before.
Excerpt from The Law of Becoming
Ilyana turned and walked back out into the blast of the noonday sun to follow the procession of Amon's boat along the avenue of the sphinxes that led to the temple of Amon-Re at Luxor. Ahead of her, the boat sailed on the shoulders of the priests. Their hawk and jackal masks muted their voices, but she could see the pale linen of their robes slide around their bodies and the sere brown skin of their hands, holding up the god's boat. She let herself feel the sun searing her back and the dry heat of the air, the parching dust, and the distant breath of the river.
Ten years ago she had not even known that this fantastic complex of temples existed. She had never heard of an ancient land called Egypt, nor had she known such marvels -- such tools, such technology -- existed that she, not the real Ilyana but an ephemeral construct of herself, might walk through these buildings without actually being there.
A sphinx yawned and reared itself up, stone limbs crackling, and regarded her quizzically. "Yana," it said, "it's past time to go home. The system is going down in five minutes."
"Thanks, Kori," she said. She reached out, farther, farther, toward the great gateway, through the fading priests and Amon's boat, and dove through. Egypt whirled away in a great blaze of light and she veered, flying, for the metal gleam of the docking bay, the artificial construct embedded in the teaching programs so that children would learn to make the transition from there to here as safely as possible.
On the farthest rose-tinged rim of the horizon, a red light winked on and off. She leaped, and closed in on it. It was, of course, the portal she had long ago built so that she could spy on Valentin. Right now it stood on a spine-like ridge of rock, a corbelled arch lined with flashing neon whose other side hovered over the brink of an abyss. Frowning, she slowed and stepped cautiously through. She never knew where she would find her little brother. Usually it was no place good. Cold pierced her to the bone, and she clamped her eyes shut against a stab of wild color. Abruptly, there was no ground beneath her feet. She opened her eyes, caught in an instant of stillness.
From a great height, she plunged. Wind screamed past her and the fall thrust pressure against her flesh. It was painfully hot. Each breath stung. Hills undulated out on all sides, a rich golden haze. Nothing but gold, as if the ground were plated with gold leaf. A dark filigree wound over a distant curve, the only break in the monotony.
As the ground neared, she recognized her surroundings: an endless desert of sand dunes. She caught a glimpse of the tail end of a caravan swaying away over a dune. The ground rose to meet her. Of course, in Valentin's construct, she had no ability to manipulate. She was herself a kind of artificial intruder. When she slammed into the sand would she be wrenched back into her body? Would her construct-self, her nesh, be obliterated? If she was lucky, the worst thing that would happen would be that she would return from there to here and throw up all over the couch. But she had heard of more horrible fates.
A sharp gust of wind pulled her free of gravity and with a disorienting twist she landed lightly on her feet.
"Ah! Gods!" she yelped and began jumping back and forth from foot to foot. The sand burned. The heat baked her.
At once a whole crowd of camels, spitting and slobbering, materialized around her. They reeked. They were disgusting. Valentin always was obsessed by sensory detail.
"Valentin!" she shrieked, more horrified by them than by the prospect of smashing into the dunes. The camels honked and chewed and farted. A thick yellow gobbet of spit landed on the skirt of her tunic, staining it dark, and remains of it slid down and fell toward her feet. She yelped and jumped to one side to avoid it. "Valentin! You worm! Stop this right now! They're closing the system in five minutes!"
A low haze swelled on the horizon. The sky darkened. The sun turned in an instant from brilliant white to a bloody ball of fire smothered in a rising wall of dust. A howl rose like the scream of a thousand agonized animals from the sands, pierced by a whistle.
The storm hit. Ilyana collapsed to her knees and covered her head. Sand battered her. Sharp waves of pebbles flung hard by the wind pelted her on her bare arms and through the thin weave of her tunic. The wind roared and the stones rattled and clashed in a perfectly hellish din.
And was silent.
Ilyana spit sand out of her mouth and cracked her eyes open. Sand leaked from her hair and weighted down her braids. Grit coated her tongue. It tasted stale and metallic. The camels, thank the gods, were gone, but now instead of the curve of dunes she saw only a rock-strewn flat plain, empty of life. The raw blue of the sky hurt her eyes. There was no sun, but it was as light as day.
A rider approached on a six-legged beast across the flat. Ilyana clambered to her feet and brushed off her tunic, the sleeveless shoulders, the fitted waist, the cullotte skirt. But even though the cloth was navy blue, encrusted by sand she just looked clothed in brown.
A demon rode the six-legged creature. It had bulging eyes and red-rimmed tusks and an inventive assortment of claws on its four arms. It pulled up its beast in front of her. Its curled hair gleamed like iron. Fire licked out from its tongue.
"Valentin," said Ilyana in disgust, "as you know, this doesn't impress me. Now come on. The system is closing down for the day. You know that. If you break the rules again they're gonna suspend you from guising completely. You're already on limited runs."
Flames licked threateningly from the demon's mouth.
Ilyana sighed, exasperated. Valentin was never a person in his constructs. His nesh was always an animal or some strange animalistic demon, like this one, culled from mythology or from his own nightmares, which were plentiful. Ilyana had experimented as most children did with other guises, guising as different animals and real or imagined aliens, even just in other human bodies, but for the last year, as she had grown more and more interested in exploring the great monuments of Earth and Ophiuchi-Sei and the other human planets, she had mostly stayed herself.
"And anyway," she added, "we have to go to that reception for Father tonight."
"I won't" said the demon petulantly, and it vanished in a swirl of smoke. She caught a glimpse of Valentin's unguised nesh, a slight, sallow-eyed boy of thirteen, but his image faded and with a jolting wrench and a tear in her chest she found herself back on the other side of the archway.
Bells rang, echoing up from the abyss. She dove for the docking bay, sealed herself through the lock, and felt the shift of pressure, the reorientation to the gravity of the real world. The inner lock unsealed and M. Lissagaray popped the seals off her eyes and she shook the gel tips off of her hands and swallowed bile.
With Yaroslav Sakhalin's Army:
The rim of the sun crested the eastern hills and flooded the clouds striping the horizon with a pale light. Vassily Kireyevsky shaded his eyes and looked down at the villa. It was a typical Yossian nobleman's house: a great house with a central courtyard ringed by a wooden palisade.
Outbuildings and livestock pens lay within the palisade, but the fields that fed the inhabitants lay outside the protecting wall. A barred gate marked one wall. Four towers studded the corners. In the central courtyard two women emerged through a door and carried buckets out to the well to draw water.
"It's well fortified," said Stefan casually, leaning his chin on his arms where they rested on dirt. His tone irritated Vasha. Next thing, he would say that the whole expedition was foolhardy.
The three boys lay close together on a spine of rock on a ridge overlooking the villa. Behind them, at the steep base of the hill, Ivan held onto the horses, his duty as the youngest of the four.
"We don't have to get into the house," Vasha pointed out. "We only have to get past the palisade in order to get to the horse pens.
"Well worth the risk," said Stefan sarcastically, since even from this height they could see that the ponies and horses confined within the pen were the usual sorry excuses for mounts that the khaja bred.
"We can manage without you," retorted Vasha, stung. But Stefan didn't stir, and would not. He and Vasha had been best of friends for too long now for him to abandon Vasha, especially since he had volunteered to come along just as enthusiastically as Ivan and Arkady had.
"Look!" said Arkady in a sharp whisper.
Out of the east came a rider, galloping. But Arkady was looking southwest. In the distance, four wagons jerked and pitched along a rutted road, whipped along at a brisk pace, aiming for the villa. Four armed men marched alongside the wagons. A flag went up on one of the villa's towers, and the palisade gate swung open just as the rider pounded up and entered.
At once, activity erupted throughout the compound. Men yoked cattle to wagons. Two girls at the bird coops fought feathers and flapping wings to cage the birds inside tiny pens. A trio of boys linked the horses up on strings and led them out to the big gate. Women streamed in and out of the great door leading into the villa, bearing chests and bundles of clothing. It all looked quite disorganized and frantic. A child sat in the dirt beside the door and wailed.
"If that rider's brought news that the jaran army is advancing," said Stefan, "then we'd better go back."
"Not before we get a prize to take with us," said Vasha stubbornly.
Stefan shot him a look but mercifully said nothing more. It was all very well to advise caution, but Vasha knew that Stefan was as frustrated as he was, too young to ride with the army, too old to be satisfied to stay in camp. Vassily had seen khaja boys -- men -- led in as prisoners or fallen on the field of battle who were no older than he was. And Stefan's twin sister Elena, and Vasha's own cousin Katerina, had already ridden with the archers, but of course, they were already women even if they were all nineteen; it was different for them.
"But if they've news of the army," said Arkady suddenly, "then they won't expect us to be here. Look at them run around. They must think they have time to escape." Sharp-eyed, he squinted toward the villa. "Besides the four on foot, I only see two archers in the northeast tower and one other khaja with a spear. Only that messenger is armed and mounted, and he just has a short sword. It should be easy to steal some of those horses."
"What do you think those other wagons are?" asked Stefan, jerking his head toward the four wagons that approached from the southwest. "Why are they guarded?"
"What does it matter?" asked Arkady. "Only women ride in wagons anyway. And khaja women don't know archery."
Vasha studied the situation a moment longer. From this height, he surveyed the fields that stretched out around the palisade. At the base of the ridge, a line of trees rimmed a stream that flowed down from the heights.
"Come on." He scooted backward from the rim. Jumping to his feet, he leaped down the slope, his boots sliding on shale as he picked up speed. Arkady followed, falling flat out once in his haste, and rising with a grin. Stefan picked his way down more carefully.
"Well?" demanded Ivan.
"They' Il all have to emerge through a single gate," said Vasha, "and advance along the road, with those wagons, so that will string them out. If we time it right, there'll be some confusion when they meet the four wagons coming in. They'll have to turn around, trade places, discuss what to do next. We'll approach along the stream and break in when they're distracted. Whichever horses are farthest north and east we'll strike for and cut away. Ivan, you'll hold back and be in charge of--"
"I'm always left behind!"
"You're the best one of us with horses," said Vasha, "so you'll be responsible for herding them in the right direction once Arkady and I have cut them loose. Stefan will cover our action and strike in if necessary."
They all nodded. It had been Vasha's idea, and anyway, they all knew who his father was. They had agreed to come as friends, they were friends, but while they might question his authority they could never supersede it. Satisfied, Vasha swung onto his mare and urged her forward. She hesitated one instant as if to say: What fool notion have you got into your head now, young man? But Misri loved him too well to refuse, even if she was, perhaps, wiser than he was. She pricked her ears forward and led the other horses along the hillside.
Farther down, a scrubby vale of woods cut through the ridge and led out onto the flat where the villa lay. They cut through the woods, keeping the trees between them and the villa, and found the stream that wound out into the valley. In short order they had advanced far enough out onto the flat to observe the palisade gate at fairly close quarters while remaining hidden in the trees. The palisade loomed large from this angle, but they had all seen higher walls fall to the jaran army, and in any case, this was a mere villa, scarcely worth stopping for. More likely if a jahar of the army did pass through here, the house would simply be burned. They might not even bother to knock down the palisade. Of course, the khaja themselves seemed all to be leaving, so perhaps the work would be done for them.
Stefan leaned toward Vasha. "They'll turn that into a messenger station," he said in a low voice.
A flash of irritation sparked through Vasha, smothered quickly by envy and the usual admiration. Stefan always thought of things like that. Of course he was right.
"The wagons are coming in!" said Arkady. His mare, as highstrung as he was, minced under his restless hands. Ivan looked pale, but he was steady.
Vasha took in a big breath. Out on the road, the four wagons from the southwest jerked to a halt as the first line of wagons retreating from the villa slowed down and halted in their path. An armed guard and one of the men from the villa shouted at each other, gesticulating. The first clump of horses emerged through the palisade gates.
"Come on!" ordered Vasha, starting Misri forward. She caught his excitement and went eagerly. Arkady had to rein his mare back to restrain her from bolting forward.
"There could be arrows from the palisade walk," said Stefan quickly, hanging back.
Yes!" snapped Vasha, "but look how those riders are swinging out. They're leading the horses around the wagons. By the time we reach them, they'll be out of range of the walls. Come on!"
They forded the stream and broke out of the trees. At once, the horses broke into a run and Arkady let out a whoop. They pounded over the grass. Vasha's heart beat fiercely, and he grinned. The khaja boy herding the horses hesitated, seeing them. Vasha drew his saber, and on either side of him, he felt more than saw Arkady and Stefan draw theirs as well.
More men burst out of the gate. At the wagons, the guards turned and a man shouted.
Arkady edged out in front. He made a tight turn between the khaja boy and the lead mare, shoving against the boy so hard that the khaja fell off his horse. Vasha and Stefan fanned out on either side. For a moment, nothing happened. Some of the khaja men went down on one knee submissively, watching them. Others simply stared. One fell down flat, as if he'd been struck down.
"Look!" shouted Arkady abruptly. The lead mare sidled away from him. "To the northeast. Dust. More riders approaching."
"Into the trees!" ordered Vasha, and they pushed the horses back toward the line of trees. After a moment, the lead mare decided to go with them, and the rest followed her.
"Faster!" shouted Stefan, craning his neck around to look toward the approaching riders. "Those are soldiers!"
Catching their mood, the horses began to run. Arkady was laughing desperately, the way he did when he got excited. Ivan rode out to meet them, and they drove the horses on, passing through the trees and splashing noisily through the stream.
Vasha hesitated, struck by an instinct and also because he was a little angry that everything had gone so easily, that it had been khaja soldiers, not jaran, who these khaja were afraid of. And he was curious: Who so frightened them that they would let four unknown riders steal seven horses without a fight?
"Go on!" he shouted to Stefan. "I'm going to scout."
Stefan could not protest. Once over the stream, the horses broke into a run, clearly enjoying their stampede. Stefan had to follow, and Ivan chivvied the herd along from the rear. But Arkady turned back.
"Oh, they can manage. We'll catch up. Anyway, I want to see." Arkady laughed again. Like the horses, he relished the excitement.
At the villa, the khaja now streamed back into the palisade. Two riders came out through the gate and headed at speed away southwest, passing the wagons, which still blocked each other. With a great deal of tugging and swearing, the wagons from the villa lurched out onto a field where their wheels promptly mired in mud while at the same time the four wagons from the south inched forward along the road toward the safety of the palisade, trying to skirt the two wagons that still blocked the path. Even at this distance they could hear shouting and cursing. The dust thrown up by the approaching riders drew closer. The fleeing messengers shrank and dwindled into the west.
"Look there," said Arkady. "Some idiot is trying to escape on foot."
Overlooked in the chaos, a single, small figure swathed in robes and veils clambered down from the second of the four arriving wagons and scuttled out across the field toward the safety of a clump of high grass edging a ditch. The boys watched with interest as the black-clad figure made the ditch safely and threw itself down where they could no longer see it. Wagons jerked forward and all at once a shout rose up and the men fighting the wagons mired in the field let go of them and in a great streaming cacophonous wave the four southern wagons, the guards, and the remaining people outside ran and rumbled for the gates. The gates swung to and closed just as a party of eighteen armed and mounted men outfitted in khaja fashion rode up and stopped outside of arrow range.
From the ditch, nothing.
At once, four men detached themselves from the group and galloped southwest along the road, following the messengers. The others rode over to the abandoned wagons and leisurely cut through the traces, two men dismounting to rummage through the goods while the others kept watch on the gate and the towers.
Arkady gulped down a cough. "Maybe we should go," he said tentatively, sounding torn.
But Vasha was transfixed by the scene before him. A few arrows peppered the ground before the raiders, but they were out of range. Why were the khaja fighting amongst themselves when they must know that the jaran army advanced steadily on their lands? Why weren't they uniting, as the jaran tribes had, to fight their common enemy? Did they not know? Not care? Were their own hatreds stronger than their fear of the jaran? Or were these raiders simply out for a quick profit before running before the jaran army? If they would not help each other, then it was no wonder they gave way before a united and single-minded force. Piecemeal and divided, they could never hope to defeat the jaran.
Black stirred in the rushes at the edge of the ditch closest to the boys, like an animal creeping out from its den. The fugitive had at least the sense to move slowly, a bit at a time, and to keep low, and he wasn't afraid to hold still for long periods of time, trusting to stealth over speed. Knowing full well he could not outrun mounted men.
"That's not a man," said Arkady in a low voice. "It's a woman."
"She has a veil," agreed Vasha, squinting as the figure wiggled along a bare patch of ground and then lost itself in a waist-high field of grain.
"And she has breasts under that cloth." Arkady managed to smirk and blush at the same time. Then his eyes widened. "Look, they're setting their arrows on fire."
The bandits began to fire flaming arrows into the compound. The skirmish had begun. Smoke trailed up from a thatched roof. Animals bellowed. The human noise drifted out to them like the distant roar of a waterfall.
Whether the fugitive chose that moment to panic, or simply judged herself far enough away for a dash to freedom, Vasha could not know. Or even -- at that moment -- where she thought she was escaping to. But she reached the edge of the grain field, jumped up, and ran, flat out. Shocked, Vasha stared. Unlike any other khaja woman he had seen, she wore not skirts but belled black trousers under her skirts and robe, and because of them she couldrun. But horses ran faster, and the bandits had seen her. Two of them broke away in pursuit.
Arkady moved before Vassily did. His mare danced forward and just as Arkady urged her forward, clearing the stream with a single clean jump, Vasha and Misri skirted a dense clump of underbrush and made it out to open ground while Arkady was still thrashing through.
The two bandits closed in on her. They shouted, seeing the two boys emerge from the trees, drawing the attention of their comrades. At that instant, Vasha realized that the fugitive must have seen him and the others as they stole the horses, that she was following them, because she veered toward them even though it meant crossing the path of the nearest bandit. She clutched at her waist and drew a long knife, dodged the mounted man and kept running while he jerked his horse around. Four more men broke away from the main group of bandits.
Driving his mare at a dead run, Arkady reached her first, of course. As if they had rehearsed it, she stuck the knife in her teeth, reached up just as Arkady drew his mare in, and he swung her on behind him and turned all at once. Vasha cut across the path of the second bandit. He saw the man's face, the glint of gold in his teeth, his blue eyes and the bronze embossing on his leather breastplate. Vasha wore no armor at all, except for the thick padding afforded by the embroidery on his sleeves and along the collar of his gold shirt. He felt paralyzed.
The man swung at him, and Vasha parried instinctively. He had never fought anyone before who meant to kill him. Parried, and struck back, heard Arkady yell something. Misri sidestepped and Vasha cut again, a head cut that unbalanced the bandit and sent him reeling back. . . . open. An arrow, and then another, skidded past his vision.
As if someone else saw it, Vasha realized in the next instant that four riders bore down on him. The gate to the villa swung open and a ragtag, screaming clot of fighters burst out, charging the remaining bandits. But the arrow fire came from hisside. An arrow lodged in the bandit's shoulder and dangled there while Vasha stared dumbly and the bandit, righting himself, cursing, fought to stay on his horse.
"Let's go," Vasha shouted. Misri moved with him as if with one thought. Arkady was already two lengths in front, headed for the trees. Behind, the bandits hesitated, torn between the sortie from the villa and the lost fugitive.
Out in front of the trees, Ivan sat on his stockstill mare and shot, calmly, accurately, swiftly, just as his sister and cousins had trained him to do.
Arkady was laughing again.
An arrow sprouted in Ivan's shoulder. Ivan went white and swayed, but he did not drop his bow, although the arrow nocked there slipped over his bay's withers and fell to the ground. Vasha came up alongside him and grabbed the bow out of Ivan's hands. Gritting his teeth, Ivan reined his mare around and followed the others into the trees.
Behind, a melee cluttered the muddy ground before the villa. With halberds and scythes, the defenders gave as good as they got, but it was easy to see that before long numbers would win out.
They followed the trail left by the horses. Stefan had encouraged them back up the vale into the hills and along the base of the ridge. Their fugitive said not one word, only watched them with dark eyes, her face hidden by a scarf. After what seemed like forever, they found Stefan, who had run the horses into a shallow defile and boxed them in.
"Ivan," said Vasha curtly, dismounting. "Let Stefan get the arrow out and bind that wound."
Ivan obeyed meekly. He bit on a strip of leather, sweating and pale, while Stefan eased the arrow out and staunched the bleeding. Surprisingly, the woman ripped strips of cloth off of her robe and gave them to Stefan to use as a bandage. Otherwise she stayed away from them. Her hands looked soft and smooth, and her nails were tipped with gold paint. She did not speak, and Vasha was not inclined to ask her questions, knowing that pursuit might be close behind.
When they mounted again, she stuck next to Vasha and without words made it obvious she intended to ride with him. She had a decent seat on a horse, but he felt incredibly aware of her close up behind him. Her presence embarrassed him. Why did she choose him now? Why had she run to them at all? Did she know they were jaran? But how could she know, since none of them had yet been granted the privilege of wearing the red shirt of the jahar. They wore boys' shirts still, green or gray or the gold he wore, with embroidery on the sleeves.
Then he looked closely at Ivan and saw how pale the younger boy was. "Ivan, can you truly ride?" he demanded, his fear making him angry. "You'd better get up behind Stefan."
Ivan bit down on his lips. "Just because I'm sixteen doesn't mean I'm a baby. I'm fine. I can ride. It doesn't hurt too much."
"It's a clean wound," added Stefan, and because he had been trained in healing by his grandfather Niko, Vasha accepted his judgement.
Chastened, they rode on. Before too long they came across the forward units, battle-hardened veterans who looked more amused than angry to see them out in front of the lines, where they assuredly should not be.
"Look what we've caught us, Riasonovsky," said the man who commandeered them, leading them back to his captain. "It's Bakhtiian's son, doing a little horse stealing out in front of the lines."
Riasonovsky was a light-haired man with steady eyes. Vasha knew his type: Risen from the ranks to command his own hundred, he undoubtedly did not suffer fools gladly, nor did he have to. Bakhtiian gave his generals complete authority over their own armies, and the general of this army, Yaroslav Sakhalin, was notorious for strict discipline and an unswerving sense for the right men to promote. Everyone knew that he had thrown a Suvorin prince out of a command and into the ranks for not following orders to his satisfaction during a battle. So Riasonovsky, wherever he might have come from before, was not afraid of Vassily.
"Bakhtiian's son must be all of six years old now," said Riasonovsky calmly. "What's that to do with these four boys?"
"How dare you--!" began Arkady.
"I am Bakhtiian's son," cut in Vasha, "as you well know."
"You are Vassily Kireyevsky, and if Bakhtiian was ever married to your mother, I wasn't aware of it."
"I do not expect to be insulted like this!"
"I do not expect to have boys out in front of my lines causing trouble for me! And I expect you to hold a civil tongue in your head, young man."
Vasha was furious, but he knew better than to say anything that would put him in a worse light, and mercifully Arkady said nothing stupid. Stefan kept quiet, and Ivan just looked white and weary. The old veteran snorted, vastly amused, and Vasha felt humiliated as well.
"Well, Zaytsev," finished Riasonovsky, who clearly had better things to worry about, "escort him back to Sakhalin, where he's supposed to be. And don't trouble us again, Kireyevsky. Gods!" He turned away to talk to his scouts.
Stefan shot Vasha a look, but that was all it needed to plunge Vasha into a morbid gloom. Stefan would never say so now, not in front of the others, but his eyes spoke as loudly as words: I told you so.
The veteran, still chuckling, led them to the back of the unit and rode out toward the northeast hills, beyond which the bulk of the army lay. "My cousins and I stole horses from the Vernadsky tribe back when we were lads. Got one of us killed, too. That was before Bakhtiian united the jaran." But then his gaze slipped to the black-clad figure sitting, silent, behind Vasha. The woman had scarcely stirred and not made a single sound since they had reached the jaran line. "We never stole women, though," he added, and those words hurt, they were spoken so hard.
"We didn't steal her!" Vasha was appalled. "We would never do anything like that. She ran after us. If we'd left her, khaja bandits would have taken her, and you know what they would do--!" He broke off, furious and ashamed that any man would think such a thing of him. Especially an old soldier like this: Vasha desperately wanted the old rider to think well of him. He wanted all the riders to think well of him, to think that he was one of them, that he deserved to be.
"Well," said Zaytsev thoughtfully, "no doubt trouble rides in on its own horse. Sakhalin will have to judge the case."
They rode the rest of the way in silence. Vasha smothered his dread by riding close by Ivan and asking him if he felt well enough that the boy finally set his lips and refused to reply.
The army was on the move, so no one remarked the five riders and seven extra horses passing back through the line. But there was no such luck when the old rider handed them over to one of Sakhalin's personal guard and went on his way with a casual farewell. Yaroslav Sakhalin was waiting for them. He wasn't alone.
Sakhalin rode beside the wagon that his much younger cousin drove. Konstantina Sakhalin was Mother Sakhalin of her tribe in all but name: Her grandmother was still etsana, but she had been failing for years now, ever since her favorite grandson had left the tribes, and Konstantina had taken over most of her duties. Worse, far worse, on the other side of the wagon with her bow and quiver rode Katerina Orzhekov. Vasha's cousin, more or less. Ivan's sister.
"Ivan!" Katerina exclaimed, seeing them approach.
Sakhalin sighed, looking exasperated. "Where have you been? I do not recall giving you permission to scout. But perhaps you decided to override my authority?"
Vasha rode out in front of the others, to spare them the worst cutting edge of Sakhalin's anger. Yaroslav Sakhalin was not a man worth angering. "I just--" he began, and faltered. The whole expedition seemed incredibly stupid, now.
"What is that behind you on the horse?" demanded Konstantina Sakhalin.
"Oh, Vasha!" cried Katerina. "What are you doing with a khaja woman? It's bad enough you'd ride off like an idiot, but this! Ever since Tess took you to Jeds with her, it's as if you want to be khaja yourself."
Vasha flinched. "We didn't steal her! Gods, Katya, you can't possibly think that--"
He broke off when the khaja woman moved. She slipped off the horse and flung herself down before the wagon. Not before the men, of course, but before Konstantina Sakhalin. She spoke, a flood of words. Vasha was mortified to hear how light and youthful her voice sounded and yet how collected.
"Can you understand her?" Konstantina asked Katya.
"I don't know this language," said Katya, but she dismounted and went over to the khaja woman and put out her hand. "But of course we must offer her sanctuary. I feel sure --" this said scathingly. "-- that Vasha will explain himself."
As if Katya's hand bore a promise, the khaja woman sat back on her heels. She pulled aside her scarf, and all four boys gasped. She was young, no older than they or Katya, and, in an exotic khaja fashion, pretty. She was also laden with gold jewelry, as if she bore her own ransom with her. They stared, until Konstantina sharply reminded them to mind their manners.
"Well," said Yaroslav Sakhalin curtly. "That's settled then. My men will take the horses. Kireyevsky, I've had enough of you and your insubordination. I'll give you one hundred riders as escort. I'm sending you back."
Vasha felt the world go white. He thought his heart would stop. "But you can't!"
"Of course I can!" snapped Sakhalin. "I don't have time for any boy's nonsense, especially not yours." The words cut like a red-hot blade. "Your companions will stay with me. Perhaps they'll do better without your bad example, since you always seem to be the ringleader." His gaze rested briefly on the seven stolen horses. "The prize looks pretty damned worthless in any case." Not even Arkady, rash though he was, was unthinking enough to protest Sakhalin's judgements.
But Stefan said, quietly, "If Vasha goes back, then so do I."
"Stefan!" protested Vasha. "Don't ruin it for yourself. Or you other two, either." Looking guilty, Arkady said nothing.
"I will go back with you," said Stefan stubbornly.
Sakhalin shrugged. "So be it." He turned back to Vasha. "I told Bakhtiian you weren't ready to ride with the army. I'm not sure you ever will be. Despite what you may have hoped to gain, I don't find that this little raid of yours has convinced me otherwise."
"You may go," echoed Konstantina, whose word was equally law. "Who can you spare to ride with him, Cousin?"
Sakhalin was a brilliant general. Everyone knew that. But he also had an uncanny instinct for how to handle men, either by rewarding them or by making sure their shame was complete. "Riasonovsky's jahar deserves a rest from the front. I'll send a rider to call him back in. He can escort the boy back to his--" There, always, the hesitation. He could not bring himself to say the word, father. "To Bakhtiian."
At that moment, Vasha thought, there was nothing, nothing, that could make the situation worse.
Ivan made a choking noise in his throat. He turned pale as pale, swayed and, fainting, fell from his horse.