Jessica’s frown grew deeper with each hour as the start of the plan approached. One of Cesaro’s sayings circulated around her head, and she focused upon it, listening to his voice in her mind.
A sailor can glide straight even upon the most complex currents and waves of the ocean. Ride atop the chaos, and never lose sight of the wind.
Had she lost sight of the wind? Their fate was placed in the hands of a man she hardly knew, a man who had nearly killed Cinis by introducing him to a skirmish with demons. He was honest in his confidence for the plan, she could feel that through his disposition, but even the most honest of warriors can and do soundly lose battles.
Right now he would have to be the wind to guide her out of the city, and should he falter, she would have significantly fewer options, assuming she still had any at all.
“We still have some time,” Cinis said, jarring her from her thoughts, and suddenly she was back in the grey, stone passageway. Ahead of her were three of Libus’ men, sharply dressed in the palace guard’s uniform, watching the movement outside though an archer’s slitted window. Together, they were inside the Outer Wall itself, and the northern gate of the city loomed not ten feet ahead of them. The passageway butted up against the archway of the gate, where genuine palace guards stood at attention below.
Since dawn, passage had only been granted to the highest noblemen and the most influential of merchants, and even they could not exit the city without a thorough inspection. By Rorcul’s orders, and thus the king’s orders, no one else would be allowed in or out of the gates until the traitor who had set fire to the palace grounds had been arrested. He had wanted the nobles and merchants restricted as well, but the outcry would likely have raised suspicions.
“It’s at least ten minutes until we leave, and I want to know more of where we’re going,” demanded Cinis, his eyes wide in the darkness.
“Can’t this wait? We’re in a delicate situation here,” she responded.
“No, it can’t. Once I leave, there’s no coming back. I’ll balk here, Jessica, if you don’t give me answers. I’ve been thinking about what Libus said, and I might just stay in Querkus to help fight.” His voice was hard, and Jessica doubted it was a bluff.
“What do you want to know? All will be made clear when we arrive, I promise, by someone who can explain it much better than I.”
“And that will be in a few weeks, at best, which I’m not willing to wait out in ignorance. I’ve hardly ever left this city, and I don’t know the outside world. There’s no reason it should know me, so my first question is why you intervened in my life.”
“To protect you of course. We knew Rorcul was on the move, and where he goes, death follows.”
“So this has happened before?”
“Several times now. Unfortunately we haven’t always been as lucky as you were earlier. Usually there’s a starkly different ending, but by Corsus, this story isn’t over yet either. So stay alert.”
“He killed them, then? Everyone before me?”
“Well, all that we know of so far, scattered all across Corpia. We are somewhat uncertain of their connection to him, as well. All we know is that whatever Rorcul wants, it would be wise to prevent it.”
“A few days ago, I had never heard of him, and suddenly my whole life is torn apart by his hand. What have I done to deserve this?”
“As far as I know, nothing.”
“Then why did Rearden die?” Cinis’ voice rose, and his fist clenched.
“Hush and get ready!” shouted the mock guard from ahead, his voice muffled through a hand. “Get in, get in, time is short. I can see the carriage already.”
Jessica touched Cinis’ arm, looking dead into his eyes.
“If we’re caught out there in the open, you’re dead, understand? I can’t fight off a crowd. They won’t hesitate to cut your throat, and there will be nothing you or I can do to stop them. I’ve already noticed that your sense of self-preservation appears to be nonexistent, so if nothing else, do it for Rearden, and do it so you can fight back in the future when it will matter.”
With that they moved forward, stepping into two wooden crates on the floor of the passageway. They crouched down, then knelt, curling within as Libus’ men hammered lids over them, concealing the noise by putting cloth over the nails. A musty darkness descended over them, adulterated only by slivers of grey light that had penetrated through the few cracks. Cinis shifted in his crate, his elbow jostling against the paneling, until his vision was level with a pea-sized hole in the boards.
Then there were the sounds of another crate behind them being moved into place and more muffled nails being hammered to seal it shut.
“What are you doing?” hissed Jessica from within her crate, her voice barely audible to Cinis.
“I’ve decided to come with you,” came the answer in Libus’ voice.
“What? No, you can’t do that,” Jessica answered. “You were supposed to stay here.”
“I thought you’d say that,” answered Libus, “which was why I waited until you were nailed inside a box to make the announcement.”
“This is ridiculous, I won’t—” she started, but her voice was cut off.
“Hold tight,” whispered the guard who had sealed them inside, and they were moving, Cinis’ crate grating along until it rested at the passageway’s open end where the archway of the gate met the wall. To his left was the countryside, a morning sun rising to peak through the corner of the doorway, and most importantly, the twisting cobblestone road that stretched out of sight of his peephole. To his right was the city, where he could see the purple palace guards rifling through packages of flour, stabbing through bales of hay, and prying open crates and containers similar to the one he was crouched inside. Jessica shifted in her crate beside him, as she, too, had a glimpse of their efficiency, and he gripped the knife at his belt, though Jessica’s words echoed in his mind as he counted the number of guards to exceed forty.
If we’re caught out there in the open, you’re dead, understand?
Libus had explained the plan before dawn, when they had entered the deserted passageway. “The guards only check goods before they leave the city, not after. Several months ago we discovered a supply of valuables running right under the city guard’s nose through one of the merchants. I considered him to be a lower breed of human, often whipping his horses, and it was one of his half-starved servant boys who clued us in to the operation. The valuables, mainly gems, were smuggled inside loaves of bread illegally, so no one could see them. When we caught wind of the operation, we decided to interfere with the injustice against our beloved city guard. We relieved the merchant of his biscuits during the night and replaced them with our own, a much tastier and softer variety. Anyway, the gems were original and traceable by their cut, so we had to sell them outside the city. This is how we got them out, and it’s worked every time.”
“Jewels are one thing, people are another. How big were those boxes?” Jessica had asked.
“Considerably smaller, but it’s the principle that works,” he had responded, and he had refused to elaborate.
“Hold tight,” came the warning from outside the crate, and Cinis braced himself. Ahead a carriage materialized through the peephole, laden high with tottering crates that shivered with every bump in the road. In the driver’s seat sat a man Cinis remembered from the night below the bookstore, Loose Pages, Donald of the Merchants, whose son had been killed by the guard. He held his reins in hand and sat rigidly upright as he neared the gate, his long grey beard drifting with the gentle breeze while his firm eyes stared ahead. A guard called for him to halt and Donald handed over several sets of papers, the muscle on his jaw clenching as the guard scanned the documents.
Six guards surrounded his carriage, prying open crates identical to the ones that Cinis, Jessica, and Libus were now held within. One guard crawled underneath, tapping the wood, seeking anywhere hollow that a stowaway might hide while the horse ahead of him stamped at the ground, tossing its head. When they were finished, each reached their hand into a crate of expensive spice packets, removing several for their own pockets while a vein on Donald’s forehead throbbed. The guard with the papers handed them back to Donald and spoke with a smile, “A gift, for our troubles.”
Then he raised his voice, and shouted toward the gate.
Donald cautiously edged the horse forward. The beast’s eyes lolled as it was goaded over gravel, yanking against Donald as he fought for control. The animal itself had first been subjected to the harness a week before and was eager to mend its broken spirit. And the harness that clamped down upon its sweaty, sinewy hide had been tightened in all the wrong places, and loosened in the others, making the horse as uncomfortable as possible without raising suspicion, some of the buckles digging into its skin.
Then Donald drew level with the door, and suddenly the plan was in motion.
With an expert strike he cracked his whip directly beside the horse’s ear. Nostrils flaring, it screamed, rearing onto its hind legs and shaking the cart with a violent lurch. Dust flew into the air as inadequately tied cords snapped, releasing an avalanche of crates just below the passage doorway.
With a grunt, the three of Libus’ mock guards in the passageway heaved the crates up and out of the door, sending them tumbling down toward the street below, the door slamming shut as they braced for impact with the hardened ground.
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