The Traitor Baru Cormorant, Chapter 2 |

The Traitor Baru Cormorant, Chapter 2

  • More Chapters from The Traitor Baru Cormorant:
  • Chapter 1 - May 27, 2015

Baru Cormorant believes any price is worth paying to liberate her people-even her soul. When the Empire of Masks conquers her island home, overwrites her culture, criminalizes her customs, and murders one of her fathers, Baru vows to swallow her hate, join the Empire’s civil service, and claw her way high enough to set her people free.

Sent as an Imperial agent to distant Aurdwynn, another conquered country, Baru discovers it’s on the brink of rebellion. Drawn by the intriguing duchess Tain Hu into a circle of seditious dukes, Baru may be able to use her position to help. As she pursues a precarious balance between the rebels and a shadowy cabal within the Empire, she orchestrates a do-or-die gambit with freedom as the prize. But the cost of winning the long game of saving her people may be far greater than Baru imagines.

Seth Dickinson’s highly anticipated debut novel, The Traitor Baru Cormorant, is available September 15th from Tor Books and Tor UK. Get a closer look at the cover art for both the US and UK editions here. Read chapter two below, or get started with Chapter 1.


Chapter 2


She lost her father Salm, and from this she nearly lost her mother, too.

“You cannot believe what they teach you,” mother Pinion hissed in her ear. (They smiled together at the chaperones who brought Baru to visit her home, which seemed strangely squalid now.) “You must remember what they did to Salm, and give them nothing. The families are taking secret council. We will find a way to drive them back into the sea.”

“They will never go back,” Baru whispered, pleading. “You cannot fight them, Mother. You don’t understand how huge they are. Please find some way to make peace—please don’t die like Salm—”

“He isn’t dead,” Pinion growled. “Your father lives.”

Baru looked at her mother, at Pinion’s eyes red with fatigue, her shoulders bunched in anger, and wondered what had happened to the woman who was a thunderbolt, a storm cloud, a panther. Of all things Pinion looked most like a wound.

And Pinion, looking back, must have seen an equal disappointment in Baru’s eyes. “He lives,” she said again, and turned away.

The argument grew between them like a reef.

By Baru’s tenth birthday, she came to expect visits from the wool merchant Cairdine Farrier more often than her mother or father. He always had advice. Dress this way, never that way. Befriend her, or him—but not him. She liked his advice better than Pinion’s, because it was full of things to accomplish now rather than things to avoid forever.

The school’s Charitable Service instructors came from many foreign places. There were more and stranger people among the Masquerade garrison than Baru had ever seen at Iriad market. “If they can be teachers,” Baru asked, “then I can be one, too? I can go to another land and make little girls stop reading at unjustly early hours?”

“You can be anything you want in the Empire of Masks!” Cairdine Farrier, grown fat these past few years on island life, tugged affectionately on her ear. “Man and woman, rich and poor, Stakhieczi or Oriati or Maia or Falcrest born—in our Imperial Republic you can be what you desire, if you are disciplined in your actions and rigorous in your thoughts. That’s why it’s an Empire of Masks, dear. When you wear a mask, your wits matter.”

“You don’t wear a mask,” Baru said, studying him intently, wondering if there might be flaps behind his ears, fastenings in his hair.

Farrier laughed at her words, or her stare. He was like Pinion or Solit in his love of her sharpest thoughts. But he was like lost Salm in another way, in the way he relished Baru’s effrontery, her willingness to reach out and ask or take. “The mask is for acts of service. The soldier wears a mask on his patrol. The mathematician wears a mask defending her proof. In Parliament they are all masked, because they are vessels for the will of the Republic. And on the Faceless Throne the Emperor sits masked forever.”

A deflection. How unacceptable. Baru pursued her question. “When do you wear a mask? How do you serve?”

“It’s too hot on Taranoke for masks. But I am here to sell wool, and help occasionally in matters of charity.” He scrubbed Baru’s close-shaved scalp with his knuckles. Fat had plumped out his cheeks and weighted his jaw, but when Baru thought of fat men she thought of happy old storytellers at Iriad, pleased to be old, and large with joy. Cairdine Farrier did not seem that way. He carried his weight like a thoughtful provision, stored in preparation.

“What if you could wear a mask?” he asked. “What would you want, Baru?”

It had not occurred to Baru to want anything except stars and letters until the day when the red-sailed frigate moored in Iriad harbor. It had not occurred to her to want the impossible until she lost father Salm, first to that awful doctrine, and then to death.

Perhaps the death of fathers could be outlawed.

Perhaps doctrines could be rewritten.

“I want to be powerful,” she said.

Cairdine Farrier looked down fondly. “You should study hard for your service exam,” he said. “Study very hard.”

*  *  *

The service exam would not come for eight years. Baru worked herself raw for it.

Falcrest, she whispered to herself at night. Empiricism. Incrasticism. The academies of Falcrest. Parliament, and the Metademe, and the Morrow Ministry, and all their secrets. If only I can go to Falcrest—

So much to master, in that distant axis around which the Empire of Masks and the world turned. Secrets her mother had never dreamed of.

The terror did not stop with Salm.

Outside the walls of the Masquerade school, plague swept Taranoke. Quarantine closed the gates. The Taranoki children in the school, unable to get news of their relatives, waited bravely through their inoculations (a Masquerade concept, like a feeble sickness carried on a swab or a needle). But the quarantine did not lift, not that trade season nor the storm season after.

When rumors of the dead crept into the school, the sobs of bereaved students kept Baru from her sleep. Sometimes the rumors were false. Not often.

On lonely nights in the dormitories, surrounded by mourning, Baru would think with cold resentment: at least you know. Better to see the body, and to know how your beloved kin passed—better that than to lose your father in the night, as if he were a misplaced toy, a ship at a fraying moor.

Then the scale of the death outside became clear—the pyramids of corpses burning on the black stone, the weeping sores and lye stink of the quarantine pens. Baru didn’t weep at that either, but she desperately wanted to.

“Why is this happening?” She cornered Cairdine Farrier during one of his visits, furious and desperate. “What does this mean?” And when he made a gentle face, a face for blandishments and reassurance, she screamed into the space before the lie: “You brought this with you!”

And he looked at her with open eyes, the bone of his heavy brow a bastion above, the flesh of his face wealthy below, and in those eyes she glimpsed an imperium, a mechanism of rule building itself from the work of so many million hands. Remorseless not out of cruelty or hate but because it was too vast and too set on its destiny to care for the small tragedies of its growth. She saw this not merely in the shape of his eyes and the flatness of his regard, but in what they recalled—things he had said and done suddenly understood. And she knew that Farrier had let her see this, as a warning, as a promise.

“The tide is coming in,” he said. “The ocean has reached this little pool. There will be turbulence, and confusion, and ruin. This is what happens when something small joins something vast. But—” Later she would hold to this moment, because it felt that he had offered her something true and grown-up and powerful rather than a lie to shield her. “When the joining is done there will be a sea for you to swim in.”

The Masquerade teachers and sailors came and went freely. They were immune. Baru deduced the arrival of a second Masquerade frigate from a whole flock of new faces, including a lanky black-skinned midshipwoman who couldn’t have had more than two years on Baru but got to wear a sword. Baru was too embarrassed of her accented Aphalone to say hello, to ask how an Oriati girl had made herself an officer in the service of the Masquerade so soon after the great Armada War between the two powers.

Children began to vanish from the school, sent back out onto the island, into the plague. “Their behavior was not hygienic,” the teachers said. Social conditions, the students whispered. He was found playing the game of fathers—

The teachers watched them coldly as their puberty came, waiting for unhygienic behavior to manifest itself. Baru saw why Cairdine Farrier had advised her on her friendships. Some of the students collaborated in the surveillance.

When Baru turned thirteen, her friend and second cousin Lao, two years older and bitterly unhappy, came to her with twisting hands. “Lao,” Baru whispered, in the limited privacy of her curtained bed. “What’s wrong?”

“My special tutor,” Lao said, eyes downcast, “is a—” She lapsed from Aphalone into their childhood Urunoki. “A pervert.”

Lao’s special tutor was the social hygienist Diline, from Falcrest— gentle, patronizing, skin exotically pale. He took sessions with rebellious or homesick students. Baru had decided a long time ago that Diline could not help her on the civil service exam. “What has he done?” she hissed. “Lao, look at me—”

“He thinks I have a social condition.” Lao covered her eyes in shame, a gesture they’d all learned from their teachers. “He thinks I’m a tribadist.”

“Oh,” Baru said.

Later she would hate herself for the calculation she made here: What will it cost me to be associated with her, if she is? For the science of sanitary inheritance they had learned made it very clear what a horror it was to lie with another woman, and what punishment the tribadist would receive. The Imperial Republic had been born in revolt against a degenerate aristocracy, their bodies and minds twisted, Diline had explained, by centuries of unhygienic mating. From this Falcrest had learned the value of sanitary behavior and carefully planned inheritance. The diseases of tribadism and sodomy must be eradicated from the body and the bloodline…

But she and Lao were both Taranoki, born of Taranoki families, and that loyalty had come before the Masquerade and its doctrines.

“What will he do?” Baru asked.

Lao drew her knees to her chest and looked out through the curtains around the bed. “There’s a treatment. Conducted with the hands. Last time he suggested it, I told him I was on my period.”

Baru nodded. “But you have appointments with him every week.”

Lao’s face folded in the shadows. “I don’t think there’s anything we can do,” she said. “Even you, though you’re their favorite. Perhaps it’s for the best—it has to be cured young, they say, before it enters the hereditary cells—”

“No. No!” Baru took her hands. “Lao, I know exactly who to talk to. I can fix this.”

Lao squeezed her hands gratefully. “I can survive this. You have so much to lose.”

But Baru was already planning her movements, drunk on the thrill of it. Later, just as she would hate herself for her calculation, she would remember: This was my first exercise of power. My first treason.

*  *  *

But she was wrong. She did not know exactly who to talk to. Cairdine Farrier was no help at all.

“Listen to me, Baru,” he said, speaking softly, as if afraid they would be overheard here in the empty tufa courtyard in the corner of the school compound. “Young women express numerous hysterias and neuroses. It is a scientific fact, an inevitable consequence of the hereditary pathways that have shaped the sexes, that the young man is given to rage, violence, and promiscuity, while the young lady is given to hysteria, perversion, and disorders of the mind. If you want to be a powerful woman—and there are powerful women in the Empire, a great many of them—you must be a strong young woman. Is that clear?”

She took a step away from him, her eyes too wide, her mouth betraying her shock. It was the first time he had ever seemed angry with her. “No,” she said, with a naïve directness that she would later regret. “That’s not true! And besides, it’s Lao who has this problem, and—and why is it about Lao, anyway? It’s that tutor Diline who wants to put his hands on her!”

“Quiet!” Cairdine Farrier hissed. “Diline reports on social hygiene to the headmaster, and those reports go into your permanent files. Do you understand what it means for your future if you make an enemy of him?”

A year or two past she would have shouted I don’t care! but now she knew that sounded like hysteria, and despite her revulsion she focused on practicalities. “If you act,” she said, “then I won’t be making an enemy of him, will I? Just have Lao ejected from the school. She hates it here anyway. The headmaster could judge her unfit for service.”

From the near distance came the sound of a dish shattering in the kitchen and a man shouting angrily in Aphalone. Cairdine Farrier steepled his hands, a gesture that he always made when explaining things he thought were complicated. “Men like Diline give up their lives to work for your betterment. You will respect them. You will be agreeable toward their arts, even when they seem unpleasant. If Diline thinks your friend shows unhygienic tendencies, then he will cure her.” His eyes were dark beneath the redoubts of his brow. “Child, believe me: the alternatives will bring her much more pain.”

He’s explaining it to me, Baru thought, which means he thinks I can be convinced, which means he hasn’t given up on me. But if I push—

It’s not worth losing his patronage over this.

“All right,” she said. “Forget I asked.”

Cairdine Farrier smiled in pleased relief.

*  *  *

“Did it work?” Lao whispered, while they swept the floor beneath the quarantine seals.

Baru met her eyes and smiled half a smile, a crow smile, a lie. “I’m still exploring the options,” she said.

Looking back on this from adulthood she could not deny that she had considered abandoning Lao. Sacrificing her in the name of forward progress.

If she got to Falcrest, if she learned the mechanisms of power, surely she could save more than just one Taranoki girl. No matter how clever and brave Lao was, no matter how dear.

But Baru had another plan.

*  *  *

Traitor-UK-cover“Hey,” Baru said, as throatily as she could manage. She was thirteen, gawkily tall, intimidated by her target.

“Hey yourself,” the lanky Oriati midshipman said. Every other day she brought a package to the headmaster’s office and left the school through this back corridor, and that was where Baru had waited to intercept her.

Baru combed her louse-free stubble with one hand. “You’re an officer, aren’t you?”

“With an officer’s duties.” The midshipman squared her shoulders and began to push past, toward the outer door. Her Aphalone had its own accent. Perhaps she had been raised in a Masquerade school, just like Baru. “As you were, student.”

“Wait.” Baru caught her by the elbow. “I need your help.”

They stared at each other, almost nose to nose, Baru trying to stay up on her toes just to match the other woman’s height. She had very brown eyes and very dark skin and an intelligent brow and her arm worked with muscle.

“You’re a curious thing,” the midshipman drawled, adopting the easy superiority of Masquerade officers speaking to Taranoki. “Mind your hands.”

“That’s my problem,” Baru muttered, drawing closer, gambling that her impudence was more intriguing than revolting. “Hands. If you know what I mean.”

She had done a little thinking and a little reading about the Imperial Navy, a navy that expected its sailors to climb masts and work ropes and rigging, a navy that boasted a cadre of women captains and admirals who were by any account capable and respected. A navy that must, in the course of packing crews of mostly men onto tiny ships for months at a time, have confronted problems of this order.

The midshipman disengaged sharply, a quick step back and a turn that tore her free of Baru’s grip. Baru drew a nervous breath, ready to be struck or reprimanded.

“My name’s Aminata,” the other woman said. She checked the far end of the hallway, a guilty glance so familiar that Baru had to drown a chuckle. “I’m from Oriati Mbo. My family used to trade on Taranoke, and if you tell anyone I spoke to you I’ll gut you, you understand?”

Baru lifted her chin. “Not if I gut you first.”

Aminata considered her, smiling a little. Baru thought of a kingfisher eyeing a colorful frog. “We can’t talk in here,” she said. “I could get in real trouble for letting you out of quarantine.”

“I didn’t ask you to.”

“You certainly never did,” Aminata said, lifting a small brass key. “Now come on. I’ll tell you how to solve your hands problems.”

*  *  *

She followed Aminata down the path behind the school to the edge of a bluff that overlooked Iriad harbor, giddy with fresh salt air and disobedience, with the rumble of thunder on the horizon, with the conspiratorial wariness of the older girl’s glances. “It won’t matter if anyone sees us,” Aminata said. “There’s a million of you little island rats, and if you’re not in the school they assume you’re just an orphan looking for errands.”

“Orphan?” Baru frowned at that. Taranoke’s robust nets of mothers and fathers, aunts and uncles, had never left many children alone.

Aminata hawked and spat off the edge of the bluff. The sea rumbled and crashed below. “The plague’s been hard.”

“Oh,” Baru said, thinking: yes, of course, I knew that. The island of her childhood was gone. It had died in pus and desperation while she took lessons behind white walls.

It was storm season. In the harbor a pair of Masquerade warships roosted with their sails furled.

“C’mon.” Aminata sat on the bluff, legs dangling, and patted the rock beside her. “Tell me about your trouble.”

“I have a friend—”

“You don’t have to pretend it’s a friend.”

“I have a friend,” Baru said, although Aminata snorted, “who has attracted some unwanted attention. From a man.”

“And he’s done something to your friend already?”

“Not yet.” Baru sat beside her, fascinated by her red uniform. The Masquerade officers wore exquisite wool waistcoats, the broadcloth tight against weather. Aminata, sensible about the heat, wore the coat rakishly loose, and it seemed rather dashing. “Not yet. But he’s tried.”

“There’s a rule here.” Aminata squinted out at the horizon, an old-seahand squint, strange on her young face. “No false claims. You can’t be doing this because you fucked and now he’s bragging. Men like to think that false claims are a woman’s weapon, you know. Men close ranks about these things. Even good men.”

Baru had never thought about these things, and said the first thing that came to mind: “Bragging? What would he brag about?”

Aminata leaned back on her hands. “I don’t know how it is on Taranoke, but in the Masquerade you play by Falcrest rules. And Falcrest rules say the man gets to brag and the woman’s got to be silent.”

That’s not fair was a child’s protest, Baru reminded herself. “Okay,” she said. “I understand the rules.”

“Now what you do,” Aminata said, not without a certain relish, “is you get your friends, and you wait until he’s asleep, all right? Then you gag him and you tie his hands and feet to the bedframe, and you beat his stomach and feet with stockings full of soap. If he does it again, you beat his balls until he can barely piss. And if he tries to complain, everyone will know what he did. Those are the rules in the navy. They’re not written, but they’re true.”

Baru, who had been expecting some political subtlety, did not try to conceal her disappointment. “We’re not in the navy,” she said, “and we don’t have stockings, and besides, we can’t get into his room at night.”

“Oh.” Aminata’s eyes narrowed. She uprooted a hibiscus flower and began to pluck it methodically. “A teacher.”

Baru shrugged. “Might be.”

“So he’s got some excuse to paw your friend. He’s got protection from on high. That’s difficult.”

“There must be a way to stop it,” Baru said, staring down into the harbor, at the place where Iriad market had been. The Masquerade had torn down the promenades and boardwalks and built a dockyard that cradled the skeleton of a new ship. Troops drilled in the muddy streets of the village. “What do you do in the navy when it’s an officer who comes after you?”

“It used to be there was nothing you could do.” Aminata finished plucking the hibiscus and cast it aside. “But now there are enough women—women, and men who’ve served with them—in the officer corps that all it takes is a quiet word in the right ear. It’s all done unofficially. But it’s done.”

“So you can go to your officers for her, and they’ll stop it!”

Aminata pursed her lips and shrugged, and Baru remembered that for all her uniform and stature, she was a midshipman, and probably not more than sixteen. “I don’t know. Could be risky, setting the Navy against the Charitable Service just for the sake of one little islander girl. What’s in it for me?”

Baru felt her own lips curl, felt her own jaw set, and did not try to hide it. “Nothing, I suppose,” she said. “You haven’t even asked my name, so I suppose you don’t really have to care.”

They sat on the edge of the bluff in cold silence for a little while. The wind picked up.

“You should get back,” Aminata said. “And so should I, before the watch officer notes I’m overdue.”

“You’ll have to let me back in,” Baru said stiffly.

Aminata shrugged. “Won’t. Those doors only lock from the inside.” “Oh.” Baru got to her feet and turned back to climb the bluff, wishing sullenly for her mother’s boar-killing spear, or just for her mother, who would have had fierce words for Aminata, and fiercer treatment yet for the hygienist Diline.

Maybe she’d been right. Maybe the only way to stop this kind of thing was the spear—

“So what is it?” Aminata called. The wind had begun to gust fiercely.

“What’s what?”

Aminata made a little out-with-it gesture with her hand and, to Baru’s perplexingly mingled anger and pleasure, smiled a little.

“Baru Cormorant,” Baru said. “And the problem’s name is Diline.”

*  *  *

During the next week, in the middle of the night, her second cousin Lao came to her in the dark and kissed her brow. “Thank you,” she whispered. “You’re the only good thing left, Baru. Thank you.”

They were in an art studio—learning to draw foxes, which they had never seen—when word came around that Diline would be leaving the school for an appointment in Falcrest when the trade winds picked up again. A captain of the Masquerade marines stopped by personally to congratulate him. Baru felt pride, and sick relief, and worry, because she had not done anything at all herself. Aminata had acted for her.

She was powerless without her patrons. Could power be real if someone else gave it to you?

“Hey,” Aminata said, when next she passed Baru in the halls.

“Hey yourself.” Baru grinned, and was reprimanded by the hall proctor for disrespect to an Imperial officer.

Later that year the school announced a class on swordsmanship, in order to prepare its students for possible service. Aminata was the instructor’s assistant, walking through the ranks, barking in students’ faces, seizing their elbows to adjust their form. When she came to Baru she was no gentler, but she smiled.

They were friends. They whispered, gossiped, speculated. Aminata had come into Imperial service from the outside, like Baru—daughter of one of the Oriati federations that stood wary to the south, fearful of a second losing war with the Masquerade. Together they invented small rebellions, commandeering food, conspiring against teachers and officers. Of all their insurrections, Baru’s favorite was the cipher game—Aminata knew a little of naval codes, and Baru used that knowledge and her own formal figures to make an encryption for their own use. It proved perhaps too ambitious, certainly too ornate (at one point it required three languages and complex trigonometry), but through exasperation and a lot of squabbling in the teachers’ larder they whittled it down into something usable.

And Baru came into the habit of slipping out of the quarantine, sometimes with Aminata, sometimes alone with the key Aminata had provided her, to see her mother and father and assure them that she was not yet lost to them.

If Cairdine Farrier knew about this, he showed no displeasure. But when Diline left Taranoke, he visited Baru in a curt mood and said: “We will need to find a replacement of equal diligence.”

He looked at her with guarded eyes, and she thought that he knew what had been done to save Lao. But she could not decide if he was pleased, or angry, or waiting to see what she would do next.

More and more of her fellow students began to leave the school. She found herself assigned special duties, puzzles and tasks, riddles of coin and account-books, geometry and calculus. The teachers began to murmur the word savant, and behind their glances she saw Cairdine Farrier’s eyes.

*  *  *

She mastered figures and proofs, demographics and statistics. Struggled with literature and history, geography, and Aphalone, all of which should have been interesting but in practice bored her. All these fallen empires: the husk of ancient Tu Maia glory in the west, their blood and letters scattered everywhere, and the Stakhieczi masons now dwindled away into the north, maybe someday to return. They were yesteryear’s methods, the losers of history. Falcrest had surpassed them. Even the Oriati, artisans and traders sprawling away to the south in a quilt of squabbling federations—well, Aminata didn’t seem to miss her home so much, and their strength had not been enough to win the Armada War, so what could they offer?

Easy enough, at least, to perform with unremarkable competence in social hygiene and Incrasticism, the Masquerade’s philosophy of progress and hereditary regulation. And she excelled in swordsmanship, surpassing even most of the boys, who by seventeen were now, on the mean, bigger and stronger than the girls.

But swordsmanship was not on the civil service exam, and as the proctors and teachers and Cairdine Farrier kept reminding her, as she told her mother on her forbidden nights out, the exam was everything. The key to Falcrest, to the academies and the murmured Metademe where they made special people of clarified purpose; the key—perhaps—to a seat in Parliament.

If the Masquerade could not be stopped by spear or treaty, she would change it from within.

And at the beginning of that trade season the exam came, shipped in from Falcrest in wax-sealed tubes, brought in under armed escort and prepared for the remaining students like a banquet.

Cairdine Farrier slipped her a flask of clear spring water, mixed with some invisible drug which he assured her would help her focus—“All the polymaths in Falcrest use it!” She left it in her bed and sat down to take the exam with her mind clear, all worry and fear pressed into clean geometric lines, everything focused on this day and the day after.

She did not let herself think about the way her whole life from this moment on would pivot around how well she could write on these papers.

Falcrest, she did not let herself think. I will go to Falcrest and learn to rule, as we have been ruled. I will make it so no Taranoki daughter will lose a father again.

She was eighteen.

Two days passed, and she turned the exam over to the headmaster knowing she had demolished it. “Did the placebo help?” Cairdine Farrier asked, eyes sparkling.

That night she worked in the training room with Aminata, the brutal naval routine of partnered exercises and dead weights meant to keep a woman ready for ropes and masts and combat. They dueled with blunted longswords, Baru losing but still high on her own future, on the knowledge that she had won. Taranoke would not be her cage. (When had Taranoke become a cage?)

“You didn’t tell me,” now-Lieutenant Aminata said, panting between clashes.

“Tell you what?”

“Why that hygienist was going to treat your ‘friend’ a few years ago.”

Baru lifted her blade and set herself at the wide mensur, two footsteps away, sword at the day guard. “Should I have?”

“One of the merchants told me yesterday,” Aminata said, her blade down in the fool guard. “He told my captain, who told me.”

Baru breathed in, out, in, trying to center herself.

“Diline didn’t want some lewd congress,” Aminata said. “He was trying to cure your friend of tribadism. Of love for women!”

Baru struck. Aminata struck in counter, fast as reflex where Baru still needed thought. Rode her sword down the length of Baru’s into a killing stroke to the neck that threw Baru back and left her gasping and pawing at her throat.

“Surely you’ve heard of that condition!” Aminata advanced, unrelenting, striking again. Baru missed the counterstrike and suffered a crushing blow to her gloved fingers. Crying out, she disengaged, but Aminata followed still. “It’s common on this island, I’m told. A pervasive affliction!”

“He had no right to put his hands on her!” Baru gave ground, in the ox guard, blade at brow and waiting for another stroke. Her heart hammered and it was impossible to tell the battle-rage from the rising sickness of betrayal.

“I had to learn it from my captain!” Aminata’s guard was down but Baru sensed a trap and held back. “Do you know what’s done to a suspected tribadist, Baru? There’s a list somewhere, a list of officers who’ll go nowhere. And do you know what’s done if the crime can be proven?”

Baru struck, weary, weak. Aminata batted the stroke aside contemptuously.

“They’ll take a knife to your cunt,” she said, and struck Baru’s hands so hard she dropped her blade.

Aminata stepped into the opening, seizing Baru beneath the shoulders, clinching her arms in a hold she remembered from firelight and drums and lost father Salm wrestling some other champion. She struggled, roaring, but could not escape.

They stood locked together, panting, Aminata’s proud high-browed face close and ferociously angry.

“It’s a crime against law and nature,” Aminata hissed. “And you should’ve told me.”

She dropped Baru to the matted floor and left.

A merchant told her captain, Baru thought, her mind awhirl. A merchant—I know only one merchant—

And when the results of the placement exam came back from Falcrest, and Cairdine Farrier came to her smiling to say: “Congratulations, Baru. You’ve excelled beyond all expectation. You’ll go to Aurdwynn, to prove yourself as Imperial Accountant in those troubled lands. And perhaps later to Falcrest.”

When this happened, she knew she had been punished for going against him.

“Don’t be disappointed,” Cairdine Farrier said, patting her shoulder. “You’ve come so far, given where you began.”

Excerpted from The Traitor Baru Cormorant © Seth Dickinson, 2015.


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