City of Lies (Part 4)

  • More Chapters from City of Lies:
  • Part 1 - June 7, 2018
  • Part 2 - June 7, 2018
  • Part 3 - June 7, 2018

I was seven years old the first time my uncle poisoned me…

Outwardly, Jovan is the lifelong friend of the Chancellor’s charming, irresponsible Heir. Quiet. Forgettable. In secret, he’s a master of poisons and chemicals, trained to protect the Chancellor’s family from treachery. When the Chancellor succumbs to an unknown poison and an army lays siege to the city, Jovan and his sister Kalina must protect the Heir and save their city-state.

But treachery lurks in every corner, and the ancient spirits of the land are rising… and angry.

City of Lies is the first novel in the epic fantasy Poison War series from debut author Sam Hawke—available July 3rd from Tor Books. Read part 4 below, or head back to the beginning to start with chapter 1 here.

 

 

3
Jovan

Everything got loud and frantic. The tolling alarm bell went on and on, and behind it built the swell of noise from the thousands concentrated around the lake, reacting to the warning. People streamed up the main road toward us, drawn by the bell, their curiosity visibly melting into panic as word spread.

The great west road gate we stood before was closed for the funeral, but I had no idea what it could withstand. “Is there anything else that can be done to secure the gate?”

“There’s a second gate and portcullis on the inside entrance,” one of the Order Guards said, her voice shaking. “We never use it but I know how to operate it.”

“Do it,” Tain said. “What about the others? Someone needs to go to the north and south road gates and the river gates. No, not you—” He caught the arm of the Order Guard who had started to spring away. “Grab someone, anyone. Two to every gate. Make sure the Guards there get them secured.” The Order Guard nodded. “Honor-down, someone get word out to the army!”

“Marco,” Kalina said, and pointed. Marco had at last appeared in the crowd, the big man pushing his way through the throng toward us. Tain gave a relieved cry.

“We’re under attack! They’re attacking us.” Tain clasped Marco’s forearms, eyes wild. “Marco, what do we do?” Tain’s demeanor had fooled me; now his fear was obvious. People around him heard his words and repeated them, the confirmation of our situation passing like a grassfire through the crowd.

“Keep them back,” I told the Order Guards, and they formed a tentative ring around the four of us. Kalina pressed close against me.

Marco, grim but calm, listened to Tain’s quick summary and leaned in close, talking into the Chancellor’s ear. I couldn’t hear above the tide of blood in my head and the increasingly shrill and desperate questions and cries. But Tain nodded, said something, nodded again. Marco strode a few steps up the wall and held his arms up for attention.

“Quiet!” he roared. The Order Guard in the tower stopped ringing the bell, and slowly the crowd below quieted to an anxious murmur. “There is an army outside, and we are without our own. We have no time. If you are between fifteen and fifty years old, and physically capable, you will stay here and wait to be given a weapon. You are our line of defense if the gate is breached. If you are younger or older, you will go back to your home right now and pull together anything that can be used as a weapon. Knives, tools, anything you can hold and swing. You will bring it back to the nearest road gate.” He raised a hand again to the increased shouts and cries in response. “Take children who are too young to be alone and the elderly who cannot run to the school. Get them inside and keep them together. Now!

Someone nearby started sobbing. Kalina’s hand shook in mine. “You heard Marco,” I told her, stupidly, desperately grateful for his words. “Etan’s knives. Whatever else you can find. Then get to the school.”

She yanked her hand free, her eyes teary as she glared at me. “I’m capable enough. I’ve been swimming, running.… I’m stronger now.”

There was no time to argue. Marco was back down to our level now, his eyes sweeping over us all, seeing resources, making calculations. He barked orders at the Guards around us. “You two, go to the other road gates and give the same instructions there. There is a weapons storeroom in every gate tower containing confiscated weapons from visitors to the city. Hand out what we have. Prioritize people who have held a weapon before. Take a few youngsters to be your messengers and you keep me informed. Yes? You, there, you take a dozen citizens with you and get back to the Guildhall. Take my chit”—he yanked a thin chain from his neck and pressed it into the Order Guard’s hand—“and tell the clerk at the armory you’re taking everything they have. Confiscate the first carts you come across and get those weapons back to the wall.”

Tain stared out at the crowd. “They’re not moving.” He squared his shoulders and pushed past me, back up to the stairs. “Silastians!” he cried. “I am your Chancellor! This is our home, and it is under attack. For the honor that we all live by, do as the Warrior-Guilder says and protect our home!” My friend’s voice shook. He was no natural orator, and he’d been thrust into a new role he’d not expected to shoulder for a long time. He wasn’t prepared. None of us were.

But Silastians lived by a system of honor, and they loved their Chancellor. They listened. Marco repeated his directions and the crowd dispersed,though wails and shouts still filled the air. I felt their confusion and terror reflected in me. We were merchants, craftsmen, students, and artists, living rich and sheltered lives in the most beautiful and cultured city in the continent. We knew nothing of the war and tyranny our ancestors had fled long ago; it had not followed them. Only the Warrior-Guild remained of that lifestyle, least respected and honored of the Guilds; and now, when they could have proven their worth, they weren’t here.

“Will the gates hold?” Tain was asking Marco.

The big man rubbed his close-cropped hair, frowning. “I do not know, Honored Chancellor. I am not… I teach weaponry, you see. I do not know much of walls.”

“Where’s Eliska?” Tain asked. “Someone find the Stone-Guilder!” He looked up at the Order Guard hanging out of the tower. “How far, Chen?”

“Two hundred treads, Chancellor, maybe less. Coming steady.”

“Honor-down, we have to be able to talk to them.” Tain stared up at the walls with a kind of fascinated horror. “What if I—”

“You can’t go up there again,” I said.

“We can’t let them attack without trying.”

“I agree,” said Marco. “But you were shot at before, Honored Chancellor. We don’t know who those people are. They may have disguised themselves as peasants in order to gain access to the city, and only when they realized the city was closed down and the gates shut did they decide to attack. We have to assume this is a well-provisioned army. So we have a short win dow to send out a peace negotiator before it is too dangerous to open the gate.”

Tain hesitated, then nodded. “Set it up.”

It seemed to take an eternity to find a diplomat from the AdministrativeGuild. A rounded, elegant woman, she visibly trembled as she took the hastily made negotiation flag, green fabric torn from a commandeered litter and a black sigil for peace in standard Trade, drawn with purloined makeup. Tain murmured encouragement, holding her shoulders, and his words seemed to calm her.

“We have no quarrel with anyone, and certainly not our own people if that is them out there,” Tain said. “Remember, we want to talk, and we’ll hear any grievances.”

As she ducked under the partially raised portcullis and through the lonely dark tunnel toward the gate, a shiver came over me. Grievances from our own people could have been brought to a determination council in any town, or appealed directly to the Council. This was something else entirely. A rebellion, or an attack from a foreign power?

The clank of the metal gates closing behind her reverberated in my chest.

An Order Guard handed out weapons from the tower as Marco scurried about, pointing and shouting, trying to organize the crowd. I was no strategist but I knew the layout inside the city didn’t favor us for any kind of battle. There was too much open space around the road and the buildings were set too far back from the wall. There would be no way of containing the spread of attackers if they made it through the gate.

I accepted a simple shortsword from the Order Guard then followed Tain up into the top of the tower with the unfamiliar weapon. We peered together through the slit window.

Below, the lone messenger, flag dragging her crooked in the wind, teetered into view. I crouched lower, watching the progressing army, hoping with everything in me that an answering green flag would emerge. The cocoon of the tower room insulated us from the panic below. Every sharp breath Tain took rasped like a scratch in my ears. Why was it taking so long?

“There!” Tain grabbed my arm.

A small contingent advanced from the army. From the distance I could make out little about the veiled figures. Were they leaders? Negotiators? Real peasants or soldiers disguised?

Closer they drew together. A vein in my lip pulsed against my gums. I tried to ignore it. The figures stopped, then…

“No!” Tain screamed in the same instant I did; the smooth draw of bows from their billowing clothes, the nocking of arrows, and it was over in a moment. “Fuck, fuck!” Tain pounded the stone, useless, hopeless,thirty treads in the air and fifty from her body, punctured with arrows, green peace turning brown with her blood.

I squeezed my eyes shut while Tain raged around the room. The shock had stolen my breath. There was to be no honor and no negotiation, then. “We need to prepare,” I said, finding my words at last.

The first of the wall defenders streamed up the external stairs on the other side of the gate, some carrying bows, some rocks, as we passed the news to Marco. He took it in stride. “They do not wish to give us time to prepare. You must get across the lake if the gate falls, Chancellor.” Outside, the thunder of feet seemed to shake the very ground. “I will check that the other gates are ready,” he said. “Chen, call the volleys.”

“In range!” someone cried from the wall moments after Marco disappeared. Tain charged down the steps and I was left scrambling after him. “Honor-down, Tain! You can’t go out there.”

He didn’t even turn around, just slipped from my grasp and leaped out onto the battlements. I swore and followed.

People lined the wall, fumbling awkwardly for spaces and tripping over dropped items. Some had bows and shot downward through the crenellations, seemingly at random, despite Chen’s timed commands in the background. Many hurled rocks and pottery and metal utensils over the edge. Others had scrambled back to the far side of the battlement, too fearful to act at all.

A crash sounded as the army collided with the gate. An arrow whizzed past me and sailed into the empty space behind the wall, dropping with deceptive softness and grace. My heart in my throat, I hunched, trying not to get in anyone’s way as I followed Tain. He moved fearlessly through the chaos, pressing to the edge of the walls to get a view below. Breathless, I finally caught up, grabbing his shoulder as I joined him between two men with bows.

“You have to get away from here!”

I snatched a glance below. I could see straight down but the blinding western sun obscured much of the movements below. Close to the wall, what looked like a great overturned boat, covered in leathers, sheltered attackers working with axes on the gate. One of our arrows found the side of a man supporting the device and he staggered and fell. I pulled back from the wall, feeling nauseous.

Faint tremors rumbled through the wall as axes struck the gate. I reached over and yanked Tain’s paluma. He stumbled and dropped back beside me.

“They can’t really be our own people,” he said in my ear. “What if—”

Before he could finish, the man next to us fell backward with a grunt, colliding into several other people, an arrow protruding from his neck. Blood pulsed through his scrambling fingers, and his mouth worked silently, like a fish.

I crawled over and caught his hands, putting pressure on the wound to slow the bleeding. “Don’t pull at the shaft,” I told him. “You’ll make it worse.” Part of me wondered how it could possibly get worse. “Are there any physics here yet?” I yelled.

Tain knelt on the other side. My eyes fixed on the bone shaft jutting out from the poor man’s throat. I measured his struggling breath, the pallor of his skin, the speed of the blood from the wound, seeking the familiar dispassion of analysis while beside me Tain comforted him, holding him still at the shoulders and speaking slowly and calmly. The wall shuddered as the attackers pounded at the gate.

Finally, a man in a physic’s blue sash scrambled up the stairs and over to us, a bag in hand. I moved out of the way as he took charge, checking the man’s pulse and breathing and then padding around the arrow with cloth from his bag. “Good— you didn’t move the shaft. Hard enough to get an arrowhead out without having to scramble around to try to find it. Here, give me a hand with this fellow.”

The physic hadn’t recognized Tain in the confusion. I hid my relief by assisting with the injured man’s legs and the three of us carried him backdown into the city grounds. We had barely reached the bottom step when others hurried forward to help with our burden. I scarcely had time to breathe before Marco found us.

“This is the weakest gate, Honored Chancellor,” he said. “It replaced the original gate some decades ago and it is not built to withstand this kind of force. They are attacking the joints between the panels.”

“We can’t sustain this,” Tain said. “We’ve barely any weapons and our people don’t know how to use the bows they’ve got. We’re relying more on luck than anything else. Where’s Eliska?”

Marco collared a nearby Credola. “Find the Stone-Guilder,” he ordered, and though her mouth twisted with affront, she sprang off quickly enough. Yesterday Marco had been the least important Councilor—the temporary substitute leader of the least respected Guild. Now our lives depended on his leadership as much as Tain’s. The fortunes only knew whether either would be up to the task.

Eliska found us soon after. Her well-muscled arms and broad, strong hands bore some scratches and dirt marks, and her round face seemed to have gained ten years in the past hour.

“We need this gate reinforced,” Tain said. “Can you get your best people— pull them off the walls if they’re up there—and do something from the inside that will help it hold?”

The Stone-Guilder frowned, calculating in silence. Eventually, she nodded.

“I can secure it—it’ll make a mess of the gate for the future, but I can stop anyone getting in there.”

“Do what you can.” Tain clasped Marco’s shoulder. “Can we pull all the Order Guards here? We need people who can actually use bows to protect the gate.”

“We need to break that contraption they’re sheltering under,” I said. “What if we dropped something seriously heavy on it—statues from the wharf street gardens, maybe?”

“That should buy Eliska time,” Tain said. The Stone-Guilder already had a small group of Builders’ Guild members around her, scurrying to her quick orders. “I just hope it holds.”

* * *

It held. As Eliska said, it wasn’t pretty, but the reinforcements strengthened the gate where the metal had bowed and chipped from the force of the attacks. Eventually, after having lost their upturned boat to some of our fine marble sculptures, the attackers abandoned the attempt and fell back to a position away from the wall. Though it had felt like hours, the whole attack and retreat had been swift.

We had left the Order Guards and senior Guild officials in charge while we held the emergency Council meeting. I wasn’t sure they would be able to contain the panic; some terror-driven scuffles had already broken out as people streamed in every direction through the lower city and across the lake. The gate reinforcement had given us some time, but likely not much. How fast could we fit untrained citizens with our light stores of armor, and show pampered scholars and merchants how to use weapons they’d never even held?

The Council chamber had been tense and unruly a few days ago at my first meeting. Now that seemed tame by comparison. The comfortable setting contrasted sharply with its disheveled, quarreling inhabitants.

Marco, his earlier authority swallowed by politics, sat like a nervous child in school while Councilors loomed over him on either side, peppering him with question after question. A few Guilders were engaged in heated words with the Credolen about whether the landowners ought to have known there was trouble on their estates. Tain’s gaze and attention flew back and forth, trying to listen to multiple conversations at once and contributing to none of them. I watched, anxious, willing him to take control.

“Why haven’t our spies reported an uprising on the farms? We do have spies, don’t we?”

“Why would we need spies when the landowners are right here around the table? I know none of you like to actually go there, but you all have stewards. Don’t you get reports? Rebellions don’t come from nothing.”

The Credolen around the table looked uncomfortable; lots of shifting eyes and wringing hands. Some of it I shared; after all, what attention had I ever paid to our estates? Etan and I had always been focused on our duty to the Chancellor’s family, and left the management of our family’s business largely to our steward, Alozia, and my mother. Tain, too, knew next to nothing about how his estates worked; it was the usual practice for the Chancellor and Heir, who had to look to the health of the entire country and not just to their own businesses and affairs. “Farmers, miners, workers, they always grumble,” Credo Lazar blustered at last. “No one could expect things to come to violence.”

“No point wondering where it came from for now,” the Craft-Guilder,Credo Pedrag, said. “We just need to stop it, quick smart. We need more archers up there to shoot them down.”
Marco rubbed a hand over his close-cropped hair, sighing with the frustration of a man relaying information for the fiftieth time. “We lack the people and the weapons.”

“What I cannot understand is why,” Budua, the Scribe-Guilder, the calmest at the table, balanced her wrinkled chin on her hand with the air of an academic studying an inter esting problem. “Yes, I know the Council voted to send the army south. But no one asked me to vote on the understanding thatthere would be no protection left for the city. We skirmish over those mines every few years. Why did this necessitate leaving the city unprotected?”

“I was not party to all your deliberations,” Marco reminded her. “But it is my understanding that Chancellor Caslav sent the full army as a deliberate show of force to prevent these skirmishes in the future. As for our own garrison, well, Silasta sits in the center of the most protected country in the continent, Scribe-Guilder. Between the mountain ranges and the marshes, no external force could realistically enter Sjona other than through the three border cities, which are garrisoned. An attack on the city has not been a realistic possibility in decades.”

“And yet here we are.”

“Here we are,” Marco repeated. His gaze sank to the table. A few days before, the worst part of this role must have been the prospect of being forced to listen to spoiled, wealthy old men and women insulting him; now here he was suddenly in charge of a defense plan no one had even contemplated us ever needing, and having to defend decisions made well above his level of seniority.

“It’s not the Warrior-Guilder’s fault. No one could have foreseen this,” Tain reassured him. Irritation flickered inside me; of course in Tain’s eyes Aven could not have been responsible for a misjudgment. The fact was, she had misjudged, and perhaps it was her error that cost us everything.

“Do we even know what this is?” Varina asked. “Forgive me, Chancellor, but is this really some kind of rebellion?”

“Of course it’s a rebellion,” Nara scoffed. “That’s our own bloody peasants out there.”

“We don’t know yet what—” Marco began, but his soft voice was quickly lost in the increasing din.

“Rebellions are for tyrannies! What’s there to rebel against here? Too wealthy? Too much food? Good work, safe homes, medicine, what am I missing?”

“…out there in their veils, chanting like primitive bloody lunatics— too soft we’ve been on the estates, letting people run wild, this is what happens when you let these people do what they want…”

“Obviously we weren’t letting them do what they want,” Javesto said, his tone acid, “or they’d hardly be attacking us now. If we could understand why this happened, we might be able to stop it before it gets too serious.”

“There is an army at our gates, Credo,” Bradomir said, a sharp slope to his eyebrows. “I rather think it’s as serious as it could be.”

“If we just listen to them—” Javesto began.

“With respect, Credo, we have tried listening,” Marco interrupted him, big hands spread palms up. “They shot a peace emissary. They don’t want to talk. There’s nothing to listen to. I agree we cannot be certain this is a rebellion, and we should not underestimate these attackers on the assumption that they are mere farmers. We do not know what is hiding behind those veils; all we know is that they are well armed and disinclined to negotiate.”

“What should we do first, Honored Chancellor?” I made my voice as loud as I could without shouting, and shot a thankful glance at Marco when he stopped talking and stared attentively at Tain. Budua, Eliska, and the gentle-eyed Artist-Guilder, Marjeta, did the same, and the chamber settled into uneasy silence. Tain pulled the map across the table, and I hoped only I caught the tremor in his hands as he did.

“I see two priorities,” he said. “Getting word out to the army directly or via one of the cities, and holding Silasta until help can get here. I’d like suggestions for both.”

Marco spread his hands over the map, smoothing it and knocking aside the other Guilders’ hands like crumbs. Our city, reduced to flat shapes and colors. “They have us surrounded,” he said. “The biggest forces are here, on the west side of the city.” He gestured around the semicircle of the west side, split by the three main roads running roughly south, west, and north. “But my Guards have confirmed there is a small force this side of the river on the north and south, here and here.” The east side of the city, Silasta’s original footprint, stretched from the lake to the mountain, bordered on either side by the old city walls. No gates or roads remained on that side of the lake, but if the army outside had neglected those sections we could have sent messengers over the wall and through the countryside to bypass them altogether. Marco’s fingers lingered at the south end of the map. Well past its borders, our impeccably trained army waited, out of reach.

“Send birds,” Lazar suggested, then his eager expression crumpled like paper as he remembered: no birds.

“When does the Warrior-Guilder expect to return?” I asked Marco. “How long will it take her to realize something’s wrong?”

Marco rubbed his forehead. “Warrior-Guilder Aven will not return until the conflict with the Doranite groups is resolved. She will send progress reports, but she would not expect a return bird from us as a matter of course. Unless someone alerts her directly, it could be weeks or more, depending what the Doranites do.”

Tain sighed. “So we need to send someone in person.”

“We’ve only two dozen trained fighters.”

“More than that. Certainly a proportion of my servants are also trained for my protection.” It was easy to forget; although the Chancellor required protection as a matter of practicality, tradition dictated that such protection be subtle, almost invisible, so as not to suggest distrust or fear. “That must be true for some of you, too.”

“Even so,” Bradomir acknowledged stiffly. “We need them all here.”

“I could go,” Marco suggested.

“Not a chance,” Tain said.

“I may be older than the Guards, Chancellor, but if I run into any trouble, I can handle myself.”

“I know.” Tain gave him a wan smile. “But we can’t afford to lose you from our defense. My Warrior-Guilder is far from here and no one around this table, me especially, has seen anything of war. Who but you can help defend the city?”

“With respect, Honored Chancellor, you must learn. Silasta will look to you to save her.”

“It might,” Nara said, acerbic. “But he won’t have much chance at that if our only military mind leaves the city.”

“What about one of the runners?” The others stared at me. “An athlete, I mean.”

“Excellent thought, Credo,” Marco said. “A swift runner could reach the army quickly, without costing us a Guard.”

Tain shook his head. “That doesn’t answer how they get past the army in the first place.”

“They haven’t completely surrounded us yet. The contingent east of the river is farther away and they’re still organizing into formations. A quick person using the mountain paths might find a way to get through without engaging.”

Marco nodded. “If we do not send someone quickly, while our enemy’s army is still preparing, then they will never make it. Our only chance is to risk it now, before we are in a full siege.”

“I can’t send some poor sod out where people will try to kill them,” Tain retorted, crossing his arms.

I swallowed, remembering the sight of the peace emissary riddled with arrows. I knew many of the best athletes in Silasta, and I didn’t much care for the thought of any of them in that situation. But I was nothing if not adept at appearing calm while pushing down horrific mental narratives. “They’d be doing their duty to Silasta,” I said. “Just like all the other people who aren’t fighters but are going to be stuffed into armor that doesn’t fit them and told to use weapons they can barely lift.”

“There’s a difference between helping people defend themselves and sending them out into half-certain death.”

“Perhaps ask them, then, Honored Chancellor,” I said, dropping my head. Undermining Tain’s fledgling authority now was the worst thing I could do. “Ask for volunteers.”

Tain glanced at me with reproach, but around the table the other Councilors nodded. “Volunteers, then,” he said stiffly.

Eliska tapped the south end of the map. “Let’s send several. If even one runner makes it through the perimeter they could stay off the roads and make their way to the army or at least to the closest city. Whoever it is out there, they can’t be patrolling the whole country.”

“Well there are bloody peasants all over the country, aren’t there?” Nara said. “That’s rather the point of them.”

“If it’s a rebellion, which we still cannot say. It’s still possible this is a fast-moving invading army and it’s gone through one of the border cities already.”

Lazar sat forward. “Through one of the other cities?” he croaked. “What of our families?”

Cold hands squeezed around my ribs, and the air seemed to get very heavy. We had been in Telasa only a bit over a week before and seen family there; could that lively place have been overwhelmed by invaders only days later? In the shock of the attack, I hadn’t thought about who else might have been a victim of it already. “We sent messengers to the cities and estates,” I said. “Has anyone heard back? Credo Javesto? Anyone?”

Heads shook around the table.

“You saw smoke,” Javesto murmured to Nara, stricken. “The other day. In the direction of my estates.”

Whichever way we looked lay grief. Had we lost a city, or had our own estates risen against us? All the Credolen had family in the other cities, and often out on the estates as well, albeit generally more distant relatives. If, indeed, the people had risen in rebellion, what had they done to the stewards and other estate man agers? Or if a city had fallen— though surely, surely, some word would have reached us— that could mean even more dire consequences. I thought of Mother and Alozia and all our cousins, growing tea and living a peaceful life absent intrigue.… What had become of them?

A high cry escaped Nara. “My little ones,” she whispered, her face a rictus of pain. I’d never pitied the old bastard before, but sympathy ran over me now in a hot wave. The Ash family, diminished through years of producing mostly male children, all doted on the little twin girls finally born well past when the last childbearing heir had expected it. I’d seen bitter old Nara around those girls, and she was an entirely different woman, caring and playful. Lazar, too, quivered with silent emotion; he was famously close to his enormous family, who spent the year trudging between Silasta, Moncasta, and one of his estate plantations. We all felt it, to varying degrees, and the shared emotion around the table smoothed some of the lingering tension between us. We were all in the same position here.

“We can’t do anything for our families if we can’t defend ourselves,” Tain said, and this time every one responded to the quiet authority in his voice. “Marco, Eliska, can we hold the city?”

“The perimeter walls are sound,” Eliska said. “Thirty treads high; forty on this side of the lake. And I’ll have that gate permanently secured.”Silastians liked to pretend that we had always been a beacon of peace,trade, and tolerance, but our ancestors had built a country and its capital expecting to have to defend it with force. We’d forgotten that, over the years, but perhaps the rest of the country had known better than us after all. “Unless they have full siege weaponry, they’ll have to resort to coming over the walls.”

Marco nodded. “Today’s attack was opportunistic, hoping to catch us off guard. But this is no spontaneous attack. Whoever is out there is organized. They took out our communications, and they may have… neutralized… our settlements outside the city to reduce the chance of someone getting word to our army. We must assume they could be working with one of our neighbors; I do not wish to speculate, but if the Doranites are involved, it is possible the intention is to keep our army busy in the south with these small raiding forces while they take the city.” He looked at the shocked faces around the table. “I… I do not mean to alarm you more. This could be a benefit. If they are confident that no help will be returning for some time, they may intend to try to starve us out rather than storming the walls.”

“The harvest,” said Marjeta, the quiet Artist-Guilder. “We thought it was bandits but they delayed the harvests. We are at our lowest in food supplies.”

“We’ve barely any weapons, not enough food, no soldiers.… What’s going to happen to us?” Fear quivered behind Varina’s haughty tone, the stiff toss of her braided hair, and the shake in her shoulders.

“We can make weapons,” Eliska said. “We have stockpiles of peat fuel, oil, metal, and stone. I’ve got workers in my Guild who can craft a stairway out of metal that looks like it’s made of lace. If the Warrior-Guilder will work with me, I’m certain they could fashion whatever defensive weapons or machines we need.”

“I have a number of sculptors in my Guild who could assist,” Marjeta offered.

Practical suggestions seemed to lift the mood.

“The Craft Guild can help with leather work and armor.”

“It’s not just Order Guards who can shoot a bow. Athletes, anyone who’s been hunting, anyone who took military classes at school.”

“So we’ll need bows, slings, and anything else we can shoot at them.”

“And shortswords to use for when they breach the walls,” Marco added.“Not too heavy, just something every one can swing and stab.”

I wondered if I was the only one to mark how he said when, not if.

* * *

Night fell fast, spreading its shadows over the buildings and gardens with a sudden chill uncharacteristic of the season. Or perhaps it was just in my head. The hours blended together in a mass of huddled conferences, scrawled plans,and suppressed panic. The army outside our walls had taken no further action, which heightened the tension as we waited to see what it would do.

The air felt heavy around us. It was the darkest part of early morning, and Tain and Marco were giving the five brave volunteer runners their last instructions. Tain spoke to them all individually, thanking them and wishing them luck. He looked much better than I felt.

The two smallest had the unpleasant exit through the sewer tunnel that opened up downriver in the marshlands to the north. Though they perhaps had a greater chance of emerging unseen, their path to our army would be far longer. I would assist the other three, lowering them over the southeast wall where it met Solemn Peak, and they would use the mountain itself as cover. The south side of the city was riskier, but if they got out undetected they could reach the army in days rather than weeks. My sister’s admirer Edric was the only Credo among the five, and guilt suffused me asI regarded him; cocky but warm-hearted, he was a truly decent young man. The others I didn’t know well but recognized from sporting events. Their families would rise in honor and recognition of this feat. Their loyalty to their city and country made my throat tight with emotion. Silasta was a place worth loyalty, worth risk. Such a visceral reminder of its importance was a balm at a time when everything in the world seemed to have fallen to despair and treachery.

We had done our best to disguise them, though not knowing exactly who made up the attacking army, we were only guessing. We had dressed them as ordinary farmers and hidden their tattoos with cosmetics from the Performers’ Guild. Under the country-style baggy pants, scarves, and shirts,all in pale, nondescript colors, our runners wore hardened leather breastplates and thigh-guards. Enough, perhaps, to give them a chance of getting through alive. We dared not armor them more heavily for fear of attracting attention and weighing them down.

I scanned their nervous, solemn faces and tried not to imagine the worst. The disguises would not pass close scrutiny, but if they could slip through the heavy shadow of Solemn Peak in the dark, we had a chance.

Eliska had spent all night with her engineers and builders crafting a giant weapon that looked something like an oversized sling. She would stage an attack at a different location to draw the army’s attention while our runners crossed that crucial open space between our walls and the army. When I’d last seen Eliska she’d been poring over the device, sprung with nervous energy. I admired her composure and capabilities; she was one of the youngest Stone-Guilders in generations and she was demanding things of her Guild no one had considered for centuries. Silastian builders and engineers were lauded across the continent for beautiful buildings and cunning technologies to enhance our lives, not weapons. Yet she hadn’t faltered.

And we needed her not to falter, because distracting the patrols outside depended on the success of that machine.

“The hopes of the city lie upon you. Be swift and fearless,” Marco said. He gripped the shoulders of each runner in turn as he walked before them. They straightened, renewed in their resolve by the big man’s quiet words.

“You three are with Credo Jovan at the southeast wall,” Tain said, dividing the volunteers between me and Chen, the Order Guard who had first rung the attack bell earlier today. “You two are with Chen. Marco and I will lead the diversion attack. Timing will be everything.” That last he directed at me, and I nodded. I disliked the idea of being away from Tain during this first strike, but someone needed to judge the moment to send the runners, and I didn’t want to leave this most vital task to anyone else. If the runners didn’t make it… well, I didn’t want to think about that, either.

“We should begin, Honored Chancellor,” Marco said.

I silently wished them luck as they melted away through the predawn dark; Chen and her runners to the north, Tain and Marco across the bridge to the western tower, where Eliska’s catapult waited. “Our turn now.” We stuck close to the walls, avoiding the streets, and came eventually to the partially repaired cote, its jagged white shape silent in the dark. Temporary laddering for the repairs made it easy to get to the roof, but we needed ropes and tools to scale the mountain face up to its connection point with the city wall. The runner ahead of me shimmied up, barely needing the climbing tools, while I scrambled between handholds, sweating and suppressing grunts.

Edric grabbed my arm to help me up the last section, and gave me his familiar earnest smile. “If I don’t survive, tell your sister to remember me fondly, won’t you?” False reassurance seemed like an insult; the words jammed in my throat, so I merely nodded.

* * *

Outside, a few fires twinkled in the predawn and figures shifted about in the dark mass of the sleeping army. The smaller force this side of the river had only three watchers. We needed their attention anywhere but this dark southeast corner of the city. Faces pressed to the edge of the parapet, rope tied and ready, we watched and waited.

A crash splintered the night. Even expecting it, I jumped. Shouts and cries broke through the silence as the first projectile landed. We had bound containers of oil around the rock and now flaming arrows would follow, intended to catch the spills alight. Sure enough, a burst of red flared up to our right. I kept my eyes on the black mass ahead, scouring it, following those tiny black sentries. One, two, moving off to the west, trying to see, no doubt; the other back in to the mass, perhaps to report. Now. On my whispered signal, we dropped the rope over and the runners followed it in silence. One, two, three, they went over.

Time trickled, and still the rope jerked and wobbled in my hands as I steadied their descent. I used the burn of the rope against my palms as a distraction from the doubts bubbling inside me. Eventually, the rope shook one last time and the pressure suddenly fell away as the last runner transferred from rope to mountain face. I pulled it up swiftly, then waited, pulse pounding in my ears. It was hard to resist peering over the wall to check on their progress, but the less movement I made, the better. Mouth dry, I searched the darkness, listening hard. My nails cut into my palms waiting for some sign a sentry had seen them, but the stirring forces cried no alarm in our direction.

I stayed there a while longer, but as the light slowly improved, no movement was visible along Solemn Peak or anywhere else. I opened my palms and shook my hands to loosen knotted forearm muscles. I barely dared say it to myself for fear of somehow jinxing it, but maybe, just maybe, help was on its way.

Excerpted from City of Lies, copyright © 2018 by Sam Hawke.

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