Barsetba stared into the starry night sky. The bright light from the full moons of Argon and Ajax had turned out to be both a curse and a blessing for the boy. The blessing was that it afforded him the means to spirit his way out of the Amber Palace, casting just enough light so that he could navigate through its back hallways and stairs. A curse, because now that he was standing on the edge of the Forum, he’d have to negotiate the large, open square in full view, without being detected.
By far, this trip was the most difficult of all that he’d yet made. In light of the recent attacks on the palace and in the parade ground, Nic and Juston Tark had doubled, and then tripled, the guards. And while it had never been easy to sneak away, this time had been nearly impossible. The first part went well – as it always did. Climbing out the window of his apartment onto the ledge two floors above the hard stone of the Forum, he scrambled nimbly from ledge to rooftop, and climbed back into a second window that opened onto a stairwell leading to the subterranean chambers of the building – thus avoiding most of the guards and sentries stationed throughout the palace.
Dodging the guard in front of the Amber Palace proved to be a bit tricky, since in the days following the parade ground attack – in addition to the normal detail of guards – the men of Cohort Hawk also stood watch in front of the palace. He waited impatiently for over an hour until the changing of the guard provided enough distraction to allow him to stealthily emerge from the dark stairway where he’d been hiding. Now, clinging to the foreshortened shadows, he’d have to steal across the broad expanse of the Forum, but given the light of the full moons, he realized he risked almost certainly discovery.
Quietly pacing in the shadows, he couldn’t find an easy solution. Up until this moment, things had gone rather well. Recalling his amazing good fortune during the past weeks in meeting and being befriended by the winged boys who called themselves Icarians, a part of him still stung with guilt over his deception. But he’d made promises, and felt honor bound to carry them out. Only once, when Philippe recognized that the flute Barsetba carried had once belonged to one of Philippe’s teachers, did he fear being discovered, but it seemed his explanation had satisfied them and nothing further was said. If anyone suspected he was anything other than whom he claimed to be, he could find no evidence of it.
Now, hiding in the shadows of the Amber Palace, he worried that his mission would have to be aborted; he turned and concentrated on watching the guards at the palace doors so he’d be ready to sneak back when the sentries were once again relieved, but spun around when a noise from behind startled him. In one of the darkened corners of the Forum stood a cart, hitched to a team of horses; the jingling of their harness was what had startled him. In the dark, the contents of the cart were reduced to meaningless shapes, but it was clearly loaded heavily. Remembering that Master Arnod’s baker often rose hours before dawn to prepare the breads, rolls and cakes for the day, he realized the cart was probably delivering the master baker’s ingredients.
Blessing his luck, Barsetba quickly crept through the shadows and slid up next to the cart, carefully keeping his head below the edge of the cart railing. Two men stood at the back of the cart, talking. One of the men was the drover; the other he recognized as one of the master baker’s apprentices. Crouching in the shadow of a large column, Barsetba overheard them clearly.
“That’s everything, except some of the spring wheat flour,” the drayman said to the young baker’s apprentice, pointing to a pile of sacks and four large barrels sitting on the ground behind the wagon. “Master Alm didn’t get his full order from the mill at Gless this week, so we had to divide it up fairly among all of our customers. Alm said we’d get the rest by the end of the week. Tell your master that if it comes in as expected, we’ll deliver it promptly.”
“My master will be unhappy to hear that,” the boy said, “and so will Master Arnod.”
“Well, tell them it’s out of our hands,” the drover said with a shrug. “Rumor has it a grain caravan heading to Gless was attacked – that’s what caused the shortage. It was probably those damned Vosh. The caravan was from Grüner Platz in Vorhalla. They came down through Shepard’s Pass, and the Vosh are as thick as fleas on a mangy dog in that part of the country.”
Still talking, the boy and the drayman each slung a sack up on his shoulder and headed down the stairs leading into the baker’s pantry. Seeing his chance and hoping desperately that everything had truly been unloaded as the driver said, Barsetba quickly checked to ensure the way was clear. Slithering up over the rail, he moved as quietly as he could to one of the corners where a tarp lay. He curled up on the bed of the wagon and, hiding behind three large barrels, covered himself with the tarp and waited. After a few minutes, the supplies were apparently secure and the cart creaked as the drover climbed back into his seat on the wagon.
Just as he was ready to leave, the baker’s apprentice called out to him. “Don’t we get another barrel of sugar? I only count three. The master baker will have me scrubbing down the kitchen all by myself for the next week if I muck up this order.”
Turning around in his seat, the driver counted the barrels on the wagon. Grumbling to himself and shaking his head, he got down from his seat and trudged to the back of the wagon. Climbing up onto its bed, he tugged at one of the heavy barrels and began to slide it to the end of the wagon. Barsetba held his breath as one of the barrels he’d chosen to hide behind moved away exposing his hiding place. Remaining motionless under the tarp, he felt the barrel slide away. There was further scraping, followed by a lurching jolt as the driver jumped from the wagon to the ground; this was followed by more jostling as the heavy barrel was lifted from the wagon. Once again descending the stone steps leading to the pantry, Barsetba could hear the drover and the baker’s apprentice grunting under the weight of the barrel. While they were gone, Barsetba quickly repositioned himself under the tarp, wedging himself even tighter into the corner behind the two remaining barrels.
No sooner had he resettled himself then he heard the voices of the drayman and the apprentice as they emerged from the cellar pantry. Making their way back to the wagon, Barsetba startled and jumped under the tarp when he heard a deep voice shout to the driver.
“What goes on here?” the voice said.
Barsetba took in a breath and held it. He could tell by the sound of the voice and the clinking of armor that it was probably one of soldiers guarding the Forum.
“Just a delivery to the bakery, soldier,” the driver said.
“Don’t you know that all deliveries need to be cleared with the sergeant in charge? That’s how the first attack on the palace occurred – the assassins used the ruse of delivering supplies. What’s in this wagon anyway, and what’s under this tarp?” the voice said and Barsetba could feel the tarp rustle as someone began to pull on it.
“But I did all of that,” the drover protested. “I followed the orders I was given. When I came into the Forum, I went to the sergeant of the guard. He inspected my cargo and waved me on.”
“He’s right, soldier,” a fourth voice said. “I examined the cargo myself and granted him passage.”
Barsetba remained still as a statue, holding his breath and listening to the conversation, hoping for a miracle. Although still fearing detection, he noticed that the tarp had stopped moving.
“I still have deliveries to make before dawn,” the drover – now sounding exasperated – was explaining to the soldiers.
Responding to his pleas, the sergeant called the guard away and told the driver to get moving. Climbing back into the wagon, the man took his seat and with a quick shout to the horses and a snap of the reins, Barsetba felt the wagon move. After a few minutes of motion, the driver called out to the horses, pulled on the reigns and stopped the wagon. Climbing down from his seat the driver made his way to one of the few lighted buildings on an otherwise darkened street. Barsetba heard a heavy knocking on wood, followed by the sound of a latch sliding and the creaking of door hinges.
“Your flour and salt,” the drover said to whoever opened the door.
“I’ve been waiting for you,” another voice said. “You’re late today.”
“A problem back at the Forum,” the driver said as he explained to the second man what had occurred during his delivery to the palace bakery a few minutes earlier.
“Well, no matter, you’re here now. Just get my order unloaded. I have bread to bake and deliveries to make.”
Pulling a sack of flour from the wagon, Barsetba heard the driver’s heavy footsteps receding from the wagon. Peeking out from under the tarp, he could see the back of the drover disappear into the shop of one of the bakeries near the Forum. Seeing his chance, the boy threw back the tarp and scampered from the wagon as fast and quietly as he could. Once out of the wagon, he hurried down the street and ducked into a nearby dark and quiet alley.
After the driver unloaded the rest of the baker’s order and departed, Barsetba emerged from the alley and hurried through the darkened streets of the city. Moving as quickly and quietly as he could, he made his way down one cobblestone street after another. Although it was dark, he knew the way by heart. Once he passed the street of the goldsmiths he knew his goal was almost in sight. Quickly turning the corner, he found himself between the street of the goldsmiths and the street of the tailors. Entering another dark alley, he dashed down it. Straight ahead stood a small stable. Running as fast as possible, he suddenly saw something loom up out of the darkness and found himself sitting on the wet cobblestones, dazed and doubled over – having had the wind knocked out of him. Desperately trying to recover, he looked up into the face of a stout, bearded man wearing an apron.
“Watch where you’re going!” the man shouted gruffly, then reached out and offered his hand to Barsetba.
The man pulled him to his feet, but quickly released him when he caught a glimpse of his face. Barsetba found himself falling backward again and cried out in pain when his ass hit the hard, cobbled street. Back on the cold hard ground, the boy realized he was lying in a dirty puddle of water.
“You!” the man said. “Didn’t I tell you I never wanted to see your face again? Are you still trying to get room and board singing your foolish songs and telling your tall tales?”
Soaking wet and smarting from his graceless landing, Barsetba looked up and recognized one of the many publicans he’d tangled with during his early days in Konassas. The back of the man’s establishment opened onto the alley. The tavern had recently closed after a busy night and the publican, wishing only to get to bed, had just finished cleaning his kitchen – emptying the dirty bucket of water he had used to mop the floor into the street.
“No,” he said looking up at the man. “I’m not here to bother you. I found a place to stay.”
“Then go there, and get ye gone from here,” the publican said, glowering down at the boy.
Gathering his wits about him, Barsetba got to his feet. Filthy water dripping off his once clean clothing, he backed away from the man and quickly ran down the alley and onto another street. Waiting a few minutes for the publican to go back into his tavern, he emerged and trudged to the end of the alley where the small stable stood.
Sliding open the stable door, he stepped into the darkness and lit a lantern he knew was hanging from a nearby post. Opening the lantern shield so it cast just a thin beam of light, he stepped carefully over to a small cage secured to one of the stables walls. One of the horses shuffled in its stall and snorted, but Barsetba ignored it as he opened the door of the cage and carefully put his hand around one of the two small birds in the cage. Initially there had been six, but he was now down to his last two – after tonight there would only be one left.
Just as he began to remove the bird from its cage he stopped, released it and closed the cage. Remembering how wet his clothes were, he frantically dug into his right pocket and pulled out a small piece of parchment. Unrolling it he could see that although he was soaked, it had remained dry and the tiny writing legible. Carefully studying the parchment, even in the dim light he was still able to read the words that appeared on it – words he had written earlier that day.
Assuring himself that his message was intact, he bent down and once again opened the cage. Gripping one of the birds, he carefully took it from the cage then closed the door to keep the final bird from escaping. Holding the bird gently, he slid the rolled scrap of parchment into a tiny glass capsule affixed to its leg. Blowing out the lantern, he left the stable and closed the door. He looked up and down the street to see if anyone was around, then opened his hand and released the bird as soon as he was sure he was indeed alone and unobserved. The bird darted from his hand and soared upward, disappearing into the night sky. It would roost under the eaves of the buildings until dawn, but at first light it would leave the city and deliver its message.
Standing silently and looking up at the night sky long after the bird had vanished, Barsetba shook his head in disgust at the rotten smell rising from his wet clothing. He’d still have to get back into the palace, but for now he was satisfied that he’d remained undetected, and his mission thus far had been successful.