“No,” said one of the Du Chalagne brothers, as he kicked his horse into motion. The stallion lurched forward, snapping angrily at his gelding’s neck as its rider tried to stab Bastion with his rapier. With almost contemptuous ease, the Barrakai leaned out of the blade’s range and thrust his fingers into one of the bags tied to his saddle. The hand emerged, trailing a cloud of yellow dust that he then flung into the blond man’s face.
Shrieking, the blond nobleman tumbled from his saddle to lay coughing and spitting in the middle of the road. Bastion snatched one of his fighting blades from its scabbard and leveled it at the other Du Chalagne. “Are you as stupid as your brother?”
“Rarely,” the young man answered. “Is he going to be all right?”
“Sooner or later. He’s going to be miserable for a while yet, though.”
“What was that you threw in his face?” Mina wanted to know.
“A mix of various pollens and spores,” Bastion told her, not quite truthfully. “Now what in the burning hells was that all about?”
“I’m afraid Lucius is a bit overprotective,” the other brother—Caspar, then—told him sardonically “He seems to be somewhat smitten with our intrepid lady friend here, and wishes merely to defend her honor.”
“He’s going to get himself killed pulling shit like that,” Bastion said. It wasn’t until he heard her laugh that he realized that he’d used a word she’d probably rarely heard. Lowlanders didn’t talk that way around highborn ladies. Neither did highlanders who knew what was good for them, he reminded himself. He’d heard some of the punishments they’d dreamed up for such transgressions. He knew a lot of different uses for his tongue and preferred very much to keep it behind his teeth.
One of those uses came to mind as his gaze trailed along the curve of the lady’s shoulder and he groaned inwardly. He’d been cursed with a spectacular imagination for a warrior, and sometimes he found himself regretting it. This was one of those times.
“You still haven’t told me what you want to hire me for,” he said, violently shoving his thoughts back toward business, where they belonged. It wasn’t like him to be so easily distracted.
“I need your help to rescue my sister. She’s been taken by slavers.”
The Barrakai hated slavers, an enmity extending back to the days of the Old Empire. When Imperial forces first discovered them, they’d been suitably impressed by their fighting prowess—gained, as it was, in defending their flocks from the slith. This led to the Emperor demanding a tribute of slaves from the Barrakai, a threat they couldn’t afford to ignore. Formidable or not, the Emperor’s mages would have made short work of his people. So they’d sold their children into bondage as the price of not being destroyed completely.
It had remained a stain on their honor until the empire fell, at which point the Barrakai tribes swore, as one, that they’d never again bend a knee. They’d sworn to go down fighting, to die as a people, before ever again sacrificing their children in such a way.
Slavery was still common through most of the southern kingdoms, though, in recent decades it had fallen into disfavor in the north. Some of that, he believed, was because the north was more accepting of magic and mechanical innovation. The southern kingdoms preferred things to remain the way they’d always been.
While slavers often ranged into the northern kingdoms, raiding and taking people as they could, Ruall was pretty far north, even for the more adventurous ones. And to take a noblewoman? There were plenty of peasants no one would miss—why would they have risked something so blatant?
Taking his silence as the invitation it was, she quickly added details. “She was visiting relatives in Cair, near the edge of the Great Sward, when she was taken. They wiped out a whole troop of house guard just to take her, a cousin, and their two maids.”
That answered his questions well enough. As she opened her mouth to continue, he raised a hand to forestall her and let out a series of sharp whistles. A moment later a series of trills came from the blackberry briar and the five and half foot dragonet emerged.
She shook herself like a dog emerging from water and the air around her was suddenly filled with a cloud of thorns. Bastion, who had never seen her do anything like that before, was suddenly struck by how useful that could be in a fight. Had she been standing anywhere near them or their horses when she’d shaken herself, they’d have been breathing thorns.
He noted it for future tactical consideration and set it aside as she came trotting up. She sniffed each of the horses in turn, her tongue’s sensitivity allowing her to take in and memorize the scents of both horse and rider at once, then took a moment to investigate the downed Du Chalagne, who’d gained enough ground to sit up again on his own.
Lucius’s watery eyes weren’t so dysfunctional that he failed to see the dragonet’s approach. He froze in place as Vex studied him. She got one whiff of the powder he’d been covered in and sneezed, after which she shot Bastion a dirty look. For not warning her, he presumed.
“So… you want me to try to find four girls taken by a bunch of slavers down at the southern border of Cair how many days ago?”