It was before sunrise when the shamefaced man-at-arms knocked on my door to tell me that there had been an escape--Alibek, one of the boys from Kyros's harem. I sent him to the stable to fetch my horse while I dressed, and met him in the courtyard, where I quickly checked over my gear. "What time was he found missing?" I asked, buckling an extra waterskin to Zhade's saddle.
"Nearly two hours ago, Lauria," he said, avoiding my eyes.
"Why didn't you--"
"We thought he must be somewhere within the walls."
So they'd wasted time searching, and they probably wouldn't wake Kyros until after I had set out. Well, that was fine with me. "Did he take anything with him?"
"One waterskin turned up missing."
"He'd better hope I find him, then," I said, and gave the guardsman a quick smile as I mounted Zhade. It had been foolish to search before waking Kyros, but it was an understandable impulse. He had an unpredictable temperament.
Even in the twilight of early dawn, the streets of Elpisia were alive with movement. Just outside Kyros's gate, a man pushed a wheelbarrow piled high with apples, a little musty from their winter storage. I flipped him a coin and leaned down to pluck two from the pile: one for me and one for Zhade. Across the street, I could see two women, the wives of Greek officers, with jars of honey tucked under their arms to offer to Athena. Farther down, a slave--Danibeki, like my mother--hauled water from one of the public wells. I spared only a cursory glance at the street as I closed the gate behind me. If Alibek had left any signs of his flight, they would be long gone by now.
Besides, I had a hunch that I knew where he'd jumped the Elpisia wall. There was a spot on the northern edge where the wall was a bit crumbled, and the weathering had created footholds. Once out of the city, I planned to head straight for that spot and look for any traces he might have left. If I was lucky, I might pick up his track from there; if not, I'd at least know for certain that he'd made it out of the city.
First, though, I had to make it out of the city myself.
Kyros's household was close to the military garrison, which was close to the city gate, so it wasn't a terribly long way. It was early enough that the streets weren't yet crowded, and Zhade and I could move quickly. A slave carrying water back to his master's household stepped quickly out of my way; in turn, I moved aside for some of the soldiers from the garrison, who rode through the street. In the distance, I could hear a fruiter selling his wares: Apples, fine apples; oranges from Persia; grapes from the south, fresh from the aeriko caravan. Apples, fine apples . . . Elpisia was almost on the frontier of Greek territory, and no one wanted to live outside the protective walls, where they would be vulnerable to a bandit raid, so the houses were packed in tightly, leaning against each other like a crowd of friends gathered in too small a space.
The gate was guarded by bored, surly soldiers from the Greek garrison. They stopped me, of course, and asked to see my credentials. I always carried a scroll with Kyros's seal on it, plus I wore his ring--a heavy piece of gold set with a garnet as dark as a pomegranate seed--on a chain around my neck. The guards on duty this morning were Alex and Thales; neither could read, but they squinted suspiciously at my scroll anyway. I offered the ring as evidence that I was on official business, but they waved it off; I could have stolen it, after all. Along with the horse. And my sword. And my clothes, which were more like a man's clothes than a woman's, but which had been tailored to fit me perfectly. "You'll have to wait while we get our captain to look at this," Thales said.
"Ask him to hurry, please, Thales. Kyros won't be happy if his slave escapes because you held me up." I passed through these gates, on average, six times in a week. I recognized nearly every guard. I even knew Thales's home province and the name of Alex's sister. Yet I was stopped every time, and asked to prove that I was truly a free woman and Kyros's most trusted lieutenant, and not an escaping slave myself. Every time.
I turned, reluctantly. "Myron," I said. Myron was one of Kyros's other lieutenants. One of his Greek lieutenants.
"She's with me," he said airily to Thales, who quickly handed back my scroll and waved us both through.
"Kyros thought I could probably catch up with you," Myron said. "I almost didn't! I'm glad the guards held you up."
"I'm sure you could have guessed where I'd go," I said, forcing myself to be friendly.
"Well, I guessed you'd head straight out of the city."
I nodded. "There's a spot along the city wall, toward the north, where a lot of slaves come over. I was planning to ride around the outside of the wall and see if Alibek left any trace behind."
I mounted Zhade, gritting my teeth. Myron was never rude to me; that wasn't the problem. He unfailingly treated me with a certain patronizing kindness--the compliments of a superior to a trusted servant. I didn't mind being treated this way by Kyros; though some of his other subordinates complained about him, I always found his judgment to be fair and his praise of my work effusive. But Myron was not my boss. He was not, in my opinion, even my equal. I smiled stiffly and let our horses break into a canter as we rode out of the gate.
I miss Nikon, I thought. Distant kin to Kyros, he had served Kyros in a job much like mine for several years. Like Myron, he was Greek; unlike Myron, he'd been a worthy friend, occasionally even a confidante. But a year ago he'd been assigned as a young officer to one of the border garrisons; he was killed in a bandit raid a few months later. Myron was distant kin to Kyros as well. He must come from the other side of the family. I gritted my teeth as Myron gave me a cheerful grin over his shoulder.
Beyond the city wall, the hills and sky opened up around us as if we'd climbed out of a closed box. The sky was blue with a faint veil of haze, and I could smell a little moisture in the air. It was early spring, and it had rained a bit the previous night. Perhaps that was why Alibek thought he might make it to the bandits--the Alashi--with only one waterskin. Or perhaps he just saw the opportunity to break and didn't think about it at all. Maybe he preferred death to slavery. I turned the possibilities over in my mind as we cantered, riding along the edge of the wall to circle around to the north side of the city. The wall rose up well over our heads; it was built from hewed blocks of purple-gray stone, and was covered with a fine layer of reddish dust. Green plants sprouted here and there from the mortar, thanks to the spring rains.
Last night's rain had already soaked down into the ground, feeding the brief burst of spring growth that carpeted the land around Elpisia. On the hills to the north I could see a jumble of wildflowers: brilliant red poppies, star-shaped yellow flowers, cream-colored snowdrops, something purple that wound its way close to the ground. They would fade fast enough once the rains stopped, but for now they served as a reminder that before the great rivers were dammed, Elpisia had been part of a large, fertile oasis, the confluence of the Arys River and the Jaxartes. Under the hot sun, though, the Arys quickly petered out into a muddy trickle, then dried up completely, even in the spring. I wondered if Alibek knew that.
The desert hills rose up around us. Below our feet, under the spring growth, the brittle soil was golden-red in the sunrise, darkening to blue-black in the shadows. Far off, goats dotted the hillsides, tearing away at the mossy grass. I wondered idly who it was that herded the goats. A trusted slave? A half-caste Danibeki, like me? Or a Greek?
The sun was well and truly up by the time we reached the northern edge of the city. I dismounted, leading Zhade to the spot where Alibek might have climbed over, then hoisted myself up to get a good look at the edge. Sure enough, caught in the rough stone was a fragment of sheer white cloth. It was very clean; left recently by someone who normally lived indoors. If Alibek hadn't left this behind, there had been another escape last night.
I held the fragment briefly to my nose and smelled the perfume used by the slaves in Kyros's harem. The smell seemed to catch in the back of my throat; it was too sweet, like the cloying smell of a bruised, slightly rotten apple. I tucked the cloth into my pouch and jumped down from the wall. "He came over here," I said.
"Can I see?"
I took the cloth back out of my pouch and passed it to Myron. "How can you be so sure Alibek left this?" he asked, squinting at the cloth in the bright morning sun.
"It has the scent of Kyros's harem."
Myron sniffed it. "All harems smell like this, and some free women use the same perfume."
I plucked it out of his fingers. "It was freshly torn. And it's clean, still even a little damp. This was really recent. Who climbs over the wall other than slaves trying to get away? If you're not running away, it's easier to use the gate."
"Well, there are other reasons you might climb the wall. You might be a criminal, fleeing from the law."
"Criminals don't dress in sheer white cotton," I said, and tucked the cloth away again.
We checked the ground near that part of the wall, but Alibek had left no more traces behind. "Well, it's probably safe to assume he headed over the hills," Myron said after a quick look. "That's where the bandits are, so where else would he have gone?"
"If he has any sense, he's found a hole somewhere to curl up in for the day," I said. "He has to know Kyros will send searchers. Besides, he didn't take much water."
Myron shrugged. "There are plenty of holes in the hills just north of here. Let's start looking."
We spent the next few hours riding north into the desert, dismounting whenever we reached a hill or a cluster of bracken where Alibek might have found somewhere to hide and searching carefully on foot. A curious goat wandered up to lip my sleeve; I shook it off impatiently. The goatherd was sleeping in the sun; I nudged him awake to ask if he'd seen anyone pass, but he mumbled something unhelpful and went back to sleep. He was Greek, as it turned out; a young boy.
As the sun rose high overhead, I grew hot and increasingly frustrated. "Do they know what time he escaped?" I asked Myron.
"Kyros said it was sometime after midnight."
"I can't imagine that he got this far last night."
"Where else would he have gone? Penelopeia?" Myron laughed lightly.
"But we haven't found even a trace of him."
"That's not that surprising. It's not as if he's trying to leave a trail."
A hawk wheeled overhead; I tipped my head back to watch it dive for a smaller bird and then glanced back toward Elpisia, gauging how far we'd come. North was the logical path for an escaping slave--north, into the desert, over the mountains, toward the bandit tribes. "Alibek would have known this was where we'd look for him."
"Well, yeah. But that's because he'd be an idiot to go any other way. If we haven't found him yet, maybe it's because he's been moving this whole time."
"He didn't have enough water . . ."
"We only know about one waterskin. He might have had a friend in another household who stole another for him."
I shook my head. If Alibek had an ally able to give him waterskins to carry, that person probably could have hidden him for a few days, until Kyros stopped sending out searchers and gave him up for lost. And then I wouldn't have found that fragment of cloth. But Myron didn't think the cloth had been left by Alibek.
"I'll tell you what," Myron said, smiling blandly at my frown. "I think it's possible he kept moving. That would be foolish, running around in the sun, but slaves aren't always as sensible as Greeks. I'll ride north and keep looking there; you go look for him wherever it is you think he might have hidden."
"Fine," I said, with my first real smile since Myron had caught up with me. "Great idea, Myron."
Myron rode northwest; I watched him go for a moment, then wheeled Zhade back toward the city.
My Danibeki great-grandparents had lived between two great rivers--the Jaxartes and the Oxus, or as the Danibeki had called them, the Syr Darya and the Amu Darya. Though Alexander had conquered and subdued the entire region during his long lifetime, after his ascent to Olympus, Greek control had gradually eroded until there was just a fragment left of Alexander's empire, closer to my homeland than to his.
After Penelope, the founder of the Sisterhood of Weavers, had discovered how to summon and bind aerika, the Greek empire had begun its slow rise back to power. When they'd gone west, back into Greece, the stories claimed that they were met with enthusiasm. The rest of Persia accepted their renewed yoke with at least reasonable grace. But the Danibeki had resisted fiercely, and so the Sisterhood had summoned vast numbers of aerika to bind the waters of the two rivers. They'd bottled up the northern Jaxartes in a vast reservoir, drowning the once-fertile valley near its source under a deep lake. Occasionally they allowed out a trickle of water to supply the Peneleopeian garrisons along the old river, but access to the water was strictly controlled. Meanwhile, the waters of the southern Oxus flowed through a tunnel to Persia, where the people had been more easily subdued. Cooperate, and you will be rewarded. Defy us, and our wrath will be worse than you could ever have imagined.
Most of the Danibeki had been enslaved; a few had fled north into the steppe, scraping out a living with herds and what water they could find. They called themselves the Alashi, and the rumors about them were both hair-raising and conflicting. Some stories said that they would accept any escaped slave who managed to reach them. Other stories said that there were tests first: escaped slaves were made to walk through fire or endure the bite of a poisonous spider to prove their worthiness. Still more stories said that outsiders who approached them were thrown onto pyres as a human sacrifice to Prometheus--and that Greek soldiers who made the mistake of surrendering were sacrificed as well. The more terrifying stories failed to deter a few determined and optimistic escapees, like Alibek.
Excerpted from Freedom's Gate by Naomi Kritzer. Copyright © 2004 by Naomi Kritzer. Excerpted by permission of Spectra, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.