The Rogue Knight Page 9

Cole and Twitch moved down the street a few blocks, then paused at a corner. The cross street was busy but not as crowded as the avenue that came through the wall. After a couple of minutes, a hand clapped down on Cole’s shoulder from behind.

“We want you for questioning,” a gruff voice said.

Cole went tense for a moment, then shrugged away from Jace. “You’re hilarious.”

“I told you we’d sail through if we just acted natural,” Jace said.

“Where to now?” Twitch asked.

“I vote for food,” Jace said. “We should spend most of our time on the Sambria side until Joe shows up. We can check his fountain every day, but I’d rather lay my head where I know my gear will work.”

Down the cross street some distance, Cole noticed a man step out of a doorway. He wore a familiar wide-brimmed hat and a long, weathered duster. Not a young man, he looked as lean and tough as beef jerky. Cole would never forget that face. It was Ansel, the slave trader who had brought Cole’s friends to the Outskirts.

Chapter 4

SLAVER

For an instant, Cole could neither move nor breathe. Ansel was the man who had taken him captive, threatened him with a sickle, and chained him to the back of a slave wagon. He was cold, competent, and dangerous. And he was not yet looking Cole’s way.

As Cole moved to step around the corner and out of sight, Ansel’s narrow eyes flicked in his direction. Perhaps the motion had drawn his glance. There was no way to be certain whether Ansel recognized him, but for a slight moment their gazes connected. With a sickening jolt of panic, Cole knew he had better assume the worst. Ansel wasn’t the type to miss much.

“We need to split up now,” Cole said hurriedly. He didn’t want to leave the only friends he had with danger coming his way, but he knew it would be tricky to disappear into the crowd moving as a group. If they stayed together, they might all get captured. His friends didn’t deserve that risk. Besides, the others would have a better chance of helping him if they were free.

“What?” Mira asked.

Backing down the street, Cole gestured for the others to scatter. “The slaver who captured me is here. I think he saw me. He knows I shouldn’t be free. Let’s meet up on the Elloweer side by the fountain Joe talked about.”

Twitch was already walking away into the crowd. Jace and Mira hesitated, but a shooing motion from Cole got them going. Cole soon lost sight of them. He was on his own. At least his friends had taken him seriously.

If Ansel was running, he might already be near the corner. If he was walking quickly, Cole still only had a moment or two.

Having already hustled some distance down the street, Cole stepped through the nearest door and into a large, busy eatery. It was mostly men inside. They sat on benches at long, wooden tables. Huge, skewered roasts rotated above fire pits. The air smelled of smoke, charred meat, and herbs. In spite of his current desperation, Cole’s hunger reacted to the rich aromas.

Cole noticed windows on the far side of the room. Windows meant a yard or a street. He had no idea whether Ansel had seen him duck into the eatery. He hadn’t risked looking back, for fear of showing his face. But he knew he had to keep moving just in case.

Running would attract attention, so Cole walked across the room as slowly as he dared, weaving around tables, trying to look casual. Nobody seemed to pay him any mind.

Maybe Ansel wasn’t following him at all. The slaver might not have recognized him. Cole risked a backward glance. Nobody else had come into the establishment yet. If Ansel was in pursuit, he may not have seen him go in here. The crowded street outside should have provided decent cover.

Even if Ansel caught up to him, what could the slaver do? According to the mark on his hand, Cole was free. But Ansel knew he should have a slavemark. The unlikely change could lead to dangerous questions at a time when Cole and his friends needed anonymity. Slaves or not, they were fugitives. The legion wanted all of them, especially Mira. Now that she had her shaping power back, the High Shaper would stop at nothing to find his daughter. Last night’s ambush was proof.

Cole’s stomach churned. If Ansel caught him and investigated his freemark, his escape from Skyport would come to light, along with his connection to Mira. He’d not only be in trouble with Ansel, but with the High King too. He’d end up enslaved, imprisoned, or worse. And that would be the end of trying to find his lost friends and get home.

On the far side of the room, beyond an interior wall, Cole found a door. Relief surged through him. He glanced back across the room just in time to see Ansel enter.

The slaver’s eyes found him immediately. In that steady gaze, Cole saw suspicions confirmed, along with the wordless gloating of one who has uncovered the guilty secret of another. As Ansel calmly started his way, Cole darted out the doorway.

The door led to a narrow alley paved with dark bricks. In one direction, the alley opened onto a busy street. In the other direction, the alley turned a corner. If he ran for the street, he could probably get lost in the crowd. But if Ansel doubled back and looped around, the slaver might be waiting for him by the time Cole got there.

Cole ran away from the street, toward the bend in the alley, hoping it would lead someplace better. As he reached the corner, Cole heard the door open behind him.

Around the corner the alley became narrower, with little puddles of grimy water where bricks were missing or had sunken. After no more than twenty paces the alleyway elbowed again. Beyond the next turn awaited a dead end. Sheer walls rose five stories high in all directions. There was a single recessed door on the left. Trying the handle, Cole found it locked.

Footsteps approached. Not running, but walking with purpose.

Trying to stay calm, Cole drew his Jumping Sword. At least there were no onlookers.

He considered waiting for Ansel to round the corner, then jumping straight at him. It would be an all-or-nothing attack. What if the slaver dodged it? Cole had no desire to tangle with him in a fair fight.

Even if he could kill Ansel, would it be right? Ansel was following him, which seemed menacing, but the slaver had made no threat, and taking slaves was legal in the Outskirts.

Cole aimed the sword at the top of the left-hand wall and said “away” in an urgent whisper. He soared upward like a rocket, reached the top of the building at the apex of his flight, and landed gently. The flat roof had hatches for access, and nobody was up there. Hurrying away from the edge, Cole lost all view of the alley. He couldn’t be sure whether or not Ansel had witnessed his jump, but Cole felt certain that if he peeked down to check, Ansel would see him. He crouched in silence, aware of his rapid pulse.

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