Traitors' Gate (Crossroads)

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9780765310576: Traitors' Gate (Crossroads)

In Spirit Gate and Shadow Gate, Kate Elliott took readers to the fascinating world of the Hundred, a land teeming with an array of cultures, gods, and conflicts blighted by the shadow of chaos and destruction. Now, with the same intensity and dramatic sweep that has brought this epic to life, Elliott returns to the exquisitely crafted cities and landscapes of the Hundred, in a thunderous conclusion to the saga.

In the darkness of war and destruction, forces gather to reclaim the peace: Those immortal Guardians who still serve justice seek a means to end the devastating reign of one of their own; a hired outlander army struggles to halt the advance of the horde that has despoiled vast lands and slaughtered countless people in its murderous wake, while still guarding against a burgeoning threat from an aggressively expansionist empire; and the eagle reeves who have long been the only law enforcers of the Hundred struggle to reorganize after a devastating massacre has decimated their numbers. But even as these forces give hope to those who would live in peace, a terrible danger looms: a traitor with Imperial ambitions, the most dreaded, least anticipated threat of all…

In the unfolding drama of political upheaval and violent change, nothing is certain, as alliances dissolve and power shifts with the unpredictability of a desert sandstorm. A riotous epic with the vast breadth and excitement only masterful storyteller Kate Elliott can summon, Traitors’ Gate will leave her many readers begging for more.

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About the Author:

KATE ELLIOTT is the bestselling author of more than a dozen epic novels. Her novel King’s Dragon was a finalist for the Nebula Award; The Golden Key (co-written with Melanie Rawn and Jennifer Roberson) was a World Fantasy Award finalist. Born in Iowa and raised in Oregon, she lives in Hawaii.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

PART ONE: FOREIGNERS

1

LATE AT NIGHT a fight broke out beyond the compound’s high walls.

Keshad sat up in darkness. At first he thought himself in the Hundred, in the city of Olossi, still bound as a debt slave to Master Feden. Then he smelled the rancid aroma of the harsh local oil used for cooking. He heard shouts, jabbering words he could not understand.

He wasn’t in the Hundred. He was in the Sirniakan Empire.

He groped for the short sword he had stashed under the cot.

"Eh? Keshad?" A bleary voice murmured on the other side of the curtain.

"Quiet. There’s trouble."

The cloth rippled as Eliar wrestled with clothing, or his turban, or whatever the hells the Silvers were so cursed prudish about. Bracelets jangled. There came a curse, a rattle, and a thump as the cot tipped over.

"Where’s the lamp?"

"Hush." Kesh wrapped his kilt around his waist, approached the door, and, leaning against it, pressed an ear to the crack. All quiet.

"Nothing to do with us," he whispered. "Yet."

The cot scraped, being righted. "The Sirniakan officials have locked us in the compound, won’t let us trade, and hand over a scant portion of rice and millet once a day so we don’t starve. One of their priests told you the emperor is dead, killed in battle by his cousin. They’ve locked down Sardia and are restricting all movement. These troubles have everything to do with us. We have to get out of here, return to Olossi, and report these developments to Captain Anji."

"Say it a bit louder, perhaps. That will help us, neh? If everyone figures out we’re spies?"

"No need to constantly criticize me—"

Aui! No matter how much he disliked Eliar, he had to make this expedition work or he’d never get what he wanted. And to get what he wanted, he had to stay on Eliar’s good side.

"I beg your pardon. It’s hateful to be stuck in this cursed compound day and night."

Eliar grunted in acknowledgment of the apology, which Kesh knew was grace-lessly delivered. "We’ve got to do something."

Kesh jiggered the latch and cracked the door. It was strange to deal with hinges instead of proper doors that slid, but in the empire things were done one way or not at all, and if you didn’t like it, the priests would condemn you to the fire. In the courtyard, a lamp hanging from a bracket illuminated the storehouse gates, but the far walls with their set-back doors into other storerooms and sleeping cells remained hidden in shadows. Trumpets, shouting, and clash of weapons swelled in the distance, well away from the restricted market district where foreign merchants were required to reside and carry out all their trade. A whiff of burning oil stung his nose as a flame flared behind him.

"Pinch that down, you fool!" he whispered. "We don’t want anyone to know we’re awake." Nothing stirred in the courtyard. If anyone had seen that flare of light, they weren’t acting on it. "Listen, Eliar, you stay here. Make sure no one goes after our trade goods. I’m going to the gate to see what the guards will tell me."

"The guards never tell us a cursed thing."

"They talk to me because I worship at the Beltak temple."

That shut Eliar up.

Keshad sheathed his sword and slung the sword belt over his back. He eased into the courtyard and padded cautiously past the open inner gate to the forecourt. The double gates had been barred for eight days, since the night when trumpets and horns had disturbed the peace and all the markets had been closed. Several figures huddled by the ranks of handcarts. One raised a lamp.

"Master Keshad? Maybe you can get these cursed guards to talk to you, since they favor you so much."

The other Hundred merchants didn’t like him any better than he liked them. They thought him a traitor for abandoning the gods of his birth for the empire’s god, but what did it matter to them what god he chose to worship or what benefit that worship brought him? There were a pair of outlanders as well, a man out of the Mariha princedoms and one from the western desert whose slaves, languishing in the slave pens, he hadn’t seen for days. For that matter, the drivers and guardsmen he and Eliar had hired in Olossi were confined in different quarters altogether, and he’d had no contact with them since the citywide curfew was imposed.

He rang the bell at the guardhouse. A guard in one of the watch platforms above turned to look down into the forecourt. Bars scraped and locks rattled. The guardhouse door opened and the sergeant pushed into the forecourt, a pair of armed guards at his back and another guard holding high a lamp.

"Get inside!"

His angry words drove the merchants back into the main courtyard.

Keshad held his ground. "Honored one, may I ask if we are in danger here?"

The sergeant’s expression softened. "I know nothing. Men have broken curfew. Best you get inside until the storm passes."

The storm roared closer. A clatter of running feet in a nearby street was followed by a chorus of shouts so loud the sergeant flinched. Kesh took a step back from the double gates. The distinctive clamor of clashing swords and spears hammered the night, the skirmish racing as though one group was chasing another. The guards drew their swords; a fifth man popped out of the guardhouse.

"All ranks at the ready," snarled the sergeant, and the man vanished back into the tower. "They may try to break in."

The skirmish flowed along the street outside as Kesh gripped his sword so tightly he was shaking. The noise reached a pitch and abruptly subsided.

The sergeant exhaled. He spoke to his guards in the local language, but Kesh was too rattled to catch more than a word here and there. Foreigners. Market. Fire. Traitors to the emperor.

Kesh glanced through the open door into the guardhouse, which snaked through the compound wall; there was a small gate for the guard unit on the street side because the guards watched both ways, keeping locals out and foreigners in.

As though slapped by a giant hand, the gates shuddered. The sergeant swore, signaled to his men, and bolted inside, swinging the door shut. A struggle erupted outside. Several merchants came running from the main courtyard, but Kesh shoved past them and ran to his cell, where Eliar waited by the door.

"These gods-rotted empire laws have us caged like beasts," Kesh snapped, "not a chance to get in or out nor anywhere to hide or escape to. Curse them."

"Maybe we can get out over the roofs. I’ve had plenty of practice getting in and out of tight places in Olossi. My friends and I, we smuggled goods over the river."

In the forecourt, merchants shouted, "Block the gate!" "Block the guardhouse door!"

Kesh began to laugh, because there wasn’t anything else to find funny in their situation. "The hells! Were you part of that gang the Greater Houses were constantly chasing?"

He felt the sting of Eliar’s smile as though he could touch it. "I was."

"Aui! You didn’t really get up on the roof, did you?"

"I did. One night when you were sleeping. I used rope tied around the lamp brackets. But there’s a walkway around the entire roof. They patrol it all night."

"Keeping us in, or others out. Grab rope. And whatever you can carry that’s too valuable to leave behind."

"Climbing out of the compound is easy. But how can we get out of the city without being killed?"

"The hells!" Kesh collected the pouches of local spices, best-quality braid, and polished gems he’d brought south from the Hundred; he slung them over his back, buckling tight the straps so the pouches wouldn’t shift as he moved. Then he grabbed rope coiled against the door that led into a small storeroom accessible only from this chamber. None of the goods he and Eliar had stored in there were worth his life.

"I’m ready," said the Ri Amarah from the door.

Eliar’s bulging packs brushed Kesh’s arm. "What in the hells are you carrying?"

"All the oil of naya."

"Aui! Don’t drop it by a flame."

Kesh shouldered past and led Eliar to the archway of the inner gate. A few merchants were frantically shoving carts and benches in front of the closed double gates, but the rest were hiding in the storerooms. A struggle raged within the gatehouse, and outside the gates a crowd screamed words Kesh was pretty sure meant something like "Kill the foreigners! Kill the traitors!"

"They haven’t given us up," said Kesh suddenly.

"What do you mean?"

"The sergeant and his guards could let that mob in. But they’re defending us. Eiya! We’ll need oil of naya."

He expected Eliar to protest, but the other man swung down his bulky packs. Ke-shad ran to the cistern in the middle of the courtyard and climbed up.

"Heya! Heya! Get your weapons! Move! Our guards are defending us against a mob that wants to kill us. If we don’t help them, we’re all dead. I need rags. Anything that will burn easily. Hurry, you cursed fools!"

He ran to the forecourt. The guards had abandoned the watch platforms that flanked the gates. Access to the platforms and the wall walk was from inside the guardhouse, now being fought over.

Merchants came running with weapons, with rags, one dragging a thin pallet. Two carried lamps. Eliar brought three leather bottles. Muffled crashes and shouts came from the guardhouse. Someone was taking a beating.

Keshad indicated the platforms above. "We’ll splash oil of naya over the crowd, light rags, and throw them down on top. That should drive them away."

"Heh. Just like the battle over Olossi," said one man.

"I’ll go up," said Eliar immediately.

As Kesh slung a bottle over his shoulder he called the other merchants closer. "Those who can fight, brace yourselves. Form up around the inner gate. Tip carts over, under the arch, to make a bottleneck. One of you roust out the cowards. We need everyone. Now, hoist me up."

Kesh and another man climbed up on a cart. The man laced his fingers together and, when Kesh set a foot into the makeshift stirrup, raised him up so he could throw rope around one of the poles making the scaffolding of the platform. He clambered up and crouched on the platform as Eliar was helped up on the other side. The mob below hadn’t yet spotted them. Men surged past the guardhouse door, pushing inside only to be cut down by the armed guardsmen. But the mob was growing, howling and barking like animals, or so it seemed to his ears. Workingmen who had, Kesh supposed, filled up with fear and now had to take it out on someone else, they were armed with torches, sticks, tools, and other such humble implements. None seemed to have bows. He licked his lips, tasted smoke. Elsewhere in the market district, compounds were burning.

The top of the twinned gates was broad enough to walk across if you didn’t mind the height. Eliar hauled up a basket and crouched beside it, lifting out a burning lantern. Below, within the mob, a face looked up. Down along the street about ten men came running carrying ladders.

Keshad unsealed the first bottle. This was the dangerous part! He shook the vessel, oil spraying on the men crowded up below. Eliar set fire to a rag and flung it outward, but it fell to the ground and was stamped out. Men threw sticks and debris up at them. The first ladder was pushed up against the gate. Keshad emptied the first vessel on top of the men at the base of the ladder. He unsealed the second and ran out along the top of the gate, flinging oil out as far away as he could. Men cursed at him, wiping away the oil that splashed on their faces. Spreading it. A second flaming rag fluttered down, and a third—

Fire touched oil on skin.

Shrieking, the man staggered, slamming into the men around him, half of whom had been splashed by oil of naya. The conflagration spread. The mob disintegrated as men fled in terror. The stench was horrible, and the screams were worse. But the street was clearing fast.

Keshad ran back to the platform, swung his legs over, and paid out the rope to let himself down to the forecourt. When he touched earth, his legs gave out. He pitched forward as the merchants babbled and cried.

Eliar bent over him. "Keshad? Are you hurt?"

"Neh." His speech was gone. His limbs were weak. He still heard screams.

"That saved us," added Eliar.

"For now."

"Clever of you to think of it. Just like at Olossi."

The door to the guardhouse scraped open and the sergeant stumbled out, blood splashed all over him. Seen past the sergeant, a whitewashed room looked like a slaughterhouse, with tumbled corpses, the hazy smoke of torches, and a guardsman kneeling beside a fallen comrade.

"What do you? What do you?" The sergeant loomed over him, swiping smears of blood from his beard with his left hand while he extended the right. "Good, good."

Hesitantly, Keshad reached out, and the man clasped elbows in the grasp of kinship seen in the market among believers but never extended to foreigners.

SOON AFTER DAWN, a squad of mounted soldiers resplendent in green sashes and helmets trimmed with gold ribbons clattered up to the closed gates. Smoke drifted over the rooftops. The merchants who had sat the rest of the night on watch on the roofs hastily clambered down as the gates were opened.

The sergeant genuflected before the squad’s captain. As the sergeant kept his head bowed, they exchanged a running jabber in their own language. An older merchant murmured a translation.

"There was trouble all across the market district last night. There is to be an inquiry anywhere local men were killed."

"Against the mob, or against us?" Kesh muttered.

Worry creased the sergeant’s face as he surveyed the merchants. The captain snapped a command that made the sergeant wince. With an apologetic grimace he pointed—quite rudely, as outlanders always did, using the fingers—at Keshad.

"Bring him." The captain’s gaze paused on Eliar, with his butter-yellow turban. "You come, also."

Eliar took an obedient step toward the squad, but Keshad held his ground.

"What about our trade goods? What surety do we have they’ll not be stolen while we’re not here to guard them ourselves?"

The captain raised a hand, and soldiers drew their swords. "You come. Or I kill you."

Keshad wiped sweat from his eyes as his throat closed over a pointless protest. He shrugged, pretending calm. Eliar looked as if he’d been struck.

They walked under the market district gate and into the main city, a place no foreign merchant was ever allowed to enter. The empty streets were broad and clean-swept, walled on both sides, with gates opening at intervals into compounds. The hooves of the horses echoed in an eerie silence. Once Kesh saw a face peeping over a wall, dropping out of sight when their gazes met. Their procession wound inward and upward as the sun rose, and just when it was beginning to get really hot they arrived at a vast gate that opened into a grand courtyard lined with pillared colonnades carved of finest white marble.

The captain indicated a benc...

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