Chapter Four

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Outsmarted. Rinnet spit bile and anger somewhere below her. She couldn't see through the fabric tightened around her eyes. Her head knocked in rhythm against a set of shoulder blades, and her fingers were going numb from ropes tying her arms around someone's waist. Around her, a steady rumble of hoofbeats made a blanket over the slighter sound of humans — a cough here and there, some sniffling close by. It came to her that she was on the back of a horse, leaning on the person in front of her, in a group.

Well, this was one way to get to the Tevarian raiders. Not ideal. Rinnet bristled at the fact she had been outsmarted twice in one day, though it wasn't her fault. If the Guard hadn't been so inefficient in their recruiting and hadn't fled in the midst of everything, the Tevarians wouldn't have been free to roam the town. And if Kozua hadn't gotten himself killed ... all he had to do was stay with her. He couldn't even do that. What was the point of going to the Coretian woman in the square? She was dead, or dying. Of all the baffling things Kozua did, that had to be one of the most infuriating. Combined with his refusal to fight, he'd practically stomped on his chances of survival, and taken out a vital piece of Rinnet's plan.

Rinnet knew other people were foolish, far less competent than herself. The events of the day had proven it. Kozua was a mistake, but she would learn from it. There was no point in ruminating on that loss any longer.

Moreover, she was losing faith and interest in the Guard itself. That was the bigger problem, because it was the basis of her journey and the reason she'd wanted Kozua around in the first place. She considered the possibility that the entire Guard might not be as pathetic as what she'd witnessed in Goldsriff, but Grimond's status disturbed her. He oversaw both recruiting and training, and what a leader he'd shown himself to be. If she couldn't trust him, why trust the Guard?

It was that simple. She couldn't. Unless something changed, it would be foolish to join them. Their most impressive feat, the conquest of Hatawa, meant little to her after seeing how easily Kozua accepted death. The Hatawans must have handed themselves over without a fight.

Rinnet's thoughts were interrupted by the sniffles to her right, which were growing louder. Whoever it was tried to speak, but their words were broken up by hiccups and strangled breaths. She thought she was free of the crying once Goldsriff was behind her, but the riders must have brought a few snivelers along for the ride. Maybe they did it as a special kind of torture.

She stayed quiet. The crying turned into begging. "Please," the voice said over and over. It had a familiar crack, just before the s. Flensing. "I didn't want to join the Guard. I won't fight if you let me go."

The Tevarians didn't respond. Flensing's pleas again rose in volume. "I won't tell them anything, I swear. Just let me off anywhere, I won't even go back to Goldsriff if you let me go—"

"You won't go back to Goldsriff if we don't let you go at all," a bored voice, Flensing's rider, said. "Either you stay quiet and make it to the capital or we kill you."

"No, no, please, don't kill me."

"If they don't kill you, Flensing, I will," Rinnet muttered.

This prompted a swift elbow to the ribs from the rider in front of her. "Quiet back there," he growled. "You'll be next if you try anything."

Fighting to control an outburst, Rinnet settled back as far as her tied wrists would allow and focused on her senses. The air was thicker than in King's Helm or Goldsriff, and it made her skin feel sweaty. The rider to her right had said they were heading for the capital, and she figured he wasn't talking about Villotta.

The scents around Rinnet overwhelmed her; more than the usual dust and sage, there were too many unfamiliar smells to identify. Sounds included the riders themselves and the trickling of a stream, nothing too strange. Sometimes the raking cackle of a brush bird. If they were in Tevar, it was possible they hadn't gone much past the border yet. She might still have a chance of getting back to Coreti.

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