PEAK CROSSER (EMPIRE OF THE PEAKS BOOK 1) is an epic fantasy novel, the first in a series. The book is currently being readied for publication for April 2016.
Chapter 2: Homecoming
The morning light overtook the darkness, peaking out above themountain spires. Billowing clouds, which just moments before had been invisible, whitened against the harsh, dark colors of the Infinite Mountains. Some of the clouds reverently hugged the peaks, while others glided above the majestic range. Zornan gripped Silver’s harness and steered her toward the valley. They were almost home. The storm had delayed their arrival a full day, but they were almost home.
His conversation with the Magistrate in Shisnath still bothered him. What made a Magistrate, one of the most powerful men in the Empire, fret like a nervous hatchling? And why would Lascrill, a man he’d known long ago, recommend Zornan for anything?
As Silver banked to their left, Fallindra came into view. With sharp eyes honed by his training as a Peak Crosser, Zornan could see the city in detail: people milling about in the dim light, animals grazing on the pastures outside of the city, and the Peak Crosser Keep on the city’s northeast edge. Mistar, the Peak Crosser keeper, was already out in the yard, ready as always.
Mistar’s young apprentice and cousin Giltar ran up just as Zornan and Silver circled in to land. Giltar was his uncle’s opposite as vivacious as his master was stoic.
Zornan pushed Silver to circle one more time. The mrakaro’s giant wings flapped as she slowed them and prepared to land several feet from the master keeper and his apprentice. Silver gently landed on the dew-wet grass, planting her feet. She tucked her wings close to her body, and nodded to the keepers to let them know it was safe to approach.
Zornan unhooked his legs from the leather harness and slid off the bird, landing deftly on the ground.
Giltar nodded to him, but stopped halfway through the nod and squinted his blood-shot eyes in pain, a remnant of a long night. After shaking off the discomfort, the apprentice approached Silver and began dismantling the harness.
Mistar walked toward Zornan, his peg leg sinking into the dew-covered ground with every other step. He greeted Zornan with a hand on his shoulder. “Welcome landing, Crosser.”
“Welcome greeting,” Zornan responded.
“How long will Silver be with us?”
“Two weeks.” Zornan stretched his legs and arms, shaking out the stiffness.
Mistar’s lips curved upward, his subtle version of a smile; he loved Silver almost as much as Zornan did. “Very good, Crosser. As always, Silver will be treated like she was my own.”
Zornan returned the smile and walked away from the keep and into the city.
It was early morning and the streets were slowly coming to life. A local shopkeeper—Zornan could not remember his name—nodded deferentially, properly accounting for his lower station as low trade.
Down on the ground for less than ten minutes, and Zornan already ached for the sky, for the clear views where he could make out the terrain, feel the currents of the wind, and chart the best path. On the ground everything was too close, and everything was on top of you before you could properly see it. And navigating people was worse than navigating the Infinite Mountains.
He walked through the city, returning nods to a few residents. Their returned greetings were stiff, formal, not like what they shared together. He was High Trade after all, and an outsider. His marriage to Calla made him part of the town, but it did not make him one of them.
As he passed the Water’s Edge, one of the city’s common houses, he noticed two strangers standing just outside. Fallindra was small enough that any stranger stood out, but these two were more conspicuous than a yellow-feathered mrakaro.
The first man’s dark skin marked him as someone from the Empire’s eastern or northern regions, standing out among the pale skin of the central Empire. He was tall, several inches taller than Zornan, and Zornan was considered tall by Fallindran standards. But what made him stand out most was his dress. The stranger wore a blue vest marking him as an Investigator. His pants were dark and loose-fitting. His shirt was white silk, not the rough fabric Zornan wore. Intricate, black patterns decorated the vest. A sudden chill shot up Zornan’s back. That pattern marked the man as an Investigator of the High Trades, someone who only investigated the sins of other High Tradesmen. Since there were only two High Tradesmen in the valley, it was possible the rat—as other High Tradesmen commonly called them—was here to see him.
Standing next to the Investigator was a large man in the maroon clothing of an Enforcer. They both stood casually, as if they belonged at the entrance of the Water’s Edge. But they didn’t belong there anymore than a wolf did among sheep.
As if the stranger was called by Zornan’s thoughts, the Investigator broke from his conversation with the Enforcer and made his way straight to Zornan.
“Greeting, Peak Crosser,” the Investigator said, his voice pleasant and his smile bright.
“Welcome greeting, Investigator.”
“I don’t mean to bother you so soon after landing, as I’m sure you’d like to return home to rest. But I do need to speak with you. Could you spare a few moments?”
He’d asked nicely, but Zornan had little choice. You did not deny the request of an Investigator of the High Trades. “Yes, of course, Investigator.”
Zornan followed the man into the Water’s Edge, the hulking Enforcer following closely behind. The common room was empty this early in the morning except for two women washing the floor. The Investigator dismissed the women, and he and Zornan sat alone at a table. The Enforcer stood off to the side, his eyes on Zornan, his arms resting across his massive chest.
“My name is Crisdan, Investigator of the High Trades,” the stranger said. “I assume you know why I’m here?”
“I don’t have any idea.”
The Investigator smiled. Zornan didn’t think Investigators were allowed to smile, and this man smiled like an undertaker after a plague. “I’m sure you’ve heard the rumors about Lascrill.”
“Only recently. A few other Crossers mentioned something about it in Shisnath. I don’t pay much mind to idle gossip, but they said he was a traitor.” Zornan left out the fact that the strange Magistrate had actually told him about Lascrill’s troubles. That seemed like the sort of thing you didn’t tell an Investigator.
“In this case, it was more than idle gossip.” Crisdan leaned forward onto the table. “Lascrill has been accused of treason against the Empire and conspiring to kill the Emperor himself.”
Zornan’s eyes widened. Treason? Assassination? It seemed so strange when played against the man Zornan had known.
“I am investigating Lascrill,” Crisdan continued, “and as part of that, I’m reaching out to some of his former pupils.”
Zornan nodded. “But Lascrill trained almost every Peak Crosser in the Empire. Are you talking with all of us?”
Crisdan shook his head. “No, just those he mentioned in his writings and notes. Though he escaped, we obtained years of correspondence between him and his co-conspirators.”
“I was mentioned?” Zornan shook his head. “I hardly know the man. I’ve only spoken to him once since I left the Academy.”
Crisdan smiled again. “Regardless, you are mentioned prominently and frequently. Any idea why Lascrill would single you out?”
“None.” Zornan could feel tension rising between them as Crisdan turned from pleasant conversationist to interrogator. And this conversation veered to closely toward the one he’d had with the Magistrate.
“When was your last meeting?”
“Four or five years ago, when we happened upon each other in Bastanda. I was there delivering a message from my employers. We shared a drink and swapped stories of my Academy days.”
“Nothing since then?” The mirth was gone from the Investigator’s face. His look intensified, as if he peered into Zornan’s soul.
“None at all. Honestly, I wouldn’t even know of these charges if I hadn’t overheard the Crossers is Shisnath. I don’t talk to many others, and I keep in touch with no one in my High Trade.”
The pleasantness returned to Crisdan’s face. “Of course. I apologize for the intrusion. Just tying up all loose ends.” Crisdan stood. “Please, be on your way.”
Zornan stood as well. “Sad parting, Investigator.”
“Sad parting, Peak Crosser.”
Zornan quickly walked from the Water’s Edge and into the street. There was nothing sad about this parting.
Crisdan slid back into his chair, placing his hands on his chin. He continued to read Zornan’s emotions as the man left the Water’s Edge and headed for home. All of the Peak Crosser’s emotions were easily explained: worry, frustration and deep concern for his family. The man would have been easy to read even without Crisdan’s Investigator abilities.
“He’s as guilty as can be.” Stargarn Enforcer sat opposite Crisdan, his enormous frame barely fitting the chair.
“Why do you say that?” For an Enforcer, Stargarn was intelligent, but that was like saying he was the biggest guppy in the tide pool.
“He was nervous. And he lied.”
“Everyone’s nervous when they talk with me, Stargarn. That’s hardly evidence.”
“Alright, what about the fact that no one in town really knows him beside his wife’s parents? Why would he be so private if he had nothing to hide?”
Crisdan had trouble remembering before he had his abilities, before he could read emotions like they were scents floating in the air before him. Were all humans as thick as Stargarn when it came to understanding the emotions of others? How could you live like that, guessing all the time?
Crisdan shook his head. “Maybe he’s just a private person. That’s also evidence of nothing.”
Stargarn huffed, and looked away. He was an Enforcer who loved to play Investigator. Crisdan did not need to worry about job security.
“Fine,” the Enforcer said, “but he’s mentioned all over Lascrill’s communications. Isn’t that evidence?”
This was Stargarn’s first valid point. Zornan’s name appeared in Lascrill’s private notes, and in letters written to Lascrill. The foolish traitor had kept all of his correspondence, a treasure of knowledge about the rebel Kuthraz. Much of it was in code, but much was plain. Lascrill and his confederates had at least not called each other by name, but it was clear that the other two leaders were High Tradesmen as well. That narrowed the search somewhat.
One passage in a letter to Lascrill stood out: I hope you are right about Zornan. I need someone honest, someone who can take what I most value to safety. Please confirm that Zornan is that man; we cannot delay.
Unless Zornan’s name was used as code, Lascrill had enormous respect and trust in Zornan. But it was possible they were taking this too literally, that the use of Zornan’s name was no more than a false trail laid by conniving rebels.
“Zornan is not a rebel, not yet,” Crisdan responded finally. “He’s not lying about his relationship with Lascrill. Though he lied about one thing…”
Stargarn leaned forward, eagerness filling the space between them. “What?”
Crisdan scrunched his face. “It was a strange thing to lie about. He lied about who told him about Lascrill.”
“Maybe it was someone from the Kuthraz,” Stargarn said, his face triumphant, his pride flowing.
Crisdan shook his head. “No, he wasn’t really aware of the rebels. I’m not sure that’s it.” It was curious though.
“Is it possible he fooled you?”
It was Crisdan’s turn to huff. It was possible, but few in the Empire learned to deflect their emotions from an Investigator. Crisdan felt the disbelief and frustration leaking from Stargarn, confirming that his abilities were sharp.
“So we leave then?” Stargarn asked.
Crisdan shook his head again. “No, there’s something here. Though unlikely, it’s possible Zornan fooled me. And the Peak Crosser keeper and his apprentice both lied, and…” Crisdan didn’t know how to say it without confirming Stargarn’s fears, but the apprentice had been hard to read. Whenever Crisdan asked about Zornan, the young man had gone blank. Not someone hiding emotion, but a blank slate like he’d observed among aged people who’d lost their minds. But when Crisdan asked about another topic, the apprentice snapped back into normality.
“No,” Crisdan continued. “We’ll stay in Fallindra a little longer. Zornan is the best lead we have. No harm can come from being thorough.”
Stargarn nodded, his satisfaction and pride filling Crisdan’s senses. An Enforcer who thought he was an Investigator, like a man who wished to be a fish. Crisdan knew he was right about Zornan, and he certainly wasn’t going to put his trust in the intelligence or intuition of a man who’d been blessed with increased strength and endurance throughout most of his body, except for the lump sitting atop his large shoulders.
Calla stood in the kitchen, sprinkling powdered sugar on a hot breakfast cake, Zornan’s favorite. Unlike her mother Caladria, who knew her farmer husband would be arriving at dusk, or a shopkeeper’s wife who knew the approximate hour the shop would be closed, Calla never had more than a few minutes to prepare. She had started the cake early that morning with hope that Zornan would arrive today. It was the third straight morning she’d made a cake.
Calla had a secret arrangement with Giltar to have a stable boy run across town and give her the news as soon as they had sight of her husband and his giant bird. Zornan was taking a little longer than usual today. If it had been any other man in Fallindra, she’d thought he stopped to talk about the weather, or whatever men talked about. But Zornan never stopped to chat. Whatever had delayed him had given her time to finish the cake, and the girls time to decorate. Windsa and Caldry were running around the house’s main floor, carefully placing flowers and ribbons throughout. They treated each return of their father like a festival day. So did Calla. She thanked the moons each time for his safe return.
As she sprinkled the last of the powdered sugar, she heard the front door open and Windsa shriek. “Dadda! You’re home, you’re home!”
“Hello, little buttercup.” Zornan’s quiet, deep voice still thrilled her.
“Dadda, Dadda, Dadda!” If possible, little Caldry shrieked louder than her older sister. Calla came around the corner to see her husband with both of his little girls in his strong arms. Joy lit their little faces, and Zornan’s expression matched theirs.
Zornan’s tight-fighting brown uniform was covered in dust and sweat, but the girls did not care that their father smelled as bad as his mrakaro. After a few moments, Zornan’s eyes met hers, and he smiled softly. His smile was beautiful. His hair was short, the same dusty brown it had been since the day they met. His eyes were a gray blue, and his wind-worn face was like leather pulled over stone. He was beautiful.
“Dadda,” Windsa said as her father put her down, “you’re always too fast. We weren’t done getting ready.”
“No ready,” Caldry added, her voice as sad as she could make it.
“Yes, what are we going to do.” Calla smiled brightly. “You always ruin everything.”
Zornan moved toward her, and she met him halfway across the room. The embrace sent a jolt through her as their bodies pressed together. He kissed her lightly on the ear, the closet thing to his lips. They parted slightly, enough to bring their faces together.
“It is so good to see you, Calla.”
His eyes held worry. “The Investigator?” Calla guessed at the cause of his mood.
He nodded. “But let’s not ruin the festival.” He turned to the girls. “Show me what you’ve done.”
They spent the morning eating and laughing. Zornan chased the girls around the house even though he was exhausted and craved rest. After a few hours, the girls went outside to play near the garden, and Zornan and Calla were left alone in the kitchen cleaning up.
“You should go rest, love,” she said.
“I doubt rest would come.” He stopped what he was doing and stared out the window at the girls.
“What did the Investigator want?”
“Something I don’t have.”
Communicating with Zornan could be frustrating. He was not a verbal man, and many in town thought him unfeeling. But he felt deeply, deeper than most, and hid those emotions below the surface. She’d learned the cues most would miss written in his actions and on his face. He was worried for Calla and the girls, even if she didn’t understand why.
“What is it?”
“They think me part of a rebellion. My old teacher Lascrill is accused of treason, and I think they’re looking carefully at Peak Crossers whom he may have recruited to whatever deeds he was planning. He mentioned my name in many of his correspondences.”
“Lascrill? You’ve hardly ever mentioned the man.”
Zornan turned and smiled. “I hardly ever mention anyone.”
She laughed as she cuddled into his chest. “True.”
“I wasn’t close to him. He was a boisterous, clever-spoken fellow, and he used to mock me for being silent. I endured because he was an excellent teacher, the best at the academy.” Those words were high praise from Zornan as he rarely extolled anyone.
“And they think you’ve been recruited?”
“Maybe. How long has he been in town?”
She pulled away. “Several days. He talked with mother and father, and he’s been asking about you all over town.”
“Did he come here to the house?” Zornan’s eyes filled with angst.
“No. I think it would be improper to question the wife of a High Tradesman when he’s not there.”
“I don’t know High Trade law very well, but you might be right.” Zornan stared out the window at the girls.
“I am right. I went to the library, and Doothban helped me look it up.”
“You are amazing, Calla.” He kissed her, and the thrill from their earlier embrace raced again. He led her by the hand away from the kitchen.