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by Deborah J. Ross
“A beautifully constructed fantasy…” — Rickey Mallory, Affair de Coeur
Chapter 1: Kardith of the Rangers
Scaling the final hill was like climbing into a sea of ice. Up and up we went, one shivering, dogged step after another, woman and mare. My fingers had gone numb, laced in her mane, and I could no longer tell if she pulled me along or the other way round. I envied her, with no thought but to keep going.
As we neared the crest, I squinted up at the sky, as white and airless as if some vengeful god had sucked it dry. I reminded myself there were no gods here in Laurea, vengeful or otherwise.
The mare plodded on, head lowered, one ear cocked toward me and the other flopping, snapping at a sucker-fly without breaking stride. Her neck and shoulders were so wet they looked black, the dapples hidden under flecks of foam. Suddenly her head shot up, ears pricked. She snorted and lunged forward, nearly yanking my arm off.
The next moment, I stood on the crest of the hill, sweating and shivering at the same time. As far as I could see stretched green and yellow patches of wheat, barley and hybrid oats, all outlined by orange bug-weed. A farmhouse flanked a silo, pond, and vegetable plot. The mare nickered, scenting the ripe grain.
On the horizon, a line of trees marked the river. Serenity, it was called, typical dumbshit Laurean name. The trees looked blue from up here and I could almost see the smaller tributary snaking in from the northwest. Where it dumped into the Serenity, colder than winter snot, the trees bunched as if they’d scrambled up on each other. Buildings hid among them, glass and rock as pale as weathered bone.
Laureal City. Back on Kratera Ridge, I thought I’d never see it again. Now I remembered the streets, so smooth and flat, the rows of trees in flower and fruit at the same time. The courtyards with their fountains and gardens, set between angular geodesics or inside tall, square houses where a dozen families might live together.
I remembered standing in the Starhall with the other Ranger candidates. Pateros hearing my oath, just as Guardians have heard Ranger oaths for hundreds of years. The light in his green-gold eyes and the grainy softness of his voice as he talked about beginnings and moving beyond the past. But it didn’t sound like the usual Laureal wishcrap. It seemed to me the demon god of chance had finally turned my way and smiled.
I remembered too much.