One of the things that further isolated the region was the series of shallow rapids and rocky waterfalls that proliferated through the canyons and separated the upper portion of the Alihat River from the lower, effectively blocking through traffic on the waterways between the mountains and the marsh lands of delta below. Agostino had seen as much on a map before, but those unreliable sketches didn't really convey the roar of water as it passed over massive slabs of granite, the white churn of a once placid river that had found its fury. The sheer force of it left him in awe, sent a shiver up his spine to behold it. Tadaaki took the lead on drawing their pack animals down the narrow cliffs, picking the path that would keep them steady and moving. Left only to worry about transporting himself, he enjoyed the cool shadows of the rockfaces, the blue of the sky ahead, the smell of sunbaked earth and wet stone.

Agostino had spent the majority of his life in cities, noisy and pungent with humanity, the lines of buildings huddled close together. Open wilderness still struck him as a novelty, its changing and wondrous nature so different from anything he had known before. He had prepared for a life of scholarship and safety, a world in which he'd not imagined this war or that he'd play such a minor yet dangerous role, an anonymous prisoner captured before things had even begun. He supposed he could congratulate himself on not being dead yet, although that accomplishment only went so far to sooth his disappointment and feelings of helplessness.

"Why is the pass called Lover's Sorrow?" he asked when the terrain had evened out and it was possible to talk again.

"Hmm?" Taadaki gave him a knowing look. "Aye. Your mind wanders there too eh? The name's from the old war, a haunted place I don't think any man goes there willingly."

"Oh?" That didn't sound particularly reassuring. He'd tried over the last 48 hours not to think about Kadri and certainly not to worry about him. The man could take care of his own affairs—although for everyone's sake he rather hoped that included turning back an Abrenian invasion. "Well, now you have me even more curious."

"In that long ago time, the high king's daughter, Lale, had hair as black as a night sky and eyes as gold as stars. She fell in love with Aslan, the son of a blacksmith. He was lowly and common and her great father didn't approve of the match. When he caught them together in the princess's garden under the pomegranate tree he had Aslan sent to the front lines."

"I think I'm beginning to understand the name."

"Yes, but turns more tragic. Lale disguised herself and paid to be smuggled to the pass the day after a great battle. She searched amongst the survivors frantically calling out for her lover, only to finally find him amongst the bodies of dead. They say she went mad." He paused looking out into the distance as if witnessing some private horror.

"Mad? Mad how?"

"She took the blade from his belt and cut out his heart. She devoured it and now his heart beats beside her own."

"Oh gods…"

"She became a Mhachkay, a two hearted demon that prays on the souls of fallen time of year the hills are covered in a red flower that are said to grow where Aslan's blood dripped from her fingers and mouth—showing the path of her endless wanderings."

"That is where they went?" Agostino didn't put a lot of weight in superstitions, but it was still a gruesome association nonetheless. He imagined the sloping mountain sides of the pass speckled in crimson, the armies that gathered there to add yet more red to that earth...

"Yes." The man looked uncharacteristically solemn. "It is a place of blood and sacrifice and I fear it demands tribute from time to time." Agostino didn't have anything to say to that, walking in silence for a long time. He felt the pull of the blood in his own veins, so who was he to deny it? His father's murder would demand a reckoning, or several reckonings more likely, and he was highly doubtful that the entirety of his family would survive it.

The further south they moved, the more the landscape changed, dusky brush and golden grass giving way to lush rolling hills dotted with grazing flocks of sheep. Below was the floodplain of the valley, a virulent green that followed the seasonal expanse and retraction of the Alihat. He saw occasional villages, their reddish brown stone houses nestled on distant hills. These were newer settlements, he was informed, ones established by Kadri's great grandfather when he'd sent engineers to build roads and dig the wells down into the aquifer. The mountain villages lacked such a provenance, their foundationings reaching past the memory of names, some of oldest buildings carved into the out of the rock itself.

At night Agostino laid out his thin sleeping mat close to Tadaaki, spending the evenings sitting around the fire, playing hands of cards and listening to the chatter of the porters. The other prisoners kept to themselves, glowering and whispering—hands bound when they slept. Agostino tried to ignore it, but their hate came off them like a heat, a force aimed at him more than anyone else.

The rain was warm as it came down in heavy drafts from the sky soaking every last one of them. Like piss, Agostino thought as great rivulets ran off his head and into his eyes. They stopped to pull waxed cloth over some of the more precious cargo and trudged on. The camels were about as enthused as the rest of them to travel in the muck, complaining often and loudly.

Tadaaki swore, using every trick in his book to antagonize the beasts forward in the mud. They grunted and snorted in annoyance, moving at a snail's pace. "Ciro, come around this side and help me push this bastard," he called. Augostino released the reins he'd been holding and went, shoving at the inert rump of the camel with gritted teeth, his own boots sinking considerably in the muck.

"Is he stuck?" He asked. "Do we need to dig him out?"

"No, just too stubborn for his own good."

He pushed, putting his shoulder into it. "By the gods, be honest, does this ever actually work?"

Tadaaki gave the animal a swift jab to the flank with the stick he carried and it suddenly lurched forward, bringing the train back into motion. Agostino lost his balance as the sudden unmovable force moved, falling forward into the thick mud with an unpleasant squelch, the sludge clinging to his clothes and finding its way into his mouth. "Yes, sometimes it works," he answered mildly as Agostino sat up, dazed. "Are you alright?'

"Oh I'm just wonderful, thank you." He could hear snickering nearby and he rolled his eyes as he pulled himself to his feet. "Couldn't be better, honestly."

Tadakki let out a chuckle. "You look like Su Ata himself, old man of algae and mud. I beg pardon frog faced river master. What if I promise to sooth your temper with tea and a fresh set of clothes? Will you take pity and spare us?"

"It would certainly be a start," Agostino wiped the water and dirt from his face as best he could.

"Come, there is a good place to take shelter a mile or so down the way. We'll get you sorted out." True to his word they stopped and rested under a rocky under hang, getting enough of a fire going to brew tea, drinking it with a sort of dry pistachio cake soaked in honey. Someone brought him a change of clothes that was only a little damp and he went down to the swollen river to wash the worst of the mess from his body.

Matteo was urinating on a tree, a guard casually shadowing him when Agostino returned. "How many of them did you have to fuck to be allowed to walk around like that?" he spat, expression venomous and he redid the fasten of his pants.

"Just the one, actually," his smile showed a little too much teeth. "How are you all holding up? I'm happy to ask on your behalf if anyone needs anything."

"Not from you we don't," he said, furious. "You're worse than them, a cursed traitor of his own kind."

"The traitor in this is Paoluccio. These people had no conflict with us."

"You'll see," Matteo said. "You'll pay for your disloyalty." And then he had turned his back and they said no more.

What he had heard described as a manor house looked more like a palace to his eyes, a long elegant pavilion of ornate archways made of blushing sandstone and glazed tiles. It overlooked the river, surrounded by gardens that seemed to take advantage of every exotic plant that could be coaxed to grow in this milder climate. Agostino observed it from a distance, filthy and sweating in the morning sun. He took shelter under the palms that lined the road, standing with the camels and a few porters left to mind them.

It was certainly grander than he'd imagined, even considering the relative comfort of Kadri's travel arrangements. It amused him to ponder, the contrast of this pretty, manicured place and the rougher nature of its lord. He wondered at the interior rooms, what the chambers Kadri used looked like, the frescos and grand furnishings the ornate facade seemed to promise. In an altogether different set of circumstances he might have had the chance to itch that curiosity. A tragedy, really, to come all this way and see so little of what promised to be a memorable bit of architecture. Although at this point in their journey, he'd just as easily trade it all to dunk his head in a cold lake and forget the world for a little while.

When Tadaaki returned he pulled Agostino aside, pressing something into his palm, the leather holster smooth against his skin. "Stick this in your boot. Be quick about it."

"Huh?" He frowned as he did what he was told. "You're giving me a knife? What for?"

"I've been speaking with the captain of one of the trade ships. News has reached here from the front."

"What news?" He felt his heartbeat kick up a notch, hope and fear warring in his mind.

"King Yildiz is dead. May the spirits rest his soul." Agostino blinked, trying to weigh the full meaning of those words. High King of Qamar, defacto leader in the defence of the Middle Kingdom, the man whose custody he supposedly was in—now gone. The idea of it was breathtaking.

"And Lover's Sorrow? Has Abrea breached it?" He felt prickly all over, thoughts racing to calculate probabilities and futures he had no way of really knowing, like stepping forward into a land of rolling fog. If the Middle Kingdom was falling he was now headed to the center of that collapse, to the beating heart Paoluccio would move next to crush.

"It held as of some days ago. At this very moment? Who's to say. We'll load ships with what we can today and burn what boats remain. As commanded by our lord."

"Burn?" It made sense he supposed, to shut out any means of rapid transport into Qamar from this inland location, but it also came at a heavy price. "What of those that might need to flee an advancing Abreanian army? The people on the mountain and the villages we've passed?" It felt a bit too much like casual cruelty for his tates.

"We'll make do. This is not the first time the Uthroon have had to contend with unwanted outsiders. Let them meet us on our ancestral lands and see how they like our hospitality."

"We? You're not coming to Qamar?" The thought made his chest ache to a surprising degree. He had come to appreciate their easy companionship more than he realized.

"Aye, I'm needed here far more than that watery place. Look, I've seen the way those Abreanian soldiers look at you. Have caution until you're free of their company."

"I will."

"I hope you find your path little brother. May Amphitrite take you in and guide you."

"Thank you. Now, what can I do to help?"

It became clear that a great deal of the winter manor's household was also departing that day and Agostino found himself swept up in the chaos of not only assisting in unloading the goods from their transport animals, but also contending with the various items that accumulated from the estate itself. Before long foodstuffs and travel trunks littered the docks alongside the bundles of things they had brought.

"Excuse me." He glanced up and was met by a striking young woman with long black hair that hung loose almost to her waist. Her fine silk tunic and jewelry ranked her above most everyone he had interacted with that day and he realized with some discomfort that he didn't really know who all composed Kadri's household. Was he married? Did he have children? It wouldn't be the first time an otherwise committed man had shown an interest in taking Agostino to bed, but in general he preferred to avoid those kinds of affairs. Just another reason to be glad it was over and done with, he reminded himself.

"My lady?" he asked, looking up from the bolts of fabric he'd been unrolling to dry out the last of the rainwater before they were repacked.

"Oh," her eyes, that unnerving golden brown, gave him a scrutinizing look. "Do you speak Uthroo?"

"Yes."

"Ok good. I'm trying to put together the ship manifests, but it's nearly impossible in this ruckus. Honestly, where is Balian when you need him?" She waved her hand, dismissively. "Don't answer that, I'm well aware he faces far greater problems than ours. In any case, there was eight barrels of wine right here the last time I checked and now they're gone and fuck if I know with whom and to where."

He resisted raising an eyebrow at that. There was a difference, he reminded himself, between the flowery language of courtly women and the rough practicality that came with being expected to run a complex family estate's financial prospects. "Mmm." He thought for a moment. "Short fellow with a blue hat. I believe they were loaded into that larger vessel over there with the red sails."

"Ah! An excellent lead, thank you. You came in with the porters this morning?"

"Yes, ma'am."

She gave him one more hard look. "You must be the translator, then."

"I am." He couldn't help wondering what she thought of him, an enemy infiltrator in the midst of their evacuation. He braced for her hate, felt deserving of it under the circumstances.

Seemingly unbothered by this revelation, she looked at her tablet with a satisfied nod. "I put you on that ship as well. So when you're done doing whatever is happening here, if you could join the wine barrels that would be appreciated."

"Sure. No problem."

She caught his hand, turning it palm up and running her thumb along the lines, brow furrowing as if she were trying to decipher a particularly unclear parchment. This close she smelled like bitter herbs and rosemary, like smoke and beeswax. "Yikes," she said under her breath before releasing him. "The big ship with the red sails. Don't forget." She gave a quick nod and then she was gone.

Agostino stood on the deck, watching the flames lick over the remaining boats, smoke barreling up into the evening sky in a way that blotted out portions of the sunset like a black empty mouth. He chewed his bottom lip, thinking. The crew called out to each other in the dimming light, adjusting the sails to catch the breeze, gliding away from the estate with increasing speed. He thought about the faraway mountain awash in red, flowers and the blood of Yildiz. If they had let him he would have gone there too, bore witness to whatever atrocities had taken place, absorbed the shift in fate first hand. As it was, he had only enough information to make vague speculations and not sure ground to stand on.

Suddenly he felt the press of a large palm to his mouth, the other person's arm wrapping around his middle. Shock thrummed through him and he attempted to twist away, to draw the attention of the sailors in the dining light. A blow hit the back of his head and his vision faltered, head swimming as it blacked out around the edges. He felt himself slumping to the deck of the ship.

"No," he gasped, dread kicking up a notch as he watched Matteo wrench open the hatch of the hull, hauling him forward by his shirt and tossing him into the darkness of the ship's belly. Agostino landed painfully, the impact knocking the wind from his lungs.

"Uthroon whore," Matteo spat, dropping easily down beside him with a heavy thud of his boots. The man was larger, with far more training for violence than Agostino had ever received. Oh shit . This was bad, really bad. Whoever was watching the Abrenian soldiers must have been distracted by the fire and not seen one man slip away—who knew when someone would realize they were missing and get curious enough to poke around the ship.

He tried to push himself up, blood thudding in his ears, but collapsed again with a swift kick to his ribs, pain radiating out from the injury. "Ngh," he groaned, trying to flinch away from the assault, to draw breath into his lungs and think.

"Filthy, like a bitch in heat." Matteo pulled him up, shoving him against a pile of cargo boxes. When he struggled he had him by the hair, slamming his head down into a wooden crate with a heavy thud. He saw double, felt the strength go out of his limbs as he tasted the salt copper of blood in his mouth. He laid several more blows to his body, a hardly contained fury that rained down on him. His feet were kicked wider apart as rough hands yanked at the drawstring of his pants, breaking the cord in the process. Matteo wrenched his arm back, painful and sharp as his shoulder was pulled in an unnatural direction. "Is this what you like?" he hissed as the rush of cold air hit his lower half. "Or do you only spread when it's a Uthroon dog that's mounting you?" The rage frightened him, the seething vibration of muscles at his back like a taunt bow. Fingers probed harshly between his asscheeks, pressing uncomfortably, a promise of the agony to come.

Agostino whined, eyes screwed shut, trying to think of something to say, a plea that might spare him from major injury or worse, but it felt hopeless. He had plainly seen this man's desire for suffering and now he intended to see it through. If he was lucky he would let him live when he was done. He could feel him work open his trousers, a press of a bare cock on his leg, already hard and as threatening as a weight of him, the smell of unwashed skin made his stomach roll. All of a sudden there was a thud, something making contact with the body behind him, then the sound of it hitting the floor and shattering.

The man made a sound of pain. "What the fuck?" Matteo snarled, pivoting slightly. "Who in the hell are you?"

"I heard a noise." The voice was female, slow and measured. After a moment's pause she switched to Abreanian, words thick with her Uthroon accent. "What are you doing to him?"

"Nothing you need worry about—unless you're fixing to be next." He spoke harshly, emboldened by adrenaline and a newly released vengeance that was enjoying being let off its leash. "What'd you throw at me?"

"A jug of olive oil. An expensive choice now that I think about it." Her voice was calm, eerily conversational.

Augostino took the distraction to twist from his hold, throwing off Matteo's balance and wrenching free his arms, mind blurry with fear and pain as he slipped to the floor. Matteo grabbed him by the throat, swearing and yanking him up onto his knees like a doll. He reacted without thinking, pulling the weapon from his boot and lashing out at his attacker. To his mute horror, Matteo fell back, stumbling and going down on his ass. He kicked uselessly, hand going to the blade Augostino had sunk to the hilt just below the chin. He'd just wanted the man off of him, not this. Oh gods not this .

The young woman watched him struggle with detached interest. It was the same girl he'd seen that morning, her long dark hair now wrapped in a head covering, her attire the practical sort for travel. "I wouldn't pull that out if I were you," she advised. Her eyes flicked back up to Agostino. "A lucky hit, but your knife work is sloppy."

"I-it was an accident. I-I didn't mean…" He pulled himself to his feet, swaying precariously, the ruins of his pants gathered up around his waist with one hand.

"Yeah, no shit." She sighed as Matteo yanked free the blade, mouth opening and closing, gasping as he clutched at the wound. "I told you not to do that."

"Should I…we should do something?"

She nodded in agreement. "True. I suppose there's no point in drawing this out now." She rolled Matteo to his side with a grunt of effort, kneeling gracefully behind him before grabbing his hair, yanking so that Agostino was treated to the sight of the white column of Matteo's exposed throat, like the underbelly of a fish. The blood flowed lethargically between his fingers now, trousers still bunched around his knees, cock out and laying limply against his thigh, a weapon now diffused and made ridiculous. "Have you ever slaughtered sheep?" Her tone was flat as she pulled a larger serrated blade from her belt. She pressed the knife into flesh, a quick and efficient movement as she drew it across. When she let go the body crumpled, a broken, lifeless thing. "Same principle." She grimaced, wiping off her weapon on Matteo's pants before sliding it into its sheath and standing.

"What the actual fuck?" Agostino whispered, trembling. He'd stopped trying to reconstruct the drawstring of his trousers and simply held them as he stared at her. "Did you just kill him?" A stupid question, considering he knew full well that's exactly what she did. The air was full of the tang of fresh blood and he wondered for a moment if he was going to be sick. "You're insane."

"You should go," she said, already unwrapping the scarf from her hair, whipping her locks into a chaotic mess of curls with her fingers.

"What? I'm not leaving you here." He sounded more panicked than chivalrous.

"What with him?" The girl raised an eyebrow at that. "He won't hurt me." She took the front of her finely woven tunic in both hands and tore it down the front, exposing her breast bone and the hint of one dark nipple. "I'm going to scream. I suggest you not be here."

"Why are you doing this?" She had a feral quality to her now, clothes and hair askew, lithe body half eaten up by the dark shadows of the hull. He thought for a moment of the lovesick maiden Lale, the demon thing she became, leaving bloody blooms in the wake of her pain.

"Because I saw what I saw." She reached forward and gave his shoulder a light squeeze, expression not unkind. "And I'll face no danger for what I did. You should go now, prisoner. It's best if you let me play your proxy in this. He'll have died a rapist dog either way." She handed him a pin she'd used to secure her scarf to her head. "For your pants. You okay to climb out of here?"

"Yes," he lied.

"Good, good. Get gone. It will just get more complicated if they see you here and our path separates for now anyway."

"Path? What path?"

She picked up Taadaki's knife from the floor, placing the sticky mess of it back into his hand with a small smile. "Goodbye, Abreanian translator."

He pulled himself up the ladder as best he could, shoulder screaming from how Matteo had wrenched it. When he reached the deck he stumbled forward, leaning over to vomit over the side of the boat, stomach churning and the taste of bile and blood in his mouth, shaking, tears cooling on his cheeks in a mixture of horror and deep, guilty relief. A moment later and he heard the lady scream, the distress in it so believable he'd not have guessed it anything but genuine.