The Empire Unbalanced

Here is the third in the Belandria Tarot. It is five years after the events of The Regent’s Reign.

Marriette’s efforts to bring reform to the relationship between noble and commoner is at an impass. Not everyone is willing to wait. Civil war looms as a possibilty. 

In the Empire, Rodrigo is on the run with a huge price on his head and posters with his face all over the place. A woman who told him if he left with no word she’d hunt him down has found him. His quiet life as a spy is over, but he has no idea what awaits him.

Chapter 1

The End Of A Road

Rodrigo stumbled over a root and crashed into a tree. Blinding pain slashed through his body and he fell to the ground. The upside was the bolt meant to pierce his heart thunked into the trunk over his head. When no second shot came immediately, he groaned and scrambled for cover on the far side of the tree. Living through a pilgrimage with King Harald had taught Rodrigo to deal with pain. But running through a forest with a knife wound in his gut was pushing things.

He should have known better than to go into that town, even more to stay out of the tavern. Thanks to the Emperor’s thousand gold piece bounty on his head, and unfortunately accurate drawings of his face, Rodrigo was ridiculously well known. One or two men would have been easy enough to lose, but half the village was out for his blood. Even then he might have been all right if he could have brought himself to kill the hunters. He knew too well the consequence of a parent not returning home. But none of this would help his escape. Must be getting delirious from blood loss.

Gritting his teeth, Rodrigo tightened his sash over the wound. The long cut across his belly was the price of underestimating a farmer’s skill with a knife. The man would live, Rodrigo probably wouldn’t.

No sound came from where the crossbow wielder should have been resetting his weapon. Maybe the cooperation between the hunters was breaking down. That bounty would make one of them wealthy beyond their wildest dreams; or make the whole village somewhat better off. Human nature being what it was, he’d guess at least some of the men contemplated taking the whole reward for themselves.

Time to get moving again. He crouched as low as the wound let him and crept away, keeping the tree between him and where the bolt had come from. Losing this one didn’t mean he was free. As long as he bled all over the forest, his trail would be easy to follow. What he needed was time to sew himself up.

Shouts echoed through the woods, didn’t sound like that was going to happen.

“Face it, your arrogance has finally got you killed.” Rodrigo muttered, then cursed himself, the blood loss must be getting to his head. No bolt struck his back, so he continued moving as fast as possible while staying silent. Crazy as it seemed, maybe the crossbowman only had the one bolt. It wasn’t the wealthiest of villages, after all. He almost snorted. Depending on luck and his enemy’s lack got him into this mess.

The faint moonlight barely trickled through the trees. If it hadn’t been winter, he would have been in absolute darkness. These men knew the forest better than he did, so darkness might not have been the advantage it usually was.

The ground fell away under his leading foot, so Rodrigo stepped back then lowered himself to lie with his head just over the edge of the drop off. The faintest trickle of water suggested the ravine wasn’t more than eight feet deep. No rustling betrayed someone coming through the thick brush. He dropped a stick over the edge. Not too steep.

Waiting for a better chance would just get him caught. Rodrigo rolled over the edge of the bank, clenching his teeth and holding onto a tree to control his fall. It still sounded like a log falling from a cliff to his ears. He crawled on all fours along the bank, away from the noise he’d made.

The shouts echoed from further away, sounding more excited than they had for the past hour. What on earth were they doing? It might be good news for him, but Rodrigo despised incompetence. He crawled toward the water, finding it by putting one hand into the tiny stream.

A bit more light would make the next step much easier, but even with his mind fuzzy from the bleeding, Rodrigo wasn’t about to light a fire. After rinsing both hands in the icy water, he felt through his pouch. Flint, tinder bag, small knife, another bag. He took that one out along with a square of cloth. He used the cloth to wipe the wound, then pushed powder from the bag into the cut.

The world tilted dangerously, and he concentrated on breathing and staying focused. Losing to the pain now would be deadly. Next he went back to his pouch, finding the coil of silk thread and the paper with the needle, already threaded. Once in a while he thought ahead.

Tying a knot in the end of the silk, he steeled himself, then stuck the needle through the top edge of the slash, then the lower. Carefully feeling his way along, Rodrigo sewed himself up. Another scar, another part of his story.

His first ran across his ribs from trying to avenge the murder of his father. He’d traded blows with the assassin, leaving the man for dead as he staggered home to his sister’s lecture on his stupidity.

He’d made it halfway along the length of the wound and allowed himself a break. Icy water, sipped from his cupped hand, eased the rasp in his throat from his run through the forest. Regretfully he didn’t drink more, the cold would sap his already low energy too much.

Even as children Laendra had scared him. His sister’s uncanny way of knowing what he was thinking, how she dropped hints about seeing the future. Their mother trained both of them in the runes and their use. Laendra soaked it up and demanded more. Rodrigo tried everything he could to escape. All these years later, nothing had changed. She still sought more while he ran away.

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ISBN: 978-1-989092-13-2I