The lords of Escalon, the fabulous city hidden beneath the Burnt Lands, were connoisseurs, both of art and people. They sent their agents to the lands of Day, Night, and Indigo collecting the beautiful and the talented, whether they were willing or not. But then they “collect” Alice Standish, and their comfortable life may not survive the mistake.
A novella of the winds of Halflight
THE ROAD sank beneath canyon walls striped in the burnt land’s dusty colors—charcoal, amber, and gold, with a solitary streak of rose winding through it. The road itself was dun-colored and narrow, and the wagon’s wheels rocked on the edge of the drop-off more than once.
Alice walked behind the wagon. The slaver had untied her once they’d come down the escarpment into the Burnt Lands, where here was no place to hide from the unmoving sun. He was confident she wouldn’t run, and she was bitterly aware he was right; she wouldn’t survive away from the wagon’s broad awning and the salvation of its water barrels. Even in the shade, the heat was fierce, sucking moisture from her lungs. Her lips cracked, and dust penetrated every seam and every fold.
The wagon shuddered to a stop, the brakes creaking against the steepness of the road. In the silence that followed, the faint patter of grit driven over the edge of the canyon rim sounded like rain. Curious as to why they’d stopped in such an awkward spot, she inched around the wagon, holding on to its sideboard so she wouldn’t tumble into the ravine. The boulders at the bottom had sharp, unforgiving edges.
The others, slumped on the wagon’s benches, were too exhausted by the heat to look up. Not all of them were prisoners; the ragged man with the flute and the confectioner from Finlochen had joined them willingly. They had agreed to immigrate to fabulous Escalon to escape the long, exhausting civil war raging through the Summerlands, the lush mesas Alice called home. The rest, like her, had been snatched, to be sold to the lords of Escalon.
Escalon. The jewel of the Burnt Lands.
She inched past the camelod. It was too busy pushing back against the weight of the wagon, its haunches bunched in its traces, to take its usual bite at her. Coughing and grumbling, it told the world how abused it was.
The road continued to the bottom of the canyon, where it ended in a shadowed cavern. Alice could just see the outline of a building in it. Higher up the road, the slaver stood over the slumped body of a man. Dressed in the indigo silks of a lowlander, he was a dark splotch against the yellowish hard pan of the road.
A visitor to Escalon, overcome by the heat—and only a thousand feet from his goal. But how had he gotten so far without a wagon, and its shade and water? Had he wandered off? Been abandoned?
From this distance, she could see the shallow rise and fall of his chest, and the way his smoked spectacles were knocked askew. He raised a hand, brushing feebly at his face, and the slaver took it, pulling him to the side of the road to clear a path for the wagon.
With a heave, he prepared to drop him over the edge.
“No,” she shrieked, and darted forward …