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Publisher Greenwillow Books
She could only squeeze in if she went sideways. Even then the axle stuck out through the wooden wheel, and she had to hold her breath and drag herself past it, her infuriating black veil snagging on the wall.
But behind the cart there was a space.
Once in, Mirany reached up and caught hold of the boards; putting her foot on the axle, she pulled herself carefully higher and peered over the top.
The cart was piled with oranges. Their smell was mouthwatering, a sharp juicy sweetness that made her hunger worse and her dry lips sore. She hadn't eaten a whole orange for weeks. Maybe she could have sneaked one out, but three of Argelin's guards were sitting in the dust of the square, gambling, and the risk was too great.
Mirany bit the nail of her thumb, then noticed and stopped herself. It was a habit she'd had when she was small; lately it had come back. There was still no sign of Rhetia. Where was she? An hour must have passed since the time they'd arranged to meet, when the afternoon gong had chimed from the City. Now the hottest part of the day held the Port silent. The market had closed and everyone was indoors. Only stray dogs snoozed in the baking streets.
What is she up to? Do you think she's been caught?
She asked out of habit, but there was no answer. Maybe there never would be an answer again.
And where are you, Bright One? she thought angrily. Where are you when I need you!
The piazza was high in the fullers' quarter. Rhetia had chosen it because it had five different exits, and the streets around were a maze of doorways and alleys and steps hung with drying cloth. At this hour it should be deserted.
But it wasn't.
There were more soldiers across by the shuttered wine shop. And as she watched in dismay, an entire phalanx of Argelin's new mercenaries marched in, pale-skinned men who dressed in foreign clothes and spoke some guttural language. Their bronze greaves and corselets and spears glittered in the sunlight.
Something was going on.
Crouched, her bent knees aching, she watched the men halt in the center of the square, below the statue of the Rain Queen.
The officer yelled a curt command; the column fell out, mopped sweat from their faces, brought up mules, unpacked equipment. Echoes rang in the enclosed space. All around them, from the white buildings, the sun's wrath blazed.
Mirany sucked her parched lip. If she could work back under the shadow of that striped awning, she might make the nearest alleyway, and slip away without attracting more than a few glances.
But if they stopped her . . .
And what if Rhetia turned up?
A commotion jerked her head around. A man had come running out of one of the buildings, a small, oldish man. He was shouting in alarm and holding his hands above his head, racing straight at the soldiers.
Instantly the nearest one grabbed a spear and swung; the old man stumbled over it, then fell with a painful thump.
The mercenaries laughed. One made some comment.
The man was pleading with them; he scrambled onto his knees, and Mirany heard his breathless, barely intelligible gasps. "You mustn't do this. Lords, please! This is a terrible thing. This is a desecration."
They probably couldn't understand a word he said. Almost casually, one of them gave him a kick in the chest that took the breath straight out of him; then they turned back to their task.
In sudden horror Mirany realized what they were doing.
Ropes and tackle were being dragged from mules. Efficiently the fair-haired men swung weighted loops; the ropes soared up and around the shoulders of the Rain Queen, her neck, her outstretched arm.
"No!" Mirany breathed.
The statue was vast, higher than the houses. It had been carved from a single piece of sea green stone, a veined agate. Ancient beyond memory, the calm face of the Rain Queen had looked out over the Port for centuries, over the white houses to the endless azure semicircle of the sea. In the thousand pleated creases of her dress crystals glinted, embedded by the sculptor, and the blue lapis lazuli of the collar she wore glimmered with linked scorpions of gold, and scarabs of coral and amber. She held out one hand, and in her fingers a bronze bowl burned in the sun. Once a fountain had cascaded from it, splashing, diamond bright, into a white marble shell at her feet. But during the drought the fountain had been dry, and even now, when the river ran again, it had not been restored. Lizards basked in the hot curve of the shell, among rubbish and a broken pot.
Mirany gripped her hands into fists. Do something! she demanded.
But the god did not answer. He had not answered for two months. And in that time her world had fallen apart.
Suddenly the gambling soldiers were scrambling up, thrusting dice into helmets, grabbing spears. Even before they could get themselves in order, the first rank of the bodyguard rode into the square.
Mirany ducked lower, hissing one of Oblek's worst swear words.
Among the armed men was a litter. She stared at it grimly. Litters were no longer allowed in the Port, except for this one. It had no flimsy curtains, but stiff blinds of papyrus, reinforced, she'd heard, with metal against any sudden knife-thrust. Instead of windows, small slits were dark; eyes moved behind them. And she knew whose.
Since the destruction of the Oracle, Argelin rarely rode out openly. He traveled enclosed, protected by armed riders. He needed to. Every statue of the god and the Rain Queen in the Port was being systematically destroyed by his men, every image confiscated and smashed. . . .
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