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Xenolith, Page 59

A. Sparrow

  Chapter 50: The Second Bridge

  Canu kicked the same pebble repeatedly down the road, dashing forth to retrieve it when it bounced astray under a trailer. He hummed snatches of an Urep’o song that had somehow snagged in his brain. His wrist throbbed, but he was glad to be free of binds and out in the open air.

  Ara walked stiffly behind him, looking straight ahead. Her eyes refracted discomfort, as if his buoyancy annoyed her. She clenched and unclenched her jaw, poised to speak, unable to summon the will or words.

  Canu felt lucky to have emerged from the culvert with his life. He had seen the wicked hook of Baas’ blade; an assassin’s tool designed specifically to rip windpipes. He could hear Baas and Dieno trailing them now through the scrub along the riverbank, equipped with blades and bolts enough to kill him a dozen different ways if he didn’t execute his end of the deal. The dispassionate glaze on Baas’ face still haunted his retinas.

  The cadre’s reaction to his return confused him. Had they really expected him and his comrades to have stood idly by when Crasacs appeared in Ur unannounced? Canu had held no desire to interfere with their machinations until he saw Pana tangling with the Cuerti. How could he have then not intervened? How could they interpret Canu’s act of fellowship as a deed worthy of execution? Would they not have done the same for their mates?

  The access road emerged around the side of the market and curved around the rim of a lot, joining a wider road that led downstream. A concrete walkway ran between it and the river, adorned with weed-ridden plantings and knife-scarred benches serving less as décor than as evidence of life’s decay.

  They approached an intersection with the road that would carry them over the second bridge. On the other side, the road ran beneath the elevated highway and up a steep hill. From the shape of the land, Canu presumed that it would eventually meet the road that ran past the stream where Seor had abandoned the xenolith fragment.

  He didn’t enjoy thinking about the fate of his friends. Ara had evaded his inquiries. The quaver in her voice alarmed him, in light of his recent experience with Baas.

  Though the sky remained bright, shadows seeped into the riverbed as if drawn by gravity. Canu caught a glimpse of Baas and Dieno scrambling crab-like along a concrete buttress. He stopped and waited at the end of the bridge for Ara, who trailed a few paces behind. She caught up and, surprising him, took his hand. Her cold fingers meshed. He turned to find sad eyes, lines rippling her forehead.

  “You can’t take them to the stone, Canu,” she said, hushed but breathless. “Lead them away from it, then when see a chance to slip off, take it. Do you understand?”

  “But I thought we had a deal,” said Canu, continuing over the bridge. “I show you the stone. I go free. No?”

  “He’ll kill you, Canu. The moment he knows he can get the stone.”

  Canu sighed. Mid-bridge, he looked down over the ripples that collected what little brightness remained in the sky. He saw the culvert jutting out of the bank and the dark smear of algae spreading along the rocks below it, knowing that it could have easily been his own blood staining those rocks.

  “Baren gave me his word,” Canu said, softly. “He’s a cadre commander.”

  “You might have noticed that Baren is not with us,” said Ara. “Baas will slash your throat. And he’ll do it without blinking.”

  “Why would they bother with me?” said Canu. “I’m just a simple … soldier. Just a scout, really. No threat to anyone.”

  She went to the railing of the bridge and leaned over. Canu followed. A pair of spidery shapes clung to the bridge’s central abutment, edging along a narrow ledge.

  Ara stood rigid and alert, surveying the road. A light dangling over the end of the bridge turned from green to yellow to red. “Come,” she said, bustling down the sidewalk to the end of the bridge. A short queue of vehicles waited under the red light as cross-traffic passed freely before them. Ara peered through the windows of every stopped vehicle studying their drivers. One young man in a boxy, flat-backed vehicle reciprocated, his eyes absent-mindedly scanning her figure. When he noticed Ara staring back, his face abruptly stiffened and his head swiveled forward.

  “That one! The one with the boy,” said Ara. She grabbed Canu’s hand and charged out into the road.