Book: Dagger in the Mind
"My lady-" Stilcho said, ever so quietly. The dead Stepson hesitated in the doorway of the back room of the riverhouse. Hesitated longer. Ischade sat in the chair before the fire with her hands clasped between her black-robed knees and gazed there, the fire leaping and casting light on her face, on the bright scatter of cloaks and trinkets that made the house like some garish carnival.
And Ischade, a darkness in it, fire-limned. The wind rushed in the chimney. The fire roared up with a dizzy sibilance. The candles burned brighter so that Stilcho flinched back. Flinched and flinched again in the other direction, for he encountered a body behind him and a hard hand on his shoulder.
He turned and looked by mistake straight into Haught's dark Nisi eyes. A muscle jumped in his jaw. His throat grew paralyzed. Haught's grip burned him, numbed him; and there was no sound in all the world but the roar of the fire and no sight in the world but Haught laying a cautionary finger to his lips and drawing him away, quietly.
Back and back into the tangle of silks and drapes and shadow that was that over small room he shared with Haught.
And in this privacy Haught seized his shoulders and put his back to the wall, in the slithery touch of the silken hangings. Haught's eyes held his like a serpent's.
"Let me go," Stilcho said. The voice came through jaws that tried to freeze, that tried to turn to the cold unburied meat and bone that they were without Her influence. No pain, no agony. Just a dreadful cold as if something very solid had come between him and his life-source. "L-let me g-g-go. She s-said-" You weren't to touch me with magic-that was the part that stuck behind his teeth. There were just the eyes.
"Hear it?" Haught asked. "Feel it, dead man? She's worried. She's unweaving her magics. Souls are winging back to hell tonight. Do you feel yours slipping?"
"Get your ha-hands from me."
Haught's hands slid up his shoulders and held there. "She's forgotten you tonight. I haven't. I'm holding you, Stilcho. /. And I can peel you like an onion. Or save your wretched soul. Do you feel it now?"
Haught's grip tightened, that of his hands and that on his soul. The paralysis grew, and Haught's voice sank deeper and deeper, so that it was not sound at all, only the dazzle of winter cold, was snowflakes falling on dark wind.
The Queen of Death is dethroned. Power is free tonight. Fragments of it drift on the winds, sift through the air, fall on the earth.
It slays the dead.
It casts down the powerful.
Stilcho shivered, his living eye widened and the dead one saw abysses.
He tottered on the edge, reached up hands cold as clay and held to Haught as to his last and only hope.
There is something that shines and I see it, dead man.
It beckons the powerful with an irresistible lust.
And she dares not.
The dust shines and shimmers and falls everywhere and she dares not gather that power up. She seals up the ways. She burns it with fire.
Nisi power. She loathes it and desires it.
I am Nisi, dead man. And I will have that thing. She sits blind and deaf to me what we say she cannot know. That is my power. And it needs one thing.
Things will change, Stilcho. Consider your allegiances. Consider how you fare when she forgets you.
He had a very clear picture then what Haught wanted. He held the image of a shining globe that spun and shimmered. Lust was part of it, in the same way that light was. It was raw power. It was dangerous, dangerous as some spinning blade, as some terrible juggernaut let loose. That shining, spinning thing was a humming regularity that beat like a pulse, that held all the gates of hell and creation in harmony with itself, all beating away with the same thump-thump of a living heart, that was the tiniest imperfection in this spinning. If it were perfect there would be nothing.
The universe exists on a flaw in nothing at all.
A little wobble in the works.
He caught at his chest, feeling an unaccustomed hammering. He felt it as threatening at first, and then he realized that it was a thin, occasional beat in a perfect stillness. It was his own heart giving a little thump of life. And he felt it because for a moment it had been utterly silent.
"You know," Haught said, "you understand it now, what I want." Haught's fine hand touched his face, and a little chill numbed him. "Now forget it, dead man. Just forget it now. Until I need you.... I want to talk to you, Stilcho, Just a moment. Privately."
Stilcho blinked. It was the living eye he saw from now. It was his enemy Haught, a Haught looking uncommonly void of malice, a Haught holding him gently by the shoulder.
"I've wronged you," Haught said. "I know that. You have to understand, Stilcho we were both victims. I was yours; you were their pawn. Now I have a certain power and it's you who are the slave. A sweet difference for me; and a bitter one for you. But-" The hand moved softly and warmth spread from it, like life through clay, so poignant a pain that Stilcho's vision came and went. "It need not be bitter. You so scarcely died, Stilcho. Earth never went over you; fire never touched you. Just a little slip away from the body, a little slip and she caught you in her hands before you could get much beyond the merest threshold of hell, drew you back to your body in the next breath; and this flesh of yours-this is solid, it bleeds if cut however sluggishly; it suffers pain of flesh. And pain of pride; and pain of fear-"
"And when mistress wants you, it does infallibly what a man's body ought-tell me: does it feel anything?"
Stilcho gave a wrench of his arm. It was no good. The paralysis closed about his throat and stopped the shout; Haught's eyes caught his and held and the arm fell leaden at his side.
"I have the threads that hold you to life," Haught said. "And I will tell you a secret: she has never done as much for you as should be done. She can't, now. But she could have. The power that could have done it is blowing on the wind tonight, is falling like dust, wasted. Do you think that she would have thought twice of you? Do you think that she would have said to herself-Stilcho could benefit by this, Stilcho could have his life back? No. She never thought of you."
Liar, Stilcho thought, fighting the silken voice; but it was hard to doubt the hand that held the threads of his existence. Liar-not that he believed Ischade had ever thought of him; that he did not expect; but he doubted that there had ever been such a chance as Haught claimed.
"But there was," said Haught softly, and something fluttered and rippled through the curtains of his mind. "There was such a chance and there still is one. Tell me, Stilcho-ex-slave speaks to slave now-do you enjoy this condition? You'll trek to hell and back to preserve that little thread of life of yours; you'll whimper and you'll go like a beaten dog because even death won't make you safe from her, and your life won't last a moment if she forgets you the way she's forgetting those others. But what if there were another source of life? What if there were someone to hold you up if she neglected you-do you see the freedom that would give you? For the first time since you died, poor slave, you can choose from moment to moment. You can say-this moment I'm hers; or: for these few I'm his. And if anything should happen to me-that choice will be gone again. Do you understand?"
There was warmth all through him. Warmth and the natural give of his stiffened ribs-it hurt, like cramped muscle. His heart beat at a normal rate and the socket of his eye ached with a stab of pain that was acute and poignant and for a moment giddy with strength.
Haught caught him as it faded and the river-cold came back. Stilcho shivered, a natural shiver; and Haught's face before him was pale, beaded with sweat: "There," Haught gasped, "there, that's what I could do for you if I were stronger."
Stilcho only stared at him, and the living eye wept at the memory and the dead one wept blood. It was a seduction' as wicked as any ever committed in Sanctuary, which was going some: and he knew himself the victim of it. Of drugs and temptations he had sampled in his life, of ghassa and krrf and whatever lotos-dreams the smoke of firoq gave, there was no sensation to equal that moment of painful warmth, and it was going away now.
He needs a focus, Stilcho thought; he had learned his gram-marie in bitter and terrible lessons and knew something of the necessities of black sorcery. He wants a familiar. Nothing so simple as snake or rat, not even one of the birds he wants a man, a living man. 0 gods, he's lying. He knows what I'm thinking. He's in my skull-
Yes, came a soft, soft voice. / am. And you're quite right. But you also taste what my power would be. I'm still apprentice. But to hide a thing is another of my talents. And Mistress doesn't see me. I've learned the edges of her power, I've mapped it like a geography, and I simply walk the low places, the canyons and the chasms of it. She's committed an error great mages make: she's lost her small focus. Her inner eye is set always on the horizons, and those horizons grow wider and wider, so the small, deft stroke can pass her notice; I can sit in a small place and listen to the echoes her power makes. It makes so much noise tonight it has no sense of a thing so small and soft. And I approach mastery. It lacks one thing. No, two. You are one. The thought will remain. I will seal it up now, I will seal it so you needn't fear at all; all that will remain is a knowledge that 1 am not your true enemy. Wake up, "Stilcho-"
Stilcho blinked, startled for a moment as he found himself face to face with Haught. Something was very wrong, that he was this close to Haught and feeling no fear. It was a situation that produced fear of its own. But Haught let him go.
"Are you all right?" Haught asked with brotherly tenderness.
Witchery did not obliterate memory of past injury. It only made things seem, occasionally, quite mad.
And the fire still roared in the front room, where he had no wish to go.
Ischade herded another soul home. This one was a soldier, and wily and full of tricks and turns-one of Stilcho's lost company who had deserted in the streets and hid and lurked down by the shambles, where there was always blood to be had. Janni, she thought; that was a soul she sought. It wailed and cursed its feeble curses; not Janni, but a Stepson of the later breed. She overpowered it with a thrust that shriveled its resistance and the only sign of this exertion was a momentary tension of her closed eyelids and a slight lift of her head as she sat with hands clasped before the fire.
She had grown that powerful. Power hummed and buzzed deafeningly in her veins, straining her heart.
Small magics stirred about her, which she supposed was Haught at his practice again; but she paid it no heed. She might summon the Nisi slave and use him to take the backload, but that led to a different kind of desire, and that desire was already maddening.
There was Stilcho. There was that release, which was not available with Straton. But what was in her tonight even a dead man might not withstand; and she had sworn an oath to herself, if not to gods she little regarded, that she would never destroy one of her own.
She hunted souls through the streets of Sanctuary and never budged from her chair, and most of all she hunted Roxane.
She smelled blood. She smelled witchery, and the taint of demons which Roxane had dealt with. She felt the shuddering of strain at gates enough for a mortal soul, but not yet wide enough for things which had no part or law in the world to linger.
One there was which Roxane had called. It was cheated, and vengeful, and demanded the deaths of gods which a mage tried to prevent. It had intruded into the world and wanted through again.
One there was which ruled it, for which it was only viceroy, and that power tried the gates in its own might: it was more than demon, less than god; but since she had never bargained with gods or demons it had no hope with her.
Mostly she felt the slow sifting of power everywhere on the winds, profligate and dangerous.
Leave it to me, she had said to Randal, who had enough to do to cheat a demon of his prey. She felt Randal too, a little spark of fire which gave her location and a sense of Randal's improbable self, cool blue fire which lay at the heart of a dithering, foolish-looking fellow whose familiar/alterself was a black dog: friendly, flop-eared hound that he was, there was wolf in his well-shielded soul; there was the slow and loyal heart of the hound that lets children pull its ears and trample it under knees and hug it giddy: but that same hound could turn and remember it was wolf; and the eyes which were not slitted green lit with a redder fire and a human-learned cunning. Wolf was clever in a wild thing's way; dog on the hunt was another matter. That was Randal. She shed a little touch his way and flinched at once, hearing the thunder rumble and feeling the raw edges of nature gone unstable.
Warning, warning, warning, he sent; and she gathered it up and felt the rising of the unnatural wind.
Get the dead hence, send them home. A god lies senseless, at the edge of raving. And he is prey to demons and their minions.
She located another soul, a lost child. It was glad to go. And another, who loved a man in the Maze. She drove that one away with difficulty; it was wily as the mercenary and more desperate.
She found a minor-class fiend hiding in an alley; it tried desperately to pretend it was a man. Know you, know you, it protested, does what you want, oh, does everything you want. ... It wept, which was unusual for a fiend, and hid in a tumble of old boxes as if that could save it from the gates. I find HER, it snuffled.
That saved it. That Her was Roxane. The fiend knew instinctively what she wanted. It proposed treachery (which was its fiendish part) and hoped for mercy (which was its human vulnerability).
FIND, she told it. And the orange-haired fiend leapt up and gibbered with that hope for mercy. It went loping and shambling off shattering boxes and wine bottles and scaring hell out of a sleeping drunk behind the Unicorn.
Ischade's head tilted back; the breath whistled between her clenched teeth and the lust came on her with fever-pulse, let loose by this magical exertion. She had expended a certain kind of energy. It had gone far beyond desire, went toward need; and she hunted the living now, hunted with a reckless, hateful vengeance.
Nothing petty this time. No inconsequential, unwashed victim picked up in the streets, slaking need with something so distasteful to her it was self-inflicted torment.
She wanted the innocent. She wanted something clean. And restrained herself short of that. She looked only for the beautiful and the surface-clean, something that would not haunt her.
And a lord of Ranke, who got up to close the shutters against the sudden and importunate wind, inhaled the stench that swept up from riverside and suffered a physical reaction of such intensity he dreamed awake, dreamed something so intense and so very real that it mingled with the krrf-dream he had taken refuge in this storm-fraught night. It had something of terror about it. It had everything of lust. It was like the krrf, destructive and infinitely-desirable in that way that knowledge of other worlds, even death, has a lust about it, and a soul trembles on the edge of some great and dangerous height, fascinated by the flight and the splintering of its own bone and the spatter of its own blood on the pavings-
Lord Tasfalen took in his breath of a sudden and focused in horror at the starlit pavings of his own courtyard, realizing how close he had come to falling. And how desirable it had been. He blamed it on the krrf and flung himself away and back to the slave who shared his bed, vowing to have a man whipped for the krrf that must have something in it beyond the ordinary. He experienced a taint of fear, stood there in his bedroom with the slave staring up at him in purest terror that the handsome lord was suffering some kind of seizure, that he had perhaps been poisoned, for which she would be blamed, and for which she would die. Her whole life passed before her in that moment, before Tasfalen sank down on the bed in a convulsion he shared with a woman a far distance from his ornate bedchamber.
That was the extent to which Ischade's power had swelled. It hunted like a beast, and left Tasfalen shaking in a lust he could not satisfy, though he tried, with the slave, who spent the hour in a terror greater than any she had yet experienced in this gilt prison, with this most jaded of Rankene nobles.
Ischade leaned back and shut her eyes, lay inert for a long time while the thunder rumbled and rattled above the house and a flop-eared, freckled mage labored to save a god and a seer. Sweat bathed her limbs, ran in trails on her body beneath the robes. She felt the last impulses of that convulsion, tasted copper on her tongue, rolled her eyes beneath slitted lids and thanked her own foresight that she had sent Straton to Crit this night.
Not yet for this fine nobleman. Sweets were for prolonging. She lay there with the fires sinking in the hearth and on the candles round the room; and in her blood. She stretched out the merest tendril of will and wrapped it about the house, ran it like lightning along the old iron fence and up to the rooftree, where a small flock of black birds took flight.
She sent it pelting gustlike down the chimney and scouring out across the floor with the roll of a bit of ember.
Haught was there, quickly, catfooted and sullen-faced as ever, standing in the doorway of the room he shared with Stilcho. Ex-slave and ex-dancer. She gazed at him through slitted eyes, simply stared, testing her resolve; and beckoned him closer. He came a foot or two. That was all. Cautious Haught. Wary Haught.
Haught nodded back toward the room. The fires were silent. Every word seemed drawn in ice, written on the still air inside and the stormwind without.
"This is not a good night, Haught. Take him and go somewhere. No. Not just somewhere." She pulled a ring from her finger. "I want you to deliver this."
"Where, Mistress?" Haught came and took it, ever so carefully, as if it were white-hot; as if he would not hold it longer than he had to. "Where take it?"
"There's a house fourth up and across the way from Moria. Deliver it there. Say that a lady sends to Lord Tasfalen. Say that this lady invites him to formal dinner, tomorrow at eight. At the uptown house. And tell Moria there'll be another place for dinner." She smiled, and Haught found sudden reason to clench his hands on the ring and back away. "You're quite right," she said, faintest whisper. "Get out of here."
She lay back a moment, eyes shut in her dreams (and Tasfalen's) as she heard the door open and shut. She felt the tremor in the wards which ringed the place about and sealed its gates.
Come with me, Randal had said, knowing what he faced in god-healing. Ischade, I need you-
And Strat: Ischade-for the gods' sake-
For no gods' sake. No god's.
She had fled Straton's presence as she would have fled the environs of hell... fled running, when she had left that place and left him and the ruin of Roxane's house, in utmost confusion and dread, her heart pounding in terror of what was loose, not in the night, but in her own inner darkness-a thing which made her shun mirrors and the sight of her eyes. So she sat before her hearth and hurled magic into the fires and into the wind and into the gates of hell until she had exhausted the power to control that power and direct it; then the fire went into her bones and inmost parts and smouldered there.
Thunder rumbled again, instability in the world, fire in the heavens.
She drew a shuddering breath, tormented the dreams of the fairhaired Rankan and thrust herself to her feet, took up her cloak and put it on with careful self discipline.
The door opened with a crash, fluttering the candle flames, which blazed white for a moment and subsided.
So hard it was to manage the little things. The merest shrug was lethal. The gaze of her eyes might do more than mesmerize. It might strip a soul. She flung up the hood and walked out into the wind and the night.
The door crashed shut behind her and the iron gate squealed' violently as it banged open. The wind took her cloak and played games with it, with a power that might have leveled Sanctuary.
"Damn it, no. Let me be." And Straton left the mage-quarter room and headed down the outside stairs.
Left Crit, with argument echoing in the room and the dark.
Crit came to the door, came out onto the landing. "Strat," Crit said; and got only Strat's back. "Strat."
Straton stopped then and looked up at his left-side leader, at the man he owed his life to a dozen times and who owed him. "Why didn't you shoot? Why didn't you damn well pull the trigger when you came into the yard if you're so damn convinced? Ask me why things in Sanctuary have gone to hell-come in damn well late and find fault with me when I've kept this town alive and kept the blood from running down the damn gutters-"
Crit came down the steps and leaned on either wooden railing. "That's not what I'm talking about. It's your choice of allies. Strat, dammit, wake up."
"We're public. We'll talk about it later. Later isn't tonight."
Crit came a step further, checked him on the step. "Listen to me. We've got the witch-bitch out. The other one's got you. Command of this city, hell, you lost it. Ace, you lost it a long time ago. I don't know how the hell you're still alive but if the Riddler gets his hands on you now you're done-dammit, Strat, where's your sense? You know what she is, you know what she does-"
"She killed me weeks ago. I'm a walking corpse. Sure, Crit. I'm best at full of moon. Dammit, that woman's why we're clear of the Nisi witch, she's why you had a city left down here, and why the empire has a backside left at all. I'll tell you what it is with you, Crit; it's knowing your partner was damn well right and you were wrong; it's having your mind made up before you got here and riding in there to haul me out for a traitor-that's what you came to do, isn't it? To shoot me down without a chance if I went for your throat? It's not catching, Crit. It's not even true. They blame her for every body that turns up in the alleys; in the Maze, for the gods' sake- as if corpses never happened before she came to town. Well, I've been with her when those stories spread; I know damn well where she was at night; and they still blame her-"
"-like they blame lambs on wolves; sure, Strat; but a wolf's still a wolf. And you're damn lucky this far. I'm telling you. The Riddler will order you. Stay the hell out of there."
"Stay the hell out of my business!" Strat slammed an offered hand aside and ran the steps down to the bottom.
He looked up in mid-turn. By the tone there might have been a weapon. There was not. He hardly broke stride as he went for the stable, flung the door open, and fumbled after the lantern that hung there. A soft whicker sounded. Another, rowdier, sounded off loud and two steelshod hooves hit the stall: Crit's sorrel, ill-tempered and fighting the rein every step of the way into the stable, bucking and banging boards and making itself heard upstairs.
"Shut up!" It was the same as yelling at Crit. About as useful. The hooves hit the boards again.
And Crit arrived in the stable doorway, stood there dark against the starlight on the cobbles outside. Straton ignored him and made another attempt at the light. It took. He adjusted the wick and hung the lamp on its peg, and did what he knew might be fatal. He turned his back on Crit and walked away down the aisle.
Not a quarrel between friends. It was nothing private. Tempus's orders were involved. Tempus disavowed him, disavowed everything he had done, everything he had set up, every alliance he had made; and told him (through Crit) to break off with his woman and own up to failure. Sent his own leftside leader to kill him.
He gave Crit the chance. He walked the stable aisle and got his tack off the rail, flung it up onto the rim of the bay's box stall. He kept listening through the sorrel's ruckus, for the soft stir of straw that would be Crit walking up behind him.
Try it. From disspirited suicide, to a gathering determination to fight back, to the imagination that he could beat Crit, beat him to the ground, sit on him and make him listen. Not kill him when he could. Then Crit would come to sanity. Then Crit would be sorry. Then Crit would go and tell Tempus it was all a mistake, and his partner had done the best that any man could do, tried his damn heart out and done what no one else had been able to do, gods, had held the Nisi witch at bay, had worked out at least a fragile truce with the key factions, had patched the whole hellhole of Sanctuary together and held onto it.
He deserved thanks, by the gods. He deserved something besides a partner trying to murder him.
Come on, Crit, dammit. Not a sound in the straw, not a move.
He turned around and looked. Crit was not there at all; had gone-somewhere. Upstairs again, maybe. Maybe to pass an order.
Straton turned and flung the blanket on the bay, stroked its shoulder. The horse bent its head back and delicately nipped at his sleeve, nosed his ribs. He flung his arms about its neck, which indignity the bay protested by backing and fidgeting; gave the warm neck a hug and a slap and tried to stop the stinging of his eyes and the pain in his heart by holding onto something that simply loved him.
She loved him that way. Supported him. Helped him. Never contested with him for credit for this or credit for that, handed it all into his lap with a whispered: But I don't want that, Strat. You're the mind behind it, you tell me what you need. I do it for your sake. No other in all the world. Yours is the only judgment in the world I trust more than my own. You're the only man I've ever trusted. The only one, ever.
She was quiet, was safety, she understood what he needed and when he needed it. She was the only woman who knew him the way Crit had known him; knew what he did, knew he was the Stepsons' interrogator, unraveled his own pretense that cruelty gave him no sexual thrill at all: took the body-knowledge which was his skill at interrogation and at lovcmaking and bent him round again till he could see the torment he inflicted on himself, inner war against his own sensibilities. She took all these things and knit them up and let him turn gentle and sentimental with her, which was his deepest, darkest secret- it was this fragile, inner self she got to, which Crit rarely had. That he could deliver himself to her inside and out, and sleep in her arms in a way he never slept with his lovers-not without an eye and an ear alert, somehow-alert in the way a cynic never sleeps, never trusts, never hopes. Ischade's embrace was a drug, the gaze of her eyes a well in which Straton the Stepson became Strat the man, the young man, Strat the wise and the brave-
Strat the fool to Crit. Strat the traitor to Tempus. Strat the butcher to everyone else he knew.
He flung the saddle up and the bay which was her gift stood quietly while Crit's damn sorrel kicked a stall to ruin and Crit did not come to see to the animal.
He checked the bridle and turned the bay and led it out into the stable aisle, from there to the door.
Perhaps Crit would be waiting there, having known his chances slipping up on him. Perhaps it would be one fast bolt through the ribs and never a chance at all to tell Crit he was a fool and a blackguard.
Strat leapt up to the bay's back and ducked his head, sending the bay flying out that door with a powerful drive of its hindquarters. If a bolt flew past he never saw it. The bay scrabbled for a tight turn on the dirt of the little yard and lit out down the cobbles of the alley, never pausing until he reined it to a walk a block away.
Where he was going he had no idea. Stay away, Ischade had said. He had believed her then, the way he believed implicitly when she spoke in that tone to him, that it was something she understood and he did not. It was something to do with Roxane. It was something that brought a wildness to her eyes and meant hazard to her; but it was a witch-matter, not his kind of dealing. Nothing he could help her with. And he and Ischade had the kind of understanding he had once with Crit, an understanding he had never looked to have with any woman: an unspoken agreement of personal competencies. Witchery was hers. The command of the city was his. And he would not go there tonight, though that was where every bone in him ached to go, to reassure himself that she was well, and that it was not some misapprehension between them that had driven her away. Things had changed. Crit being back, and Tempus-gods knew what was in her mind.
If this visitor makes an end to what is-was-between us-
It's yours to say-
His to say. His to say, by accepting her command to stay away tonight? or by defying it?-He suspected one and then the other with equal force; he agonized over it and called up every nuance of her voice and body and behavior over weeks and months, trying to know what she had meant, whether it was keeping that unspoken pact with her inviolate or defying it and risking (he sensed) his life to pass those wards tonight- that would cancel that doubt he had felt in her. Or confirm it.
Damn Crit. Damn Tempus's coming now, late, when he had everything virtually in hand. Damn their arrival that suddenly undermined everything he had built and poisoned the air between himself and Ischade, the only (he suddenly conceived of it as such), the only unselfish passion he had ever owned, the only peace he had ever conceived of having in the world.
The bay horse picked up its pace again, moved with astonishing quiet over the cobbles and down the long street where the scars of factional violence still lingered.
Factions and powers. He waked suddenly, as if he had been numb since Ischade flung him at Crit and Crit flung him away again. He heard Ischade's voice whispering in his brain: The only man-the only one who understands how fragile things are-
The only one who stands a chance of holding this city-
The only one who might make something of it yet-truer than the weakling prince, truer than priests and commanders who serve other powers-
You're the only hope I have, the only hope this city has of being more than the end of empire-
You might not have their love, Strat, but you have their respect. They know you're an honest man. They know you've always fought for this town. Even llsigis know that. And they respect you if nothing else of Ranke-
-llsigis! he had laughed.
You are the city's champion. The city's savior. Believe me, Straton, there is no other man could walk the line you've walked, and no other Rankan they know fights for this town.
... They respect you if nothing else ofRanke.
Tempus counted him a failure. Tempus arrived in the midst of Roxane's death throes and laid that chaos to his account.
Let Tempus see the truth, let Tempus see that he could pull strings in this web, let him hand peace with the factions to Tempus and let Tempus deal with gods: Tempus was not inclined to tie himself down to one town, one place; Crit loathed the place-but one of Tempus's men next in line, one of Tem-pus's trusted men could find that answer to everything he wanted.
Ischade and Sanctuary.
There had been disturbance downstairs, a door had opened, and Moria hugged the quilts to her in her lonely bed, lay hardly daring to lift her head. The whole night was terrifying with thunders, with the fitful, fretful character of a sky which promised no rain and perhaps the renewed warfare of witches. Her with the Nisi witch. The full scope of disasters possible in that eluded gutter-bom Moria; Moria the elegant, the beautiful, curled into a fetal ball in the soft down comforters and the satin and the lace of the mansion Ischade provided Her most pampered (and hitherto least used) servant. But the depth ofMoria's imagination was better than most-who had seen the dead raised, the fires blaze about Ischade and pass harmless to her- but not to others. And she had every Ilsigi's reason for terror- a dead man had turned up one morning, outside her very door: the skies arced lightnings overhead, terrible storms haunted Sanctuary nights, and there were wails and scratchings round about the house and the shutters, thumps in the pantry and the basement which sent even the hardened staff shrieking down the halls in terror of ghosts and haunts-a murdered man had lived here; he manifested in the basement all wrapped in his shroud, to Cook's abject terror and the ruin of a whole jug of summer pickles. A ghostly child sported in the hall of nights and once Moria had wakened to the distinct and most horrible feeling that something had depressed a body-shaped nest on the feather-mattress beside her. (For that, she had sent a terrified message to Ischade, and the manifestations abruptly stopped.) If that were not enough, there were pitched battles in the streets downhill, fires, maimed men carried past in blood-soaked litters-a fiend had rampaged through the house of the very Beysib lady Moria had visited on Ischade's orders, and Moria knew all too much about the Harka Bey and their dreadful snakes and their way of dealing with people who brought harm to one of their own. She feared jars, jugs, and closets of late; she feared packages and baskets brought in from market (on those days market functioned): she was sure that some viper might lurk there, some Beysib horror come to find Ischade's helpless agent in some moment that Ischade was elsewhere occupied-the Mistress would take a terrible vengeance for such an attack: Moria believed that implicitly; but it was also possible that Moria would be dead and unable to appreciate it.
And, o Shipri and Lord Shalpa, patron of a one-time thief and Hawkmask, even the dead were not safe from Ischade, who might well raise her up to let her go on like poor Stilcho, like the Stepson-slave Ischade took to her bed and performed gods-knew-what with because he was dead and could not succumb to Ischade's curse-could not die as every man died who had sex with Ischade-or Stilcho died nightly and Ischade raised him up from hell (though how her living and latest lover, the Stepson Straton, had survived beyond one night she could not guess; or did guess, in lurid imaginings of exotic practices and things that she dared not ask Haught-does he, does Haught, with Her? Would he, could he, has he ever-? with direst jealousy and helpless rage; for Haught was hers). It was all too confusing for Moria, once-thief turned lady.
And now the Emperor was dead in Ranke, the world was in upheaval, and back from the Wizard Wars the Stepsons came scouring through the streets, all grim in their armor and on their tall horses; back in Sanctuary again and determined to set things into their own concept of order.
Make the house presentable, Ischade had sent word through Haught; and told her the house had to host the chiefest of these devils, including Tempus, who was an Ilsigi's direst enemy: an Ilsigi hostess had to entertain these awful men, with what end to the business Moria could not foresee.
A door had opened downstairs. It closed again. She lay between terror and another thought-for Haught came to her now and again. Haught came wherever he liked and sometimes that was to her bed. It was Haught who had made her beautiful, it was Haught who cared for her and made her imprisoned life worth living.
It was Haught who had prised a knife from her fingers and prevented her from suicide a half a year ago, then kissed those fingers and made gentle love to her. It was Haught who stole a little of the Mistress's magic for her and cast a glamor on her that had never yet gone away. Perhaps the Mistress tacitly approved. But the Mistress had never laid eyes on her new self; and that might happen tomorrow night-
That would happen. Oh, if there were a way to make herself invisible she would do it. If that were Haught-it must be Haught, coming up the stairs so quietly.
A shiver came over her. She remembered the thing which had been in bed with her. She remembered the cold in the air and the steps which used to come and go in the basement, which might pass a door in the middle of the night and come padding up the stairs-
The latch of her room gave gently. The hinge creaked softly. She lay with her back to these sounds in that paralysis that a bad dream brings, in which a thing will not be real until one looks and sees it standing by one's bed-
The step came close and lingered there. There was a water-smell, a river-smell, a beer-smell unlike Haught's perfumed, wine-favoring self. It was wrong, wrong-
She spun over the edge of the bed and came up with the knife she kept there on the floor, as someone dived across the bed at her. She leaped back with that knife held with no uptown delicacy: she was a knife-fighter, and she crouched in her be-ribboned lace and satin whipping the tail of her gown up and aside to clear her legs. A ragged shape hulked on its knees amid her bed, silhouette in light from the hall. It held up its hands, choked for air.
"M-mo-ri-a," it said, wept, bubbled. "Mo-ri-a-"
She knew the voice, knew the smell of Downwind, knew the shape and the hands suddenly, and fled for the door and the lamp to borrow light in the hall, her hands atremble and the straw missing the wick a half a dozen times before she lit the lamp and brought it back again in both hands, the knife tucked beneath her arm.
Mor-am her brother huddled like a lump of brown rag amid her satin sheets. Mor am stinking of the gutters, Mor-am twisted and scarred by fire and the beggar king's torture, as he was when She withdrew her favor.
He had never seen her like this, never seen the glamor on her. She was an uptown lady. And he-
"0 gods, Mor-am."
He rubbed his eyes with a grimy fist. She-found the lamp burning her hands and set it on a bureau, taking the knife from beneath her arm. "Gods, what happened? Where have you been?" But she needn't ask: there was the reek of Downwind and liquor and the bitter smell of krrf.
"I-been-lost," he said. "I w-went-H-Her business." He waved a hand vaguely away, riverward, toward Downwind or nowhere at all, and squinted at her. The tic that twisted his face did so with a vengeance. "I c-c-come back. What h-ha-hap-pened t' you, M-m-mo-ria? Y-y-you don't look-"
"Makeup," she said, "it's makeup, uptown ladies have tricks-" She stood and stared in horror at the kind of dirt and the kind of sight she had grown up with, at the way Downwind twisted a man and bowed the shoulders and put hopelessness in the eyes. "Lost. Where, lost? You could've sent word- you could have sent something-" She watched the tic by Mor-am's mouth grow violent: it was never that way when Ischade prevented it. Ischade was not preventing it. For some reason Ischade had stopped preventing it. "You're in trouble with Her, aren't you?"
"I-t-tr-tried. I tried to do what she w-wanted. Then I-1-lost the m-m-money."
"You mean you drank it! You gambled it, you spent it on drugs, you fool! Oh, damn you, damn you!"
He cringed. Her tall, her once-handsome brother-he cringed down and his shoulderblades were sharp against the rags, his dirty hands were like claws clutching his knees as he crouched rocking in the cream-and-lace of her bed. "I got to have m-m-money, Mo-ri-a. I got to go to Her, I got to make it g-g-good-"
"Damn, all I've got is Her money, you fool! You're going to take Her money and pay Her back with it?"
"You g-g-got to, you g-g-got to, the p-pain, Moria, the pain-"
She set the knife down and fled, a flurry of satin and ribbons and bare feet down the polished, carpeted stairs, down into the hall and back where even in this night Cook's minions labored over the dinner-the infamous Shiey had acquired a partner with a monumental girth and a real skill, who co-ruled the kitchen: one-handed Shiey managed the beggar-servants and Kotilis stirred and mixed and sliced with a deft fury that put an awe into the slovens and dullards that were the rule in this house. They thought She had witched this cook, and that the hands that made a knife fly over a radish and carve it into a flower could do equally well with ears and noses: that was what Shiey told them. And work went on this night. Work went on in mad terror; and if anyone thought it was strange that one more beggar went padding in the front door at night (with a key) and Little Mistress came flying downstairs in her night-gown to rummage the
desk in the hall for the money not one thief in the house dared steal-
No one said a thing. Shiey only stood in the door in her floured apron, and Kotilis went on butchering his radishes, while Moria ignored them both, flying up the stairs again with the copper taste of a bitten lip and stark fear in her mouth.
She loved her brother, gods help a fool. She was bound to him in ways that she could not untangle; and she stole from Her to pay Her, which was the only thing she could do. It was damnation she courted. It was the most terrible ruin in the world.
It was for the arch-fool Mor-am, who was the only blood kin she had, and who had bled for her and she for him since they were urchins in Jubal's employ. It was not Mor-am's fault that he drank too much, that he smoked krrf when the pain and the despair got to be too much; he had hit her and she forgave him in a broken hearted torment-all the men she loved had done as much, excepting only Haught, whose blows were never physical but more devastating. It was her lot in life. Even when Ischade clothed her in satin and Haught touched her with stolen glamor. It was her lot that a drunkard brother had to show up wanting money; and adding to the sins that she would carry into Ischade's sight tomorrow. It was men's way to be selfish fools, and women's to be faithful fools, and to love them too much and too long.
"Here," she said, when she had come panting up the stairs, when she had found Mor-am huddled still amid her bed, weeping into his thin, dirty hands. "Here-" She came and sat down and put her hand on his shoulders and gave the gold to him. He wiped his eyes and snatched it so hard it hurt her hand; and got up and shambled out again.
He would not go to Ischade. He would go to the nearest dope-den; he would give it all to some tavemkeeper who would give him krrf and whatever else the place offered to the limit of that gold; and maybe think to force food down him; then throw him out on the street when he had run through his account.
And when Ischade knew where he was-if Ischade got on his track and remembered him among her other, higher business-
Moria sank down on her soiled bed and hugged her arms about herself, the satin not enough against the chill.
She saw the bureau surface. The ivory-and-silver knife was gone. He had stolen it.
The starlit face of Tasfalen's mansion was buff stone; was grillwork over the windows, and a huge pair of bronze doors great as those which adorned many a temple. The detail of them was obscured in the dark and the windows were shuttered and barred against the insanity of uptown.
But Haught had no trepidation. "Stay here," he told Stilcho, and Stilcho turned a worried one-eyed stare his way and wrapped his black cloak tighter about him, melting into the ornamental bushes with which (unwisely) Lord Tasfalen's gardener decorated the street side.
Haught simply walked up to the door and took the pull-ring of the bell-chain, tugged it twice and waited, arms folded, face composed in that bland grace which he practiced so carefully. A dog barked in some echoing place far inside; was hushed; there was some long delay and he rang again to confirm it for them-no, it was no drunken prankster.
And now inside there had to be a consultation with the major domo and perhaps even with the master himself, for it was not every door in Sanctuary that dared open at night.
Eventually, in due course, there came a step to the door, an unbarring of the small barred peephole in the embrace of two bronze godlets. "Who is it?"
"A messenger." Haught put on his most cultivated voice. "My mistress sends to your master with an invitation."
Silence from the other side. It was a message fraught with ambiguities that might well make a nobleman's nightwarder think twice about asking what invitation and what lady. The little door snapped shut and off went the porter to more consultation.
"What are they doing?" Stilcho asked-not a frequenter of uptown houses, or one who had dealt with nobility in life or death. "Haught, if they-"
"Hush," said Haught, once and sharply, because more steps were coming back.
The peephole opened again. "It's an odd hour for invitations."
"My mistress prefers it."
A pause. "Is there a token?"
"My mistress' word is her token. She asks your master to attend tomorrow night at eight, at a formal dinner in the former Peles house; dinner at sundown. Tell Lord Tasfalen that my lady will make herself known there. And he will want to see her, by a token he will know." He reached up and handed a black feather toward the entry, a flight-feather of one of Sanctuary's greater birds. "Tell him wear this. Tell him my lady will be greatly pleased with him."
"She is someone he will know. I will not compromise her. But this for taking my message-" He handed up a gold coin. "You see my lady is not ungenerous."
A profound pause. "I'll tell my lord in the morning."
"Tell him then. You needn't mention the gold, of course. Good rest to you, porter."
"Good night and good sleep, young sir."
Young sir. The peephole closed and a tight small smile came to the ex-slave's face; a fox's smile. He stepped briskly off the porch with a light swirl of his russet cloak and a wink of his sword-hilt in the starlight.
"Gods," Stilcho said, "the ring- the ring, man-"
"Ah," Haught said, pressing a hand to his breast. "Damn. I forgot it." He looked back at the door. "I can't call them back-that wouldn't impress them at all."
"Dammit, what are you up to?"
Haught turned and extended a forefinger, ran it gently up the seam of Stilcho's cloak, and dragged him a safe distance from the door. "You forget yourself, dead man. Do you need a lesson here and now? Cry put and I'll teach you something you haven't felt yet."
"For the gods' sake-"
"You can be with me," Haught said, "or you can resign this business here and now. Do you want to feel it, Stilcho? Do you want to know what dying can be like?"
Stilcho stepped away from him, his eye-patched face a stark pale mask under black hood and black fall of hair. He shook his head. "No. I don't want to know." There was a flash of panicked white in the living eye. "I don't want to know what you're doing either."
Haught smiled, not the fox's smile now, but something darker as he closed the distance between them a second time. He caught Stilcho's cloak between thumb and forefinger. "Do me a favor. Go to Moria's place. Tell her expect one more for dinner tomorrow; and wait for me there."
"She'll kill you."
Moria was not the She Stilcho meant. There was terror in the single eye. Stilcho's scarred mouth trembled.
"Kill you," Haught said. "That's what you're afraid of. But what's one more trip down there, for you? Is hell that bad?"
"Gods, let me alone-"
"Maybe it is. You ought to know. Tell the Mistress, dead man, and you lose your chance with me." Haught inhaled, one great lungful of Sanctuary's dust-ridden air. "There's power to be had. I can see it, I breathe it-you like what I can do, don't deny it."
"Or do you want to run to Her, do you really want to run to Her tonight? She told us to leave Her alone-But you've dealt with Her when the killing-mood is on Her, you know what it's like. You heard the fires tonight; have you ever heard them bum like that? She's taken Roxane, she's drunk on that power, the gates of hell reel under her-do you want that to take you by the hand tonight and do you want that to take you to Her bed and do what She's done before? You'll run to hell for refuge, man, you'll go out like a candle and you'll rot in hell whatever there is left of you when She's done."
"No, She wouldn't, or No, you won't go there, or Yes, you're going to do exactly what I asked you to do?"
"I'll take your message." Stilcho's voice came hoarse and whispered. And in a rush: "If you get caught it's your doing, I won't know anything, I'll swear I had no part in it!"
"Of course. So would I." He tugged gently at Stilcho's cloak. "I don't ask loyalty of you. I have ways to ensure it. Think about that, Stilcho. She's going to kill you. Again. And again. How long will your sanity take it, Stilcho? Shut your eyes. Shut them. And remember everything. And do it."
Stilcho made a strangled sound. Flinched from him.
Stilcho remembered. Haught took that for granted; and smiled in Stilcho's distraught face.
Before he swept the russet cloak back, set a fine hand on the elegant sword, and walked on down the street like a lord of Sanctuary.
Straton stood still and blindfolded as the door closed behind, as the little charade played itself out. He heard the tread of men on board and the scrape of a chair and smelled the remnant of dinner and onions in this small, musty room.
"Do I take this damn thing off?" he asked, after too much of this shifting about had gone on.
"He can take it off," a deep voice said. "Get him a chair."
So he knew even then that his contact had not played him false; and that it was Jubal. He reached up and pulled off the tight blindfold and ran a hand through his hair as he stood and blinked at the black man who faced him across a table and a single candle-a black man thinner and older than he ought to be, but pain aged a man. White touched the ex-slaver's temples, amid the crisp black: lines were graven deep beside the mouth, out from the flaring nostrils, deep between dark, wrinkle-set eyes. Jubal's hands rested both visible on the scarred tabletop; those of the hawknosed man in the chair beside him were not visible at all. And Mradhon Vis, who lately sported a drooping black mustache to add to his dusky sullenness, sat in the comer with one booted foot on the rung of the next chair and elbow on knee, a broad-bladed knife catching the candlelight with theatrical display.
A man shoved a chair up at Straton's back; he turned a slow glance that way, took the measure of that man the same as he had of the two more in the comer. Thieves. Brigands. Ilsigis. A Nisi renegade. Jubal from gods knew where. And himself, Rankan; the natural enemy of all of them.
"Sit down," Jubal said, a voice that made the air quiver. Straton did that, slowly, without any haste at all. Leaned back and put his hands in his belt and crossed his ankles in front of him.
"I said I had a proposal," Straton said.
"From you or from the witch? Or from your commander?"
"From me. Privately. In regard to the other two."
Jubal's square-nailed finger traced an obscure pattern on the aged wood. "Your commander and I have a certain-history."
"All the more reason to deal with me. He owes the witch. She owes me. I want this town quiet. Now. Before it loses whatever it's got. If Tempus is here he's here for reasons more than one."
"Like imperial reasons."
Jubal laughed. It was a snarl, a slow rumbling. He spoke something in some tongue other than Rankene. The man by him laughed the same. "The Emperor, is it? Is it treachery you propose? Treachery against your commander?"
"No. Nobody benefits that way. You make your living in this town. I have interests here. My commander has interests only in getting out of here. That's in your interest. You can go back to business. I get what I want. My commander can get out of here without getting tied down in a fight in Sanctuary streets. All that has to happen is a few weeks of quiet. Real quiet. No theft. No gangs. No evidence of sedition."
"Stepson, if your commander heard you promise that he'd have your guts out."
"Give me the quiet I need and I'll give you the quiet you need. You and I understand each other. You won't have a friend left in our ranks-if I fall. Do you understand me?"
"Do I understand you've got your price, Rankan?"
"Mutual advantage." Heat rose to his face. Breath came shorter. "I don't give a damn what you name it, you know where we all are: trade's slowed to a stop, shops are closed, taverns shut down-are you making money? Merchants aren't; you aren't; no one's happy. And you know and I know that if this PFLS craziness goes on we've got a town in cinders, trade gone down the coast, revolutionary fools in control or martial law as long as it takes, and corpses up to the eaves. You see profit in that?"
"I see profit everywhere. I survive, Rankan."
"You're not fool enough to go up against the empire. You make money on it."
Bodies stiffened all around the room. Strat folded his arms across his chest and recrossed his ankles top to bottom.
"He's right." Jubal snapped his fingers. "He said the right word. Let's see if he goes on making sense. Keep talking."
There was disturbance on the Street of Red Lanterns; but the crowd that gathered did it in the discreet way of Red Lantern crowds: peered through windows and out of doorways of brothels and taverns and just stopped in ordinary passages down the Street if they were far enough away. It was glitter and drama, was this district; and a great deal of the tawdry, and in this thunder-rattling night and the bizarre quiet in town since the fire, it was a rougher-than-usual place, the clients that showed up being the sort who were less delicate about their own safety, the sort who took care of themselves. So the whores on the Street were unsurprised at the commotion down by Phoebe's: the small office where Zaibar and the remaining Hell-Hounds served quiet duty as policemen on the Street-that office was unastonished tod, and tried to ignore the matter as long as possible. Zaibar in fact was deliberately ignoring it, since rumor had spread who was on the Street.
He poured himself another drink, and looked up as a rider on a sorrel horse went clattering past his office as if that man had business.
Stepson. He was relieved, and took a studied sip of the drink he had poured, feeling his problem on its way to resolution without him. The disturbance was far from the house in which he had a personal interest; and that rider headed down the Street was one of Tempus's own, which interference stood a much likelier chance of curtailing the trouble down the street. So it was wise to have sat still a moment and trust the problem to go away; the screams went on, but they would stop very shortly, only one life was in the balance, and the madam of the house (if not the whore) would probably agree that this intervention was better than police.
They were nothing if not pragmatic on the Street.
"Well," said Jubal. "I like your attitude. I like a sensible man. Question is, is your commander going to like you tomorrow?"
"An empire runs on what works," Straton said. "Or it doesn't run. We can be very practical."
Jubal considered a moment. A grin spread on his dark, lined face, all theater. "This is my friend." He looked left and right at his lieutenants, and his voice hit registers that ran along the spine. "This is my good friend." Looking back at Straton. "Let's call it a deal-friend Straton."
Straton stared at him, with less of relief than of a profound sickness in his gut. But it was a victory. Of sorts. It just did not come with parades and shouting crowds. It came of common sense. "Fine," he said. "Does this include a deal about that stupid blindfold? Where's my horse?"
"At the contact point. I'm afraid it doesn't include my whereabouts, friend. But I'll send you back with a man you know, how's that? Vis."
Mradhon Vis slipped his knife into sheath and let the front legs of his chair meet the floor as he got up.
It was not the man Strat would have chosen to go with, blindfolded and helpless, down an alley. Protesting it sounded like complaint and complaint did nothing for a man's dignity in this situation that had little enough of dignity about it and precious little leeway. Straton stood up, his arms at his sides as a man behind him took the chair away. Another man put the blindfold back in front of his eyes and tied it with no less uncomfortable firmness. "Dammit, watch it," Straton muttered.
"Be careful of him," Jubal's deep voice said. But no one did anything about the blindfold.
It was less trouble finding Tempus than Crit had anticipated when he talked to Niko and knew where Tempus had gotten to. He reined in at Phoebe's Inn (so the sign said) and shoved the sorrel's reins through a ring at the building's side. There were bystanders; and part of their interest diverted to him, who added himself to the diversion-he scowled blackly and glanced around him with the quiet promise what would befall the hand that touched his horse or his gear. Then he walked on into Phoebe's front room and confronted the proprietor, a fat woman with the predictable amount of gaud and matronly decorum. "Seen my commander?" he asked directly.
She had. Chins doubled and undoubled and painted mouth formed a word.
She pointed. "T-two of them," she said. "F-foreign lady, sh-she-"
That took no guesswork. "Tell my commander Critias is downstairs. Do it."
There was another scream from upstairs. Of a different pitch. For a whorehouse the desertion of the front room was remarkable. Not a whore of either gender came out of the alcoves. The madam ran the stairs and went careening down the upstairs hall, vanishing into the dark.
And still not a beaded curtain shadowed in the downstairs. Not a sound, except upstairs: a knock at a door, the madam's voice saying something unintelligible.
A door opened finally. A heavier tread sounded in the upstairs and Crit looked up as Tempus appeared at the head of the stairs-looked up with a stolid face and a moil of trepidation in his own gut that was only partly due to disturbing Tempus at this particularly agitated moment.
He watched Tempus come down the stairs; stood quietly with his hands in his belt and composed himself to inner quiet.
And it occurred to him, staring Tempus eye to eye, that he had been a fool and that he might have just killed the partner he was trying to save, because it was not reason he saw there.
"What?" Tempus asked with economy.
"Strat-after we cleaned up on riverside, the witch-left. Strat and I parted company. He's gone missing. He's not back at riverside."
Of a sudden it seemed like his problem, like something he never should have brought here. He seemed like a thoroughgoing fool. There was another tread on the stairs now, and that was Jihan coming down, trouble in duplicate. But Tempus's face got that masklike look, his long eyes gone inward and deep as he looked aside, a frown gathering and tightening about his mouth.
"How far-missing?" Tempus asked with uncomfortable accuracy and looked him straight in the eye.
"He told me to go to hell," Crit said, had not wanted to say, but Tempus did not encourage reticence with that look. "Commander, he'd listen to you. She's got him-bad. You, he'd listen to. Not me. I'm asking you."
For a long, long moment he reckoned Tempus was going to tell him go to hell too. And assign him there. But he was a shaken man, was Critias. He had seen the most practical-minded man he knew go crazy and desert him. Possession he could have coped with; he might have put an end to Strat the way he would have dispatched a comrade in the field, gut-wounded and suffering and hopeless; a man dreamed about a thing like that and never forgot it, but he did it. Not this time. Not with Strat cursing him to his face and telling him he was wrong. He was accustomed to regard Strat when he said wrong and stop, and hold it, Crit, Crit, stop it-. Straton the level-headed. Straton who seemed at one moment coldly rational and in the next rode off on-whatever that bay horse had become. "Where did you leave him?"
"Mageguild post. He left me. He rode off. I-lost track of him. He wasn't at Ischade's. I thought he'd come to you. Niko said not, Niko said-find you."
Tempus exhaled a long breath, took the sword he was carrying and hung it where it belonged. Thunder rattled. The inn echoed with it as Jihan came on down the steps. "Barracks, maybe," Jihan said. "I don't think so," Crit said. "Where do you think he's gone?" Tempus asked. "To do something," Crit said, and out of that fund of knowledge a pairbond held: "To prove something."
Tempus took that in with a grave and quiet look. "To whom?"
"To me. To you. He's being a fool. I'm asking you-"
"You want an order from me? Or you want me to find him?"
Of a sudden Crit did not know what he wanted. One seemed too little; the other, fatal.
"I'll find him," Crit said. "I thought you'd better know."
"I know," Tempus said. "He's still in command of the city. Tell him he'll be at Peres on time. And he won't have done anything stupid; tell him that too."
A horse snorted softly, hooves shifted on cobbles; and Straton heard the sound of their steps between narrow walls, knew before the hands left his arms that they had come back to the alley and the little stable-nook where he had left the bay. He felt the grip lift, heard retreating steps as he raised his hands and pulled the blindfold off. The bay whickered softly. A trio of cloaked figures went rapidly down the alley, one more than had brought him; the third would be the man who had kept the horse safe in the interval.
He walked over and patted the bay's neck, finding his hands shaking. Not from any fear of violence. Even Vis's personal grudge did not do that to him. It was himself. It was knowing what he had done.
He took the reins and swung up to the bay's back, reined about to ride out of the alley and caught his balance as the bay rose up under him: a cloaked shadow had slipped round the comer in front of him.
"That horse isn't hard to find," Haught said as the bay walked backward and came down on four feet again, still shying. Strat reined him out of it, and held him, hand to the sword he had never given up.
Haught held up something between two fingers. "Calm yourself. She sent me. With this."
Strat reined the bay quieter, still too wary to bring his horse alongside a man who might have a knife. He slid down to his own feet, keeping the reins in hand, met the ex-slave on a level and took the object Haught offered at arm's length.
A ring lay in his palm. It was Ischade's.
"She wants you-not at the uptown house tomorrow. Stay away. Come to the riverhouse. After midnight."
He closed his hand on the ring. A shudder ran through him with a reaction he had no wish to betray to the slave's amusement. He kept his face cold and his voice steady. "I'll be there," he said.
"I'll tell her that," Haught said with uncommon civility, and whisked himself around the comer again.
Strat slipped the ring on his littlest finger, and suffered a spasm that took his sight away. The bay horse pulled the reins from his hands and then, sheepish, stood there with the reins adangle while his master recollected his sight and got his heart settled from its pounding.
It was apology, from Ischade. It was invitation as plain as ever witch or woman sent a man. His heart pounded as he climbed up to the saddle and clenched his fist on the ring that had now the slow sweet bliss krrf never matched.
He fought his head clear, knew that what the slave asked- what she asked-was trouble, trouble not with Crit this time. Trouble that might take everything he had done and his life and sweep everything away, but the witch knew that, but Ischade wanted him and by this gift he knew how much she wanted him; he felt it continually and the world swam in front of his eyes.
What are you doing? he asked her in absentia. Do you know what you're asking?
And in the gnawing doubt that had been between them at the beginning and now again: Does it matter to you?
The bay moved, and the alley passed in a blur of starlit cobbles, the glare of a lantern. Things passed in and out of focus.
And in a profound effort he took the ring from off his finger and put it in his pocket where it was only mildly euphoric.
Sweat ran on his body. He mopped at his face, raked his hair back and tried to think despite the erotic mist that hazed the seeping brick, the effluvium of rubbish and the gutter. The bay's steps clopped along with a distant, dazed echo in the alley's wending transformation into a street where a dope den and a tavern maintained half-open doors and a clutch of krrf-dazed sleepers sitting in the mire outside. Music wailed; strings needed tuning. No one cared, least of all the player. The alley meandered on. The horse did, while the mist came and went.
Tempus would want him at that gathering at Peres. Tempus would want to talk to him, want sense out of him, would look at him with that piercing stare of his and spit him with it till he had spilled everything. That was what Ischade knew.
That was why Ischade wanted him out of there.
But then what, when he had fought with Crit and defied his commander and dealt with Jubal and through Jubal, with the gangs. There were ways and ways to die. He had invented one or two himself. Lying to Tempus offered worse. Desertion, dereliction. Treason.
He felt a stab of ecstasy, and one of utmost terror; and knew he ought to take that ring and fling it in the mud and go confess everything to Tempus, but that was against his very nature- he had never run for help, had never thrown himself at anyone's feet, never in his life. Fixing things took nerve. It took the raw guts to hang on to a situation long after it stopped being safe.
He was no boy, no twenty-five-year-old in shining armor, head full of glory stories. He had worked the Stepsons' shadowy jobs for a decade. He had just never had to think that Tempus himself might be involved in a mistake. The man the gods chose-But gods had self-interest right along with the rest of creation; gods might trick a man-might trick an empire, play games with souls, with a man who served their cause.
Tempus could be wrong. Gods know he could be wrong. He doesn't care for this town. I do. I can give it to him. Is that treason?
An empire runs on what works, doesn't it?
I've just got to live to get it working. Prove it to Crit. Prove it to Tempus. If it takes staying out of their way till I can get this thing organized-I know holes Crit doesn't.
Damn, no. They'll go for her.
He gripped the ring in his pocket, suffered a twinge that dimmed his vision and reminded him it was no small power the Stepsons might take on in Ischade. There would be fatalities. Calamity on both sides.
He made up his mind, then, what he had to do.
The sun was a glimmer of red-through-murk above Sanctuary's east when Ischade came to the simple little shop in the Bazaar; she came after a trek through Sanctuary's streets and in a sordid little room in the Maze left a dead man the world would little miss. That man left her disgusted, pricklish, soiled; and such was the charge of energies in the air of Sanctuary that she hardly felt that ebb of power his death made, felt not even a moment's relief from what ran along her veins and suffused her eyes and made that victim, in the last moment of his life, wish he had never existed at all.
It left not the least satisfaction; more, it left a gnawing terror that nothing would ever be enough, that there was no man in all the world sufficient to ease that power which threatened to break loose in the muttering storm and in her vitals. She blinded herself: she saw too much of hell and not enough of where she was going, and if a gang of Sanctuary's predatory worst had confronted her and seen her eyes this moment, at dawn's breaking, they would have stopped cold and slunk away in terror. She had become-known. Victims were harder to come by. Only fools approached her. And they were without sport and without surprise.
Tasfalen. Tasfalen. She clung to that name and that promise as to sanity itself a prey that offered wit, and hazard, and difficulty.
Tasfalen could be savored, over days. Put off and extended for a week-
She might, she reasoned with herself, make Strat understand.
She might-yet-get through that shell of unbelief Strat made around himself, teach him the things he had to know. He was ready for that. His infatuation was sufficient. That her hunger threatened him, this, everything-was unbearable.
It was weakness. And she had not yet accounted for Roxane. No scouring of the town had discovered her. That the dimwitted fiend had not found her tracks, but that she had discovered nothing to indicate that Roxane had not perished-did not make her secure in her present weakness. It was exactly the moment and the mode in which the Nisi would seek her out....
... Strike through Strat, through this stranger Tasfalen, through anything at all she least expected; most of all through a weakness....
And she was blind.
Knowing that, she came here, after a fruitless murder and a night's searching all of Sanctuary for Roxane's traces....
... To find the traces Roxane left on the future.
A light burned inside the little shop. So someone was astir this dawn. She rapped at a door she might have opened, waited like any suppliant at the fane.
Heavy steps came to it; someone opened the peephole and looked out and shut it rapidly.
She knocked a second time. And heard a higher voice than belonged with that tread, before the bar thumped back and the door opened inward.
The S'danzo Illyra stood to meet her, and that shadow to the side was Dubro, was a very distraught Dubro; and Illyra's face was tearstreaked. The S'danzo wrapped her fringed shawl about her as at-some ill wind sweeping through her door.
"So the news has come here," Ischade said in a low voice; and was pricklingly conscious of Dubro to the side. She forced herself to calm, concentrating on the woman only, on a mother's aching grief. "A mage is with your son since last night, S'danzo; I would be, but my talents are-awry tonight. Perhaps later. If they need me."
"Sit down." Illyra made a feverish movement of her hands, and Dubro cleared a bench. "I was making tea...." Perhaps the S'danzo conceived this as a visit of condolence, some sign of hope; she wiped at her eyes with brisk moves of a thin hand and turned to her stove, where a pot boiled. It was placatory hospitality. It was something else, perhaps.
"You see hope for your son in me?"
"I don't See Arton. I don't try." The S'danzo poured boiled tea through a strainer, one, two, three cups. Brought one to her and ignored the other two. / don't try. But a mother might, whose son lay sick in the palace, in company with a dying god. Priests or some messenger from Molin had been here already. Someone had told the S'danzo; or she had Seen it for herself, scryed it in the fracturing heavens, or tea leaves, gods knew.
And consolation might make a clearer mind in her service.
"Do you think they'll slight your son," Ischade asked, and sipped the tea, "for the other boy? Not if they value this city. I assure you. Randal's very skilled. You certainly needn't doubt which side the gods are on in your son's case. Do you?"
"I don't know ... I can't see."
"Ah. My own complaint. You want to know the present. I can tell you that." She shut her eyes and indeed it was little work to do, to sense Randal at work. "I can tell you the children are asleep, that there is little pain now, that the strength of the god holds your son in life. That a-" Pain assaulted her, an acute pain behind the eyes. Mage-fire. "Randal." She opened her eyes on the small, cluttered room again, on the S'danzo's drawn face. "I may be called to help there. I don't know. I have the power. But I'm hampered in using it. I need an answer. Where is Roxane?"
The S'danzo shook her head desperately. Gold rings swung and clashed. "I can't See that way-it's a present thing; I can't-"
"Find her tracks in the future. Find mine. Find your son's if you can. That's where she'll go. A man named Niko. She'll surely try for him. Tempus. Critias. Straton. Those are her major foci."
The S'danzo went hurriedly aside, snatched at a small box on the shelf. "Dubro please," she said when the big man moved to interfere; and he let her alone as she sank down on her knees in the middle of the floor and laid out her cards.
Nonsense, Ischade thought; but something stirred, something twitched at the nape of her neck, and she thought of the magic-fall that still swept the winds, recalling that prescience was not her talent, and she had not a way in the worlds and several hells to judge what the S'danzo did, how much was flummery and how much self-hypnosis and how much was a very different kind of witch.
The cards flew in strong, slim fingers, assumed patterns. Re-formed and showed their faces.
Illyra drew her hand back from the last, as if she had found the serpent on that card a living one.
"I see wounds," Illyra said. "I see love reversed. I see a witch, a power, a death, a castle; I see a staff broken; I see temptation-" Another card went down. Orb.
"I don't know how!" Illyra's fingers hovered trembling over the cards. "There's flux. There's change." She pointed to a robed and hooded figure. "There's your card: eight of air. Lady of Storms-hieromant."
"Hieromant! Not I!"
"I see harm to you. I see great harm. I see power reversed. The cards are terrible-Death and Change. Everywhere, death and change." The S'danzo looked up, tears flowing down her cheeks. "I see damage to you in what you attempt."
"So." Ischade drew a deep breath, teacup still in hand. "But for my question, fortune-teller: Find me Roxane!"
"She is Death. Death in the meadow. Death on the path of waters-"
"There are no meadows in Sanctuary, woman! Concentrate!"
"In the quiet place. Death in the place of power." The S'danzo's eyes were shut. Tears leaked from beneath her lashes. "Damage and reversal. It's all I can see. Witch, don't touch my son."
Ischade set the cup aside. Rose and gathered her cloak over her shoulder as the S'danzo gazed up at her. She found nothing to say of comfort. "Randal's with them," was the best that occurred to her.
She turned and went out the door. The power was still a tide in her blood, still unabated. She inhaled it in the wind, felt it in the dust under her feet. She could have blasted the house in her frustration, raised the fire in the hearth and consumed the S'danzo and her man to ash.
It seemed poor payment for an innocent woman's cup of tea. She banked the inner fire and drank the wind into her nostrils and considered the daybreak.
"I can't, I can't, I can't!" Moria cried, and went down the hall in a cloud of skins and satin-till Haught caught her up, and took her by the arms and made her look at him. Tears streaked Moria's makeup. A curl tumbled from her coiffure. She stared at Haught with blind, teared eyes and hiccuped.
"You'll manage. You don't have to say where I am or where I went."
"Then take him with you!" She pointed aside to the study, where a dead man sat drinking wine in front of her fire and getting progressively more inebriate. "Get him out of here, I can't do anything with the staff, they know what he is for the gods' sakes get him out!"
"You'll manage," Haught said. He carefully put the curl where it belonged and adjusted a pin for her while she snuffled. He wiped her cheeks with his thumbs, careful of her kohl-paint, and of her rouge, and tipped up her face and kissed her gently on salty lips. "Now. There. My brave Moria. All you have to do is not mention me. Say I delivered my messages. Say Stilcho's with me and we're going to go down to a shop and see about that lock you want for your bedroom-now won't that fix it? I promise you-"
"You could witch it."
"Dear woman, I might, but you don't do a thing with an axe when a penknife will do. You don't want your maid blasted, do you? I doubt you want that. I'll find a lock / can't pick and see if you can. If it suits, I'll have it installed on your door within the week. I promise. Now go upstairs, fix your make-up-"
"I want you here! I want you to tell Her what you did to me, I want you to tell Her you made me beautiful!"
"Now, haven't we been over that? She won't care. I assure you she has quite a many things on her mind, and you are the very least, Moria. The very least. Do your job, be gracious, be everything I've helped you be, and the Mistress will be very happy with you. Don't ruin your makeup. Smile. Smile at everyone. Don't smile too much. These men have been a long time out of a house like this. Don't attract them. Behave yourself. There's a love." He kissed her on the brow and followed the sudden panicked dart of her eyes, the appearance of a shadow in the study doorway.
Stilcho leaned there reeking of wine, his thin, white face uncommonly grim with its eye-patch and comma of dark hair. "My lady," Stilcho said wryly. "Very sorry to distress you."
Moria just stared, stricken.
"Come on," Haught said, and caught Stilcho by the arm, heading him for the door.
"I can't find him," Crit said, reporting in to the palace where Tempus had appropriated an office, down the hall and up a stair from the uneasy business Crit had no wish to know about.
Tempus made a mark on a map. The place was a litter of scrolls and books and the plunder of the map room. They lay on the floor as well as the desktop and afternoon light shone wanly through the window, a murky afternoon, beclouded and rumbling with rain that never fell. He rose, walked to the window, hands locked behind him-stared out into the roiling cloud beyond the portico. Lightning flashed. Thunder followed.
"He'll show," Tempus said finally. "You've tried the witch's place again."
"Twice. I..." There was a moment of silence that brought Tempus around to face the man. "... went as far as the door," Crit said, much as if he had said gate of hell. Stolidly. Eyes carefully blank. Tempus frowned.
"King of Korphos," Crit said then.
"I remember." A king invited his enemies to reconcile. Archers turned up round the balcony at dinner and killed them all. Witchfire might serve. And: Nothing new under the sun, an inner voice said; while another voice recalled dead comrades: tortured souls of yours and mine which must be released. ... At times the world went giddy, skidded between past and present. Korphos and a Sanctuary mansion. A missing Stepson, and a sorely wounded one, both prey to witches. A thing that had happened, would happen, inevitably happened? Sometimes he had run risks from mere expediency. Or perversity. He did not take his men into it to no purpose.
Crit stood there, statue-quiet. Too damn willing. A snake had gotten in among them, and Stepson hunted Stepson and stood there with that look that said Anything you order.
"I've no doubt the witch can find him," Tempus said. "If he doesn't show up. Don't worry about it." He gestured toward the door. Crit took the hint, and Tempus walked as far as the hall beside him. "Just see you're on time."
Maybe the tone invited nothing further. Crit went. Tempus stood there with his hands slipped into the back of his belt until Crit had dwindled into a shape of light and shadow on the white marble stairs that led to outer doors.
Niko was where Niko had no business being, that was where Niko was.
He struck his hand against his leg and headed down another stairs, past priests who plastered themselves and their armfuls of linen and simples to the narrow walls.
Through doors and doors and doors, till the thunder overhead diminished and the last door gave way to a sanctum sanctorum deep in the palace bowels. He stepped inside, saw the cluster around the bed, a half dozen priests, the mage, with enough incense palling the room to choke a man. A child whimpered, a thin, faint sound. And Tempus's eye picked out his partner standing in that group. "Get Niko," he said as a priest passed him, and the priest scuttled into the cloying room where he had no personal wish to go. The stuff offended his nose, gave him the closest thing to a headache he was wont to have. He stood there with the pressure throbbing in his temples which might be rage at Niko or the whole damned business of priests and mummery and a mage's ill-smelling concoctions, or just the world gone awry. He stood there while the priest snagged Niko and led him into reach, Niko walking as if he would break, one eye running and filmed with gelatinous stuff,
the other patched.
"Damn," Tempus snarled at the priest, "does it need the smoke?" He took Niko by the arm and led him out into clean air, closed the door. "I'm not asking this time; get to bed."
"Can't sleep," Niko said. The ashbrown hair fell loose across his brow, trailed into Jinan's unspeakable unguents. "No use-"
"You're raving." He took Niko's arm willy-nilly, led him
"I saw Janni," Niko said, mumbled, in a sick man's disjointed way. "I saw him here-"
"You don't see a damn thing, you're not going to see a damned thing if you don't get out of that foolery and leave those brats to the priests."
"-can take care of it." He reached Niko's appointed bedchamber, opened the door and led him as far as the rumpled bed. "Now stay there, or do I have to set a guard?"
"Eyes aren't that bad," Niko murmured. But he felt of the bedside and sat down like a man with too many bruises.
Tempus had none. They healed. Everything slid off him and vanished. Only Niko had the bandages, Niko had the scars, Niko was fragile as all he loved. "Stay there," he said, too sharply. "I've too much else. I don't need this."
Niko subsided quietly. Lay back with his eyes shut. It was not what he had meant to say or do. He walked over and pressed Niko's hand, walked out then.
Call off the damn dinner, he thought. What's to be gained? How did I agree to that?
It was before hell broke loose; it was to calm a nervous town. It was to get the measure of a witch and her intentions. And to discover the threads that Strat had run here and here and here through the town. In that regard it made more sense than not. The affair was a stone in motion, downhill, and it would say something now to the town to break off this engagement. "... Souls of yours and mine..." Straton was one of those souls at imminent risk. And if there was a thing which might pull Straton into reach it was this, his own witch-lover's arranging.
Why meet with them? Why this courting of Stepsons?
That was the insane question. He thought ofKorphos again; and the arrows. And poisoned wine. And the Emperor.
He was not accustomed to direct challenge, but it was still possible.
The door stayed open to a steady stream of martial guests, arrivals afoot and ahorse out front, with the clank of swords in the foyer, the inpouring of wolfish men who towered and clattered with weapons they did not give up at the door. Hand after huge hand took Moria's as she stood sentry at the door of her borrowed house, a powdered, perfumed mannequin that said over and over How kind, thank you, welcome, sir and smiled till her teeth ached. Hands which could have crushed her lingers lifted them to lips smooth, bearded, mustached, olive skinned and white-skinned and unmarked and scarred; and each time she recovered her hand and stared a moment too long into the eyes of this or that man she felt the blue satin dress too low and the perfume too much and her whole self estimated for value right along with the vases and the house silver. And she was the thief!
Man after man and not a woman in the lot until a tall woman with one long pigtail came strolling in and crushed her hand in a grasp rougher than the men's. "Kama," that one said. Her hand was callused as the men's. Her eyes were smouldering and dreadful. "Pleased," Moria breathed, "thank you. Do come in. Dining hall to your right under the stairs." She worked her fingers and thrust out her hand valiantly to the next arrivals, seeing more on the street. More and more of them. There could not be enough wine. A stray lock of her coiffure slipped and strayed down her neck, bouncing there. She borrowed both hands up to stab it back into place with a hairpin, realized the tall soldier in front of her was staring down her decolletage and desperately thrust out her hand. "Sir. Welcome."
"Dolon," that one said, and headed in the wake of the woman with the pigtail while others came up the steps.
0 Shalpa and Shipri, where's the Mistress, what am I doing with these Rankans? They know I'm Ilsigi, they're laughing at me, they're all laughing....
A man arrived who was not a soldier, who came with servants: she mistook him for a passerby until he abandoned the servants and came up the steps, seized her hand and kissed it with a flourish of his cap.
He looked up. His hair was fair brown, his eyes were blue; he was Rankan of the Rankans and noble and he stared into her eyes as if he had discovered some strange new ocean.
"Tasfalen Lancothis," he murmured, and never let go of her hand. "You are the lady-"
"Sir," she said, quite paralyzed by a nobleman who stared into her eyes in that way. And she was further baffled when he plucked a black feather from his cap and offered it to her. "How kind," she murmured, blinking at him and wondering whether she had gone totally mad or was another Rankan here to make sport of her. She put it in her decolletage, having no better place, and saw his eyes follow that move and lift to hers again with profoundest concentration. "My lady," he said, and kissed her hand a second time, which meant men standing in line behind him. Her heart raced in a sense of impending disaster, the Mistress's dire displeasure. Heat and cold chased one another from her breast to her face. "Sir-"
"Tasfalen. Thank you. Please. Later. The others..."
He let go her hand. She turned desperately to the men next, passed them through with a hand to each and caught her breath as she stared at the tall pair next, the taller one with the face that she had seen only at distance, riding through the streets on a fine horse. His clothing was plain. His face was smooth and cold and he was younger than she had thought until he took her hand and she looked up into his eyes by accident.
She stood there in mortal terror, mumbled something and surrendered a limp hand to the man next-"Critias," he named himself. "Moria," she said, never taking her eyes from the man who walked through the hall, an apparition as dreadful as anything the house had yet hosted. 0 gods, where is She? Is She going to come at all? They'll steal the silver, they'll drink down the wine and wreck the house and come at me next, they'll kill me, they will, to spite Her....
Thunder rumbled above the house, the light outside was stormlight, and never a drop of rain spotted the cobbles. She looked outside in mortal terror, expecting more apparitions. Wind skirled, committed indiscretion with her skirts. She held her threatened hair and watched wide-eyed as a last man came from around the comer where the horsemen had turned in, where the beggar-stableboys Ischade had provided did service with the horses, in the little stable-nook to the rear of the house. The man wore cloak and hood. For a moment she thought it was Stilcho and held onto her coiffure and dreaded his approach. But it was not, it was a different man, who came up the step with a matter-of-fact tread and looked up at her with an expression different than the rest-with an expression as if she were a wall in his way and he had suddenly realized something was in front of him. For a moment as he threw his hood back he looked confused, which in these grim men was different in itself.
"I'm due here," he said.
She liked this one better. He was human. She stared at him and blinked in the wind and got out of his way. "Down the hall," she called after him, and seized the door, seeing no one else on the street, and pulled it to. Caught her skirt and freed it and got the door shut. By that time he was gone down that hall, had found the dining hall for himself.
There was a sudden quiet when he passed that door. She stopped in her own rush toward the hall, terrified that there was something going on, rushed on, waving frantically at Shiey, who appeared be-aproned and floured in the doorway. "Food?" Shiey asked.
"Wait on the Mistress," she hissed. "When the Mistress comes." And then she eased through that dining room door where a great deal of quiet had fallen. The last-come stood still in the doorway, the Commander was at the other end of the hall, and the two were staring at each other.
"Straton," Tempus said. So she knew who it was; she felt the cold; she heard the thunder rumbling over the roof and these great men with their swords all a bristle with some offense that had to do with this man and his presence. Only Tasfalen stood nonplussed, holding his wine glass and staring at Tempus as if he had suddenly realized he was in very dangerous and exclusive company.
"Commander." Straton came unfixed from the doorway and walked into the room. It was all slipping out of control. Moria took a quick step forward, her throat paralyzed with fear and her wits with doubt.
"Our hostess," Tasfalen said, and swept in to seize her hand. She drew a great breath, strangled by the lacings of the gown, and the air felt thin and strained and charged, her head swirling with sleeplessness and the smell of wine she had not even drunk. She took a hesitant step with Tasfalen clasping her hand.
"Please," she said. Her voice came out a hoarse breath. "Please sit down. Shiey " No, no, one did not shout for Cook in a formal party. She struggled to free her hand. "Please."
Tempus moved. A mountain might have moved at her wish and amazed her no less. She saw to her dizzy relief all the men moving toward their seats, all of them moving in on the double tables which did, miraculously, have room enough and to spare....
Tempus took a seat. Tasfalen led her inexorably forward, past the rows of chairs, toward the head of the table. Straton- Her Straton-walked on the other side of the tables, got as far as Critias and Tempus, slung his cloak onto a pile of others in the comer, and quietly stood behind a chair he chose. Not looking at them. Or at her. She might have been walking the edge of a chasm.
Tasfalen delivered her to the place centermost of the head table. She shook her head furiously, desperately, with Tempus standing next to that chair, the Mistress's chair; she belonged at the door, she had forgotten to take their cloaks, they had draped them off in the comer in a pile on an unused bench or hung them over the backs of their chairs; Cook delayed with the food, she had to go back to the kitchen and get Cook into motion....
Eyes shifted from her toward the door. She turned, clutching the finials of the carved chair, and saw Ischade in the doorway-an Ischade without her cloak; in a deep-necked gown of deepest blue; the sparkle of sapphire at her tawny throat, her black, straight hair in upswept elegance.
Straton left his place, walked through that vast silence and offered his hand to Ischade. Quietly she took it, and he walked her the whole long distance up the tables in mortal silence. Moria caught a breath, having forgotten to breathe. The effort strained the limits of the corset and dizziness tightened her hands on the chair as Tasfalen's hand left her waist. Ischade had paused in her walking to offer her hand to him, leaving Straton's. The silence trembled there, and Moria desperately transferred her grip to the next chair over, displacing Tasfalen to endmost. She caught the edge of that glance: Ischade's nostrils were white about the edges and her mouth set in an anger carefully controlled.
He's Hers, Moria thought, weak-kneed. Tasfalen's Hers- with all that meant. With absolute terror that stole the strength from her knees and made her wish that she could bolt from the room. She felt the feather ride between her breasts with every breath. Felt-something terrible in the air. Straton stood there, motionless, his face frozen. No one had moved.
"Lord Tasfalen," Ischade said, and turning that glance smoothly to Moria and reaching out her hand. "Moria, my dear." Ischade's hand closed on hers. Drew her close, closer, so close that the musk of Ischade's perfume was in her nostrils, Ischade's hand firm on hers, Ischade's lips dry and cool on her cheek. "How splendid you look,"
Moria swayed on her feet. Ischade's hand ground the bones of her hand together and sent pain through her; Ischade's eyes caught hers and for a moment gulfs opened at her feet.
Then Ischade released her hand and offered it past her toward Tempus. Moria turned her head, clutched the chair again, staring in helpless terror as she had view of Tempus's face and the terrible delicacy with which he lifted Ischade's small hand in his. Power and Power. She felt the hair rise on her nape as if the whole air were charged.
"I owe you thanks," Tempus said. "So I'm told. In the matter of Roxane."
There was the smallest delay, another prickling of storm. "Welcome to Sanctuary, Commander. How fortunate your arrival."
0 my gods-
But Ischade turned then and let Tempus and then Straton draw her chair back. She sat. Everyone settled into chairs. Moria fumbled weakly at hers before realizing Tasfalen was drawing it back for her. She gathered her skirts, sat down as her knees went to water.
Tasfalen seated himself and slipped his hand to hers beneath the table and held with firm strength. Straton passed to Ischade's other side, took the chair at Tempus's left, next to Critias. By some mercy, men had started talking to each other. Then by a further one, the kitchenside door swung open and food started coming.
Tasfalen's hand rested on her thigh. She failed to care. She stared down the long tables, listened to Tempus and Ischade speaking quiet banalities about wine and food and weather-
0 gods, get me out of here! Haught!
She would have hurled herself even into Stilcho's arms.
"I don't know where she is," Ischade was saying, again, in a voice not meant to carry. "I've searched. I've spent the night searching. I had hoped for better news."
"How much do you know?" Tempus asked.
A pause. Perhaps Ischade looked his way. Moria drank a mouthful of wine and tried not to shiver. "I know," Ischade said. And reached for Moria's hand again beneath the table.
"Who told you?"
Another profound silence. "Commander. I am a witch."
Thunder rolled and cracked overhead. "Damn," Tasfalen said.And reached for Moria's hand again beneath the table.
Gentle man, she thought. Gentleman. He doesn't understand this. He doesn't understand what he's into, he's as lost as I am-Ischade invited him, she must have. Oh, what are they talking about, priests and searching and a demon? 0 gods, where's Haught? It was a lie about the lock, he's not off on any errand, not now, with Her like this and the storm and the house full of Rankan soldiers Why was Stilcho with him? What could he have to do with Stilcho?
She took another glass of wine. A third when that ran out. The room swam in a haze, and the voices buzzed distantly in her ears. She picked at food and picked at another course and drank another cup until she could stare about the room without more than a distant trepidation. The conversation about the hall grew more relaxed. Tasfalen whispered invitation in her ear and she only blinked and gave him a dazed look at close range, lost for a moment in blue eyes and a masculine scent unlike Haught's, whose clothes always smelled of Ischade.
Doomed, she thought, damned. Dead. Gods save this man. Gods save me. And she held his hand until his closed on hers with painful force.
"My lady," Tasfalen whispered once, "what's wrong? What's happening here?"
"I can't say," she whispered back; while Ischade said something else to Tempus, which made less sense than before. Of a sudden she realized they were speaking some foreign tongue.
And there was no laughter. There was sudden quiet all about the table. No word from Straton or the man next to him. Critias. The men nearest caught that contagion and it spread down the table. Wine stayed untouched.
"It's sufficient," Ischade said at last. "Your pardon." And rose.
Tempus got to his feet. Straton was next. The whole company began to rise, and Moria thrust herself from her seat, tangling her legs and the skirts and the resisting fabric of the chair until Tasfalen's arm steadied her. She stood there with her heart pounding in terror no wine could numb, suffered Ischade's direct glance, suffered a moment that Ischade put out a hand, lifted her chin with a delicate forefinger and stared her straight in the eyes.
"How fine you've become," Ischade said, and there was hell in that look, that sent a weakness through her bones and her sinews and made her sway against Tasfalen. Ischade let her go then, and nodded to the lord Tasfalen, as Straton came and took her arm. She walked toward the door with Straton, while everyone stayed standing and the confused kitchen started sending out another course.
A low murmur went past their backs. Slowly Tempus settled to his chair again. It was going to go on. She was left with these men after all. Moria sank back to her chair with the last strength in her legs and smiled desperately at Tasfalen.
Ischade walked for the door, paused to gather her cloak from the bannister of the stairs, and let Straton drape it about her shoulders. "Thank you," she said, and walked on toward the door. Stopped abruptly as he followed. She looked back at him and felt her whole frame shudder with the effort of calm, with the effort to keep her face composed and her movements natural. "I said," she told him carefully, "that I needed time to myself. Don't touch me-" As he reached his hand toward her.
"I hod to come, dammit!"
"I said not!"
"Who is that man?"
She saw the madness in his eyes. Or it reflected hers, which pounded in her veins and grew to physical pain. He caught her arms and she flung up her head and stared him in the eyes until the hands lost the strength in their grip. But the pain grew; became madness, became the thing that killed.
She shoved him back, violently, walked with quick steps to the door and heard his steps behind her. She turned before he reached her.
"Stay away!" she hissed. "Fool!"
And jerked the door open and fled, into the wind, and on it.