Book: Armies of the Night
It was an uncommon meeting of Stepsons, recent and previous. It took place one night at winter's edge, outside the weed-grown garden of a smallish house on the riverside, a house in which the outer dimensions and the inner ones did not well agree. Ischade was its owner. And this meeting was on a midnight when She was occupied with another visitor in the inside of this outwardly-small house . and a bay horse waited sleepily at the front.
"Stilcho," the Stepson-ghost whispered; and Stilcho, fugitive from his bed within the house (rejected lately, solitary within the witch's abode) stirred in his dejected posture and lifted his head from his cloaked arms and opened his eyes, only one of which existed.
Janni hovered by the back step, in one of his less palatable manifestations, adrip with gore, rib-bone showing through shreds of skin. Stilcho gathered himself to his feet, wrapped his cloak about him and put a little distance between them-he was no ghost, himself, but he was dead: so he understood ghosts all too well and knew an agitated one when he saw it, both in this world and the next.
"I want to talk with you," Janni said. "I've got to talk."
"Go away." Stilcho was acutely conscious of the living presence in the small house, of wards and watches that existed all about the yard. He spoke in his mind, because Janni was in his head as much as he was standing on the walk-and just as definitely as Janni was there in his mind, he was standing on that walk. Stilcho knew. He had raised this ghost. Revenge, Stilcho had whispered simply, and this ghost, wandering aimless on the far shores of nowhere among other lost souls, had turned and lifted its bloody face and licked its bloody lips. Revenge and Roxane. That had been enough to bring Janni back to the living.
But there were penalties for revenants such as Janni. Memory was one. Attachments were another sort. Hell was not the other side alone. Such dead brought it with them and made it where they walked, even with the best intentions. And this one had been too long out of hell, ignoring orders, going where it pleased in the town.
The aspect grew worse. Blood dropped onto the steps. There was a reek in the air. It would not be denied, would not go away; and Stilcho walked away down the tangled path to the iron gate, where the brush and the trees and the earth itself gave way to dark air, to the black river that gnawed and muttered at the shore on which the house sat. He looked back, never having hoped the ghost would retreat. "For godssakes, man-"
"He's in trouble," Janni said. "My partner's in trouble, dammit-"
'Not your partner. No longer your partner. You're dead, have you got it yet?" Stilcho blinked and ran a hand through his hair, grimaced as the ghost achieved his worst aspect. Stilcho had a real body, however scarred and maimed; and Janni had none; or had whatever his mood of the moment gave him, which was the way with ghosts of Janni's sort. "If She finds you off patrol again-"
"She'll do what? Kill me? Look, friend-"
'Not your friend. There're new ghosts in hell. You know them. You know who made them-"
"It was overdue." Janni's face acquired eyes, glaring through a red film in the moonlight. "Long overdue, that housecleaning. What were they to you? Half Rankene, nothings-They had their chance."
Stilcho turned and glared, his back to the river. "My dead-you sanctimonious prig. My dead-" Stepsons murdered by Stepsons, his barracksmates slaughtered, and several-score bewildered, betrayed ghosts were clamoring tonight at the gates of Hell. It was Ischade's doing, and Straton's; but Stilcho did not carry that complaint where it was due. "No wonder you don't want to go back down there-Is that it, Janni-butcher? Partner to butchers? Hell got too large a welcoming-committee waiting for you?" Janni reached for him in anger and Stilcho retreated against the low gate. It gave backward unexpectedly, above the abyss, and Stilcho's heart jumped. He feared wards broken. He feared the steep slope that the path took along the riverside, and remembered that he could die of other things than Ischade's inattention. He stood in the gateway and held his ground with bluff. "Don't you lay a hand on me. Or I'll take you back where I got you. Now. And you'll find the witch-bitch Roxane was pleasant company. What's in hell is forever, Janni-ghost. And they'll love to have you with them, damned, like them. They'll wait at the gates for you. Real patient. Or shall I call their names? I know their names, Janni-prig. I don't think you ever bothered to learn them."
Janni stopped at least. Stood there on the path, silent, solid- and live looking, give or take the blood that smeared his face. Janni wanted badly to be back among the living, for reasons not all of which were savory. Love was one. And it was never a savory kind of love, the dead for the living. Janni had not learned that.
Stilcho had. In that improbably small house he knew himself supplanted by the living-perhaps fatally.
"You're Rankene," Janni said. "You somehow forget that, boy?"
"I don't forget a thing. Look at me and tell me what I can forget. Look what happened to us for your sake, while you were off a-heroing and left us this sinkhole. And you come home with thanks, do you? Straton slaughters my barracksmates for failing your precious purity and your Niko, that paragon of virtue, falls straight into bed with the Nisi witch-"
"The witch who killed you, man. Where's his virtue? Sent to hell with the likes of me and you? I don't bloody care!"
Ischade half-heard the whisperings of her ghosts outside the house, the true and the half-dead; and ignored them for the living inside-for the warm and living and far more attractive person of the third Stepson, whose name was Straton. He gazed at her, his head on her silken pillow, in her silk-strewn bed-chief interrogator, chief torturer, when the Stepsons had to apply that art-soldier by preference. He was a big man, a moodish man of wry humors and the most delicate skills with a body (one could guess where acquired), and he would survive this night too-she was determined he should, and she gazed back at him in the dim light of golden candles, in the eclectic clutter of her private alcove-strewn spiderlike with bright silks, with the spoils of other men, other victims of her peculiar curse.
"Why," he asked (Straton was always full of questions), "why can't you get rid of this-curse of yours?"
"Because-" She laid a cautioning finger on his chin, and planted a kiss after it, "because. If I told you that you'd not rest; you'd be a great fool all for my sake. And that would be the end of you."
"Ranke's ending. What have I got? Maybe I'd rather be a fool. Maybe I can't help but be one." A tiny frown-line knit his brow. He stared into her eyes. "How many men are this lucky this long?"
"None," she whispered, low as the rustle of wind in the brush, as the ghost voices outside. "None for long. So far. Hush. Would you love me if there were no danger? If I were safe you'd leave me. The same way you left Ranke. The same way you've stayed in Sanctuary. The same way you ride the streets on that great bay horse of yours that too many know-it's death you court, Strat. Indeed it is. I'm only a symptom."
"You mean to add me to your collection, dammit; like Stilcho, like Janni-"
"I mean to keep you alive, dammit, for my reasons." The dammit was mockery. Her curses were real, and deadly. She touched his temple, where a small scar was, where the hair was growing thin. "You're no boy, no fool, I won't have you become one at this stage of your life. Listen to me and I'll tell you things-"
Stilcho shivered there in the dark against the gate, his back to the river-he still could shiver, though his flesh was less warm than formerly. And having been rash with Janni he passed further bounds of good sense. He stared at the ghost and saw that Janni was not his usual furious self. There was something diminished about the ghost. And desperate. As if his arguments had told. "So you want my help," he said to Janni, "to get Niko back. You and he can go to hell together for what I care. Ask Her, why don't you?"
"I'm asking you." The ghost wavered and resumed solid shape. "You were one of the best of the ones we recruited. You were one-who'd have been one of us, after. After the war. Where were those precious lads when you wanted help out on that bridge, in that sty Downwind while the Ilsigi took you apart? Who helped you? The Ilsigi-loving dogs Strat cleaned out? You're Rankan."
"Half. Half, you bloody prig, and not good enough for you till you were short of help. No, there's a damn lot I don't forget. You left us as bloody meat-Ran out on us, left us to hold this hell-hole, dammit, you knew the Nisi would hit at your underbelly, come in here where Ranke's hold's weakest. Not with swords, no; with witchery and money, the sort of thing the Nisibisi are long on and this gods-forsaken pit of a town is apt for-"
"And corruption inside, inside the corps. Dammit, how quick did you forget? You love the Wrigglie bastards that did that to you? You defend your Wrigglie-loving barracksmates? Stilcho," Janni's face wavered in and out of solidity. "Stilcho your barracksmates damn well left you on that bridge. They left you to die slow. / know about dying slow, Stilcho; believe me that I know. And you're right about the Nisibisi outflanking us-everlasting right. But what else could we do? Lose it up north? The Band did what they could. Men coming back from that-maybe maybe they had to save what of their honor they could here in Sanctuary. And you know what your barracks-mates were into, you know what the Band found when they walked in-It was only the dregs survived. Some on the take from the Wrigglies; some, dammit, from the Nisibisi themselves; the rest who dodged every duty they could-you know 'em, doing their patrols in the wineshops and the whorehouses while you stood out on that bridge while the damn rabble cut you to-"
"Let it go," Stilcho hissed; and in the little house beyond Janni's insubstantial body-gods, the lights dimmed, Stilcho imagined the harsh breathing, bodies twined, knew another of them was in the toils and irretrievable; and was in a hell of jealousy. "We left all of that. You've left it further than I have. You ought to learn that-"
"-it's in my interest," Ischade whispered against Straton's ear. "Whatever else you trust in this world, believe in self-interest; and my self-interest is this city; and against my self-interest is Roxane of Nisibis. Hostilities were her choice-far from mine. I never like noise. I never like attention-"
She laughed without mirth, ignored his moving hands, took his face between hers and stared until his eyes grew quiet and deep and hazy. "Listen to me, Strat."
"Spells, you damned witch."
"Not while you can still curse me. I'm telling you a truth."
"Half our nights are dreams." He blinked, shook his head, blinked again. "Dammit-"
"There's no street in Sanctuary I don't walk, there's no door and no gate I can't pass, no secret I can't hear. I gather things. I bundle them together and put them in your hands. I have no luck of my own. I give it away. I've left nobleborn dead in the gutter-oh, yes, and gathered up a slave and made him a lord-" She bent and kissed, lightly, gently, teased the thinning hair at his temple. "You feel a rumbling of change in the world and you rush to court your death. But change isn't death. Change is chance. In chance a man can rise as well as fall. Name me your enemies. Name me your dreams, Straton-Stepson, and I'll show you the way to them."
He said nothing, but stared at her in that dim lost way.
"No ambition?" Ischade asked. "I think you have- more ambition than I. You belong in the sun; and I can't bear that kind of light-Oh, not factually-" She laid a finger on his lips. He was always quick with his questions on that score, always mistook her. "It's questions I can't bear. It's notice. I find my associates in the dark places: the unmissable; the directly violent. I scour the streets. But you belong in the sunlight. You were made for leading men. Listen to me and think of this-are you a greater fool than Kadakithis?"
"Not fool enough to be Kadakithis."
"A man could take this town and make it the wall behind which Ranke could survive. Kadakithis will lose you your Empire and you could save it. Don't you understand this? Ranke is in retreat already. Forces are gathering here in Sanctuary, in the last stronghold Ranke has. And this wispy-minded prince of yours will lie abed with his snake-queen till the venom corrodes the rest of his wits: Do you not see this? Do you see only chance in this Beysib invasion?"
He blinked again, blinked twice. "What are you talking about?"
"Do you believe all the Beysib have told about their coming here? What monstrous coincidence-their arrival here among us just as Nisibis exerts pressure from the north and Ranke begins to totter. I don't believe in coincidence. I don't trust coincidence where wizards are concerned. Kadakithis in his folly has let a foreign fleet in among us at our south door ... while Roxane from the north pours foreign gold into the hands of Ilsigi death squads and promises the fools self-rule. Self-rule! Listen to me. I can take care of Roxane. But I can't come into the daylight. You can. You're a man who understands hard choices. A better man than any in Sanctuary right now, a far better man than Kadakithis-"
"I have my duty-"
"To what? To the Stepsons? Lead them."
"We have a leader. I have a partner-"
"Critias. He follows Tempus. And Tempus-Do you understand him, half? He could take a world. One of his men could take a city, shore up an empire. You, Straton. And hand it to him. Tempus has a chance here-but you're the one that can take it for him; you're the only one who's in position. Ranke has a chance. Behind Sanctuary's walls. What if Tempus is coming? He might well be too late. What good anything if they come too late? Listen to me. Listen to what I have to tell you and test whether my advice is good."
"You," Janni said, and Stilcho, his back to the black air and the river, felt a tenuous grip on both his arms, gazed into a face all but solid, and Janni's best aspect-Janni as he had been-before. Before Roxane. "You're the only one I can go to. The only one I can reach. I've been through the town-" Gods knew what that compassed, the nightbound wandering down the winds: Stilcho guessed. "Stilcho, before the gods, we've got precious little left. The dead of this pesthole patrol her streets; they watch her bridges. Half of them are Roxane's. Some of them-some of them aren't anyone's. Man, you are still a man, they left you that much-are you that afraid of Ischade? Is it that? You slip her cord and she-takes away whatever she gave you? Is that what you march to now, man? You took an oath. You meant it once. You kept it and those dogs fouled it; and I'm asking now, I'm asking you get my partner out of this. He's necessary, don't you see that? He's-what he is. And they'll use him. Roxane's wrung the sense out of him and the priests will get the rest-"
"You're the worst kind of ghost, Janni. The worst kind. The walking kind. You won't go back. Will you? Not till someone settles you."
"No," Janni said, and the tendrils of something very cold wove their way around Stilcho, between him and his body. Stilcho opened his mouth to cry out; but he had made the mistake, he had let Janni into his mind. And the spot that was Janni got wider. His dead-alive heart lurched against his ribs as the river-wind skirled up at him. "No," Janni said. "You want to know the difference in what you are and what I was? / was better than you. I was stronger. I still am. You want me to show you, Stilcho?"
Stilcho's legs trembled. His left foot scraped backward, against Stilcho's every effort to stand firm on the brink.
"A step-a small step, Stilcho," Janni said. "I'll only grow stronger. If the witch does send me back I'll be in hell every time she sends you down after souls-and some night you won't come out of hell, Stilcho-lad. And not all your dead dog-lovers will save you. Or you listen to me now, you get him out-"
The foot dragged backward, knees shook beneath him. "Try me. How much have I got to lose?"
The foot stayed. A feeling of oily cold settled into Stilcho's gut. "There are advantages to being wholly dead. But few." Janni's voice faded. "I see the dead walking patrol in hell and in the streets. No way out. I see the past and the future and I can't sort them out-I see Niko-I see two ways from here-and I can't sort them out. Two ways for Ranke-for the corps-for him-Niko's got to be free, no priest's pawn-free-Has to be-the god-the god-"
The feeling went, just-went. Stilcho stood shivering and leaned on the fence, staring out over the gulf. He had no illusions that the ghost was gone. It was revenge-bound and bound to the living and bound to hang about.
In truth he had nothing left of loyalty himself-not to comrades, not to anything so much as the thin thread that each time hauled him up out of hell when Ischade sent him down.
That thin thread grew strongest when he looked closest into her eyes, when he shared her bed and each morning died for it and came back from hell again, because the thread was always there. It was all he had of pleasure. It was all he had of life. He knew what hell was, being too frequently a visitor; and when he went down again the souls of his dead would cling to him and clamor at him and beg him for rescue-and he would strike at them and leave them in the dark, clawing his own way to the light like a drowning man, back to the next breath that he could win in the world and back to the bed of the woman who killed them.
So much for loyalties. This constant passage back and forth left him no illusions such as Janni had-of ties to anything. There was only fear. And sometime pleasure. But more of fear.
Ischade-had a new amusement. Ischade had herself a man she had not yet killed; one useful to her in this world, and Stilcho was starkly terrified that when Strat died-she might find Strat still useful, in place of a scarred and maimed husk that had never been the man Straton had been.
Stilcho was, at the depth of his attentuated life- terrified; and Janni had put the name to it.
Brush moved, ever so quietly. It might have been the wind. But a touch brushed his arm, a touch where no sound had been; and Stilcho gasped and spun, and all but took that fatal fall-except for the hand that closed on his arm and kept him from headlong flight.
"Does the river draw you?" Haught asked. "The place ef one's death-has a hold on a soul. I'd avoid the water, Stilcho."
Straton's eyes glazed, the pupils slid aside in slitted lids, as he lost awareness for the dreams he dreamed, that were a drug more potent than any apothecary's.
And Ischade shivered, letting the spell wind and build till the candles fluttered-she was lost a moment, self-indulgence. But only a moment.
She bent and whispered more things in Strat's ear and he stirred and gazed up at her with pupils wide and black and drinking down all she might give him.
"There are actions you have to take," she whispered, "for Ranke's sake, for Crit's-for Tempus. I'll tell them to you, to save this city, save the Empire, save what you've always fought for. You stand in the light, Strat, Ace, in the clean sunlight-and never look into the dark; never try to see the shadows. They're far too dark for you-"
"Who was here just now?" Haught asked; and Stilcho twisted away, wishing to go back from the river-edge. But the ex-slave, Ischade's Nisi apprentice-had more strength in his fine hands than seemed likely.
"Janni," Stilcho said. "It was Janni."
"That wants fixing," Haught said.
Time was that Stilcho would have spat on the man; when he was alive and Haught was no more than a slave. But Haught served Her now. And Haught had talent that Her talent fed; and the stripping of a soul from a body was likely a negligible thing for Haught these days. Stilcho felt the chill that came when Haught's substance passed between him and Ischade. "Don't-I tried to reason with him. I tried to tell him he's dead. He's not listening. His partner's in trouble."
"I know," Haught said. His hand was viselike on Stilcho's cloaked arm, numbing. "And you very much don't want to go after him, do you. Stepson?"
Haught's eyes met his, deceptively gentle, woman-gentle. The fingers loosened. "Difficult times, Stepson. She has company and you wander the dark." The fingers wandered gently down his arm and took his bare hand. "You have such simple loyalties now. Like life. Like those who can hold you to it. Ask me-how you can help me?"
"How can I help you?" The words poured out without a thought of resistance. The same way they did for Ischade. It was only afterward that the shame got to him. After-ward when he had time to think; but that was not now, with Haught this close, death gaping and lapping below the drop from the garden fence.
"You can go to hell," Haught said.
It was not a curse. It was an order. "For her-" Stilcho said, lips stammering. "I go for her, that's all."
"Oh, it's in her service. Believe me."
Strat blinked in the sunlight and rode past the Blue line checkpoint in the morning-the bay's shod hooves ringing hollow on the cobbles beside the bridge. The misnamed White Foal flowed murkily by, with its scarce traffic on dark-brown water; a skiff or two; a scruffy little barge.
The scarred end-posts stood innocent in the sun. The reeking, rotten streets of Downwind on the other side lost their mystery by daylight and became the ugly thing they were. The poor shuffled about their eternal business of staying alive, whatever the business of the night. It was a peaceful day in Sanctuary and the other-side. The invisible lines still existed; but they weakened by day, descending to amiable formality, expecting no assault. The iron discipline of the gangs and the death squads gave way to pragmatic spot-searches, Ilsigi poor taking their little chances with the lines they could cross, beggars begging their usual territories. Death squads operated nightly; bodies turned up by daylight to impress the populace.
But a Stepson still rode through, down the invisible no-man's line of the riverside. Strat saw the blue graffiti on one wall; saw red on another, where rival gangs blazoned their claims at riverside.
He knew hate surrounded him. He felt it in the city, felt it when he rode up the daylit streets in Jubal's territory-toward the Black line where members of the Band and the 3rd Commando held their own, keeping the bridge and one long street open from the Stepson Yellow line in the west, through Red through Blue and into the Black of the Mageguild's territory, commerce maintained against every attempt of the individual militias and factions to shut it down. It was a demonstration Ranke was not yet done; and some wanted to demonstrate otherwise.
His eyes scanned the way that he rode, his skin absorbed the temperature of the glances that fell on him.
The mongrel crowds of Sanctuary were out by daylight. The workmen and the merchants-the few shops, graffiti scarred, marked with the Permissions of Jubal's gangs that ruled the sector-spread few goods. Merchants had few goods. Took few chances. Many doors stayed shut; shop-shutters were boarded over. Uptown did not see this danger-signal; there the shops hired more guards; there the rich doubled the locks on their doors. Walegrin of the Garrison knew: the meres the prince hired knew, and both prepared as best they could-to hold the other long street open, hill to harbor.
Straton lifted his eyes, blinking in the day. He let the horse carry him in that lassitude his mornings-after had; let his mind carry him in crazed thoughts that darted this way and that, through the streets, to the detail of a graffiti'd wall that informed him of some death squad active in the night-to the beggar on the curb that withdrew from his horse's skittish hooves. A cart of empty jars passed him. A handbarrow groaned past under a load of rags and junk. A sewer opening afflicted his nostrils with its sweet-ugly stench. And a blue sky shone down on Ranke's slow death.
He blinked again, looked uptown through the haze of morning-smokes from Sanctuary's thousand fires, up the winding of one of the long streets.
And it seemed there was a line drawn in the world, with fools on one side and the other of it, and himself one of the few who could see himself as a fool. The high shining fine houses where Ranke frittered away its last hours barriered themselves in vain against the tide that was about to come uptown. Walegrin could not hold forever. Neither could they, below.
Sanctuary, with its backside to the sea.
With its mongrel gods and its mongrel merchants and the last lost rim of secure land in the Empire. Nisibis would sweep down to the shores; and the Beysib up from the south like a rolling wave; and for an intelligent man who had soldiered all his life away for the fools who wore the gold and the purple-there was in the end, riot and murder and death by stoning in city streets.
Fool, he thought, hating Kadakithis for what he was not. And had a vision of dark eyes and felt the feathery touch of soft lips and the dizzying descent into dark.
He took up on the reins. Looked uphill with thoughts moiling in him: And snapped the reins and sent the bay clattering along the Maze, through increasingly tangled streets. Red PFLS graffiti sprawled across a wall, once, twice, obscuring the usual obscenity, Jubal's blue hawk splashed over that. The bay spumed broken pottery, sent a girl shrieking for the curb. A rock pelted back and rebounded off the cobbles. The young were always the rebels.
The uptown house echoed to soft steps and the closing of doors and Moria came downstairs, wrapped in her robe. She cursed the servants, let out a gutter oath, and stopped dead on the steps, staring wide-eyed at what had gotten in. She clutched the robe about her, wiped at a frowsy tangle of hair and blinked in the dim light. Ex-thief, ex-hawkmask, she knew the elegant shape standing in the polished foyer by the Caronnese vase: the elegant, cloaked man who looked up at her and smiled.
Her heart thudded. "Haught." She came pelting down off the steps and remembered all at the same time that she was no longer the street-wiry sylph, no longer the tough woman who knew the ways Haught did not; he was all elegance and she was she was still Moria of the streets, gone a little fat and altogether terrified.
"Moria." Haught's voice was cool, but a sexual roughness ran through it, and shivered on her nerves. She stopped in her dismay and he took her by the shoulders, in this fine house that was Ischade's, as they all were Ischade's. No one had let him in. He passed whatever doors he liked.
"My brother's missing," she said. "He's-gone."
"No," Haught said. "She knows where he is. Vis and I found him. He's doing a little job. Now you have to."
Her mouth began to tremble. First it was outright terror for Mor-am, for her brother, who was half-crazy and bound to Ischade as she was; and second it was for herself, because she knew that she was in a trap and there was no way out. Ischade gave them this fine house and came and collected little pieces of their souls whenever she wanted favors done.
"What?" she asked; and Haught put his hands up to her face and brushed the tangled hair back, gently, like a lover. "What?" Her lips trembled.
He bent and kissed them, softly, and the touch was both gentle and chilling. He gazed closely into her eyes.
Was it possible-Moria stood quite transfixed-possible that Haught still loved her? It was a fool's thought. She only had to remember what she was and look at what he had become and know the answer to that. She recovered her wits and stepped back with a small push of her hands. The robe gaped and she cared nothing for that, small and dumpy and wine-sotted woman who had given away all advantage.
"Where is he? Where's my brother?"
"Oh, about the streets. Going those places he can go." He reached into his shirt and drew out a thing that never could have come from the lower town. "Here." The red rose showed a little rumpling. It glistened and glowed then, dewed with the illusion of freshness. "I gathered it for you."
"From Her garden?"
"The bushes can bloom-even in winter. With a little urging. She doesn't care. She cares for very little. You might bloom too, Moria. You only want a little tending."
"Gods-" Her teeth chattered. She shook sense back into her head and looked up at him. At the man she had once known and no longer did, with his fine (foreign) speech. She held the rose in her hand and a thorn brought blood. "Get me out of here. Haught, get me out."
"No. That's not the game, Moria." His hands held her face, straightened her hair, smoothed her cheeks. "There, now, you can be beautiful." And there was a softer feel to her face and to his hands, cool, like the winter rose. "You can. You can be anything you want to be. Your brother has his uses. But he's weak. You never were. He's a fool. You were never that either."
"If I'm so smart why am I here? Why am I locked in this place with gold I can't even steal? Why do I take orders from a-"
His finger touched her lips but the silence was hers, sudden and prudent. She caught the shadow in his eyes, that perpetually evaded, darted, shifted in a slave's nowhere privacy-he had turned that apparent shyness to furtive purpose. Or had always had it.
"She's calling in the debt," she said, "isn't She?"
"Trust me," Haught said. His finger wandered down her cheek to her throat. "There are few women who attract me. Certainly I don't share her bed. Calling in the debt, yes. And when the world changes, you'll wear satins and eat on gold-"
"Gods, Shalpa and Ils de-"
Her voice changed in her throat, lost its harshness and became Rankene-smooth, betraying her. She stopped and spat. "My gods!" (But it came out pure and clear.)
"My rose has hurt your hand." Haught gathered her fingers to his lips and kissed the thorn-sting, and Moria, who had faced street gangs dagger in hand and sliced respect into more than one Downwind bully, stood and trembled at that touch.
Trembled more when he turned her toward the mirror and she saw the touseled, dark-haired woman who blinked back at her in shock. Rage flooded through her. He made her this. Witchery like the rose. She turned on him with fury in her eyes. "I'm not your toy, dam-
(But the voice would not roughen and the accent was not Ilsigi.)
"You're the way I always saw you."
"And the way She wants you. Leave Mor-am to the streets. He has his uses. Yours are uptown. Haven't you understood what you're for?"
"I'm not your damn whore!"
He flinched. "Have I ever asked that? No. I'll tell you what you're to do. But I wouldn't use that word. I truly wouldn't, Moria, in Her hearing."
More messengers sped during the day. One great one lifted on black wings and scattered a flock of lesser on his way from the river-house roof. The little ones went a dozen ways.
And Ischade (she did sleep, now and again, but rarely of late) wrapped herself in a dusky blue cloak unlike her nighttime black and gathered up certain other things she wanted.
"Stilcho," she said; and having no answer, thrust aside the curtains that hid the Stepson's small room.
There was no one there. "Stilcho!" She sent her mind out in a light scouring of the immediate vicinity; and raised a thin, wan response.
She opened the door and took a look out back: and found him there, a shivering knot of cloak by the rose-bush.
There was refuge of a sort in the house, one of half a dozen hidey-holes they maintained within the black zone for operations this far from base. And Strat paid listless attention to the bay and saw it strawed and fed and watered in the shanty-stable; and climbed the dirty stairs of the deserted place and pulled the vent-chain that let a little light through the shutters.
There was a little food here. A little wine. A waterpot and a few other odds and ends. He stumped about in the dusty silence and knew that he was safe from hearing: below was only the stable, and to either side were warehouses and the owners of them well-heeled and Rankene, uptown.
He had his breakfast. He washed. He found himself trapped in one of those days that had gotten common enough lately, with horror on either end and sheer boredom in the middle. Nowhere presently to go. Nothing presently to do, because it was all waiting, waiting, waiting. Something would break and the Srd's scattered vigilance would turn up something, but in the meanwhile commerce went on and down by the harbor hammering went on, sound echoing off distant walls.
Building going on while the world ended.
He sat there and chewed a tasteless bit of yesterday's bread and drank a cup of wine and most of what his mind wanted to go to was Her, and the river and the dark. Maybe he could have found something to do with himself, found some use for himself or some plan to pursue-but he had a deep and abiding conviction that there was nothing, presently, worth the doing. And that soon all hell would break.
He grew prophetic since he had shared the witch's bed. Niko had gone down in such a trap and even that failed to alarm him, because he knew why, and accepted. He sat listlessly and heard his heart beat, thump, thump, like the hammer-blows and the thud of cartwheels on cobbles and the whole pulse of the city.
My city. Walls behind which the Empire could last if there were adjustments here.
More than one emperor of Ranke had risen (aye, and come to grief) at the will of the soldiery.
He could snatch up the sword Kadakithis left untouched. Be ready when Tempus returned.
Shock Crit to hell, he would. Hello, Crit. Meet the new emperor. Me.
He shivered. It was crazy. He tried to think back to the night and it was full of dark gaps. Memory of things he had done with Ischade that had all the improbability of efreets and krrf-dreams.
They came and went. Her face did. Her mouth hovered close and spoke words and he could read lips, but he could not read that, as if she spoke some language he knew and did not know when he was awake, or his brain would not let him put the sounds together.
And no man had nights like that, no one could, and have another and another and pay no penalties.
There were sore places; there were marks-(witch-marks?) bites and scratches that confirmed part of what he remembered; could a man's soul leak out through such little wounds?
A spider had spun an elaborate web over by the light-vent, across the slats. He found it uncomfortably ominous. He went and flung it down and crushed the spider under his heel; and felt a chill greater than the killing in the barracks had given him.
"Stilcho." It took an expenditure of energy to bring him back. Ischade put her hands on the Stepson and searched deep down the long threads that led where he had gone; and pulled, and rewove, and brought him up again, there on the cold ground beneath the scraggly roses and the brush. "Stilcho. Fool. Come up and let go."
He wept-tears from one eye and a thin, reddish fluid from the missing one. And he did come back-came rushing back all at once and into the world with a scream that would have drawn attention in any town but Sanctuary and in any neighborhood but this one.
"Well," she said, sitting there with her arms about her | knees and regarding this least willing of her servants, i "And where were you?"
He knew her then and scrambled back till he hit the rosebushes and impaled himself on the thorns. He began to shiver; and she caught a little remnant of magics about the place.
"That very fool!" she said, knowing of a sudden that signature and that willful pride. At times Haught amused her with his hunger for knowledge and his self convinced keenness to serve. This was not one of those times. "Where did you go last night?"
"Vanity. Vanity. What prodigy did you perform? What did he ask?"
"I-I-" Stilcho's teeth chattered. "Ask-a-ask me-go down-find-f-find-a-answer-"
She drew in a deep breath and slitted her eyes. Stilcho gazed into her face and pressed himself as far in retreat as he could, heedless of the thorns. He flinched when she reached and caught him by the arm. "Stepson. No, I shan't hurt you. I'll not hurt you. What did Haught want to know?"
"N-n-nik-o." Stilcho went into a new paroxysm of shivering. "T-temple-. Said said tell-you-Janni- Janni is out hunting Niko."
She was very still for a moment. A thread of blood ran down Stilcho's cheek from the thorns. "What side is he playing, Stilcho?"
"Says-says-you spend-" Stilcho trembled and a second runnel joined the first down his cheek. "Too much time on Straton. Says think of Janni. Think-"
It all died away very quickly, very quietly. She stared at him a moment, and he stayed still as a bird in front of a snake. And then she smiled, which made him flinch the more. She reached out and straightened a lock of hair above his ruined face. "You have a good heart, Stilcho. A loyal heart. An honest one. Proof against corruption. Of all sorts. Even though you hate what I did. Haught is Nisi. Does that suggest caution to you?"
"He-hates the Nisi witch."
"Oh, yes. Nisi enemies sold him into slavery. But Stepsons bought him. I tell you, Stilcho, I will not have quarrels in my house. There, you're bleeding. Go in and wash. And wait-" She bent and pressed a kiss against his scarred mouth, another against his wounded cheek. He took in his breath at the second, because she had sent a little prickling spell lancing into his soul. "If Haught tries you again I'll know. Get inside."
He scrambled out of his predicament with the rosebush, gathered himself to his feet and went up the steps into the house. In haste. With what of grace a dead man could manage taking his leave of a sovereign lady who crouched thus in the dust and meditated a few tattered, fresh leaves onto the rosebush.
The door slammed. The rosebush struggled into one further untimely surge, thrust out a wan limegreen shoot and budded. She stood and it unfurled, blood-red and perfect.
She plucked it and sucked her finger, sent out a silent summons and a dozen birds napped aloft above where they had clung like ill-omened leaves to the skeletal winter trees.
She tucked the rose into the dooriatch. So much for Haught, who thought that his mistress had grown soft-witted. Who thought that she needed counsel; and who took first a bit of latitude with his orders and then a bit more.
This rose likewise had thorns.
It was noon, and Straton headed to the streets again- quietly, or at least with enough attempt at disguise that those who recognized him would know better than to hail him. He left the bay stabled and went afoot; and wore ordinary clothes. First he paid a visit to the backside of a tavern where messages tended to turn up, if there was a chalkmark on a certain wall there. There was nothing. So one informant failed, which meant two others had, down the line from that one.
But Sanctuary stayed uncommonly quiet-considering the carnage that had happened over by the barracks Downwind-side. Or because of it.
He fretted, and bought a hot drink at a counter, and stood there watching Sanctuary urchins batting something objectionable about the gutter. And took a further walk up the street, past an easy checkpoint into Blue, dodging round a fuller-wagon immediately after. A donkey had died in the street. That was the morning's excitement. The tanners from the Shambles were loading it into a cart with more help from local brats than they wanted. A sly wag spooked the tanner's horse and it shied off and dumped the corpse flat, to howls from watchers curbside.
Strat evaded the entire process, felt a jostle and spun, reaching after a retreating arm-his heart lurched; his legs hurled him into action before he thought, but that was temper, and he gave up the chase two steps into it. The thief had failed, his purse was intact, and the only thought left to him was how easily it could have been a knife. The Rankan hitting the pavements right along with the donkey and the Ilsigi rabble howling with laughter. Or absenting themselves in prudent speed. He felt cold of a sudden, standing there, his thief in rout, the passers-by giving him curious stares as they jostled about him, perhaps seeing a stranger a little tall and a little fair to be standing on this particular streetcorn-er, this low in the town. A battlefield had its terror: noise and dust and craziness; but this day by day walking through streets full of knives, full of sly stares and calculations where he stood out like a whore at an uptown party-
-he was in the minority down here, that was what. He was thunderously alone. Uptown was where a Rankan belonged.
-in the sunlight-
-at the head of armies-
He turned with a start, caught the sudden dart of an eye from a curly-headed brat, the inviting jerk of head toward alley, down beyond the donkey-crowd. Come along, the gesture insisted.
He froze, there on the street. It was not one of the regular contacts. It was someone who knew him. Or who knew him only as Rankan and a target and any target would do to raise the prestige of some damned death squad crazy who wanted a little claim to glory-
Any Rankan would do, any Beysib, any uptowner.
He walked on down the street, slipping his shoulders through the crowd, ignoring the invitation. It was not a situation he liked-crowds, bodies pressing close against him, pushing and shoving; but there was one way away from that alley.
Another tug at his belt; he reached and turned and lost momentum in the crowd as his hand protected his purse. Another hand was there, on his wrist.
He looked up and it was a dark face, a couple of days unshaven, haggard-eyed, under a dark fringe of hair and a cap that had seen better years.
Mradhon Vis pulled at him, edged sideways through the crowd and alleyward, and Straton followed, cursing himself for a twice-over fool. This was a Nisi agent. A hawkmask; and a man with more than one grudge against him. And also a man more than once in his pay.
Vis wanted him in the alley. And of a sudden there was a second man who seemed less interested in the dead donkey than in him.
Fool, Straton thought again, but there were two choices now-the alley with Vis or taking out running, in full flight, and attracting the mob.
Moria waited in the antechamber in an agony of uncertainty-cloak close about her and enough muscle waiting out in the street to guarantee her passage through Downwind with jewels on. This foyer of one of uptown's most elegant mansions was no less perilous territory, for other reasons. It was the lady Nuphtantei's mansion, where Ischade had sent her: Haught said so. Haught gave her an escort of some of Downwind's best, bathed and dressed up like a proper set of servants; Haught gave her a paper to hand the servants, a tiny object^ and a set of words to say, and Moria, born to Downwind's gutters, stood in this place which was one of the oldest of all Sanctuary mansions (but not the oldest of Sanctuary occupants) and knotted her hands and professionally estimated the wealth that she saw about her, in gold and silver.
A movement caught her eye. She looked down, gulped and skipped four feet backward from the gliding course of a viper.
So she looked up again, still in retreat, an object lost from her hand and rolling somewhere across the carpet, as a set of skirts swayed into her view, covering the serpent: skirts and small bare feet and (Moria's shocked vision traveled up to wasp waist and bare breasts) a plethora of jewelry and blonde curls and a face painted to a fare-thee-well: (Migods, it's a doll!)
The doll acquired a more stately companion, taller, with straight blonde hair and a shawl of flounces; blonde hair, unblinking eyes and a very sober face of some few more years.
The doll chittered and chattered in the Beysib tongue. "Oh," lisped the tall one. "A messenger? From whom?"
Never you mind, bitch. That was what Moria meant to say; but it came out: "Of no moment to you or me." Pure and Rankene. Her voice rushed, breathless. "Your gold has bought you trouble, your friends have bought you enemies, your enemies multiply daily. I have connections. I came to offer them."
"Connections?" The tall Beysib stared with her strange eyes and fingered a small knife at the edge of her shawl of flounces. One of her necklaces moved, a thing that had seemed cloisonne, and was not. "Connections? To whom?"
"Say that this someone can save you when the walls fall."
"Say that you serve the Beysa. Say that I serve someone else. And tell the Beysa that the wind is changing. Gold will not buy walls."
"Who are you?"
"Tell the Beysa. Tell the Beysa mine is the house with the red door, downhill from here. My name is Moria. Say to the Beysa that there are ways to safeguard her people. And ways to pass any door." It came out in a rush and was done. She did not know what she had said, except that the two Beysib stared at her and the tall woman's necklace had risen up to stare too, quite unpleasantly.
The doll spoke, rapidly. Started forward and looked mad enough to spit, but the other restrained her. There were men about now, elegant, quiet men, half a dozen of them.
"I'm done," Moria said, and waved a hand toward the door. Backed a step, thought of snakes and decided to turn and look. It was not a comfortable retreat. She turned her face to the Beysib again. "I'd say," she said, and her voice was more her own, "that you better lock your doors and stay behind them. You've been fools to walk about so rich. There's a lot fewer of you than there were. Bread's dearer, gold's cheaper, and two blocks downhill from my house even the Guard won't walk. Think about that."
"Come here," the Beysib said.
"Not with those snakes," Moria declared, and snatched the door open and slammed it after.
Her guard was not precisely apparent outside; it materialized when she came down off the steps, a man slouching along here, another joining them from an alley. Only one walked with her openly, one of her own servants, a nine-fingered man very quick with a knife. He wore brocade and a gold chain and had a sword at his hip which he had not the least idea how to use, but she knew that of brigands on the street she was walking with the very worst, and they took her orders.
She was scared beyond clear thought. She scanned the street and walked down it with the flounced swish that had (since the Beysib) become fashionable; and all the while knew that she had just delivered something deadly to that house. She had let fall a small silver ball, and it had rolled away from her feet and lost itself. Perhaps a Beysib snake would investigate it. It was too small for anything else to notice.
It did not at all shake her confidence that even Ischade's sorceries needed physical objects to anchor them. It shook her more to know how tiny those objects could be, hardly more than a bead, a droplet of silver, undetectable without magic to use in turn-and perhaps not then. If that was not a witch who had met her, then she was no judge.
A lifelong resident of Sanctuary learned to judge such things.
Strat balked at the alley-mouth: he had half-thought of a fast move and a quick break; but so, obviously, had Vis. Vis was not alone. Three men were in the alley; waiting. One more behind. So it was either revenge or a serious talk; and it was easy to get bad hurt trying to get out of this now.
He went on in and stopped as close to the street as he could; or tried to. One caught his arm and dragged and he found the sharp point of a knife in his back from Vis's side.
He stopped struggling then. Kidney-hit was a bad way to go, not that there were good ones. He was a professional himself, and this was not one of the times to turn hero. He let them push and haul him along to a bending of the alley and push him up against a wall-the push was their idea, the wall was his, to get something besides the knife at his vulnerable back; but they followed up close and personal and Vis and the knife followed up against his gut, where it was utterly disconcerting.
"This is a talk," Vis said.
"Fine," Straton said, back to the bricks. "Talk."
"No, this is you to us."
"Uhhn. Who's us?"
Strat had his stomach tight. He waited for the blow to the gut; it failed to come. That puzzled him; and unnerved him more than violence. They wanted more than he had thought.
"Us is the same source you're used to," Vis said. "Us is a man you know. This is all business. Word is something's on the move."
"You and I've talked," Strat said. "You want to get me a little breathing room and we can trade-" He stopped. The knife indicated stop. He was in no disposition to argue. He was careful about breathing for a moment. The dark look of the men about him might have been Ilsigi. It wasn't-quite. He suddenly knew what he had fallen in among. Nisi death squad. In Jubal's pay-maybe.
"You and I have talked," Vis said. "Now I want you to tell me a few things. Like who's giving you your orders. I hear you're in her bed. True?"
He sucked in his breath; mistake: the knife gave him no room to take another. "Soght-ohon," he said, Nisi obscenity. And waited for the knife. Vis grinned. It was a wolf-grin. Mountain-lunatic grin. Men smiled like that who hurled themselves off walls, disdaining surrender.
"She's got you," Vis said. "You're sweating, man. You know that?"
He said nothing. Stood still and breathed in what little space he had, starting to add where he could move and how fast before he might die. Or whether it was time to try it.
-The sun and the armor and the walls of Ranke, Sanctuary become true to its name, the wall behind which-
"She's got something moving," Vis said, and hooked a finger under Straton's jaw, compelling attention. "Word's flying. That mess over Downwind-the barracks-that wasn't any of our doing."
No answers. No answer was the wisest answer and hope to the gods Vis was in control of the other four. Vis had a brain and a grudge the limit of which he knew. The others might be plain crazy. "Let's," Strat said thoughtfully, "not complicate this. Vis. I'm not on your payroll. You're on mine. And let's keep it that way. It's been the same side so far. If something's coming down I'm as interested as you are and I haven't heard- Uhhh."
"You think you still run things, do you?"
"You can kill me. There's those will pay it."
He had meant the Band. Crit. He saw a flicker of something else in Vis's face; and remembered who else would pay it, and whom Vis feared more than he feared Ranke-considerab ly.
"You got your own hell," Vis said. "I want a straight answer. Is it her? Is it her pulling the cords right now? Where's the rest of your lot?"
Quick mental addition. The slaughter at the barracks: dead giveaway of a new wave of Rankan activity among those in a position to know they hadn't done it. And Vis was at least marginally on Rankan funds, not Nisibisi. Vis and his lot hated Roxane and her lot. That they had in common. "A few of the Band's here," Straton said. "Say that-we've funded this and that in the streets. Same as you. And we want that street to stay open. You want any more funds. Vis, you better think again. I don't know what She's up to; and I sure as hell won't hand it out if I find out. But my lads have steered yours clean so far and none of mine have cut your throats. This Jubal's doing? That who's behind this? Is he running your lot? Or is it Walegrin?"
"Oh, we're still bought," Vis said, and the knife eased off. "On all the usual sides. If I was a fool I'd pay you a personal debt right now; but you aren't marked and I'm not a fool." Another of Vis's wolf-grins. "You don't promise and you don't make threats. You just want out of here with as little said as possible. On my side I've been helpful. In spite of some things. I'm telling you now- won't charge you a thing. Something's coming. Debts are being called in. In the Downwind. Moruth's lot. You understand me."
Moruth. Beggar-king. The hawkmasks' old nemesis. Straton looked at Vis and his pseudo-Ilsigi company and added it up again-Vis willing to risk his Rankan income and Vis running information against Moruth and his beggars. It added up to Jubal. For certain it did. Straton let go a slow breath. "Tell Jubal I'm on it. I'll find out. But I don't run his errands."
"You're too smart, Whoreson."
"You're too rash, bastard. So's Jubal if he thinks he's bought out you and these dogs of yours. How many others in the town? Coming in with the trade, are you?"
"Like you. Here. There. A lot of us. But we don't die like the Whoresons in barracks. You're dealing with something else now."
"There's Nisi want your guts for ribbons. My spies tell me that." Strat grinned deliberately into Vis's dark face. "Us is a damn small number. Ils doesn't include most of the mountaineer-Nisi. I know what they want you for, Vis. But don't let's discuss that. You may find Jubal can't hide you singlehanded. You may find Ilsigi money runs thin. Say you and your fine friends just back off now and thank your peculiar gods you and I've kept our tempers. And we won't remind each other of old times."
"So it's not Ranke on the move."
"No, it's not Ranke. It's not us. It's not you. Whatever's moving, it's not either one of us. Or Jubal."
"Ilsigi," Vis said.
"Ilsigi." Freed, Straton spat in sheer amazement. "Wrigglies." He stared at the Nisi outlaw, recalling the peculiar silence of the streets.
"It's Ilsigi," Vis said. "What's either of our lives worth when that breaks loose, huh? That's a lot of knives."
More messengers flew. Most were black, and feathered. One landed in the Maze, bearing a certain amulet. One landed on the wall of the palace and with characteristic perverseness, ran its designated recipient to panting hysteria trying to overtake it and retrieve the small cylinder affixed to its leg. It took off, landed, took off again, and finally, coyly surrendered and bit the hand of the priest who retrieved it.
One landed on a small bush and hopped onto a sill in the Street of Red Lanterns.
And Haught, returning home after delivering one message in person-discovered a rose thrust through the doorhandle, and blanched.
He gathered it up; and thrust it into his bosom as unwillingly as if it had been a snake.
"I do trust," Ischade said when he had come inside, "you'll be more kind in future. Stilcho's not yours."
"Yes," Haught said fervently.
"You think I'm indolent."
"How Nisi, to be in a hurry. How Nisi to be so punctiliously, superciliously careful of my affairs. Sometimes I'd forgotten that. But you do justly chide me for my nature."
"I only tried to care for things-"
"Haught, Haught, Haught. Spare me. You think you've become indispensable. Or rather-you hope to become so." Ischade kicked aside a cloak of fine rose silk. "Few things are."
"You fear I don't care for details. Well, you may be right, Haught. I accept your judgment. And your warning. And I want you to take care of a matter for me. Yourself. Since you've become so skilled."
She smiled and came and touched the rose he wore. "Take care of Roxane. Keep her out of my way."
Haught's eyes went white, all round.
"Oh, you'll have Stilcho's help," Ischade said. "And Roxane's hardly what she was. Niko's seen to that. She might well make a try for him, but then, you have Janni. And Stilcho. Don't you? I'm sure I can trust you with it."
Another bird fluttered into the open window, and took its perch on a chair back. This one came from uptown. It had a spelled ring about its inky leg, and it whetted a chisel-keen beak against steelshod claws. Regarded them both with a mad gold eye.
"Oh, indeed," she said. And to Haught: "Be useful. Feed it. Mind your fingers."
"That's the high priest," Haught said, meaning where it had come from. Its message, shrilled in a high thin voice, was not within his understanding.
Query, query, query. "Molin wants answers," Ischade said, and smiled, because those answers were forthcoming, but not in the way the high priest wanted. "Tell Janni he's welcome to take Niko if he can. When you see him."
"Where have you been?" Black Lysias of the 3rd Commando asked questions when Strat came up into the stables, back inside the Black line. "We've been scouring-"
"Say I had an urgent meeting." Strat caught the man by the sleeve. Fastidious Lysias looked like a ratsnest; smelled like fish. That was the way the 3rd traveled these days. Strat propelled him through into the slant-walled tackroom, where a little daylight got through the cracks of the leaky roof. The bay snorted and stamped and kicked a board nearby, having had enough of this den. Second kick, like half the building was falling. "Damn. Cut it, horse."
Sulky silence then. A snort and switch of tail.
"We've got something moving," Straton said. "You hear it?" And in the absence of confirmations: "What have you heard?"
"We got a line on Niko. Got rumors where he is. Uptown. Priests. We got areas we can't get into. Randal sent-says Roxane's stirring about last night; she's looking too. Fast. We still haven't got where. Kama's got her piff connection sniffing round; haven't found her yet. Melant's down harborside; Kali's trying that Setmur contact; we've got-"
A shiver went up his back. He gripped Lysias's shoulder, hard. "Listen. I'm going out again. Get the word out, get the Third to positions, full alert."
"Get out of here. Get it moving."
"Right," Lysias said, and dived round the comer: no further questions.
But Strat lingered there in the dim light, with the sinking feeling that panic had impelled that. He wanted the daylight; wanted-
Kadakithis will lose the Empire-
Niko in trouble. Plots went through Sanctuary like worms through old meat. Tempus delaying and Randal discomfited. Straton considered himself no fool, not ordinarily; upstairs in that nasty little room, men and women had tried to make him one and he had unerringly stripped souls down to little secrets, most of which he was not interested in, a few of which he was, and they spilled them all before they went their way either loose (for effect) or into the Foal (for neatness). He was not particularly proud of this skill, only of a keen wit that did not take lies for an answer. That was what made him the Stepsons' interrogator; a certain dogged patience and a sure instinct for unraveling the mazy works of human minds.
That skill turned inward, explored blanks, explored tracks he had no wish for it to follow.
She, she, she, it kept saying, and when it did it traveled round the edges of a darkness more than dark to the eyes; womb-dark, unknowable-dark, warm dark and comfortable and full of too many gaps. Far too many gaps. He had found a certain peace. Courted it. Congratulated himself that he escaped. That perpetual escape had become meat and drink to him; the stuff of his self-esteem.
Think, Stepson. Why can't you think about it?
-Horse wandering in the morning, pilfering apples, rider infant-helpless by dawn- (He winced at the image. Is this a sane man?)
-Kadakithis dying, conveniently dead on the marble floor, the tread of military boots brisk in the halls of the palace-
Good, Tempus would say, finding one of his men had anticipated him; the shadow play came into sunlight, himself a hero, not the creature of the little room upstairs, but a man who did the wide thing, the right thing, took the chance-
He shivered, there in the dark. There was the taste of blood in his mouth. He leaned there against the wall, jolted as the bay took another kick to let him know its opinion of this dark stable.
He suspected. He suspected himself-is this a sane man?
He had to go-there. To the river. To find out. Not by dark, not during her hour but by his; by the daylight, when he might have his wits about him.
The river house huddled small and unlikely-looking in the tangle of brush that ran the White Foal's edge on town-side. If you asked a dozen people were there trees in Sanctuary's lower end they would say no, forgetting these. If you asked were there houses hereabouts, they would say no, forgetting such small places as this one with its iron fence and its obscuring hedge. This one was, well, abandoned. There were often lights. Once or twice there had been fire conspicuous disturbance. But the prudent did not notice such things. The prudent kept to their own districts, and Strat, having ridden past the several checkpoints down mostly deserted streets, rode not oblivious to signs now; thinking, and taking mental notes as he tethered the bay horse out in front of this house that few saw.
He shoved the rusty gate aside and walked up the overgrown flags to the little porch. The door opened before he knocked (and before anyone on the other side could have reached it), which failed to surprise him. Musky perfume wafted out. He walked in, in the dim light that shone through a milky window-Ischade was not tidy except in her person.
"Ischade?" he called out.
That she would not be at home-that had occurred to him; but he had, in his haste and his urgency, shoved that possibility aside. There was not that much of day left. The sun was headed down over the White Foal, over the sprawl of Downwind buildings.
There were unpleasant things to meet hereabouts. She had enemies. She had allies who were not his friends.
A curtain whispered. He blinked at the black-clad figure who walked forward to meet him. She was always so much smaller than he remembered. She towered in his memory. But the eyes, always the eyes-
He evaded them, walked deliberately aside and poured him and her a drink from the pitcher that sat on the low table. Candles brightened. He was accustomed to this. Accustomed too, to the light step that stole up behind him-no one walked up behind him; it was a tic he had. But Ischade did it and he let her; and she knew. Knew that no one touched him from behind, that it was one of their little games, that he let her do that. It made a little frisson of horror. Like other games they played. Soft hands came up his back, rested on his shoulders.
He turned round with both wine cups and she took hers and a kiss, lingering slow.
They did not always go straight to bed. Tonight he took the chair in front of the fire; she settled half beside him and half into his lap, a comfortable armful, all whisper of cloth and yielding curves and smell of rich musk and good wine. She sipped her wine and set it down on the sidetable. Sometimes at such moments she smiled. This time she gazed at him in a way he knew was dangerous. He had not come tonight to look into those dark eyes and forget his own name. He felt a cold the wine could not reach, and felt for the first time that life or death might be equally balanced in her desires.
Ischade treading the aisles of the barracks, surveying murder-satisfied. Sated. It was not death that appealed to her. It was these deaths.
"You all right?" he asked of the woman staring so close into his eyes. "Ischade, are you all right tonight?"
Blink. He heard his pulse. Hers. The world hung suspended and day or night made no difference. He cleared his throat or tried to.
"You think I better get out of here?"
She shifted her position and rested her arms on his shoulders, joined her hands behind his head. Still silent.
"I want to ask you," he said, trying, in the near gaze of her eyes, the soft weight of her against his side. "-want to ask you-" That wasn't working. He blinked, breaking the spell, and took his life in his hands, grinned in the face of her darkness and sobered up and kissed her. His best style. He could get things out of a body one way; he had, now and again, used pleasanter persuasions. He was not particularly proud of it, no more than the other. It was all part of his skill-knowing a lie from a scrap of truth, and following a lead. He had one. Truth was in her silence tonight.
"You want something," he said, "you've always wanted something-"
She laughed, and he caught her hands down. Hard.
"What can I do," he asked, "what is it you want me to do?" No one held onto Ischade. He sensed that in the darkening of her eyes, in the sudden dimming of the room. He let go. "Ischade. Ischade." Trying to keep his focus. And hers. Right now he ought to get up and head for the door and he knew it; but it was infinitely easier to sit where he was; and very hard to think of what he had been trying to think of, like the memory gaps, like the things they did/he thought they did in that bed sprawled with silks. "You've got Stilcho, got Janni, got me-is it coincidence, Ischade? Maybe I could help you more if I was awake when you talked to me-" Or is it information you go for? "Maybe-our aims and yours aren't that far apart. Self-interest. Weren't you talking about self interest? What's yours, really? And I'll tell you mine."
Arms tightened behind his head. She shifted forward and now there was nothing in all the room but her eyes, nothing in all the world but the pulse in his veins. "You think hard," she said. "You go on thinking, thinking's a counterspell, you've come here all armed with thinking, and yet it's such a heavy load-aren't you tired, Strat, don't you get tired, bearing all the weight for fools, being always in the shadow, isn't it worth it, once, to be what you are? Let's go to bed."
"What's going on in town?" He got the question out. It wandered out, slurred and half-crazed and half-independent of his wits. "What have you got your hand into, Ischade? What game are you using us for-"
"Bed," she whispered. "You afraid, Strat? You never run from what scares you. You don't know how."
"I don't know," Stilcho said, limping along through the streets in Haught's company. Haught took long strides and the dead Stepson made what speed he could, panting. A waterskin sloshed in time to his steps. "I don't know how to make contact with him-he's here, that's all-"
"If he's dead," Haught said, "I'd think you had an edge. I don't think you're trying."
"I can't," Stilcho gasped. Twilight showed Haught's elegance, his supercilious gaze, and Stilcho, about to clutch at him, held back his hand. "I-"
"She says that you will. She says that you'll be quite adequate. I really wouldn't want to prove less than that, would you?"
The thought ran through Stilcho like icewater. They were near the bridge, near the running-water barrier, and while it did not stop him (he was truly alive in some senses) it made him weak in the knees. There was a checkpoint the other side of the bridgehead, that was a line of no color; and few meddled with that one, which had some living warders, but not all that patrolled the streets beyond were alive, and the Shambles suffered horrors and the malicious whimsy of Roxane's creatures. "Listen," Stilcho said, "listen, you don't understand. He's not like the dead when he's like this. Dead are everywhere. Janni's tied to one thing, he's got an attachment, and he's like the living in that regard. No good news for what he's attached to-But you can't find him like the rest of the dead. He's got place, where applies to him same as you and me-"
"Don't lump me in your category." Haught brushed imaginary dust from his cloak. "I've no intention of joining you. And whatever you told the mistress about that business with the rosebush-"
"Nothing, I told her nothing."
"Liar. You'd tell anything you were asked, you'd hand her your mother if she asked-"
"Leave my mother out of this."
"She down in hell?" Haught wondered, with a sudden wolfish sharpness that sent another icy chill through Stilcho's gut. "Maybe she could help."
Stilcho said nothing. The hate Haught had toward Stepsons was palpable, a joke most of the time, but not when they were alone. Not when there was something Haught could hold over him. But Stilcho glared back. He had been a marsh-brat and a Sanctuary drayman before the Stepsons recruited him, neither occupation lending itself to bright, sharp acts of courage. He was slow to anger as his lumbering team had been. But there was a point past which not, the same as there had been with his plodding horses. The beggar-king who tortured him had found it; Haught had just located it. And Haught perhaps sensed it. There was a sudden quiet in the Nisibisi wizardling. No further jibes. Not a further word for a moment.
"Let's just get it done," Stilcho said, anxious less for Haught than for Her orders. And he gathered his black cloak about him and walked on past the bridge. A bird swooped overhead-a touch of familiarity, perhaps, avian inquisitiveness. But it was not the sort to be interested in riverside unless there was a bit of carrion left. It napped away to the Downwind side of the bridge, heedless of barriers and checkpoints, as other birds winged their way here and there.
That one was bound for the barracks, Stilcho reckoned. Across the bridge he saw, with his half-sight-(the missing eye was efficacious too, and had vision in the shadow-world, whether or not it was patched: it was, lately, since he had recovered a little bit of his vanity, under the sting of Haught's taunts.) He saw the PFLS bridgewarder, but he saw several Dead gathered there too, about the post where they had died; and Haught was with him, but not exactly in the lead as they walked down the street and cut off toward the Shambles.
"Gone back to the witch, that's where." Zip dropped down on the wooden stairs of a building in the Maze, there on the street, and the beggar-looking woman who slouched in her rags nearby was listening, although she did not look at him. Zip was panting. He pulled out one of his knives and attacked the wood of the step between his legs. "He's one damn fool, you know that."
"Mind your mouth," Kama said. It was a slim woman and a lot of weaponry under all that cloak and cloth, and her face was smeared with dirt enough and her mouth crusted with her last meal, part of the disguise. She would even fool the nose. "You want to make yourself useful, get the hell to the Unicorn and pick up Windy. Tell him move and leave the rest to him."
"I'm not your damn errand-boy."
He got. Kama got up and waddled down the darkening street in her best old-woman way, toward another contact.
Moruth heard the dull flap of wings before the bird alit in the window of Mama Becho's. The beggar-king clenched his hands and listened, and when it appeared, a dark flutter outside the shutters, he resisted going to that window at the tavern's backside. But a hard, chisel beak tapped and scrabbled insistently. Wanting in.
He went and shoved the window open. The bird took off and lit again, glaring at him with shadowy eyes in the almost-night. It lifted then with a clap of wings and flapped away, mission accomplished.
Moruth had not the least desire in the world to go out tonight; he lived in constant terror, since the massacre over by Jubal's old estate, in the Stepson barracks. There were a lot of souls out on patrol in Sanctuary, round Shambles Cross. Old blind Mebbat said so; and Moruth, who had carried on warfare in the streets with Stepsons and hawkmasks, had no particular desire to meet what walked about on such nights.
But he went to the door and sent a messenger who sent others, and one ran up to a rooftop and waved a torch.
"Snakes," Ischade whispered, in bed with her lover. She kissed him gently and disengaged his fingers from her hair. "You ever put it together, Strat, that both Nisibis and the Beysib are fond of snakes?"
He recalled a serpentine body rolling under his heel, a frantic moment the other side of Roxane's window.
"Coincidences," Ischade said. "That's possible of course. True coincidences are a rare thing, though. You know that. You don't believe in them any more than I do, being no fool at all."
Stilcho stopped, moving carefully now. Haught's hand sought his arm. "They're here," Haught said.
"They've been here for some time," Stilcho said of the shadows that shifted and twisted, blacker than other shadows. "We've crossed the line. You want to do the talking?"
"Don't try me. Don't try me, Stilcho."
"You think you're powerful enough to walk through the Shambles now and deal with all the ghosts at once. Do it, why don't you? Or why'd you bring me?"
Haught's fingers bit painfully into his arm. "You talk to them, I say."
No more remarks about his mother. Stilcho turned his head with deliberate slowness and looked at the gathering menace. No one alive was on the street but Haught. And himself. And many of these were Roxane's. Many were not-just lost souls left unattended and lately, in the lamentable condition of Sanctuary, without compulsion to go back to rest.
"I'm Stilcho," he said to them. And he took what he carried, a waterskin, and poured some of the contents on the road. But it was not water that pooled and glistened there. He stepped back. There was a dry rustling, a pushing and shoving, and something very like a living black blanket of many pieces settled above the glistening puddle on the cobbles. He backed away and spilled more. "There'll be more," he said. "All you have to do is follow."
Some ghosts turned away in horror. Most followed, a slow drifting. He dribbled more of the blood. He had not asked where it came from. These days it was easy come by.
For Ischade-more than most.
Strat struggled to open his eyes, and when he did there was a whisper in the air like bees in summer, there was a darkness above him like uncreation. "You suspect me," a voice said, like the bees, like the wind out of the dark, "of all manner of things. I told you: self-interest. Mine is this town. This town is where I hunt. This wicked, tangled town, this sink into which all wickedness pours-suits me as it is. I lend my strength to this side and to that. Right now I lend it to the Ilsigis. But you'll forget that by morning. You'll forget that and remember other things."
He got his eyes open again. It took all the strength he had. He saw her face in a way he had never seen it, looked her in the eyes and looked into hell, and wanted now to shut them, but he had lost that volition.
"I've told you what to do," she said. "Go. Leave, while you can. Get out of here!"
High on the hill a horn blew, brazen and pealing alarm. The alarm outside the Unicorn was more mundane and less elegant: a series of old pots battered with all the strength in a watcher's arm. Help, ha! Invasion, incursion, mayhem! There was fire in Downwind. And uptown. In a dozen intersections barricades started going up, torches flared, horses' hooves clattered wildly through the night.
"Get 'em," Lysias the Black instructed his small band, and arrows rained down on one of Jubal's bands that planned to barricade the Blue line. "Rouse our wizard help up here, move it! That road stays open!"
From his vantage on a rooftop, bright fire sprang up on the hill.
More horns and clatterings and brayings of alarms in the night. Militias hit the streets.
And a rider on a bay horse pelted down the riverside with reckless abandon right through the Blue, headed for Black lines and comrades.
All hell was loose in the streets. Shutters broke (thieves in Sanctuary were no laggards, and had had their eyes set on this and that target from long before: when the riot broke, they smashed and grabbed and ran like all the devils and the Rankan pantheon was at their heels.)
Uptown, one of the horns braying and one of the alarms ringing was the mere barracks and the Guard; but Wale-grin, who had not been slow to pick up the rumors, already had his snipers posted, and the first surge of looters uptown met a flight of arrows and a series of professionally organized barricades. This was standard operation. It deterred the more dilatory of invaders.
It did not deter all of them.
Down on riverside, Ischade sat wrapped only in her black robe, in the tumbled fiery silks of her bed, and grinned while her eyes rolled back in her head.
Shadows poured down the riverside, shadows marched from the ravaged barracks in Downwind, and ignored the barriers the Beggar-king and his kind had erected. Ignored the PFLS and its flung stones and its naphtha-bottles and the fires: that demi-legion had seen the fires of hell and were not impressed. They had already passed the Yellow line, and they swaggered along Red territory, the winding streets of Downwind, with a swiftness no ordinary band could achieve, faster and faster.
"They're coming," Stilcho said to Haught, and the Nisi magus hardly liked the satisfaction in Stilcho's face. Haught snatched the skin of blood and shook out a few more drops to keep the Shambles-ghosts on the track- glanced a second time at Stilcho, thinking uncomfortably of treachery.
"Janni. Where's Janni? Have you located him?"
"Oh, I can guess where he'll go," Stilcho said.
Stilcho laughed and grinned. He had a patched eye and was missing one tooth on the side, but in the dark when the scars showed less there was a ruined handsomeness about him. An elegance. He snatched the skin from Haught and hurled it, spattering the cobbles. "Run!" he yelled at Haught, and laughed aloud.
"Stilcho, damn you!"
"Try!" Stilcho yelled. Ghosts streamed and gibbered about them, swirled and whirled like bats, and Haught assessed the situation in an eyeblink and whipped his cloak about his arm and ran as if the fiends of hell were on his track.
Stilcho howled. Slapped his knees. "Run, you friggin' bastard! Run, Nisi, run!"
He would pay for it in the morning. Haught would see to that. But he had Her orders, direct.
He jogged off in the direction of the bridge, where a shadowy troop needed help passing running water. His old partner was in the lead and the company insignia was intact.
Behind him the ghosts did what everyone else in Sanctuary was busy doing: They chose sides and took cover and had at one another.
Stilcho turned his own troop up the riverside and through the streets-slower now, because they had a half-living man for a guide. But he would take them only so far. They would have no trouble with Walegrin's uptown barricades or the Stepsons' eastward; and they were not in a negotiating mood, having their murders recently in mind. Teach the uptowners their vulnerability -show the bastards who gave the orders that there were those who remembered their last orders and their last official mistakes-
He jogged along, panting, limping-Ischade's repair work was thorough, but a long run still sent pain jolting through him.
Ghosts passed them, headed where they wished to be. They were polyglot and headed for old haunts, former domiciles, old feuds. Sanctuary might get pragmatic about its haunts, but the ghosts grew bolder and nervier in these declining days of the Empire; and these were not the reasoning kind. These had been walking patrol in Ischade's service, or Roxane's; and a few luckless ones tried to go complain to Roxane about the matter.
Roxane cursed a blue streak (literally) and in a paroxysm of rage conjured a dozen snakes and a demon, an orange-haired, grayskinned being named Snapper Jo which ran rampaging up the riverside till it forgot quite what it was about and got to rampaging through a warehouse full of beer. It was not, all in all, one of Roxane's better nights: the attack was desultory, Ischade was definitely aiming at something else, and Roxane was willing to use the diversion while she took wing crosstown-
"Damn!" Haught yelled. His sight picked that up, a pale blue arc headed across Sanctuary with only one target in mind. He was earthbound. He ran for the river and Ischade with all his might, and came pelting past the wards to find Ischade sitting on the bed wrapped in orange silk and the skirts of her black cloak and laughing like a lunatic.
Uptown the Lady Nuphtantei's door went wide open and the elegant Lady Nuphtantei, Harka Bey and not easily affrighted, went pelting down the street naked as she was born, for the drunken demon that had materialized in her house breaking porcelains and crunching silver underfoot was not a thing the servants or her daughter had stayed to deal with, not for a moment.
She ran straight into a company of Walegrin's guard and kept going, so fast the guard hardly had time to turn and stare.
Then what was behind her showed up, and the troops scattered.
Arrows flew. A barricade was afire over by the Maze edge where Jubal's gangs tried to hold against rooftop archers, mage-illusions, and a handful of paired riders who had the style and manner of the old Stepsons. And the fire spread to buildings, which doubled the chaos. Men threw water and ducked arrows. A frantic family scurried out with possessions and arrows pelted indiscriminate.
The physician Harran wrung his hands (one was a woman's) and paced his upstairs room and took another look out the window, in the little garrett where he had hidden his affliction-fortuitously hidden, considering what had befallen everyone else in the barracks. But he had no practice now, no home, no direction. Mriga gone. There was the little dog, which paced about after him panting and whuffing in mimic concern.
He was (whatever his affliction) still a doctor. The pain he spied on worried at him and gnawed his gut. "Oh, damn," he muttered to himself, when a boy darted from cover, limned red in the firelight, and flung a torch. Tried to fling it. An arrow took him. The boy fell, writhing, skewered through the leg, right near the great artery. "Damn."
Herran slammed the shutter, shut his eyes and suddenly turned and ran down the stairs, thundering down the hollow boards, into the smell of smoke and the glare outside. He heard shouting, wiped his eyes. Heard the boy screaming above the roar of the burning barricade, above the shouts of men in combat. Horses screamed. He heard the thunder of hooves and dashed out to reach the boy as the riders streaked past. "Lie still," he yelled at the screaming, thrashing youth. "Shut up!" He grabbed him about the arm and hauled it over his shoulders, heard a frantic barking and another great shout as he stumbled to his feet, the oncoming thunder of riders on the return, a solid wall of horsemen.
Strat met the shockwave of his own forces that had kept the way open: a moment of confusion while they swept about and followed him in a clatter on the pavings. The burning barricade was ahead, a sleet of stones. An uneven pair of figures blocked his path, dark against the light-
Strat swept his sword in an arc that ended in the skull of the taller and took a good part of it away: he rode through. The rider behind him faltered as his horse hit the bodies and recovered; then the rest of the troop went over them, crushing bone under steel-shod hooves, and swords swung as they met Jubal's men at the barricade, on their way back through.
There was a decided interest on the childrens' part. One boy kept climbing up to the window and gazing out, less talkative than his wont. The other never left it, and stared when Niko came and took both in his arms.
He saw the circling of something sorcerous that could not get in. Saw something dark stream up to fight it off, and that something was torn ragged and streamed on the winds. But what it had turned was dimmer fire now. He heard a forlorn cry, like a great hunting bird. Like a damned soul. A lost lover.
The wards about the place glowed blinding bright. And held.
Sanctuary was beset with fires, barricades, looting. The armed priests of the Storm God were no inconsiderable barrier themselves.
But they were ineffectual finally against a torn, bloody thing that haunted the halls and that tried the partnership that had been between them. He knew what had come streaking in to find him; he knew what faithful, vengeful wraith had held the line again. It pleaded with him in his dreams, forgetting that it was dead. He wept at such times, because he could not explain to it and it was not interested in listening.
"Get me out of here," he yelled down the hall, startling the children. A priest showed up in the hallway, spear in hand, eyes wide. "Dammit, get me out of this city!"
The priest kept staring. Niko kicked the door shut and sank down against it, child in either arm.
They crawled into his lap, hugged him round the neck. One wiped his face, and he stared past, longing for the dawn and the boat they promised would come.
A barge went down the White Foal, an uncommonly sturdy one by Sanctuary standards. Ischade watched it, arms about her, the hood of her black cloak back. Her faithful were there: chastened Haught, smug Stilcho. The usual birds sat in the tree. Breath frosted on the wind-a cold morning, but that hardly stopped the looting and the sniping. There was a smoky taint to the air.
"They want war," Ischade said, "let them have war. Let them have it till they're full of it. Till this town's so confounded no force can hold it. Have you heard the fable of Shipri's ring? The goddess was set on by three demons who plainly had rape in mind; she had a golden armlet, and she flung it to the first if he would fight off the other two and let her go. But the second snatched at it and so did the third; the goddess walked away and there they stand to this day. No one devil can get it; and the other two won't let go till the world ends." She turned a dazzling smile on them both, in a merry humor quite unlike herself.
The barge passed beneath the White Foal bridge. A black bird flew after it, sending forlorn cries down the wind.
The bay horse was dead. Strat limped when he walked, and persisted in walking, pacing the floor in the temporary headquarters the Band had set up deep within the mage quarter. A clutter of maps lay on the table. Plans that the ever changing character of the streets changed hourly. He wanted sleep. He wanted a bath. He reeked of smoke and sweat and blood, and he gave orders and drew lines and listened to the reports that began to come in.
He had not wanted this. He had no wish to be in command. He was, somehow. Somehow it had fallen on him. The Band fought phantoms, confounded them with the living and mage-illusions. Sync was missing. Lyncaeos was dead. Kama had not been heard from. The bay horse had damn near broken his leg when an arrow found it. He had had to kill it. Stepsons and commandos killed with terrible efficiency and the Ilsigi guerrillas who thought they knew what side they were on and thought they knew all about war might see things differently this morning. And change alliances again. In a situation like this alliances might change twice in a morning.
And Kadakithis sat in his palace and the Guard and the mercs held it. Strat limped to the window and entertained treasonous thoughts, hating thoughts, staring up toward the palace through the pall of smoke.