Book: In the Still of the Night
Haught opened the sealed window ever so carefully, in this nightbound room of shrouded furniture, the hulking, concealed chairs and table like so many pale ghosts reverted only then to furniture, pretending in the shadows. He made no sound. He made no trial of the wards which sealed the place, nor even of the vented shutters which closed the outside. But a wind breached those barriers effortlessly. The first breath of outside that had come into the mansion in... very long, stirred the draperies and the sheets and brought a sultry warmth to the dank, sealed staleness in which he had lived.
That wind stirred the few grains of dust that were about. (It was an astonishingly clean house, for one sealed so long, from which servants had long since fled.) It swept down the halls and into another room, and touched at the face of a man who slept... likewise very long. In that darkness, in that silence in which the mere arrival of a breeze was remarkable, that cold and handsome face lost its corpselike rigor; the nostrils widened. The eyes opened, long lashed, mere slits. The chest heaved with a wider breath.
But Haught knew none of these things. He was drawn. He felt the exercise of magics like a tremor in the foundations, a quivering in his bones. He felt the power coming from that ruin across the street, where most of an entire block of Sanctuary's finest houses had mingled all in one charcoaled wreckage of tumbled brick and stone and timbers; and he felt it rush elsewhere, tantalizing and horrific and soul-threatening. He bent down to peer through the vents of that window, careful to shroud himself, which was his chiefest Talent, to go invisible to mages and other Talents. To that, his magic had descended. He spied on the working of magic that he could not presently command. He longed after power and he longed after his freedom, neither one of which he dared try to take.
He saw the coming together of his enemies out there in the dark, saw looks directed toward the house, and felt the straining of spells which the witch Ischade had woven about his prison. He shivered, as he stood there and inhaled that wind redolent of old burning and present sorceries and exorcisms, of revenge; he suddenly knew this house the target of all these preparations, and he felt an overwhelming terror: and trembled with his hatred. He felt the power build, and the wards flare with a moment's dissolution-
And he was paralyzed, frozen with doubt of himself, even while that dreadful force came all about the house and burst the wards in a great flare of light.
Elsewhere the sleeper started upright, and convulsed, and smoked from head to foot, which smoke streamed in a flash toward the hall, and the chimney, and aloft, in a moment that all living flesh in the house was battered with light and sound and pain.
The sleeper fell back again, slack-limbed; Haught collapsed by the window in the front room, and by the time he was conscious enough to lift himself on his arms and assess the damage, all the air seemed still and numb, his hearing blasted by a sound which never might have been sound at all.
He gathered himself up and clung to the sill, and lifted himself further, trembling. He stood there in that condition till it was all quiet again, stood there till the shadowed figures went their way from the ruin across the street, and he dared finally move the window and shut it again.
A hand descended on his shoulder and he whirled and let out a scream that made it very fortunate that the party across the street had dispersed.
The calm, handsome face that stared so closely into his- smiled. It was not the smile of the man who had owned the body. It was not that of the witch who lived there now. Nothing sane was at home within that shell. Haught was a mage, still. Against another threat he might fling out some power, even with the crippling of magic throughout the town; he was still formidable.
But what slept behind those eyes, what wandered there sometimes sane and sometimes not, and sometimes one mind and sometimes another... was death. It had reasons, if it remembered them, to take a slow revenge; and to hurl magic against the wards (he felt them restored) which held that soul in-
Haught prayed to his distant gods and cringed against the shutters, made an unwanted rattle and flinched again. Ischade had been there. Ischade had been near enough long enough that perhaps this thing that looked like Tasfalen would pick that up; and remember its intentions again in some rage to blast wards and souls at once.
But the revenant merely lifted a hand and touched his face, lover's gesture. "Dust," it said, which was its only word; daily Haught swept up the dust which infiltrated the house, and sifted it for the dust of magics which might linger in it, the remnant of the Globe of Power; with that dust he made a potion, and dutifully he infused it into this creature, stealing only a little for himself. He was faithful in this. He feared not to be. He feared a great deal in these long months, did Haught, once and for a few not-forgotten moments, the master mage of Sanctuary; he suspected consequences which paralyzed him in doubt. Because he had choices he dared none of them: his fear went that deep. It was his particular hell. "It's all right," he said now. "Go back to bed. Go to sleep." As if he spoke to some child.
"Pretty," it said. But it was not a child's voice, or a child's touch. It had found a new word. He shuddered and sought a way quietly to leave, to slip aside till it should sleep again. It had him trapped. "Pretty." The voice was clear, as if some deeper timbre had been there and now was lost. As if part of the madness had dispersed. But not all.
He dared do nothing at all. Not to scream and not to run and not to do anything which might make it recall who it was. He could read minds, and he kept himself from this one with every barrier he could hold. What happened behind those eyes he did not want to know.
"Here," he said, and tried to draw the arm down and lead it back to bed and rest. But it had as well be stone; and all hell was in that low and vocally masculine laugh.
The slow hooffalls echoed in the alleyway, off the narrow walls; and another woman, overtaken alone in this black gut of Sanctuary's dark streets, might have thought of finding some refuge. Ischade merely turned, aware that some night rider had turned his horse down the alley, that he still came on, slowly, provoking nothing.
In fact, being what she was, she knew who he was before she ever turned her face toward him; and while another woman, knowing the same, might have run in search of some doorway, any doorway or nook or place to hide or fight, Ischade drew a quiet breath, wrapped her arms and her black robes about her, and regarded him in lazy curiosity.
"Are you following me?" she asked of Tempus.
The Tr6s's hooves rang to a leisurely halt on the cobbles, slow and patterned echo off the brick walls and the cobbles. A rat went skittering through a patch of moonlight, vanished into a crack in an old warehouse door frame. The rider towered in shadow. "Not a good neighborhood for walking."
She smiled and it was like most of her smiles, like most of her amusements, feral and dark. She laughed. There was dark in that too: and a little pang of regret. "Gallantry."
"Practicality. An arrow-"
"You didn't take me unaware." She rarely said as much. She was not wont to justify herself, or to communicate at all; she found herself doing it to this man, and was distantly amazed. She felt so little that was acute. The other feeling was simply awareness, a web the quiverings of which were always there. But perhaps he did know that, or suspect it. Perhaps that was why she answered him, that she suspected a deeper question in that comment than most knew how to ask. He was shadow to her. She was shadow to him. They had no identity and every identity in Sanctuary, city of midnight meetings and constant struggle, constant connivance.
"I heal," he said, low and in a voice that went to the bones. "That's my curse."
"I don't need to," she said in the same low murmur. "That's mine."
He said nothing for a moment. Perhaps he thought about it. Then: "I said that we would try them... yours and mine."
She shivered. This was a man who walked through battlefields and blood, who was storm and gray to her utmost black and stillness; this was a man always surrounded by men, and cursed with too much love and too many wounds. And she had none of that. He was conflict personified, the light and the dark; and she settled so quickly back to stasis and cold, solitary.
"You missed your appointment," she said. "But I never wait. And I don't hold you to any agreement. That's what I would have told you then. What I did, I did. For my reasons. Wisest if we don't mix."
And she turned and walked away from him. But the Tr6s started forward as if stung, and Tempus, shadowlike, circled to cut her off.
Another woman might have recoiled. She stood quite still. Perhaps he thought she could be bluffed, perhaps it was part of a dark game; but in his silence, she read another truth.
It was the challenge. It was the unsatisfiable woman. The man who (like too many others) partly feared her, feared failure, feared rejection; and whose godhood was put in question by her very existence.
"I see," she said finally. "It isn't your men you're buying."
There was deathly silence then. The horse snorted explosively, shifted. But he did not lose his control, or lose control over the beast. He sat there in containment of it and his own nature, and even of his wounded honesty.
Offended, he was less storm and more man, a decent man whose self-respect was in pawn: whose thought now was indeed for the lives and the souls he had proposed himself to buy. He was two men; or man and something much less reasonable.
"I'll see you home," he said, like some spurned swain to the miller's daughter. With, at the moment, that same note of martyred finality and renouncement. But it would not last at the gate. She did not see the future, but she knew men, and she knew that it was for his own sake that he said that, and offered that, in his eternal private warfare-with the storm. Man of grays and halftones. He tormented himself because it was the only way to win.
She understood such a battle. She fought it within her own chill dark, more pragmatically. She staved things off only daily, knowing that the next day she would not win against her appetites; but the third she would be in control again; so she lived by tides and the rhythms of the moon, and knowing these things she kept herself from destructive temptations. This man served a harsher, more chaotic force that had no regular ebb and flow; this man warred because he had no peace, and no moment when he was not at risk.
"No," she said, "I'll find my own way tonight. Tomorrow night. Come tomorrow."
She waited. In his precarious balance, in his battle, she named him a test of that balance and she knew even the direction his soul was sliding.
He fought it back. She had not known whether he could, but she had been sure that he would try. She knew the silent anger in him, one half against the other, and both suspecting some despite. But there was the debt he owed her. He backed the Tros and she walked on her way down the alley unattended.
Another woman might have suffered a quickening of the pulse, a weakness in the knees, knowing who and what eyes were staring anger at her back. But she knew equally well what he was going to do, which was to sit the Tr6s quite still until she had passed beyond sight. And that he would wait only to prove that he could wait, when the assaults would come on his integrity, not knowing any tide at all.
He touched her, in a vague and theoretical way. She respected him. She took a monumental chance in what he proposed for payment, not knowing whether either of them might survive it. Perhaps he knew the danger and perhaps not. For herself, she felt only the dimmest of alarms. It was the dreadful ennui again, the sense of tides.
The fact was that she missed Roxane. She missed her own household of traitors. She missed them with the feeling of a body totally enervated, the ancient ennui the worse to bear because for a little while, so long as there had been an enemy and a challenge, she had been alive, for a little while she had been stirred out of a still and waking sleep.
Only her lovers could touch her when the ennui was heaviest. It was not the sex for which she killed. It was the moment of anguish, of terror, of power or of fear or sorrow-it never mattered which. It never lasted long enough even to identify. There was only the instant that had to be tried again and again, to try to know what it was.
Perhaps (sometimes she wondered) it was the only moment she was alive.
The Tros horse thundered from the alley, the rider never looking back; and Straton, Stepson, pressed himself flat against the streetward wall, staring after Tempus until horse and rider merged with the night.
And turned abruptly and looked down the dark and empty alleyway, knowing that Ischade would have gone.
That she would blast him to hell for spying on her business.
He heard rumors of her-heard!-gods, he had heard a thousand whispers without hearing them, not truly. Then- then he had taken a bad one, then he had spent long enough in hell to shake any man from his confidence in himself, in his choices, in the fool gesture that had sent him blind angry onto a street without his cautions or his wits. Now for the rest of his life there might be the small twinges of pain, all unexpected, that shot through his shoulder when he moved his arm at the wrong angle, an unpredictable pain that enraged him when it would come shooting through and he would stop in a certain reach, at an angle. It came so quickly and so indefinably that he could not feel whether it was the pain of scarred tendons and joint running up against their limit and freezing dead, or whether it was only the pain that froze the arm, in an eyeblink of flinching that he was not man enough to master. He tried with exercise and with dogged resistance when it did freeze; but still it betrayed him at bad moments.
It was his confidence that had died in that street, before Haught had ever gotten his hands on him. It was the shattering of a body he had always taken businesslike care of, and treated well, and gotten hale and whole to this end of his life when he had begun to look on shopkeepers and merchants and their wives and their brats with a kind of forlorn envy; mere service was a young man's game and he had begun to think of another kind of life, still with his body and his wits intact, still with his resources and his experience and his contacts-
Until a single careless act wrecked him and flung him down on a curbside under the eyes of all of Sanctuary; left a flinch in his shield arm and a knotted fear in his gut-not the nightmares that waked him sweating, not that fear. It was the suspicion that he had deserved it, and that Crit was right: His whole world was a construction of cobwebs and moonbeams.
The woman whose face he saw in the act of love, the beautiful, dusky face, the black hair scattered in silk webs across the pillows-the face that mused and smiled her thoughtful smile above him in the soft light of a fire and candles-
-he could not equate with the one who walked the alleys. With the one who took lover after lover in the most sordid byways of Sanctuary, indiscriminate-killer.
He followed her the way he drove at the arm, to find the limits of the pain and to control it, to exorcise it-like the other evil. He had seen things he could not forget. He had leaned toward sanity, toward Crit, and leaving her when the Stepsons rode out from this town; he would not look back; he would dream about it less and less. The arm would heal and he would recover himself somewhere, some year.
But this betrayal he had not imagined, this... double ... betrayal, her with his commander.
Damn them both. Damn them. He thought that he had felt all there was to feel. He had not put together until then, that he had been a real power in Sanctuary even before she had taken him to her bed. That she had made him almost a great one. But that was changed. He was useless to her, at a critical time. So she threw out her nets and gathered in one more apt for her purposes.
He flung himself around the comer, down the walk, and flinched. It was the same street. It was the same blind rage. Reprise, replayed. The bay horse was waiting for him; it always waited, a mockery of faithfulness, her gift to him, that would never leave him. He left it stabled. In the mid of nights he heard its hoof-falls on the cobbles beneath his window. He heard it pacing, heard its breath, the shift of its body in his dreams. And there was this small patch on its rump which ... was not there. There was nothing of color about it. It was just a flaw, a place that, if one stared at this coin-sized spot, one imagined one saw no horse at all, but cobbles, or the wall beyond, or some shimmer behind which the truth might be visible. He began, in his loss of confidence, to find terror in its faithfulness and its persistence.
He went to it now and gathered up the trailing rein and put his left arm about its neck, again, his left, to see if it would hurt; and hugged and patted the sleek warm neck to see if it would turn with its teeth and prove itself some thing out of hell. There was pain now, a muddle of ache and anger in his chest and in his throat and behind his eyes, and he was a damned fool out on the street where a sniper had found him before.
He spun about, a rush of cold fear and then of outrage. "Damn you, what are you doing here?"
His partner Crit just stood there and looked at him a moment. He had left Crit down the block, down by the burned houses.
"How'd I get this close?" Crit asked him. "You don't know. That's what I'm doing here."
"I want to find the bastard that shot me," he said. "I want to find that out." There was a connection. Crit could put most things together. That was what Crit did in the world, add little pieces and make big patterns. Crit had made one that said he was a fool. That was the man Crit saw tonight. He wanted to show Crit another one. He wanted to show Crit the old Straton back again, and to take care of his business and seal up the pain and not let it interfere with his working any longer.
Take care of his business and finish it so that he could ride out of this murder-damned town when the Stepsons pulled out, and not go with the feeling that he was driven.
Go out of town under Tempus's order, riding in the same company, with his mouth shut and his business all done. That was all he wanted.
The bay horse nosed him in the ribs, lipped his hand with velvet, insistent in its devotion.
There was no relief, no breath of wind, through the slit of a window, which overlooked nothing but the narrowest of air shafts down to a barren court. Somewhere a baby cried. A rat squealed in some fatal moment, in the jaws of some other predator of Sanctuary nights. The loft just above rustled with wings, disturbance among the sleeping birds that cooed and bickered and scratched by twilight and now ought to have slept. Of a sudden they started, all at once, a great clap of wings and avian panic; and Stilcho flinched, standing naked at that window in the dark. Wings fluttered, battering at the narrow opening overhead that gave the panicked flock an escape; gray wings took to the night, day birds put to rout by something that hunted above. He shivered, hands clutching the sill; and looked back at the woman who lay sprawled, coverless on the ragged sweat-soaked sheet. A body did not so much sleep in this third floor hellhole as pass out; the air was fetid and stank of human waste and generations of unwashed inhabitants. It was as much resource as they had, he and Moria. He was alive, but barely. Moria had sold everything she had, and plied her old trade, which terrified him; they hanged thieves, even in Sanctuary, and Moria was out of practice. She stirred. "Stilcho," she murmured. "Stilcho."
"Go to sleep." If he came to her now she would feel the tension in him, and know his terror. But she got up, a creak of the rope-webbed underpinnings, and came up behind him, and pressed her sweaty, weary self against him, her arms about him. He shivered even so and felt those arms tense.
"Stilcho." There was fear in her voice now. "Stilcho, what's wrong?"
"A dream," he said. "A dream, that's all." He held her arms in place, cherished her sticky, miserable heat against him. Heat of life. Heat of passion when they had the strength. Both had returned to him, along with his life. Only the eye that Moruth had taken-kept seeing. He had fled Ischade, fled mages, fled the agencies that used him as their messenger to hell. He was alive again, but one of his eyes was dead; and one looked on the living, but the other-
A third shiver. He had seen into hell tonight,
He put his back to the window. It was hard to do, his naked shoulders vulnerable to the night air; and worse, his face turned to the room, with its deeper dark in which his living eye had no power. Then the dead one was most active, and what moved there suddenly took clearer shape.
"They've let something loose, oh gods, Moria, something's gotten loose in the town-"
"What, what thing?" Moria the thief gripped his arms in hands gone hard and shook him for the little she could move him. "Stilcho, don't, don't, don't!"
The baby squalled and shrieked, from the window down the shaft. The poor shared their violence and their tempers, lived in such indignities, the noise, the raised voices audible from apartment to apartment.
"Hush," he said, "it's all right." Which was a lie. His teeth wanted to chatter.
"We should go back to Her. We should-"
"No." He was adamant in that. If they both starved.
But sometimes in not-quite dreams, in that inner vision, he felt Ischade's touch, plainly as he had ever felt it, and suspected in profoundest unease that she knew precisely where her escaped servants were.
"We could have a house," Moria said, and burst into tears. "We could be safe from the law." She burrowed her head against him and hugged him tight. "I came from this. / can't live like this, it stinks, Stilcho, it stinks and I stink and I'm tired, I can't sleep-"
"No!" The vision was there again. Red eyes stared at him in the black. He tried to shift his sight away from it, but it was more and more real. He tried to push it away, and turned to the little starlight there was and clung to the sill till his fingers ached. "Light the lamp."
"Light the lamp!"
She left him; he heard her rattling and fussing with the tinderbox and the wick and tried to think of light, of any pure, yellow-golden-white light, of sun in mornings, of the burning summer sun, anything that had the power to dispel the dark.
But the sun he limned in his one living eye, there in the dark, reddened, and became paired, and lengthened, winking out in a blink as deep as hell and reappearing in slitted satisfaction.
The lamp glow began slowly, brightened, profligate waste. He turned and saw Moria's face underlit, haggard and sweaty and fear-haunted. For a moment she was a stranger, a presence he could no more account for than he could account for that vision which had waked him, of a thing launched into the skies over Sanctuary and hurtling free. But she moved the lamp and set it on the little niche shelf, and it made her body all shadows and flesh tones, her hair all wispy gold, all over. The magic that Haught worked had been thorough. She had still the look of a Rankene lady, however fallen.
She needed him, in this place. He persuaded himself of that. He needed her, desperately. At times he feared he was going mad. At others he feared that he was already mad.
And at the worst times he dreamed that she might wake and discover a corpse by her, the soul dragged back to hell and the body suffering whatever changes two years might have wrought in it, in its natural grave.
Day, brutal heat in the still air that settled in over Sanctuary since the rains. Shoppers at market were few and listless; merchants sat fanning themselves and keeping to the shade, while vegetables ripened and rotted and the remaining few fish did the same. There was trouble in the scarred town. The rumor ran up from Downwind and down from the hill, and all the byways murmured with the same names, furtively delivered.
High up on the hill an officer of the city garrison met with higher authority, and received orders to carry elsewhere.
In Ratfall there was a certain stirring, and certain merchants received warnings.
And a furtive woman went out on the streets to steal again, in gnawing terror, knowing her skills were not what they had been, and knowing that the man she had taken up with was approaching some crisis she did not understand. For this woman there must always be some man; she was adrift without that focus, shortsighted, on some life that made hers matter; she wanted love, did this woman, and kept finding men who needed her-or who needed, at any rate... and who lacked something. Moria knew need when she saw it, and went to that in a man like iron to a lodestone, and never understood why her men always failed her, and why she always ended giving away all she had for men who gave nothing back.
Stilcho was the best, thus far, this dead man who, whenever he could, gave her more gentleness than anyone had ever given but a strange doomed lord who still filled her dreams and her daydreams. Stilcho held her gently, Stilcho never demanded, never struck her. Stilcho gave something back, but he took-Shipri and Shalpa, he took; he drained her patience and her strength, waked her at night with his nightmares, harried her with his wild fancies and his talk of hell. She could not provide enough money to get them out of this misery, and a single mention of seeking help from Ischade drew irrational rage from him, made him scream at her, which in her other men had ended with blows, always with blows. So she flinched and kept silent and went out again to steal, her bright Rankene hair done up in a brown scarf, her face unwashed, her body anonymous and all but sexless in the ragged clothes she wore.
But desperation drove her now. She thought again and again of the things she had known, the luxuries she had had in the beautiful house, the gold and the silver that would have melted in the fire that ended that life. And even among Sanctuary's brazen thieves there was a notable reluctance to venture into that charred ruin; they came, of course. But none of them knew building from building or where the walls had stood, or where certain tables had been.
So when evening fell she went back again and began her sooty search, furtive as the rats which had become common in this stricken district, hiding from other searchers. She had never yet found a thing, not the silver, not the gold, which must exist as a flat puddle of cold metal somewhere below; but she had tunneled for weeks into the sooty ruin, and searched what had been the hall.
That was why she came late home. And this time-gods, she trembled so with terror in the streets that her legs had practically no strength left for the stairs this time she brought a lump of metal the size of her fist; and to Stilcho's anxious, angry demand where she had been, why she was besooted (she had always washed before, in the rainbarrel, and wiped it all to general grime on her dark clothes) and why she had let wisps of her yellow hair from beneath her scarf-
"Stilcho," she said, and held out that heavy thing which was, for all the fire and its changing, too heavy to be other than what it was. Tears ran down her face. It was wealth she had, as Sanctuary's lower levels measured it. Where she had rubbed it, it gleamed gold in the dim light from the lamp he had burned waiting for her.
Finally, to one of her desperate men, she had given something great enough to get that tenderness she had longed for. "Oh, Moria," he said; and spoiled it with: "Oh gods, from there! Dammit, Moria! Fool!" But he hugged her and held her till it hurt.
The river house waited, throwing out light from one unshuttered window, across the weed-grown garden, the trees and the brush and the rosebushes which embedded the iron fence and the warded gate.
Inside, in the light of candles which were never consumed, in a clutter of silks and fine garments that lay forgotten once acquired, Ischade sat in her absolute black, black of hair, of eye, of garments; but there was color in her hands, a little lump of blue stone that had also known that fire. She had gathered it out of the ash in a moment's distraction-she was also a thief, by her true profession; and if her hand had suffered bums from the ash, the stone had sucked all the heat into itself, and rested cool in unscarred, dusky fingers.
It was the largest piece of what had been the globe. It was power. It had associated with fire, and flame was the element of her own magic, fire, and spirit. It was well it reside where it did; and it was best if no one in Sanctuary were aware just where it resided.
Hoof-falls sounded outside, echoing off the walls of the warehouses which faced her little refuge, while the White Foal murmured its rain-swollen way past her back door. She closed her hand till flesh met flesh; and the blue stone was gone, magician's trick.
She opened the outer gate for her visitor and opened the front door when she heard his steps on the porch. And looked around from where she sat as she heard him come in.
"Good evening," she said. And when he stood there disregarding the invitation and too evidently in a hurry about their business together: "Come sit down-like my proper guest."
"Magics," he said in his lowest tone. "I'll warn you, woman-"
"I thought-" She made her voice a higher echo of his, and with a taint of slow mockery: "I did think you were in better control than that."
He stood there in the midst of her scattered silks, the littered carpet and scarf-strewn chairs. And she shut the door at his back, never stirring from where she sat. He stared at her, and a little spark of reckoning flickered in his eyes. Or it was the disturbance of the candles that sent shadows racing? "I did think your hospitality was better than this."
The fire was there, inside her, it always was; and it stirred and grew in that way that, last night, should have sent her on the hunt. "I waited for you," she said. "I'm quite at my worst."
"No damned tricks."
"Is this how you pay your debts? I can wait, you know. So can you, or you'd be prey to your enemies. And you've so much vanity." She gestured at the wine on the tables. "So have I. Will you? Or shall we both be animals?"
He might have attempted rape, and then murder; she felt the tilt in that direction. And she felt him pull the other way. Surprisingly he smiled.
And came and sat down across from her, and drank her wine, in slow silence there at the empty hearth. "We'll be pulling out," he told her in the course of that drinking, amid other small talk. "We'll leave the town to-local forces. I'll be taking all of mine with me."
That was challenge. Strat, he meant. She stared at him from under her brows and let her mouth tighten ever so slightly at the corners. Her hand came to rest by the base of the wineglass. His covered it, and it was like the touch of fire. He sat there, his fingers moving ever so delicately, and let the fire grow-Wait, then. Enjoy the waiting. Till it was hard to breathe evenly, and the room blurred in the dilation of her eyes.
"We can wait all night," he said, while her pulse hammered at her temples and the room seemed to have too little air. She smiled at him, a slow baring of teeth.
"On the other hand," she said, and let her leg brush his beneath the table, "we could regret it in the morning."
He got up and drew her up against him. There was no time for undressing, no thinking of anything more, but a tending toward the couch close at hand, a hasty and rough passage of feverish hands. He did not so much as shed the mail shirt; it resisted her fingers and she clenched her hands into his outer clothing. "Careful," she said, "slow, go slowly-" when he thrust himself at her. Warning him, with the last of her sanity.
The room went white, and blue and green, and thunder cracked, spinning her through the dark, through warm summer air, through-
-nowhere, till she came to herself again, lying dazed under a starry sky, with the ramshackle maze of Sanctuary buildings leaning above her. She felt nothing for a while, nothing at all, and shut her eyes and blinked at the stars again, her fingers exploring what should have been silk, but was instead dusty cobblestone. The back of her head hurt where she had fallen. She felt bruised along her whole back, and where he had touched her she felt a burning like acid.
He never lost consciousness. For a moment he was clearly elsewhere, then lying stunned on pavement with a curbside against his ribs. He had hit hard, and he ached; and he likewise burned, not least with the slow realization that he was not in the riverside house, that he was lying in a midnight street somewhere in the uptown, and that he hurt like very hell.
He did not curse. He had learned a bloody-minded patience with the doings of gods and wizards. He only thought of killing, her, anything within reach, and most immediately any fool who found amusement in his plight.
When he had picked himself up off his face and gained his balance again there was no question which direction he was going.
It was a long tangle of streets, a long, limping course home, in which she had abundant time to gather the fragments of her composure. Her head ached. Her spine felt quite disarranged. And for the most urgent discomfort there was no relief until she rounded a comer and came face to face with one of Sanctuary's unwashed and ill-mannered.
The knife-wielding ruffian gave her no choice and that contented her no end. She left him in the alley where he had accosted her, likely to be taken for some poor sod dead of an overdose of one of Sanctuary's manifold vices. His eyes had that kind of vacancy. In a little while he would simply stop living, as the chance within his body multiplied by increments and everything went irredeemably wrong. The poor and the streetfolk died most easily: their health was generally bad to begin with, and his was decidedly worse even before she left him lying there quite forgetful that he had been with any woman.
She was, therefore, in a more reasoning frame of mind when she arrived on the street by the bridge, and walked up the road which most ignored, to her hedge and her fence on this back street of Sanctuary. But she was not the first one.
Tempus was already there, walking sword in hand about the perimeter, up along the fence; and he stopped in his tracks when she came from beyond the trees, into the feeble glow of the stars overhead and the light from between her shutters. There was rage in every line of him. But she kept walking, limping somewhat, until they were face to face. He looked her up and down. The sword inclined its point to the ground, slowly, and hung in his fist.
"Where were you?" he asked. "And where in hell is my horse?"
"My horse!" He pointed with the sword to the front of the fence and the hedge, as if it were perfectly evident. In fact there was no horse in sight and he had ridden in; she had heard him. She gathered her forces and limped on to the front of the en-hedged fence, where the ground, still soft from the rain, was churned and trampled by large hooves.
And where one of her rosebushes was trampled to splinters.
She stood there staring at the ruin, and the light inside her shuttered house flickered brighter, glowed with a white incandescence. It died slowly as she turned. "A girl," she said. "A girl is the thief. At my house. From my guest."
"This wasn't your doing."
His voice was calmer, restrained.
"No," she said in soft and measured tones, "I do assure you." And drew herself up to all her height when he reached for her. "I've had quite enough, thank you."
"It threw you too."
"To the far side of the mage quarter." She drew in a hissing breath through wide nostrils. It smelled of horse and mud, trampled roses, and bitch. And there was wrath and chagrin both in this huge man, wrath that began to assume a certain embarrassed self-consciousness. "Our curses are not compatible, it seems. Storm and fire. And we were so well begun."
He said nothing. His breathing was rapid. He walked past her to the trampled ground and gave a whistle, piercingly shrill.
She caught it up for him, reached inside and flung it to the winds, so that he winced and faced her in startlement.
"If that will bring him," she said, "that will carry to him."
"That will bring him," Tempus said, "if he's alive."
"A young woman took him. Her smell is everywhere. And krrf. Don't you smell it?"
He drew in a larger breath. "Young woman."
"Not one I know. But I will. My roses come very dear."
"A bloody young bitch." It sounded particular and specific, his eyes narrowing in some precise identification.
"In frequent heat. Yes."
"Chenaya." She repeated the name and stored it away carefully. She waved the gate open. "A drink, Tempus Thales?"
He slid the sword into its sheath and walked with her, a light touch beneath her arm, steadying her as she walked up the steps, and wished the door open, a blaze of light into the dark thicket of the yard.
"Sit down," he said when they were inside; his voice was a marvel of self restrained gentleness; he poured wine for her, and then for himself. Then: "I owe you an apology," he said, as if the words were individually expensive. Then further: "There's mud in your hair."
She gave out a breath of a laugh, and breathed larger and wider and found herself awake. It was not a pleasant laugh, as the look on Tempus's face was not a pleasant one. "There's mud on your chin," she said, and he wiped at it, with a hand likewise smudged. They both stank of the streets. He grinned suddenly, wolflike. "I'd say," Ischade said, "we were fortunate."
He drank off his glass. She poured another round.
"Do you get drunk?" he asked, directly.
"Not readily. Do you?"
"No," he said. There was a difference in his tone. It was not arrogance. Or pride. He looked her straight in the eyes and it was clear that tonight, this moment, it was not a man-woman piece of business. It was similar perspective. It was a rare moment, she sensed, that a man got this close to Tempus Thales. And a woman-perhaps it was the first time.
She recalled him in the alley, on the horse, that something-to-prove manner of his.
But defeated, robbed and offended, he was being astonishingly sensible. He was going far to excess in it, and again she felt that precarious balance, polar opposite to the direction black rage insisted he go. He smiled at her and drank her wine, issues all forever unresolved.
One expected a man of vast lifespan to be complex. Or mad, at least to the limited perspective of those who lacked perspective. It was vitality of all sorts which was his curse, healing, sex, immortality.
Annihilation was hers. And the apposition of their curses was impossible.
She laughed, and leaned her elbow on the table and wiped her mouth with the back of a soiled hand.
"What amuses you?" There, the suspicion was quite ready.
"Little. Little. Your horse and my roses. Us." As distant hooves echoed in the streets, within her awareness. "Shall we dice for the bitch?"
He had heard the horse coming. He recovered himself, as she had guessed, became the stranger again, and headed for her door.
She came out a moment or two later, when the horse had come thundering up, and brought a cloak which had lain underfoot for months. It was velvet, soiled, and a horse which had run the width of Sanctuary was bound to be sweated. "Here," she said, joining him at the open gate. "For the horse." Which was rolling its eyes and lolling its tongue and reeking of krrf as he worked at the cinch. Tempus snatched the skewed saddle off, jerked the cloak from her hands, and used it on the Tros.
"Damn," Tempus said over and over.
"Let me." She moved in despite the hazard from both, put out a calm hand, and touched the Tros's bowed forehead; it was a little exertion. Her head throbbed and it cost her more than she had thought. But the horse steadied, and his breathing grew more regular. "There."
Tempus wiped and rubbed, walked the horse in a little circle on the level ground. And never said a word.
"He's all right," she said. He knew her magics, that they could heal-others with some skill; her own hurts with less effectiveness. He had seen her work before.
He looked her way. She demanded no gratitude, nor expected any. There was a sour taste in her mouth for this abuse of an animal. Their personal discomfiture she could find irony in. Not this.
She stood with her arms folded and her cloak about her while Tempus carefully, without a word, threw the sweated blanket and the saddle on. The Tros ducked its head and scratched its cheek on its foreleg, as if abashed.
He finished the cinch and gathered up the reins, looked once her direction, and then swung up.
And rode off without a word.
She heaved a sigh, the cloak wrapped about her despite the steamy warmth of the night. Hoofbeats diminished on the cobbles.
The wide focus had disappeared, along with the ennui. Dawn was lightening the east. She walked back along the path and closed the gate behind her, opened the door, arms folded and head bowed.
Her perspective had vanished, together with the ennui, from the time that they had met in the alley. And since that encounter in the ruin, something had nagged at her which said danger, which had nothing to do with human spite. It did have something to do with what they had carried out uptown, some misfortune which encompassed her and perhaps Tempus.
Since the Nisi Globes of Power had dispersed their influence over the town, surprising things happened. Mages missed, sometimes: far more of chance governed magics than before, and common folk had more of luck in their lives than they were wont, amazing in Sanctuary; but dismaying for the town, mages who worked the greater magics found their powers curtailed, and sometimes found the results askew.
Therefore she abstained from the greater workings, until she let herself be talked into an exorcism, principally by the Hazard Randal, whose professional and personal honesty she counted impeccable-rarest of qualities, a magician of few self-interests.
Now she simply had that persistent feeling of unease, exacerbated, perhaps, by the experience of being hurled from one side of Sanctuary to the other, by the bruises and the throbbing in his skull. Fool! to have tried such a thing, such a damned, blind trial of a curse that had been, for a while and in the height of Sanctuary's power, manageable.
The headache was just payment. It could have been much worse.
It would have been worse, for instance, had she kept Stra-ton, had this blindness and execrably bad judgment brought him back to her bed, opened that old wound.
And morning seen him dead as that drunken fool in a Sanctuary alley, who was by now neither drunken nor any longer a fool, nor able to see the dawn in front of his eyes.
"We can't both leave," Stilcho concluded. Sleep eluded them both. They were hoarse and blear-eyed and exhausted, sitting opposite each other at the rickety little table. "I can't leave you here alone with that thing."
"I found it, dammit." Moria wiped back a stringing lock and brought the hand hard onto the table. "Don't treat me like a damn fool, Stilcho, don't tell me how to manage! I carried it clean across town! We melt it-"
"What with, for godssakes? On the damned little firepot we cook on? We just get a damned hot lump of-"
"Hssssst!" Her hand came up out-turned toward his mouth, her face twisted in fury. "These walls! These walls, dammit, how many times do I have to tell you keep your voice down! I'll steal us the stuff, how do you think we come by anything lately, except / steal it, and you live on it! Don't you tell me what to do! I've had it all my life, and I'm not taking it, I'm not taking any of it, not from you and not from anybody!"
"Don't be a damned fool! You go flashing gold bits around this town you'll get your throat cut, this isn't silver, dammit, listen. Listen! You-" Of a sudden, even in the gray morning light filtering through the window, the vision of the lost eye shifted in, stronger than the living one. He stopped, his heart laboring in terror.
"Stilcho?" Moria's voice was higher, frightened. "Stilcho?"
"Something's wrong," he said. In that inner eye, soiled, filmy shapes went streaming like smoke through the gates, the gates-the fires, the lost reaches.... "A lot of people just died." He swallowed hard, tried to calm his shaking, tried to get back the sight of Moria across the table, and not that black vision where Something waited, where by the riverside-in the woods-
"Stilcho!" Her nails bit into his hand. He blinked and tried again to focus, succeeded finally in seeing her, beyond a veil like black gauze.
"Help me. M-moria-"
She rose and her chair overset, crashing down so violently she came and grabbed him and held on to him with all her might. "Don't, don't, don't, dammit, don't, come back-"
"I don't want to go down there, I don't want to die again -oh gods, Moria!" His teeth would not stop chattering. He could shut his living eye. He had no such power over the dead one. "It's in hell, Moria, a piece of me is in hell and I can't blink, I can't shut it, I can't get rid of it-"
"Look at me!" She jerked his head by the hair and looked him in the face. Another jerk at his hair. "Look at me!"
His sight cleared. He caught her around the waist and hugged her tight, his head against her breast, in which her heart beat like something trapped. Her hand caressed his head, and she whispered reassurance; but he felt her heart hammering fit to shake her small body. No safety. As long as she was with him there was none for her, and there was nowhere any for him.
Get out of here, he would tell her. But he dreaded the day he would slip and Moria would not be there to pull him back; he dreaded the solitude in which he might then go mad. If he were a brave man he would tell her go. But not today. They would climb out of this pit together; for that much they needed each other he needed her skill and she needed his restraint and his protection to use the gold; but after that, after she was set up and he had a chance as well, then he would find a way to let her go.
"Damn!" Crit hissed. The news had come down the hill with the swiftness only bad news could manage; but Straton said nothing at all. Straton headed out the barracks door and whistled up the bay, which came; of course it came. It made trouble in the stables, it cleared the stable fence like a gull in flight, and nothing held it. It came to him in this early dawn, and he went to the tackroom to get what belonged to it.
"Where are you going?" Crit asked him, meeting him outside as he came out into the dusty yard, his right hand hauling the saddle, the treacherous left unburdened with anything but the bridle and the blanket. Crit was careful with him nowadays, uncommonly patient, a perpetual walking on eggshells.
"Town," Strat said. He cultivated patience, too. He saw Crit's analytical look, the inevitable reckoning what small house lay on his way. And he had not thought of that till he saw Crit think of it; then it got its claws into his gut, and the thought began to grow that of powers in Sanctuary which ought to be warned, which might exert a calming influence on the town-
-damn, she had contacts in all the right places. With Moruth the beggar-king; with the rats in the very walls when it came to that, the rabble that was most like to take the slaughter uptown very hard indeed. Zip arrested. That would not last long. Best he be arrested till someone had a chance to talk sense to him. Likely Walegrin.
"Stay off riverside," Crit said, and laid a hand on his arm, delaying him a moment. In months past that would have gotten a shrug-off, at best a surly answer. But Crit was fighting for Strat's soul, and Strat had gotten to know that, in a kind of fey gratitude for a friend with a lost cause, or at best a cause that was not worth the effort Crit spent on it. I'm crippled, dammit, you got me back, you risked your damn neck pulling me out, but you have to get another partner, Crit, one who won't let you down in a pinch, and you know it and I know it. The fire's dying and I'm not going to be again what I was, when I get the twinges I know that. Tomorrow I'll tell you that. When we're out of this damned city I'll tell you that. And you'll tell me I'm a damned fool, but neither of us is. Time we split. Leave me to fend for myself: you don't have to go on carrying me, Crit.
Crit's hand dropped. There was a worried look on his face. Strat's stares could put it there, lately. And that usually got Crit's temper up when other provocations failed. This time he just stood there.
"Yeah," Strat said. "I'm going to drop out a few hours on the way back, expect it: I'll be pulling in a few contacts." He hung the bridle on his shoulder, flung the blanket over the bay's back, not-not looking more than he must at that coin-sized patch just by the bay's hipbone. "I may talk to her. Figure I can walk out of there, too. It's all cooled down; she's got her choices, I have mine." He slung the saddle up, and the bay never offered to move. It had as well been a statue that breathed and smelled like a horse. "She's sleeping around. We got corpses to prove it."
"Don't be a damn fool."
"Hey." He turned his head and looked at Crit. "Trust me to do what needs doing. All right? You're not my mother."
Crit said not a thing.
Damn mistake, Crit. Say it. My mind's like the damned shoulder, on and off, I never know when. I can't think, I can't know when I'm on target, can't know when I'll flinch.
She's got herself another lover. One I can't match, can I?
I can meet her and ride away again. You don't know how easy it is. I've seen her in the streets, Crit. Like the rest of the whores. With a pox that'll kill you.
He slipped the bridle on, cinched up, and hurled himself into the saddle without the least twinge from the shoulder. "See you." he said, and rode for the gates.
"Where?" Tempus snapped, just arrived on the hill, just arrived inside Molin's offices. It was not a good day for Molin either, but Tempus was clearly begun on a worse one. "When and who?"
"About six of the piffs. Zip survived. He's in lockup, for his own sake. And the city's. Walegrin's going to have a talk with him."
"Who did it?"
Molin drew a careful breath and told him.
The headache had diminished. The malaise persisted, and discouraged attempts at philosophy; Ischade kept to her house, her hair immaculate, the mud scrubbed from her person, the salvageable roses off the damaged bush decorating a vase on the table, not for the beauty of them (they were black and the moisture-beads which stood on their petals from their watering shone blood-bright red in certain lights), but as a reminder of a task she did not want to undertake in her present mood and with her headache.
Having power, she set limits to it; having the ability to blast an enemy, she refrained from it for no altruistic motives, but because killing was very easy for her, and very seductive, and led to untidy consequences which resisted solution.
She had taken rare inventory of her stores, and tidied up a bit (rarer still). Haught had kept things in some order. Stilcho had tried. She missed them, missed them today with outright maudlin melancholy, which both would have found bewildering.
Stilcho had fled, vanished. She might, she thought, find him.
The thought, as she paused with broom in hand, became quite inviting. Stilcho had shared her bed-many a night.
And died and waked. But that had been when her magic was unnaturally great. To do it now would risk him. And he had been loyal, he had saved Strat's life, he had deserved some choice in his fate, which was patently and sanely not to come back to her.
A presence came near her garden gate. She knew it, a little thrill along her nerves, in all the noon coming and going up and down the street just beyond.
She suddenly knew who it was even before she heard the horse distinctly, or felt someone touch the ironwork. She set the broom aside, flung the door open, and walked out onto the porch against her habit, in the full summer daylight.
"Go away," she said to Strat, and held the wards against him. "Out!"
"I've got to talk to you. It's business."
"I have no business with you."
He held both hands in plain sight. "No weapons."
"Don't try me. I warned you. I told you you'd be no different than the others."
"Fine. Open the gate. I don't want to shout from the street. This is trouble. Hear me?"
She wavered. The gate gave to his push against it, and creaked open when he shoved. He came walking up as far as the porch, his face all sullen and thin lipped. "Well?" she said.
"There's been a murder uptown. A lot of it."
"I haven't been up to much this morning."
"Six of the piffs. You understand me."
She did understand. Faction-war broken open again. With the Empire's hand already heavy on the town. "Who?"
"Can I come in?"
It was not wise. Neither was it wise to ignore the news. Or to fail to use the contacts she had, this one no less than the rest. She turned and went in, leaving the door open, and he followed her.
Night again. A shambling figure staggered among the reeds and the brush of riverside, snuffling at times and swatting at the midges and other insects that thrived here. One who knew Zip might not have recognized him beneath the swelling, the cuts and bruises: one eye was shut and puffed, even the good one running a trail down his face. His nose ran: that was the swelling. Or perhaps he was crying. He himself had no idea. He sniffed and wiped his nose on a muddy arm, the hand of that arm already caked in mud where he had fallen.
Run for it, the Stepson escort had told him, when they had brought him near the bridge, at twilight. He expected an arrow in the back, but he had no third choice: Walegrin had said they would let him go. So he ran for his life when they gave him the chance, raking through the undergrowth and tearing his lacerated face on thorns and brambles and branches. He had run until he slipped and sprawled on the slick bank, and run again, till his side hurt too much and he took to walking in the dark.
Man, something said to him, just that word, over and over, and direction which was the same as the direction he went, so that he hardly needed keep his good eye open, only to fend the branches away with his hands and to go toward that voice that led him. Revenge, it said then; and that was, in his delirium and his pain and his blindness, even better.
He did not know where he was until he had found the tumbled stones of an ancient altar. He did not know it at first sight, but stood there snuffling and tasting the thin constant seep of his own blood in his mouth, blinking at the haze and trying to focus; but it was his personal place, it was the altar where he had laid offerings to vengeance, because he was Ilsigi and the old gods the Rankans let exist among the temples were quislings all. Ilsig had had a wargod once. A god of vengeance. And if all of them were dead and the statues only statues, he had still had a feeling about this old place that no Rankan had ever touched it, no force but earthquake ever tumbled these old stones, no Rankan ever knew its name to defile it. So he worshiped it, and gave it human flesh: that was the way he was in those days. It never answered him. But in those days it was all he had had, till he had ruled a quarter of Sanctuary.
Now Rankans killed his brothers, other Rankans turned him out with apologies, and he was here, fallen on his knees back at his beginnings, his ribs hurting, his face one mass of agony, his elbows bruised on the stone like his knees when he had hit the pavings in the massacre. He wept, and snuffled and wiped his nose and his eyes, trying to catch his breath.
Revenge, something whispered to him. He lifted his head and drew in a hoarse breath, hearing a murmuring and a rumbling in the earth. Something was there, in the dark just across the altar, facing him, a horripilating conviction of presence and a voice in his throbbing skull.
He blinked again. Two red slits appeared in that dark, and the same glow limned the flare of humanish nostrils and the seam of a humanish mouth, as if there were fire inside an utterly dark face. It smiled at him.
My worshiper, it said.
And whispered other things, about power, and how it had been shut in hell until it gained its freedom. The pain ebbed down. But not the cold.
"I'm going," he told it. "I got to get to my people, I got to tell them-"
Tell them they have a god. What would you give-for Ilsig to rise again? You paid lives. You'd pay yours. But it's worship I want. None of this business about souls. I want a temple. That's all. Whatever kind of a temple you want to make over there on the Avenue. That's where we can begin. Small. Till we have things in hand.
Zip wiped his nose and wiped it a second time. He ought to be running, except that he had no strength left. Except that this thing was real, and in a world where magery and power ruled, it was talking about Ilsig, and power of a sort Ranke had had a monopoly on too damned long.
Me, he thought. Me. With this thing. He was not sure what it was. God did not quite describe it, but it assuredly had ambitions to be one.
A temple Ilsigis might build. A priesthood other than those damned eunuchs and temple prostitutes the Rankans called state-approved Ilsigi gods. A priesthood with swords. And real power.
He sniffed and swallowed down the taste of blood, licked a bruised and swollen mouth. "If you're a god," he said, "tell my followers come to get me. If you're a god, you know who they are. If you're a god, you can call them here for me."
Do you really want them here, yet? We should talk strategy, man. We should make plans. You made one expensive mistake. Don't gather all your forces in one place. Cooperate •with these foreigners. With everyone. Get your information in order. Deal only with authorities or use subordinates. You have to learn to delegate.
"Prove to me-"
Oh, yes. The red slits crinkled at the comers, the mouth stretched in a wide, wide smile. Of course you'd come to that.
Chenaya screamed, in the dark, in a sudden nowhere as if the world had dropped away. She fell and fell....
... hit a bruising surface that wrapped about her and bubbled past her and folded in on her with a terrible pressure. Water drove up her nose and filled her mouth and ears, threatening to burst her eyes and eardrums. Instinctively she tried to move her limbs and swim, but the momentum was too great, until she had gone deep, deep, and the pressure mounted.
Asleep in her own bed, her brain tried to tell her.
But the cold and the crushing force increased in one long narrowing rush downward after the impact, till she slowed enough to kick and the natural buoyancy of her body began to hurl her inexorably toward the surface. Salt stung her eyes and her throat; her lungs burned for air and her stomach was trying to crawl up her windpipe as she struggled with arms gone weak and legs kicking against too much water pressure.
... not going to make it, not going to make it, consciousness was going out in red bursts and gray and her lungs were clogged, needing to expel what they had taken in, in a spasm which would suck water in after it, and finish her.
Savankala! she wailed.
But nothing hastened her rise. She stroked and kicked and stroked, and her gut spasmed; she forced the last few bubbles out her nose, trying to gain time, fought with all instinct demanding to intake air where there was no air: she would faint, was going out, and her body would breathe by that instinct-
Her hand broke surface, and she grabbed at it with that hand and the other, one last desperate effort that got her face half clear and a froth of water and air sluicing down nose and throat. She coughed and spasmed and nailed, trying to spit up water and take in a clear breath while her temples ached to bursting and her gut racked itself in internal contractions. Stroke by flailing stroke she gained on life, gulped clear air and vomited, swam and gulped and choked in the toss of waves. Her sight showed her nothing but dark, abysmal dark.
"Help!" she yelled, a raw, animal sound. And gasped a mix of air and water as the chop hit her in the face and washed over her. Her voice was small in the wind and the night sky.
She gained enough strength to cast about her then, and blinked at the lights that she saw when she turned in the water, the distant line of the wharf, the Beysib ships riding at anchor. She had not a stitch of clothing. She was chilled and bruised and half-drowned, and she had no idea in the world how she had come there, or whether she had gone mad.
She started to swim, slow, painful strokes, until she remembered that there were sharks in these waters. Then she threw all she had left into the drive across Sanctuary's very ample harbor, toward the distant lights.