Shadows slipped along the cobbles in this deepest sink of the Maze, in that small light of the moon which wended its way among the overhangs and glistened wetly off noisome moistures. A well-dressed woman had no place here, even shadow-clad in black, robed and hooded - but she went deliberately, weaving only from the course of the foulest and widest streams, stepping over most.
And a ruffler, a bravo, a sometime thief- Sjekso by name-he took to the alleys as a matter of course.
Sjekso belonged here, had been whelped here, wove in his steps too, but not from fastidiousness, as he came from the opposite direction down the web of dark ways. A handsome fellow was Sjekso Kinzan, a blond youth with curling locks, a short and carefully kept beard, his shirt and jerkin open from the recent heat of the common room of the Vulgar Unicorn - from the heat, and, truth be told, from a certain vanity. He radiated sex, wine vapours, and a certain peevishness: was out of pocket from the dice, had lost even Minsy's purchasable favours to a bad throw ... his absolute nadir of discomfort. Minsy was off with that whoreson Hanse, while he-
He staggered his hazed way back towards his lodgings and his own doorway off the Serpentine. He snuffed and faltered and lamented his misfortune with himself. He hated Hanse, at least for the evening, and plotted elaborate and public revenge...
And blinking in the vapours up from the harbour and in the Uncertain focus of his eyes, he found his way intersected with a woman's in the alleyway. No ordinary doxy, this: a courtesan of quality strayed from some rendezvous, an opportunity some fickle god had tossed into his path or him into hers.
'Well,' he said, and flung wide his arms, leaned from one side of the way to the other to block her attempt to walk around him ... a little fun, he reckoned. And again, owlishly: 'Well.'-but she made a quick move to go past him and he seized her in that swift pass, grabbed and grasped and felt female roundnesses in delightful proportions. His prey writhed and pushed and kneed at him, and he gripped her hair through the hood, drew her head back and kissed her with fair aim and rising passion.
She struggled, which motion only felt the better in his hands, and she gave out muffled cries, which were far from loud, his mouth covering hers the while. He held her tight and sought with his eyes for some more convenient alcove among the broken amphorae and barrels, a place where they might not be disturbed.
All at once another sound penetrated the fog of sense and sound, the scuff of another foot near him. Sjekso started to spin himself and his victim about, went the least bit over to that foot and had a hand clamped on to his own chin, his head jerked back, and a deadly keen blade at his throat in the same instant.
'Let the lady go,' a male whisper suggested, and he carefully, trading in all his remaining advantage, relaxed his hands and let them fall, wondering wildly all the while whether his only chance might be in some wild try at escape. The woman in the edge of his vision stepped back, brushed at her robes, adjusted her hood. The knife rode razor-edged at his throat and the hand which held his chin gave him nothing.
Mradhon Vis kept his grip and held the ruffian just off his balance, looked in a moment's distraction at the lady in question ... at a severe and dusky face in the faint light of the alleyway. She was beautiful. His romantical soul was touched - that seldom-afforded self which launched itself mostly in the wake of more profitable motives. 'Be off,' he told Sjekso, and flung the villain a good several body lengths down the alley; and Sjekso scrambled up and set to his heels without stopping to see anything.
'Wait!' the woman called after Sjekso. The would-be rapist spun about with his back to a wall, ducking an imagined blow from behind. Mradhon Vis, dagger still in hand, stood facing him, utterly confounded.
'The boy and I are old friends,' she said - and to Sjekso: 'Isn't it so?'
Sjekso straightened with his back against the wall and managed a bow, if a wobbling one ... managed a sneer, his braggadocio recovered in the face of a man he, after all, knew from the dice table that night - and Mradhon Vis took a tighter and furious grip on his dagger, knowing this vermin at least from the tables at the Unicorn.
But feminine fingers touched very lightly on his bare arm. 'A misunderstanding,' the woman said, very soft and low. 'But thank you for stepping in, all the same. You have some skill, don't you? Out of the army, maybe - I ask you, sir ... I have need to find someone ... with that skill. To guard me. I have to come and go hereabouts. I could pay, if you could find me someone like yourself, a friend maybe - who might serve...'
'At your service,' Sjekso said, with a second grander flourish. 'I know my way around.'
But the woman never turned to see. Her eyes were all for Mradhon, dark and glittering in the night. 'He's one, in fact, I might sometimes want protection/row. - Do you know someone who might be interested?'
Mradhon straightened his back and took a superior stance. 'I've served as bodyguard now and again. And as it happens, I'm at liberty.'
'Ah,' she said, a hand to her robed breast, which outlined female curves in the shadow. And she turned at once to the confused villain, who had taken advantage of the moment to slip towards the shadows and the corner. 'No, no, wait. I did promise you this evening. I had no right to put you off; and I want to talk with you. Be patient.' - A glance then back, her hand bringing a purse from beneath her robes. She loosed the strings and took out a gold coin that caught Mradhon's whole attention, the more so when she dropped the heavy purse into his hand. Only the one coin she held, it winking colourless bright in the moonlight, and she held that up like an icon for Sjekso's eyes - another look at Mradhon: 'I lodge seventh down from this corner, the first steps you'll come to that have a newel on the rail: on your right as you go. Go there. Learn the place so you can find it tomorrow morning, and be waiting there for me at midmorning. I'll be there. And the purse is yours.'
He considered the weight in his palm, heavy as with gold. 'I'll find it,' he said, and, less than confident of the situation at hand: 'Are you sure you don't want me to stay about?'
Black brows drew together, a frown uncommonly grim. 'I have no doubts to my safety. - Ah, your name, sir. When I pay, I like to know that.'
'Vis. Mradhon Vis.'
'Northward. A lot of places.'
'We'll talk. Tomorrow morning. Go on, now. Believe me, that the quarrel wasn't what it seemed.'
'Lady,' he murmured - he had known polite company once. He clenched the purse in his fist and turned off in the direction she had named - not without a backward look. Sjekso still waited where he had fixed himself against the wall; but the lady seemed to know he would look back, and turned a shadowy look on him.
Mradhon moved on quickly and further along the winding way, stopped and anxiously shook out the purse into his hand, a spill of five heavy pieces in gold and half a dozen of silver. Hot and cold went through him, like the shock of a blow, a tremor through things that were ... A second glance back, but buildings had come between him and the woman and her bought-boy Sjekso. Well, he had hired to stranger folk and no few worse to look on. He gave a twitch of his shoulders at that proceedings back there and shrugged it off. There was gold in his possession, a flood of gold. His gallantry had come from his own poverty, from one look at the woman's fine clothing and a sure knowledge that Sjekso Kinzan was all hollow when pushed. And for that gold in his hand he would have waited in the alley all night, or beaten Sjekso to fine rags, no questions asked.
It occurred to him while he went that it might involve more than that, but he went, all the same.
The woman looked back at Sjekso and smiled, a fervid smile which made wider and wider chaos of Sjekso's grasp of the situation. He stood away from his wall and - sobered as he had been in the encounter, deprived of the vaporous warmth of the wine in his blood - still he recovered something of anticipation, re estimated his own considerable animal charm in the light of the lady's sultry dark eyes, in the moonlike gleam of the gold coin she held up before him. He grinned, his confidence restored, stood. easier still as she came to him - it might have been the wine after all, this new blush of heat; it might have been her slim fingers which touched at his collar and drew a line with the edge of the coin down among the fine hairs of his chest, disturbing there the chain of the luckpiece he wore.
His luck had improved, he reckoned, laying it all to his way with women. She had liked it after all... they all did; and she might be parted from more than a golden coin, and if she thought of using him and that bastard northerner one against the other, good: there was a chance of paying off Mradhon Vis. He had skills the northerner did not; and he knew how to get the most out of them. He took most of his living from women, in one way or the other.
'What's your name?' she asked him.
'Sjekso. I have a place ... not the lodgings where I sent that fellow; that's business. But my real house... near the river. A little wine, a soft bed ... I'll bet you're good.'
He laughed. 'I make it a rule never to go out of my own territory till I know the terms. Here's good enough. Right over here. And I'll bet you don't care.'
'Mine's Ischade,' she murmured distractedly, as he put his hands up under the robes. She swayed against him, her own hands on him, and he found the coin and took it from her unresisting fingers. She brushed his lips with her own and urged him on. 'My name's Ischade.'
A corpse was no uncommon sight in the Maze. But one sprawled in the middle of the Serpentine, in the first light of the sun - the potboy of the Unicorn found the blond male corpse when he came out to heave the slops, a corpse on the inn's very doorstep, a body quite stiff and cold, and he knew Sjekso Kinzan. He spun on his heel and started to run back in - thought again and darted, back to search for valuables ... after all, some less acquainted and deserving person might come along. He found the brass luckpiece, found the purse ... empty, except for an old nail and a bit of lint - dropped the luckpiece down his own collar, jumped up and ran inside in breathless haste, to spill his news to the morning's first stirrers-forth in the tavern; and the fact of one of the Unicorn's regular patrons lying stiff at the door brought a stamping up and down the stair and a general outpouring of curious and half-awake ovemighters.
That was how it came to Hanse, a disturbance under Minsy Zithyk's rented window next door.
The gathering around the body in the street was solemn ... partly a kind of respect and partly morning headaches, more and more onlookers arriving as the commotion became its own reason for being. Hanse was one of the first, stood with his arms clenched into a tight fold - he had his daggers: had them about his person natural as breathing. His scowl and awakened-owl stare at the corpse of Sjekso Kinzan, his arms about his ribs holding his spine stiff- warned Minsy Zithyk off. She stood snuffling and holding her own ribs, doubtless with the other half of a throbbing headache. Hanse wanted no hanging-on, now, of Sjekso's longtime woman. The dice game and the wager stuck in his mind and he felt eyes on him, himself part of the morning's gossip, with a man he had diced with lying cold in the soiled stream of a drain.
'Who got him?' Hanse asked finally, and there was a general shrugging of shoulders. 'Who?' Hanse snapped, looking round at the onlookers. A corpse was indeed no novelty in the Maze, but an otherwise young and healthy one, with no mark of violence on it... but a man on the doorstep of the tavern he frequented, a turn or two of the alleys to his own lodgings ...
There were amenities like territory. A man was never assured ... but there were places and places, and when he was in his own place, he was least likely to end up among the morning's debris. There were stirrings among the crowd, discomfort - with Hanse, for one, whose smallish size meant a temper backed with knives, a bad reputation for every kind of mischief.
And his sullen, headachy stare passed right round to a stranger in the territory - to one Mradhon Vis; to a new and frequent patron at the Unicorn. 'You,' Hanse said. 'You left about the same time last night. You see anything?'
A shrug. A useless question. No one in the Maze saw anything. But Vis looked too thin-lipped about the shrug and Hanse looked back with a blacker stare still had sudden awareness of the silence of the crowd when he spoke, of eyes on him; and he unfolded his arms and thought of how they had jostled in a doorway last night, Sjekso and Mradhon Vis, and Sjekso had laughed and acted his usual flippant self at Vis's expense. Hanse drew quiet conclusions - quiet because he cut a mean figure at the moment, having got off with a dead man's last cash and last pleasure ... he swept a glance about at faces dour with their own private conclusions. No love lost on him or dead Sjekso; but Sjekso being local and dead was the focus of pity, while regarding himself- there was quite another thing in the air.
Vis started to leave, edging away through the crowd. "That's the one to look at,' Hanse said. 'Hey, you! You don't like the questions, do you? The garrison threw you out, hey? You come back here, whoreson coward, you don't turn your back on me.'
'He's crazy,' Vis said, stopped behind an unwilling screen of onlookers who were trying to melt in all directions, but Mradhon kept with the migrating cover. 'Figure who got his money and his woman,, you figure that and wonder who did for him, that's who...'
Hanse went for the knives. 'Wasn't no mark on him,' a youngish voice was shrilling. The crowd was swinging wildly out of the interval Vis was busy preserving. Minsy yelled, and several strong and larger arms wound themselves into Hanse's elbows and about his middle. He heaved and kicked to no use while Mradhon Vis, in the clear, straightened his person and his clothing.
'Crazy,' Vis said again, and Hanse poured invective on him and most especially on those holding him from his knives - cold, sweating afraid, because Vis might do anything, or the crowd might, and the knives were all he had. But Vis walked off then, at an increasing pace, and Hanse launched another kick and a torrent of abuse on those holding him.
'Easy.' The grip on his left was Cappen Varra's, an arm tucked elbow to elbow into his arm and a hand locked on his wrist; he had no grudge with the minstrel. It was a calm voice, a cultivated, better-than-thou voice: Hanse hated Varra at the moment, but the grip persuaded and the object of his rage was off down the street. He took his weight on his own feet and slowly, brushing off his clothes while he stood fairly shaking with his anger, Varra eased up and let him go. Igan on the other side, big, not very bright Igan, let go his other arm, and claps on his shoulders and sympathy offered ... started to settle his stomach and persuade him he had some credit here. 'Let's have a drink,' Varra said. 'The corpse-takers will get the rumour - do you want to be standing here conspicuous? Come on inside.'
He went as far as the door of the Unicorn, looked back, and there was Minsy standing over Sjekso, sniffling; and Sjekso lying there a great deal sadder, open-eyed, while the crowd started away under the same logic.
Hanse wanted the drink.
Mradhon Vis turned the comer, none following, stopped against an alley wall and let the tremors pass from his limbs. Ugly, that back there. Corpses, he had seen - had created his share, in and out of mercenary service. He had no wish to take on useless trouble ... not now, not with gold in his boot and a real prospect of more. A bodyguard sometimes, but he was not big enough for hired muscle; and with a surly and foreign look - even guard jobs were hard come by. He meant to be on time for this one. A patron who could come up with a fistful of gold on a whim was one to cultivate - if only her throat was still uncut. And that thought worried him: that was what had drawn him, against his natural and wary instincts, to that noisy scene outside the Vulgar Unicorn - a body he had last seen alive and escorting the patron who was his latest and most fervent hope. He was more than concerned.
Other alarums sounded in his mind, warnings of greater complexity, but he refused them, because they led to suspicions of traps, and connivances; he had a knife in his belt, his wits about him, and no little experience of employers of all sorts, no few of whom had had notions of refusing him his pay at the end ... one way and the other.
The Vulgar Unicorn still thumped with comings and goings, an untidy lot of early-moming patrons and irregulars. For his own part Hanse drank down his ale and nursed his head back to size, across the table from Cappen. He had no inclination to talk or to be the centre of anything at the moment.
'They've got him off,' the potboy said from the door. So the corpse was gone. That cleared out some of the traffic. Inquiry and snoopery might be close behind the corpsetakers. 'Excuse me,' Cappen Varra said, likewise discreet, and left his place at the table, bound for the door. Hanse recovered his equilibrium and stood up from the bench amid the general flow of bodies outward.
Someone touched his arm, a feathery light hand. He looked back, expecting Minsy, in no mood for her - and looked up instead into eyes like a statue's eyes, as unfocused and as vague, in a male face old/young and beardless. The man was blind.
'Hanse called Shadowspawn?' The voice was like the man, smooth and sere.
'What's my business with you?'
'You lost a friend.'
'Ha. No friend. Acquaintance. What's it to you and me?'
The groping hand caught his arm and directed it to the other hand, which caught his fingers - he began to resist this eerie familiarity, and then felt the unmistakable metal heaviness of a coin.
'My employer has more for you.'
'Not here. Do you want a name? Come outside.'
The blind man would have taken him out the front, among the others, following the crowd. Hanse pulled him instead to another door, out into the back alley where few had gone and those already vanished. 'Now,' Hanse said, taking the blind man by the arm and backing him against the wall. 'Who?'
He dropped his hand from the blind man's arm. 'Him. For what?'
'He wants to talk to you. You come - recommended. And you'll be paid.'
Hanse took in his breath and fingered his coin, looked down at it a space, found it new minted and heavy silver, and reckoned uneasily in what quarters he was recommended. Coin of that denomination was not so easily come by ... but Enas Yorl - the wizard took few visitors ... and there were things lately amiss in Sanctuary. Things larger than Hanse Shadowspawn. Rumours filtered down into the Maze.
Sjekso dead, unmarked, and Enas Yorl - offering money to talk to a thief: the world was mad. He walked it for the narrow lane it was.
'All right,' he said, because Yorl had a long reach and because ignorance scared him. 'You show me.'
The blind man took his hand, and they went, down the alley and out again. It was so unfaltering a progress, so lacking a blind man's moves, that Hanse inevitably suspected some sham, such as beggars used - an actor and a good one, he thought, appreciating art.
Mradhon Vis fretted, paced below the balcony at the wooden stairs he had found last night. It was a place as sordid as any in the Maze, unpainted boards and age-slimed stone, a place atilt towards the alley and propped on boards and braces. It breathed decrepitude.
And more and more as he waited in this unlikely place, he gnawed on the thought of his hoped-for patron ... dead, it might be, victim along with Sjekso, lying unfound as yet in some other alleyway. He had been mad to have gone off and left a woman in the backways of the Maze; a cat among hounds, that piece... and gone, snatched up, swallowed up - with friends, gods, more than likely money like that had friends and enemies. His mind built more and grimmer fancies ... of princes and politics and clandestine meetings, this Sjekso perhaps more than he had seemed, this woman casting about money to be rid of a witness too much for the man she was with, an expedience -
He built such fancies, paced, stalked finally halfway up the creaking length of the stairs and came back down in indecision - then up again, gathering his courage and his resolve. He reached the swaying balcony, tried the door.
It swung inward, never locked or barred. That startled him. He slipped the knife from his belt and pushed the door all the way open - smelled incense and spices, perfumes. He walked in, pushed the door very gently shut again. A dim light came from a milky parchmented casement, cast colour slantwise on a couch spread with russet silk, on dusty draperies and stacks of cloth and oddments.
Wings snapped and rustled. He spun about into a crouch, found only a large black bird chained to a perch against the wall in which the door was set. His heart settled again. He straightened. He should have smelled the creature: no large bird lived in a place without some fetor ... but the perfume and the incense were that strong, that he had not. He ignored the creature, poked about amid the debris on a table, feminine clutter of small boxes and brocade.
And the steps creaked, outside. He cast about him in a sudden fright, knife at the ready, slid in among the abundant shadows of the room. The steps reached the top, and the bird stirred and beat his wings in gusts as the door opened.
Black robes cast a silhouette against the daylight; the lady turned unerringly in his direction, took no fright at him or the knife, merely closed the door and reached up and dropped her hood from a tumble of midnight hair about a sombre face. 'Mradhon Vis,' she said quietly. She belonged in the dark of this place, amid the clutter of worn and beautiful things. It was incredible that she could ever have walked through sunlight.
'Here,' he said, 'lady.'
'Ischade,' she named herself. 'Do you make free of my lodgings?'
'The man you were with last night. He's dead.'
'I've heard, yes.' The voice was unreadable and cool. 'We parted company. Sad. A handsome boy.' She walked to the slight illumination of the parchment panes, drew an incense wand from others in a dragon vase and added it to the one which was dying, a curl of pale smoke in the light. She looked back then. 'So. I have employment for you. I trust you're not fastidious.'
'You'll find rewards. Gold. And it might be - further employment.'
'I don't shy off at much.'
'I'll trust not.' She walked near him, and he recalled the knife and nipped it into its sheath. Her eyes followed the move and looked up at him ... grave, so very grave. Women of quality he had seen tended to nutter the eyes; this one stared eye to eye, and he found himself inclined to break the contact, to look down or elsewhere. She extended her hand, close to touching him, a move he thought might be an invitation to take liberties of his own.
And then she drew the hand back and the moment passed. She walked over and offered the bird a morsel from the cup at the side of the stand. The creature took it with a great flapping of wings.
'What do you have in mind?' he asked, vexed at this mincing about, with so much at stake. 'It's not legal, I'll guess.'
'It might involve powerful enemies. I can guarantee - equally powerful protections. And the reward. Of course that.'
'Who's to die? Someone else ... like that boy last night?'
She looked about, lifted a brow, then turned her attentions back to the bird, stroked black feathers with a forefinger. 'Priests, perhaps. Does that bother you?'
'Not unduly. A man wonders -'
'The risk is mine. So are the consequences. Only I need someone to take care of physical difficulties. I assure you I know what I'm about.'
There was more than the scent of incense about the place. Of a sudden there was quite another thing... the smell of wizardry. He gathered that, as he had been picking up the pieces all along. It was not a thing a man expected to find everywhere. But it was here. And there were crimes done in the Maze, by that means and others. Spells, he had dealt with, at least at distance... had a hint then of more rewards than gold. 'You have protections, do you?'
A second time that cool look. 'I assure you it's well thought out.'
'Protections for me as well.'
'They'd be far less interested in you.' She walked back to the table, to the light, a shadow against it. 'This evening,' she said, 'you'll earn the gold I gave you. But perhaps, just perhaps, you ought to go out again. And come back again when I tell you. To prove you know that my door isn't yours.'
Heat surged to his face, words into his mouth. He thought of the money and it stifled the rest.
'Now,' she said. 'About the other thing you have in mind ... well, that might come later, mightn't it? But you choose, Mradhon Vis. There's gold ... or other rewards. And you can tell me which you'd like. Ah. Both, perhaps. Ambition. But know me better, Mradhon Vis, before you propose anything aloud. You might not like my terms. Take the gold. The likes of Sjekso Kinzan is commoner than you. And far less to regret.'
So she had killed the boy. Markless, and cold and stiff within sight of the doorway which might have saved him. He thought about it... and the ambition persisted. It was power. And that was more than the money, much more.
'You'll go now,' she said very, very softly. 'I wouldn't tempt you. Consider we have a bargain. Now get out.'
No one talked to him after that fashion ... at least not twice. But he found himself silenced and his steps tending to the door. He stopped there and looked back to prove he could.
'I've needed a man of your sort,' she said, 'in certain ways.'
He walked out, into the sun.
It was one of those neighbourhoods less frequented by the inhabitants of the Maze, and Hanse had a dislocated, uncomfortable feeling in this guide and this place, creeping as they did through the cleaner, wider backways of Sanctuary at large. It was not his territory or close to any of his known boltholes.
And in the shadows of an alley far along the track, his guide paused and shed an inner and ragged cloak from beneath the outer one, proffering it. 'Put it on. You'll not want to be noticed hereabouts for yourself.'
Hanse took it, not without distaste: it was grey and a mass of patches. He swung it about his shoulders and it was long enough to hide him down to midcalf.
His guide held out a dingy bandage as well. 'For your eyes. For your own safety. The house has ... protections. If I told you only to shut your eyes, you'd forget at the worst moment. And my master wants you whole.'
Hanse stared at the offered rag, liking all of this less and less; and very softly he drew the dagger from his arm sheath and extended the blade towards the guide's face.
Not a flinch or blink. That sent a prickling up his spine. He brought the point of the blade very close to the blind eyes and, truth, the man did not react. He flipped the blade into its sheath.
'If you have doubts,' the blind man said, 'accept my master's assurances. But don't under any account look from beneath the bandage once inside. My blindness ... has reasons.'
'Huh.' Hanse took the dirty bandage, feeling far from assured; but he had dealt with nervous uptowners before, and under conditions and precautions more bizarre and hazardous. He wound it about his eyes and tied it firmly: it was true - about Enas Yorl's doorway there were rumours, and bad ones.
And when the blind man grasped his sleeve and began to guide him a quiet panic set in: he had no liking of this helplessness - they entered a street, he guessed, because he heard a change in the sound of their footsteps; he sensed watchers about, stumbled suddenly on an unevenness in the paving and heard the blind man hiss a warning, wrenching at his sleeve: 'Three steps up.'
Three steps to the top and a moment waiting while his guide opened a door. Then a tug at his sleeve drew him inside, where a cold draught blew on his face until the door boomed solidly shut behind him. Instinctively he put a hand on his wrist sheath, keeping the knife hilt comfortingly under his fingers. Again a tug at his sleeve drew him on ... the guide; it must still be the guide and no stranger by him. He wanted a voice. 'How much further with this?' he asked.
Claws scrabbled on stone on his left, a heavy body slithered closer in haste. He made a frantic move to get the knife out, but the guide jerked him to a standstill. 'Don't offend it,' the guide said. 'Don't try to look. Come on.'
A reptile hissed; and by that sound it was a big one. Something flicked over the surface of his boot and coiled about his ankle, instantly withdrawing. The guide drew him on, away from the touch and down a hall which echoed more closely on either hand, where the distance was all in front of them ... and into a place which smelled of coals and hot metal and strange, musky incense.
The guide stopped, on his right. 'Shadowspawn,' a new voice said, a throaty sigh, low, and to his left. He reached for the blindfold, hesitated. 'Go ahead,' the new voice invited him, and he pulled it down.
A robed and hooded form sat in this narrow marble hall - fine robes, in midnight blue and bright silver, in deep shadow, beside a heating brazier. Hanse blinked in the recent pressure on his eyes - the robes seemed to swell and sink in the vicinity of the chest, and the right arm, the hand resting visible ... it went dark, that hand, and then, a deception of his abused eyes, went pale and young. 'Shadowspawn.' The voice too was clearer, younger. 'You lost a friend last night. Do you want to know how?'
That unnerved him, a threat on a level he understood. His hand fidgeted towards his sheath-bearing wrist, his mind conjuring more and unblinded servants in the shadows.
'Ischade is her name,' the voice ofEnas Yorl continued, rougher now ... and was the figure itself smaller and wider? 'She's also a thief. And she killed Sjekso Kinzan. Do you want more?'
Hanse assumed a more careless stance, flipped the hand outward, palm up. 'Money got me here. Ifyou,want more of my time to listen to this, it costs.'
'She's in your own neighbourhood. That information might be worth even more than money to you.'
'What, this name of yours?'
'Ischade. A thief. She's better than you, Shadowspawn. Your knives might not stop her.' The voice roughened further. 'But you're good and you're smart. I've heard so. From - no matter. I have my sources. I'm told you're extraordinarily discreet.' He moved the fingers, a gesture sideways. 'Darous, give him the amulet.'
The blind man drew something from the heart of his robes; Hanse's eyes darted nervously from the wizard he was trying to watch to that distraction, a gold teardrop that spun and dazzled on a chain.
'Take it,' Enas Yorl said. A degree rougher yet. A sigh like the sea, or like hot iron plunging into water. 'This Ischade - steals from wizards. Steals spells and suchlike. Her own abilities are small in that regard... but she made a mistake once, and the spell on Ischade is nothing small or harmless. A man who shares her bed, shall we say? - discovers that. He dies ... of no apparent cause. Like your friend Kinzan. Like a number of others I know of. The curse affects her humour. Imagine - to pursue lover after lover and kill them all. If I hire you, Shadowspawn, you might be glad of such protections as I offer you. Take it.'
'Who says I'm to hire?' Hanse looked unhappily from servant to master. The hand which now peeped from the shifting robe was woman-delicate. 'Who says that a dozen Sjeksos are any of my concern? I'm my concern. Me. Hanse. I don't have any interest in Sjekso. So I just stay out of the whole business. That's what interests me.'
'Then you'll run, will you, and find some safer place to steal.' The voice ground like rocks tumbling. 'And you'll ignore my gold and protection. Both of which you may need. - It's no great thing I ask, simply a matter of spying out where she is. Did I ask you to go against her yourself? No. A small favour, well paid. And you've done favours like that before. Would you have that known - that you've worked in high places? Your past patron wouldn't appreciate that publicity. He wouldn't retaliate against me, no. But you - how long do you think you'd live, thief, if your connections went public?'
Hanse had sucked in his breath. He forced a grin then, struck a lighter pose, hand on hip. 'So, well, paid in gold, you said?'
'Darous, give the man sufficient as earnest. And give him the amulet.'
Hanse turned from the wizard, whose voice had acquired a hissing quality: and the hand - had vanished into one of those blinks of the eye that deceived the mind and memory that anything had - a moment earlier - been there. Hanse took the chain and put it over his head. The amulet itself hit his bare throat and it was bitter and burning cold. The servant held out a purse. Hanse took that, felt the weight in his hand, opened the neck of it and looked at the gold and silver abundance inside. His heart beat wildly, while against his neck the metal failed to be warmed as metal ought, stayed there like a lump of ice. It sent a vague malaise through him, which changed character from moment to moment like -'So what am I supposed to do?' he asked. 'And where do I look?'
'A house,' a woman's voice said to his right, and he looked, blinked, found only the hooded form in the chair. 'Seventh in the alley called Snake. On the right as you go from the Serpentine at Acban's Passage. She lodges there. Mark what she does and where she goes. Don't attempt to prevent her. I only want to know the business that brought her to Sanctuary.'
Hanse let go a sigh, relief, for all that the robes shifted again -felt a wild confidence in himself (it might have been the money) that he could get out of this easily, and with still more money, and an employer satisfied, who was powerful and rich. Hanse Shadowspawn, Hanse the thief, small Hanse the knife ... had friends in high places, a condition unexpected. He expanded in this knowledge and stood loose, dropped the purse into his shirt, ignoring the chill at his neck. 'So, then, and I come here from time to time and report to you.'
'Darous will find you from time to time,' the same voice said. The changing seemed to have settled for the moment. 'Depend on that contact. Good-day to you. Darous will show you out.'
Hanse made a nourish of a bow, turned to the servant and indicated they should go.
'The blindfold,' the blind servant said. 'Use it, master thief. My master would regret an accident, especially now.'
Hanse put his hand on the metal droplet that hung like ice at his throat, turned to glower at the wizard. 'I thought this was supposed to take care of things like that.'
'Did I say so? No, I didn't say. I wouldn't be rash in relying on it. Against some things it has no protection at all. My guardians in the hall, for instance, would never notice it.'
'Then what good is it?'
'Much ... in its right place. Afraid, thief?'
'Huh,' Hanse said critically. Laughed and swung on his heel, caught the blind servant by the arm and started out with him. But remembering the movements in the outer hall, the thing which had brushed at his leg - 'All right, all right,' he said suddenly, and let go the man's arm to put the blindfold back in place. 'All right, rot you, wait.'
The thief went, and Enas Yorl rose from his chair. His shape had settled again into a form far more pleasant than most. He walked to a hall more interior to his house, examined hands delicate and fine, that were purest pleasure to touch - and all the worse when they would begin ... next moment or next day ... to change.
It was a revenge, a none too subtle revenge, but then the wizard who had cursed him had never been much on subtleties, which was why his young wife had had Enas Yorl in her bed in the first place - a younger Enas Yorl in those days, but age meant nothing now. The forms his affliction cast on him might be old or young, male or female, human or - not. And the years frightened him. All the time he had had, to become master of his arts, and his arts had no power to undo another's spell. No one could. And some of his forms, still, were young, which suggested that he did not age, that there was no end to this torment - for ever.
Yet wizards died, lately, in Sanctuary. Tell the thief that was the name of the game, and even threats might not persuade him. But in these deaths, Enas Yorl was desperately, passionately interested. Ischade ... Ischade: the name tasted of vile rumour; a wizardous thief, a preyer upon wizards, a conniver in shadows and dark secrets, this Ischade, with reason to hate the prey she chose.
And all her lovers died, softly, gently for the most part; but Enas Yorl was not particular in that regard.
He paused a moment, hearing the great outer doors boom shut. The thief was on his way, thief to take a thief. And Enas Yorl felt a sudden cold. Wizards died, in Sanctuary, and this possibility fascinated him, taunted him with hope and fear: with fear -because shapes like this he wore turned him coward, reminding him there were pleasures to be had. He feared death at such times ... while the thief he had sent out went to find it for him.
Darous came back, softly stopped on the marble paving. 'Well done,' Enas Yorl said.
'Follow him, master?'
'No,' Enas Yorl said. 'No need. None at all.' He looked distractedly about again, with the queasiness of impending change upon him. He fled suddenly, his steps quicker and quicker on the pavings. Darous could see nothing - Darous sensed, but that was another matter. There was, however, pride.
And within the hour, in a dark recess of the house with the basilisks prowling the halls unchecked, something gibbered within a pile of midnight robes, and with keen sense of beauty imprisoned in that moaning heap, longed towards oblivion.
Darous, who saw nothing, sensed the essence of this change and kept himself to other halls.
The basilisks, whose cold eyes saw very well, writhed scaly-lithe away in haste, outstared and overwhelmed.
Not many women came to the Unicorn, not many at least of the elevated sort, and this one took a table to herself and held it. One of the Unicorn's muddled regulars brushed by, and leaned close, and offered to sit down ... but a long hand from beneath those black robes waved an idle and disinterested dismissal. A ring glinted there, a silver serpent, and the bully's bleared eyes stared at that, at immaculate long nails, into dark almond eyes beneath the shadowy hood. And a fog of alcohol seemed to grow thicker then, so that he forgot all the wittiness he had meant to say, forgot for a moment to close his mouth. A second wave of the thin, olive-skinned hand and he forgot everything and stumbled away in confusion.
'Acolyte,' Cappen Varra thought in his own counsel, slouched on a bench in the nook nearest the back door. There was somewhat of chaos in the Unicorn of late, a certain lack of the authority which had held the peace, and that sort moved in, cheap muscle. But the woman - that was something extraordinary, like the Unicorn before; a woman, a stranger in the neighbourhood... He was intrigued by the dark robes and the fineness of them, and his fingers moved restlessly on the moisture-ringed tabletop, thinking of a song, fingering imaginary strings of the harp he had pawned (again) and thinking - oddly - on Hanse Shadowspawn, in another and quite irrelevant train of thought, as Hanse had ridden his mind all day. Sjekso gone, Hanse vanished utterly, and night falling outside ... Hanse was up to no good, it was certain. There had been neither sight nor sound of him all day long and certain whispers passed in the Unicorn, with more and more credibility: of revenge, of Hanse, about the likelihood of survival of one Mradhon Vis - or Hanse, should the two meet. And about a certain blind man who had found his way without aid into the Unicorn and out again, with Hanse in tow... a blind man and no beggar, for all his looks - but a man of darker rumour.
It was curious business, and more than mildly unpleasant. Cappen was not sanguine. Hanse stalking Vis - it was quite unlikely. Hanse was all temper and bluster. If anyone was doing the stalking it was likeliest to be Vis, and Hanse was ill-advised to have prodded that surly-countenanced bastard ... far more trouble than Hanse really wanted, that was sure. Likely it was Hanse in hiding, if Vis had not yet got him. Cappen picked up his cup again, and of a sudden his eyes hooded and while his hand carrying his cup to his lips never faltered, the sip he took was slow and studied: he watched a second man make attempt on the lady's table.
And that was Mradhon Vis himself... who went up quietly, and met no rebuff at all. The lady lifted her face and her eyes to him - a face certainly worth a song, although a dark and sombre one. And when her eyes lit on Mradhon Vis, very quietly the lady got to her feet and in Vis's still silent company... walked towards the back door of the tavern. Only a few heads turned, of those at the other tables, and those only casually. There was at the same time the faintest ofpricklings at Cappen's nape, a feeling he knew: he touched the amulet at his throat, a silver coiled serpent... a gift, a protection against spells, more efficacious than most priest-blessed gimcrack tokens .... under its own terms. He saw, with a touch of unease the greater because no one else in the room seemed to see ... how Mradhon Vis and his dark companion moved, with common purpose and peculiar menace.
Strangeness enough progressed in Sanctuary ... deaths which made a man naturally think on protections of the sorcerous kind, and to be glad of them if he had them, because where the powerful died, wizardry was about, selective of its victims thus far, but not - perhaps - exclusive of them. There was Sjekso Kinzan, who had been no one. Cappen wondered did such protection as he possessed ... protect or mark him; and as the lady and Mradhon Vis came past his table by the door -
A moment Cappen was looking up and the lady looked down at him, more familiar in that stare than he would have liked. The prickling about the amulet became strong indeed while he stared, lost in those dark eyes with a sense of deadly peril, of his whole life resting loose and endangered, as if some small nudge on anyone's pan might tumble it. 'You're beautiful,' he murmured, because three truths was the rule of the amulet if it was to work at all - 'You're dangerous and foreign here.'
She lingered, and reaching down picked up his cup where it sat; lilted it, sipped and set it down again, all with an eerie hint of humour or menace flaunted at him, at him who alone in the room but Mradhon Vis - or was he exempt? - Alone of all the others,
Cappen stared back at her with his mind clear and with knowledge, with something gut-wrenching telling him that everything about this woman was askew.
She smiled at him, a parting of the lips on white teeth, a flash of dark eyes, an impression that she admired what she saw... and all the fineness he kept so studiously, his elegance, different from others about him, his talents, his - if streetwom - finery ... was suddenly perilous to him, marking him out among all the rest. And most of all... she knew he resisted her.
She left then, swept out of the door which Mradhon Vis held open, a gust of wind and a sudden thud of the door closing. Cappen wanted wine... but his hand stopped short of the cup she had just set down again, the metal she had had her lips to and the wine her mouth had tasted. He pushed back from the table and the bench scraped loudly over the noise of the other patrons. He hesitated, looking at the door which led out to the backways, not wanting to go out there, in the gathering dark.
But Mradhon Vis, linked with that, and Sjekso cold dead with no mark on him; and Hanse outright disappeared, hunting Mradhon Vis, as all the Maze surmised ...
Hanse had involved himself in something which was likely to be the death of him, and what concern that was to Cappen Varra was unclear to Cappen himself, only that he had drunk with Hanse of late, with a short and lately successful thief and ruffian who had wanted - almost pathetically - to acquire style, who spent most that came into his hands on the finer things, a cloak -oh gods! that cloak! - Cappen's aristocratic soul shuddered. But of the unassuming ruffians in the lot, of what quality there was to be had in the Maze, in Hanse there existed at least the hankering after something else.
The business had marked Hanse down - and now stopped and stared at himself. It was always safer, he reckoned, to walk at a thing than to have it walking up at his back - later and unforeseen. Cappen opened the door carefully, went out into the backways, his hand on his rapier hilt, recalling that Sjekso had used the same door last night. But there was only the dark outside, amid the litter of old barrels and used bottles. The woman in black had vanished, and Vis with her, vanished, and in what direction Cappen was in no wise certain.
Patience was rewarded. Vis, by the gods, and this Ischade ... in company; and Hanse crouched lower in the shadows of the alley, a chill up his back, his fingers rubbing at the well-polished hilt of his left boot knife. That promised a revenge within his own grasp: so Yorl wanted the woman, and if Yorl settled with her, then Vis went in the same bargain. Hanse evened his breathing, calmed himself with wild hopes, first of getting out of this Yorl business and then of having Yorl to settle Vis - the means by which the street might be safe again for Hanse Shadowspawn. Report, Yorl had said, and by the gods, he was anxious to have it done, if only they went to earth for the night...
They turned, not the way he had anticipated, towards the lodgings he had been watching, but the other way, towards the Serpentine. Hanse swore and slipped out from his concealment, shadowed them most carefully in their course through the debris of the alley and out on to the street. The moon was not yet up; the only light came from the city itself, a vague glimmering on a bank of fog towards the harbour which diffused across the sky and promised one of those nights in which light spread through milky mist, from whatever sources - a thieves' night, and a worse to come.
The pair tended on up the Serpentine, bold as dockside whores ... but odd sights were common enough in the Maze by night, masks, cloaks, bright colours flaunted by night when the kindly dark masked the signs of wear and their threadbare condition. Man and woman, they were only conspicuous by their plainness, the woman shrouded by the robe and hood so that she might be instead some night prowling priest with an unlikely and rough guard.
Hanse followed, in and out among the occasional walkers on the street, a kind of stalking at which he had some skill.
... So, well, it answered, at least, what Hanse had been up to, and upset all Cappen Varra's calculations about Hanse as bluster and no threat. Cappen stopped at the corner with the trio in view, glanced over his own shoulder with a touch of mad humour and the desperate thought that the whole was getting to be a procession in the dark streets... the woman and Vis, and Hanse, and now himself but at least there was no fifth person that he could see, following him.
Hanse moved off, slipping casually down the street amid the ordinary traffic with a skill Cappen found amazing ... he had never seen Hanse work, not after this fashion; had never particularly wanted to think at depth on the essence of the smallish thief, that there was in fact something more than the temper and the knives and the vanity which made this man dangerous. Having seen it, he reckoned to himself that the only sensible course for him now was to go back into the Unicorn, work his way into whatever game might start - his current hope of prosperity - and forget Hanse entirely, never minding a moment when Hanse turned up as stiff and cold as Sjekso had, which was assuredly where he was headed at the moment. But perhaps it was the poetry of the matter, the suspicion that there might be something worth the witnessing ... perhaps it was the assurance that Hanse was into far more than he knew, and that somewhere up there, without untidy recourse to the rapier that swung at his side ... he might overtake the revenge-bound lunatic and talk him out of it. Hanse-was the only likely ally in a situation of his own; the woman had looked at him back there, and there was nagging at him an unwelcome vision, Hanse lying at the doorstep in the morning and himself there the day after - macabre fancy it might be, but the wind still blew up his back. There was only the matter of catching Hanse to stop him, and that was like putting one's hands on a shadow. Cappen was not accustomed to feel awkward in his moves, looked down on the louts and ne'er-do wells who walked the Maze; possessed a grace surpassing most - in any situation.
But not in walking the Maze by dark and unseen. Hanse was in his element, and Cappen followed him artlessly, down the length of the Serpentine, and into territory of the city at large - where the law came, and where a wanted thief was less than safe. The houses and shops here were more sturdy, and finally magnificent, and those latter existed behind walls, and most with bars on the windows. Walkers grew scarce for a time, and Cappen hung further back, afraid that he himself might attract the notice of the pair Hanse followed ... which he earnestly did not want.
One street and another, and sometimes a passage through narrower ways where Cappen found Hanse going more carefully, where they four were virtually alone and where a false move could alert the pair ahead. Cappen stayed far back then, and once he thought he had lost them all... but a quick move around a comer put them all in view again. Hanse looked back in that instant, while Cappen tried to stay inconspicuously part of a stack of barrels, recalling Hanse's knives, and the murk of the night. The fog was coming on and the light played tricks; a light mist slicked the stones ... and still the pair kept moving, out of the merchant quarter and into the quarter of the gods, past the square of the Promise of Heaven, where prostitutes, bedraggled in the mist, sat their accustomed benches like rain-soaked birds. - They swung past this place and into the Avenue of Temples itself; and Cappen shrugged his cloak about him with a genuinely wretched chill and marvelled at the trio ahead, who moved, pursued and pursuer, with such a tireless purpose.
And then another alley, a sudden move aside, which almost caught Hanse himself by surprise, near the magnificence of the dome of the temple of Ils and Shipri.
There Hanse tucked himself away into shadow and Cappen quite lost sight of him, among the buttresses and the statuary of the out-thrust wing of the temple ... vanished.
Then the woman in black went out into the street, ascended the plain centre of the steps of Ils and Shipri, towards the temple guards who warded the constantly open doors in these uneasy times ... four men and well armed, setting hands on hilts at once as they were approached. The woman cast back her hood: swords stayed undrawn, hands unmoving, numb as the patrons of the Unicorn.
Then another shadow began to move, from the unwatched side of the steps, a man from out of the shadows, knife in hand, a swift stalking... which afforded Cappen even less of comfort and made him think that a wayward minstrel perhaps should have spent a safer, drier night in the Unicorn.
Follow, the wizard had said, and Hanse pressed himself close against the wall, in the scant shadow afforded by a bit of brickwork, pressed himself there and watched in chill discomfort -blinked in horror while it happened, and four men died with swords still in sheath - only the last attempted a defence, and Mradhon Vis cut his throat in one quick and unmistakable move. Hanse blinked again and discovered to his consternation that the dark one, the woman, was gone, Mradhon Vis crouching now in sole possession of that bloody threshold. Hanse fingered his belt knife like a warding talisman; and wanted only to stay put, but all the while the icy cold at the pit of his neck, more biting than the cold of the mist, reminded him what he was there to do - what other power there was to offend. And he waited, reckoning every small move Mradhon Vis made, crouched over the bodies of the guards - every small shifting of a man busy at corpse-looting, every glance about as some hardy passerby noised along the main avenue - but none saw, none came near.
The woman delayed about her business inside: it might have been a moment, or far longer - time did tricks in his mind. Hanse shifted uneasily, finally gathered his nerve, slipped out of that safe concealment and, in the turning of Vis's head towards a distraction on the street... he eased past a gap in cover and into the alley Vis and the woman had left, along the temple itself.
He reached the first of three barred windows, and with utmost silence took the chance and seized the bars, hoisted himself up to see. The breath passed silently over his teeth and his gut knotted up - a robber of wizards, Enas Yorl had said: and now a thief who preyed on gods.
That struck hard ... not that he darkened the doorway of his city gods with his presence or practised alms; but there were territories, there were limits to a thief's audacity ... or it went hard for all. It was his craft, by the gods, his art the woman involved; and they were old, those gods, and belonged in Sanctuary, as the Rankan emperor's new lot never would. And the woman, the foreigner, the witch-thief, climbed up to the lap of bearded Ils himself and lifted the fabled necklace of Harmony from about the marble neck.
'Shalpa,' Hanse swore silently, and with chilling appropriate-ness - let himself ever so carefully down from his vantage with one chill throbbing about his neck and another one travelling his backbone. So Enas Yorl wanted a report. And the gods of old Ilsig were plundered by a foreign witch while the Rankans moved in with their new lot of deities down the block, with scaffolds and plans and the evident intent of overshadowing the gods of Ilsig. Prince Kithakadis and the Rankan gods; and: 'recommended', Enas Yorl had said, sending a thief out to keep watch on this god-thievery.
Hanse flattened himself back into his concealment with a sense of a world amiss, of matters under way no mere thief wanted part of. He had mixed in Kitty-Rat's connivances once to his discomfort ... but now, now it was possible Enas Yorl had a side of his own.
And hired help.
A footstep towards the temple front warned him: he crouched low and held his breath - Ischade, rejoining Mradhon Vis. 'Done,' he heard her say; and 'here's an end. Let's be gone, and quickly.'
Of course an outsider like Mradhon Vis - of course a man not Ilsig, who would have no scruples in killing Ilsig priests or robbing Ilsig gods.
In the Emperor's hire? Hanse wondered, which was far too much and too clear wondering for a thief; the sweat was coursing down his ribs despite the misty chill of the air. He was not sure at all now what side Yorl was ... and it occurred to him to tear the amulet from his neck, drop it in the alley and run.
But how far? And how long? He thought a second and chilling time of the wizard and his connections; recalled Sjekso; and Kithakadis himself ... a prince of some small gratitude for services a thief had rendered; but more than dangerous if certain rumours started, that Yorl could spread ... effortlessly.
The pair headed back the way they had come, and he set out after them, seeing no other course.
More and more bizarre, this midnight wandering. Cappen went rigid in his hiding place first as the quarry passed, and then as he caught sight of Hanse again, padding after them as before.
So there was no encounter. They went out and they did murder and came back, while Hanse followed after having seen what Hanse had seen ... very unlike Hanse. Cappen suspected motives ill-defined, gave shape to nothing, only sure it was something more than Hanse's private impulses that moved him now. He recalled the way in which the woman had passed a roomful of patrons at the Unicorn, in which she and her companion went where they liked on the street, in which guards died like slaughtered cattle...
The relief Cappen felt at seeing Hanse mobile and not lying stiff in the alley further on, gave way to a horror at the silence of all that was done, the neatness of it; and a subtle dread of this pacing about the streets. The procession which had started to be humorous and might have become yet more so on the return ... now assumed a thoroughly macabre character, such that he forbore to contact Hanse when he had, for one instant, the chance. Hanse's face too, in the small glimpse he had had of it as he passed, had the wan, set look of terror.
They went back very much the way they had come, and long before they came close to the alley behind the Unicorn, Cappen had a sure idea that such was their destination.
The pair of them went well enough where Hanse had figured they would go, in the alley behind the Unicorn. He held back as he had been doing and kept them in sight... wished anew that he had had the chance during the day to creep up to Ischade's lodgings and have a closer look, but she had been there most of the day, and daylight and the fact that it was the second storey gave him no easy options. When she had left, towards evening, he had been obliged to follow, having no real idea other motives and habitual movements ... and well that he had followed, since this evening had turned out as it had.
But there was still, as there had been, a presence on his trail -and that was Cappen. Hanse knew that much, had caught sight of the minstrel out of his own territory and seen him more than once on streets where Cappen had no business being.
And who had hired Cappen?
It was not Cappen's custom to take employment; he diced and he sang songs; but never this kind of work. He was not suited for ft. Enas Yorl could have hired better. Far better.
But this Ischade -
Hanse refused the idea. And yet constantly nagging at him in that small nook of his mind where he tucked coincidences, was Cappen's presence that morning. But Cappen had been in the game too, like Mradhon Vis and Sjekso; and Cappen had get off with some profit, as Cappen usually did.
Cappen bought him a drink; and that was uncommon, that Cappen had that much to spare. But it was in Cappen's nature to play the lord and throw about what he had.
Cappen had ducked out of the Unicorn a scant moment before the blind man came, having assured Hanse's presence there with that drink... but that then circled the matter back to Yorl, where it made least sense.
Hanse forbore another glance over his shoulder, reckoning that even Cappen's unskilled stalking might pick that up. He kept his attention towards the pair in front of him, kept moving where necessary - watched them reach the steps and both of them start up the stairs towards the lady's lodgings, without any exchanged movement which might mean the passing of the loot.
Now ... now while the noise of the creaking stairs gave him sound to rely on in tracking them - he had his chance, and took it, a path he had marked out that afternoon. He carefully set his hands on a barrel, levered himself up into a tuck and sought the next level of debris, noiselessly, one after the other, holding his breath as one foothold rocked and the next proved stable.
He made the roof as the pair made the door and opened it; he edged along it with the greatest care - a wooden roof at least, and not the tiles some fancied uptown. Even now he would have preferred to be rid of the boots and to go barefoot, as he had worked in the days before prosperity, but he figured there was no time for such. He edged his way around the ell of the roof on wet shingles and out on to that section over the room itself.
There was noise inside, a sharp, animal sound which lifted his nape hairs and made him less certain he wanted near this place at all. He edged closer to the very edge of the eaves, put his head over, viewing upside down where only parchment covered the window and formed a scant barrier to sounds and voices from inside. He heard footsteps clearly, heard a napping sound... and suddenly a jolt and crack as an aged shingle snapped in two under his hand on the edge. It flung him overbalance, but he caught himself on his belly, spread-eagled on the roof. 'Hssst!' he heard from inside, and he swore silently by appropriate gods and began to work his way hastily back from the vulnerable edge.
His hands, his legs went numb; his breath grew short and the talisman at his throat became a lump of ice and fire. Magic, he thought, some warding spell flung his way ... he dealt with wizards; and it was a trap. He strove to make his limbs do what they well knew how to do: carefully he put a knee on a wet and worn row of shingles on the slant.
One broke; he slipped, a rattling loud career down the layered face of the shingles, his feet swinging into empty air, his wild final thought that if he fought the fall now he might go head downwards or on to his back. He let go, slid, expecting a dizzying long drop -the barrels, maybe, the debris of the alley might break his fall and save his back and legs -
He hit the edge of the porch unprepared, a shock that sent him tumbling a further few feet down the stairs backwards - a ridiculous lot of noise, his battered mind was thinking through the pain, an embarrassing lot of noise...
And then the door was open above him, and he was lying sprawled on his back head downwards on the narrow steps, looking up through his feet at Mradhon Vis, who came with the metal flash of a dagger in his fist.
Hanse went for the belt knife, curled up and threw it with all he had: Mradhon Vis staggered back with an oath, spun half about by the cast as Hanse twisted to get up, his feet higher than his head with a railing on his left and a wall on his right, which hindered more than helped. He got as far as his knee when the bravo's foot caught him under the jaw and hurled him back into the wall; and a knife followed - further humiliation - up against his throat while Mradhon Vis grabbed his hair and twisted. Hanse fought to get loose; he thought that he struggled, but the messages were slow getting to his limbs, and the burning of the amulet at his throat distracted him with the feeling that he was choking or was it the knife?
'Bring him up,' a female voice said from the light of the doorway; and Hanse looked blurrily up into it, while a hand twisted into his hair jerked him up and the dagger shifted a keen point to his back under the ribs. He went up the stairs, and followed the blackrobed figure which retreated inside. There seemed little else at the moment that he could do, that he wanted to do, bruised as he was and with his wits leaden weighted. He blinked in the interior light, stared dully at the russet silks, at the clutter of objects separately beautiful, but which lay disarrayed - like bones in a nest, he thought distantly, thinking of something predatory; and he jerked at the sudden racket and nutter of wings, a fluttering of the lamplight in the commotion of a great black bird which sat on its perch over against the wall.
'You can go,' the woman said, and Hanse's heart lifted for the instant. 'You've been paid. Come back tomorrow.' And then he knew she spoke to Mradhon Vis.
'Is that all there is? And leave this here?' A jab at Hanse's back. 'I took a knife, woman; I've got a hole in my arm and you keep this and turn me out in the wet, do you?'
'Out,' she said, in a lower tone.
And to Hanse's bewilderment the knife retreated. Hanse moved then, turned in the instant, thinking of a quick stab from behind, his own hand to his wrist sheath ... and he had the blade out, facing Mradhon Vis - but somehow the rest of the move failed him, and he watched dully as Mradhon Vis turned away and sulked his way to the open door.
'Close it behind you,' the woman said, and Mradhon Vis did so, not slamming it. Hanse blinked, and the amulet at his neck hurt more than any bruise he had taken. It burned, and he had no sense left to get rid of it.
Ischade smiled abstractedly at her guest, left him so a moment, having greater business at hand. 'Peruz,' she said softly, shook back her hood, and taking from her robes the necklace, she drew near the huge raptor ... or the guise it wore. With the greatest of care she slipped the necklace into a small case which hung from the side of the stand and fastened the case in its turn to the scaly leg of the bird. Peruz stood still too, uncommonly so, his great wings folded. A last time she teased the breast feathers, the softness about the neck - she had grown fond of the creature in recent weeks, as anything that shared her life. She smiled at the regard of a cold topaz eye.
'Open the window,' she instructed her intruder/guest, and he moved, slowly, with the look of a man caught in a bad dream. 'Open it,' and he did so. She launched Peruz and he flew, with a clap of wings, a hurtling out towards the dark, a lingering coolness of wind.
So he was sped. Her employer had all he had paid to have - and well paid. And she was alone. She let go her mental grip on the ruffian ... and at once his face showed panic and he whipped up the knife he had in hand. She stopped that. He looked confused, as if he had quite forgotten what the dagger was doing in his hand. And that effort would cost her, come the morning: on the morrow would be a fearful headache and a mortal lassitude, so that she would want to do nothing for days but drowse. But now the blood was still quick in her veins, the excitement lingered, and in the threat of ennui and solitude which followed any completed task ... she felt another kind of excitement, and looked on her uninvited visitor knowing, quite knowing that at such times she was mad, and what it cost to cure such madness for the time...
Attractive. Her tastes were broad, but in that curiously com-partmented mind of hers, it pleased her ... the mission done ... that there was room for Mradhon to go. Here stood instead an unmissable someone - he had all the marks of that condition. It was justice owed her for her pains ... twice as sweet when it all came together just as it did now, her satisfaction and the last untidy threads of a business, tied together and nipped short.
She held out her hand and came closer, feeling that sweet/sad warmth that sex set into her blood ... and had felt it, at every weakening moment, from the time she had robbed the wrong wizard and left him living. In the morning she would even feel some torment for it, a tangled regret: the handsome ones always left her with that, a sense of beauty wasted. But for the moment reason was quite gone.
And there had been so many before.
Hanse still held the knife and could not feel it; then heard the distant shock it made hitting the floor. There was no pain of the bruises, no sensation but of warmth and of the woman's nearness, her dark eyes regarding him, her perfume enveloping him. And the amulet at his throat, which gave off a bitter cold: that was the one last focus of his discomfort. She put her arms about his neck and her fingers found the chain. 'You don't want this,' she said, lifting it ever so gently over his head. He heard it fall, far, far away. Truth, he did not want it. He wanted her. It came to him that this was the way that Sjekso had gone, before he had ended up dead and cold outside the Unicorn, and it failed to matter. Her lips pressed his and oh, gods, he wanted her.
The floor wavered, and a wind swept in, laden with sweetish incense...
'Pardon me,' Enas Yorl said, and the couple on the verge of further intimacies broke apart, the woman staring at him wide-eyed and Shadowspawn with a hazy desperation. The russet silks in the room still billowed with the draught he had set up.
'Who are you?' the woman Ischade asked, and at once Enas Yorl felt a small trial of his defences, which he shrugged off. Ischade's expression at once took on a certain wariness.
'Let him go,' Enas Yorl said with a back-handed wave towards Shadowspawn. 'He's admirably discreet. And I'd take it kindly. - Go on, Shadowspawn. Now. Quickly.'
Shadowspawn edged towards the door, hesitated there, with a look of violated sanity.
'Out,' Enas Yorl said.
The thief spun about and opened the door, a fresh gust of wind.
Hanse hit the stairs running, hardly pausing for the steps, never saw the figure loom up at the bottom until he was headed straight down at the knife that aimed at his gut.
He knocked the attacking blade aside and grabbed for arms or clothes, whatever he could hold, fell, in the shock of the collision, tumbled with the attacker and the blade, and lost his purchase in the impact with the ground. He hit on his back, desperately got a grip on the descending knife hand with Mradhon Vis's face coming down on him with a weight of body a third again his own. It was his left hand he used on the descending arm, left hand, knife hand, involved with that, and his battered muscles shook under the strain while he plied his unaccustomed right hand trying to reach the knife strapped to his leg. His left arm was buckling.
Suddenly Vis's weight shifted rightwards and came down on him, pinning his other arm - a limp weight, and in the space Vis's grimace had occupied, most improbably, Cappen Varra stood with a barrel stave in both his hands.
'Did you want rescue?' Cappen asked civilly. 'Or is it all some new diversion?'
Hanse swore, kicked and writhed his way from under Vis's inert weight and went for his dagger in fright. Cappen checked his arm and the heat of anger went out of him, leaving only a sickly shiver. 'Hang you,' he said feebly, 'couldn't you have hit him easier and given me a go?'
And then he realized the source of the light which was streaming down on them by way of the stairs, and that above them was the open door in which two wizards met. 'Gods,' he muttered, and scrambling up, grabbed Cappen by the arm.
And ran, for very life.
'Not my doing.'
'No?' Enas Yorl felt his shoulders expand ever so slightly, his features shift, and in his pride he refused to look down at his hands to know. Perhaps it was not too terrible, this form: Ischade's eyes flickered, but seemed unappalled.
'None of the killings that interest you,' she said, 'are mine. They're not my style. I trust I'm somewhat known in the craft. As you are, Enas Yorl.'
He gave a small bow. 'I have some unwilling distinction.'
'The story's known.'
'Ah.' Again he felt the shift, a wave of terror. He bent down and picked up the amulet which lay on the floor, saw his hand covered with a faint opalescence of scales. Then the scales faded and left only a young and shapely male hand. He tucked the amulet into his robes and straightened, looked at Ischade somewhat more calmly. 'So you're not the one. I don't ask you then who hired you. I can guess, knowing what you did - ah, I do know. And by morning the priests will have discovered the loss and made some substitution - the wars of gods, after all, follow politics, don't they? And what matter a riot or two in Sanctuary? It interests neither of us.'
'Then what is your interest?'
'How did they die, Ischade - your lovers? Do you know? Or don't you wonder?'
'Your curiosity - has it some specific grievance?'
'Ah, no grievance at all. I only ask.'
'I do nothing. The fault's their own ... their luck, a heart too fragile, a fall... who am I to know? They're well when they leave me, that's the truth.'
'But they're dead by morning, every one.'
She shrugged. 'You should understand. I have nothing to do with it.'
'Ah, indeed we have misfortunes in common. I know. And when I knew you'd come to Sanctuary -'
'It took me some few days to acclimate myself; I trust I didn't inconvenience you ... and that we'll avoid each other in future.'
'Ischade: how am I - presently?'
She tilted back her head and looked, blinked uncertainly. 'Younger,' she said. 'And quite handsome, really. Far unlike what I've heard.'
'So? Then you can look at me? I see that you can. And not many do.'
'I have business,' she declared, liking all of this less and less. She was not accustomed to feel fear ... hunted the sensation in the alleys of cities in the hope of discovering a measure of life. But this was far from comfortable. 'I have to be aboutit.'
'What, some new employer?*
'Not killing wizards, if that's your worry. My business is private, and it need not intrude on yours.'
'And if I engaged you?'
'In what regard?'
'To spend one night with me.'
'I might become so - I don't age, you see. And that's the difficulty.'
'You're not afraid? You're looking to die? Is that the cause of all this?'
'Ah, I'm afraid at times. At times like this, when the shape is good. But it doesn't last. There are other times... and they come. And I never grow old, Ischade. I can't detect it if I do. And that frightens me.'
She regarded him askance ... he was handsome, very. She wondered if this had been his first shape, when he was young, that brought his trouble on him. It was a shape fine enough to have done that. The eyes were beautiful, full of pain. So many of her young men of the streets were full of that pain. It touched her as nothing else could.
'How long has it been,' he asked, setting his hands on her shoulders, touching ever so gently, 'since you had a lover worth the name? And how long since I've had hope of anything? We might be each other's answer, Ischade. If I should die, then that's one way out for me; or if I don't - then you're not doomed to lose them all, after all, are you, Ischade? Some of my forms might not be to your taste, but others -1 have infinite variety, Ischade. And no dread of you at all.'
'For this you hunted me down? That was it, wasn't it - the amulet, a way to draw yourself to me -'
'It costs you nothing. No harm. So small a thing for you, Ischade...'
It tempted. He was beautiful, this moment, this one moment, and the nights and the years were long.
And then the other chance occurred to her and she shivered, who had not shivered in years. 'No. No. Maybe you're set to die, but I'm not. No. Oppose two curses the like of ours - half the city could go in that shock, not to mention you and me. The chance of that, the merest chance - No. I'm not done living...'
He frowned, drew himself up with the least tremor about his lips, a look of panic. 'Ischade...' The voice began to change, and of a sudden the features starting with the mouth wavered, as if the strain had been too much, too long and dearly held. The scales were back; and 'No,' he cried, and plunged his face into hands which were not quite still hands. The draperies billowed, the very air rippled, and 'No...' the air sighed after him, a vanishing moan, a sob.
A second time she shivered, and looked about her, distracted, but he was quite gone.
So, well, she thought. He had had his answer, once for all. Her business took her here and there about the empire, but she discovered a liking for Sanctuary as for no other place she had known ... and it was well that Yorl took his answer, and that it was settled. New tasks might come. But at that moment she thought of the river house. This lodging was too well known for the time; and she might walk to the river... might meet someone - along the way.
The wine splashed into the cup and such was Hanse's state of mind that he never looked to see who served, only hoisted the cup and drank a mouthful.
'That's good,' he said; and Cappen Varra across the table in the Unicorn watched him shake off the ghosts and lifted his own cup, thinking ruefully of a song abandoned, a tale best not sung at all, even in the safe confines of the Unicorn. The city would be full of questions tomorrow, and it was well to know nothing at all... as he was sure Hanse planned to know least of all.
'A game,' Cappen proposed.
'No. No dicing tonight.' Hanse dug into his purse and came up with a silver round, laid it carefully on the table. 'That's for another pitcher when this is done. And for a roof tonight.'
Cappen poured again, topping off the cup - a wonder, that Hanse bought drinks. Hanse flinging money about as if he wished to be rid of it.
'Tomorrow on the game,' Cappen said, in hope.
'Tomorrow,' Hanse said, and lifted the cup.
Blind Darous poured, the cup held just so for his finger to feel the cool of the liquid ... measured it carefully and extended the filled goblet towards his seated master. The breathing was hoarse tonight. A hand took the stem of the cup most delicately, not touching his fingers at all, for which Darous was deeply grateful.
And towards the river, a house apart from others ... which seemed oddly discontinuous from its surrounds: in squalor, it had a garden, and a wall; and yet had a quaint decrepitude. Mradhon Vis stood outside the gate - sore and much out of sorts. She was there: she had found herself a young man much the image of Sjekso, who presently held the warmth and the light inside.
He had walked that far.
And finally, knowing what he knew, he did the harder thing, and walked away.