Jane Fancher and C.J. Cherryh
“And the next I knew, the prince was asking for volunteers.” Beneath his grizzled hair, Grandfather’s pale, staring eyes glimmered with pride. “I could swim, and swim well. I was one of the first to step forward.”
Lightning flashed, darting through the smoke vents and every failing seam in the old building. Thunder rattled the shutters on their rotting leather hinges. Kadithe Mur huddled closer to the brazier, holding his breath, knowing well what came next, yet never tiring of his grandfather’s heartfelt rendition.
The prince, the golden-haired Kadakithis, had taken a handful of volunteers out on his beloved Shupansea’s huge ship. They’d braved the fierce storm to save the fishermen caught in the unexpected squall. Caught and stranded on reefs or drowning. Grandfather and the others had tied ropes to their waists and leaped into the foaming sea, searching for anyone still living. Kadakithis himself had dived with them, a prince risking his life for the humblest of his subjects.
Kadithe sighed and leaned against the cold stone south wall.
Together, Grandfather and his prince (with a little help from the ship’s crew and the other volunteers) had fought off pirates attempting to take his lady’s ship with one hand and rescued nearly a hundred men that day. Some said the prince had been a fool, had risked two hundred lives to save a handful, that there were always more fishermen, but to him the prince and all those who’d helped him were heroes, heroes of the sort which, with one notable exception, Sanctuary hadn’t seen in thirty years.
Not since Kadakithis had kissed Shupansea farewell and headed north to reclaim the Rankan capital, even as the Beysa sailed off to her own destiny.
He knew, even if others didn’t, that Kadakithis hadn’t deserted the city for the opulent life among the Beysa. He knew because Grandfather had been there. Grandfather had been denied the right to go with the prince. Kadakithis himself had pressed golden coins into Grandfather’s hands and told him to stay in Sanctuary, to care for his wife and young son.
And to remember him. To become a great artist and create … just a small statue of his prince, so others would remember him as Grandfather had known him.
Grandfather had tried to follow his prince’s parting orders, but the gods had deserted him—Kadithe didn’t know which gods and cast the blame pretty much equally.
Grandfather’s wife had died in the summer of seventysix—taken away by swamp fever. His son had lived to manhood, fathered his own son (Kadithe sighed and bit his lip) only to have the plague take son and daughter-in-law, leaving him with the howling, ill-tempered infant.
Well, Grandfather had never accused him of such uncivilized behavior, but he’d seen squalling brats enough in his fourteen years to know he must have been a sore trial to an aging, widowed metal-smith, in a city where Dyareela’s Hands of Chaos … appropriated … anything moving that was left unattended.
“Kadithe, dear boy.” Grandfather’s cane nudged his knee and with a blink, he was back in their tiny home. Squatters, they were, in a rotting wreck of a building no one had yet stepped forward to claim, but “home” it was and “home” it would be for Kadithe Mur, as long as Grandfather filled it with his warmth. “The worst of the storm has passed.” And indeed, something that might pass for actual sunlight filtered through the cracks in the wall and roof. “If we’re to eat tonight, you’d best stir yourself.”
Kadithe. Always Kadithe. Never anything but Kadithe. It was a good name, as names went, but sure as he lived and breathed, he knew his real name was Kadakithis, that his grandfather had named him after his beloved prince, then called him otherwise, for safety’s sake.
Not that his grandfather had ever admitted as much, but his hair had been golden once, and curly. Time had turned it to muddy brown waves and prudence kept it unwashed and so darker and straighter still, but once, he’d been his grandfather’s little prince.
“It’s Halakday. What do you say to some of Mardelith’s cheese? The Gods’ Gold would taste mighty fine with a bit of flatbread, don’t you think?”
Now … he swallowed a sigh and pulled himself to feet gone tingly … now he was his grandfather’s only hope for survival.
He clasped the arthritic hand extended toward him, pressed it, and kissed the forehead above those eyes whose sight had been burned out five years ago with slag from his own kiln. Payment, so the owners of the red hands had claimed, for his part in the downfall of their bloody goddess.
Better they’d killed him outright, flayed him inch by inch as they had their other victims. But no, they’d let him live—without his soul, his talented hands broken and twisted beyond creation.
“The Gold it is, Grandfather,” he said in the low croak of a voice that was all he’d had since that day. “If I have to bed her to get it.”
Grandfather laughed. It was an old joke, at least to Grandfather. It was what he had always said when Kadithe made a special request for dinner. What Grandfather didn’t know, and what he’d die before he told him, was that one day, perhaps all too soon, it might well cease to be a jest.
But not today. Today, he had something Mardelith might want far more than his own skinny, as yet extremely untried loins. Not today, and perhaps—he closed his eyes, thinking of that strange meeting with Bezul—perhaps never.
A quiver hit his belly, and for once, the feeling wasn’t hunger. It took a moment, but eventually he identified that strange sensation: hope. Two warm blankets (one for each trip), an iron skillet to cook their flatbread (he’d been using a large rock), a fork for turning the bread … a worn velvet pillow for him to sit on by the fire … .
He still suspected the changer and his wife of charity, but … he thought of that precious roll of glittering wire, the bright ruby he’d been guiltily hoarding for five years … damned if he wouldn’t make it worth their trust.
In the meantime, he and Grandfather still had to eat.
He padded his way through the narrow beams of sunlight to the heap of rubble in the corner of the room, rubble scavenged from the ruins throughout the Maze, rubble that was mostly firewood for the small fire he had to keep going for Grandfather’s sake, but which also served as camouflage for the far more precious tools. Grandfather’s tools. Tools for modeling clay, mallets of all sizes and weights for pounding copper into ornate trinkets … everything from the old shop but his kiln and forge.
And, of course, the raw materials: Those had been the first to go.
Copper, bronze, gold … statuary to jewelry—even iron and weapons, early on in the prince’s employ. If it was metal, Grandfather had worked it; if it was beautiful, Grandfather had made it.
Lifting the loose floorboard, he pulled up a charred, but still-sound box. One day, this salvage might end up in the fire, but for now, it held his own creations: a small handful of jewelry, punched copper lamp shields … all made from scraps of salvaged metal. He pulled out the newest shield, tooled with an intricate punch-pattern of his own design, and sand polished until it gleamed in a beam of light coming through a half-rotted plank.
Pride filled him as he remembered the way Chersey had looked at his necklace. Grandfather’s eyes were gone, but not his knowledge, and maybe, just maybe, not all of his magic, true magic, that born of hands and clay and bronze and fire, not gods and incantations. Grandfather had had no formal assistants, no apprentices. For fear of the Hand, Grandfather had never let anyone else into that back room where he performed his metal-working magic—and where Kadithe lived.
To the world outside the shop, there’d been no Kadithe. The plague had taken him along with his parents, or so Grandfather told the Hand-plagued world. As an infant, Kadithe lay, drugged to silence, beneath the floorboards. As a child, he’d been the assistant Grandfather had never dared to hire, the apprentice he’d never dared take on. Grandfather had been parent, teacher, and mentor in one. He knew the history of the Empire and Sanctuary, spoke both Ilsigi and Rankene and could judge the temperature of a mold to a nicety and pour a perfect bronze casting by the time he was seven.
But he’d never been outside the shop, never even met one of its infrequent customers, though he’d watched from his bolthole in their home above the shop. He knew Sanctuary’s streets, its buildings and gates, but only as maps and drawings. His feet had never been cold or muddy, and he’d known the sun only as shafts of light through cracked shutters.
Grandfather and the shop had been his life, and that had been all he’d needed … until, years after Molin Torchholder and the Irrune chieftain had supposedly banished them, the Hands came back.
After the Hands had taken Grandfather’s eyes, the shop and all its contents—save those tools, many of them unique to Grandfather and so irreplaceable—had gone to pay the priests and healers who had saved Grandfather’s life. What was left had kept the two of them alive for the better part of four years.
After Grandfather had recovered, Kadithe had gone outside the shop for the first time, as Grandfather’s eyes and banker. He’d learned the real value of money, had learned how to talk to people and even to bargain, after a fashion. Mostly, he’d learned not to bolt to the nearest shadow at the first hint of bell, footstep, or a voice other than Grandfather’s.
In silence lay safety. If the Hand couldn’t see you, hear you, and didn’t know to look for you, they couldn’t take you.
Anonymity and silence remained their allies. They’d become just another set of ragged inhabitants of a city slowly recovering from as black an era as ever it had suffered. But money had been finite and as their small hoard dwindled, they’d had to move into the Maze, where overnight the tangle of streets and alleyways could change. Now it was Grandfather who stayed at home, while Kadithe dealt with the outside world. Alone.
He didn’t know what he’d have done these last months without Bezul’s repair jobs. It was Grandfather who had suggested he try Bezul earlier that year, after he turned fourteen, old enough, so Grandfather said, for an employer to take him seriously. He had to wonder now if Grandfather hadn’t anticipated that turn of fortune. Curious that there’d been no word of remonstrance for his betrayal of their anonymity. In fact, Grandfather had simply smiled and asked to feel the new blanket.
Bezul had given him a whole new perspective on the value of his little creations. He had a few coins still, possibly even enough for Grandfather’s cheese for a single dinner. On the other hand … he rolled the shield in his hands, watching the light sparkle across its surface, then wrapped it in a scrap of cloth, which in turn he tucked into a ragged drawstring bag … .
With luck—and always he needed luck when it came to bargaining—he would be able to get enough of Grandfather’s favorite cheese to last a week or more.
Rather less than a week, but it was all Mardelith had left by the time he got to the farmers’ market But he got his pick of her castoff vegetables, and a promise for another half-round of the cheese next week.
It was, he thought, dipping his head in thanks, more than generous. He should object, but he’d left pride behind years ago. Instead he thanked Mardelith, tucked his new treasure into the drawstring bag, and headed through the market, the bag slung over his shoulder. The southern sky promised another round of noise and mud-renewal, but not for a time yet. For now, the sun was warm, the ground still wet, and the light … perfect.
For now, the lure of the smells from the neighboring stalls was nothing to the lure of the Prince’s Gate. He slipped through the crowds—all of Sanctuary seemed to be taking frenetic advantage of the momentary lull in the storm—and darted through the Gate, barely avoiding an empty cart, the farmer more bent on getting home before the next squall than in avoiding barefooted obstacles.
But his spot behind the guard station was dry and out of the wind. Grulandi, the on-duty guard, greeted him with an indulgent smile, as he checked the departing farmer off his list.
His stash was safe … but then who was likely to steal a handful of sticks hidden in a box and buried beneath a rock? It wasn’t for fear of theft but rather to salvage every precious moment in this place that he kept the sticks.
Settling crosslegged, his right shoulder to the station wall, he smoothed the damp sand, letting the calm of this place flow up through his fingertips.
Today was the day. He’d put it off too long, wasting his time with textures and perspectives and strangers who passed this busy place. Above the gate was a plaque, a stone carving, two men in profile, facing one another, two crossed swords over a spear … there was an inscription, a dedication Grandfather had said, but he had eyes only for the profile on the left.
It was not, according to Grandfather, a particularly good likeness, but he had dim memories of the time before the Hand, of clay busts Grandfather had made, multiple trials to try to catch the prince’s elusive vitality. It was time he began his own search, to set those features in his mind while he still had Grandfather to confirm his vision.
He had a lump of clay in the pile at home, carefully protected by oilcloth, regularly dampened. When the time came, when he tried his hand, Grandfather would be able to tell just by touch, if he’d gotten it right.
His (currently) favorite stick, grown dry with time, shattered on the first stroke. Refusing to accept that accident as some sort of ill omen, he smoothed the area and selected (and tested) a second stick. First the profile, then, assuming the nose was thus, the eyes thus and thus … slowly he began to rotate the head, to make a three-quarter view, then full—
“Not very good, are you?”
The stick jammed into the sand and broke, gouging out Prince Kadakithis’ left eye. He winced, lifted shaking hands to his face and told himself, for the thousandth time, it was all ephemeral. It was the practice that counted. Training the hand to be ready for when the time came and he could actually commit his dreams to parchment, or clay, or …
He turned slowly toward the owner of the rather shrill, young voice. A dark-haired boy with eyes a touch too limpid stared down his small nose at the drawings in the sand.
“Wha’s wrong wid ’m?” he asked, in his outside voice.
“Froggin’ shite, doesn’t look at all like the froggin’ portrait, now does it?”
He smothered a grin. The foul language sat oddly on the boy’s tongue and not just because of his youth—he’d heard far worse from much younger Maze-rats. It was the refined Ilsigi wrappings of the filth that called its verisimilitude into question.
“Froggin’ carvin’ don’t look like no froggin’ prince, neither,” he replied, in his lowest Maze speech, making his own tongue match his clothing as he’d learned to do years ago. “That-there rock-chipper, he made ol’ KittyKat’s face th’ way ’e seed ‘im, I makes ’im th’ way I sees ’im.”
“You never! He’s long gone. Went to live with the fish, he did. Easy life. Left us all to the Hand and the raiders.”
“He did not!” Defense of his hero made Kadithe careless—of his opinions as well as his vowels—and the boy was quick. Suspicion fairly oozed from him, sitting oddly on that heretofore open countenance. Suspicion and (worse) curiosity.
The boy hunkered down beside him, and asked softly, almost … conspiratorially: “If he didn’t go to live with the fish, where is he?”
The unchildlike tone, the sharp-eyed look, made him uneasy. Made him wonder if he was dealing with a boy at all. Some said there were people who could change the way they looked, for real, or just make a person think they looked different. That would be mighty useful for a spy.
Kadithe bit his lip on his desire to defend the long-gone prince, loathe, now, to reveal his stance on that matter, and discovered, to his utter disgust, that he couldn’t hold that suddenly keen gaze, and retreated to his drawing, smoothing the damage and restoring the eye.
Grandfather knew this gate well, he’d complained at length and in specific detail about the differences between that image and the real thing.
“I never saw him, of course,” he said quietly, dropping the pretense of gutter-speak, but returning to the first, far safer, question. “But I … knew someone who did He’s described the man he knew. The stonecarver carved the man he knew, with the tools and in the substance he knew. I’m …” How to put Grandfather’s teaching into words this child could hope to understand? “I try to imagine how that stonecarver’s eyes saw the world as opposed to how I see it, then adjust for the difference, using the first man’s verbal description.”
“That’s … dumb.”
So much for explanations …
“He’s dead, you know,” that childishly ingenuous, nonchildishly low voice continued, confident, and rather bloodthirsty. “Drowned. Just like Chenaya.”
And so much for avoiding question of Kadakithis’ disappearance. The boy had backed off his initial slander, that most popular theory regarding the Disappearance, had shifted to something far more possible, considering the truth he knew. Still … dead? like Chenaya?
He refused to believe it.
“How d’you—” He pressed his lips on the angry challenge, which could only bring unwanted attention to him, worse, questions about his own belief, and kept drawing, stabbing the sand viciously, there in the hair, where finesse made little difference.
“’Cuz I knew someone who knew him, too. Knew him real well.”
Kadithe couldn’t prevent his involuntary twitch.
“Name’s Bec. Becvar.” A small, ink-stained hand appeared in front of his nose.
He ignored it. Even if this Bec wasn’t a shape-changing spy, friends, especially small friends several years his junior and (from his clothing) worlds beyond his current station, were not a part of his life. He had two kinds of peers: those who had been rounded up by the Hands and those who had escaped them. This boy, who must have been born after Arizak took the palace, was neither.
Those he’d met who’d survived the pit kept to themselves, convinced those who’d escaped that life couldn’t begin to understand their nightmares. Those who had escaped capture spent a great deal of time and energy trying to match misery for misery; some, the gods only knew why, even pretended they were themselves survivors.
Not that he could remember much about those years. He’d been four when his grandfather had opened this same gate to let in Molin Torchholder, his life to that point little more than darkness, tucked away while Grandfather worked. With the steady tap of a mallet for a lullaby, he’d learned, as Grandfather put it, to hold his peace long before he’d learned to hold his piss.
The ink-stained hand disappeared.
“You got a name?”
Persistent brat. He ignored him, this Bec.
No, it hadn’t been the reign that had instilled the instincts of the hunted in him, that made him turn to shadows in which to hide rather than extend gestures of greeting. Grandfather had never believed the Hand was gone, had always known a child of his would be a special target, if ever they discovered his part in the so-called liberation. Grandfather had taught him to go up into the bolthole the moment anyone came to the door, to watch and wait until it was safe to come down.
He’d been nine when the Hands took their revenge. He’d watched from the upper floor, through the hole in the wood as they held Grandfather’s eyes open with his own tongs and slowly, slowly dripped the slag in, a tiny drop at a time.
His grandfather had never made a sound, not in pain, not in betrayal. He’d refused even to cry for help, knowing his neighbors were no match for those animals. And Kadithe? Brave Kadithe? He’d crouched there, barely breathing, as those red hands had smashed every clay model and mold, had seen every wince as his still-conscious grandfather had heard his legacy destroyed around him.
A shadow fell across his sand drawing.
“Why don’t you just go away?” he muttered, and thrust himself to his feet.
The neighbors hadn’t known about him, but the screams he couldn’t contain had been the cock’s crow for all of Sanctuary that morning. They’d brought help—and left his voice permanently scarred.
Maybe it hadn’t been the Pit, but he’d lived his own brand of hell—still did—and that was nothing to what Grandfather, the kindest, most talented man who ever lived, suffered.
No, there’d been misery enough to go around, as Grandfather was wont to say, and the living had no damn right to complain.
He tossed the sticks into the roadway where passing carts would crush them, and ground his bare feet through the sand, obliterating the images.
He rounded on the smaller boy. “What did you think I would do? Leave them there for you to laugh at? For the birds to shite on?” He swept up his packet, food for the next week, and headed for the gate.
“But—” A small voice, quivering at the edges and following him. “I didn’t laugh. I liked them.”
Laughter, strangely enough of real humor, burst free. “I thought you said I was no good.”
“That was when I thought you were copying. And it’s not a good copy. But if you were drawing what’s—” He tapped his skull. “Up here, well … it felt like I knew him, like he was looking at me. A friend. He looked … real.”
Nothing could have disarmed him more. “The rain would have taken them anyway,” he said gently with a nod toward the darkening skies, and indeed the first spatters struck his hand as he held it out. “Kadithe.”
“Heard ye’re hirin’,” the one-eyed Ilsigi said, shuffling up to the table, and Camargen gave him a glance. “Name’s Pewl,” the Ilsigi said.
“Hands,” Camargen said, and Pewl, first point in his favor, didn’t ask why. He turned them up to the wan daylight sifting through the open window of the taproom, and Camargen read the history in the calluses.
“Foretopman,” Pewl said. “Twenty year.”
“What are you doing here?” Camargen had learned, that here was not a prosperous port, and that it far from abounded in deepwater sailors. Fishermen was more the mark.
Maybe it was the accent. Pewl dug in his ear as if to clear it, and grimaced. “Cap’n died an’ the mate took ’er.”
“Mutiny, you mean.”
“Weren’t me, Cap’n.”
“Who said I was a captain?”
Pewl shuffled and looked at the table. “Ye sounds it. An’ ye’re hirin’.”
“Haven’t got a ship, yet. Will.”
“Yes, Cap’n.” Easy faith, if there was pay coming.
“Foretopman, able seaman.”
“Name’s Jarez Camargen. Captain, to you.” Easy hire, easily dumped in the harbor if he lied. But there was a simplicity to the man—landsmen could call Pewl stupid, but it wasn’t in his answers and it wasn’t in those hands. Camargen had met them by the hundreds, illiterate men who could, however, read a ship from her keel to her top, no hesitation about being in the right place, no stupidity at all about going aloft.
No hesitation at all about drinking every copper penny of his pay if he got any in hand. “Mug of ale,” he said. “Go get it and sit down. I want to hear the rumors floating this town.”
“Mug of ale, aye, Cap’n.” Nothing sluggish about the man, either, in his striding over to the bar and giving an order. “On the cap’n’s coin,” Pewl said, and when Camargen nodded, the barkeep drew it.
Pewl came back, industrious and in his element, sipped at the ale as he sat down in the chair Camargen kicked back for him.
“Rumors,” Camargen said. “What’s the rumors?”
“Rumors is,” Pewl said, “that that bloody great ship wot grounded on the reef is gone wi’ this blow. Maybe slid down to the bottom, maybe floated off an’ broke up. Rumor is she broke up. Planks an’ all been floatin’ in. Scavengers is busy.”
He’d heard a bit of that one. A ship stuck on the reef. “What ship?” He hadn’t been able to understand the barkeep’s rendition.
“Some foreign job. Real strange. No sign o’ crew nor nothin’. Washed up there three month ago an’ then gone wi’ th’ gale, no one ever the wiser.”
There hadn’t been any ship there that Camargen had seen, not on his little patch of reef.
That was peculiar.
“An’ there was this odd feller, this mornin’,” Pewl said, “just kinda wandered down the beach.”
“That’s the odd part. Silver hair down to here—” Pewl stopped cold at the look Camargen gave him.
“Go on. What about him?”
Pewl went on, very quietly, very respectfully under that look. “Dunno, Cap’n, wish I did to tell ye, but I heard it round the shipyard.”
“There’s a shipyard?”
“Aye, Cap’n, but not as to say much of a shipyard. More a breaker’s yard. Capper runs ‘er, an’ I pick up work from time to time, I did, savin’ your offer, Cap’n, for which I’m—”
“The silver-haired man. What happened to him?” Damn him. Damn him. Things magical had their own way of finding a shore, hadn’t he said it to himself, about the ruby, about the rest of the Fortunate’s treasure. So had their personal curse, whose last gasp had come with Camargen’s hands around his neck, as they went under the waves.
“Far as I know, Cap’n, ‘e disappeared into the town. Talk was he was the oddest-lookin’ sod wot ever was, an’ not answerin’ a hail, but nobody wanted to touch ’im.”
“Just walked in.”
“So’s to say, sir.” Pewl had a very honest face at the moment, a scared-honest face. One could see all the way to the back of the bloodshot eyes. Camargen knew the look, was relatively sure Pewl wouldn’t cross him, not for his life. But it was well to have these things firmly laid out.
“So’s you know, Pewl, I’m from foreign parts myself. And I want that man. I want him alive, so I can have the pleasure of killing him myself. And I’ll fry the guts of any man who ever crosses me in that particular or any other. Do you hear me clear, Pewl?”
“I hears ye, Cap’n.” Marble-mouthed Pewl was, like everybody else hereabouts, but the old Ilsigi was in the rhythms of Pewl’s speech, Pewl himself seemingly coming from elsewhere, and Camargen understood him well enough. Likely Pewl understood him better than anybody else at hand. “I hears ye clear.”
“That’s very good, Pewl,” Camargen said. “I’ll not be hiring many, at first. I’ll be looking for a ship, a proper ship, d’ ye understand me?”
An animal cunning came into Pewl’s eyes, the hint of a grin to his mouth, which was missing a front tooth. “Aye, Cap’n. A deepwater ship.”
“That’s my notion. And I’m writing you down in the book …” Truth was, he didn’t have a proper book, but a man like Pewl believed it as holy writ when it was written down and signed. He made one of his sheets of paper do, and took a note. “Pewl, able seaman, foretopman, hired in—what’s the name of this port?”
“Sanctuary.” Pewl almost thought it was funny, and then decided it was deadly serious. “Sanctuary, Cap’n.”
“Sanctuary.” Camargen wrote it down. “The date?”
“Why, as it’s Produr, the sixteenth, year forty-four of the new reckoning.”
“What new reckoning?”
“Well, as it’s 3971, in the old Ilsigi.”
Not much could make the blood leave Camargen’s face. It seemed to for a breath or two, on a rapid calculation. Eight hundred years. Eight hundred years, damn silver-hair to an eternal hell!
“Nothing.” Camargen finished his entry, turned the paper about. “Sign your name.”
“Aye, sir.” Pewl made his mark, not an X, but the Peh, for Pewl, of which Pewl was probably quite vain. “’At’s fair writ, Cap’n.”
“You’ll mess here in this inn,” Camargen said. “Meat twice a week, duff once, ale two pints a day, the rest whatever the inn’s serving, and don’t get drunk and don’t break the furniture. I’ll give that word to the barkeep. You have a knife?”
“Aye.” A pleased little slap at the back of the belt.
“Keep it sharp. You take no other work on the side. No hire but mine. None of this working for Capper. You’re writ in the book, hear?”
“I’ll be looking for a ship, Pewl. I’ll be looking.”
“First I know of one, Cap’n.”
“And first you know of the silver-haired man. Hear me, Pewl? Alive, have you got that?”
“Aye,” Pewl said. “Aye, Cap’n.”
Camargen said nothing else while Pewl drank his ale, only put the paper with the rest of his accounts, his reckonings what it would take in wood and cordage to assemble a ship, no proper ship being at hand.
Capper, Pewl said. A sort of a shipyard.
But first was a slippery sod of a wizard, who’d killed his crew, sunk his ship, and stranded him here.
The younger boy followed him through the rapidly emptying market, yattering freely about his family, his father’s stoneyard, his (apparently very large) older brother, but mostly he went on about his grandfather, his very old, very important grandfather, the one who’d told him stories about the old days, who knew exactly what had happened to Kadakithis, and whose dreams had implanted this Bec with a dream of his own, a dream to write the real history of Sanctuary.
“Which should include all the stories, shouldn’t it?” Bec asked, his head tilted thoughtfully.
“What do you mean?”
“Well, I’ve been collecting stories from anyone who’ll talk to me, but I’ve only been writing down those from people who were actually there.” A sideways glance. “What people think happened is important, too, isn’t it? Like you’re trying to do with your drawing of Kadakithis, but in this case, maybe writing down the rumors is almost as important as the truth—as long as I write them like they’re rumors and not truth. Isn’t that what makes rumors part of history, too?”
Kadithe shrugged, more interested than he let on. The kid wasn’t just hot air. He had real information and was serious about his dream.
If there was one thing he could appreciate, it was a dream.
“And who do you figure’s going to read this history of yours?”
“Everybody. I’ve already started it in Rankene,” he said proudly, “but I’ll translate it to Ilsigi—when I learn to write it.”
“You write Rankene, but not Ilsigi? Writing’s writing, isn’t it?”
Bec laughed. “’Course not. Different letters. Different rules.” He sighed, a bit too heavily for credibility. “But Mama’s Rankan and proud of it and she gets all upset when I ask about Ilsigi letters. My brother could help, but he won’t, so for now, I just collect the stories and write them down in the language I know.”
He patted the bag he carried slung across his shoulder—a proper scribe’s bag, Kadithe noted with a twinge of jealousy, quickly stifled. But oh! Wouldn’t he love to have such a treasure? To keep just one of his drawings, to show—
Funny how after all these years he still longed to share his sand drawings with Grandfather. Satisfy yourself, my dearest boy, Grandfather always said these days. There’s no other opinion that counts.
If only that were true. Bezul’s appreciation, his wife’s, now Bec’s … so much in so little time. It was intoxicating … and only increased his wish that Grandfather could see, that he could know his efforts weren’t in complete vain.
He stopped on the far side of the bridge, ducked under an awning, and pointed with his chin toward the stairway leading to Pyrtanis Street and Grabar’s stoneyard.
Bec shrugged. “Shite, no.” He patted his bag. “Stories to find, you know.” And with a big grin: “Got more than ever, now I’m into the made-up stuff, too.”
“Be careful of that. For that matter, be careful who you tell about it. Makes no difference to me, but there’s a number who’d be fighting mad. Might break those fingers of yours to keep you from writing. Cutting into their trade, you are.”
Astonishingly, Bec said nothing, just blinked, confused-looking.
“Storytellers, boy. They don’t want some pud’s written down history messing with their version, not to mention their drinking money.”
Another blink. “I never thought ’o that.”
“Well, go home and do a little thinking.”
A stubborn set to that round chin warned of an upcoming argument.
“Look, pud, I don’t care what you do. Write your little stories, for all I care, but leave me alone.”
“Do you know any?”
He drew back. Startled. “What makes you think that?”
“What you said—” The kid jerked his head toward the Prince’s Gate. “Back there.”
Why, oh why couldn’t he keep his mouth shut these past few days? Still, he didn’t know any stories, but he froggin’ sure knew who did. Grandfather would die happy if he knew his memories of his years in Kadakithis’ employment were not going to vanish with him. Grandfather had taught him all he knew; that hadn’t included letters.
Anonymity lost to Bezul was one thing. Lost to this undersized pud … that was something else. It was a thought, but not one to be entered without consulting Grandfather.
“So, do you?” the boy asked again, with just that touch of a whine.
“Might,” he muttered, then glowered at the boy. “But not today.” The rain began in earnest. “I’ve got to go—and don’t you dare follow me.”
Bec’s soft lower lip disappeared into his mouth, his eyes narrowed in an unnervingly straight stare. Then he nodded. “Okay. I won’t follow. But you’ll be back. Promise you’ll be back, and I won’t follow.”
The whine had disappeared along with the pout.
“I’ll be back.”
“I can’t promise that.”
“To the stoneyard. For lunch.”
He shook his head. This fine youngster’s Rankan mother wouldn’t want the likes of him in her kitchen. He smelled. He knew he did, and hated himself for it, but it was the only way. Anonymity. He had a bit of the Rankan look about him, or so Bezul had once remarked when he’d shown up at the changer’s too clean. Undersized, undernourished, but still, enough to note, and where he lived, Rankan was not a heritage to flaunt.
“Not lunch. But I’ll come to the stoneyard. Maybe not tomorrow, but soon. I promise.”
He escaped then, running with long strides down the near-empty Wideway, on feet numb with the rising wind, forcing himself to a pace the boy couldn’t hope to match. But there was no sound of pursuit and he skidded to a stop, glanced back as rain soaked his hair, his thin shirt, and the precious bundle cradled in his arms.
There, right where he’d left him, his fine clothes drenched, Bec stood, watching. He lifted his hand in farewell, and that big smile burst out. Bec waved wildly, shouted something, and scampered off toward his father’s stoneyard.
It was late, far later than he’d supposed. Far darker, with the ever-thickening clouds, than he cared to be out. The Maze at night was no place for a loner without a knife and no sense how to use it if he could afford (or steal) one.
And now, to top it off, he’d taken a wrong froggin’ turn.
Damn that Bec for a pest, anyway.
At least the rain had stopped … for the moment. He knew the air: Another squall was on its way.
He wrapped his oversized shirt around his parcel, and slouched his way along, trying to look unpalatable. There were rumors floating in the air lately. Rumors about predators who specialized in young men and boys. That in itself was nothing unusual, but one in particular tended to leave mutilated corpses, which was. If he caught such an eye, a call for help here would only bring more hands to steal Grandfather’s cheese. Fortunately he was beyond the age of interest for the worst sort of tastes, but he was somewhat also undersized and in the darkness that dominated these rotting corpses of buildings, he didn’t count on discriminating tastes.
He walked as quickly as frozen feet could take him, sighed with relief when the path led (as it must eventually) to the ’Unicorn, and he found himself back in known territory. He kept himself from bolting toward home, a move which would only attract the predators, forced himself to keep his pace, a pace that would still have him home before utter dark took the Maze.
Left turn, right, another left, left again—
A dark form leaped out of darker shadows between two buildings. He dodged, but not quickly enough. Hands closed on him, strong, clawlike. He jerked away, the hands slipped. The shadow sprawled on the ground, taking him with it, those claws biting deep into his leg.
He choked back a cry of pain: It felt as if fire lanced clean to the bone.
He kicked at the hands with his free foot. Strangely, the claws neither let go nor drew him nearer. In fact, the shadowy lump wasn’t moving at all. Nothing prevented him standing up and going home—except that fiery, frozen grip.
Was he dead?
Tentatively, he sat up. Still no action. Eyes tearing from the pain, he reached to work himself free, a claw at a time. Not claws after all, but quite normal, if rather long and slender, fingers. And his skin beneath was quite untouched, the pain vanishing with the fingers.
One hand; the other—
Lightning-fast, the free hand caught his wrist. He cried out and scrambled backward, shaking himself free, this time with relatively little effort. The hand dropped, and lay there, limp and bluish in the twilight.
It was an elegant hand. Manicured, clean—at least of the ground-in dirt that marked the perpetually unkempt. The cloak was filthy, but ragged only at the very edges. A good cloak. Warmer than anything he’d ever owned. Kadithe pulled himself to his feet and, giving the still lump as wide a berth as the alley would allow, approached the foot end. He nudged the leg-end lump with his toe, fought the sudden and foolish urge to bury his cold foot in the folds right then and there.
He worked his prod higher on the lump, and when that brought no response, he grabbed the shoulder-lump and pulled, jumping back, out of reach. But he wasn’t large enough. The body, too twisted already, flopped back, facedown.
Damn he wanted that cloak. Determined now, he pulled the legs straight, grabbed the shoulder two-handed, and heaved. The lump rolled over; the hood fell back from a face battered and still, but far too fine to be caught in the Maze at night. Long dark hair spilled out, fine and silky, not like any hair he’d ever felt.
He glanced down the alley and up, expecting competition at any moment for this prize, saw nothing, and began searching the very fresh corpse.
The clothing, such as it was, sifted, rotting, between his fingers. He shuddered and shook his hands free of the moldering stuff.
A sigh. A whisper with the sound, at least, of a plea for help, though he caught no real words. Not dead yet, then, but soon to be, if he was left here.
Cursing himself for a fool, he patted that wet, stubbled cheek. “Wake up, curse you,” he muttered, and shook the man by the shoulders. “Wake up, fool, I damn sure can’t carry you.”
Suddenly, the not-corpse gasped. Once, twice, and the death-limp disappeared, muscle tensed beneath Kadithe’s hands, taking some of the body’s weight. Kadithe dropped his hold and backed off, tripped over his bag and scrambled back to his feet, gathering the bag to his chest, ready to run, and he would have then and there if only the rousing corpse wasn’t between him and by far the shortest way home.
The corpse pulled itself upright, gasping, head cradled between those fine hands.
Something dark and liquid trickled slowly down the left hand.
He backed away, wrapping the bag’s drawstring around his wrist, the only possible weapon he had, trying to think of the best alternate route home, cursing himself for a fool for rousing this stranger before extracting his cloak, knowing even as he cursed that he’d have returned it anyway. He wasn’t, and never would be, a thief.
A whisper of sound reached him, more words that made no sense, and the man’s head lifted, his hand reaching toward him. Asking for help, that much was obvious to the most stupid of fools.
And fool that he was, Kadithe answered.
“Kadithe? Is that you?” Grandfather’s voice, filled with worry.
Kadithe’s fingers went numb, his hold on the man’s wrist gave, and the stranger slipped, bonelessly, to the wooden floor. Kadithe followed, at least as far as his knees, and he knelt there, eyes closed, fighting for breath. The last few steps had been the longest of his life, the stranger a dead weight against him.
He heard the tap of Grandfather’s cane, felt its light touch first, and Grandfather’s sure, knowing hand second, searching him for wounds. He tipped his head into that touch, silent signal that he was unharmed, and Grandfather’s lips brushed his forehead. A moment later, the soft folds of his new blanket surrounded him, and from the glow beyond his eyelids, Grandfather had brought their new oil lamp as well. He huddled in the unfamiliar warmth and light, soaked to the skin, chilled to the bone, following his grandfather by sound as the old man closed and barred (such as they could) the door.
“What’s this you’ve brought home? Has fortune struck twice in one week? I send you out after cheese and you bring home an entire cow?”
Grandfather’s voice rippled with the gentle humor that had kept them both sane for fourteen years. His own breath caught on a chuckle and he forced his eyes open, found Grandfather kneeling beside the stranger, straightening his limbs, easing the ties on the cloak that threatened to choke him, his hands telling him more than most eyes saw.
“Is he dead?” he asked, singularly indifferent to the answer.
“Not yet. Come here, child. Be my eyes.”
He pulled himself to his feet, froze as he got his first good look at the stranger, at the hair spilling across their floor, pooling around his head. “That’s not—” His voice failed him.
“Kadithe? Not what?”
It had to be the same man.
“His hair. It was dark—” But that meant nothing to Grandfather. Grandfather couldn’t see …
“It’s silver now.” He knelt beside the stranger, and unable to stop himself, lifted those strands, so like the bright metal in color, despite the warm light from the lamp, but liquid soft to the touch. Damp, but not soaked and dripping, like his own. And clean, not a knot or hint of dirt marred the perfection.
Wizardry. He let the strands drop. Or sorcery—that devious, bastard craft no mage or priest would pursue. Kadithe tucked his hands around his ribs. Whatever it was, beautiful as it was, it was unnatural.
Grandfather’s own hands, more finely attuned than his, examined that hair, but, “Curious,” was his only comment. Suddenly, his nose twitched. He fingered the cloak, lifted the frayed edge to his face, then dropped it, frowning.
“The Broken Mast,” he said, without a hint of doubt, and with a voice suddenly hard. “Who is this person, Kadithe? Where did you find him? Why bring him here?”
Fear filled him. Anonymity. He’d broken their most sacred house rule. Again. Worse, he’d broken it with a denizen of the Broken Mast, the drain-hole of the cesspool of Sanctuary’s scum, source of ships’ crew (willing and not), boy whores (willing and not), and any drug known to man.
Grandfather’s hand caught his arm, demanded his attention. “You didn’t go near there, did you, boy?”
Go there? He shook his head, slowly at first, then so hard it made his brain rattle between his ears. “No! I wouldn’t, Grandfather. Never. I came Red Clay and Shadow, like always. I don’t know who he is. I—I was almost home, ‘tween here and the ’Unicorn, he just … fell out of the shadows.”
He couldn’t lie, not about something this important. “Well, I thought at first he jumped. He grabbed me. Held my leg. His touch burned, but he didn’t fight, didn’t do anything but hold on. Then he went limp. I thought he was dead. I—” His face went hot, and he mumbled the next words. “I wanted his cloak.”
Grandfather squeezed his hand, and his voice, when he answered, had lost the harsh edge. “Only sensible, child. If not you, someone else. Did he say anything?”
He shook his head, remembering those strange sounds, wondering now if they’d been some spell he was casting. “Nothing so you’d understand.”
“Well, done is done. You can tell me the whole later. He has no weapons, not much left to his clothes, for that matter. I wonder they stayed together long enough for him to pull them on. If he survives the night, he’ll have to kill us with his bare hands, for all the good it might do him. Now tell me: What do you see?”
“Cuts. Bruises. Nothing obvious.”
“He’s had a bad blow to the head, washed clean; one, maybe even two days healed. Look more closely, boy.”
Shamed, he did and found the wound in question beneath its mask of silver hair, and felt the great lump. His hand, when he pulled it away, shone with fresh blood. Holding the lamp over the body, he began a more detailed inspection. Bruises, yes, but nothing compared to the’ discoloration at his throat. Deep bruises there that spread up the lean jaw and around the ears.
“Strangled,” Grandfather said in a voice that said what he saw, confirmed what his fingers had suspected. “Someone tried to kill him with nothing more than bare hands for a weapon.”
Strangled. Unusual way to settle an argument in Sanctuary. He wondered whose hands had made those bruises and whether the silver-haired stranger’s long-fingered hands, strong and burning, had been more, or less, effective.
“Help me get him over to the fire.”
The stranger weighed more than his slight frame would suggest, as Kadithe knew only too well, for all he’d swear they shed a quarter of his weight when they freed him of the water-soaked cloak. He was taller than Grandfather had ever been, and the body increasingly evident beneath the shredding clothing was lean, but well-muscled and well-fed.
They had worn straw pallets for sleeping, and the fire in the brazier, but little else to offer in the way of comfort. He set his new pillow beneath that silver head, and reluctantly sacrificed his blanket as well.
“Keep your blanket,” Grandfather advised.
“Get the cloak. It’s good wool and will only be the warmer for the soaking.”
How Grandfather knew these things, he never said, but he’d also learned never to question that tone. He fetched the cloak, which had, at least, ceased dripping and was surprisingly dry on the underside, and spread it across the stranger.
Grandfather had the new skillet heating on the brazier, waiting for him to get home, and not two but three perfect rounds of dough ready for it. Sometimes Kadithe believed Grandfather must have eyes in his fingers.
“I had a feeling you might come home hungry.”
A second pan simmered aromatically. If the stranger woke, there’d be mint tea (another gift from Bezul’s good wife), flat bread, and cheese. If he didn’t waken … well, he and Grandfather would just split that third portion.
He moved the skillet over, catching the best of the rising heat and waited, his stomach unfrozen at last and beginning to protest loudly. He licked his finger, touched the skillet, and got a good hiss. Better, so much better than the rock they’d been using this last half-year and more.
He tossed the first round into the pan and retrieved his bag of cheese and the somewhat-worse-for-wear vegetables. He carefully peeled the paraffin from the end of the cheese, salvaging every sliver for his growing collection. Someday, maybe someday soon, he’d have a use for it. Coal. Coal and clay. Wouldn’t he give Bezul something to trade then?
So many, so many good things happening, now this. He’d wanted to talk to Grandfather about Bec, had wanted to bring Bec to meet Grandfather, to write down his stories. Everything had seemed so … right. Now … he scowled at the still figure beneath the sodden cloak.
“Time to flip, my dear.” Grandfather’s voice cut through his daydreams, and indeed it was. He turned the bread, and slid the fine taut wire of Grandfather’s one-time block cutter through the cheese round making precise thin slices.
They had plates, bowls, and mugs, of sorts. Salvage, mostly, carved wood and hammered tin, but they functioned well enough. He slid the flat bread with its melted cheese topping onto the plate, folding it over just before it turned crisp, and handed the plate to Grandfather before returning the skillet to the fire. Quiet. Normal. Like every other night. Almost, he could forget about the stranger lying silent beneath his …
Silent, but no longer insensible. Eyes, pale, silver-blue beneath strangely dark brows, followed Kadithe’s every move.
“Grandfather …” Kadithe said, and Grandfather answered: “I know. Since you cut the cheese.”
Grandfather heard things, things a normal man didn’t consider. He knew when Kadithe tried to fake sleep, had said his breathing changed, and try though he would to control it, nothing had ever fooled him.
He put the next round in the skillet, watching the stranger out of the corner of his eye. A tongue appeared briefly between his swollen lips, and his throat worked in a swallow that must go hard past the bruises.
Those pale eyes left his hands and the skillet, lifted to his … except … they weren’t as pale as before. Now, they were a light hazel, darkening with each passing heartbeat.
Kadithe fell back, caught himself, and pushed to his feet, back to the wall, staring as the pale stranger with the silver hair changed before his eyes—darkening—skin, hair, eyes, until his eyes were hazel—like Kadithe Mur’s; his hair dirty brown, like Kadithe Mur’s; and his skin, were he to put his hand on the stranger’s, would blend, one into the other.
“Kadithe?” Grandfather’s voice, and another, the stranger’s echoed, “Kadithe?”
“Kadithe, tell me what’s wrong.” Grandfather again, calm, commanding.
“Chameleon,” he whispered.
“Explain, Kadithe,” Grandfather said.
“He … he’s changed again, Grandfather. Skin, eyes … hair. All brown now. Like mine. Exactly like mine.”
Startlement in those newly hazeled eyes. A hand, slowly freed from the cloak’s folds, lifted for self-examination. Could he possibly not know?
Smoke rose from the pan. With a cry, Kadithe darted to the brazier, flipped the bread, and scowled at blackened spots. Not ruined, but damn, he hated that taste. Damn if he wouldn’t give this one to the chameleon, who should be thankful for anything …
He thought of those eyes, wide and shocked one moment, twisted with pain the next, as one fine-boned hand lifted to that bump on his skull, and thought, maybe, he’d keep that burned one after all.
As it turned out, his sacrifice made little difference. The stranger sat up and accepted the plate, but seemed far more interested in the tea than his food. Kadithe scowled at his own, picking off the burned bits and tossing them into the fire, thinking generally unpleasant thoughts at their silent, unasked-for guest. Grandfather was no help at all, sitting there in the one chair, sipping and nibbling slowly, thoughtfully. Listening. Waiting, damn him, for his grandson to take the lead with this stranger he’d brought into their home.
That whisper, painfully produced past the bruised throat, shook Kadithe free of his dark thoughts, and when he looked up, he saw the stranger extending his plate with one hand, pointing toward his with the other.
Offering to trade.
Shamed, he shook his head. “No. Thank you. I’m fine.” And he forced himself to eat a charred bit, washed it down with a large mouthful of tea.
A silent chuckle, and the man leaned forward, very carefully, to set the plate on the floor between them, pushing it toward him. Then, simply, held out his hand for the other plate.
“I’d suggest you complete the transaction, Kadithe,” Grandfather said, and he was smiling.
Kadithe sighed, handed the older man the plate, and fell to eating with less enthusiasm than he might have had, as the guest proceeded to eat the charred piece with all the enthusiasm he lacked, chewing carefully, as if, maybe, some teeth had been damaged along with his face, and sipping tea before swallowing. When he’d finished, even to licking the crumbs from his fingers, he handed the plate back to Kadithe with a soft, slow, “Thank you.”
“So, you can talk,” he said sourly. “How ’bout a name?”
Which only earned him a confused blink.
“Who are you?” he asked. “Where did you come from? What are you doing here?”
“Try Rankene,” Grandfather suggested and Kadithe repeated the questions in that language of his ancestors, but the response was the same.
“Khadeet,” the stranger said, dipping his head toward Kadithe, then pointing with his chin to Grandfather: “Who?”
Ilsigi, then, if broken.
Eyes narrowed, confused. “Grandfather? Name?”
“Yes,” Kadithe said firmly. And echoing the man, he gestured with his chin and asked, “Who?”
Confusion lit those hazel-but-not eyes, then fear, before they dropped to study hands turned palm up. Fear turned to intent concentration, as he turned those bands slowly, examining them from all angles. “N-n-nai … jen,” he said at last and still hesitantly, and slowly the color drained from those hands, leaving them with the pale, slightly blue cast they’d held when he was asleep, and his eyes, when he looked up, were silver-blue. “My name is Naijen Mal.”
Firmly. In Ilsigi. Without a hint of hesitation or what Grandfather called Sanctuary’s peculiar slant on the language.
“Where are you from?” he asked, slowly and in his best Ilsigi. “Who tried to kill you?”
No question of understanding this time. Mal’s pale eyes dropped, avoiding his. A shaking hand lifted to finger that knot on his head, the bruises at this throat. He swallowed, hard and painfully. Finally, “I don’t know.”
“Don’t know. You mean you didn’t recognize him?” Fear, panic, finally, resignation. “I mean I don’t remember. Anything.”