The wind came from the north tonight, out of chilly distances, sending an unaccustomed rain-washed freshness through the streets of Downwind, along the White Foal where traffic came and went across the only bridge. The Stepsons had finally done the obvious and set up a guard post here; in these fractious times, things were bad indeed. Previous holders of power in Sanctuary had been content to watch and gather information. Now (when subtlety is lacking, one tries the clenched fist) they meant to control every move between Downwind and the Maze.
Tonight another guard was dead, pinned to the post beside the guardhouse; the second one - no one knew where. The word spread in all those quarters where folk were interested to know, so that traffic on the bridge increased despite the rumbles of oncoming thunder, and those who for a day or two had been caught on one side of the White Foal or the other heard and went skittering, windblown, across the White Foal bridge, some shuddering at the erstwhile guard whose eyes still stared; some mocking the dead, how whimsical he looked, thus open-mouthed as if about to speak.
For those who knew, the stationing of that corpse was a signature: the Downwind knew and did not gossip, not even in the security of Mama Becho's, which sat, a scruffy, doors-open building, a tolerable walk from the. White Foal bridge. Only the fact was reported there, that for the third time that week the bridge guard had come to grief; there was general grim laughter.
The news found its way to the Maze on the other side and drew thoughtful stares and considerably less mirth. Certain folk left the Vulgar Unicorn with news to carry; certain ones called for another drink; and if there was gossip of what this chain of murders might mean, it was done in the quietest places and with worried looks. Those who had left did so with that skill of Maze-born skulkers, pretending indirection. They shivered at the sight of beggars in the streets, at urchins and old men, who were back again at posts deserted while the bridge guard had (briefly) stood.
The news had not yet reached the strange ships rocking to the wind in Sanctuary's harbour, or the glittering luxury ofKadakithis, who amused himself in his palace this night and who would not, without understanding more things than he did, have known that the underpinnings of his safety trembled. The report did, and soon, reach the Stepsons' Sanctuary-side headquarters, after which a certain man sat alone with uncertainties. Dolon was his name. Critias had left him in charge, when the senior Stepsons had gone, quietly, band by band, to the northern war. 'You've got all you need,' Critias had said. Now Dolon, in charge of all there was, sat listening to the first patter of rain against the wall and wondering whether he dared, tonight, the morale of his command being what it was, send a band to the bridge to gather up the one available body before the dawn.
Of even more concern to him was the missing one, what might have become of Stilcho; whether he had gone into the river, or run away, or whether he might have been carried off alive, to some worse and slower fate, spilling secrets while he died. The house by the bridge was a burned-out shell; but burning the beggars' headquarters and creating a few Downwinder corpses had not solved the matter, only scattered it.
He heard steps outside the building, splashing through the rain. Someone knocked at the outside door; he heard that door groan open, heard the burr of quiet voices as his own guards passed someone through. The matter reached his door then, a second, louder rap.
'Mor-am, sir.' The door opened, and his guard let in the one he had sent for, this wreckage of a man. Handsome once ... at least they said that he had been. The youth's eyes remained untouched by the burn-scars, dark-lashed and dark browed eyes. Haunted, yes; long habituated to terrors.
The commander indicated a chair and the one-time hawkmask limped to it and sat down, staring at him from those dark eyes. The nose was broken, scarred across the bridge; the fine mouth remained intact, but twitched at times with an uncontrollable tic that might be fear - not enviable was Mor-am's state, nowadays, among latter-day Stepsons.
'There's a man,' Dolon said at once, in a low, soft voice, 'pinned to the White Foal bridge tonight. How would this go on happening? Shall I guess?'
The tic grew more pronounced, spread to the left, scar-edged eye. The hands jerked as well, until they found each other and clasped for stability. 'Stepson?' Mor-am asked needlessly, a hoarse thin voice: that too the fire had ruined.
Dolon nodded and waited, demanding far more than that.
'They would,' Mor-am said, lifting his shoulder, seeming to give apologies for those that had ruined him for life and made him what he was. 'The bridge, you know - they - h-have to come and go -'
'So now we and the hawkmasks have a thing in common.'
'It's the same t-thing. Hawkmasks and Stepsons. To t-them.'
Dolon thought on that a moment, without affront, but he assumed a scowl. 'Certainly,' he said, 'it's the same thing where you're concerned. Isn't it?'
'I d-don't t-take Jubal's pay.'
'You take your life,' Dolon whispered, elbows on the desk, 'from us. Every day you live.'
'Y-you're not the same S-Stepsons.'
Now the scowl was real, and the moment's sneer cleared itself from the man's ruined face.
'I don't like losing men,' Dolon said. 'And it comes to me -hawkmask, that we might find a use for you.' He let that lie a moment, enjoying the anxiety that caused, letting the hawkmask sweat. 'You know,' he said further, 'we're talking about your life. Now there's this woman, hawkmask, there's this woman - we know. Maybe you do. You will. Jubal's hired her, just to keep her out of play. Maybe for more just now. But a hawkmask like yourself - maybe you could tell her just what you just told me ... Common cause. That's what it is. You know who's looking for you? I'm sure you know. I'm sure you know what those enemies can do. What we might do; who knows?'
The tic became steady, like a pulse. Sweat glistened on Mor-am's brow.
'So, well,' Dolon said, 'I want you to go to a certain place and take a message. There's those will watch you -just so you get there safe and sound. You can trust that. And you talk to this woman and you tell her how Stepsons happen to send her a hawkmask for a messenger, how you're hunted - oh, tell her anything you like. Or lie. It's all the same. Just give the paper to her.'
'What's it s-say?'
'Curiosity, hawkmask? It's an offer of employ. Trust us, hawk-mask. Her name's Ischade. Tell her this: we want this beggar-king. More, we've got one man missing on that bridge tonight. Alive, maybe. And we want him back. You're another matter ... but I'd advise you come back to us. I'd advise you don't look her in the eye if you can avoid it. Friendly advice, hawkmask. And it's all the truth.'
Mor-am had gone very pale. So perhaps he had heard the rumours of the woman. Sweat ran, in that portion of his face unglazed by scars. The tic had stopped, for whatever reason.
The wind caught Haught's cloak as he ran, rain spattered his face and he let it go, splashing through the puddles as he approached the under-stair door within the Maze.
He rapped a pattern, heard the stirring within and the bar thrust up. The door swung inward, on light and warmth and a woman, on Moria, who whisked him inside and snatched his dripping wrap. He put chilled arms about her,'hugged her tight, still shivering, still out of breath.
'They got a Stepson,' he said. 'By the bridge. Like before. Mradhon's coming another way.'
'Who?' Moria gripped his arms in violence. 'Who did they get?'
'Not him. Not your brother. I know that.' His teeth wanted to chatter, not from the chill. He remembered the scurrying in the alley, the footsteps behind him for a way. He had lost them. He believed he had. He left Moria's grasp and went to the fireside, to stand by the tiny hearthside, the twisted, mislaid bricks. He looked back at Moria standing by the door, feeling aches in all his scars. 'They almost got us.'
She wrapped her arms about herself, rolled a glance towards the door as someone came racing up at speed, splashing through the rain. A knock followed, the right one, and she whisked the door open a second time, for Mradhon Vis, who came in drenched and spattered with mud on the left side.
Moria stared half a heartbeat and slammed shut the door, dropping the bar down. Mradhon stamped a muddy puddle on the aged boards and stripped his cloak off, showing a drowned, dark-bearded face, eyes still wild with the chase.
'Slid,' he said, taking his breath. 'There's a patrol out. There's watchers You get it?'
Haught reached inside his doublet, pulled out a small leather purse. He tossed it at Mradhon Vis with a touch of confidence recovered. At least this they had done right.
Then Moria's eyes lightened. The hope came back to them as Mradhon shook the bright spill of coins into her palm, three, four, five of them, good silver; a handful of coppers.
But the darkness came back again when she looked up at them, one and the other. 'Where did you get it, for what?'
'Lifted it,' Haught said.
'Who from?' Moria's eyes blazed. 'You by-Shalpa double fools, you lifted it from where?'
Haught shrugged. 'A greater fool.'
She hefted coin and purse, down-browed. 'At this hour, a merchant abroad in the Maze? No, not likely, not at all. What did I teach you? Where did you get this haul? From what thief?' They neither one answered, and she cast the prize on to the table. Pour silver coins among the copper.
'Light-fingers,' Mradhon said. 'Share and share alike.'
'Oh, and share the trouble too?' She held up the missing coin and dropped it down her bodice, dark eyes flashing. 'Share it when someone marks you out? I don't doubt I will.' She walked away, took a cup of wine from the table, and sipped at it. She drank too much lately, did Moria. Far too much.
'Someone has to do it,' Haught said.
'Fool,' Moria said again. 'I'm telling you, there's those about don't take kindly to amateurs cutting in on their territory. Still less to being robbed themselves. Did you kill him?'
'No,' Mradhon said. 'We did it just the way you said.'
'What's this about beggars? You get spotted?'
'There was one near,' Haught said. 'Then - there were three of them. All at once.'
'Fine,' said Moria in steely patience. "That's fine. You're not half good. My brother and I -'
But that was not a thing Moria spoke of often. She took another drink, sat down at the table in the only chair.
'We got the money,' Haught protested, trying to cheer her.
'And we're counting,' said Mradhon. 'You go ahead and keep that silver, bitch. I'm not going after it. But that's all you get, 'til you're worth something again.'
'Don't you tell me who's worth something. You'll get our throats cut, rolling the wrong man.'
'Then you by-the-gods do something. You want to lose this place? You want us on the street? Is that what you want?'
'Who's dead over by the bridge?'
'But beggars sent you running. Didn't they?'
'What more do we heed?' she asked. 'Stepsons. Now Becho's vermin. Thieves. Beggars, for Shipri's sake, beggars sniffing round here.'
'Jubal,' Mradhon said. 'Jubal's what we need. Until you come through with Jubal's money -'
'He's going to send for us again.' Her lip set hard. 'Sooner or later. We just go on checking the drops. It's slow, that's all: it's a new kind of business, this setting up again. But he won't touch us if you get the heat on us; if you go off making your own deals. You stay out of trouble. Hear me? You're not cut out for thieves. It's not in you. You want to go through life left-handed?'
'Stay sober enough to do it yourself, why don't you?' Mradhon said.
The cup came down on the tabletop. Moria stood up; the wine spilled over the scarred surface, dripping off the edge.
But Haught thrust himself into Mradhon's way in his own temper. Something seized up in him when he did; his gut knotted. Ex-slave that he was, his nerves did not forget. Old reflexes. 'Don't talk to her that way.'
Mradhon stared at him, northron like himself, broad-shouldered, sullen. Friend, sometimes. A moment ago, if not now. More, he suspected Mradhon Vis of pity, the way Mradhon stared at him, and that was harder than the blow.
Mradhon Vis turned his shoulder and walked away across the room, leaving him nothing.
He put his hand on Moria's then, but she snatched it away, out of humour. So he stood there.
'Don't be scattering that mud about,' Moria said to Mradhon's back. 'You do it, you clean it up.'
Mradhon sat down on the single bed, on the blankets, began pulling off his boots, heedless of puddles forming, of their bed soaking and blanket muddied.
'Get up from there,' Haught said, pushing it further.
But Mradhon only fixed him with a stare. Come and do something, it said, and Haught stood still.
'You listen to me,' Mradhon said. 'It takes money keeping her in wine. And until she comes across with some cash out of Jubal, what better have we got? Or maybe -' a second boot joined the other on the floor. 'Maybe we ought to go looking for Jubal on our own. Or the Stepsons. They're running short of men.'
'Nof Moria yelled.
'They pay. Jubal dealt with them,.for the gods' sake.'
'Well, he's not dealing now. You don't make deals on your own. No: 'So when are you going out again? When are you going to make that contact, eh? Or maybe Jubal's dead. Or not interested in you. Maybe he's broke as we are, hey?'
'I'll find him.'
'You know what I begin to think? Jubal's done. The beggars seem to think so. They don't think it's enough to take on hawk-masks. Now they take on Stepsons. Nothing they can't handle. They're loose. You understand that? This Jubal - I'll believe he's something if he can take them on. The day he nails a beggar to that bridge, I'll believe Jubal's worth something. Meanwhile - mean while, there's a roof over our heads. A bar on the door. And we've got money. We're out of Becho's territory. And keeping out takes money.'
'We're never out,' Haught said, remembering the beggars, the ragged shapes rising out of the shadows like spiders from their webs, small moving humps in the lightning-flash that might have showed their faces to these beggar witnesses.
The chill had seeped inward from Haught's wet clothes. He felt cold, beyond shivering. He sneezed, wiped his nose on his sleeve, went over to the fire to sit disconsolate. Quietly he tried a small scrying, to see something. Once he had had the means, but it had left him, with his luck; with his freedom. 'I'll go out tomorrow,' Moria said, walking over near the fire. 'Don't,' said Haught. There was a small premonition on him. It might be the scrying. It might be nothing, but he felt a deep unease, the same panic that he had felt seeing the beggars moving through the dark. 'Don't let him talk you into it. It's not safe. We've got enough for a little while. Let him find us, this Jubal.'
'I'll find him,' she said. 'I'll get money.' But she said that often. She went and picked up the cup again, wiped the spilled wine with a rag. Sniffed loudly. Haught turned his back to her, staring at the fire, the leaping shapes. The heat burned, almost to the point of pain, but it took that, to reach the cold inside his bones, in his marrow; easier to watch the future than to dwell on the past, to remember Wizardwall, or Carronne, or slavery.
This Jubal the slaver who was their hope had sold him once. But he chose to forget that too. He had nerved himself to walk the streets, at least by dark, to look free men in the eye, to do a hundred things any free man took for granted. Mradhon Vis gave him that; Moria did. If they looked to Jubal, so must he. But in the fire he saw things, twisted shapes in the coals. A face started back at him, and its eyes -
Mradhon came over and dumped the boots by him, spread his clothes on the stones, himself wrapped in a blanket. 'What do you learn?' Mradhon asked. He shrugged. 'I'm blind to the future. You know that.' A hand came down on his shoulder, pressed it, in the way of an apology.
'You shouldn't talk to her that way,' Haught said again.
The hand pressed his shoulder a second time. He shivered, despite the heat.
'Scared?' Mradhon said. Haught took it for challenge, and the cold stayed in his heart. Scared he was. He had not had a friend, but Mradhon Vis. Distrust gnawed at him, not bitter, but only the habit of weighing his value - to anyone. He had learned that he was for using and when he stopped being useful he could not see what there was in him that anyone would want. Moria needed him; no woman ever had, not really. This man did, sometimes; for a while; but a shout from him - a harsh word - made him flinch, and reminded him what he was even when he had a paper that said otherwise. Challenged, he might fight from fear. Nothing else. And never Mradhon Vis.
'I talk to her like that,' Mradhon said, not whispering, 'when it does her good. Brooding over that brother others -'
'Shut up,' Moria said from behind them.
'Mor-am's dead,' Mradhon said. 'Or good as dead. Forget your brother, hear? It's your good I'm thinking of.'
'My good.' Came a soft, hateful laugh. 'So I can steal again, that's the thing. Because Jubal knows me, not you.' A chair scraped. Haught looked round as two slim-booted feet came beside them, as Moria squatted down and put a hand on Mradhon's arm. 'You hate me. Hate me, don't you? Hate women. Who did that, Vis? You born that way?'
'Don't,' Haught said, to both of them. He gripped Mradhon's arm, which had gone to iron. 'Moria, let him be.'
'No,' Mradhon said. And for some reason Moria drew back her hand and had a sobered look. .
'Go to bed,' said Haught. 'Now.' He-sensed the violence beside him, sensed it worse than other times. He could calm this violence, draw it to himself, if there was nothing else to do. He was not afraid of that, viewed it with fatalistic patience. But Moria was so small, and Mradhon's hate so much.
She lingered, looking at them both. 'You come,' she said, in a quiet, fearful voice, 'too.'
Mradhon said nothing, but stared into the fire. Go, Haught shaped with his lips, nodded towards the bed, and so Moria went, paused by the table, and finished off the wine all at a draught. -
'Sot,' Mradhon said under his breath.
'She just gets started at it sometimes,' Haught said. 'Alone - the storm...'
The rain spatted against the door. The wind knocked something over that went skittering along the alley outside. The door rattled. Twice. And ceased.
Mradhon Vis looked that way, long and keenly. Sweat ran on his brow.
'It's just the wind,' Haught said.
Thunder cracked, distantly, outside, and the shingles of the small riverhouse fluttered like living things. The gate creaked, not the wind, and disturbed a warding-spell that quivered like a strand of spider web, while the spider within that lair stirred in a silken bed, opened eyes, stretched languorous limbs.
The visitor took time getting to the door: she read his hesitancy, his fear, in the sound of uneven steps her hearing registered. No natural hearing could have pierced the rain sound. She slipped on a robe, an inkiness in the dark. She wished for light, and there was, in the fireplace, atop the logs that were nothing but focus and never were consumed; atop candles that smelled musty and strange and perfumed with something sweet and dreadful.
Her pulse quickened as the visitor tried the latch. She relaxed the ward that sealed the door, and it swung inward, a gust that guttered the candles, amid that gust a cloaked, hunched man who smelled of fear. She tightened the ward again and the door closed, against the wind, with a thump that made the visitor turn, startled, in his tracks.
He did not try it. He looked back again, cast the hood back from a face fire had touched. His eyes were dilated, wild.
'Why do you come?' she asked, intrigued, despite a life that had long since lacked variety. In the casual matter of the door she had dropped pretences that she wore like robes; he knew, must know, that he was in deadly jeopardy. 'Who sent you?' He seemed the sort not to plan, but to do what others planned.
'I'm one of the h-hawkm-masks. M-mor-am.' The face jerked, twisting the mouth; the whole head nodded with the effort of speech. 'M-message.' He fumbled out a paper and offered it to her in a shaking hand.
'So.' He was not so unhandsome, viewed from the right side. She walked around him, to that view, but he followed her with his eyes, and that was error, to meet her stare for stare. She smiled at him, being in that mood. Mor-am. The name nudged memory, and wakened interest. Mor-am. The underground pricked up its ears in interest at that name - could this man be running Jubal's errands again? Likely as summer frost. She tilted her head and considered him, this wreckage.' Whose message?' she asked.
'T-take it.' The paper fluttered in his hand.
She took it, felt of it. 'What does it say?' she asked, never taking her eyes from his.
'The Stepsons - t-there's another d-dead. They s-sent me.'
'C-common problem. M-Moruth. The beggars. They're k-killing us both.'
'Stepsons,' she said. 'Do you know my name, Mor-am? It's Ischade.' She kept walking, saw the panic grow. 'Have you heard that name before?'
A violent shake of the head, a clamping of the jaw.
'But you are more notorious than I-in certain quarters. Jubal misses you. And you carry Stepson messages - what do they say to tell me?'
'Anyt-thing you a-asked m-me.'
'Mor-am.' She stopped before him, held him with her eyes. Her hand that had rested on his shoulder touched the side of his jaw, Stilled the tic, the jerking of muscles, his rapid breathing. Slowly the contorted body straightened to stand tall; the drawn muscles of his face relaxed. She began to move again, and he followed her, turning as she wove spells of compulsion, until she stood before the great bronze mirror in its shroud of carelessly thrown silks. At times in this mirror she cast spells. Now she cast another, and showed him himself, smiled at him the while. 'So you will tell me,' she said, 'anything.'
'What did you do?' he asked. Even the voice was changed. Tears leapt to eyes, to voice. 'What did you do?'
'I took the pain. A small spell. Not difficult for me.' She moved again, so that he must turn to follow her, with dreamlike slowness. 'Tell me - what you know. Tell me who you are. Everything. Jubal will want to know.'
'They caught me, the Stepsons caught me, they made me -'
She felt the lie and sent the pain back, watched the body twist back to its former shape.
'I - t-turned - traitor,' the traitor said, wept, sobbed. 'I s-s-sold them, sold other hawkmasks - to the Stepsons. My sister and I -we had to live, after Jubal lost it all. I mean, how were we going to live? - We didn't know. We had to. I had to. My sister - didn't know.' She had let go the pain and the words kept coming, with the tears. His eyes strayed from her to the mirror. '0 gods -'
'Go on,' she said, ever so softly, for this was truth, she knew. 'What do the Stepsons want? What do you want? What are you prepared to pay?'
'Ge( Moruth. That's what they want. The beggar-lord. And this man - this man of theirs, they think the beggars have got, get him back - safe.'
'These are not trifles.'
'They'll pay - I'm sure - they'll pay.'
She unfolded the note, perused it carefully, holding it before the light. It said much of that. It offered gold. It promised - immunities - at which she smiled, not humorously. 'Why, it mentions you,' she said. 'It says I might lend you back to Jubal. Do you think he would be amused?'
'No,' he said. There was fear, multiplying fear: she could smell it. It prickled at her nerves.
'But when you carry messages for rogues,' she said, 'you should expect such small jokes.' She folded the note carefully, folded it several times until it was quite small, until she opened her hand, being whimsical, and the paper note was gone.
He watched this, this magician's trick, this cheap comedy of bazaars. It amused her to confound him, to suddenly brighten all the fires 'til the candles gleamed like suns, 'til he flinched and looked as if he would go fleeing for the door.
It would not have yielded. And he did not. He stood still, with his little shred of dignity, his body clenched, the tic working at his face as she let the spell fade.
So this was a man. At least the remnant of one. The remnant of what had almost been one. He was still young. She began to pace round him, back of him, to the scarred left side. He turned the other way to look at her. The tic grew more and more pronounced.
'And what if I could not do what they wish? I have turned their betters down before. You come carrying their messages. Is there nothing - more personal you would want?'
'Oh. That. Yes, I can ease it for a time. If you come back to me. If you keep your bargains.' She stepped closer still, took the marred face between her hands. 'Jubal, on the other hand, would like you the way the beggars left you. He would flay you inch by inch. Your sister -' She brushed her lips across his own, gazed close into his eyes. 'She has been under a certain shadow for your sake. For what you did.'
'Where is she? Ils blast you, whereT
'A place I know. Look at me, go on looking, that's right. That's very good. No pain, none at all. Do you understand - Mor-am, what you have to do?'
'The Stepsons -'
'I know. There's someone watching the house.' She kissed him long and lingeringly, her arms twined behind his neck, smiled into his eyes. 'My friend, a hawkmask's a candle in the wind these days; a hawkmask other hawkmasks hunt - hasn't a chance in the world. The contagion's even gotten to your sister. Her life, you understand. It's very fragile. The Stepsons might take her. Hawkmasks use her only to talk to Stepsons. Right now they're not talking at all. Not to these. Not to stupid men who've thrown away every alliance better men had made. Moruth, too - Moruth the beggar knows your name. And hers. He remembers the fire, and you, and her, and it's a guess where he casts the blame - as if he needed an excuse at any time. What will you pay for my help? What coin do you have, Mor-am?'
'What do you want?'
'Whatever. Whenever. That does change. As you can. Never forget that, hear? They name me vampire. Not quite the case - but very close. And they will tell you so. Does that put you off, Mor-am? Or is there worse?'
He grew brave then and kissed her on the lips.
'0 be very careful,' she said. ' Very careful. There will be times - when I tell you go, you do not question me. Not for your life, Mor-am, not for your soul, such as it is.' Another kiss, lighter than all the rest. 'We shall go do the Stepsons a favour, you and I. We shall go walking - oh, here and there tonight. I need amusement.'
'They'll kill me on the street.'
She smiled, letting him go. 'Not with me, my friend. Not while you're with me.' She turned away, gathering up her cloak, looked back again. 'It's widely said I'm mad. A beast, they call me. Lacking self-control. This is not so. Do you believe me?'
And she laughed when he said nothing. 'That man of theirs -go outside. Tell Dolon's spy to keep to his own affairs tonight. Tell him - tell him maybe.' She dimmed the lights, unwarded the door, a howl of wind and rain. Mor-am's face contorted in fright. He ran out to do as he was told, limping still, but not so much as before. She took back the spell: he would be limping in truth when he reached the watcher, would be the old Mor-am, in pain, to convince the Stepsons. And that also amused her.
She shut the door, walked through the small strange house, which at one time seemed to have one room and disclosed others behind clutter - oddments, books, hangings, cloaks, discarded garments, bits of silk or brocade which had taken her fancy and lost it again, for she never wore ornament, only kept it for the pleasure of having it; and the cloaks, the men's cloaks - that was another sort of amusement. Her bare feet trod costly silk strewn on time-smoothed boards, and thick carpet of minuscule silk threads, hand knotted, dyed in rarest opalescent dyes - collected for a fee, provenance forgotten. Had someone plundered the hoard, she might not have cared or missed the theft - or might have cared greatly, depending on her mood. Material comfort meant little to her. Only satiation - when the need was on her. And lately - lately that need had quickened in a different way. One had affronted her. She had, in the beginning, dismissed the matter, clinging to her indolence, but it gnawed at her. She had thought upon this thing, as one will think on an affront long after the moment, turning it from one side to the other to discover the motive of it, and she had discovered not malice, not anger, but insouciance, even humour on the part of the perpetrator, this witch, this northron demigoddess, be she what she was. The affront lay there a good long while, gnawing at the laissez-faire on which her peace was founded - for, without that habit of laziness, she hungered more often; and that hunger led to tragedies.
Such a thing had happened because she was lazy, because there were costs of power she had never wished to pay. This witch slaughtered children, plucking them from her hands; and dropped the matter at her door. This witch went her way, indifferent, having fouled her nest, her eyes set on further ambitions, in professional disregard. This was worth, after thought, a certain anger; and anger eroded itself a place and grew. She ought, Ischade thought, to thank the Nisi witch for this discovery, that there were other appetites, and one great one which could assuage that moon-driven hunger that had held her, so, so long.
She understood - oh, very much of what passed in the streets, having been on the bridge, having been everywhere in Sanctuary, black-robed, wrapped in more than robes when she chose to be. The world tottered. The sea-folk intruded, assuming power; Wizardwall and Stepsons fought, with ambitions all their own; Jubal planned
- whatever Jubal planned; young hotheads dealt in swords on either side; death squads invaded uptown; while across the White Foal the beggar-king Moruth made his own bid. All the while the prince sat in his palace and intrigued with thieves, invaders, all, a wiser fool than some; priests connived, gods perished in this and other planes
- and Ranke, the heart of empire, was in no less disarray, with every lord conniving and every priest conspiring. She heard the rain upon the roof, heard the thunder rattling the walls of the world and heard her own catspaw returning up the path. She shod herself, flung her cloak about her, opened the door on Mor-am's rain-washed presence.
'Take a dry cloak,' she said, catching up a fine one, dark as hers. 'Man, you'll catch your death.'
He was not amused; but she unwound the pain from him, cast one cloak aside, and adjusted the finer one about his newly straightened shoulders, tenderly as a mother her son, looking him closely in the eyes.
'Gone?' she asked.
'They'll try to trick you.'
'Of course they will.' She closed the front door, opened the back, never glancing at either. 'Come along,' she said, flinging up her hood, the wide wings of her cape flying in the wind that swirled the random, garish draperies of the house like multicoloured fire. The gust struggled with the candles and the fireplace and failed to extinguish them, while mad shadows ran the walls, 'til she winked the lights out, having no more need of them.
Something rattled. Mradhon Vis opened an eye, in dark lit by the dying fire in its crooked hearth. Beside him Haught and Moria lay inert, lost in sleep, curled together in the threadbare quilt. But this sound came, and with it a chill, as if someone had opened a door on winter in the room, while his heart beat in that blind terror only dreams can give, or those things that have the unreality of dreams. He had no idea whether that rattle had been the door - the wind, he thought, the wind blowing something; but why this night-terror, this sickly sweat, this conviction it boded something?
Then he saw the man standing in the room. Not - standing - but existing there, as if he were part of the shadows, and light from somewhere (not the fire) falling on golden curling hair, and on a bewildered expression. He was young, this man, his shirt open, a charm hung on a cord about his neck, his skin glistening with wine-heat and summer warmth as it had been one night; while sweat like ice poured down Mradhon's sides beneath the thin blanket.
Sjekso. But the man was dead, in an alley not so far from here. In some unmarked grave he was food for worms.
Mradhon watched the while this apparition wavered like a reflection in wind blown water, all in dark, and while its mouth moved, saying something that had no sound - as, suddenly, treacherously swift, it came drifting towards the bed, closer, closer, and the air grew numb with cold, Mradhon yelled in revulsion, waved his arm at it, felt it pass through icy air, and his bedmates woke, stirred in the nest -
'Mradhon!' Haught caught his arm, held him.
'The door,' Moria said, thrusting up from beside them, '0 gods, the door -'
Mradhon rolled, saw the lifting of the bar with no hands upon it, saw it totter - it fell and crashed, and he was scrambling for the side of the bed, the bedpost where his sword hung even while he felt the blast of rain-soaked air, while Haught and Moria likewise ' scrambled for weapons. He whirled about, his shoulders to the wall, and there was no one there at all, but the lightning flashes casting a lurid glow on the flooded cobbles outside, and the door banging with the wind.
Terror loosened his bones, set him shivering; instinct sent his hand groping after a cloak, his feet moving towards the door, his sword in hand the while he whipped the cloak about himself, towellike. He leapt out suddenly into the rain swimming alley, barefoot, trusting the corners of his eyes, and swung at once-to that side that had anomaly in it, a tall shape, a cloaked figure standing in the rain.
And then he was easy prey for anything, for that cloaked form, its height, its manner, waked memories. He heard a presence near, Haught or Moria at his back, or both, but he could not have moved, not from the beginning. That figure well belonged with ghosts, with witchery, with nightmares that waked him cold with sweat. Lightning flashed and showed him a pale face within the hood.
'For Ils' sake get in!' Moria's voice. A hand tugging at his naked shoulder. But it was a potential trap, that room, lacking any other door; while somewhere, somehow in his most secret nightmares he knew, had known, that Ischade had always known how to find him when she wished.
'What do you want?' he asked.
'Come to the bridge,' the witch said. 'Meet .me there.'
He had gazed once into those eyes. He could not forget. He stood there with the rain pelting him, with his feet numb in icewater, his shoulders numb under the force of it off the eaves. 'Why?' he asked. 'Witch, why?'
The figure was blank again, lacking illumination. 'You have employ again, Mradhon Vis. Bring the others. Haught - he knows me, oh, quite, quite well. 'Twas I freed him, after all; and he will be grateful, will he not? For Moria indeed, this must be Moria -1 have a gift: something she has misplaced. Meet me beneath the bridge.'
'Gods blast you!'
'Don't trade curses with me, Mradhon Vis. You would not proft in the exchange.'
And with that the witch turned her back and walked away, merged with the night. Mradhon stood there, chilled and numb, the sword sinking in his hand. He felt distantly the touch against him, a hand taking his arm - 'For Ils' sweet sake,' Moria said, 'get inside. Come on.'
He yielded, came inside, chilled through, and Moria flung shut the door, barred it, went to the fire and threw a stick on it, so that the yellow light leapt up and cast fleeting shadows about the walls. They led him to the fire, set him down, tucked the blanket about him, and finally he could shiver, when he had gotten back the strength.
'Get my clothes,' he said.
'We don't have to go,' Moria said, crouching there by him. She turned her head towards Haught, who came bringing the clothes he had asked for.' We don't have to go.'
But Haught knew. Mradhon took the offered clothes, cast off the sodden blanket, and began to dress, while Haught started pulling on his own.
'Ils save us,' Moria said, clutching her wrap to her. Her eyes looked bruised, her hair streaming wet about her face. 'What's the matter with you? Are you both out of your minds?'
Mradhon fastened his belt and gathered up his boots, having no answer that made sense. In some part of him panic existed, and hate, but it was a further and cooler hate, and held a certain peace. He did not ask Haught his own reasons, or whether Haught even knew what he was doing or why; he did not want to know. He went in the way he would draw his hand from fire: it hurt too much not to.
And with scalding curses at them both, Moria began getting dressed, calling on them to wait, swearing impotence on them both in Downwind patois, in terms even the garrison had lacked.
'Stay here,' he said, 'little fool; you want to save your neck? Stay out of this.'
He said it because somewhere deep inside he understood a difference between this woman and the other, which he had never fully seen, that Moria with her thin sharp knife was on his side and Haught's because they were fools themselves, and three fools seemed better odds.
'Rot you,' Moria said, and when he took his muddy cloak and headed for the door, when Haught overtook him in the alley, Mradhon heard her panting after, still cursing.
He gave her no help, no sign that he heard. The rain had abated, sunk to a steady drizzle, a dripping off the eaves, a river down the cobbled alley, which sluiced filth along towards the sewers and so towards the bay where the foreign ships rode, insanity to heap upon the other insanities that life was here, where the likes of Ischade prowled.
If he could have loved, he thought, if he could have loved anything, Moria, Haught, known a friend outside himself, he might have made that a charm against what drew him now. But that had gone from him. There was only Ischade's cold face, cold purposes, cold needs: he could not even regret that Moria and Haught were with him: he felt safe now only because she had summoned them together, and not called him alone, not alone into that house. And he was ashamed.
Moria came up on his left hand, Haught on his right, and so they took that street under the eaves of the Unicorn and passed on by its light, by its shuttered, furtive safety that did not ask what prowled the streets outside.
'Where?' Dolon asked, at his desk, the sodden watcher standing dripping on the floor before him. 'Where has he gotten to?'
'I don't know,' the would-be Stepson said: Erato, his partner, was still out. He stood with his hands behind him, head bowed. 'He -Just said he had a message to take, to carry for her. He said her answer was maybe. I take it she wasn't sure she could do anything.'
'You take it. You take it. And where did they go, then? Where's your left-hand man? Where's Stilcho? Where's our informer?'
'I -' The Stepson stared off somewhere vague, his face contracted as if at something that just escaped his wits.
'Why didn't you do something?'
'I don't know,' the Stepson said in the faintest, most puzzled of voices. 'I don't know.'
Dolon stared at the man and felt the flesh crawling on his nape. 'We're being used,' he said. 'Something's out of joint. Wake up, man. Hear me? Get yourself a dozen men and get out there on the streets. Now. I want a watch on that bridge not a guard, a watch. I want that woman found. I want Mor-am watched. Finesse, hear me? It's not a random thing we're dealing with. / want Stilcho back. I don't care what it takes'
The Stepson left in all due haste. Dolon leaned head on hands, staring at the map that showed the Maze, the streets leading to the bridge. It was not the only thing on his desk. Death squads. A murder uptown. Factions were armed. The beggars were on the streets. And somehow every contact had dried up, frozen solid.
He saw things slipping. He called in others, gave them orders, sent them to apply force where it might loosen tongues.
'Make examples,' he said.
The streets gave way to one naked rim along the White Foal shore, an openness that faced the rare lights of Downwind, across the White Foal's rain-swollen flood. The black water had risen far up on the pilings of the bridge and gnawed away at the rock-faced banks, trying at this winding to break its confinement and take the buildings down, this ordinarily sluggish stream. Tonight it was another, noisier river, a shape-changer, full of violence; and Mradhon Vis moved carefully along its edge, in this soundless darkness of deafening sound, in the lead because of the three of them, he was most reckless and perhaps the most afraid.
So they came up in the place he had aimed for, in the underpinnings of the bridge on the Mazeward side; in this deepest dark. But a star glimmered here like swampfire, and above it was a pale, hooded face.
He felt one of his two companions set a warning hand on his arm. He kept walking all the same, watching his footing on this treacherous ground. He could look away from that face, or look back again, and a strange peace came on him, facing this creature who was the centre of all his fears. No more running. No more evasion. There was a certain security in loss. He stopped, took an easy stance, there above the flood.
'What's the job?' he asked, as if there had never been an interlude. The light brightened fitfully, in the witch's outheld hand.
'Mor-am,' she said. A shadow moved from among the pilings to stand by her. Light fell on a ruined, still-familiar face.
'0 gods,' Mradhon heard beside him, Moria lunged and he caught her arm. Hers was hard and tense; she twisted like a cat, but he held on.
'Moria,' her twin said, no longer twin, 'for Ils' sake listen -'
She stopped fighting then. Perhaps it was the face, which was vastly, horribly changed. Perhaps it was Haught, who moved in the way of her knifehand, making himself the barrier, too careless of his life. Haught was a madman. And he could win what no one else could. Moria stood still, still heaving for breath, while Mor-am stood still at Ischade's side.
'See what love is worth,' Ischade said, smiling without love at all. 'And loyalty, of course.' She walked a pace nearer, on the slanted stones. 'Mor-am's loyalty, now - it's to himself, his own interests; he knows.'
'Don't,' Mor-am said, with more earnestness than ever Mradhon had heard from the hardnosed, streetwise seller of his friends; for a moment the face seemed twisted, the body diminished, then straightened again - a trick of the light, perhaps, but in the same moment Moria's arm went limp and listless in his hand.
'You'd live well,' Ischade said in her quiet voice, an intimate tone which yet rose above the river-sound. 'I reward - loyalty.'
'With whatT Mradhon asked.
She favoured Mradhon with a long, slow stare, ophidian and, at this moment, amused.
'Gold. Fine wines. Your life and comfort. Follow me - across the bridge. I need four brave souls.'
'What for? To do what for you?'
'Why, to save a life,' she said, 'maybe. The bumed house. I'm sure you know it. Meet me there.'
The light went, the shadow rippled, and in the half-dark between the pilings and the flagstone bank, one shadow deserted them. The second started then to follow. 'TTie patrols -' he said to the dark, but she was gone then. Mor-am stopped, abandoned, his voice swallowed by the river-sound. He turned hastily, facing them.
'Moria -1 had a reason.'
'Where have you been?' The knife was still in Moria's hand. Mradhon remembered and took her by the sleeve.
'Don't,' Mradhon said, not for love of Mor-am, the gods knew; rather, a deep unease, in which he wished to disturb nothing, do nothing.
'What's this about?' Moria asked. 'Answer me, Mor-am.'
'Stepsons - They - they hired her. They sent - Moria, for Ils' sake, they had me locked up, they used me to bargain with - with her.'
'What are you worth?' Moria asked.
'She works for Jubal.'
That hung there on the air, dying of unbelief.
'She does,' Mor-am said.
'And you work for her.'
'I have to.' Mor-am turned, amorphous in his cloak, began to vanish among the pilings.
'Mor-am -' Moria started forward, brought up short in Mrad-hon'sgrip.
'Let him go,' Mradhon said, and in his mind was a faint far dream of doing something rash, breaking with sanity and heading for somewhere safe. To the Stepsons, might be. But that was, lately, no way to a long life.
Haught was on his way - why, he had no idea, whether it was despair or ensorcelment. 'Wait,' he called to Haught, losing control of things, but he had lost that when he had come out here, blind-sotted as Moria at her worst. He let her draw him up the stone facing, among the pilings, chasing after Haught at the first, but then joining him in the open, where anyone might spy them.
There was the empty guard station, the pole standing vacant.
'They got him down,' Haught said.
'Someone did,' Mradhon muttered, looking about. He felt naked, exposed to view. The rain spattered away at the board surface of the bridge, a shadowed span leading through the dark to Downwind, to Ischade. A distant, solitary figure flitted like illusion at its other end, lost itself into Downwind, among its shuttered buildings. Here they stood, neither one place nor the other, neither in the Maze of Sanctuary nor in the Downwind, belonging now to no one.
And there was no hiding now.
Haught started across the bridge. Mradhon followed, with Moria beside him, and all he could think of now was how long it took to get across, to get out of this nakedness. Someone was coming their way, a shambling, raggedy figure. He clutched his cloak about him, gripped his sword as this beggar passed; he dared not look when the apparition had gone by, but Moria swung on his arm, feigning drunkenness like some doxy.
''Sjust a beggar,' she said in full voice, hanging on him, terrifying him with the noise. Haught spun half-about, turned again, and kept walking like some honest man with disreputable followers - but no honest man crossed the bridge.
'Beggar,' Moria whined, leaning on Mradhon's arm. He jerked at her and cursed, knowing this mentality, this bloody-minded humour that he had had beside him in the field, soldiers who got this affliction. Heroes all. Dead ones. Soon. 'Straighten up,' he said, knowing her, knowing her brother, knowing that this was a game both played. He twisted at her arm. 'You see your brother? You see what games won him?'
She grew quiet then. Subdued. She walked beside him at Haught's back, past the tall end-pilings that themselves bore nail-holes from the time that hawkmasks, not Stepsons, were the prey.
To the right, a huddle of blackened timbers, of tumbled brick, was the burned shell of a house. Haught went that way, entering the shadow of Downwind, and they came after, out of choices now.
Erato slipped back into shadow, his pulse beating double-time, for a shadow had passed that disturbed him. He felt a presence at his shoulder, where it belonged, but he trusted nothing now. He scanned the figure at near range, his heart still thumping away until he had (pretending calm) resolved his left-hand man still beside him, and not some further threat, some shape-changer, night walker. He had no taste for this witch-stalking. 'They're across,' the partner said.
'They're across. We're not the only ones moving. Get back along the bank. Get the squad in place. Get a message back to base.' Erato moved back along the alley, headed towards the river house.
It smelled of double-cross, the whole business. His partner jogged off, holding his cloak tight to him, muffling his armour. They kept well away from the grounds, wary of traps. This was the place to watch. Here. He was sure of that. He settled in then, watching the storm clouds lose themselves on the seaward horizon in the dark, down that split that divided Downwind from Sanctuary, poor from rich, that division no bridge could span. He had been smug once, had Erato, well-paid, well-armed as he was, convinced of his own skill, of the reputation that would keep challenges off his neck. And somewhere in Downwind that bluff was called, and they dared not go in, dared not pass the streets except by day had effectively lost nighttime access to their own base beyond the Downwind, the slaver's old estate, and relied more and more on the city command. And their enemies knew it.
It would be a long, cold wait. It eroded morale, that view of the bridge, the river, the Downwind. The realization came to him that he was sitting now in the same kind of position the bridge guard had been in, alone out here. Sounds came and went in the streets, rustled in the thin line of brush that rimmed the river-shore. Wild fears dawned on him, to wonder whether the others were there, whether those sounds masked murder, creepings through cover, throats cut, or worse, his comrades snatched away as Stilcho had gone. He wanted to call out, to ask the others were they safe; but that was craziness. He heard the rustling again near himself.
Some vermin creeping about; they grew rats large here on riverside. So he told himself. Something feeding on the garbage that swept down the sewers, the gutters, some choice tidbit brought down from the dwellings of the rich, to tempt the rats and snakes. And the fear grew and grew, so that he eased his sword from its sheath and crouched there with his back pressed to the stones and his eyes constantly scanning the dark that he had view of.
There was nothing anywhere but the splash of rain, the steady drip off eaves of buildings that still had eaves. Beside them, the shell, the timbers, the loose piles of brick.
One moved with a dull chink. Mradhon whirled about, saw a figure close against the wall, at the corner.
'Come,' Ischade said.
'Where's my brother?' Moria asked.
But the witch was gone around the corner.
Mradhon cursed beneath his breath, adding things as he went, as Haught did, as Moria stayed with them. There was no way of retreat, now, against the flow of things. The beggar on the bridge - someone was watching. The body was gone. There were likely Stepsons on the loose. He came round the corner, down the alley where once he had waited in ambush, where the three of them had, before the Stepsons had chosen to make a bonfire of the place, to use the clenched fist.
He knew this place. Knew it because he had lived here. They had. He knew the law here, how it worked apart from Kadakithis's law, from Molin Torchholder's, from any governance of Ranke. Law this side flowed from a place called Becho's. It flourished on the trade of vice, on things that went dear Across the Bridge, that most men never thought to sell, or never planned to. He remembered the smell of it, the reek that clung to clothes; the smell of Mama Becho's brew.
Haught stopped, for the witch had, waiting in their way, a tall shadow-shape; and a second had joined her.
'Now you earn your pay,' Ischade said, when they had come close. The dark surrounded them, buildings leaned close overhead where listeners could have heard, perhaps did hear, but Ischade seemed not to care. 'I have a matter to discuss. A man who certain folk want back, in whatever case. Mor-am knows. The second Stepson. Stilcho is his name.'
'Moruth,' Mradhon said.
'Oh, yes, Moruth has him. I do think this is the case. But Moruth will be reasonable, with me.'
'Wait,' Mradhon said, for she had moved to drift away again. This time she did wait, looked at him, faceless in the dark; and this time the question died stillborn. Why?
'Is there something?' she asked.
'What are we supposed to do - that you can't?'
'Why, to have mercy,' Ischade said. 'This man wants rescuing. That's your business.'
And she was off again, a shadow along the way.
'Becho's,' Mor-am said, all hoarse, keeping a safe distance from them. 'Follow me.'
But they knew the streets, every route that led to that place, that centre of this shell.
'No luck,' the man said, in the commander's doorway. 'Everything's gone underground. This time of night -'
There was disturbance beyond; the outer doorway opened, creating a draught that blew papers out of order. Dolon slammed his hand on to them to stop the fall. 'Get someone,' he said. 'I don't care -'
One of his aides appeared behind the man, signalling with a nod of his head. 'What?' Dolon said.
'Erato sends word,' the aide said, 'the woman's gone to the Downwind. Taken the informer with her.'
Dolon stood up. 'Who says? Get him in here.'
'By your leave,' the other said, trying graceful exit.
'You stay.' Dolon walked round the desk and met the man that came in. Erato's partner. 'Where's Erato now?'
'Set up to watch the shore. Figuring she'll come home - sooner or later, whatever she comes up with.'
Dolon drew a breath, the first easy one in hours. Something worked. Someone was where he ought to be, taking advantage of the situation. 'All right,' he said. 'You get back there right now -Tassi.'
'Sir,' the other said.
'Get ten more men. I want them down there on that rivershore. I want every access under watch, from both directions. I want no surprises out of this. You get down there. You get those streets blocked. When the witch shows up, I want an account from her. I want names, places, bodies - I don't care how you get them. If she cooperates, fine. If not - stop her. Dead. Understood?'
There was hesitance.
'Sir,' Erato's partner said.
'They say fire works on her sort. You get what you can.'
Heat rose to his face. Breath grew short.'- gone undependable. If she ever was. You cure it. Hear? You get what you can, then you settle her. I want Stilcho quiet, you understand: back here safe, number one; but if he's become expendable, expend him. You know the rule. Now move!'
There was flight from the doorway, a clatter in the outer room, one injudicious unhappy oath. Dolon stood gathering his breath. Critias's list of reliables was itself the problem; unstable informants; men on double payrolls. A witch, for the gods' sake, an ex-slaver, a judge on the take.
There was, he began to reckon, a need to purify that list. His discretion, Critias had said. Critias had delayed too long in passing power, that was what it was. Uncertainty set in. The opportunists wanted convincing again.
Then the rest would fall in line.
It was near Becho's. Mradhon Vis knew that much, and it set off nerves, this approach. Tygoth would be in his alley, patrolling up and down, banging at the wall with his stick to let all Downwind know that Mama's property was secure. The surviving crowd of drunks would have collapsed in the streets. Gods knew who might have inherited that room in the alley now. He did not want to know. He wanted out of this place, with all his soul he wanted out of it, and he was where he had never looked to be again, following Mor-am through the labyrinth of alleys, with Haught at his back - and Moria between them. He glanced back from time to time, when there was too much silence; but they still followed.
And now Mor-am stopped. Waited, signalled silence, outside a street that had gotten overbuilt with lean-tos.
Beggar-kingdom, this. Mradhon grabbed a handful ofMor-am's cloak, pulled, meaning retreat.
No, Mor-am insisted. He pointed just ahead, where suddenly a figure darker than the night was treading amid the ragged, lumpish shelters. Ischade paused and beckoned to them.
Mor-am followed, and Mradhon did, taking it on himself whatever the others did, wishing now they would keep their feckless help out of this. He gripped his sword, meaning to kill a few if it came to that, but Ischade kept her pace slow, down that street of furtive eyes, of watchers within collections of board, canvas, anything that might fend away rain and wind. The stench rose up about them, of human waste, of something dead and rotting. He heard steps at his back and dared not turn his head, praying to Ilsigi gods that he knew who it was. His eyes were all for Mor-am, for the wand-slender darkness of Ischade, who walked before them through this aisle of misery.
And none offered to touch, none offered violence. A building made this lane a cul de sac, a dilapidated, boarded-up building, but light showed from the cracks about the door.
Sound got out. Mor-am wavered at that whimpering, that human, wretched sound. At voices. At laughter. He stopped altogether, and Mradhon shoved him, put him into motion, not because he wanted to go, but because it was not a good moment to stop, not here, not now, without any path of retreat. There was a moment in battles, the downhill moment past which there was no way to stop, and they had reached it now. Things seemed to slow, just as they began to move in earnest, when the door flew open outward with no one touching it at all, when light flung out into the dark and there were dark figures leaping to their feet inside that building, but none darker than Ischade's, who occupied that doorway.
And silence then, after momentary outcry. Dire silence, as if everyone inside had stopped, just stopped. Mor-am stood stock still. But Mradhon stepped up the single step to stand behind Ischade.
'Give him to me,' Ischade said very quietly, as if everything was sleeping and voices ought to be hushed. 'Mradhon Vis -' She had never looked around, and knew him, somehow, by means that set his teeth on edge. So did calling his name here. 'This man they have. Get him up. Whatever you can do for him. Mor-am knows the way.'
He looked past her, to the wretch on the floor, to what this ragged, awful crowd had left of a man. He had seen corpses, of various kinds. This one looked worse than most and might still be alive, which daunted him more than death. But it was a question of downhill. He walked in, among the beggar-horde, among ragged men and women. Gods! there was a child, feral, with a rat's sharp, frozen grin. He bent above this seeming corpse and picked it up. not even thinking of broken bones, only struggling with limp weight; the head lolled. It only had one eye. Blood was everywhere.
Haught met him, passing Ischade, got the other arm of this perhaps-living thing, and they took it to the door. Moria was there. Mor-am stood against the wall.
'Mor-am,' Ischade said, never turning her head. 'Remember.' And more quietly: 'Get him away now. I have further dealings with these here.'
The nightmare lasted. The silence held, that chill quiet lying over all the alley with its sea of tents. Not the look of her eyes that had wrought this quiet, no, Mradhon reckoned, but some subtler spell. Or fear. Perhaps they knew her. Perhaps here in Downwind she was better understood than across the river, for what she was, and what her visitations meant.
'Come on,' Mradhon said. He heaved the limp arm further across his shoulder. 'Gods blast you,' he said to Moria, 'get going -' for Mor-am began to run, limping, down the lane between the tents and shelters, off into the dark.
It would hold, he thought, only so long as Ischade was in the way, only so long as Ischade dealt with Moruth, who was somewhere in that room. What estate would distinguish a beggar king, he wondered in a mad distraction, panting through the tents, managing with Haught to drag the bleeding half-corpse past obstacles, boxes, litter and heaped-up offal of the beggar-king's court. He wished he had known the face, had gotten the image clear, but he had focused clearly on none of them, not one, the way he had not focused on the man he was carrying. He had nightmares enough to last him; he bore this one with him, past the end of the street, around the corner. He twisted his neck to look to his side.
'Moria. Little fool,' he panted, 'get up ahead, get in front of us, don't straggle.'
'Where's my brother?' she asked, her voice verging on panic. She had her knife; he saw the dull gleam. 'Where has he gotten to?'
'Back to the street,' Haught guessed, between breaths, and they laboured along, dragging the dead weight, back the way they had come. No sign of Mor-am. Nothing.
'Bridge,' Mradhon gasped, working with Haught to run with their burden as best they could. 'Stepsons want this bastard, they get themselves out there and hold that Ils-forsaken bridge.'
It was a long way through the streets, a long, long course, the noise of their footsteps, of their ragged breathing like the movement of an army. Moria ran ahead of them, checked comers.
Then one moment she failed to bob into sight again. Haught began to pull forward, doubling his pace. Mradhon resisted.
Then Moria reappeared, dodging round the comer, flat shadow, her hand up as if the knife was in it, and another shadow came shambling round wide of her, standing in the way - Mor-am was back.
'B-b-boat,' he said. His breath came raw and hoarse. 'Sh-she says - this p place. 0 g-g-gods, c-come on.'
'The river's up,' Mradhon hissed, the limp weight sagging against his shoulder, the feel of chase behind. 'The river's up to the bridge bottom, hear? No boat can handle that current.'
'Sh-she says. C-come.'
Mor-am lurched off, dragging one foot. Moria stood where she was, plastered to the wall. Wrong, a small faint voice was saying inside Mradhon Vis, a prickling of his nerves where Moria's twin was concerned. And another voice said she. The river. Ischade.
'Come on,' he said, deciding, and Haught shouldered up his side as they headed after Mor-am.
Moria cursed as they passed and came too, jogging along with them in the dark, under the dripping eaves. She took the lead again, serving as their eyes in this winding gut of a street.
Now there were sounds, many of them.
'Behind us,' Haught gasped; and where they were Mradhon could not have sworn, but it sounded like behind. He threw all he had into running, pulled a stitch in his side as Haught stumbled and recovered, and now Moria was gone again, in the turning of the streets.
They staggered the last alley and on to the downslope to the river, splashing through the outpourings of Downwind's streets, past a low wall and down again. 'This way,' Moria said, materializing again out of the brushy dark, in the sound of the river, which lay like a black gulf downslope. Mradhon went, steadied his footing for Haught's sake. There was the reek of blood from their unconscious burden, and now the taste of it was in Mradhon's mouth, coppery; his lungs ached; he was blind except that Moria was at his nght telling him come on, come on, down to the river, to the flooded dark, the curling waters that could snatch any misstep and make it fatal. He flung his head up, sweat running in his eyes, sucked air, staggered on the uneven stony shore and nearly went to his knees on the rain-slick rock.
There was a boat. He saw Mor-am struggling with it, and Moria running to it, a black shell amid the brush, not distinguishable as a boat if he had not known what it was. There was a muddy slide: boats were launched here, from Downwind, in sane weather, when the river was tamer. But this one hit the water and rode calm, stayed close as if there were no currents tearing at it, as if it and the river obeyed two madly different laws.
'G-get him in,' Mor-am said, and coming to the edge, Mradhon took the limp weight all to his side, going into water to the knee to reach the boat, staggering as he flung the body down. The boat hardly rocked. He gripped the side of it, stood there, uselessly, to steady it. Haught crouched on the muddy shore, head down, breathing in great gulps.
'Sh-she said w-wait,' Mor-am said.
Mradhon stood, still leaning on the side, his feet going numb and the sweat pouring down his face into his eyes. Go out in this against orders - no. He saw Moria collapsed, head and arms between her knees, in the clearing of the sky that afforded them some starlight; saw Mor-am's hooded shape standing further up, holding to the rope. When he glanced across the river, he could see Sanctuary's lights, few at this hour, could see the bridge, sane and reasonable crossing.
And from the man they had carried all this way, there was no sound, no movement - dead, Mradhon thought. They had just carried a corpse away from Moruth; and everyone was robbed.
Stones rattled, high among the brush. Heads lifted, all round; and she was there, coming down, gliding down the rocks like a fall of living dark, making only occasional sound. 'So,' she said, reaching them. She put out a hand and brushed Mor-am. 'You've redeemed yourself.'
He said nothing, but limped down to the water's edge, and Haught and Moria were on their feet.
'Get in,' said Ischade. 'It will take us all.'
Mradhon climbed aboard, stepping over the corpse, which moved, which moaned, and his nerves prickled at that unexpected life. Greater mercy, he thought, with this stirring between his feet, to use the sword: he had seen deaths such as this Stepson faced when the wounds went bad, the gaping socket of the missing eye thus close to the brain - it would be bad, he thought, while the boat rocked with the others getting in. He reached over the side, dipped up water with his hand, passed it over the Stepson's lips, felt movement in response.
Ischade's robe brushed him as she took her place. She knelt there all too close for any comfort; she bent her head, bowed over, her hands on the wounded face. There was suddenly outcry, a struggling of limbs beneath them ... 'For the gods' sake!' Mradhon exclaimed, his gorge rising; he thrust at Ischade, shoved her back, froze at the lifting of her face, the direction of that basilisk stare at him.
'Pain is life,' she said.
And the boat began to move, slowly, like a dream, the while the wind swirled about them and the river roared beneath. His companions - they were hazy shapes in the night about Ischade. The wounded man stirred and moaned, threatening instability in the boat should his thrashing become severe. Mradhon reached down and held him, gently. The witch touched him too, and the struggles took harder and harder restraint. The moans were pitiful.
'He will live,' she said. 'Stilcho. I am calling you. Come back.'
The Stepson cried out, once, sharply, back arching, but the river took the sound.
It was a boat, running on the flood. Erato saw it, his first thought that some riverfisher's skiff had come untied in the White Foal's violence.
But the boat came skimming, running slowly like a cloud before the wind across the current, in a straight line no boat could achieve in any river. Erato stirred in his concealment, hair rising at his nape. He scrambled higher amongst the brush, disturbed one of his men.
'Pass the word,' he said. 'Something's coming.'
That got a stare, a silence in the dark.
'Get the rest,' Erato hissed, shoving at the man. 'They're going to come ashore. Hear me? Tell them pass it on. The back of the house: that's where they'll come.'
The man went. Erato slipped along the bank at the same level, towards the brambles, which served as effective barrier. The house they watched - they did not venture liberties with it, did not try the low iron gate, the hedges. Try reason, he thought. He was in command. It was on him to try reason with the witch; and it had to be the witch out there: there was nothing in all sanity that ought to be doing what that boat did. He moved quietly, gathered up men here and there while the boat came on.
The bow grated on to rock and kept grating, pushing itself ashore, and the Stepson moaned anew, leaning against the gunwales of the boat.
'Bring him,' Ischade said, and Mradhon looked up as the witch stepped ashore, on the landing which rose in steps up to the brambles. He flung an arm about the Stepson, accepted Haught's help as he stood up, as now the Stepson fought to get his own feet under him, more than dead weight. The boat rocked as Mor-am went past and stepped out, close to Ischade. They went next, stepping over the bow to solid if water-washed stone footing, and Moria came up by Haught's side, while Ischade stood gazing into the dark beside them.
Men were there, armed and armoured. A half a dozen visible. Stepsons.
The foremost came out a few steps. 'You surprise us,' that one said. 'You did it.'
'Yes,' Ischade said. 'Now go away. Be wise.'
'Our man -'
'Not yours,' she said.
'There's more of them,' Mradhon muttered to her; there was the light of torches up on the height of the bank, just the merest wink of red through the brush. 'Give him over, woman.' He was holding the Stepson still, and the man was standing much on his own between himself and Haught, standing, having no strength, perhaps, to speak for himself. Or no will to do so - as there seemed a curious lack of initiative on the part of the Stepsons who faced them in the dark.
'Go away,' Ischade said, and walked past, walked up to the iron gate that closed the bramble hedge at the back of her house. She turned there and looked back at them, lifted her hand.
Come. Mradhon felt it, a shiver in his nerves. The man they were carrying took a step on his own, faltering, and they went on carrying him, up the steps, to the gate Ischade held open for them, into a garden overgrown with weeds and brush. The back door of the house swung open abruptly, gaping dark; and they went towards this, up the backdoor steps - heard hasty footfalls behind them, Moria's swift pace, Mor-am's dragging foot. The iron gate creaked shut.
'Get him in,' Ischade hissed at their backs; and there was not, at the moment, any choice.
Light flickered, the beginnings of fire in the fireplace, candles beginning to light all at once. Mradhon looked about in panic, at too many windows, a house too open to defend. The Stepson dragged at him. He sought a place and with Haught's help bestowed the man on the orange silk-strewn bed, the gruesomeness of it all niggling at his mind - that and the windows. He looked about, saw Moria close to the shelf-cluttered wall, by the window - saw the gleam of fire through the shutter-slats.
'Come out!' a thin voice cried, 'or burn inside.'
'The hedges,' Haught said, and Ischade's face was set and cold. She lifted her hand, waved it as at inconsequence. The lights all brightened, all about the room, white as day.
'The hedges,' said Mor-am. 'They'll burn.'
'They're close.' Moria had sneaked a look, got back to the safe solidity of the wall. 'They're moving up.'
Ischade ignored them all. She brought a bowl, dipped a rag, laid a wet cloth on the Stepson's ravaged face, so, so tenderly. Straightened his hair. 'Stilcho,' she addressed the man. 'Lie easy now. They'll not come inside.'
'They won't need to,' Mradhon said between his teeth. 'Woman, they don't care if he fries along with us. If you've got a trick, use it. Now.'
'This is your warning,' the voice came from outside the walls. 'Come out or burn!'
Beyond the window slats a fire arced, flared. Kept flaring, sun-bright. There were screams, a rush of wind. Mradhon whirled, saw the blaze of light at every window and Ischade standing black and still in the midst of them, her eyes -
He averted his, gazed at Haught's pale face. And the screams went on outside. Fire roared like a furnace about the house, went from white to red to white again outside, and the screams died.
There was silence then. The fire-glow vanished. Even the light of the candles, the fire in the fireplace sank lower. He turned towards Ischade, saw her let go a breath. Her face - he had never seen it angry; and saw it now.
But she walked to a table, quietly poured wine, a rich, rich red. She turned up other cups, two, four, the sixth. She filled only the one. 'Make yourselves at home,' she said. 'Food, if you wish it. Drink. It will be safe for you. I say that it is.'
None of them moved. Not one. Ischade drained her cup and drew a quiet breath.
'There is night left,' she said. 'An hour or more to dawn. Sit down. Sit down where you choose.'
And she set the cup aside. She took off her cloak, draped it over a chair, bent and pulled off one boot and the other, then rose to stand barefoot on the litter that carpeted this place; she drew off her rings and cast them on the table, looked up again, for still no one had moved.
'Please yourselves,' she said, and her eyes masked in insouciance something very dark.
Mradhon edged back.
'I would not,' she said, 'try the door. Not now.'
She walked out to the middle of the silk-strewn floor. 'Stilcho,' she said; and a man who had been near dead moved, tried to sit.
'Don't,' Moria said, a strangled, small voice - not love of Stepsons, it was sure; Mradhon felt the same, a knot of sickness in his throat.
Ischade held out her hands. The Stepson rose, swayed, walked to her. She took his hands, drew him to sit, with her, on the floor; he knelt, carefully.
'No,' Haught said, quietly, a small, lost voice. 'No. Don't.'
But Ischade had no glance for him. She began to speak, whispering, as if she shared secrets with the man. His lips began to move, mouthing words she spoke.
Mradhon seized Haught's arm, for Haught stood closest, drew him back, and Haught got back against the wall. Moria came close. Mor-am sought their corner, the furthest that there was.
'What's she doing?' Mradhon asked, tried to ask, but the room drank up sound and nothing at all came out.
She dreamed, deeply dreamed. The man who touched her -Stilcho. He had been deep within that territory of dreams, as deep as it was possible to go and still come back. He wanted it now: his mind wanted to go fleeting away down those dark corridors and bright - Sjekso, she chanted, over and over: that was the easiest to call of all her many ghosts. Sjekso. She had his attention now. Sjekso. This is Stilcho. Follow him. Come up to me.
The young rowdy was there, just verging the light. He attempted his old nonchalance, but he was shivering in the cold of a remembered alleyway, in the violence of her wrath.
She named other names and called them; she sent them deep, deep into the depths, remembering them - all her men, most ruffians, a few gentle, a few obsessed with hate. One had been a robber, dumped his victims in the harbour after carving up their faces. One had been a Hell Hound: Rynner was his name; he used to play games with prostitutes - his commander never knew. They were hate, raw hate: there were some souls that responded best to them. There was a boy, come with tears on his face; one of Moruth's beggars; one ofKadakithis's court, silver tongued, with honey hair and the blackest, vilest heart. Up and up they came, swirled near, a veritable cloud.
She spoke, through Stilcho's lips, words in a language Stilcho would not have known, that few living did. "Til dawn, 'til dawn, 'til dawn -'
The dream stretched wide, passed beyond her control in a moment of panic. She tried to call them back, but that would have been dangerous.
'Til dawn, she had said.
There were so many pressing at the gates, so very many - Sanctuary, the whisper went. Sanctuary's open - and some went in simple longing for home, for wives, husbands, children; some in anger, many, many in anger - the town inspired that, in those it trapped.
A wealthy widow turned in bed from the slave she kept and stared into a dead husband's reproachful eyes: a yell rang out through marble halls, high on the hill.
A judge waked, feeling something cold, and stared round at all the ghosts who had cause to remember him. He did not scream; he joined them, for his heart failed him on the spot.
In the Maze there was the sound of children's voices, running frenzied through the streets - 0 Mama, Papa! Here I am! One such wandered alone, among the merchants' fine houses, and rapped on a door. I'm home - o Mama, let me in!
A thief stirred in his sleep, rubbed his eyes and rubbed them twice. 'Cudget,' he said, knowing that he was dreaming, and yet he felt the cold drifting from the old man. 'Cudget?' The old man swore at him just as he used to do, and Hanse Shadowspawn sat up in bed, petrified as his old mentor gazed on him, sitting on his foot.
Outside, the streets rustled with the gathering of the dead. One hammered at a door with thin rattling result; Where's my money? it wailed. One-Thumb, where's my money?
The booths at the Vulgar Unicorn grew crowded, buzzed with whispers, and the few diehard patrons went fleeing out the door.
Brother, a ghost said to the fat man in an uptown bed, and to the woman beside him - is he worth it, Thea?
Screams rose, long ones, echoing above the streets, a thin clamouring that the wind took and carried through the air.
A Beysib woman felt the stirring of the snake that shared her bed, opened dark strange eyes and stared in wonder at the pale night-gowned figure that stood within the room: Usurper, it said. Get out of my bed. Get out of my house. You have no right.
No one had ever told her that. She blinked, confused, hearing the screams, as if the town were being sacked.
Across the river Moruth hurried along, hastening in the night for a newer, more secure place, in the madness of the hour, in streets insane with screams.
He stopped, seeing the way closed off. They were hawkmasks. four of them, who began to come towards him; he turned, and there were Stepsons, armed with swords.
In the guardroom a Hell Hound wakened, bleary-eyed from drink, looked up with the interest of one who hears the step of a friend returning, a singular pattern, so familiar and loved among a thousand others; and then with a sinking of the heart remembered it impossible. But Zaibar looked all the same, and stood up, overturning the chair with a crash.
Raskuli was standing there, unmarred, his head firmly on his shoulders. I can't stay long, he said.
And higher in the palace, Kadakithis screamed and yelled for guards, waking to find strangers in his room, a horde of ghosts. some with ropes about their necks; and soldiers all dusty in tattered armour; and his grandfather, who did not belong in Sanctuary, wearing a shadow-crown.
Shame, his grandfather said.
Walegrin sat up in bed, in the barracks below the wall - heard the clash of bracelets, ominous and clear. He reached for his knife, beneath the pillow. But as the sound ceased, faint as it was, he heard screams from beyond the walls, and leapt up, knife in hand, to fling the window wide.
Jubal the ex-slaver waked, hearing the murmur of a sea - and not a sea, but a horde of slaves about his bed, lacking limbs, with scars, some clutching their entrails to them. He spat at them, and felt the cold at the same time.
It's your fault, Kurd said, and from that ghost the others fled, deserting the place, leaving only the pale old man, the visitor with hollow eyes. We should sit and talk, Kurd said.
S/r? asked a wan, lost ghost, accosting a drunk who staggered by the Unicorn, stopping up his ears. Sir? What street is this? I got to get home, me wife 'II kill me, sure.
On the street of gods a priestess screamed, waking to find a tiny ghost lying at her breast, all wet and dripping with riverweed, an infant of dark and accusing eyes.
A clatter of hooves rang through the Stepson barracks courtyard, a rattle of armour, a breath of cold wind.
And in the headquarters in the town, Dolon gave orders, dispatched men here and there - stopped cold as, alone, he realized other men had come, with their blackened skin and flesh hanging from their limbs.
We've lost, Erato said.
Fool! A different presence burst among them, whose armour shone, whose look was bronze and gold; he came striding in from out of the wall itself and the others fled. The air smelled suddenly of dust and heat. Ofool, what have you done?
And Dolon backed away, knowing legend when he saw it.
The presence faded and left cold in its stead.
Ischade stirred, feeling the pain of long-rigid limbs. A heavy weight poured against her, Stilcho in collapse. And one last thing she did, without thinking of it, holding the Stepson in her arms: 'Come back,' she said, knowing it was dawn.
No, the almost-ghost said, weeping, but she compelled it. The body grew warm again. Moaned with pain.
'Help me,' she said, looking up at the others who sat huddled in the corner.
It was Haught who came. Even Mor-am was too afraid; but Haught - who touched her, with his hands and in a different way, like the flickering of a fire. He took Stilcho up; Mor-am helped, and Vis, and Moria last of all.
Ischade drew herself to her feet, walked over to the window and unshuttered it by hand, considerate of her guests. There were some things they might bear with in the dark of night; but by day - that seemed unkind, and she felt washed clean this morning. A bird was perched on the untouched hedge. It was a carrion crow; it hopped down out of sight, in a fluttering of unseen wings.
Mradhon Vis strode along the street in the silence of the morning free, inhaling air that had, even with its stench, a more wholesome quality than that within the riverhouse.
Haught, Moria, Mor-am - they were afraid. The Stepson slept, unharmed, in Ischade's silken bed, while the witch herself - gods knew where she was.
'Come on,' he had pleaded, with Haught - with Moria, even. Mor-am he had not asked. Even the Stepson: him he would have gotten out of there if he could. But maybe it would be a corpse he was carrying before he had gotten to the street.
'No,' Moria had said, seeming shamed. Haught had said nothing, but a hell was in his eyes, so he had it bad. 'Don't - touch her,' Mradhon had said then, shaking him by the shoulders. But Haught turned away, head bowed, passed his hand over one of the dead candles. A bit of smoke curled up on its own. Died. So Mradhon knew what hold Ischade had on Haught. And he went away, went out the door with no one to stop him.
She would find him if she wished. He was sure of that. There was a long list of those who might be interested to find him - but he walked the street past the bridge by daylight in the town. Traffic had begun, if late. There were walkers on the street, folk with unhappy, hunted looks.
'Vis,' someone said. He heard rapid steps. His heart turned in him as he looked back and saw a man of the garrison. 'Vis, is it?'
He thought of his sword, but daytime, on the streets - even in Sanctuary - was no time or place for that kind of craziness. He struck an easy stance, impatient attention, nodded to the man.
'Got a message,' the soldier said. 'Captain wants to see you. Mind?'