Book: The Best of Friends
Morning on the streets of Sanctuary, a cold, knife's edge wind that rattles at shutters prudently closed in the thief-plagued maze, and drizzle comes on that wind, to slick the stones and darken the aged wood and make muck out of the filth that lies in every crack and crevice of the cobbles.
Citizens stir out, nonetheless. A body has to, who wants to eat. Everyone goes cloaked and muffled, from the beggars in their grime-colored rags, to the well-to-do factor on his way to the wharfside warehouses.
Thus Amhan Nas-yeni, an ordinary sort of man, a man with a nobody face and a nobody shock of dark hair beneath the hood, neither tall nor short, stout nor thin. Nas-yeni goes at a moderate pace in these streets, cloaked and muffled, and quite unremarkable among the average Ilsigis of better than average means, merchants, shopkeepers, traders and smiths.
In fact he is a tradesman and still solvent, despite the recent chaos that saw blood, not rainwater, running in the gutters of the town-some might say, because of that chaos, which needed supply of weapons and other such illicit things, as well as licit ones, to people who could pay not always with coin, but sometimes in protection, sometimes in elimination of threats, sometimes in liberated goods that had the stamp of Rankene military on them, but there was always a market. There was always a market, that was what Nas-yeni would say. He walked a careful line, did Amhan Nas-yeni, and walked it with, in his own estimation, scrupulous integrity: a man of honor. A man of principles.
A man who loved his son, and who had warned him; at the same time he understood young idealists, and was proud of him.
"Be sensible," he had told his son. "Trade is the way to power."
And his son Beruth: "Trade! When the Rankene pigs tax us to the bone and confiscate our shipments!"
"Did I say, compliance?" he had said. "Did I say, stupidity?" Tapping the side of his head. "Brains, young hothead. Trade is an art of the mind. Trade is an art of compromise-"
"Compromise! With Rankan pigs?"
"-In which you contrive each time to make a profit. In which you use your head, young man."
"When they use the sword. No, papa. Not when they can just take everything. Not when they don't have to play the game. Not with the sword only in their hands. You fight your way. I'll fight mine- We're both right."
With that light in his eye and that half-smile that haunted a father's sleep. Like the way he had found him two days later, where the Rankans had thrown the body, out on the rubbish heap where birds, in those dark days, gathered in black, carrion-hunting clouds. Beruth had had no eyes, then. And what else they had done to him before the birds got to him ...
Nas-yeni had fought his war of trade then. Had stripped himself to the bone, not selling, at the last, but giving away everything that he had to the rebels, paying out coin and weapons and supply to hire men who would find Rankans to question, to find out one thing, only one thing: who.
Who, because the why of it did not matter. He was Ilsigi. He was an honorable man, the way Ilsigis had been, before Ilsigis tried to trade with Rankan lords who had a sword, when they did not. He was of a very old family. He remembered, as many Ilsigis no longer did, the entire tale of his ancestors and the worth of them.
He remembered, as even he had forgotten for a while, until his son reminded him, that blood is worth everything in the world; and that once that debt is made, only blood can pay it.
Their names, he had asked of his informants. Give me their names.
And the answer came back, finally: The Stepsons Critias and Straton.
He began then, to leam everything that he could leam about these two names. He learned their partnership in the Sacred Band. He learned what this meant. He learned their wamames and their histories, as much as his informers could extract from gossip and the talk of Rankan soldiers in bars and whorehouses.
He wanted more than their deaths. He wanted revenge. He wanted their ruin, their slow, suffering ruin, of a sort that would erode the soul, such a soul as such butchers might have; and he wanted them to fear, at the last, the way their victims had feared them, with a sickening, hopeless fear.
Therefore he had held his hand from Straton, when his informants told him Straton's soul was already in pawn-to a witch. Therefore he had sweated in agony, seeing the Stepsons ride north and Critias ride with them: therefore he had prayed nightly to the darkest of gods for the saving of one Stepson from war and from the chances of war-and for the weaving of spells about the other, spells that should damn him to hell and bring Critias-the stiff-necked, hard-handed Critias, straight from war and arriving bloody-minded in a town rife with ensorcelments, a town Straton commanded-bring Critias back with a vengeance, oh, yes, the man of war to the man bespelled, his partner, his-lover, doubtless, in the way of Sacred Band partners: Nas-yeni knew every detail he could glean of the Sacred Band, studied them, obsessively, the way he had once studied his rivals in business, and studied, most particularly, this Pair, their reputations, their manner, the time of their sleeping and eating and the look on their faces ... even that, because he had been near them, oh, often, that he had stood so close to one or the other of them, had brushed against them in crowds, had looked once in Straton's very eyes as they collided, unexpected-
-eyes that looked into my son's eyes. eyes that had no pity, eyes looking out of Hell now, is it, murderer? I could take you. I could slip a knife into you and watch those eyes go, oh, so shocked and frightened... .
But far too quick, far, far too quick. Good day to you, Rankan. Good day and gods protect you, Rankan, against any chance of the streets.
He had smiled at Straton, friendly as could be. And the Rankan, with whatever burdened his conscience, whatever hate, whatever distrust of Ilsigis who smiled at him, had looked confused and angry that an Ilsigi had touched him.
Perhaps ... expecting that knife in the gut.
Often, on the street, once Straton settled into pattern, in those dark days, when only a fool would observe patterns-but Straton went befuddied in those days, befuddled and more and more hell-ridden-Nas-yeni would smile at him, that same, secret smile that had everything of obsequiousness in it-Hail, our conqueror. How brave of you, to ride among us, morning and evening, mazy-eyed and bewitched.
Do you know me yet? His mother always said Beruth had my eyes, my mouth.
But he would not have smiled at you.
His mother died, do you know. in the winter. Took to her bed. Never smiled again. Just died. She took all the drugs I bought, one dose.
I owe you so much. Stepson. Truly I do.
They say the Stepsons are coming back to Sanctuary.
Critias ... is coming home. What will you say to him, my friend? What will you tell him about this town you rule?
Who will you sleep with. then?
And how will the Riddler deal with you?
Every morning, every evening. One of the crowd.
Part of the crowd when Critias rode in, grim and hard-hard and soldierly, where Straton had grown fey, and strange.
Where Straton served Her who was whispered about only rarely and in the lowest of tones among the few Ilsigis who knew they had a Patron, of sorts-
It confused even Nas-yeni.
But the torment, the absolute hell in Straton's look nowadays-that satisfied him. So did the rumors of estrangement.
And to help it along, he took to the skills of his youth-set up an archery butt in the warehouse now largely depleted of goods, but enough for a man to live on, who did not plan to live forever.
He had been a damned fine shot, in his youth, in the time that he had spent in the city guard. The hand and the eye remembered. Hate might make the one tremble. Grief might blur the eye. But purpose-that was clear and cold. Critias was back. Straton was in ruin already: one of the Pair was broken, and too difficult to predict.
From a rooftop.
In a way that an assassin could escape, and lay guilt upon the other Partner, and fear on all their company. It was what Beruth would have done, it was his kind of vengeance; it had sharp, keen savor, the drawing of that arrow-blue-fletched, Jubal's colors, not because Nas-yeni had any particular grudge against the ex-slaver, but because it might make the maximum of trouble-
And the wind being what it was, and Straton's damned horse in the way-
But it had hit, all the same, and created havoc beyond Nas-yeni's own imagining-delivered Straton wounded, into the hands of enemies who had not handled him gently, by all accounts; and crippled him; while Tempus, displeased with a city block in ruins and with the rise ofwitchly influences in his ranks, one supposed, demoted him.
And departed, leaving, the gods be thanked, Critias in command of a city Straton had lusted after, Straton crippled and drinking himself stuporous night after night in the Vulgar Unicorn, Straton with so much witch-sign about him that he was notorious, and even footpads refrained from cutting his throat on his drunken wanderings to and from the barracks or the bars. They refrained because the word was out in the underworld of Sanctuary that this man was protected, and that throats would be cut if this man's was.
Things were altogether as Nas-yeni would have them: one enemy in a living hell, banished even from the witch's bed, living because no one was friend enough to kill him; and the other-the other-
There was no more to be done to Straton.
There was Critias ... safe as yet, newly set into an office that Tempus had given him, perhaps with a sense that here was the only place that Straton might stay alive and Critias the only man who might have a chance to heal him: that much understanding Nas-yeni had of his enemies as he had had of his rivals in trade, canny trader that he had been, and smuggler, and judge of men. It was a fool who failed to see his enemy as man like any man, needing the things a man needed, like companionship, like solace, like-the illusions of these things, where the substance failed. By such things a trader lived and prospered; by such things, the likes of Straton and Critias worked on their victims, breaking their confidence as they broke the body.
By such things a man could unravel another.
A hunter had to be his own prey. They were locked together in this hunt, which had achieved a certain intimacy. Nas-yeni who had no family, had two men whose every thought he surmised, whose every move he could now predict; they kept him from loneliness, they kept his heart beating and the blood moving in his veins; they gave him something to think about and to look forward to, something which made him very glad his shots had gone amiss.
First Straton. Now Critias. Critias-who already suffered. He might simply live and watch Critias, watch the slow embitterment of a man left to a town which hated him. But he knew this man like a son. He knew that such embitterment would leach the feeling out of a man like Critias;
knew that some morning Straton would simply turn up dead of drink or some mischance no bribe could save him from, and Critias would be sorry and relieved, and the boil would be lanced, that was all, the pain stopped.
That would never do.
A change in fortunes for Critias, the man facing all directions; and absolute hell for Straton, the man who had lost his way. The very plan was an indulgence approaching the sensual for a man who had restrained himself so long, so very long, and nightly prayed for his enemies, that they go on living.
And it was so easy, for a man so like every other man in Sanctuary, to the eyes of the invaders.
Wind and rain spatter at the eaves, rattle the shutters and bring cold into the room where Moria dresses, hastily, in the stink and the squalor of the tenement she shares with Stilcho, late oflschade's service. A gray, dim light reaches the bed where Stilcho rests, drugged with what krrfshe can buy him-sleep, peace which she can buy him, who has so little peace nowadays.
He is so handsome, so very beautiful to her whose beauty a mage gave her, whose beauty, Rankene-fair, Haught bespelled with stolen magic;
Stilcho's, she had never seen-had been terrified of him, whom Ischade had raised from the dead; she had dreaded the sight of him, shrunk from the chance touch of his hand, which in those days had been chill, had seen only his scars, which the beggar-king had given him, a Stepson, in the long, long night that he had been the beggar-king's prisoner, and they had taken out his right eye, and were about to take the other when Ischade had intervened.
Ischade had claimed him then, since the Stepsons would not have him, a walking dead; and Ischade, whose curse took the life of her lovers, (except Strat, gods only knew why but Moria made guesses) had taken Stilcho in Straton's stead on those terrible nights when the black mood was on her, and she evaded Straton and drove all her servants from her presence-except Stilcho, on whom the curse fell with all its force, who could die, and die, and die, because she had strings on his soul, and could pull it up again from hell-
Moria had seen him on such mornings, had seen his face and shuddered at that look, that bleak terror, that awful intensity with which he would sit and feel of things, the table, the texture of the cloth, the flesh of his arm-as if it were precious and all too fragile.
She had heard him scream-had heard him, as no woman should hear a man, break down in tears and plead with Ischade, not again, not again, no more-
She had shuddered at the mere sight of him in those days.
But those arms, however chill, had been there to hold her when her own world came tumbling down. And his goodness, his loyalty, had touched even Ischade's sense of justice: she had brought him all the way back. She had set him free-free as a man could be, who had suffered what he had, and who still waked screaming of nights, seeing hell, and demons.
Krrf gave him peace. Krrf let him lie safe from his devils-so, so good to see, his quiet sleep, his face that was always so pale, at rest, the patched eye and the fall of dark hair, all that was dark about him: the rest was light, white-washed in the light that, like the chill wind, came through the shutter slats.
She tied a ragged brown scarf about her blonde hair. And from its place in the corner, disguised with clay, she took a lump that was heavier than any rock ought to be, a lump that weighed like sin-or pure gold.
She put it in the ratty basket she had, along with some rags of laundry, She was very careful going out the door, and left the latchstring inside, so only he could open it.
He would know, she feared, when he woke. The first thing he would check would be that comer where they hid the lump she had salvaged from the Peres house. Last night she had begged him to let her take it to old Gorthis, who would give her, she argued, fair price for it. He had fenced for the gangs, back before the war. She knew Gorthis, that he was an honest fence, at least, he gave the fairest rates in Sanctuary. He need not suspect that it was Ischade's gold.
No, Stilcho had said, absolute and angry. No!
What do you want? she had cried, too loudly, in this damned tenement where every sound found other ears. Us to starve?
Better that than some things, he had said, his hands hard on her shoulders, his voice the lowest of whispers. Moria, Moria, it's too dangerous, the damned thing's too big! It's too much! Your fence can't afford a lump like that, he can't pay you, he'll cheat you or he'll rob you, one or the other, damn it all, Moria, you can't take that thing through the streets'
He was close to panic. His grip hurt her shoulders and the fear in him frightened her, who knew what his panics were like, how bad they were, how unreasoning and how difficult for her to bear, old nightmares, old memories (not so many months ago) of Stilcho's voice shrieking terror through the river house, haunting all their nights. A woman could not take that, in the man she loved. She did not want to remember that. She did not want him to break, who was at once so strong and so fragile.
We'll melt it down, he said.
When? she cried at him, and sucked in her breath and bit her lip. They had been over that territory. It was what he always promised whenever she talked about selling it- It took a fire bigger than they could raise in their apartment to melt a lump like that. They could not heat it and hammer it. The walls would carry every sound. The smell would go through the cracks and the gaps. There would be outcries: fire was the eternal terror in the tenements, and neighbors would come hammering on the door demanding answers, threatening them with violence, because they already knew that her man was ... peculiar, and likely a fugitive mage: that was the whisper about him that she had heard, a dangerous kind of whisper, because mages were trouble, and a block of Sanctuary in ashes had proved it to the town at large.
And so, so easily in a place like this, a rumor could get started that would damn them both, and have their apartment broken into.
Or their throats cut.
She would go to Gorthis. He would take the tump and set up an account for her, and there would be no money, except what it took to get a better place to live, and then the things they needed, and the lease of a shop-a little shop, that was what she wanted with that gold. A livelihood for herself and her man where he could find the quiet he needed to forget, and shutters and a stout door she could bar against the dark, where She walked, and hunted.
Down the stairs, out onto the streets, a woman with a basket of rags, a woman with a scarf over her head and a heavy shawl and long skirts to disguise her youth and her looks.
Uptown, like some cleaning woman going to work, for some middlingwell-to-do family not rich enough for servants. She was legion, in the midtown of Sanctuary: cook or maid, respectable enough and not soliciting, and not a mugger in the town would waste time on her, when there was richer prey abroad.
Straton slid from the saddle and caught himself, hanging from the bay's stirrup-leather, a little short of impaling himself on the iron spikes that thrust up through Ischade's hedge. The bay whickered, swung its head around and nosed at him with the roughness a big horse could use -warm, warm, not like Crit said, a dead thing, nor hell-spawned. /;
loved him. He took it for omen. He clung to that omen, that Ischade who had withdrawn every sign of gentleness toward him, did not take the horse back, but left it with him, left him one gift of hers, at least, which had no hidden thom.
He wept against the bay's neck, standing there in the rain, both of them wet and chilled. He was very drunk. And he knew that he ought to get back on the horse and ride, quickly-
But he did not. He pushed himself away from the warmth of the horse and staggered a step to the gate. The cold of the iron burned his hand. A rose thorn pricked his thumb and he carried his hand unconsciously to his mouth and sucked at the blood that welled up.
The gate swung inward and the way lay open through the yard, the maze of hip-high and scraggly weeds, the thornbushes and black, skeletal trees that all but obscured the little house, the gray stone porch.
He went, staggering a little and desperately trying to balance himself between the drunkenness it needed to come this far and the sobriety he had to muster to deal with her.
The thumb still bled, when he looked at it, and he wiped it on his breeches and looked up again at the door just in front of him, hearing the give of the hinges.
The sight of her hit him in the gut-so beautiful, all dark and light, her black dress blowing in the gusts, her square-cut hair flying like smoke about her face, about dark eyes that seized on his soul and threatened to uproot it.
"Ischade-" His jaw refused to work without his teeth chattering. He was cold through. The wind bit like a knife, here so much in the open, on the high shore of the White Foal. And there was no promise of yielding in the look she gave him. "Ischade, I hurt, I hurt so damned bad-" He held his arm, and the pain was there, even through the alcohol, worse, in the rain and the cold; aching so he could not sleep. "You healed the damn horse, can't you help me?"
"There are physicians."
"For Vashanka's sake, Ischade-"
"Vashanka didn't help Tempus. I doubt he has power here."
"Better men have tried. Leave, Strat. Now."
He stood there, shivering, his teeth chattering and the pain in his shoulder a dull, bone-deep ache, the way it had been for days and nights of this weather, the way the pain got into bone and brain, and he wished he had the courage to kill himself, but he kept holding out some idiot hope that someone, somewhere made this pain worthwhile. He had had her. He had had Crit. Neither one was acting sane. Neither one had acted sane for months. A man who had been loved once and twice in his lifewent on expecting more of it, and believing things could be right again; a man who had seen the two people he most respected-yes, dammit, respected, for all she was a damn woman-in the whole universe ... lose their minds and act like lunatics-kept expecting that they would wake up one morning with their wits about them and come to him and tell him they were sorry.
A man couldn't kill himself, whose world was that badly skewed. A man could not go-wherever he had damned himself to go-with his whole universe gone crazy and right and wrong all tangled; most of all with the faith (still) that if he could just hold on, if he could just beat reason into one of them, that everything would somehow sort itself out.
"Ischade, dammit, I didn't mean what I did! I didn't understand! Ischade. dammit, it's enough, it's parking enough, open the damn door!"
That was his voice, cracking and breaking like a teenaged boy's. That was himself, on his hands and knees in the wet weeds, because the world had suddenly spun around to the left, and gone black a moment, and he had landed there, and hurt his shoulder in the process. He nerved himself to push, and got the arm up against him and one foot and then the other under him, and turned and walked back to the gate, thinking that was about as far as he could walk before he fell down and lay there and froze to death in the rain.
But he did not. He made it to the bay horse, and hung there against its warmth a while till he could get his breath backTake him, why don't you?" he muttered to the hedge, the unnatural roses, the witch who had his soul in pawn. "You've taken everything else, Take him and be damned to you."
If she heard him, in her sorcerous ways of being aware of everything near the wards, she gave no sign. The bay horse stood rock-steady for him to mount, and bore him away, where it chose:, he did not care whether it was a shelter or over the cliffs: let it choose. The White Foal, beyond the trees, was roiled and muddy, and looked friendlier than the town did.
Ischade sat down, at the table in the house that was somehow larger inside than outside, and which had more rooms and windows than appeared from outside. She sat in her cluttered living room, where the cloaks of former lovers, like torn moths' wings, gave riotous color to the floor, the couch, the chairs, the bed, cloaks and bright cloth and here and there a trinket which a careless foot might tread upon and break ... of no interest to her these days, these gray and deadly daysShe rested her elbows on the table and her face within her hands, and went into that nowhere place which she had learned to find within herself, as the Stepson Niko had had it, that inner landscape which in her case was a maze of many doors, each one with a key and a lock.
The hallway was safe. It had turnings and there were dark places, and there were doors that rattled ominously and clamored with lost voices, doors which weakened if she thought of the thing behind themSo she did not.
But somewhere, somewhere down the hall, there was a door still open. She knew that there was. She sensed it. And it was in that darkness far down the hall, where she did not willingly go. She might go up to that door and try to slip up on it and slam it quickly and lock it. But she was paralyzed with dread of it, that what was inside would remain tranquil for years if she did not attempt it. There would be time. There would be time to gather strength-
There was a room within which was treasure. A blue fragment spun within that room, power, secret power, filched from the ruin of magic in Sanctuary. She had hid it within herself, in that place where no other mage could go without killing her, and she, by the very curse that created her, could not die.
There was that place far away in the dark, where something waitedalmost she could see it, red-eyed and smiling at her within that room at the end of the hall.
And there were the doors behind which she had shut away everyone who trusted her. She held those keys. She kept them in the room with the fragment of the Globe of Power.
It was her virtue, her sole virtue, that she listened to their rattling and their clamor at her sanity, when everything in her ached to let them out, to have them with her, vulnerable to that thing that waited down there, in the dark.
You healed the damn horse, couldn't you help me? She hurt inside.
Heal him-yes. And prove to him by that, that she had not forsaken him, that there was hope for him and her. And after that, after that-
She saw him lying still as all her other lovers, by morning light. It was the very fact that he loved her, that would damn him. He could not, now, take his healing as a kindness. No, to him, it would be an absolution. It would bring him to her as he had been-but more insistent, more himself, more violent and more desperate to prove his manhood after what he had suffered-
-and that was the very thing that would kill him. That was the nature of her curse.
The thing in the dark snickered filthily. I knew. It was amused by her helplessness, when she was one who held what it wanted.
Go to Randal, she thought. Seek help in the Mageguild.
But that would precipitate things for which she was not yet ready. She knew that she was not ready and would not be ready perhaps for years. She was far too unbalanced now. The tides of need and satiation which ruled her with the changing moon-were running too high, too violent. She prowled the Maze and the Downwind and sometimes the high streets near the palace, and dead happened, happened with more frequency than made her feel safe with anything she valued.
She needed, that was the unpalatable truth, needed sex the way Strat needed drink, to deal with the dark and the pain. And she wanted him-so damnably much.
The thing-was there again. Stilcho saw it, the red eyes glowing in the murk, the smile like a smug face lit from inside, leaking red light at nostrils and mouth and blazing behind the eyes like hell itself.
It grinned, and the terror of that waked him with a yell that was still dying in his ears as he sat up, sweat-drenched and ashamed and expecting Moria's arms to hold him, Moria's voice to bid him hush, hush, and rest, Moria's lips to kiss him and whisper that he was safe.
"Shut up!" came the yell from somewhere else in the building. "Shut it up, dammit!"
He propped himself against the wall, blinked and shivered in the draft against his bare skin, still krrf-fogged and searching dazedly for Moria.
She must have gone out to market.
But they were out of money. Flat broke, except- •
He scrambled out of bed. He went to the corner and looked amid the junk and the clutter.
Not there. The gold was gone- So was Moria.
And he knew where.
Gorthis's shop was still shuttered at this hour, but he was stirring about inside by now, Moria knew his habits. The shop was on the lower floor of his apartment, in the building that he owned, and Gorthis, being more than prudent, never left his jewelry downstairs in the shop at night. He packed everything up and brought it upstairs, where a pair of vicious dogs guarded the upstairs halls.
In spite of the fact that no thief in Sanctuary tended to prey on a fence, whose good will was important as sunrise-such precautions were necessary because there was always the disgruntled customer.
Or the rival.
Moria seized the bellpull, of the doorbell in the shape of a smiling Shipri-better, she thought in the hysterical humor that came of having gotten this far unmolested with her cargo, that it should be Shalpa, god of thieves. The bell chimed inside, and she waited, her laundry basket on the doorstep, herself within the shelter of the alcove, out of the rain.
The little peephole opened. She stood on tiptoe, and back a little.
And suddenly remembered-0 fool!-that she no longer was darkhaired Moria the thief, Mona the Ilsigi.
It was a beautiful stranger stood on Gorthis's step, her blonde curls wrapped in rags, but her brows still pale, her eyes blue, and her complexion whiter and fairer than any Ilsigi's could be.
"Gorthis," she said, "let me in."
The peephole stayed opened a damned long while longer than its onceupon-a-time wont. She sensed the consternation on the other side of the door-
"Who? What do you want?"
"Gorthis, it's Moria. Moria. You remember me. I bribed this mage-"
It was not the truth, but it was close enough to the truth, and simple enough to explain through a peephole.
The peephole shut. The door opened, on a fat, huge man who looked more apt to be a blacksmith than a goldsmith. Not a hair on his head except a tuft above either ear that stuck out like some brindled monkey's ruff. He utterly filled the door. His eyes, Ilsigi-dark, were wide and worried.
"Makeup," she said, clutching her laundry basket, which had gotten heavier and heavier from block to block. "Corn' on. Gorthis, f'gawds'sake-it's me. Moria. Mor-am's sister."
He hesitated a moment longer, then backed out of the doorway and held it open for her and her basket, admitting her to the dim interior of counters and barred doors and barred sections: a goldsmith even in this section of town and in these days, had to worry, and Gorthis believed in defense. He always had.
"Shalpa's ass," Moria breathed, setting down the basket and looking open-mouthed at the maze of bars, "whole Rankan army couldn't make its way through here."
"Whole Rankan army ner Piffles ner any other damn pack of looters, girl, ain't nobody going to break into my place! I been respectable, I been respectable ever since the Troubles started. I ain't doing no more, so you can take yourself and whatever you got there-"
"This ain't no problem, Gorthis, I swear to you it ain't." She bent and dived after the lump in the middle of the laundry, held it up in both her hands, because that was what it took. "This here's gold. Gorthis. You don't got to fence it, you don't got to tell anybody, you just use it and gimme an account here-look, look-" She set down the clay-covered lump and stripped off her headscarf, shaking out blonde curls the sort that Moria of the streets never had had. "It's still Moria," she said in purest Rankene accents, "But I've come up in the world, Gorthis, Ipass, and I need the money. Do me this favor and I won't forget it when I'm back in society."
"Magery," Gorthis breathed, wide-eyed. "You been witched."
"Expensive magery. And it lasts." She picked up the lump and held it toward him. "Lift it. It's a lot of gold. A lot of gold, Gorthis. No plated rock, you can test it. You'll have it. Like I said, all you have to do is pay me out a little at a time, in silver I can spend without answering questions."
"Shalpa and Shipri." Gorthis drew out a handkerchief and mopped his face. "They said it was you uptown. They said it was you, Mor-am come in here-trying to pawn this knife, fie said you'd gone uptown."
"Where is my brother?" She did not want to know, she truly did not want to know. He was still Ischade's creature. He must always be, or suffer in terrible pain. But not to know whether he was living or deadthat uncertainty she could not bear.
"Ain't seen him since. I got no idea. Lemme see that thing."
She handed it to him. He hefted it.
"Damn-" he said.
"Told you, that's no rock inside."
He took it over to a work counter, through a barred gateway to a table where a barred shutter gave a little light. She followed, anxious, biting her lip as he brought the lump down hard on the table and shattered the clay around it.
Yellow gold shone in the light, veined with lines of soot.
"This's melted stuff," he said.
"It's not stolen." That was half a lie. She clenched her hands together. "It came from friends. They died in the riots. But I haven't got a place to melt it down. I know you're honest, Gorthis, you always were. You take your old cut, same as you always did, and you pay me out little at a time, isn't that fair?"
"Wait here. I got to get something." Gorthis hurried back past her to the cage door and through it.
He slammed it shut, and Moria stared at him open-mouthed in shock. But Gorthis was a little crazy about security. He always had been. She was willing to think it was that.
Until he turned the key and took it.
"It's my damned gold, Gorthis, I'm not going to steal it!"
"You ain't going nowhere," Gorthis said, and went and pulled on the cord that rang a bell somewhere way up on the roof, a thief-bell, that called the watch.
"What are you doing?" she yelled at him. She shook the bars of the gate, hopeless, because Gorthis's locks were always sound. "Gorthis, have you lost your mind?"
"I'm respectable," Gorthis said. "I been respectable ever since the Troubles started. I ain't getting into it any more, I got too many uptown clients." Another series of tugs at the bell rope. "Sorry, girl. Truly I am."
"I'll tell them! I'll tell them who you are!"
"Who are they going to believe, huh, girl, when I turn over you an' that great lump of gold to the watch? No, missy, this is going to be better fer me than fer you. I prove to 'em I changed my ways, that's what this'll do."
"I have friends uptown."
"No, you don't. I know what yow friends are, girl, the neighbors done talked, the neighbors what got burned out around Peres, uptown. They got a warrant out fer you, hiring mages and all, arson and murder-you know the law doesn't come down on mages, ain't no way the watch is going to arrest them. now, is they? But them as hires 'em, now, they're responsible, ain't they? You go burning the whole town down, come in here with a lump of witched gold-"
"It ain't witched!"
"It come from the burnin'! Ever'thing up there's witched! And I ain't makin' no jewelry out of it and sellin' it to my clients' You're goin' to the watch, girl, an' you can explain to your neighbors 'fore the magistrate what you done up there on the hill, / ain'tl"
"Let me out of here! Damn you, damn you, I got friends, Gorthis, I got friends'H fry your insides, you damned snitch! I got wizard friends!"
"No way," Gorthis said, pale-faced and sweating, and still ringing the bell for all he was worth. "No way you got friends like that, missy, or they'd melt that there gold for you and not need no furnace- I ain't no fool! And you're going to hang, that's what's going to happen to you-"
An alarm was ringing in midtown, and Crit stopped the gray to listen. Not particularly his business: the watch and the guard responded to that sort of thing, and his own mind was on personal problems-a partner who had had a run-in with the watch last night, and who had been let go because the watch did not know what to do with him-and a PrinceGovernor whose orders were getting more and more arbitrary-now the damned be-curled and perfumed prig wanted a barrel tax and wanted all the taverns in town to pay a head tax ... per customer. And he was supposed to break the news to Walegrin, whose men were supposed to make the thing work.
An alarm was not the kind of thing the city commander took for a personal responsibility. But he was in a mood to crack heads. He debated it a moment, then, set the horse off at a good clip-no run, counting the slick cobbles, just a businesslike jog that cornered well enough in the twisting streets, with their ghostly drift of cloaked, hooded figures themselves heading toward the trouble-daytime reflexes, the more so that the watch was surely on the way and folk figured there was some kind of entertainment to be had, watching the guard putter about after a thief who had probably run like hell when the bell went, and listening with delicious smugness to the shopkeeper tearing his hair and wailing ... a morning's worth of gossip, at least- And more of them would come, when they saw the city commander involved in it.
He had an idea where the bell-ringing was coming from when he found the right street, about the time the bell went silent and he had an idea the watch had gotten there ahead of him. There was a jeweler hereabouts notorious for his eccentricity-and a shady past; and he saw the crowd and the waiting horses that said that matters were tolerably well under control.
He almost turned the gray about to go back about his business, back to his troubles with Strat and with the Prince-Governor, figuring there was nothing here that needed intervention.
But the crowd ohhhed and aaaahed to a great deal of shouting, and pressed close upon the door, where there was evidently something going on. A guardsman was trying to keep spectators out.
Maybe, he thought, someone had cut the jeweler's throat.
But the place was supposed to be a real obstacle course. So the rumor ran. Real crazy man.
Curiosity drew him, since the morning's business was not that attractive. He nosed the gray on through the crowd, figuring the guard could use a little help-might well be a few neighbors there hoping for free samples, if there had been some fracas inside and some stuff scattered.
"Get out of here!" the beleaguered guard was yelling, shoving with his sheathed sword at a clutch of women who wanted to get their noses in the door. The crowd booed that, and guffawed when a fat man appeared behind the guard and screamed at them to get out of his door.
"What's going on here?" Crit asked the guardsman, forcing the gray into service as a living barrier, and its teeth and the stamp of its feet made a little room.
"Dunno, sir," the guardsman said. "We got a woman and a laundry basket and a damned great lump of gold old Gorthis says is witched and stolen and he locked 'er up and called the watch." The guardsman looked doubtful a second, then: "Woman looks Rankan, sir, and old Gorthis says she's a thief named Moria who lived in the Peres house, and we got a warrant out on her. The corporal don't know. We got a lot of warrants.
But she talks uptown."
"Moria. Out ofPeres." Crit drew in a deep breath, all at once awake in this slow and nuisanceful morning. He slid down and threw the gray's reins at the guardsman as he ducked under the horse's neck and put his
head into the jeweler's shop.
The damn place looked like the city jail, it had so many bars. And in the clutches of a trio of guardsmen was a blonde and distraught young woman, answering questions, shaking her head furiously, no, no, and no.
"Hey," he yelled, interrupting it all. The woman looked at him, and gods, it was for certain Moria, who had hosted the whole Sacred Band at the truce-feast in the Peres house.
Before it ended up a pile of blackened sticks and tumbled stone.
"Moria?" he asked. And listened to the whole thing over again, from the jeweler Gorthis shouting in one ear, the guard corporal shouting at Gorthis to shut up, the woman sobbing and shouting that she was innocent, that Gorthis was a crook who wanted her gold, which was hers, and Gorthis her enemy who had lured her here with promises of help.
"Gold might be hers," Crit said slowly. "Ease up a little. Let's just all be calm, can we? Ma'am, I think you and the gold and Gorthis here better plan to spend the morning uptown and get this straightened out. They say there's a warrant out on you- I don't know about that. I know I've got a few questions. Where are you staying?"
The woman's face might have been a waxen mask. An honest woman might have answered. There would not have been that desperate dart of the eyes, like something trapped. Crit had had a lot of experience, judging reactions like that. He pulled out his kit and rolled himself a smoke, giving her time to answer, if she would. Then, finally, lighting the smoke from the lamp by the door.
"Well, sergeant, I think you might as well take the whole damn mess uptown. You can have Gorthis. Woman goes to my office. Gold goes to your captain and it damn well better stay accounted for. Hear?"
"Yessir," the sergeant said, and Crit nodded, puffed on his smoke to calm his nerves and walked as far as the door. He had a rare impulse to chivalry, and turned back to the sergeant.
"Don't take her through the streets like that. Put a wrap on her and don't bruise her up any, all right?"
He walked out, collected his horse and climbed up, riding out through the crowd, paying no attention to the shouted questions and the ohhhs and ahhhs and the rumors flying thick and fast. Up the street, then, where the last few shyer onlookers stood gawking, and around the corner.
A man fled his path. There was one with reason to avoid him. He was halfway moved to find out why, but the streets were slick and there was enough commotion hereabouts. The chance of overtaking the man was nil, without risk to the gray, and he was not about to take the chance. Dawn, and there were still some of the night-skulkers out, pickpockets, for sure, who worked their best in circumstances like the press and commotion back there.
Not his business, that. Not a soldier's business at all.
He rode on his way, down the mostly deserted street, at a walk, already back to the problem of the head tax.
And was halfway startled when a cloaked man came out of the alley and looked up at him and ran over to him. "Officer-officer-my son, f'godssakes, my son, they stabbed my son-"
"Who?" He reined in the gray, which was as like to take a piece out of the man as not. "How many of them?" The whole, damn district watch was tied down back around the corner, and a purse-cutting that went to murder was the way of things in this damn town.
"Come on!" the man cried, running back for the alley-merchant, to look at him. And distraught.
"Hell!" Crit threw down his smoke, gathered up his crossbow from the saddle-ties and turned the gray down the alley after him. He had wanted a head or two to crack. He was still in the market.
The iron gate flared blue as Stilcho brought up against it and pushed, sweating and gasping and desperate. Witchfire stung his hands and ached in his bones, but the gate gave to his push, and he waited for no other invitation from the river house. He ran as far as the gray stone steps before slick stone and his exhaustion betrayed him: he sprawled painfully against the edge of the steps and lost his wind, fighting even so to pick himself up.
"Stilcho," Her voice said, and he looked up, heart hammering, at the face that figured in so many of his bad dreams.
He gathered himself up to his knees and to his feet, hanging onto the post which supported the roof. He was taller than She was, if he were not standing beside the porch and She, on it- But Her presence was overwhelming, so that all the warmth of running leached out of him, and all the months of hiding seemed useless. He was back. He had never been free. He had never owned his soul, from the night Ischade drew it back into him.
"The w-watch has M-Moria," he stammered, while the pain in his ribs bent him against the post that was the only thing keeping him on his feet. "They've arrested her-"
"For what?" Ischade asked, a soft voice, precise, and cold.
"Th-the-" 0 gods, there was no lying to Her. There could not be. He tried for breath and knew what bargain he had come to strike, a bargain for what She already owned. "The gold from P-Peres house. They say she stole it."
"She did," Ischade said, that same quiet precision. "From me."
He had no answer for that. It was truth. Claiming it was himself, claiming anything but what was-might end everything. "You can help her," he said. "P-Please h-help her."
"She left my employ. She stole from me. Why should I intervene?"
"I'll come b-back." His lips stumbled around the words. His sou! was cold to the roots, and he met that stare of hers with a vertiginous feeling that it was already sliding away from him. "1*11 come back to you."
There was long silence. Then:
"You and Moria," Ischade said. "Love does make fools of us, doesn't it?"
"Please. Get her away from them."
"I thought that Moria would come, long since, wanting her fine things and her soft bed. I least of all expected you, Stilcho. And for her sake. How touching."
"I confess I have missed you, in more ways and for more reasons than you know." She extended her hand and touched his cheek with the backs of her fingers, a touch which-he could not help it-made him shuddei;
and She could not but tell that. "A good man. And hers. Why, Stilcho? Debt of honor? Or do you love her?"
"I I-I-love her."
"Poor man." She came close and folded her arms about his head, drew it against her breast. Her breath stirred his hair and he felt her gentle kiss, felt the unlikely warmth She gave despite the chill of her hands as She lifted his face. "I will help her. I will take you back. I will keep her with all the fine things she loves. You as well. And I shall be kinder. You know that there are times I cannot be."
"I know that-"
"She will be safe enough. I will send a message uptown. We'll do everything by town law. As the aggrieved party, I give her the gold. See? Solved. Come inside and I'll give you the paper with my seal on it. You take it to the Palace and tell them if they have any questions about it, come to me. Come. I shan't bite. You know better than that."
They had brought the gray horse in from the streets-no one had dared steal it, nor any of its gear; it had wreaked havoc on a storefront and kicked a man in the gut before the watch got a couple of riders to herd it up the street and one of them was horseman enough to talk it calm and get the reins without having his fingers taken off or his horse kicked.
Of Crit there was no sign at all, and Straton found himself coldly, terribly sober, interviewing everyone in the affair, no one of whom knew a damned thing, except the horse might have come from a dozen streets, all of which they were searching door to door; and as many alleys, more likely, all of which they were searching, down to the rubbish heaps and the refuse, looking for the body. Crit's bow was missing, not with the horse and not in any place he would have left it. He must have had it with him. Must have had reason to have it in hand when trouble came on him. So he had not been taken utterly off his guard. And they had still got him. Whoever it was.
There had been some kind of fracas involving a goldsmith and a lot of crowd in that area. Crit had been there. Had found the woman Moria in the middle of it and she was in custody, along with the jeweler and a lump of gold. That, Strat reckoned, had nothing to do with it. Crit had ridden out of there, the guard swore to that, ridden out of there and down the street and vanished somewhere within that district, to judge by where they had first reported the loose horse.
He began to build a scenario in his mind-the crowds, the likelihood of cutpurses and pickpockets, and Crit maybe spotting something-
-running into trouble and ending up just a corpse someone had to get rid of, down some sewer, into some basement, under some rubbish heap: gods, Crit, to end like that, in some damned alley, in a damned police action, in something that was not his job. because Crit, being Crit, tended to be all over what he was managing-
-or maybe Crit had seen someone; or someone had seen him, who had a grudge. Gods knew there were people with grudges. He had a vision of blood in the streets again, some new set of crazies with an agenda, murdering any symbol of Authority they could get their sights on. Sanctuary had seen blood and blood and blood, and it had been quiet a while, but the same damned lunatics were still in town, those some other lunatic had not killed.
He felt sick at his stomach, that was what he felt, sick and helpless and scared, because he had shot his mouth off with Crit and done everything wrong he could do-
-he had been stinking drunk this morning when Crit had been riding the streets alone, because he had no partner he could rely on any more. And he hated himself. He despised himself. He could not figure out how he had become what he had become. As good as if he had run and left his partner to face his killers alone. That was what he had done. And if men shied off from him this morning and if he could not meet their eyes, there was reason for it.
Oh damn, he wanted his hands on someone.
He wanted Crit alive, he wanted Crit to come walking in that gate all right and madder than hell; and he would listen to everything Crit had to say and swear that it was right, and go back to him and make it right if Crit would have him, that was what he would do. Crit needed him, needed him in the worst way; and Ischade had thrown him out and battered his pride for the last time, he swore she had. It was over. Finished. He had no more intention to go crawling to her a second time.
Gods, if he'd come walking in here-lost his horse, that's all; we'd give him a hard time, he'd curse us to hell, I'd stand there and maybe he'd know without my saying a thing, know what hell I've been through-we could talk, then. Let him swear me to hell and gone, no matter, get him talking and maybe I could talk to him, the way we used to-way we used to be-
A man came up on him, a guard sergeant, to report they had a man in hand, from the gate-"-asking after the woman, the one they arrested, says he can prove whose the gold is-"
He had told them he wanted to know everything about everyone involved. He had sent a man he trusted to ask Moria if there was anything she could tell him, though he doubted it. This man was at hand.
Was Stilcho. He saw Ischade's former lover, conspicuous in his shabby cloak and in the black patch which covered his missing eye. City guards hastened him along with a firm grip on his arms; and Strat's mind raced wildly, trying to make connections with facts which did not, no matter how he pushed and pulled them, fit any pattern he could understand.
And damn it all, Ischade and her household were not what he wanted to deal with now.
Except Stilcho was no longer Ischade's. Nor was Moria. And somehow, for some terrible reason, they were here, under this wan gray sky, with Crit missing, himself and Stilcho who had met often enough in Ischade's house; and Moria under arrest: that was at least some vestige of connection in events, but it was on the wrong problem, surely it was the wrong problem.
"Stilcho," he said, and did not tell the guards to let him go. One of them handed him the paper.
Ischade's spidery, elaborate hand. Her signet. To Critias, under the authority of His Imperial Highness Theron, and His Grace Kadakithis. Commander of the City: You have arrested one of my servants for possession of property I gave her, to which she has legal title. The lady Moria is therefore innocent of wrongdoing. I ask for her immediate release and will thank you for your prompt and earnest attention to this matter. Under my personal seal: Ischade, herself.
Straton read it through twice. To Critias.
"Let him go," he said sharply, and when the guards did not take their cue: "Leave him!" And waited until the city guard was out of earshot, the paper trembling in his hand. "What's this have to do with Critias?"
"To do with-"
"My partner's missing, dammit, missing while the city guard hauled Moria and that gold out of a jeweler's shop, the last damn place they saw him! Where is he?"
"I don't know," Stilcho said, bewildered-looking, and was not lying. Straton's heart sank. the little that that chance Jiad raised it. "I don't know. Moria got picked up-that's all. Critias was there. I saw him. Comer of Regent Land and High Street. He was on a gray horse. I didn't want to get picked up too; I ran and he didn't follow. That's the truth, Strat. I was one of you. My oath-it's the truth, it's all I know."
"Moria know anything?"
Stilcho shook his head. "I don't think so. I was there because she sneaked out with the gold, I knew she was going to get in trouble-" It was too much truth now. Stilcho let his voice trail off, with that desperate look in his eyes, the look of a man who had committed himself too far to a man no longer in the same game. "It's in the letter. Her seal."
"Her seal. Dammit to hell, is this her game?"
"No! Gods-no, I don't think so."
She wrote to Critias. She didn't know.
But by the gods, she can find out.
"Tablet. Fast." He grabbed Stilcho by the arm, pulled him close. "I thought you'd left her house. Alive."
"I'm g-going b-back." Stilcho pulled to free the arm, desisted when he did not make it easily. The single eye was desperate, distraught. "N-not easy b-being on the streets."
"I can slip you into the guard. Call it a favor. You could have come to me. I owe you one."
"Too Mate." There was all hell in that look. "Too late."
"She's got you." Dead again? In the chill of the wind, there was no way to tell.
"She's got me. And M-Moria. No help for us. Strat, for godssakes, get Moria out of there-if you owe me anything, get her out of that hole-"
The sergeant came up with the tablet and a stylus. Straton took it and wrote: Walegrin-and a long scratch that stood for all the damned protocols. Send the woman Moria to the palace guardstation with this messenger and your order to hold her there until I sign the release. Straton, for Critias- Another long line, for all Crit's authorizations. He slammed his ring into the soft wax of the tablet and shut it. "No damn time for an overseal. Get this to Walegrin at his headquarters and hurry about it."
The sergeant left at a run.
"I'll go with him," Stilcho said, and Strat caught him a second time.
"She's not free."
"If Ischade wants her out, Ischade can find Critias. Come on, man. We're going to go tell her that."
Stilcho said nothing, only came as fast as he could, exhausted as he was.
"Horses," Straton yelled, and the horses were waiting at the gate.
Crit moved, tried to pull himself up from the upside-down position in which he had waked, in which he had already suffered hell, coming to soaking wet and staring upside down into the face of a lunatic with a knife.
He had lost consciousness several times, and vomited his gut out along with a good amount of the water he had swallowed when the Ilsigi who avowed he wanted to kill him slowly had lowered him upside down into a rain barrel and waited till he choked. Again. And again. And again. And in between times had let him down, trussed hand and foot, to lie heaving and puking on the floor of the basement.
He had screamed before his voice went. He was not proud. He had hoped to hell a dozen of his men would be searching by then, would hear the ruckus and come break the door down. But this place, wherever he was, was down deep, lantern-lit, and with some sort of padded baffle all round, so that there was precious little sound going to get up to the streets, if that was even where they were any longer.
This fine, this upstanding citizen with the kid in trouble-had got behind him and hit him with something that stung like hell in the back of his neck and then weakened his knees and dropped him helpless as a baby to the alley cobbles, whereupon this fine citizen had kicked him in the groin, in the gut and in the head, and the light had gone out for he had no idea how long, or through what.
Right now he wanted only to get air past the bubbling of whatever was in his nose and his throat, and upside down, he could not do that, the blood was hammering in his neck and his head and his gut hurt too much to let him get that breath.
The rope paid out suddenly and dropped him onto his arms, his shoulders and the back of his head, driving the breath out of him.
He could not get it in again. He went out,
And came to propped up against something lumpy and solid, and with the self-same lunatic squatting there with a knife in his hands.
"I'm not going to kill you," the man said. "You'd like to know my name, but I'm not going to kill you, not going to give you a thing to give your friends, either. All us Ilsigis look alike-don't we, pig?"
He thought: I'll remember you, Wriggly. But he was not about to argue. Never argue with a lunatic with a knife.
"What'll you describe? Medium build. Black hair? Do you a lot of good, pig. I got your partner. Now I have you. Witch has your partner. Maybe the witch can bring back your eyes. Can she? What would your partner pay for that? It might be worth it to me, pig-just knowing that."
0 gods. 0 gods. We've got trouble, haven't we?
Hell-bent through the streets, too fast, for the weather, but the bay horse made it without slipping and the borrowed sorrel made it, somehow. Strat did not stop to see, reckoning Stilcho would follow as he could.
And this time he pulled up in front of the river house and slid down to drop the bay's reins in front of the hedge, he was cold sober and in a deadly hurry. He shoved at the gate and got a shock, kicked at it then.
"Ischade, dammit! You want that damn girl, you get out here, fast!'"
Stilcho rode in behind and slid down, ran up to the gate and got it open
-him, it did not shock.
For him, Ischade's door opened, and Ischade came out and stood on her porch, waiting.
"Come on," Stilcho said nervously, and grabbed Strat by the arm.
He needed no pull. He all but beat Stilcho to the porch steps; and held Stilcho's distance from her, who stood cloaked and dark and ominously frowning.
"Somebody waylaid my partner," Strat said. "Ischade, I'm asking you
-personal favor, if I've got any credit left. Tell me who and where."
"Where is Moria?"
"Guard custody. She's safe. She'll be fine. I'll let her go when I've got Crit, hear me? You want a favor out of us, we want one out of you. Fair trade."
"Fair trade," he yelled at her. "Damn-lit!"
"A remarkable day," she said. "So many people want favors of me. And magic comes so dear nowadays. You don't want me. You want a fortune-teller. A finder of lost objects. Surely you can find one down at the bazaar with the jugglers and the mimes."
"Don't put me off, woman, I'm not in the mood for your jokes!"
"You mistake me. Do you want my help?"
"Yes." Breath came short. "Dammit, I have to have it."
She turned her shoulder and the door opened wide. "Come in."
He mounted the steps, Stilcho treading behind him. Not like old times in this familiar room that was somehow the same and somehow more chaotic in its disorder and the litter. He was where he would have given a great deal to have been this morning. And now there was ice in his gut, because there was suddenly his partner's life on his hands, and Ischade's temper to deal with, that he had provoked, he, when it was Crit's life in the balance.
If Crit was still alive at all.
Ischade took the back of a chair and flung it, shoved the table back, rumpling a litter of cloaks, and simply sat down cross-legged on the floor, hands before her. Her eyes rolled back. Her lips parted.
And a light grew between her hands, spinning and spinning in a way he had seen once and more than once.
Like a small Globe of Power, whirling and staining her hands and her face and all the room with its cold glow.
He hunkered down with his hands clasped against his lips and waited, waited, because what she was doing was not the magic he knew in her, pyromancy and necromancy. This was another thing, a thing that was not supposed to exist.
"I don't find him on the surface," she murmured-no mummery, either; Ischade could talk and wield power at the same time, carry on a running dialogue while doing what would raise a sweat on many a talent in the Mageguild. "There's a far-seer over across town. I'll see. She's erratic. Sometimes she's right."
"For godssake, find him!"
"What-" Her eyes snapped shut and open again, present and shocked, as she clapped her hands together and smothered the light.
"Aaah!" Stilcho cried, and held his hands over his eyes.
Straton and Ischade exchanged a look then which understood something Stilcho did not.
"What is it, dammit?"
Ischade bit her lips and drew in her breath. "Nothing. Nothing need concern you." She gathered her skirts to rise. "I will find him. There's nothing I can do from here. We'll have to search out the trail. Stilcho." She gave him her hand, and he helped her to her feet.
"What is it?" Strat asked again.
But Ischade did not answer him. She flung her cloak about her and walked out the door, which had a disconcerting way ofopeningjust when it had to.
He was last out, and it shut behind them with a thump, as the gate swung open. Stilcho's horse shied and pulled at its tether.
The bay simply stood. And when he got there, Ischade was holding the reins.
"I'll ride behind," she said.
Old habits came back. He had his mouth open, and shut it. Useless, with Ischade. One did things her way, or one did not, and they might go to hell for all she cared; he wanted her help in the worst way, with a life at stake.
He rose to the saddle and cleared the stirrup for her. She rose lightly up behind and put her arms about him, too damn familiarly.
"Hyyyyaaa!" he yelled at the bay, and it wheeled about and might have unseated her and him; but not him, and damned well not the likes of Ischade, no such luck.
No chance of falling on the road, slick as the stone was. He laid his heels to the bay, and such was the uncertainty of the misty air and the echo off the buildings, sometimes it seemed like it was only Stilcho's horse striking the cobbles.
"My son," Nas-yeni said. It was safe to tell him that much. There were a lot of sons. There had to have been. "You killed my son. Threw him out like garbage." He sat cross-legged, close to his victim in the lantern light. "You, I'd like to take to the same place when I'm done with you. Maybe I will."
The Stepson never had said much, just took in his breath when Nasyeni got to work on him, and screamed sometimes, in what voice he had left, but the vomiting had left him with very little voice for screaming. He could still see. Nas-yeni had saved the eyes for last. And the tongue, that last of all. Right now it was the fingernails; and Nas-yeni pulled the needle, heated, from the little cooking brazier he had full of coals.
"Come here, Critias. Let's try another one."
Critias spat at him and tried to kick him, but there was panic in his face now, and that kind of hard-breathing sob a man got before he fell apart. Nas-yeni knew. He had practiced, before this.
There was panic in the attempt to scream, too. It was in the pace of things. Nas-yeni had studied these matters. Had done this service for certain of the gangs, who wanted something from one of their own. Rankans he had never touched. He had never risked himself. His mission was too holy, his revenge too important, to risk Rankan trouble. Just internal matters.
Never too hasty. Take one's time. Never let the victim get his defenses together either, or forget there was worse to come.
"He was seventeen, pig."
Slowly, through the afternoon streets, still in drizzling rain, the shops' business slow, the citizens who did find reason to be out on the streets moving about all muffled up in cloaks.
But no few stared at the sight of a Stepson with a black-cloaked woman riding pillion behind him, slowly and deliberately through street and street and street; and a one-eyed man beside them, where Stepsons had searched frantically all day, and rousted citizens and searched warehouses.
Perhaps it was the fey, dire feeling about them, that coursed through Strafs bones and set his teeth on edge.
"Wrong," Stilcho said softly, above the soft clip and clop of hooves on cobbles. "Wrong-"
"Is it me you see?" Ischade whispered. "Or else?"
"I don't know," Stilcho said hollowly, in a voice which itself could raise the hair's at a man's nape.
"Hereabouts," Ischade whispered. "Hereabouts. Steady, Straton. Don't flinch."
He felt something at his back-felt it, like fire and ice, burning through his armor, into his bones. And suddenly the horse whickered and gave a thrust of its hindquarters, skittering forward and taking an undirected turn into an alley, into a maze of balconies and rubbish and discarded barrels. It was crazed. It headed them up a nook and stopped, facing a dead end.
"Here," Ischade said.
'Where?" Blank walls surrounded them, windowless, doorless. Strat looked about them in desperation, and twisted about as Ischade slid down.
"The horse knows. It has the scent."
He dismounted and dropped the reins, drawing his sword, looking above them, for some window, any aperture.
The horse pawed the cobbles, put down its head and nosed the rubbish.
Above a hinged iron plate set in the cobbles.
"Damn," Strat said. "Damn."
And dropped to his knees and pulled at it with his fingers. It would not move.
"Bolted," he said. "Dammitall!" Desperation welled up in him.
Blue fire ran around the opening, down the hinges, dim in daylight. Metal grated.
"Now," Ischade said.
He pulled and it lifted.
And the sound, the half-human sound that came from somewhere in the depths, ran right through his nerves.
He did not stop. He saw the steps and he went, writhed his way through a hole too small for a man to take easily, down into the echoing dark.
"Stilcho!" he heard Ischade whisper urgently. He heard the slither of someone behind him, but another such moan wrenched at his gut. He felt his way down and down, one hand for the sword, one for the wall, his eyes straining at dark absolute except the little gray light that got through from the open trap above, and that fitful, with his partners leaning over it.
He heard laughter echoing through the vault, soft and awful, coming from everywhere.
And caught himself with his heart in his throat as his foot missed a step and he saved himself at an unexpected landing. There was a chain there. He grasped it and felt it to find the steps, descending again, till he heard the sound in front of him-
He felt ahead of him with his sword, probing the dark till it suddenly touched stone. He felt either side and found nothing, and, with his bare hand, in front of him, and felt a wooden door. He put his ear against it.
And pulled it open, carefully, carefully as dim lamplight spilled against his eye.
"... friend," he heard.
And a sound hardly human at all.
He saw a light, old columns, watermarked, a pair of figures low to the ground against a mound of dirt. He eased his way in, flexing his hand on his sword-hilt, hardly daring to breathe.
The damned hinge creaked. The man looked around.
"Haiiii!" Strat yelled, for what shock could do, and was halfway across the room before the man jerked Crit up by the hair and brought the point of a dagger right up under Crit's left eye.
"You want him blinded? Drop it! Drop the sword!"
Crit tried to say something Fool, probably And arched his back and struggled as the knife jabbed
Strat dropped it, and saw the man drop the knife and snatch twohanded at something in the straw beside him, but he was already moving, launched with all his strength and speed across that intervening space-
Crossbow Cut's Firing The bolt tore into him He spun with it, staggered and kept moving, clawing his way up again, tearing the dagger from his belt, hurling himself and the weapon missilelike against the man with the spent bow
He hit the man in the gut, he felt that, felt the rush of blood over his hand, the tumble of threshing limbs tangled with his as he went down with the bolt shocked by the fall and the dark closing around him
"I couldn't stop it," Stilcho said "I couldn't reach him-"
Ischade held up her hand, dismissal, absolution-whatever Stilcho would accept-and looked down at the carnage that spread blood through the straw
"Witch-" Crit said, or tried to say, looking at her through the one eye that still would work It came out a raven's croak And after so much else, he spat at her
"Gratitude Of course." Straton washer concern She tucked her robes away from the blood that was everywhere and felt of his back and his neck, where a pulse still beat The bolt had hit high The bad shoulder Again.
"Damn you," Crit whispered, "damn you to hell, let him be."
She touched Strat's face when Stilcho had turned him over He was bloody everywhere. He was half-conscious, and he tried to say something, but she touched his lips and his brow and put him to sleep She did other things too, and bent and kissed him on the brow and on the lips, bloody as he was
"Let him be, you damned ghoul'"
Somewhere Critias had found that much voice, and struggled to an elbow, to try to throw his body into her, if only that
She whirled and stopped him, her hand on his throat, and flung him back down, spat at again
But she restrained herself "He came after you He came to me for you But you will not remember that " She held him with her eyes only now, cut him free with the knife she drew from the dead man, then put her joined hands to Crit's face, and let the mage-fire flow, mending the eye, the hands, everything that might cripple a man "Sleep, Critias "
It was part of her curse and her talent, that mesmeric talent that could erase her very passage from a mind, make seeing eyes blind, create elaborate memories that had never been
Such, largely, had been her affair with Strat until she began to take risks, with Stilcho to die his deaths, assuage her needs, fulfill the curse
"Come," she said to Stilcho, taking him by the hand "We have Mona to see to Crit will take care of things " And drew Stilcho with her, hesitating at the last, bewildered, surely But she turned his face to her with a touch of her finger, and erased his memory of this place, before she led him up to the light
It was luck, surely, that a searcher spotted Strat's bay horse m an alley searchers had been down a dozen times that day, spotted the trap left up, and investigated, all on a hunch that had come on the man even to go down that often-searched alley Crit had run out of strength, dragging Strat's half-conscious weight toward the stairs, collapsing there in the dark with Strat damned near bleeding to death and the stairs yet to go.
After that it was horse litters to get them as far as the guard-barracks infirmary, Crit more exhausted and bruised and with cracked ribs that bandages could help, Strat the worse off of the two of them.
Strat, who had come through for him and done what he had done, before the damned IIsigi lunatic had had time to carve him up Strat, who had distracted the killer and taken the bolt, knowing he was going to take it, because that was the only way to get across that distance and knife the bastard that was going to cut Crit's throat.
Strat had had enough strength left m him to cut Crit loose And then fainted
Crit ought to have been in his own bed He was not He sat by Strat's, just holding onto his arm, thinking, damn, he would go to the witch by riverside, he would go down there and he would beg if that was what it took The sight of Strat deliberately distracting that bastard, deliberately taking the shot and still having it in him to aim true and hard-would haunt him, like the thing Strat had said when he managed, m his pain, to cut him loose-
"-damn mess, Crit, damn awful mess How'd you get into this^" It was Strat the way he had been Strat before the witch had got him. Strat his partner
And Strat did much the same thing when finally he came to and found him sitting there, with the candle all but a stub on the bedside table "What the hell," he said "I must've made it all night, didn't we?"