Book: Winds of Fortune
Clouds of steam. The horse stood still while Strat washed it down with rags and slopped water onto the stableyard dirt-a completely ordinary horse except the thumb-sized patch on its rump where there was simply -nothing. It angered Crit that Strat spent excessive time on the creature, but, unlike Critias, acting commandant of the Stepsons, Companion to the God-his partner Straton had no fear of the undead.
The horse had died under him-once. It had come back from Hell for him. It had rescued him from enemies. Straton returned that loyalty.
That small patch was the necessary Flaw-in a creature Hell had given up. But it in no wise flawed courage, or faith.
Better than men, Strat thought. Better than the love of women, who had proven, overall, faithless.
Critias had saved his life multiple times, too; and Strat had returned that favor, such as he could-but Crit was Crit-the ultimate pragmatist. There was only one creature in all the world that a man could believe in to such an extent, and trust absolutely; it stood with eyes shut-enjoying the warmth of life-
After the cold of Hell.
It came to Strat that he had known too much of that cold himselfthat if he had any hope for himself he had to shake free of such influences.
There had been, above all, a woman-a sorceress who haunted his dreams.
Be rid of her' Crit said.
But one's dreams did not forget ...
A quiet tread scuffed the dirt of the yard, stopped, at Strat's back. He looked behind him, saw his partner standing there fists on hips, saw Crit frowning at him.
"You're on duty," Crit said. "Dammit, Ace-"
Strat thought back to the morning, recollected a promise-to spell Gayle at a problem uptown, night duty, when they were so damned short-handed. He dropped the sponge into the bucket and faced Crit with a shake of his head. "Sorry," he said. "I'll get up there right now."
Crit walked closer and blocked his path to anywhere. "Strat-"
"I forgot, all right?"
Crit hit him on the shoulder, held that same shoulder, compelled an attention he did not want to give. "Forgot?"
"I said I forgot. I'm sorry." He moved to break away, but Crit tightened his grip, jerked him around again for a look straight in the face.
He dropped his eyes. He had no idea why, only that Crit's stare was unbearable-no matter that Crit had pulled him out of situations a sane man would not contemplate, no matter that he owed this man who was closer than a brother- That look on Crit's face wanted more from him than he had left in him to give, more of his soul than he was going to have again in his life, and though he knew it-Crit had yet to accept that fact.
"That's the bad shoulder," Strat said, deliberately pitiful; and tried with a shake of his head simply to go his way, and not to fight with Crit.
But Crit slammed him around against the corner of the stable. "Where in hell is your head?"
Another man he would have taken into bare-handed combat. But he owed Crit too much, and there was too much he'd fouled up on, like this, too much Crit cared about he didn't care about at all.
"Are you seeing her?" Crit shouted into his face.
"You know I'm not," Strat said. "I'm in barracks every night!"
Crit grabbed him by the throat. If Crit strangled him that was all right. He hardly cared. That was the trouble- That was what maddened Crit.
Crit shook him, Crit slammed him back against the post. Strat only stared, short of wind, and said, "Better if you hadn't pulled me out of that cellar ... Better you'd left me there."
In some part he hoped Crit would give up finally, let him alone, simply let him coast into oblivion.
Or hit him and give him cause-some cause, any cause to fight for-
But Crit, who had killed more men than anyone could remember, some of them piece by piece and slowly, looked at him as if he was feeling that kind of pain himself-as if someone hurt him and made him crazy, and he loved that someone too much to do what he would do to anyone else in the wide world who crossed him as far as Strat had.
"What's the matter with you?" Crit asked quietly. "What in hell'sthe matter with you?"
One dreamed, that was all.
"I'll kill her," Crit said.
Strat grabbed Crit by the sleeve, hard. Maybe it was a measure of how far he had come that it was Crit's danger he thought of most acutely. It was all right for him, he didn't matter, he had stopped mattering; but Crit, he thought, Crit had no logical part in this, and Crit, who had come alive through coups and assassinations and battles, had no chance at all against Her. "Crit," Strat said. "Crit, I'm going to the damn palace. I'll be there, I'll be there, all right?"
Crit didn't say anything. That scared him, and got his attention, when damned little else could.
"I'll get up there," Strat said. "I'll do the damn duty.-Crit, I'm through, you hear me? I'm through with her, I'm not going back, I promise you."
Crit still said not a thing.
That scared Strat-more than any threats Crit could have made.
Night, more than night, in days of slow business and unseasonable weather, an exhausted, weary town-those hours when even the inns, even in Sanctuary, began to give up their last customers and throw out the drunks-and the bar help went home, some two by two, some not ...
A woman screamed in an alleyway near the Vulgar Unicorn, a small yelp of a scream, cut off of a sudden, followed by a grunt of pain-the Unicorn's barmaid knew where to put an elbow and a heel. But the man was big and he was gone on krrf. A thump! followed, then a slither-of a light body hitting a brick wall and slumping to the trash at the bottom of it.
The rapist liked that fine. He liked it so well he grabbed the woman up by the hair and kicked her, which it took, besides the krrf these days, to get him excited-
But in the interval of a kick and the body hitting the pavement, the rapist heard another step on the dusty cobbles, a soft, stealthy step behind him.
He let his victim lie, facing-it was incredible to him-a cloaked, aristocratic woman, here, in these streets, in this alleyway.
He heard his earlier victim crawl aside, scrabble in the trash trying to escape, but this hooded, this incredibly elegant slut-amazed him-
Amazed him so much he was not expecting the sudden crack of a brick across the back of his skull ...
Ischade faced the bloody, panting barmaid across the body-in a desire both dark and frustrated by the assistance. "Thank you," Ischade said with irony, wrapping her cloak about her for the sensuality of it; and shuddered at what it stirred. "Do you live in this alley? No? I'd seek lodgings on the Unicorn's street-if I were in your place. Too far to walk -at this hour."
"Who are you?" the barmaid asked; it not being incredible to her, perhaps, that a woman in silk and velvet knew her nightly route. Perhaps it frightened her. Perhaps it told her she might have escaped the rat to run straight-on into the cobra's sliding coils-
But: "Go home," Ischade said. "Don't linger here. What's one more body-in Sanctuary?"
The barmaid caught a breath, looked at Ischade a moment longer, as if the spell touched even her-
It might. The curse was never specific. Only Ischade's personal taste was-and Ischade felt nothing but frustration and a rising anger at the girl's very existence, and at her courage-in a world where help was scarce, and no one cared. Perhaps she saw Ischade for what she was. But few did. Few-hearing of her-understood. People looked for vampires.
"Go," Ischade whispered, and the barmaid turned and ran, limping, for the end of the alley.
Ischade followed her-hoping-in case of some other trouble that might be drawn like predators to a crippled fish. She saw the young woman haul herself up a rickety steps in the alley next, saw the door shut; and eventually saw dim light from the shutter seams, the woman having, after some effort, Ischade supposed, gotten a lamp lit.
One remembered such necessities. Dimly. Long ago.
She had her own necessities-deadly, urgent necessities, since Strat had left-since she had broken the ties that held him. She had lives to hunt, to sustain her own; and she had her preferences in victims.
She walked on her way, walked the roughest areas of Sanctuary, that region south and harborward of the Unicorn. It was a thief who accosted her finally-
"I've nothing for you," she told him, having some conscience, at least, or having acquired one from her associations. He was very young, he had offered her no violence-and perhaps there was something in her manner that warned him, made him the least bit anxious: he looked behind him and to either side, as if suspecting some sort of ambush in which a woman obviously out of place in these alleys-might be the bait.
He seemed to decide otherwise then. He whipped out a knife, advanced a step or two as if she might leap at him-or someone might pounce from the shadows. He demanded money.
It was the knife that decided the question. She put back her hood, she caught his eyes and said, in a low voice, "Are you sure you want what I do have?"
The robber hesitated-the knife gleaming uncertainly in the dark. "A whore," he said, "a damned whore-"
"I know a place," she said, because now she had a look at him he was handsome, if he were washed, and he had a wit that might save his lifea few days, at least; and longer, if he would listen.
He came with her to the house on the riverside, that house which passers-by somehow failed to see, or, seeing, failed to notice-a house lost in hedges, behind a low iron gate, behind overgrown grounds and half-dead trees-
She wanted light-and light blazed from candles and from lamps, bright, so bright her young thief flung up his knife-hand to shield his eyes -he had never put the weapon away-and swore.
Taz swore again once his eyes had cleared and he had gotten a look at his surroundings, an untidy tumble of silks and satins, garish fabrics, costly furnishings-in a house which had ways of looking much smaller outside than in.
A nook and a silk-strewn bed-she never made it, only tidied it occasionally. She dropped the cloak like a spill of ink on the bright rugs, the busy fabrics. She was all in black, a necklace like drops of blood-a dusky skin, straight hair black as night, eyes-
Eyes that every man in his youth knew were waiting for him, somewhere, somewhen, if he was man enough... .
He forgot about his thieving. He forgot about everything except this woman, never even took offense that she insisted he go into the back room and bathe- One could hardly take it amiss, since she offered him a gentleman's clothes, the kind of perfumed soap the gentry used, and trailed a finger along his neck and said, softly, smelling of foreign spices and musk-
"Do everything I tell you and you'll be here more than tonight, you'll be here many, many days and nights-do you like that idea? You won't have to steal again. You'll have everything you could want-does that appeal to you?"
He could not believe this was happening. He only stared at her, with the soap in his hands, and said, "Are you a witch?"
"Do you think so?-What's your name?"
It was dangerous to answer that with witches. He had heard so. He looked into her eyes and found himself saying truthfully: "Taz. Taz Chandi."
Her finger traced his chin. "How old are you, Taz?"
He said, lying, knowing she was at least older, but he had no idea how much older, "Twenty-two."
"Nineteen," she said, and he knew he had been dangerously foolish to lie: he was afraid then. But she kissed his lips gently and sweetly, and left him to his bath and his anticipations ... which were for the first time since he was twelve-outlandish and hopeful and full of delicious dreams ...
Til he heard the front gate squeak and, with thoughts of returning husbands or ogres or Shalpa only knew what sort of interruption in this lovenest, hastily dressed in what the lady had provided.
Crit trod the garden path most warily, with an eye to the front door. He was sure the vampire knew he was there. He had his hand on his sword for all the good it would do, tramping through the weeds, under dead trees, up the rickety steps.
The door opened as he had thought it would, since he had been unblasted by magics getting this far; it opened the instant he trod on the last step, and she came out-wrapped in black and glaring at him with the warmth of an adder.
"What do you want?" she asked. "Am I not through with Stepsons?" He kept his hand on his hilt, like a religious talisman. He said, "Evidently you aren't through with my partner. I'm here to ask you to leave him alone."
He was not a man who found asking easy, and all but impossible when it sounded like empty-handed begging-because he had no negotiating points and there was not a damned thing he could do to the bitch, not a damned thing he could do to save his life if she took a notion to do to him what she had done to Strat, and so many, many others.
In point of fact he knew he was a fool to come here, but he had gone in under fire for Strat before, and more to the point, Strat had gone in for him; at times he had wanted to beat Strat senseless for his foolishnessonce he had even done it; and once he had thought he had a chance of shaking Strat back to sense. But Sanctuary had dealt hard with them both, as it dealt with everyone who came here. It was a sink that drank down lives. And Strat's seemed to be the price it wanted.
So he came here, unarmed as witches and wizards reckoned such things, and looked up at the witch, and said the only thing he could say:
"Let him go."
Ischade held her door in her hands, a shadow against the lamplight slanting past her and reflecting off the boards. She said, "I have, Crit."
"The hell!" He came up that last step onto the porch, where he towered over her. "Stop playing games'"
"I assure you." She left the door standing half-open and came closer, holding her cloak about her, black velvet about bare shoulders, a whisper of silk, a waft of musk. He was sure she was naked under it-some other tryst, some other damned soul. "Leave! Now!"
"Name your price. A favor. A disappearance. I'm not particular. You want some pretty boy, dammit, 1*11 buy you one, just leave my partner alone."
The shapely chin set, eyes hooded like a snake's. "What about you, Crit?"
He glanced away quickly, but not quickly enough.
"Look at me," she said, and he had to, knowing it was a slide over the brink, knowing there was no way out. Her hell-burned eyes had no bottom, except Hell itself, and there was no looking away. But he could still want to be off the porch, down the walk, and out the gate, that was the bad part-he could still want escape.
"Bargain?" he said. When he had begun to deal with her, maybe he had known that. Maybe that was why he had ditched Strat and come here, stupid as it was, because he was out of answers, and he finally cared about something again, and hated his helplessness.
"Get out of here," she said, and shoved him without laying a hand on him. "Get out of here, dammit!"
He caught his balance at the bottom of the steps, he caught his breath there, staring up at cold rejection of himself, his offers, his stupid hope of weaseling himself and Strat both out of this situation-a hope of escape for both of them ... in a day that Ranke was falling and they were posted here behind the lines, no use, no future, no damn use to anyone including themselves. Strat could not leave this city. Take him out by force and he would escape and ride back to it, that was how bad it wasand he had known that, had not objected overmuch when Tempus had left them here in command of the rear guard.
He had hoped to solve this-cure Strat and get him away from this woman.
"Out!" she said, and that voice went through brain and bone.
He heard the door slam before he got to the gate.
He had thought about killing her-but that thought had completely fled him when he stood in front of her. His hand had been on his sword all the time, for all the foolish good it had been: he had not even been able to think of it in that context when he had been close enough. He flung open the low iron gate, heard it clang shut behind him.
"Ma'am," the boy said tentatively, with his knife in hand- With a thief's knife, a gentleman's clothes; and a staunch resolve on a fresh-scrubbed face. "M'lady?"
Ischade gazed at this chivalry in the light and the heat of the candles, heat so intense it made sweat run, light that blinded and blazed whiteand a fool of a thief stood there with this mooncalf look and a knife for their mutual defense-
"He could spit you like a pig," she spat at him. "That man's the garrison commander, that's a Stepson, thief!"
One was my lover. One was.
Gods, she thought, dropping her eyes against her hand, shaking her head, I sent him away. I broke the spell, dammit, Isethimfree, there's no more spell, dammit to the hells!
But it was not Crit she was thinking of.
It was an anxious voice. The lights had dimmed. She looked at her young thief and saw still the scrubbed, frightened face-the knife clutched in a white-knuckled fist.
"What are you doing with that?" she demanded.
He looked less and less certain-even what he was doing here. He tucked that hand behind him, said diffidently, "In case he was comin' in here, m'lady."
"What, to defend me?"
He shrugged, twitched the knife-arm shoulder, looked abashedly at the floor and up again.
She held the cloak about her, she beckoned him closer, she looked at a face that looked so very much different than her unkempt thief.
A pretty boy, Crit had said. When she wanted Strat, who was not a boy, who was most certainly not a boy-
She touched his face, worked a small sorcery, brushed the hair from his brow. He tried to put his arms around her, jerked her close-
She pushed him away, both attracted and repelled-for all the wrong reasons. She said coldly, "There's clothes, there's money, take what you want and get out of here. I'll call you on another night. For your own sake-listen to me now."
His jaw set. He prepared some foolish argument, some protestation of his manhood, his impatience.
She waved an arm and the door banged open, disturbing all the candles and the lamps. She let go her spell ...
He stayed for nothing. He ran. She heard the gate, let him past her wards, and banged that shut and the door, clang! boom! after him.
She was shaking after that. She dropped her head against her hand and tried to forget the lust that was her curse, that at times and by the pull of the moon was stronger than reason, stronger than love-
The desire that killed-killed everyone but Strat. Strat had found a way to survive, until things changed, until Strat turned moody and sullen and the anger grew in him-the anger to invoke the curse and kill him.
So she had driven him away, given him back to Crit, given him his freedom from her ensorcelments-
Crit, tonight, came here to offer stupid bargains, with no knowledge whether she would even keep her word-Crit was not lying, he could not be lying, under those terms, there was still some attraction; and that fool boy, the thief-with a knife, ready to use it if Crit had burst through the door-
For what, she asked herself, for what, except male stupidity?
For what reason in hell, except a man would not hear No... .
For what reason, gods, except Strat was a fool and Strat did not understand her.
Like the boy who thought he was going to be a hero. Like Strat-who did not know how to lose and did not know how to retreat from what he thought was his right and her obligation to him.
Who-gods!-had been with her too long, had been too close to her not to know what she was and who should have, for once in his stubborn, prideful life, run the way the boy had.
But Strat did not understand that.
She looked up at the ceiling, at the blaze of lights that glittered in her eyes.
And stopped what she was feeling, shut it off cold, because love was the killing-urge, it was all mixed up with tenderness, it wound all through it, because when a man intimate with her started making up his own mind what he wanted, and once frustration became force, that someone died; and it was pleasure and it was anger at a fool and it was pain and revenge all wrapped together.
"Damn!" she cried, to any god who might be listening, and to the thrice-damned and very dead mage who had set the curse on her. Lights blazed about her, candles unconsumed.
Like her endless, deathless life-no less now than it had been a hundred years ago ...
And so many, many dead to her account - . .
Crit came quietly into the stableyard of the safe-house, threw the reins over his horse's head, and led the horse through the gate, quietly still, figuring Gayle must be upstairs-not that the commander needed an excuse for late-night exits and entrances-whether from some night business at headquarters or a late night on the Street of Red Lanterns; they had all been working odd shifts, they were still cleaning up paperwork and dealing with files, and whatever sleep Gayle or Kama was getting was hard-won.
He walked the horse quietly to the stable door, and turned suddenly, with a reach at his sword, because of a step alongside the stable in the dark, a large shadow.
The big man said, "Strat hasn't gone uptown, he's gone to see Randal."
"For what?" Crit demanded in his frustration. He had no difficulty believing Strat had gone off somewhere-Randal was hardly where he would have guessed, but he had no reason to doubt this uninvited visitor. Shepherd-came and went like a ghost, him and his outmoded leather armor and that big clay-colored horse of his, with the panther-skin shabraque; reins of woven grass, the scent of the marsh about him-a spook for sure if Crit had ever seen one-came in when the Riddler had left with most of the forces, and talked about Debt and the Honor of the Corps, and things that the last guard was too out of sorts to hear these depressing, final days... .
Shepherd shrugged, casting a large shadow in the stableyard lamplight as he stood aside. "Your partner's in trouble. But you understand that. Make no bargains with the witch."
"What do you want?" It bothered Crit; it had been bothering Crit ever since this man had showed up, the way this man moved in claiming to be a mere, assumed so much, came and went as if the rules meant nothing to him; and why in hell Crit let him get away with it Crit himself had no idea-
Except there was a great deal in this man that reminded him of the Riddler.
"Go to Randal," Shepherd said, and when Crit started back to the stable, caught his arm. "Be surprised at nothing. Your time here is coming to an end."
"Hell!" Crit stalked off a few paces toward the stables and stopped abruptly to ask, "Whose time? Who told you?-What's Strat up to, dammit?"
But Shepherd was gone.
Ischade had left the river-house, walked the pre-dawn streets of Sanctuary with no destination in mind-thinking about Crit, thinking about what existed between those two, and what a fool Strat was-
She would have made him commander over Sanctuary-she might have, if Tempus had not stepped in to redeem his man, and put Crit in command in Strat's place.
She would have made him more than that, if that had not happened;
she would have made him more than a lord of the Rankan Empire-if Tempus had not stepped in, if there had not been the war, and if there had been some hope of Strat continuing to be for her what he had been-
But all those things had turned dangerous, and impossible; and she found herself tonight, having rejected Crit's desperate move, having thrown her young thief out of the house, walking the warehouse district near the river and toward that street uptown that led to the hill-
And thinking of things that might have been-in these strange days of peace in the ravaged streets of Sanctuary; in these strange days of war in the very heart of Empire.
She found herself on the high street, in the midst of which a house stood with boarded windows and bars on the doors-
And downhill-and over a street or two, in an area not so rich and not so poor-there was a house she also knew ...
"What is it?" Moria asked, when Stilcho waked sweating in their bed, in this fine house they afforded these days. "What is it?"-holding to him; but he would have none of it-some times he would not, some nights he could not.
This time he sat, naked and shivering on the side of their bed-and stared into the dark. "Light the lamp," he asked Moria. "Light the lamp!"
And Moria, born Ilsigi, born a thief and a daughter of thieves in this city, scrambled for straw and lamp and the coals in the hearth, to produce that little flame that shed light on the modest rooms and drove away the visions of Hell-
Because her husband (so she called him) had died once in the hands of the beggars of Downwind-and all of him the witch had gotten back but his eye, wherefore the scars on his body and the scars on his face.
That eye was still in Hell, where he had been until She had called him back; and when there was no light to distract the living eye it sometimes, even yet, looked into Hell-
Where he saw the dead in their torments, and saw demons, and saw the demon that still lurked in Sanctuary, demon of all the wicked desires that had ever existed in human hearts ...
"Stilcho," Moria said, putting her arms about him, pulling the sheet up around him, against the night chill. She kissed him and he was still cold-
Because She had used him for her emissary to Hell-so many times. He had been Her lover, and died as her lovers must die; and always she had had that mystical string on him that drew him back to life ...
"She's calling me," Stilcho whispered, reaching for Moria's arm, holding to Moria's warmth, when the chill of the grave got to him.
Moria held to him. And all the time that they had lived, they, Ischade's fugitive lover and her fugitive servant, on Ischade's stolen goldhad been poised on a knife's edge; and now-now he waked in sweats and heard Her calling him very clearly:
I need you. She was saying. Come to me... .
"I hear her too," Moria whispered. "Oh, gods, no-don't go!"
Haught, the ex-slave, the dancer, the mage-stirred in his sleep too, in a barred boarded house-stirred at the side of the creature with whom he shared his exile-got up from bed and walked to those windows, feeling -something finally, be it only the threat of Hell and death.
He looked out from those windows and saw, with a most curious frisson of fear, the black-cloaked shadow standing in the street-
Saw that hooded figure facing him and looking-he felt that stare go straight to his gut-with full cognizance that he was watching Her at that moment.
"Mistress," he whispered, longing for the safety She might offerarrogant Haught, who had been Her apprentice. Her most disobedient apprentice. He found himself shivering-but it might be the cold-and with a certain weakness in his joints-it might be hunger; it was only sorcery had sustained him in this boarded-up mansion, past the stores buried in the cellar, which were long since depleted.
It seemed to him-he hugged himself, shivering more and more in the predawn chill-that he heard her voice speaking to him very clearly, telling him if he would serve her again-he might be free.
And magician and sorcerer that he had been, he was only a prisoner now, of something much worse. It was not nails and boards on the windows that kept him in-it was powerful wards; and it was not Tasfalen he lodged with, but an undead housing something that had been Roxane the witch-a presence which made terrible demands of him and which bided asleep, but not asleep, not ever quite asleep; it drank down vials of dust he found for it, of its shattered Power-globe-and it only grew more malevolent and more bitter and more dangerous and demanding.
He longed for Ischade's house. With all his heart.
I'm here, he prayed, looking out that shutter, hoping that She would hear that thought as She heard so much that passed in Sanctuary, I'm more than willing, mistress, if only you'll forgive me, mistress, I'll not make those mistakes again ...
He caught his breath, the impression was so strong-of anger, of summons-he trembled, he began, against his own better knowledge to consider which of the doors and windows he might pry open to admit Her-
To admit Death Herself-or willingly to go to Her... -
Zip poured blood over the stones of the little altar he had made-blood he had let from his own veins, there being no better to hand. He had served the Revolution, he had let blood enough of Rankan overlords, he had done all manner of things and killed more Rankene pigs than he could remember-but it had not brought forth his god, the god that was going to liberate the town. The Revolution had died-or won-or things had simply changed beyond a need for the Revolution or a hope for its success. Somehow things had gotten muddled for him, because he had begun sleeping with a woman of the enemy-Kama, Tempus' daughter, of all people, on the outs with her father, but still one of the foreign Enemy-
Perhaps that was the reason his god failed to answer him. He had found the old stones of this altar on the river-shore, and set it up there during the witch wars and fed it during the Revolution; and he had moved it to this sacred street-stone by stone, until he began to build again in the Street of Temples, well, if not on the street, at least in an alley next the great shrines of Empire and of the quisling Ilsigi gods-
And he had failed at first to find the shape of the ancient altar-he had piled up stones only to see them tumble, or to have pieces left over.
But a stranger had come along at the depth of his frustration and told him-told him without hesitation!-what stone to place on what stone, and lo! the altar had taken shape, firmer than before-
Zip knew that this stranger, with the clay-colored horse, the woven reins, this strange, old-time warrior-had to be special-was perhaps numinous, because the hair still rose on his neck when he thought about it. He made his offerings, he hoped for another such manifestation-
But the stranger appeared elsewhere in the streets of Sanctuary, these days. Zip had seen him by plain daylight, the stranger had turned up riding in the lower town, by noontime; or around the Garrison by moonlight; sometimes one saw him riding by the river-shore, in the night-as if he were searching for something lost in the marsh-
The stranger's name was Shepherd, so the rumor was in the streets, and once Zip had seen him stop at that house in the Shambles where the Stepsons lodged, and ride through that low gate that let him into a certain yard-
Where the Stepsons kept their horses in a ramshackle stable.
That association was what gnawed at Zip.
He poured blood from his own veins over these ancient stones, hoping for an Ilsigi god. Even an Ilsigi devil would do-something of Sanctuary's own people and not the occupation forces.
And something, finally, finally glowed within the crevices of the stones -glowed and winked out again.
"What do you want?" he cried, kneeling on the dirty cobbles, pounding his fists on his knees. "What do you want me to do?"
There was silence, and in that silence he heard the slow, hollow ring of a horse's hooves out on the Street of Temples-in this hour just before the dawn. For some reason that leisurely advance seemed ominous to him, the most dangerous, the most fatal thing in the world, and he knew that rider would stop and that shadow would loom in the alley-opening, saying to him, in a deep voice.
"Boy, what are you praying to?"
"I don't know," he confessed, on his knees before that mounted shadow, and felt cold, cold as the dead in the White Foal.
"Boy, what are you praying for?"
"For-" But revenge was not it, not exactly; and it was dangerous, to say something too quickly or to say it wrong. Zip sensed that, he sensed he was in the greatest danger he had ever been in, that-
God, he slept with a Rankan woman, he had started out wanting revenge on Rankene pride, started out sleeping with her to screw some enemy woman and ended up sleeping with her because it was someone to sleep with, and somehow he got to looking for things from her, like-the way she wasn't at all like the rest other kind, she was good, she could be rough as a dockside whore and gentler than his dreams^ she became-an addiction with him, an unpredictability, he never knew what she was going to be, or why he felt the way he did-but it excited him, she did, and he had to have her-
He was filth before his god. That was all he was, and the questions shot straight to his heart.
But a second time: "What are you praying for?" the stranger asked-it was Shepherd himself. There was a watt of chill swamp air about him.
"I don't know," Zip confessed, and knotted his fingers in his hair, head bowed. "I just don't know anymore ..."
"Never go to a god," Shepherd said, "with preconceptions."
"Pre-what?" He squinted up at the mounted shadow, saw the red gleam of the eyes of the panther-head on the horse's chest.
"I'll make it easy for you," Shepherd said. "Wrongs set right. Problems solved. Lives set in order. Is that what you want? Go to the market: fortune-tellers charge a copper for promises like that. Much cheaper than blood."
The stranger was making fun of him. Zip stood up with his hand on his knife, with all the old, foolish anger rising up in him. A man could take so much, but not laughter at his expense.
"Wrongs set right," the stranger said in a deep voice. "But what if you're one of those wrongs-what if that anger of yours and that hate of yours had no Rankans to turn to? Can you imagine your life then?"
He could not. He did not know where he would be or what his life would be for, if not Ranke; and Ranke was falling on its own, without any need of him ...
"You sleep with Ranke," Shepherd said. "You need Ranke, boy, you need it to live, because when it's gone, there'll be nothing left of you. You've had your answer. Quit praying."
Zip's hand fell. He stood there in that cold that came of hearing the truth and knowing everything Shepherd said was true. He was still standing there when the rider shouldered past him, slow clatter of hooves down the alley and into the dark of the shrines on either
The light was gone from his altar. The very air felt cold. And the stones of that altar suddenly tumbled apart, scattering across the cobbles of the alley.
Taz the thief stood on the corner of the river-road in the dawn, sullen and out of sorts and watching the house the way he had been watching when Ischade had come out of it and when she had come back and when other men had come to it-well-dressed men, mostly, and one woman and one limping beggar. Taz failed to understand, but curiosity gathered his courage toward the dawn, never having seen her return-he came up to the iron fence himself, and laid a hand on that gate in the hedge. He yelped in pain, recoiled with a shivering cold up that arm. But the gate, glowing blue as Shalpa's ghostfire, unlatched itself and swung inward on its own. Taz stood there somewhere between shock and a terrible compulsion to walk that path and, thieflike, prudently, something whispered to him, persuasive as temptation to sin, to reconnoiter the place-himself in the fine clothes she had given him; and with all these other finely dressed folk-did he not belong here? Why was he excluded?
Come ahead, something said. come ahead, come ahead-
He took the first step, he took the second, not really wanting it, but he felt his hand brush the gate, felt it leave his hand-
He walked the path and ducked aside into the weeds and into the hedges, where a crack in the shutters gave forth a seam of light into the brush; he worked his way most carefully into this hedge against the house and rose up beneath the window, carefully, carefully to peer into the crack-
Into a room where the witch sat in the glare of countless candles-on the floor, on a bright array of discarded silks. Her face was white, her eyes were shut, her strange guests stood as shadows in the background of this cluttered room.
It was witchcraft he spied on, Taz was sure of it, it was most real and dangerous witchcraft, of a sort he had seen in the skies and in the streets of Sanctuary in recent years, when the dead had walked and lightnings and whirlwind had warred over the harbor... .
A thief knew when he was out of his league. Taz was easing backward in the brush when there was a sudden clap of wings, air against his neck, a raven's harsh cry-
And the shutters banged open in his face, inside and out at once, setting him face-to-face with a startled man: he swore, Taz yelped, and Taz was off through the bushes and for the only way out he knew, the front gate-
But it clanged shut and glowed blue and perilous in front of him, and he whirled around at the creak of the front door behind him.
He walked toward that door-not that he wanted to, but his body moved, and the distance between him and the porch steps grew less and less.
A man stood in that doorway, a one-eyed man who met him as he came up onto the porch, who set his hand on his shoulder and said, half sadly, "You should have run when you had the chance, boy."
But he went inside. He had to. He took his place with the others, a bearded, foreign man, a beggar with the remnants of handsomeness-a Rankene lady, the pale, one-eyed man who had snared him on the porch... .
She had never moved. She sat in the midst of this goings-on with her hands open on the knees of her black gown, her eyes shut, her lips moving in a constant murmur.
"Randal-" Strat felt uneasy on the steps of the Stepson-mage's apartment, uneasy in being in the mage-quarter in the first place, in an area where Rankan personnel were less than welcome, especially these days.
He felt uneasy in the second place because one had no knowledge what sort of wards an anxious mage might set; and Randal, with his enemies, had every right to be anxious.
And he felt that unease in the third place because he had had enough of dealing with wards and with witchery in all its manifestations, and he was disgusted to find his knees all but shaking as he stood on Randal's second-story landing, under a night sky and in a rising wind, and hammering away with more noise than a body ought to have to use to raise a mage out of sleep.
"Randal, dammit, wake up!"
A dog barked. Strat looked over the rail and down, and saw a black cur in the shadow down there, next the bay horse-
Someone sneezed, and instantly where the dog had been was Randal, in a night-robe and bare feet, wiping his nose.
"Damned allergies," Randal said. "I thought-"
"Thought what?" Strat came hastily down the steps, no little annoyed for the public scene.
"Thought-I smelled an associate of yours about you."
That was not what Strat wanted to hear. No. He grabbed Randal by the arm, hauled Randal into the privacy against the bay horse's side, and said, "I want you to come with me. I want you to talk to her... ."
Randal sneezed again, wiped his nose with the back of his hand. "For what? What good can I do? The woman's doing nothing against the Guild, and alone-"
"Talk to her," Strat said, holding his arm so tight Randal flinched and physically began to pry loose his fingers. He realized that and let go, took a grip on Randal's shoulder and kept that lighter, with a mortal effort. "I can't sleep, I don't rest-"
"I don't think it's sorcery," Randal said.
"What do you mean, 'don't think it's sorcery'!" Another effort to keep his voice down and the grip gentle. "Man, I'm forgetting things, I don't know where I am half the time, I think about her like I was some damn fool kid with his first lay-"
"It's not witchery."
"Damn if it isn't!"
"Has it dawned on you. Ace, that all of that equally well describes a man-in love?"
Strat stood there with his hand on Randal's shoulder and stared at him before he gave him a shove against the horse. "I came to you for help, Stepson!"
"That's what I'm telling you. I know spells. I know bewitchment. You've had it, but you haven't got it-that horse has, but you haven't." Another sneeze. "She cut you loose. The ties that've been on you-aren't. But you keep thinking about her. You can't sleep. You can't eat. You wake at night thinking about her, wondering who she's with-"
"So what else is it-but love?"
"You're useless!" Strat said, and picked up the bay horse's reins. "I'm going to have it out with her!"
"Don't!" Randal said, catching at the reins as Strat threw himself into the saddle. "Strat!"
But Strat pulled up on him, reined aside, and the bay took out at a run -with a black dog loping along: Strat saw it when they turned the corner and the dog got into the lead, running right under his horse's feet.
The bay horse shied up then, screamed and shied as the dog jumped at its throat, and Strat felt-
-nothing under him. Simply nothing stopping him from flying through the air and landing dazed on the cobbles.
He scrabbled for his knees, bad shoulder stunned, knee and hip paralyzed-he fell on his face again, somewhere between pain and numbness, and stopped caring whether he lived or died-because the horse was gone, and all there was in the world was Randal sitting on the filthy cobbles beside him, saying to someone-"I sent it away. I don't know if I should have done that-"
And Crit's voice saying; "You damn fool!"
As someone gathered him off the pavement and cradled his head in his lap-someone familiar, over a lot of years, someone who kept saying, "Ace, gods, I'm sorry."
The horse was gone-turned to air beneath him. It was the last gift she had given him. And it was gone. His friends took it from him. Or she did. There was only the taste of blood in his mouth.
She did not know why she did what she did-it was only the night, and the feeling of change in the wind, and the feeling of things slipping away from her. She murmured, though perhaps none of her folk could hear her, "Protection for my own is all I can do now. But that I do, as best I can."
She wanted her own with her tonight. Behind her closed lids she saw the dying of altar fires, she heard the stirring of gods in their shrines-she gathered her forces on this night and she wove spells to protect this place, such as she could-
Against all wisdom to the contrary-she drew her servants around her, revised the lines of her power-drew them from all over the city to protect them on this night: she felt Haught's battering at tlie wards that held him, felt the pleas he flung at her, like a moth battering at the glass-
But one face she saw more than all the rest, one touch she wanted most, and, dyed by a thousand murders and a thousand more black sins, she tried to stop thinking about him, telling herself no, let him go, stop the anger, stop the wanting-
He could be in Hell itself and she could draw him to her: pyromant, necromant, she could still raise the dead-singly and with effort, who once had summoned legions out of Hell's long patrol and set them to march against her rival-
She had lost a great deal-she had blown a great deal of her power away on the winds, had seen the dust of a shattered Globe of Power settle like a dream over Sanctuary, making mages of beggars and diminishing the power of the mage-born irrevocably: if that were not so she could lift her hand, raise the lightnings, change the wind-take the failing Empire, make herself that power that would shake the world.
As it was, the Empire would fail and fall, the greatness would slip away from Ranke, and the marbles crumble and the decline, centuries long, bring new powers, new mages, new wizardry-
She was done with dreams of power. She let Ranke enter its long, long slide to destruction, she listened to the rising of the wind, the echo of that wind in empty fanes and altars, she said softly, ever so softly,
Knowing they would not meet again, even in Hell-her curse being immortality.
"Damn you!" Strat said, when they had gotten him onto his feet. But Crit held him there, in the cold, dusty light of dawn, a stinging wind skirling through the streets of Sanctuary, Crit had his arms about him, held him like a brother.
There was no sign of the bay horse. He ached from head to foot. His knee and his elbow were bleeding, and would stiffen.
"Get up on my horse," Crit said then. "We'll get you another."
He looked from one to the other of them in this beginning of dawnCrit and Randal,'and it was strange, as if having lost everything he had, he could feel so free-
So damnably nothing-left-to-lose-except Crit, standing there holding him on his feet, Randal supporting him from the other side.
He let them help him to the saddle, he let Crit and Randal lead him through the first stir of morning in the streets. He listened to Crit telling him how Shepherd had told him where he had to search, he listened to Randal saying there was something strange in this wind ...
Shepherd met them at the turning. Shepherd said-leaning on the saddlebow of the big mud-colored horse, and looking straight at them, "Our service is done. Time we were moving on."
A gust of wind rocked at them. A flash of light hit their faces. Crit's horse shied and stood with its ears back, Crit and Randal holding it while Strat held on-and whatever had been Shepherd became a burst of light, a grim figure on a dark horse; a rising whirlwind, and a boy's voice saying,
"Follow the Shepherd... ."
"Abarsis ..." Strat had no idea which of them had said it, or whether his eyes really remembered the figure in the light.
Follow the Shepherd. ...
Time we were moving on ...
Winds out of the desert battered at Sanctuary's shutters, swirled stinging clouds of sand and dust against a brazen sun.
Something fled shrieking on that wind, unbound-a witch's disembodied soul skirled three times about the towers of the Lancothis house, skimmed forlornly along the river and flew-formless and lost-before the gale.
So Haught reported, arriving wind-scoured and dusty at the riverhouse that day. It was a much-chastened Haught who kissed the hem of Ischade's black robe and begged shelter from this wind.
Ischade considered this contrition. "Don't trust him," Stilcho said coldly, Stilcho being at least the most privileged of her servants, and Haught's logical rival.
"I don't," she said plainly, and picked up her cloak and put it on. "Stay here," she said. "You'll be safe, at least, whatever happens... ."
She left then, took to the winds herself, and lighted in raven-shape by the city gate, where a sullen, closely wrapped crowd had gathered-a crowd through which she moved as a black-cloaked woman, willing no one to see her, or if they saw-to forget that they had seen; that gift she still had undiminished.
She came on the rumor Haught had brought-was there to see the last of the Rankene forces ride through the streets, out the gates.
They were very few-amazingly few, the crowd murmured, wondering if there were not more to come.
A handful of meres; the few remaining of the 3rd Commando; and last to leave, the Stepsons, Randal the mage; Critias ... with Strat beside him, on a tall dun horse, no banners, no haste. Strat did not even turn his head as he rode past, near enough she could have touched him.
The riders passed the gates, in blowing dust so thick it made shadows of them, made them nothing more than ghosts in the golden light.
For a moment the crowd began to drift-but one left the gate, one went out leading a mule, quickly lost in the dust. Some said it was another mere; some said it was one of the rebels-looking for revenge, perhaps, Sanctuary's last violence aimed at Ranke.
Ischade knew that boy-almost-man-a scoundrel named Zip, or some such, servant of a god inimical to her: she felt that presence strongly when he passed, before the crowd began to disperse.
After that was just the dust, just the ghosts of buildings in what should have been bright day, the hill lost in haze and dust, yellow sand skirling along the streets.
Roxane was gone, to heaven or to hell or whatever demon wanted her. The gods of Ranke deserted their shrines. Sanctuary was falling away from the Empire, the forces that had sustained Ranke were leaving and she might have followed them-but could not, not as far as they went, and not where the god might lead them. She was always a creature of the shadows, and of candlelight, and needed lives to sustain her life-
She cherished that one claim to virtue.