Book: Witching Hour
The room was fine wood and river stone with brocade hangings, and opened onto an entry hall with a winding stair. Fire danced in the marble fireplace and at the tips of a score of white wax candles, and off the gold cups and fine pewter platters and plates; while Moria, at dinner in her hall, gave it all mistrusting glances, not unlike the look she paid her brother at his end of their long table-for none of Moria's life stayed stable. The gold was a dream in which she moved and lived, irony for a thief: she felt constantly she should snatch the plates and run, but there was nowhere to run to and the gold was hers, the house was hers, far too great a possession: she could no longer run at all, and this condition filled her heart with panic. Her brother's face was a dream of a different kind across the candle glow-at one moment familiar; at another, when he shifted slightly or the light fell unkindly on the scars-she felt another wrench of panic, perceiving another thing which she had loved and which had tangled her up like nightmare and held her bound.
One part of her would have run screaming and naked from this place.
"Mistress." A servant poured straw-colored wine into her cup and grinned a gap toothed grin that shattered other illusions, for the dress was brocade and finest linen, if rumpled from neglect, the hair bartered and immaculate; but the missing teeth, the broken nose, the voice with its Downwind twang-beggars and thieves waited on them. They were clean and flealess and without lice-she was adamant on that, but on no other thing had she authority with them, except they did their job and did not pilfer.
The Owner saw to that.
There was a shout, a shriek of gutter language from the stairs: Mor-am leaped up and shouted back into the hall in terms the Downwind understood, and her soul shrank at this small sign of fracture. "Out," she said to the servant. And when the servant lingered in his dull-witted way: "Out, fool!"
The servant put it together and scuttled out as Mor-am resumed his chair and picked up his wine-cup. His hand shook. The tic was back at the comer of his bum-scarred mouth, and the cup trembled on its way and spilled straw-colored wine. He glowered after he had drunk, and the tic diminished to a small shudder. "Won't learn," he said, plaintive as a child.
A beggar watched the house, outside. Was always there, a huddle of rags; and Mor-am had bad dreams, waked shrieking night after night.
"Won't leam," he muttered, and poured himself more wine with a knife-scarred hand that rattled the wine bottle against the cup rim.
"Don't what?" He set the bottle down and picked up the cup, leaving beads of wine on the table surface, spilling more on the way to his mouth.
"I went out today." She made a desperate attempt to fill the silence, the silence of long hours imprisoned in this house. "I bought a ham, some dates Shiey says she knows this way to cook it with honey-"
"Got no lousy cook, big house, we got a one-handed thief for cook-"
"Shiey was a cook."
"-if she'd done either decent she'd go right-handed. Where'd She find that sow?"
"Quiet!" Moria flinched and cast a glance toward the stairs. They listened, she knew they listened, every servant in the house, the beggar by the gates. "For Ils's sake, quiet-"
"Swear by Ils now, do we? Do us any good, you think?"
"Run, why don't you? Why don't you get out of here? You-"
A door came open in the hall, just-opened, with a gust of outside wind that stirred the candles.
"O gods," Moria said, and swung her chair about with a scrape of wood on stone, another from Mor-am, a ringing impact of an overset cup that rolled across the floor.
But it was Haught stood in the hallway door, not Her, but only Haught, standing there with that doe-soft look in his eyes, that set to his well-formed mouth that betokened some vague satisfaction. A malicious child's satisfaction in startling them; a malicious child's innocence: she hoped it was nothing darker. The door closed. No servant was in evidence.
"New t-trick," Mor-am said. The tic had come back. The cup lay on the floor between them, with its scatter of straw-hued wine.
"I have a few," Haught said, walking to the side of the door where the cups resided on a table. He was well-dressed, was Haught, like themselves; wore a russet tunic and black cloak, fine boots, and a sword like a gentleman. He brought a cup to the table and wine poured with a whisper into the gold cup. He lifted it and drank.
"Well?" said Mor-am. "Well, do you just walk in and serve yourself?"
"No." There was always quiet in Haught. Always the downward glance, the bowed head: ex-slave. Moria remembered scars on his back and elsewhere, remembered other things, nights huddled beside a rough brick fireplace; bundled together beneath rough blankets; convulsed together in the only love there had been once. This too had changed. "She wants you to do that thing," Haught said, speaking to Mor-am. "Tonight." Sleight of hand produced a tiny packet and flung it to the table by the wine bottle.
"Tonight... .For Shalpa's sweet sake-"
"You'll find a way." Haught's eyes darted a quick, shy glance Mor-am's way, Moria's next, and flickered away again, somehow floorward: in such small ways he remained uncatchable. "It's very good, the wine."
"Damn you," Mor-am said with a tremor of his mouth. "Damn-"
"Hush," Moria said, "hush, Mor-am, don't." And to Haught: "There's food left-" It was reflex; there were times they had been hungry, she and Haught. They were not now, and she put on weight. She had drunk herself stupid then; and he had loved her when she had not loved herself. Now she was wise and sober and getting fat; and scared. "Won't you stay awhile?"
-Thinking of herself alone once Mor-am went out; and terrified; and wanting him this night (the servants she did not touch-her authority was scant enough; and they were crude). But Haught gave her that shy, cold smile that allied him with Her and ran his finger round the rim of the cup, never quite looking up.
"No," he said. He turned and walked away, into the dark hall. The door opened for him, swirling the dark cloak and whipping the candles into shadow.
"G-got to go," Mor-am said distractedly, "got to find my cloak, got to get Ero to go with me-gods, gods-"
The door closed, and sent the candles into fits.
"Ero!" Mor-am yelled.
Moria stood with her arms wrapped about herself, staring at nothing in particular.
It was another thing transmuted, like some malicious alchemy that left her strangling in wealth and utterly bereft. They lived uptown now, in Her house. And Haught was Hers too, like that dead man-Stilcho was his name-who shared Her bed-she was sure it was so. Perhaps Haught did, somehow and sorcerously immune to the curse attributed to Her. Mradhon Vis she had not seen since the morning he walked away. Perhaps Vis was dead. Perhaps the thing he feared most in all the world had happened and he had met Her in one of Her less generous moments.
"Ero!" Mor-am yelled, summoning his bodyguard, a thief of higher class.
The fire seemed inadequate, like the gold and the illusions that had become insane reality.
There was little traffic on the uptown street-the watcher at the gate, no more than that; and Haught walked the shadows, not alone from the habit of going unnoticed, but because in Sanctuary by night not to be noticed was always best; and in Sanctuary of late it was decidedly best. The houses here had barred windows, protecting Rankan nobles against unRankan pilferage, burglary, rapine, occasional murder at the hand of some startled thief; but nowadays there were other, political, visitors, stealthy in approach, leaving bloody results as public as might be.
It had begun with the hawkmasks and the Stepsons; with beggars and hawkmasks; priests and priests; and gods; and wizards; and nowadays murder crept uptown in small bands, to prove the cleverness of some small faction in reaching the unreachable; and striking the unstrikable; thus fomenting terror in the streets and convincing the terrorized that to join in bands was best, so that nowadays one went in Sanctuary with a mental map not alone of streets but of zones of allegiance and control, and planned to avoid certain places in certain sequences, not to be seen passing safely through a rival's territory.
Haught ignored most lines-by night. There were some foolhardy enough to touch him. Not many. He was accustomed to fear, and, truth, he felt less fear nowadays than previously. He was accustomed to horrors and that stood him in good stead.
He had been prenticed once, up by Wizardwall; and his last master had been gentle, for one of Wizardwall.
"Why do you stay?" his present teacher asked.
"Teach me," he had said that morning, with a yearning in him only the dance had halfway filled: he showed her the little magic that he had remembered. And she had smiled, had Ischade of no country at all: smiled in a very awful way. "Magus," she had said, "would you be?"
He had loved Moria at that time. Moria had been gentle with him when few had been. And he had thought (he tormented himself with the dread that it was not his thought at all, such were Ischade's powers) that it was well to please the witch, for Moria's sake. So he would protect Moria and himself: to be allied with power was safety. Experience had taught him that.
But deep in his heart he had seen that Ischade was nec-romant, not hieromant; that the lighting of candles and the stirring of winds were only tricks to her.
And he had breathed the wind and sensed the power, and he was snared for reasons that had nothing at all to do with love or gratitude, for he was Nisi and witchery was in his blood.
Tonight he walked the streets and crossed lines and no one dared touch him. And something cramped in him for years spread wings (but they were dark).
He might have lived in the uptown house.
But he took the other way.
The sound of the river was very close here, where the old stones thrust up through newly trampled brush. Squith shivered, blinked, caught something darker than the night itself in this place unequally posed between two houses on the river.
"Squith," a woman said.
He turned, his back to an upthrust stone.
"No respect?" she asked.
He took his hand from the stone as if he had remembered a serpent coiled thereby. Vashanka's. All these stones were; and he would not be here by any choice of his.
"Moruth-Moruth couldn't come. 'S got a c-cold."
"Has he?" The woman moved forward out of the dark, dark-robed, her face dusky and all but invisible in the overhang of sickly trees. "I might cure him."
Squith tumbled to his knees and shook his head; his bowels had gone to water. "S-sent me, he did. Respectful, he is. Squith, he says, Squith, you goes and tells the lady-"
"Me lord does what you wants."
"He may survive his cold. It's tonight, beggar."
"I go tell him, go tell him." Squith made it a litany, bobbed and held his gut and sucked wind past his snaggled row of teeth. He had a view of a cloak-hem, of brush; he kept it that way.
He scrambled up, scrabbling past thorns. One tore his cheek, raked his sightless eye. He fled.
Ischade watched him, and forbore spells that would have urged him on his way. Roxane was at home tonight, not so far away. Thorns regrew. Snakes infested the place. Burned patches repaired themselves with preternatural speed.
A beggar sped toward the beggar-king Moruth. A black bird had landed in Downwind, on a certain sill. And Squith came. Moruth had a cold, and languished in mortal cowardice.
But Moruth had met something one night in a Downwind alleyway that mightily convinced him where his interests lay.
"Go to Roxane," she had whispered in Moruth's unwashed ear. "Go to Yorl, to whatever wizard you choose. I'll know. Or you can promise beggars they'll be safe on the streets again. At least from me. From other things, perhaps. Or at worst they'll be avenged. When a bird lights on your sill-come to Vashanka's altar on the Foal. You know the place."
A nod of a shaggy head. The beggar-king knew, and babbled oaths of compliancy.
Wings fluttered nearby. She glanced up where the dead branches overhead gave rest to other shadows, inky as her robes. A messenger returned.
It was a familiar room, one they had used before and had rather not use again; but it was Vis they had, and Straton operated under certain economies these days-not to let Vis see too much; and not to let Vis be seen.
Vis glared at him, between two Stepsons-real ones- who had brought him to this attic unbruised. So one reckoned. Vis had a ruffled look-smallish and wide shouldered and dark, and with a look in those dark eyes under that shag of hair that said he had as lief kill as talk to them.
That was well enough. Straton had killed a few of Vis's sort, in this room, after they had been useful. Vis surely had the measure of him and of this place. There was outrage in that stare and precious little hope.
"You had news," Strat said. "I trust you-that it's worth both our time."
"Damn you. I came to you. I sent for you-I thought I could trust you-if they told you any different-"
"News," Strat said. Outside, on the stairs, a board creaked. But that was the watch he had passed. He sat down in the single chair at the single table which, like the ropes on the wooden wall, had their uses. Mradhon Vis stood there between two guards, all disarranged-they would have found a knife on him, at least; maybe a cord; seldom a penny, though Vis sold himself to at least two sides. Jubal's. Theirs. Gods knew who else. Hence the guard. Hence the forced meetings. The streets were quiet, too quiet. There had been nothing on the bridge but one one-eyed, halfwit beggar. Nothing stirring anywhere on the street outside.
"Get them out of here," Vis said.
"You want to talk this over, or just talk. Vis? You got me here. I've got all night. So have they."
Vis thought that over. So he had run his bluff and made his point. But he was not stupid; and knew where his remaining chances lay. "I get paid for this."
"One way or the other."
"There's rumor out.. .got something coming down."
"Not sure." Vis came closer and began to lean on the table. Demas moved to stop him. Strat held up his hand and Vis stayed unmolested. "Something-I don't know what. Nisi squads-they've got a big one brewing. Heard talk about something down at the harbor. Uptown at the same time."
"What's your source?"
"I don't tell that."
"Huh." Strat rocked the chair back, foot braced "That so?"
"Word's out they've got help. Understand?"
"The Nisi witch?"
There was long silence. Vis stayed where he was. Sweat was on his brow.
"Something got your tongue?"
"I'm Nisi, dammit. She can smell-"
"Roxane might help you. Might not. I don't think I'd shelter with that one. Vis."
"Word's out she's looking for revenge. The harbor- some move there. That's what I heard. Heard someone's going to move there, hit the Beysibs; maybe warehouses. Death squads. I don't know whose. But I know who pays them."
Strat let the chair thump down. "Don't leave town, Vis."
"Dammit, you're going to get me killed-you know what they'll do, with you bringing me in here?"
"You go on making your reports. If anything comes down and we don't find out understand? Understand, Vis?"
Vis backed away.
"Let him go," Strat said. "Pay him. Well. Let him figure how to get himself clear. Tomorrow. Whenever. When I'm clear. When this is proved one way or the other."
"You want a partner?" Demas asked.
Strat shook his head and gathered himself to his feet. "We've got difficulties. Stay here. Vis, mind you remember who pays you most. You want more-you tell us... right?"
Vis gave him a sullen look-not greedy, no. It was an invitation to a final meeting-more demands. And Vis knew it.
"I'll see to it," Strat said to Demas. "I don't think anything will happen here. Just keep him off the streets." He took a cloak from the peg by the door, nondescript as other clothes they kept here. The horse he rode was the bay, not nondescript, but it would serve.
"You're going to Her."
He heard the upper-case. Turned and looked at Vis, who stood there staring at him.
"You met the one she's got?" Vis asked. "She's finally got a lover she can't kill. Fish-cold, likely. But she's not that particular."
Strat's face was very calm. He kept it that way. He thought of killing Vis. Or passing an order. But there was a craziness in the Nisi traitor. He had seen a man look like that who shortly after set himself on fire. "Be patient with him," he said. "Don't kill him." Because it was the worst thing he could think of for a man with such a look.
He left then, opened the door onto the dark stinking stairs and shut it behind.
The footsteps thumped away below, multiplied; and Mradhon Vis stood there in a gray nowhere. Tired. Cold, when the room was far too close for cold.
"Sit down," one said.
He started to take the chair. A foot preempted it. The other Stepson leaned on the table. It left him the floor.
He went over to the comer, liking that at his back more than empty air, braced his shoulders, and slid down against the wall. So they all sat and waited. He did not stare at them, not caring to provoke them, recalling that he had tried that with their chief and recalling why he tried-a dim rage of sympathy for a fellow fool.
She. Ischade. It took no guesswork where the Stepsons would look for help when Roxane was on the move. Where that one would look for help, where his thoughts bent. He had kept a watch on Straton-for the pay he got from other sources; and he knew. That was a man infatuated with death, with beating it day by day. He recalled it in himself; until the day he had learned death's infatuation with him-and that put a whole different complexion on matters.
Fool, 0 Whoreson. Fool.
Sanctuary's enemies ringed it round and, with the border northward cracking, Ranke went suicidal as the rest. The very air stank-autumn fogs and smokes; the fevered river-wind found its way through streets and windows, sweet with corruption; and there was no sleep these nights. There was nowhere to go. Part of Nisibis had slipped through the wizards' hands; but Nisi gold. Nisi training still funded death squads throughout Ranke-not least among their targets were Nisi rebels like himself. It was desert folk moving in Carronne; Ilsigi in Sanctuary port; gods knew where the Beysib came from, or what really sent them.
He knew too much; and dreamed of nights, same as the Stepson dreamed: the Stepson's cause was tottering and his own was dead. And the river-wind got everywhere in Sanctuary, sickly with corruption, sweet with seduction; and promised - promised -
He had tried, at least. That was the most unselfish thing he had done in half a year. But no one could save a fool.
There were houses in the uptown more ornate than their own. This was one, with white marble floors and Carronnese carpets and gilt furnishings; a fat fluffy dog of the same white and gold that yapped at them until a servant scooped it up. And Mor-am thought hate at the useless, well-fed thing, hate at the servant, hate at the long-nosed fat Rankan noble who came waddling from his hall to see what had gotten past his gate.
"I've got guests"-the noble wheezed (Siphinos was his name)-"guests, you understand...."
Mor-aro sucked air and stood taller, with a drawing of one eye, while in the comer of the good one he spied Ero spying out the other hall beyond the archway. "I tell Her that?"
"Out." Siphinos waved at the servants, fluttering Mor-am toward a door, the accounts room: they had been there the last time. Siphinos closed the door himself. Ero stayed outside.
"You were to come after midnight-only after midnight-"
Mor-am held up the packet; and the pig's face and the pig's eyes suddenly had sobriety and a furious red-cheeked dignity, amid all his jowls. Mor-am gave him back his own one-eyed stare and handed it over, watched him examine the seal.
"It'll be coming here," Mor-am said. "That's the word comes with this. They got their eye on you. Death squads move uptown tonight. You hear me, man?"
"Whose? When?" The flush went hectic. A sweat glistened on jowls and brow. "Give me names. Isn't that what we pay you-"
"Word for Torchholder this time. Get the word upstairs. Tell him-look out his window tonight. Tell him-" he tried to recall precisely the words he had been primed with, that Haught had told him a dozen days ago-"tell him he'll understand then what the help we give is worth."
No shrieking, no cursing, not the least cracking of the fat man's fury. Ilsigi dog, the look said, wishing him to heel. And fearing the bite he had.
"He knows," Mor-am said, neat and measured, and gods, gods, let the tic stay still. "He can tell the prince-g-govemor-" Damn the twisting of his face, the drawing of his mouth. "He'll know where his safety is. He'll pay the cost, whatever we ask. We got our means. Tell Kittycat look out his window too."
Alarms were on their way, plainclothes and moving with deliberation, not panic, word back to the command post, to various places and offices. And Straton rode alone now- imprudence, perhaps; but a full troop of Stepsons clattering up the riverside slow or fast, plainclothes or not-drew too much attention. He slouched like a drunk, kept the bay to an amble, and sweated the entire last block. He had sent his three companions off the other way. Foalside was a mixed kind of street, wide near the bridge and well-used; but higher up the Foal, buildings crowded close and the street became a rough track with only the remnant of ancient stones for pavings. Trees grew untended on the Foalside in a widening lower terrace by the road. Weeds crowded close on that margin. And crouched like some lurking aged beast- a cottage occupied the upper terrace, the northern house on that black river, a tiny place like the southern one-both of which had been singed, both of which had been swept over with fire enough to blacken the brush and kill the trees that grew hereabouts. But nowadays neither showed traces of burning; and both stood just as before, surrounded with brush, and smelling that wet, old smell of places long untended in the dark, in the starlight, with old trees lifting autumn (unscarred) branches at the sky.
Ischade maintained a fence and hedge: her house clung to its strip of river terrace and faced beyond its yard and gates a row of warehouses, at a little respectful distance from the ordinary world, distance which the wise respected one of those places in every town, Strat thought, which had that dilapidated look of trouble and contagious bad luck.
Ischade's territory. He had been in it for the length of the solitary ride. And no squad he knew of dared that little strip of street or the warehouses near it.
Strat slid down, looped the reins over the fence, and opened the ridiculous low gate. There were weeds, gods, everywhere. In so short a time. She grew nightshade like flowers.
His pulse quickened and his mouth went dry as he came up to the paint-peeled door and reached out to knock, half-expecting it to do the thing it had done before and swing open.
It opened, without his knock, without a sound on the other side. And he was facing not Ischade but the freedman Haught, Nisi-complexioned and dressed far too well and standing there as if he owned the room.
"Where is she?" Strat asked, vexed.
"I don't give out her business."
Something warned him-about that line that was the threshold. On the brink of hasty invasion, of drawing his sword and prying it out of pretty-lad, alarms went off. He stood slouched, hands on hips. "Stilcho here?"-as if that were what he had come for. He let his eyes focus however briefly on the dim room beyond. He remembered that place, that it always had more size than seemed right. And there was no sign of the man.
"No," Haught said.
The pulse was up again. Strat looked the ex-slave in the eyes-remarkable: Haught never flinched, and had before. Rage ticked away, a twitching of his mouth; gods, that he was reduced to this schoolboy standoff, eye to eye with a jealous slave who was-dangerous. No wilt, no bluster. Just a cold steady stare, Nisi and Rankan. And he thought of Wizardwall, and things that he had seen.
"Try the river," Haught said. "It's a short walk. You won't need the horse. You're late."
The door shut, with no hand on it.
He caught his breath, swore, looked back where his horse stood and snorted in the dark.
It was not a place for horses, down on Foalside, beyond the house, where the brush grew thick along the shore.
Fool, something said to him. But he cursed the voice and went.
"Siphinos's son." Molin Torchholder cast a misgiving look at the door and shrugged on his robe with the sense of something gone badly amiss. He waved a hand at the servant who fussed up with slippers while another stirred up the fire. "Move. Move. Let the lad in."
"Reverence, the guards-"
"Hang the guards-"
"-want to search the boy, but being nobility-"
"Send him in. Alone."
"Less reverence and more obedience. Would you?" Molin drew his lips to a fine humored line that betokened storms. The servant gulped and fled doorward, returned, and dropped the slippers face-about for him.
"Reverence," the flunky breathed, and sped.
Molin worked one slipper on and the other, fought off the interventions of the other servant who drew near to fuss with his robe. Looked up suddenly as the fellow desisted. "Liso."
"Reverence." Siphinos's lanky blond son made a bow, all breathless, all courtesies. "Apologies-"
"It should be good, lad. I trust it is."
"It isn't. I mean, not-good." The boy's teeth began to chatter. "I ran-" He raked at his strawthatch hair. "Had my father's guard with me-"
"Can you get to it, lad?"
The boy caught his breath and, it seemed, his wits. "The witch-ours; she says-"
Straton shoved the brush aside, more and more regretting this imprudence. He was not ordinarily a fool. Such was his foolishness at the moment, he reckoned, that he was not even capable of knowing for sure he was a fool; and that alarmed him. But the Nisi witch on the prod-that sent alarms of its own crawling up his back.
You're late, the slave had said-as if Ischade had put it all together long before; as she would if that kind of alarm was ringing, audible to mages, wizards, and those wizardry had set its mark on-gods, that he tangled himself in the like, that he picked Roxane for an enemy or the vampire for an ally. He could not even remember clearly which way around it had been; except Ischade had agreed in Sync's case when there had been no other way, and in doing that, marked every Stepson her ally and Roxane's enemy.
Fool. He heard Crit's voice echoing in his mind.
Vis knew. The jolt of that caught up with his befogged wits and he hesitated on the narrow path, hanging by one hand to a shallow-rooted bit of brush, with one foot over black water and empty space. Vis knew where he was going.
Down the river, beyond the lights of the bridge, a flash of lightnings showed, and, gods knew, with Roxane stirred up, that lightning-flash set a panic in him. He hauled himself back to balance on the narrow path and kept moving.
Faster and faster. No way to go now but straight on. His messengers were dispersed, alerting what wizard-help they had; one had headed the Prince Governor's direction, if he got that far. There was no calling back anyone for rethinking.
Another lightning-flash. A sudden wind swept down the black, light-rimmed chasm of the river, stirring the trees on the terraced shore. Brush cracked beneath his step on the eroded brink, beneath the sickly trees-she would know his presence, Ischade would; she had her ways. Had said once that she would know when she was needed, which intimation he had seized on with the misery and hope of all fools: so he was here, trusting a witch no sensible man would have sought in the first place-ignoring common sense and rules-gods, Crit-Crit would swear him to hell and back-What was wrong with him?
He feared he knew.
He came on an ancient stone, thrust away from it to fight the incline of the path. Hard-breathing, he climbed the treacherous slope and crested the top of it.
And if she had been an enemy, a simple shove could have pitched him backward into the Foal. He caught his balance and she gave him room there among the autumn-dead trees, on the river-verge with its strange stones. The night went away for him. There was her face, what she wanted, what she might say, nothing else.
"All sorts of birds," she said, "before this storm."
It made no sense to him; and did. "Roxane-" he said. "Word's out she's on the move-"
"Yes," she said. Her face met the starlight within the confines of her hood. There was quiet in her, perilous quiet, and every hair on him stirred with the static in the air. "Come." She took his hand and drew him upslope, following the path. "The wind's getting up-"
"Not your doing-"
"No. Not mine."
"Vis-" He caught his balance against a waist-high stone, recognized where he was, and jerked his hand off it. "Gods-"
"Careful of invocations." She caught his arm to pull him further and he stopped, involuntarily face-to-face with her in the starlight: he saw no detail beneath the shadow of her hood, but only a slantwise hint of mouth and chin; but he felt the stare, felt the smooth cool touch of her fingers slide to his hand. "That's been days gathering. Are you deaf to it?"
"Deaf to what?"
"The storm. The storm that's coming... .The harbor, man. What if some great storm should break the seawall, drive those hulking Beysib ships one against the others, stave their timbers, sink them down-Sanctuary'd have no harbor. Nothing but a sandbar founded on rotting hulks. And where'd Sanctuary be then?-Death squads, riots, none of these things would matter then. The war's no longer at Wizardwall-no longer leagues away. There are ways to use the power for more than closing doors."
He was walking. She had him by the arm and the voice compelled, wove spells, though brush raked his face and he forgot to fend it off.
"I've interests here in Sanctuary," said Ischade. "It's been long since I had interests. I like it as it is."
Fool, said Crit's voice at the dim, dim, back of his mind, past hers and the rising sough of wind.
"You didn't have to hire me," she said. "Not for Roxane. That matter's free."
"I can get help." He recalled his wits and his purpose. "Get a message down there, move those ships to open water-"
"She'd eat you alive, Stepson. There's one she won't. One she can't touch. Make a little haste. You're late. Where did you go? The house?"
"The house- When-sent for me? Is Vis yours?"
"He has bad dreams."
He blinked. Balked. She drew him on. "Damn," he muttered, "could have had a horse-it's the other damn side of the bridge- We've got to pass under the checkpoint, dammit-"
"They won't notice. They never do."
They walked, walked, and the wind whipped the trees to a roar. Thunder boomed. Late, she had said; waiting on him, and late-
"For what?" he asked, out of breath. "For what-waiting on me?"
"I might have used Vis. But I don't trust him any longer- at my back. There'll be snakes. I trust you're up to snakes-"
The brush opened out on the terrace edge that became a rubble slope. The bridge was ahe'ad, the few shielded lights by the bridgehead still aglow on the Sanctuary side of the Foal. Rocks turned, clashed beneath hastening steps slipped and rattled.
They'll not see us. They never do-
He was out of breath now. He was not sure about Ischade, whose hand held his and urged him faster, faster, while the wind whipped at her cloak and threw his hair into his eyes.
"Damn, we're too late-"
"Hush." Nails bit into his hand. They passed beneath the bridge. He looked up and looked forward again as a rock rattled which they had not moved, faint in the wind and the river-sound.
A man was in the shadow. Strat snatched his hand toward his sword, but an outflung hand, a black wave of Ischade's cloak was in the way: "It's Stilcho," Ischade said.
He let the sword fall home again. "More help?" he asked. If there had not already been a chill down his back, this was enough: Stepson, this one was... one of the best of the ersatz Stepsons they'd left behind; gods, one he'd well approved. Haunting the bridge-side. There was something appropriate in that; it was from this place the beggar-king had got him.
Dead, Vis swore. Stilcho had died that night.
Thunder rumbled. "Closer," Ischade said, glancing skyward as they passed out of bridge-shadow, three, where they had been two. Stars were still overhead, but in the south there were continued lightnings and rumblings; winds shivered up the Foal, roared in the trees downriver, on the further, southern, terraces.
Beside him now, a dead man walked. It looked his way once that he caught, with its one remaining eye, its ungodly pallor. It went swathed in black, except the hood; a young man's dark hair-Stilcho had been vain-still well-kept. Gods, what did it want-camaraderie?
He turned his back to it and slogged ahead, up the slope. Ischade drifted wraithlike before him, shadow-black against the shadow of the brush up-terrace, till she was lost in it. He struggled the harder, heard Stilcho laboring behind like death upon his track.
Lightning cracked. He crested the slope and Ischade was there, at his elbow, seizing on his arm.
"Snakes," she reminded him. "Go softly."
In the roar of the gathering storm.
The wind whirled in the window and the room went dark with the death of candles, except the fire in the hearth. "Reverence," the servant said, a small voice, insistent; below, in the perspective from the hill, all Sanctuary had just gone dark, what lights there were whipped out in the face of that oncoming wall; the very stars went out. There was for light only the flicker of the lightnings in the oncoming mass of cloud.
He turned at the tug on his sleeve, saw in the dim firelight there was left the apparition of a palace guard, disheveled, windblown. "Zaibar?"
"Reverence-two of the patrol came back-someone hit them. Some could have gotten through; they don't know. They lost another man on the way back-"
"Reverence-" Another guard came pelting in at Zaibar's heels, breaking past the servants. "There's fire in the Aglain storehouse-"
"That's one." Kama let fly and missed the sulking figure. Wind carried the shot astray; the dark figure dived past, along the quay where fishing boats rocked and thumped together. The dark hulks of the Beysib ships leaned drun-kenly and strained at cables out in the channel, out of reach from this side. "Damn!" She slid down the roof with the wind whipping at her braids and hit the rain-channel with her foot, stopping her descent on the trough of the roof. Lightning cracked. 'Too exposed up here. Arrows no good- Get down, get down there."
She slid and bumped down to the stack of boxes, one-handed by reason of the bow, caught herself again, leaped down and came up on her feet-
-face on with a clutch of Beysib.
"Out of here!" she yelled, waving with the bow. "Out, move it-"
They jabbered their own tongue at her. One broke away; the others did, like so many mice before the fire, running down the docks-
A second shadow thumped down beside her, her partner, with an arrow nocked. "Lunatics," he said. Riot on the docks and the Beysib ran straight into the middle of it, fluttering and twittering-
A Beysib dropped. One of the snipers had scored with something; other Beysib reached the water, peeled out of garments like thistledown leaving pods-pale bodies arced toward the water-one, and three, and five, a dozen or more.
"Look at that!" her partner said. For a moment she did nothing but look, thinking it suicide (she was no swimmer, and the water was wild and black).
"Their ships-damn, they're going for their ships-"
They had guts-after all: Beysib amazed her; Beysib seamen, risking their lives out there.
The wind roared, making the trees creak. A limb cracked and fell; the smaller debris of old leaves and wind-stripped twigs rode the cold edge of the gusts. Left to right the wind blew here, about the ramshackle dwelling whose lights gleamed balefire red through the murk.
Here they crouched, here in this snake-infested outland, in the wind's howl and the lightning's crack.
"Vashanka's gone," Strat protested, his last faith in any logic shredded in the wind. "Gone-"
"The lack of a god also has its consequence," Ischade said. Her hood had blown back. Her hair streamed like ink in the dark. Lightning lit her face, and her eyes when she turned his way shone like hell itself. "Chaos, for instance. Petty usurpers."
"We going in there?" It was the last place Strat wanted to go, but he had his sword in hand and the shreds of his courage likewise. Inside might be warm. For the moment they lived. And here his bones were freezing.
"Patience," said Ischade; and holding out her hand: "Stil-cho. It's time."
There was silence. Strat wiped his tearing eyes and turned his head. The steady flicker of lightnings showed a masklike face set in horror. "-No," Stilcho said. "No-I don't want-"
"You're essential, Stilcho. You know that. I know you know the way."
"I don't want to-" Childlike, quavering.
And he tumbled down, facedown, a dead weight that collapsed against Strat's side, utterly limp. Strat flinched aside in a paroxysm of revulsion, held his balance on his sword-hand, and blinked in the sting of wind and leaves. "Dammit "
But Ischade's voice came to him through the dark: "... fmd him, Stilcho, find him: bring him up-he'll come. He'll come. He'll come^-"
He made the mistake of lifting his head, looking up just where a thing materialized-a thing ribboned red and nothing-surely-ever human; but he knew its face, had known it for years and years.
The murdered Stepson wavered, assumed a more human aspect-Janni the way he had been, before the Nisi witch had him for the night.
"She's yours, Janni." Ischade's distant whisper. "Stilcho. Come on back. Ace-"
His war-name. He had never told her that.
"Get her," Ischade whispered. "I'll hold-hold here. Get her. Bring it in on her...."
Janni turned, like an image reflected in brass; moved like one, jerking and indistinct. Another presence stirred, more substantial: Stilcho staggered up, clawed branches for support. Strat moved, stung to be the last. "Janni-dammit, wait!"
But nothing could catch that rippling thing. It paid no heed to winds or brush. Strat thrust out his arm and forced his way through brush, passed Stilcho's efforts-crashed against a projecting branch and broke it on his leather jerkin, a crack swallowed in the wind.
Thorns raked him; the wall of the house loomed in front of him, and Janni was far ahead, diminishing as if he ran some far shore, then vanishing within the dark of that river-stone wall, with its oaken door.
"Janni!" No more need of silence. Janni had lost to the witch before-was alone in there, past barriers-gods knew what-"Janni!" He hit not the door but the shutters, shattered the rotting wood and plunged through in a roll over shattered pieces, into furnishings-blinding light. Shock lanced through his marrow, flung him flat. His head hit the floor, his sword was-gods, where?-his fingers too numb to feel it; but Stilcho was in, scrambling past him, hacking at something-
Muscle rolled over him, live and round and moving. He yelled and thrust it off and lurched for his knees-snake, the motion told him; he yelled and hacked at it, and it looped and thrashed-not the only one. He rolled to his knees and chopped at the looping coils for all the strength that was in him. Stilcho got the head off it: it had begun to scream.
Coils passed through Janni. He just kept moving. And Roxane-the witch Roxane, amid the room-in the midst of that place-stood black in the heart of fire; a pillar of dark, whose hair crackled with the light that came from her fingers and her face. Her hand lifted, and pointed, and the fire leaped. Janni went black himself against that light, a shadow, nothing more. The fire began to wail.
Strat tried; he flung himself forward.
"Get back!" It was Stilcho grabbed him, on some brink he could not see, beyond which was a fall that took them both, down, down, into dark-
But Janni had his arms about the witch, and lightnings wrapped them and crawled up and down the pair of them like veinwork, till the thunder rolled. The light riddled him, shredded his darkness, blew both of them in tatters; and sucked inward then with one deafening clap of thunder.
Darkness then. The stink of burning.
"Janni? Janni? Stilcho-'
The wind fell. Fell so suddenly it was like death; with one great crack of thunder that must have hit something near.
The ships started pitching on a sea gone chaotic, no longer heeled by the wind, no longer straining at the cables. "Gods!" Kama breathed.
"-hit somewhere riverside," the servant said, superfluous as ever. Molin Torchholder clenched the sill and felt his heart start labored beats again.
"I'd say it did."
But where, he could not tell. There was a blossoming of flame in that far dark, not the only one. There were burnings here and there.
None large yet.
And nothing had gotten through.
It was nothing he wanted to remember. It was most of the walk back before he could hear; and most of the long walk he staggered off on his own, reeling this way and that like a drunken man. But sometimes Stilcho had his arm about him, sometimes She had his hand...
... There was fire, another sort of fire, safely in a hearth. The smell of herbs. Of musk.
Ischade's dusky face. She knelt beside his chair, by her fireside, by the tame light. Her hood was back. The light shone on her hair.
"Janni-" he said. It was the first thing he remembered saying.
"Stilcho brought you," Ischade said. She leaned aside. Wine spilled with a liquid, busy sound, the pungency of grapes. She offered him the cup. And he sat still.
The mind took a long time collecting images like that. He sat staring at the fire and feeling the ache in all his bones.
"Dead. He's dead, leave him dead, dammit-" thinking of Niko, of Niko's grief, half-of-whole. It would break Niko's heart. "Isn't a man safe dead?"
"I'd have used others. Other souls were-inaccessible. His wasn't. To reach him took very little, in that cause. Stilcho's gotten adept at that two-way trip." A step drew near. Haught's face loomed. "You can go," she said, looking up at Haught. "See to the uptown house. They'll want reassuring."
Haught padded away, took his cloak. There was brief chill as the door opened and closed again. The fire fluttered.
"Roxane," Strat said.
She put the cup into his hand. Closed his fingers on it. "Power has its other side. It's not well to be interrupted- in so great a spell."
"Is she dead?"
"If not, she's uncomfortable."
He drank, one quick swallow after the other. It took the taste of burning from his mouth. She took the cup, set it aside. Leaned her arm and head on his knee like any woman gazing into the fire. And turned her head and looked up at him. A pulse began, the chill about him thawed, but the world seemed very far away.
"Come to bed," she said. "I'll keep you warm."
She shut her eyes. For a moment he was cold. Opened them again and the room grew warm and the pulse grew in all his veins.
"You've always mistaken me," she said. "Vampire I am not. You think it's what I choose. I don't. But some things I can choose."
Her hand closed on his. He leaned down and touched her lips, not caring, not caring to recall or think ahead. It was the way he had gone into that house. Because Ranke might well be through. And he was, soon; and time was, he had learned in his own craft, no one's friend.
"Damnedest thing," Zaibar said, wiping at his soot-streaked face, and a moment's consternation took him. His eyes refocused. "Begging pardon, reverence-"
"Got a dozen dead out there we've counted so far, just up and down the streets. Dead men-throats cut, some; stabbed-"
"The ships, Zaibar."
"A few timbers stove, but the Bey's folk, they got to them-the bodies, reverence-a dozen of them."
"In Sanctuary," Molin said with a pitying look at the Hell-Hound, "we notice a dozen bodies come dawn?"
"Two at Siphinos's door; one at Elinos's. Three at Agal-in's.... They're Nisi. Every one."
"Hey," someone yelled. "Hey-"
He was in the street; his horse under him. He blinked at the sun and the ordinary sights of Sanctuary and caught himself against the saddlebow, staring down at the man who had stopped his horse, a common tradesman. There was a buzz of consternation about. Dimly Strat understood the horse had gotten to some mischief with a produce cart. He stared helplessly at the old man who stared at him in a troubled way; Ilsigi-dark, and recognizing a Rankan lost and prey to anything that might happen to a man by day in Sanctuary streets.
Shingles lay scattered on the cobbles; a tavern sign hung by one ring; debris was everywhere. But trade went on. The bay horse was after apples.
He felt after his purse. It was gone; and he could not remember how. He would have flung the man a coin and paid the damage and forgotten the Wriggly entire; but they were all round him, men, women, silent in mutual embarrassment, mutual hate, and mutual helplessness.
"Sorry," he muttered, and took up the reins and got the horse away, slowly down the street.
Robbed-not of the money only. There were vast gaps in his memory-where he had been; what he had seen.
Roxane. Ischade. He had come back to the river-house. The memory got so far and stopped.
He touched his throat on reflex. You've always mistaken me, she'd said.
The sun was up. Tradesmen went bawling their wares, the housekeepers were out dusting off the steps.
He would have ridden from the gates and saved himself; but like the bay horse he had learned patterns and was caught in them, kept to the path and to duty.
I promised something, he thought in a chill, half-recovered memory.