Glen Cook The Tower Of Fear
THE PLAYERS IN THE MANY-FACED GAME
Qushmarrah-The conquered city where events take place
Called veydeen by the Dartar tribesmen, the literal meaning of the word being
stone-sitters. Applicable to any city dwellers
Aaron Habid-A carpenter and war veteran
Arif-Aaron's older son
Stafa-Aaron's younger son
Raheb Sayed-Aaron's mother-in-law
Tamisa ("Mish")-Aaron's sister-in-law
Taidiki-Aaron's brother-in-law, now dead
Billygoat-Aaron's friend and co-worker, who caulks the seams in ships
Naszif bar bel-Abek-a metalworker and war veteran Reyha-Naszifs wife, Laella'sbest friend Zouki-Naszifs son
Nakar the Abomination-a sorcerer, now dead, who ruled
Qushmarrah in the name of the god Gorloch The Witch-Nakar's wife Torgo-aeunuch serving the Witch
Azel-a professional killer, talented and deadly. A man of many faces
Muma-innkeeper and associate of Azel Ishabel bel-Shaduk-professional criminaland child-taker
The General-Leader of the Living, the Qushmarrahan resistance to the Herodian occupation; khadifa (colonel or chieftain) in the quarter called the Shu
General Hanno bel-Karba-the Qushmarrahan national hero
Colonel Sisu bel-Sidek-the General's adjutant and heir, khadifa of the waterfront
Meryel-woman shipping magnate, supporter of the Living, and bel-Sidek's lover
Colonel Salom Edgit-khadifa of the Tro quarter, caught between greed and honor
Colonel "King" Dabdahd-khadifa of the Astan quarter, a bootlicker
Colonel Ortbal Sagdet-khadifa of the Hahr quarter, more gangster than patriot
Colonel Carza-khadifa of the Minisia quarter, a fanatic
Colonel Zenobel-khadifa of the Shen quarter, a fanatic
Hadribel-second-in-command in the Shu quarter
Desert nomads, mercenaries acting as auxiliaries to Herod's occupation forces
Yoseh-a young warrior just in from the desert Nogah-Yoseh's older brother,
leader of his band Medjhah-Yoseh's older brother Mahdah-member of Yoseh'sband, a cousin Kosuth-member of Yoseh's band, a cousin Juba-member of Yoseh'sband, an adoptive cousin Faruk-member of Yoseh's band, a cousin MelchesheydekYoseh's father, something of a rogue
Fa'tad al-Akla-called the Eagle, commander of the Dartar mercenaries
Joab-captain of Yoseh's company and an old friend of Fa'tad Mo'atabar-sergeantof Yoseh's company, related to Joab
Called ferrenghi by the Dartar tribesmen, the literal meaning of the wordbeing outsider, stranger, enemy. In contemporary usage specifically someonewhose allegiance lies with the imperial city, Herod.
General Lentello Cado-conqueror of Qushmarrah, now military governor andcommander of occupying forces
Taliga-General Cado's brother-in-law and batman
Colonel Bruda-Herodian intelligence chief in Qushmarrah
Marteo Sullo-civil governor of Qushmarrah
Annalaya-a witch brought to Qushmarrah by Sullo
Cullo-Aaron Habid's supervisor at work
Ala-eh-din Beyh-a wizard, antecedents unknown, whose successful attack uponNakar the Abomination made possible the Herodian conquest of Qushmarrah
Chorhkni, Suldan of Aquira-permanent threat on the eastern boundary of theHerodian empire
Gorloch-an ancient, ferocious deity long abandoned by most
Qushmarrahans Nakar-an angel in Gorloch s pantheon, associated with death, from whom the sorcerer Nakar adopted his name Azel-a messenger demon associated with the angel Nakar
Aram the Flame-a gentle, compassionate deity whose cult supplanted that ofGorloch
God-the Herodian deity, ferocious, jealous, contradictory. Extension of his cult is the excuse for Herodian conquests
The smoke was oppressive. It crept south into the Shu from the Shen, where sorcery had birthed fires when the invaders breached the Gate of Winter.
It brought chaos. Within it combatants recognized neither friend, foe, norfleeing civilian. Men struck now and wept later. Animals careened around inpanic. The heavy overcast turned back the light of day and worsened seeing.
Qushmarrahan, Dartar, and Herodian alike prayed for rain. Rain might quenchthe fires and cool the killing insanity.
Qushmarrah was lost but its men fought on. While Nakar lived they dared notsurrender.
The surrounding horizons were clear. It seemed the city was circumvallated bywalls of light. The clouds grew rapidly darker nearer the heart of the city.
Above the acropolis, over the citadel of Nakar the Abomination, those wereblack as the breath of Hell. The citadel's tower pierced their low bellies.
Lightning shattered darkness. Thunder crushed the uproar in the streets. Ahundred thousand smoke-teared eyes looked toward the sorcerer's stronghold.
Clouds above began to swirl, to stream inward, forming a whirlpool in the sky, a celestial maelstrom.
An end-of-the-world flash and crash rattled the city to its foundations.
The rains came. They fell in torrents like none before witnessed by man.
The sorcerer sat on his dark throne, amused. He would wait a while longerbefore he crushed the invaders. They would perish in agony, every one, Herodian and Dartar traitor ...
Something moved in the shadows at the far end of that last temple of Gorloch.
He sprang up, robes flying, eyes wide. He did not recognize the man but knewwhat he must be. "You!"
"Yes, High Priest." There was soft mockery in the voice. The man wore peasantgarb. He was too tall to be Herodian, too dark to be Qushmarrahan. The breathof the desert informed his voice but he was no Dartar. "Another has come."
Nakar relaxed. They came and they came but he devoured them all. "I shouldhave suspected." He chuckled. "Cado has been unnaturally lucky."
"Not my doing, wizard. Cado's genius, your failings, and human frailty."
The sorcerer sneered. "The fire is come. It will scour away the weakness ofAram. Herod's triumph will turn in her hands, like an adder. Gorloch willstand forth in his glory again. Come. I grow impatient. I will destroy themafter I finish you." He laughed. "Come, little dog of the desert. Let it bedone between me and yours. You are the last."
"No." The man's slow advance did not falter. "There is another trainingalready. Always there will be another somewhere, hidden from your eye, tillyou are driven from the world and torment it no more." A dagger flashed in hishand. It radiated power.
Fear touched the sorcerer for an instant. Then the rage came. He would sweepthem out of the path of destiny. "Gorloch, attend me!" He hurled himselftoward his challenger. They met before the great idol, beside the altar wherethousands had screamed their last that Gorloch might be pleased and hisapostle Nakar might live forever.
* * *
The Witch entered the temple as the men met. She gasped, unable to believeeven now that she saw it. How had the man gotten through the citadel'sdefenses? What man could have earned such great power?
Clouds of light and shadow contended. Larger than life, figures turned in analmost formal, elegant dance around the slice and dart of flashing mysticblades.
The shadow was overpowering the light slowly, consuming it, but she did notsee that in her fear for the man she loved. She saw only that an enemy wastrying to kill him and that enemy was a great enough wizard to have penetratedthe citadel's impenetrable defenses. She screamed, all reason fled before theprospect of loss. "Nakar!"
Startled, the shadow turned her way.
The light struck its blow.
Nakar's bellow shook the fortress. He lurched into his enemy, clawing at hisattacker's throat. Their struggle flung them against the altar.
The Witch wailed. She had killed him with her interruption. While they yetfought, before death claimed its prize, she wove her greatest spell ever, binding them in timelessness. Someday she would bring back the man she loved, when she found the way.
She finished. In pain, as she collapsed, she cried, "AZEL!" The summons rolledthrough the citadel but there was no answer. Nakar had sent his right hand faraway, to work his will in another land. There would be no help.
It was too late. For now.
The avalanche of rain faded as fast as it had come. The clouds blew away fromQushmarrah like the souls of men newly dead. Throughout the city men began tolay down their arms. Nakar was gone.
* * *
In the Shu the stillness yielded to the cry of a newborn. And a moment laterits cries were joined by those of another entrant into the lists of life.
The war ended. The wheel turned. A new story began.
The boys came up Char Street in a mouthy pack. The hazy turquoise of the baybacked them. There were twenty of them, ranging from three to eight years old.
The pretend they were playing reflected their parents' private rejection ofhistory. They were soldiers returning victorious from Dak-es-Souetta.
Their rowdiness caught the old woman's ear. She looked up from her mending. Ascowl deepened the wrinkles webbing her dark leather face. She thought theirparents ought to whip some sense into them.
One of the boys kicked something the size of a melon. Another raced forward, snatched it up out of the dust, shook it overhead, and shouted.
The old woman's frown deepened. Wrinkles became gullies of shadow. Where hadthey gotten a skull?
The boy dropped the headbone and booted it. It ricocheted off a man's leg.
Another man kicked it past the old woman. It vanished in a canebreak of legs.
That was a busy street.
The old woman saw char marks on the skull before it disappeared.
Of course. They were razing the ruins near the Gate of Winter where, afterbreaching the wall, several hundred invaders had perished in a fire touchedoff by errant sorceries. The area would be rich in treasures for small boys.
The pack raced after their plaything, disrupting commerce and generatingcurses both good-natured and otherwise. One boy, about six, stopped in frontof the old woman. He was very formal as he said, "Good afternoon, GrandmotherSayhed."
The old woman smiled. She had teeth missing. With equal formality, shereplied, "Good day, young Zouki. You've been exploring where they're tearingthe old buildings down?"
Zouki nodded and grinned. He was missing teeth, too.
At the beginning and at the end, toothless, the old woman reflected. LikeQushmarrah.
The boy asked, "Can Arif come out?"
Zouki looked startled. "How come?"
"It wouldn't be safe. You boys will be in big trouble in a few minutes." Theold woman put her mending down. She pointed in the direction of the bay.
The boy looked, saw the eight black riders swaying like the masts of shipsabove the turbulent human sea. The leader rated a horse. The others rode camels. They came straight up the hill, leaving it to the mob to get out oftheir way. Dartar mercenaries.
They were in no hurry to get anywhere. They were after no one. Just a routinepatrol. But if they saw the boys abusing the skull ...
The old woman said, "Get along now, Zouki. Don't bring the heathen to ourdoor."
The boy spun and plunged after his friends, throwing a shout ahead. The oldwoman continued to stare at the riders. They were close now.
They were young. The leader was the eldest. He might be twenty-three. None of the others had reached twenty. They wore black veils to mask their features, but those were not heavy. One could not have been more than sixteen.
As the Dartar riders came abreast of her, that youngest's eye met the oldwoman's. Her stare was hot and sharp, accusing. The youth blushed and lookedaway. The old woman muttered, "Well you might be ashamed, turncoat."
"Oh, Mother. He's not responsible. He was a child when the Dartar tribesbetrayed us."
"Dak-es-Souetta," the old woman hissed as she looked up at her daughter, whohad come from the house with a child on her hip. "Never forgiven, neverforgotten, Laella. Herod is a passing wind. Qushmarrah is eternal. Qushmarrahwill stand when the invader is dust. Qushmarrah will remember the Dartartreachery." She spat toward the mercenaries.
"Why don't you go burn a memorial tusk at the gate of the citadel of Nakar theAbomination, Mother? I'm sure the Witch will appreciate the gesture."
Laella retreated into the house. The old woman sputtered curses under herbreath. Another symptom of the conquest. Children showing no respect for theirparents.
She glanced uphill. The citadel of Nakar the Abomination could not be seenfrom her vantage. Even so, chills tramped her spine.
Some good had come of the occupation. Even she would admit that much. Even shethought Ala-eh-din Beyh a hero. Before his sacrifice no one would have daredcall Nakar "the Abomination" in any voice but the most breathless whisper.
The old woman pointed and Zouki's gaze followed the spearthrust of herwithered arm.
The Dartar riders were like something out of the nighttime monster stories theolder boys told to scare their little brothers. All in black, with nothing buthard eyes and a bit of dark, tattooed cheek showing.
He spun and ran into the crowd, alternately yelling, "Yahoud!" and apologizingto the adults he jostled. With everyone taller, and the dust so thick at hislevel, it was impossible to see his friends. He thought he heard his name.
Baml He ran into Yahoud, who had just lifted the skull from the dust. "Youdope!" Yahoud said. "Look out where you're going."
"Yahoud. Dartars." "What?"
"Dartars are coming. Right back there."
Yahoud looked at the skull a moment. "Here, Zouki. Go throw it into thatalley."
Zouki held the skull in both hands and wove through the press. The alley wasnot far away. Before he reached it several boys were following him, alerted by Yahoud.
He was about to step into the alley when he saw the vague shape back in theshadows. He paused.
A voice just loud enough to be heard said, "Bring it here, boy. Give it tome."
Zouki took three steps, paused. He did not like this.
"Will you hurry it up?"
Zouki responded to the authority in the voice, taking another three steps.
That was one too many. The man leaped. A hand slammed down on his shoulder, aclamp of agony. "Yahoud!"
"Are you Zouki, son of Naszif?"
"Answer me, brat!"
Children crowded the alley mouth, shouting. The man shifted his grip toZouki's arm and dragged him deeper into the shadows. Zouki screamed and kickedand struck out with the skull he still clenched.
Yoseh fought the awe that threatened to overwhelm him whenever he left theDartar compound. So many people. So many thousands of people, more than hecould have conceived of as inhabiting the whole world a year ago. And the bay?
Who cold conceive such a sprawl of water, vast as an arm of the Takes, but theblue of heavenstone? With far vaster expanses of sea beyond the Brothers, theheadlands flanking the strait that led into the bay.
And the buildings! He did not believe he would get used to the buildings, ever. In his native mountains there were no builded things at all, exceptancient fortresses that had begun their fall to ruin centuries ago.
There was an eddy and swirl in the mass of humanity ahead. An exuberant crywent up.
"Medjhah," Yoseh said. "That's the mudha-el-bal." Though that battle cry wasstill heard in the canyons of the Khadatqa Mountains, here even Dartars weredenied it.
"And we should go cut them down, Yoseh?" his brother asked. Medjhah was an oldQushmarrah hand after a year in service. "Eight of us meting out capitalpunishment to kids amongst a couple thousand of their relatives? If theferrenghi want them punished, let them see to it themselves. Let them bear thehatred."
Their elder brother Nogah, who was the captain of their little company, turnedin his saddle, said, "Well spoken, Medjhah. Yoseh, we're not here to die forthe ferrenghi. We're here to take their wages."
Yoseh grunted. Ahead, one of the children had gone to the side of the street to talk to a crone seated on a mat. Old people lined the street on both sides, some on mats, some seated on steps, some trying to hawk, some just watchingthe parade of life. It was a miracle they did not get trampled.
The crone pointed. The boy looked, saw Yoseh and his companions. His eyesbugged. He yipped and dashed into the crowd.
"You see?" Medjhah said. "The streets of Qushmarrah are free of heresy andsedition."
The others laughed. Yoseh did not. As the youngest he was always the brunt oftheir humor. He looked at the old woman. She looked back, her face as empty asa statue's. But he could sense the angry hatred within, like the lakes ofmolten rock simmering deep within the holy mountain Khared Dun. Sometimes thegod in the mountain became angry enough to spew fiery destruction upon anyoneunfortunate enough to be nearby. The crone reminded him of the holy mountain.
That old woman had lost somebody at Dak-es-Souetta.
He felt the heat climb his cheeks. He tore his gaze from the old woman andcalled up all his Dartar contempt for city dwellers. But the embarrassmentcontinued to mount. He had forgotten what he was. Now all these sessile goatflops would see a Dartar betraying his feelings.
Yoseh was very conscious of his youth, of his inexperience, of the unfadednewness of the manhood tattoos upon his face, and of the lance across his lap.
Medjhah assured him that the self-consciousness would pass, that none of thesecity veydeen even noticed.
Yoseh knew that. But knowing with the head and knowing with the heart could beseparated by the journey of the hundred nights.
Someone shouted. Yoseh saw the children rush to the side of the street. Adults followed after more shouts. The children seemed distressed.
Nogah yelled. He begun swinging the butt of his lance, urging his horsethrough the press. Yoseh did not understand. He had difficulties with thecants and dialects of Qushmarrah. But something was happening that Nogahconsidered to be within their venue. He kicked his mount. The camel promptlytried to take a bite out of the nearest citizen.
The crowd was thickest around the mouth of an alley about four feet wide. Thechildren clustered and raised a repetitive wailing chant that sounded like,
"Bedija ghal Bedija gha!"
Nogah shouted at Faruk. Faruk sounded the horn that would summon any Dartar orferrenghi troops within hearing. The crowd began to thin immediately. Nogahsaid, "Yoseh, Medjhah, Kosuth, go in there after them. The rest of us will tryto get around and cut them off. You. Boy. Hold these animals."
The Dartars dismounted in a clatter. Still baffled, Yoseh followed his brotherand cousin into the dark, dank, stinking alleyway. His lance was unwieldy inthat narrow passage.
Fifty feet in they heard a cry. It sounded like an echoing call for help.
Twenty feet onward the alley split at right angles. They paused, listened.
Medjhah shrugged, said, "This way," and turned to his right.
Ten steps. That cry again, from behind. The Dartars turned and ran the otherdirection, Yoseh now in the lead and more bewildered than ever. He kept hislancehead extended before him.
Fifty yards. A hundred. All upslope, tiring. "Slow down," Medjhah said. "Let'sbe careful. It could be a trap." The veydeen were not all passive about theoccupation.
A whisper of scuffling came from up ahead.
The alley bent to the right. Yoseh dashed around the angle and sensed apresence. It resolved into vague shapes struggling. A man trying to drag aboy. Panic swept the man's face momentarily. Then he flung a hand towardYoseh.
The alley filled with a blinding light and heat and a child's cry of despair.
Yoseh went down as Medjhah and Kosuth stumbled into him from behind. The fireburned like the furnaces of hell.
"Gorloch, thou art merciful," Azel murmured as he watched the target takesomething from an older boy and hurry toward the alley whence he watched. Hehad anticipated a long and difficult stalk. They had become wary. But thisbird was flying to the snare like it wanted to be caught.
What the hell was the kid lugging? A goddamned skull. Where the hell did heget that?
Azel fell back a few steps, hoping the kid's eyes would be used to the glareoff the bay and he would come into the alley blind.
No such luck. The kid was not seeing good, but he was seeing good enough. Hestopped a dozen feet too soon.
"Bring it here, boy. Give it to me." The kid moved some. Not enough. He wasn'tcompletely unwary. "Will you hurry it up?"
That got the brat close enough. Azel leaped, grabbed. The kid started yelling.
Azel made him give his name. Taking the wrong brat would be worse than doingnothing.
The kid kicked and yelled and flailed around with the skull. Azel ignoredthat, backed up, watched the brats at the alley's mouth, yelling themselves.
Then figures in black appeared, their weapons glittering.
Azel cursed. "Dartars. Where the hell did they come from?" Fear snapped athim. He spent a part of it by yanking the boy violently. He would lose thosewhoreson turncoats in the maze webbing the Shu quarter south of Char Street.
No one alive knew that one better.
Only the brat wouldn't let him get the head start he needed. He kept onfighting and kicking, yelling and tripping. Azel smacked him around as much ashe dared, but not as much as he wanted. There would be no tolerance shown ifhe delivered damaged goods.
Then they were there in the labyrinth with him, the mercenary betrayers, withabsolute terror coursing before them, and for the first time ever Azel foundhimself compelled to employ his penultimate recourse.
The ultimate recourse fluttered blackly behind his lids as he clung to thebrat with one hand while flinging the contents of the envelope, his eyessealed.
Heat drove him back.
The Dartars cursed and clattered into one another. The kid squealed and quitstruggling. Azel opened his eyes. "That's more like it, you little bastard."
He glared at the Dartars. If he didn't have to keep the kid in hand he wouldstick them with their own spears.
He grabbed up the by now passive boy and draped him over his shoulder. The boyclung to the skull as though it was a protective talisman.
This time it was hard. This time it took all his knowledge of the labyrinth tolose the hunters. Dartars and Herodians and angry citizens were everywhere.
Azel zigged and dodged and at times even crouched in hiding, the kid clampedhelpless and silent in his arms. Of all the damnable luck, those black-clothedcamel jockeys turning up when they did.
There was a warning in what had happened. The easy times were over. And theywere barely past halfway down the list. With Gorloch knew how many more yet tobe discovered.
There was going to be some serious talk after he made this delivery. No waywas he going out again with nothing but a pack of flash to cover his ass.
He reached the outlet from the maze that lay nearest his destination. The bratstarted to struggle again, but that did not last. And he finally turned looseof the damned skull.
Azel scanned the square he had to cross. He saw no sign of excitement. He haddistanced the hunt but probably not the news that a child had been snatched.
Should he try it now, in the long shadows of afternoon, or await the friendlydarkness?
The square was almost empty. The kid was out of fight again. Gorloch knew whatmight creep out of the labyrinth behind him if he sat on his hands.
He grabbed the brat's paw and headed out, fast, like an angry parent. The kidstumbled and whimpered, and that fed the illusion.
As he tramped across the square Azel lifted his gaze and rehearsed andnurtured the rage he was going to vent.
And that fed the illusion, too.
Aaron pressed up the hill, the black fear gnawing his heart. He was a man keptstrong and trim by his labors, but emotion had driven him to a violent stormup the long climb from the waterfront. His legs were billets of lead, as theywere in his nightmares.
It was over now. Long over. But some of the spectators remained, still telling one another what had happened. Beyond them were a handful of Herodian soldiersand several Dartar horsemen. Ranking Dartar, Aaron realized after a secondlook. Startled, he found himself exchanging momentary glances with a fierce- eyed old man who had the face of a raptor and a savage grey beard.
Fa'tad al-Akla himself! Fa'tad the Eagle, commander of all the Dartarmercenaries, bloodthirsty as a vampire, merciless as a hungry snake. What washe doing? Making himself a target for the Living?
Of course not. Was he not supposed to know as little of fear as the desertwindstorms that brewed over the Takes and raged north over the KhadatqaMountains and beyond, to inundate Qush-marrah with dust and torment it with aferocious dry heat? Fa'tad al-Akla held the Living in contempt.
Aaron thought them quixotic at best. But he also believed they were going tokill Fa'tad, and he did not think it would be long before the dark angelbrushed the Eagle with the shadow of his wing.
Ahead, in front of the house, he saw Laella and her mother. They were notbereaved. His heart spread white wings. Then it soared as he spied Arif.
His son was all right! The nightmare had not come true!
Arif saw him coming and ran to meet him. He snatched the boy up and surroundedhim in a hug almost brutal in its intensity. Arif squealed, surprised. Peoplestared. It was not a culture that encouraged emotional display.
Arif wanted to tell him all the news but he had squeezed the breath out of theboy.
Aaron joined Laella and her mother. His wife had Stafa, their younger son, seated upon her left hip. Stafa was midway between his second and thirdbirthdays, and on his better days he was happy mischief incarnate. Arif was, by contrast, a quiet child, often seeming sad.
The younger boy reached out. "I want some Daddy hugs."
Aaron reached and let him monkey over to sit on the hip opposite Arif, grinning. Aaron told Laella, "I heard. I was afraid it was Arif."
There was pain and relief and guilt in Laella's eyes as she said, "No. It wasZouki. Reyha's Zouki."
Laella's mother watched Fa'tad with the fixity and dispassionate intensity ofa vulture waiting for. a corpse to cool out. "They went after him."
Aaron turned. "What?"
"The Dartar patrol. They were right here when Zouki was taken. Not much morethan boys themselves. The children screamed 'Bedija gha!' and the Dartars wentafter the taker."
She sounded amazed. As if so human a thing was beyond comprehension if done bythe villains of Dak-es-Souetta.
Laella said, "Three went in Tosh Alley. And they caught him." She did notsound joyful.
"Something bad happened?"
"They were all burned when they brought them out. Not dead. Not really badhurt. But one of them's clothes was smoldering."
"Aaron, something has to be done."
He grunted again. He agreed. But he did not know what could be done. There hadbeen talk among the men, but it never went beyond that. One could do nothingwhen one did not know which way to strike.
The old woman muttered something.
"Mother?" Aaron asked.
"The Dartars think the Living did it."
So. No wonder she was in shock. For her the Dartars had become the wellspringof all evil. And here they had tried to rescue a child, and thought the lastragtag remnants of Qush-marrahan partisans had done the grabbing.
"The children yelled 'Bedija gha!' Could that be it? Are the old godsstirring?"
Bedija gha sprang from an older form of the language. Today it meant "childstealer."
In Qushmarrah, as in all cities in all times and lands, there werepeople who wanted to buy children. For whatever reason. So there were otherswilling to harvest and sell. But before "child-stealer" or "kidnapper," in theold days bedija gha had had a more sinister and specific meaning, "collectorof sacrifices."
That had been in the time of Gorloch, cast down and banished by Aram longsince. The god's followers had been dispersed, his temples demolished, and hispriests forbidden human sacrifice.
He had not gone quickly or quietly, though. Superseded gods never do.
Aram the Flame had brought light to Qushmarrah but Gorloch had clung to theshadows and it was not till the coming of the Herodians, with their strange, nameless, omnipotent god, that Gorloch's last High Priest's time had ended.
Aaron shivered and glanced uphill. Nakar the Abomination. How he had deservedthat name, that dark sorcerer-priest-king unassailable in his citadel. BlessAla-eh-din Beyh and the Herodians for having laid that terror to rest.
Laella said, "No, it couldn't be Gorloch. They say Nakar was the last priestwho knew the rites." Her mother nodded agreement without taking her eyes offthe Eagle. "And the Witch never was a believer."
"There must be manuscripts that tell about the rituals."
"You're trying to talk yourself into something again, Aaron." Laella smiled totake the sting out of the admonition.
She was right. He wanted conspiracies to explain away his fear of something hedid not understand. Chances were there was no more child-stealing going on nowthan there had been at any other time. He was just more aware of it because heand his contemporaries were of an age to have children of an age to be atrisk. That and the fact that there had been a rash of kidnappings in the area, some as broad-daylight-brazen as this latest. A thing like that caused a lotof talk that led to more talk that maybe magnified the problem out of allproportion.
If it were not for the nightmares ...
He realized his arms were aching with the weight of the children. "All right, Stafa. Back to Mom. Arif, down you go. Daddy's arms are tired."
Stafa flashed his little white teeth and shook his head "Can't," he said.
"Yes, you can," Laella told him. "Come here. Your father's been working hardall day."
"Can't. My dad."
Aaron bent and let Arif down. Arifs feelings were hurt, of course, but he hidthat as he always did. He was convinced everyone loved his brother more thanhim, and no logical argument could reach his heart and convince it that asmaller child always needed more attention.
The firstborn are always the sad ones, Aaron thought, and felt vaguely guilty.
He always seemed to expect more of Arif.
He leaned toward Laella, who tried to pry Stafa off him. Stafa laughed anddeclared, "Can't! Daddy's Stafa!" He grabbed two fistfuls of Aaron's hair.
Aaron suppressed the usual flash of anger and impatience and played the gameout.
Laella finally peeled the boy off. The battle shifted ground. She wanted toput him down and he did not want to be put. Laella won. Stafa went into apout, declared, "I hate you, Mom!" He ran and clung to Nana's leg. But the oldwoman had no attention to spare.
Aaron grabbed Arif up and set him on his left hip, ignoring the ache in hisarm and shoulders. "Come on, big guy. Let's see what's going on." His reliefat finding Arif safe persisted. It left him feeling select and immune and moredaring than was his nature. He even managed to meet the Eagle's eye withoutflinching.
Bel-Sidek dragged his log of a bad leg up the slope of Char Street. It gotworse every day. His pride was under ever more severe strain. How long beforeit broke, he surrendered, and he became just another crippled veteran beggingat street side?
As it did every time, the thought sparked white-hot rage. He would notsurrender! He would not become a vegetable patch beside the thoroughfare, watered by the charity of Herodian conquerors whose generosity consisted of tossing back fragments of the ghosts of plunder ripped from the heart ofQushmarrah.
Bel-Sidek sometimes tended toward a dramatic turn of mind.
The leg did not hurt as badly, nor drag nearly so much, when the thought of acommander of a thousand begging at street side drove him into a fury. Dartarand Herodian had humiliated him and reduced him by strength of arms and rightof conquest. But he would not finish what they had begun. He would not degradehimself.
"They have not won," he muttered. "They have not beaten me. I am one of theliving."
For the true believer the formula was as potent as a magical cantrip.
There was something wrong with his surroundings. He stopped instantly, comingout of himself to look around suspiciously. Yes! Dartars and Herodianseverywhere. How had they ... ?
Wait. Maybe not. Whatever had happened, it was over long since. And the enemydid not have that grim look he got when his own had been hurt. Someone wouldhave gotten hurt had they found the General.
Still, it had been something that interested them a great deal. A great deal.
That was Fa'tad al-Akla himself. The Eagle would not be out here for trivia.
Was he at risk here? Had they been found out? Was it a search?
No. Hardly. How would the old man know them in their present circumstances, after ten years, when he and the General had been but faces in the backgroundwhen last they had crossed paths?
There was Raheb Sayhed and her daughter. Raheb spent her life planted on hermat there. Nothing escaped her. He limped over to the two women.
A smiling face peeped around Raheb's skirt. Bel-Sidek grinned. "Ola, Stafa."
He liked the child. "Ola, Raheb. Laella."
The older woman replied, "Ola, Khadifa." She inclined her head almostimperceptibly, to show that she still honored him. She continued to stare atFa'tad.
Bel-Sidek frowned his question at the daughter.
Laella said, "The foundations of her world took a shaking this afternoon."
"A child-stealing. Reyha's son, Zouki. A Dartar patrol was right in front ofthe house when it happened. They tried to rescue Zouki. Three of them gothurt."
"That explains Fa'tad."
"Maybe. But I don't think so. They weren't hurt bad. I hear he's here because they think the Living had something to do with it."
"Is it?" "Why would they take a six-year-old kid?"
"Why would they beat up shopkeepers and steal from artisans and leave their own people floating in the bay while never, ever, laying a finger on the people they're supposed to be fighting?" "You're exaggerating."
"Am I? Let me tell you something, Khadifa. There are ordinary, everyday, loyal people in Qushmarrah-people who hate Herod and Dartars as much as you do- who're so fed up with the Living they've talked about maybe letting Fa'tad find out some names."
Bel-Sidek turned. "Aaron. How are you?"
"Upset. I have small children. It disturbs me that the Dartars seem more interested in their safety than do those of my own people who might say they have some claim on my sympathy. People who, by their nature, ought to have some insight into the problem if there's a racket behind the child-stealing." Bel-Sidek understood. He did not like it. "I hear what you're saying, Aaron. Here. Come. Walk with me to my house." He began dragging the leg uphill.
The man turned his son over to his wife and followed. It did not take him long to catch up. Bel-Sidek asked, "Is it true, what she said?" "You know how women are when they're scared or mad. Say any damned thing that pops into their head."
"Yes." He glanced back at Raheb, still frozen in place. There was an omen as sinister as her daughter's threat. "I know some people who know some people.
I'll say something to someone." "Thank you. How is your father doing?"
"He sleeps a lot now. The pain doesn't bother him as much as it did."
"I'll tell him you asked about him." The old man wakened when the door slammed. It had to be slammed or it would not close all the way. "Bel-Sidek?" He winced as the pain shot down his side. "Yes, General."
The old man composed himself before the khadifa entered the dimness of hisroom. Only a part of the dimness was due to a lack of lighting. His eyes weregrowing feeble. He could make out few details of bel-Sidek when he appeared.
"Was it a good day, Khadifa?"
"It began well. Three ships came with the morning tide. There was work. Weneedn't worry about where our meals will come from for a few days."
"I encountered an unpleasant situation coming home. It was illuminating."
He listened carefully, with a feeling for nuance. His hearing was excellent.
Time had been that kind. He heard not only objective substance but theimplication that the khadifa was troubled in heart.
"The woman-Raheb?-bothers you. Why?"
"She had one son. Taidiki. Her sunrise. Her full moon. He went to Dak-es- Souetta with my Thousand. A brave lad. He held his ground till the end. He wasone of the forty-eight of mine who came home. He came back in worse shape thanI did. A lot worse. But he was a proud kid. He thought he'd done something.
His mother cried for him, but she was proud of him, too. And of everyone whofought the odds at Dak-es-Souetta. Fanatically so."
"Is there a punch line to this story, Khadifa?"
"A year ago Taidiki went into the street and started telling anyone who wouldlisten the same things his sister said today, only he spoke morestraightforwardly. He said hard things about our class and the Living. He saidthe Dartar tribes were not the traitors of Dak-es-Souetta, that Qushmarrah hadbetrayed them first by ignoring them in their need. They had done only whatthey had to do so their children could eat. When one of the Living tried tohush him, he denounced the man. When the man resorted to threats, Taidiki'sneighbors-our neighbors- beat him senseless."
"I'm still waiting for the punch line.''
"Taidiki took his own life afterward, as a protest. He said Qushmarrah hadmurdered him already and he hadn't had sense enough to lie down."
"That was the moment I first realized there were people of Qushmarrah who wereless than enchanted with our efforts."
"A more dramatic incident occurred in the Hahr day before yesterday. TheDartars rounded up eighteen ground-level members. They had been denouncedanonymously. The Dartars did not bother interrogating them. They just executed them there in the street. Some of the onlookers cheered."
"Do you? Some of the brethren have been feathering ..."
"I said I see." The General reflected for several minutes. "Khadifa, your father has just had another of his spells and thinks he's dying again. Youround up your brother and cousins and have them here later tonight so they canbe given their legacies."
"Fa'tad is in the street out there?"
"Help me to the door. I want to see him."
"Is it worth the risk, sir?"
"Is he going to recognize a man who's been dead for six years?"
He did not get his fuzzy glimpse of the enemy. Fa'tad al-Akla and his tribesmen, and the Herodian infantrymen, had gone. Char Street had become itsnormal twilight self.
"What's this?" Aaron asked, looking at the concoction Laella had set beforehim. He shifted on his cushion. The aches of work and the terror of the afternoon were fading. His question was one of honest inquiry, not complaint.
"What does it look like?"
"Haifa yellow squash with stuff baked inside it."
"Can't put anything past you when you put your mind to it, can I?"
Arif said, "I don't like this stuff, Mom." Stafa echoed him immediately. The younger boy was just into that stage.
"You haven't tried it yet."
Aaron didn't think he would like it, either, but it turned out to be good. The boys did right by their portions, too.
Laella had filled the partially baked squash halves with a mix of chopped andsliced vegetables, and slivers of mutton, in a heavy, spicy brown sauce. There were mushrooms and nut meats in there, too. And dates promised for afterwardfor boys who ate their supper.
Old Raheb worked on her meal without speaking. Hers had been cooked longer so meat and vegetables would be easier prey for toothless gums. Tonight sheworked every mouthful twice as long as usual. Aaron pretended not to notice.
Nobody could get quite as fixated as Laella's mother. If one of her fixationswon an audience it could turn into years of high drama.
Look at Taidiki. She had been mourning Taidiki since Dak-es-Souetta. He mightnot have broken had she not been there wailing all the time.
Aaron needed distracting himself. "What do you think of it, Mish?"
Tamisa, Laella's fourteen-year-old sister, completed the household. For a timeafter Dak-es-Souetta there had been other sisters. They had gotten married oneby one. The latest had gone just before Taidiki's mad gesture.
Maybe that had contributed to Taidiki's despair. All those sisters to dowryand no other relatives to soften the blows to his patrimony.
Raheb did not mourn her husband, did she? He had fallen at Dak-es-Souetta, hadn't he? But she hadn't so much as mentioned his name since moving in here.
Tamisa said, "It's all right." Howling praise. About as definite a statementas anyone could get out of her these days. She had changed over the eightyears Aaron had known her. Sometimes he felt vaguely guilty about that, thoughhe did not see how he could be responsible. Too much time spent close to hermother, he thought.
He worried endlessly that Arif and Stafa would drift down the same pathway toa life of quiet despair. He worried about his sons too much, he knew. Childrensurvived childhood. He had. It was being grown-up that was lethal.
Laella said, "When we're done I want to go see if I can do anything forReyha."
"I thought you might."
"Mish can clean up."
"We've known each other a long time. We went through labor together. There wasstill fighting in the streets."
"We lay there holding hands and listening to people killing each otheroutside, not sure that somebody wouldn't break in and do something to us."
"I know." There was a part of Laella that could not forgive him for havingbeen a prisoner of the Herodians on that critical day, unreasonable as sheknew that to be.
"Zouki came only a minute after Arif. It was the last day of the war. The dayAla-eh-din Beyh broke the barrier and killed Nakar the Abomination."
"I know." He knew the preamble was all because he would have to take her ifshe was to go see Reyha. And he loathed Reyha's husband, Naszif.
Naszif was an ironwright and prosperous. The Herodians had plenty of work formetalworkers and gave Naszif all he could handle. Aaron and Naszif had been inthe same artillery engineers troop. Aaron was convinced that Naszif hadbetrayed them during the siege of the Seven Towers in Harak Pass.
Three of the towers had been reduced already. There was never a doubt that theHerodians would break through. The defenders were supposed to buy time untilthe defeated of Dak-es-Souetta, the new levies, and the allies could gather onthe Plain of Chordan. The lords of Marek, Tuhn, and Caldera were sendingseventy thousand men.
But someone heeded either cowardice or the Herodian offer of rewards and unsealed the tower's postern. The treachery advanced the Herodian causesufficiently that they were able to reach the Plain of Chordan in time to keepit all from coming together.
"When we heard, we both had the same crazy idea. Name our sons Peace," Laellasaid.
"Why don't you like Naszif? You were in everything together."
"That's why. I know him." He had told no one what he believed about Naszif.
Not even Laella.
"I was there and you weren't. The subject is closed. Get yourself ready ifyou're going to go. Arif, Stafa, one story from Nana, then go to bed."
In one year the coast as far as Caldera had fallen to Herod. Not, Aaron wasconvinced, because of the great and so close thing at Dak-es-Souetta, butbecause of one traitor in one tower in Harak Pass.
When he started brooding about it he got himself out of the mood by mockinghimself for thinking someone as insignificant as he could have been so nearthe heart of any crucial historical event.
Yoseh lay on his cot with his hands behind his head, staring into the darknessbetween the ceiling beams. The burn on his face hurt. The ointment didn't domuch to help.
"Why so thoughtful tonight?"
Yoseh looked up at Nogah. He replied with complete honesty. "That man in thatalley. He could have killed us if he'd wanted. All of us. Easy."
"Probably. But he didn't."
"But he did want to. I could see it in his face, behind the fear and surprise.
He hated us and wanted to kill us but it was more important to keep thatlittle boy under control."
Nogah looked at him a moment, then nodded. "Come on. Fa'tad wants to ask youabout it."
The muscles across Yoseh's stomach tightened till he felt like he was havingcramps. His eyes began blinking. He could not stop. "No. I can't."
"Come on, Yoseh. He's only a man."
"He's only Fa'tad al-Akla. He scares the Demon out of me."
Nogah smiled. "It's about time somebody did that, little brother. You'vealways had too much brass for your own good. Come on."
Yoseh rose. He followed Nogah, wondering if this was how men felt as they wentto the gallows.
The Dartar compound was outside Qushmarrah proper, beyond the Gate of Autumn, on a field where the city's soldiers once trained. A thin curtain wall twelvefeet high surrounded it. All the buildings within abutted against this, theirroofs forming a platform for defenders. Everything was crudely constructed ofmud brick painted to protect it from the rain. The wall enclosed about threeacres.
Yoseh and Nogah had to cross the enclosure to reach Fa'tad. Stars had comeout. The air overhead was unusually clear. Camels and horses, goats and cattlemumbled to one another. The smell of hay and crowded animals was strong. "Itmust be about time to send a herd south," Yoseh said.
"Any day now. There are enough men whose time is up to take them."
"You've been here five years, Nogah. Why do you stay?"
"I don't know."
"Foo. I'm your brother, Nogah. I've known you all my life. You would'vethought about it a lot each time before you signed on again."
"Maybe I can do more good here, earning the ferrenghi silver that buys theherds. Down there I'd be just another mouth."
"Not to mention that while you're up here you don't have to keep butting headswith Father."
Nogah snorted. Then he chuckled. "No. Up here I have Fa'tad al-Akla, with whomthere is no arguing. Father you can wear down sometimes."
"Before I left he almost broke down and became human. 'Four sons I send to Fa'tad now. And none of them come back. You come back when your time is done, little Yoseh. You come home.'"
"That sounds like him. And I'm sure he sent some blustery message to hisprodigals."
He had, of course, but Yoseh hadn't bothered to report it. "Yes."
They walked a few steps. Nogah said, "So?"
"He said, Tell my Nogah, my firstborn, to come home. Tell him I am one stepahead of the dark angel and beginning to limp. An heir's place is beside hisfather in his last hour.'"
"His last hour, eh? One step ahead of old Death?"
"He said it. I didn't."
"And he just took another wife."
"That's the third one since I came north."
"There are a lot of women who can't find husbands because so many of the young men don't come back from duty in Qush-marrah."
"So Father is easing the shortage."
"His duty to the tribe, he told me. If he hadn't taken the poor girls in, their fathers might have put them out of their tents. They might have starved."
"No doubt these foundling waifs come without dowries, too." "Are you kidding? He'll take ugly but he won't take poor."
"And they always call him that charming old rogue Mel-chesheydek." They reached the opposite side of the compound. Nogah said, "Nogah, Yahada. We're here." "I'll tell him." The guard posted outside Fa'tad's quarters stepped inside.
"It's a serious problem, Nogah," Yoseh said. "The old men are talking about making it so nobody can join Fa'tad who hasn't already taken a wife and at least gotten her with child."
"Those sour old bellies must be full, then."
"They didn't talk that way when they were starving. Then it was send the boys whether they want to go or not."
Yahada opened the door. "Come in."
Yoseh preceded his brother, his knees starting to shake. His first glimpse of Fa'tad did nothing to reassure him. Those eyes ... Grey as iron and cold asthe bottom of a well. There was no anger in them, but still he felt like aclumsy child.
Fa'tad nodded infinitesimally, "Nogah." The old man sat cross-legged on asmall cushion. He had filled the room with the appurtenances of a caveshelter. They did not hide the truth. "This is your brother Yoseh?"
"I overheard what you said a moment ago. Is it true, Yoseh, that they intend to meddle with me down there?"
Yoseh did not know how to answer. The question sounded like one with a snarebuilt into it. He chose his words carefully. "They want to encourage the youngmen to return home more quickly."
A specter of a smile twitched Fa'tad's lips. "Oh, yes. As they so quickly didwhen they were young auxiliaries scouting for Qushmarrah's armies. You wereright, Nogah. Their bellies are full, and sour with memories of what they lostwith their youth. Yahada, find Barok. Tell him he needn't worry about how he'sgoing to get all that livestock safely to the mountain." Fa'tad smiled agenuine smile. He looked at Yoseh as if he were speaking to him alone. "Theyneed to be reminded that the drought is still with us." His face clouded, thenlost all expression.
Eight years of drought. There was nothing to match it in Dartar history.
"Your brother told me what happened this afternoon, Yoseh. Now I want to hear your part of it from you."
Yoseh fumbled the story out.
"Would you recognize the man again?"
"He was short, even for the veydeen. And very wide. Very muscular. Not a young man. Middle thirties to early forties. Dark for veydeen. Very quick, and Ithink very strong. His nose was flattened, like somebody smashed it in. Widemouth and heavy lips."
"Well ... I can't be sure. His lip curled up, like this, a little. There was a man back home with a lip like that from a knife wound."
Nogah asked, "You know the man, sir?"
"No. But I'd like to meet him, Yoseh, how did he make the fire?"
"He just reached down and got something out of his belt
"An envelope? A packet? A sachet?"
Yoseh glanced at Nogah, back. "Yes sir. One of those."
"Hunh! Do what he did, as closely as you can ape it. Slowly."
Yoseh did so, puzzled by Fa'tad's interest and cowed by the intensity of his scrutiny.
"He reached across his body with his left hand and emptied the packet at you backhanded?"
"And the stuff he threw. Did you get a good look at it before it caught fire?"
"It was dust, sir. Yellow, I think. Yes. Almost saffron." Nogah asked, "Sir, is this important?"
"The gestures probably not. He had one hand busy holding a child. But I'm very interested in the powder. What sort of powder is inert in an envelope open to the air but bursts into flames when it's thrown?" "Sorcery?" Nogah suggested softly.
"Certainly a possibility. I'm very interested in such a dust."
"I'm also interested in that maze of passages in the Shu. We have more trouble with the Shu than any other quarter. Because the villains can use that maze to come and go as they please."
Yoseh had a feeling Fa'tad was leading up to something. His suspicion was confirmed immediately. "I want you to go up there tomorrow, Nogah. Start exploring. Start mapping.
There is no map of that area. Even people who live there don't know what's going on out their back doors. Starting tomorrow everyone not on duty for the ferrenghi will be up there exploring. We'll go in there and stay. We'll take the maze away from Qushmarrah's bad men." Nogah said, "Yes sir." Yoseh echoed him hastily. "That will be all for now. Yoseh, if you recall anything significant, I want to know right away."
"Yes sir." Yoseh got out as fast as youthful dignity would allow. His legs almost betrayed him returning across the compound. Zouki sat inside the door of the cage, leaning against the cold iron bars, motionless, for a long time. He was so scared he had wet himself.
There were thirty other kids in the cage. They were scared, too. They seemed to have spaced themselves out. Only two, who looked like twins, were close to each other. The kids all seemed to be about his age. They all stared at him.
They did not seem starved or abused. They were clean and clothed. But they were scared and Zouki thought they must cry a lot. He wanted to cry. He wanted his mother.
He looked at all those kids looking back at him and didn't know what else to do. So he did cry.
Azel had just finished a meal for which the cook ought to be convicted. Hecould not guess what he had eaten.
Torgo walked in. "She's ready for you now." He sounded like a man talking to acockroach.
"Yeah? Good. Who cooks this slop? They ought to be staked out on an anthill.
The brats get fed better."
"The children are valuable. Come."
Following Torgo, staring at the eunuch's huge, broad back, Azel said,
"Torgo,'I like your attitude so much I think I'm going to kill you. You ball- less wonder. Maybe pretty soon now." He looked at the eunuch's bare feet andknew just how he would start.
Torgo glanced back, for a moment the expression on his big round flabby facemore puzzled than anything. Then a slow smile spread. "You're welcome to try.
But you'll be disappointed."
"You bad, Torgo? You think you're bad? You ain't never been out of this dump.
You ain't never seen the real world. Out there is where the bad boys play. Youdon't know bad from dog turds. You ain't bad. You ain't even hard. You're justpig-stupid and mean."
And pretty good at keeping his temper, Azel reflected.
Few who lived in the citadel went in or out. The Herodians knew who they were.
If any got recognized those bastards would realize there was a way through thebarrier, after all. Only Azel and a few other trusted agents came and wentthrough what the barrier's creator had nicknamed the Postern of Fate.
Two of those agents were women who busted their butts doing the groceryshopping and whatnot.
Azel wondered if he really would get aggravated enough with Torgo to take himout. Maybe. If the eunuch kept on with his airs.
Well, whatever. He shut the eunuch out of mind and scanned his surroundings.
An ordinary hallway. Except that it was decked out in enough treasure toransom a platoon of princes. The whole damned citadel was like that. But oldNakar, he was the boss wazoo around Qushmarrah for a long time. And when theyknocked down the temples and busted up the idols he was the kind of guy whomade them pay for the privilege of replacing Gorloch with their candy-ass Aramthe Flame. When they had done that he started taking any damned thing hepleased.
Azel could not figure out why the old boy had let them get away with dumpingGorloch. He knew Nakar had claimed there was no point imposing on jerks whorefused to believe. But he never quite figured out why that mattered.
He had been around, up and down the coast, and even across the sea, out wherethe gods were really bizarre, and he thought he knew one thing about religion: the fact of actual belief did not matter. You had to know how to go throughthe motions and you had to be able to say, "How much?" whenever a priest stuckout his hand and said, "Gimme." That was all.
Azel did not know if he was a believer or not. He had been doing all the rightthings for so long it was all habit. He did know he found the ferociousGorloch a more satisfying deity than Aram with his softhearted, softheaded, otherworldly love and forgive-thy-neighbor crap.
He irked Torgo by chuckling. If he wanted a stand-up, he-man god he ought togo with the Herodian's anonymous deity, who had no other name but God. Thatone was all thunder and lightning and kicking ass. But a goddamned psycho, too. His doctrine was all do what I tell you or die, sucker, and the hell withit's something stupid, or it conflicts with something you've already been toldto do.
Herod had not pressed religious issues in Qushmarrah. Yet. The Herodians werespread thin. If ever they felt secure enough to dispense with theunpredictable Dartar meres it would be Granny bar the door, Qushmarrah you'regoing to get the One True Faith. Or burn.
Azel chuckled again, remembering a scheme he'd bounced off the Genera] three, four years back. It involved having kids-so small any Herodian laying a handon them would get torn apart-go around giving the occupiers chunks of stonewith lots of points and sharp edges.
It would have worked. They would have laughed Herod out of town. But the oldman had said it was undignified to attack a man through his toilet habits.
Crap. You went after your enemies any way you could, and you kicked them whenthey were down.
Azel chuckled again, because that irritated the eunuch. But he cut it off asthey approached the guard at the door of the audience chamber. Time to workhimself up.
A hundred years ago she had been the greatest beauty on the coast, and forthat alone suitors had come to Caldera from as far west as Deoro Etrain, whereOcean hammered and raged against bleak and rocky shores. They had come fromthe east, from far Aquira, Karen, and Bokhar. They had come from over the sea, on ships with sails purple and scarlet and blue the color of heavenstone, fromCathede and Nargon and Barthea. Those princes and lords could have swoonedwhen they saw the reality. They would have taken her with her beauty alone fordowry.
But there was more. Much more. It made them bring great treasures with whichto gift Caldera.
She had been that one girl child in a generation born with a talent forsorcery. That one in a generation whose talent could become a tool more potentthan the genius of any general.
She had had the world at her feet then. And young as she had been, alreadythey had begun to call her the Witch-more because of the way she had toyedwith them than because of her talent. She had led them around, taunting theminto escalating their offers, with no real intention of selling herself off, or of allowing the lords of Caldera to auction her ...
That had been their plan and wish. Gold, power, alliances. Her father himselfhad been one of those she had made excruciatingly uncomfortable, with a cruelcase of boils, when the attempt to sell her was made.
Then the Archimage of Qushmarrah, Nakar, had come to Caldera.
He had not come in style or state. He had brought no gifts or promises.
Already his dread god had been shorn of significance by the fickleQushmarrahan mob. He had only his unassailable citadel and his ruthlessdeathgrip on the political power in Qushmarrah.
He had been half as old as the world even then, though he had looked a fit, lean, virile forty. He had been a darkly handsome man with wavy black hairspotted by a hen's egg of silver above his right eye, an inch and a halfbehind his hairline. His eyes had been dark and magnetic and afire withintrigue.
She had known the moment she met his smoldering gaze.
Dark tales clustered around him like moths fluttering around a lamp. They saidthis. They said that. They said he lived on, young, not because of hissorcery, nor because he was first acolyte to, and favored of, his god, butbecause he had become one of the undead, the devourers of blood and souls.
None of that mattered after that first meeting of eye with eye. None of thatmattered now.
She had aged, but not her hundred years. She looked a well-preserved thirty- five. Little of the impact of her beauty had faded. It remained her mostpotent tool.
It was a tool without a handle or edge when she dealt with Azel. Azel seemedblind or just plain indifferent.
He pushed inside behind Torgo. Torgo's jaw was tight. Azel's taunting hadbegun to reach him.
She steeled herself. Azel would be brash and crude and raw in an effort to puther on the defensive. He would succeed, probably. Because of that absolute, deadly confidence with which he faced everyone-even those able to swat himlike a fly.
She did not know his true name. Her husband had called him Azel, afterGorloch's demonic messenger. Nakar had trusted Azel. Azel was, she believed, the only living being Nakar had trusted without reservation. And even he, majestic and dauntless as a storm in his power, had been a little afraid ofAzel.
The trouble was, Azel never failed to accomplish what he set out to do. Thatmade you uncomfortable when you tried to push him a direction he did not wantto go.
"Good evening, Azel. I understand you have a problem."
"We all got a problem, woman. They're closing in. I had to use my flash packetto get a gang of Dartars off my back today."
She knew where he was going. He'd hinted before that he thought she waspushing the project too hard, that gathering too many subjects too fast wouldcatch the eye of the Herodian commander. "Tell me the circumstances, Azel."
She wanted to stall.
But she had had time to think already, since Torgo had told her Azel insistedon an audience. She had not gotten her mind ordered.
Why did he rattle her so?
Azel told it in his clipped, raw way.
"It was a coincidence, then. Not something to worry about, after all."
"You missed the point, woman."
"Torgo!" Offended by the man's tone, the eunuch had started to move. Azelgrinned. "If I'm blind, Azel, open my eyes. Show me the point I missed."
"I had to use flash to give Dartars the slip. If I wanted to hang on to thekid. I should've killed them. But I couldn't do that without letting go of thebrat."
"I still don't see ..."
"Flash, woman. Flash. You think every guy that hangs out in alleys has got apocket full of flash to throw when the heat closes in?"
"Yeah. It's going to start them wondering. Maybe even wondering why it was sodamned important to hang on to the kid. They're going to start askingquestions. If they get any honest answers they might start seeing patterns.
There's plenty of clues if they pay attention."
"So what would you suggest?"
"Back off awhile. Don't give them anything more to check out. You got thirtykids down there and don't have a notion if one of them isn't the one you want.
Let it ride till you find out."
"No. There are nineteen more on the list, Azel. And it's mathematicallycertain that between five and ten remain unidentified. That's almost as big agroup. Another third of the whole. Every hour we delay is an hour of risk.
It's been a lucky group of children. Only six have died between birth and thepresent. But if the one we want is one that had died or will die before we gethold of him, we end up starting all over with a new group. A group, in fact, for every one that died. How much greater the risks, then, with groups ofyounger children? The thing grows monstrous, Azel."
"How much chance you got of pulling it off if the Herodians figure it out? Ifyou keep us on the street and one of us gets caught? Zippo, woman. Zero.
Zilch. They figure out what's happening they're going to be on you like asnake on shit."
"That terror is less fearsome than the mathematical horrors that come of each additional death, Azel. We will continue the current program."
"The hell we will. I'm not getting myself torn apart by the mob or put to thequestion by Herod. I'm off the case until I decide it's safe to work itagain."
"You've said you believe in the project."
"I do. It's Qushmarrah's last hope. But what does believing in something haveto do with walking off a cliff to hear the splat when you hit bottom? Back off. Take it easy. Let it cool down. And when you go on, give us bettertools."
The anger, born of frustration, grew in her. She fought it. Argument would do no good. Azel never did anything he did not want to do. "Very well. I'll go onwithout you. When you're ready to continue your work Torgo will give you your next assignment."
Azel stared at her till it was impossible to meet his gaze. Then he shook his head in disgust and walked out. Torgo stepped closer. "Did you watch us as we came to the chamber, my lady?"
"I caught part of it, Torgo. You have to ignore it. Don't let him get to you."
"He made threats."
"That's his nature. Forget it."
"Then you don't want anything done about him?"
"Not yet. He could be useful still. We have a long way to go."
"If it becomes necessary to remove him I'll let you know."
Torgo bowed, satisfied for the moment.
She would not send Torgo after Azel. Not unless it was Torgo she wanted dead.
Azel stepped into the vast dark hall that was Gorloch's last bastion in the world. Rites continued to be held there-attended only by the few believers who lived in the citadel. Last rites. A wake for a lost, majestic fury.
The appropriate candles were burning but, it seemed, they could not beat backthe darkness as they had in earlier times. The only real light glowed aroundthe great altar where the sacrifices had been given up to Gorloch. But eventhat light had faded. It had not been fed for six years. The glow no longerbeat back the night enough to reveal the great idol that looked down upon all.
Azel stirred himself, strode forward. His heels clicked upon the basalt floor.
Echoes bounded and rebounded and mixed till they sounded like the noise madeby the wings of a flight of bats.
Azel paused beyond the glow, considered the tableau frozen before him.
Nakar still lay arched backward over the altar, Ala-eh-din Beyh's enchanteddagger in his heart. One hand gripped the altar for leverage. The other was aclaw at the end of an extended arm, now clamped upon air as once it had beenclamped upon the Herodian sorcerer-hero's throat. Ala-eh-din Beyh lay on his side at Nakar's feet, still locked in the stance of a man using both hands todrive a blade into an enemy's heart while trying to lean back from a handtearing at his throat.
All the Witch's power had been able to do only that much to separate them. Theenchantment into which she had put them at death was that powerful.
Azel came to view the tableau each time he visited the citadel. Each time he came the darkness seemed to have closed in a little more.
If it devoured the glow entirely would it be too late for the project? Toolate for Qushmarrah?
Was the Witch so driven because she was racing against the darkness?
As he did each time he came, Azel genuflected slightly-but whether to Nakar, the altar, or to the god in the darkness beyond, even he could not have said.
Then he turned and left that place, and went out through the Postern of Fateinto the real world of a Qushmarrah sprawled helpless at the feet of herconquerors.
Bel-Sidek got the General seated at his table only moments before the first ofthe "nephews" arrived. The old man had called forth surprising reserves ofwill and had banished the appearance of ill health. He almost looked like theGeneral of old.
That first to arrive was "King" Dabdahd, who ran the Astan quarter. King wasthe least important of the guests expected. No trouble came out of the Astan.
King was the General's man.
Qushmarrah within the wall was divided into seven "quarters": the Shu, theShen, the Tro, and the Hahr (the original four quarters of the "Old City"), the Astan, the Minisia, and the waterfront. Bel-Sidek and the General ran thewaterfront and the Shu. The troublesome quarter, the Hahr, belonged to oneOrtbal Sagdet.
There were other quarters beyond the wall but they weren't even considered NewCity. They did not interest bel-Sidek or the General. The General's authorityextended only to the wall.
Bel-Sidek posted himself at the door, to greet the General's heirs as theyarrived.
"Good evening, King," the General said. "Make yourself comfortable. You'reseveral minutes early." His tone said he understood that meant King hadsomething to say before the others arrived-and he did not approve.
King always arrived early. King always had something to say about the others.
He was a petty, spiteful, back-stabbing, exasperating man working on gettinghimself designated heir apparent to a sick old man.
He had his good side, his uses, his talents, not the least of which was hisability to swim in the social waters inhabited by the big fish of the Herodianoccupation. His courage he had proven at Dak-es-Souetta.
Dabdahd said, "I saw Sagdet on my way here. He said he wouldn't be coming."
"Indeed? And why not?"
King did look chagrined as he said, "You know I've never been shy aboutexpressing my opinion of Sagdet, nor reluctant to report his shortcomings andpecadillos, but tonight I'll restrict myself to the observation that OrtbalSagdet no longer feels he is bound by your authority. Maybe Salom Edgit willstate it for him."
Dabdahd talked that way. Like he was making speeches he had rehearsed. Bel- Sidek thought he probably had.
Salom Edgit ran the Tro and was Sagdet's crony. His record at Dak-es-Souettawas a match for the best, but he had changed since then. Bel-Sidek thought ofhim as an onion rotting slowly from the heart outward, layer by layer.
Salom Edgit arrived only moments after King finished. He looked at the manfrom the Astan and seemed disappointed. Bel-Sidek suspected he'd had somethinghe'd wanted to say before the others arrived, too.
Bel-Sidek considered the two. Dabdahd was a tall man but slim, courageousenough but small at heart. Edgit was a slight man, short, still tough andgutsy, but somehow he had lost the vision that had breathed life into theLiving. His autonomy had died. He seemed to have become a chameleon, changingto look more and more like Ortbal Sagdet.
Carza and Zenobel arrived together. Bel-Sidek was sure that was significant.
Those two had no use for one another. The only thing they had in common wastheir dedication to the cause. Each bordered on being a fanatic. But theydisagreed fundamentally on strategy.
Zenobel wanted to build a strong secret army of patriots that could be wieldedin one furious hammer stroke. In the Shen he was doing things his way. TheShen was as quiet and trustworthy as the Astan.
Carza's vision was apocalyptic. He wanted to bring down the fire. He wanted totemper Qushmarrah in a holocaust that would rid the city of human dross andconsume the invaders. He did not expect to survive the fire himself.
He was willing to pay the price.
The General was not.
Carza was always a moment of frustration short of breaking away and raisingthe standard of holy war.
The General made a sign indicating that bel-Sidek should remain where he was.
When the newcomers had settled, he said, "Disturbing events in the Hahr twodays ago, khadifas." The strength of his voice surprised everyone. "Eighteensoldiers identified by citizens and executed by the Dartars."
Salom Edgit said, "The traitors will be rooted out and slaughtered."
"No. They will not. They were driven to it. When a man's supposed guardianbecomes more savage and rapacious than his avowed enemies, what is he to do? Ihave investigated, Salom. The people of the Hahr have been provoked beyondendurance. There will be no reprisals."
Edgit snapped, "We let a bunch of shopkeepers and artisans get away withbetraying us? The policy from the beginning has been ..."
"There will be no reprisals, Salom. None. The Living have heard what thosepeople were saying. There will be no more extortion. Those who fail to heedthis directive will be replaced. Am I clear?"
Edgit fumed. Twice he started to speak, thought better of it.
After a half minute of silence, during which bel-Sidek tortured himself tryingto understand how the old man could have probed events in the Hahr, theGeneral said, "Let us consider al-Akla's motives for doing what he did.
Eighteen soldiers taken and executed without questioning. The firstimplication is obvious. He wishes to place his men in a favorable light whilesparing the consciences of those who denounced them.
"But the Eagle flies high and far. His vision isn't that simple. His actioncould suggest that he had no need to question those men because he alreadyknew everything they could have told him. An unpleasant supposition butplausible considering the way things are run in the Hahr.
"Be still, Salom. This senile old man, who doesn't have the grace to die andleave you to the spoils, isn't finished."
Bel-Sidek watched carefully as Edgit fought the temper for which he was wellknown. Bel-Sidek wondered, and expected Salom was wondering, if the old manwasn't trying to provoke an outburst.
The General continued, "What message was Fa'tad sending us when he killed ourmen? What else is in his mind? The Eagle soars on the high wind, aboveeveryone and everything, but he is also like the sea. He has dark deeps, andmany secrets lie hidden within them. We don't know what surprises mightsurface from them."
No one said a word, though the General let silence expand till it became arushing cold wind pouring through the nighted and frightened hollows in everyheart.
"Carza. Have you surrendered? Have we lost Qushmarrah forever? Have we come tothe day of every man for himself?"
"I have a leg and two arms left. Sir."
"There is no defeat, General."
"I am among the living."
"Yes. As am I, to the despair of some. But I will not last much longer. I donot need to last. We are close to an event that will make this the year of Qushmarrah's delivery. We in the active organization need only buy time."
For the first time since the meet's commencement the General suffered a spasm that was too much for will to control. Bel-Sidek straightened, poised to help if summoned.
But it passed.
One day it would not.
"These are my commands. No member shall extort anything-whether monies, goods, or anything else-from any citizen of Qushmarrah. None of the Living shall participate in gangsterism or hooliganism in any form. Anyone guilty will discover that while the lion is old he has a tooth or two left. That is all for tonight. Tomorrow night we will meet again. The khadifa of the Hahr will join us." Salom Edgit concealed surprise ineffectually. Bel-Sidek watched his mouth twitch with words aching to be free, that dared not be spoken. The General had asserted his primacy successfully. For the moment.
As Edgit approached the door, the General said, "Salom, I'll want your answer tomorrow night." "Answer, sir?"
"To the question 'Is Salom Edgit a thief or a soldier?'"
The old man could barely discern movement as bel-Sidek shut the door. "How did I do, Khadifa?" "Superbly, sir. But I'm concerned about the physical price you paid. We'd better get you to bed."
The body wanted nothing more. But, "The work isn't finished. Bring writing materials."
Bel-Sidek did as he was instructed, started to settle to take dictation.
"No. I will do this myself. Put the things here before me."
Bel-Sidek obliged again, retreated to the far end of the room. He understood.
The old man inscribed his message with painstaking effort, making no mistakes. He amazed himself, what with his shaking hands and aching flesh. He sanded the ink, folded the paper, inscribed a solitary character on the outside.
"Now you can put me to bed. Then take that to Muma's hostelry. Give it to Muma himself. No one else. Insist. Then go spend the night with your widowed friend." He did not have to caution bel-Sidek against prying. The khadifa would deliver the message unopened. "Should we risk having you stay here alone after so much exertion?"
"We'll risk it, Khadifa. And I won't be alone long."
That was as much as bel-Sidek needed to know.
Aaron sat there looking at Naszif, mind void of conversation. Across the roomReyha burbled in Laella's arms. Naszifs face was pallid and wooden. He hadgotten through the amenities by rote. Aaron doubted that he knew who hisguests were.
A part of Aaron insisted that Naszif deserved any misfortune Aram handed him.
Another part-the part that so loved Arif and Stafa-empathized. Zouki wasNaszifs only son. The only one he would ever have by Reyha. And under Herodianlaw he could not put her aside, nor could he take a second wife.
Under Herodian law, which would not have been in place had the Seven Towersheld a few more days.
"Thus do the Fates conspire to render justice," Aaron muttered. Naszifs eyesunglazed for a moment, but he just looked puzzled, like a man who had heard aninexplicable sound. Then he slipped away into silent torment.
Laella sped him a look of appeal. It said, Do something! Say something!
Say what? That he was glad it was Naszif who had the pain? Reyha was herfriend. He had brought her so she could do what she could do. More she had noright to ask.
For all Naszif was a traitor and a bootlicker, though, Aaron had to admit thathe cared for his wife and son. Strongly. And in that care, perhaps, the seedsof treason might have found root. Aaron recalled Naszifs growing distress asReyha's day had approached. Maybe he had convinced himself that the Herodianswould let him run to Reyha if he opened the tower before her time.
Men had done meaner things for reasons less exalted than love.
Aaron swallowed. His throat had gone dry. Through that aridity he forced,
"They found two children that were stolen. Last week. In the Hahr. Where GoatCreek runs out of that boggy ground they're always talking about filling butnever get around to doing anything about."
Naszif began to show signs of interest. Laella sped Aaron a look of gratitude.
He continued, "The kids were all right. Healthy. Well fed. Decently clothed.
They just didn't remember anything."
"Where did you hear that, Aaron? When?" Suddenly, Naszif was all attention.
"If there was news like that I think I would have heard."
"I heard it yesterday at work. From this old man they call Billygoat. He's acaulker. He lives across from where they found the kids."
Naszifs intensity disturbed Aaron. He had tossed the incident out as a crumbof hope, not because he felt it meant anything. Concerned though he was aboutArif, he had given the story no weight. In a city the size of Qushmarrahchildren would be stolen and a few would turn up again.
"How could something as important as that happen and the news not be all overthe city, Aaron?"
"Be reasonable. Because it isn't news. You and me, we got a reason to care.
Most people don't. Only reason Billygoat told me was I was fussing about Arifand he wanted to cheer me up."
"But if there were two, maybe there were more. Maybe a lot. And nobody eversaid anything."
"That's possible. Good news don't travel like bad news does." Aaron noted thatReyha had stopped sobbing and was listening, face alight with irrational hope.
Naszif said, "I'm going to look into it. I'm going to ask around. Maybethere's something going on."
Aaron wondered what he had started. All he'd wanted was to lend a little support.
Laella said, "Those Dartars that tried to get Zouki back. They seemed to thinkthe Living did it."
Aaron sighed. He had known that would come. Sooner or later. When Laella gotan idea in her head she could hang on as long as her mother.
That's absurd," Naszif said.
"How do you know?"
Aaron had not repeated bel-Sidek's assurances for Laella, though she, likeeveryone in the neighborhood, suspected that the cripple was connected withthe Living and might even be important. She did not need more ammunition to becast into the volleys of gossip flying around the neighborhood.
"I just know," Naszif said, and there was a smugness to his declaration thatset Aaron's teeth on edge, that hurled a moral dilemma into his face like abucket of lava.
Naszif among the Living? Naszif, who might have been a tool of Herod oncebefore ...
Suddenly, like lightning's strike, there were a thousand questions to bedebated between himself and the ceiling beams. It was going to be a long andsleepless night.
His abrupt withdrawal excited no interest. Naszif was preoccupied.
Laella did look at him oddly, though. She would have questions. Whether toanswer would be the first decision. If so, then he would have to decide howmuch he dared reveal ...
Zouki managed to cry himself into a shallow, fitful, whimpering sleep, interrupted often by the outbreak of nightmare from one of the other children in the cage.
Azel strode into Muma's Place with no thoughts beyond getting a decent meal and a hot bath, not necessarily in that order. The bath was overdue. Then a long sleep. Tomorrow was soon enough to decide what he'd do with the week or so he would let the Witch stew. Ride up to the Elephant Rocks country and do some hunting? Too much like work.
Maybe to al-Quarda territory to fish in the sinkholes there. Whatever, wherever, someplace alone. He needed to get away from people and all the chains of duty, honor, loyalty, with which they tried to bind him, trying to jerk him this way and that. He needed to go somewhere where every step was not a step on a tightrope. He picked a table out of the way. It was late enough for the place to be quiet and offer him a choice of seating.
Maybe he ought to let her roast for two weeks. Or even a month. She needed dead time to make her think, time to understand that she was not letting reason be her guide. Azel grew wary the instant he spotted Muma. Muma no longer waited tables. Muma no longer stayed awake till this unholy hour. He glanced around carefully, looking for that odd late patron who took special notice of Muma's remarkable behavior. Anyone paying special attention did so with superbly feigned indifference.
Muma came to Azel's table.
"Azel." The proprietor invited himself to sit.
"You're up late."
"Got dragged out of a warm bed."
"I never have liked dropping in here late and finding you up. It's like coming home and finding vultures perched on the roof trees. You know the news ain't going to be good."
"Uhm." "What is it this time?"
"What would it be? A message." Palm flat on the table, Muma pushed something across. "You know the sign." That was not a question.
"Yeah. How old is it?"
"Half an hour, tops. Not stinking yet at all."
"Hmph! Time to get some food down, then."
"You know the sign."
"I got to take time to read the damned thing, don't I?" "I suppose. What doyou want?"
"Something portable. This is bound to tell me to go somewhere and do somethingtwo hours before it was written."
"Be right back with something." Muma hoisted himself up and waddled away.
Azel read the message. Come to me as soon as you receive this. There was nosignature.
Elegantly simple. Nothing there to tell Herodian or Dartar a thing. Even thesign on the outside, a crudely drawn palm sparrow, had no obvious or suspectmeaning or symbolism. If it fell into enemy hands it was unlikely to exciteany interest, unless by circumstance.
Muma came back with a loaf and a lump of a vigorous goafs-milk cheese. Azel muttered, "It must be my day for gourmet dining." "You're going out?"
"Of course. What else? Are your sons awake? I don't see any trouble around, but it's the kind you don't see that catches you up."
"They're awake. I told them. They'll cover you." Meaning anyone who tried tofollow him would be in for some major distress.
Azel stood, handed a coin across, collected his provender. "Later, Muma."
"With him I may need it."
The night had grown cool and clammy. Dew had started to form. Down nearer theharbor it would be getting foggy. The air was still as death. His heels sentechoes frolicking through the night. He did not sense anyone following him. Hesaw no sign of Muma's sons. But they were good. They would not be seen, unlessby a watcher a moment before the risks of his trade caught up.
Nevertheless, Azel took his usual detour through the Shu maze, where the onlyway a follower could stay on him would be by sorcery. He knew the maze wellenough to walk it eyes closed at midnight.
In places it was just as dark at noon.
He left the maze for Char Street through the same alleyway he had used thatafternoon. Fog had gotten that far up the hill already. He turned right.
And three steps later nearly collided with a man and woman coming downhill. Hemuttered an apology as, startled, they dodged around him. His own damnedfault, walking on cat feet, listening for footsteps behind him and paying noattention at all to the path ahead. He followed their hasty footsteps andurgent, whispered reassurances without turning his head. He let his heels falllike those of an honest man so they would know he hadn't doubled back on them.
He walked a hundred yards past his destination, then crossed Char Street andreturned downhill on quiet feet. A hundred yards below his destination he crossed again and walked uphill. There was no sign of the couple he hadstartled. Nor were there any of the watchers against whom his maneuver wasdirected. He had not expected any, but when you had an al-Akla and a Cadofinagling on the occupier's side you took precautions.
He glided to the door and inside with serpentine grace.
Salom Edgit had not gone home after leaving the General, though hislieutenants were there awaiting his report. Instead, he had gone a half mileout of his way, to an upthrust of rock called the Parrot's Beak by most butremembered as the Kraken's Beak by a few of the old folks. It was supposed tobe haunted by the shades of eight brothers who had been murdered there in theyear of the city's founding.
Salom had been fleeing to the Parrot's Beak for time out to think for as longas he could remember. If ghosts there were, they accepted him. He'd never beendiscommoded by a supernatural intervention.
He perched on the tip of the Beak and without focusing on anything, stared outat what could be seen of Qushmarrah by starlight. A tide of mist was risingfrom the harbor.
He spent an hour there,then went off down into the Hahr.
Salom hammered till Ortbal's man opened up. "Yes, Khad-ifa?"
"I need to see Ortbal."
"His Lordship is sleeping, sir."
"His Lordship? You go tell Ortbal to get his fat royal butt up before ...
Never mind. I'll tell him myself. His Lordship. Aram have mercy on fools." Hepushed past the protesting batman, stamped through the house. It had severalstoreys but Ortbal, being lazy, seldom left the ground floor. He noted thatthe house, like Ortbal himself, had begun to take on airs. He kicked openSagdet's bedroom door.
There was light aplenty inside. Ortbal was at his pleasures.
"You! Out!" Salom snapped at the woman.
She fled like a whipped dog.
Ortbal reddened, but he restrained his anger. Salom Edgit was not the kind ofman who busted in on people. And he was mad as hell. You were careful withSalom when his temper was up. He was unpredictable. Dangerous. Ortbal Sagdetwas not the sort to put himself at risk. "You're upset, Salom."
"Damned right, I'm upset. Look at you! ... Yes. I'm upset. I'm overreacting.
I know it and I can't stop."
"Rough meeting?" The slightest concern edged Sagdet's voice.
"You should have been there."
"I was making a statement by staying away."
"Your statement was heard, understood, and dismissed as trivial. That wasn't ablind, senile, dying old man, Ortbal. That was the General and he was incharge every second. He did the talking. Not a word got spoken that he didn'task for. He didn't ask, he didn't argue, he just told. And he knew abouteverything that's been going on."
"No. More than King."
"You'd better give me the details." Sagdet's concern was plain now.
Salom told it. Sagdet interjected questions as he progressed.
"No reprisals at all?"
"Those were his orders."
"My people are going to be real irritated about that."
"I don't think he cares, Ortbal. You know that? I don't think he's concerned about your ..." "Stuff the moralizing and get on with it." And a minute later, "Did he say how I'm supposed to raise operating funds?"
"If the old man was here he'd just look at this bordello and tell you he lives where he lives."
"He would. The old bastard expects us all to live like vermin."
And later, Sagdet exploded with incredulity. "He said I'd be there tomorrow night?" "He did. And you'd better show. You miscalculated your time and started your break too early. You'd better back off. Let time finish its work."
Ortbal asked several questions. Then, "What did he hit you with, old friend?"
"He told me I had to decide if I was a thief or a soldier."
"And you've made up your mind, haven't you? You still buy this foolishness called the Living. After six years of Herodian occupation you still think that crazy old man can do what armies couldn't."
"That isn't the question, Ortbal. I don't know if he can do it or not.
Probably not. That doesn't matter. He told me to decide if I'm a thief or a soldier. I'm not a thief. I came here because I owe you the debts of friendship. I had to caution you. I've acquitted my obligation." "Probably expected you to run straight here, too. Twisted your tail just so and here you came."
"So we come to a parting of roads. If I don't show up tomorrow night. Whatwill he do if I don't show?"
"I don't know."
"What can he do?"
"You take that attitude you might find out. He for sure won't sit still."
"So I'd better do some thinking."
"Will you be there?"
"You'll find that out when you walk in the door, Salom." Sagdet smiled. Thatonly made his pudgy face look malicious. Edgit knew he had no intention ofshowing.
Azel paused to lengthen the wick in the little lamp inside the door. A voicecroaked, "I'm in bed."
Azel stepped into the bedroom. The old man looked terrible. He set the lampdown. "You were waiting? You were that confident I would get your messageright away?"
"No. I sleep a lot but I'm a very light sleeper. You woke me when you openedthe door."
Azel felt he had not made enough noise to disturb a mouse. "I'll have tolighten my step."
"I have very good ears. Was that you with the boy in the alley today?"
"It was. It was a close thing."
"The Dartars were so interested Fa'tad himself came out to poke around."
Azel was astonished. "Really?"
"Yes. You be careful. That man has a nose better than my ears. Lay off for awhile. You don't have to round up the whole population overnight."
"Tell it to the Witch. I tried. She's got a thirty-brat backlog and it takesthree days to make sure each one isn't the one she's looking for. But shewon't slow down. She's gotten obsessed with the idea that she's got to get allthe kids rounded up before any of them kick off. Like she's sure that if evenone of them croaks that'll be the one she wants and she'll have to do the whole damned thing over again."
"Behind another five- or six-year wait. I can understand her anxiety. I shareit. I won't live that long and I'd like to see results before I go. But notnegative results, which is what we'll get if Cado or Fa'tad catches on.
Fa'tad's behavior today indicates that caution is necessary. Would it do anygood if I were to admonish her myself?"
"No. Her deal with us is a marriage of convenience. She's only interested ingetting what she wants."
Azel answered with an uncharacteristic shrug. "I walked out. For the time being. That'll slow her down."
"But she has other help."
"Yeah. Two other guys."
"Are they any good? Who are they?"
"They're good. Not as good as me, but good. One is named Sadat Agmed. He's in it for the money. The other is Ishabal bel-Shaduk."
"Comes of religious stock, no doubt."
"Very. He's the fanatic."
"The other sounds Dartar."
"His father was. He hates them."
"Could you persuade them to lay off for a while, too?"
"I doubt it. I'm not supposed to know who they are."
"I'll think about the problem. Anything else? Anything from Cado's direction?"
"He's expecting a new civil governor any day now."
The General smiled. A rare event. "That would be what? The eighth since the conquest?" "Ninth. They just send people they'd rather not have around but don't dare kill in Herod." "And the Living take the blame." "Or harvest the credit. Was there some reason you sent for me?" "The problem in the Hahr has become critical. As I feared. Quick action now appears to be the only long-term solution."
"This is a difficult thing."
"Is it? How soon do you need it?"
"Sunset tomorrow at the latest. But the sooner the better."
"It will become difficult after that time. I thought you were going to scout the terrain should action become necessary."
"Can you manage?"
"If I must."
"You must. Will you need help?"
"Let me know when it's done."
"Right." Azel walked away from the old man. He tapped the lamp wick down andput it back where he had found it. Then he went out into the fog. He did acareful circuit to make sure no watcher had taken station while he was inside.
He believed in being careful.
Bel-Sidek stood staring out at the fog that covered most of Qushmarrah. Hecould not see much. On a night with a moon, that fog would have stretched likea sprawl of silvery carpet from which parts of buildings grew. To his right, on a slightly higher elevation, the blot of the citadel of Nakar theAbomination masked the stars. Funny. Six years and still a black odor leakedout of the place.
The Witch and her crew were still in there, still holding out, untouchablebehind the barrier only Ala-eh-din Beyh had been able to penetrate. How thehell did they survive in there?
One popular theory held that they hadn't. It contended that the Witch and allof Nakar's people had killed themselves after their master's fall.
Bel-Sidek did not believe that, though he had no evidence to the contrary.
From behind him Meryel asked, "Is it the old man?"
Without turning, he replied, "How did you know?"
"You only brood when you're troubled by someone you love. I think you've madeyour peace with yourself about your son and your wife."
Bel-Sidek's son, Hastra, was another of those who had not come home from Dakes- Souetta. As Meryel's husband had not. Hastra, his only child, the star ofhis heart. For years he had brooded the what-ifs. What if there had been noDartar treachery at Dak-es-Souetta? Win or lose, would the poisonous hatredstill blacken his blood? Was he, like so many men he knew, hanging everything on the horns of the Dartar demon, so to evade taking anyresponsibility that was his own? He'd never worked that out, only come torealize that the brooding was as pathetic and pointless as the howling of adog over the still form of a fallen master.
The wife was another story. The wife had nothing to do with win or lose orDartar treachery. The woman, whose very name he strove to drive from his mind, had deserted him almost before his wounds had healed. With the connivance and blessing of her family. Almost unheard-of in Qushmarrah, a dowry abandoned.
But they'd had an eye for the main chance. And who wanted a cripple in the family? Political or physical?
"There's you," bel-Sidek said.
"I never give you cause to brood."
True. Quite true.
The wife had run to one of the new breed of Qushmarrahans, that the Herodianswere making over in their own image. The man had adopted all the approveddress and manners and had taken the conquering god for his own. And he hadprospered, collaborating with the army of occupation. And then he had died ofan inability to breathe, for which bel-Sidek had had no responsibility at all.
He suspected the General had given the order. He had not asked, and neverwould.
"Is it something you want to talk about?"
"I don't think so." Out there, beneath that fog, men were moving. Some werevillains and some were soldiers of the Living. There would be bodies in themorning. And who would know which had been slain by whom? The General, perhaps.
Let Fa'tad play his transparent games and take away the day. The nightbelonged to the old order, and would come out of the shadows someday soon.
"Maybe I do want to talk," he said. He closed the filigreed doors to thebalcony, turned to face his companion.
Meryel was seven years older than he. Her skin was too dark and her featurestoo coarse for her ever to have been thought beautiful. Or even pretty. Agenerous dowry had helped her marry well.
She was too short and too fat and dressed with the eye for style of agoatherd. She drank rivers of date wine, proscribed by both Aram and theHerodians' tempestuous god. She was, invariably, inevitably, an embarrassmentin public. She said the wrong things at the wrong times and burst into gigglesin the wrong places.
She was his best friend.
"He's shutting me out. More and more, he's hiding things from me. He didn'tused to send me away when he wanted to meet with somebody. But the last sixmonths ..."
"You distrust his reasons?"
"Does he distrust you?"
"No. Of course not. How could he and live with me?"
"You don't think it's the normal course of security?"
"You do talk where you shouldn't."
Bel-Sidek looked at her sharply.
"Here. To me."
"I'm sure you've been checked every way he can imagine." He knew she had, knew the General trusted her almost as much as he trusted her himself.
"Should I be flattered? Is it just that your feelings are hurt, then?"
"No. Maybe. I guess that's part of it. But I'm worried for him, too."
"And have you considered the chance that his ego is involved, too?"
"I don't know. I don't know what he's up to. I do know he thinks enough of you to have made you his adjutant. Of all those who would have taken it. To me that says he values your opinion. Maybe that's why he's shutting you out." "I don't follow that."
"He's a sick old man. He doesn't have much time. He knows that. He's desperate for results before he goes. Maybe he has a scheme he knows you wouldn't approve." "That's possible."
She really was quite a remarkable woman, so inept in some ways and so damnably competent in others. In a culture wholly dominated by males she had established her independence, if not equality. She had managed that because she understood money, power, and the power of money.
The one truly daring thing she had done was, on hearing the first grim whispers from Dak-es-Souetta, to assume that her husband was among the dead.
She had moved instantly to assume an iron grip on both his fortune and her dowry, and had not been the slightest bit hesitant to use force and terror to stay the claims of both families. They said she had had her own father beaten. And yet ... she could not cope in the society into which her wealth had propelled her.
Nor did she care, apparently. Apparently all she wanted was the power to make half the human race leave her alone. Amazing contradictions these days, bel-Sidek reflected. Meryel was a boil on the face of all the old man held holy, yet he must approve of her, if not for bel-Sidek's sake, then for the sake of the coffers of the Living. She was one of the movement's strongest supporters. What a tangle of ethics and traditions had come out of one day's dying.
"That could explain it," bel-Sidek admitted. "But I don't like it."
"Of course you don't. If you were going to like it you'd know everything there was to know already. Wouldn't you?"
"I suppose." He opened the filigreed doors and stepped out onto the balcony.
Qushmarrah had not changed in his absence. The tide of fog had risen a littlehigher, that was all. The air was so damnably still that the boundary betweenfog and not-fog was as sharp as a saber's edge. As he watched, a man camestriding up out of it like some thing of dark legend marching out of the mistsof nightmare.
What a turn of mind tonight, he thought. The man was probably a baker on hisway to work.
Meryel said, "Since you aren't in a mood for anything else, why not talkbusiness? I have two ships coming in from Benagra. I'll need reliable men tounload them."
It was how they had come to meet. He was khadifa of the waterfront. She hadstrong interests in shipping, gently helped to grow by the gentlemen of theLiving. Her captains imported the arms that dared not be smithed anywhere inQushmarrah.
As Azel strode up out of the fog he was thinking that there was still a chancehe could get some sleep tonight, but he'd have to forget about getting awayfor any fishing or hunting. He had been out of touch in several directions andit looked like things were going to happen. A week away and he might return toa chaos he could not unravel.
He glanced at the hulking blot of the citadel, wondered if the Witch wasgetting any sleep tonight. Probably. She thought she was like the citadelitself: above the dirt and turmoil of Qushmarrah.
She might end up learning the hard way.
He crested the hill, putting the harbor side behind him. Ahead lay the Hahr, the most prosperous quarter of the Old City. Behind lay the Shu, the poorestand most densely populated quarter, where sons had stacked homes beside andatop those of their fathers till half the quarter was like some enormous madmud daubers' nest where anyone who lived off the thoroughfares first had toclimb up to the sunlight and cross the rooftops in order to reach a street.
The labyrinth underlay it all, sometimes open all the way to the sky, moreoften built over and now with old doorways sealed lest doom slip up by thatroute. The maze was so deadly that even the most desperate homeless seldomstole in for shelter. That territory belonged to the boldest of the bad boys.
Azel had met people in there who made him nervous. Weird people. Crazy people.
People you had to deal with harshly to get your message across. And some whojust could not learn.
Azel had grown up in the Shu. At seven he had been orphaned and left homeless.
He did not remember much about his parents except that his mother had criedall the time and his father had yelled almost as much and had beaten them alla lot. He had a notion that it might have been he who had set the fire thatconsumed them-except that he had an equally fuzzy recollection of his brothergiving the old man fifteen or twenty good ones to the head with a hammerbefore the fire.
He hadn't seen his brother since.
There was nothing he wanted to remember from those days, no little heirloom hecarried around and treasured.
At fourteen he had gone to sea and had gotten to know most of the ports aroundthe rim of the sea. He had survived them all and most of them had survived him. At twenty-one he had returned to Qushmarrah.
It had not been long before he had fallen in with the remnants of the Gorlochcult. Its grim philosophy appealed to him, though he took from it only whatsuited him and discarded the rest. He was not weak. He had no higher god thanhimself.
Soon he caught the eye of the High Priest, Nakar. The sorcerer gave him oddjobs. He handled them swiftly, efficiently, no matter how difficult or cruel.
In a moment of humor Nakar had begun calling him Azel after the demon whocarried Gorloch's messages to the living world. Azel the Destroyer.
Never did he commit himself to the god or to the man. Not entirely. Azel couldnot give himself wholly to anyone but Azel.
He had missed Dak-es-Souetta. He hadn't been trapped in any of the towers atHarak Pass. He hadn't participated in the rout on the Plain of Chordan nor hadhe been there for the hopeless defense of Qushmarrah after the pride of heryouth and manhood had been slaughtered or scattered, chaff driven by the hotbreath of Death.
His absence did not shame him. It would not have shamed him had he done nothing for the city that had done nothing for him. He knew nothing aboutshame. But he had in fact been doing something. He had been in Agadar, westalong the coast, where the Herodian armies had landed. His few carefullystruck blows against Herodian commanders had-unfortunately, as it haddeveloped-delayed the invading armies the month necessary for Fa'tad al-Aklato gather his tribal warriors and race to Dak-es-Souetta.
Thus do the Fates conspire.
Azel paused across the street from the house that was his destination. Almostthe instant his feet stopped moving the door opened over there. Azel easedback into deeper shadow.
Could it be?
Of course not. The Fates neither loved him so well nor hated Sagdet so much.
He sank down onto his heels, tucked his hands in, turned his face down, andwatched under his brows. The man passed within ten feet without seeing him.
It was the one called Edgit. Perhaps the old man would want to know that hehad been here.
Azel moved almost before Edgit was out of sight. He had scouted the house. Thebest way in was through the front door. If he got there quickly whoever hadlet Edgit out might think the guest had returned for something.
He knocked. In seconds the door opened. An irritated voice started to say,
"His Lordship ..."
Azel shot his left hand to the man's throat, gripped. He brought his right around in a hook to the temple. A brass knuckleduster took the impact. The mansagged.
Azel lowered him to the floor, easing him out of the way of the door, which heclosed but did not latch. Quickly, but with care because he did not know theinterior layout, he passed through the house to the back, then to the eastside, to unlatch the doors there and open alternate avenues of retreat. Onlythen did he approach the one room from which sounds of life could be heard.
The door was not latched. And the sounds were what he'd suspected them to be: those of a man and woman rutting.
Gorloch be praised! Or the Fates, if it be deserved. The woman was astride, facing away, and the man had his eyes closed. Azel slipped into the room. Hepicked up a discarded sash as he crossed the room, wrapped one end around hisleft hand, let the other fall free. The woman sensed his approach in the laststep, started to turn. His blow stilled her curiosity before she caught aglimpse of him No stopping the man from seeing him and loosing a startled, squeaking, "You!
What the hell are you doing?" as he thrashed out of his entanglement with thewoman and started to flee on all fours. "Who sent you? The General? Is hetrying to scare me? I don't have to put up with this!"
Fat jiggled olive skin. Absurd broad buttocks humped and swayed. He gainedground. He reached the corner where Azel wanted him, scrabbled at the walls toget to his feet, spun with a mouth full of bluster and threats.
None of which got spoken.
"Oh, Aram! You mean it! Damn it, man... . I'll back down. Tell him! I'll doit his way. You don't have to do this! We can deal!" He raised pudgy hands, pushed at the air. "Don't! What do you want? I've got money... . Please?"
Azel was close enough. Leaving one imaginary opening to his right, he feintedwith the sash in his left hand.
Sagdet darted for the perceived opening.
Azel's fist smashed into the side of his head. He spun against the wall.
Before Sagdet could recover his wits Azel had the sash around his neck and aknee in the middle of his back.
Sagdet struggled, as any dying thing must, but his efforts only served to puthim facedown on the floor, where his assailant had a greater advantage. Oncethere he could do nothing but paw and claw and pound the stolen carpet againstwhich he was being crushed.
Azel felt the body shudder, smelled the stench as sphincters relaxed. Sagdetmust have had an abominable diet. He held on for a count of another twenty, then knotted the sash in place.
He went to the woman, touched her throat. Her pulse was strong and regular.
Good. None should be hurt who had not earned it.
He walked a reverse course through the house, leaving the side and back doorsopen wide. He checked the pulse of the man he had left inside the front door, found it a little ragged but not dangerously so. He looked outside carefullybefore he departed. Leaving the front door standing open, too.
It would not be long before thieves accepted the invitation and swept to theplunder, obliterating completely the reality of what had happened.
The General wakened to the whisper of the street door. The light of the lampmoved across the outer room. "Is that you?"
"It's done. The man Edgit was leaving as I arrived."
Something stirred in the old man's innards, settled in the pit of his gut liketen pounds of hot, poisonous sand. He could not become accustomed to orderingexecutions. "Good, then."
The lamp moved away, back toward the street door. "He promised that he'd mendhis ways. That he'd never do it again."
The old man listened to the door close, perhaps shutting him off from half athought. What the hell had the man meant?
That had not been a taunt, nor an accusation, nor even a bald statement offact. It had had an odor of admonition about it, a smell of the cautionaryparable.
The mass in his gut grew heavier.
He drifted off to sleep without having figured it out.
Aaron tore chunks off a sheet of unleavened bread and used them to dip bitesof whatever it was that Mish had made for breakfast. He did not notice that the bread had been burned on one side or that the rest of the meal could not be identified even by someone paying close attention. He barely noticed whatMish was doing while Laella still slept.
After the late night with Reyha and Naszif they had come home to find Stafarestless and whiny with a mild fever and stubbornly insisting that he had notbeen weaned.
Aaron thought Laella had made a mistake nursing the boy as long as she had butthat was not on his mind. Nor was he preoccupied with the task that faced himat work. He had not built and set a mast step before, but it was just a job ofcarpentry and he had faith in his skills as a carpenter.
No. His preoccupation remained Naszif and what, if anything, to do about him.
And he knew he had come to an impasse because he was unable to remove himselffrom the situation far enough to view it dispassionately. He could notdiscern, much less untangle, his chains of personal and moral and patrioticobligation. If such existed. He was not sure they did.
It all depended, first, upon the depth of his conviction that Naszif hadopened that hidden postern. If the accusation was mere prejudice, if there wasdoubt about the guilt, if someone else had been the malefactor, then there wasno problem. Naszif could be ignored.
But if Naszif was guilty, then the Living might be clutching an asp to itsbosom.
Was it his place to be concerned? He had a sentimental, romantic attachment tothe Living, but no commitment. He wasn't sure he really wanted them to doanything about the occupation. Some out-of-the-dark, miraculous triumph by thediehards might hurt him more than it helped.
Before the coming of Herod his life had been good. But it was better now. Hegot paid more. And there was as much work as he wanted, so that he could takehome as much money as he wanted. And the Herodian operators never tried tocheat a man of his wages.
He had prospered under the Herodian occupation. He had been lucky. To balancethe extra mouths in his household Aram in his kindness had given him nodaughters to dowry. He had almost enough saved to get his family out of theShu, over the hill, and into the Astan, where they could have a decent life.
If Laella did not become pregnant in the next year ...
He could work for himself in the Astan, doing work he enjoyed. Building shipsrequired craftsmanship but allowed no scope for individual vision or artistry.
Among the few concrete certainties in Aaron's world was his conviction thatNaszif had opened that postern in that tower.
Coming home last night he had asked Laella who she considered to be her bestfriend. He had gotten the expected answer without hesitation or reflection: Reyha. Then he had asked who she considered her worst enemy, or who she mosthated. Consciously he had anticipated hearing the name of a neighbor with whomshe had been feuding for years. But unconsciously, maybe, he had expectedsomething akin to the answer he did get after several minutes of reflection.
"The people who made Taidiki kill himself."
And that was ambiguous enough to include almost everyone.
He had wanted to narrow it a little, maybe get a hint of how she would feel ifhe told her about Naszif and the postern, but just then the man had come outof the fog like a specter, startling and frightening them, and had gainedreality only after he had passed them and his feet had begun hitting theground. After that they were too nervous to do anything but hurry for home anda door that could lock out the frights of the night.
Aaron wanted to talk. To Laella preferably, but to anyone who might show him apath out of his quandary. The situation had led him to a shocking realization.
He had no friends. He did not know anyone he trusted enough to ask advice. His ties beyond his family were tenuous and transitory, involving men with whom he worked. Men who, for the most part, he never saw again after a job was over.
What had become of the close friends of youth?
Dak-es-Souetta, mostly. Mish asked, "Are you working today, Aaron?"
The boys started in before he could answer. "Don't go to work today, Dad. Stay home, Dad." It was a minor Herodian religious holiday and he could take the day off. If hedid, though, tomorrow he would have to present his Herodian employers with anattendance token from one of the Herodian temples. A price he did not care topay. Not to mention not wanting to lose the income. And maybe get a badreputation. That mast step had to go in today.
"Yes. I'm working."
Mish scowled. That meant she had to manage the household at least till Laella rose.
The Herodians did not take off for minor holidays.
Aaron said nothing to Mish, but he added her to his mental agenda. He was fed up with her sulks and pouts and shirkings. If she thought she had it so bad here, let her go out there and try to whine her way through the real world.
"Dad! Stafa's got to pee."
"No, I don't!" Stafa stood slightly hunched, one hand gripping his crotch.
"Go pee in the pot, Stafa."
"Stafa, go pee in the pot." "No!"
The boy had reached that stage of housebreaking where he was aware of what he had to do but still fervently opposed having to do it for himself. "I'll spank your butt." "Carry me, Dad."
"Carry you? You get over there."
"No. Carry me."
"Come here, you argumentative little rat."
All trust, Stafa came to him. He grabbed the boy's right foot, lifted it while Stafa clung to his shoulder for balance. "You see this, Stafa? What's this?"
"That's my foot."
Aaron shifted to Stafa's left foot. "And what's this?"
"That's my other foot."
"And why do you think the Good Lord Aram put feet on the ends of your legs?"
Stafa did not pause to think. He just said it. "To keep my toes pointing out."
Everyone laughed but Arif. Even Mish. Stafa grinned, though he understood nobetter than Arif. Aaron rose. "All right, brat. You win." He grabbed Stafaunder the arms and carried him to the chamber pot. The boy wiggled and kickedhappily.
It was a story to tell at work.
It took his mind off his troubles. Mish handed him his usual lunch of bread, cheese, and sausage and he took off.
The sun had not yet risen.
Glop! Plop! Slop! In quick succession the Qushmarrahan cooks filled Yoseh'sbowl with a three-ounce chunk of blubbery flesh cooked forever and an hour, six ounces of some mushy stuff that might have started life in a grain field, and half a small loaf that was meant to be broken into pieces and used to dipthe mush.
"Oh, boy," Yoseh said. "I was hoping we'd have this stuff again this morning."
They had had the same thing every morning since he had come to the city.
Mo'atabar, whose duties approximated those of a sergeant to a commander of ahundred in the Herodian army, said, "Every day is feast day in Qushmarrah, where the streets are paved with gold."
That came every morning, too, just like the mush. It was one of Mo'atabar'sdaily rituals, like his inevitable serenade in the barracks each morning, while dawn was still an uncertain impulse in the councils of the gods. "Riseand shine, my children. Rise and shine. It's another glorious day in servicein the city of lead and gold."
The men always laughed when Mo'atabar did one of his things. Yoseh knew he wasbeing sarcastic and making mock of tribal ideas about Qushmarrah, but he didnot see the humor.
He and his brothers and cousins settled to eat. Nobody said much. Nogah was ina grim mood. What last night had looked like an opportunity to do somethingunusual and maybe make a splash had turned on him. This morning the word wasthat the whole troop was going in to work on the Shu maze. One hundredeighteen men, not eight. Mo'atabar and his uncle Joab, the captain, would baskin the warmth of Fa'tad's approval if the operation uncovered something al- Akla wanted to find.
Yoseh suspected Fa'tad had had one of his visions, or intuitions, orinspirations, or whatever they were, and had decided that the Shu maze wassufficiently important to rate more manpower and the watchful eye of one of his oldest cronies.
Joab was one of those half dozen men who had flown wingtip-to-wingtip with theEagle for forty years.
Nogah ought to think about that and not about his hurt feelings.
The sun was still just an imminent threat when the troop rode out of thecompound and turned toward the Gate of Autumn. Yoseh and his companions rodepoint. An honor, of sorts, but one Yoseh was willing to forgo if things shouldlook like they were getting sticky.
He had not come to Qushmarrah to become the hero of epic adventures, nor toget dead.
The gate was not yet open. Other traffic was arriving, too, piling up in thesmall square the gate towers commanded. Joab rode forward and began cursingthe sleepy Herodian gatemen in their own language, calling them the sons ofwhores, feeders on the dung of camels, and suppurating pustules upon themanhood of their god. Joab did not like Herodians. He insulted Herodiansoldiers every chance he got, in repayment for the insult implicit in the factthat the Herodian military commander required the tribesmen to be out of thecity and in their compound by nightfall every evening.
Yoseh said, "He's provoking them. Deliberately. Someday somebody is going toget mad and try to kill him."
"No," Nogah said. "He scares the shit out of them. They think he's crazy."
"So do I."
"It's all an act. Something Fa'tad put him up to, to make them think we're allcrazy. I think."
"You never know with Fa'tad."
Joab's fulminations had their effect. The gate groaned open. Arrogantly, Joabled his troop through before the merchants. The regular patrols were arriving.
They attached themselves to the column. The merchants had to wait while athousand tribesmen entered the city.
Yoseh hadn't been north a week before he had realized there was a verycomplicated and subtle game going on between Fa'tad and Cado, the Herodianmilitary governor. Herodian troops held all the key points of the city, andwhat had been the palace of the city's impotent figurehead prince was nowcalled Government House and was occupied by Cado and his captains. Cado kepthis men out of sight as much as possible. Their standards were seldom seen inpublic. The hand, the mailed fist, of the occupation was always Dartar.
Fa'tad had responded by making his men work as a police force of sorts, metingout instant and ferocious retribution to the city's human predators wheneverand wherever they were unearthed. They settled disputes impartially. Theyscared up employers who needed workers and people who needed work and put themtogether. Where it was within their power they tried to relieve the sufferingof the poor.
"So we end up helping old women cross the street and change the young ones'babies," Nogah grumped. "And for what? Answer me that, kid. So we can win thesympathy of the lower classes? They don't have any power and their sympathywon't send one head of livestock down south."
"I think Fa'tad's mind encompasses more than the chore of keeping the tribesfrom starving."
"That's the problem. He's so busy scheming he can't keep his mind on thebusiness that brought us here."
The patrols dispersed into the city but Joab's troop kept on westward, downone of the broad avenues of the Astan, across Goat Creek, a hundred fiftyyards along the foot of the tumbled and brushy remnants of the Old Wall. Oneof the older men behind Yoseh began reminiscing about how the damned stubbornveydeen had tried to make a stand along here and the damned fool ferrenghi hadwanted Fa'tad to make a mounted charge across the boggy ground and creek andup the rubble to dislodge them.
"Al-Akla told them what to do with their charge. So they sent in their ownmen. And they got murdered just like Fa'tad said they would."
The column passed through a gap in the rubble flanked by broken columns, aonetime gateway. It entered the narrow streets of the Hahr, climbed the hillto the wide-open plazas around the citadel. Yoseh could not look at that placewithout shuddering, though he knew Ala-eh-din Beyh had rendered it powerlessStill ...
Still, the Herodians persisted in trying to figure out how to break in. Maybejust to recover the body of their hero, but maybe for something more. Maybefor the fabled treasure.
Yoseh half suspected that Fa'tad had his eyes on the treasure, too.
The column passed through the spaciousness of the acropolis and entered theShu, nudging the head of Char Street tentatively at first, like a snakechecking the mouth of a gopher hole. Then it surged forward.
Char Street was aboil with humanity already. Like a flyblown carcass, Yosehthought, feeling the weight of their numbers pressing in on him. They partedbefore the pressure of the column, then stood at the street sides gawking. Howlong since they had seen such a force of Dartars in the Shu? Since the days ofQushmarrah's fall? Maybe not even then. There wasn't much in the Shu worthfighting for.
Men began dropping off the column's tail in sixes and eights each time anentryway to the labyrinth appeared. Yoseh soon realized that a hundredeighteen men were not enough to cover just the rat holes on Char Street, letalone all the others around the periphery.
Nogah told Mo'atabar, "This is the place."
"Go ahead. Peel off."
Nogah beckoned the rest of them to the side of the street, jostlingQushmarrahans who took that in silence. Yoseh looked into the mouth of that alley and shivered. Superstitious dread, he told himself. That dangerous, widelittle man was long gone.
The column moved on. They watched, waiting to dismount. Yoseh glanced downtoward the heavenstone blue of the bay. His eyes met those of the same oldwoman he had seen yesterday afternoon. This morning the iron was missing fromher expression. She looked a little puzzled, a little lost.
A girl came to the door behind her. Yoseh's gaze was drawn to her unveiledface. His eyes bugged. Their gazes met.
The old woman snarled something at the girl.
She retreated, but only a step or two. Just far enough not to be seen from thecorner of the crone's eye. She continued to stare. And so did Yoseh, whichgave her away.
Mahdah struck him in the thigh. "Yoseh, you want to come down from there?" Andhe realized it was the third time he had been told to dismount. Cheeks hot, hemade the camel kneel, ' slid off.
Nogah said, "You and Medjhah stay with the animals, kid." Yoseh had thefeeling his brother was laughing behind his veil. Nogah punched Mahdah'sshoulder as they got their stuff together to go into the alley. "Justyesterday he was asking me why we stay in Qushmarrah."
Bel-Sidek watched the Dartar column come down the hill, the groups droppingoff at each alley, and had to struggle to keep from gaping. "What the hell isgoing on?" he muttered. He'd never seen anything like it. He counted bodies.
Over a hundred of the bastards. What the hell was Fa'tad up to now?
The man was like that wild hare they had out along the marges of the Takes, always zigging just when the wild dogs expected it to zag. It showed a littlewiggle of the tail like it was going to go right and when the dogs were setfor the move it bounded to the left and gained thirty yards while they weregetting their legs untangled.
The Dartars just kept coming. The teams that dropped off began preparing ropesand shields and weapons and torches.
They were serious about invading the labyrinth.
Why? It was an exercise in futility.
Another of Fa'tad's efforts to please the mob? Another symbolic gesture?
Bel-Sidek was anxious to get across and check on the old man, but there was nopushing through the Dartars. Not without attracting unwanted attention.
"What are they doing, sir?"
Bel-Sidek glanced sideways at the man who had spoken. He was one of theassistants to one of the old man's lieutenants here in the Shu. Naszif something, a slimy little man bel-Sidek did not like. Almost by chance the manknew he was involved with the movement and more important than he. He had asubtly ingratiating manner that repelled bel-Sidek more than did King's openass-kissing.
"I was just wondering that myself. I don't think I missed anything about what happened here yesterday. It certainly doesn't deserve this kind of response."
The man's face went through amazing contortions.
"Are you all right?"
"Excuse me, sir. It was my son that was taken. That was what started it all." "Oh. I'm sorry. Have you had any news?"
"None, sir. Though a man I knew in the army told me about a couple of missing children turning up again. I've been checking around this morning and I've heard about several others that turned up, too, so I'm hopeful." "You have my prayers," bel-Sidek said. He wished he could get away. But there was no walking off.
"Thank you, sir. Did you hear about the murder, sir?" Bel-Sidek groaned inwardly. "No. I didn't."
"Over in the Hahr. A very rich man. There're rumors that he was the head of the Living in the Hahr." Bel-Sidek became alert and interested. He tried to feign mild curiosity. "What happened?"
"Thieves, the way I heard it. His house was stripped clean. He'd been strangled." Bel-Sidek thought he covered well. The end of the Dartar column was past.
"Interesting. Excuse me. I have to check on my father. He's been alone forseveral hours." He pushed across the street.
Sagdet strangled and his house cleaned out by thieves? That sounded remarkablylike the doom that had befallen half a dozen prominent men in recent years, among them three civil governors and his own wife's second husband. It hadn'toccurred to him to see a pattern before. He'd believed that the passing of thegovernors had been engineered in Government House, with Cado's connivance, though the Living had not refused to take the blame. The instances notinvolving governors, though, definitely bore the smell of punitivedeathstrokes by the Living.
Bel-Sidek was in a contemplative mood when he entered the house.
"That you, Khadifa?"
"I had begun to fear I was going to have to live off my own fat."
The old man's chiding was more teasing than carping. Still, bel-Sidek was vexed. He was feeling touchy.
"I was delayed."
"So I see. What is that uproar out there?"
Bel-Sidek listened. The street noise was a little louder than usual, but notenough for him to have noticed. "That's one half of the Shu asking the otherhalf what the hell the Dartars are up to." He stared down at the frail figurein the bed. The bed was the old man's only concession to the privilege ofrank. "Joab and better than a hundred men are out there. Looks like they'regoing to invade the labyrinth. They brought the necessary weapons and tools."
The General's husk of a face wrinkled in perplexity. "Why would they do that?"
What sort of viper's nest seethed behind those cataracted eyes? "I don't havethe foggiest idea. Because Fa'tad told him to. You're the expert on the mindof Fa'tad al-Akla."
"Do I detect a note of something sour, Khadifa? Do you have a grievance?"
"Last night you told us the khadifa of the Hahr would be with us for a generalpolicy meeting tonight."
"So I did. You object?"
"Not at all. But this morning a man on the street-that slimy Naszif creatureof Hadribel's-told me that Sagdet was murdered during the night. By thieves, perhaps. His house had been stripped of everything of value. But the timingstrikes me as remarkable and the nature of the death as unusually similar toseveral that have been claimed as executions by the movement."
The old man did not respond for a long time. Bel-Sidek waited him out, halfhis mind listening for a change in the street noise. There would be no gettingout if Joab was up to some elaborate ploy meant to net them. If he was alertthere would be time to silence the General and maybe himself while they werebreaking down the door and rushing the bedroom.
Morbid thoughts. These days, always the morbid thoughts, always the flexingthe muscles in anticipation of the worst.
"There is an operation already begun, Khadifa, that could mean the triumph ofthe movement. Right now it is young and vulnerable, like a newly hatchedchick. It must be nurtured. Exposure, even inadvertent exposure, through theprivateering of some of our brethren, could bring on the destruction of theentire movement."
A blatant grab for his sense of the dramatic. Bel-Sidek allowed himself adeprecatory snort.
"We have been drifting underground for months, to give Fa'tad and Cado theidea we're fraying around the edges and starting to fall apart. Except in theHahr, where Ortbal Sagdet decided to go ripping off on adventures of his own."
Essentially true, bel-Sidek admitted to himself.
"This is a crucial time, Khadifa. Every minute of the next six months will becritical. Ortbal Sagdet was never much of an asset, and lately had become adeadly liability. He was trying to spread the infection."
He spread it to Salom Edgit, of course. "But to have him killed ..."
"Could make of him an asset in death. You analyze the situation, Khadifa.
Armed only with the knowledge you possess as khadifa of the harbor. You'revery good at analyses. When you arrive at a superior solution, please informme."
"You said he would be here tonight."
"I said the khadifa of the Hahr would be here. I said nothing about OrtbalSagdet. See what's happening out there. Then fix breakfast."
The old man closed his eyes. Bel-Sidek knew he had been dismissed.
Before he reached the street door bel-Sidek understood that there had been no options with Ortbal. Not if they wanted Sagdet's organization intact and tameand doing what it was supposed to do.
Sagdet's death, with its signature, ought to have a salutarily instructionaleffect throughout the organization.
Necessary or not politically, bel-Sidek did not like them slaying their own.
The Dartars appeared to be doing exactly what it looked like they were doing: invading the maze. He reported that.
The old man said, "Fa'tad is tugging on Cado's mustache again. He knows theyhave a new civil governor coming and Cado is all tied up getting ready forthat. So the Eagle gives him something big and completely meaningless to drivehim crazy while he can't do anything. And maybe on the side, he's up tosomething sneaky. I'd vex Cado some myself if I dared."
"I see." Bel-Sidek went to make breakfast. The old man was probably right.
Fa'tad spent a lot of energy aggravating Cado. But it had no meaning beyondthe fact that they had an unhappy marriage. They still slept in the same bed.
When breakfast was done and cleaned up he took another look into the street.
The Dartars were dragging prisoners out now. Amazing.
He reported the development and suggested that it might be wise for him tostay home.
The old man told him to get his butt out of the house and down to thewaterfront.
Zouki was awake but pretending otherwise. It was morning now. He was all criedout but was still so scared he was numb. All he could think of was his mother.
Some of the other kids were talking. He wanted to yell at them to shut up. Buthe just lay there, being as small as he could, somehow hoping no one wouldnotice him.
The others fell silent. He could not help opening his eyes to see what washappening.
The biggest man he'd ever seen was fumbling with the lock on the cage door.
Behind him were two women with a shelved cart about six feet long. The shelveswere burdened with deep, covered dishes. He smelled it then. Food. Hot food.
It smelled good. He was hungry.
He sat up without considering what he was doing. He looked around. Hissurroundings surprised him. They were not nearly as awful as he had imaginedlast night. By the light of day he 'saw that the cage was huge. The children, while spread out, were all near the entrance. The cage was at least a hundredfeet across and fifty feet high. There were all kinds of trees and bushes andstuff in it. And birds in the trees, up high, almost to where the sunlightcame in through giant windows.
Down lower, he saw the curious faces of several rock apes peeking out of thebushes. The apes were as big as some of the kids. Maybe they were hungry, too.
The giant man got the door open. He came inside, started pointing his fingeraround like he was counting kids. When he was satisfied he beckoned the women, who rolled the cart through the entrance. The big man stepped in behind toblock the exit.
The women began handing dishes to children. Zouki noted that no one went tothem. Also, no one refused to take one of the deep stoneware dishes, orwhatever they were. The little girl nearest him whispered shyly, "You have toeat. Or they'll make you."
Now there was another cart coming, this one managed by four men. Zoukiaccepted a dish from one of the women. It was square, a little over a foot toa side, five inches deep, and elaborately decorated in designs in royal blue.
It was warm. He raised the heavy cloth covering.
There was a cup of something brown. There were two very small bread loaves, what looked like honey, and some orange segments. He did not recognizeanything else, but it all looked good, smelled good, and had to be expensive, the kind of stuff they had at home only on the most important holy days.
He started eating.
He felt better immediately.
The men from the second cart carried a thing like a trunk into the cage andset it down beside another exactly like it. It sloshed. So did the other whenthe men picked it up to take it away. That one was a kind of giant chamberpot. Zouki had seen the other kids use it and had gone to urinate into ithimself once he knew. There was another like it thirty feet along.
The men came back to exchange that. Then they hauled in a taller case andexchanged it for its twin. This one contained fresh drinking water.
The women had finished passing out food. They stepped away from the childrenand waited. The four men got shovels and bags and went back into the foliage, apparently to clean up after the rock apes. None of the adults said a word.
Some of the children finished quickly. What they did then seemed to depend onthe child. Some took their dishes to the women, who scraped the remains oftheir meals onto one of several metal trays sitting atop their cart. When oneof those was full one of the men took it into the foliage for the rock apes.
He brought a dirty pan back.
Most of the children were not bold enough to approach the women. They just left their plates where they were and moved away. The men collected them forthe women.
The giant man never left the entrance.
The adults all went away.
Zouki spent a long time in a bubble of fear, homesickness, and longing for hismother. But curiosity about the apes slowly intruded upon his misery. Hefinally went to see what could be seen.
Before he got to the foliage the men and women appeared again, pushing cartsthat were not the same as those they had brought before. Once more the giantstood guard after the carts had come into the cage.
Each of the women selected a child that she led to a cart. The kids went docilely. The women stripped them naked and lifted them into the carts andbegan to wash and scrub them.
The carts were tubs on wheels. Part of them, anyway.
Zouki did not like baths. He asked the girl who had spoken to him earlier, "Dowe all have to take a bath?"
"You do. You're new."
Holy Aram! They were even washing their hair! He hated having his hair washedmore than he hated anything else in the world. He thought about running tohide with the apes, but he could not move.
The women removed their victims from the tubs, toweled them off, and dressedthem in clean clothing taken from a hamper on the end of the cart. Then theywent after more kids.
One headed straight for Zouki!
His muscles refused to act. He could do nothing but shake and start to leaktears.
The woman was not unkind as she took his hand, hoisted him, and led himunresisting to her cart.
He did not fight back till he saw the pitcher rising to dump water over hishead. He squealed and batted at it, missed. The water gushed down over hishead while a firm hand held him still. He shrieked then, and started pumpinghis legs up and down, running in place, splashing.
Firm hands sat him down in the water and forced him to lean forward. Water cascaded over him, leaving him sputtering. Hands began rubbing soap into hisscalp. But after the indignity of the wash and rinse there was more, somethingthat smelled vile and burned his head.
A woman's voice asked, "Is this the new one?"
"Yes, ma'am." Another woman. The one torturing him.
"Is he in good shape?"
"Except for head and body lice, which they all have when they come in, he appears to be in good health and excellent physical condition."
"Good. Are you about ready to pull him out of there?" "One more rinse, ma'am."
Water splashed over Zouki's head. Then hands hoisted him out of the tub, set him on the floor, began drying his hair with a towel. He opened his eyes. Facing him was the most beautiful woman he'd ever seen.
She reached out and took his face between her hands, her palms against his cheeks, and made him look into her eyes. "Don't be afraid. Nobody's going to hurt you."
"I want mom!"
"I know." She patted his cheek.
The woman toweling Zouki asked, "Is he the one, ma'am?"
"I don't think so. Not obviously."
Zouki thought she looked very sad.
Arif considered the tactical situation. Mom was trying to get dressed while Stafa was trying to climb on her and Mish was complaining about something Nana had said to her. None of them were watching the door. It was a good time to go see what was happening. He just walked out the door like it was something he was allowed to do anytime he wanted.
As children will, he had forgotten to take into account all facets of the situation. His grandmother grabbed hold of his clothing and with one yank sat him down beside her. "Where do you think you're going, Arif?" "I was just ..."
"Just what, Arif?"
"Just going to see what the Dartars are doing." He stuck out his lower lip.
"A bird is going to nest there." Nana pinched his lip. "You know the rule. You and Stafa can't go out unless a grown-up goes with you."
"I was just going right up there."
"Right up there is where the bad man grabbed Zouki yesterday. Remember?"
"Well, he wouldn't grab me! If he did I'd punch him in the nose! I'd punch him so hard ..."
"Arif!" Nana glared at him. Her face was starkly serious. "This isn't a game.
It isn't play. It's real. How are you going to get away from the bad men when you can't even get away from your old Nana?" She reiterated, "It's not a game, Arif. Now tell me the rules. What are you supposed to do?"
Lip out farther, Arif began reciting the litany of responses he was to make ifsomebody tried to kidnap him.
Mish rushed out of the house. "Mom, did you see Arif? He ..." She saw himsitting there. Almost instantly, her eye strayed to the Dartars up the street.
She did not hear a word Nana said. She always got deaf whenever Mom or Nanastarted yelling at her.
* * *
Azel strolled all the way around Government House twice, looking to see whowas watching, if anyone was. He did not spot anyone. If someone was around hewas good enough not to give himself away. That would be unusual for theground-level men of the Living and impossible for the Dartars, who could not- and probably would not-disguise themselves as anything but what they were.
There were jokes and parables about the Dartar inability to adapt. "Stubbornas a Dartar," was a maxim as old as Qushmarrah itself.
Azel strolled to a tradesman's entrance, knocked. A soldier opened a peekhole.
"What you want?" he demanded.
"I got to see Colonel Bruda about the cut flowers he ordered." He grinned. Theguy wouldn't know what the hell was going on, but he'd have a damned goodidea, what with all the guys coming around about flowers for the Colonel. Hecould not be unique, could he? What the hell would a Colonel do with a ton ofposies?
The Herodian bolted up behind Azel. In his own language he told his partner,
"I'm going to take this gink up to Bruda. Hold the fort."
The partner grunted. He had not bothered to look up from his lap. Too long ingarrison, Azel figured.
His guide led him through dusty, seldom-used passages. He amused himselftrying to estimate Government House's backdoor traffic from the disturbancesin the dust. He played the same game every time.
The guide turned into the long north-south hall. Azel glanced back. Nobodybehind them. Nobody up ahead. There never was, but you had to check. Youdidn't let up.
Should he do it?
Why the hell not? There wasn't a damned thing they could do. He grinned.
He got his weight behind the punch and buried it in the soldier's left kidney.
The man folded around the blow, then crumpled. Azel leaned against the walland waited. When the soldier finally began to get himself together and lookedup, there were tears in his eyes.
"Gink, eh? You gotta learn not to let your asshole overload your brain." Hesaid it in Herodian vulgate, not the formal, upper-class Herodian mostoutsiders learned.
He saw something stir behind the soldier's eyes. "Don't even think about it.
I'd tie your ears in a bowknot." He extended a helping hand. "Let's go see theMessenger of the Faith." Though most everyone, including the common Herodiansoldiers, used old-fashioned designations, among themselves the true believersused ranks that were religious.
The man let Azel help. He started off unsteadily, bent slightly, head hanging.
"I don't reckon I hit you that hard, but if you start pissing blood you bettersee your regimental doc."
The soldier said nothing. He took Azel up several floors and into a room wherea Herodian ensign, still looking forward to his first shave, jumped up andopened another door, said something to someone on the other side. Then he toldAzel, "He'll see you in a minute."
The soldier shuffled out
"What was the matter with him?"
"Made a mistake. Made an ethnic slur."
The boy did not meet his eye. Azel grinned, moved to a window, looked out atthe bay. Hell of a view of the harbor. He wondered if he'd ever go to seaagain. Not likely. That was a young man's game. A young, stupid, blind man'sgame. If you saw or figured out what you were walking into you didn't walk.
Azel turned. Colonel Bruda beckoned him. Azel followed him into the other room, grinning. He was not a tall man himself but he could see the top ofBruda's shiny head. "I figured out how you guys can win every battle from hereon in."
Bruda faced him, frowning.
"You just pick a sunny day for the fight, put all your officers out front, andhave them bow to the enemy."
Bruda's frown deepened. He did not get it.
"I never seen a one of you guys that was over twenty-five that wasn't bald asa lizard's egg. You'd blind them with the reflections. Then you could just gofinish them off."
"Your sense of humor is something we don't need, Rose."
"You need some of my talents, you take them all."
"Consider the possibility that you may not be as indispensable as you'd liketo think, Rose."
Azel grinned. Bruda was as predictable as sundown. "Hell. You know, GovernorStraba said something just like that when he still thought I worked for himand not for Cado."
Bruda lost some color.
These Herodians were something. Hell on a six-legged camel in a gang, withtheir vaunted discipline and religious fervor. But catch them solo with acrack like that and they drizzled down their legs.
Of course, Bruda was the investigator of record in the hard, messy death ofGovernor Straba. Not a very good investigator, Colonel Bruda. He hadn't caughta whiff of the truth. He had no idea that Azel wasn't the killer.
Let him think whatever he wanted if it kept his knees knocking.
Azel had traced the murderer but had kept that to himself. It might be usefulsomeday.
"You'll have to wait a few minutes, Rose. He's with someone. But he knowsyou're here."
"All right." Azel went to the window and contemplated the harbor. For theserenity of the sea ... The serenity that masked the darknesses moving in thedeeps, beneath the turquoise surface. Heavenstone, the Dartars called it. Ha.
Nothing to do with heaven. Gorloch knew.
Gorloch knew that behind every facade there was nothing but shadow.
Ultimately, there was nothing but The Shadow.
Bruda made little noises behind him as he tried to work but could not concentrate. Azel heard his sigh of relief when the room's second door opened.
Azel turned. "Ah. My favorite courtier."
The man's name was Taliga. Like all the Herodian aristocracy he was short andbald. Azel made no secret of the fact that he thought Taliga an incompetentasshole who would starve to death quickly if ever Cado-his brother-in-law-gotan attack of smarts and planted a boot in his butt.
On some level Taliga was aware that he was a parasite. He hated Azel forwaving it in front of him, in public. He was Azel's deadliest living enemy.
Azel knew that. He had created Taliga deliberately. Someday the Herodianswould deem him a greater liability than an asset. When that decision was madehe wanted the sanction handed to an incompetent first. Taliga was his alarm.
He did not bait the man today, beyond the initial crack. He attempted smalltalk, grinning all the time. Friendliness, too, would set Taliga's teeth onedge. It was a Herodian maxim that your enemies were at their friendliest andmost solicitous just before they sank the knife in your back.
The military governor awaited them in a small, spartan room on the highestlevel of Government House. His own quarters. He took the admonitions of hisfaith personally. He said, "Thank you, Taliga. Good morning, Rose. It's been awhile."
Azel waited till Taliga was out of the room. "Hasn't been anything worth coming in about."
"What did you do to Taliga this time? He was severely distressed."
"Nothing, General. I was the soul of civility. I asked about his wife anddaughters. I commiserated properly when he reported that your sister has beensuffering from a recurring flux."
"You're a dangerous man, Rose. You know us entirely too well."
"And you dissemble altogether too convincingly. But I suppose that's whyyou're so good at what you do and I should be thankful you work for me and notfor my enemies."
"There's truth in that, sir."
"You're also altogether too blunt. It makes you needless enemies. SomedayTaliga will try to kill you."
"To carry bluntness a step further, sir, if he tries that they'll find piecesof him in every quarter of Qushmarrah." "He's not much, Rose, but he'sfamily." Azel restrained a smile. Something had given unflappable, pudgy, buttough-as-shield-leather Cado a sour stomach and he wanted to work it off withsome verbal fencing. "I like working for you, sir. But I like being alive evenbetter. I ain't let nobody push me since I was seven years old. Ain't likelyI'd start now. It's like, anybody who ever leaned on me and had to pay theprice belonged to somebody's family."
"So. Let's stop being bull apes pounding our chests. You're here after a longdrought. Does this mean there's finally something worth reporting?"
"Not much. The Living are either felling apart or going undergroundcompletely. Probably both. And mostly felling apart in the Hahr."
"That's where al-Akla executed those men." "One sign of an impendingcollapse." "Al-Akla's little scheme is beginning to work, then." "Those guysmade it work. The thing that brought me in, it ain't much more than a rumor, but if it's true it's sure the Living is coming apart, at least in the Hahr."
"What's the rumor?"
"A guy named Ortbal Sagdet got himself killed down there last night. That's afact. I checked. The rumor is, he was the Living's number one boy down there.
Thieves got him, looks like. Thieves usually know enough not to mess aroundwhere there's gonna be comebacks that'll get them dead."
"How soon can you get a confirmation on whether or not this Sagdet was whatrumor says?" Cado's piggy little eyes were sparkling. "Never." "Eh?"
"How am I supposed to get your confirmation?" "You belong to the Living."
"I'm what they call a ground-level soldier. The bottom of the heap. And I'mnever going to be anything more."
"The Living is an Old Boys outfit. I got three marks against me. The big oneis, I wasn't out there to get my butt kicked at Dak-es-Souetta. The other twoare I didn't get it kicked at the Seven Towers or on the Plain of Chordan, either. So it won't ever matter who I am or what I could do for them, I'llnever be anything but a spear carrier."
Cado got up and went to a window. Physically he fit the stereotype of theHerodian ruling class. He was short, bald, and plump. He could posture, bepompous, and was vulnerable to flattery. Like the rest. Unlike most, though, there was a razor-sharp mind under his shiny pate. "Where were you in thosedays, Rose?"
"Out of town."
"You did say you used to be a sailor, didn't you? That that was how youlearned Herodian. And there's little room on the seas these days forQushmarrahan ships. Well, no matter. We're here, and it's now. If there is away to identify Sagdet positively as a high officer of the Living, I'd begenerously grateful."
"If there's a way I'll find it, sir."
"I know you will. And what of our friend the Eagle? Anything to report there?"
"I screwed up. I got me a job grooming horses for them but the first day, oneof them got to mouthing off about city people and I broke both his legs forhim. I didn't figure it would be smart to hang around after that."
"You're a man of great violence, aren't you?"
"Sometimes that's the only way to get a message across. I never saw you guyssending out missionaries to spread the One True Faith."
"A point. I ..." Cado went red with anger.
Azel faced the window as an ensign invaded the room, so excited he hadn'tbothered to knock, so young he still had hair. "Sir!" he exploded. "Signalfrom the South Light. The new governor's galley is in sight."
"Damn! The bastard would have good winds coming across, wouldn't he?" Cadokicked a stool across the room. "Machio, don't you ever bust in here like thisagain. If it's the end of the world in five seconds you knock and wait.
"All right. Thank you. Get out."
The ensign went, tail between his legs.
"Our troubles redouble when we're least prepared to handle what we alreadyhave. Rose, I want you to stick with me today. I want you studying this Sullopig from the beginning. He's the first one they've sent who could be genuinelydangerous."
"Stay with you? For the public reception and everything?"
"Too dangerous. There are people who would recognize me. I'll have no value ifanyone suspects I work for you. Not to mention it might shorten my lifeexpectancy."
"I want to explore your thoughts about what al-Akla might be up to in the Shu.
I'll have you outfitted as a soldier in my personal bodyguard. You'll pass.
Nobody looks at the men behind the commander."
"In the Shu? He isn't up to anything in the Shu that I've heard, sir."
"He sent Joab and more than a hundred men into the maze down there this morning. You hadn't heard?"
"No sir. I was working the Sagdet angle." Azel was disturbed. This was notgood. He did have to find out what it meant. Soon. But it looked like Cado wasgoing to keep him tied up all day. Damn!
He should not have come.
Aaron removed the last of the clamping straps that had held the parts of themast step motionless while the adhesive between joins and around the holdingpegs had set. He waved to the men working the hoist. They began lowering theharness that would lift the mast step so they could swing it over and drop itinto the ship's half-completed hull.
The new Herodian foreman, Cullo, who had not yet been on the job two weeks, came to inspect the finished product. "Perfect," he pronounced it. "I've neverseen more perfect joins, Aaron. They're cabinetry quality."
"That's the sort of work I was taught, sir. And what I'd be doing if I waswell off enough to do whatever I wanted."
"Forget that. Stay with us. In five years you'd be a master shipwright."
"Yes sir." The way the Herodians were stripping the little forest on the hillssouth of Qushmarrah there would be no timber left in five years. Under the oldregime every tree taken had had to be justified and every ounce of it put tosome use. If he could find no other reason to dislike Herodians, Aaron coulddislike them because they were locusts, stripping resources and wealthwherever their armies were successful. He suspected greed moved them more thandid religious fervor.
He helped secure the harness, then stepped back. There would be nothing to dotill the laborers had the mast step ready to drop into the hull. Cullo was onto someone else, so he went and found Billygoat where he was pounding andtamping caulking rope into laps of clinker planks with a wooden mallet andwedge. The old man was quick and deft. He was ten feet ahead of his assistant, who was sealing the laps with hot pitch.
"That stuff stinks," Aaron told the old man. "Pitch? You get used to it. Gets to smell damned good if you're out of work for a while. You dogging it?"
"Hoisting the step."
"They decided what to name her yet?" Billygoat knew everything before the foremen did. There was a battle going on at the top over the name of the ship.
A struggle between zealots and practical merchants who knew she would beentering ports where the Herodian god would not find a warm welcome.
"Nope. Something on your mind, Aaron?"
"Yeah." He did not know how to broach it without sounding like an old woman, so he just had at it. "Remember when you told me about they found those lost kids out by Goat Creek?"
"Uhm." The older man's hands never stopped moving.
"You ever heard about them finding any other ones?"
"Some. Not for me this time. Friend of my wife had her little boy taken yesterday. An only child." "Uhm." Billygoat paused to look at him directly. "You got one hell of a big determination to let this business fuss you, don't you, Aaron?"
What could he say? He couldn't mention the dreams and the nightmare certainty that something would happen to Arif. After all your precautions? they would ask. You have to be crazy. Maybe he was.
"Now you bring it up, though, Aaron, yeah, it seems I do remember hearing about two, three other kids that turned up the same way. Good clothes, good health, short on memories of what happened to them while they was missing." Billygoat's hands were busy again.
"They knew their families?" "I never heard anything said otherwise."
Aaron sighed a sigh that started right down in the roots of his soul. There was something to hang on to and nurture. "Good, then," Billygoat said. "And what else do you have on your mind this morning, young man?" Part of Billygoat's charm was his assumption of the old man's role, though he was far from elderly. Aaron was startled. Was he that obvious when he was troubled?
"Yep. The old man's a mind reader. What the hell did you expect, Aaron, mopingaround here all morning? Nobody pays attention? Come on. Spit it out."
"It isn't that easy, Billygoat. It's one of those things where you've got tomake a choice, and even ignoring it is a choice, and no matter what you choosesomebody is going to get hurt. So what you have to do is pick who gets it."
"Yeah. Those kind are a blue-assed baboon bitch, ain't they? Homar, it's timeyou broke. You're getting tired and sloppy trying to keep up. I see a coupleplaces you're going to have to do over."
Aaron couldn't see anything wrong with Homar's work. Neither could Homar, hesuspected, but Billygoat's assistant cleaned his tools, put more charcoal on, broke up a couple of pitch billets and put them in to melt, then went away.
"So, Aaron. Let's talk about it."
"What do you know about the Living?"
Billygoat's eyes got wary. "As little as I can. Knowing too much could get youa chance to swim across the bay with a hundred pounds of rocks tied to yourtoes."
"Yeah." He hadn't thought of that angle. "What I meant was, are they somethingworthwhile, or are they just a bunch of diehards making it rougher for therest of us?"
Billygoat smiled. "You don't get me that easy, Aaron. It's in the eye of thebeholder. Why don't you lay out the problem and if I see something I'll say soand if I don't I'll forget you even asked."
Aaron thought about it a minute, but there was not much going on inside hishead. All he wanted to do was puke it up, get it out of his gut before itpoisoned him.
"Say there was a guy who betrayed Qushmarrah in a way that was just asimportant as what Fa'tad did, only hardly anybody noticed, and only one guyknew, and the traitor didn't know he knew, and one day years later suddenly itlooked like the traitor was now somebody real important in the Living. If heworked for the Herodians before ..."
"I see." Billygoat raised a hand for silence. He had stopped working. "Say nomore." He turned inward for several minutes. Then, "With the years interveningthere would have grown up knots of personal considerations and complications, not so? The fight for Qushmarrah is over and lost. The traitor probably has afamily now, all completely innocent, who would suffer terribly from anybelated justice. Yet if he were indeed high in the councils of the Living, andstill a tool of Herod, and the Living are a worthy group of men with a realchance of restoring Qushmarrah's independence and glory ... Yes sir, Aaron, truly a blue-assed bitch baboon of a problem."
Someone up top yelled at Aaron to come on. The men on the hoist were ready tolower the mast step.
"I'll think about this, Aaron. For every no-win situation I've ever seenthere's always been an extra way out if you could just back off and look atthe whole map from a skewed angle. Talk to me later. Get up there before they get pissed."
"Thanks, Billygoat." Aaron trotted to the nearest scaffolding, clambered up, crossed the ship on a work deck of loose planks, checked that everything hehad brought up earlier was still handy. His helpers were ready. "Lower away!"
The step assembly came down slowly. The men helping turned it, aligned it, guided it into place. Aaron beckoned the foreman. "It looks like a good fit.
But let's check the join points to make sure."
Ten minutes later he was puffed with pride. Only one place did he need toplane a bit offa beam end. Cullo told him, "You have to stay in this business, Aaron. We'd get the contracts filled in half the time."
Aaron shrugged, went to the side, had the men on the hoist lift the assembly afoot and a half. His helpers started brushing all the join points withadhesive. He let it set up a little, then had the assembly dropped into placeagain. His helpers started driving adhesive-soaked pegs immediately, four tothe join, of which there were twelve: four at deck level, two to the side; four halfway down a pair of the midships ribs, two to the side again; and fouron the keel itself.
"A successful experiment," the foreman told Aaron. "It's saved us a week overputting it together in place, piece by piece. I'm sure you'll get a fat bonus.
How soon can you start on the steps for the cargo booms?"
"I still have to finish this. After the glue seasons I have to cut the peggingflush, sand the joins smooth, layer on some more glue, then cover everythingwith lacquer."
"All stuff that could be done by somebody else, under your supervision, whileyou're getting the other steps. What the hell is going on?"
Men were gathering in the bow of the unfinished ship, chattering and pointingtoward the harbor. Aaron followed the foreman forward to see what was up.
A huge galley was working her way in. She wore the gaudiest sail Aaron hadever seen. "Who is it?"
"Must be the new civil governor. Early. And now everything goes to hell whilewe fake up celebrations to show him how overjoyed Qushmarrah is that he'sfinally come."
Aaron leaned on the rail, watching the Herodian galley, and smiled slightly, remembering how cynical his father had been about government and those whogoverned.
Bel-Sidek was hard at it, holystoning the foredeck of a tubby merchantman outof Pella, a Herodian tributary where friends of the Living worked the docks.
Behind him, stevedores shuffled to the dock and back aboard, loading andunloading at the same time.
Sacks of something were going off and sacks of something else were coming onand bel-Sidek could not quite see the point because he could not distinguishone group of sacks from the other. But inside a few of those coming off therewould be lethal tools for the Living.
Someone hailed him from the dock. The voice was breathless. For a moment he feared it was going to be a warning that the customs goons were coming and hewould have to get his men scattered before they could be identified. But whenhe got to the rail he saw one of that very select group of men entrusted withcarrying messages between the khadifas. The man pointed toward the bay andshouted, "The new governor's ship is coming in."
Bel-Sidek cursed and signaled his understanding. "Early. The bald-headedlittle bastard would get here early." He tried to look for the ship but all hecould see in that direction was the tips of the lighthouses atop the Brothers.
The Pellans had taken the cheapest commercial wharfage available. That putthem behind a jungle of masts and spars belonging to Qushmarrah's fishermenand sponge and pearl divers. And small-time smugglers. If there was anydistinction between the bunch.
He limped off the ship and got himself to the nearest height where he couldsee the harbor. After a minute he began to chuckle. Other gawkers looked himaskance. He controlled himself.
The governor's ship and two fast war galleys escorting her had bulled theirway past commercial traffic beyond the Brothers and now several delayedvessels were coming in behind them. Including Meryel's two ships with the armsdown in their holds. There would be no trouble getting them off-loaded andsafely away. The whole Herodian colony would be going crazy and would cease tofunction for a few days.
Would the old man take the opportunity to welcome the new tyrant? He hadbefore. But if Meryel was right and there was some special operation shaping ... Could it have something to do with the new governor? Doubtful. The Generalhad talked in terms of months.
Might as well go back to work. The governor's arrival would make no differencein his life, at least today.
As he was passing the new shipyards, put up where the old public baths hadstood till they had been demolished because they offended Herodian morality, aman fell into step beside him. "So. Billygoat. Haven't seen you in a while.
What's up? What're you doing these days?"
"Working in the shipyard. As if you didn't know."
Bel-Sidek did know. He kept track of those few of his men who had come homefrom Dak-es-Souetta. "What is it?"
"The younger men there, they bring me their problems. I had a beauty turn uptoday. You were the only one I could think of who could maybe help solve it.
And like a gift from Aram, here you are. I saw you, it was like a command fromthe gods."
"I don't follow."
"Wait till I explain. I don't know if you're connected or not, but you're theonly one I could think of who might know somebody involved with the Living."
Bel-Sidek did not respond.
"One of the guys-certainly not connected in any way-has convinced himself he knows the identity of a Qushmarrahan who was as guilty of treason during thewar as al-Akla. He kept it to himself. But now he's stumbled across somethingto make him think the traitor is in a high place in the Living. He fears thatonce in Herodian pay, always bought."
"Eh!" Bel-Sidek rolled it around in his mind, a small part of him hoping hewasn't sweating, blanching, or otherwise giving himself away. "Exactly what doyou want, Sergeant?"
"Mainly, I want to figure out if the guy is imagining things. He believes it, but people believe impossible things every day. I never heard of any traitorbut al-Akla. I sure as hell ain't heard of one that was as important as him inhow things came out."
"I know of no such man myself but that doesn't mean one didn't exist. Come.
I'll buy you a lunch while we let reason gnaw at this." Bel-Sidek suspected hehad given himself away but had a feeling the risk would be worthwhile.
"I won't name you any names, Colonel."
You will, my friend. You will if we want you to. He glanced at the man. Andmaybe you wouldn't. You were always a stubborn bastard.
"We'll set the hounds of reason loose first, eh?"
They went into a place that served good bheghase, a thick and spicy fish andvegetable soup into which the fish was introduced two minutes before serving.
It was an indulgence bel-Sidek allowed himself too seldom.
He savored a few mouthfuls before saying, "Granting that no names need benamed, I'll have to have a clue or two with which to work. Is your friend aveteran?"
"A point. Not many. Dak-es-Souetta?"
"Ah. Now we're getting somewhere. A vet, but not of Dak-es-Souetta. Works in ashipyard. Must be a building tradesman. Most of those were in the fieldengineer outfits assigned to the Seven Towers. I presume he knows aboutwhatever because he saw it happen. If it happened." He looked at Billygoat.
"You fishing for an opinion?"
"He believes it, like I said. If he hadn't sounded like a man trying to carryan unbearable load I wouldn't be here."
"The Seven Towers. I'll have to research it. The Herodians had me in chains while that was happening."
"I can suggest what to look for."
"The Seven Towers were supposed to hold out long enough for the allies, thereserves, and the survivors of Dak-es-Souetta to assemble on the Plain ofChordan. But they didn't."
"Could one traitor have been the reason the strategy didn't work?"
Billygoat shrugged. "I was five men down the chain from you."
"I'll find out. I'll ask someone who was there. Thank you, Sergeant. Enjoy thebheghase." Bel-Sidek limped away hurriedly, headed for the Pellan merchantman.
Two of the men on his stevedore crew had fought at the Seven Towers. One had been an officer, amilitary engineer.
He rounded the two up. "Take an early lunch."
One man, bel-Pedra, depended entirely upon his income from stevedoring. "We'reliable to get fired." There were limits to the sacrifices you could ask.
"I'll take care of it."
"What's going on, sir?"
"I've just discovered that I need some background about the Seven Towers andwhat happened there. Something's come up where it could be important for me toknow. Malachi?"
Malachi was the man who had not yet spoken. He got off the bale where he hadbeen seated, settled on the battered timber decking of the pier. "You've beenthrough the pass, sir?"
"Never. We went out along the coast road."
"Yes. Demolishing the bridges behind you so the enemy, if victorious, had tocome to Qushmarrah through the hills."
"Do I detect a critical note?"
"Call it a disgruntled note, sir. For five generations that was the strategy.
But when it was put to the test it didn't work."
"It should have."
"In theory." Malachi used a finger to sketch an imaginary chart. "The roadruns into the pass heading due east but when it gets to the crest it elbowssixty degrees south. There are four towers on the outside of this curve, twoon either side of the summit. Three on the inside curve, with the middleperched on the crest. No names, just numbers, with the odds to the outside, evens in, counting from the far end. Number Four is the keystone piece. It'sthree times as big and defensible as the others.
"Note the angular relationships between the towers. When all seven are intactonly One and Seven have much of a shadow where they don't get supporting firefrom the other towers. That isn't big enough to exploit well. Four has noshadow at all.
"Interesting from your professional viewpoint, I'm sure," bel-Sidek said.
"What went wrong?"
"I don't know. We took away every option but reducing the towers in series."
"Sounds like the hard way."
"Hard, but the cheapest way for them. Also the slowest, which is why we wantedthem to do it that way. Their sappers and engineers were good, but we madethem pay dear to take One, Two, and Three. What happened later I don't know. Iwas in Three."
"Bel-Pedra?" bel-Sidek asked.
"I was in Five, sir. I don't think I can help much. They went after Four likelions for three days and didn't get nothing but bloody noses. Then the suncomes up on the fourth morning and there's the Herodian standard showing uptop and heralds down front telling us they'd make us rich if we'd just openup. We dumped the toilet pails on them and they went away. Five minutes laterwe were taking fire from the heavy engines on top of Four. Whatever happened, the guys there never had time to destroy those."
Bel-Sidek pursued that tale a little, not because he was interested butbecause he did not want his next question to sound especially important. Hegot the two men to discuss Herodian tactics in the assaults on the varioustowers. Then he asked Malachi, "Did they try to get Three to surrender beforethey attacked?"
"Oh, they tried that with everybody. A matter of form. They have some kind oflaw. They got the same answer every time, and they expected it."
"Uhm. Bel-Pedra, you'd better get back to work. Malachi, I have a chore foryou." He let bel-Pedra depart. "Go over to the new Herodian shipyard and findBhani Sytef. You want a list of all employees who were at the Seven Towers.
You want to know which tower they served in. He's supposed to know things likethat, but with so many working there I'd be astonished if he actually did.
Just get a list of those he does know about. If it isn't enough I'll get backto him."
Malachi rose. He looked puzzled. "What's going on?"
"I don't know. But the big boys are trying to connect some people up with someother people and the only lead they've got is that maybe these guys were allin the same outfit at the Seven Towers."
Bel-Sidek was well known to the Living in his quarter, but very few knew himto be khadifa of the waterfront. At every level he appeared as the agent ofthe men a step or two up the chain of command. There were risks. Bel-Sidekfelt having access to all his men all the time was worth those risks. Theharbor quarter was the busiest for the Living and needed the most directattention.
They want to ask people from outside the movement first?"
Bel-Sidek shrugged. "I don't decide how things get done, I just do the job."
"Nothing ever changes, does it?"
"Not in the army."
Malachi left. And he returned much sooner than bel-Sidek expected.
"You were wrong, sir. He knew them well. There were only three men he couldn't pin down for sure." He proffered a piece of paper. "I'll see that he gets a commendation. Back to work. I fixed you with the Pellans."
Bel-Sidek settled and ran a finger down the list. His finger jerked. "I should've guessed." And it all fell into place, right along with the solution.
He wanted to run to the General immediately. But he still had to assemble thegangs to work Meryel's ships.
The new governor's galley was trying to warp into its pier and having a hellof a time even with help from several tugs. Bel-Sidek smiled and murmured, "Ihope that breeze is an omen."
Medjhah shaded his eyes and peered at the harbor. "Ships coming in. Fancyones."
Yoseh yanked his attention away from the girl's house. Medjhah pointed.
Three ships were crossing the slice of harbor visible from Char Street.
"Warships?" "The two on the outside. Must be somebody important."
It took Medjhah a few seconds to get it. "Yeah. They all think they're big stuff, don't they?" Yoseh's attention drifted back to that doorway. The girl was mere again. And the old woman was giving him a truly ferocious look.
He felt puckish. He winked at her.
She was astonished. She was scandalized. Then, for an instant, a smile threatened to crack the dried mud of her face. Then she became more the basilisk than ever. "Now what the hell?" Medjhah grumbled.
A dozen Dartar horsemen were hastening down the hill, speaking to the men at each entrance of the maze. Each pause caused an immediate stir. Yoseh guessed,
"Fa'tad is calling us in for some reason." Soon he was proven right. A man told them to call everybody out of the labyrinth and get ready to move out.
"I'll go get them," Medjhah said. He had grown bored watching the animals and the traffic in Char Street. "Give her a good-bye kiss for me, too." He laughed as he went into the alley.
Yoseh began checking and tightening the animals' tack. At least they did nothave prisoners to worry them, like some of the other groups.
They had become part of the scenery quickly and the curious crowds hadthinned. But now people began coming out again, to see the Dartars packing upas hastily as they had arrived.
Yoseh glanced down the street, The girl was watching and the crone wasglaring. The three ships were out of sight.
Medjhah was taking a long time. Should he go see? No. These veydeen wouldsteal the animals, or scatter them at the least, just for meanness.
He realized he was alone in a street with hundreds who hated him. He drew himself up and tried to look older and tougher and a lot more fearless than hefelt.
He was worried.
Then he heard Nogah cursing Joab and Fa'tad, the veydeen and ferrenghi, Cadoand the gods, and anyone else who occurred to him. Yoseh felt betterimmediately.
A couple of disgusting, frightened veydeen stumbled out ahead of Yoseh'sbrothers and cousins. Their hands were bound behind them. One tried to run.
Somebody stuck a spear between his legs. He pitched forward. Nogah jumped onhim and kicked him viciously three or four times. Yoseh was astonished andappalled.
Then he noticed the cut and stain on Nogah's left sleeve. Blood did not showwell against the black, so the wound had not been obvious. Which was why theyall wore black.
Nogah growled, "Are the animals ready?"
"Yes. Is that bad?"
"No. But it hurts like hell." He yelled at the others, telling them to get theprisoners coffled up and get themselves mounted.
"It's still bleeding some, Nogah."
"That'll keep it clean."
"You want me to look at it?"
"Here? In the damned street?"
"Oh." Of course. Not in front of the veydeen.
"Thanks anyway, kid. The ache will remind me that even things that live underrocks can hurt you if you aren't careful."
Yoseh glanced at the prisoners. They did have a texture that reminded him ofgrubs.
It was not long before Joab came up the hill, the column re-forming behindhim. As Yoseh turned his camel into line some impulse caused him to wave tothe girl in the doorway. Though not blatantly. No.
For a wonder the crone wasn't looking.
For a double wonder the girl returned his wave shyly. Then she fled into thedarkness inside her home.
He did not wake up till they reached the compound and everyone started tellinghim he had to get changed into his best apparel. A new civil governor wasarriving from Herod and everyone had to turn out for the welcoming parade.
He was still bemused when they formed up on the plazas of the acropolis, fivethousand men in black, perfectly motionless on their mounts. Opposite them, across an aisle a hundred feet wide, were the Herodian infantry in their whiteand red, only their officers mounted, twelve thousand strong.
With this driblet in the tide Herod held Qushmarrah. Yoseh thought it a vainand foolish thing to parade the weakness of the occupying forces.
The new governor was a long time coming. When he did, Yoseh was not impressed, despite the Moretian guards before and behind, the chariots, the gaudytrappings and people. No one else was impressed, either. The governor was amorbidly fat man on a litter. He did not look like he would be able to get upwithout help. There were snickers and titters till Fa'tad turned his scowlupon the formation.
The Herodians had the same problem.
The Qushmarrahan youths who were perched on the monuments and rooftops behindthe formations had no superiors to silence them. They were loud with theirmockery and abuse.
Yoseh was almost embarrassed for the fat man. Sullo? Sullo, yes.
General Cado and his staff emerged from Government House, clad in spartancontrast to the new governor's opulence. More show for the veydeen? Of course.
Yoseh was in a good position to observe, thirty yards from Fa'tad and only inthe second rank. Sullo's Moretians spread out. The governor reached the footof the Government House steps a moment before General Gado did so. Yes, ittook the help of two men to set Sullo upright The veydeen hooligans howled.
General Cado stepped down and threw his arms around Sullo. Sullo reciprocated.
They embraced like brothers who had been separated for years.
If Yoseh understood the way Herodians operated, that meant a hatred betweenthem deeper than the pits of Khorglot. There were ghost knives in their back- thumping hands.
Yoseh's eyes bugged. "Nogah."
Nogah ignored him.
"Quiet in ranks," Nogah hissed. Medjhah scowled at him.
"All right. But you'll regret it."
Nogah looked over his shoulder, eyes baleful. Yoseh ignored him, kept his gazefixed on the man he had picked out of General Cado's bodyguard.
Zouki was so bored he forgot to be scared. Till the big man came. Then all thekids got quiet and shaky. Some started to whimper. One of the girls skitteredinto the foliage to hide with the rock apes.
The big man came in and scooped up a boy who went into hysterics immediately.
The giant went out and locked the door to the cage. Zouki stared at the bone- white nuts of his fists while the boy's screams faded and knew he'd never seethat kid again.
Raheb said nothing as Aaron came to the house. She just nodded and began theslow, painful chore of getting herself upright. Aaron did not offer to help.
Any effort to help would be spurned.
The woman believed she was a curse and a burden upon her daughter's house andshe was not going to accept any help of any kind that was not absolutelyforced upon her. Aaron accepted that.
His feelings toward Raheb were mixed. Always there were eddies andcrosscurrents and dangerous undertows when the mother of the wife lived in thehousehold of the wife. Still, he could have done worse for a mother-in-law. Heknew men who got more grief with their wives' mothers living all the wayacross town.
Arif spied him first. "Daddy's home!" He charged, a flurry of clumsy limbs.
Aaron caught him and lifted him up and squeezed him. Stafa roared in at kneelevel and wrapped both arms and legs around his shin and grinned up at him.
Laella's question was in her eyes. She was always troubled when he arrivedhome off schedule. "They dismissed us early. Because of the new governorcoming in. Only have to work a half day tomorrow. They expect the wholeHerodian colony to have to assemble for speeches by General Cado and the newgovernor. His name is Sullo, I think."
"Why do they waste the time?" Raheb wanted to know.
"Somebody's just going to kill him. They always do."
Startled, Aaron realized she was right. Eight civil governors in six years.
They killed them off within a few months every time. Qushmarrah spent moretime awaiting the arrival of new civil governors than she did being ruled by them.
He shrugged. That was a trouble for the Herodians. He squeezed Arif. The boysquealed. Aaron took a few steps. Stafa clung to his leg and giggled andproclaimed, "We've got you now, long-legged demon!"
"Decorum!" Aaron laughed. "What we need around this house is a little decorumand discipline."
Arif laughed and hugged his neck. Stafa repeated, "We got you now, long-leggeddemon." But Aaron's remark did not go over well elsewhere. Raheb grumbledsarcastic agreement. Mish's eyes sparked with rebellion. She muttered toherself. Laella looked put upon.
Mish surprised him by answering. "Mother thinks I was flirting with a Dartarsoldier." She spoke each word almost as a separate sentence and loaded everyone with the infinite, weary exasperation of the very young.
"That's enough of that, Mish," Laella said. "Mother! We've been through italready."
"Dartar?" Aaron asked.
"You should've seen, Dad," Arif said. "There were hundreds of them. Thousands.
With camels and everything."
Stafa said, "Forty-three," which was his favorite number of the week and meanta lot instead of any specific number.
"Dartars? What is this?"
"They came this morning," Laella said. "A hundred. Maybe a few more. They putmen outside all the entrances to the maze and then they went in. They tookprisoners."
Raheb said, "And about time that cesspit was cleaned, too. Maybe those Dartarmaggots are good for something, after all."
Which led Mish to a caustic remark. Her mother responded. Laella snapped,
"That's enough of that! You're both old enough to know better." She pinchedher temples between thumb and forefinger. "I'm yelling at my mother and sisterlike they were kids squabbling."
"You need to get out. Let's go for a walk. Up to the Parrot's Beak."
"I haven't done the marketing yet. It was too rowdy out there while theDartars were here."
"Never mind. We'll manage. What happened to the Dartars?"
"After they were here a few hours messengers came and they all went awayagain."
"Probably because of the new governor. Come on. Let's go walk."
She saw it was important to him, so she collected her shawl.
"I want to go, Dad."
"Me, too." Stafa still clung to his leg, grinning, stubborn as a barnacle. Hedeposited Arif on the floor.
"You boys stay with Nana."
"Aw, that's not fair. You don't never let me ..."
"Yeah, you long-legged creep. I hate you."
Aaron rolled his eyes toward heaven. "Let's sell them both to the Turoks." TheTuroks were nomads who ranged south of the Takes, reputedly so ferocious eventhe Dartars feared them. Turoks seldom visited Qushmarrah. The only TuroksAaron had seen he'd been unable to distinguish from Dartars.
Selling the children to the Turoks was a family joke. Laella completed theritual. "The Turoks wouldn't take them. They're too mean. You boys behave forNana. Mish, you can make mountain bread. There're beans soaking in the crock.
There's cheese. There're odds and ends. Put something together."
Mish put on her martyr's disguise, filled the house with her agonizedadolescent sighs.
Raheb shook her head in disgust and took herself back outside to abort asquabble provoked by proximity.
"Are you going?" Laella asked, Aaron suspected more sharply than she intended.
"I still have this grinning goiter on my shin."
Laella peeled him off amidst a one-child chorus of hate-you-moms and depositedhim amongst blocks Aaron had made from scraps from the shipyard. Arif observedsourly. Aaron hugged him. Laella twisted her shawl around her head and acrossher face and followed Aaron into the street. She said, "Give me time to relax.
Mom and Mish have been at it all morning."
He grunted. He had no intention of saying anything till he had relaxedhimself. In some way.
They did not exchange a word all the way to the Parrot's Beak.
The acropolis was crowded. The parade for the new governor was still breakingup, with soldiers moving back to their barracks or garrisons or duty stations.
They moved through the traffic and found a place in the shade of the Beak.
They settled. They remained silent. The breeze tugged at their hair andclothing. Clouds banking beyond the Brothers suggested some rain moving inlater.
"I want to tell you about something. I don't really want to talk about it. Idon't want to answer a lot of questions." The trouble with talking with Laella was that she always asked a thousand questions that had nothing to do withanything, about half of them vaguely accusatory. Interposed would be two orthree questions that were too much to the point.
"It's about what's been bothering you?"
"Yes." That was one. "Just let me tell it."
She bit down angrily.
"This has been eating at me for six years. Last night it came to a head. Ihave to make a move. But I don't know what." Before he finished that his hand was moving. He laid a finger across her lips as she started to open her mouth.
"Six years ago one of the men in my company opened a secret postern gate andlet the Herodians into the tower we were holding at the Seven Towers. Healmost got me killed. He did get half the men in the outfit killed. He almostgot me sold across the sea as a slave. They were going to do that with all theprisoners that had trades. Till they decided that would cause more hate inQush-marrah than it was worth. He got a lot more people killed here in thecity."
He lapsed into several minutes of silence. Laella bemused him by keeping herpeace. It was not like her to recognize a time for quiet.
"Do you know that if we'd held the pass for two more days the allies and thenew levies would have had time to assemble on the Plain of Chordan?"
Laella nodded. "Everyone says."
"We could've held out for another week. We knew it and they knew it. They wereso desperate they started trying to run cavalry past us at night. Not theDartars. Fa'tad is too smart to let his men get massacred the way we massacredthem."
Laella was frowning. "Is there a point to this?"
"Maybe I'm straying. But I want you to know that the Herodians knew theycouldn't win if they didn't get to the Plain of Chordan first. Even withFa'tad to help. People who were on our side forget that part and just jabberabout Dak-es-Souetta. Maybe because everybody who ever thought they wereanybody in Qushmarrah was there and they don't want their defeat to be lessimportant than one man opening a postern gate. I mean, how could all thosetens of thousands of men getting killed be less significant?"
"You think you know who did it."
"I don't think I know. I'm not guessing. I know."
He was startled into open-mouthed silence.
"It explains so much, doesn't it? Why you've always been the way you are abouthim. How he's managed to do so well without working very hard at it. Youshould hear how Reyha worries about his making so much. And you kept thisbottled up all this time."
"There's Reyha. And Zouki. And the war is over and lost."
"And no bitterness? No urge to get even?"
"Hell, yes, there is! I got a father and two brothers under the ground on the Plain of Chordan. Pop was too old to go to Dak-es-Souetta. Tuddo and Rani weretoo young ... Yeah. I'm bitter. Yeah. I hate. But what happens to Reyha andZouki if you take Naszif away? The war didn't leave them anyone else at all."
Almost shyly, like the first time they had been allowed to be together alone, she touched his hand. "You're a good man, Aaron. Thank you for telling me."
"I'm not done yet."
"There's more?" "You didn't pay a lot of attention to Naszif last night, did you?"
"I ignore him as much as I can." She smiled. "I don't like him, either. Even Reyha doesn't like him very much. But a woman has to live with what she has to live with. What about Naszif last night?" "He made me have to make my decision all over again. And it was hard enoughthe first time, and living with it."
"Why again?" Straight to the point today. None of the usual nonsense.
"Because at the end last night Naszif was practically bragging that he's a bigman in the Living."
"But what does that ...Oh."
"Yes. Maybe he's still getting Qushmarrahans killed."
Bel-Sidek waited patiently while the old man considered what he had said. When the General spoke, he observed, "I note that you haven't named a single name."
"I wasn't told any names."
"But you wouldn't be telling me if you didn't think you knew the man."
"Your solutions tend to be abrupt and permanent. You see a threat, you extinguish it. But in this I see a great opportunity to stick it to Cado big. If the whole thing doesn't turn out to be somebody's pipe dream."
The General reflected. He said, "You're right on all counts, Khadifa. It is an opportunity. And rightfully yours to exploit-if, as you say, it isn't a pipe dream." Thank you, sir."
"But you have to know you have game afoot, for certain. Then you have to decide if you let him know you know or not. If you just feed him select lieshe'll continue hurting us elsewhere. If you try to turn him you run the riskof losing him if he panics. Either way, it's likely that Cado or Bruda willsense a change in the texture of the information he supplies. Unless you'revery careful."
"That much I know."
"Find out for sure."
"I have a suggestion. I have a man to do the finding out. He's the best the movement has. He'll do the job right."
"True, you'd have to give me the name. But I've said he's yours. I think this is important enough to give to someone who won't screw it up. We have too many amateurs at the ground level. Or he might recognize someone." "I'll trade you a name for a name."
The old man thought about it. "No. I can't. His rules. You find out when I go." Bel-Sidek considered that and the General's previous remarks. "All right. You watch your man Naszif."
The General remained still for a long time. His pallor deepened. "You're sure?" "He's the one."
"We praise the gods, who are merciful, and smile upon us."
"I was going to send Hadribel to take charge of the Hahr and add Naszif to the command staff of the Shu. Even if he did not recognize me himself chances are Cado would once he described the khadifa of the Shu." "Promote him, anyway, sir. You don't have to reveal yourself.
If he's running with the Herodian pack it'll give him something he'll want to report to his masters." "Yes. Bring writing materials."
Bel-Sidek waited a long time while the old man wrote. The General's efforts seemed weaker and more painful than they had been the evening before. Bel- Sidek worried silently. The old man wrote three notes.
"Take this one to the same place you went last night. Then take the others to Hadribel. This one is for him. He's to deliver the other to Naszif himself after he has supper. You go to your friend's house. Stay there till time for tonight's meeting."
"Yes, sir." Bel-Sidek went, his leg aching so badly he began mumbling, "I will not yield. I am not beaten. I am among the living."
Azel rambled in and dumped himself into a chair at the only open table in Muma's Place. Muma himself came right away, settled opposite him. "Bad day?" "Just rough. You got any of that Narbonian beer hidden in the cellar still? I feel like swilling a pail full."
"There's still a little down there. You can't drink it out here."
"I know." "You may not have time for it," Muma said, rising.
Azel watched Muma cross to the kitchen doorway. A limping man arrived there moments later. The limping man was deft of hand. Azel almost missed the passing of the message. Muma summoned one of his sons. The youngest went out with the crippled man.
After a while, Muma returned to Azel's table.
"For you. A sparrow."
"Let's go find that beer." Muma grinned. A few teeth were absent. "You're not going to jump on it?"
"I'm going to relax and have something to drink and eat. The pot will simmer along as nicely without me to watch." "No doubt. You serve too many masters."
"I serve only one. Myself."
"Perhaps that one is too exacting."
"Maybe." Azel thought about a couple of weeks in the silence and solitude of the sinkhole country. Qushmarrah could simmer without benefit of his watchful eye. Surely. Maybe in another week or two. Times were too interesting right now.
"A wonderful change of pace tonight," Medjhah said, staring into his bowl in feigned despair. "Raw instead of charred." "Is it wiggling?" Nogah asked.
"Are the worms playing tag through it?"
"They're embarrassed to show themselves in this glop."
"Eat up, then. You'll grow up big and strong and brave and fierce and smartlike our beloved ..."
Some glint of mirth in the eyes of those opposite him warned Nogah. He glancedover his shoulder. "Mo'atabar. We were just talking about you."
"I heard the fierce and smart part, which touches on the truth as heavily as amaiden's blush. Meantime, your beloved leader wants, to see you and the kid.
No hurry! No hurry! I'm nothing if not civilized and compassionate. I'd beworse than a Turok savage if I denied men the once-in-a-lifetime chance tofill themselves with delicacies such as these. Eat up, Nogah. Eat hearty.
Enjoy while you can. Shall I have the cooks bring you more? They probably havea taste or two left."
"No. No. Wonderful as it is, I'll have to restrain myself. Have to set anexample for the men. Gluttony is an unforgivable and disgusting vice."
Mo'atabar went away smiling.
Yoseh said, "Fa'tad."
His stomach knotted. "Again."
"I'm thinking about gouging your eyes out, baby brother."
"Maybe I'll do it myself. Why does he have to see me?"
No one answered, not even to crack wise. Medjhah began muttering about how thedamned ingrate Qushmarrahan charity-case cooks were trying to poison theirbenefactors.
They downed what they could stomach, Yoseh drawing it out. Nogah told him,
"Stalling won't help. You still got to go."
The compound was more crowded than it had been the night before. They edgedaround to one side and that took them past the cause of the increasedcrowding, the pen for the prisoners taken in the maze. "Look," Yoseh said.
"Some of them are just kids."
Four children huddled in a corner of the pen, terrified. Yoseh was not good atguessing veydeen ages but figured them for five or six. Two yards from themlay a dead man. His skin had the waxy look that characterized all theprisoners except the children.
The dead man had a black arrow sticking out of his side. Nogah said, "He musthave tried something on the kids."
Yoseh grunted. He looked at the rest of the captives and decided he did notwant to find out what kind of hell existed deep in the Shu maze.
Yahada admitted them without bothering to announce them, indicating an out-ofthe- way corner where they could squat. They did so. Yoseh was so awed he kepthis gaze fixed upon his hands. His knuckles were bone-white.
Fa'tad's commanders were all crowded into his quarters. They were not discussing the arrival of the civil governor, as Yoseh expected, but what hadbeen learned from several prisoners who had been interrogated already. Havingarrived at the end, Yoseh did not follow it except to understand that duringthe next few days, while the Herodians were preoccupied, Fa'tad meant to scourthe city hidden beneath the Shu.
Yoseh got no sense of why that was important to al-Akla- except that Fa'tadwas now angry because two men had been killed and seven injured during themorning's invasion.
Fa'tad growled something about getting those damned kids out of that pen, hewanted them alive so he could parade them around in search of their parents.
Somebody went to take care of it.
"Yoseh. Come here, youngster."
Shaking, Yoseh rose and approached Fa'tad.
"They tell me you saw your friend from the labyrinth again today."
"Yes sir. He was one of General Cado's bodyguards. The one who stood nearesthim on his right."
"I pay little attention to the decorative people. Why didn't you say somethingat the time, when he was there for all to see?"
"I tried. I was told to keep quiet in ranks. I'm new at this. I have to trustthe judgment of my elders. Silence seemed to be their highest priority."
Fa'tad grinned and snorted. Joab slapped his knee. Nogah looked like he wouldmelt from embarrassment. Al-Akla said, "He's inherited his father's tongue."
Several of the older men chuckled. "Well, young Yoseh. What do you think? Whywould Cado have his bodyguards stealing children?"
"I don't know, sir. The ferrenghi are strange."
"They are indeed. I don't know why, either. It makes no sense. No matter how Ilook at it I can see nothing in it to profit Cado. And no way to find out."
"Maybe it's something the man does on his own, sir."
"Maybe. The ferrenghi are a cruel and corrupt race. You may go. If you seethat man again, drop everything else and find out whatever you can. I'd surelylike to talk with him."
"Yes sir." Yoseh retreated hurriedly.
Nogah was right behind him. "What the hell did you have to go mouthing offlike that for?"
"Sometimes I just can't help myself."
"No one is going to hurt you," the Witch told the child, who could not stopcrying. She could not keep the exasperation out of her voice. "You drink thisand you'll go to sleep for a little while. That's all. When you wake up I'llask you some questions. After that you can go home."
The child's sobs did not slacken, but he looked up at her, wanting to believe, unable to do so.
Torgo extended one huge hand, offering the boy a cup. The child refused it.
"You'll have to force him, Torgo." Always, they had to be compelled. The eunuch did it.
The potion worked quickly. The child fought but soon drifted off. The Witch said, "I wish there was some other way to do this. Why do they fear so much?
We don't mistreat them, do we?" "We treat them better than they get treated at home, my lady. But they're too young to appreciate that."
"I don't need your sarcasm." "Ma'am?"
"I know you don't approve of the way I've been doing this, Torgo. Too gentle- hearted, you think." Torgo did not answer her.
"Come. Get him moved to the catalfique. And get the things ready. You're getting entirely too sloppy. Everything should have been ready before we started."
It was not as if Torgo did not have plenty of time. But he was growing lackadaisical, clearly becoming convinced that they were wasting their time.
The same little fear had begun to gnaw at her heart. Failure after failure, and never a positive to encourage them to go on ... Except the probabilitythat every failure meant that they were a step nearer success.
It was hard to see failure in a positive light.
All was prepared to her satisfaction when the child began to show signs of recovering. She said, "Time for you to go, Torgo." And as he started to leave,
"Has Azel been in today?"
"He'll be back."
Torgo did not reply.
The Witch stepped inside the heavy green velvet tent that enclosed the child. She checked the charcoal to make sure it was burning properly, then begandrinking water she drew from a jar with a tin cup. She drank till her stomachached. She was going to be in that hot tent a long time.
This part was far harder on her than it was on the children. It would take her two days to recover.
She removed a lid covering a silver bowl, used a glistening silver spoon toshake a little of the bowl's contents onto the coals. A sour, bitter smoke puffed up. She leaned back, trying not to inhale too much too soon.
She had to walk the saber's edge now, going into the twilight on the edge of sleep, where the wakening child would be held by the fumes, but remaining sufficiently in control to be able to lead the boy where she wanted him to go., It did not always work. Occasionally she had to do it over. She hated that.
It got no easier with practice.
She spooned more herb, delicately, waiting for the buzzing in her head to reach the right pitch. When it did she began groping for the boy's name. That part was always tricky.
This time she could not remember. "Damn," she said softly, and began feeling through her clothing. This time she had remembered to write it down but then had not remembered to leave the scrap of paper where she could see it. She breathed shallowly, trying not to take in too much smoke.
Her fingers encountered the paper. She drew it out, frowned at it, wiped away the sweat that had begun to run into her eyes. Why couldn't she ever remember to wear a sweatband? She puzzled out the name.
"Histabel. Histabel, can you hear me?"
The boy did not respond.
"Histabel. If you hear me, answer me."
He made a sound.
"You must pay close attention to me, Histabel. This is very important. Say yes if you understand."
His "yes" was a sparrow's sigh.
"You are comfortable and relaxed and you feel very good now. Don't you, Histabel?"
"Good. That's good. I want you to feel comfortable and relaxed. Now I'm going to ask you some questions. Answer them the best you can. And I'm going to tell you some things. The things I tell you will all be true. Do you understand?"
"What is your name?" "Histabel."
"Who is your father?" "Who is your mother?" "How many brothers and sisters do you have?" "How old are they?" And so forth, the boy answering every time, the answers being unimportant to the Witch except in that they set his mind in an answering mode.
"What I tell you is true, Histabel. You are four years old. In fact, today isyour fourth birthday. Where are you?"
For a time the boy's mind resisted being loosened from its anchor in time.
They always did, though with children the shaking loose was easier than it waswith adults.
"It's your fourth birthday, Histabel. You're four years old today. Where areyou?"
"At my grandmother Darragh's."
"What are you doing at your grandmother's house?" Cautiously, she led himthrough the details of a birthday celebration. When they were coming freelyshe jogged him back to his third birthday.
Third birthdays were very important to children of Qushmar-rah. If a childlived that long it was likely to survive, so it received its real name on itsthird birthday. Whatever it had been called earlier was just a nickname.
Fathers might pick names for their sons before they were born, but they wouldnot reveal them till the exactly proper ceremonial moment. Prematuredisclosure would tempt fate too much.
Birthdays were good milemarks in tracing a young life. The Witch always usedthe fourth and third to establish her dominion. She had that now. She led the child backward into time, past recollections of people, places, and things, into a time when everything had been feeling and mood, and earlier still, intothe closeness and warmth of the womb itself.
"What I tell you is true. It is a bright, sunny day, and one of the happiestyou have ever known. Are you there? Do you see it?"
Confusion in the child's face. The Witch wiped sweat and sprinkled herbs ontothe coals.
"Do you see it?"
"Yes." A little puzzled.
"Where are you?"
"Tel-Daghobeh, overlooking the Grey Reach." The child's voice had deepenedsubtly.
The Witch frowned. The answer did not make sense. "What is your name?"
Ah. "You are Dartar, Shadid?"
Of course. Darters had died that day, too. She had not considered that before, nor had she encountered one before.
She controlled her disappointment. Going in she had not expected much of thisone. Slowly, she took him through the details of his happy day-the dateShadid's first son was bom. She gained her hold upon the previous incarnationand in time brought it forward to the day she had examined from thirty pointsof view already.
"There is so much smoke we can't see twenty yards. They tell us if we wantclean air we're going to have to take the top of the hill. But the stubborndamned veydeen won't stop fighting. We just fought off a band of old men andboys armed with tools and kitchen knives. What is the matter with the veydeen?
Do we have to massacre every man, woman, and child?"
No, the Witch thought. You have to slay one man, Nakar, my husband, and allthe killing will stop. The smoke will dear and the rains fall and the firesdie and the death and devastation prove to be less widespread than everyoneimagined. But it will be terrible enough to leave everyone's thirst for murderslaked. She nudged the memory of the Dartar Shadid. "The Herodians have begunto move. This part looks like it might get to be house-to-house. We aredrawing random missile fire from the rooftops. It's more a nuisance than adanger. The snipers can't find their targets in the smoke. There is a smell ofburnt flesh in it strong, now. Now ... Now ..."
The Witch did not press. This stutter was a warning that the end was near. Thesoul remembered and did not want to get any closer to the pain. She askedquestions to fix the place and time.
She had no reason to believe that information might be useful, yet sherecorded it all in hopes of charting a pattern.
Mostly, she found cause for ever-increasing fear.
A lot of people had died that day. Far more than there had been babies born.
So far it looked like only the strongest souls had attached to new fleshimmediately. But suppose that was an illusion? Suppose luck and proximity wereequally crucial? In this instance the Dartar had died on the doorstep of awoman in labor.
She seldom knew enough, or unearthed enough, to see the transition so clearly.
Cautiously, she put Shadid to sleep and reawakened Histabel, restored him tohis proper age, then told him to rest.
This had been an easy regression. Very little resistance. A pity all of themdid not go as smoothly. A greater pity none of them ever turned up anyone moreimportant than this.
If she could not unearth Nakar, her husband, then she wanted to find hismurderer, Ala-eh-din Beyh.
"Torgo," she called weakly. "I'm done."
The eunuch appeared immediately. He had been outside the tent recordingeverything, in case her fragile, drug-sodden memory played pranks on her. "ADartar," he said, disgusted.
"I suppose we can say we are a step closer to our goal, my lady. We knew itwouldn't be easy when we started."
For the first time she felt a spark of real resentment of the eunuch's ritualreassurances. "Get me out of here before I go mad. I got too much of the smokeagain."
"Perhaps you should space the regressions more widely, my lady. So muchconcentrated exposure to the fumes cannot be healthy."
"I want him back, Torgo. I don't want to waste a minute I don't have towaste."
"And if a minute not taken now means having to pay with an hour or a day lateron?"
His solicitude touched something deep. She flew into an instantaneousunreasoning fury. "You stop your fussing and nagging and do your damned job, Torgo! Let me worry about me. Get me to my bed. Bring me food and drink. Now!"
Inside the facade there was a very frightened woman.
The facade was starting to crack.
She ate and she drank and then she retreated into that place of warm sleep andpleasant dreams she found only after exposure to the drugged fumes. A stillsmall but blossoming part of her fear was that she had begun to look forwardto those hours of surcease.
"You sure favor that balcony these days," Meryel said.
Bel-Sidek turned, smiled. "It's a good place for thinking."
"For brooding, you mean. What is it tonight? The new civil governor?"
"Nothing so obvious and mundane. This morning I learned that there might be atraitor of relatively high station among the Living."
"You're not at risk. We seem to have identified him. He's not in myorganization. He's in the old man's."
"Not entirely. It's under examination, you might say. We've set it up so theman will betray himself if he's guilty. The ironic thing is, we found out onthe very day he was to have been promoted to a level where he would knowenough to pull the whole movement down. And we learned that he was suspectonly because of a personal calamity that's befallen him already." Bel-Sidekdecided not to go into that. "I almost feel sorry for the guy. Till yesterdayeverything was going perfectly for him. By tomorrow, probably, his whole worldwill have collapsed around him."
"You have to leave again?"
"Yes. I may have that to attend to, and the old man has a policy meeting set.
I could come back afterward. If you want me to."
"So coy. So shy. So ingenuous. Of course. Now, I've had a feast laid onespecially for you. Why don't we see if we can't do that justice before wefuss ourselves about lesser things?"
Bel-Sidek seldom ate well, unless at Meryel's. "Let's have at it, then."
Aaron slid away, just leaving a hand lying upon Laella's breast. Their mingledsweat began to dry. He shivered with a sudden chill.
It had not been very good. They were both too distracted. And having Stafawaken in the middle of it and jump on his back and yell, "Giddap, Dad!" wasnot something to ignite uncontrollable passion. Neither was having the yellalert the rest of the household to what was going on.
Mish was particularly intrigued by what happened between men and women in thedark. Her interest disconcerted him, and at times touched him with thoughtsand temptations that left him aghast at what could happen inside a man's mind.
That left him so ashamed he could not face Laella for hours after he caughthimself thinking them.
If she just wouldn't try to spy!
Laella got Stafa back to sleep. She moved in next to him, whispered, "I thinkI should tell Reyha."
"No. That would be too much of a burden for her. She'd end up calling him onit. Then how long would it take for him to find out where she got the idea?"
After a while, she said, "That could be dangerous, couldn't it?"
"Scared men are desperate and desperate men are dangerous. And unpredictable.
He might get the idea he could cover up."
"Then why don't you tell bel-Sidek? Everybody says he has something to do withthe Living."
"If he really does, then Reyha would be alone in the world."
"Maybe they wouldn't ..."
They'd kill him, Laella. They're hard men. They kill people every day forcrimes less than Naszifs. For him it might be a very prolonged and unpleasantdeath."
"Then there's no way out, is there?"
"Not without choosing who gets hurt. And I don't want that on my conscience."
The old man watched bel-Sidek slip into the house, barely in time to get the stage set for the meeting. "Did you have an enjoyable dinner with our lady ofthe ships, Khadifa?"
"Yes sir. She was highly amused by what she called today's preposterouscircumstances. Meaning her sense of irony got fat because the Living completedits biggest weapons-smuggling operation ever virtually without risk because ofHerodian arrogance. If the new governor and his escorts hadn't bulled throughthe traffic waiting to enter the straits her ships would have come in firstand we would have had to dodge and trick customs men all morning."
"Perhaps one of those very weapons will cut the pig's throat."
"You know him, sir?"
"I remember his father. They say this Sullo is identical to the beast thatsired him. Your man is being watched. If the letter he received doesn't sendhim running to Bruda he's innocent."
"Yes sir. Did you eat, sir?"
"It can wait."
"You have to develop some regular eating habits, sir."
"I'm sure. Your mothering can wait, too. Answer the door."
Bel-Sidek had not heard the discreet knock. He went to the door expecting tofind King early as usual. Instead, Salom Edgit greeted him. Bel-Sidek steppedaside. Edgit came in very carefully. He looked awful. The news about OrtbalSagdet must have given him no peace.
Edgit went to his usual place and settled. Though he was early he had nothingto say.
Hadribel arrived next. He exchanged looks and nods with the old man. Guided bybel-Sidek he took the place usually occupied by Sagdet. If Edgit noticed heshowed no sign.
Then came King Dabdahd. He looked as ragged as Edgit. Then the fanatics, together again and looking smug about recent events.
The General surveyed the lot. "As stated previously, the khadifa of the Hahris with us tonight." He did not introduce Hadribel. He and bel-Sidek were theonly ones supposed to know the names of everyone there-though, of course, everyone knew everyone. They had all been officers together in the same smallarmy.
"New business. The arrival of a new civil governor. His advent appears to haveconfounded and exasperated our oppressors as much as it has surprised us. Thisintelligence should be of interest to you all: he has in his train a sorceressof modest talent named Annalaya. She hails from Petra or some such place onthe Allurican coast, where they make so many minor witches. Does anyone haveanything to tell us about the new governor?"
King said, "One of my men heard that Sullo refuses to stay in the Residence."
The Residence was the seat of the Herodian civil governors. Like GovernmentHouse, it was in the acropolis, just a quarter mile away. Before the conquest it had been the main temple of Aram the Flame. "He wants a place in the hillseast of the city. My man suspected him of a superstitious dread of a placewhere so many villains met their fate."
"Keep an eye on that. Also under new business. Has anyone got any idea whatFa'tad is up to, invading the Shu labyrinth, other than tugging Cado'smustache?"
"Salom? You have resources among those who work in the Dartar compound. Whatdo they have to tell us?"
"Nothing yet, sir. It's too soon. But I'll bet there'll be nothing.
Fa'tad is close. So close he doesn't tell his captains what he's doing halfthe time. Sometimes he doesn't know himself. Something catches his fancy, likea shiny coin fascinates a crow, and he plays with it. Sometimes he's like akid pulling the strings on a knit garment. He just wants to see what willhappen."
The old man ignored a pain that nipped at him like a malicious puppy. "We'lltable that. Anything else new? No? Old business, then. We continue to becomeless apparent among the people of Qushmarrah. We lull the oppressor with thethought that time and frustration are disarming us. We begin a phase lessactive toward Herod but more attentive toward Qushmarrah."
He winced. The pain was particularly persistent. "Sometime soon an event willtranspire which will make possible a serious attempt to reclaim our heritage.
I have no control over when. It could be as soon as next week or as distant as six months from now. But the result will be very much in the hands of themovement to exploit. Comes that day we will launch the general uprising someof our brothers find so attractive.
"Your orders are these: reduce conflict with the oppressor and our own people.
Expend the energies of your people in identifying the widest possible body ofsympathizers. When the day comes we will be able to arm hundreds beyond ourown number. I would prefer to offer those arms to men of known persuasion. Thefirst hours, while the news spreads and the oppressor responds, will becritical. We must confuse and unbalance the enemy well enough and long enoughfor the insurrection to generalize. There will come a point where Cado andFa'tad will not be able to cope."
Why am I making this speech? They had heard it till they were sick. "I amrepeating myself. I apologize. The message is this. We are gathering ourstrength against an indefinite someday no longer. The date itself is not fixedbut it is not likely to be more than six months away. You must prepare for it, and at the same time create the illusion that it is farther away than ever.
One final word. You will tell no one the day is coming. No one. No exceptions.
No excuses. He who speaks, and whoever hears him, will immediately join theformer khadifa of the Hahr. Silence is that important to me. Do youunderstand?"
He did not get a chance to force acknowledgments. Someone knocked at the door, and yelled. Irritated, the old man waved at bel-Sidek, then gestured theothers into the bedroom.
Bel-Sidek opened the door a crack and mumbled with someone. He closed up, cameto the old man. "A boy, about ten, with this. For you, I assume."
The General looked at the folded paper with the sparrow on the outside. "Openit. Place it so I can read it." He willed his eyes to work well enough.
His correspondent had taken his disabilities into account. The message waswritten in large block print. He grunted and read it again, then found theshape he recognized as bel-Sidek. "Khadifa, you were right. Your man isvisiting Government House right now." He offered the message to bel-Sidek.
"Handle it as you see fit."
Bel-Sidek read the message twice himself, then remained contemplative forseveral minutes. It meant a great deal more than an enemy agent reaching aplace of high trust within the movement. It could mean that all the guilt ofthose who had failed at Dak-es-Souetta, and the search for atonement andredemption implicit in their commitment to the movement, was moot, if not aprideful arrogance of false guilt. Had Qushmarrah fallen because an apprenticemetalworker of no breeding or standing whatsoever had lost his nerve duringthe course of something that wasn't even a battle?
No. True or not, it wouldn't do. Too many great men and great families had toomuch emotion invested in the legends already in place. It had to stay quiet.
But, even so, it had to be handled. The simple and final way would be to getrid of the man. But why discard a perfectly usable tool just because it hadcaused you injury? Why not retain it and use it with a little more caution?
"The khadifa of the Hahr has not yet assumed his new nor broken with his olddistrict. If he could dip into that and loan me a dozen reliable soldiers whocan be counted on to forget tonight's doings before tomorrow's dawn?"
Hadribel stared at him, almost smirking. "You want to borrow some men? Or areyou practicing for a speech to the Senate?"
"I need men." He controlled his embarrassment and the anger that stalkedbehind it.
Hadribel looked at the old man. "Sir?"
"Right away, Khadifa. Time may be critical."
Hadribel waited for bel-Sidek at the door. After hesitating a moment, waitingfor something more from the General, bel-Sidek went outside. In a moment hewas laboring to keep pace with Hadribel.
The new khadifa of the Hahr pretended an epiphany. "Oh. I'm sorry. How is yourleg?"
"It's been troublesome lately. But I've had to do a lot more getting aroundthan I'm used to." Imply that he had done so because of his specialrelationship with the old man.
Hadribel forbore any expression of sympathy. "What's going on? I take it theold man knows all about it."
"Big secret, eh?"
"Yes. Isn't everything?"
"You need me along on whatever this is?"
"That might not be wise. You'd figure it out. The old man thinks too manypeople know already. Meaning one more than him."
Hadribel laughed. "He does have that way about him." He went serious.
"Honestly, how is he doing? Looked like he was having trouble tonight."
"He isn't getting any better. He won't slow down and let himself get better," bel-Sidek admitted. Then he lied, "On the other hand, he does seem to havestabilized."
"I worry. And I'm sure others do, too. If something happens suddenly, hispassion for secrecy will leave us all in the dark."
"He claims he's made arrangements. How good I couldn't say. I live with himand don't know what he's doing most of the time."
"What's this big event he was talking about?"
That's one of the things I don't know. He throws me out of the house when heeven wants to think about it. You ask too many questions. That isn't a habithe encourages."
Hadribel accepted the rebuke sullenly. Bel-Sidek did not care. This was not aman whose good opinion concerned him. Politics. You had to get along with, mixwith, people you wouldn't speak to in a lifetime otherwise.
He waited in the street while Hadribel and his sons assembled the crew he wanted. It took them only fifteen minutes. The Shu organization wasefficiently managed.
Bel-Sidek took the men away from the Shu before he explained that they weregoing to capture a Herodian agent who would be coming out of Government Housebefore long. He did not identify the spy. He told them the man was not to beharmed if at all possible.
"He should leave the door on the east side. He'll want to get out of sightquickly so he'll head for one of the streets that begin right across theplaza." He quizzed the men to make sure they knew the area. Most knew it aswell as he did, which was all part of being a member of the movement.
Knowledge was a weapon, too.
"You'll spread out, then, and let him get off the plaza. Then you'll herd himtoward me. I'm sure you all know the drill. We've done it before. You don'thave to get close enough for him to see you. He just has to know you're thereand you're moving toward him."
Usually the tactic was employed when the Living did not want the huntersrecognized afterward. This time bel-Sidek hoped to keep his quarry anonymous.
Naszif would not survive long if he was recognized. These men did not concern themselves with the niceties of strategy or policy. For them traitor and deadwere synonymous.
Hoping he was not too late, bel-Sidek dispersed his troops and began the wait.
On the harbor side the fog was drawing its mask over Qushmarrah. There on theeast face of the hill the air was getting hazy, the haze catching a weirdgreenish tint from the just risen nail paring of a moon.
As he slipped out of Government House, Naszif, the son of bel-Abek, was in asfine a mood as ever he'd known. It had been a day of days; almost enough tocounterbalance the misery of the day before. First, the promotion. Third inthe Living in the Shu. And the rumor was, that was as good as being secondbecause the khadifa of the Shu was reputed to be some pre-conquest lord whohad gone into a coma years ago but was of such high family they dared not puthim aside.
At last he had attained a position of power and influence- and, moreimportant, of access. He would know what was going on inside the organization.
He would know who was who. He would sit in on policy, planning, and strategysessions.
Colonel Bruda and General Cado were as excited as he was. A long-agoinvestment had begun to pay dividends. They had doubled his good fortuneimmediately by promoting him to vice-colonel in the Herodian army. His beingable to confirm the probability that Ortbal Sagdet had been khadifa of theHahr had pleased General Cado, too.
He felt the forty gold double sudets that represented his promotion bonus. Hesmiled. He could now afford to get his family out of the Shu. But his missionprevented his doing so. Maybe a second household? Would his several mastersaccept that?
His mood darkened when he thought of Zouki. His family had been gutted ...
He was too excited to pay proper attention to his surroundings, too thrilledto heed the old specter of guilt that had haunted him since that night at theSeven Towers. He did not feel the weight of fear that so often perched uponhis shoulders. He missed completely the first couple of moves made by the menstalking him.
The scrape of a foot in the stillness, the flash of a garment in motion caughtfrom the corner of his eye, and stark terror usurped his joy. It did not takea minute to understand what was happening. He had helped ran Herodians when hewas a ground-level man.
He fought the panic. Panic was the enemy's ally. If he refused to let itcontrol him he might find a way out. Up to a rooftop. Down into a basement.
They could not cover everything. He tried to remember how some victims hadgotten away back when he was on the other end.
Then he realized that they must know who they were running. They had beenwaiting for him. They knew he had gone inside. The promotion ... A ploy tosend him scurrying to Cado, to betray himself?
Then it would not matter if he evaded them. They would catch him at home. Theymight tell Reyha ...
He did panic then.
All he could think of was getting back to General Cado. The Herodians tookcare of their own.
The soldiers of the Living were good. There came a moment when he was standingin the street, uncertain which way to go. A block behind, four vague shapeswalked his way. Three men waited in each mouth of a cross street. Nothing layahead but haze lighted greenly by the moon. He went the direction they wantedhim to go. And as he started a man stepped into his path, a limpingsilhouette. A man he knew.
"You can stop running now, Naszif. You have nowhere to go. Come. Walk with me.
Quietly. Unless you'd rather I let those others know who you are."
"No! By Aram, don't." He giggled. How long since he had sworn by Aram andmeant it? If secretly, he had adopted Herod, faceless god and all.
He was a vice-colonel, damn it. They would not murder him. They would ransomhim. Trade him for somebody. He wished he had told Cado he thought the manHadribel was going to take over in the Hahr instead of saving that for later.
The Living would trade him and more to get a khadifa back.
"Come. Let's walk." The voice was harder now. "We'll go to my house and talk."
"Your father ..."
"Is a harmless old man. He's nearly blind, and his hearing is what you wouldexpect of someone his age. And he's dying. He's much too preoccupied with thatto care about you."
Naszif glanced around.
"Yes. They're out there. Come. They're death. I'm life."
Resignation swept over Naszif. Almost, he felt relieved. There were nopressures now. No need to pretend. Everything was in other hands.
"You'll be watched. If you leave home, you'll be followed. If you move towardGovernment House you'll be killed. Good night." Bel-Sidek closed the door, leaned against it. A long night, not over yet, and he was supposed to returnto Meryel's when it was done. "You heard, sir?"
"Every word. A vice-colonel in the Herodian army. The human animal neverceases to amaze me. We know traitors seldom act out of fear and less often out of greed. We seldom fathom what does motivate them."
Bel-Sidek muttered, "He never took anything but the salaries due him as aHerodian officer."
"A traitor for love. The triumph or defeat of Qushmarrah meant nothing to himwhen the struggle meant he had to be separated from his wife while she gavebirth. He sold Qushmarrah for that. And that bastard Bruda really tried to gethim here in time." The old man chuckled. "Those slimy bastards always keep their word. Damn them."
"He's really a vice-colonel? That commission isn't just a piece of paper theygave him?"
"It was real. Oh, if they pulled him out of here they wouldn't turn him loosewith a field command. He isn't qualified. But something administrative, yes. Ajob like Bruda's, in Tuhn or Agadar."
"My hold on him is inadequate, then. I should have killed him."
"He'll remain controllable as long as he doesn't get near Cado. And for aslong as it takes him to find the nerve to tell his wife that he's become aranking Herodian officer. If his love is as strong as it seems, I suspect thedepths of hers will reflect it and she'll be up to accepting what he is." Then I do have no choice." "He's stillvulnerable. Through his weakness. Love. You will tell him that we have his sonand will hold him as a surety for his performance."
Startled, bel-Sidek asked, "Do we have him?"
"No. But I'll put that best man of mine on it and we will have him when thetime comes. I'll have you take a message to Muma's in the morning. You caninform the man anytime afterward."
"Yes sir. How are you, sir? Do you need me?" "Told the woman you'd be back todiscuss shipping schedules, did you? Go ahead. I'm tougher than you like tothink, Khadifa.
Aaron watched Laella carefully throughout breakfast. He could see no sign thatsleep had worked any miracles and given her the answer that had eluded him forsix years. Mish watched them both in that way she did when she knew what hadhappened between them in the dark, looking for he knew not what, but causingknots in his guts. Arif ate somberly and delicately while Stafa flew aroundthe house chattering nonsense as he pursued some imaginary adventure, deaf toparental admonition. Raheb was closed in upon herself, maybe feeling her age.
Laella said, "I've got to do some marketing today." Thinking out loud.
Her mother said, "I'll go with you. I need to get some things."
Mish went into her pout immediately, for which Aaron was almost grateful.
Arif asked, "Can I go with you, Mom?"
"We'll see how you behave this morning."
Mish brightened some. She rose and started making Aaron a lunch.
Aaron said, "I won't need that today, Mish. We're only working half a day."
She looked like she could not make up her mind if she should be delighted ordistraught.
Aaron yawned, caught Stafa on the fly, hugged him as he squealed and wriggled, trying to get loose. He extended a hand, inviting Arif. Arif looked unhappyfor a moment, quietly jealous of his brother's facile way of gettingattention. Then he plunged forward. Aaron let Stafa make good his escape-whichamounted only to a furious dash in a circle which ended with a plunge onto hisfather's back-and took Arif into his arms.
That started the whole ritual of, "Do you have to go to work today, Dad?" and"Stay home, Dad," which finally ended with him bolting out the door.
He moved into the street feeling warm and content with his life and lot Everyman should be so loved and lucky.
Bemusedly, he reflected that he had not had a nightmare for two nights now.
He looked up. "Bel-Sidek. Good morning. How is your father doing?"
"He's as busy as ever dying. He'll outlive us all. On your way to work?"
"Mind if I walk with you?"
"Of course not."
They walked in silence awhile, Aaron slackening his pace so his companionwould not work so hard descending the hill. He could not help glancing overoccasionally. He had been acquainted with bel-Sidek for years, and knew theman survived by scrounging odd jobs around the waterfront, but they'd neverspent any time together.
After a while, bel-Sidek sort of sighed and said, "I guess there isn't any wayto get at it but to go straight ahead."
"You seem to be a fairly trustworthy man, Aaron. So I'm going to take a chanceon you. I belong to the Living."
Aaron looked at him and frowned. "Everybody thinks that, anyway. Why are youtelling me?"
"I am, in fact, a moderately important part of the command structure of theLiving, Aaron. Mostly because I was a commander of a thousand at Dak-es- Souetta. Yesterday one of the men who fought for me there came to me for someadvice. He doesn't know I'm with the Living and he wouldn't name names, butwhat he did say gave me enough to reason out the rest for myself."
Aaron stopped. He looked at his neighbor blankly. Inside he was in a complete state of confusion, panic fighting with wonder fighting with relief. He didnot know what to say or what to do. He could not think. Aram!
"What I want from you, Aaron, is for you to forget all about this. All aboutwhat happened at the Seven Towers. It's been taken care of."
"Hell, man, he had a wife and kid." No way to stop it once it stuck its headout of his mouth. His tongue was a treacherous serpent. "You have to thinkbefore you go cutting throats. They didn't have anybody else in the world.
What the hell are they going to do now? Your kind never think about that when..."
People were pausing to look at him before they hurried away. Bel-Sidek lookedlike he was in shock. But recovering. "Be quiet, Aaron! What's the matter withyou?"
Aaron did manage to lower his voice. He let it all spill out.
Bel-Sidek interrupted. "I see I'm going to have to tell you more than Iwanted. But trust you some, trust you all the way. Naszif isn't dead. Wedidn't kill him. Come. Walk. We're drawing too much attention."
And, Aaron noticed, Dartars were pouring into Char Street from the acropolis.
Bel-Sidek said, "You were right about Naszif. He betrayed your tower out inthe hills. And he was still an agent of the Herodians. In fact, they hadadopted him into their society and he had become a vice-colonel in theirarmy."
"Yes. But now he's our man again. We've reclaimed him. He'll be working forQushmarrah. His wife and son have lost nothing. And only you, outside themovement, know about this.
I want you to forget. Everything. Tell no one anything and go on living yourlife. Can you do that, Aaron?"
"I can. But you probably won't let me."
Amazed at himself. Talking back to an officer. Serpent tongue letting angersix years old spew out. "It's people like you that can't leave anything alone.
You can't as long as there are people like me whose lives you can spend." Astrange, almost drugged feeling, like he was outside watching somebody elsespeak the unspeakable. "You go play your games with Fa'tad and General Cado.
Just leave me and my family out of it. Leave us alone."
Bel-Sidek gulped air as he searched for something to say. "It's your struggle, too, Aaron."
Aaron spat into the dust. Then he laughed hoarsely. "Your ass. My struggle?
The only people who aren't better off since the conquest are your class. Andthe monster who lived in the citadel. If I had any real sense I'd turn you into the Herodians. But I'm an old dog and you people trained me too well when I was a pup. I can't turn on you now. Go away. Leave me the hell alone."
Aaron lengthened his stride. Bel-Sidek could not keep up.
As the anger evaporated, Aaron began to be afraid. Stupid. Stupid to let yourmouth run away like that. Those were dangerous men. Crazy dangerous.
Bel-Sidek stopped. He could not keep up. He fought down the anger that nippedat him like a fire trying to get started. He had faced these blowups before.
He did not like them. In part that was because he could not quite grasp thefrustration that fueled them, in part because he heard enough truth in them tohave his conscience wakened. He did not want to feel guilty about being trueto his beliefs.
It would not be a good day. Like it or not he was going to spend itreexamining everything that he was, agonizing over his own goals and those ofthe movement.
When you looked at the situation the way an Aaron did there was no mystery whythe movement had trouble attracting recruits. There went a man who had lost asmuch as any in the war, and he put at least as much of the blame for that onhis own overlords as he did on the Herodians.
That kind of thinking-with its damnable core of truth-was an enemy moredangerous than all the spies Cado might have on his payroll. That kind ofthinking might lead men to denounce the movement simply because they preferredHerodian order to the chance of a chaos that might interfere with commerce.
Bel-Sidek limped toward the waterfront, trying to shut out the pain in his legand in his heart. Each hundred steps he glanced back to see how much theDartars had gained upon him.
The Dartar column entering the Gate of Autumn seemed endless. The civiliansawaiting their turn to get into Qushmarrah were sullen and growing more so.
Even to Yoseh it seemed that Fa'tad was sending in every man he had. And thatjust did not make any sense. What was so damned important about that Shu maze?
"Nothing, I'll bet," Nogah said. "Just Fa'tad tying to get Cado to think hethinks it's critical. Maybe so Cado will take it away and make a fool ofhimself looking for something that isn't there."
"What difference does it make?" Medjhah asked. "We get paid the same whetherwe dig around or we don't. Why worry about it?"
Somebody else said, "Yeah, kid. What you getting fussed for?"
Nogah: "He hopes we're on the job a month. You didn't see that veydeen slip hewas making sheep's eyes at yesterday."
Medjhah: "Oh, she was tender, my brothers! Young and sweet. Her eyes were likealmonds toasted and glazed with honey. Her lips were a bed of rose petals."
Yoseh snapped, "Knock it off, you guys."
Medjhah: "Best of all, she wasn't very bright. She was making calf eyes rightback at him."
Nogah: "Sounds too good to be true. If she can cook I'm going to take her awayfrom him."
Yoseh's protests only made the ribbing worse.
Veydeen in the streets paused to stare, startled by Dartar laughter. Yosehsaid, "You're ruining our image."
He became tense as they passed through the acropolis, in the shadow of theCitadel. In an operation this size, how much chance Nogah's troop would end upwhere they had been posted yesterday?
Nogah must have arranged something. He broke off the column at the same alley.
As Yoseh helped unload he kept glancing at that doorway down the street. Everyglance provoked a wisecrack.
The house was closed up this morning. The crone was not in her usual place onthe street. Had his daring yesterday raised her bile? Had she sealed up thefortress till the siege of the maze was over?
Nogah flailed his injured arm to work out some of the stiffness. Already someof his cousins were pushing into the alleyway. Another six men, assigned byJoab, arrived and dismounted, turned their animals over to Yoseh. Yoseh asked,
"You're not going in there today, are you, Nogah?"
"But you're injured. Send me instead."
"I wouldn't do that. You'd miss your little veydeen doe." He laughed andmarched into the shadows of the alley. Yoseh started after him.
"Hold it, little brother!" Medjhah snapped. "Come over here."
Yoseh went, reluctantly.
"You got a lot to learn about keeping yourself alive, kid. First rule ofsurvival is don't ever volunteer for anything. Where volunteers get sent menget killed."
"Why does he keep me out of the maze?"
"He doesn't want you to get hurt."
"I'm not a child, Medjhah."
"You're no seasoned warrior, either. Qushmarrah isn't the mountains. Right nowyou're an apprentice. When Nogah is sure he can trust your judgment andability to follow orders he'll find something exciting for you to do." Medjhahsettled on a saddle he had pulled off one of the camels, leaned back againstthe wall.
Veydeen surged around the knot of animals, casting sullen glances at theDartars impeding traffic. Medjhah ignored them till a trio of young wives camepast, stealing glances at the mysterious nomads. He singsonged, "Come close, come closer, said the fox to the little hens. I cannot see you from here." It was a line from a popular Qushmarrahan fable.
The tallest woman lifted her nose and lengthened her step. The other twogiggled and whispered behind their hands and hurried to catch up. As she wasabout to fade into the crowd the tall one paused to look back.
Medjhah tossed her a wave. "We'll see that haughty beauty again before the dayis over."
"How do you know?"
"It's my irresistible charm. Veydeen women just can't stay away."
"More like they were carrying market baskets and they'll have to come backthis way to get home."
"That, too. But I'll bet you right now she comes along this side of the streetand gives me a chance to tell her more about the fox and the hens."
"You think so?"
"It's a game. Teasing game. Flirting game. She and I both know nothing wouldcome of it even if that was what we wanted. No Dartar is going to introduceher to any mysteries. Can you see sneaking into a woman's home and bed dressedlike this? Nobody would notice a Dartar who went calling while a woman's manwas away?"
"Get veydeen clothing. Step back there in the alley and change. Once you're inthe crowd nobody would notice you."
Medjhah looked at him oddly. "I never thought of that."
Yoseh shrugged. It seemed obvious to him.
Medjhah said, "We were talking about adventures before those hens came byflaunting themselves. Look at me, Yoseh. Perfectly content to sit here leaningagainst a wall, watching camels. You want to know why? Because Nogah has foundme enough adventures already. Don't go looking for trouble. You might findit."
Yoseh nodded. There was sense in that.
They watched the women go to market for a while, Medjhah flirting whenever onewould allow it.
The door down the street opened and the crone came out, followed closely by awoman whose face made Yoseh's heart jump. Then he saw that she was not thegirl. Her mother, perhaps. At least her older sister. The look was there, buttime had weathered it.
The women carried baskets. The crone eyed him narrowly as they passed. After aglance the other paid him no heed.
Medjhah did not exercise his charm upon her. When she was out of sight helaughed. "Heart going pitty-pat, little brother? Here's your big chance. Justwalk over there and start talking. But what if her father is there? What ifshe has brothers? What if she spits in your face and screams for help?"
Medjhah laughed again.
It was as if Medjhah could read his mind.
"Eh, don't worry about it, Yoseh. Come sit in the shade and watch the crazyveydeen. The parade is endlessly fascinating."
But the doorway down the street was open an inch. He could see the white of aneye pressed to the crack. Somehow, that shook the roots of the daydream, asthough reality threatened to intrude and force him to live out the fantasy.
His spirit was restless. That communicated itself to his flesh. He began topace.
Azel was plagued by an unaccustomed flux of the spirit. He was restless, uncomfortable, almost haunted as he moved through the Dartar infestation. Whatthe hell were they doing? Why the hell couldn't they leave the labyrinthalone?
He fretted as he drifted through the press of Char Street. He did not like thefeelings plaguing him. It was almost if he were suffering a premonition ofdisaster.
He slipped into the old man's house as quickly as he could. Almost too quicklyto pay attention to safety. And that bothered him, too. A man dared not putcaution aside.
The old man was in his bed. Azel said, "I'm here. Again. You seem determinedto use me up."
He frowned. He did not like what he heard from his own lips. It was not likehim to complain.
"Things have begun moving quickly. It cannot be helped."
"What is it this time?"
"The man you tracked to Government House. He turned out to be an officer ofhigh standing among the Herodians. We want to turn him to our own advantage.
We have him under control now but we don't expect our leverage to hold up."
"This is where I come in."
"The boy you took the other day is his son. We have informed him that we havethe child in our control. I want you to convince him of that fact."
"Take him there. Show him the boy. Then get the child into our hands as soonas possible. Have him be the next one examined."
"That's asking for trouble. If I take the man inside he might recognizesomething. And the woman isn't going to accept that without a squawk. Nor willshe be pliant about who she takes for examination. It pleases her to imaginethat she's the driving force behind everything and that we're parasitichangers-on trying to profit from her researches. She tolerates us because shefinds us useful occasionally."
"She has failed to see all the implications of her husband's death."
"She's lived a long time, General, and most of it completely out of touch withreality. She's surrounded by sycophants content to feed her fantasies."
"Then it's time she was awakened."
Azel listened as the old man told him what to do. He indicated his understanding and approval with a single nod. "There's one piece of news.
Concerning the new civil governor, who seems eager to make enemies."
"He's chosen the villa of the widow of General Hanno bel-Karba as his residence. A damn fool idea that can't have come to him overnight. He musthave had people here ahead of time, looking for ways he can make trouble. Wordis, he's already sent the General's widow a letter ordering her to vacate bysundown tonight."
The old man remained silent for a long time. Then he said, "I wanted theorganization to stay out of sight and mind. But this cannot be tolerated. Isuppose he's threatened to evict her?"
"The man is mad. He wants to get himself killed. But that is nothing to you.
On about enduring your own travails."
General Cado was livid. He'd just heard from Sullo's own mouth a plan forconfiscating the properties of the widow of General bel-Karba. Insanity! Hispate was scarlet. He sputtered with rage.
Cado faced away from Sullo until he regained control. Then he faced around.
"You come with a certain reputation, Marteo Sullo. I assumed that most of whatI've heard was slander from the mouths of your enemies. But today I've learnedthat they have been too kind. Maybe they were ashamed to tell the whole truthabout your arrogance, your vanity, your stupidity."
Now Sullo sputtered.
"You came here planning to embarrass me, eh? Stealing that old woman's houselooks like an easy way, eh? Because she enjoys my favor? Maybe that's true.
But did you bother to find out who she is and what she means to the people ofQushmarrah? The hell you did. You fool. You try to take that woman's home andthe very least you'll do is end up dead. If you stay ahead of death for longit could mean the end of every Herodian in the city."
Sullo sneered, but beneath his sneer there was a hint of uncertainty, avarnish of fear.
Cado shifted to a gentler tone and pressed his advantage. "You saw the entirestrength at my command yesterday afternoon. Twelve thousand Herodian troopsnot of the first quality or they would be out facing the Suldan of Aquira.
Five thousand Dartar mercenaries commanded by an unpredictable madman whocould turn on us any minute. With them I control Qushmarrah-just barely- because ninety-nine out of a hundred Qushmarrahans don't give a damn who runs things as long as certain precious institutions are left alone. That old womanis one of those institutions. Her husband never lost a battle in his life, whether single combat or massed armies. He is revered as a warrior demigod.
These people believe he was struck down by assassins in Herodian pay.
"And that's true. And he won that fight, too. He killed them all. But he wasinjured so badly he could not participate in the battle at Dak-es-Souetta. Hedied of his wounds as we were taking possession of the city. Death was theonly enemy ever to best him. Diehards hid the body and tried to convince thepeople that he was still alive, but they failed."
"Is this fable supposed to impress or intimidate me?"
"It's supposed to warm a sense of reasonable caution in that dried-up pea youuse for a brain."
Sullo smiled nastily. "The masks are off now, aren't they?"
"There is a strong party back home which feels that you have been criminallyslack in bringing these people to heel and converting them."
"I suspected as much. Though I read my failing as not having stolen enoughQushmarrahan treasure to slake their greed."
"They've sent me here to make up for your deficiencies." Another nasty smile.
Cado smiled right back. "This little chat has been more useful than Isuspected it would be. It's shown me my course of action. Which is to take noaction at all. All I need do is back away and give you your head."
Sullo eyed him narrowly, distrusting the triumph.
"You'll be dead before the week is out."
"If you dare ..."
"Not I, Governor. I won't lift a finger. You. Committing suicide. Your lovingsubjects, who're about as tamed and converted as they're going to letthemselves get, are going to cut your throat. I'll wish you good day, sir.
I'll even wish you good luck. You may make these people appreciate me muchmore than they do."
Sullo stalked out, not able to conceal his anger at being discounted.
General Cado relaxed, wondered how best to get convincing word to the Livingthat he and his had no part in Sullo's schemes, that he and the army ofoccupation would remain neutral in any dispute.
Medjhah was right. The tall and haughty woman came back, taller and haughtierthan ever, but cutting a course much closer to the alley mouth. Medjhahrenewed his invitation. The ice woman responded with a sway of body that saidhips were moving in cruel mockery beneath her clothing. Her satellites giggledbehind their hands and one who could not have been more than a year older thanYoseh flashed him a clumsy wink that scrunched up one whole side of her face.
He winked back just to keep the game alive. He whispered, They, too, were children when the rivers ran with blood."
Medjhah uncoiled. "I'm going to stretch my legs, kid."
"Hey. What's my middle name? I'm not going to get near her. Them. I'm justgoing to see where they live." He drifted into traffic and disappeared. Yosehsat and brooded on the meaning of life and death and decided he probablywouldn't live long enough to figure it all out.
The glare off the harbor was intense. Yoseh closed his eyes. He may have dozedfor a few minutes. When he opened his eyes again he found a veydeen childstaring at him. The boy seemed familiar ... He looked some like the girl downthe street. Of course! He had seen the boy with the old woman.
Something scaly and cold uncoiled and stretched inside his stomach. "Hello.
What's your name?" He tried very hard to get his tongue around the odd shapeof the Qushmarrahan dialect.
"Arif. What's yours? Are you really a Dartar soldier?"
"Good morning, Arif. I am Yoseh, the son of Melchesheydek. Yes, I am a Dartarwarrior, though I am very new at it." Could the boy understand the differencebetween soldier and warrior? Probably not. Few adult veydeen could do that."
"How come you always wrap your face up in those black cloths?"
Yoseh could not answer that one. It was something you began doing when youbecame an adult. It was something the lesser tribes of the veydeen and theferrenghi did not do, so that they stood apart, branded, uncouth andlascivious. It was something he did not ponder. It was something that was.
He countered with a question of his own. "What is your sister's name?"
The boy looked baffled.
Yoseh repeated himself slowly, carefully, thinking he had botched the dialect.
The glow of illumination lighted the kid's face. He said, "You must mean Mish.
She's not my sister. She's my aunt. My mom's sister. Her real name is Tamisabut everybody calls her Mish. She's a real grouch."
Yoseh fell into a long conversation with Arif. He did most of the talking, answering questions about his native mountains and deserts and those greatsalt flats called the Takes, and about Dartar skirmishes with the Turoksavages who lived beyond the Takes. He got in a few questions of his own, mostly defining Arifs family.
Another of those families decimated by the war. No close relatives leftoutside this house except some married aunts. The same sort of story you heardeverywhere.
So where the hell did all the people come from? What had this crazy city beenlike before the fighting took so many? So crowded you couldn't breathe?
Their talk must have gone on half an hour. Medjhah came back, winked, went andsat in the shade and appeared to doze.
The girl came boiling out of the door down the way, looked around frantically, the back of one hand to her mouth. She was in a panic. Terror filled her eyes.
She spotted Yoseh and Arif. She looked like she went limp with relief.
Yoseh stood as she bustled toward them. He could not help staring. The scalything in his stomach thrashed. She did not look at him at all. Her cheeks werered.
"Arif! What are you doing out here? You know the rules! You're going to getthe spanking of your life when I tell your father what you did."
"Aw, Mish, I was just talking to Yoseh." "He was perfectly safe here, Tamisa.
When you tell his father will you mention that it took you a half hour tonotice that Arif had left the house?"
Her color deepened. She faced him, mouth opening to snarl. But then her eyesmet his. Nothing came out.
Down in Yoseh's stomach Old Scaly went into his death throes. Or something.
Medjhah chuckled into the silence that hung between them. Mouth dry, Yosehsaid, "My name is Yoseh." Tamisa said, "My name is Tamisa." "You are verybeautiful, Tamisa." The girl blushed. Medjhah chuckled again. Arif lookedpuzzled and displeased.
"Tamisa, don't you have another kid to watch, too?" Yoseh had just glimpsed asturdy little one headed their way like he owned Char Street.
"Oh, Aram! Stafa! Mother is right. I'm a hopeless, irresponsible half-wit."
She started to go. Too flustered to remember the older boy.
The younger one was there. The girl scooped him up as if that would save himfrom all the dangers he'd already evaded successfully.
Arif said, "Tell Mish about the time your father and Fa'tad ambushed theTuroks, Yoseh."
"I don't think girls are interested in those kinds of stories, Arif." Tamisaput the younger boy down in front of her and held on. "I don't mind. At homeall I hear is Mom grumbling about how her legs hurt."
Medjhah chuckled a third time.
Yoseh did not know what to say now. It was all in his lap. He was painfullyaware of the disapproval of the passing veydeen who saw one of their virgindaughters speaking to a Dartar.
He just started talking. After a while the girl started talking back to him.
They sat down. The boys began playing among the animals. Yoseh thought thecamels were unnaturally tolerant of their behavior. The little one, thefearless one, climbed all over them. He got bumped down once when he planted afoot too painfully, but otherwise did as he pleased.
Nogah came out of the alley with a coffle of five pasty-looking prisoners andturned them over to Medjhah. His expression was unreadable as he drank from awaterskin. But he said nothing. He returned to the alley with the waterskinslung over his shoulder.
Medjhah got a javelin and perched himself where he could keep an eye on the prisoners. There wasn't a hint of laziness or sleepiness about him now.
Yoseh tried to keep talking to Tamisa, but the appearance of the prisoners hadunsettled her. And the boys now clung close, frightened by the wild men out ofthe maze.
Medjhah whistled softly. "Hey, kid. Down the hill."
The smaller boy took off. "Daddy! Dad's home."
Old Scaly had a few convulsions left.
Azel leaned into the room where the eunuch was eating a late supper. "Hey, Torgo. We got a problem. I need to see the woman."
Torgo's eyes went tight and narrow. "I thought you walked out on us."
"Did I? I don't remember that. I remember saying I wouldn't commit suicide. Not the same thing." He kept his tone neutral. "I got to see her. Got an emergency request from the General. It's important."
Torgo rose, went to a sideboard. He washed his hands in a gold laving bowl, rinsed them in lilac water. "You're serious, eh? You would have stayed away otherwise. What is it?" "I need to see her. She has to make the decisions on this."
"Unfortunate, but true. "The eunuch smirked. "She examined one of the children last night She won't recover before tomorrow evening. At the earliest."
Azel spat a curse.
"I hope it's not a deadly emergency." The eunuch's smirk grew malicious.
"It could be. For all of us."
Torgo was amused by his effort to be polite. Azel knew he would protract this, make it a bully's game.
Azel gave details about the highly placed Herodian spy.
Torgo said, "I don't see a problem for us in here."
"The General wants to turn the spy around. He's dead set on it. His best leverage is here. The last kid I brought in was the spy's son."
Torgo was genuinely surprised.
"The General has two requests. First, he wants the spy brought in and shownthe kid. Second, he wants the kid to be examined next so the Living can takepossession."
Torgo nodded, grinned. "She won't allow the first. And her schedule ofexaminations is set."
Azel loosed his wickedest smile. "The old man anticipated that. I'd guess hefigures this is a good time to define relationships more clearly."
"Eh?" Torgo looked uncomfortable.
"He understands the Witch. He knew her before Dak-es-Souetta and Ala-eh-din Beyh. He feels her desperation will lead her to bow to his superior wisdom."
"Or he seals the Postern of Fate and pursues his war with Herod by othermeans."
Torgo snapped, "You get of a whore!"
"Not my idea, friend. I argued against it. But he's a stubborn old shit withnothing to lose and some right on his side. Her-activities are a danger to theLiving. There's a rumor the Living are behind the child-stealing. There'vebeen too many kidnappings. People are getting upset. He wants her to back off.
He wants to decide when, where, and how the children are taken."
"She won't agree."
"Her choice is agree or get no more children."
Azel watched closely. Torgo was angry but, like Azel himself, was restrainingboth anger and personal animosity. The stakes went beyond personalities. Torgopaced. He fiddled with things, flicked away specks of dust, made minuteposition adjustments. "I'll get hell for it but I'll go out on a limb. You cansee the boy. The rest will have to wait on her."
Thank you," Azel figured that would rattle Torgo.
"Bring him in blindfolded. Don't let him know where he's at or what we'redoing."
"Don't worry about me. Worry about putting the kid somewhere where he can beseen without giving away where he's being held. I'll pay my respects to Nakarnow. May he find Gorloch's favor again."
Torgo mumbled the formula sullenly. Azel grinned as he left. That ball-lesswonder couldn't root for that because it would mean losing out on hisfantasies.
Right now Torgo was as close as he was going to get to the woman he loved.
Aaron broke stride when he saw Mish with the Dartar. He glanced at the pasty- faced prisoners, the man watching them. That man looked back blandly.
Arif and Stafa arrived, whooping. Aaron settled the smaller boy on his left hip, took Arifs hand. He tried to keep his expression neutral as he looked at Mish and the younger Dartar. Arif babbled steadily as Aaron moved closer, telling him about the Dartar and his family. As he came up, Mish said, This is Yoseh, Aaron. He's the one who got hurt trying to catch the man that took Zouki."
The Dartar looked embarrassed. Mish looked frazzled.
"Why?" Aaron asked. He didn't know what else to say.
"What?" The Dartar looked perplexed.
"Why try to rescue the child?" The Dartar looked more perplexed.
The other came to his rescue. "A quaint perversion of us barbarians, Qushmarrahan. We care for children. Not something you would understand, perhaps." He spoke carefully, making sure he did not lose his meaning by slipping into dialect. He underscored by staring at Arif and Stafa. Aaron smiled. He looked at the younger Dartar. Thank you.
The boy was the son of a friend. I hope you weren't too badly hurt."
"Failure hurt more."
Aaron did not know what else to say. He glanced around. There were eddies in the human river as people paused to watch what might be a confrontation.
Uneasy, he looked at Mish, who was watching the Dartar boy in a kind of heatedwonder. "How soon will your mother be home? Are you supposed to have somethingready when they get here?"
"Oh! I forgot!" She ran for the door.
Arif said, "Yoseh, tell my dad about the time your father and Fa'tad
"He wouldn't be interested, Arif."
"My dad was a soldier. Weren't you, Dad?"
"In those days everybody was a soldier, Arif. It isn't anything to brag about."
Stafa was playing peekaboo with the other Dartar, looking round front of Aaron, then behind, while the man pretended to hide behind his face cloth.
Aaron wondered if he was losing his grasp on reality. That man had five prisoners at his feet and a spear in his other hand and he would stick themwithout compunction if they moved, but he was playing peekaboo with Stafa.
Yoseh did not know what to do or say. He was very uncomfortable. He wished theveydeen would go away. He wished he had snarled at the boy when he had comeout. But then he would have had no chance to talk to the girl ...
It did not occur to him that the man did not know how to break awaygracefully.
The man said, "I suppose barracks food is pretty bad. It was when I ..."
"It is bad," Yoseh admitted, surprised by the turn of conversation.
"Maybe Mish can bring something out. By way of thanks for what you tried todo. If she hasn't destroyed whatever she was trying to make."
Yoseh smiled, but the veydeen could not see that. He could think of nothingmore to say. He was spared the need to reply.
Mahdah and Kosuth came out carrying a corpse. It was not fresh enough to beone they had made. Its face had been obliterated by a beating. Entrails hungout through tatters that served as clothing. They dropped it amongst theprisoners.
The veydeen man-Aaron?-grabbed his older son's shoulder and said, "Come on, Arif." He moved out fast.
Mahdah and Kosuth watched him go. Mahdah asked, "What was that?"
Medjhah said, "Too complicated to explain. What's this?" Kosuth was not in agood temper. "What the hell does it look like?"
Mahdah was less upset. "Came out of the same nest as these beauties. They musthave been having some fun in there last night."
Medjhah dropped his lancehead toward the one prisoner who had a little spirit, who might have been the leader of the group. He slipped the tip under theman's nose and lifted, forcing him to look up or be cut. "You'll find us moreimaginative but no less certain. Unless you care to help us?" The man spat atMedjhah.
Medjhah drew the razor-sharp edge of his lancehead along the man's cheek.
Yoseh turned away from that casual cruelty-and let out a bark of astonishment.
"Medjhah! That man! The one who took the boy ... Hell! He's gone now."
Medjhah said something to Mahdah and Kosuth, came over. "The one Fa'tadwants?"
"Yes. I saw him up the street. But he disappeared in the crowd."
"Let's take a walk. See what we can see." He gave Yoseh a gentle push. "You goup the far side of the street."
They climbed halfway to the acropolis, saw nothing, gave it up. It was time, anyway. There were other things to do. The masons had arrived with their mud bricks and tools and somebody had to show them where Nogah wanted two mazepassages sealed.
Too, Joab was working his way up the hill, stopping to give instructions tothe watchers outside the alleys.
Tamisa's mother and sister returned from marketing. Yoseh watched, wonderingif Tamisa would age as they had. He barely overheard Joab tell Medjhah to tellNogah that he should leave three men in the alley overnight. Fa'tad had beenrunning units in and out the Gate of Autumn all morning. The ferrenghi couldnot have kept track of how many were inside and how many were out.
Yoseh wondered if even Joab knew what Fa'tad had in mind.
Yoseh was amused when he heard Medjhah take his earlier notion and turn itinto a suggestion that some men be clad as veydeen if they were going to beleft in the city. Joab looked like that was about the craziest idea he'd everheard.
Sadat Agmed had been stalking his quarry for six days, with no luck, and hewas out of patience. It was not that the child was abnormally inaccessible. Nomore so than any daughter of a well-to-do family of the Astan. But she wasinaccessible enough. He'd seen her only three times since he'd received thecommission from the Witch.
He hated collecting girls. They were much more difficult.
He had spent too much time on this one already. People would remember seeinghim around. He ought to report in, say he could not do the job, let her giveit to somebody who could. But he had not failed a commission yet. There waspride at stake here.
A woman-the mother?-came out of the house, leading the little girl. Theyfollowed the same routine they had before, taking the uncrowded street uphill.
Meaning they would walk about two hundred yards and be admitted to the home ofanother well-to-do family. They would stay three hours, then would return.
Possibly it was something they were not supposed to do. Near as Sadat couldtell, the woman and child left home only when no one else was there and theywere certain no one would be aware that they had stepped out.
In this area women did not go out into public without a male companion. Aconceit of the prosperous.
There was only one way to do it under the circumstances. And as far as Sadatcould see, there was no opportunity to create more favorable circumstances.
He slouched after them, trying to look disinterested and innocuous, justsomebody headed in the same direction and walking a little faster.
He had worked it out a dozen times. His timing was exact. He overtook them asthey reached the mouth of the only alley and escape route leading off thatpart of the street. The woman glanced back just as he moved.
Her eyes widened and she tried to duck, but his blow put her down. He grabbedthe girl.
The child screamed. Someone yelled. The woman wailed. Sadat charged into the alley carrying the girl. She was not heavy. As he went he fumbled out a wad ofwet cotton. He forced that into her face.
A few blocks away he would be just some fellow carrying his sleeping daughter.
The blow to the mother had not fallen solidly. She staggered down the alleyafter him, wailing. Damn! And now a couple of men were with her, asking whatha'd happened.
Sadat Agmed ran. But the child slowed him. He distanced the woman but not themen who took up the chase. Each time he glanced back there were more of them, shouting louder and looking meaner.
He became frightened. Frightened, he did not think ahead carefully enough.
When he realized there would be no escape while he was burdened with thechild, he abandoned her and took off toward the Hahr. But he misremembered ashortcut by one turn and ended up darting into a dead-end alleyway. Dead endin more ways than one.
The mob pulled him off the wall he was trying to climb. Many were men who hadsmall children, men who had become intimate with fear of child-stealersrecently. They had no mercy in them, and no thought to ask questions. Theywere not armed, but that did not matter.
Sadat used two packs of flash and after each almost broke free. He flailedaway with his knife till someone knocked it out of his hand. The slashes onlyenraged the men more. They punched and kicked and stomped him till he had beendead for several minutes.
Then, horrified by what the animal in them had made them do, they ran away anddid not talk much about the affair.
A Dartar patrol reached the scene only after it was too late for anything buta cleanup.
Azel reported his conversation with Torgo to the General. The old man was morethan ordinarily irritable. His aches and pains were piling up.
"He'll let you take the traitor to see the boy, at least?"
"He gave me that much."
"I presume you don't want to be recognized any more than he wants the citadelto be. Have you a way to handle that?"
"Have somebody deliver him blindfolded to the third alleyway south of Muma'sPlace. I'll pick him up after the delivery boys go. After I bring him out I'llwalk him home."
"As soon as it's dark. There's nobody up there after sundown."
"Be careful. The best men in the organization will be handling somethingelse."
"I'm always careful."
"I know. Good day."
"Same to you." Azel eased out the door after a glance to make sure no one waswatching. He was uneasy, suddenly. Like it was not a good time for ...
He caught the tail end of a shout. Puzzled, he looked downhill. And saw aDartar pointing at him.
Another Dartar appeared, looked, nodded, and started heading toward him.
Azel did not believe it for a moment. Why would they single him out? Must beone of the ones he had run into in the maze. Damn the luck!
He bulled into the crowd, where they would have trouble spotting him becauseof his stature. He reviewed his choices, supposing they were serious enoughactually to come after him. His favorite tool, the maze, was no good. A hordeof those bastards were in there. He couldn't fight them all.
A horn sounded behind him. "Shit!" They had sounded an alarm. They wereserious.
Why? What the hell was the matter with them? What did they have on him? Whythe hell should they give a damn about a kidnapping? Unless Fa'tad had begunto sense a pattern?
He glanced back.
They had stolen his physical advantage. One man had mounted a camel and waskeeping him in sight. Two more were pushing through the press on foot.
"All right, you treacherous sons of bitches." He pushed harder, edging towardthe north side of the street, away from the maze and the Dartars uphill. In aconversational voice he said, "Make way for the Living, please," repeating itover and over, hoping it would not do more harm than good.
The horn sounded again. Answers came from uphill and down.
The crowd began to chatter and grumble. Somebody tripped one of the Dartars.
That started a fight that threatened to become a free-for-all. The camel riderbegan laying about with the butt of his lance.
Azel chuckled. A long shot had come in.
An uphill Dartar pushed into his path, threatened him with a lance he heldlike a quarterstaff. Azel did not slow. When the Dartar swung the butt of thelance Azel grabbed it and yanked, kicked the man in the groin, punched hishead, and pushed on. He reached the mouth of an alley running north.
He looked back again. The camel rider glared helplessly from a hundred feetaway. Azel saluted him and entered the alleyway. As soon as he was sure no onewas watching he climbed to a rooftop.
He continued to move warily there. Qushmarrah's rooftops, in the dense OldCity, were another world, like the Shu maze, but one he did not know as well.
He could not be sure he did not have enemies up there.
The crowd had begun to disperse by the time Aaron got out to see the cause ofthe uproar. Qushmarrahans did not want to be around when Dartars gathered instrength.
Two Dartars were lying in the street. One of them looked like the kid he'dbeen talking to a while ago. A man on a camel stood guard over them.
Aaron did not think. He just ran out, arriving as the camel rider brought hismount to her knees. That was the one who had watched over the prisoners whilehe had spoken with the younger one. Yoseh?
Aaron dropped to one knee. Both men were breathing. "What happened?"
The rider said, "Yoseh saw the child-stealer from the maze. We went after him.
He said something to the crowd. They attacked us."
The boy opened his eyes. He tried to get up. Aaron offered a hand. The boyflinched away, then accepted. Aaron lifted him, slipped an arm around hiswaist, helped him stumble back to where he had started. He did not notice theDartars gathering like ravens. He did not notice the scowls of Laella and hermother, watching from the doorway.
He set the boy down, looked back to see if the other needed help. That one wassurrounded by Dartars. He looked at the boy again, intrigued by the scars andtattoos revealed when his face cloth was gone.
"Thank you," the boy said.
"Are you all right?"
"I'll have a lot of scrapes and bruises. Otherwise, yes."
Aaron assayed a weak sally. "You're going to have to quit chasing that man.
You keep ending up ..."
"We'll get him."
A one-sided row broke out at the house, Raheb so excited her voice squeaked.
Aaron was surprised to see Mish headed his way with a bowl, rags, and whatpassed for medical supplies in their household. She settled on her kneesbefore the boy, dipped a rag in the bowl, began cleaning the street dirt offhis face.
Aaron settled on his haunches. He wondered what Mish thought of the boy'sscars and tattoos. He smiled when she tried to scrub the latter away.
There was another feminine outburst, Laella this time, then Arif was therebeside him, left hand on his right shoulder. Arif did not say anything. Aaronslipped his arm around his son's waist. In the background Stafa raised hellbecause his own break for freedom had been intercepted.
Aaron watched Mish and wondered why the crowd had turned ugly so suddenly.
What had the child-taker said? They would have turned on him, probably, hadthey known what he was.
He realized that the shadow of a man on horseback had fallen upon them. Helooked up. Into the wet grey eyes of an old hawk.
The thin shell cracked, somewhere there in the back. The poison of hatredboiled through.
Joab, whose horsemen had overridden a Qushmarrahan company on the Plain ofChordan, leaving Aaron's father and brothers among the dead.
Aaron's body refused to be controlled. He rose slowly, coiled to spring. Hislimbs began to shake. A sound like that made by a cat trying to cough up furballs came from his throat.
Those grey eyes filled with surprise and maybe a touch of fright.
Aaron caught a glimpse of bel-Sidek standing on the far side of the street, watching him in amazement.
The dark fog parted. He shuddered, tore his gaze away from Joab, said, "Mish, come on," and gripped Arifs shoulder hard, headed him toward home. Mish camewithout protest, having heard something in his tone that silenced her penchantfor contradiction.
Yoseh watched the girl walk away, saddened, puzzled. "What the hell justhappened?" Joab asked. "I thought he was going for my throat."
Medjhah said, "You offended him somehow. About six years ago."
Joab looked at the veydeen man, grunted. "What went on here? Are these men allright?"
"Just a little battered, sir," Yoseh said. He explained about spotting thechild-stealer. Nogah came out of the maze and hovered nervously while hetalked.
The General closed the door he had held open a crack throughout theexcitement. He cursed softly, over and over. Azel had gotten away, but it hadbeen a close thing and those bastards-Joab and Fa'tad, at least-were going toput in some time trying to find out why the man had been in the area.
Azel never made mistakes. Not to the old man's knowledge. Nor to his own, either, probably. But his stroke of tactical inspiration, invoking the name ofthe Living, just might turn into a strategic nightmare.
Not Azel's fault, really. His own, for overutilizing his best man. Had anyonenoticed his frequent visits? Those had to stop, inconvenient as that would be.
He dared not have a child-stealer connected with this house or the Living.
The Living would have to disavow him, condemn him, demand that he be punishedfor using the movement's name. Azel was deft. He would evade trouble. Whatevernotoriety came of this would die out soon.
He looked across the room to his writing table, miles away. He had to scribblea note to Azel, warning him off, advising him that he would have to endure thename of outlaw for a time.
He started working his way along the wall, wishing there was someone he could bring in on what he was doing. He was too feeble to carry the whole burden.
But did he dare inform his khadifas? Most would be appalled, even outraged, though not all for the same reasons. Zenobel or Carza? Maybe. If it was presented carefully enough and he revealed the full scope of his duplicitous stratagem, so they would not be repelled by its unsavory immediate aspect. The old man had spent too much strength getting to the door. He did not retain resources adequate to the return journey.
For once bel-Sidek was not sorry about the condition of his leg. Had he been healthy he would have arrived in the middle of things, while tempers burned their hottest and reason bent before a draft out of Chaos. There was residual anger enough to trouble him as he questioned his neighbors.
Inner, secret shame had left some defiant. They could not admit that they had been gulled by a thug. His reassurances were not well received. He dared not pursue it too closely. He limped home irritated. Ortbal Sagdet had proven insiders could use the movement to their benefit. But who would have thought the baser sort of villain might use its name as a tool? He burst in ready to treat the General to an angry monolog. "Sir! Oh, Aram have mercy!" He dropped a squash he had bought for supper, fell to his knees. "Sir?"
The old man croaked, "Bel-Sidek?"
"Yes sir. I'm here, sir."
The flesh betrays the spirit." The old man's words came one to the breath. "Get me to the writing table."
Bel-Sidek lifted him. He was so light! "What were you trying to do, sir?"
"Watched that uproar in the street. Bel-Sidek, a beast of a man, a child- stealer, used our name to escape Dartar justice. If there is such a thing. Where are you going? I said the writing table."
Bel-Sidek lowered the old man into his bed. "You talk too much, sir. Shut up and rest." "The writing table. An order." "So try me for mutiny. At least you'll have the pleasure of being alive to enjoy it."
"The word has to go out. That man has to be caught. People are too eager to think evil of us now."
"Dictate. I'll take care of it."
The old man worked his way around till he faced the wall.
Stubborn old bastard. What was he doing walking around without help? At the very least he could have broken brittle bones.
Bel-Sidek began his meal preparations, and worried. He was supposed to joinMeryel again tonight. But it was obvious someone had to ride herd on the oldman, whose reason was slipping. He could not leave. But it was imperative thathe meet with Meryel and arrange for the disposition of the weapons in herwarehouse. They could not be kept there in a mass. Too much to risk.
Hadribel. The new khadifa of the Hahr had not yet left the Shu. He would doanything to overcome the embarrassment of Having allowed a Herodian agent torise so high in his organization.
Yes. Hadribel. He would not have to be away from the house more than a fewminutes to get Hadribel.
All the news came to Muma's first and fastest, Azel reflected sourly. Or, atleast, all the news that was bad news.
A child-taker stomped to death in the Asian. He did not want to go, but he hadno choice. If Agmed or Bel-Shaduk had got himself killed they would need toknow in the citadel. Now.
He half hoped the man killed was one of those two. That was the sort of whackupside the head the Witch needed to wake her up.
Azel pushed away from his table and went out into the late afternoon. Heheaded east by alleyway and back street. The better streets all boastedDartars headed for the Gate of Autumn and the compound beyond. He did not wantto run into any more Dartars. He was in a mood to try to hurt them and thatwouldn't be smart. They would only hurt him back.
He did not have to go rooting around the Astan to find out what he wanted toknow.
Here and there along Goat Creek, in the open spaces before the Old Wall, weregrounds designated for dumping. A Herodian conceit. They bred flies and ratsby the million. But so had the pre-conquest custom-still followed west of theacropolis-of dumping anything unwanted out the nearest window, in hopes therains would wash it away.
One of the bigger heaps served a grim purpose. It was there the corpses ofcriminals were thrown out for scavengers. It was next to the mound whereunwanted babies were set out to die or be found by those who did want them.
These days few were unwanted, few were exposed. Azel passed the placewondering if it might not have been better had he been exposed.
The body was there on Skull Heap. The day was failing but there was lightenough. He turned back the way he had come.
Sadat Agmed, looking pretty harmless now.
Mo'atabar came almost before Yoseh settled himself to his supper. "Fa'tadwants him as soon as he's eaten," he told Medjhah, who was in charge becauseNogah had stayed in the city with Faruk and another, hidden inside the Shumaze. "You, too."
Medjhah grunted. So did Yoseh.
Once Mo'atabar went, Medjhah said, "It didn't rattle you tonight, littlebrother."
"I hurt too much to worry about Fa'tad." He flinched, but not from the pain.
They were questioning captives in the compound. Some needed convincing andwere a little exuberant with their protests.
Yoseh did feel less uncomfortable crossing the compound. He supposed you couldget used to anything. Yahada showed them inside and pointed out places to sit.
Fa'tad was receiving reports from his captains.
He asked, "The man used the same powder we saw before?"
A man Yoseh did not know replied, "Twice, apparently. Our people weren't thereto see it. He wasn't reluctant to use a knife, either. He cut a dozen mentrying to get away. A couple probably won't live."
"He was Dartar, Fa'tad."
Fa'tad looked up, grunted again, sourly. Yoseh wondered if he was havingtrouble with his digestion.
"One of the men recognized him. His name was Sadat Agmed. An outcast. From al- Hadid clan."
"I recall the man. A thief. And too quick with a blade. What did you find onthe body?"
"Nothing. Except gold. Three pounds on each ankle and more on each arm."
"Child-stealing must be lucrative. So. Now we've run into two of them, armedwith minor sorcery. Are there more? Who's buying the children they steal? Whatare they doing with them?"
No one had an answer. No one had a suggestion about how to find out, short ofcatching one of the child-takers.
"Tell me about the other one," Fa'tad told Yoseh. So Yoseh related events ofthe afternoon. Medjhah gave al-Akla the perspective from camelback.
"The important thing we learned," Joab interjected, "is that we're making noheadway in the Shu. The man said he was an agent of the Living and the crowdturned on these boys."
Yoseh was surprised. He had not known that.
The Living. We're not fighting them right now, Joab. We're trying to disarmthem by example."
"Not fighting them? We're trying to take away the night. Their time."
"And how long before Cado gets wind of the fact we're leaving men in the cityovernight?"
"Not long. But if we take the night from the wicked and Herod orders us togive it back, who gains in the eyes of Qushmarrah?"
"I still say you play the game too subtly," Joab grumbled. "Find the captainsof the Living and come to an accommodation."
"We play for higher stakes, old friend." Al-Akla seemed to realize, suddenly, that he spoke before more than the inner circle. "Yoseh, Medjhah. You may go.
Thank you. Your efforts will be remembered."
They rose. As he followed Medjhah out, Yoseh heard Joab say, "The one boysuggested we dress some men as veydeen."
"And how do we make their faces look veydeen?"
As they crossed the compound Yoseh mused, "I never thought how our faces wouldgive us away." "Maybe wisdom does come with age."
The old man heard the street door close and steps approach. Not bel-Sidek'sfamiliar shuffle. He felt a moment of fright. Then he chuckled when Hadribelmoved into the room.
"Are you all right, sir?"
"Bel-Sidek was very concerned. He said ..."
"For all he's the man I've chosen to replace me when the time comes, bel-Sidekis a damned old woman when he starts fussing over me. The gods have beenmerciful tonight." He'd gotten worried about how he would get Naszif deliveredto Azel.
"I have work for you, Hadribel. Work that must be done immediately, that bel- Sidek would have ignored even had his lapse meant the death of the movement.
First, take me to my writing table."
Hadribel hesitated only a moment.
As he wrote his note to Azel, the General said, "I want you to go to Carza andtell him I have to see him immediately. If you both hurry he'll be with memost of the time you're running other errands. There'll be no cause for anagging conscience."
"Other errands, sir?"
"After you've summoned Carza you must collect the traitor Naszif bar bel-Abek, blindfolded, and deliver him to an agent of the movement." The old man gavedetailed instructions on how and where, with a strong caution against making any effort to get close enough to get a good look at the agent. "He's my mostprecious asset and I'll have no one know who he is lest he be betrayed eveninadvertently.
"Once you've delivered the traitor you'll take this message to the hostelcalled Muma's Place." Hadribel needed special directions. He did not know theplace. "Deliver the message only to Muma himself. Then return here. Knock. IfCarza hasn't left he'll answer and you'll have to find some way to occupyyourself till he goes. If he doesn't answer then you're to come in and remaintill bel-Sidek returns. Clear?" "Perfectly, General."
"Good. Then help me to my bed and be on your way." The old man sank into bedand collapsed into a deep, exhausted sleep, interrupted only when Carzaentered, to be introduced to the ultimate secret of the Living.
Zouki came alert as sudden silence invaded the cage. It was a silence filledwith terror. He looked around and saw the big man step through the cagedoorway.
The big man came straight toward him.
His heart hammered. He wet himself. He whimpered. He wanted to get up and runbut his body refused to obey.
The big man scooped him up and carried him out of the cage, through that hugeplace, into a large room lighted only by two candles at the far end. The bigman set him down between the candles. "You stay there, boy. You don't moveunless I tell you. Or you'll be sorry."
Zouki was too terrified to do anything else.
In the dusk a man leading an incongruously gaily decorated donkey cart camedown the dusty country lane leading past the home of the widow of theQushmarrahan hero, General Hanno bel-Karba. The man stopped before an oldwoman sitting by the roadside, weeping, watched over by several servants whoseloyalty the Moretians had not been able to banish through threats or acts ofterror. The man said, "Help her into the cart."
A servant, shaking, asked, "Who are you?"
"An old friend of her husband. I'm here to take you to safety."
The man's air of authority convinced the servants. They lifted the old womaninto the cart, then followed the man when he turned and led his donkey backthe way he had come.
Two miles up the road he turned off into a wood not yet devoured by theHerodian beast. He took them to a camp in a glen in the heart of the woodwhere they were received with great honor and solicitude by a band of menstrangely garbed in black camisards and pantaloons. The men were blackeningone another's faces with charcoal.
They made the refugees comfortable and fed them well while the cart man askedquestions about the Moretians who had put them out of their home. He changedto the strange clothing himself and allowed his face to be blackened while hetalked.
The old woman never spoke, never took her gaze from the fire.
The cart man asked, "Are we ready, Naik?"
"Then let's get to it."
Now the old woman looked up. "Are you the ones they call the Living?"
The khadifa inclined his head slightly. He did not answer directly. He said, "You will be back in your own home before the sun rises, honored lady."
Azel was late to the rendezvous because Muma's sons were so uncomfortable about the whole situation they had overscouted it. But his man was there, head tucked up in a cloth bag, and his escort was back where it was supposed to be.
The man in the blindfold jumped when Azel touched him. "Come," he whispered. The man came, saying nothing, cooperating even though he could have no certain idea what was afoot. Azel kept an alert watch but saw nothing. No one moved in the acropolis at night. Not even the Herodian sentries who were supposed to be on duty. He led his charge in through the Postern of Fate. Torgo was waiting. He beckoned Azel to follow him. Azel frowned. The eunuch showed none of his habitual impatience.
Torgo led him to a large room. The boy sat between two candles at the far end, looking miserable. Azel whispered, "I'm going to take off the hood and show you your kid. You don't do nothing. You don't say nothing. You don't turn around. You got that?"
The man nodded. Azel removed the sack.
The man stiffened, took in a quick breath, restrained himself otherwise. Azel let him look as long as he wanted, till he nodded his head again to say he had seen enough. Then he replaced the sack, backed him out of the room. Torgo closed the door. He whispered, "I woke her up. She wants to see you.
I'll take care of him till you get back." Even in a whisper there was a hint of gloating. "Good. I have a word for her, too. Where?"
Amused, Azel left the traitor to Torgo and went to see the Witch.
He found her standing by what remained of her husband. Her face glowed with a mad determination. It illuminated and made strange her beauty. But it did nothing to conceal the fatigue that weighted her down.
"I'm here, lady." No need to put her on the defensive. The news about Sadat Agmed was all the leverage he needed.
She turned, not removing her hand from the cold flesh of her husband. "Torgotells me your General has threatened me."
"Not my General, lady. I'm just a bridge between you and him."
"By what right does he ... ?"
"By the right of good sense, first. Your haste has started to attractattention. And by the more primitive right of strength. We can't operate outthere without his blessing." -~ "We shall see about that. Are you with me, Azel? Or have you truly deserted me?"
"I'm with you always, lady. Always. But I won't screw everything up by gettingin too big a hurry."
"Damn you! You'll do what I tell you ..."
"Lady! Sadat Agmed was killed today."
She looked at him hard. The color faded from her face. "How do you know thatname?"
"I make it my business to know things. It's how I stay alive."
She stared for a moment, becoming just a tired woman as she did. "Tell meabout it."
"He tried to take a kid in the Astan. He blew it. A mob got after him. Hecouldn't outrun them. They cornered him and beat him to death. Tomorrow thenews will be all over Qushmarrah. It'll be ten times as hard to grab a kid."
The Witch sighed.
Time to drive it home. "I was in Char Street today, making arrangements aboutthe traitor and trying to get the General to ease up on you. When I wasleaving I was recognized by the Dartars I ran into the other day. I wasluckier than Agmed, but a lot of people got a good look at me."
The Witch sighed again. "I guess you win, Azel. If the Fates will a thing, nothing we do will change it. Tell the General I'll do his boy next. Pick himup tomorrow night." She patted her dead husband the way a mother patted acolicky baby.
Azel bowed. "Thank you, lady." He backed out and returned to his charge, notconvinced that he had been granted a triumph. "Come," he said, and led thetraitor away.
He decided to take the man home through the maze. Less likely to be seen byanybody that mattered.
He was ten steps in when he realized they were not alone in the darkness. Hisnose warned him, catching a hint of camel and horse. He stopped, turned hischarge, whispered, "We just walked into an ambush. When I take the hood off, you run like hell. Straight home. I'll hold them off." He lifted the sack andgave the man a shove.
The traitor ran.
The Dartars began to move.
Azel squeezed his eyes shut, placed a hand over them, faced away from theambushers, threw a packet of flash.
He drew his knife and went after them.
As he stalked the last of the three he heard shouts from others approaching.
He finished it, got the hell out, and headed for Muma's.
If they got in his way one more time, some night when he wasn't exhausted hewas going to go in there and show them how to run the maze. They'd be pickingup pieces of camel jockey for a week.
* * *
The night was still and the fire was banked. The children were snoring and thewomen were sound asleep. But Aaron was not. Each time he started to slip off, something brought him back.
He was conscious of the warmth of Laella beside him. That kept his filthy mindstraying across to Mish ... For a while he thought it was the ferociousguilt from thinking the unthinkable. That carried a speck of the blame, butonly a speck. The main culprit was that business in the street, that reminderthat the horror was out there still, waiting to pounce. He did not want to goto sleep because the nightmares were waiting on the other side.
He did not at first recognize the sound for what it was, someone tapping atthe door. Then, more puzzled than frightened, he went and peeked.
"Reyha? What in the world?"
"I have to talk to Laella. I don't have anyone else."
"Come in." Aaron opened up. let her slip inside. He peered into the foggystreet. "Where's Naszif?" He could not imagine a woman-especially timid Reyhahazarding the Shu's night streets alone.
"Wake Laella. Please? I'll tell it all at once."
"I'm awake," Laella said, sitting up.
Aaron saw the stir had wakened Raheb, too, though she was pretendingotherwise. He said, "Sshh!" and followed Laella to the hearth. They settledthere. Aaron began stirring and feeding the coals, building up a small firefor the comfort. Reyha seemed troubled.
She said, "I don't know how to say this. It's so new to me. And so dangerous.
But I have to talk to somebody. Promise me you won't say anything to anybody, ever. Please? Laella? Aaron?"
Laella nodded. "Of course."
Troubled, Aaron did not respond. He liked Reyha a good deal, but ...
Laella gave him a look. "I'm sorry, Reyha. My mind wandered. Sure. Of course. But where's Naszifr" "The kidnappers. They took him somewhere to show him they have Zouki. To make him do what they want."
"I have to get home before they bring Naszif back. So let me tell it first. All right?"
"Of course we will," Laella told her.
"Sometimes I suspected but I never really believed it till he told me. Naszif is part of the Living. Very high up. They just promoted him to where he's thethird or fourth highest man in the Shu. But he's in the Herodian army, too.
They let him join right after the conquest. He's a colonel and he's beenspying on the Living."
"He told you all this?" Aaron asked.
"Keep your voice down," Laella cautioned. "You'll wake the children."
"Yes. He did. This morning. He broke oaths to do it. But he said he had to tell me because of Zouki. He said the Living found out he was a Herodian andthey took Zouki so they could make him do what they want, which is lie toGeneral Cado and spy on the Herodians."
Aaron thought she was awfully calm about the whole thing. But Reyha was a sortof passive person, accepting of things that were beyond her control. Hegrunted. Laella said, "Why are you taking a chance, telling us? Aaron and Ihave no reason to love the Herodians."
"I'm too confused about my feelings. I need somebody to help me think."
Nobody said anything. Aaron could feel Reyha's pain. Nothing he could say would change that.
She finally observed, "You don't seem very surprised."
Laella rested her hand on Aaron's. "We suspected for a long time. Naszif did strange things sometimes."
"What do you want, Reyha?" Laella asked.
"I don't know. Except I want my baby back. If we had Zouki, Naszif says the Herodians would send us somewhere where we'd be safe and he wouldn't have to spy on people anymore."
Aaron wondered if they'd do that, really. Maybe. The tie that bound the Herodian empire together was its strange and bitter religion. If Naszif had adopted that, they might consider him one of their "confederates," with acitizenship only slightly more restricted than that of native-born Herodians.
He said, "I don't know how we could help, Reyha. Anything we did would put usin the middle between the Herodians and the Living. I won't speak for Laella, but I'd just as soon not have anything to do with any of them. I have my ownfamily to worry about."
Laella said, "Aaron!"
"I don't know what you could do. I just wanted Laella to know because shealways stays calm, no matter what, and I get rattlebrained, so maybe she couldthink of something when I couldn't. I wouldn't ever ask you to do somethingthat would get you in trouble."
Laella told her, "We'll do whatever we can to help you, Reyha. You know that."
"Thank you. I'd better run home. Before Naszif gets back. He'd be very angryif he knew I told you anything."
"He won't know," Laella said. "Aaron, you'd better walk with her."
Aaron sighed. "Yes. I suppose I'd better."
Reyha had little to say during the walk. She had exhausted her reserves ofcourage and talk. When he got back home, Laella said, "Well? Something got toyou while she was telling us. What was it?"
"Zouki was kidnapped before they found out about Naszif. So that couldn't bewhy he was grabbed. And bel-Sidek promised me the Living didn't have anythingto do with it. Even Naszif didn't believe the Living would be involved inchild-stealing. So how come all of a sudden they tell him they've got Zoukiwhen they want to twist his arm?"
"Maybe they lied."
"But they're taking him to see Zouki."
"Don't bark at me, Aaron. I don't know who's doing what to whom, or why. I'mnot sure I care. Reyha and Zouki are what I care about. Do you understand?"
"Yes. There's no point fussing about it till we find out what they showedNaszif or did to him. I guess."
"What if he doesn't come home, Aaron?"
"What if they ... they did something with him: What would Reyha do?"
"We're getting ahead of things. When Reyha needs help-if she needs it-we'll dowhatever we can. So let's not get fussed. Let's get back to bed. I have towork tomorrow."
Naszif burst out of the mouth of the Shu maze, turned left, lengthened hisstride, ran all the way to the side door of Government House. He gave thepassword and his emergency code. To his amazement he was in to see Colonel Bruda before he got his wind back. "What is it?" Bruda asked, knowing it would be dramatic if it had to be done this way.
"They've found me out. I can't take more than a few minutes or they'll know I came here. They're trying to force me to work against you."
"Damn!" Bruda punched the wall. "Just when we were getting close to them." He kissed a skinned knuckle. "You want us to take you out? I can send troops to get your wife."
"No. They have my son. He's their leverage. I'm going to stay in till I can get him out, too. And meanwhile try to learn enough to gut them. I just wantedyou to know they're using me now. Whatever you hear from me will be what theywant you to hear. I have to go. I don't want them to suspect I've slipped theleash. Tell the General."
"You've got more guts than I do. You find out where they're holding your son, let us know. We'll hit them and get him out. Then send you out of town."
Naszif nodded. "I will. "He went downstairs, out the side door, and ran all the way home, where he found a shivering Reyha waiting in his bed. "Did you see him, Naszif?"
"How was he? Was he all right?"
"He was clean and well dressed and looked well fed. He seemed healthy. They wouldn't let me talk to him. He didn't know I was there. He's all right except for being scared."
"What are we going to do, Naszif?" "We're going to do whatever they tell us to do. For now."
The Witch waited only till Torgo told her that Azel and his companion had cleared the Postern of Fate. She told the eunuch, "I'm going to go have an unfriendly chat with our ally, General bel-Karba." "My lady, I don't think ..."
"That's right, Torgo. You don't. Because I don't want you to. You understand?"
"Yes, my lady."
"I won't be gone long. Get that child ready. I'll do him when I get back."
"I'm strong enough, Torgo. I don't need to rest. Get on with your business and let me get on with mine."
She watched the eunuch depart, then gathered her skirts and headed for the Postern of Fate.
She had not been out into the city since the conquest. It seemed littlechanged, except that the night was more quiet. The Herodians had stilled therowdy darknesses that had stemmed from the citadel and the mouth of Gorloch.
She slipped out of the naked openness of the acropolis and headed down CharStreet, into the inevitable night fog. She made no more sound than the fogitself, and felt no more fear. There was nothing in Qushmarrah more dangerousthan its Witch.
She came to the General's door. She paused. She sensed only the one enfeebledspirit within. The door was not barred.
Only someone supremely confident of his power would lie sleeping behind anunbarred door in the Shu.
She invited herself inside.
"Hadribel? Are you back already?"
A light sleeper. She stepped into the room where he lay. "No, General. NotHadribel. Someone you don't want to see at all. Someone who did not want tocome see you. But someone sufficiently tired of your lapses in regard torecognition of who is ruler and who is ruled that she felt compelled to comemake the point clear."
The General met her gaze without flinching. He grunted. That grunt seemed tocall her a damn fool woman.
"You had your creature Azel threaten me."
He looked at her a moment, then snorted. "My creature? Azel? Azel is nobody'screature but his own. He carried my message, yes, and it doesn't seem to havegotten garbled. He did his job. But if he were to surrender to his prejudicesI suspect there's only one person who could touch his heart. That person ishere and it isn't me, woman."
"You dared to presume to control me, General."
"I have a duty to Qushmarrah and my lord Nakar. Your obsessive behaviorimperils the recovery of both. Go back to the citadel, woman. Examine thechildren already in your power and leave the city alone. If you press it toomuch it will turn on us all. None of us will get what we want."
"You don't understand. None of you do. You never have. I don't give a damnabout Qushmarrah. I never have. I wouldn't care if it sank beneath the sea. Iwant my husband back. I'll do whatever it takes. And I won't let anyone get inmy way. Not even you. Do you understand me?"
"I understand that Azel allowed his secret passion to cloud his reason, afterall. His report on your obsession fell short of the truth. Go back to thecitadel, woman. Be at peace with your heart. Be patient. Or you'll destroy usall."
"No. No. I'll destroy only those who try to hinder me." She smiled.
"What?" He tried to rise, suddenly, at last, aware that he was in danger.
"This is where the alliance ends, General." A web of dark sorcery dancedplayfully on the fingers of her left hand. She laid her palm upon his chestand pressed down. He fell back with a little cry, body spasming. She turnedand went out, pleased with herself.
She had taken only two steps uphill when she heard footsteps approaching. Sheturned and drifted downhill ahead of them.
The footsteps ended at the General's house.
She had cut it close.
She drifted downhill a little farther, meaning to cut across and head backuphill on the far side of the street, where the fog would hide her from anyexcitement that exploded from the General's household.
She froze, loosing a little bleat of surprise.
It was as faint as the breath of the sea a dozen miles in from the shore. But it was there and not forgotten, the faintest aroma of the misplaced soul. Shecould not help herself. She drifted to the street-side door, leaned herforehead and one forearm against it, and let the proximity of it wash overher.
Tears streaked her cheeks.
A door slammed up the street. Somebody ran into the fog cursing under hisbreath.
Nogah leaned against the wall of Tosh Alley, a few steps inside, and watchedChar Street sleepily. He was not comfortable. There were few fogs like this atthe Dartar compound. He did not like the clammy feel it gave the air, the wayit limited visibility. It made this no decent place to be.
The scrapings and whispers and sometimes hints of far lights back in the mazedid nothing to buoy a man's confidence, either.
Fifty warriors were not enough to hold anything. Fa'tad knew that as well ashe did. They were a token, clinging to the dozen most important toeholds. Theycould be dislodged anytime the labyrinth creatures cared to make a concertedeffort.
Fa'tad was convinced there was little concert among them, despite apocryphaltales of the maze being ruled by a sort of king of the underworld. If Fa'taddisbelieved that, did he also disbelieve the stories of great treasurescollected by the people of the maze, of another labyrinth of natural cavernsinside the hill that supported the Shu, with mouths deep in the heart of thebuilded maze?
Mo'atabar thought al-Akla was looking for those, thinking they would provide away for him to sneak into the citadel and loot its reputed treasures. If thosewere half what was claimed, with them in hand the Dartar force could retirefrom the Herodian service and the tribes would never need fear the bite of the drought again.
Was that at the back of Fa'tad's mind? Nogah wondered. It did not seem quite the Eagle's style.
Something moved in the fog. He became alert. Then he gaped. He'd never seensuch a woman. Her beauty hit him like a physical blow. He eased forward, towatch her on her way. As a barely discernible shape she paused several minutesat the door to the place where Yoseh's little doe lived, then vanished intothe mist.
He wondered about his brother's injuries momentarily, then his thoughtsreturned to the woman. Had he seen a ghost? She had not made a sound. Butgods, what a lovely spook, if ghost she was.
Hadribel sensed something amiss the moment he stepped through the doorway. Hestopped.
There was a ghost of a hint of a scent on the air, vaguely feminine. He lookeddown. The apparently randomly distributed set of four dust bunnies, laid outaccording to bel-Sidek's instructions, had been disturbed. Oh. Of course.
But he had relayed the instructions. Carza was not the sort to forget.
He shut the door and hurried to the bedroom.
"Sir? Sir? Are you all right?" he asked, though he knew better the moment helaid eyes on the old man. He was a soldier. He knew death intimately, in allits guises.
The impossibility of it held him for a moment. Then the enormity of thedisaster to the movement bore down on him.
The General gone! That indomitable will, that steadfast genius, lost forever.
Bel-Sidek was a proven field commander, a fine tactician, steady as a mountainin a storm, and the chosen successor, but the man lacked the magnetism, theability to fire the heart and imagination, that had marked the life of Hannobel-Karba.
Even so, bel-Sidek had to be made aware of the disaster immediately. Much hadto be done, and fast, if the movement was not to stumble over this terriblemoment. He forced leaden legs to take him out the door. Unaware that he wasdoing so, he cursed the Fates as he stamped along.
Bel-Sidek felt the recriminations seethe inside him, along with the pain, theloss, the anger, the embarrassment over having been found where he had beenfound with Meryel. He restrained it all. He could not afford to yield at thismost critical hour in the history of the Living. What he did this day woulddetermine whether the struggle continued or the movement collapsed. He had todeal with issues, problems, and people entirely in the light of cold reason.
He paused before the door to the place he had shared for six years with a man who had meant far more to him than ever his own father had. "Send for Carza, then join me here," he told Hadribel. "Tell your messenger he is to accept noexcuses or delays."
"What about the others?"
"After Carza gets here. I want to talk to him first." He pushed inside, leftHadribel to his assignment.
He sniffed. He did not catch the scent Hadribel had detected, but there hadbeen time for it to fade.
In the interim between Hadribel's arrival and Carza's departure could a womanhave come in? Absurd! But why not?
What woman? To what purpose?
He willed himself into the bedroom.
The old man seemed smaller and more frail in death. He looked as though he haddied angry. No. Not angry. Bel-Sidek knew that look. He had died exasperated.
Which suggested that the visitor, if visitor there had been, had been someoneknown to him.
The bedclothes were tousled as though he had wrestled his fate beforesuccumbing. His nightshirt was partly open, revealing sickly yellow skin and ... the edge of something black.
Bel-Sidek eased the dirty cloth back, using one finger.
A black handprint marked the old man's chest, over his heart. It was a daintyprint, too big for a child but too small for a man. Bel-Sidek stared at it along time.
It was a bad, bad omen. Because if it was what it looked like, the mark of akiller, they all had cause to be very, very troubled.
He had not seen this particular mark before, but he had seen its like. Thatrecalled the killing touch of a sorcerer. Marks of that sort had been found oncorpses often before the conquest, but not since. Cado and his henchmen hadforbidden the practice of sorcery.
Bel-Sidek knew of no black magicians being in the city on the sly. He hadheard of no witches but that one the new civil governor had brought along.
Her? Unlikely. Had the Herodians known where to find the General they wouldnot have chosen quiet murder. The end of the chieftain of the Living wouldhave been a public spectacle a match for those of olden times, before the morepeaceful Aram had dispelled the savage Gorloch.
He sat at the writing table while he awaited Carza, reviewing everything thatwould have to be done to ease the transition and keep the movement on itsfeet. His thoughts brushed the General's secret and special agent, passed on, came back again. If the man was half what the General had believed, he mightbecome the Living's instrument of retribution in this.
But later. Vengeance had to await stability.
Carza entered without knocking. He had not slept and was not in a good mood.
As he started to bitch, bel-Sidek pointed him toward the bedroom. "Oh, I'll be damned," Carza said. "When?"
"Between the time you left and the time Hadribel came back. Assuming he was all right when you left." "He was healthy and mean as a boar. Why?"
"Did you arrange the telltales the way Hadribel told you?"
"You know I did."
"I assumed. I had to hear it. They weren't arranged when Hadribel got here." Bel-Sidek pulled the old man's nightshirt open again. "Any ideas?" Carza stared at the print. He shook his head, muttered, "Did he see it coming?"
"He had me come over to tell me about this big operation he had going for Qushmarrah. Just in case. So there'd be somebody to keep it going."
"What was it?"
Carza shook his head. "I can't say. He was firm about that. Don't tell bel- Sidek anything. I'm supposed to take over that one thing and you the rest of the organization. He was right about it but the only way I could show you would be to tell you." Bel-Sidek did not argue. No point. Instead, he decided to define the time gap in which the murder had taken place.
It could have been ten minutes or it could have been thirty. Carza could not be exact about when he had departed. Hadribel arrived looking harassed. "I got messages off to the others," he said. "It's going to be light out soon."
They can be grieving relatives," bel-Sidek said. "We've been setting it up that way." Carza said, "You won't be able to get hold of Zenobel."
"The old man sent him out ... Hell. No need to keep it secret. You have to deal with the consequences."
Bel-Sidek asked, "What?"
"The new civil governor sent men to throw the widow out of her house so he could have it. The old man sent Zenobel to throw them out."
"Aram! Is that what he calls letting them think we're falling apart?"
"It had to be done."
"I realize that. But ..."
Hadribel beckoned bel-Sidek. "Can I talk to you privately?"
Bel-Sidek left Carza scowling. He did not like being shut out, either. Near the hearth bel-Sidek asked, "What?" While he was there he started a fire for breakfast.
"While I was out rounding up messengers I got a few reports from the street.
The Darters left men in the maze overnight last night. And last night, while we had the traitor out on some sort of exercise, his wife left the house. The man on watch lost her in the fog. In this part of Char Street. A man brought her home later, a few minutes before the traitor returned." "What the devil was he doing?" "I don't know. The old man had me blindfold him and take him up to Scars Comer. Somebody else took him over there. I ran off on other errands."
"We'll talk to the woman. Though she wouldn't seem a likely candidate."
The Witch summoned Torgo from his repose. "I have to see Ishabal bel-Shaduk. Do you know how to reach him?"
"Yes, my lady. But why?"
"I have a commission for him."
"I suspect that Ishabal agrees with Azel. He just doesn't want to argue. He hasn't been around."
"Find him. Tell him he can name his price on this one. It'll be the last."
"I found him, Torgo! I think. I stumbled right over him in Char Street, while I was out. It's almost over with, Torgo. We're almost there."
Torgo did not seem pleased.
"Three, four more days, Torgo. Things will be back to the way they were. Come. Why so glum?"
"I'm afraid we're doing too much to attract attention to ourselves."
"Foo! I'm surrounded by old women. Get your writing instruments. I'll give you the instructions you're to relay to Ishabal. Then we'll examine the boy theLiving want, just to make sure he wasn't Ala-eh-din Beyh in his lastincarnation."
"Why bother, my lady?"
"Azel will come for him. I don't want him or the Living to suspect what I'veaccomplished on my own. It'll take Ishabal a while, anyway, so I won't lose much time. And once we're sure we have what we need, we won't have any more use for Azel or the Living. Will we?"
She watched Torgo mull that over, begin to smile. "We won't at all. Not at all." "So let's get to work. Get your writing materials."
Aaron left home groggy and distracted, unsure how he felt about Reyha's visit and revelations. He was concerned for Reyha and Zouki, yet resented this ominous certainty that a vortex of events, to which he was indifferent, was sucking him in, making him a blind player in a deadly game where there was no chance he could win or even get out unscarred.
What was all that up around bel-Sidek's place? Comings and goings like he'd never seen.
He turned uphill instead of heading for the harbor.
Bel-Sidek's door stood open. He paused on the threshold, not quite sure what he was doing there or if his interest would be welcome.
Bel-Sidek saw him and limped to the doorway. "Yes, Aaron?"
"I saw all the people. I thought ... Is it your father?"
"Yes. During the night.
"I'm sorry. I really am."
"It isn't like it was a surprise. Maybe it was a blessing. He had to live with a lot of pain." "Maybe. Is there anything I can do? Could Laella and her mother come up and help?"
"No. No, Aaron. We'll manage. Thanks for offering."
"I'm sorry," Aaron said again. "Well, I guess I'd better get to work."
"Yes. Thanks again. Oh. Aaron. Did Naszifs wife drop in on you last night?"
"No." He answered immediately, surprising himself. He walked away before there were any more questions, wondering if he had been protecting Reyha or himself.
Only when he was halfway down the hill did he realize that he should have stood his ground long enough to find out why bel-Sidek had asked. General Cado dressed while Colonel Bruda reported his midnight visit from Vice-Colonel bar bel-Abek. "Did he seem rational? I wouldn't want to waste him. Should we pull him out whether he wants it or not?" "He was completely self-possessed. And quite determined. I don't think he's at risk as long as they think they control him. Leave him where he is. They might get overconfident and let him close to something they shouldn't." Cado grunted. "Time to see Sullo off to his new country home. Let's talk on the way. Did you look into the kidnapping?"
"I did. If it weren't that it's being used against our man, it would be just another of a rash of similar crimes."
Cado descended a stair without speaking, headed toward his work office. "A
rash? Of kidnappings?" "More than thirty in the last six weeks."
"The Living twisting arms?"
"I doubt it. Hardly any of the children belonged to families who mean anything. However, there's a chance bel-Abek's child was taken before the Living found him out."
"Suggesting that the Living knew who took him? So they were able to recover him for their own purposes?" "Yes."
Cado completed his office business, started moving again. "I smell something dirty, Bruda. Look into it. We can't allow a trade in stolen children. And I won't tolerate human sacrifice."
"I've started already, sir."
"Good. Are the guards down front?"
"Yes sir. They'll walk us over."
"Good. So. What's really bothering you this morning?"
"A messenger from Marcellino in Agadar. Just came in by boat. Says a force of Turok tribesmen, maybe two thousand strong, is pillaging east of Agadar, moving our way. They caught our troops in the open, by surprise, during anexercise, and slaughtered them. Marcellino barely has men enough left to guardAgadar's walls."
Cado stopped. "Turoks? Not Dartars or Dartars in disguise?"
"Turoks. Marcellino questioned a prisoner. They circled the Takes to the west, around Dartar territory. They think we're too slow and too weak to stop them."
Cado resumed walking. "Turoks, you say."
"I wonder. Did our comrade the Eagle have anything to do with them showing up?"
"I don't follow you. Dartars hate Turoks. And vice versa."
"Not always. Turoks sometimes visit Qushmarrah. They cross Dartar territory to do it, so there is some kind of understanding at some level. And they workedtogether in our grandfathers' time, during the first war. Qushmarrah employedauxiliaries from both tribes against Lepido's armies. Their fleet landed amixed force in Tiguria that came within sight of Herod's walls twice. Fa
"tad's father commanded that expedition."
"You sure you aren't seeing conspiracy where greed would explain things?"
"Probably. Still, the options the raiders leave us aren't attractive."
"The obvious move is for us to loose our Dartars. But suppose they are workingtogether? Fa'tad strips the country of livestock and valuables and retires tohis mountains. We couldn't do anything, because to field enough men we'd haveto strip Qushmarrah of every Herodian soldier.
"If we send one of our own legions instead, Fa'tad is a match for us here. Hecan attack us with every expectation of initiating an uprising. He can thenback off and let Qushmarrahans do his dying while he saves his people toplunder whatever is left.
"If we don't do anything but wait for the Turoks to go home we get unresteverywhere this side of the sea because we haven't kept our promise to protectthe people. Over on the other side we're in hot water because we haven'tprotected their property."
They were outside now, moving through the dawn-splashed acropolis. Ahead, acolumn of Dartars came out of the Hahr and crossed the heights to the Shu.
Cado wondered what they were up to but did not ask. Bruda would tell him assoon as he found out.
Bruda said, "It all depends on what's going on inside the head of the onecrazy old man, doesn't it?"
"We have to trust him. Whether he's trustworthy or not. And hope he won'tchange his colors again without at least as much provocation as he had lasttime."
They approached the Residence, practically passing through the shadow of thecitadel. Cado shuddered. The place still gave him the creeps.
Bruda said, "Fa'tad started his herd moving south yesterday."
Cado watched Sullo's army of servants load a train of carts and wagons. "Itwas time, wasn't it?" A flashy donkey cart, carrying a large brown trunk, rolled up and worked its way into a gap in the line. The boy drivingdismounted and walked up the line to talk to another driver.
"Yes," Bruda admitted.
"Then we can't account that an omen. Even if it is one."
"And here comes Sullo, timing his appearance perfectly."
Sullo did appear at the top of the Residence steps just as Cado reached theirbase. The civil governor came down slowly, in all his portly glory, beaming ateveryone as though bestowing the benediction of God. He greeted Cadoeffusively. Servants scurried, trying to impress with their diligence.
Sullo's eye fell on the donkey cart. "What's that?" he asked one of his companions. The man shrugged.
"General Cado. I assume those pigeon tracks on the banner on that cart pass for writing here. What does it say?" Cado shrugged. "Colonel Bruda?" Cado did not read Qush-marrahan. Bruda squinted, translated slowly. "'From the people of Qushmarrah, for the Governor Sullo, in appreciation, a gift.'"
Cado and Bruda frowned uncertainly. Sullo pranced over to the cart, shoved his bulk against its side, unlatched the trunk.
Colonel Bruda said, "Governor, you'd better let someone else ..."
Too late. Sullo tossed the trunk lid back.
The fat man rose on his toes. He stiffened. A gargling, strangled sound ripped out of his throat. He turned, his face white with horror. He vomited, then ran for the Residency, pausing to vomit twice more before he disappeared.
Cado looked into the trunk. "The heads of the Moretians he sent to evict the old woman." "Welcome to Qushmarrah, indeed."
Try to find the boy who delivered the cart."
"Waste of time."
"I know. Make a showing. I'll go try to keep him from doing anything else stupid." But Sullo was not on Cado's mind as he mounted the steps of the Residency. He thought he saw a way to ease the perils of responding to the Turok incursion.
Azel dozed in the shadows by the empty fireplace, not as unalert as he appeared. He cracked an eyelid when the limping man came in. The man talked to Muma instead of passing a message. Muma looked surprised. After an exchange the gimp nodded and hobbled outside. Muma fished a son out of the kitchen, yakked at him, sent him out the back way. He poured himself a draft of hot tea, added a dollop of honey, came to join Azel. "Another message?"
"A little off the usual."
"I saw you jump. What is it?"
"The palm sparrow has flown."
Azel sat up. "The old boy croaked?"
"That's what it means. That one wants to talk to you as soon as he can."
"I'd rather leave town. But I suppose I have to. He's the one the old manpicked to take over."
"Maybe we all ought to leave town."
"Just when it's getting interesting?"
"Just when it's getting deadly."
Muma's son came back. He nodded. All clear. Azel rose, stretched, went out theback way. He caught up with the limping man. As he passed, he said, "At theParrot's Beak," and went ahead.
He picked himself a good perch and waited, flipping pebbles at the morningpigeons grazing on the leavings of evening picnickers. When the shadow fellupon him he suggested, "Pull up a seat, Khadifa."
The cripple eased himself down.
"I'm Azel. I worked for the old man, special. I guess I work for you now.
Them's his orders, anyway. So he finally went and did it, huh?"
"He did it, Azel. But he had help."
"What?" That caught him as much by surprise as had the pursuit of the Dartarsin the labyrinth.
"We believe he was murdered. By witchcraft." The gimp gave him details. "Iwant you to view the body. See if you concur. Then I want you to find thewoman who did it."
"A woman? You're sure?"
"No. Of course not. But once you come see the body you'll understand ourpresumption."
Azel shifted uneasily. "It's still in Char Street? I had word from the old manyesterday to stay out of Char Street. Dartars are up to something there, watching everybody like hawks, stirring things up. I been in and out too muchlately, all the special jobs he wanted done. What you doing with the body?
Moving it somewhere?"
"He had property in the country. His wife still lives out there. We're takinghim there later."
"I know the place. I'll show up somewhere along the way. You going outyourself? We got a lot to talk about and this ain't the best place."
"You're right. It isn't. Maybe out there, day after tomorrow. I can get awaywith breaking routine today because my father died and there are things youhave to do on a day like that. Unfortunately, I'll actually have to spend mostof my time doing those things. Tomorrow I'll have to get back to my normalroutine or there'll be questions."
"You ought to find some way to stop working," Azel said. "Ain't no way beingboss of the whole damned outfit ought to be a part-time job."
"I have to eat."
Azel snorted. The man was a damned fool, seduced by the imaginary value ofappearances. Who the hell was watching him? Bet he wasn't no hand-to-mouth daylaborer before Dak-es-Souetta. "You going to make any big changes? Or just goahead the same old way?"
"No changes. That I foresee. Maybe after I'm more familiar with everything theorganization is doing. I wasn't in on everything."
Azel snorted again. The guy was right there. The old man had thought him waytoo soft to follow through on some of the hard things that had to be done. Butthe best successor, anyway, overall. Go figure that.
The man asked, "How did you come to meet the General?"
"In temple. Long time ago. Look, I got stuff to do. Anything you want I shoulddo right away? Besides try to find who did the old man?"
"I'd like to find out what the Dartars are up to in the Shu."
"You and half the world. I'll look you up if Fa'tad comes around andconfesses." Azel rose, walked away before the new General could drag it outany more.
He seemed a little too passive to boss such a bloodthirsty outfit.
Azel strolled up toward the citadel, stroking the place with idle butthoughtful glances. A woman killer, eh? And who might talk herself intothinking she had a reason?
He was passing the Residence, where for some reason they had a guard laid onthat looked like half a legion, when by chance he glanced back and in thedistance saw someone who looked like the eunuch Torgo. By the time he got backthere without attracting attention he was unable to pick the man up again.
Yoseh sighed when Nogah left the alley where he had spent the night. Word hadswept the column already: it had been a bad night for those who had stayed inthe city. As many as a dozen might have been killed. More had been injured.
It would get worse, Yoseh was sure. He wished he knew what Fa'tad was doing.
Last night there had been talk about hidden caverns, fabulous treasures, evena secret tunnel leading into the citadel. Everybody knew about the wealthaccumulated in the citadel. If he could lay hands on that, Fa'tad could kissQush-marrah good-bye.
"Are you all right?" Yoseh asked as he dismounted.
"Just tired," Nogah said. "We were lucky here. It was quiet all night-exceptwhen the most beautiful woman in the world came past, on her way to visit yourgirlfriend's house."
"No. She didn't actually visit. That was weird. She just stood outside the door for a while."
"What are you talking about?"
"I don't know. I'm in love. I'm not supposed to make sense."
"You're doing a great job." "There any special news?"
"No. Fa'tad started the herd south yesterday. He's going all out against the maze today. That's it." "You want to go in today?"
Yoseh glanced down the street. Right now that door was closed.
"Don't want to miss a chance, eh? All right. I can understand that. I'm in love myself. Going to sit out here today looking for mine, too."
"That'll make Medjhah happy. He's got one picked out, too."
Nogah grunted, glanced around. "This crowd, we'll need more than two men to mind the animals." '
There was a crowd. Close to forty men today, to work this one access. And another dozen to go up and walk the rooftops in search of additional entrances to the maze. The street was pure chaos as Dartar numbers tried to move amidst normal morning traffic. The animals would create a choke point filling half the street. And it would get worse when the masons came later.
Dartars poured into the maze or clambered to the roofs. Nogah directed traffic. Medjhah planted himself in his usual spot and watched his brotherstry to crowd the animals into a more compact arrangement. The camels were notinclined to cooperate. Qushmarrahans passing by cursed liberally but werecareful to confine their invective to the hump-backed beasts.
"How are your scrapes and bruises?" Nogah asked.
"They ache. And I'm stiff all over."
"Good thing I didn't send you in there, then. It might get nasty today."
"I think Fa'tad is going to leave a whole gang in here tonight. Five hundred, maybe even a thousand."
"He's gone crazy. The ferrenghi will have convulsions."
"Maybe that's what he wants. If it's all some kind of game with General Cado."
Nogah grunted. Yoseh could see he did not, really, want to bother trying to figure it out.
Same with Medjhah. Hell. Medjhah did not care at all. He just lived from day to day and tried to enjoy what life handed him.
"Hell with these beasts. They won't crowd up any more." Nogah went and foundhimself a seat. After a while, he dozed.
Yoseh settled with the same intention, but remained too conscious of that doordown the street. After a while, Medjhah began his singsing "Come closer."
Yoseh noticed that the tall woman was alone this time and much more bold with her taunting hips.
A while later still, he noticed men across the street, watching.
Ferrenghi spies? Probably. Cado's men hanging around the edges to see whatthey could dig out of the shadows.
Then came the messengers, moving grimly down toward the harbor, and later allthe captains heading uphill, faces blank, without a word to the men.
He heard it from the veydeen first. Overheard it as the news spread likeflashfire. Turok raiders were pillaging the territories between Agadar andQushmarrah. The Agadar garrison had been cut to pieces. The survivors wereholed up in the city.
There were a few Dartar auxiliaries at Agadar. How had they fared?
The veydeen looked like they wanted to work themselves into a panic. Like theyfelt defenseless. He was willing to bet that they had not gotten this excitedwhen they had heard that Herod's armies were approaching.
Then he began to get a glimmer. They feared chaos. They feared Cado wouldmarch out and leave the city open to destructive insurrection. An uprising bythe few would bring reprisals down upon the many, sure as sundown.
He looked down the street at that door. Still nothing. Were they all dead inthere? He glanced skyward. A few tall clouds lumbered toward the gulf. Wouldit ever rain again?
Even here on the coast it did not rain as much as once it had. And Qushmarrahneeded a good rain, to sluice out the accumulated filth and stench.
The spies, or whatever, disappeared. The woman who interested Medjhahreturned, flaunting herself again. The veydeen were blind, so preoccupied werethey with gossip about Turoks.
"Watch this little pigeon fly away," Medjhah said, laughing. He strolledtoward the tall woman, who did look alarmed and did hurry. Medjhah kept onwalking after her.
For a while Yoseh amused himself by trying to kill a fly that had developed adetermination to nest inside his nose. Once he had won that contest he did manage to doze.
"Hey! Yoseh! Wake up! Look what we got for you."
He jerked awake. The boy Arif stood before him, smiling shyly. His littlebrother was with him, holding his hand, which he dropped when Yoseh opened hiseyes. The little one headed for the nearest camel.
The girl Tamisa was behind the boys, carrying something. Behind her, in thedoorway, wearing a ferocious scowl, was the old woman. The other daughter, theolder sister and mother of the boys, elbowed past her and carried a pot to thecenter of the street. She dumped it through a stone grate into the seweragechannel that ran there, went back into the house. She never looked at theDartars at all.
"Good morning, Arif." Agan Yoseh worked hard on his dialect. He only glancedat the girl but his cheeks got hot. He was intensely aware of Nogah watchingthrough scantly cracked eyelids. "How are you today?"
"Mish brought you dinner. She made it herself. Dad said it was all right." Theboy plopped down beside him.
The girl stood there blushing. Yoseh wanted to tell her to do something butdid not know what. He made an uncertain gesture. She took it as an invitation, settled onto a bundle at a very correct distance, sat formally upright witheyes on what she held in her lap.
The boy bubbled, "Did you hear about the Turoks, Yoseh? Are you going to gofight them?"
"Yes, I heard, Arif. I don't know if I'll have to go. I suppose someone will."
The girl said, "Mother thought you'd go. That's why she said I could bringthis out now." She offered, so he had to take the bundle. "Are you all right?
After the way they knocked you around yesterday ..."
"I'm fine. Just a few bruises."
Yoseh glanced at the old woman. She had taken her place outside the door withher mending, daring traffic to trample her. All along Char Street the regularswere out, refusing to let the Dartar presence disturb ancient routine. Heopened the bundle, saw nothing really familiar. He tried a few nibbles, foundeverything mouth-watering. "This is great. But there's way too much here forme. Mind if I share with my brother?"
"No. That's all right. Go ahead."
"Nogah. Come help me with this."
As Nogah approached, the girl realized he was not Medjhah. "How many brothersdo you have?"
"Three. Medjhah and Nogah right here and Amar, who is a troop leader inQuadideh's company."
Nogah settled, went to tasting, nodded pleasantly. "This is excellent. What isyour friend's name, Yoseh?"
"You're a very good cook, Tamisa."
She blushed. "I got a lot of help from Laella and my mother."
"Even so, yours was the hand in control." With nothing at risk Nogah couldassume the burden of conversation. Yoseh mostly listened. So did Arif, withbig, serious eyes, while the little one, Stafa, clambered all over asurprisingly patient camel. Yoseh saved him from a fall and set him on hisfeet. He marveled that these children of Qushmarrah were so well fed.
Dartar children, even now, were little more than bags of bones living on theedge of starvation.
Nogah got the girl to relax. Once she did, she turned into a chatterer. Someof her preoccupations seemed pretty shallow, though.
Arif grew bored. Looking disappointed in his new friend, he began wanderingaround looking at animals^ weapons, and supplies.
Nogah asked Tamisa, "Who was the woman who came to your door during the night?
I've never seen a woman so beautiful."
"Reyha? Beautiful?" Tamisa laughed. "She's an old hag. She must be at leastthirty." Then her eyes grew big. She looked worried. She had said somethingshe should not have.
"Maybe we're talking about different women. Come to think of it. The one I sawjust stood outside your door for a few minutes."
Yoseh asked, "Is Reyha the one whose son was taken here?"
Tamisa nodded. "She and my sister have been friends all their lives. They evenhad Arif and Zouki the same day. She came because she was having trouble withher husband."
Yoseh said, "I've seen this Reyha, Nogah. If it's her you fell in love withlast night you'd better worry about how fast you're going to go blind."
Nogah chuckled. "It doesn't matter who she was. She was that kind of woman youonly see once, for a moment, and never again, but remember all your life."
"Ach! You're starting to sound like Father."
"I'm his son and heir. You two go ahead and talk." He got up and went and gothis horse onto her feet. He hoisted the veydeen boys onto her back. Arifbecame frightened and wanted down. Stafa was as happy as a child his age couldbe.
Tamisa asked, "How does your brother know somebody came to our house lastnight, Yoseh?"
He reflected. It wasn't exactly a secret around here, was it? "He spent thenight in the alley so nobody could get in or out of the maze."
"More of us are going to stay tonight. I know I am."
"Oh. Oh." Flustered. "I think I'd better get back to my chores. Before mymother ... Arif. Stafa. Come on. It's time to go."
Yoseh sat there wondering if he'd said something wrong.
Aaron had been distracted all morning. Not enough to make mistakes but enoughto slow him down. Cullo had commented, not unkindly, expressing a genuineconcern. Aaron had not been able to shake it.
Billygoat sat down beside him as he started on his lunch. "Think it'll rain?
Looks like we got some clouds coming in."
Aaron grunted. It did not look like rain. Just clouds.
"City could use a good washdown."
Aaron grunted again.
"You ever notice the difference between men and dogs, Aaron? A dog comes toyou begging, you give him the sorriest scrap, he's properly grateful. A mancomes to you desperate, you try to give him a hand, four times out of five heturns on you. Makes the whole damned thing your fault. On the whole, I think Ilike dogs better than I like men."
His piece spoken, Billygoat got up to go.
"Wait," Aaron said. "Sit down. You're right. I'm sorry. I apologize."
Billygoat harumphed. "I reckon that means you got another problem to hit mewith and be ungrateful about later."
"No! Look, I said I'm sorry. The problem I had-it got solved, all right, butthen it didn't, either, really. It only made more problems."
"Yeah. That's the way she goes, most times. You hear about that child-stealergot caught over my way yesterday? Tried to grab a kid, got hisself chased downand stomped to death. That ought to ease your worries some."
"I heard. I also heard he used some kind of sorcery, same as the one who tookthe child where I live. And the Dartars were chasing that one up Char Streetalmost the same time the other was getting himself killed. If there're two ofthem maybe there're three or four or a hundred."
"I swear. You ain't going to be satisfied till your boy does get got. You livein Char Street. I come over Char Street this morning. You got two thousandDartars packed in there asshole-to-elbow. Who you think would be dumb enoughto try something with odds like that?"
"The Living might."
"Heh! We're getting around to something here, aren't we?"
Aaron told most of it, keeping the names out.
Billygoat listened. He thought. He said, "I figure they lied to him, not you.
Handy way to twist his arm. Anyway, what you worrying about it for? Ain't yourproblem. You're starting to get silly, like some of these fools around hereall in a panic because of some Turok bandits all the way around to the otherside of the gulf."
Aaron had not heard that news yet. He had to have the story told.
Bel-Sidek glanced around as he left his home. "It gets any thicker out herepeople will be climbing over each other."
Hadribel's men began forcing a way through the press.
"Gently," bel-Sidek told them. "Let's not attract attention." They werealready. Raheb Sayed had them fixed with her basilisk's eye.
"How will Cado respond?" Hadribel asked. The news about the Turoks had comeonly a moment before word that it was safe to approach the traitor's house.
What Hadribel really wanted to know was if this was likely to become anopportunity for the movement.
"No telling. That son of a whore is as crafty as Fa'tad, in his way. Wouldn'tsurprise me if he made the whole thing up just to see how everybody jumps.
We'll be very careful with General Cado."
"How can we get the old man out through this mess?"
"By investing heavily of patience, I suspect."
They crossed Char Street, entered an alleyway. Even there they faced foottraffic trying to beat the press on the artery. The walk took so long Hadribelfelt compelled to scout their destination again.
"Still safe," he concluded.
"Let's get it done." Bel-Sidek was uncomfortable with this. But he had toknow.
Hadribel hammered on the traitor's door. The woman responded. She looked atthem without recognition, uneasy but not frightened, as though used to findingstrange men at her door.
"My husband isn't here. You'll find him ..."
"I know," bel-Sidek said. "It's you we want to see." He pushed forward. Shehad to retreat or be trampled. Bel-Sidek, Hadribel, and two of Hadribel's menwere inside before she protested.
"Please relax," bel-Sidek said. "You're in no danger. We want to ask a fewquestions."
She looked for someplace to run. There was no place. They had taken all thoseaway. "Who are you? What do you want?"
The questions were predictable. Bel-Sidek had decided to answer them honestly.
"We are the Living. We want to know where you went last night."
She started shaking. She said nothing.
"One of our men was murdered last night. A very important man. My commander.
It was done by a woman. You were out and in that area. If you felt you had areason, if you suspected who the man really was ..."
Her eyes grew huge. Her mouth hung. She swung her head back and forth inlittle jerks. She tried to speak but could not force anything out.
"You didn't do it? How can we believe that? Where did you go?"
"I ... can't ... say."
"Because you're evil, wicked men. You'd go terrorize people just becausethey're my friends."
"I don't intend debating relative morality or our duties to the city thatnurtured us. We believe we're right. We're convinced our ends are just. A heroof Qushmarrah was murdered in his bed. We mean to find the woman responsible.
If you're not guilty, show us."
The woman spat. "You haven't done enough to us already, have you? Youoverlooked one member of the family." She spat again. "To hell with you. Goahead. Kill me. You've taken away everything I have to live for, anyway."
Hatred fouled the air. Bel-Sidek was startled by the fever of it. "I'm notgoing to kill anyone. I don't think you did anything but go to Char Street tovisit your friend Laella. But my comrades want something more convincing thanmy guesses."
"What if I said I did go there?"
"I want to know what you told her and what or who you saw in the street, coming and going."
She sat down on the floor, against a wall. "You see? No matter what I tellyou, you won't be satisfied. You'll want more. And there'll be nothing in itfor me but pain. You want me to talk to you, give me my son back."
"I'd be tempted. If I had him. We don't make war on children. They aren'tresponsible for the crimes of their fathers."
The woman stared at him for half a minute, radiating hatred and disgust. Shespat again, directly at him. "You want me to believe and trust you, telling mea bald-faced lie like that? After you dragged my husband out last night toshow him that you do have Zouki?"
Bel-Sidek stepped back, told one of the men, "Don't mark her.
Hadribel." He took Hadribel aside. "Tell me what you did with the traitoragain."
Hadribel repeated his story.
"Did he see the boy?"
"She thinks so."
"The General said we'd pretend. I think I smell something. The old man had adark streak. It may have infected part of the movement. I want to know."
Hadribel scowled. He had worshipped the General, too. He did not want to thinkthe old man had done something less than perfectly righteous. "I'll see what Ican find out."
Bel-Sidek went to supervise the woman's interrogation.
She was damned stubborn. She would not talk.
Azel approached Government House reluctantly. He did not like having beensummoned.
The mechanism had existed for years but the Herodians had not used it before.
That disturbed him. Till he stepped inside Government House he thought aboutwalking away from it.
He was especially uncomfortable with the news about the Turok pillagers. Theywere a random element that could destabilize an already rattled situation.
The doormen wasted no time conducting him to Colonel Bruda, who took himstraight to General Cado. Cado said, "Thanks for coming. You heard about theTurok raiders at Agadar?"
"It's all anyone's talking about."
"Bad news gets around fast. How are people reacting?"
"Like they think the Turoks will ride in and sack the city."
Cado snorted. "In a moment I'll go downstairs to thrash out a plan for dealingwith them. I want you to.come along in case I need an opinion on how theQushmarrahan people will react."
"I don't like that. I'm a spy, not ..."
"You'll be a bodyguard again. No one there could compromise you. There'll bemyself and Bruda, senior officers from the legions, the civil governor, Fa'tadand his top men. You're my only touchstone with the Qushmarrahan in thestreet."
"Crap. You take me into a big-time meeting, one of those guys-probably thatnitwit lard-ass civil governor-will spot me on the street later and tell theworld, There goes that guy that hangs around with Cado pretending to be abodyguard.'"
"There's that risk. But indulge me, Rose. This will be tricky, balancing aresponse between Fa'tad, Sullo, and the Living. Have you heard what happenedto Sullo?"
"I guess not."
"He sent twenty Moretians to take over Hanno bel-Karba's country house yesterday. Today the Living sent their heads back in a trunk." "Really? A little last-gasp derring-do."
"I warned Sullo. He didn't listen. Watch him close. I may have to ask for a special favor soon. He's going to become an embarrassment." Azel grunted. "Watch Fa'tad, too. I have trouble reading him. Have any idea what he's up to in the Shu yet?"
Azel shrugged. "I've heard stories. I don't believe any of them."
"Tell me a few."
"There are caverns under the Shu. That's a fact. In some of the stories the bosses of the maze have filled those with stolen treasure and Fa'tad wants to grab that. In some other stories one of the caverns is a secret passage into the citadel, which Fa'tad plans to loot." "Are these fantasies?"
"I lived in the maze when I was a kid. I never saw no treasure and never heard of no secret passage. Which don't mean they ain't there. Nobody tells a kid nothing."
"Fa'tad thinks he's on to something. He has half his men on it today. You think he's learned something from the prisoners he's taken?"
"I hear he's executed most of them."
"They ain't model citizens."
Cado shook a little silver bell. Colonel Bruda came in. "Sir?"
"I need Rose in a bodyguard costume. Rose, I'd be very grateful if you could find me even one of the men who did in Sullo's Moretians."
"They won't go around bragging."
"That's why there's still a group called the Living. But try."
The other children did not say much but they eyed Zouki in wonder. Some came to touch him quickly, lightly, as though hoping his luck would rub off.
Of all the children taken out of the cage he was the first to be returned.
But then the big man came again and Zouki knew that this time there would be no unexpected reprieve. This time they would do whatever it was they did with children.
Azel was in a foul mood when he entered Cado's meeting. He did not want to be there and he did not like holding his tongue the way he must. He thought a lot about getting out of town.
It was a nice fantasy but not one he took too seriously even though it seemedthe most intelligent course to follow.
Cado nodded to the men who rose to greet him. There were fifty or sixty. Theyranged to either side of a massive table six feet wide and twenty long toppedby a colorful miniature of the north coast from Ocean's shore to Aquira in theeast. Two thirds of the men were Herodian. They stood on the seaward side.
Opposite, Fa'tad al-Akla stood with his captains. Sullo had assumed positionat the far end of the table. He had an ugly female with him. She looked likeshe had gotten away from childhood just last week, but seemed less intimidatedby her surroundings than did Sullo.
His pet witch?
She had the smell. A strong one. She'd be a bad one in another twenty years.
Cado said, "You've heard the bad news. You've had time to think. I have anidea of my own but I'm open to any strokes of genius you've suffered.
Azel studied Sullo and his witch, uncomfortable because Fa'tad and several ofhis captains were eyeing him. He pretended not to notice, mimicking the sleepyindifference of his fellow guards while trying to catch everything he could.
Cado continued, "Colonel Bruda's people have put out markers on the mapshowing what we know, which is mainly that the Turoks are west of Agadar andmoving our way, staying near the coast. Colonel Bruda has dispatched scouts byland and sea but we'll have been in the field several days before we havetheir reports. Fa'tad, you think they've grown bold enough to violate Dartarterritory?"
One of the Dartars translated for the old warrior though he understoodHerodian perfectly. All part of the game, as was Cado's having ignoredFa'tad's honorifics. He barked an answer translated as, "Not if they hope toget home with their booty."
"I thought not. I presume plunder to be the object of their exercise. Theywon't want a real fight. I'm not spoiling for one, either. So we'll marchalong the coast in easy stages and chase them back the way they came. Fa'tad, I'll need fifteen hundred horsemen. I've already told General Lucillo he'll betaking twenty-five hundred from the Twelfth. I want you on the road as soon aspossible. As soon as naval vessels can be manned and loaded you'll haveoffshore support and supply.
"Four thousand plus naval support should be strength enough to chase theTuroks without us weakening ourselves here."
Right, Azel thought. Even left Cado a little stronger in respect to Fa'tad'sgang, just in case. But what was he up to sending out troops from the Twelfthunder orders from Lucillo, who commanded the Seventh Cadadasca? What was hesaving Marco for? If he was going to use the general from the Seventh, why notits men?
He grinned. Old Fa'tad was all pruned up as he tried to untangle the samequestions. And that pruning was probably the whole answer. A fillip to keep the Eagle wondering.
When the meeting broke up, Dartars would start scurrying around trying to findout if they had overlooked something about Lucillo.
Azel did not lead the sort of life that saw him sitting in on many militaryplanning sessions. He found they were not very exciting. After Cado announcedwho was going to send how many men, it was all pounds of food and fodder, would the temporary span in the Cherico bridge stand up to the passage of anarmy, could soldiers who had been in garrison too long make the march from theSahdri Well to Quadrat in one day or should they be issued an extra canteen?
Should artillery be taken? One faction insisted. Another said it would onlyslow them down because the ox teams could not keep up a fast pace. And soforth.
Cado settled the artillery debate by saying he would load the engines aboardship.
To Azel it seemed calm and professional and about as adventuresome asconversation amongst greengrocers. The Dar-tars did not say much, speakingonly in response to direct questions, which Azel supposed was the way it wassupposed to be, them being the hired hands.
Fa'tad kept an eye on him all the time.
The civil governor was all business, never saying a word. Azel did not learnanything about him.
He got the impression the ugly little witch was there doing what he was, sizing up the boss's enemies. She paid him no mind. Fa'tad made up for herindifference.
The man grew more obvious. Feeling for a reaction? Why? Had one of his gangrecognized the stable boy who had busted a guy up for running off at the mouthabout Qushmarrah?
Trouble with the whole thing was, Cado and Bruda were going to notice. No wayto stop it, though. Just ride it out, like a ship in a storm.
Then the confab was over. Cado hadn't consulted him once. He was pissed. Thatrisk for nothing.
Before sunset Joab and the Dartar elite, and Lucillo and his twenty-fivehundred, would be off to stalk the ferocious Turok. Tension in the city wouldsoar as everyone waited for the Living to try something because garrisonstrength was at low ebb.
Azel did not expect the Living to act. But a few fanatics might, and might setoff the explosion the old man had feared from the moment he had made his dealwith the Witch.
Qushmarrah might throw the yoke of Herod in a sudden savage uprising but therecould be no realistic hope of keeping its independence unless the flame ofrebellion scorched the entire coast or the Living came up with a weapon morepotent than the Herodian legions.
Nakar could be that weapon. Nakar the Abomination. Without Ala-eh-din Beyh to hold him in check.
He should not be thinking of that in Government House. Here he should remainthe perfect Herodian agent in thought as well as appearance.
The military men had begun moving out. Sullo had gone with his shadowinstrument. Cado and Bruda were whispering with Lucillo and Marco while Fa'tadeagle-eyed them from across the room. Cado suddenly bobbed his head and turnedaway, beckoned his bodyguards, stalked out of the room. He dismissed all ofthem but Azel immediately. "We didn't learn much from that, did we, Rose?"
"Found out the governor can keep his mouth shut when he wants."
"I guess you could call that a blessing. Yes."
"I need to get up on that balcony on the third level on the southwest corner.
To see what direction somebody goes when he heads out."
"All right." Curious. He did not ask who or why.
Damned man trotted along with him, picking at this and that like he was maybetrying to circle in on something. Whatever it was, it had Sullo near thebull's-eye. And it wasn't like he was hinting that something should happen tothe governor. He would come right out with that. No. It was like Cado's levelof trust had suffered ...
The damned Moretians! Of course. Cado had mentioned them to him. He had mentioned them to the General. The old man had had their heads chopped off.
Cado was asking himself how the Living had found out so fast and he didn'tlike one of the possible answers.
He would have to give Bruda something that would ease Cado's mind.
The Dartars did not scatter the way they should have. They paused out front, in a cluster, then moved into the streets west of Government House. Thestreets somebody exiting the side door would head for if he wanted to get outof sight quickly.
He could handle that. He'd just go out one of the public doors on the otherside, maybe drift down and see what bel-Shaduk was up to before he went outfor his look at what was left of the old man.
Meantime, Fa'tad deserved a tweak.
"One thing I did hear but didn't have a chance to check the rumor. Fa'tadsupposedly left a couple hundred men in the city last night, in the Shu maze."
"That's useful. You didn't mention it before."
"Didn't know if it was worth it. It's just a rumor I never got a chance tocheck. You want I should go ahead and figure how to set Sullo up? Or do youreckon you're going to get along?"
That did for the moment. Cado said of course Rose should be ready if a movehad to be made. Azel said he would do it and made his exit wishing Cado wasnot so interested in him. He'd rather deal with Bruda.
The sinkhole country looked better all the time. If there was a blowup, he wasgone till the dust settled.
Yoseh realized he had been chattering for hours.
Actually, once she got over her initial shyness the girl did most of thetalking. It was plain she did not get much chance to say what she thought athome. She offered him an ill-informed opinion on almost every subjectimaginable. Yoseh found himself smiling and nodding in agreement just to keepher there.
Medjhah finally came back. He wore a look of awe. He sat down beside Nogah, shook his head, said, "You wouldn't believe it. I don't believe it. And I wasthere."
"Fortune smiled upon you?"
"Fortune crawled all over me. If I'd wished for gold I'd be the richest man inthe world."
Nogah snorted derisively.
A pair of mason's helpers came out for more bricks. Yoseh wondered what washappening inside the labyrinth. It had been a quiet day. He had expectedexcitement but they had not brought out a single prisoner yet. Medjhah thoughtmaybe most of the villains had slipped out during the night. Nogah grumbledthat it was probably because the men he had sent in were loafing. Yosehsuspected the whole maze thing had been overrated and there had not been thatmany people in there to begin with.
Medjhah started playing catch with Arif, using an orange somebody had stolenfrom one of the groves beyond the compound. The boy was very inept, mostlybecause he was too afraid he would get hit. Yoseh thought his parents probablyprotected him too much. These veydeen all sheltered their children more thandid Dartar parents.
Mo'atabar came down the hill alone. Nogah went to talk to him.
Stafa tried to get into the game with his brother and Medjhah. His idea ofcatch was to grab the orange and scurry around among the animals laughing tillsomebody ran him down. Medjhah caught up, started to lift him, thought betterof it, set him down, and said, "Phew! This one needs to be changed."
Whereupon Stafa, still armed with the orange, headed for home yelling, "Mom!
I'm pooped!" Like he had not known perfectly well and been .too busy to bebothered.
Tamisa said, "I'd better go. Chores to do. Mother is going to be crabby enoughas it is. Arif, come on."
Yoseh said his farewells and watched them go. He had disappointed Arifseverely, he knew, being more interested in the girl than in him. But whatcould you do? How could you explain?
Mo'atabar went on down the hill. Nogah went back and sat down, preoccupied.
"What's up?" Medjhah asked.
"Joab. He's taking fifteen hundred men out to chase those Turoks."
That scaly thing inside Yoseh wakened and started wriggling.
"No. We're staying to play Fa'tad's game. He's taking all horsemen. He wants to hurry and get between the Turoks and the herd. Just in case."
Yoseh tried not to show his relief. There was nothing dishonorable about it but he did not want to admit that he had no taste for fighting and glory and riding around in the weather.
There were a few more clouds now. The veydeen did not seem excited so it seemed unlikely they would turn to rain. He wished it would rain.
The city was a madhouse. Troops were on the move, headed south to assemble outside the Gate of Summer, whence they would march before sunrise. Azel was not pleased by the dislocations. They made it difficult to be as cautious as he liked.
What about tomorrow, when the garrison was reduced? Would the Living's crazies make themselves heard? Something. From somewhere. He felt the first tingle of it. He did not like it because he had no idea from what direction disaster might strike.
He took position in sight of the place where Ishabal bel-Shaduk lived in the northern Shu. He watched for an hour. Several men visited. He recognized two as thugs. Guys who would do anything for money.
He had a notion what bel-Shaduk was doing. He did not like it. He'd thought bel-Shaduk possessed of better sense.
Gold and women had their ways of dribbling blindness into even a wise man's eyes. The day was getting on. If he wanted to get out the Gate of Autumn and back with plenty of time he'd better waste no more here.
He overtook the cavalcade moving the old man two miles east of the Dartar compound. The new gimp General told him to get up inside the covered wagon where the stiff lay. One look at that black print and he knew his suspicions were feet.
The damn woman had gone mad! She would set the city on fire.
And she didn't care. That was the hell of it.
He climbed out of the wagon, drifted back to walk beside the gimp on his donkey. A comedown for him. He'd probably ridden a purebred stallion out to Dak-es-Souetta. "I got an idea where to start looking."
"I'll let you know if it comes out sure. Meantime, I got a suggestion. Burnthe old boy. Don't bury him."
"Immolation is a rite of Gorloch, not of Aram."
"How many people going to be involved in this, eh? All of them mourning thebeloved General. What chance you figure there is all of them will keep theirmouths shut about who, what, and where? Cado gets the word, he's going to havethe old boy dug up and paraded around."
"I'll think about it."
Dumb shit. He was asking for it. "You put some time in on the new governor andhis witch, too. There's something more there than meets the eye. Talk to youmore when we get together. I got something else I got to do right now."
He turned and headed west.
There was a lot of traffic on the road. Too much. How much had to do with the funeral? He checked faces. A few were familiar. He remembered them all. It was a habit he had, one he followed unconsciously sometimes even when he was awareof no need. Thus he noticed two particular faces among the inevitable beggarsand loafers inside the Gate of Autumn.
He had seen one for the first time not far from where Ishabal bel-Shaduk lived. He'd last seen the other in the halls of Government House.
He did not lead them an interesting chase. He went to Muma's, where he spentthe afternoon and early evening eating, thinking, and carefully, laboriouslycomposing a long letter to General Cado. He entrusted that to Muma's youngest, a quickwitted urchin, and relaxed with some black-market beer before he wentout for the night's work.
Meryel guided bel-Sidek to a mound of cushions. "You look awful tonight. Ifyou'll pardon me saying so."
"I can pardon you anything if you can pardon me."
She looked at him curiously but did not pursue it while her servants came andwent with the courses of their meal. Then she asked. He told her about his day.
"Murdered? You're sure?" She did not seem interested in his conduct while questioning the traitor's wife.
"It seems more likely all the time. The trouble is, I can't see who would havegained by getting him out of the way."
"One of the fanatics, getting impatient?"
"No. They honored him too much. Besides, getting him out of the way just putsme in the way. Tonight I intend to name another moderate as my successor sothere's nothing to gain getting rid of me, either."
"Could it be the governor's witch getting even for what happened to hisguards?"
"Not unless she's one hell of a diviner. I think he died before they did.
Herodians would have taken him alive, anyway. Sullo laying hands on themastermind of the Living so soon after getting here would have been apolitical deathblow for Cado. There are people in Herod who want his head. Hesurvives because he's competent, he has several very powerful friends, and hehas the indulgence of the Living."
"Fact. We could cause trouble enough to get him taken out. If a Herodian mustrule here, we'd prefer General Cado. None of the likely replacements would beso kind to Qushmarrah. I'd better go. We have a lot to argue out."
Meryel rose with him. She said, "I have a few contacts among those who operateoutside anybody's law. I'll ask them if they've heard anything that might havesomething to do with the old man's death."
Bel-Sidek paused at the door. "All right. Also find out what they know about achild-stealing ring. And about a man named Azel." He slipped out, not at alleager to face what lay ahead. But they did have to decide who should take over in the Shu and who should takeover most of his own duties on the waterfront.
Too, he hoped to discover if there had been some dark side to the old manthat, in his love, he had been unable to see.
The Witch moaned, twitched uncontrollably. Her flesh was beyond her command.
All her will was bent upon the child, that stubborn brat.
Three times she had tried to breach the barrier of trauma. Three times she had been repelled. Never had she encountered such resistance. The previous lifemust have ended terribly.
She gathered her remaining reserves, feeble after half a day in trance. Onelast effort ... No matter. This could not be the one she sought. Azel couldhave him and welcome.
Her thoughts were not that clear. They constituted more an instinctual flowthan actual reasoning.
Once more she advanced upon the child's defenses. And this time found a tinycrack. She focused upon it, struck with all the remnants of her strength ...
And screamed. And screamed.
Terror squeezed her heart.
The soul on the other side was that of Ala-eh-din Beyh. It was not lost. Itwas not bewildered. It had been lying in ambush.
Torgo did not think. Instinct drove him. He plunged inside the tent, fistsflying. He knew what had happened without having to think it out.
He struck child and woman with powerful blows to the head. The shock broke thelink. The devil in the child tumbled back into the abyss. But it did notvanish completely. Torgo felt the power there.
The Witch's screams waned. She lapsed into a deep sleep, maybe a coma. Torgodestroyed the tent, killed the fire in the braziers, fanned fumes away. Tearsstained his cheeks.
Had he been fast enough?
She should have foreseen this. She should have trained him for this. In his ignorance all he could do now was watch and wait and hope that Gorloch wouldbe merciful and permit her return from that far darkness into which she hadfallen.
Power streamed from the child.
Outside, clouds began to gather.
Aaron entered the house and found the females all prickly and sullen. "Nowwhat?" He was not in the mood for it. Things had not gone well at work thatafternoon. The Herodians were sorting themselves out to line up behind thecivil or military governors and were trying to frustrate one another by givingconflicting orders to their Qushmarrahan employees.
Arif said, "Nana's mad at Mish because she took Yoseh some food."
Mish said, "You told me to do it."
"A damn fool idea, Aaron," Raheb said. "And you didn't have to behave like a trull, Tamisa." Laella snapped, "She did nothing of the sort, Mother. Tamisa, you shouldn't have spent all that time talking to him. It didn't look right."
"Maybe I just wanted to hear somebody talk who could say a whole sentence without cutting me down or bellyaching about something."
Point to Mish, Aaron thought.
Stafa said, "I ride horsy, Dad."
"You did? Arif, come here. Tell me what you and Stafa did today while Mom and Mish finish getting supper ready."
The women got the message.
It was not a world where women dared long exasperate even a man as gentle as Aaron.
He took Stafa into his lap and Arif under his right arm and they talked about camels and such till it was time to eat. The boys were exceptionally quietduring the meal. The women said nothing. He supposed he must be looking veryfierce. Maybe they were all waiting for some giving of the law. Let them stew.
He could use the quiet. It did not last, of course. But the women were not the instrument of its death.
There was, to his dismay, a tapping at the door. He was more dismayed when heopened it to find Reyha and Naszif outside. He stepped out of their way. Theycame in without saying anything. Both looked awful. Laella rose slowly, facepallid, as though some horror had come through the doorway with them. Laellaheld Reyha for a moment, then helped her sit down. Naszif settled beside her,, opposite Aaron. They looked one another in the eye, each knowing what theother knew. Mish moved the boys away.
Naszif said, "Reyha told you some things she would have been wiser to havekept to herself, as she learned today. She had a visit from the Living. Nowyou're in it, too, like it or not. The Living will be watching."
Reyha stared at her folded hands.
"She came to see you last night. This morning they came to see her. They knewshe'd come into Char Street but not where she'd gone. They wanted to knowthat, and who she'd seen, and what she talked about. They were insistent. Avery important man of theirs was murdered last night, here in Char Street, about the time she was out, and they think they have reason to believe a womanwas responsible."
"Bel-Sidek's father!" Aaron blurted.
The old soldier who lives up the street."
"Khadifa," Raheb interjected.
Aaron scowled at her. "The old guy with the bad leg from Dak-es-Souetta. WhenI was going out to work this morning there were people at his house. I gotnosy and went up there. He told me his father died during the night. I wasn'tsurprised because the old man had been bedridden since they moved in."
"Bel-Sidek," Naszif mused. "That fits. He sounds like the man who visitedReyha. He had a bad leg. She'd seen him before but didn't recall who he was.
He knew all of us. He didn't really believe Reyha had done anything. Hethought she had come here to visit Laella. But he wanted to be sure."
Aaron was disturbed by the man opposite him. This was not the Naszif to whomhe was accustomed. This Naszif was calm, collected, in complete control, andaltogether too businesslike. He did not know what to make of the apparentchange.
Naszif continued, "Reyha can be very stubborn. She refused to tell themanything till they gave Zouki back."
"Which they refuse to do because they'd lose their hold on you."
"No. According to the crippled man they can't do that because they don't havehim in the first place."
"Yes. Despite the fact that they took me to see Zouki last night, this morningone of them is denying that they have him. And I think he was sincere. If he'dhad that advantage he would have used it. On the other hand, Reyha thinks sherecognized the voice of one of the men with the cripple, subject to hisorders, as that of one of the men who took me away last night."
Aaron had begun to get a bad feeling about this Naszif that he did not know.
He was up to something.
"Is there something going on inside the Living? Are there factions operatingwithout recourse to the established chain of command?"
"What are you doing, Naszif?"
"Thinking out loud. Consider. I'm sure the man who took me out last night, andwho was with bel-Sidek today, is a character named Hadribel. Hadribel is thenumber two man of the Living in the Shu. He was taking orders from bel-Sidek.
And bel-Sidek said, at least by implication, that the man who had died wasmore important than him. Who was that man, really? And who would dare murderhim?"
"That's enough, Naszif. I've figured out what you're doing. I'm not going tolet you use me. You had your one shot at getting me killed and got away withit. You don't get a second chance."
Naszif frowned, pretending he did not understand.
"Almost two hundred from our tower survived the Herodian prison camps, Naszif.
Most of them came back to Qushmarrah. Some work down at the yard. You rememberBig Turi? Bad Turi we called him sometimes. What do you think Turi would do ifsomeone told him it was our buddy Naszif that opened that postern that night?"
Naszif looked troubled. Laella said, "Aaron! You stop that kind of talk."
"Be quiet. And use your head. What happens after he fills me up witheverything he knows or guesses? The Herodians somehow get a sign, they grabme, and Naszif gets his message through. So what if old Aaron gets himselfbusted up some while they're getting him to tell them what he wants them toknow? He gets rid of Aaron and he gets rid of one of the ways he'svulnerable."
Laella looked at Naszif, whose face was a blank, then at Reyha, who stared ather hands still, shaking as she shed silent tears. "Reyha?"
Reyha said nothing. She did not look up.
Straining her old bones till their creak sounded in the silence, Raheb movedto the hearth where she began adding wood to the fire.
Aaron's throat was so tight he was afraid he was squeaking when he said, "Theguys who survived our outfit don't belong to the Living or anything, Naszif.
But they've got it all planned out, what they're going to do when they findout who opened that postern. It's going to take them a long time to get thatfar, but the last thing they're going to do is send him out to run through the streets without his skin on."
He could not believe this was him talking. Never in his life, that herecalled, had he threatened anyone.
"I've kept quiet for six years, out of concern and respect for Reyha andZouki. But now you've forfeited my silence by denying me and mine an equalconcern and respect. Now you have to buy my silence. You will go out of myhome and out of my life and forget I even exist. If you ever speak my name toanyone and I hear about it I'll see that yours is mentioned to those of ourcompany who survived."
Naszif met his gaze briefly, saw that there was nothing more that could besaid or done. He rose.
Raheb turned from the hearth. Clutching a large, greasy carving knife, shethrew herself at Naszif. Aaron did not move fast enough to deflect her assaultcompletely. The knife ripped a gash almost the length of Naszifs left arm.
It was eerie. Nobody made a sound. Faces pale, eyes filled with horror, theyall watched in silence as Aaron disarmed the old woman, who stopped strugglingthe instant he did so. In a calm voice she said, "Sixty thousand murdersblacken your soul, Naszif bar bel-Abek." She spat on him as Reyha, eyes stilldowncast, tried to look at his arm. "Sixty thousand curses upon your grave, may it be an early one."
Pale and terrified, Naszif backed toward the door. Reyha opened it for him.
They went out. Aaron closed it behind them.
Still there was no sound except a soft sniffle from Laella. Raheb went back toher chores. The boys clung to Mish, frightened. In some symbolic gesture hedid not understand himself, Aaron stabbed the carving knife into the door andleft it quivering there as he went to comfort his sons.
He eased back from the boys and told them, "Go hug Mom. She needs you." Theytoddled right over, somewhat reassured.
Aaron watched, the fear snarling inside him.
"Aaron?" Mish said in a small voice.
"When I was talking to Yoseh ... His brother Nogah said he stayed all nightin Tosh Alley last night. In the middle of the night, he said, he saw the mostbeautiful woman he's ever seen. She came from up the hill. She came down andstopped in front of our door for a few minutes. Then she disappeared in thefog."
"Uhm?" The fear grew stronger.
"That man said they thought a woman k-killed Mr. bel-Sidek's father. If Nogahsaw a beautiful woman, that couldn't have been Reyha."
"I suppose you're right."
Fear filled Aaron's home.
Bel-Sidek was just steps from his door when he saw the traitor and his womanleave the carpenter's home. What now? Didn't he have troubles enough? Now thetraitor was going to go roaming around anywhere he felt like?
He eased into shadow and let them pass. They did not notice. They wereengrossed in themselves. The woman moved with difficulty, still feeling theeffects of her stubbornness this morning. The traitor carried his left armoddly, as though it was injured.
The khadifas would begin arriving any moment. But this bore investigation.
With a resigned sigh he limped to the carpenter's door. He knocked.
The door opened. The coldness that came into the man's face was so intensebel-Sidek retreated a step. "May I come in?"
Forthright and rude, that answer flustered him. What could he do?
But the carpenter surrendered some of his advantage. He stepped outside, closed the door behind him. "We aren't interested in the games being playedaround here, old man. By you or anybody else. Leave us alone."
The carpenter spat at his feet. "You're not Qushmarrah. Thieves andextortioners, torturers of women and stealers of children, claiming they speakfor Qushmarrah?" He spat again.
Bel-Sidek could not restrain his anger. It had been piling up all day. "Aaron, we've never touched a child!"
"If you believe that, you're a fool. A fool without an idea what those who owehim allegiance are doing in his name. And for that I fear you more than I fearyou for all the knives you can send in the dark. A knife can kill a man but afool can kill a city."
"Ask yourself, if you truly believe the Living aren't stealing children, howit is that they can show a man the child that was taken from him. When youhave an answer, if you care to share it with me, you might find me moreinclined toward conversation."
Bel-Sidek did not know what to say. The carpenter was behaving so far out ofcharacter, was so upset, that anything might make him do something crazy.
"Just stay away and leave us alone. You ignore me and I'll ignore you."
"All right, Aaron. I'm a reasonable man." And it was no time to press.
"I'm glad to hear that. If it's true. One thing I might owe you. A Dartar warrior who spent the night hiding in Tosh Alley saw a woman pass in themiddle of the night. He didn't know her. He described her as the mostbeautiful woman he'd ever seen. Dartars are strange but I don't think they'restrange enough to confuse my wife's friend Reyha with beauty. Good night."
Bel-Sidek stood there a minute after the door closed behind the carpenter, theonly thought in his mind the certain fact that the Living were losing the warof the heart even where men had the most cause to hate the conqueror.
He turned away and began to labor uphill. This might be somethinginstructional he might mention during his confrontation with the khadifas.
Azel left Muma's Place soon after sundown. A few experimental maneuvers showedhim that Colonel Bruda's men were still on him. He spotted four. That big aneffort suggested there might be more, less easily spotted. He must havestumbled good.
He took only the routine precautions of a man who did not expect to befollowed. Let them get comfortable and confident. He would shake them later, when he needed to.
He drifted into the Blessed Way, a waterfront to acropolis avenue a quartermile north of Char Street, but left it immediately. Herodian soldiers werebusy there, questioning anyone who ventured into the street. He wondered whatwas up but had no time to find out.
The watchers tracked him through the narrow ways only because he did not carewhether they stayed with him or not. They would not leam anything interesting.
Shortly before he reached the place where bel-Shaduk stayed, he did lose themsimply by stepping around a corner, then scrambling to a rooftop. He scurriedacross the tops of several houses, to a point from which he could watch belShaduk's place.
It leaked a lot of light.
Most Qushmarrahans went to sleep soon after nightfall, their working hoursdictated by economics and the availability of natural light. Ishabal's placebeing so lighted suggested that all Azel's guesswork was adding up the way heexpected.
"I thought he had better sense," Azel muttered.
The lights faded soon after he took his position. A man stuck his headoutside. He saw nothing. He came out. A whole squad, seven more men, followed.
They scattered but it looked like they had some common destination.
Azel thought he knew what that was. He set off across the rooftops, headedsouth. Easier to do that than try to follow somebody and maybe get spotted. Aslong as he'd guessed right about where they were going.
"The damn fool," he grumbled to himself. "She must have offered him afortune."
He ran into no trouble. The lords of the roofs were lying low tonight. Hewondered if that was an omen. He hoped it was just the weather. The drizzlemade the footing troublesome.
He found himself a perfect position overlooking Char Street long beforeIshabal's gang arrived. He even had time to scout his, and their, most likelyavenues of retreat.
The damn fool was going to try it.
Ought to be interesting.
He settled down to watch. His vantage was perfect, tactically, but it wasdamned wet.
General Cado went over Rose's letter for the third time, almost character bycharacter this time. Colonel Bruda stared out a window, toward the harbor, pleased that there was an overcast and an unseasonable chill. That would keepsome people off the streets tonight. Maybe the troops could be moved withoutbeing noticed at all.
Cado asked, "How much of this do you buy?"
"All of it and none of it. I think Rose is telling us the truths he believes.
That doesn't mean somebody hasn't been lying to him."
"I grow more curious about our Rose by the hour. He told me he learned tospeak Herodian when he was a sailor, before the conquest. But how manymerchants can read and write their native tongue, let alone a foreign one?"
"He's done great work for us."
"I know. I know. This is an example if only half is true." He tapped theletter, leaned forward, glared down at it. "General Hanno bel-Karba, presumeddead for six years, murdered, by witchcraft, the same night the Livingslaughtered Sullo s More-tians on the estate of the woman who believed herselfto be bel-Karba's widow. Our man Rose actually gets to see and identify thebody because by lot he gets chosen to be a guard at the funeral. Do you buythat?"
"I can't refute it. His reported movements are consistent with his claims."
"But you didn't have him under observation every minute."
"No. He's a cautious man. He takes extensive precautions routinely."
"And he says he thinks somebody is watching him and if it's us would we kindlylay off and stop attracting attention because his bosses in the Living arenever going to believe we think he's important enough to rate that muchtrouble."
Bruda smiled. "He's always been a brassy bastard."
"He's always been a bastard who doesn't add up."
"No matter how useful I'll never completely trust a man who won't accept acommission in the army. He's the only Qushmar-rahan agent we have who hasn'tenlisted and converted."
Bruda stared into the night.
"Keep watching him."
"I intend to. If only because I've never been able to find out who he is orwhere he came from. I have to satisfy my own curiosity."
Cado grunted. He let Bruda stare at the night while he read the letter again.
"What's the implication here? Sullo had his witch avenge his Moretians?"
Bruda shook his head. "It would be something deeper. The acts don't balance.
If Sullo had bel-Karba killed it wouldn't have been because of the Moretians.
I don't think he knew about them till he opened that trunk."
"Uhm? Spin me a fable."
"I'll posit you a problem first. You know Sullo. He comes to Qushmarrah andright away stumbles onto the fact that Hanno bel-Karba is alive and runningthe Living. Even better, he finds out where to lay hands on the old man. Whatdoes he do?"
That was an easy one. "He snaps him up, whatever the cost, parades him around, and gets us laughed out of town as raging incompetents."
"He didn't. Could he be playing for higher stakes?"
"Maybe." Bruda stared out the window, rehearsing his theory. He had given it agreat deal of thought since first he had read Rose's letter. "You recall thedeath in the Hahr the other day? The reputed khadifa of the Hahr?"
"The public consensus in the Hahr now is that he was put away by the Living, not thieves. Because he had been using his position to enrich himself and hiscronies, not to work against Herod. He was moving into all the usualunderworld activities. His death was an example to the other khadifas, some ofwhom were involved in rackets in their own quarters. He was proof that nobodywas immune to the law of the movement."
"You're going to spin me that fable now?"
"Yes. I think Marteo Sullo is an ambitious man. I think he harbors notions toward achieving the imperial honors. I think someone inside the Livingoffered him an alliance in return for removing that pesky old man. Access toan organization like the Living, which has contacts with malcontentseverywhere, would be invaluable to an ambitious and unscrupulous man."
"Maybe so." General Cado read the letter for the fifth time. It containedother speculations of interest. "Suppose Sullo is up to something? How do wecatch him?"
"We don't need to. I can manufacture evidence."
"What are you thinking?"
"Suppose we have Rose send Sullo away in imitation of a Living execution, thenthe story of a deal with a khadifa of the Living, who reneged, gets out?"
Cado laughed. He got up and joined Bruda at the window. Bruda watched biddersof water slide down its outer face.
"You're more devious than I suspected."
"We'd be rid of Sullo, with the onus on the Living. They'd be discredited andchasing each other around trying to catch the villain."
"A double kill. I like it." Cado chuckled. "Give me a day to think about itand see what develops. You look for holes in it."
In the Dartar compound, with security verging on the absurd, Fa'tad al-Aklacloseted himself with his ten most trusted captains, all of them men who hadridden with him twenty years or more. He had digested the day's reports fromthe Shu maze and was confident both that the myths he was feeding weregroundless and that the denizens of the labyrinth were compressed just shortof the point where desperation would overcome terror and they would fightback.
The Eagle told them what he intended.
They were appalled. They were aghast at his daring. They enthused. Theirresponse delighted him. He was a mischievous old devil.
One of Joab's brothers, Bega, sometimes a too-practical sort, said, "I'm nomason. Will the mortar set up properly in this weather?" The rains were lightbut steady now.
Fa'tad did not know. It did not seem a critical question. All but a few exitsfrom the maze had been sealed already. Tomorrow the masons would close theexits to the roofs. And that would be that, except for the final, criticalfew.
In the Shu, Yoseh retreated from the mouth of Tosh Alley, found Nogah. "You'dbetter come look," he whispered. "Something is getting ready to happen outthere."
In the citadel, Zouki wakened for the first time since his encounter with theWitch. He was confused and frightened though he did not remember much. Thememories he did have seemed half alien. Dreams awake. Places and events he never saw. Everything too elusive to grasp. Something worming around insidehis brain. Someone else. Terror.
Thunder crashed outside.
Merciful sleep took him again a moment later.
In his quarters, Torgo paced. He was worried. He was frightened. Somethingunusual had happened. He did not understand. He needed the Witch to tell himwhat to do. And she could not be wakened.
Azel had not yet come for the boy. He was late. Way late. And it was almosttime for Ishabal to show. Should he carry out his orders?
In his home in the Shu, Sisu bel-Sidek asked his khadifas to put forward thenames of men they considered worthy of becoming their equals.
In Char Street, Ishabal bel-Shaduk gave his henchmen the agreed signal.
The boys were over the excitement and asleep. The women were not. Aarondoubted he could fall asleep easily, either. But it was time. He had to worktomorrow. Weather permitting.
One more day. Then his day off. By the time he went back, he hoped, theHerodian managers would have worked out their political differences andeverybody could get back to building ships.
He reached out to snuff the candle.
Someone knocked on the door.
He cursed softly. Then thought the hell with them. Then realized that theknock was much firmer than those of Reyha or bel-Sidek. He felt a little twirlof fright.
The knock came again. Laella, her mother, and Mish all sat up and looked athim.
There had not been a major crime in Char Street since the Dartars had becomeinterested in the maze. Nobody would be dumb enough to try something with adozen of them watching from Tosh Alley.
He went to the door, glancing bemusedly at the carving knife. He had forgottento remove it. The women were not about to touch it. They were going to pretendhe was lord and master for a day or two.
He slipped the latch, drew a breath to speak as he started to pull the doorinward.
It slammed into him, knocking his breath out and hurling him back to land onhis seat. Two men charged inside. One tripped over his outstretched leg andplunged headlong into the opposite wall. Two more charged in behind the firsttwo. One stopped, held a knife at Aaron's throat. He gaped up at the man, lost.
The women started screaming.
A man in the doorway snapped, "Hurry up and grab him, damn it!"
One inside said, "Where the hell is he? Ho. There."
Laella shrieked, "Arif! No!"
Mish came flying across the room, landed on the back of the man threatening Aaron. Aaron staggered to his feet while he was distracted. He tried to slamthe door. It smacked into the man standing in the doorway.
Old Raheb smashed a heavy crock down on the head of the man who had chargedinto the wall.
Aaron grabbed the carving knife and stuck it into the man who had threatenedhim. He did not remember anything they had taught him in the army. There wereno thoughts in his head, just rage and terror. He stuck the knife in and itlodged between ribs.
One of the two still standing flung Laella across the room. The remaining mangrabbed Arif, turned, kicked Raheb in the stomach, headed for the door whilehis companion tried to lift the man the old woman had crowned.
Aaron grabbed at the knife dropped by the man he had stuck. The man carryingArif saw him blocking the way and in his eyes Aaron saw the dawning fear thathe was not going to get out of this place.
The edge of the door slammed into Aaron's back. The man carrying Arif struckhim in the side of the neck with a clumsy blow and bulled past. Outside, somebody yelled, "Ish! Trouble!"
The last man dumped his burden and charged. He kneed Aaron in the face, viciously, before going out.
After a moment, Aaron recovered himself, seized the knife. Bleeding from mouthand nose, he stumbled into the street, chasing the screams of a boy crying forhis dad.
Yoseh and Nogah were near the mouth of the alley when the screaming started.
They stepped out, looked down the street, saw what was happening. Nogahwhirled and yelled, "Come on!" into the alley, then headed for the action.
A man popped out of shadow, yelled, "Ish! Trouble!" and tried to head themoff.
Nogah cut him down with his saber.
Yoseh carried a javelin. He flung it a moment later, at a man who came intothe street carrying Arif. He threw without worrying about the boy, a perfectcast that struck the man square in the center of the chest.
Another man grabbed the struggling child. Another came out the doorway. Morecharged out of the darkness downhill. Dartars poured out of the alley behindYoseh.
The man with the child went to his belt in exactly the way that man in thealley had the other day. Yoseh threw his forearm across his eyes and tried toshout a warning to the others.
Intense light. Screams. Yoseh flung his arm down and ran forward. The man withthe boy dropped his own arm, was astounded to find he was being rushed by aDartar with a knife.
His hand went back to his belt.
Yoseh covered up again. The din rose to a ferocious level as Dartars from thealley, come out too late to be blinded, attacked anyone not wearing black. Menscreamed. The child-stealers did not have weapons to fight swords andjavelins. Nogah yelled, "Don't kill them all! Take some prisoners!"
There was no second blinding flash. Instead, Yoseh took a blow to the bellylike the kick of a mule. He went down, gagging, unable to draw a breath. Hisstomach emptied. Even after there was nothing more to throw up the heavescontinued.
He was vaguely aware of the villain moving away, of Medjhah arriving just intime to keep Kosuth from skewering Arif s father, of a quick passage at armsin which Medjhah and Kosuth murdered another of the child-takers, then he wason his feet again with the help of the boy's father.
The man who had Arif ducked into the first alley downhill, on the north sideof Char Street. Yoseh yanked his javelin out of the man he had hit earlier. Heand the boy's father took up the chase, stumble-running like a couple ofdrunks in the direction of Arif s screams.
Azel shook his head as the Dartars came piling out of Tosh Alley. That dumbshit Ishabal did not know they were there. Fool. Why hadn't he scouted thearea again before he made his move? Now he would pay.
Ishabal used some flash. Big deal. That wasn't going to change anything now.
Whoa! What was this?
Four men charged into the chaos from up the street.
Azel chuckled. Those were Bruda's boys, come to see about the ruckus. Theymust have followed Ishabal's men when they'd lost him.
The Dartars didn't give a shit who they worked for. They weren't wearingblack. They piled on.
Ha! Ishabal had given up on flash and changed to punch. He'd opened a clearpath out, downhill, and he wasn't wasting it.
Azel prized himself up off the roof and bounded away, muttering because hismuscles had stiffened up in the few minutes he had lain there in the cool anddamp.
It was easy to figure what a man was going to do when you knew what he had todo. Ishabal had to shut that kid up or he wasn't going to get away. And he hadto do it without hurting the kid or the whole exercise was pointless. He wouldneed a lead, which he had, then a place where he could get his back to a wallfor a minute.
Azel knew a perfect place. If Ishabal had done his scouting right, he wouldknow it, too, and would be headed there right now.
Azel took the shorter, straighter route over the rooftops.
The place was a cul-de-sac between buildings, three feet wide and ten deep, black as Nakar's heart inside, a deathtrap that would be avoided by anyone notarmed with the confidence that came of having flash and punch and whatever else at hand.
Azel dropped into that place and folded himself up in a ball in the back, waited, wondered if he would stiffen up too soon.
Ishabal came, a vagueness moving in blackness. He faced out of the narrowplace and went to work doing whatever he needed to do to quiet the brat down.
Azel used the last of the racket to cover whatever sound he made unwinding andmoving forward.
He did something to give himself away. The vagueness that was Ishabalstiffened, started to react an instant before Azel set the point of his knifeagainst his spine and said, "Don't."
Ishabal froze. "Azel?"
"You really screwed it up, Ish. Going to have the whole city going crazy, trying to figure it out. And they're going to figure it once they startdigging."
"I told them. They don't care. She says this kid is the one she wants. Look, we got to get out of here. They aren't that far behind me."
Ishabal was pretty good. Azel almost missed the minuscule warning hitch as hewent to his belt. Almost.
Azel thrust. Ishabal bucked away from the killing blade. The flash packet flewfrom his fingers unopened, hit, spilled a few grains, began to burn slowlyinstead of exploding. Azel pushed the dying man away and squatted to collectthe now unconscious boy.
A foot scraped. He looked up into the eyes of the same Dartar he'd run intotwice before.
He clamped down on the rage that seized him, surged upward, flung the boytoward the sky, so that the upper half of his body landed on the roof and heldhim there. Then he faced the Dartar and his companion in the light of thesmoldering flash.
So. He would leave them here with Ishabal. It would make a fine puzzle forwhoever found them, the three of them all dead and the boy gone.
"You just got in my way one time too many, camel boy. This one is the lasttime." He moved forward.
In response the Darter uncovered his face. Hell. He wasn't nothing but a kid.
A shaky kid carrying a knife in his left hand, with his right hand tucked upbehind him like he was wounded or something.
Azel moved in.
The Dartar's hand came out thrusting with a javelin.
Azel dodged and blocked just well enough to keep from getting killed. The headof the javelin sliced along his left cheek and ruined his ear. He grabbed thejavelin's shaft and pulled.
The Dartar hung on and kicked violently with his left foot. Azel turned hiship to take the blow but it came higher than he anticipated, struck squarelyon his right elbow, numbing his arm so badly he could not hang on to hisknife. He kneed the Dartar and at the same time flailed the numb arm hard enough to knock the knife out of the boy's left hand. The Dartar pulledhimself in and clung. Azel started to crush him in a bear hug.
The second man's knife came in and ripped along his ribs, a hairline of fire.
The kid was trying to hold him while the other man killed him.
He kneed the Dartar again and felt his grip go watery with the pain. Azelshoved him back into the other man, backed away, jumped.
First try, his still half-numb arm betrayed him. He slipped back. He jumpedagain. As he went up, the Dartar's companion buried a knife in his right calfand tried to pull him back down. He kicked the guy in the head with his rightfoot, pulled himself onto the roof. He yanked the knife out of his calf, dragged the brat all the way onto the roof so nobody could grab a leg and pullhim back down.
Azel heard nothing stirring below. He lay there panting and hurting for aminute, till he heard cautious voices approaching in the darkness. Then he gothimself up, picked up the brat, and started moving.
He ignored the fires in his cheek and ear, his calf and side. He told himselfhe was too good to let a little pain distract him.
When the uproar broke out outside, Zenobel growled, "What the hell?" andheaded for the door.
"Hold it!" bel-Sidek snapped. "Kill the lamps. Whatever it is, we don't wantit getting interested in us."
By the time the lamps were out and bel-Sidek had gotten to the door and hadopened it a crack, the uproar was that of a battle. Bel-Sidek said, "It's aband of Dartars slaughtering a bunch of Qushmarrahans."
Carza asked, "Why?"
"How should I know?" bel-Sidek was troubled.
Zenobel asked, "What are Dartars doing in Char Street at this time of night?"
"Why don't you go ask?" bel-Sidek backed away so the others could take turnspeeking. Zenobel ended up being the sentinel at the crack who reported to therest, sitting there in darkness. "They've gotten a torch lit. Collecting upthe dead and wounded. Looks like three prisoners and seven dead. None of themDartars. Make that eight dead. They just brought in another one. Looks likethey're getting ready to question the survivors. Some more around a doorwaydown there, talking. Funny. Nobody's come out to see what's going on."
Bel-Sidek said, "It isn't strange, here where the night belongs to the beastsof the maze. Close it. They aren't interested in us. Let's keep it that way.
Light a lamp, King. Just one. Can't anybody think of an alternative to Hannobel-Kaifa?"
Salom Edgit asked, "Why don't you trust him?" "I trust him, Salom. That's not the problem. I don't like him. The dislike is so strong I think it would affect my ability to work with him."
Zenobel took another peek outside. He planned to sneak another in a minute. He held the door closed with his hand instead of latching it.
It exploded inward.
The Dartars helped Aaron out of the alley. By the time they reached Char Street he could move under his own power. Mumbling, he invited them to bring Yoseh into his home so they would have light to look him over.
Aaron stopped in the doorway. A Dartar with bare saber stood guard inside. The fallen invaders had been removed. Laella, battered but apparently all right, knelt over her mother, in front of the hearth. Across the room Mish satagainst the wall and held Stafa tight against her breast. She sobbed softly.
Laella looked up. Aaron shook his head. Her face turned to stone. She rose, came to examine his injuries. He moved aside so the Dartars could bring Yosehin. They invited themselves to bring all their injured. Laella did notprotest.
She touched his face. He winced, asked, "How is she?"
"I think she's hurt inside." There was an edge of hysteria in her voice.
"Take it easy. What about you? How about Stafa and Mish?"
"We're all right." She leaned against him. "What did we ever do to those men, Aaron? How could they do that?" "I don't know. I'm going to find out." He pushed her away gently, went to his toolbox, and took out a heavy, bronze-headed maul.
"What are you going to do?"
"Go break bel-Sidek's other leg, then twist on it till he tells me the truth." And he actually meant it when he said it, though it sounded absurd a second later.
"Aaron ..." "They've got Arif, Laella. Just like they've got Zouki. I can't stand still."
He started for the doorway. On his way he tapped Yoseh's two brothers. "Come on." Bel-Sidek was completely boggled by the apparition in the doorway. Thecarpenter looked like he had been beaten half to death. He looked incrediblyferocious with a huge hammer in his hand. "Aaron?"
"I want my son back, bel-Sidek. Your men took him, and killed his grandmother, and if you don't get him back to me I'm going to see that whatever is left of you when I get done hangs from a Herodian gibbet."
Bel-Sidek felt the bite of fear. He understood the threat. The carpenter knew or suspected enough to do the movement irreparable harm. "Calm down, Aaron. I don't know what you're talking about. I don't have your son."
"Just like you don't know anything about Naszif s son, Zouki, but you can show him to Naszif anytime you want to make him do something."
What would the General have done in this situation?
The carpenter was getting a little nervous, his crazy anger deserting him. He had not expected to break into a room full of hard-faced men. He did not know what to do next. He stepped forward, raising the hammer threateningly.
Zenobel, Carza, and Dabdahd responded. Zenobel had murder in his eye. Bel- Sidek said, "Wait." A Dartar stepped through the doorway, set the tip of a saber against Zenobel's throat. Another followed, threatened King and Carza. They backed away carefully. The first Dartar asked, "Is the old one the man who knows, Aaron?"
"I think so. If not him, one of them."
Bel-Sidek started. The carpenter had guessed who they were. But he had not betrayed them. Yet. "Aaron, what do you want?" "You know: I want my son back. And I want you and yours to leave me and mine alone. Forever."
Or he would tell the Dartars where they could scoop up the whole ruling council of the Living.
A voice from outside said, "Nogah! Troops are coming."
The Dartar with the saber pushed Zenobel back among the others. He looked bel- Sidek in the eye. "I see your face, old man. And I will remember it." He raised a hand, removed his face cloth, revealed a gruesomely mutilated visage.
"You have till the fog rises this high tomorrow night. Then I come for you." He turned, gently urged the carpenter out the door. The other Dartar backed out behind them, closing the door.
"Silence!" bel-Sidek snapped, before they could start. "Do any of you not understand what just happened?" He got back a babble of outrage.
They did not understand, except for Carza.
"Quiet, please. So you're not as familiar with Dartar customs as you should be. But none of you ever served with them. When the man removed his face cloth he was doing what Dartars call 'showing the face of death.' Essentially he took a vow to hunt us down if the missing child isn't returned. I remind youthat most of the Dartars outside are probably his brothers and cousins. Familywill assume the vow as a matter of course. When word gets around, the restwill probably take it on, too. It's just romantic enough."
Zenobel made a sound of disgust. He was prejudiced.
Bel-Sidek rose. "I know nothing about child-stealing, by the movement oranyone else. But I suspect some of you might." He dragged his aching legtoward the door. "I want to be informed if you do. There is a growing publicperception of us as responsible, or at least involved, and that could destroyus." He opened the door a crack.
The tramp-tramp-tramp he'd been hearing was what it sounded like, soldiersmarching. "They got here fast." He noted the dread Colonel Bruda with them andshuddered.
There was too much interest in this part of the Shu.
He saw tendrils of fog just rising into view. It was that early still? Itseemed it should be much later.
What a day. What a hellbiter of a day.
How come Bruda had had troops armed and ready to move at a moment's notice?
Had the jaws of doom begun to close?
"The fog is coming," he said. "The man gave us a chance. As soon as it cancover us we get out of here. Hopefully before those Dartars have an attack ofintuition and realize what they missed scooping up. Don't ever come back here.
I'm moving out. I'll contact you later. Make your own arrangements todisappear, just in case."
He watched the soldiers. His small hope they would clash with the Dartarsdied. Tempers flared but never flew out of control.
"I want that boy, gentlemen. He's somewhere in Qushmarrah and we have theresources to find him. If he's not in my hands by sundown I'm going to want toknow why not. And I'm not likely to be in a very pleasant mood. Do youunderstand?"
Azel had had a good many years in which to learn to carry on despite pain. Hehad been injured worse and had managed. But he had been younger then and, tobe truthful, better motivated. He was losing his zest for the game. Tonightthe sinkhole country looked like a lot more than a pleasant fantasy. It lookedlike the sanest bet for sliding out of this without getting carved up intolittle pieces.
But he had a mission. Spying on everybody, playing games with them, that couldgo to hell. Bruda having him watched proved he had worked those angles for asmuch as he could. A smart man got out while he was ahead.
He was out. As of now. Let Bruda and Cado stew and fuss because he was not there to be used. They could buy another knife. Always plenty of those around.
Let that new General of the Living fume because he did not keep hisappointments, because he did not pass along all his secrets.
In five minutes he would disappear from the face of the earth.
But the thing with Nakar still had to be played out.
In these new circumstances he would have to work on that idiot Torgo, whomight be the only tool available.
He stayed on the rooftops till he ran out of houses to cross. He came downonly when he had to, to cross gaps too wide to leap. His wounds nagged him, the leg the worst. He successfully evaded trouble though the Shu continuedfull of excitement.
He perched on that last rooftop and watched the acropolis. The kid lay on thetiles beside him, snoring. The precipitation had picked up a little but stillcould not be called a rain.
Awful lot of activity tonight. Especially around Government House. Looked likea lot of sneakery. A lot more than could be accounted for by the excitement inthe Shu. Lot of soldiery slithering around ...
Cado was sneaking a bunch of his men down to the waterfront while there was agood chance their movement would not be noticed.
The boy showed no sign of coming around so Azel waited with the patience of alizard, rubbing his wounded calf. Once a whole parade of soldiers, civilians, and Dartars came out of Char Street and headed for Government House. The seeing was not good enough to be sure but he thought Colonel Bruda was the manin charge.
One more reason to get out of the game now.
He'd have to get a message to Muma, give him the same option. The man had beenthe perfect and faithful partner for years. He deserved his shot at gettingaway clean. He had his arrangements made. All he needed was the warning word.
Azel saw his chance soon after the crowd passed. He got hold of the kid anddropped down ... His leg buckled. He almost lost the brat.
He managed to walk only by keeping his leg completely rigid. That made movingthrough the pattern to unlock the Postern of Fate abnormally difficult but hegot it right the first time.
He found Torgo dozing inside, having failed to respond to the alarm or, morelikely, having failed to arm the damned spell. "Torgo."
The eunuch surged up, reached for a blade like an overgrown pirate's cutlass.
"Azel. I gave up on you ... What happened to you?"
"We got trouble, brother. You want to take this kid? Before I collapse?"
Torgo looked at the boy like he was a poisonous snake.
"Easy now. He's the one you wanted bel-Shaduk to grab so bad. Ended up hecouldn't, so I finished the job for him."
The eunuch took the boy almost tenderly, looked at Azel suspiciously. "Whycouldn't Ishabal bring him in? How come you even know anything about it?"
"He didn't bring the brat in because he's too dead to walk. Come on. I'll tellyou about it while I'm getting myself patched up."
Torgo took the child to the cage first.
Azel told the thing exactly as it had happened, from his sighting of Torgo tothe moment Bel-Shaduk fled Char Street with the boy. Invention came into playonly when he described how Ishabal had been cornered and killed by hispursuers.
He did wish he had been able to finish those two. It wasn't likely Torgo wouldrun into them, and it probably wouldn't matter if that part did get unraveled, but any loose end was an artistic flaw.
On the other hand, he was a practical man. He could not take risk just to makesure loose ends got snipped.
"What about the boy you were supposed to deliver to the Living? Something badhappened with him, Azel. She was hurt. I had to hit her ... She could be daysrecovering."
Azel frowned. What now? "Tell me. Everything."
Torgo showed his teeth, ready to balk. Then he gave in, obviously at a lossand desperate for direction. He described events minutely.
Azel had watched some of Nakar's sorcery in the old days. He did not know, buthe suspected what had happened. She had encountered a strong soul and had notbeen prepared. Perhaps even Ala-eh-din Beyh himself.
The eunuch stared at the new brat. The one, if the woman was right. Azel wasgrim now, thinking how diminished he would be when this one was opened. Timeto start wooing Torgo, lest he come up with a crazy idea of his own. "Two daysand today turns into yesterday again, eh? That don't excite me the way it usedto, Torgo. The other brat can wait. The Living can make do without. I wouldn'tgo back out there now if I could."
Best to make a thing of his injuries. Never hurt to have them underestimateyou. "Too many people out there looking for me now. Hell. If the Living can'tcontrol their traitor for two days they don't deserve to share the fruits ofvictory. Do they?"
Torgo grunted. Azel was sure he was thinking about what he would lose in a fewdays.
Good. Perfect. Feed his obsession. But don't underestimate him. They'd robbedhim of his balls, not his brain.
"I need a big favor, Torgo."
The eunuch gave him a suspicious look.
"There's this guy who's been helping us since the beginning. He don't know what he's been doing, of course. But he's played square all the way. Hedeserves a break. And he does know a lot somebody would find interesting ifthey grabbed him and made him talk. I need you to take him a warning from methat it's time to disappear."
Torgo frowned. "Why?"
"Crap, man! Because I owe him and I can't go out there. In another hour Iain't going to be able to walk. You understand a debt of honor? Hell. I don'tknow. Look. You and me, we never got along good. We don't like each other. Wenever took no trouble to hide that. But we been working together. Getting thejob done. We got the same friends and the same enemies. Despite we don't likeeach other we done each other straight. So if it was you out there that neededwarning I'd see you got it. If only because I don't never want nobody else towring your fat ugly neck before I get my shot."
The eunuch was not convinced. "Where?"
"Place called Muma's. Just off the hilltop. Wouldn't take you twenty minutes."
Torgo grunted, asked, "Why should I do anything for you?"
"What do you want most in the world, man? Never mind. I think I know already.
And I think I know how you could get it. Without no complications. I think Imight even tell you about it sometime was you to do me this favor."
Torgo studied him for half a minute. "All right. What's the message?"
"I got to write it. He don't see it in my hand he ain't going to believe it."
Muma could not read but Torgo did not need to know that. The message would befor his benefit. He'd snoop, sure. The symbol on the outside would be warningenough for Muma.
"I'll get things to write with." Torgo slouched out, still suspicious.
This was not going to be an easy seduction.
Aaron recognized the man in the doorway because a few years ago he had come tothe shipyard regularly, to interview workers, either hunting for a spy ortrying to recruit one. Colonel Bruda, General Cado's chief spy and bully.
His heart went cold.
Bruda looked around at injured family and injured Dartars. He did not seemupset, only mildly perplexed. A harmless little man, going bald. Nogah rosefrom his brother Yoseh's side and went to face him. They exchanged words Aarondid not catch.
Mish moved over beside Yoseh, said something softly. Aaron wondered if thekick in the face had impaired his hearing. Stafa came and clung to his leg. Hewas confused and scared still. Aaron scooped him up and settled him on his hip. He patted the boy's back gently. Stafa held on like he was afraid he was going to drown.
Bruda came to Aaron. "This is your home? Your family?" "Yes sir." His voice quavered.
Bruda took hold of his chin, made him turn his face right and left. "You look like hell but you're not too badly hurt, are you?" "No sir." "Anyone badly hurt? They try to do anything besides take your son?" "The old woman. My mother-in-law. They kicked her in the stomach. Something's wrong inside. My wife thinks she's dying."
"I see." Bruda moved to Raheb, glancing at Mish and Yoseh. "You're lucky these Dartars were around. You resisted. They might have killed you for that." He squatted opposite Laella, looked at the old woman for a moment, met Laella's eye. "No improvement?"
Laella shook her head.
Bruda rose and strode to the door, barked something in rapid Herodian. Aaron recognized only the words for "sergeant" and "two men." He looked at Nogah. Nogah shrugged helplessly.
Bruda spoke to his sergeant a moment, then came back to Aaron. "Did they try to take the younger boy, too, or just the one?" "Just Arif." Aaron began to shake. "Try to hang on and bear with us. What's your name?" "Aaron. Aaron Habid." "Aramite? That sounds Aramite." "Yes." "Not to worry, Aaron. I don't care about your religion. I've seen you before, haven't I? Where would that have been?"
"The shipyard. A few years ago."
"Of course. Master carpenter. Right?"
"What did you do during the war, Aaron? Engineers?"
"Yes sir. The Seven Towers."
A flicker of something stirred behind Bruda's eyes.
The sergeant and two soldiers came inside with a stretcher rigged from two spears and several cloaks. Bruda indicated Raheb, spoke in rapid Herodian, then told Aaron, "We're all going up to Government House where we can giveeveryone proper medical attention and maybe put our heads together to unravelthis."
Aaron's fear betrayed itself.
Bruda smiled. "No, you don't have to worry about the rack and thumbscrews. Ithink you'll help me because I'm going to help you. If I can. Is there aneighbor you can have watch your place while you're gone? Or shall I leave acouple of soldiers?"
Aaron had become flustered. He could think of no one to ask to watch his home.
But he did not want Herodians hanging around attracting attention, either.
Bruda read him. "I'll have them stay inside."
The soldiers had Raheb on their stretcher and were awaiting orders. Brudaspoke to his sergeant. The man ordered two more soldiers inside. The place hadbecome painfully crowded. The stretcher bearers worked toward the doorway.
Laella took Stafa from Aaron before she followed. He was grateful. The boy hadbecome a load.
Mish followed her sister, not trying to hide her fright. Aaron followed her.
The Dartars came after him. Aaron noted that Bruda had only a few, thebrothers and two more. The rest must have scurried back into Tosh Alley.
The fog had climbed the hill. It was as thick as ever Aaron had seen it.
Drizzle fell through it. The air was cold for the time of year. He could notstop shaking.
He glanced back at his home, wondered if he would see it again. He movedcloser to Laella.
General Cado was waiting when Colonel Bruda brought in his catch. FiveDartars. A Qushmarrahan family. One prisoner. Two of his own men the Dartarshad mistaken for kidnappers. And a lot of bodies. "Is this the lot?" "Not allthe Dartars. I have their leader, though." "Good. Release those soldiers sothey can get to their ship." Cado had his own guards on hand.
"I left two guarding the house. They'll need to be relieved." "We'll take careof it. I've sent for Fa'tad, Sullo and his witch, and Colonel bel-Abek. Anyoneelse you need?"
"A physician. And Rose. Rose was watching the child-stealing gang. They splitup when they set out to do tonight's job. My men followed members of the gangwhen they lost Rose, figuring they would find him again. They walked into theaction and got mistaken for gang members. Luckily only one got killed."
Cado scanned the disparate collection of corpses and frightened people, summoned an aide, rattled orders, then returned to Colonel Bruda. "Have youlearned anything useful?"
"My man Taglio has command of both the Qushmarrahan and Dartar dialects. Fromwhat he saw and heard the family thinks the Living did the kidnapping. TheDartars think we did."
Bruda shrugged. They aren't talking."
Cado looked at the cluster of Dartars, all young and tattered, all scared anddefiant. "You feel it, too, Bruda? That there's something very dark slitheringaround just out of sight?"
"Assuming Rose told the truth, I have to keep wondering who killed Generalbel-Karba. Somebody that daring has to be somebody convinced he can handle anyreprisals. Anyone that strong, belonging neither to them nor to us, is someonewe have to worry about. We have troubles enough without adding anothercomplication."
Cado's staff physician came in and went to the injured woman without having tobe told.
"Did you send men to look for bel-Karba's body?"
"Yes. We should hear from them in the morning."
"What about the child? His parents look ordinary. Anything unusual about him?"
"No. I talked to the father extensively. He didn't want to speak up becausehe's afraid of the Living, but he did let slip a few things. He was in thesame unit as Colonel bel-Abek during the war."
"I don't think so. I get the impression he has no use for bel-Abek. Theconnection between them is their wives. They've been friends since childhood.
I can't see any reason why anyone would want to twist the arms of eitherparent of tonight's victim. He's a carpenter. Her relatives are all sistersmarried to nobodies. And that old woman who's trying to die from a kick in thestomach."
Sullo and his witch arrived. The civil governor was irked at having his reposedisturbed yet was pleased that his political enemy felt the need to includehim in what was afoot. Cado wondered if he would behave like a spoiled childif he learned that he had been summoned only because the military governorwanted to use his witch.
He had Bruda explain to them, then explain again when Colonel bel-Abek and hiswife arrived, guarded by a dozen soldiers. He watched the interplay, or lackthereof, between the bereaved mothers. Bel-Abek's wife, a drab thing he'dnever before seen, seemed to be melting from shame. The other woman ignoredher existence.
Colonel bel-Abek asked, "Can I talk to Taglio?" He seemed excited.
"Are you on to something?"
"I think the kidnapping may have interrupted a meeting of the ruling councilof the Living. The man who headed the movement lived right there on CharStreet. I learned that just today."
A man came in to report his inability to make contact with Rose. He had left a message. Cado thanked him and dismissed him. "Go on, Colonel."
Puffing up, bel-Abek said. "He was murdered last night. Whoever he was."
"Hanno bel-Karba," Bruda said.
"General Hanno bel-Karba was the mastermind of the Living. We knew who hadbeen killed, but not where or when."
Cado saw Fa'tad, alone, looking like a great black crow, standing in ashadowed doorway, listening, studying everyone. Cado listened with only halfan ear as bel-Abek reported what he had learned about the leading men of theLiving. Fa'tad would be interesting tonight. He'd always held a grudge againstHerod because of the assassination of Hanno bel-Karba.
He saw he had been noticed. He came across the room like he was some greatlord and they his house servants. He stopped in front of Cado. "I'm here," hesaid in Herodian without a trace of accent.
"Did you overhear enough to understand the situation? Or should Colonel Brudabrief you?"
"I'd better hear it all."
While Bruda told it yet again Cado visited Sullo and asked if he would havehis witch see what she could do for the old woman. The physician looked likehe did not have much hope.
He stepped back to Bruda and Fa'tad as Bruda finished. Bruda said, "I want tosend a squad to that house. They'll be too late to catch anybody but theymight find something useful."
"Go ahead. Fa'tad, why would your men think these child-stealings a Herodianscheme?"
Fa'tad looked him in the eye for five seconds, then said, "Yoseh, come here," in the Dartar dialect.
Yoseh was sitting two feet from Tamisa, not looking at her, she not looking athim, yet he felt they were somehow in closer communion than ever they had beenon Char Street. He was frightened. So was she. All that gobbling in Herodiandid not help.
Then Fa'tad came and he was three times as frightened as before.
Fa'tad chattered with Cado awhile. Then, like a hammer blow to the heart, hesaid, "Yoseh, come here."
Panicky, he looked at Nogah and Medjhah. No help there. They just nodded.
He rose stiffly, went to stand at Fa'tad's left hand. He looked down at theshine atop Cado's head and wondered that these hairless runts had been able toconquer everyone who stood against them.
Fa'tad said, "Yoseh, tell the General everything you know about the man you caught in the alley the other day."
"The child-stealer? Everything?"
"Yes. Go ahead."
"But I don't have any Herodian."
"He'll understand you."
Yoseh closed his eyes, took a deep breath, told it all, right up to the momentthe man had gotten away from him and Aaron with Arif. When he finished andopened his eyes he saw that the General's sidekick had returned. The twoHerodians exchanged glances. Cado said, "Rose."
"Has to be Rose," the other said, in Dartar dialect. "That explains why he'sbeen such a mystery. He isn't our man at all. But whose is he?"
"We talked of an unknown dark force earlier," Cado said.
"That will be all, Yoseh," Fa'tad said. "Thank you. You did well."
Yoseh retreated hastily.
Cado watched the Dartar boy go. He was angry with himself. Plainly, Rose hadbeen using and manipulating him all along. Possibly he had been doing the samewith the Living. He had made no secret of the fact that he was a member. Themassacre of the Moretians almost certainly was his fault. The alacrity withwhich the Living had moved meant he had access to people in the movement atthe same level as he had had here in Government House.
"Colonel Bruda, send men to that place where we make contact with Rose. Havethem arrest everyone they find there."
Cado told Fa'tad, "This man Rose has played me for a fool, as he played othersfor me in my service." Who did Rose serve? Neither Sullo nor Fa'tad, for sure.
The Living seemed just remotely possible, though no one in the movement wouldhave authorized him to give up some of the information he had turned over.
A free agent? Absurd. It offended any sense of the natural order. No one mancould have the arrogance to believe he could step between Herod and the Livingand play them against one another for his own purposes.
Speaking of which. What might they be? On the information available Rose'spurposes were completely shadowed. The man could not be after wealth. He'dnever taken much in the way of pay. Just enough for a man to get by. The powerto stand in the middle and exasperate everyone? That did not seem sufficientlysinister.
Bruda was back.
"Are they off?"
Then let's see how our guests can help us. Let's all drag chairs or cushionsover and chat. Colonel bel-Abek, would you translate for Governor Sullo? We'lldo this in Qushmarrahan. Informally."
People moved into position. The "guests" looked troubled. Cado spoke directlyto the Qushmarrahan family when he shifted to their language. "Our purposehere is to unravel this child-stealing business. I hope we can come up withsome valuable clues by pooling what we know. Your motive for participatingwill be the restoration of your son. Likewise, Colonel bel-Abek. Then, too, you might find you're grateful for the help given the old woman."
Sullo's witch had worked some sort of quiet miracle. The pain lines had fledRaheb's face and she was sleeping peacefully.
"We from Government House will begin. I'll go first. Colonel Bruda willfollow, then Colonel bel-Abek. I'll then ask our Dartar friends to reiteratewhat they know, then we'll pass on to you. Some little detail somewhere, hopefully, will give us the beginning we need to make before we can take thefirst step toward understanding what's going on. If we know that, we'llprobably know what we have to do about it. Colonel Bruda, would you ask Taligato send in food and drink? We're going to be here a long time. Tell him tohave those corpses removed and searched, too. They're a distraction."
Cado waited a moment, then started. He held nothing back, even when it had noapparent bearing on the subject at hand.
Despite what was being discussed Aaron could not concentrate. His mind keptstraying to what to say when it came his turn to talk. Or he worried aboutmaybe missing work tomorrow. His employers were not understanding aboutabsences.
He was trying to hide the unbearable now behind fear of the future.
Even so, what the Herodians said was interesting. And so open you could nothelp wondering what they would do with him after they had divulged so manysecrets in his presence.
The Dartars talked, too, even including Fa'tad al-Akla, who did not have muchto contribute except the name of a child-stealer who had been killed in theAstan.
"A Dartar outcast?" General Cado asked.
"Yes. A man of no honor, disavowed by his own father."
"And the one tonight was Qushmarrahan?" General Cado spoke to Colonel Bruda, who was receiving reports from his agents as things went along.
"Yes. A known villain. Reasonably competent. Independent. Very quiet the pastsix months, apparently. Till this. He was identified by the prisoner, who alsotold us where he lived. A search turned up a cache of antique gold and nothingelse. There was nothing useful on the body. The prisoner knows nothing else.
He was hired for the one job."
Aaron glanced at the prisoner. The man was numb, sitting there waiting to beexecuted.
"We'll deal with him later. So these child-stealers are very careful aboutgiving anything away, are well paid, and were known criminals before becominginvolved. Except Rose, who does not fit the pattern. He's been our agent forfive years and the Dartar testimony would suggest he was an occasional visitorto the place in Char Street we now believe to have housed General Hanno bel- Karba and his chief of staff, Colonel Sisu bel-Sidek. We seem to haveconflicting possibilities if we look for a connection between the Living andthe crimes. Mr. Habid, would you tell us your story?"
Aaron jumped. The inevitable had come and still he was not ready. He sat therelike a lump, tongue-tied.
Laella took it for some benighted, romantic, patriotic refusal to betrayQushmarrah and the Living. "Aaron! You tell them what they want to know! Youdon't owe the Living anything!" She glanced at her mother.
He did so, wondering how he could have acted so positively and violently justa few hours ago, when he'd never committed such a violence in his life, andnow he could not open his mouth.
He forced himself to croak, "I owe Herod. And so do you."
"Damn what happened six years ago! This is about tonight! This is about ourson! The Herodians will pay for their crimes when they walk through theFlame."
He opened his mouth.
"And you tell all of it. Hear?"
The slight sneer on Naszifs face galvanized him.
He started clear back at the Seven Towers. Each time his story touched uponNaszif he spoke with the utmost contempt. Once he invoked a Dartar proverb,
"Beware the man who betrays your enemy unto you, for he will betray you untoyour enemy," but the bolt missed its mark entirely and fell among scowlingDartars. He went on through Colonel Bruda's arrival in his home.
Laella beamed at him, sort of.
General Cado frowned. "That's an interesting story. As an oral journal. But itsheds very little light on our problem." He was pensive for a moment. "ColonelBruda will read you a list of names. Interrupt if you recognize any of them.
You and your wife, too, Colonel bel-Abek. Colonel Bruda?"
Bruda read a long list.
Only Reyha interrupted. She mistook one of the women's names for someone sheknew who had the same name.
"I was afraid of that," General Cado said. "Let me ask you this, Mr. Habid. Doyou personally know anyone besides Colonel bel-Abek who has lost a child?"
Aaron shook his head.
"Do you, Colonel bel-Abek?"
"Only Mr. Habid, sir."
"I thought so. So. We have no obvious common denominator." He spoke directlyto Aaron. "Those were the names of parents who have lost children over thepast three months. There is nothing to tie them together. They come from avariety of classes and trades. They live all over the city. None have everserved the Herodian name. Only two have ever been suspected of dealing withthe Living. None were at the Seven Towers though most bore arms during theconflict. Our man Rose is the only male Qushmarrahan I know who claims hedidn't, which makes me doubt his veracity. You and your wife, and Colonel bel- Abek and his wife, are the only parents we can find with ties of any kind, however strained. That would seem to argue that the children themselves areindeed what the thing is all about. But we can't see that they have anythingin common, either."
Aaron felt General Cado was looking at him as though he expected him to havethe answer. All he could do was shrug.
A silence set in. Laella finally broke it. "They were born the same day."
"What?" General Cado asked.
"Arif and Zouki. They were born the same day. They have that in common."
Laella did not look up at the Herodian. "That's reaching for it. But ... Whenwere they born?" "The last day of the fighting. The seventh day of the Moon ofRipening. Malach in the calendar of the Old Gods. I don't know what yourpeople call it."
"We use a different calendar. What do you think, Colonel Bruda?"
Bruda was leafing through his documents. "I only have two dates of birth. Theydidn't seem much use at the time. But. One is down as seventh Malach, theother as the seventh day of the Moon of Ripening. Both children six years old.
I only have four children on the list who aren't six. Those are all older.
Ransom was demanded and paid. No ransom demands were made in any of the othercases though several of the children have been found and restored to theirparents."
Colonel Bruda looked at General Cado. General Cado looked at Colonel Bruda.
Everyone else looked at them. Cado said, "Get the dates of birth checkedtomorrow. For now we'll assume they're the critical connection. But that justsets up a whole new puzzle. Why does being bom that day make them importantenough to round up?"
Naszif had been translating everything for Sullo's benefit. Sullo's witch hadlistened but with apparent scant attention.
She rattled a sudden question in Herodian.
General Cado said, "She wants to know what state the restored children werein. Colonel Bruda doesn't know."
Aaron recalled what Billygoat had told him. "I heard about a couple who werefound wandering along Goat Creek. They had lost their memories of almosteverything."
Fa'tad, in Qushmarrahan dialect, said, "My men found several such children this week. They were as the veydeen says, blank stretches of sand."
Aaron watched the witch as Naszif translated. She became increasinglyagitated. Beads of sweat formed on her forehead. She asked a question whenNaszif finished.
"She wants to know who died that day," Fa'tad said. "What great man."
Most everyone knew but no one spoke till Aaron, puzzled, said, "Ala-eh-dinBeyh and Nakar the Abomination."
The witch moaned. For a moment it looked like she would faint. Then she pulledherself together and began rattling away in shaky Herodian.
Bel-Sidek had laid himself down certain he was too tense to sleep, butinvidious slumber had slipped up and taken him unawares. The touch of a handawakened him. He jerked up, flailing around after a weapon.
"Easy. It's Meryel."
He relaxed, searched her face in the wan light of the lone candle she hadbrought into the room. "Bad news?"
"It isn't good. The Herodians are rushing around everywhere. Colonel Bruda'smen. They've been through your place on Char Street. They raided Hadribel'shouse. He got out a step ahead. They tore apart a place in Rhatiq Lane thatwas used by a criminal named Ishabal bel-Shaduk. They hit a hostel operated bya man named Muma and arrested everyone there, but Muma and his family hadfled. They're still very busy in the Shu, rounding up suspected members of themovement."
"The traitor didn't stay in line. My fault. I shouldn't have pressed his wifeso hard."
"They've arrested him, too. And everyone involved in the fight in Char Street.
A child was stolen."
"There's something big going on at Government House. Cado brought in Sullo andFa'tad."
Bel-Sidek thought a moment. "It has to be the traitor. He's given themsomething to make them think they can break us. We'll have to fight back. Idon't want to start a bloodbath but we can't stand still and take it." Zenobel would launch the counterattack. His men were the best prepared and his quarterheld the greatest number of sympathizers ready to spring to arms.
That was the traditional plan. Let Zenobel begin, draw the Herodians, thenloose Carza. While those two were embattled the men of the weaker quarterswould massacre all Herodians, soldier or civilian, and sympathizers in theirquarters before adding their weight to the forces of Zenobel and Carza.
"Did they actually put troops aboard their ships?"
"About twenty-five hundred. Including all their Herodian cavalry. Marco is incommand. They sail with the morning tide."
Good. That left him facing only one legion and some odds and ends, plus thebalance of the Dartars. 'Til move after the Dartars are back in their compoundtonight."
If the thing was to start at night, as preferred, Zenobel's first objectivewould be to seize the Gate of Autumn so the Dartars could not become a factor in the fighting.
His one question was, had the traitor been able to betray the strategy?
Unlikely. Only the khadifas were completely informed. Only Carza and Zenobelhad tactical roles so narrowly defined they had had to give their underlingssome information about what ought to happen.
"I'll need writing materials and someone to carry messages. Damn! It has tocome now, when the ruling council is in disarray and we're all on the run."
He could have Hadribel stay at the reins in the Shu and could cover thewaterfront himself. That would leave the Hahr one big piece of unknownterritory right in the middle of the city, and he could only hope theorganization there would take flame and do its part.
"You're sure you want to do this?"
"No. I don't want to. But I don't see any alternative."
Meryel went for writing materials. She seemed sad that the hour had come. Hegot himself up and together. He was sad himself, though he'd always known thatonly fire and blood would loosen Herod's chokehold on the city he loved.
Meryel was a long time coming back. He raised a questioning eyebrow. She said,
"One of my underworld contacts dropped by. I had to see him."
"He knew of no organized child-stealing operation. But he knew the name Azel."
"Azel is a professional killer. The most dreaded in Qushmar-rah. Nobody knowswho he is. Azel probably isn't his real name since Azel is the name of one ofthe seven demons who spring forth from Gorloch's navel to work his will in theworld. Azel the Destroyer."
Bel-Sidek nodded. "Like Nakar the Abomination." He knew the mythology, thoughhe had been born to a family that followed Aram. By the time of the conquestmost of the ruling class had, though they had kept the ancient names awardedthem during the primacy of Gorloch to distinguish themselves from the masses.
Meryel said, "This Azel learned his trade working for Nakar. He may havecommitted as many as a hundred murders on Nakar's behalf. He survived theconquest. A year later he seems to have gone into business for himself, butdoing only the biggest jobs. Some people think he killed most of the civil governors. But since nobody knows who he is and he seems to have no associatesto talk, nobody knows who paid him. Opinion divides up between Cado and theLiving. Except for the thing in the Hahr the other day, which may have been animitation of his style, he's been quiet for the past six months."
Bel-Sidek sat quietly, thinking, for so long she finally snapped, "Well? Don'tyou have anything to say?" "Yes. I want to go out on the balcony." He did notnotice her exasperated shrug, just followed her outside, stood above the fogstaring at the black hulk of the citadel of Nakar the Abomination. After tenminutes of silence, he said, "The murder was no imitation. The man was workingfor the General. I actually met him this morning." He related thecircumstances.
"Why are you so troubled?"
"Because now I think I see the General's great secret plan for deliveringQushmarrah. And it's a plan with both feet firmly planted in insanity. Hemeant to conjure Nakar, and restore him, so he could unleash his evil wrathupon the forces of Herod."
He saw Meryel looking at him like he was more than a little crazy himself.
"What do you know about sorcery?" he asked.
"Nothing. And I want to keep it that way."
"I'm no sorcerer. Never wanted to be one. But I've heard things here andthere." He jerked off onto a different tack. "I knew the boy who was carriedoff tonight. He was born the day Nakar was killed. His mother always mentionsthat when she talks about him. Not coincidentally, the traitor's son was bornthe same day. I'd wager most of the children taken this summer were born thatday."
Her look had not grown more understanding. "They're looking for the travelingsoul."
"In the agony of death the soul forgets and flees the dying flesh. After atime it seeks out flesh in the agony of birth and attaches itself to a babybeing bom. It has forgotten its past life, yet it carries within it memoriesof all previous lives forever. A skilled sorcerer can reawaken those memoriesand restore someone who has died."
Meryel shuddered. Her expression now was one of doubt.
"They're looking for the traveling soul of Nakar the Abomination up there."
"His wife. The Witch. And Azel the Destroyer. They're stirring through thesouls of children, looking for Nakar. And judging from the effort they mountedtonight they think they've found him. She must have had a bitter falling outwith the General if it was enough to make her come out and kill him."
"I'll trust you, Sisu. I'll do what you think needs doing. But I don't believeall that."
"But don't you see? It's the only way it all hangs together."
"They're all dead up there, Sisu. And they have been for a long time."
"We don't know that at all. We don't know what happened that day except thatNakar and Ala-eh-din Beyh killed each other. I think the Witch survived. Ithink she's been biding her time till the moment was ripe."
"You may be right." She was going to humor him. "But you have more practicalproblems right now. You're going to war in eighteen hours. Remember?"
He remembered. He went inside and began composing messages. But his thoughtsremained on Nakar and the General's mad scheme for freeing Qushmarrah.
And as he thought, he gradually became aware that he had come face-to-facewith the great moral choice of his life.
The General had loved Qushmarrah completely, unreservedly, blindly, and noprice had been too great to pay to rid its streets of the tread of foreignsoldiers. Bel-Sidek had loved that old man as blindly, but did he love him somuch that he would allow his nightmare dream to come true?
Aaron stood at General Cado's right on a balcony high on the face ofGovernment House. Cado stared through the drizzle at the citadel. Naszif stoodat Cado's left. No one else was there. Aaron was not sure why the Herodian hadbrought them up, into the rain.
"Are you a courageous man, Mr. Habid?"
Aaron had had that question in his own mind often since the attack on hishousehold. "No. Not usually."
"Can you be brave for the sake of your son?"
"I'll do whatever I have to do." If he could, he thought. He was not sure hewould not freeze when it mattered most. Even the Seven Towers had been no true test of his mettle. He'd never had any options there.
"You don't sound sure of yourself."
"I'm a carpenter, General."
"Yes. That's right. You see that over there, Mr. Carpenter? The citadel? Yourson is in there. I have no idea how much time he has, but you can bet theywon't wait any longer than they have to. We have to do whatever we can as fastas we can. Or we all lose. I, a city. You, a son. I've already put in motionall the machinery at my command."
Aaron wished Cado would get to the point. The more the man danced around itthe more nervous he became.
"There's one avenue yet to be pursued. The Living."
"I want to appeal to Colonel bel-Sidek directly."
Aaron stared at the man. He was mad!
"I want you to go home and wait. I'm confident bel-Sidek will try to contactyou. He'll want to know what went on here tonight and how much you told us.
We'll make it easy for him. We'll hang you out there without anybody watchingor protecting you so there's the best chance you can deliver my message. Youronly resource will be Colonel bel-Abek, who will accompany you as myrepresentative. Because he has as much at stake as you do."
This was Naszif s first hint of what his role was to be. Aaron noted that he did not seem thrilled. But he did not protest, either.
Aaron himself was rattled and confused. All he could say was, "But I have towork tomorrow."
Cado looked at him directly, amazed. "I'll intercede with your employer. Areyou going to help or not?"
"What do I have to do?"
"Just go home and wait till you're contacted. Colonel bel-Abek will make myrepresentation for a personal meeting."
"What about my family?"
"Take them with you if that makes you more comfortable. Or leave them here ifyou think that would safer." Cado turned to Naszif and began givinginstructions.
Aaron paid no attention. He stared at the citadel but did not see it. He didnot think much, either.
He had frozen, as he'd always feared he would.
"Mr. Habid? What are you going to do?"
"Yes. All right. I'll do it."
He felt ashamed. He had said that for no high, holy, or heroic reason but justbecause he wanted no one, ever, to judge him in comparison with a despicablecreature like Naszif.
Azel slept poorly, not just because of his wounds. He had no trust in his ownsafety, though he had holed up high in the citadel, in a cubicle difficult toapproach and easy to defend. Torgo had come once, to report his messagedelivered and maybe to be seduced a little more. He did not trust the eunuchnot to return with a knife.
He wakened to the sort of spine tingle he got when danger was near, but aquick survey showed him it must be his imagination. Unless ...
He watched out the small, glassless window for half a minute. A woman cameinto view, walking slowly, studying the citadel.
Sullo's witch. No wonder he had the nerves.
They had it figured out. Their countermoves had begun. Those would be animatedby total desperation. They were in a race against a deadline they could notdetermine, so they would come hard and fast, from every angle and witheverything they had.
How good was she? Could she find the Postern of Fate? Could she unravel itspattern, traps, and alarms? How lucky was she? Ala-eh-din Beyh had succeededas much through luck as through talent.
As desperate as they would be, they would make their own luck.
It would be a race against time from this end, too.
* * *
Arif did not sleep at all. He sat in the great cage and cried, a slave tobewilderment and terror.
The Witch slept a deeper sleep than ever she had slept. She had spent toolavishly of her physical resources. She would be longer than usual comingback.
Aaron did nothing but trudge along silently, heading home, head bent in therain. Rainwater trickled down the back of his neck and carried the salt of nervous sweat into the abrasions on his face. Naszif seemed content to carryon without conversation. They had a job to do, they knew what it was, andthere was no need to belabor it with false chatter or to burden it with insincere camaraderie.
This was an alliance of necessity, not of love.
The rainfall was still something short of a full drizzle but it had beenfalling long enough to wash away the city's patina of dust and get started onthe layers of grime underneath. Char Street was thoroughly wet and slick.
Aaron heard the occasional gurgle from the sewer. Some water had begun toaccumulate in the channel.
Much more would be needed to cleanse it. This little bit would just stirthings up and make the stench riper.
Much more would be needed to fill the reservoirs and rain barrels of Qushmarrah, all of which were low. There was talk about a public works projectto recover more of the water from the springs that fed Goat Creek.
Aaron would have said these things to another companion, or another might havesaid them to him.
Two Herodian soldiers remained on guard inside Aaron's home. They had notbeen frugal with his candles, which exasperated him, but neither had theyrobbed him, so he supposed he could count himself lucky. Naszif dismissedthem.
Aaron latched the door, lay down with hopes of getting some rest.
That was impossible, and not just because Naszifs pacing bothered him. Goblinsof fear pranced and wrestled and giggled through the caverns of his mind. Nomatter where he turned his thoughts, he encountered a haunted shadow.
It was like those nights in the pass six years ago when he had not been ableto sleep nights for fear of the events of the following day.
Naszifs restlessness did not help.
Aaron gave it up after a while, got up, tried to put some of his nervousenergy to work. For years he had been meaning to take the sensible precautionof installing a peephole in the door. Putting one in now seemed an appropriateact of self-flagellation. He was surprised to find that it had started gettinglight out, that the fog had begun to retreat despite continued rainfall, thatChar Street had begun to come to life.
Before he finished his chore a dozen nosy neighbors had dropped by to ask whathad happened during the night. The daily incursion of the Dartar hordeoccurred, and they proceeded with their siege of the Shu maze and the sealingof its exits as if for them there was no higher purpose. Elsewhere, he knew, soldiers and horsemen were marching out to meet the Turoks, and the Herodianwar fleet was making preparations to catch the morning tide. And ambitious andevil men were scheming schemes. As always.
He was exhausted when he finished. His eyes burned with fatigue. He lay downagain, and this time he slipped off despite the riot in his mind.
* * *
"I feel like I ought to be doing something more active," bel-Sidek toldMeryel, topping off a belly already overly stuffed. He muttered, "I've beeneating my own cooking too long," then reverted to the subject. "I've alwaysled from the front."
"Which explains why you've only got one leg that works."
"Guarantees you won't see me running from a fight."
"You done stuffing yourself?"
"Yes. Enough is more than enough."
"Good. I have news for you. Your neighbor in the Shu is home. You said youwanted to talk to him."
"I'd like to do a lot more than that. Nobody talks to a khadifa the way hetalked to me."
She laughed at him. "Politics and observation of the proprieties of socialstatus have to take precedence over stress and family and personalrelationships. Right?"
He glared. "Don't you go sensible on me. I'm in no mood for reasonable. What'sthe situation?" At that moment it occurred to him he had the solution to his command problem right there. Meryel would make a perfect khadifa of thewaterfront. He knew of no one more competent.
Be impossible to get her accepted, though. Not only was she a woman, she wasno veteran of Dak-es-Souetta.
How had that come to be so critical a qualification?
He listened with half an ear and plucked salient points out of the report shehad gotten from people who worked for her, not for the movement. "He didn'tbring his family home? He didn't go to work? That's not like him."
"He had a family disaster, dolt! You didn't work yesterday, did you?"
Only yesterday! It seemed like a year already. The General in the ground lessthan a day. And the whole movement in disarray already. "All right. Call it abasic character flaw. Go on."
"There is something going on. If I was Cado I'd have an army of spies watchingto see if somebody tried to make contact. Best my men can see, the nearestHerodian is in Government House.
I think they want you to have a clean chance at him. I think he has amessage."
Bel-Sidek felt queasy. A message? From Cado? "Send some people to round himup. Drag him up here."
"Hold your horses, Mr. Khadifa. I'm a sympathizer, not a soldier. My peopledon't give a damn one way or the other about the Living. They'll do somethings for me but they have their limits. And I have mine."
Maybe he should have gone to ground somewhere else.
"Besides," she said, "Char Street is full of Dartars again. You said Dartarsbacked him up last night. You try the usual heavy-handed Living move andthey'll eat you up. Right?"
"I suppose. Forget it, then. Let Cado go whistle."
"You've become a living exasperation, you know that? I'm beginning to wonderif the General didn't pick the wrong man to take over. You don't want to bebothered thinking, or even with doing much of anything. But you've givenorders that will start a war in about twelve hours. You need to know what's going on. You for Aram's sake need to set up a command headquarters and getlines of communication opened to your khadifas. Or your great rebellion isn'tgoing to be much more than a glorified riot."
He glared at her, unaccustomed to take that from anyone but Herodianfunctionaries on the waterfront. Taking it there was part of the holy mission.
"I'll go myself, then."
"No. You don't think those Dartars will recognize you in the daylight? I'llgo. You're going to the Hahr with a couple of my men. I own some emptybuildings there. Some of the weapons are hidden there. They'll do you for ahideout and headquarters. My men will run a few messages for you so you can get started. Then they're out of it.
Bel-Sidek sighed and rose. He wasn't going to win a point.
Meryel said, "You have to stop nursing hurt feelings because the old manpulled a fast one on you. Get up on your hind legs and let's go."
Yoseh was restless. His injuries ached mercilessly but he could not remainstill. That doorway down there ...
They had managed a few whispered words before Cado had run the Dartarcontingent out of Government House, Fa'tad and all. He never said a word abouttheir having been in the city after curfew. Nor had he asked a question aboutwhat they were up to in the Shu. Fa'tad seemed disappointed.
The Eagle walked them back to their post in Char Street. Yoseh figured he'dhad something to discuss but he'd never said a word. He'd just prowled aroundin the fog, taking in the site of the excitement, then he had gone off up thehill, still leading the mount he had ridden into the city, like an old man hadnothing to fear from the night in this nest of killers and thieves.
Maybe, if you were Fa'tad and favored of the gods, you did have nothing tofear.
Now the old man was back. He was in the alley with Nogah and some of his oldcronies, including Mo'atabar. Doing what, Yoseh did not know.
"You're going to wear your boots out, little brother," Medjhah said. "Whydon't you plant yourself and take a nap?"
He couldn't. Despite the night. He shook his head.
"You'll be sorry you didn't."
"Why? What's up?"